Superficially Yellowknife is similar to many small Canadian or U.S. towns of 8,000 or so—a few banks, discount stores, a fried-chicken emporium, a joint or two, parking problems, a mini-mall and a small colony of street people. Yet in more substantive respects it is unique among communities of this continent. Most of its distinctions flow directly from its quite literally far-out geography. Perched on the permafrost along the far shore of Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife is Canada's most northerly city. To the south, over an elongated gravel pit sometimes called the Mackenzie Highway, it is 360 hard miles to the Alberta border. To the north there is not much in the way of society until you get to Mongolia.
Functionally speaking, Yellowknife is the metropolis of the central Arctic, the capital of the Northwest Territories, that vast chunk of tundra, ice, bears, mosquitoes and muskeg that is half the size of the United States. With 8,000 souls, Yellowknife has about a quarter of the population of the entire NWT, which says something about the density of people in the other 1,300,000 square miles of the Canadian Arctic.
Weather is a big Yellowknife feature. Most of it strikes southerners, no matter when they visit the area, as exceptional, one way or another. As might be expected, winters are brisk, with an average January temperature of—30�. They are also gloomy, there being a three-month period during which the sun rises only grudgingly above the horizon each day, hangs around for a few hours and then splits for somewhere else. Yellowknifers, who tend to be boosters, claim that the winter-long darkness is soothing, giving them a chance to catch up on indoor chores and rest for the summer, when they say they have the best 24-hour weather in the world. The joys of living in a dark icebox for months on end may be debatable, but bragging about summer in Yellowknife has some justification. Day after day—and for that matter night after night—the skies are blue and bright, the temperature stays in the 60s and 70s, and it seldom rains because, meteorologically speaking, much of the central Arctic is a desert. (All that ice, snow and water is lying about because once it falls it stays put, there being very little evaporation.) The overall climate between May, when the ice melts, and September, when it begins to freeze again, is somewhat similar to that of Tucson's at its best.
There is a social phenomenon in Yellowknife that is probably related to the isolation of the community and its outpost status. The town is full of out-and-out sports fanatics. Curling, hockey, baseball, golf and tennis, plus a few regional entertainments such as dog-team and canoe racing, are pursued incessantly, often under conditions that would destroy the sporting spirit of a visitor. "Perhaps we are a bit keener on sport than the average, but up here we have to make our own fun," says Bill McGill, a retired soldier who now works for the Territorial government. McGill has spent most of his career in the Far North and has played and organized games in all sorts of odd places. At the moment his special preoccupation is the Yellowknife Golf Club of which he is president. As well as anything else, a weird event he conducts each year, called the Midnight Golf Marathon, illustrates the problems and the passions of Arctic sport and Arctic life.
The Yellowknife golf course came into existence 25 years ago, and is a monument to man's determination to pursue the sport of his choice. Since grass does not grow in Yellowknife, or at best survives for a scraggly season or so, the course designers went to work with what they had. Mostly what they had—what the Arctic has a lot of—is a strange kind of glacial sand, sometimes called till, which in composition is something like talcum powder mixed with molasses and ground glass. Selecting a nice expanse of sand north of town, the golfers built wooden platforms to serve as tees. A few hundred yards or so below each tee they oiled patches of sand and called them greens. Not much time was spent putting in artificial hazards since nature had already taken care of that. Clumps of gnarled, tenacious jack pine cling to life and the sand. Enormous slabs of granite from which a golf ball ricochets like a rifle slug litter the lunarlike landscape. Finally, nestled in the dunes are deceptive little pockets of muskeg into which a golf ball—or a golfer—can sink until reaching the permafrost. After laying out nine holes through this terrain, the Yellowknifers dragged in the fuselage of a defunct DC-3 to serve as a clubhouse (it has since been replaced by a more conventional frame building anchored to a granite boulder) and they had their country club. They also had themselves a game that most golfers would feel was conceived in hell rather than the Arctic.
Par is 35 and the course length is 2,504 yards, but such statistics are deceptive. For example, the distance of any drive is how far the ball travels in the air; once it hits the talc-molasses it stops for good. Short of King Kong, there is nobody with wrists strong enough to blast a second, third or 20th shot out of the fairways in the normal style. The preferred technique is to delicately punch the ball, lifting it out of the dunes without getting any of the ferocious sand between clubhead and ball. The oiled greens hold approaches about as well as a sidewalk, so the smart player goes for the widest part of the green instead of the pin and simply hopes his ball will stop rolling before it gets back in the sand.
The greens themselves putt true if you get to your ball before a raven carries it off. The course suffers what might be called the biological hazards of Arctic golf. For example, the fifth rule on the club scorecard states there is no penalty for losing a ball to a raven. There is nothing gimmicky about the rule; it is a sensible adaptation to local conditions. There are lots of ravens about Yellowknife and like all members of the crow family they have a passion for collecting curious objects. Golf balls seem particularly curious to them. The local record for most balls lost to ravens in a single round—seven—is held by Pat Friesen, a staff member of the News of the North, the local paper.
Far more formidable than the ravens are the mosquitoes and blackflies, the biting insects that are the curse of the North. In the summer months they swarm out of the muskeg in dense clouds and intimidate all warm-blooded creatures, including golfers. Beekeeper head nets are favored by those with thin skins, and everyone bundles up in stiff clothes as armor against bloodsucking insects.
Having, in a manner of speaking, created their course, Yellowknife golfers kept jogging along, fighting the ravens, itching their bites and holding average sorts of club tournaments for a number of years. Then one summer night, while a bunch of them were more or less whooping it up in the DC-3 fuselage, somebody had the idea that, given the sleepless sun, a man could play golf almost endlessly. Unfortunately, nobody asked the most pertinent question—Why? Rather the golfers became intrigued with the question of how long a man could or would play. To find out, the Midnight Marathon was created 10 years ago.
The rules of the event are relatively simple. Any golfer from anywhere, amateur or pro, can enter—though God forbid that a sensitive soul like Dave Hill should appear. The Marathon begins at 12:01 a.m. on the Saturday nearest to June 21st, the day of the midnight sun. On Friday evening the golfers and various hangers-on assemble at the course and proceed to fortify themselves for the ordeal ahead. At midnight a shotgun is fired and the foursomes, fivesomes—sometimes more, sometimes less, since the previous fortification period tends to confuse things a bit—start playing. After that they just keep on through the mosquitoes and ravens until they stop or drop. Between each nine holes a 15-minute break is allowed during which the contestants can soak their feet, eat, cry or, more commonly, further fortify themselves.