An ode to the Gold Range: Musicians share memories of Yellowknife's iconic dive bar

It's Friday night in Yellowknife and Ernie Constant has the best view in town. 

Like he has for decades, he's looking down from the bandstand at Bad Sam's bar at the Gold Range Hotel, guitar in hand. His bandmates stand to his left and right, chugging through another Merle Haggard tune. 

Constant is the king of the Gold Range, one of the most famous bars in the Northwest Territories. It first opened in downtown Yellowknife in 1958 and it's showing its age. Old wood panelling lines the walls and black electrical tape patches holes in the stage. 

In the neon glow, Constant can make out couples on the dance floor, swinging each other in time with the country beat. The room is dimly lit and dusty. The crowd is sparse, and the night is waning. 

But there's nowhere else he'd rather be. 

"It's fun to see people enjoy your music," he said. "They get on the dance floor and sing the song that your singing, sing along with you." 

Constant's played thousands of nights at the Range. True to his name, he's a fixture, always on stage singing old country standards, whether it's to a packed house or a few people drinking beer at the bar.

But Constant's home-away-from-home is facing an uncertain future. The Gold Range is for sale.

Its owners are seeking $2 million dollars for the hotel, bar and attached bistro, described as a "landmark in the heart of downtown Yellowknife for over 65 years" in the listing. 

Constant's not worried. Owners come and go, but he's certain the music's not going anywhere. 

Karen Novak feels the same way. She's the lead singer and piano player for Welder's Daughter, a raucous party band that never fails to get people on their feet. They've held a standing gig at the Range for 16 years, through three different owners. 

"Everything's sort of stayed the same," Novak said. "We're thankful for them for keeping things the way they were and maintaining that live music. I'm nothing but grateful." 

The music is the background as they tell their stories and catch up - Karen Novak, Welder's Daughter

Novak and her band, which includes her husband Attila on lead guitar, have played across Canada. But she says there's something special about the Gold Range, which remains a stubborn survivor from Yellowknife's frontier past. 

During its heyday, the bar was filled with characters, people with nicknames like "The Singing Bartender," "Stan the Man," and "Squeak." 

Sam Yurkiw owned the bar for 30 years, beginning in the 1970s. Rumour had it, he'd fire bands that played too much rock and roll. From his perch on a corner stool he held court, watching as wedding parties, funeral mourners, miners, trappers and itinerant musicians rolled through his door. 

'I've seen people get married here, I've seen them mourn here," he said a few years before he died in April 2009. 

"People got it branded as a rough place, that's baloney. People enjoy themselves here. They have country bands and they just go crazy all night."

Alex Brockman/CBC

Those glory days and those characters are gone but the Gold Range remains an unofficial gathering place for people from across the North who pass through town. 

On a Friday night, there's a good chance of seeing an elder from the Sahtu region sitting with friends, or an MLA from the Arctic swapping stories with someone from their home riding. 

It's not uncommon to see two or three generations from the same family — who've come in on their own and just happen to see their relatives there.  

"The music is the background as they tell their stories and catch up," Novak said.  "I love that. I love seeing people from the communities come here." 

Alex Brockman/CBC

Welder's Daughter plays everything, from AC/DC, to ABBA, to the Black Eyed Peas. For Novak, there's nothing better than playing to a packed house, with the crowd pleading for one more song. 

"Those are the best nights of the week," she said. "Those are the nights when everybody is ready to let their hair down and have fun.

"We don't see a lot of tourists here, but the locals know that this is the place to go and have fun, and dance," she said.     

Al Cardinal has been playing bass with Constant since they were in residential school together. Five nights a week, his bass lays the foundation for Constant's band, known as Ernie and the Boys. 

There'd be a lineup at the bar and you couldn't get in. - Al Cardinal, Ernie and the Boys 

He's seen it all, playing in bars and rec halls from Fort Resolution to Inuvik, N.W.T. Over the years, he's watched some great bands get their start at one of the Gold Range's many jam nights. 

"You couldn't get in here, the place was so jam-packed you couldn't get in here," he said. "There'd be a lineup at the bar and you couldn't get in." 

 

Cardinal and Constant remembered one night when the band played to a packed house. While they were on stage, the fire alarm went off. The band went outside but no one followed. They didn't want to lose their seat. 

Tonight isn't like that, few are anymore. But Constant says he's not ready to give up his spot on stage.  

Why should he? He has the best view in town.