What is life?
To follow a dream.
To take a chance.
To know yourself.
To know and appreciate
the important things in life.
Life is an adventure
of constant discovery.
every flake of snow
is a miracle.
We are a miracle.
"I heard that the rain forests supply so much oxygen for the world, but all these trees must supply a lot, too."
These words of wisdom are spoken by my very worldly, city-bred 16 year old son Jerry, as we drive through the forests north of Superior on our journey towards northern Canada. He is on this trip reluctantly. He would prefer to stay in Toronto to hang out with “The Gang” doing the city summer hustle. But I insist he come along. I have to get away from the rat-race and reflect upon the important things in life. I have to get him away from “The Gang.” We are both unwinding. He is ahead of me in realising the important things in life.
We arrive at Gurney-By-The-Sea, on the northern tip of Lake Superior just in time to witness a beautiful sunset. My mind and body blend together to join nature beholding the sun slide into the lake which dances in brilliant colours as the waves and breeze sing in harmony.
This journey is the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. It was high on my long list called Things I Am Going To Do During My Life. It appeared on this list in 1949 when, living in Edmonton as a nine year old, I studied maps of The Territories and dreamed of driving up the Alaska highway to visit the north. My list got longer. I started to joke about it, saying “I have this long list of things I am going to do during my life, but the problem is, I keep adding to it faster than I can check things off.”
During the night of April 25/26, I was thinking about my dream. “Adding to it faster than I can check things off” was going through my head—and something didn’t feel right. My son Peter, who was in Vancouver at the time, was following his dream. I didn’t agree with what he was doing, as it was not practical. But—he was doing it! It doesn’t matter that everything may not turn out as planned or hoped—the important thing was to do it. I thought of all the practical reasons not to go on my dream trip to the north: Not enough time; I’d never be given enough time off work; too many practical things have to have priority; the little Chevette could never survive such a trip; not enough money—I may be forced to sell my home. I was in bed, with a jumble of thoughts going through my mind of all the things I had to do: earning a living at a hectic pace just to survive; family responsibilities; all my volunteer work. Yes, I was looking at all those worldly things that appeared to be necessary.
My mind began to drift away from the worldly necessities of life as my soul seemed to move out of my body and allow me to see the universe as a whole. “I’m adding to my list faster than I can check things off.” Suddenly, an eerie feeling came over me as I heard a very clear voice, my voice, say “go for your dream, Jim.” Thoughts of my sister’s husband went through my head. I knew he was seriously ill, from his constant stomach pains of the past year, but his terminal cancer wasn’t diagnosed until a few weeks later. I knew my younger cousin had cancer, but didn’t learn it was serious until later. But something in me said “it’s time to start doing those spiritual things you have put off so long.” I knew I was ready to make such a trip to gain the most meaning out of it. I had to go. The next day, I asked for six weeks off work, and to my pleasant surprise, it was granted. There was the reality of finances, but I was determined to go. “Things will work out” I told myself. I had dreams of telling of my journey, and being able to make a living at it. Not only this about this journey, but also about other spiritual journeys throughout my life. It is time to search out the true meaning of life. I was no longer going to be practical! My sons were setting examples for me. This father is learning about life from his sons.
Although the aim was to reach the north as soon as possible, it was also important to expand my knowledge through travel into northern Ontario and western Canada. Jerry was the first to make a significant observation about the trip, in Ontario, as the first paragraph reveals. We take the time to find a place to stand and grow in our home province; to enjoy the tall trees and sparkling lakes.
We reach Manitoba where the land becomes flat and covered with bright green trees. We enjoy the forests of the eastern part of that province as we drive straight through a tunnel of trees that frame the highway. Soon, the trees thin out and within minutes we find ourselves on the prairies and site the massive farms, even within view of the tall buildings of downtown Winnipeg. We drive through the western part of the province during an early moody Manitoba morning—and I like it like that.
There’s no place like Saskatchewan. I turn off the Trans-Canada to drive along a country road, then stop to sit and stare across the plains. Looks like a bumper crop this year. The old saying about the prairies is that you can travel miles-and-miles and see nothing but ‘miles-and-miles.’ I pause to grasp what I behold: fields of wheat and other crops as far as the eye can see. Here is the breadbasket of the nation. I drive along a road that stretches to the flat horizon. But every once in a while the landscape changes as I see this tall structure loom over the horizon in the distance. “Saskatchewan Pool” it says, in proud letters on the side of the grain elevator. Next to it is the vital railway station, surrounded by the prairie town.
Saskatchewan does have it’s forests and hills. Unlike most people, who quickly travel straight through Saskatchewan on Trans-Canada #1, we head south to the Cyprus Hills. A slight delay on the way, as local cattle decide to block the highway. We await a bull mounting a cow, a show my son thoroughly enjoys! We learn that there is history in Saskatchewan at Fort Walsh, where the original North-West Mounted Police set up base, and Sitting Bull and his followers sat for some time.
Alberta bound: I describe the badlands to my son as we approach Dinosaur Provincial Park. As we drive, there is no clue on the landscape as to what will appear ahead. Suddenly, we are there! The landscape suddenly drops from the flat prairies, with domes that makes one think of a lunar landscape. We see cactus and other desert growth. My son excitedly comments “They’re not ‘bad.’ They’re ‘cool!’.” So now we call them the “coollands.” I must admit, they are “cool”—even if it is hot here. We pitch our tents, then he heads off climbing the domes and exploring the caves. I do, too, but don’t tell him, as he thinks I’m too old for that sort of stuff, and it might be dangerous for me. But, then, what’s life without risks. As I learned long ago, nothing in life is safe and secure. Take chances, and enjoy life. I am determined to do just that on this trip.
In the Rockies I meet my friend Elaine from back home, who is
here on holidays. She joins Jerry and me as we climb a mountain and
the four seasons in just a few hours. Of course, she and Jerry show me
how much better shape they are in, as they leave me behind! The same
are at various stages of development at different levels. We pass
dark forest, Alpine meadow, and walk above the tree line. I enjoy
at the top throwing snowballs before returning to the heat wave at the
base of the mountain. It’s invigorating walking on a glacier in the
Ice Fields and observing how far it has retreated since I was last
15 years earlier.
Camping is truly a joy when we can be one with nature. Even when the realities of life sometimes makes one wonder about the wonders of nature, maintaining a sense of humour always brings one back to the realities of life with nature. This is brought home when I awaken at lake Louise the morning we are heading north. It is pouring rain. I’m laughing and enjoying the rain as I put Jerry in the car and pack up our tents soaking wet. I’m soaking wet myself—but realise I can’t get any wetter. I just do what needs to be done in the rain. After all, if primitive man could cope, then so can I. It would rain for the next three days.
The appearance of the Rockies in the rain is a form I had never appreciated before. With rain, the mountains appeared as misty dreams where ground and sky blended as one.
We cross into British Columbia and savour the beautiful misty forests as we drive to Prince George, then Dawson Creek over two days. The rain turns to a light drizzle for a while, and allows a leisurely picnic stop at the continental divide.
At Dawson Creek, I tour the town to see the changes that occurred since I worked at a summer job here thirty-five years ago. The old RCAF Mid-Canada line station had been taken over by Northern Lights College, part the University of Northern British Columbia. It took me some time to locate it, as most of the buildings were changed or torn down. My old residence is now a student residence, and had changed little. I have to make a number of inquiries to find out anything about the old mid-Canada line station. The local museum has no reference on it. Only after walking into a Royal Canadian Legion building was I able to find one old timer who recalled it. Seems the Mid Canada Line history is nonexistent in Dawson Creek.
The “Mile 0” post at the beginning of the Alaska Highway is still there and I recognised the local radio station in the same location. But nothing else looked familiar.
At Dawson Creek, I am near the furthest north point I had been before. I now start my dream trip from the Mile 0 post of the Alaska Highway.
We “cheat” during the three days of rain and stay at motels for three nights (Prince George, Fort St. John, and Fort Nelson) for which Jerry is most thankful. Certainly not having to sleep in cool and damp sleeping bags allows me to still enjoy the trip during this period. During the first part of the trip up the Alaska Highway we discover the relaxation and informality of remoteness. Much to my surprise, I see a single engine plane and tent in an historic site and rest area beside the highway. I stop and chat with the young man and woman there. They simply landed their plane on the straight stretch of highway and pulled into the historic site to camp. Apparently this is a normal occurrence in the north. Roads aren’t only for cars! Where is this rest area they choose to land? Why, none other than the historic site called Suicide Hill—the part of the Alaska Highway that was originally the most dangerous to traverse!
Heading into northern, super natural, British Columbia along the Alaska Highway, we reach a tropical paradise at Liard Hot Springs, just south of the Yukon border. Yes—a tropical paradise. The underground hot spring forces up bubbling water to make hot pools, with the resulting air temperature around them warmer than is normally found at this latitude: 59 degrees north. Ferns, orchids, broad-leaf plants and other flowers grow here that are normally not found so far north. Very lush vegetation spreads out to a marsh nearby where we see a moose grazing. We take hot baths in the two pools, which is very relaxing and soothing. Both Jerry and I feel completely fresh and clean.
I am sleeping soundly during our first night in the Yukon, near Watson Lake. Suddenly, I awaken from a very vivid and realistic dream. It is of my sister’s husband, Jim Davis, who announces he just learned my father is still alive. I have an immediate feeling of disappointment, as the dream indicates my father is still alive, but know he has been dead for twenty-five years. Then there is a feeling of concern: it hit me “Jim Davis is with my father, therefore, he’s dead.” I look at my watch, and see it’s just after 5AM. I try to go back to sleep—but to no avail. I think about his suffering from cancer. I have this strong feeling that he must have just died. Just before 8AM, I call my sister—her daughter answers—and I learn that Jim Davis died less than three hours earlier, at almost exactly the same time I had the dream. There is sadness, but a feeling comes over me that this as a positive sign leading to a very spiritual journey throughout the north. Somewhere, out there, is my soul.
“The Alaska Highway is all paved now” is what I was told. Don’t believe it. I learn the highway has to be totally reconstructed every ten years because of the climate. This means several hundred kilometers is under construction, with gravel and dirt, at any one time. It’s a challenge in the little Chevette but is a learning experience for what is to come. We are headed into true wilderness. On the journey through life, there are many rough roads and, just as is true throughout life, the rough roads I will soon face will just add to the excitement of discovery and exploration.
Before the wilderness driving, we spend a few days in the “big city” of Whitehorse. At 22,000 people it is the largest community north of the 60th parallel and contains over half the population of the Yukon. Housekeeping chores include acquiring a headlight and radiator protector and third spare tire for the car. I seek and receive advise on how to avoid flat tires and broken windshield from flying stones on gravel roads: whenever a truck or other large vehicle passes in either direction, pull over and slow down to 20km/hr. In small cars, don’t travel over 70km/hr on gravel roads.
Although I did not know anyone in Whitehorse, I was given the names and phone numbers of two families. I call both, and am pleasantly surprised with the most hospitable reception received. They instantly make time for us. We are invited to their homes and made to feel at home. One family shows up at our campsite. We have dinner twice at the home of one family, and while invited to the other, have to decline because of lack of time. One insists on lending me auto equipment he feels necessary for travelling the Dempster Highway. The more I learn of the people of the north, the more I want to make this my home.
While in Whitehorse I take a side trip to Carcross. On the way is the world’s smallest desert—the Carcross Desert about 1km x 2km created by a freak combination of settings among the mountains, and the result of glaciation and climate. There is Emerald Lake— a beautiful view in the mountains with it’s unique colour created by a combination of setting between mountains and depth of water. Carcross itself is a beautiful town, with the old narrow gauge railway station and bridge still there from the former rail line that used to run between Skagway and Whitehorse. Local residents make good use of the abandoned bridge to fish from.
On Sunday, I attend the service at the Anglican Cathedral in Whitehorse, thinking of my late brother-in-law. This service is at the same time as the memorial service for him back home. I take time during this service to try understanding the meaning of my very vivid dream about him that occurred at the time of his death a few days earlier. There is a strong spiritual feeling that my dream has significant meaning. In spite of sadness over his death, I somehow know that positive will come out of it.
Just west of Whitehorse, we turn off the Alaska Highway and take the Klondike Highway towards Dawson City—a good paved road. I take a side trip to Mayo and Keno—mining towns—and practice driving on a gravel road before the “big one.” I arrive at the Keno Museum just before closing. I’m the only one there beside the very friendly curator. I suspect she is happy to see any visitor, as I am sure they are few and far between. She tells me about the area, which used to be a major mining community but shrank when most of the silver mines closed. Real estate is very cheap, and the four bedroom house and snack bar across the road recently sold for $13,000. If you build on crown land, the property becomes yours after three years. The old Homesteading Act has never been repealed. Knowing that the majority of people moved away, I asked “has anyone moved to town recently? “Yes” was the reply—”an artist.” It’s a nice area and people appear friendly. I could be tempted to join the artist as the resident poet.
Just before Dawson City, we reach “The Big One”: The Dempster Highway. This 750km gravel highway goes to Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and is the only road in Canada to cross the Arctic Circle. It traverses two mountain ranges, the Ogilvie and Richardson, and takes you through forest, arctic tundra, and delta wetlands. I fill up and conduct a final check of the car at the service centre at the junction of the Klondike and Dempster Highways. There are no services or phones for the next 370 kilometers until we reach Eagle Plains. We take showers, as this is our last chance until Inuvik
Here we are—the start of the Dempster Highway. I take a few moments to stand in the middle of the road at the start of the highway, and gaze up it. It looks good. The first kilometer is paved! I’ve been waiting a long time to drive the Dempster. Now I am ready to start it! Jerry looks at me with a devilish grin and says “I’m starting the drive up the Dempster.”
At high noon, my son starts the drive up the Dempster.
Being our first day on the Dempster, I decide to take it easy, and travel only 71 km to Tombstone Mountain, the first of two campgrounds before Eagle Plains. We quickly pitch the tents and I sit in my lawn chair to relax, while my son goes mountain climbing. Suddenly, I awaken from a meditation like trance. I am in heaven. The bright sun is warming my whole body as I hear the rapids of the nearby North Klondike River. I look up at the blue sky with puffs of white clouds surrounded by the Ogilvie Mountains. Why am I in heaven? Because, as I awaken to the beauty of this sub-arctic scene, I realise that my sister’s husband, who died just a few days earlier, is on this journey with me. When last speaking with him, just before I left, he was in the final ravages of cancer, and a tear came to his eye as he said “I’ve never been to western Canada.” Suddenly, I know: It takes a personal crisis to make one realise what is truly important in life. It’s people and nature. Not “things.” I am now appreciating more of the simple things surrounding me. The meaning of the dream of Jim Davis’ death now became clear.
Everyone I meet who has been “up the Dempster” says a stop at the Tombstone Mountain Campground is a “must.” It’s a “must.” It’s here where you enter the Ogilvie Mountains, and where you start appreciating the unique beauty along the Dempster. In summer, there is an interpretive centre here, with a guide to show and explain things you might otherwise miss. There are hiking trails, including a self-interpretive one. You see beaver building their dams. Ducks and moose co-exist in the ponds created by the beaver. If you are lucky, you will see a bear. There is a wide variety of wild plants and flowers, such as the purple fireweed, white narrow, roses, and bluebells. The fireweed grows well along the side of the gravel road, and as you look along the highway, it appears framed in purple.
As the sun sets slightly west of north after 11:00pm, it becomes obvious how the geometry of the earth’s axis affects appearances in the far north. It being early summer, and just south of the arctic circle, the sun is down for only a few hours, and bright twilight lasts all night.
The drive through the Ogilvie Mountains is breathtaking. I encounter forests, alpine meadow, and arctic tundra. A feeling of reverence surrounds me as I realise the wonders of nature are part of my human experience and life—and how fortunate I am to be a part of nature. There are few signs of human life, and only a few vehicles pass us in either direction during the first half of the day before arriving at Eagle Plains. At one point, I stop the car, turn off the engine, and walk out over the tundra. There is total silence. No wind. No sound of animals. No humans, except my son and me, for many kilometers. I never “heard” such silence before in my life. It never occurred to me, before this moment, there could even be such silence anywhere in the world. This serene scene has a total calming effect with a spiritual feeling of being one with Nature, which is synonymous with God. I feel, at this moment, to be a part of God.
We reach Eagle Plains early in the afternoon. It’s billed as “An oasis in the wilderness.” It contains a full service station and first class motor hotel, including a fancy restaurant and banquet/meeting room. We make a short stop here for fuel and another checkout of the car before continuing our journey north. Eagle Plains is not truly a community, but a service facility. However, since it is so far from any community, the staff live there. Even though this is the only service station and restaurant in 370 kilometers, there are few people other than staff around. We have a light meal in the restaurant, which Jerry and I have entirely to ourselves. We prepare to depart Eagle Plains for the short drive to the Arctic Circle. I’m looking forward to having my dream of driving across the Arctic Circle come true. Jerry smiles as he announces “My turn to drive again.”
As we enter the Richardson Mountains, we reach the Arctic Circle with Jerry at the wheel. There is a large marker and picnic/rest area here—at 66 degrees 33 minutes North latitude. Although not an official campground, several people have pitched their tents here, overlooking both mountains and tundra. One of the things about the north is that rules are flexible. Although there are designated campgrounds, no one objects if you pitch a tent just about anywhere. I have a pleasant conversation with several people while enjoying a picnic lunch. One of the things about the north is that no one is a stranger. Everyone is friendly, and you converse with everyone.
Within minutes of travelling north of the Arctic Circle the car starts feeling difficult to control. Sighhh. A flat tire. Even though I took care to travel carefully and very slowly over the sharp shale used in road maintenance during recent weeks, we experienced our only flat tire of the trip here. Of course this was the exciting event of the trip for Jerry! He quickly took charge, emptying everything from the back of the car so that he could get at the spare and jack. He jacked up the car and replaced the tire as though he had done it every day.
We discover just how helpful people are in the north while replacing the tire. Every single vehicle that happens by stops and we are asked if assistance is needed. In the north, people know that survival depends on cooperation and mutual aid. It’s an instinct to stop and offer assistance up here. I stopped several times myself to offer help. Competition, as seems to be the way in the “civilised” industrial and business world? In the north, only cooperation will ensure survival. Competition would be fatal to all.
The Richardson Mountains appear entirely different than the Ogilvies— much smoother. Surprisingly, the Richardson’s did not face the glaciation of the last ice age, as the Ogilvies did. We reach the Yukon?Northwest Territories boundary in the Richardson’s and stop for a rest while we take pictures of the boundary marker with the scenic Richardson Mountains in the background. I’m about to start the drive in the Northwest Territories when Jerry looks at me with that devilish smile. As Jerry gets behind the wheel, we head towards Fort McPherson.
Two rivers require ferries along the Dempster Highway: The Peel River near Fort McPherson, and the Mackenzie River at Arctic Red River. I take the time while awaiting the ferries to freshen up in both rivers—both physically and spiritually. A cleansing of both body and mind. I could see and hear the many explorers of the past travelling by me, along the Mackenzie River. This river is filled with history in the exploration and development of the north. I feel that I’m following in the footsteps of the earlier explorers while travelling and continuing their adventures. I think how appropriate the original name was for the Hudson’s Bay Company: The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay. Alas, the Hudson’s Bay Company is no longer in the north. Now you see the Northern stores where Hudson’s Bay stores used to be.
Fort McPherson is the first community along the Dempster Highway. This is a Dene community of about 700 people. It is a major centre of Dene cultural activities for the area and the people are proud of their heritage. The town has a large community centre. The Lost Patrol graves are here. In 1911, a routine police and mail patrol decided they didn’t need a native guide. The result was the entire patrol perished from the bitter cold and scurvy. Corporal Dempster was sent out, this time with a native guide, to find the patrol. He found their frozen bodies near Fort McPherson.
While at Fort McPherson I try getting my flat tire repaired, but the tire was damaged beyond repair, and they don’t carry tires “that small.”
We camp near Fort McPherson. At midnight I gaze towards the north to see the sun glistening through the trees over my tent. Finally, I witness the midnight sun! The sun almost touches the northern horizon a little later, but it never sets all night. At this campground, we have left the Arctic tundra and descended into the Mackenzie delta wetlands. For the first time in the trip, we are pestered by flying insects, and finally break out the headnets we brought along. We don’t make much use of them, as you can’t eat with them on. But the bugs weren’t so bad that a little insect repellent didn’t keep them at bay.
We witness wetland and marsh as we drive the final stretch to Inuvik. We select the “downtown” territorial Happy Valley Campground in the “big” town of Inuvik. At over 3000 people, it’s the largest town north of the Arctic Circle. It’s the cultural centre for two Indian and one Inuit groups. The area is noted for the four major cultures, including southern “immigrants,” getting along well. I often saw small groups of mixed backgrounds together. I stop at one house, where five friends are sitting in their yard relaxing and chatting and, in typical northern hospitality manner, am invited in. The five are from three of the local cultures. Perhaps we have something to learn from this? It appears to be part of the north’s community and coöperative survival instinct.
We arrive in Inuvik early enough so I can use the rest of to day for housekeeping as campers call it. Laundry and showers were unavoidable priorities. I look into getting a new tire. The repair centre happens to have one the right size (“not much demand for these—it’s been here a while”) and the owner let me have it for a price less than it would have cost in Toronto. My muffler sounds noisy, so he puts the car up on the hoist and we have a good laugh. The poor muffler looks like an accordion, from having bottomed out on the gravel road. A clamp is gone. No muffler for Chevettes here, and it would take three days to obtain one. He advises there is no point in replacing it now, as I still have gravel roads to travel. “Anyway, half the cars up here don’t have working mufflers.” He ties up the muffler with wires, and I decide to wait until at least Whitehorse to have it repaired. The car is filled up at 85¢ a litre—it was 49¢ when I left Toronto. Only regular unleaded, diesel, and propane is available here, so if you drive north, make sure your car does not require premium. After all the chores, my son and I head out to a restaurant where I enjoy a caribou burger.
Early the next morning I awaken my son for our flight to Tuktoyaktuk. He complains he couldn’t sleep “as the sun was up all night.” Sure enough—it was, as we are well north of the Arctic Circle. I say “don’t give me that. At home, you stay up all night partying, then sleep all day.” He couldn’t argue with that, so he drags himself out of his sleeping bag.
It was hot in Inuvik yesterday, and notice I have a sunburn and my nose is peeling. Great—I come all the way to the Northwest Territories, north of the Arctic Circle, and get a sun burn! But, as was explained to me, in early summer, the total solar radiation during 24 hours at Inuvik is the same as the radiation that falls on the equator during it’s 12 hours of daylight.
A friendly bush pilot takes eight of us in his ten seater plane for a tour of Tuktoyaktuk. This is my son’s first flight, and he’s impressed. Unlike those jumbo jets where you don’t even know you are flying, you really know you are flying in this thing. He flies as low as 50 meters above the ground over the Mackenzie delta and Arctic Ocean. In the close encounter over the ocean, we see whales.
Landing at “Tuk” (as it’s affectionately called), we are given a quick guided tour. One item on the tour is qualifying for a “toe-dipping certificate” if you stick your toe in the Arctic Ocean. I wasn’t going to have any of this sissy “toe dipping.” I hold up the tour as I don my bathing suit and go for a swim. I don’t mean just getting a little wet. I walk right out over the rocky shore onto nice soft sand, up to my waist, dive down, and swim! I am pleasantly surprised to discover it is not as cold as I thought— perhaps similar to Lake Ontario in late June—and not polluted. Heck, I was ready to stay for a nice, long swim, but the tour guide was getting impatient.
The tour continues, where the guide shows us the indoor heated community swimming pool. She comments “the locals don’t swim in the Arctic Ocean. Only the tourists do.” It would be unfortunate if this is true, as they would be missing a clean and invigorating delight.
Around Tuk there are lots of “pingos”—raised flat domes, caused by
that have dried out and the permafrost causing the land to rise. There
is a community freezer: a hole dug in the ground into the permafrost
people keep their catch of fish and other animals. Some have even built
their own personal freezers this way. Talk about the salesman selling
to Inuit: there really are freezers here, for those who don’t want to
or use the community freezer. However, they keep them outside and
them in winter.
The people of Tuk are Inuit who still live a traditional hunting lifestyle. We see smokehouses in use where they are preserving their catch. Store-bought food imported from the south is very expensive, so the people still depend on the land. Elders are exempt from working, and are supported by the others. “Who’s considered an elder?” I ask. “Anyone over 50” was the reply. “Argggg... I’m an ‘elder’?”
Back in Inuvik, I do some more exploring of the “big town.” One thing you notice about the north: building construction is different and there are no basements because of the permafrost. Besides the expense of excavating permafrost, any such basements would turn into freezers! Most buildings are constructed on pylons (like telephone poles) which are embedded into the permafrost, and there is air space under the building with insulated floors. The very large community schools are built in such a way. At first, they looks funny from a distance as they appears as large buildings sitting in the air. The large Roman Catholic church is built in the symbolic shape of an igloo.
This is the half-way point of our journey. I pause to reflect upon my dream in April where a voice says Go for your dream, Jim. I see how happy I am. I took a chance—and learned more about nature and people in my travels. Here I am travelling through only a small part of two vast territories that make up almost half of the country. Yet the entire population of these two territories is about the same as my own neighbourhood back home—the Beaches area of Toronto. I can travel for hours along a road and not see another vehicle. I can stop anywhere and explore the forests, tundra, lakes, and mountains in total silence. I am a guest of a beaver in his pond; I share a lake with a family of ducks. I eat berries from the same bush shared with a bear. Swimming in the Arctic Ocean allows me to share a feeling with the whales. The people of the north know their place in nature. There is a respect here for nature not found in the south. Yes—people use the resources and animals for their own good—but also recognise that they must conserve to balance nature for their needs. People of the north work in harmony with nature so that all may benefit for all time. I feel at home with our people of the north, who have learned that cooperation with both nature and among themselves is a spiritually uplifting experience in our material life. One can never get tired of saying “hello” to very person who passes by. There is always time to stop and chat with new friends. No—they are not strangers, for no one is a stranger in the north.
We say a fond farewell to Inuvik as we start our journey south along the Dempster Highway. The journey is just as fascinating coming down as going up, as we now view the scenery from the opposite direction. Following a thunderstorm, there is a magnificent rainbow over the Richardson Mountains. Early the next morning, the air is particularly clear following rain during the night. We pause to let a bear cross the highway. A beautiful morning twilight scene lies before me as I observe the moon above the Dempster Highway heading straight into the Ogilvies. I look upon a spectacular sunrise where the Ogilvies appear as bright jewels reflecting the sun and making mirror images of themselves in a nearby perfectly calm lake.
One thing about gravel roads in the north: they are either very dusty (when dry) or very muddy (when wet). We had it dry and dusty going up and wet and muddy coming down. Whenever a vehicle passes you, in either direction, you want to keep the windows shut. If you don’t either you are coughing in dust or getting splattered with mud.
At the south end of the Dempster, we return to the Klondike Highway
and make the short trip to “the Town of Dawson City” (that’s what the
says!). The town maintains it’s early 20th century character with
buildings, dirt streets, and boardwalk sidewalks. The street signs are
exactly the same style as in Toronto, and walking along the boardwalk
Queen Street in Dawson reminded me of the Beaches in Toronto. It was
where I made the decision that where I now live, so close to the
was where I really wanted to stay, and would make the effort to remain
All new construction or renovations in Dawson City must fit in with the style of 1900. Until now, communities we visited were “working” communities not specifically designed for tourists. However, Dawson is largely a tourist town now. As all tourists do, we visit the Gaslight Follies. The is theatre restored to as it was in 1900. I wonder how many people notice the flags inside? The Union Jack is the most prominent. There is no current Canadian flag, but the old Canadian Red Ensign is there as it was coming into use about 1900. Of course, the Stars and Stripes is there, too, as so many Americans were in Dawson during the gold rush. I ask an American if he notices anything different about his flag on display. He looks closely and says he can’t tell anything different about it. I then ask him to count the stars in it. 45. The number of states in 1900, before Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Hawaii, and Alaska became states. They really go all out to maintain authenticity.
We take the ferry from the Town of Dawson City across the Yukon River and drive the Top of the World Highway into Alaska, where it joins up with the Alaska Highway. A very scenic trip through mountains, but this gravel road was in very bad shape on the US side while they were doing some construction. We drive south through Alaska and camp overnight between Tok, Alaska and the Canadian border.
The trip along the Alaska Highway between the Alaska border and Whitehorse is another breath-taking trip beside the St. Elias Mountains, which includes Mt. Logan—the tallest in Canada. While visibility is restricted because of light rain, the trip is a spectacular journey. By the time we reach Kluane Lake, passing through Burwash Landing and Destruction Bay, I realise my mistake by not allowing more time in this area. A week, at least, is needed. I make many scenic stops. The view of the mountains from Kluane National Park is like a mirror and the earth touching the sky. I witness mountain goats and sheep playing and grazing on the side of the mountains, and have to stop and wait for some while they cross the highway.
Finally, we return to Whitehorse. At this point, my son leaves me—taking the bus back to Toronto, as he has to be back before me in time for summer camp. In spite of him originally objecting coming on this trip, he says “well... I enjoyed parts of it” as he gives me a hug goodbye when he boards the bus.
That muffler. It seems to be getting louder. I have it checked out and another clamp and more wire put on it. The accordion is closing up! I decide not to have it replaced yet. “Still lots of gravel roads to do.”
I start the trip down the Alaska Highway. More time is spent at the
Liard Hot springs to relax again. I could make another home in this
northern tropical paradise. While here, I’m thinking “I’d better not
my luck with this poor old Chevette. I should go to Edmonton and just
the west on nice paved roads for the rest of my holiday.” So I arrive
Fort Nelson, B.C., just past where the Liard highway leads back into
Northwest Territories and stay for the night, intending to continue the
trip south. I awaken early the next morning to hear a voice telling me
“Head to Yellowknife.” Putting all reason and practicality aside,
I head back to the Liard Highway and start up this gravel road towards
the Northwest Territories. As I near the B.C.—N.W.T. border, the road
really bad, and I hear gravel shovelling up underneath my car.
the muffler is really noisy—much more than before. At this point I’m
50km up the highway, with another 700 to go. There’s nothing in between
except campgrounds and a couple of gas stations without services. Of
I should turn back, right? Wrong. I ignore all foreboding signals and
going. Thank goodness, by the time I reach the Northwest Territories,
The evening I camp after travelling the Liard Highway and reach the Mackenzie Highway I’m in the Middle of Nowhere about half way between Fort Nelson and Yellowknife. There is no community nearby. I’m at a territorial campground called Whittaker’s Falls named after the falls it happens to be near. I take a hike along the Trout River to the falls, which is very soothing as the rapids and falls blend a relaxing sound. What a relief after sitting in a very loud car all day!
Most of the scenery along this route is flat forest, with some subarctic muskeg. Not as spectacular scenery as other parts of the trip, but well worth seeing. There are “buffalo crossing” signs, but don’t see any at this time of the trip. However, at one picnic stop, I step in some buffalo gung!”
The next day, I’m anxious to get to Yellowknife and have my muffler replaced. On the way, I stop in Fort Providence, a pleasant village on the banks of the Mackenzie River, near its source at Great Slave Lake. This well maintained village shows the people appreciate the natural beauty of the banks of the Mackenzie. A park runs along the entire length of the village next to the Mackenzie, with a park bench every 10 or 20 meters.
I reach the Yellowknife Highway, part of which is paved (whew!), and while driving through the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary, sight a bison crossing the road in the distance. A few days later, when coming south on this road, there are several bison conspicuous along the side of the road. Speaking with one local, I am told that sometimes the bison discover flies are not as bad on the road, and will sit there for hours blocking traffic until they become hungry or thirsty.
About half way between Fort Nelson and Yellowknife (“the point of no return”) I hear a squeaking sound from under my hood. Taking a look, I see my fan belt is frayed, loose and slipping, and have no tools to adjust. The next gas station has no service facilities and can’t help, but the attendant confidently tells me to go on “as I have faith it will last.” All I can do is go on—and have faith. By the time I reach Yellowknife, it’s really squealing, but it held out. I go to a garage and learn the fan belt was ready to break. Upon checking my glove compartment I see I have a Midas lifetime warranty on my muffler. I ask if there is a Midas Muffler shop in Yellowknife. The service fellow laughs and says there are no muffler shops in town, as they’d never stay in business with warranties like that. He says to wait until I reach Edmonton. Sighh... have to live with that noise another 1500 km. There is now a big hole in the muffler, besides it’s very folded up accordion shape. More wires tied around the muffler, which is really vibrating.
I enjoy my stay camping at the Fred Henne Territorial campground not far from downtown Yellowknife. I’m surprised to see the city looks unlike any other in the Yukon or Northwest Territories: they have “skyscrapers” there! Well—5 to 10 stories, anyway. The solid rock base makes it easier to build up rather than out or down.
The Yellowknife legislative building is a modern design, but
for the north and is built in a real forest. You can hardly see the
for the trees. The Northern Heritage Centre displays the various
of the north, and I notice many First Nations people touring the
with their children—making sure they understand their culture.
The “Old Town” contains a street I really admire: Ragged Ass Road. It’s noted for it’s “run down” shacks and junkie yards. But they are proud of their “run down” street, and work hard at keeping it that way. It’s a dirt road, has a messy playground, and people are mingling. Someone is playing an accordion. It’s the “in” neighbourhood in Yellowknife. People on the street are expected to keep it messy. Of course, the mess is now symbolic, with painted garbage cans and painted tires in yards, but the “mess” neatly laid out.
It’s my birthday, so decide to celebrate at the oldest restaurant in Yellowknife —the Wildcat Cafe. It is small, a log cabin, with a few large log tables— much like picnic tables. In typical northern hospitality style, we are expected to share our tables. I enjoy a great caribou steak dinner with two prospectors and their banker. The prospectors look like the typical stereo-type—in rough clothes, etc. The banker is in casual dress. They are prospecting diamonds there—but don’t say much. Seems rumours are wild and everything is secret about the possibility of a diamond mine opening up near Yellowknife “real soon now.”
I leave Yellowknife with sadness, knowing my journey will gradually lead me back to “civilisation” and the mobs of the south. So I take my time as I drive south and spend one more day and night in the Northwest Territories. I linger as I share time with buffalo grazing by the side of the road. I sit on a park bench in Fort Providence and gaze down the MacKenzie River as my mind appreciates the wonders of nature I have explored during the previous weeks. Here I am, at the source of the Mackenzie, at Great Slave Lake. Only two weeks earlier I was crossing the same river near where it empties into the Arctic Ocean. I think I see an explorer travelling down the river. An explorer just like me.
Then I savour the leisurely ferry ride across the Mackenzie. I enjoy a picnic in isolation by the beautiful Alexandria Falls, just south of Enterprise. These falls are very similar to Niagara, but appear much more spectacular in the natural setting, unsoiled by commercial surroundings. Picture Niagara Falls as it was hundreds of years ago—totally free of signs of civilisation. You have an idea of what I witness.
Finally, I set up camp only a few meters north of the 60th parallel, in the first territorial park travellers encounter as they travel north from Alberta. Symbolically, it’s raining as I arrive at the campground. Tears from the heavens greet me knowing this will be my last night in The Territories. But, with typical northern hospitality, the manager of the campground suggests we ignore the rules, and instructs me to set up my tent in the picnic shelter to keep out of the rain. This was the typical northern attitude that “while there are rules, there is hospitality and practicality that rules don’t always cover.” Rules bend very easily in the Northwest Territories.
I reflect on the past few weeks and the people I have met in the Territories. It is here where I find people who are not only friendly and helpful, but who sincerely care for each other. No one is a stranger. Trust is accepted as normal. Everyone is a friend. People not only talk—they communicate. You would never pass a person without a friendly greeting. I feel among caring friends, even when with strangers, throughout The Territories. There is no isolation in the north. It is a place where you can enjoy your solitude time and yet still find friends surrounding you. I was determined to bring with me the spirit of the north with me as I travelled south.
The next morning, I head south of the 60th parallel into Alberta. It’s a beautiful day as I head down the Mackenzie Highway. I meander along the Meander River and decide to have my picnic lunch there. I feel like pancakes. Pancakes it shall be. Unpacking the Coleman stove and all the ingredients necessary, I enjoy a leisurely lunch by the side of the river in a park totally unoccupied by anyone but me. The temperature is perfect. Fluffy white clouds are scattered about the dark blue sky and seem to mimic my fluffy white pancakes. There is just enough breeze to keep the bugs away. The only sound is from the occasional bird or cricket. Ahhh. Total relaxation.
By suppertime, I reach the Peace River and, following the advice of an old-timer, I take a slight detour along the scenic route by the river. Scenic, indeed it is, as I watch country homes and small villages roll by as I drive down the valley to the riverside.
As early evening approaches, a sudden prairie thunderstorm hits with high winds, dust, followed by rain. It leads to a spectacular sunset with two rainbow “columns” opposite the setting sun. At the moment the sun set, the sky is clear to the west, but still heavy rainclouds to the east. These clouds suddenly turn bright orange as the sun shines on the underneath sides of the clouds.
The next day, I reach Edmonton, and finally have the muffler replaced. Midas gives me no argument about replacing it under the lifetime warranty guarantee, even after I tell the truth about the adventures my car had seen. While there, I drive to where I lived when I first had my dream of travelling north. The house was torn down. A vacant lot is where it once was— being prepared for a commercial development, I am told. I run away from here, in sadness, for the house was new when we moved in, and find it hard to believe they would destroy a perfectly good home after only 45 years for some commercial mall. The old recreation hall across from my old home was still there—it was part of the large North West Air Command base. I enter to find it much the same, except it is now used by a Naval unit. The navy in Edmonton? I didn’t want to ask.
I then decide to take a look at the big, civilised West Edmonton Mall I heard about. It may be bigger than the Eaton Centre, but it smells just the same—as does any big mall. Never could figure out what that smell was. People don’t say hello to each other as they walk by. Nobody cares that I’m here. I start to feel uptight. There are crowds of people surrounding me, but I feel very lonely. Quickly I leave the big city and civilisation.
I head east to reach Birch Lake campground near Innisfree, Alberta by late afternoon. I am now relaxing again and enjoying my trip along the Yellowhead Highway.
A pleasant cool but comfortable breeze blows as the sun sinks slowly towards the horizon at my campsite by Birch Lake. The leaves blow in the wind with a quiet soothing rustle. As gusts come up, the leaves turn over, letting me see their underside—and the leaves themselves let the other side reflect in the reddish sun. The tops of the trees appear as shimmering bright green of changing shades as the breeze alternates the sides of the leaves. The branches of the trees themselves sway with the wind as if they and the wind are playing a game. In the distance, I hear gulls calling in the wind. I am enjoying my solitude time.
Another day takes me into Saskatchewan, and pitch my tent beside a wheat field. The perfectly clear sky turns into a dark night, and I observe the stars brighter and clearer than I have seen in many years. A brilliant meteor flashes through the Big Dipper. I take time contemplating the wonders of the universe and our place in it. I reflect upon the unique beauty and wonder of our own planet.
Finally, I make the “mad dash home” over a few days. However, I make a point of staying one more night on the northern tip of Lake Superior. I witness another beautiful sunset over the lake, followed by a group campfire and the hospitality of the owner of the resort and friendly conversation with other guests.
Throughout life, the most difficult thing a person must do is attain a balance between meeting spiritual and material needs. Taking this journey was an essential event in meeting the spiritual needs in my life. However, as I chronicle the events of my trip, the everyday mundane material requirements of life also are documented, along with my observations and feelings of a spiritual nature. Both the spiritual and material requirements of life were present, recognised, and enjoyed throughout my journey.
On this trip, I started to question what was “civil” about civilisation. The hectic pace of the big city? The competition of the marketplace? People who uncaringly rush by each other every day without so much as a “hello”? Perhaps real civilisation is found in the wilderness. A place where you wouldn’t pass a soul without saying “hello.” A place where, if you become stranded far from services, everyone who happens by will rush to your aid. A place where you can think. Where you can find total silence. Where you can be alone when you need solitude. Where everyone is a friend.
Canada is a vast and wonderful country. Most of us now live in urban centres and in our busy lives rarely take the time to think beyond the hustle of civilisation. There is a whole new experience out there in Canada for those who look for it. Go North. Little is known about the Yukon and Northwest Territories. This land mass, with so few people, makes up almost half of our country. Our land is still open for exploration. Take risks. Go exploring. Your soul is out there awaiting an adventure.