On Saturdays, Betty Ann pumps the gas in Wrigley. She’s in house number seven, with the two huskies out front, right next to the house with the VISA sign in the window. We get there around 2 p.m. and Betty Ann’s not there. Someone else opens the door a crack and tells us, “Store’s open now, she’s gonna meet you there.”
A half-hour later Betty Ann pulls up in an oversized black pick-up with flames on the grill. The “store” is a couple locked pumps.
For most of the year, Wrigley—kilometre 698—is the last stop on the Mackenzie Valley Highway; it’s the closest you’ll get to the Sahtu, home of the mountain Dene, without a bush plane or a boat. But for five weeks in late February and early March, graders clear a narrow winter road system nearly 600 kilometres through the muskeg, and transport trucks wind a slow convoy of supplies to the region’s five communities: Tulita, Délı¸ne, Norman Wells, Fort Good Hope and Colville Lake. Last year former Up Here editors Chris Windeyer, Angela Gzowski and I took a trip along the winter road to catch a glimpse of the NWT’s most isolated region.
The 248-kilometre stretch from Wrigley to Tulita is a truck-killing, axle-breaking, overflow-addled mess of hairpin turns up into the Mackenzie Mountains.
In our eight days on the road, we’ll encounter 32 tankers, 15 flatbeds (and one in a ditch), 12 Ford F150 pick-up trucks, 22 empty 8-Hour Energy Boosters, a string of Kokanee cans, sugar packets and headlight shards, one overturned vehicle, countless cabins, a couple hidden homesteads, one stranded local, and a few quick and rich lessons in the region’s politics, history, spirituality and changing lifestyles.
I ask Betty Ann for some highlights to look out for, but she shrugs, handing us our $168 fill-up bill (cash-only). “I don’t know,” she says. “Your change is at the house.”
Back at house seven, she hands us our $12 and laughs as she locks back up: “Come again princess.”
KM 700 : Wrigley
Survival gear recommended
Malcolm MacPhail is using the last bar of cell phone service before the dirt road ends to call home, Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. “My son knows I’m up here to better us,” he says, but he just wants to make sure. Before he chains up the wheels on his flatbed and heads out, he gives us a few points of advice for driving the winter road:
Number one: “Don’t do it. It’s cold.”
Two: Take your time. On the flat stretches, he maxes out at 40 km/h.
Three: “Watch your trucker mouth.”
Back in Yellowknife, we borrowed a satellite radio from a friend, and at the chain-up station, we set it to the frequency of the road. Right away comes a voice from the static: “Wide load at Dam Creek,” says a wide load, presumably at Dam Creek. “And there’s a nice little hole at the bottom here, that’s an axle-breaker.”
Other useful terminology for the winter road: truck killer (usually an unexpected rut or a pit on either side of a river crossing); overflow (a liquid or solid puddle formed when ice patches crack); highboy, fatboy, wide load, tanker, pick-up—that’s how you identify yourself to the other vehicles on the road. For the next 1,124 kilometres, our Toyota 4Runner goes lovingly by “four-wheeler.”
KM 811 : Wrigley to Tulita
Is this the right way to Vegas?
The 248-kilometre stretch from Wrigley to Tulita is a truck-killing, axle-breaking, overflow-addled mess of hairpin turns up into the Mackenzie Mountains. We cross a thousand sublime landscapes—massive rivers, crevasses and waterfalls—with disappointingly utilitarian names like Pipeliner Hill, Steep Creek, Overflow Creek, Dam Creek and Bob’s Canyon. It’s all so treacherous; so unendingly beautiful, it’s quickly exhausting.
That’s when the radio gets really funny. We laugh too hard when a tanker calls out, “Is this the way to Vegas?” Another truck broadcasts his chuckle just to show he’s listening. It’s all so unbelievably nice; at one point a tanker mentions some mechanical troubles and a wide load leaves a set of bungee cords on the side of the road for him. “Highboy at Steep Creek,” calls out another. “Kettle’s boiling for whoever.”
All told, it’s about nine hours to Tulita—making our average speed 31 kph. We pass a flatbed in the dark, just outside of town, and he clicks on: “there you go, four-wheeler, I’ll move over for ya.” “Thanks flatbed.”
KM 946 : Tulita
Would you like to take a look at the menu?
Winter road rule number four: eat a good breakfast whenever you get the chance.
Luckily, the convenience store in Tulita is open after 11 p.m. They’ve got one burger and one slice of pizza in stock. Chris takes the pizza; Angela takes the burger; I buy a chocolate popsicle and a handful of gummy worms. The empty rooms in the Two Ravens hotel are open, so we each take one. A quick sleep and we’re off to Délı¸ne in the morning.
KM 80 : Turnoff to Délı˛ne
A pivotal moment, an empty town
From her picture window on the shores of Great Bear Lake, Helena Tutcho can tell who’s in town and who’s out by counting the smoking chimneys. “Most people are out,” she says. “It’s winter road season.”
Some people use the Mackenzie Valley road to pick up supplies and new vehicles in Yellowknife, but for the most part, she’s talking about a different winter road system. It’s Monday; there’s a hand games tournament in Whatì on the weekend, and anyone who’s not an elder or a politician has taken to the traditional routes by snow machine—they’re faster, there are no speed limits there, and they don’t close in March.
There’s a bag of moose meat on the floor, a full can of Heinz maple beans, tea bags and a pile of cut logs for the fuel drum stove. Rule number five of the winter road, maybe learned from the Sahtu: take care of each other.
In the community hall, a roundtable discussion is being prepared for an upcoming ratification vote on self-government. (On April 1, 2014, Délı¸ne residents and ex-residents voted yes to self-government, which will transfer control of services like housing and education, to the community. But while we were there, everyone was on the campaign trail.) In the radio station, announcer Michael Neyelle is broadcasting to whomever’s left to hear him: “the government officials stole and lied to us: they promised us flour and sugar for our help and they never delivered. So why would we want that form of government?
”We introduce ourselves and Neyelle quickly shuts the door behind us. Now it’s an interview, but we’re not sure who’s conducting it. “Will you talk to us a little bit about self-government?” Chris asks. “Maybe you could say you’ve seen our [self-government] Facebook page and website,” answers Neyelle. “Maybe you could say you’re supporting it?”
KM 62 : Great Bear River
Rule number five of the Sahtu
Eighteen kilometres outside of Délı¸ne, we stop to investigate a tidy log cabin near the hoarfrost banks of the Great Bear River. There’s a bag of moose meat on the floor, a full can of Heinz maple beans, tea bags and a pile of cut logs for the fuel drum stove.
Rule number five of the winter road, maybe learned from the Sahtu: take care of each other.
KM 995 : Prohibition Creek
The Mason-Dixon line of the Sahtu
RCMP patrols run back and forth between Tulita and Norman Wells. Get caught speeding, that’s $850; tankers without chains, that’s $500 for each dual set of tires; bootlegging, seized liquor and a court date. Norman Wells has the only liquor store in an otherwise restricted region, and although it posts daily limits, “they’re more than I can drink in weeks,” says an employee. Winter road season is bootlegging season.
KM 1031 : Norman Wells
Something on four wheels will be a good investment
Back on the main route after the detour to Délı¸ne, I feel like even the sign on the hotel’s bathroom door assumes I’m an oil worker: “If you don’t flush, get out,” it reads. “Some people don’t want to look at your shit.” At the front door, we’re supposed to take off our shoes and the whole place feels like a work camp. Truck cabs are lined up idling in the parking lot for those who just need an hour or two.
Twelve to 15 tankers per day go up the winter road and most of them are bound for Norman Wells. But at about $20,000 a trip, 40 kilometres per hour and the odd spinout can get expensive. “Oil production in the Canol shale within the next five to 10 years is expected to be about 45,000 barrels a day,” says mayor Gregor McGregor, an ex-oil worker himself. That’s why he’s lobbying for an all-season road through the Mackenzie Valley “that will cut shipping times in half.”
As it stands now, the winter road nearly triples the community’s population every February. Most of them are oil workers, but there is also a regular flow of Fort Good Hope, Colville Lake and Tulita locals who meet up in the 50-year-old Chinese restaurant. There’s an ongoing family reunion in the lobby. Still, my fortune cookie is fittingly industrial: “Something on four wheels will be a good investment for you.”
“The Sahtu, we’re the forgotten region,” he says, and I’m not sure how he feels about that. On the one hand, the fact that there are no all-season roads in the region keep it isolated, and that keeps it traditional.
KM 1165 : A hazard
Rule Six: Watch out for helicopters
A helicopter starts up on the side of the road, about 10 feet away. Maybe we missed the announcement on the sat radio?
The hazards to watch out for on the winter road can be overwhelming.
KM 1160 : Norman Wells to Fort Good Hope
And all the good samaritans are out
Soon we come across an overturned F150 in a snow bank. There’s a towrope and sling hitch on the front and back fenders but no driver. All airbags deployed and the driver’s side mirror sheared off.
Up the road we run into Ron Pierrot, ex-chief of Fort Good Hope. “Just came to check on that truck,” he says. (The driver’s from Fort Good Hope, and he’s okay, I later found out.) Pierrot writes down his phone number and says to call him if we need a local guide.
“You could help me right now,” I say, pointing to a cliff face ahead of us. “What’s that mountain called?”
Pierrot takes us on a whirlwind tour of the Ramparts, a sacred place where he says many spirits have been spotted.
KM 1165 : Steep Hill
Sometimes it’s mood appropriate
A sign warning of a steep hill has been flipped by the wind but now seems somehow more accurate: The car is upside-down, clinging to the underside of a downhill slope.
KM 1180 : Fort Good Hope
“The Sahtu is the forgotten region”
“Never had a beaver tail?” says Ron Pierrot, in mock surprise. “The skin’s a bit rubber. Before you put it in the fire, you wet it first, just roast it and it blows up. Then you eat the inside with a little HP Sauce and salt. Nice and fatty.”
Pierrot’s worn a lot of different hats—community chief, winter road trucker, oil worker, diamond mine security guard—but the one occupation that remains constant is trapping and travelling on the land. “The Sahtu, we’re the forgotten region,” he says, and I’m not sure how he feels about that. On the one hand, the fact that there are no all-season roads in the region keep it isolated, and that keeps it traditional. On the other, business is difficult to develop without infrastructure. There’s only one local shop in town, for instance—Dwayne’s Convenience, with an employment rate of one.
Ayah was the last of four successive Dene prophets, who travelled through the region by dog team, teaching traditional ways, rooting out alcohol and providing spiritual guidance. It’s said he prophesized climate change, the NWT diamond rush and regional self-government, like the one ratified in Délı¸ne last April.
Pierrot doesn’t depend on a lot of outside services for his needs: he traps and hunts his own food and, like others in the region, still chops his own firewood. My lasting impression of the Sahtu will include a woodstove and a drying rack for meat in the living room.
“Oh oh. Oh oh,” says Pierrot’s brother-in-law, Manuel, tugging on one end of a beaver trap. “I feel something heavy.”
“Heavy’s good, right?” says Angela, gripping her camera.
No beaver. The trap just got tangled on a piece of dry wood. Manuel lowers the trap again. They’ll come back tomorrow. We’ll already be back on the road.
Our Lady of Fort Good Hope Church is an icon: it’s been restored many times since it was built in 1865.
KM 1095 Man stranded
“I like to fix things.”
Robin Tobac’s got a load of spruce boughs piled up on the back of his quad when we find him broken down. He’s got no hat—just a baseball cap—and an empty looking backpack. It’s -37C. He’s unconcerned.
He was headed to Norman Wells, says maybe he was going too fast.
“How long does it normally take you to get there?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I always break down.”
“Then why don’t you go slower?”
He shrugs. “I like to fix things.”
KM 946 : Tulita
A Sahtu prophecy
It’s Sunday morning in Tulita and Sister Celeste is out of town, but the Dene of the Sahtu have always directed their own spirituality anyway.
In the lobby of the church, I sit beside Boniface Ayah, a square-jawed elder with a bit of an Elvis look. On the wall across from us, there are framed photos of lost elders and one of his ancestors, Eht’se Ayah, the prophet of Délı¸ne.
Ayah was the last of four successive Dene prophets, who travelled through the region by dog team, teaching traditional ways, rooting out alcohol and providing spiritual guidance. “He never learned to read,” says Ayah, “but he could read the Bible.”
It’s said he prophesized climate change, the NWT diamond rush and regional self-government, like the one ratified in Délı¸ne last April.
Ayah still travels the traditional routes every summer to attend Délı¸ne’s spiritual gathering, and remember the words of prophet. “His travels tied the Sahtu together,” says Boniface, nodding.
KM 698 home stretch
“Anyone know if you can get into the store at Wrigley?”
Eight hours later, we’re back at the chain-up, hesitating to shut off our radio, even though we won’t need it for the highway back to Yellowknife.
“I wish every highway had a radio frequency,” says Chris. “Maybe there’d be less road rage.”
Through the static, we hear a few more transmissions:
“Sharla, did you text your auntie?”
(Silence. Implied: “Yes, I did.”)
“Hey, anyone know if I can get into the store at Wrigley?”
“What are you looking for, gas?”
“No, hoping to get some snacks.”
“No dice. First time on the road?”
“Yeah, just coming to the chain-up now.”
“Take ‘er slow, should be a few hours to Norman Wells.”
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story included a segment that incorrectly described the story behind Stella’s Place, a roadside monument near Fort Good Hope. We regret and apologize for the error and any distress it may have caused.