Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Canadian Prairies; Driving the Yellowhead Highway to Yellowknife

How remiss and idle I have been.

I have, in accordance with the Way of Life, been wandering this summer, and notably through Canada. Having left Newfoundland and its unusual dancing, whizzed around the Cabot Trail, and I must say left that iconic drive completely underwhelmed, it was time to head west, and drive to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories

Now the drive from Winnipeg to Yellowknife, some 3,000 kms of deeply predictably highway, can appear to be monotonous. This would be and unfortunate and slightly unkind observation as my friend, the CBC notable Laurie Hoogstraten pointed out. “Meditative is the word you are looking for, Max”, she intoned, “not dull at all”.

The meditative Prairies

She may have a point. The landscapes between here and there is not Alpine; it does, however offer some broad and extraordinary landscapes coloured by the changing sky, the crops and the periodic, brightly coloured farm building. Yellows, Blues, reds and the heavy and dominating black skies of a Prairie storm were all about, and with the wide open plains, visible in a 360° arc that completely encased our car.

The Yellowhead Highway is the main artery to the northwest, and it was on this wonderfully named road that we spent some 1,500 kms passing through the rolling fields of western Manitoba, the agricultural heartland of Saskatchewan (“easy to draw, hard to spell”), and the transitioning landscapes of Alberta.

Farm implements for sale in such numbers; massive, insect-like machines with purposes city-dwellers could only presume lined the side of the highways as we passed through the Prairie farming towns. Endless fields of brightly coloured canola, herds of sunflowers and the rising tide of wheat that would eventually be taken in the early fall. All of this agriculture was quite overwhelming, and visually delightful.

While at first glance, the road was long, straight and scarcely undulating, it was impossible not to feel the overwhelming sense of community that imbues life on the sharp end of production. It is, after all, these men and women living their lives in a thousand  Dog Rivers that feed us all. Trains, three kilometres long, as they passed by one at a level crossing, gave ample time to ponder their cargoes, destinations and the extraordinary process by which seed, water and sun can create billions of tons of produce to be shipped to every corner of the earth.


And once free, and ready to move on, we reached Saskatoon, the slightly quirky and rather pretty city that houses the University of Saskatchewan and straddles the South Saskatchewan River in the centre of the prairie. It is a welcome break, although it was raining so much its charms were mostly washed away, but there are several very good restaurants in town, and the opportunity was taken to celebrate my cousin Jude’s Marker Birthday in some style.

She, my cousin, was it must be said, quite overwhelmed with the available space of the prairie, the relative emptiness of the roads, the sheer quantity of farmland, the mysterious stick-insect-machines that seemed to be so popular, the proliferation of pick-up trucks, the rather unappealing urban-planning represented to us as we drove, grain elevators, and Corner Gas (to which we inevitably introduced her).



 And so the first day passed; the second (1,074kms to Peace River) was not notably different other than the irritating road works, punctuating the meditation, presented by Edmonton clearly trying to sharpen itself up. We turned north; the first real junction of the journey and a good opportunity to test the car’s steering mechanism, and slowly but surely, in the sort of progression that is only visible to those in a car, or perhaps a train, the landscape changed, and on the third day, (945kms - Peace River to Fort Providence) we passed the border into the Northwest Territories, and as we burst across the 60th parallel, so did the sunshine and our introduction to the north was complete as the park rangers immediately offered us a cup of coffee.

The Sunny (and crowded) border

Coffee is the fuel of the north; barely an hour goes by without someone “putting on another pot”, “topping one up”, “reaching for an empty cup” and bemoaning the black liquid’s viscosity. “A bit thick, this coffee” is a common refrain, but there it is, the primary food group of Canada’s territories.

Fort Providence, a community that lies along the Mighty Mackenzie, and until recently was where all land traffic in the summer had to cross by ferry, is compact, slightly buggy, friendly and a fine place to stay overnight before the final 350kms on to Yellowknife.

The Mackenzie River at Fort Providence

 I am, as many well know, an immigrant from the United Kingdom; London is my Home Town and the transition from Britain to Canada interesting. There are, it seems two English people living in Fort Prov (as it is so charmingly diminutised); appearing in the community one day, and declaring that it offered all that was unavailable in Great Britain, they moved. I didn’t meet them, but would love to find out more. Perhaps it was the curious drinking requirements:

The imposing regulations of Ft. Providence

The Last Leg into Yellowknife
And so to Yellowknife, the buzzy, sunny, captivating capital of the Northwest Territories, formerly the North Western Territory (1859), then the North-West Territories (1871) and finally, in a moment of grammatical defiance, the hyphen was dropped in 1912 and the Northwest Territories became the territory that it is not today.



Having been split into two parts in 1999, the eastern Arctic became the Nunavut Territory, and presumably tired of the etymological disturbances of the past centuries, and being underwhelmed by the new names offered as an alternative (“Denedeh”, an Athabaskan word meaning “Our Land” was a strong contender, as was the choice to rename the territory “Bob” according to polls at the time), the title of The Northwest Territories stuck, and the NWT it remains.


A very fine place, and only 3,020 kms from my house in Winnipeg.

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