Friday, 30 March 2012

Canada: the very end of the road

Heading north towards the Canadian Arctic.
I walked across the border on to a very quiet road indeed. But I wasn’t going to let a lack of cars defeat me: I was on a mission to the top. To the Arctic Ocean and the top of the North American continent.

That said, a lack of cars wasn’t really going to play in my favour either. Since I had taken the crossing at the Port of Roosville, whereas most traffic would cross further west from Washington or further east up the I-15, traffic was light to the point of being almost non-existent. I walked. Soon enough, my desperate smiles successfully stopped a family coming back from a day’s shopping in the US. They drove me to the junction town of Elko, where a truck stopped almost immediately. I was initially fascinated by the thoroughly different accent the Canadians have compared to the Americans, before realising this man was Ukrainian.

The first glimpse of Canada after crossing from Montana.
As if to welcome me to Canada, the snow began to fall. It was soft at first, but soon became a blizzard that completely obscured the road. The driver didn’t stop – he must have driven the route so many times he could manage it whatever the weather. We arrived after five hours on the outskirts of Calgary, a cold and windy city. I took a bus into town and met my CouchSurfing host.

I couldn’t have asked for a more Canadian experience: the next day, we went curling! One of the more bizarre winter sports, it is strangely addictive. It might look a tad silly to be wearing one slipper and sliding in a lunging pose while your teammates brush the ice like some deranged housewives, but getting those heavy stones to stop in the middle of the target is an immensely satisfying feeling. Calgary itself is a modern, pleasant but uninspiring city. While I liked the metal artwork of the pedestrianised centre, I perhaps didn’t give the place as much time as it deserves. I was keen to go north.

The modern streets of Calgary.
I took a Greyhound bus to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. It surprises and annoys me that pretty much the sole long-distance bus provider in the US and Canada has a service that is more expensive and about twelve times worse than anything in, say, Peru. The seats don’t recline and the legroom was clearly tested on an amputee crab. Needless to say, the two nights, 32 hours straight, was not the most comfortable portion of my trip. Still, the landscape is incredible: beautiful, snowy mountains are fronted by half-frozen lakes that reflect the thick pine forests. As you get further north, passing through British Colombia and into the Yukon, giant fields of white line the road.

The stunning scenery on the way to Whitehorse.
At Watson Lake there is a forest unlike no other. It’s a forest of signs; the Sign Post Forest. Back in 1942, one US worker put up a sign pointing towards his home town of Danville Illinois. Others followed suit and it soon became a tradition. There are now some 75,000 signs there, forming an eerie world of other people’s memories.

Signpost forest, Watson lake
Continuing along the Alaska Highway, I arrived into Whitehorse at 3.15am and whiled away a few hours by sitting in Tim Horton’s (Canada’s favourite coffee shop) until the hostel opened at 8am. The hostel was warm and cosy and sleep beckoned, but I decided to stave it off by exploring the town. The best thing to do if one is tired is of course to visit a brewery. I and some other backpackers took advantage of the Yukon Brewing Company’s free tour followed by free samples. Their beer varies from simple, pale lager to coffee-infused stout, which is like being kicked in the mouth by a drunk Colombian.

I walked off my wooziness by wandering the town. The piles of snow and the crisp, blue skies lent it a serene atmosphere, and the sight of a boat frozen into the river against a backdrop of the prominent Grey Mountain spoke of the beginning of a very different land.

The SS Klondike, frozen in for the winter in Whitehorse.
What a different land indeed. I was fortunate enough to meet a girl in the hostel who happened to be driving to Inuvik the very next day. What’s more, she was actually friends with my Galapagos shipmate with whom I was just travelling! The world’s a small place. So, together with a random Japanese tourist who was up for an adventure, off we set the next morning along the Klondike Highway. It heads up into the hills, through mountain passes and out into the wide, white plains. The first settlement of note is Dawson City, some 530km from Whitehorse, and a fuel stop is all but essential here. Frustratingly it involves an 80km detour off the Klondike Highway, but it more than makes up for it by way of charm.

Along the Klondike Highway heading north.
Not that we stayed long: it was already -20°C outside and blowing a gale. We made a car tour of the small streets and classic 19th century wooden buildings before popping into the Jack London Bar. It really did look like the sort of place Jack London would have hung out writing his stories of life in the Arctic, complete with a man in a hat playing the piano. The bar is possibly equally famous for its ‘toe’ shot, whereby an actual human toe is placed in a drink and one must consume said drink whilst allowing the toe to touch the lips. They wouldn’t let me do it, citing a rule about it having to be done in the evenings only. I would’ve done it. Honest.

Charming but cold: Dawson City, YT.
And then we continued, this time up the Dempster Highway, and I was continually stunned by the world around me. It was beautifully desolate; a captivating wasteland of snow. The mountains were caked from base to tip in pure, shimmering white, without hint that the rock is ever exposed to sun. The road was sealed but iced over – I was in awe of how well the car stuck to the ground.

North on the Dempster Highway
We arrived in Eagle Plains at 9.30pm while there was still light (already at this time of year it stays light until very late, and they gain some fifteen minutes of light a day!) There’s simply a hotel and a petrol station, and how well they know they have no competition. We were charged $180 per night for a room – by far the most I have paid on this entire trip, even after dividing it by three. And it’s not even that great, not having been redecorated since the 1970s and as such possessing a somewhat of a ‘The Shining’ atmosphere.

However, the night was one of my most memorable due to a simple reason: I witnessed the Northern Lights for the first time in my life. I temporarily forgot the bitter cold and stood outside watching the green patterns dance their way across the sky, as if the sun was sending out night time signals to remind us not to forget about it, that it will return. The thick folds twisted and rolled this way and that, in time to rules of the cosmos we could never comprehend in their entirety. It’s a truly mystical experience.

The Northern Lights. A truly mesmerising sight.
We were very lucky the next morning. The road was closed all night due to blizzards, then suddenly opened again. We dashed out and made it though the barriers, only to find out that they had been closed again just twenty minutes later. We could have been stuck there for days.

The going was, well, white. The snow blew in thick gusts just inches over the surface of the now-gravel road, and when there were partings I caught glimpses of majestic mountains standing proudly in the distance. But before them was almost nothing, just the puny stumps of trees struggling for life in the extreme climate. And then we crossed it: the Arctic Circle! This line marks the point at which the sun doesn’t rise on the winter solstice (21st December), or fails to set on the summer solstice. I was officially in the Arctic, but still had several hundred miles left to travel to get to the top.

Crossing the Arctic Circle!
We drove over two rivers. In the summer, boats ferry vehicles across them, but in the winter the ice is so thick it’s perfectly safe to traverse without worry. However, the road is closed for a month in spring and autumn when the ice is too thick to allow boats to function but too thin to drive on.

Shortly after crossing into the Northwest Territories, we arrived into the small town of Inuvik, the end of the land road but still some way from the top. Inuvik was built in the 1953 in order to house the native population in Aklavik, which was suffering from flooding. It’s now home to a population of about 3400, a lot of whom are quite transient. Many people will come to work here for just a year or two because the money is so good. (Incidentally, the wages have to be high so that people can afford the crazy food prices. Since it all has to be trucked in over vast distances, everything is incredibly costly. A packet of grated cheese was around $12.)

Exploring the town, I marvelled at how life continues despite the sometimes -50°C temperatures. The houses are fed by over-ground pipes called utilidors, due to the fact that burying the pipes in the permafrost is impossible. Cars are plugged in when parked in order to keep the important parts warm. Houses are continually heated and near airtight. Despite its being functional, the town still has a certain charm about it. Some of the houses, known as the Smartie Box houses, are painted in bright primary colours. There is a large building working for the protection of native culture and traditions where one can buy muktuk – whale meat – to eat (quite smelly). There are a couple of local bars where either darts or drunken dancing takes place.

The Smartie Box houses of Inuvik.
Its most recognisable landmark, however, is the Igloo Church. (Religion is an interesting concept up here. The disastrously misguided educational integration policies of the late 1800s and early-to-mid 1900s towards the natives is now seen as a foolish enterprise that eroded thousands of years of culture, and it introduced Christianity in place of traditional beliefs. Despite the outspoken backlash against these Residential Schools, no-one seems to mention the religious education and most now identify themselves as Christian. Weird.)

The Igloo Church, Inuvik
The streets are always busy with cars because everyone has to drive if going anywhere over a few meters away. Those that do walk (and I was one of them) dash briskly from door to door, wrapped up in thick parkas, their red faces hidden away behind the fur. I did just this, putting up notices in the hope of finding a ride up further north. After two nights of being put up by new friends, I was beginning to lose hope. I thought I had found a woman who was going but when the time came to pick us up (my Japanese companion wanted to come too), she never turned up. We tried hitching but gave up when we couldn’t feel our extremities after less than an hour.

But that afternoon, out of the blue, we received a phone call. Two Inuvialuits were leaving for their home in Tuktoyaktuk at that very moment! One problem: they weren’t coming back until the next day. “Oh we can put you up,” they replied casually. They picked us up and we drove out of town and on to the frozen Mackenzie River. Along its centre, a passage had been cleared in order to form a drivable path. Literally an ice road, made famous by the TV programme ‘Ice Road Truckers’.

Up the ice road - a frozen river - towards the very top.
It was a surreal experience. Hurtling along at 100kmph, we quickly reached the tree line, after which very little grows. Only the dim silhouettes of pingos were visible – growing mounds of ice and earth that get pushed up with the freezing water. It was a barren world, sheer desolation, where the sky meets the earth in mutual pale anguish, leaving no room for anything in between. But somehow, life survives out there. We came to the mouth of the river, but kept driving, out on to the frozen Arctic Ocean, skirting the coast. And then suddenly, out of the nothingness appeared some buildings. Tuktoyaktuk: the real end of the road.

We were driven around the town, which one would assume was devoid of humans were it not for the telltale smoke emanating from the heaters of each house. There aren’t many houses, and they form a few streets and cul-de-sacs lined by skidoos, snow mobiles. I stood on the edge of the land overlooking the sea of ice to the north. The end of the world. From the bottom of South America to the top of North America, I’d done it! It was an immensely satisfying feeling.

The view from Tuktoyaktuk: the Arctic Ocean and a pingo.
That evening they looked after us and told us of their culture, of hunting polar bears and living in the extremes of light and dark, hot and cold. We played cards, drank and swapped stories. It was a fitting end to a journey that has been decorated by encounters with welcoming, kind people all around the world. I couldn’t have asked for more.

They drove us back the next day, and from there I said goodbye to the people who’d looked after me and helped me, including the Japanese man. He had already fallen in love with the north and had decided to stay. I flew back to Whitehorse, admiring the otherworldly landscape from high above. I was put up by a lovely couple and then I sat for another two days on a Greyhound bus to get to Vancouver.

Flying back from Inuvik to Whitehorse.
My final two days spent with a local family who were very understanding of my tiredness and emotional state, and I explored the city in the traditional rain (a preparation for my return to the UK!) I stood on the beach at Kitslano and contemplated the Pacific Ocean. It wasn’t over that I would fly the next day. It was over the country, the continent and the Atlantic Ocean back to the beginning.

Kitslano beach, Vancouver, looking out over the Pacific Ocean.
Home again after fifteen months away, after some incredible, mind-blowing experiences.

The end.


  1. colin burnett31/3/12 10:41 am

    Hello Jason , just to let you know iv loved reading your stories and looking through your photos.It will be a bit sad to see them no more , anyway welcome home.

  2. Only the end until the next great trip of yours!

  3. Kata: Hii Jason! I didn`t have the time yet to read your stories, should I wait until it will be published in a booklet format :-)? I hope we will hear from you soon.

  4. Sven Sattler31/3/12 2:39 pm

    Nice, very nice Jason! The last part of your trip sounds really amazing, but nevertheless I guess it's good to be home again! Have a good time home!

  5. Hi Jason, just finished reading your last blog. Amazing... I truly hope your stories will inspire Daan and Britt so that when they are old enough to explore the world themselves, they will not hesitate to do so. Love, Esther