Magnetic North: Canada's Northwest Territories
Updated: Jan 11, 2022
"Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world."
-- Gustave Flaubert
In the late 1980s, I was obsessed with travel to the far north. To this day, I can't really say what it was all about. The best way I can describe it is to say that it was both an attraction to the great geographical void and a need to find an emotional safe harbor in my travels that became a driving fixation. There was something so mysterious and alluring about it. It represented more than a geographical construct of vast proportions. The idea of going there was like planning a trip through the unconscious mind -- on the road less traveled -- to the places at the fringes of human habitation where nature reigns supreme and wilderness stretches out toward the horizon unblemished and yet unravaged by the 20th century. I struggled mightily with anxiety and panic attacks in my early 20s, and the north was an emotional and psychological salve. It was a welcoming beacon that offered me a sanctuary away from the daily torment of my anxious mind and an opportunity to find a meditative place of self-reflection. In 1988, I decided to drive to Canada's Northwest Territories on both an exploratory mission and as an elixir for my constant stress.
I did a fair amount of research prior to my trip. I called Northwest Territories Tourism and requested some travel literature, which they promptly mailed to me. Getting there was just a few days' drive from Seattle. After calculating mileage there and back, I determined that I would need a full week to make the round-trip drive. I was also still a student at the University of Washington, in my junior year, working as a typist and taking summer semesters off to recharge and make my short getaways. Work was a constant, however, even in the summer. Time away from work represented lost income, so I had to save like mad and keep my travels short. Like the summer before when I traveled to Juneau, Alaska, I had planned to travel on a shoestring budget, camping whenever possible and keeping expenses to a minimum. I would also be traveling solo, for the second time in my life -- a proposition that was far less frightening than it was the first time around.
About the Northwest Territories (NWT)
Canada has 10 provinces, and in 1988, it also had two territories: the Yukon Territory and an immense Arctic expanse of more than a million square miles known as the Northwest Territories. Its land mass made up more than a third of all of Canada. To put this into perspective, you could fit all of India within the borders of the Northwest Territories. Nearly all of the territory lies above the 60th parallel of northern latitude (with the exception of a few islands in Hudson Bay). It stretched east from the Yukon out as far as Baffin Island and as far north as the Arctic archipelago and Ellesmere Island where the northernmost permanently inhabited place on Earth is located: Alert, just 500 miles from the North Pole. The NWT had a total combined population of around 75,000, which gave it a population density of one person per 16 square miles. Its capital city is Yellowknife, situated on the north shore of Great Slave Lake.
In 1999, the geography of the Northwest Territories changed dramatically — a new territory was carved out from within its original borders. Called Nunavut, it was created to provide the native Inuit people of Canada their own means of self-government. About two-thirds of the eastern portion of the Northwest Territories was reorganized under Nunavut, which now includes Baffin Island and Ellesmere Island. Its territory encompasses more than 800,000 square miles with a population of just 38,000. Its new capital is Iqaluit (f/k/a Frobisher Bay), with a population of just 7,700. It is a place I plan to travel to one day; it was on my bucket list even before it sprang into existence. Today, as a result of the territorial split, the size of the Northwest Territories, while vast, is just under 520,000 square miles, just slightly larger than Peru.
There are three highways you can drive to get to the Northwest Territories. There's the Dempster Highway which starts in Dawson City, Yukon and ends in Inuvik, NWT. There's the Liard Highway which starts along the Alaska Highway north of Fort Nelson, BC and ends in the Northwest Territories at the junction with NWT Hwy 1. The third is the Mackenzie Highway which starts in northern Alberta and ends in Yellowknife, NWT. This is the highway I chose to travel -- it was the closest and most direct path northward for me to the NWT border.
July 8, 1988
In the early morning hours of July 8, I loaded up my silver 1984 Honda Prelude, and headed east out of Seattle along I-90, my body awash in adrenaline with the excitement of what laid ahead of me. When I got to Spokane five hours later, I detoured off the interstate and picked up the thread of US 2 heading eastward, crossing into Idaho at Newport. This was not my first visit to Idaho -- I had been to Coeur d'Alene a few months prior with a friend. On Highway 2, you pass through the small towns of Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry in the northern tip of the Idaho panhandle. Here's a photo of Lake Pend Oreille near Sandpoint that I captured on the drive:
It doesn't take long before you are at the Montana state line. This was also not my first visit to Montana. On that same trip to Coeur d'Alene a few months prior with my friend, we drove to Lookout Pass summit where Montana begins, crossed the state line and then turned back toward Seattle, all for the sake of claiming Montana as "a state visited."
My goal was to get to Kalispell, Montana that evening where I would find a campground to set up my tent and spend the night. I thought Kalispell was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen, a small town in a green, picturesque valley, completely surrounded by mountains. Just a few miles east of Kalispell, near Hungry Horse, I found my campground:
July 9, 1988
Early the next morning, buzzing with anticipation, I packed up my tent, got back in my car and headed north into Glacier National Park. The drive through the park was, for lack of a more grandiose term, breathtaking. It was at that time in my life, the single most beautiful drive I had undertaken. The opening scene of the 1980 movie, The Shining, was filmed along the park highway climbing northward toward the summit. It was a spectacular way to begin my second day of travel and one that left a lasting impression on me. At the top of the highway, where it reached Marias Pass, I crossed the Continental Divide for the first time in my life.
The road through the national park dumped me out onto US 89 at St. Mary, MT. I couldn't help but notice a roadside curiosity just about everywhere I traveled in Montana. Although many states used to do this, Montana is the only remaining state to mark the location of highway fatalities with white roadside crosses. They are still maintained by the American Legion. It was sort of a grim reminder of the importance of staying alert and of practicing safe driving habits. Here's one I spotted along the highway:
At St. Mary, I turned northward toward Alberta and the Canadian border, crossing a mere 25 minutes later.
Alberta has a unique, sweet smell about it, especially in the summertime. I think it must be all of the brilliant yellow fields of blooming Canola plants that exist nearly everywhere. You start to see them immediately after crossing the border and you continue seeing them for hundreds of miles as you travel northward. Here's one that I spotted in the far north of Alberta at the end of the northern prairies:
Before long, I was rolling into Calgary, Alberta's largest city. It is home to the famous Calgary Stampede which was already underway when I arrived in town. I didn't have time to linger and see what it was about, but I did get a few shots of the city and of some of the reminders of the 1988 Winter Olympics that had just concluded a few months prior.
The drive from Alberta's southern border to Edmonton is a drive through extremely flat country. These are the northern North American prairies and they make up most of the landscape of southern Alberta. To get to Edmonton from Calgary, it's just a three-hour drive due north along Alberta Highway 2 over redolent and monotonous prairieland. Edmonton was where I had planned to spend the night. It is Alberta's second largest city and the northernmost city in North America with a population of more than one million. Edmonton would become a city I would visit more frequently in coming years, but this was my first experience of it. (Check out my blog on "Canada: The Western Provinces" for more information on Edmonton.) I checked into a Holiday Inn downtown and promptly began exploring the city. Here's a shot of the central business district from my hotel room:
That night, I went to a bar and met a man named Brian. He was a dentist and had a condo in a newer building just on the eastern edge of downtown. When I told him about my plans to drive up to the Northwest Territories, he mentioned that he had once been to the remote Inuit village of Tuktoyaktuk, NWT on the coast of the Arctic Ocean. An avid golfer, he said that when he was there, he actually played a round of golf, on a course laid out over the permafrost. He used orange golf balls, presumably like everyone else, so that they could be more easily spotted. I was a little jealous of his trek to Tuktoyaktuk. It was one of those places I really wanted to see, but couldn't afford to get to.
July 10, 1988
Brian became my tour guide the next day. He drove me around to see the highlights. One of the things we did was go out to the West Edmonton Mall. It was the world's largest mall at the time (until 2004) and continues to be the largest mall in North America, even larger than the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. The West Edmonton Mall has an indoor amusement park with seven thrill rides (including the tallest indoor rollercoaster in the world), an indoor miniature golf course, water park and skating rink, along with a shooting range, a replica of the Santa Maria and a hotel. I imagined it was the perfect place to escape the bitter cold of winters in Edmonton.
July 11, 1988
This was the day of my final push northward. I left very early in the morning, driving north out of Edmonton on Highway 2 toward Peace River. My goal was to reach Hay River, NWT before sundown where I would camp along the shore of Great Slave Lake for the night. As I drove further north, the prairieland began to give way to taiga forests and a slightly hillier landscape. Just a few miles west of Peace River, I connected with Highway 35 -- the Mackenzie Highway -- the road that would conduct me on a nearly straight northerly shot into the Northwest Territories.
There wasn't much to see along the way, and there weren't many vehicles on the road either. One of the blessings of the route was that it was paved the entire way and well provisioned with the needs of motorists. The Mackenzie Highway is sparsely dotted with small communities here and there, but I always managed to find a gas station and a place to eat. High Level, Alberta was the last relatively good-sized town along the road before the 60th parallel. It was there where I stopped for gas and food and a few photos. This was a mileage sign along the highway just as I was heading north out of town. The first two destinations on this sign are still in Alberta -- the last one is in the Northwest Territories.
At this point, I was alive with excitement. From High Point, it was just a two-hour drive to the Northwest Territories. Time seemed to slow to a crawl, however. That's the thing about anticipation -- the more powerful it is, the longer it seems to take to get there -- and I could not get there fast enough. There's quite literally nothing to see along the highway except for the stunted trees and the pavement itself. When I began to see a little more signage, and then the welcome center coming up on the horizon to my right, my heart began to beat that much faster. At the border, I stopped to get a few pictures. Someone was there already and was kind enough to get this photo of me at the welcome sign.
I stopped at the welcome center, grabbed a few brochures, asked a few questions of the people working there, and they gave me a lapel pin of the NWT logo -- the white polar bear inside a blue circle.
Hay River was at least another hour north. It was already getting pretty late in the day. Because I was already so far north, the days were much longer and the sun wouldn't set that evening until close to midnight. Not wanting to lose precious time, I started back north along what became Northwest Territories Highway 1.
The pavement also abruptly ended there. The next 50 miles or so were over hard-packed gravel at a much slower 90 km/h speed limit. I stopped at Alexandra Falls along the way to get this spectacular picture:
Just before the road forked at the town of Enterprise, the pavement picked back up. At Enterprise, a turn to the left would take you to Yellowknife, eventually. A turn to the right would put you on Northwest Territories Highway 2 toward Hay River, and eventually onto Highway 5 to Fort Smith, NWT which sits spang on the border with Alberta. Before long, I was pulling into Hay River.
I found the campground easily enough, put up my tent and then wandered out to the beach. Hay River sits at the southern end of Great Slave Lake. It is the deepest lake in North America and the second largest lake in the NWT. This was my view of the lake that late summer evening just before sunset. My campsite was just 100 feet away.
And this was my campsite:
Hay River is very small, but has restaurants, gas stations, a few places to stay and a small business district. The next morning, I drove into town to find a place to get breakfast. The license plates of the Northwest Territories are probably the most unique that I have ever seen. They are in the shape of a polar bear:
July 12, 1988
Sunrise comes very early this time of year, this far north. I was up with the sun that morning, eager to get a fresh start on my long day of driving. In truth, I really wanted to go as far as Yellowknife. There were two major impediments that kept me from continuing on northward: (1) time -- I had precious little of it to make the journey to Hay River as it was; and (2) the rough highway -- I wasn't too keen on driving another 600 miles (round trip) over a gravelly, bumpy surface, alone, with barely a soul to flag down in case of mechanical trouble, plus a ferry crossing at the Mackenzie River (today, there is a bridge where the ferry used to take cars back and forth). I would have to postpone a trip to Yellowknife for some future date -- a date that is lamentably still unplanned somewhere in my future.
Instead, I started the long drive home, southward, retracing my path for the first four hundred miles. I spotted a black bear along the Mackenzie Highway, somewhere in northern Alberta. It was just poking along the shoulder of the road. I failed to stop for a photo, and regretted it almost as soon as I drove away. It was along that same stretch of highway where I experienced the most violent electrical storm of my life. It got so bad I had to pull off to the shoulder for a few minutes.
When I got within a few miles of Peace River, I reconnected with Alberta Highway 2, then continued west. Nearly two hours later, I was in British Columbia.
And in a few more minutes, I was rolling into Dawson Creek, BC, mile zero for the Alaska Highway.
Just outside of Dawson Creek, I found a nice campground along the Kiskatinaw River and put up my tent for the evening. It had been a very long day of driving.
July 13, 1988
I was still two days away from home at this point, still very far north in British Columbia, but I had hundreds of miles of stunning scenery to look forward to. I would be traveling along BC Highway 97 nearly the entire way. This photo was taken in the northern Rockies near Pine Pass, BC:
My next stop was four and half hours away in Prince George, BC. It was here the year before where I hung a left on my way to Alaska and followed the Yellowhead Highway (Trans Canada 16) all the way out to the Pacific Ocean and Prince Rupert. This time around, however, I would linger a bit more. I stopped for lunch and a few pictures. Here's the business district from one of the taller buildings in town:
After lunch I jumped back on Highway 97, continuing south, stopping for the night in Quesnel (pron. kwih NELL). Since it was raining, I sprang for a motel room, not wanting to deal with a soggy tent and sleeping situation.
July 14, 1988
On my last day on the road, I made the entire drive from Quesnel, BC to Seattle before sundown, about a nine-hour drive. It was more like a race to see how quickly I could close the distance. By this time, I was ready to be home and looking forward to the resumption of my life in Seattle. I crossed back into the United States at Sumas, Washington:
Though brief and hurried, this journey north did for me exactly what I needed it to do. It provided me with a sense of excitement as all exploratory road trips tend to do, as well as a psychological palliative for my jangled nerves. It also gave me further confirmation that I can do well as a solo traveler, alone on a lonely highway, enjoying the intentional solitude and appreciating the stillness of thought at times, as well as the days-long opportunity for self-reflection.
. . . Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!