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Yellowknife is small and openhearted, but it’s also hard to find. You think you know what it is, but then it moves – from the darkness of a tavern teeming with North and South Slavey, Cape Bretoners, Métis, Saskatchewanians and old men from the Dehcho to the cool shadow of a Twin Otter cruising low enough above your dockside rock that you could poke it with a fork. Here’s a fun game: When visiting, try to describe Yellowknife to your friends on a postcard (hint: buy a lot of postcards).

Yellowknife has a main street, but no one calls it that. In fact, they call it two things: 50th Avenue and Franklin Avenue, depending on how you feel about the former British explorer and northern colonialism (spoiler alert: The Dene don’t feel good, while most non-indigenous shrug as if not quite understanding the question). The main street – or 50th or he-who-will-not-be-named – has its own naked charm, including the denizens outside the main Post Office, most of them undomiciled.

If you spend any time with them, it isn’t hard to walk into a story. One afternoon at the main post office, I met two men the size of compact cars – Bear and James Thrasher, both from Tuktoyaktuk – who, like many of the city’s homeless, had come to Yellowknife because of greater access to services, housing and alcohol (Tuktoyaktuk is a dry community on the shores of the Western Arctic, which I visited during my eight-week stay in the Northwest Territories).

Yellowknife Bay, as viewed from a nearby hilltop. (Walter Strong for The Globe and Mail)

When they found out I was going to their hamlet, Bear asked for my book so he could write down the Inuvialuktun word for “white person.” I handed it to him – the hardbound writing book looked like a church pamphlet in his great hands – and his tongue curved around his lip while engraving the word on the page: kabloonak. He told me in a voice like a hammer on a drum: “Now, listen, you might hear this word, but it’s not necessarily bad. It depends on how someone uses it. You got that?” I told him I did.

The main street is both a way into town and a way out of it.

Downtown has the Gold Range bar, built in 1958 by Jacob Glick and, in the beginning, the only place in town outside the government where you could place a long-distance phone call. A long narrow room lit by neon Bud signs washed over aging wood-panelled walls with rows of tables running to a small stage, the Range is like an old smoking lady – menthol darts – who never takes off her parka, holed at the elbow and with grease stains along the fringe. Still, once you start talking to her, you become drawn into the tragic wealth of her story. Like Yellowknife, and like the area around the post office, it conceals very little about itself, never pretending to be something it is not.

Next to the bar is the Gold Range Bistro, which isn’t a bistro at all, but a diner owned by a cancer survivor from Truro, N.S., named Mary who, every day of her post-treatment life, waits on tables dressed in gold or silver evening wear. The bistro is filled with both Dene and non-Dene; almost too obvious a symbol for people getting along despite one group having been here for 8,000 years, and the other for almost 100.

Yellowknife conceals very little about itself, never pretending to be something it is not. (Terry Parker/NWTT)

It was at the bistro that I felt more Canadian than maybe anywhere else, owing not to a sweeping prairie or roaring mountainside – in fact, you can’t see much out of the windows of the bistro other than the street – but because we were all there together: Dogrib and Tlicho and the Chinese short order cooks. And Mary, bringing this Southerner his eggs and coffee.

Down the 50th Avenue hill, a whole other world is revealed; an alternate world. If downtown impressed a kind of poured-concrete stability on the city – the courthouse, RCMP, and municipal and territorial government houses are all here – the hill crests alongside huge bookends of Shield granite to reveal the green-blue waters of Great Slave Lake (Tu Nedhe in Dene) and Yellowknife Bay, with Old Town on one side and the Woodyard on the other.

Old Town – with its famous Bullocks Bistro fish restaurant and the Weaver and Devore outfitter – is three sections: “The Rock” (a.k.a. Pilot’s Monument), Willow Flats and Peace River Flats. I stayed at Cathy Allooloo’s excellent Narwal B&B – truth be told, I stayed in a cabin on the grounds – in Peace River Flats, so I had an affinity for the area.

The blue water of Yellowknife Bay – home to a small community of about 30 houseboats – provides a stark contrast to the concrete buildings of downtown. (Walter Strong for The Globe and Mail)

Most of the homes are made entirely out of wood, brick being too expensive to transport to the North. Their thorny yards and bent porches suggest a place where a bearded coot might sitting in a creaking chair drinking out of a jug with three Xs across it, a shotgun leaning on his knee. You couldn’t walk 20 feet without coming across a motor vehicle or fishing boat swallowed in weeds and every property seemed to have a shed that looked like a hacking cough might send it collapsing to the ground.

That said, the closer I studied them, the more I discovered the occasional artisanal touch: woodcuts screwed to the faces of homes; little hand-painted gnomes, one of which wore a Quebec Nordiques sweater; and, in some instances, small glass greenhouses with plants in full boom. For all of the sloping ruggedness of the land and the perpetual shade cast by the rising chunks of Shield, it appeared as if the coots were going soft in their dotage.

If downtown was newish, Old Town was, well, old. It was easy to further this sense through the Woodyard, a small area of ungoverned shacks tight to the shoreline and home to the original mining settlements of the 1930s. Just off the shoreline were the first of the 30 or so houseboats floating – also ungoverned, and also independent – in their own aquatic community. The houseboats are lived in year-round, frozen in place by the ice, and use water pumps and solar panel generators as well as peat moss honey buckets in an approximation of normal living, although that’s not the goal of the community.

Author Dave Bidini (right) on the deck of Wade Carpenter's houseboat on Yellowknife Bay. (Walter Strong for The Globe and Mail)

Because life on the water is a summertime concern as much as it is a wintertime effort, there are too many plates spinning to affect a West Coast idyl about the whole arrangement, even though that’s part of it: swimming in the bay off the dock most mornings, paddling to the shore for supplies and fishing in the fish-lousy waters, to say nothing of salsa or barge parties during the solstice, or simply floating downwind in a small fishing boat, which is what I did last month with one of the original houseboaters, the Icarus’s Matthew Gorgono.

I also spent time on Wade Carpenter’s houseboat, who generates 80 per cent of his energy through solar panelling and whose wrap-around deck allowed us to sit outside, drink beer, have dinner and watch float planes coloured butterscotch and mint green cruise through the neighbourhood’s aerodome.

Some people who spend time in Yellowknife rarely get any farther than the Gold Range or the Black Knight Pub or the fine visitors centre and the excellent Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, but here’s another game: Just start walking. The cosmetic is that the undomiciled are a dissuading presence, but some of the greatest conversations I had were with Yellowknife’s homeless. This is to say nothing of the indigenous men and women who are as woven into life here than any other place in Canada.

Yellowknife is an open book. You don’t have to start at the beginning. Just start.