Letters from Yellowknife – Day One Part I – Ninja Tour

The first thing I learnt at Vancouver Airport was that Yellowknife is one word, rather than two. Later on, I learnt from a local guide that the knife part is pronounced knave.  Su noticed that the pilot of this Canadian Express Flight AC8833 she booked for us was a youngish blonde, who started the twin propeller engine CRJ900 Bombardier, which carried about 100 passengers, on time. The small craft taxied on the apron for an ominously long time, changing speeds, before it came to a complete stop. I thought it was becoming really ominous. Then the pilot spoke: there could be problems with a circuit breaker and she had called for maintenance crew for a hopefully quick fix. She apologized. Ten minutes or so passed and she spoke again: the problem had apparently been fixed, but she would need to take the plane for a little test run to confirm that it was, before she would pilot it back to the start line of the runway – more ominous.  When the plane finally reached the runway, we were about 25 minutes behind the scheduled start time. Not too auspicious for the start of a side trip, I thought. Nonetheless, the flight was uneventful, and we found ourselves outside the airport terminal of Yellowknife in drifting snow with everything in sight blanketed by snow and a few ground staff in heavily clad clothing. It was minus 16˚C. We treaded down timidly the gangway to the terminal building on snow. Luckily, I had my ski jacket in my backpack. The new albeit short and cold experience prompted Su to flip out her phone for a quick snap. She was promptly signaled by some ground staff to put away the phone, but which she conveniently ignored and took a few shots anyway.

We collected our bags and began to look for the shuttle to our hotel. It turned out to be a bus for guests staying in four hotels nearby. We boarded it, as did the flight crew including the pilot. Yellowknife is not a big place; it is one hour ahead of Vancouver; and by the time we reached the front desk of Quality Inn, it was past 4pm, or 12 hours after we got up from our well-used bed in Whistler.  The room was clean, but the facilities were somewhat ancient and basic.  Su began to look up for the pick-up arrangements from the tour operator with whom she had booked for the evening. It was close to 5pm, the time that the shop would close. Presently we suited up and walked to the shop located in Y K Centre which was just a few blocks from the hotel, only to find that the shop was indeed closed.  By the way, Y K apparently stands for Yellowknife. The initials reminded us affectionately of our good old friend Y K Cheng back home, so that we took a picture of the building, even though it was uncharacteristically ordinary. We would show it to Y K someday, I promised myself.  Taking advantage of being on the ground in City Centre, Su began to look for eateries nearby, but ended up taking back more cup noodles to the hotel from a super market next door. Back in our hotel room, Su changed back to her Hong Kong phone card thereby learning that the tour operator had unilaterally turned down her booking for the evening because of poor subscription. It was the second time in the week she was cold shouldered by tour operators in the city. I began to undress for a quick nap. It was close to 6pm.

Undaunted, Su looked up notes from Eva Chu on a tour operator whom she had used on a previous trip; and she managed to make contact with a Mary successfully, first in Putonghua then in perfect Hong Kong Cantonese. To cut the long story short, she managed to book two places for us from Aurora Ninja Photo Tour for the evening at just under C$300 excluding tax and gratuities, but only after leaving with Mary her credit card details including the secret code, just in case we didn’t show up, was what made this former trader did what she wouldn’t do in normal times. We would be picked up around 9pm from the hotel; we would be taken to a fixed site with tents where we would stay for typically three to four hours depending on weather and other factors; there would be a guide; and we would be taken back to the hotel afterwards. So we were in business; once again through Su’s single-minded determination and willfulness. How can’t I not love her for that?

A white FWD van pulled up outside the hotel at 9pm; a young man came in and asked me whether I was Mr. Wan; we followed him to his transport; and that was how we began a memorable evening, meeting friends and some unusual characters and in between had our first aurora experience.

Raymond Chan was his name. He said he would pick up three more guests from Capital Hotel, which was close by. We later found out that Natalie, Irene and Oliver were from Hong Kong, who arrived on the same flight as ours. The two young ladies were Cathay Pacific employees who had been asked to take leave because there was not enough work, and the young man worked in the travel industry. Apparently, all three were on budget travels. It took us less than 15 minutes to reach the camp site, which was snow covered but equipped with three tents on open ground, an electrical generator which supplied power, and an open fire fueled on pine logs which later gave us excellent barbecued beef steak. A tall and burly gentleman in workman overall greeted us in the main tent. He was Eric, our host and guide for the evening, who also doubled up as our chef.

To be continued …….

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