The view of Yellowknife Bay from the Arctic Duchess. Photo: Jake Olson
A project that transforms a former Coast Guard ship into a dazzling Yellowknife tourist destination is almost complete. But there’s one rather large catch.
Jake Olson has spent four years turning the Arctic Duchess – a Coast Guard ship until the late 1990s and more recently a Yellowknife houseboat – into “something totally unique” for visitors to the city.
He wants guests to watch the northern lights from the ship or spend July nights gazing at Yellowknife Bay’s glassy water, an experience that he says “almost feels spiritual.”
But right now, if you want to do any of that, you’d better bring your own captain with you.
“Some Transport Canada regulations still apply,” Olson said. To them, it’s a ship on a lake, so it had better act like a ship on a lake.
“Essentially, I would still need to hire a captain on board if there are any guests,” Olson said he was told when he approached Transport Canada.
Initially, he thought the rules might be sufficiently relaxed in winter – with the bay iced over – that the no-guests problem might be restricted to summer. But then, he says, “Transport Canada was basically like, you’re not going to have any guests on board. Period.”
Olson is undeterred.
He expects the issue will be resolved in time – he notes floating restaurants and spas are able to operate in southern Canada, and believes this is simply a teething problem in the North – and time is something he has already invested in the Arctic Duchess.
The ship was built in 1961 as the CCGS Eckaloo and has called the Mackenzie River and Great Slave Lake home for more than 60 years.
Olson says he was invited onto the boat by a friend who suggested he might want to purchase it.
“You’re absolutely crazy,” he recalls thinking, “I’m not going to buy it. But then once I got onto it, I’m like… maybe?”
He was captivated by the amount of history he found on board, despite the boat’s lengthy existence as a houseboat once its Coast Guard service ended: the boat’s original life jackets are still on board, he said, as are its blueprints and other documentation.
“I had been looking for a project that I could sink my teeth into, that really shows how cool and amazing the North is to tourists that are coming to Yellowknife,” said Olson.
“What better way to introduce them to the North than this giant ship?”
For now, that introduction will have to take place beside the giant ship, not on it.
Olson has established a wall tent, heated washrooms and other facilities by the side of the ship so that it can still play a role in some magical Yellowknife experiences, even if you can’t physically set foot on board.
He imagines hosting the likes of art shows or corporate gatherings next to the Duchess, and has begun a promotional campaign online to attract some attention.
“What we’re trying to do is at least get people near the boat,” he said.
“The boat is also fully lit up. It’s still a really amazing backdrop to have. Even though people can’t necessarily access the boat, we still intend to create this really unique and amazing northern experience that isn’t offered anywhere else.
“There are a million tour operators out there and a lot of people offer very similar products. This is going to enable something that is totally unique. We have a lot of people that are really excited to see where it can go, and it’s only going to get better.”