Thursday, November 30, 2017

Northwest Territories and back - a Christmas Story

December 27, 1969 - We stopped at Niagara falls on our way home.

This is the fourth and final installment remembering my 1969 Bucket List drive to northern Canada in the dead of winter.  In the last report we had left the Arctic and done a driving tour of the Canadian Rockies through Jasper and Banff.  Now we faced the long drive home to Pennsylvania.  Four days of steady progress across the Canadian Prairies brought us to the north shore of Lake Superior.

The day before, Christmas Day, we spent driving across western Ontario.  It was to be just another travel day--no special plans.  I was going to celebrate Christmas with family a few days later.  But this Christmas Day turned out to be the most memorable, and most meaningful, of all my sixty-eight Christmases.

The reason?  I got to give to strangers in need--selflessly and without pre-planning--a gift that was desperately needed.

We were driving down an icy, curvy highway after an overnight snow.  About the middle of the morning we came around a curve and saw a small maroon sedan turned on its side in the ditch on a slick downhill curve.  A distraught young man and his wife were climbing out of the drivers side door, and the man gave us a desperate wave.

It wasn't needed of course.  We pulled over and quickly learned that neither of them were hurt beyond a few bruises--just badly rattled.

I remembered having passed a town with a closed gas station a few miles back.  Maybe we could find someone around who could help.  The young man (actually older than me by a couple years) came with me, and my roommate stayed with the young woman and the overturned car.

At the town, we knocked on the door of the house closest to the gas station, and the gentleman who answered the door did not hesitate.  Soon he was following us back to the accident scene in his pickup truck with a tow chain thrown in the back.

When we arrived at the overturned car, we found that another driver had stopped and he and my roommate were trying to right the car by rocking it back and forth.  With the three of us who had just arrived adding our muscle to the task, we did manage to get the car back on its wheels.  The young man tried the starter and his car started right up!  It had just a few cosmetic dents and dings.  With the tow chain, the gas station guy easily yanked the car out of the ditch and back onto the road.  He wouldn't think of taking any compensation for his help.  The young man and his wife were on their way to a family Christmas celebration in the city of Kenora, but he pulled out one of his wrapped Christmas gifts--a bottle of some sort of liquor--and offered it to me as a thank-you.  I told him to keep it.  The warm-fuzzy feeling of having given a small gift of help when help was needed was more than enough.

We all said our farewells and headed on our way.

And for the rest of that day the cold gray surroundings somehow felt warm and bright.  The glow came from inside.

* * *

Two days later we crossed into the US at Niagara Falls.  The ample freezing spray from Horseshoe Falls had deposited a thick coat of ice on everything.

The adjacent lawn was like an ice skating rink.  That's Rainbow Bridge in the background.

The next day I dropped Bob at his home in Reynoldsville, PA and stopped in briefly at Penn State before reaching my parents' home in SE Pennsylvania.

We had only a few days at home before resuming classes at Penn State.  After spending three weeks in below zero weather, the State College winter seemed mild by comparison.  We got a snowfall a few days into the new Semester and my friends and I undertook an overnight project to build a snow monument that would be truly interactive--something that people would not be able to ignore.

Just a few days later, waking up early and gazing out the window of my room on the sixth floor of Shunk Hall, I was met with this spectacular sun pillar beside the iconic Nittany Mountain.

Somehow the glow seemed a celestial reflection of that feeling I had experienced a couple weeks before, on Christmas Day in the snowy wilds of western Ontario.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Arctic Winter Drive - Road's end at Yellowknife, NWT

Midday sun over Great Slave Lake, December 19, 1969, taken from the Bush Pilot's memorial, Yellowknife.

This is part three of four in the series remembering my first epic Bucket List trip - a college Christmas-break drive north to the Canadian Arctic.  At the time (December 1969), the only all-weather highway to reach Canada's Northwest Territories went to its capital of Yellowknife and ended there.  The highway opened in 1960, and getting to the end of that road had been on my bucket list for a long time.

I'll continue with the report of the 1969 trip in a moment.  But first I want to digress briefly to explain why I'm revisiting that trip at this particular time.

You see, Northwest Territories now has a second access road called the Dempster Highway.  Since it opened in 1979, it too has been calling my name.  Now the NTW government has seriously ramped up the volume of that Siren-song.  With the November 15, 2017 opening of the extension to Tuktoyaktuk, this route provides the first and only North American public road access to the Arctic Ocean.  I want to go there.  Actually, I'd like to walk there.  But that's a subject for another post.  For now, let's return to 1969.

In my last report, my roommate and I had crossed the Mackenzie River on an ice road, passing an oil tanker truck that had nearly broken through the ice and sunk to the bottom.  The next morning dawned clear and chilly - minus 12F - and my car wouldn't start.  We had to find somebody to give us a rolling tow, and he charged us $5 for the service.  Finally we were on the road and headed east along the north side of Great Slave Lake.  Here's a view of the lake in the distance as we descend toward it.

We passed this scenic lake-front rest area,

and were in town by mid-afternoon.  We checked in to the infamous Gold Range Hotel, still an iconic destination today.  Here I found some of the frontier flavor I was seeking.  The hotel didn't really have a lobby.  You checked in at the bar on the ground floor.  As we arrived there was a loud argument taking place, nearly coming to blows, between a First Nations local and a French Canadian construction worker.  Seems one of them had burned the mattress in the worker's room, and the clerk/bartender was insisting that somebody had to pay for it.  Coming in the door right after us was one of Canada's finest - a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer.  The tension in the room quickly faded, and the clerk/bartender turned her attention to us.  I don't know who paid for the mattress, but as the old saying about the RCMP goes, "they always get their man."

I wasn't about to have a repeat of the morning's car-starting problem so once we had the keys to our room I took the battery out of my car and brought it in.  I also drained the oil out of the car because it was time for an oil change.

The next day was our day to tour the town.  We headed out on foot at about 10AM in balmy near-zero temperatures.  It was an extremely rare sunny day.  Weather statistics for December in Yellowknife show that for the entire month the town averages no more than 24 hours of sunshine.  Let me emphasize that.  Twenty four hours of sunshine for the *entire month*.  We got four or five of those as we trekked around that day.

We headed for a high-point in the old part of town where there is a little park and a plaque honoring the bush pilots of the region.  There I shot the headline photo up top, and several others.  Here's the look northeast toward Latham Island and the old part of town. 

This view is in the opposite direction, back toward what's called the new town, which can be seen on the horizon in the distance.  The second photo shows a comparison shot between 1969 and today. 

When we visited Yellowknife in 1969, it was a gold mining town and had only recently been named the capital of the Territories.  Population had swelled from around 2000 to 6000.  Gold mining was on the wane by the 1980's, and the town was only thriving because of the government jobs.  But with the discovery of diamonds in 1991, the boom returned, and today the town has nearly 20,000 citizens.

The next day we headed out.  I filled the engine with fresh, warm oil and connected the warm battery and the car started on the first crank.  That day we drove 600 miles on snow covered dirt roads.  When it's that cold the snow isn't slippery.  Driving fifty miles per hour is no big deal.

The next day there was more driving on dirt roads.

This was simply called the 'Forestry Trunk Road' and it made the connection through 100 miles or more of unpopulated territory to the town of Hinton in the foothills of the northern Canadian Rockies.  This was a tough day.  Soon after the photo of the road above it began to snow and accumulated up to six inches.  We were seriously out in the middle of nowhere, nobody was going to plow the road.  Snow was coming down heavily enough that the road was hard to see, and my windshield wipers kept fouling.  I can still feel the stress and tension fifty years later when I recall this drive. 

But finally we were out of the Arctic and back to civilization -- the Canadian Rockies at Jasper and headed south toward Banff.  It was pretty country, even in the bleak, cloudy heart of winter.

Athabasca Falls
Sunwapta Canyon
The aptly named Goat Range

Next time:  Heading home, spending Christmas Day on the road.  It was, and still is, the most memorable Christmas of my life.

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.