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Blind Alertness

Blind Alertness

A long drive on a short day
By Samia Madwar
Jan 13
From the January 2016 Issue

The fog wrapped around the sides of the highway in a dreamlike tunnel, cloaking the snow-speckled trees. It was a seasonal fog, the kind that appears as thousands of freshwater lakes gradually freeze, sending clouds of vapour into the air above them and blocking the view of the Northern Lights at night. 

Driving through it all should have been magical, but I was too nervous to fully appreciate it. I’d just left Fort Providence, my last stop on a nine-hour road trip from Fort Smith to Yellowknife, and the sun was falling in the sky. That last 300-kilometre stretch of the Mackenzie Highway is bison country, and the hulking ungulates tend to wander across the highway, openly flaunting the rules of the road. If I hit one, I’d not only severely injure or kill the animal, I’d write off my borrowed Ford Escape. I was on edge, but with only three hours of precious daylight left, if I drove any slower than the 100 kilometre-per-hour speed limit, I’d be driving in the dark. Every minute counted. 

As the road got hazier, I turned up the music, singing along to happy, distracting tunes, and my mind flashed back to a similar road trip two years earlier. It was early November, -20 C outside, and four of us were bundled into the same Ford Escape, driving the same stretch of highway. We’d had appointments in Hay River and Fort Providence that day, and it was getting dark by the time we started on our last leg back to Yellowknife. We’d been warned about the dangers bison posed to drivers at night. We’d heard about how bison eyes don’t glitter in the dark, making them nearly impossible to spot, no matter how bright your headlights. 

For over an hour we’d been joking, laughing, sharing our most embarrassing moments—you know, road trip talk—when suddenly, from the passenger’s seat, I saw the looming shapes ahead, darker than the darkness around them. 

“Ooooh! Ooooh!” I screamed, desperate for the right word. “Buff!”

The driver slammed on the brakes, stopping just inches short of one of the gigantic beasts. We watched the animal scramble to retain its footing and gallop after the rest of its panicked herd, which quickly disappeared into the trees. After a few silent seconds we drove on, slowly. 

That’s why two years later, on my first ever solo road trip, I started out at first light, timing my drive so I’d arrive in Yellowknife before dusk. I saw it as a race against time. I made only two quick stops to fill up, knowing I had just enough daylight hours to see me home. At each stop, I sent quick texts to my mom and my roommate:

12:18 p.m. “It’s a beautiful day in Hay River, where you get a free coffee when you fill up.”

2:11 p.m.: “Lots of love from Fort Providence!”

With no cell service for much of the highway, someone had to know where I last checked in, in case my car broke down—or crashed into an animal. I’d also packed blankets, a battery-powered lantern, a first-aid kit, and plenty of snacks. No matter how much you prepare in advance, though, I knew that it all came down to your reflexes—and luck.

The fog eventually lifted, and I switched to an audiobook, getting lost in a story about survival on Mars. As I approached the sounds of traffic and the lights of Yellowknife airport with about 20 minutes of daylight to spare, I slowed to the city speed limit and crawled home, wishing I could’ve felt more triumphant and feeling a little silly for taking the drive so seriously. And still, my trip hadn’t been completely accident free.

It had happened in broad daylight, about an hour outside Fort Smith. I’d sped past a few flocks of grouse thinking that, like pigeons, they’d fly away at the last second. But one bird I approached seemed frozen in the middle of the road. I nudged the car closer, watched it disappear beneath me, and waited for it to flutter past my window as it flew to safety. Instead, in my rear-view mirror, I glimpsed a rush of feathers, and I realized what I’d done. I drove on, stopping for each flock I saw after that, waiting for every last grouse to get out of the way. That cost me two minutes at the most.