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Exploring Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories – a True Arctic Experience for Intrepid Travellers

Old Town Float homes

Capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories, Yellowknife’s Einar Broten neighbourhood is a throwback to a simpler time: a community of artists, professionals and local characters all living in simple harmony on the shores of Great Slave Lake. And it’s one of the weirdest places I’ve ever been.

In This Arctic Travel Article You Will Discover:

  • Who Lives in Yellowknife & Why
  • What It’s Like to Live North of 60 Degrees
  • How to Survive the Northern Climate & Lifestyle
  • How You Can Take Advantage of a Trip to Yellowknife, in Canada’s Arctic

Welcome to the Einar Broten Historical Area. Enter at your own risk. Caretakers: Jonas Johnson, Wilfred Smith and “Stan the Man” Larocque.

The warning sign comes as a surprise as I hop out of my impromptu tour-guide’s Astrovan. I tap Yvonne Quick, the impromptu tour guide herself, on the shoulder

“Why does it say ‘Enter at Your Own Risk?’”

Quick ignores the query and begins to show me and two other visitors around the cottage-and-cabin community of Einar Broten — the heart of what locals call “Old Town.” This is the first lesson I learn about Yellowknife: you never know who you’re going to meet. Yesterday I was an outsider, never having tread past the 60th parallel; today I am touring a cluster of unique cabins in Yellowknife’s historical district with three virtual strangers — and I am ignoring a clear warning sign against this. Things sure are different north of 60.

Einar Broten

“Welcome to the Woodlot.” It’s not as scary as it appears.

Einar Broten History

Old Town was the first plot of land to be settled by newcomers in what would one day become Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. While the Slavey, Dogrib and Chipewyan-speaking Dene have inhabited the area since pre-history, white men and women first showed up in the 1700s. It was fur that brought them north — roughneck trappers and famous fur men like Peter Pond, Alexander Mackenzie and Samuel Hearne. The settlement was known as Fort Providence, and hit its then-heyday in the 1780s. As the fur trade died off, though, the southerners left.

The 20th century brought them back en mass — this time for gold. With the advancements in air and water transportation and the discovery of the precious metal near Yellowknife Bay on Great Slave Lake, prospectors poured into the region. By 1942, Yellowknife was a bustling settlement. In 1953, the settlement was a municipality with its own mayor, and by 1970 it was a bona fide city. Gold mining continued right up to 2004, when the last mine went bankrupt and shut its doors — leaving the federal government with a toxic cleanup scheduled to take decades and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to complete. (“They made their money, then they left us with the mess,” is a common local sentiment.) Today, diamonds are the new gold. For years, geologists had declared Northern Canada a “diamond-free zone.” That all changed in 1998 when the uber-precious stone was discovered in abundance.

Canada went from a non-player to the world’s third-largest producer of diamonds seemingly overnight.

So it goes: all that’s old is new again…

Pioneer Home

One of the last unoccupied shacks in Old Town.

That all changed in 1998 when the uber-precious stone was discovered in abundance. Canada went from a non-player to the world’s third-largest producer of diamonds seemingly overnight. So it goes: all that’s old is new again…

But where does the Einar Broten neighbourhood fit into all this, and what’s up with the name? As we make our way to Wanda Hatfield’s cabin to find out about the draw to this area, Quick, who frequently volunteers her time to show newcomers around town, explains.

The area is actually called “Einar Broten’s Woodlot.” Settled in 1937, it was one of the first areas to be associated with commercial woodcutting. The first woodsman was Tom Reed, who chopped and hauled wood in the ‘30s, followed by Hans Hansen and the namesake himself: Einar Broten. The commercial woodcutting has long ceased in Einar Broten — today it is a neighbourhood of about 20 small shacks and cabins and home to Yellowknifers who long for a simpler lifestyle in the middle of this 21st century diamond boom.

The True North

Life takes a slower pace in Yellowknife, NT.

Woodlot Welcome Wagon

“Wanda should be home,” Quick says as she strolls towards a plywood-sided, flat-roofed shack flanked by berry bushes and broken bicycles. I survey my surroundings. Most of the city of Yellowknife is quite new and modern — not so in Einar Broten. It is a collection off-grid cabins, shacks and shanties, mish mashed in a ramshackle fashion amongst overgrown swamp reeds and berry brambles. It resembles a giant garage sale — not dirty but cluttered. Free of regulation, one might say. I can’t help but ask what types of people live here. And again, why the warning sign at the entrance?

“Believe it or not most of the people who live down [here] now are people who work for the government, artists, businesspeople, lawyers, consultants, nurses — mostly university graduates from all walks of life,” says Quick. “A real mix, and you saw how the old shacks turned into big new houses.”

It’s true — Einar Broten, or “The Woodlot” as some call it, is prime Great Slave Lake waterfront, and this hasn’t been ignored.

New developments flank the old shacks on three sides: condos selling for $600,000 or huge modern houses and new lakefront cottages.

The Woodlot still has cheap land — and cheap waterfront doesn’t stay so for long. In fact, at first glance you’d have to wonder why every single cabin in the neighbourhood hasn’t been bulldozed with modern homes built in their places. The reason for the lack of development is felt with every step you take on Einar Broten ground: the Canadian Shield. The neighbourhood is built on exposed solid rock — this makes servicing it impossible — and negates any modern builds in the heart of Einar Broten. Most cabins in this neighbourhood are on a pump-out and delivery system, Quick explains, although the city does do garbage pickup. It seems Mother Earth is watching out for the people of The Woodlot. Their lifestyle is safe — until it is cost effective to run sewer and water lines through solid rock, that is.

Old Town

The view of Old Town from Airport Hill.

Their lifestyle is safe — until it is cost effective to run sewer and water lines through solid rock, that is.

“Those shacks that do not have a convenient sewer and water system still use the ‘honey bucket,’” says Quick. Users of this service have a drop-off point, and the “buckets” are picked up by the city and taken to disposal at the dump. “Some of them even have the propane-type [of toilet] which disposes of it — the environmentally friendly ones,” she laughs. It is a rustic place to be sure. I have to know — why live here? Is the rest of Yellowknife just too much of a hustle-bustle?

“The draw is the area and the people most of all — and the small, close knit community that they are,” says Quick. “[Everyone has] tried to keep the old shack they likely started in… as a memory to the past. Most of the people… are still the working force of Yellowknife.”

We knock at Wanda Hatfield’s door. It’s open. In fact, you won’t find a locked door in Einar Broten. (Hatfield would later comment on this, “If you want my stuff, take it. Maybe you need it more than me.”)

Wanda Hatfield

“Hatfield, like the Hatfield and McCoys.” Yellowknifers are true originals.

“It’s like ‘The Hatfields and McCoys,’” Hatfield says of her surname. “We won. Have you ever met a McCoy?”

I had not.

Hatfield enjoys one of the more modern of the Einar Broten shacks, with power, water, septic (it is built on soil) and living space for two. As I walk into the shack, I notice a new Macbook laptop sits closed on her desk, out of place beside the decades-old cast-iron potbelly woodstove. Hatfield was employed as a social worker and counseled troubled Yellowknife youth before taking time off to recover from brain surgery and recharge her soul in Old Town.

Hatfield’s shack isn’t really one. It is bright — yellow-and-orange throughout, clean and, despite the low ceilings, roomy. It’s insulated enough to keep warm in winter, and breezy enough for the 20-hour days of summer. It’s a cabin. Maybe even a cottage. It’s a home.

“I lived in a condo before,” she laments when I ask what drew her to Old Town. “But my soul was dying there. There was no community, everyone just kept to themselves, in their own little worlds.”

Like most people in the neighbourhood, Hatfield rents her home. Rent is cheap — often less than $250 per month when it can easily top $1,500 for a one-bedroom apartment in uptown Yellowknife. But unlike many neighbourhoods where the cost of living is low, money has little to do with why residents find themselves in Einar Broten. It truly is a throwback to another time — when doors went unlocked, everybody knew everybody’s name (and business) and friends popped in for coffee at all hours, never unwelcome. Those who don’t abide by these rules live in New Town.

“It’s like ‘The Hatfields and McCoys,’” Hatfield says of her surname. “We won. Have you ever met a McCoy?”


New Town Yellowknife is a modern city, with all the amenities one would expect.

We bid Hatfield adieu and continue strolling to the shore of massive Great Slave Lake, looking out to Yellowknife Bay and Jolliffe Island. The lake is dotted with multi-coloured float homes and canoe-bound commuters; just more Old Town flavour — the waterworld of Einar Broten. Quick tells us in the summer, float home residents commute via canoe and in the winter it’s easy enough to walk on the ice. But during ice-up and break-up, float home residents stock up on food and water and hunker down. They’re housebound for up to two weeks.

Down at the waterfront I run into a summer cottager fixing up his place. He invites me inside without so much as asking who I am and what I’m doing snooping around his cabin. He shows me his house, the renovations he is undertaking — installing wiring — and poses for a photo. His is a classic rustic shack — no sewer or running water. It’s amazing: an off-grid cabin (until the wiring is done) mere minutes from downtown Yellowknife.

To call The Woodlot “unique” is to call a Yellowknife winter “chilly.” This community is an absolute anomaly.

However, there has been some controversy of late in the Woodlot. Shacks that are unoccupied have been torn down by the city, and residents fear they will be subject to systematic tearing apart of the community as a whole. Others, though, who live outside Einar Broten, site problems with noise, perceived vagrancy and even safety and sanitation concerns with some of the more run-down shacks.

Life in the North

Life in the north is “real,” meaning these caribou antlers came off an animal that was dinner last fall.

Walking through the Woodlot, it’s hard to see any real problem with the shantytown. Sure, most of the cabins aren’t pretty, but the people are happy and friendly. These are not vagrants and social rejects, as some out-of-towners will claim, but just those with a different idea of what is important in life: people over things; community over isolation. There is a honest-to-goodness pioneer spirit in The Woodlot.

So why the warning sign? And who is “Stan the Man?”

Stan the Man

“Ah, Stan the Man — no one seems to know why he got the name other than he use to say he was ‘Stan the Man,’” Quick explains. “He was a real character, in the true sense, he would play a make-believe guitar in that back of the Gold Range [a local pub] when a band was playing… he played for drinks. When he crossed the street he would pretend he was wearing guns and draw them… like ‘make my day.’”

An Einar Broten resident for well over a decade, the now-90-year-old Larocque allegedly bought his home here for a mere $600. It has no running water (H20 is delivered twice weekly) and he walks into New Town for showers and to socialize.

There is no shortage of Stan the Man stories floating around the shores of Great Slave Lake. One of the more infamous tales involving Larocque, Quick says, tells of when he had bought a couple of bottles of booze and was heading home to his shack in Einar Broten to enjoy the night. A couple of locals decided they would “help” him drink it, so they went down to “visit.” Larocque wouldn’t let them in, so they decided to break in — one went through the window and one through the door. Larocque shot the guy in the foot who was coming in the door. When the RCMP came down they took the door as evidence (with the hope The Man would simply move to avoid any further problems), but Larocque simply put a blanket over the doorway and stayed put. There were no legal proceedings against him as the two boozehounds were undoubtedly trying to break in when Larocque fired the shot.

Old Town, by the Water

Old Town borders the magnificent waters of Great Slave Lake, the world’s 13th largest lake.

Another story tells of a time when The Man’s girlfriend was mad at him and set his skidoo on fire. When the RCMP came down, Larocque famously muttered, “Just don’t do nothing, shoot her.”

“So that tells you about some of his antics,” Quick says. “But he was a happy drunk and entertained everyone who would buy the beer.”

It’s just one more legend that makes up the character of Einar Broten’s Woodlot; the heart and soul of Old Town, and perhaps, of Yellowknife itself. It is a collection of local colour like Stan the Man, working professionals like Wanda Hatfield and summer cottagers who spend the warm months on the shore of Great Slave Lake. There is nowhere else in Canada like the Woodlot. It is one part pioneer town, one part hippie-dippy cottage community and one part working-class residential neighbourhood of the capital city of the Northwest Territories.

As the Astrovan pulls out, en route to the Yellowknife’s most famous eatery, The Wildcat Café, I began to understand — Stan the Man’s antics aside — why Einar Broten is “enter at your own risk.” You might not want to leave.

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Great Slave Lakeside Living

Flying across Great Slave Lake, one gets the sensation you’re flying over the Atlantic Ocean. Named for the Slavey First Nations band, it is North America’s fifth-largest lake (tenth in the world) and is also the deepest lake in North America. Along with the larger Great Bear Lake to the north and the smaller Lake Athabasca to the south, it is the remnants of one enormous post-glacier pool. For Yellowknifers, it is a popular boating, fishing and recreational waterbody. Although the water is frigid — some corners staying iced-up year round — it offers a superb-although-short boating season. Wealthy diamond executives truck up 40-plus-foot yachts to Yellowknife Harbour to take full advantage of this summer season. However, whether you rent a 12-footer or sail the mighty lake in a massive sloop, on-water solitude and a scenic anchorage is not just easy to find — it’s a given. Canoe trips on regional rivers are also a major draw to Yellowknife and lake trout, northern pike and Arctic grayling fishing is popular too, with numerous fishing lodges in operation on the lake. Find out more at www.spectacularnwt.com.

The Wildcat Cafe

The famous Wildcat Cafe, a true throwback to frontier times.

Rock Carvings

A gorgeous carving in Yellowknife’s Old Town – the designs are engraved into the rock.

Ragged Ass Road

Ragged-Ass Road is the most famous street in Yellowknife — gift shops sell T-Shirts. hats and faux road-signs featuring this moniker by the truckload. Singer Tom Cochrane even named his 1995 solo album Ragged Ass Road in homage. The term is local slang for being “dirt poor,” as the street started as a mishmash of outhouses and shacks. In 1939, a road was carved through the shantytown, winding between bushes, rock outcrops and shacks to create a ridiculously curvy city-planner’s nightmare. More than 60 years later, lots were standardized on Ragged Ass Road and the road itself was straightened — making it just another historical part of the city. Yellowknife tourists would do well to stop by the Visitor’s Centre and pick up the Old Town Heritage Walking Tour booklet. From Einar Broten’s Woodlot, to Ragged Ass Road, to the Catskinner’s Caboose, to Davy Jones’ Shack, to the Wildcat Café (home of Musk-a-Boutine, muskox and caribou poutine) it’s a self-guided walk not to be missed.

About the author: David Webb is a Vancouver, BC-based travel writer, photographer and magazine editor.

2 comments… add one
  • trevor a Jun 17, 2010 Link


  • Don R Apr 26, 2010 Link

    I don’t know, man, I’ve been there and some of those old town dudes look like bums to me.

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