Tales of Two Northern Cities: Whitehorse and YK, Pt. I

Jeff Spring, a web developer in Dawson City, Yukon, catches a few zzzzz’s on the flight from Whitehorse to Yellowknife

A man peels his fur-trimmed parka hood and dark sunglasses from his face as the plane comes to a complete stop, signalling naptime is over.

With blurry eyes he surveys the passengers behind him, then blurts, “What? Is all of Dawson going to Yellowknife this weekend?”

Not all of Dawson City, Yukon is taking Air North’s 737 jet from Whitehorse to Yellowknife on this cold March afternoon. But at least six friends are swapping out one quirky northern town for another in their quest for new ways to discover and experience winter.

“We’ve been in Dawson City for a year now, but we’ve never seen the NWT,” says Jeff Spring, a 28-year-old web developer. He and his wife are part of the group taking advantage of a $500 seat sale to fly to Yellowknife on a Thursday, returning to Whitehorse Sunday.

The Snowking Festival was the only thing on their otherwise completely open agenda.

“I would say [Snowking] is 99 percent of the reason,” says Jill Wnek, the only one who has ever been to Yellowknife. She remembers competing in soccer at Arctic Winter Games, “and the NWT was always our big rivalry.”

Friendly competition between the two territories, and their capital cities in particular, is part of our shared understanding of what it’s like to live as northerners in eclectic government towns. Air North was hoping there would be enough of a relationship between the two places to sustain a direct route, and so far, the gamble seems to be paying off.

The Whitehorse-based carrier began direct flights three times a week from Whitehorse to Yellowknife, then on to that other famous capital, Ottawa, in February 2014.

Other airlines have tried the hour-and-40-minute direct connection between the two northern cities in the past, but no previous routes lasted. Air North says it wanted to fly to Ottawa, and decided a stop in Yellowknife might make the route more cost effective.

“It was more an attempt at making the Ottawa route more viable, so we decided to combine the two,” Allan Moore, Air North’s chief operating officer, says in an interview at the company’s Whitehorse headquarters. “And we’re very happy with both loads.”

He says the Yellowknife-to-Ottawa leg has the most passengers. This is despite a misperception among NWT government workers that they aren’t allowed to fly Air North because of the Business Incentive Policy, or BIP, which gives preference on government procurement to businesses that are owned and operated within the NWT.

Canadian North is now based in Calgary, while First Air’s headquarters are in Kanata, Ont., making Air North the only northern-based large-jet carrier.

Moore says the GNWT approved Air North under the program, and underscored that support for the company in a letter from NWT Premier Bob McLeod to Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski six months ago.

“Half the GNWT doesn’t realize they can quite easily book with us, we’re approved. We were hoping that letter would have made the rounds, but it hasn’t,” says Moore. (EDGEYK.com checked, and the airline still isn’t listed on the BIP registry.)

Another misbelief the 38-year-old company has been battling is a persistent rumour that the Whitehorse-Yellowknife-Ottawa route is on the verge of being cancelled.

“We can’t state it anymore clearly: there’s no risk the flights would be cut; the support has been amazing and the route is doing great,” says Chris Griffiths, Air North’s marketing coordinator.

That should be reassuring to Air North passengers. In an era when grumbling about airline service has become somewhat of a national pastime, the company’s passengers appear downright bubbly about their experiences — free meals prepared by a professional chef, no baggage fees, and lots of legroom.

“It’s really great for me, I love it because my parents live in Ottawa and I can go see them quite easily now,” says Whitehorse freelance photographer Alistair Maitland. “What was interesting for me this trip was how many people from Whitehorse and Ottawa get off in Yellowknife.”

Scott Smicer lives in Yellowknife and works for a large telecom company based in Whitehorse. He’s taken advantage of the direct flight four times so far. “I love it, it’s 2 ½ hours rather than the milk run from Edmonton to Calgary to Vancouver and then Whitehorse… I’m probably saving 15 hours of travelling.”

CBC web writer Sara Minogue boarded in Yellowknife for her maiden flight with Air North to Whitehorse for work as well, but quickly got other travel inspirations. “Now that I’ve realized the flights are not that expensive I’m considering it for a family vacation — what a great March break destination,” Minogue says, adding,“I’m just hoping the weather isn’t really great and I want to move there.”

To be continued…the next installment of Tales of Two Northern Cities catches up with former Yellowknifers who moved to Whitehorse to get their thoughts on how both places stack up.

Alix Robertson-Salsberg, a nurse in Dawson City, Yukon, flying to Yellowknife for the Snowking Festival

 Some passengers use the hour and 40 minute flight to catch a quick nap

Passengers who stay awake are treated to breathtaking views of the Mackenzie Mountains and twisting oxbow rivers

Note: Air North provided the flight to make this story possible. While we’re incredibly thankful for their contribution, the company did not influence the story’s content.

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