3 Weeks in North America: What could possibly go wrong?

Discussion in 'Trip Reports and Trip Photos' started by Mattg, Oct 14, 2018 at 3:35 AM.

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  1. Mattg

    Mattg Senior Member

    Aug 21, 2011
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    I recently spent 3 weeks travelling around Canada and the United States. After flying across the Atlantic from Amsterdam, the first half of the trip was spent in Canada where I travelled from east to west. I then flew down to the USA (starting in San Francisco) and travelled in the opposite direction before flying from New York back to Amsterdam.

    The main reason for the trip was to visit friends in various places and also to check out a few destinations I hadn't yet visited. For example, I'd always wanted to visit Indianapolis because my mother was born there. Other highlights of this trip included spotting the Northern Lights, touring the Buffalo Airways hangar in Yellowknife and seeing a baseball game in Cincinnati.

    Here's an overview of the trip. Surface sectors are coloured green.

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    As I recently got a United Gold status match, I also used this trip to extend my Star Alliance status until 2020. I originally got the status match from Qantas Gold to United Gold back in June. This gets you 3 months of trial United/Star Alliance Gold status, which proved very useful as I've done a lot of flying on Star Alliance (plus Eurowings, which is also a United partner) since June. To extend the status beyond the 3 months, you need to earn at least 12,500 Premier Qualifying Miles (PQM) on United-operated flights within the initial trial period. It would be virtually impossible to do this without visiting the USA.

    I did just enough flying on United during this trip to earn the required 12,500 PQMs and renew my Star Alliance status. On this trip I also took a few flights on WestJet, Air Canada and American Airlines.

    I've had plenty of problems with delayed flights, lost bags and bad weather on previous trips to North America, but my previous trips were mostly during winter. This time I was travelling in the middle of summer so nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

    I was wrong. In fact, at one point during the trip I was speaking on the phone with my mother, and she remarked "travelling seems so inconvenient - I don't understand why you bother!"

    They say to expect the unexpected when travelling. This trip was full of surprises - some good and others not so good. All will be revealed over the course of this trip report… I hope you enjoy reading it!
     
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  2. Mattg

    Mattg Senior Member

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    #2 Mattg, Oct 14, 2018 at 4:14 AM
    Last edited: Oct 14, 2018 at 4:20 AM
    This trip began in Amsterdam at the crack of dawn on a Tuesday. After playing a game of 20 questions with one of the security officers (since I was transiting through the USA) I checked in and headed up to the Aspire Lounge. This is the only lounge available at Schiphol Airport when flying United/Star Alliance, and honestly it was underwhelming. I genuinely believe AMS is one of the best airports in Europe. But being a KLM hub, the best lounges are reserved for passengers flying KLM or another SkyTeam airline. The Aspire lounge had an adequate breakfast buffet available and good runway views, but was very crowded. By around 8am it became so noisy that I left.

    Flight 1: UA71 Amsterdam - Newark
    Boeing 767-400ER
    Departure time: 09:15
    Arrival time: 11:35

    I'd only slept a few hours the night before so was dreading this trans-Atlantic flight. But my concerns were unwarranted. I got a very welcome beep at the gate and was handed a new boarding pass for seat 1L. Apparently Economy was (way) oversold and they were upgrading anyone with United status. A very pleasant surprise and I was looking forward to trying out United's Polaris Business class.

    This was actually my first ever flight with United. I've heard that United crew can be hit and miss, and if first impressions were anything to go by, this crew was going to be a miss. The flight attendant standing at the aircraft door was too busy adjusting his hearing aid to even acknowledge me when I walked onto the plane!

    Thankfully, this particular gentleman wasn't looking after Business class. The two older ladies looking after the Business cabin were much more attentive and provided good service throughout the flight. The service wasn't "over-the-top friendly" like you sometimes get flying on Qantas or Virgin. But it was perfectly fine.

    My Business class seat was comfortable. On United's Boeing 767-400ER, Business is laid out in a strange 2-1-2 configuration. The single seats in the middle section seem to be the most popular. I thought the window seats seemed much more private, but to get out you had to climb over the person in the aisle. (This is only a problem if they're sleeping, otherwise there's plenty of room.)

    I had a great chat with my seat neighbour who was a professional DJ and quite possibly United's most loyal flyer. He was telling me about the time he came to Australia and for whatever reason couldn't get on a non-stop United flight... so he flew via HNL and GUM into CNS instead of flying a different airline!

    We had some nice views of the English Channel after takeoff.

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    Here's the menu from this flight:

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    Breakfast was served shortly after takeoff. This was the "starter":

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    For the "entrée" I had the steak and eggs. (Don't get me started on the American use of the word "entree" to describe the main course.)

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    This was followed up with a delicious ice cream sundae for dessert. Because who doesn't want ice cream for breakfast? :p

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    Overall the catering was good, although the steak was a little tough.

    This was the drinks menu from this flight. I'm not sure which champagne they were serving on board, but it was cheap and nasty!

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    After breakfast I was looking forward to a nap. The seat reclines into a 180-degree lie-flat bed and Saks Fifth Avenue bedding was provided. The bed is almost long enough to sleep comfortably if you're tall. There was plenty of room for my feet, although being in row 1 my footwell was larger than the other rows'. I'm afraid I forgot to get a proper photo of the seat, but this should give you an idea of the space:

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    An amenity kit (well, tin) was provided and contained all the usual suspects.

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    After a few hours of solid sleep I watched a couple of movies. The in-flight entertainment system was perfectly functional, although it struck me that there was no music at all! In-flight wifi was available for a cost of USD8.99 for 1 hour or USD22.99 for the whole flight.

    A second meal was served an hour before landing:

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    We landed in Newark on time after what was a surprisingly pleasant flight.
     
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  3. Mattg

    Mattg Senior Member

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    Landing in Newark:

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    It didn't take too long to clear customs, but as I had a connecting flight I had to clear security again. The queue to pass through the TSA checkpoint was over an hour long! United does have a priority queue for security at EWR, but it wasn't in use on this particular day.

    While waiting for my next flight I headed over to the United Club, which was so-so. By US standards it was a pretty good lounge, and it did have some buffet food and drinks available. But the bathrooms were filthy, and it was crowded and noisy. I was very thankful for the lounge access though as it came with access to the customer service desk. This proved invaluable as I had numerous issues with my flights and the agents in the lounge were very helpful.

    I was supposed to fly onwards to Washington DC (DCA) and then Toronto (YYZ) that same day. But my EWR-DCA flight, which was initially delayed by 2 hours, was eventually cancelled. I was rebooked onto a direct EWR-YYZ flight, which was also delayed and later cancelled. By this time the rest of the flights to Toronto that day were all full. I was offered a standby seat on a late evening flight that day or a confirmed seat in "first class" the next day. By this time I'd already been at Newark Airport for 6 hours so I decided to call it a day and head to a hotel for the night. United offered to pay for my hotel room (but only because I was connecting from an international flight and got stranded half-way through the trip). Throughout the ordeal all of the United staff I dealt with were polite and tried their best to help.

    I stayed overnight at the Wyndham Garden Hotel at Newark Airport, then returned the next day. This time, the flight departed and arrived on time.

    Flight 2: UA3476 Newark - Toronto
    Embraer E170
    Departure time: 11:29
    Arrival time: 13:10

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    For this flight I was in the second row of "first class". Frankly, I was shocked by the poor level of service. I shared some of my thoughts at the time in this thread: US Domestic First Class: Is this as good as it gets?

    The service was perfunctory and basically consisted of the flight attendant coming around at uttering "beverage?" at you. There was no smiling, nor was any proper meal provided - just a snack basket handed around. I guess this is standard for short-haul flying in North America!

    This was my legroom:

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    And the snack:

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    Considering this was essentially a free upgrade, I can't really complain. But I would not have been happy if I'd paid full price.

    Approaching Toronto:

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    I eventually arrived in Toronto around 17 hours after I was originally scheduled to get there. But the problems didn't end there! Sure enough, my suitcase was nowhere to be seen. I filed a missing baggage claim with the friendly guy at the baggage desk, who promised to have it delivered to me within 24 hours. This never happened.
     
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  4. Mattg

    Mattg Senior Member

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    The UP Express train to/from Toronto Pearson Airport is excellent. It's fast, clean, inexpensive, has free wifi & toilets on board, and takes you right into the city!

    This was my first time visiting Toronto. I had planned two nights but my time here was cut short by the delay. I ended up having just one afternoon to explore as much as I could. After checking into my hotel I saw there was a free walking tour starting shortly, so joined that. The tour was all about graffiti and included a visit to the famous graffiti alley.

    I then joined a friend for dinner in Chinatown and before I knew it, my time in Toronto was over! I think I'll have to return sometime as it's a big city and I think there's a lot I missed out on seeing.

    Here are some photos from my short time in Toronto:

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    Early the next morning I caught a train from Toronto to Montreal. Just a little bit about the train. The VIA Rail service took just over 5 hours and as I booked well in advance, the ticket cost around $50. The train was comfortable and relatively quick, although it was completely full. There is no restaurant car but you can purchase light snacks and drinks from the attendant, who came around with a food cart periodically.

    A few photos from the train...

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  5. Mattg

    Mattg Senior Member

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    #5 Mattg, Oct 14, 2018 at 5:13 AM
    Last edited: Oct 14, 2018 at 5:20 AM
    I've been to Montreal once before but that was in the middle of winter. It was... cold. This time, it was the middle of summer and it was like I was in a completely different city! Needless to say, I much preferred visiting in summer. :D

    I did a little bit of sightseeing but the main reason for going there was to visit a good friend. We spent most of the time just enjoying the city's excellent bars and restaurants.

    A few photos from around Montreal...

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    View from Mt Royal:

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    During the evening we went to see a spectacular light show inside the Notre Dame cathedral. This photo was taken before the show started as photography wasn’t permitted during the show.

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    The French influence in Montreal is noticeable and in some parts of the city you could be excused for thinking you’re in Europe. I really like Montreal a lot.
     
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  6. Mattg

    Mattg Senior Member

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    #6 Mattg, Oct 14, 2018 at 5:35 AM
    Last edited: Oct 14, 2018 at 5:43 AM
    While I was in Montreal we took a day trip to the Canadian capital of Ottawa. For some reason I was expecting it to be a bit like my home city of Canberra, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn't. It seemed like quite a nice city with plenty of things happening.

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    We arrived just in time to see the Changing of the Guard ceremony outside Canada's parliament house. This was purely ceremonial but a bit of fun. I took a couple of photos; the tourist in front of me filmed for the entire hour. (I have no idea what they plan to do with the footage - it wasn't that exciting!)

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    Afterwards we queued up for tickets for the free parliament house tour. By the time we got to the front of the queue, the English tours were all full for the rest of the day so we joined a French tour instead. I spent the next 90 minutes pretending to have a clue what was going on! (My friend did explain some of it afterwards.) Either way, it's a very nice building on both the inside and outside.

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    We also visited Ottawa's aviation museum, which was interesting enough - although it's no match for the excellent Air & Space Museum in Washington DC.

    1FFAE4F1-97BA-429F-8CE5-DFC0C5CE00AF.jpeg
     
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  7. OZDUCK

    OZDUCK Active Member

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    Very enjoyable so far - for me at least as I didn't have the plane cancellations.:) Your photos are bringing back lots of memories of our Canada trip 2 years ago. Did Via Rail weigh the pax bags, they were very carefully weighing everyone's when we boarded our train to Montreal in Ottawa.
     
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  8. Mattg

    Mattg Senior Member

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    After Montreal, my next stop was Yellowknife in Northwest Territories.

    Getting there was slightly complicated. There were no direct flights from Montreal to Yellowknife, and buying a ticket would have been very expensive. So I decided to redeem some Qantas points to fly WestJet. Award availability was a bit of a challenge, but I managed to find award seats from Toronto to Edmonton, connecting onwards to Yellowknife the following evening. This meant I ended up with around a ~23 hour layover in Edmonton and had to first get back to Toronto.

    When I booked my ticket from Montreal back to Toronto, the train was going to be almost $100 while MegaBus was selling seats for $14. So I booked a bus ticket, which in hindsight was probably a mistake. It wasn't that comfortable, the advertised free wifi didn't work and we ended up getting stuck in traffic, so we arrived 80 minutes late.

    Since arriving in Montreal I had been calling United every day to see if there was any progress in locating my luggage. There had been no progress and they still had no idea where it was. I only had one change of clothes and a toothbrush with me in my carry-on, so things were starting to get a bit dire by this point. :eek:

    When I returned to Toronto Airport I headed over to the United desk to enquire about my luggage. By now it had been 5 days since my bag went missing. They still had no clue where it was.

    Flight 3: WS443 Toronto - Edmonton
    Boeing 737-800
    Departure time: 19:59 (Actual: 21:45)
    Arrival time: 22:09 (Actual: midnight)

    I tried to check-in online for my WestJet flight but was unable. At the airport, I was also unable to check in at the kiosk as I had a "paper ticket". I suppose this is a limitation of booking a WestJet flight with Qantas points?

    To check-in I had no choice but to queue up in the "guest care" line which was severely understaffed and intended for people with complex ticketing issues, so it took an hour to get to the front of the queue. If my flight was on time, I would have missed the cut-off for check-in! Thankfully (I guess) the flight was running late and I still had no luggage. I had pre-selected a seat online for this flight, but it didn't stick and it wasn't possible to change as the flight was full. At least my new seat was an aisle seat.

    After checking in I had to wait another 40 minutes in the queue for security. If I'd needed another reminder of how miserable flying in North America can be, this was it.

    After rolling delays we eventually departed. WestJet uses Recaro slimline seating in its 737s, which meant the seat wasn't that comfortable but the legroom was OK and there was an adjustable leather headrest.

    The WestJet cabin crew were great. They were super friendly and completed two trolley runs on the four-hour flight where complimentary snacks (pretzels or cookies) and non-alcholic drinks were handed out. More substantial food and alcoholic drinks were available for purchase.

    There was a small "Economy Plus" section at the front of the plane, which basically resembled Euro-Business class. The middle seats in this section were blocked and passengers in these seats had unlimited choice from the on-board menu.

    Due to the delay we arrived at midnight (which felt like 2am). Luckily I was staying at one of the airport hotels in Edmonton so didn't have to make the trek into the city.
     
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  9. Mattg

    Mattg Senior Member

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    I didn't have any particular plans for Edmonton and by this point was desperately in need of some new clothes, toiletries, shoes etc. So I spent the day at the outlet mall near Edmonton Airport buying a new suitcase and filling it with replacement items. By this point I assumed I was never going to see my luggage again, so I had quite a bit of stuff to buy. United had said they would reimburse me for the ~$600 I spent so I was careful to keep all the receipts.

    When I returned to the airport I now had a suitcase to check in. This meant I had to queue up in the dreaded "guest care" line again as the kiosk wanted nothing to do with my ticket.

    When I got to the front of the line, I was informed there would be a $26.25 fee to check in my bag. I figured it couldn't hurt to ask if the fee would be waived as I had Gold status with Qantas (one of WestJet's partner airlines). Much to my surprise, the bloke actually agreed to waive the fee. I don't think this is official policy, but rather he couldn't be bothered looking up the entitlements for Qantas members!

    Flight 4: WS3258 Edmonton - Yellowknife
    Dash 8 Q400
    Departure time: 21:15
    Arrival time: 23:22

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    This flight was also delayed, but this time only by half an hour. Again, it was 100% full.

    The flight was mostly uneventful, until we began our descent into Yellowknife. As it was dark there was nothing to see outside the window for most of the flight. Then, the flight attendant made an announcement that the Northern Lights were visible out the right hand side of the plane, and she would switch off all the cabin lights for the next few minutes so we could all get a good look!

    I'm afraid I didn't think to get any photos as this came as a complete surprise and I was mesmerised by the view. The light show only lasted a few minutes before she had to turn the lights on again to prepare for landing. But that was very cool while it lasted!

    The passengers were a mix of locals and tourists. When we arrived in Yellowknife there was a crowd of locals waiting to meet family members from our flight. The airport is very small but functional, and I had no problem getting a taxi from out the front.

    Here's a photo I got of Yellowknife's airport a couple of days later:

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  10. Mattg

    Mattg Senior Member

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    No, no bags were weighed when boarding in Toronto!
     
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  11. RooFlyer

    RooFlyer Enthusiast

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    Ha! Your first photo of T'rana (Toronto for the non natives) shows my apartment when I lived there for a year. It was back in the '90s, and there was no Graffiti Lane or tours then (AFAICR).

    In all my time in Canada (living for 3 years, visiting, mainly Calgary and BC, for probably another year in total) I never got yo Yellowknife. I shall go there vicariously now.
     
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  12. Major

    Major Established Member

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    I loved watching the Ice Pilots TV series
     
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  13. Straubs

    Straubs Member

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    Enjoying this, though it seems you had to roll with the punches a bit!
     
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  14. Daver6

    Daver6 Established Member

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    I'm so in for this trip
     
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  15. VPS

    VPS Established Member

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    Bringing back a few memories. Bummer about your bags though
     
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  16. JohnM

    JohnM Senior Member

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    Slipping into 1A.
     
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  17. love_the_life

    love_the_life Established Member

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    Err, it's taken :D
    And you wouldn't throw an old lady out of the seat would you?
     
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  18. kermatu

    kermatu Established Member

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    Always enjoy your TRs. This also reminds me of my brief visits to Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. Could substitute almost all your pics for mine.
     
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  19. JohnM

    JohnM Senior Member

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    Errr, rather than me sit on your lap LTL, you can go on top this time :cool::D:D.
     
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  20. Mattg

    Mattg Senior Member

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    #20 Mattg, Oct 15, 2018 at 5:34 AM
    Last edited: Oct 15, 2018 at 5:40 AM
    I was inspired to visit Yellowknife by Justinf's excellent trip report from earlier this year. Around the time that I was planning my trip, I had just read this trip report. Then, a friend informed me he had got a job at Buffalo Airways and was moving to Yellowknife. That gave me just the excuse I needed to include Yellowknife in the trip.

    My experience was quite different to @Justinf as I was travelling in summer. But I was very much looking forward to checking out the scenery. And, of course, the Buffalo Airways hangar tour. ;)

    A few days before I arrived, my friend called to let me know that he'd been posted elsewhere in Canada to do some charter flying for Buffalo Airways. So I never ended up seeing him on this trip! But I did still try to make the most of my 3 days in Yellowknife.

    For a town of just 20,000 people, there were a lot of high-rise buildings in the city centre! On closer inspection though, most were empty. In fact, the main shopping mall looked really run-down and around 90% of the shops were vacant. And I recall walking down the main street around 7pm one evening and there was nobody else around! It was like walking through a ghost town. I was told by my Airbnb host that the city has some big social problems, including homelessness and unemployment. Apparently the mall in particular attracts a lot of homeless people because it is heated - especially in winter when it can get down to below minus 50 degrees outside.

    I got reasonably lucky with the weather. As I visited in August, the temperature averaged around 5-10 degrees each day.

    This was the main street of Yellowknife:

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    And some more pictures from around town:

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    There seemed to be a bit more happening in the old town area. I did enjoy a drink at the NWT Brewing Company there.
     
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