Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Northwest Territories

For the first time since I was probably about 9, I traveled to a new region of Canada! Despite living in Canada my whole life and living in 3 different provinces, I have only visited 5 provinces and had never been to any Territories. This March, I was able to tick one off the list thanks to a rural elective through school. But wait, I am getting ahead of myself! First I spent 2 weeks in northern Alberta, in a town called High Level. High Level is over 1000 km from Calgary (mostly north) and the entire drive was dead flat. I had been warned to watch for animals along the highway and there were signs everywhere warning drivers of deer and moose, but the only animal I saw was Khyber, my travel companion hedgehog. There wasn't much worth stopping to check out, but it was pretty cool to be driving through places that I had only ever heard of in high school geography like Peace River. The most exciting part was the intersection where the highway split into the Alaska Highway to the west and the Mackenzie Highway to the north, a pretty cool landmark in my mind and a place to return to for future adventures.
Heading due north on the Mackenzie Highway
During my time in High Level, I met lots of South Africans! They are an adventurous bunch. Murray and Ansie took me out cross country skiing at a little town called Rocky Lane. They had only been on skis twice before but they were just going for it! The trails took us along a river and then up into the poplar forests. We skied for 4 hours and were totally exhausted and ready for our Tim Hortons donuts we had left in the car for the drive back.
Exploring Rocky Lane with Murray and Ansie
I didn't have much time to go explore the area around High Level because school kept me really busy. The two weeks flew by and suddenly it was time to pack up and head even further north, to the town of Hay River. It had been cloudy for most of my time in High Level so I hadn't had a chance to see the northern lights yet, and was counting on Hay River for some good aurora sighting.
Beautiful sunsets over the town of High Level
North of High Level, the highway continues straight and flat to the NWT border. After that, the drive got much more interesting as it passed through Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park and the highway wound its way along the Hay River. I stopped to do some sight-seeing at the border (the info centre was unfortunately closed for the winter), Alexandra Falls and Louise Falls.
Best weather of the trip so far and a big landmark in my road trip
Not too many towns up here!
The view of Hay River from the top of Alexandra Falls
Alexandra Falls in Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park
Hike at your own risk!
Next stop was the town of Hay River, population 3600, located on the southern shore of Great Slave Lake. It is known as the Hub of the North because of its connection to Edmonton by rail and Yellowknife by ship, when the lake isn't frozen of course. Hay River also is the home of Brendan Green, a Canadian Olympic Team Biathlete (his name and photo are all over town) and Buffalo Airways whose planes and pilots star in Ice Pilots NWT. After getting settled in, I spent most of my weekend driving around and exploring the area. Hay River had lots to see and do and I tried to fit it all into my two week stay.
"The Hub of the North"
Downtown Hay River
Winterized side-by-side
Bombardier (said "bomb-a-deer") used for driving out onto Great Slave Lake to go ice fishing
All around Hay River there were ice roads. These roads are maintained in the winter to access nearby communities. I think I drove them all in the first day I was there because I was so excited to try them out. There is a Dene Reservation that is linked to Hay River by a short ice road in the winter, but requires a 20 km drive down to a bridge in order to access the town in the summertime. Winter makes driving to town much more convenient!
One of the many ice roads around Hay River, used to access other communities in the winter
Ice Road Subaru!
Looking north onto Great Slave Lake - 10th largest lake in the world
Territorial Park sign - I couldn't wrap my head around the fact it wasn't a Provincial Park
Boats in the snow!

After three nights of overcast skies, I finally got to see the northern lights. They were so much better than I could have ever imagined! My pictures don't come close to doing them justice. It was so strange seeing the lights directly overhead instead of on the northern horizon, and I was lucky enough to see many different colours (green, pink and yellow). It was magical! I was able to see them one more time before I left, but they were nowhere near as good as the first night. Despite that, I was more than willing to stand outside in -27 degrees for 2 hours watching them dance across the sky.

Northern Lights over a big storage building at the Coast Guard Station
I also took advantage of the awesome cross country ski trails at the near-by ski club. They groom and track set the trails all winter and have a whole bunch of great loops to do. The shorter loops were lit at night so you could ski all night if you wanted. I was able to get out four times, once with a group of people I had met at the hospital, and the other times just on my own to go check out the area. Of course I had to do a night ski too.
Going skiing
Awesome trails on the golf course
Evening ski
For my second weekend in town, I traveled to Fort Smith with two of the locum doctors from the hospital. It was a 500 km round trip for the day, but nobody blinked an eye about that. It is pretty common for people to have to drive a very long way to get anywhere in the north, its just so big and isolated. To get to Fort Smith, we passed through Wood Buffalo National Park. We kept our eyes peeled, but only saw what we think was a fox. When we got to Fort Smith, we drove around a bit and went for lunch at a pizza place, where Ciara got food poisoning. Then we tried to find the Pelican Rapids. Fort Smith was an important location during the fur trade, and has 4 sets of rapids that run up to class V and had to be portaged. In the summer, there are pelicans that migrate through the area and like to spend their time at the rapids! Who would have guessed? Unfortunately, there wasn't a good trail to the Pelican Rapids in the winter, so we walked down to see the Rapids of the Drowned instead. There wasn't a great view but it was a nice walk through the snow. At this point Ciara started to feel sick. We walked back to the car and tried to go to the National Park Office to learn about Wood Buffalo National Park, but it was closed for the weekend. We found the same issue at the Northern Life Museum. So, after finding the whole town closed and getting food poisoning, we turned around and drove back to Hay River, seeing no buffalo on the way home either.
Rapids of the Drowned view point on the Slave River in Fort Smith
The only bison I saw this whole trip despite driving through Wood Buffalo National Park - Fort Smith Rec Centre
Before I could go home, there were a few more northern activities that I really wanted to do. Since I spent my birthday away from home and Kyle, again, I decided I was going to either rent a snowmobile or go dog sledding as a birthday present. Amazingly, thanks to the wonderful people of Hay River and their generosity, I didn't have to do either of those things on my own. Zach took me out sledding on his dads skidoo so we could go explore along the Hay River and up into the trails. It was so much fun, I want one now! Then, much to my luck, I was introduced to a woman working at the hospital who just happened to have her own dog sled team and was willing to take me for a ride. Her team is called the Motley Crew and she races in middle distance races, usually around 200 km. Some of her dogs have run in races like the Iditarod and the Quest. Having a dog sled team requires a huge amount of time training the dogs and taking them out for runs with the sled. She told me that they start training for the season in August and will go for a run every second day through the winter. Those dogs just love to run and when the see the sled getting set up, they go crazy. We went for a ride along the river, where I had just been the night before with the skidoo. It was a totally different perspective and a much quieter way to travel. What a great way to end the trip!
Just out for a rip are ya bud?
Playing with sleds
The Motley Crew is off to the races
All the dogs want to do is run!
What a trip! I made some amazing friends and had a blast. I can't wait to go back in the summer to see what it is like, although I hear the bugs are horrendous. 

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