Chapter 18. Yellowknife and Northwest Territories
(Shari) “I guess we are still alive,” I tell Bert when I wake up this morning. We wondered if the bears would smell our food and attack during the night. It sure was pitch black outside. While Bert refuels in Ft. Liard, I go into the nicely done Visitor’s Center. Handicrafts from the locals are on display. Contrary to my thinking, nothing is cheap. I want to buy one of the local birch baskets the First Nations people are noted for making. I find a “Sale” table and all of the littlest baskets are $25 and up. The ones on the other shelves, presumably not on sale, are also $25 and up. I cannot tell the difference and hope there is an additional discount off the original price. No such luck so I walk out with nothing. I go to the local grocery store and wonder how the people can afford to buy food. The store has all you would want, including milk and fresh fruits and veggies plus a huge frozen food section loaded with pizzas, pies, cakes, and anything you’d find in the Lower 48. But prices are outrageous. Milk is $10.49 a gallon and bananas on sale are $2.59 per pound. Thankfully I do not need anything and again walk out of the store with nothing.
(Bert) I shake hands with the mayor of Ft. Liard when we are introduced, while my other hand is on the nozzle dumping diesel into the RV. I say to him, “You should fix the potholes.” While the highway has been excellent driving, just as we entered the hamlet of Ft. Liard, potholes plague the streets. He tells me his is working on the streets and they soon will be repaved. The gas pump is unusually slow and during the 20 min. it takes to fill the tank I talk to a half dozen local people, all very friendly and curious about someone with Texas license plates in Northwest Territories. One man wonders why Americans complain about gas prices. The Ft. Liard pump registers CDN$1.631/liter which is the U.S. equivalent of $6.58/gal. Surprisingly, the oil refinery is close by in Ft. Nelson. A First Nations lady asks if we are driving a big loop and I describe our route from Texas to Washington to Alaska to Inuvik and now here. Only later do I recognize that to her the “big loop” is the circle drive we will be making within Northwest Territories that includes Yellowknife. Another man tells me about the bison along the highways. He says if I hit one I should not touch it as it is may be infected with anthrax; they have identified 400 infected bison so far. I am still pumping fuel when a flock of birds lands on the tree above the native crafts shop. I get out my binoculars and study the Bohemian Waxwings. Finally, the tank is full and I go inside to pay. After telling the clerk about the slow pump she says she should have told me to use the other pump as the one I picked is broken. Well, it was an interesting way to meet the local people.
We are just barely out of Ft. Liard when we encounter our first herd of Wood Bison. About 30 bison are scattered across the highway and I slowly edge my way between them while at the same time taking photos. Today again we are traveling through boreal forest. Our horizon is 75 ft. to the left, 75 ft. to the right, and about a half mile ahead. If there are hills beyond the forest, we do not see them. The air is filled with a smoky haze from distant forest fires, perhaps hundreds of miles away. So my attention focuses on the trees. Surprisingly, the habitat is constantly changing. Sometimes it is stunted Black Spruce and Tamarack over wet muskeg. Other times it is White Birch, White Spruce and Trembling Aspen reaching incredible heights. Strangely, we see miles of trees tilted toward the highway, curved like stretched archery bows, unable to carry the weight of their crowns. We learned that a severe late-winter snowfall, heavy and wet, fell in May and caused the tree deformities. As the miles roll by, the affected trees number in the thousands.
In this dull season for bird watching, with most migrants having departed or in seclusion, I have little to report. We see three Sandhill Cranes winging south and I stop to watch a lone Trumpeter Swan on a small pond. I stop again when we come to an extensive marsh, sure that there must be a few birds to find. While I am trying to track down an evasive sparrow, Shari says there is a bird on her side of the RV. When she adds, “It’s a woodpecker,” I swing my binoculars to her side. Not just any woodpecker, this one is a real prize, a Black-backed Woodpecker, one of the hardest woodpeckers to find. I often search for them when I see patches of bark removed from dead trees. Now, as we watch, the Black-backed excavates the tree, taking off horizontal strips of bark and moving up and down the trunk to expand the excavation.
Reluctantly, we move on up the highway and eventually reach the T-intersection with the Mackenzie Highway. I am surprised when I see another Black-backed Woodpecker fly across the highway and disappear in the woods. While waiting for the Liard River ferry, I add Lincoln’s Sparrow to my Northwest Territories list. We spend the night at a territorial park in Fort Simpson and enjoy 30-amp power for the first time in many weeks.
(Shari) Our drive is rather boring today except for the Black-backed Woodpecker I find for Bert. Ha! We cross another one of those river ferries. For a month in the fall and a month in the spring, people are cut off from the rest of the world since no ferry and no ice. Gee, I’d hate that. We stop in the little town of Fort Simpson and are surprised to find a wonderful campground with electricity and great showers and rest room. Home for tonight.
(Bert) “Northern Hawk Owl,” I shout and quickly slam on the brakes. Perched in the rain on the pinnacle of a spruce, the owl eyes me but without curiosity. I step outside and try for photographs, a tough challenge for a dark bird against a bright, though gray, sky. The hawk owl has been the real holdout for owls this season and there have been multiple places I should have found one, but didn’t. In fact, in our 2008 trip I found them at eight locations.
From Ft. Simpson we return via ferry to Mackenzie Highway, past the T-intersection and continue on Mackenzie Highway East, the Waterfalls Route. Unlike previous days of unbroken forests, today we pass marshes, rivers, and small lakes. The dominant tree now has become the Jack Pine, the only pine that can live this far north. We take a ferry across the Mackenzie River, within view of a new bridge that should be completed this year. We camp for the night at Ft. Providence Territorial Park in a site right along the river. Sandhill Cranes trumpet above us, but in the rain I don’t venture outside.
(Bert) Three Merlins are harassing a crow in our campsite as I watch the battle through the RV window. They dive and maneuver like fighter jets, resting briefly in one of the trees, then attacking again if the crow so much as flicks a feather. A Common Tern calmly wings downstream on the Mackenzie River.
We continue northeast on NWT Highway 3, with cattail roadsides and passing dozens of ponds and lakes which I suspect must harbor countless ducks in spring. Many signs warn of bison on the roads as we are passing through the largest free-roaming range of Wood Bison in the world. Unlike Plains Bison, the Wood Bison are larger and have a sharper angle on their humps. We encounter 16 bison and then another near North Arm Territorial Park that borders huge Great Slave Lake. Tiny, yet pesky, black flies buzz around the bison, partially brushed off by the bisons’ furred tails in perpetual motion.
As we pass alongside Great Slave Lake toward Yellowknife, the landscape changes dramatically. Giant red rock formations, the exposed Pre-Cambrian Shield, look formidable, hard surfaced, and unbroken. Hundreds of miles north of here this ancient rock is the source for diamonds, only discovered in 1991. After the gold mines had played out, the discovery of diamonds was a windfall for Northwest Territories. The first mine was built in 2006, followed by others in 2007 and 2008. Now the place registers third in world diamond production and the mining business has pumped $2.4 billion in the local economy.
We camp just outside of Yellowknife at a territorial park. Fortunately, Shari made reservations a few days ago as we take the last available campsite in this large campground. We go for a walk around the park and are met by a young woman who invites us to a concert in an hour. We return to our RV for dinner and then back to the spot where two men, perhaps father and son, play guitar and fiddle. Most of the tunes are of Scotch-Irish origin and when I ask why, I am told that the early fur traders to Northwest Territories were of this ancestry and they brought instruments with them. The peppy music is much like we have heard in Nova Scotia.
(Bert) I awaken at 4 AM and look out the window beside the bed. It is a clear sky, stars are showing, and I think I might be seeing the Aurora Borealis. I awaken Shari and we quickly throw on a few clothes. Yes, we can see the lights when we step outside and we head to the open grassy area where we heard the concert last night. Here we have a clear view of the sky and can see the green Northern Lights. At first faint and almost an imaginary illusion, the lights change, move, and intensify until there is no doubt we are seeing these magical apparitions. I try photographing the green patterns, even going back to the RV for a warmer jacket and another lens. To get enough light, I need to keep the shutter open for 10-20 sec. so I brace the camera against a post. If we get a chance another night, I will need by tripod, but now it so buried inside the side cabinet I would make quite a ruckus pulling everything out at 4:30 AM.
(Shari) Awake at 4 AM I am wondering if I should get out of bed to see if the Northern Lights are visible, when Bert scrambles over me, starts putting on clothes and says he is going to look. I too decide to get up but only put on shoes and a jacket over my nightgown. We walk outside and immediately see a curtain of white light undulating above us. We decide to walk to the grassy area where last night’s fiddle performance was held for the campers. The light show is spectacular and moves all over the sky, mostly centering on the Big Dipper star constellation. Bert wants to go back to put on more clothes and I go back for my camera. When we return I start snapping pictures. The light is all one color, kind of a greenish white, but on the pictures it turns out green. We watch for well over an hour before returning to RPupTent-II to finish our sleep.
(Bert) I am pulled in two directions, one by my eyes and the other by my ears. While watching the Northern Lights, I am hearing a Great Horned Owl and, also, a Barred Owl. Though the Great Horned is not a surprise, the Barred Owl is. Range maps do not show it this far north. Amazingly, it is the seventh owl species–Short-eared, Great Horned, Barred, Snowy, Northern Saw-whet, Northern Hawk, and Boreal–we have seen on this trip.
(Shari) We get up at nearly 10 AM, eat breakfast, shower, dump, get water, and head to the Visitor’s Center. It is a nicely done center with a large gift shop, a museum, and lots of information, plus Wi-Fi which we of course use. We walk to the modern Legislative Building but are allowed only on the first floor unless part of a tour. (Tomorrow at 1:30). I want to see the museum on diamonds and after looking at a map we decide we can walk there too. I am impressed at the number of tall buildings for this town of around 20,000 in the middle of nowhere. It reminds me of a smaller Fairbanks. Yellowknife is the capital of the Territories and also touted to be the Diamond Capital of North America. So certainly I want to go to the diamond museum. Who knows what may call my name there and want to come home with me? Unfortunately it is closed for the weekend.
By now we are hungry and go searching for the famous Wildcat Café. Supposedly
its renovations of last year were to be completed by now, but it is still
closed. I find my second choice, Bullock’s Bistro, not far down the street and
we park at the curb in front of the restaurant. This restaurant is very pricey
but not fancy. I don’t even want to know what the cost of a meal would be if it
was fancy. We do not get to look at a menu for quite some time, even after I get
up to ask. Finally the waitress who doubles as the cashier comes with menus and
tells us she only has four kinds of fish available. I feel rushed because I like
to study menus before ordering. Bert takes the Arctic Char (without seeing the
price) but at $39 I opt for a less expensive fish, lake trout for $29. We can
have it deep fried, pan fried or grilled. Both of us choose grilled. With that
comes shredded lettuce (they call that a salad!) with a choice of two dressings,
really great fries, a small fried loaf of bread and a small baked loaf of bread
with unsalted butter, and a big portion of fish (8 oz?). I ask for a beer and am
directed to a cooler of bottles. All and all the experience was unique since the
place is an icon decorated with funny sayings and lots of business cards and the
help is “cheeky”.
After eating we walk to the Wildcat Café and take pictures of it, if nothing else. Then I go into a small grocery store before walking to a boat launch area to take pictures of three of the twenty or so houseboats that dot the bay. These are nice-looking houses and we heard by having them on the water they avoid local property taxes. The residents of some live in their houses all year long enduring minus 40º and surrounded by frozen ice for weeks at a time. Add in the long hours of darkness so far north, I’d think more than twice about moving south. We head back to camp for a nap and a DVD movie. We will continue our tour of this unique city tomorrow.
(Bert) Yellowknife is a surprise, a modern city of skyscrapers and museums and restaurants at the end of a long road through the wilderness. We go to the Visitors Center for e-mail–sending off my North American Birds report four days before the deadline–to view a movie on diamond mining, and to see the historical exhibits. Then we spend a few hours at the Prince Phillip Museum. A pleasant day, but not much to report.
(Bert) After visiting a couple of organizations in the city to see about birding guides and suggestions, should we bring a caravan this way in spring, we head into the wilds again. The road does not end at Yellowknife, though it really does not go much farther. We drive the Ingraham Trail north out of the city and pass through boreal forest wedged between huge rock formations and interspersed with dozens of tranquil lakes. A half dozen territorial parks are spread along the road and we visit each one of them to enjoy the scenery and, of course, to see if any birds are present. A few warblers are still around, and confusing they are in their juvenile and/or fall plumages. I photograph a Magnolia Warbler, the first of the trip, at Yellowknife River. A Pacific Loon is on Prelude Lake, a Red-necked Grebe at Hidden Lake, and best is five Surf Scoters at Reid Lake.
We pass a sign that marks the Tibbitt to Conwoyto Winter Road. We have seen many such signs in the past few days. None of these roads are open now, since they need ice and snow to be passable. Most importantly, the winter roads lead far north to the diamond mines. The only other way to reach those areas is by airplane, but that transport would not work for the heavy equipment used in the mines. Photos of the roads in winter are amazing. The roads are very wide and cross over many frozen lakes. They even reach as far as Nunavut. I was surprised to hear that they are open to automobiles, motorcycles and small trucks as well as the equipment vehicles and semis. For safety, the speed limit is only 30 kph.
We poke around and stop so many times it is late afternoon before we reach the end of the road at Tibbitt Lake. This is as far north as we can drive (at least in summer) in this part of Canada, and is only surpassed by the Dempster Highway to Inuvik that we took a few weeks ago. We are still in boreal forest and it would be another hundred miles or so to reach open tundra. We camp here for the night, beside a trickling stream that connects two lakes. A Common Loon pops up to the surface while we sit around a campfire. It is our wedding anniversary and we try to remember where we were for our other 45 anniversaries. A few are easy to remember, e.g., the time we crossed the International Dateline and our anniversary lasted two days. Most of the time we could not remember specifics unless associated with a photo we saved. This sure is a pleasant place to be watching a campfire, listening to the water, enjoying superb weather, and completely alone, but the two of us. I hear rustling across the water and it could be a bear in the Jack Pines. Not to worry, it is too far away. Orange-crowned Warblers flutter through the birch and I watch one snatch a green worm and devour it. Except for a thin ground layer where trees grow in crevices, almost all is solid rock around us. The geologists tell us this is some of the oldest rock on earth and that is why the diamonds are found in Northwest Territories. They were formed deep within the earth and reached the surface by volcanos. The setting sun adds a golden sparkle to the birch, highlighting the yellows and browns, yet half the leaves are still green. A mashed potato sky is wisps of white against a blue bowl. Shari is first to notice the colorful sunset and shows me her photos. I take photos too as it changes in a pastel palette of red, orange, and yellow, and is reflected in Tibbitt Lake.
(Bert) We have reached as far north as we can drive, so today we start the trek south. There is only one highway out of Yellowknife and we are retracing the route to Ft. Providence. We stayed up late last night and awoke frequently to try for another look at the Northern Lights, but clouds intervened. Trying to catch up on what she lost, Shari sleeps most of the day while I drive. She hardly notices when I stop to put binoculars on three juvenile Hooded Mergansers that are much farther north than the field guides show on their range maps. I stop too to photograph an all-yellow aspen and an all-orange birch, some of the few that have started fall colors. I pass a sign warning of bison for the next 210 km, though this time I see none. I wonder what Wood Bison eat, since there is very little grasslands here and mostly it is boreal forest. We camp again at Ft. Providence Territorial Park, but this time the weather is ideal if not a bit too warm. While washing the RV, my attention is diverted to a bird in the trees overhead and I add Palm Warbler to the trip list. The Mackenzie River runs behind our site and Shari grills steaks over the campfire I built.
(Bert) It was warm enough to keep the side windows open last night and I listened for owls. Soon the heavy rains came and I think it lasted most of the night. It is still raining as I refill our water tank and dump our other tanks. And it is still raining when we go out for breakfast, when we cross the Mackenzie River by ferry, and when we drive most of the day to Hay River. We stop at the Visitors Center and Shari makes contact with a bird photographer who comes to see us and discuss birding spots should we come back next spring. He has lots of good ideas and will research my questions and get back to us by e-mail. I admire his bird photographs, one of which won Honorable Mention in a nationwide contest. I particularly like his photo of Northern Pintails that stops the action of water droplets as they take off from a local lake.
I ask him yesterday’s question about Wood Bison. Apparently the Wood Bison eat grasses just like the Plains Bison and although we could not see the grasslands, they are interspersed in the vast boreal forests. Then he told me about the anthrax deaths. In spite of all the rain we have seen in the past day and night, it had been very dry. Waterholes in the forest where bison often gather had dried up and instead of wallowing in the mud the bison were taking dust baths. Anthrax is always in the soil and the dust baths brought the spores into the air breathed by the bison. Those so exposed die quick deaths, but do not transfer the poison to other bison. Management authorities quickly burn the bodies of dead bison to prevent them from being eaten by scavengers. When the rains resume and the dry earth is no longer stirred up, the anthrax deaths stop.
It is still raining when we pull into a campsite and I plug in the electrical cord. We stay inside for the late afternoon and evening, rather than face the constant rain.
(Bert) Again it rained throughout the night but has stopped when I walk from our campsite to the sandy beach on Great Slave Lake. Winds excite the choppy water and lift gulls and terns into unorganized flying flocks. On a small sandbar island a large flock of Caspian Terns shelter from the wind. Surprised by their number I take a count and reach 102. I would have thought that was the most I had ever seen at one time, but when I check my records I see it is second high, the highest being 249 at Crooked Tree, Belize.
Again today we drive in rain. We head to Wood Buffalo National Park, the largest park in Canada. In fact, we spend most of the day driving across a portion of the park. Set aside in 1922 to protect the dwindling number of Wood Bison, management instead brought in Plains Bison carrying diseases. In 1959 a small heard of 200 Wood Bison were discovered and in 1963 18 healthy animals from this herd were transplanted to the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary. Driving Highway 5 today we encounter mostly loners: one at KM138, one at KM196, and three at KM231.
The park is mostly boreal forest. I notice incredibly dense stands of Jack Pines. The pines are only about head height and packed so tightly there must be thousands per acre. Counting them would be like counting the number grass stalks in your lawn. We stop to look at a sinkhole that reminds me of Belize as there are many of them there also. It is a hole created by a karst cave whose roof has collapsed. This one is filled with emerald green water. We reach Ft. Smith and camp for the evening. It is still raining when I attach the electrical cord but after an hour it has stopped, so I build a campfire with wood supplied by the park. Sandhill Cranes call as they pass overhead. Tomorrow we will look for their nesting areas.
(Bert) The rains of the past two days have finally stopped and we are going to have a good weather day. First I attempt to drive to a spot on the Slave River where American White Pelicans nest. This is the largest pelican nesting site in North America, the farthest north, and the only one where they nest on river islands. Unfortunately, the road is slick mud today and I am afraid I could slip off the side. I’ll have to save that visit for another trip. So, I turn around and head back to Highway 5 on solid pavement or at least well-maintained gravel.
The highlight of the day is visiting the salt plains, the Whooping Crane nesting area. Although our chances of seeing a Whooping Crane are slim, it will be interesting to see the famous nesting areas. I have a few old biology books that I collected through the years. One of them, written in the early part of the twentieth century, discusses the demise of the Whooping Crane. It was sometime later when the nesting flocks at Wood Buffalo National Park were discovered and the species was not extinct after all. And, after that, in 1937, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect the flocks wintering habitat in Texas. We reach the salt plains by a narrow gravel road through boreal forest, much of which is the black charred trunks from a recent forest fire. Miles in from the main highway, we come to the end of the road, stopping atop a cliff that overlooks the vast salt flats below. We can hear, though not see, flocks of Sandhill Cranes. With my spotting scope I scan the many miles of salt flats, counting over 300 Canada Geese, but no cranes. A trail leads to the flats and a park ranger said he led a group there a few days ago and they saw Whooping Cranes, including a juvenile. Next time we visit, we will take the trail too, but now we are back on the road again. After I drive most of the day, Shari takes the wheel and within a few minutes I spot a Sharp-tailed Grouse on the side of the road. Shari does not stop. I wish she had, but I record the sighting anyway.
(Bert) Our first stop is Alexandra Falls. Not as wide as Niagara Falls, but it looks almost as tall, although I can see no sign announcing its height. Then it is back on Highway 1, heading south and out of Northwest Territories.
A large decorative sign marks the 60th Parallel, the border with Alberta. In fact, the 60th Parallel defines the border across western Canada, separating Yukon Territory and Northwest Territories from British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. We are at approximately the same latitude as Homer, Skagway, Watson Lake, Fort Liard, Fort Smith, and the northern tip of Labrador. We are quite a bit north of Churchill, Manitoba, although one would not guess that from the boreal forest terrain here compared to the tundra of Churchill at cold Hudson Bay.
We have not been to northern Alberta before. For today at least, the scenery is the same as southern Northwest Territories, i.e., boreal forest. It should be different tomorrow. For the night we camp at High Level in an aspen woods.
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