Traveling Canadian Ice Roads: Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan
Traveling Canadian Ice Roads:
Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan.
12 January 2018.
I was nearly pacing the floor waiting for Julie to finish her course in the morning to come and collect me. It is hard to know what a person is going to need in northern Canada. I was already far north in Fort McMurray, Alberta, but we were going to be heading much further north than that on an ice-road…further north than most Canadian minds think of, to Fort Chipewyan where we would go dog-sledding!
I packed my work boots because they are warmer than a pair of mesh shoes that I presently wear in the dead of winter. I am on the 56 parallel of northern Canada while the temperatures of the moment hover between -31° Celsius and -37° and I am wearing mesh shoes. That is not even an exaggeration of my stupidity. Mesh shoes are what I have been wearing in -34° weather, and I bitch all of the time about how cold I am…
…Perhaps I am the one holding up the entire human race from developing at a more accelerated rate.
So, I packed some mitts that Fatty stole from work and delivered upon request, a pair of insulated coveralls, a warm hat, and a jar of moonshine. I was hoping to trade the firewater for some pelts!
Julie got to my house at lunch time and we went to pick up some snacks from the supermarket as the price of everything in the north gets out of hand due to isolation. Julie told me that I am ‘adorable’ not long after I got into the car. She still seems to have some Stockholm Syndrome leftover from being stuck in a work trailer with me through Christmas.
Of course, everyone within earshot of a conversation about our trip from Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan was concerned about the drive and were suggesting we carry jerry-cans of extra fuel. Julie had two containers with her. In -34° I filled them and we put them on the roof of her car to strap down. Unfortunately, one of the containers was a leaker, so we had to discard it at the house of her sister. It was our second visit to her sister’s house as we had stopped there before fueling up because we wanted to borrow ice-skates…
…The skates were so that we could get glam-shots of each other being pulled by a rope behind a car while skating down the actual ice-road. Just picture that for a moment… Photos like that are necessary!
We got out of Fort McMurray at 13:17, heading due-north. There is no road from Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan in the summer so Fort Chipewyan is completely isolated at that time unless you are flying in or arriving by boat. However, in the winter there is an ice-road that makes for an easy 3.5 hour, Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan 280 km trip.
As we drove through Fort Mackay and continued north, we eventually arrived at the gate of the fabled ice-road. Julie and I high-fived as we crossed the gate and entered what is obviously ‘very north’ yet not even close to what is true Northern Canada. Canada goes way way further than what people refer to as ‘north.’
The speed limit on the ice-road was 80km/h, but the path was so smooth in many places that Julie was pushing the car to 120km/h. In other places the road was a little like a roller-coaster with slight thrill-hills which it got a little nauseating as I am a lousy car-reader, so being the deejay conflicted with my stomach’s agenda of trying to be cool.
There is no possibility of getting lost on the road from Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan as there is one road. “Where are we?” “I am not sure, but we are not there yet. We will just keep on driving down this one particular road!” There is no mobile phone coverage for any of the drive so there was no choice but to be old fashioned and talk to each other for the trip. We also really got into singing. We found out that ‘Let Me Be There’ by Olivia Newton-John can really highlight a drive if you both take on singing roles and your part is the difficult task of trying to hold a serious face while trying to get those low notes of that back-up singer… You know the song. Okay, here are a few lyrics to jar your memory…
See, I knew you knew it!
We drove over rivers and across part of Lake Athabasca and then suddenly we were in Fort Chipewyan. The hamlet was much larger than either of us were expecting. So, we cruised town to have a feel and then pulled up to THE bar, the Athabasca Cafe, for a celebratory drink. Before we got out of the car I told Julie, “You look beautiful.” She did. She responded with, “…Oh…I thought you were just doing that thing again. I think you actually meant it. (aside) You never know with this one.”
You have to keep them on their toes!
As we walked into the Athabasca Cafe, Loretta Lynn’s ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ was playing on the jukebox. It was playing on a real jukebox. And that jukebox would not take coins larger than a quarter. I had not seen a jukebox like it in 15 years and the add to the beauty, the song titles and artists for selection were nearly all hand-written! We ordered an $8 beer each in the Chinese run cafe/bar and indulged on a very small $8.75 plate of french-fries that we shared. Each fry was about the equivalent value of the .25 coin that I had put in the jukebox which gave me two tunes. The songs lasted much longer than the fries! The jukebox was far better value…
The jukebox even made us friends. As I was reading the handwritten song and artist labels, a couple came in and the man said, “George Jones,” from his table as they sat down. That opened conversation and he told me he was a local. He pointed to his wife and said, “But she is from East LA.” He snickered and then said, “Lake Athabasca.” They told us how to find Johnny Michael’s Bed and Breakfast where we were booked and they told us how to find Robert Grandjambe’s place. Robert Grandjambe is the man who runs the dogsled rides in town and it seems that he is something of a local celebrity.
After the jukebox finished a while after the fries were finished, Julie and I went to find our home for the evening. As we were about to check in for the night she noticed a clear mason-jar of liquid in the back seat of her car. She asked, “Is that your water?” and before waiting for my answer she responded with, “That is so cute.” I told her, “No, that is our moonshine. That is our firewater!” She exclaimed a naughty swear word in surprise! Julie’s excitement levels were high at that clear jar.
She had not thought me to be serious when I told her I had managed to find and brought moonshine!
Johnny Michael was a very friendly fella who directed us to our $150/night room. He told us that we are crazy for driving up in -34° weather. We were. That was clear. My mesh-shoes made that obvious. We unloaded our prized possessions at the Bed and Breakfast and eventually got to Robert Grandjambe’s home before it got too late as it was rounding 19:00.
Barbara and Robert Grandjambe were so welcoming and accommodating.
On the phone a couple of days ago they had invited us to their home once we arrived in Fort Chipewyan to spend time chatting with us. They wanted to meet us even though our dogsled ride would not be until the following day. Robert would later tell us during our time together, “I’ve got this thing about yakking. I like to talk to people…” Both Barbara and Robert indigenous to the land both are incredibly knowledgeable trapping-life. Trapping-life is their life. We sat around there table and I truly enjoyed that there were some interactions between the two of them with single words in Cree language.
Chatting with Barbara and Robert made me feel embarrassed that I know so little about the northern part of this continent. There was nothing that I knew about trapping and living off of the land before I met Barbara and Robert Grandjambe. I was a complete blank slate so the conversations were fascinating. Robert explained that he has a 180 mile trap-line (290 km). He has the the trap-line of several families because no one traps anymore. It takes Robert three days to get around his trap-line by snowmobile. He has over 1000 traps set on the line and a couple of small cabins to use to sleep while making the rounds. Some of the his catches are martens, rabbits, wolves, wolverines, and lynx. All of the furs are sent to the Fur Harvesters Auction in North Bay, Ontario.
The seasons change trapping. Robert will not begin trapping fully until the end of January when the animal furs are full. Around Christmas time every year, a creek that runs around an area of his trap-line swells by one meter. He attributes this to Christmas light usage and B.C. Hyrdo having to release more water to make more electricity at a hydro-electric dam to accommodate the demand of power. It is fascinating how such a simple thing can effect someone living off the land.
Robert told us about how specific animals have traits and that sometimes a wolverine will follow him on his trap-line. The wolverine will steal all of his catches in the traps. So, Robert said the only choice is to trap the wolverine. But the wolverine is smart and it knows something is up when someone it trying to trap it. The wolverine wonders why unnatural steel is in the woods and it does not trust the situation.
Sometimes the wolverine has it figured out that there is a trap in front of the bait so Robert has to set a trap a few feet back from the bait as the wolverine would never expect it there and may step in it. It takes clever work to outsmart and trap a wolverine. He described a time to us where he had white 20L pails on the trail that were baited and a trap was set in the snow in front of the pail. The wolverine knew something mischievous was happening and figured out that he could tip the pail and dump out the bait. He dumped out all of the pails on the trail and ate all of the bait, hassle-free.
After leaving Barbara and Robert’s for the evening, Julie and I saw some locals in a pool-hall when we drove past. We went in for a beer and made friends. Everyone was very happy to meet us. They could not believe that we drove to Fort Chipewyan for a vacation and thanked us for coming. We spent much of our night chatting with on elder named Joseph who told us much about life in the community. It was an absolute pleasure to meet the people of Fort Chipewyan. Everyone was so nice and so welcoming. Fort Chipewyan is closer to Fort McMurray than Edmonton, but no one would ever think to go to Fort Chipewyan to get away from Fort McMurray for the weekend. We had found a wonderful little secret.
The people were so wonderful to meet.
A lot of firsts happened today. First time in the far north of Alberta. First time on an ice-road. First time driving on a lake. First time duet-ing an Olivia Newton-John song not from Grease. First time learning about trapping. First time having beer with elders in an indigenous town.
After a couple of beer, she and I went back to the bed and breakfast without a title. We were non-needing of one.
…A very exciting dog-sledding day lay ahead…
A few more photos of the Traveling Canadian Ice Roads: Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewayn: