Tuesday, February 3, 2009

the long detour (globe&mail article)


A 2,500-kilometre detour to nowhere

GUY NICHOLSON gets all the gravel he can handle as he veers off the RV-infested Alaska Highway to explore NWT's rugged routes

Special to The Globe and Mail

THE MACKENZIE HIGHWAY, NWT -- I wake up from my nap at 2:30 p.m., about 90 minutes out of Fort Resolution. To the right, scrub bush hugging the shoulder like a wall. Straight ahead, gravel road stretching to the horizon.

To my left in the driver's seat is my girlfriend, and she's not pleased. The gravel started nearly an hour ago, and we still have more than seven hours ahead of us. She has never driven unpaved surfaces for more than a few kilometres, and her knuckles are white from thoughts of a breakdown so far from anywhere.

After an overtaking oil truck nearly puts us in the ditch, she's ready to reassess our plan to take the road less travelled, and we pull over to study the map. Turning back to take the only other route would add not a few hours but a full day, so we decide to carry on -- with me in the driver's seat.

Welcome to the Northwest Territories, where the days are long, the roads are lonely and even a basic road trip means spending the better part of a week in the car. It's not without its hardships, but if your cottage road is starting to look like a suburb, it might be for you.

This summer, our cottage road is the Alaska Highway -- hardly the beaten track, but no longer the grand adventure of lore. We have lots of time to complete our trip from Toronto to Anchorage, so we're taking a 2,500-kilometre detour north from Edmonton, hoping to see something different before rejoining the Alaska-bound tourists near Fort Nelson, B.C.

Day 1

Edmonton to Grimshaw, Alta.

We fortify ourselves with breakfast, groceries and gas, and leave town by 10 a.m. Turning north on No. 43, a smooth four-lane provincial highway, it seems hard to believe that it will take us three days to reach Yellowknife. Our tires speed across a rolling range land of oil derricks and mustard and flax fields that gradually weaves into boreal forest, a mere hint of what the coming week will hold. But the road shrinks to two lanes as we pass a construction crew and dozens of massive machines, reminding us how much work is required to hew a road from the wilderness.

Near Valleyview, a young man in a cowboy hat rides a horse beside the highway -- we're still in cowboy country, for sure. Our driving day comes to an end at the dusty farm community of Grimshaw, where we debate camping before choosing a room in a cheap roadside motel.

Day 2

Grimshaw to Hay River, NWT

Grimshaw is Mile Zero for the Mackenzie Highway, the spine of our road trip. The highway's origins go back to the settlement of northern Alberta, but it was extended north into the NWT after gold and oil were found there in the early 1900s. It still carries the territory's resources out, but it also brings a few thousand hardy tourists north each year.

Still in Alberta, we pull over for a washroom break in Manning, named for late premier Ernest Manning. We re-emerge to realize we've driven into the middle of the rodeo-weekend parade. Despite the drizzle, everyone in town is either driving a truck pulling a float or watching the procession, so we look for a place to pull over without blocking the view. Clowns are tossing candy and kids are scrambling for it in the middle of the highway.

North of High Level, the fields disappear for good into a wall of bush. It starts to get so monotonous that I begin to feel dozy and pull over to stretch, but I'm forced to hustle back into the car as a cloud of mosquitoes officially welcomes me to the North. The scenery finally starts to improve about 75 kilometres past the frontier at Alexandra Falls, where the Hay River plunges 30 metres into a broad gorge.

As dinnertime approaches, we reach our second night's destination: the town of Hay River, which was established as a Hudson's Bay post in the 1860s and is now the second-largest community in the territory. We stay at the Harbour House Bed & Breakfast, where a small beach is all that separates us from the south shore of Great Slave Lake. The adjoining port sends boats loaded with supplies to the NWT's more remote northern communities, some of which receive just one shipment a year because the summer breakup is so short. The maritime feel is an unexpected departure from the farms and forests we passed all day.

Day 3

Hay River to Yellowknife

We get a late start, so it's nearly noon by the time we turn up the Yellowknife Highway and reach the ferry for Fort Providence across the Mackenzie River. The water moves quickly enough that the boat has to find a spot in the jetty's lee to dock, but the river does freeze over in the cold months. An ice bridge is cleared every winter, but a planned $57-million bridge will soon change the way people and freight cross this mighty waterway. Perhaps it will also lower the gas prices -- at least 20 cents a litre more than in Ontario.

We're barely off the ferry when we encounter our first wood bison. There are 2,500 of these 1,000-kilogram beasts in the roadside Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary and we see at least 75 of them in two hours. Swarmed by masses of flies, they stroll unperturbed down the shoulder of the road, munching grass and dropping mounds of dung as cars pass close by. Several are killed every year in collisions with vehicles, so we're happy to arrive safely at our friend's apartment in Yellowknife.

Days 4, 5 and 6


Home to about 20,000 people, the territorial capital is no metropolis, but it feels like one after the long trip from Edmonton. We spend three days hiking, fishing and boning up on local history. Yellowknife's diamond boom is sending ripples through the real-estate and service sectors, inflating prices and salaries while the city negotiates with native leaders to secure more land for expansion.

The population is a mix from all over the world; the established native and white populations mingle with Armenian diamond cutters, Vietnamese restaurateurs and a clique of African cab drivers.

It's a fascinating time to visit, but Yellowknife is just a footnote on this particular trip -- the road beckons.

Day 7

Yellowknife to Checkpoint

The bison are out again as we make our way back south again to the Mackenzie Highway just west of Kakisa where a road sign tells us Vancouver is 2,725 kilometres away. This leg of our trip is much shorter than that, but the 500 clicks of gravel road directly ahead to Fort Liard seem equally daunting. There are no services, no people and seemingly no wildlife ahead.

After my nap and our crisis of faith, we drive through intermittent rain for a while, which teaches us to differentiate among grades of rough road. The best is dry chip seal, a quick-and-dirty replacement for pavement. The worst is wet, potholed gravel, which is slippery and jarring. It takes us nearly four hours to arrive at Checkpoint, Mackenzie's junction with the southbound Liard Highway. There is one motel option, and despite the high rate -- $100 for a tiny double -- we take it, too worn out to continue.

Finding staff must be hard in a place like Checkpoint. The clerk who takes our money may or may not be of high-school age, and the housekeeper looks younger still. Even more unusual is the trickle of guests who pull in after us: In the morning, all three vehicles in the parking lot bear Ontario plates.

Day 8

Checkpoint to the Alaska Highway

Morning breaks with the weather and the road is wet again, but the rest has made us feel better equipped to deal with the conditions on the back road out of the NWT. The Liard Highway is gravel and bush all the way to the B.C. boundary and was opened to the public barely a decade ago, but the territorial government promotes it as a leg of the Deh Cho Trail, a giant loop that includes both our trip and the route between Fort Nelson and Grimshaw.

Fortune smiles upon us; the Liard has survived the rain without major problems. The road is featureless but safe as we drive past Blackstone Territorial Park, at the tip of Nahanni National Park Reserve, and catch our first glimpses of the Mackenzie Mountains. They're mere foothills compared with those along the Alaska Highway, but they look like the Himalayas after the flat land we've come through.

The only fuel we find south of Checkpoint is at Fort Liard, just north of the B.C. boundary and the resumption of pavement. On a map, it looks like we're almost back to the Alaska Highway, but this corner of the NWT is still remarkably isolated. We will drive 200 kilometres before we reach the final junction of our detour, and pass a total of 10 northbound vehicles all day.

We give a little cheer when we rejoin the stream of RVs, cyclists and hitchhikers on the Alaska Highway west of Fort Nelson. Accommodations are plentiful, gas is cheaper and the scenery's more dramatic. Even the flies are more laid-back. But it's also a little predictable, like that developed cottage road. It makes our detour feel worthwhile.

Pack your bags


Harbour House B & B: 1 Lakeshore Dr., Hay River, NWT; 867-874-2233. Starts at around $85 for a double room in summer.

Checkpoint Motel: Fort Simpson, NWT; 867-695-2953. Starts at around $100 for a double in summer.


Alberta Tourism: travelalberta.com.

NWT Tourism: http://www.explorenwt.com.

Hay River: http://www.assembly.gov.nt.ca/VisitorInfoNWTMapandHistory/HayRiver.html.

Yellowknife: http://www.yellowknife.ca.

Alaska Highway: http://www.bellsalaska.com/alaska_highway.html.


The Milepost 2005 57th Edition, is the bible of north-country travel; The Alaska Highway, by Ron Dalby (Folcrum); World Famous Alaska Highway: A Guide to the Alcan & Other Wilderness Roads of the North, by Tricia Brown (Graphic Arts Center Publishing).

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