Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Arctic Winter Adventure - North to the Mackenzie River Ice Road

View from atop an ancient coral reef at Hart Lake Fire Tower, Northwest Territories, Canada, December 1969.

This is part two of my nostalgic coverage of a December 1969 road trip to the Canadian Arctic.  In part one I introduced the 1969 version of me, my roommate and companion on the journey, the 1930's vintage camera I used to document the trip, and the 1962 VW Bug that took us.  We had traveled two days from State College, PA and reached St. Cloud MN by the end of that report.  Now it's on into Canada.

DAY 3 - December 13, 1969:


The bane of automobile travel is that moving fast is too easy and stopping is too hard.  You miss most of the special sights entirely because you whiz by them too fast.  When you do see something so obvious that it stands out even at 60mph, you have to slam on the brakes, find a safe spot to pull off the road, and then extract yourself from the artificial environment of your car's interior.  All too often you just don't bother, opting instead to keep eating concrete mile after monotonous mile.  That was the case on this day.  We made it from St. Cloud, MN to Minot, ND and my hand-written summary includes a lament on the missed photo-ops.


DAY 4 - December 14, 1969:

Fortunately the next day provided at least this stark winter scene on the North Dakota plains:


As the trip data attests, we crossed into Canada before mid-morning


My first impression of Canada, especially in the little town of Estevan, was that I had just crossed from a forsaken and neglected wasteland where nobody wanted to live--one of the coldest places in the US--into a well-loved and well-cared for haven of comfort--warmest place in Saskatchewan.  Towns and farms here looked and felt alive and happy and well-cared for.  By comparison northwestern North Dakota felt bleak and dreary and heartless.  This is testament to the real physical significance of a line drawn on a map.

After passing through some of the flattest land there is, we came upon some hilly country west of Regina, with the clouds above seeming to be in synchrony with the land.


This was a mostly sunny day, and surprisingly warm for so far north so late in the year.  But the good weather was about to come to an end overnight, setting up one of the most harrowing experiences I've ever had while driving.

DAY 5 - December 15, 1969:


Overnight a quarter inch of freezing rain fell.  It was a place and time where no salt was used on roads, and no cinders or sand either.  We hit the roads despite the virtual ice skating rink they had become.  Fortunately we were in flat country again, and I found that I could drive at a steady 17 or 18 mph and hold traction, but no faster.  We never saw a salt or sand truck all morning.  As we proceeded northwest toward the Alberta border we came up behind three eighteen wheelers going 15mph.  Too slow, I figured.  I wanted to pass them and keep up my established pace.  The ice-slicked road was straight and level and I could see that there was no oncoming traffic for miles ahead.  So I pulled out into the left lane and began to creep past the three trucks. 

Truck one, passed successfully.  Eighteen miles per hour.  Steady as she goes.

Truck two, no problem.  Road clear ahead, slick as a mirror.

Truck three.  Eighteen miles per hour.  Steady.  Steady.  I had come up beside the cab of the last truck.  Almost past it. 

And then it happened.

Was it a draft made by the front of the big truck?  Was it a tiny pebble on the ice?  Suddenly, and without any noticeable cause, I lost all traction.  My car was sliding out of control back toward the right lane, right in front of the nose of that front truck.

I was smart enough not to use my brakes.  I was smart enough to point my front wheels in the direction I was headed -- toward the shoulder and ditch on the right side of the highway.  And the truck drivers obviously were smart enough to slow down to get out of my way.

Wham!  Suddenly the silent, protracted, seemingly interminable angst of sliding, sliding, sliding, totally out of control across the finely polished ice rink turned to the jarring rattle of the snow-covered grass and weeds of the shoulder and ditch beyond.  The VW clambered down into the shallow swale beside the road and I was smart enough to downshift and keep up my forward momentum.

There wasn't enough snow to get stuck in, but the ditch was too deep to get out of.  I kept the wheels churning and proceeded to bounce along beside the road in the ditch for a quarter mile or more to a side road or driveway where I was able to bounce up out of the ditch and return to the road.

Whew!  Talk about an adrenaline rush.

I hadn't even noticed what the three trucks had been doing, but now I found myself tucked in behind them again, creeping along at fifteen miles per hour.  And damn happy to stay right there.

By the time we got to the Alberta border we had driven out of the freezing rain and into falling snow.  Who would ever expect to feel relief to be driving in a snow storm?  Suddenly the trucks and I were able to increase our speed because the snow on the road gave us much better traction.  Twenty-five mph.  Even thirty!

Eventually the snow stopped, and the day settled into a more usual routine.  We passed through the surprisingly large and modern, rapidly growing urban center of Edmonton.


Located at 53 1/2 degrees North Latitude, Edmonton was far and away the northernmost place I had ever been.  I don't know exactly what I expected to find, but log cabins and fur trappers and sled dogs were what came to mind before I actually saw the place.  I suppose I was a little disappointed.  I had not yet gone far enough to escape the influence of civilization.  And yet it was wonderful to have heat and electricity and a warm soft bed in my motel room at the end of such a harrowing day.

DAY 6 - December 16, 1969:

Edmonton sits in the middle of a high-plains wheat growing area, but not far to the northwest we drove out of the agricultural area and into country that began to feel more remote.


The morning had dawned bright and clear and chilly, and passing the town of Valleyview, we came upon an area where everything was encrusted with thick hoar frost with the temperature in the low teens.


The town of Peace River had a frontier feel to it, though there was nearly no snow on the ground.  People told us that it had been an unusually mild and dry winter thus far.


We ended the day at the Flamingo Motel in High Level on the Mackenzie Highway in far northern Alberta.  Now called the Flamingo Inn, this is one place that is still in business today, and has apparently been greatly expanded and upgraded.

Day 7 - December 17, 1969:


We had arrived in the Canadian Arctic.  This morning the temperature dropped from zero to fifteen below as we headed north.  That was cold enough that the VW's heating system was totally inadequate.  Time to fire up the kerosene heater.   In order to light it and get it burning cleanly, we had to get out of the car and set it on fire on the shoulder of the road.  We must have looked a sorry sight standing around by our stopped car, with PA license plates, out there in the middle of nowhere.  One vehicle passed us as we were getting the heater going, and he did stop to inquire if we needed help.

These unvented kerosene heaters are obviously a fire hazard, and to a lesser extent a carbon monoxide hazard.  Further, all the water vapor they release in combustion condensed on the inside of the car's windows and froze.  It was hardly an ideal solution to staying warm in the arctic winter, but the car didn't catch fire, we didn't asphyxiate, and somehow I managed to keep the windshield clear enough to see where I was driving.

We crossed into the Northwest Territories around midday and had to stop to change a flat tire.  I honestly don't remember that event, so it must have gone quickly and smoothly.  What I do remember are some of the scenery.  Hoar frost permanently covered every twig and stem.


We stopped at a side road to Hart Lake Fire tower and took in the vista shown up top.  We stopped at Alexandra falls and enjoyed the roaring water, falling among mounds of frozen spray.


Late in the day we passed Lady Evelyn Falls, similar in size and appearance.


And as the afternoon light was waning, at about 4PM we reached the Mackenzie River.  There was no bridge across the river at the time.  In fact it wasn't until five years ago that the Deh Cho Bridge was completed.  In summer there was a ferry.  In winter you drive across the river on the ice, your route marked by a few occasional sprigs of evergreen trees.

As I said, this had been an unusually mild winter, and they told me that the ice road had just opened and was still open only to passenger vehicles.  Indeed, out on the river a small tanker truck had tried to cross and nearly dropped through the ice.


While we stopped to photograph this scene, out there in the middle of the mile-wide river, a man walked up to us and announced that he was a tourist spending the winter in a cabin by the river here.  Amazingly he was from Pennsylvania and was shocked to see our familiar license plate.  We had a nice chat but it didn't last long because it was rapidly getting dark and I didn't want to cross the rest of the river at night.  Our motel was on the other side, in the town of Fort Providence.  We were now just 400 miles from the Arctic Circle.

Next time:  Yellowknife, and the end of the road.  Then west to the Canadian Rockies.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Canada's Northwest Territories in the Dead of Winter

The Yellowknife Highway in December 1969, somewhere north of Great Slave Lake, Northwest Territories, Canada.

Driving into -25 degree cold, deliberately?  For fun?  Yep.  That was the plan.  This was my version of "Into the Wild" - taken 23 years before Chris McCandless's heroic/tragic Alaska adventure.  This is not a post about a hike - sorry.  I was a different person, back then, but I already had that appetite for wild places.

Portrait of yours truly in early 1970, shortly after my return from the epic trip.

As with most dreamy-eyed teenagers I had, for years, felt the need of adventure deep in my bones.  I had always hated cities or developed, industrialized, polluted places of any kind.  My ideal exotic destination was anywhere far enough north and west to be beyond the reach of civilization.  As it turned out, I didn't quite get that far, as Chris McCandleless did when he ventured out on Alaska's Stampede Trail, never to return.  But going in mid-winter meant that this trip would hand me all the challenge and risk I wanted and more.

I had owned my first car less than a year - a 1962 VW beetle - a vehicle with a notoriously bad heating system.  Here's me with the car the following summer, back in Canada again--a shot taken on my next epic road trip.  Notice the three-Eskimos Northwest Territories 1970 Centennial patch/sticker (same design as the centennial coin shown below).


I was getting seriously into photography, so I would document the trip using my hand-me-down camera -- Dad's old 1930's vintage Argus 35mm unit with gradations of smoked glass beside the view-finder for a light meter.  That's the camera slung around my neck in the photo above.  Here's a better look.  (I had bought a 'modern' battery-operated electric light meter.)


Despite being in college, I found the time--three weeks during Christmas break.  And finally, I had a roommate willing to share the crazy adventure.  Here's the only photo I have of Bob 'Bro' Klebacha, relaxing/studying in our dorm room at Penn State--a room with a killer view that I will show as the very last photo of this four-post series.


Beyond taking photos I also recorded the whole adventure on paper in my journal, and I'm including all of those entries here.  Along the way I'll supplement the sometimes sparse text with some of my more vivid memories.

Preparations were made.  I had purchased a catalytic converter kerosene heater, built a 'fireproof' stand for it and placed it in the back seat of the VW for when it really got cold.  (Sound crazy?  Well, all I can say is I live to tell the tale.)  My final exams were over.  The day had come.  While most kids were heading home for the Holidays, Bro and I turned our eyes toward the realms 'from whence the winter winds cometh, and were off.

DAY 1 - December 11th, 1969.  Here's the log book data.


Just look at those prices.  $3.00 for a tank full of gas.  $11.22 for the motel room.  I monitored the weather scrupulously.  Nothing freezing yet.  Here's my somewhat sparse written account.


We drove west from State College, stopping only briefly for breakfast at Bob's home in Reynoldsville, near Dubois, PA.  Our first tour stop was the newly built Emlenton Bridge--an engineering marvel spanning high over the Allegheny River.  Bob knew that we could get up under the bridge where there was a service catwalk.  That's him (yellow arrow) peeking around the upright.


We crawled around there like monkeys for a little while then headed on.  Little did I know that I'd return to hike the then-nonexistent North Country Trail under the same bridge nearly fifty years later.

Emlenton Bridge on June 19, 2016

Late in the day we arrived at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.


We took a room in the 'Haven of Rest' motel.  It doesn't appear to exist any longer, but vintage postcards of it are for sale on the internet.  (Isn't the web an amazing thing?)

DAY 2 - December 12, 1969:


We left before dawn and arrived at our motel in St. Cloud, MN after dark.


Our one scenic  stop was in Wisconsin's 'driftless' area, never affected by the glaciers, as I have just recently learned as I hiked the Ice Age Trail.  Here there are rock formations reminiscent of out west.  This is Castle Rock.


This is a place I remembered visiting as a kid of 12 with my Dad and brother on another of my epic trips - our canoe trip around Boundary Waters and Quetico Parks in northern Minnesota and adjacent western Ontario.

At St. Cloud I shot this 'artsy' view of our virtually empty motel's neon lights.


Next report - Into Canada.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

From Winter to Summer - Back on my home Trail


When I left northern Wisconsin it was 22 degrees F.  After a 1200 mile drive I arrived at my little piece of beach paradise and was greeted by a temperature closing in on 80.

On my last hike in Wisconsin, it was snowing and I was wearing multiple layers.  This morning, three days later, I was sweating and shedding the one extra layer I had brought along as I did a sunrise beach hike with temperature in the upper 60's.


With wildlife viewing like this, and with different sky and sand conditions daily, beach hiking never gets old for me.

Today I hiked down to touch base with my home trail - North Carolina's official State Trail, a 1175 mile 'linear State Park' called the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST).

Back in 2013 and 2014 I worked hard to get this trail routed out to Topsail Island.  I scouted the route then showed it to the decision makers who could make it happen, and they did the rest.  Thank you, Kate Dixon!!!  Just this summer, the route was formally designated by the NC State Legislature as the official MST route, and the local denizens got busy marking it.


This oversized white blaze with marker post is meant to be visible from quite a distance as hikers who are coming eastbound, up the beach from Surf City, approach, looking for the exit point.


As of this writing, Jennifer Pharr Davis, National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, noted for holding the Appalachian Trail speed record, is doing a Through Hike of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, in celebration of its 40th anniversary.  This trail is seriously 'going places'!

But back to my own little hike.  The beach is full of fishermen this time of year, as is the adjacent ocean.  They're pulling them in thick and fast.


Look closely just right of center on the horizon and you can see the New River Inlet buoy.  When the wind is calm, as it was on this hike, you can hear its haunting foghorn--similar to the sound you make blowing over the top of an empty bottle.

Like all good hikes, beach hiking is a feast for all five senses.  The sound of the waves breaking on the sand is, of course ubiquitous.  The gulls and other birds can kick up a racket.  When the wind comes off the ocean there's that distinctive briny sea smell.  Off the land and I can smell the marsh grass and mud.  Sometimes I can even smell bacon cooking as I pass a cottage full of early rising vacationers.  Despite being early November, the clean saltwater is still warm enough for comfortable swimming.  Great barefoot hiking weather--toes in the soft cool sand.

What a treat it is to be back on the beach.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Hiking Wisconsin's Mountain-Bay State Trail


It's one of the longest rail trails in the state - 83 miles from Weston near Wausau, to the west side of Green Bay.  It surely has one of the longest boardwalks for a rail trail.  Shown above, this 1/4-mile crossing of a deep bog was a major challenge for the original railroad builders.


Of course this is not pure foot-trail in the woods.  Its greatest use is by snowmobiles in the winter.  But it sure beats road walking.  I'm hiking the Mountain-Bay Trail to avoid a lot of Ice Age Trail road walking and to pursue the most 'Scenic Route' to my next destination -- my birthplace in Madison.  The Mountain-Bay Trail makes a bee-line toward the eastern end of the Ice Age Trail, which is much more developed, with much lower percentage of connecting road walks.  I'll resume the Ice Age trail at its Eastern Terminus and take it the 'long way around' to Madison.  That will give me the chance to do a substantial portion of this great state trail.  This route will also take me through areas of the state where my family roots run deep--places where I'm likely to be related to more than half the people I meet.

This report covers fifty miles of trail--all that I managed to hike before winter sent me migrating south.


These gigantic wet, sloppy snowflakes were accompanied by a clap of thunder.  It snowed hard for about an hour.  I took shelter under the dense cover of a thicket of hemlock trees.  That night it snowed some more and the salt trucks were out treating the roads.  The next morning the local Rib Mountain Ski Area (the mountain that the trail is named for) was in full snow-making mode, with the temperature hovering in the low 20's.  Winter comes fast and without warning in northern Wisconsin.

Sights of note along this former railroad grade include the obligatory 'infinity' shots, such as this 'green tunnel' view with wild turkeys


and this one that also features the highlight of the new season -- crunchy fresh-fallen leaf season.


There was only one paved section--a couple miles through the County Seat of Shawano.  Here the trail was enhanced by the biggest concentration of winterberries I've seen in ... well ... maybe forever.


Most trees and shrubs have gone bare now, revealing a distinctive twig pattern on this one.


Other sign of the season: a leaf-speckled pond ...


... and the way the perennial plants that are holding on to their leaves are hunkering down--turning dark-colored and hugging the surface in order to stay out of the cold wind and to absorb every last bit of heat that the weak winter sun offers.


The big, noisy Sand Hill cranes were gathering in flocks, which they only do when they're preparing to migrate.


Every five miles or so this trail provides a nice picnic pavilion.


Judging from the growth of weeds, most of these appear to get little or no use.  One of the reasons for that may be the $5 per day (or $25 annual pass) user fee that is required of bicyclers.  At every trailhead, such as here at the Eland rail depot, there are these green signs and payboxes.


The logic of charging bicyclers a fee stems from the dominance of Snowmobile users.  Wisconsin requires them to pay a registration fee to use the trails, and the State justifies these fees as necessary to maintain the trail system; so it seems that Snowmobilers took offense at the idea that bicycle users would get free use of the trail they are effectively paying for.

There aren't many places where the trail offers scenery other than nice remote wetlands and quiet woods, but it did pass this lakeside park in the town of Norrie, with its huge old willows.


And in Sturgeon Park in Shawano, the wooden sturgeon--exact replica of the biggest fish ever captured (for tagging)--stands beside the Wolf River where it lived.


So that's it for my Wisconsin adventures for the season.  I'll pick up where I left off in spring.  Here's an overview of the route I've taken to this point.  Zoom in to the NW part of the map to get a closer look at my most recent travels.



Powered by Wikiloc


I've loved hiking Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula.  The people here talk with my 'native' accent.  Unlike in other areas of the country, here I just crave listening to the locals speak, just for the sake of hearing the sound of 'home'.  One local gave me the highest compliment when he told me "You talk like we do.  You sound like one of us."  Honestly, I don't want to leave.  But like the Sandhill Cranes, I'm migrating south for the winter.  Don't worry, Wisconsin, I'm not finished with you yet.  Lots of Ice Age Trail to hike.  Maybe all of it.  Can't wait to get back.