It was supposed to be a straightforward adventure. And then my path turned to water and light, life and death, and deep time.
My best laid plans always leave room for surprise.
It was supposed to be straightforward. I would take another road trip to a bison destination to gather blog and story map content. I would add to the project I sweated over for 18 months to publish– and then recovered from , letting it languish online for a year. My day job swelled with opportunity to innovate and lead. I suddenly found myself mentoring two college interns. I needed to divest myself of the whole Barbie Western Ranch kit after my last horse died. The country descended into surreal chaos. Too much going on to think, write, draw, communicate anything personal.
This trip, I would take time to decompress. The interns would be back at school. I would spend more time traveling, four days driving to Northwest Territories and Wood Buffalo National Park and three weeks on the road. I meticulously penned the plan on a pre-flight wait in March. I scheduled the trip for September to avoid mosquitoes and crowds. I left an itinerary and emergency numbers with my sister, neighbors, coworkers, friends. I would check in regularly. All set.
But my journeys, no matter how strategically planned and defined in scope, always lead somewhere I don’t expect. This time, it was meant to be about wildlife, documenting travel tips, history, updating neglected blogs with new stories.
And then my path turned. The journey became all about water and light, the randomness of life and certainty of death, and deep time.
It will take me awhile and a few posts to unpack this journey. I packed not only my gear but also a strange and dangerous organism that dogged me all summer and almost won. I drove across a national border and turned off the news to ignore my country in historic chaos, anger, and agony. The unexpected changed my perspective at every stop.
I’m not superstitious, but I will always carry a small wooden square carved from an ancient tree, pressed into my hand by a Métis man who struck up a conversation with me. He insisted I take the square with me to ensure my survival and safe return to Canada in the future. He asked me to look up the real history of St Paul des Métis, where the tree once lived. He wanted me to share the story as far as I could. People needed to know the truth, he said.
At the time we spoke, I wasn’t sure I could do that. There might not be another trip. Ever. By that point in my travels, I felt overwhelmed, almost done in by a microscopic pathogen, and meaningless in the face of time. I wasn’t sure it mattered what happened to me. This was supposed to be a simple adventure and now I felt like a kayaker spilled into infinite rapids, grabbing a breath anytime I surfaced in the sunlight.
Then, after that conversation, the tide turned- suddenly, finally.
Here is the path I followed, a route that landed me in a place unimaginably old. Watch for updates as I set out on the road for my first destination: Blue River, British Columbia.
(A) Snohomish, Washington
(B) Blue River, British Columbia
(C) Saskatoon Island Provincial Park, Grande Prairie, Alberta
(D) Sixtieth Parallel Territorial Park, Northwest Territories
(E) Hay River, Northwest Territories
(F) Peace Point, Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta
I arrived at Hay River only to find a connection to another northern destination I visited not too long ago.
The next leg of my journey unexpectedly closed a loop on a trip I took to Baffin Island in 2015. The 2-hour run from 60th Parallel Territorial Park to Hay River made for a short driving day and an opportunity to explore. At Hay River, I found a place connected by water to the remote lands I trekked not too long ago.
I do appreciate journeys alone to explore and reflect. But when I spend too much time submerged in memories, I feel like an Inuit orhpan standing on cracked arctic ice above waters full of lurking beings with dubious intent. The Qalupalik might crawl out of the water, shove me into its amauti, and slip back under the ice. I might fall into the cold, dark sea and get tangled in Nuliajuk’s hair forever.
So it is nice to come up for air once in awhile. Mystified? Check videos at the end of this story.
I traveled to the 60th Parallel and Hay River via the MacKenzie Highway. Highway construction was started in the late 1930’s, delayed by World War II, and continued after the war ended. The road reached Hay River in 1949.
There are few roads in this area, but they are invaluable for residents and resource extraction. Road building is an adventure here: bridges must span wild rivers to replace ferries and ice roads, and fuel for construction equipment is expensive.
Along the roadside varicolored wetlands increased in forest breaks. Some areas looked like muskeg with scrawny aspens and stunted spruce leaning precariously over treacherously soggy ground. I saw tamarack turning yellow along the roadside. Beaver dams were large, and if this eagle is any clue, good hunting grounds.
At one point, I saw an animal walking the roadside, and as I came upon it, a person. A woman in full bush gear and mosquito netting was walking a cow. I thought I might have been on the road way too long for sanity, but I discovered the source of this apparent mirage later that day.
Hay River’s history is about resource extraction small and large. The first peoples to occupy the area after the last Ice Age would have come for fish, game, and birds, following the rivers and portaging around falls.
Today, the economy of the Northwest Territories is founded on mining. NWT is rich in diamonds and mineral resources. When I stop at the Hay River Visitor Center and buy gifts a few days later, my bounty is packed into a DeBeers Diamonds reusable bag.
Hay River also sees the sealift set off with food and supplies- including furniture and cars- from the Mackenzie River to coastal villages.
I learned that the sealift that serves Baffin Island starts at Hay River. Sealift operations are a lifeline for remote communities, as I saw in 2015. When lingering pack ice prevented the ships from accessing these communities, the federal government set up an emergency ice-breaking operation. The villages were running out of rations and fuel and would have been in trouble if winter set in early.
The NWT government has ambitious goals to increase tourism as an economic contributor. The “Tourism 2020” goal is to increase awareness of the area as a destination and raise tourism income to $207 million/year. The Northwest Territories has a more active tourism campaign with “Spectacular NWT” than my own state does!
Winter has been a big sell for Yellowknife as a destination to see the aurora borealis (northern lights). Locals tell me that plane loads of people arrive from Japan all winter, and hotels are full.
For people like me, wildlife and nature nuts, the ground and forest of NWT holds as many suprises as the night sky, and guess what? There is an autumn aurora season, when summer visitors are gone, and the winter tourists are still at home packing.
I arrived after my short drive on a Saturday, with time and options for activities. I checked in early to the wonderful Hay River Territorial Park campground. This campground had actual campers, many in RV’s. Some looked like seasonal residents. The campground is tidy, with a central, heated washroom/shower room and a laundry. There are more amenities, but the campground manager encouraged me to skip setting up my tent and take advantage of events in Hay River.
First I stopped at the Fisherman’s Wharf for a plate of beer-battered whitefish and chips. It was the last day of the season for the Saturday market, which I had marked at home as a must-do. There were a few vendors for arts and goods, and several for fish and chips. I will bet the wharf is jammed during the summer.
I ordered and chatted with the women cooking the fish. Whitefish were declining in the rivers and lakes, they said, and they were not sure about the effects of development and mining on water quality and fish. But fishing was their livelihood in season, and they would continue on until they couldn’t. I could go fishing with an outfitter if I had time, they told me. Maybe next time; this time I would just indulge in their catch.
I ate my fish and chips at a table in the sun and watched a young girl chase seagulls. The day was cool and clear, with the thin fall sun lighting up the boat planters.
I reached Hay River Territorial Park and Fisherman’s Wharf across a bridge that connects New Town with Old Town (maps located here). Old Town, exposed to the surrounding waters, was submerged by the Great Flood of 1963. The entire population was evacuated as ice jams that had held back spring meltwater burst and crushed the town.
The New Town area was built so that people could move back to safer ground. But some returned to Old Town and stayed on Vale Island, accessible only by boat and winter road. Driving through old town, you can reach the abrupt and unassuming end of the Mackenzie Highway in Hay River. Along the way there is unmarked access to a serene, driftwood-strewn beach where you can sit and gaze across the Great Slave Lake.
After lunch, I stopped at the Hay River Museum, around the corner from the wharf. I am a huge fan of community museums, and this one did not disappoint. You will never see a place in three dimensions until you will view donated collections listening to stories told by a local volunteer docent.
What popped out as I was coming in was a round wooden sign that said, “ZOO”. The gentleman behind the counter started to laugh when I pointed at it and raised my eyebrows.
“That sign has a story,” he said. It came from one of the oldest buildings in Hay River, a complex of restaurants, hotel, bar, general store, post office, and even pharmacy. The Zoo held a lot of memories but not much structure after 70 years of subarctic weather and heavy use. Apparently people were upset by the loss of the dilapidated complex and felt it should have historic designation. One man got drunk and stole the sign, convinced it would be destroyed. The next day, hung over and embarrassed, he gave it up and here it sits on the porch at the Heritage Center.
My host was a retired tug captain who plied the Canadian Arctic his entire career. He thought it might be nice to live somewhere warm, so he bought a retirement home in Arizona in a development full of retirees. He hated it so much that he sold the house at a loss and came back to Hay River. “I liked the warm weather in winter,” he said, “but that was about it.”
The museum traced the town’s history from a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading post to a hub of commercial fishing and finally, a center for shipping and second home to men working the mines. As always, there was a suitcase with gas mask from World War I. There is always a gas mask, a reminder of why international diplomacy is preferable to war.
Ancient fossils were the most surprising find to me. It was starting to dawn on me that I missed something very important when I researched this trip.
The exhibits included a display about indigneous peoples of the area, along with various sashes of the Métis. I got one burning question answered: the origin of the lake’s name. Apparently the Dene people settled in this area were known as the “Slavey people” by the Cree. This is reported to be wishful thinking by the Cree, who enslaved their enemies. Great and Lesser Slave Lakes are named after the Dene.
The museum had clothing donations that likely will inspire some faux-outdoor collection on a runway at some point. If these models could move, they would take selfies and declare themselves Instagram influencers. Because… attitude. And style.
On the wall hung a ceremonial parka designed for the Hay River Centennial Choir. The Centennial Choir heralded 100 years since Queen Victoria ceded “Rupert’s Land” and the “North-West Territories” to Canada. The choir recorded an album, “North of Sixty”, to commemorate the centennial.
My host gave me a collection of photos of the Inuit. “We ran out of the photo collections for the Dene and Cree,” he said. “I hope that’s okay.” I told him I had traveled to Nunavut and that was just fine. He talked of remote villages he visited there as a tug captain based in Hay River. “It was a good job,” he said.
I gather retirement still doesn’t sit well with him. I wonder if it will be the same for me, or maybe I’ll just wander small, remote towns and community museums until I pass on.
My last stop was the Hay River Trade Show, recommended by my new friend at the Museum. The trade show has two components, a community festival and a commercial hall. I paid $2 to visit and dropped into the community room first. There, awards for produce, arts, and crafts sat proudly on tables. Artists and crafts people sold their wares at other tables, and I found an interesting poster on the Northern Farm Training Institute– owner of that cow I saw walking on the roadside.
In the commercial section, shiny trucks and fancy ATV’s were parked around the room. Outdoor clothing hung on racks. I found a wildlife photographer and bought some cards from him, then stopped at the NWT government table. The helpful NWT employee talked me through economy, fishing, and tourism, and gave me a coffee cup, lens cloth, and fish recipe book.
The NWT government does a stunning job promoting the region. My state is wishy washy about this as everything else. We just assume people will flock here. As our largest company stumbles on an oversized airplane that couldn’t, I wonder if we should take a cue from NWT.
Finally, I returned to camp and set up for the night. I was unusually tired, but determined to get up for the aurora, which would be visible after 11:00 p.m. I put my camera in the car, set up for the night sky, and turned in after a cup of cocoa.
On the way back from the bathhouse, I glanced at the mowed play area and saw a fox. It was jaunty and comfortable, play-pouncing and then rolling in the grass. I dashed back for my camera but it vanished into the forest before I returned.
I needn’t have worried about setting an alarm to get up. I had seen a trendy young couple in chic outdoor wear head for the beach with a tripod, camera, and bottle wine before dark. About 11 pm, their car alarm started going off. They weren’t there to turn it off, and grumpy voices started drifting from sites near and far. Finally, a man arrived, did something magical, and the alarm made a sound like a dying duck before falling silent.
I ddin’t dare try to get my camera from my car. What if I set off the panic button on my fob? I walked to the beach in the dark and watched the aurora shimmer across the water. Headlamps on the beach marked photographers. I wondered if I should chance getting my camera and tripod out. But it was cold and I felt heavy and tired. I headed back to camp.
Near the tent, two foxes darted by me, then paused and looked at me. Lithe and curious, they looped around my legs. One sat down, facing me. I faltered, puzzled and unsure what exactly to do, if anything. I wondered if people feeding them. They must have decided I wasn’t worthy, and skimmed across the road into the next camp.
I turned in with the grim feeling that I might be falling sick again.
Below you will find the Inuit stories I referenced above.Enjoy!
Finding myself back in a long-forgotten place I once knew
As I continued north in Alberta, something felt hauntingly familiar. You worry about this feeling as you get older, wondering if some sort of neurological decline is setting in. It did not really gel for me until I reached the 60th Parallel that I had traveled to a place I already knew.
When I was 12, my mother decided abruptly- as, on a Tuesday- that we would leave the rat race of Chicago and move to northern Minnesota. By Thursday we were back at our apartment packing up. The move might have saved my brother who was going astray with too much opportunity for trouble in the city. It might save both my brothers in a neighborhood where boys were being stalked by a serial killer.
A few years before, my mother had purchased a small cabin at Hovland, Minnesota from some hippies. She had saved everything she could find to buy a tiny place with no running water or electricity. We had spent a few summers there, with family friends tagging along. My grandparents visited once, but stayed in a tourist cabin; our place was too basic. Now we would move for real, to a place that was no place for city folk to spend a winter.
Our years in Minnesota were no Hallmark holiday special . My mother’s high-risk move didn’t resolve as pastoral bliss, with sunbeams radiating from parting clouds at the end of an hour minus commercials. I didn’t transform into a young Rachel Carson, an urban child suddenly enthralled with nature. I never even realized I was standing in the largest biome on the planet, the boreal forest.
Minnesota then was the place I just wanted to leave. In my own words from some years ago:
I sat on the shores of a frozen bay along massive Lake Superior, gazing at the Northern lights shimmering across the sky. I sat huddled in an oversized, ugly snowsuit, sorel boots, wool hat, and lined wool mittens. I was as lonely and bent toward the future as any teenager stranded in a foreign and isolated place. I wanted to be far away from trailers, cabins and shacks. I wanted to breathe without the smell of propane heaters in ice fishing huts, and the choking fumes of diesel, gas and oil that ran buzzing chainsaws, growling logging skidders, and screaming snowmobiles. I wanted to run from a strange world of drunkenness and teen pregnancy and domestic violence punctuated seasonally by the puzzled eyes of well-appointed city tourists seeking natural beauty.
If I could dissolve into light, I imagined, I could rise to the sky like the Northern lights and catch a ride on stratospheric winds to some faraway place where my mind’s eye could already see sunlight and hear laughing, chatter, music.
We lived in a land divided, with white folk living in Grand Marais at the foot of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and the Grand Portage band of Chippewa Indians on remnants of their former lands by the Pigeon River. Well-intentioned city dwellers streamed in to escape their rat race, bringing their culture with: they started community theaters, reading groups, and artisan shops. Tourists flooded in during the summer to visit Isle Royale, and to cross-country ski in the winter.
The rest of the year, local people were left facing each other and facing off. Nurses from the Grand Marais hospital were caught gossiping about their patients at the Blue Water Cafe. People gossiped about my mother, a single white parent living on the rez with her kids. I learned about domestic violence, alcoholism, and suicide from my classmates. I learned about turning in and eating your young from adults.
The reservation kids were slowly banished from school in Grand Marais. They would slump in the back seats in class, then slowly disappear. It wasn’t their fault. Palpable disapproval washed over them as they sat there. I could feel it sweep past and watch them turn away. We got scorned as children of a single parent, but my skin color exempted me from the worst of it. Maybe they thought we could be saved.
I spent a lot of time outdoors when I wasn’t reading or teaching myself to draw. I spent a lot of time alone. I was miserable but determined to get by. I got treed by rutting bull moose before an elder helped me understand that where wolves follow the trail moose stay away. I figured out how to deliver trash to the dump without ending up with a black bear cub in the truck. I learned to ski and fish, to skin a deer. I planted trees and worked at the local resort for money. I watched northern lights.
The natural experience shaped me into the person I am today while the human experience left me focused on one thing: getting an education and getting out. I finally did, returning once when my mother was killed by drunk-driving teenagers and then when my brothers threw their share of her ashes into Lake Superior from the Hovland Dock.
The noise, glare, and claustrophobia of city life never suited me after that. Decades later, I bought the only house I’ve owned in river flood plain, where only a few crazy folk like me would chance it. I have spent almost two decades planting a green barrier with only wildlife and few trusted people welcome.
But even in a farm with no farm lights, I will never watch the northern lights dance. A dome of artificial light from exploding communities around me obscures the night sky. We can never escape the light or the noise here.
Now here I was driving north, not fully aware I was heading to a place I already knew, a place that shaped who I am. In northern Alberta, I traveled through boreal forest, complete with moose, wolves, and bears, and northern lights. The difference this time was a lifetime of experience and real longing to be there, eyes wide open and ears listening for the call of birds and animals moving through the woods.
The drive from Saskatoon Island Provincial Park to the 60th Parallel made for a long but interesting day. I headed northeast from Grand Prairie toward Peace River and eventually, north on AB 35.
Alberta’s roads are generally like Roman Great Ways. Vital links to resource-rich areas, they are wide, paved, and easy to drive. Hundreds of kilometers are treeless and mowed on each side to keep wildfire from jumping the road. Later in the trip, I talked to an Alberta rancher who harvested hay from the right-of-way.
Besides conferring some wildfire deterrence, the mowed areas provide great sightlines for wildlife. Ravens look as large as calves. It seems like Montana might benefit from this approach to avoid the slaughter that occurs spring and fall on their highways.
The drive changed character as I approached Dunvegan, Alberta on Hwy 2. I started to descend to the Peace River, with some warning of unstable geology.
The road is crossing the Dunvegan Formation, ancient sea bed with rich gas reserves and notorious instability. A geotechnical report from 1959 warned about conditions as a bridge across the Peace River was considered to replace a ferry system.
Eventually that bridge was built. The Dunvegan bridge, constructed of steel, was completed in 1960 as the longest vehicle suspension bridge in Alberta at 274 m.
You can take a drive over the bridge and through the scenery in this YouTube video (pardon the puzzling dramatic music- and here I thought I was a little weird about road trips):
Or better yet, stop at Dunvegan Provincial Park for a visit or the night. The park is at the site of historic Fort Dunvegan, a fur trading post. While I’m no more a fan of the fur trade than I am of logging or war, I believe it is important for us to understand that history. The fur trade decimated wildlife and indigenous peoples coerced or forced to support it, and has had ramifications for the environment to today.
Historic Dunvegan District includes not just remnants of the fur trade, but also historic trees. You can touch the bark of Dunvegan Maples brought to the area from Manitoba in the late 1800’s. I wondered how many historic moments include these furrowed trees as silent witnesses in the backdrop.
I could easily spend a full day at Dunvegan, but I know there is one thing I won’t be doing: hiking the hills.
Turning onto Highway 35, I returned to parkway like-conditions alongside the road. I found that mowing is not a guarantee that epic wildfires won’t jump the highway. Increasing heat and drought create potentially explosive conditions for wildfire. All bets are off when a fire starts.
High Level looked like a good stopping point when I first put together my plan in March. But as I traveled through southern Alberta in May 2019, I heard reports that fire had engulfed the area. I decided not to risk it and set my eyes on 60th Parallel Territorial Park as my next stop.
What I didn’t realize is that the fire chased High Level residents out of town a couple of times, but what really burned was Paddle Prairie. As I drove through this Metis settlement, I saw people clearing burned debris and rebuilding houses. I wondered why Paddle Prairie burned while High Level was spared; some reports say that Paddle Prairie might have been more impacted by unequal distribution of firefighting resources.
The settlers of North America were line drawers. When forced, they used natural features as boundaries. They preferred to slice and dice North America using squares, rectangles, polygons and placed abstract, sometimes arbitrary lines on paper and and on the ground.
The 60th Parallel is one of those lines. It divides the northern and southern provinces of Canada. “North of 60” is sometimes used to describe the provinces that lie closer to the pole, just as “Midwest” describes 12 states in the north-central U.S.
In addition to being an abitrary line, the 60th Parallel heralds your entry into a new province. This is marked with great fanfare as you enter Northwest Territories. Despite grey weather threatening rain and creeping tiredness, I felt welcome. I made it.
I stopped in the Visitor Center to check into my campsite. As usual, I looked a little silly, conditioned to reserve a spot even though I was traveling in off-season in a lightly traveled area. The woman behind the desk was friendly and funny, with great stories and good travel advice. I believe she was Metis from her stories, but I didn’t know if it was polite to ask.
The number of wildlife mounts increased at visitors centers as I moved northward. This may be due to the increased amount of wildlife you might encounter as a tourist, combined with the number of accidents and conflicts they have because of people. The nice employee gave me wildlife tips along with some tales of mistakes people made over the summer. There was the person who insisted on feeding the fox after she said it wasn’t allowed. And then a couple decided to camp in the backcountry with no preparation for bears. I would find signs of worse as I traveled.
There were few visitors. One couple making dinner in the day use area slept in their van. Another van drove up and stopped. The driver was a man who was all of 4 1/2 feet when I saw him on the ground. His van was modified to let him enjoy roadtripping like everyone else. He asked me if I knew how to pay for a site if the visitor’s center was closed. I told him I didn’t, but he could probably wait until morning. He said he had driven for eight hours and needed to turn in.
There was a potted cactus strapped into the passenger seat of his van.
I set up camp on a chilly night, ate, and turned in after a walk to the river. Just as I snuggled in my bag, the raindrops started to tap on the tent fly, first a few, then rat-a-tat-a-tat. My sleeping bag was cozy and I dropped off to sleep.
Rain fell all night, then stopped at dawn. The sun was rising over the Hay River as I strolled to the lone outhouse, bundled up against the damp chill. The small man was walking with a camera to catch the sunrise. I came back with mine and we nodded hello in passing. We’re all a little different here, I thought. And that’s alright.
I walked down to the river and looked up to see a canoe on the bank. That’s when it hit me. I had come back willingly– even at risk– to a place I once refused to call home.
Following the shore of an ancient seaway, I finally felt gone.
I no longer apologize for being a horse of a different color. You try to pass when you’re younger, but eventually, you have to come clean and just be yourself. One former friend hauled off on me in the fjordlands of New Zealand, demanding to know why I couldn’t just paddle a kayak like everyone else. Why did I have to ponder the history of boating and the physics of wind and waves meeting hull shape?
Even a few years ago, a project manager asked me in genuine curiosity, “Why don’t you just sit on a nice beach? Just relax? Why do you go to these places and do these things?”
I have realized road tripping is my beach time. It’s an old habit from the days I rode a school bus 35 miles from Grand Portage to Grand Marais along Lake Superior in northern Minnesota. We moved there from Chicago when I was too old to fit in. Reading and doing homework made me a target of ridicule, but tuning out and daydreaming did not. So I rode each way every day gazing out the window, faraway on an imagined adventure.
I road trip to relax today, stopping at places that help me piece together a picture of the world. I am not thinking about relationships or careers; I’m weaving a tapestry. I’ve road tripped mostly in the U.S., but also Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, France, and New Zealand.
I won’t apologize for my personality anymore, but I am swallowing a heavy dose of catholic guilt as climate change gathers like thunderclouds. I drove a fossil fuel burning car thousands of miles, sailing past oil derricks and active gas pads, as Greta Thunberg sailed to the U.S. to share young people’s frustration with our inaction.
The fact is, I would not be taking that trip in an electric vehicle without more infrastructure. There are charging stations in Alberta, including one in High Level. But there are none in Northwest Territories. And a bus to where I was going? Nope.
If a hybrid or EV broke down, I’m not sure if any of the few service stations along the way could fix it. Not going there is really the only carbon-saving option right now. Not traveling far may be our only option in the future, as it was in the past.
On my second driving day, I needed to get from Blue River, BC to Saskatoon Island Provincial Park, west of Grand Prairie. I intended to be efficient driving so that I could visit the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum before setting up camp. Fill up the tank, stop for lunch, stretch legs as needed, but keep moving.As usual, that was wishful thinking.
I guess I would be more subject to highway hypnosis if I were less distracted along the way. Something catches my eye and I’m out of the car investigating. The dramatic uplift in Jasper National Park caught me first. I camped there a couple years ago and hiked the park, a geologic preview of my current trips.
As you drive from West to east, you trace the fallout from subduction events that lifted the Rocky Mountains and drained an ancient tropical seaway. The warm, swampy wetlands and estuaries yield coal today; gas and oil come from ancient marine reefs.
I stopped in Hinton, Alberta to fuel up and stop at Freson Bros. for groceries. On a trip to Jasper and other Alberta sites, I stayed at the Hinton KOA and found Freson, passing by the big chain stores. It is a great place to shop, featuring Alberta products throughout the store. Then there this great mascot outside to greet you. This time, I stocked up on salad fixings and even found smoked salmon, something I couldn’t make this year because our salmon run never happened.
After my grocery stop, I turned north on the scenic Alaska Highway, running somewhere along the shores of the ancient seaway. I didn’t do any better making up time because I started seeing wildlife signs- for caribou! I’ve never seen caribou before, and wasn’t super hopeful they would be wandering the road in the middle of a nice fall day.
Caribou do migrate through this area, but in a different season. I caught up with more information when I reached the Grand Cache Tourism and Interpretive Centre. This is where I started to really get into the trip, greeted outside by a sculpture created by inmates at the Grand Cache Institution.
There was information about the Caribou Patrol, which is trying to reduce caribou deaths on Highway 40, and about caribou biology. I started thinking a stop at Big Berland would be good to add to a return visit to Blue River and Jasper; maybe I would see caribou for the first time.
The significance of the Grand Cache/Grand Prairie area in my journey is best summed up in this video about the area’s ancient secrets. It includes scenes from the Philip J. Currie Museum, where I was headed.
I made it to the Currie Museum in time to peruse the exhibits and pick up a few gifts (T. rex earrings for me) before it closed for the evening. The Currie Museum has great dioramas and even video (some of them a little gruesome, complete with screaming prey dying off screen). The museum is highly interactive, and staff are super friendly. The person who manned the reception desk and gift shop laughed when I told her the story of the Milk River dino that needed a hat to stop scaring kids.
“Oh, we had that when we opened,” she said. “We used to have animatronic dinosaurs on each side of the door. You would enter, and one would turn its head to look at you. Then the other would scream. Yeah, that didn’t last.”
But the best part for me- well, I got to touch a real fossil. I have found the last couple of years that I can be totally happy just sitting in the presence of fossils, trying to grasp vast time and imagine bones articulated, covered in tissue, and moving a live animal through the landscape. I’m good with the screaming.
Saskatoon Island has a walk-in tent camping area right by the lake. I felt like Goldilocks wandering through to find the best site. I was the only one in that section. I found a nice little private site, set up, and had a quick dinner before checking out the trails. I found waxwings, deer, a rabbit, ducks. I heard kingfishers somewhere. I did not find one of the moose they warn you about that evening. No, it wasn’t until I tried to sneak down to the water after dark to see if the aurora was out that I had stepped into the path of a moose. Fortunately, it let me scramble back up the path to my tent.
The trip was settling in now. Maybe setting up the tent made it real. Or the first museum visit. I had that “really away” feeling- finally.
Hitting the road with a little extra baggage and an unwanted passenger.
Important notes: This is installment #2 about a road trip to Wood Buffalo National Park and back. The straight up tourist info stuff will be posted here . This is the story stuff.
And some names are changed to protect the guilty.
It’s a short run to the Canadian border from my house if I head straight north. I avoid the Peace Arch crossing unless I am going bird watching in Delta. It’s too busy, with uncharacteristically unfriendly border guards. This time, I sailed through the border at Sumas.
Uncomplicated border crossings are one blessing of becoming a boring middle aged woman. I had far more trouble when I was younger and likely to be the target of drug dealers (“can you carry this bag over the border for me” is a real question I’ve heard). The younger guards make half-hearted attempts to snare you with questions about how a dinosaur dig is run or the actual location of Wood Buffalo National Park. When you blather on with happy paleontology chatter or your driving route to Northwest Territories, complete with scenic stops, they wave you through without examining your car full of gear. I won’t be abusing this privilege any time soon because I know they keep records.
Blue River was the first stop on my drive to Northwest Territories. I selected it as a potential short trip destination. This small town is short day’s beautiful drive from my home, and definitely worthy of a longer return trip. While it was a stopover on this trip, it is an outdoor recreation destination. Summer offers hiking and paddling, river ecotours for wildlife viewing. Winter offers cross-country skiing and snow-sledding.
Blue River wasn’t a town when indigenous peoples would have cherished the area for the abundance of wildlife- and likely fish- at the confluence of the North Thompson and (of course) Blue Rivers. It became a hub for fur trading and later, the railroad. In the 1940’s, interred Japanese Canadians were put to work building the Yellowhead Highway that forms part of the Trans-Canada transportation system. Blue River is supported by logging, transportation, and tourism.
I didn’t have time to do much at Blue River besides survey the area for future trips. I drove and walked to chart out what I would do on a long weekend holiday sometime next year. Evening and rain were falling.
Right before turning in, I walked out of the campground to find an eerie protest scene. I know the story- indigenous peoples among others (including my state) are protesting an expensive boondogle of a project to parallel an existing crude-and refined-oil pipeline and extend it to the coast. Once a private project by Kinder-Morgan, the controversial project was taken over by the Canadian government to the tune of billions in taxpayer funds.
I photographed the red dresses hanging in the forest and the protest signs as the night fell. I heard voices but saw no one. I realized standing there in the rain that I couldn’t be too judgy about Kinder Morgan’s pipeline, having driven there in a fossil-fuel driven vehicle built of mined and manufactured materials. At what cost?
I had chosen family-friendly Blue River Campground as my stopover. It was casual and inexpensive, with a shower room for campers. I rented a small camping cabin instead of setting up my tent. Cheap and convenient.
And very necessary since I really was not well.
I bought my house 19 years ago from a couple notorious for their drinking. She was a mean drunk; he was violent. They drank every day in the short time I knew them. Morning started with coffee, then beer. Mixed drinks appeared by midday, straight hard liquor by mid-afternoon. She lathered family and neighbors with insults and profanities. He muttered and swore, occasionally whirling red-faced on anyone he imagined might be Viet Cong.
I learned this only after signing the agreement to let them rent for thirty days. They said they needed time to pack up a quarter century of belongings and memories. She showed me a closet full of frothy finery and photographs from her days riding costume class in Arabian horse shows. The house was filled with hearts and flowers, the yard littered with garden gnomes and homey plaques, perhaps to counter her poisonous malice toward all of humanity.
The barn was full of clutter except for a corner of the hay loft where armchairs and tables offered a place to watch the sun set over the river from an incongruous picture window. I cleaned out piles of cigarette butts and used hypodermic needles lining the rafters above. An addict’s man cave.
I feared Kevin the most during the week before they threw a boozy moving party for friends and left early. In that time, I was caring for one of my horses and building paddocks for the rest of the herd to move in. If Kevin wandered by in the afternoon and sensed a threat, he would whirl on me, roaring incomprehensibly…then slur an apology and stumble away, eyelids sagging and red.
It was a good thing I did not know about the hot tub incident then. My now-beloved neighbor told me how Kevin shot a man in a drunken rage. He imagined the man was flirting with his mean wife at a liquor-fueled hot tub party. The man’s back took the bullet; the hot tub was intact. The victim was airlifted to our Harborview trauma center by helicopter from the back pasture. Kevin did 3 years in jail. The victim never walked again. Kevin was out now, and they were leaving the house and the memories behind.
My immune system is Kevin. I live with a belligerent, paranoid, twitchy drunk within. My Kevin has a nemesis, too: not the Viet Cong, but Gram-positive bacteria that sneak in via skin wounds. When Kevin sees them he blows up, throwing glasses and tables and chairs. If it gets too bad, he whirls on me as the enemy and comes out swinging.
The only way to stop the chaos is to coldcock Kevin, dropping him flat until he sobers up. It’s only been once that Kevin really blew it, 13 years ago. This year, I blew it.
On a late-May trip to Alberta detoured by rain, wind, and snow, I didn’t think too much about bugs. I had only one nice weather day, during a visit to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. There were a few mosquitoes. Days later, when my shoulder stung on a hike in Waterton National Park, I assumed my camera and backpack straps were chafing. That raised bump I could feel? Probably a blood blister.
It was only when I arrived back home a week later that I looked closer. The blood blister seemed to be moored only on one side, so I pulled- and pulled it off. In true horror movie style, the legs of a bloated, long-embedded tick wiggled at me in protest.
The pathogen had already worked its way from the tick’s mouth parts under my skin, but the urgent care doctor mistook infection for bruising and decided to be conservative about prescribing antibiotics. The next day, angry red streaks raced toward the lymph nodes in my armpit. Kevin looked up from a long, sober slumber.
By the time the infection was under control, Kevin was out of it and coming for me. On the worst night, I drove home from work exhausted, feverish, and in crippling pain. I had left the door unlocked and ajar that morning, knowing I wouldn’t have the strength to turn the key in the lock and twist the knob. I pushed the front door open with my shoulder, shuffled to the couch, and laid down fully clothed for the night. I was too weak to fix dinner, take a shower, climb the stairs to my bedroom. I lay there breathing, listening to the air rasp back and forth across my throat, wondering if I would wake up the next morning.
I did, and decided to take control and break some rules. I broke into emergency travel meds and called my doc to demand reinforcements. Within hours, Kevin was down for the count, sullen and subdued. Two weeks later, he had retreated back to the addict’s man cave.
But the bacterium was still there. Pathogens are talented at hiding in systems built to expel them. They lurk in lungs that should cough them out, settle in pooling urine that should flush them, swim among our intestinal flora and suddenly stage a coup. They shield themselves with biofilms or spore coats, sometimes hiding under lesions we build to wall them off. This one settled somewhere south of my kidneys.
When two rounds of antibiotics failed to prevail, we cultured to identify the enemy. The day before I left on this trip, my doc called me as I sat among train commuters traveling home from work. She sounded befuddled, said it was a really odd one. Notoriously drug-resistant. I couldn’t ask for more detail with everyone looking at me. Train riders abhor medical discussions, and it would be too late to call once I got home. She would post lab results and send me with a drug and a back up.
I asked the obvious- should I really travel into the hinterlands? She thought maybe yes, and she had spent years serving remote villages in Alaska. She should know, right? She was going on vacation, too. “I’ll see you when I get back, Miss Monica,” she said.
In my simple little camping cabin at Blue River, I curled up shivering in winter weight clothing and a puffy sleeping bag. The cabin’s portable heater blew hot air full bore as the rain fell outside. I fell asleep and dreamt of red dresses flowing languidly in a chilly breeze among the dark trees in a damp forest.
I had made it. I got myself on the road and was leaving the cocoon of home. I was on my way.
Sometimes, being a runaway and accepting the kindness of strangers brings you home again.
You look up from your breakfast cereal as a 7-year old and your mother tells you you’re a helium balloon.
“You will always need a hand to hold that balloon string,” she says. “Or you’ll just drift away on the breeze.”
My mother knew early on that I would never really be settled. To make it in this rigid world, I would need ties to something solid. When her steady hand vaporized in a terrible accident, I knew those ties wouldn’t likely be human anymore. I made it on my own, and settled in with what I could live with: horses, dogs, wildlife, career.
On left are the first horses of my life, strolling through small town Midwest like you do. On right is the last horse, when he and my nephew were about the same age.
I earned my way and gave back a lot of volunteer time. I traveled, learned new outdoor sports, and almost bit the dust a few times. When my first career betrayed me, I found a new one to support my home, hobbies, and animal companions.
Then slowly, I lost one animal after another to age and illness. After awhile I didn’t replace them; it was tiring being the Noble Queen of Death. Twenty years after he arrived, my last horse died in agony at my feet this spring. I watched him chained up into a truck bed and hauled away. Now it’s just me, the wildlife, my doubts, and my job.
After Larkey died, my unmoored balloon went adrift. The first week, I donned my barn clothes by habit every morning, but there was no one to feed. I didn’t go out to his paddock when I got home from work. There was no one to turn in, and nothing but signs of struggle there.
I was wracked with guilt about the ten thousand lost moments when I could have done something better for him after his brother died. All the times I worked too long, rushed chores, and left him to eat dinner alone. Sometimes I left him alone for my travels.
I tried to reimagine the barn. I planted flowers in his feed bins. I left the doors open day and night because closed, it looked like a tomb that might trap him if he ever decided to come back.
Still, nightmares drove me sleepwalking to feed ghosts in the barn. Reassuring daily routines ended. I had failed Larkey. I failed all of them. Everyone and everything.
Before I drove myself crazy, I did what comes naturally: pack up and go. I’m guessing most folks don’t take two back-to-back 1000- mile road trips to Saskatchewan just to get away. But that first drive in June meant hours to daydream, the ghosts disappearing in between the highway lines flowing past the rearview mirror.
And Saskatchewan welcomes wandering souls looking to lose themselves to endless sky and mysterious lands. The northern reach of the Great Plains, southern Saskatchewan is scoured by ancient glacial floods and swept constantly by wind. Where the land is not broken for crops, dinosaurs sleep in shallow soil beneath the bones of bison and the stones of tipi camps.
On a few high plateaus, forests cluster against potential invasion by the surrounding plain. The Frenchman River bends upon itself in a tight ribbon, winding through dry country on its way to meet the Milk and the Missouri.
After storms roll over the land, emerging sunlight light illuminates the rivulets of long-evaporated torrents. After the wind and lightning, sometimes stinging hail, you can step into the low sun and let grief rise on the wind and draw into the retreating clouds.
Lest you think I wallow in drama, know that I am damn good at putting on a face and going through the motions. I made it through college finals two weeks after my mother was killed. I lent a shoulder and an ear to anyone who needed it when a friend shot herself. I’m a pro. I don’t cry.
And I know how to occupy myself while the worst of the hurt fades.
So it made perfect sense to return to Saskatchewan when a budding Parks Canada paleontologist told me that Grasslands National Park hosts a fossil hunting week in August. Hunt for dinosaur fossils? Sure, never done that. Never met a live paleontologist. Hang with the visitors and locals who come for barbecue and music on Saturday? Perfect. I could have fun playing science tourist, put on a face, and forget.
Then my mask got knocked a little sideways when the horses started arriving for the Saturday wagon rides. These are tourist rides. Not long rides, but long enough to make you wonder how the backs of westward-bound pioneers did not break as their wagons rumbled across on the prairie. At the turnaround point, a young interpreter gives a short talk about grasslands. Other local folk bring their horses and ride along.
A rancher with one arm packed in a sling rode a white horse. No, they don’t need shoes here, she answered. It’s dry enough that their feet don’t go soft and sag, get bruised by rocks and then abcess. And shoes would be terrible fire hazard, with metal spraying sparks from rocks. Of course, I said. She knew what rain rot is, and why our West Coast horses wear blankets when the skies cry all winter.
Then there was the dun horse. I know what dun is: a gene that dilutes the hair color but leaves a pattern of dark hair in a dorsal stripe and ear tips. Tail and legs can be dark, with a “primitive” zebra pattern on the lower legs. I know this from books, but I’d never met one. It’s a different color, subtle, maybe not flashy enough for some of the more chrome-conscious horse folks I’ve known.
I asked Mr. Norris if he was raising his horses, but no, he said they were bought. The family had given up on horses and used ATVs. He still rode. He asked me if I had horses.
“No, lost the last one. Likely bad colic, couldn’t do anything by the time I found him. You know how it goes.” I looked away at the hills.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
We got back from the short, joint-wracking ride with time to spare before the barbecue. I sat on the porch of my rental tent cabin and watched the wagons and riders leave again. After they returned, a jackrabbit thought triggered me to grab my camera and go down to the gathering place. I found Mr. Norris and his dun horse.
“Do you mind if I take a photo or two of your horse?” I asked. “I do some art, and I’d like to sketch your horse. I’ve never seen a dun before.”
I couldn’t tell him I lacked the heart to put my own to paper or canvas.
He helped me get the horse’s attention, because a horse will always back its ears up and lay them flat when it sees a camera. They’re not like kids today, who spring into a pose when a lens appears. It’s beneath horses to clown for cameras.
Then Mr. Norris handed me a rein and just said, “Here, hang on to this.” He walked away.
I wouldn’t get on someone else’s horse unless expressly invited, but I wondered anyway. Instead, I did post duty and held the horse, carrying out what even the most outwardly polite, well trained horse appreciates: ear scratching.
“Getting on that widow maker?” asked a wagon driver.
I smiled and rubbed the horse’s neck, watching for the eyelid droop that signals a polite horse is grateful.
When Mr. Norris came back, I handed the reins back and thanked him.
He swung up into the saddle for the next ride along and said, “You know what Winston Churchill said, right? The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man. Or in your case, a woman.”
And it finally stopped. The bleeding inside, the catholic guilt. Something closed up, something quieted down. Without meaning to, Mr. Norris and his dun horse rode off with my ghosts and buried them somewhere in the sunburnt grass, the dusty ancient floodway, lying out there with the dinosaurs and the bison bones.
I went to the barbecue, and sat peaceful for the paleontology talk and music by local folk. It was like being back in small town Midwest again, only with science.
When I drove into my yard a few days later, the barn stood peeling in the sun. It was just a messy, neglected building needing painting and a good cleanout. Barn swallows, garter snakes, and bats ruled it all summer. Mud nests bulged from rafters. Occasional domes of guano ate at the concrete aggregate in the aisle. Feathers drifted in puffs of breeze.
Dusty water buckets and empty brush bins leaned unsteady in crooked stacks. The tarps still laid balled up on the floor from that last numb run to the dump with blankets and halters.
It was just a barn again. Labor Day was coming. I could start cleaning it then.
Coyotes are survivors with jackal-like smarts and extreme adaptability. And they’ve learned to work with human behavior.
We often think of humans as the eternal enemy of all wildlife. It’s natural to go there. Right now, we are causing the biggest mass extinction since the meteorite that tipped the dominoes, ultimately killing the dinosaurs and letting mammals prevail.
But some wildlife adapts to us and our behavior. A contractor on one of my projects says that gunfire is a dinner bell for grizzlies in Wyoming. The bears learn to associate shots with gut piles left behind by hunters field dressing game. This has caused bear-human conflict when the grizzly doesn’t wait for the hunter to finish processing game.
I see wildlife adaptability every time I rent a tractor and mow my fields. I’m renting because it’s cheaper than owning for the amount I mow, and I don’t want to get stuck hauling out a tractor if it floods. I rent just often enough to be cost-effective and to keep the grass from becoming too long to tackle. In between mowings, it grows thigh-high and shelters a population of rodents and insects.
Many raptors follow my tractor, for good reason. The rumbling and vibration of the machinery sends mice and voles fleeing through the grass, where they become easy prey. Those that don’t survive become dinner for scavengers.
Coyotes also figured out how to work around and with humans and our machinery. Canis latransfollows humans where ever we go, living off our leavings. They pursue our scraps and the animals atracted to our waste and the table we set for birds and pets. Coyotes have walked in our wagon tracks and footsteps, across trails and highways, to occupy North and Central America. As we exterminated their enemies, especially wolves, their populations grew and their territory expanded. They grew bolder.
Coyotes evolved away from the jackal lineage about 800,000 years ago. Today, they live across the continent, and not just in rural landscapes. They defy our attempts to exterminate them. They prowl cities and business parks. They have been sighted in New York’s Central Park. They aren’t picky eaters: insects, fruit, garbage, rodents, anything they can find. They may offer free rat control in large cities.
If you are on Nextdoor in my area, or walking our roads, you will see lots of “lost cat” notices. Outdoor cats in our area can fall victim to eagles, dogs, and coyotes; unlike the first two predators, coyotes rarely leave a trace behind.
Despite the fact that the U.S. government and property owners annihilate a half million of them a year, they are not at risk of extinction. They have figured us out.
After grey wolves were re-introduced in Yellowstone National Park, coyote populations dropped by half. They abandoned the apex predator behavior they developed when wolves were absent. Sure, they might sneak a bite of a wolf or grizzly dinner, but they know to hightail it when the owner takes notice.
My corner of the Snohomish River Valley had a stable coyote pack for a long time. They would yip and howl in winter far back in the fields. I would see them occasionally. Once in awhile, they would nab something from my yard at night and launch a raucous coyote party.
Then my hobby-farmer neighbor turned sheep out on his land without adequate protection from predators. His lambs got nabbed by coyotes, but instead of enclosing them, he went on a rampage after the coyotes with a gun the law says he couldn’t own.
He eventually gave up on the sheep like he gave up on everything. He killed the goats. A local butcher field dressed most of the pigs one day as I was driving home from work. the chickens vanished, most likely killed by eagles. Weeds have taken over and the few remaining animals roam unmanaged. They would be everywhere if he had not installed mesh fencing. Animal Services forced him to downsize and confine wayward cows that triggered too many complaints of property damage.
A year after the revenge killings for lamb nabbing, the rabbit population exploded. Rabbits frolicked in my driveway and destroyed my garden and landscaping. The coyote pack was gone, and the few animals around couldn’t navigate the mesh maze my neighbor installed.
Hope returned in June 2016, in the form of scat with cherries and occasional hair on the road and in my horses’ paddocks. I finally caught sight of a young coyote as I was mowing thigh high grass.
This young pup is on her own early. In the morning, she would flee when she saw me.
At first wary, this young coyote figured out after several hours that the tractor meant food, and by evening was following at a safe distance. I can’t imagine how the scrawny little thing stuffed so many rodents down her gullet. She was still at it after the tractor got turned off at sunset, stalking the grass for confused voles.
Most coyotes aren’t brave enough to follow the tractor like that, but they quickly learn that the sound means easy food, like the sound of gunfire to grizzlies. Every time I mow, they show up sooner or later. This year as usual, a young coyote showed up after a day of mowing to work the fields for voles exposed by the short grass.
The coyote was young, and very wary; the tractor was fine just as long as it didn’t stop. I wasn’t going to interfere with its job. Coyotes are here out West because they adapted to us and our ways. They thrive because we removed their enemies and we waste so much. These coyotes, like their ancestors, have learned to maneuver around us in the shadows, to use our paths and roads, to live on our leavings.