Best of EDGE: Tales of Two Northern Cities: Whitehorse & YK, Pt V

We’ve both got cold, natural beauty, and colourful names that confuse southerners. It’s hard not to compare Yellowknife and Whitehorse. Here’s the fifth and final installment of our series exploring the two cities. Here are Parts One, Two, Three and Four.

Introducing yourself as a Yellowknifer to Canadians south of 60 elicits a fairly standard response that goes something like this:

“I’m from Yellowknife.”

“Yellowstone?”

“No, Yellow-Knife.”

“Wow, I’ve always wanted to visit the Yukon.”

I’m not sure how the Northwest Territories became so supplanted by the Yukon that it does not even register as a place for most people. Yellowknife has a bit more traction, but as my son attending university in Calgary (where he has to explain Yellowknife’s location to fellow students) pointed out, territories, provinces and capitals were part of Grade 3 curriculum.

Grade 3 having been a long time ago — and the Northwest Territories having not offered up anything particularly salivatory to mainstream media since, let me think… hmmm… maybe ever (well, I guess the diamond play, and there was that Russian satellite that scattered radioactive debris over the golf course in 1978) — perhaps my aunt and uncle can be forgiven for the following true story I’m about to tell.

Thinking that travel would expand the horizons of their son Josh, then 12, my aunt in Whiterock, B.C. asked if he could come stay with my family for March break. I was excited. Not many relatives make the trek.

A few hours before he was due to arrive the phone rang.

“Hi Laurie, it’s Josh,” my cousin enthused. “I’m in Whitehorse!”

“Oh dear. Josh, I’m in Yellowknife!” I responded.

Silence.

“Oh, well is it far? Can you come pick me up and I’ll wait at the airport?”

“Josh, I’m in a different territory. There aren’t even flights that go from Yellowknife to Whitehorse.”

In short order I had a woman from the airline take him across to a hotel, where I gave them my credit card number and had Josh wait until my friend Mike Bailey came and picked him up. Josh ended up staying with Mike, who took him snowshoeing and showed him around for the weekend, until he could fly back to Vancouver to his parents. They insisted they’d booked his ticket to Yellowknife, which we all know is pretty much impossible, even in that much laxer, pre-9-11 era of airline travel.

It all worked out to Josh’s favour, as he was re-booked and got to see both places, but the incident is an extreme example of how thoroughly Whitehorse usurps Yellowknife in the psyches of southerners.

Had that incident happened this year, I would have been able to put my cousin on Air North’s direct flight from Whitehorse to Yellowknife. Since the route started in February 2014, it’s been bridging a transportation gap between the two capitals, and connecting them both to that other capital: Ottawa.

I took the 1-hour-and-40-minute flight to Whitehorse courtesy of Air North in March. I was surprised at how many people from both northern capitals were travelling across the great mountain expanses that divide us for a first-time peek at how the “other side” lives.

It seems to be a one-way train of thought, but if you live in Yellowknife for any period of time, you’ll likely start to wonder if life in Whitehorse would be better? (People in Whitehorse smugly believe they are in a superior place, and do not wonder at all about moving to Yellowknife.)

Admittedly, Whitehorse has a lot going for it. If you make a list of pros and cons for both cities, its pros side bursts with more of just about everything people in urban areas seem to want: shopping, bars and restaurants, coffee shops, arts venues, superb rec facilities (including downhill skiing), and highway access to nearby attractions, especially – as people in Whitehorse are quick to point out – the exotic behemoth that is Alaska.

Yellowknife doesn’t really compete in any of those areas. We have less of all of that, in particular the ‘highway access to other places’ part of the equation. Ultimately, that is what draws us closer together. We don’t sprawl, urbanly or otherwise. We’re pretty tight-knit, both as a community, and with our unpaved wilderness surroundings.

And that’s why I’m no longer wondering if I will someday move to Whitehorse. It’s a super place to visit, but sometimes, less is more.

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