Canadian photographer R. John Knight shares the stories behind some of his nature and wildlife images

Friday, October 1, 2010

Yellowknife In February - A Moment of Winter Madness?

Canadian Shield east of Yellowknife
We could claim that we took a wrong turn, or that we ignorantly followed the directions offered by our GPS.  The truth is that it was mid-February in Calgary, and while most people find themselves thinking about sunny beaches far to the south as an escape from winter, we found ourselves craving for some ‘real’ winter. 

One moment, we were wondering what to do.  The next, we were asking our son about Yellowknife this time of year, and our daughter about the best kind of vehicle for the roads up north.  A week later, we were heading North in our truck.  When our son heard about our decision, his comment was, “That was fast!”

As with any winter driving, we packed for the cold, but still wondered about how cold it might get and about driving conditions.  We also wondered if it might be too cold to overnight in our camper, and whether or not we would see the Northern Lights.

North of Grande Prairie, we drove into dense pockets of ice fog, and passed by hoar frost encrusted trees and fences.  As we crossed into NWT, the roads were partially snow covered, and heavily snow-covered black spruce sentinels lined the highway’s margins.  The winter vistas were beautiful.
Farm, northern Alberta
Gray Owl, High Level, AB
Near Fort Providence, we encountered our first ice-bridge across the Mackenzie River.  It was hard to imagine crossing on the river ice with a truck weighing up to the 64,000 kg posted limit.   With our southern ignorance, we drove at the posted speed limit of 25 kph in our little truck with a pop-up camper which weighs less than 3000 kg.  Later, a local told us that it was okay to travel a little faster with a regular vehicle.

Abandoned mine, Yellowknife
Lynx at the edge of Yellowknife
At the Visitor’s Centre in Yellowknife, it was suggested that we try the ice road from Yellowknife to Dettah, a winter-time shortcut across an arm of Great Slave Lake.  With weekend traffic, the ice road felt like an ordinary country road during the winter, except that the road was on ice.
Ice-road from Yellowknife to Dettah
We drove to end of the Ingraham Trail, and watched the trucks head onto Tibbitt Lake where the ice road to various diamond and old gold mines further north begins.  It wasn’t until we saw the truck traffic that we appreciated the magnitude and significance of the thousands of truck loads, mostly double tankers, driving up the ice road.

Start of ice-road at the end of the Ingraham Trail

Large truck heading south on ice-road
In town, we learned that we could drive on the ice roads, at our own risk, as long as commercial trucks were given the right of way, and if we carried our own fuel.  We wanted to try the ice road, and hoped that we might see some caribou.  After traveling about 100 kms on the ice road and across nineteen portages, we eventually saw about 40 caribou in the distance at the north end of Gordon Lake.  Then noting the time of day, and our remaining fuel, we decided to turn-around.  On the way back, we saw two smaller groups of caribou, one of which was fairly close to the road.
Woodland Caribou
The ice road effectively followed the same route that canoeists would paddle and portage during the summer.  Driving on the ice road was like any snow-covered winter road elsewhere with some exceptions.  One, the road was on lake ice, not ‘terra firma’, leading you to wonder about ice thickness and water depth.  Two, we were sharing the road with big, heavy trucks that were spaced about 500 m apart, traveling at posted speeds that ranged from 15-25 kph depending on ice thickness and size of the lake.  If you were standing on the ice when a truck went by, it was a little unnerving to hear the ice creak and groan, and to feel the ice bend beneath your feet.  It was difficult to imagine being able to stay on the road during white-out conditions.
Driving on the ice-road
With warmer than normal winter temperatures, maintenance crews were flooding portions of the ice road to sustain and enhance the ice thickness.  Driving on these freshly flooded ice rinks required finesse particularly on the corners. 

From the looks on the faces of many of the truckers, they seemed amused to see someone like us on the road. 

After returning to Yellowknife, we headed west to Fort Simpson, Fort Liard and back south with fond memories of our mid-winter trip to the North.  We did overnight in our camper, and the Northern Lights were spectacular.  Travelling the ice road with the truckers gave us a better appreciation of their work, and of the importance of this winter lifeline to northern communities and businesses.

When we got home, we felt that we wanted to do the trip again, but that will have to wait for another winter.  And, we hear that there are more ice and winter roads to explore!
Aurora Borealis

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