All photos via the author.
The snow is finally melting in the Northwest Territories, revealing a year’s worth of mouldy junk in Yellowknife, the capital city. It’s a dusty and dirty time of year, a season to clean, purge, and offload clutter at Yellowknife’s legendary thrift shop: The YK Solid Waste Facility.
I say thrift shop because the dump is a haven for salvagers, who are more than happy to take your unwanted crap and call it their own. If they don’t keep it, they will resell it to some other shmuck. This practice is unique in Canada. No other capital city let’s people rummage through the landfill at all, let alone give permission to load up your truck and haul junk out of the place.
And because Yellowknife is a transient town where residents earn some of the highest wages in Canada, you’re sure to find some high quality trash. It costs too much to ship things out when people leave, and it’s not like there are a ton of stores here either. So it’s not unheard of to walk away with a brand new flat screen TV and recliner, for instance. Some people have found diamond rings, new Xbox 360s, drum kits, sailboats, and rumour has it one lucky person walked out of here with a bin full of sasquatch erotica.
With quality and service like this, the YK dump is the northern version of Ikea, a place some residents call, “YKEA.” You’ll probably find a hotdog on your way out too.
“Look at these coveralls, they’re in perfect condition,” says Walt Humphries, arguably the dump’s greatest ambassador. If the dump had a mayor, it would be Humphries. For over 40 years he has advocated for salvaging, and is a vocal critic of City administration when they impose new restrictions on salvagers.
“Open up the whole damn place like how it was in the old days. Hell, give people licenses or go one step further and hire people to do this professionally,” he continues. “I’m willing to guess there’s several million dollars worth of stuff here. You can turn salvaging into a business and the City would have less waste to deal with. Everyone goes home happy,” he says.
He digs through a bin wearing gumboots and his trademark Outback hat. His wiry white beard grazes a pair of argyle socks. He looks a bit crazy, but he’s not really. In fact, Humphries is a well-respected historian, prospector, and artist. He even has a weekly column in the local rag, appropriately titled: “Tales From The Dump.”
“It’s just not the same,” he says. “The dump used to be one huge free market, and now we’re pushed to the back into these overcrowded little kennels,” he says.
The “kennels” are actually three fenced yards called “cells,” built by the City to keep salvageable items and salvagers alike to one spot in the dump, rather than letting people roam all over the place.
“There were some major safety concerns from the Public Works Department over the years, namely salvagers and children being in places where a lot of heavy equipment was being operated,” says Mark Heyck, Yellowknife’s mayor. “We decided to address these concerns, while at the same time, keeping salvaging permissible. We understand how important salvaging is to Yellowknifers,” he says.
This makes sense. After all, many children go to the Yellowknife dump too and this isn’t exactly a bouncy castle.
If anything, the changing regulations means people are physically closer together, which has ramped up the competitiveness (and fun) of salvaging. Every weekend between May and October you have dozens of salvagers hunting for a good score: moms and artists and rednecks and hippies, together on a big scavenger hunt.
There are strategists too. Some will park their trucks by the cells, and wait all day for people to offload a bunch of junk. When someone does show up, the salvagers jump out of their vehicles and surround the newcomer, hoping to claim a great prize.
To unsuspecting YKEA virgins, this is like being mobbed by the walking dead with arms outstretched, desperate to snag that ripped loveseat you farted on a million times. “Here, take the goddamn thing! Take it, dump zombie! Away with you!” you’d yell.
“Just wait until you see this place next week, its going to be a nut house,” says Bruce Bourque, a longtime salvager who rebuilds bikes for kids. “Next week is Amnesty Week,” he says. “There’s no fee to drop off your junk, so that’s when most people come to throw stuff out. And the salvagers, well, they show up in droves. It’s like Black Friday, dump style,” he says.
Humphries chimes in: “One year this lady pulls up with a flatbed full of great stuff like brand new golf clubs, a TV, and VCR. I think a few Remington rifles too. She called everyone to gather around her and yelled to the crowd: ‘My asshole of a husband fucked Linda, so I’m giving away his prized possessions to all of you,’” he said. “It was the greatest thing I’d ever seen, and I imagine very cathartic for her!”
We look around and YKEA is full. Some new kids to town need a couch, artists are digging around for yarn and buttons over in the crafts section, and tinkerers are tinkering with machinery in the electronics section.
I chat with Lachlan Maclean, a young Walt Humphries of sorts. He’s from Vancouver and comes to the dump regularly. Most of the time he’s in the scrap metal section.
“I made this guitar amp out of a lunch pail and a reel-to-reel,” he says. “This is a great place for an artist. There ought to be an artist in residency at the dump. The first of its kind,” he says.
“If you drive around Yellowknife, you’ll see how resourceful we are. We decorate our homes with trinkets from the dump. We make gardens and decks and cabins from wood from the dump. The stuff we find at the dump gives the city its charm,” he says.
I suppose he’s right. This is a town built by salvagers, scavengers, pioneers, and prospectors. Yellowknifers are a resourceful bunch, partly because they have to be and partly because they want to keep that pioneering spirit alive.
That, or they just love furniture covered in raven shit.