Harsh, beautiful, healing: An artist's guide to falling in love with Yellowknife
Artist Charlotte Overvold takes you inside the glory of the only city in the Northwest Territories
Everyone knows about the art scenes in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver — but what about Kamloops, Calgary or Thunder Bay? In CBC Arts's continuing series "I He(art) My City," a local artist offers an insider's guide to the city they call home. Here, artist Charlotte Overvold shows you their Yellowknife.
The north, whatever you think of it, is far from ordinary. In the dead of winter, there is only about an hour or two of sunlight, but you are gifted with incredible painted sunsets and sunrises at times you'd never expect. It can be beautiful in the darkness of the harsh, chilling wind when the aurora borealis dances in the sky while lighting the way with colours of not only green, but purples, reds and mixes in between.
I know the north can be harsh, yet at the same time it can be very healing. My name is Charlotte Overvold, I am a North Slavey Dene, raised with Métis heritage and with blood in the Sahtu. I come from a family of hunters, trappers and artists that have strong connections to the land water, and good medicine here in the wild north. I am a traditional fishbone artist asked to help show you around the land and city I love. I was born and raised here in on the shores of Great Slave Lake in Somba Ke, Denendeh (or Yellowknife, NWT) on Chief Drygeese Territory, home to the original landowners, The Yellowknives Dene First Nation. Over time, I've seen our small town grow into what can really be considered a city. A city full of amazing people — many of them trying to find something more in life, adventure or themselves.
The best way to show you just how awesome Yellowknife can be is to introduce you to some of my most beloved friends and family who are doing incredible things for our community, talk about our festivals, take you for a tour of Old Town, let you in on some fun stuff locals like to do, and to finish: let you know where to eat and party.
To start things off, here is an example of how awesome it is as soon as you get off the plane. This is what our baggage claim area looks like! Even though we don't actually have any polar bears in this area:
Now for the rest...
There are some truly amazing events we have here in the north that you should plan your trip around. One of the biggest attractions in the summer is Folk On The Rocks! My family and I have been going to this since we were little kids. Come kick up the sand at this incredible music and arts festival which takes place on the sandy shores of Long Lake all weekend in the middle of July. There is always an incredible lineup of big names and northern talent!
A favourite winter festival that happened on the ice long ago was Caribou Carnival. People from all over the north would come to enjoy and to watch the annual dog derby (the Beck family, who own Becks Kennels in Kam Lake, would often win). The festival would have a true northerners contest, which tested your bush skills. My ma took first place one year.
These days, the Snowking's ice castle reigns supreme in partnership with the Long John Jamboree, a month-long festival that has many of the same great events but with a bunch more, such as our beloved ice castle, which has a huge ice slide and hosts anything ranging from kids' shows to raves! They have longest-beard and longest-leg-hair contests added to the mix and it's still so much fun that you don't even feel the cold.
There's also an original haunting event that takes place in the dead of winter in our infamous Dead North Film Festival. Folks from all over the north and beyond, submit a huge variety of epic horror films to be screened at the festival. The film festival has grown and now includes fantasy and sci-fi and has moved to our local Capital Theatre. There will be films that stick with you like a nightmare for a long time as well as some awesome funny dark humour you can't find anywhere else but in the north.
Wonderful People, Projects and Collectives!
My badass friend Dr. Mandee McDonald is managing director of Dene Nahjo (The Dene Way). They started in 2014 and became a project on Tides Canada's shared platform. Dene Nahjo was able to create three streams of programming: the women's initiative; hide tanning; and leadership workshops. Each spring, they've generously hosted two-week urban hide-tanning camps available to the public. Tipis and canvas tents are pitched, traditional foods are cooked on a fire, and everyone works on hides.
This is an amazing opportunity to learn the process of tanning caribou and moose hides in a setting that is supportive and informative, as well as accessible. You can watch and learn or even try scraping the community hides. Don't be shy, just come up and introduce yourself and ask questions. You can begin to understand just how much work goes into processing the hides to be able to make the soft wearable smoked pieces that make our traditional clothing and moccasins.
Chelsea Thacker is one of the sweetest people you can meet and is the executive director of the Rainbow Coalition of Yellowknife, since 2017. They offer weekly programming for queer and trans youth such as Bob Ross night, DIY night, queer knitting group and fish scale art workshops. The safe and friendly space they offer to hang out in is like the ultimate comfy living room. There are video games, Netflix, couches, a library, snacks and a safe-sex station with condoms, dental dams and how-tos. They offer workshops and training for our community that teaches people about the LGBT2QS+ community and how to be better allies, especially those working in the healthcare sector.
We never had a space like this when I was growing up, but I know that it would have made a big difference for many people young and old to feel safer and supported while learning to discover their identity and being a northerner. Our community is a much better place for everyone thanks to the tremendous dedication, resiliency, and hard work that the Rainbow Coalition fights for everyday.
Places to Eat!
We have an awesome farmers market that runs every Tuesday at 5:15 p.m. all summer long. There is a huge variety of northern-inspired arts and crafts, delicious foods, musical performances and some of the most amazing natural healing medicines that are locally sourced by northerners. Be sure to check out my beautiful friend Courtney Chetwynd's enchanting booth. Courtney is a living book of knowledge and art. Her booth offers natural foods and goodies, organic veggies and healing salves ethically-sourced from the land.
Year-round, there's Birchwood Coffee Kǫ̀ — an award-winning café located right downtown that is wheel-chair accessible, equipped with a beautiful patio and is Indigenous co-owned and managed by the sweetest, most hardworking father-daughter duo, Jawah and Patrick Scott. Thoughtful, generous, kind, caring, and genuine, our beautiful Jawah and her sweet dad, Pat, are what really make this place special. You can feel it as soon as you walk in. It's warm, inviting and smells so tasty, especially when Jawah makes her famous cinnamon buns.
For a quick bite on the go, check out Bruno's Pizza! I've been eating here since I was a little girl and I still love it. Stop in for a big slice of Hawaiian or pepperoni, a corndog, and/or a spring roll that are always ready to go!
There's also Mike Mark's Restaurant, which is downstairs of the Scotia Centre. The owners have been serving our community with their signature delicious Chinese buffet in a clean and pleasant environment. Fast and very friendly, the same owners have been serving me and my family since I was a child. I've celebrated birthdays with family and friends there and I've participated in some pretty big heart-to-hearts.
Let's Go To Old Town!
Our beloved Old Town is home to some of the funkiest northerners, house boaters, and artists who have really kept it a beautiful and vibrant neighbourhood to live in. People have lit it up with art and events over the years while honouring the historical buildings and heritage that make up Yellowknife's humble beginnings. Check out our historical Woodyard, the house boats, the docks, and all beautiful art, culture, and nature to enjoy. Let's go for a stroll...
After a good walk down the Hill, why not go and have a pint of 'Kick Sled' and some tasty lunch or dinner at The Woodyard Eatery, home to the farthest north brewery in Canada, NWT Brewing Company. This is a modern and northern brew pub that is there for you right when you get into Old Town. Owned and operated by some of our finest and friendliest people, this place offers delicious food and historical décor that will really give you a feel for the north.
Next, cross the dirt road right behind the pub and meet one of Old Town's amazing glass artists, Rosalind Mercerdi — who owns Down to Earth Gallery, a super funky cabin filled top-to-bottom with arts and crafts from northerners across the Territories. This amazing little Gallery was created 13 years ago by Rosalind and with a small collective of six artists who wanted to offer more variety when it came to the arts. It has grown to house over 130 artists sharing their creativity with the rest of the world.
If you keep walking, you'll see many beautiful cabins, a painted rock face and historical buildings adorned with bright colourful art. Keep an eye out for Mother Earth Rock Shop. Right behind it is their carving studio where mainly Inuit Carvers create beautiful pieces, usually out of soap stone.
One of my great friends is Jamie Look, an incredible designer who has worked out of the Mother Earth Carving Studio and specializes in carving with muskox horn to create contemporary fine jewlery. J.L. has represented the north through her work at the Olympics in Vancouver. She is one of the most inspiring artists, mothers, and people that I'm lucky enough to have as one of my best friends and I'm so grateful for.
Keep right and you will be able to visit the government docks where you can find one of our most awesome and famous Old Towners, the Snowking, in his new Visitor's Centre. For about 23 years, the Snowking has been creating a winter wonderland for his children and the kids of Old Town, which has grown into a month-long festival known as the Long John Jamboree, celebrating the Snowking's legacy. With his trusted crew of helpers and volunteers, who brave temperatures lower then -30 C for two months, they always manage to create an incredible experience that people from all over the world have come to enjoy!
Growing up, I've played with his kids in the first castles of food-coloured ice blocks, which have now grown into being able to house epic raves, performances, and even a giant ice slide. They host a variety of winter activities and contests as well as an annual hockey tournament. My daughter, and the next generations have been able to enjoy the same wonderland. It's important to add that because of climate change, our beloved snow castle melted last year and thus is being held in February instead of March. Please care for our planet so us northerners can keep creating and enjoying our northern activities.
Places to Party!
The Gold Range is a historical landmark and one place you have to go and two-step! Located right in the middle of downtown on 50th Avenue (better known as "Range Street"), this is our rough-and-tumble bar. It's been packed with people rocking out since 1958. It is home to our very own northern country superstars "Welder's Daughter" who've just celebrated their 15th anniversary. Come have a few rounds of pool, a few beers, and dance up a storm before you swagger on down to The Raven Pub to end your night. Lots of flashy lights, a big dance floor with popular music blasting so loud it vibrates right through you, pool tables and fun owner who makes some mean salsa. The Raven is usually where everyone ends up for bar close and let loose!
And then there's Sam's Monkey Tree. Located across town, near the hospital, this is one of my favourite places to eat, play pool, socialize and dance. They have a large patio, delicious food, friendly staff, lots of TVs to watch sports and on Saturdays it is a great place to go dancing.
The airport has a cool cabin-like gift shop that has all kinds of wonderful northern pieces available for last minute gifts to bring back to your family. One of the hottest-sellers on their shelves is Haylani Apparel, created and managed by my incredible Métis cousin Charlene Chapple. Back in 2016, Charlene was looking for more clothing options then what was available at the time. She decided to create a unique northern Indigenous style of baby clothes that are modern, comfortable and practical. Her creations have really changed what is available to other northern parents looking for cute clothing options for their kids. Some original favourites are the Métis and tipi rompers. You can find her at the local markets and events in Yellowknife year-round or check her out online. My daughter Oceane has been rocking a favourite stripped black and white toque for most of her life!
You should also stop in at Erasmus Apparel, located in a funky little cabin at the top of the hill just before Old Town. Come say hi to my badass cousin Sarah Erasmus while you get decked out in some seriously awesome northern prints. When Erasmus Apparel started out, the goal was to not be just another generic souvenir shop but create new clothing that Northerners would be proud to represent while out on the town, in the bush, or on the water. Sarah was born and raised right here in the north and is a proud member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nations, she is as legitimate as they come! Sarah has pioneered a new fashion scene that younger generations of northerners can be proud to represent with iconic northern images and themes only found in Yellowknife.
Finally, Vintage and Vogue! This is one of my favourite places to find some original awesome pieces to rock! It is a consignment shop where you can trade in your special lightly-loved clothing such as dresses and coats for consignment or donation and find that new favourite you've been looking for. The owner is super sweet and there for you, and it's hard to leave without finding something new and doing the planet some good by recycling and sharing sweet finds.
Go Canoeing on Back Bay!
One of my favourite things to do is go for a canoe ride out on the bay and say hi to the houseboat community! My dear friend Matthew, who created Old Town Glassworks, is also captain of the Icarus 5 and you can always wave to and chat with him when you are paddling by or going for a walk on the ice. You can rent a canoe from Jackpine Paddle, a northern-owned-and-operated business which also offers guided expeditions. They're located in the old CKLB Building near the bridge in Old Town and same building as Sun Dog Adventures.
Sun Dog offer kick-sledding with huskies out on the frozen bay which is a new opportunity available to visitors. Check them out if your visiting in the winter because it's a lot of fun to hear the crunch of the ice, the breathing of the dogs, while enjoying that beautiful view. Literally an experience like no other!
Here are some pictures of some amazing things that happen on the bay all year round!
In conclusion, there are so many reasons to come visit the north! I've shared just a part of what makes Yellowknife so special to me, so whatever pulls you toward crossing the Mackenzie River, I'm sure you will find what you're looking for. The north: harsh, beautiful, healing... come and see.