Wednesday, July 29, 2009

South of the 60th!

The wireless signal at our campsite is probably too weak to upload photos, but for now I'll do a quick update, and my guess is there's a stronger signal near the campground office.

We are in Grande Cache, Alberta, a tiny town (despite its name) on the northern approach to the Canadian Rockies just off the Alaska-Yukon Highway. It's the only town on a ~300k road between...well, between two places in Alberta. You'll just have to look it up.

We cut short our time in the Northwest Territories due to the bugs. We left Yellowknife and spent a night at gorgeous Sambaa Deh Falls territorial park, which boasts two spectacular sets of waterfalls. The bugs there weren't too terribly bad, although there was a new and unwelcome development in the form of these mean black hornets that kept stinging Toby; but The Structure served us pretty well, and we had a nice evening there after a long and dusty drive. Then we went to Fort Simpson. At last! the family homeland. The Mackenzie River is beautiful, we saw the place where the old HBC fort sat, but the mosquitos were unreal.

So, having toured the town and taken the requisite photos, the next day we booked out all the way to Fort Nelson, BC. Let's just say that the van has a few more squeaks, and our fillings are a little looser. The last part, from Fort Liard to the BC border - was a crap road.

But then we were in BC! Whose motto is Super, Natural British Columbia, but we agreed that at that particular border crossing, they could settle for British Columbia: We have pavement!

Fort Nelson is the point where the Liard Highway joins the Alaska-Yukon Highway. We stayed at a commercial campground which can only nominally be considered a "camping" experience. One of those places packed cheek-by-jowel with campers, no space or privacy, and this one was kinda dirty to boot. There are people living there temporarily, and people who make RV'ing a lifestyle, and people like us who have no other option. But it was ok - I thought of it as one of the stops on the old Silk Road, or a pilgrimmage route of yore; everyone plodding along this great road has to stop at the same place.

From there we did another long day and crossed back into Alberta. Though the southern NWT and northern BC were filled with long, rolling hills and breathtaking vistas, we suddenly found ourselves back on the flat Alberta prairie - and at an absolutely delightful lakeside provincial park, Saskatoon Island, which has nesting trumpeter swans.

And today, we did a short drive into the foothills of the Rockies, getting to Grande Cache early enough for a hike and some laundry.

It's hot as heck here, though I hear that's true everywhere in the West right now. It's a challenge to keep the dogs cool. But we're doing great. We're so happy to be back in a place where we can just open up the van and breathe the free air, no matter how hot, without having to fortify ourselves constantly against the bugs. We're only spending one night here, though we could spend many more hiking in the wilderness area that borders Jasper to the north; however, this funky little town hosts some kind of running event called the Canadian Death Race (?!?) which starts tomorrow, so there's no room in the inn. On we go to Jasper.

And so we'll spend a couple extra days in the Rockies - or maybe visit the Okanagan wine country. We'll see.

Photos later, I promise. Enrico sends his regards to all!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Heading to the land without pavement

We've spent two and a half days in Yellowknife, which reminds me of Alaska mixed with northern California coastal hippie, with both Old West and postmodern industrial chic thrown in. Colorful houses and houseboats, log cabins, modern buildings emphasizing the local minerals and industrial history of the area.

I spent an afternoon in the NWT archives, which had some interesting photos but nothing earth-shattering to add to my research. We mostly took turns exploring the town - one of us running errands while the other stayed with the dogs. It's been too sunny and warm to leave them in the van. Plus for the first time since we got to the far north, the long daylight has started playing with my mind. Five hours of darkness is just not enough for a good night's sleep, making the afternoon siesta that much more important. Yellowknife seems to have a couple of intriguing restaurants, and it's a shame we had to miss them; but that's a tradeoff for traveling with the dogs, who have been excellent and plucky company.

Speaking of plucky, Eva finally got her oil change, though her Volkwagen-ness flummoxed the fine gentlemen at Canadian Tire somewhat. They didn't have her air filter in stock; and, even if they had, they couldn't figure out where the hell it would go. That's VW for you, superior German engineering that nobody else can understand.

We bought some books, and also invested $65 in something we're calling The Structure: a stand-alone mesh tent-like thing with a nylon top that we can use at our campsite instead of that hanging mesh, which was made to hang over a bed and already showed signs of wear. Besides, it requires appropriately placed trees.

All four of us did have a snack at the Wildcat Cafe, one of the oldest buildings in Yellowknife (1937):

And we also had a lovely walk along the lake to the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly, which is very striking:

One of the things I love about this town is the languages on the signs. I don't know what half of them are - Slavey, certainly, and probably Inuvialut; Gwitch'in? Chipewyan? Cree? It's not just anywhere in Canada that French is the fifth language on the sign.

Tomorrow we shake the Yellowknife dust off our shoes; it will be one of our longest days of driving, covering 300 of the 400 miles to Fort Simpson. We'll go back past the bison and across the Mackenzie River ferry, and shortly after that the road will be gravel for the next week or so - until we cross the border back into British Columbia.

Nelly will be happy about this, we think. Every time we leave the hotel, she makes a beeline for Eva. Clearly, we'd be better off sleeping in the van out in the parking lot than in this terrible hotel room with all the space and the carpeting and the air conditioning. Duh.

So it'll be a couple of days until we post again. So long Yellowknife - you've been great!

Flags of the many First Nations of the NWT line the walkway to the Heritage Center
Full set of photos on Flickr.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

From Yellowknife, Part II

Yesterday we did the drive from Lady Evelyn Falls to Yellowknife. I'm getting confused in my mind about miles or kilometers, but I think it was about 200 miles. At first it was the same landscape we'd been in for days: forest, with interspersed marsh. This isn't exactly pretty or dull country, it's just impressive, and wild; an immense expanse of forest, with smallish trees (due to climate I think), mixed evergreens and aspen. We've wondered how people found their way around such a vast expanse of similar-looking terrain. Other than following rivers, there seem to be absolutely no landmarks.

Just shy of Fort Providence, we reached the great Mackenzie River at last: The one that collects the waters from all these other rivers, and delivers them to the Arctic. This was the first of several ferry crossings that we'll need to make. In winter, you just drive across the frozen rivers; in summer, it's ferries. As experienced ferry-goers, we were impressed with the skill required to navigate across such strong side current. At this particular spot, they are building a bridge, so the navigational obstacle course also includes the future bridge pilings.

As soon as you cross the river, you are passing along 50 miles of bison preserve. Right off the ferry was a sizable herd, young calf nestled incongruously beneath stacks of bridge construction materials. The Wood Buffalo visitors' center had stark warnings posted about bison: "Vistors have been gored by bison. When charging, they can run three times faster than you. Do not provoke them. "

Having spent time in Yellowstone, the bison experience is not new to Enrico and me; we know that despite their docile appearance from the car, they are not to be messed with. We also know that when the bison decide to cross the road, you wait. If the bison decide to lay down in the road for an hour-long siesta, you park the car and wait for an hour. They are bigger than you. But when this fella took up the face-off position down in the road, Enrico and I each began humming that gunslinger showdown tune. Do-dee-do-dee-dooo....wah-wah-waaaah.
He looked like he was all but pawing the ground and readying the charge, though that almost certainly wasn't true. We put the car in park and waited. A stare-down, however, is one of the brashest statements in canine language, and the dogs were wild. They would have come out through the windshield if they could've. We pondered whether there was any sensible fear in their reaction, or if it was all bad-assed bluster. In any event, the dogs have generally barked and growled at bison, at least if they're moving. We saw lots of them on this stretch of road.

As we swung around the north side of Great Slave Lake, the landscape began to change. George commented to us that "most of the country is sitting on one big slab of rock, and the rest of it is just bobbing on water." The big slab of rock, of course, is the great Canadian Sheild, a sheet of hard rock that runs from the Great Lakes to the Arctic, literally covering half of Canada. Here, now we see it popping up in rounded mounds and jagged ledges, pink and burnt brown. I havent' gotten a good shot of it yet in sunlight, but the pink is very striking.

There's even a slab of it built into the wall of our hotel. It has been underneath us all this time, but suddenly we see it everywhere. There's also a lot more water. Yellowknife sits on Great Slave, but most of the city center - the Legislative Assembly, museum, city hall - sit on smaller Frame Lake. Walk paths abound in Yellowknife around the many lakes.
Prince of Wales Heritage Center on Frame Lake:
Yellowknife's first schoolhouse:

But before arriving in Yellowknife, we crossed a bridge at Rae across Frank Channel. My great-great uncle Frank perished here in 1922, with his 2-year-old daughter, when their dogsled broke through the ice. The story goes that he could have been rescued but wouldn't let go of his little girl, and they couldn't pull him out by one arm; and when the RCMP finally retrieved the bodies, they were still locked in that frozen embrace. And so, Frank Channel got its name.

Weather is overcast here, which is good for us as sun makes it impossible to leave the dogs in the van; trees aren't tall enough here for any real shade. Yesterday as I was making the laundry and car-wash run, however, it was hot and sunny, and I snubbed my nose at the bugs and wore shorts and a tank top. Bugs aren't too bad in the city, and it felt so liberating to feel the air and the sun on my skin, to be out of the layers of clothing and mesh that have kept me sweatily bug-protected for days now.

Anyway, we're doing some business here; today we are trying to get Eva for her spa treatment (aka oil & lube); we washed a mountain of mud off her yesterday at the car wash. I plan to spend some time at the museum and archives. I have an overwhelming craving for a burger from A&W. Exciting stuff.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Another long update: The bugs, the bugs!

We're in Yellowknife, back in a hotel again. Quite the little metropolis, Yellowknife. We've already done laundry and we're treating Eva to a spa treatment - car wash, oil change, tire inflation, the whole deal. She's been a trooper. By the way, my cell phone doesn't work after all. And I've been able to receive but not send email. So if you're trying to reach us - send email, and we'll find a way to get back in touch.

Bugs, bison and bears. That about sums it up.

Wood Buffalo National Park straddles the Northwest Territories and Alberta, and so we left Hay River for a 170-mile drive, half of which was dirt road, destined for the town of Fort Smith, just shy of Alberta. There are just miles and miles and MILES of forest up here. We saw bison (of course), and an adorable family of black bears (a mama with two young cubs), and a lot of sandhill cranes.

The town of Fort Smith is at yet another historically significant river town, a major portage around three impressive and deadly sets of rapids: Pelican Rapids, named for the birds who nest there in huge numbers; Mountain Rapids, named for its steep portage; and Rapids of the Drowned, which is probably self-explanatory.

Despite being 170 miles down a dirt road, Fort Smith has 2500 people. It has a nice feel to it, with long riverside walkways, an historic Anglican church, and a modern Catholic cathedral. We stayed at Queen Elizabeth Territorial Park, just outside town. The NWT territorial parks, so far as we can tell, are a wonder. Spacious and open, with tidy blue buildings and showers that are clean, hot – and free! And yet we’ve had them virtually to ourselves so far.

This may be partly due to the afore-mentioned Record Year for Bugs. Enormous horse flies, small black flies, and mosquitoes abound. In Hay River I rigged up a set of screens for the van’s side doors, using my McGiver-like skills to redeploy a baby stroller mosquito net, a roll of packing tape, and two small bungies. We have mosquito netting we can hang over the picnic table, with the aid of well-placed trees and a lot of rope.

However, the first place we really needed to use our mosquito headnets was at Pine Lake, further into the Alberta portion of Wood Buffalo Park. Instantly upon leaving the car, we were covered in mosquitoes. I mean covered, like a sheet of brown on our pants and shirts and the dogs’ fur. The head net kept them mostly off my face, but the buzzing sound was overwhelming. The dogs were hell-bent on a swim in the lake, which they got:

But by then I was virtually in a panic attack from the sensation of being SWARMED. It was a darned pretty lake, but we didn't end up spending much time there.

In fact, though we’ve seen a lot of sights – beautiful waterfalls, river gorges, salt plains left behind from an inland sea trapped here tens of millions of years ago –

it’s often a quick trip in and out of the car. The campgrounds aren’t bad, but many of the sights are near water, which means bugs. Oddly enough, for the sheer volume of mosquitoes, I have relatively few bites. The dogs certainly attract the bugs, but don’t seem overly disturbed by them, although one of Nelly’s eyes has been swollen from bites. Toby likes to climb under the picnic table inside the mesh, but Nelly prefers to lounge outside and breath freely. We have some all-natural spray that we use on them, which seems to help. The weather has been hot, unseasonably hot, which is all the more uncomfortable since we then have to wear long sleeves and pants for the bugs.

Often we nap during the peak of afternoon heat and subsequent thunderstorm, which brings welcome cool.

So after a couple days in Wood Buffalo, we did the long drive to Yellowknife, with an overnight stop at Lady Evelyn Falls (again, beautiful waterfall, charming campground).

The drive to Yellowknife involved a ferry across the Mackenzie River, and one of our longest stretches of town-less road, and a lot more bison. We wondered how the dogs would respond to bison. They view deer and elk as potential prey, but are unfazed by horses after years of sharing hiking trails with them. It turns out - they are very excited at the sight of bison. Very, very excited. But I'll write more about that later. As always - a few more photos here.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Long Canada update: Edmonton to Hay River

We're in Hay River, NWT, where the bugs are thick as anything. We've apparently picked a very bad year for bugs, on account of how wet it's been. Tonight we're in a hotel, again. We'll pimp our ride to offer a bit more bug protection, and head to Wood Buffalo National Park tomorrow. But I'm skipping ahead. Long entry follows.

Our second day in Edmonton we went with Gwen to historic Fort Edmonton. It’s not the original fort, but a reconstruction, and it’s not even in the original location; but over time the city has moved a variety of historic buildings there, and grouped them by era, so that now there is an amazing amount of Edmonton history at one large park. In addition to the reconstructed fur trade fort, there are “streets” devoted to the years 1885, 1905 and 1920, complete with living history demonstrations and shops stocked with an impressive number of period items. Plus, we had ice cream.

We left in the afternoon for the town of Athabasca instead of staying another night in the city; it was a fine hotel, but expensive, and we were ready for the wide open air and our little metal box again. Athabasca, formerly Athabasca Landing, is about 90 miles north of Edmonton at the southern-most point in a southern dip in the Athabasca river. By the 1880s it had become a major jumping-off point for river transit to the Mackenzie and Peace River districts. The old ox cart trail from Edmonton can still be seen in some places, just as wagon ruts from the Oregon trail can still be seen in spots across the US west.

The drive up was wide open and flat. At Athabasca, we walked the historic riverfront and ran a few errands. I know that my great-great grandparents and my great-grandmother stood at this spot many times, waiting to board a steamship north.

We found the two campgrounds full. Undaunted, we drove 20k up the road to a county park – only to find the campground there dreary, and more importantly, lacking any source of portable water. So in the end, we wound up at a hotel after all, in a smoking room since that’s where many hotels allow dogs.

We hit the road early the next day and drove to the town of Peace River. This longer route took us along the southern shore of the Lesser Slave Lake (again – nothing to do with Slaves but with the Slavey people). We stopped for a hike and a visit to the Boreal Center for Bird Conservation. Huge, huge numbers of migratory birds spend the summers in the boreal forests of Canada. For some species, 90 percent of all of the birds are in this part of the planet for the summer. The entire coast of Lesser Slave wake is throbbing with the sight and sound of birds.

This area was still surprisingly full of people; it’s a big recreational area. Nonetheless we began increasingly to have a sense of being up here. Way north, and we’re nowhere near as north as we aim to go. Amazingly, after leaving the Slave Lake area the landscape turned once again to farms. We’re at, like, the latitude of Finland. Who are these people, farming up here? For miles and miles, there are yellow fields of canola as far as the eye can see. Along with the occasional oil derrick.

We got early to the town of Peace River, chastened by our experience in Athabasca and determined to get a camp site. The campground, run by the local Lions Club, is one of those quirky private campgrounds with lots of character. It was busy, but we had a nice spot at the edge with a view of the woods and the river. Many people at the campgrounds and hotels seem to be work crews, driving imposing, mud-splattered trucks and SUVs with mysterious mechanical equipment in back.

The Peace River is another giant of the Canadian river system, running from the Rockies eastward. The descent into the town of Peace River is a stunning surprise, dropping down from those endless yellow canola fields in a wide and lush series of hills to the wide river below. It was hot – really hot – so we had a lazy afternoon, walking the riverfront trail a bit and stocking up on provisions.

At night the hot weather turned into a crashing thunder storm, lights flashing and rain hammering on our little metal box. Morning found us socked in by fog, which dissipated as soon as we climbed out of the river valley. Then we did this for 300 miles:

Rolling landscape with no real landmarks, and mixed forest of coniferous trees and aspen and poplar, with increasing marshland. Gradually the farms became less frequent - small farms carved out of the forest rather than clumps of forest carved out of the farms. Enrico said that it reminded him of Maine. (Except, he said dryly, that you could drop the whole state of Maine up here, and never find it again.) Along the way were French Metis communities with charming names, and first nation lands with a familiar air of economic hardship.

Then, there were no more farms, and at last we crossed the 60th parallel! We visited beautiful Louise Falls, where we tried to camp, but long story short we ended up in the town of Hay River, setting foot at last on the enormous Great Slave Lake.

It's hard to describe this place. The closest we've seen are the remote towns of Alaska, lots of untamed nature mixed with rusting junk just left where it is. And swarms of enormous black flies. The person at the visitor's center told us to buy extra wiper fluid, because the flies are so thick at Fort Providence that we'll likely use up all our fluid just wiping them off the windshield. I am not making that up.

It's good to see all these places. We're hoping for dry weather tomorrow as we head out to Wood Buffalo Park.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Canada update #3

Yesterday we put the seat back up in the van and went with Gwen out to Elk Island National Park, a bit of the original prairie/woodland ecosystem that's been preserved. It's also home to two large herds of bison - plains bison and wood bison - but we didn't see much of them in the middle of the day. Abundant signs of them, in the form of tracks and enormous buffalo turds everywhere; but only a few bison from a long distance. Which, since we had the dogs, was just fine.

We had a picnic lunch:

Enrico had his picture taken near a horst of espens:

One the way back into town we stopped to visit a potter friend of Gwen's, and he gave us a tour of his studio and his clay-making setup. We had dinner at Gwen's, and it's been a lovely visit.

Today the plan is to visit Fort Edmonton, and then instead of staying another night in the hotel we're thinking of setting out north, either to the town of Athabasca - formerly Athabasca Landing, whence the steamboats set out for the Mackenzie District back in the day - or Whitecourt. Athabasca takes us a bit out of our way, Whitecourt is the direct route. Either way it's two full days of driving after that to get to the Northwest Territories, with a stop in Peace River. Not sure when the next post will be since we'll be on the road.

Photos on Flickr.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Canadian Update #2

First of all, before I forget, here is a slightly more user-friendly way to access our Canadian photos on Flickr.

We are in Edmonton, freshly laundered and showered in a Motel 8 in the midst of a mega-commercial strip on the south end of town. It was sensory overload, coming to this busy place, but after two days of muddy camping, the laundry was much appreciated. And I think all of us appreciated having a little more personal space. Except perhaps Toby, who thinks living heaped together in a well-cushioned six-by-twelve box is exactly what the wolf god intended for us.

Yesterday we drove from Lake Louise to Edmonton, with a stop to visit Margaret and George, distant cousins who were born and lived, until their retirement, in the Northwest Territories. Margaret's mother was Inuit and her father - like my grandfather, his first cousin - was of mixed European and native descent, but self-identified solely as white. George's father was an Englishman turned fur trapper and professional cook, while his mother's people were what he calls "town Indians," sent to Anglican or Catholic missions schools where they were prohibited from speaking their native Slavey, they ended up with a mix of English, French and Slavey, none spoken fluently. While Margaret self-identifies as Inuit, George refers to himself jokingly as "Heinz 57 - lots of ingredients and a little bit of spice."

Thus Margaret and George are true natives of the far North, in many different ways, descended from the oldest families of that region and having lived through the greatest changes that have come to it. My aunt in Edmonton introduced me to them a couple of years ago when I became interested in this thread of the family history, and they are the loveliest people and most gracious hosts you'd ever meet. Enrico was happy to meet them at last, and we enjoyed a long lunch at their house over many fascinating stories - they remember life in the North before electricity or running water, before the NWT government moved from Ottowa to Yellowknife; and the US Army's arrival during World War II to build an oil pipeline from Norman Wells as protection against Japanese invasion of the US West. They also offered a wealth of advice on what to do when we get north.

Then on across the big, big prairies of Alberta, which has the same Big Sky effect as Montana to the south. We're meeting up with my aunt today to visit a national park that preserves a bit of the original ecosystem of this area, as well as herds of pure wood and plains bison. We might also visit a winery - no grapes up here, just fruit wines. So - pictures to follow.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Canadian Report #1

Today, my birthday, it is rainy, and we’re spending the day in the town of Banff, doing town stuff, after two glorious days of hiking in the Canadian Rockies. So far, so good.

The first day’s drive was from Seattle to Kamloops, BC – about 325 miles. I wouldn’t say the Canadian customs agent grilled us, exactly, but he did imply a degree of skepticism about our story. Perhaps this would not have been so had I been entering Canada as a Canadian, but alas, I lack a current Canadian passport. What do you do for a living that you’re able to take a month off work? It doesn’t look like you’ve packed very much, for a month. Oh, we assure you, there’s plenty underneath that bench. Do you know anyone in Canada that you’ll be visiting or staying with? At that point I ‘fessed up to being Canadian and having actual family that we’d be visiting, and that seemed to be the end of that.

After a good seven hours on the road, we spent the first night at beautiful Paul Lake provincial park about 10 miles north of Kamloops – slightly out of our way, but worth it. Our evening was marred only by a fight between the dogs, something that hasn’t happened in several years. But the circumstances were predictable - they were off-kilter from the complete disruption to routine, overtired from the fun of it all, and we’d just put their dinner bowls down when the ranger came to collect the camping fee. One dog went to greet the ranger, the other took that opportunity to go after the food bowl, and… fight ensues, to the consternation of the ranger. For the first time in their long lives the fight resulted in an actual injury, a gash on Nelly’s face below her eye. But as always seems to happen, the dogs are over it all well before the humans, and Nelly heals well. She's a tough old bird.

Onward, then, through spectacular central British Columbia, crossing the mighty Columbia River twice, with a short stop at the iconic Last Spike monument to the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad at Craigellachie – I like to think my Granddad would have appreciated that, career railroadman that he was – and up, up, up into the Rockies to Banff National Park, where we’re camping four nights at Lake Louise.

Lake Louise is a mystery wrapped in a cliché wrapped in a hyperbole. The language used to describe this mammoth green alpine lake would seem gushing if weren’t entirely deserved.

We’ve spent two days hiking amidst lakes and mountains and glaciers (glaciers!), and the freakishly loud whistle of the ever-present marmots. We saw a black bear while backtracking to Yoho National Park in BC, home to the famous Burgess Shale trove of fossils. Discovered exactly 100 years ago, this find demonstrated the mind-bending array of bizarre life that came into being during the so-called Pre-Cambrian Explosion.

The dogs have done two days of 6-7 mile hikes, which is pretty impressive given that they are basically 80 years old, in people terms. They’ve been happy troopers, yearning after rodents, swimming in icy waters, and rolling on snowfields; and they’re exhausted, especially Nelly. We go out early, beat the crowds, and then there is napping.

We’re staying in a lovely campground in the park near Lake Louise, surrounded by an electrified fence to keep people and bears apart. What is it like living in a VW van, you might ask? Well, we travel with the bed folded down, covered tightly with a bedsheet. In front of the bed on the floor, we have a sizeable dog bed, and a little space by the sliding door that serves as a foyer of sorts for shoes and leashes. On top of the bed, besides Nelly and Toby, we keep sleeping bags, pillows, and a large duffel bag with all our clothes. We also have a cooler that plugs into a 12-volt outlet in the car. Hanging behind the driver’s seat is a basket with Handy Stuff – sunscreen, poop bags, dog treats, etc. Hanging being the passenger seat is a special garbage satchel. In a side compartment, we keep a tarp to protect the bed from wet dogs, and mosquito netting of sufficient size to basically cover the van at night (though we haven’t needed it yet). In the two seatback pockets are file holders with guide books, maps, directions and confirmation notices.

Because we need to sleep on the bed, we keep everything else underneath: an airtight bin with 45 quarts of dog food; a smaller bin with people food; a 2-burner Coleman stove, and propane; dishes, stored in an oblong bucket (for washing); a bin of first aid and pharmaceutical supplies; toiletries and towels; a large shoe/boot bin; a tote bag full of books; extra oil and coolant for Eva; and a bin full of miscellaneous necessities of life on the road with dogs: matches, bungee cords, ziplock bags, laundry detergent, a whisk broom, lint brush, dog brush, clothes line, trash bags, lantern, and so forth. A place for everything, and everything in its place: that is the key to sanity.

At night we shift the duffel bag and cooler to the front seat of the van, and pack everything away (despite the electrified fence, food must be stored securely). We drop the curtains and spread out the sleeping bags. Hats are hung on one headrest, jackets and leashes on the other. Nelly sleeps on the dog bed on the floor, and Toby sleeps with us. Despite the contours of the folded-down car seat, the bed is surprisingly comfortable. Though we did stop at the Bay today to buy a couple extra pillows.

Tomorrow we drive to Edmonton, with a stop in Cochrane to visit my distant cousin Margaret and her husband George. In Edmonton we’ll spend three whole nights in a hotel!

More photos at Flickr (see right).

Thursday, July 09, 2009

And away, we go!

Our modern-day York boat is nearly loaded and the dogs are beside themselves with excitement.

Forecast calls for cold rain in the mountains, and tornadoes on the prairie. Today's destination: Kamloops, BC.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Final preparations

Ugh, still so much to do with one day to go. It's like when you move, and you've got all the big stuff done, and you're down to trash bags filled with random assortments of leftover stuff, clothes hangers and an orphaned sock and a set of pliers all thrown together. We're down to the random assortment of tasks.

But we're very excited! Unfortunately, the weather forecast for Banff is cool and rainy. It would be a drag to not actually see the Rockies.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


Here's an effort to respond to the most common questions we have fielded about our upcoming trip - listed roughly in decreasing order of frequency.

Yellowknife...that's in, um...the Yukon? No, but you're close. It's the capital of the Northwest Territories, immediately east of the Yukon. So from west to east, you have: Alaska, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. (I realize that expecting Americans to know Canadian capitals is like expecting a Canadian to know the capital of, say, Kansas.)

Seriously, the Great Slave Lake? Why would it be named after slaves? It's not. That's a mutation of the local Slavey peoples and languages, more accurately called the Dene-tha, part of the greater Na-Dene language group that includes native peoples of northern Canada, much of the US and Canadian Pacific coasts, as well as the Navajo.

How cold will it be up there? The average temperatures are roughly the same for all the places we're visiting, from the Rockies to Edmonton to the NWT: average high around 70, average low from 45 to 50 at night.

Just how remote are these places? The NWT is slightly smaller than Alaska, or about two thirds the size of Mexico, with roughly 40,000 people. Plus below that is the very sparsely populated portion of British Columbia and Alberta which never even appears in your atlas. Some of the towns we're stopping at in the NWT are described, with great precision, as having populations of 182, 90 and 69 in the travel guide. The roads are pretty much all packed gravel. That said, those of us in the West know that in sparsely populated areas, a small town boxes above its weight. A place like Yellowknife - a capital city with 15,000 people - will have robust public and commercial services because it's still the main population center, no matter how small. Even the 90-person town has "a range of services including gas stations, restaurants, accommodations, a grocery store and a native crafts gift shop."

How long will the days be up there? Is it land of midnight sun? Today, the sun rose in Fort Simpson at 4:27 am and will set at 11:50 pm. By the time we get there, sunrise will be around 5:30 am and sunset around 11 pm. Bear in mind that at those high latitudes, you gain or lose five to eight minutes of daylight each day, because of the huge swings between winter and summer. So in a two-week stay, the length of the days changes by nearly an hour.

What if the dogs get sick? Well, yeah, they are old. And even though we hope this will be fun for them, even good stress is a stressor. In the NWT, the only veterinary hospital is in Yellowknife. So we hope they don't get sick of course, and it would be stressful if they do - but we're sure that vets up there know a thing or two about dogs. Our own vets have said that there are actually fewer parasites to worry about up there, because they can't survive the winters. There is one particularly nasty form of tapeworm that they would only get from eating raw bison or caribou meat. gnawing on bison carcasses. Check.

Will you stay in touch while traveling? Once we get far north, we'll have cell phone service in Yellowknife and Hay River, but not outside those areas. There are wireless cafes and such, and we're taking the laptop with every intention of checking email and posting some stories and pictures where we can.

I hear they have huge mosquitoes up there. Yes, we hear that too. Having read many first-person accounts dating back to the 1850s, I am struck by how consistently they all mention the bugs, and with the same horror mixed with wonder; people actually died from mosquito exposure. We have insect repellent and mosquito netting, and the nice lady at the NWT visitors' bureau basically said: Yes, they're bad, but not as bad as people make it sound. So we'll see.

You're going for a month? Did you quit your jobs or something? Nope. We're just taking vacation and some leave without pay, which employers seem happy to give at the moment...

Got other burning questions? Post below!