Hay River, Northwest Territories
The days are long and the trees are short in the Northwest Territories.
A barren, harsh land, it’s the home of Ice Pilots and Ice Truckers. A place where the trout served for dinner is so fresh it squeaks and squiggles on the plate. And the swarming black flies, the size of peanut shells, are both horrifying and mesmerizing.
In the past ten days, we have driven the frontier of both the United States and Canada delivering mining equipment from El Paso, Texas to Vancouver, Canada, and a building to house a hockey rink from Spokane, Washington to the Hay River Dene Reserve, the only First Nations reserve in the territory.
The great drive, 2,200 miles, featured fabulous food, art, culture and stunning vistas of raw land.
Two weeks ago we were in Marfa, Texas, latitude 30 degrees, hair-dryer-on-high heat blasting our faces as we set off on the VESPA to visit the dusty art haven bumped up against Mexico.
Founded in 1881 as a water stop for the trains, Marfa has been famous many times. In 1956, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean filmed the movie Giant. In 2006, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men was filmed there. In between, New York City sculptor Donald Judd put the little town with a population of less than 2,000 on the international art map. More artists and entrepreneurs arrived, including artists Elmgreen and Dragset who installed Prada Marfa 37 miles west on US 90 in 2005. A new installation, Prada Playboy was unveiled a few days after our visit.
It is the only town of its size to have a whole page of restaurant reviews in the New York Times. Our first stop was the Food Shark, a food truck off the main street. Last April 60 Minutes visited to explore the coexistence of the Old Marfans, ranchers and immigrants from Mexico, and the New Marfans, which must seem at times like Martians to the locals.
One new location Marfa Contemporary is serving pizza and portraits, featuring Bryan Adams photographs, (A Canadiana, eh!) in the restored service station.
Back in El Paso, mercifully, we loaded over night in the dark in a balmy 85 degrees rather than a debilitating 100+ and headed to Vancouver, Canada, where we learned of a rare load to the Northwest Territories out of Spokane.
We’ve had a list of must-see locations in North America since we began trucking. We checked off St. John’s, Newfoundland last October. Still on the list, Alaska, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Labrador.
While there are regular loads to Alaska, which travel through the Yukon, loads to the other two Canadian territories and Labrador are rarities. Most of the freight to these locations seems to travel within Canada. As a US registered truck, we can’t take a load from a Canadian location to another Canadian location, that is cabotage and it is illegal. We can load in and out of Canada and go state-to-state in the US.
The territories are a mystery destination. There are 34.8 million people in Canada, one-tenth the population of the US (a little country in a giant space) and 112,00 in all three territories. That's half the population of Amarillo, Texas.
Canada has 3.8 million square miles, the territories make up 2 million square miles and 39% of the country’s entire land mass. That’s a whole lot of empty space. It is mostly winter and mostly dark.
It is the tundra, where the trees never grow bigger than a pecker pole. Wilderness. Where wood bison, moose and mountain goats roam under the Aurora Borealis, the northern lights.
We’ve devoted considerable time in the last few years to watching Ice Pilots about aviation pioneer Joe McBryan and Buffalo Air, the Yellowknife-based airline, which carries cargo and people on vintage aircraft throughout the Canadian north.
But, let’s face it, I’m not hardy enough for a winter trek, so it’s the summer mystery I wanted to solve. What’s it like when there’s no dark?
From Valleyview, Alberta north to Peace River, High Level and into the territory, it is a two lane highway with narrow shoulders with some pullouts big enough to park a 75 foot vehicle. Highway 2 in the Northwest Territories is windy, built on muskeg, a swampy, boggy mixture of water and dead vegetation, completely overrun by beaver houses. We quickly lost count. The roads are narrow. My brother-in-law warned us, if it’s dirt and it’s wet don’t stop on it, you will sink! “Stay on the pavement,” he said.
We arrived in Hay River, on the south side of Great Slave Lake, about 500 kilometers south of Yellowknife, seven days after the summer Solstice. Officially, the sun set at 11:30 PM and rose the following morning at 4:00 AM. But for three days we saw no night.
MacGyver crossed the 60th Parallel, the border with Alberta, at midnight. It was early dusk. He drove another hour, it was still early dusk. He stopped in Enterprise and there was still enough light to read by. I poked my head out at 2:30 AM and it was already getting lighter.
The sun did go below the horizon, but it never came close to getting dark. It was enormously discombobulating. So much so, that it turned my clock around.
We already have the complication that we live our lives in Eastern Time as required by Department of Transport rules for our daily log. Hay River is Mountain Time. I found that I didn’t feel like sleeping until about 1:30 in the morning ET, which is about an hour before I wake up when we are handling a team run.
We delivered the hockey rink -- Chief Roy Fabian greeted our truck -- launched the Vespa and headed into Hay River. First stop, the Don Stewart Recreation Center, the pool, where we had a shower. There is no truck stop in Hay River, so we improvised. I got the 55+ discount of $2 admission.
The staff recommended an itinerary. Next stop, the Atlantis Eatery, a food truck on the main road. We ordered two, two-piece fish and chips, $35. The whitefish was about 12 hours out of the lake.
Now it was time to see the sights. We headed towards the airport to see the Buffalo Air planes, two were on the tarmac. We rode the Vespa past the Coast Guard base, along the West Channel of the Hay River to Great Slave Lake.
It was time to eat again, this time at Back Eddy, which was recommended by the Canadian Border Services Officer in Kingsgate, BC, when we crossed into Canada, a former Coast Guard employee in Hay River.
We ate local, a filet of trout, the size of a sockeye salmon filet and birch syrup. And it was only 9:00 PM local time and nowhere near dark so we headed back to the truck to watch another episode of Ice Pilots.
Pulling out of Hay River, after spending about $150 on souvenir Northwest Territory license plates shaped like a polar bear, Buffalo Air ballcaps, stickers and postcards, like we'd never be back, MacGyver surprised me.
“I could go to Yellowknife now," he said. "Especially since the brige is open."
In the winter? I don't think so.
Until the bridge opened recently, freight and people relied on the ferry to cross the lake. When the water froze, trucks waited and crucial freight was flown by Buffalo Air, out of Hay River to Yellowknife in their Grand Dame their Lockheed L-188 Electra, which carries 30,000 pounds payload. Our payload is 42,000 pounds.
Maybe next year.
And we did pick up another rock chip, between High Prairie, Alberta and Sucker Creek.