Serengeti of the North

We left Fort St. John to drive north to Liard River Hot Springs in search of BIG animals – bear, caribou, moose, bison and stone sheep. Our first stop was Fort Nelson – an easy four hour drive and a comfortable rest stop – renovated Motel 6 with full kitchen and good wifi, and a very Vancouver-ish vegetarian restaurant just up the street. Perfect transition before we hit the road the next day for Liard River Hot Springs – just south of the Yukon border.

The  area between Fort Nelson and the Yukon border has earned the title “Serengeti of the North“. This area is teeming with wildlife – you cannot drive this highway without seeing animals.

First up was this big boy – we watched him roll in the mud, then lurch up to his full majestic height. We saw two bison by the side of the road, but had a nocturnal visitor just outside our campsite.  According to the park operator, Fred the bison makes his late night rounds, stomping noisily though the campground. A reminder that a nylon tent might not be the most practical choice for northern camping.

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Caribou travel in small herds, and are notorious for coming right onto the road to lick the salt. Luckily, they are timid and move away quickly once cars approach.

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Nothing timid about the Stone sheep. It falls to the driver to pay attention and move around them.

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We drove by slowly and pulled up beside the male for a staring contest. Guess who won?

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And then there were the bears; mainly black bears in the Liard River area – the grizzlies are a little further north. Our son Dan was perturbed that we were entering bear country without bear spray, and we were probably being a bit ignorant of the reality of travelling, hiking and camping in the northern wilderness. Certainly the locals come equipped to handle bear encounters. One of the park operators showed us his weapon of choice – bear bangers.  No bullets, just a loud noise.

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Signs like this one are posted in most campgrounds and hiking areas.

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As if to prove a point, we saw this little fellow just outside our campground. He looked to be just a youngster  and was so interested in eating that he refused to oblige with a decent profile shot.

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With all the bear warnings, followed by this sighting, I was quite nervous to begin our first into-the-woods hike. There was not one other car in the parking area and we were feeling quite alone. I never did relax, in spite of my manic whistling and clapping. Once I  reassured myself about the statistical odds of bear attack, I could appreciate it was a lovely woodland hike, along a creek.

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We walked along for about 20 minutes to the waterfall;  then I beat a hasty retreat back to our truck. Stephen was less concerned about being bear bait.

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We spent two nights camping at Liard River Hot Springs campground.  It was a perfect mix of rustic camping (pit toilets, no showers) mixed with a book exchange shelf at the office and homemade bread for sale.  This was our site.

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Liard River Hot Springs is not to be missed. It is one of the largest natural hot springs in Canada, with temperatures between 42C and 53C degrees. The hot springs are reached by a leisurely 10-minute walk along a boardwalk.

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Along the way, you pass by a marshy area that promised (but did not deliver) frequent moose sightings.
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And…the hot springs – ranging from scalding at the source:

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…to more temperate water for those with tender skin.

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We left Liard with great reluctance. Everyone we met was on their way to Alaska, or returning back south again. We only just skimmed the surface of the north and can’t wait to return next summer.

Even the highway has a story to tell – it is none other than the famed Alaska Highway (also known as the Alcan Highway). The Americans punched through 1500 miles from Dawson Creek to Alaska during WWII to protect Alaska from Japanese attack. Punched through is a factual term as bulldozers knocked down trees and gravel trucks followed behind at a blistering pace – timing was critical.

Driving such an historic highway felt somehow special, but the scenery alone was simply jaw-dropping. And the best part – we had the road to ourselves. Occasionally, we hop-scotched with cars and RVs, but the road stretched ahead with nothing but the view in front of us. No wonder this is such a favoured route with motorcyclists – we know so many people who have made the trek to Alaska. Imagine the freedom.

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This bike belonged to a man who had travelled all the way from Brazil to Alaska and was on his way back south to Miami, and then to South America via cargo ship. We wanted to chat with him, but he was in deep conversation with a young couple, so we just eavesdropped.

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And on to the scenery, which changed from rough and rocky to lush and green…and back again. These were our views for our four-hour drive.

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We had heard about the challenging northern roads, but we experienced mainly good conditions – the odd pothole and the asphalt a little worn in spots, but very easy to drive.  There are loads of rest stops and pull-outs, so plenty of opportunity for photos and just taking a breather from the road. It was reassuring to see a front end loader clearing rockfall.

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We made it back to Fort Nelson for the night and visited the excellent Heritage Museum there. We watched a video on the construction of the Alaska Highway; grainy old footage mixed in to great effect. To look at the photo above and realize this was a small part of a 1500-km. road that was blazed out of the wilderness in extremely difficult conditions in just nine months is astounding.

The museum exists thanks to Marl Brown, the 86-year-old “mad trapper”, who collected so many cars, trucks and artifacts he got the order from his wife to “move them somewhere.”

Marl with one of his vehicles – most of them still in good running order.

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Marl and people like him, are one of the reasons we are so keen to return. Characters, tall tales and deadly elements – this is a different and fascinating world.

We’ll be back north next summer – we have to see if the mosquitoes in Hay River are as bad as they say.

 

Bison, prairie dogs and pronghorn antelope

“I feel like a cowboy”, said Fanny, a young Belgian who has been travelling for several months across Canada with her partner Jay. They think the prairies are “awesome” and in fact, love almost everything they’ve seen since arriving in Montreal eight months ago.  They are here because they heard great things about Canada and they wanted to open up and explore life before careers and family took over. Part of the attraction for them was our huge and varied landscape.

It is essential to get off the Trans-Canada Highway to see the best of the country. While some of the secondary roads are patchy and rough, others are well-maintained and practically empty. We sailed merrily along at 110 and 120 (and higher) for much of the time.

We were keen to visit Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan to get up close to that deceptively passive terrain. Just look at this photo. Hidden in those hills and valleys are dozens of birds, rattlesnakes, bison, prairie dogs, Richardson ground squirrels, coyotes, and burrowing owls. You’d never know it, and that is the defining quality of the prairies – you need to get out of your car and travel on foot to appreciate what is there, right in front of your face.

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As we were heading toward Grasslands we got a sneak preview of the abundant animal life. We stopped by a marsh to view the hundreds of birds that were either in the water or flitting about stalks of grass. This area was just teeming with life –  so many native birds we had never seen. It was an astounding sight, but before we could attempt to take any photos we were driven back to our car by swarms of biting insects. We were actually swatting and running, like something out of a comic strip.  A serious bird-watcher or photographer might want bee-keeper style headgear and a bottle of Deet.

There are also many deer and antelope and I now have “Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam” stuck in my head.  This little pronghorn antelope bounced across the road and stopped for a photo.

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The prairies are just like everything you’ve seen from photos.  Ribbon roads, railway trestles and fence posts figure prominently.

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So do grain elevators. Most town have one, right beside the railway tracks. Grain elevators, trains and the big sky –  iconic elements of the prairies.

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The fields are dotted with abandoned and crumbling  structures.  These weathered old homes aren’t going anywhere – at some point, the roof will cave in and no-one will even notice. They bear witness to a pioneer past.

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Saskatchewan is a province that constantly reminds you of the disproportionate person-to-land ratio. While the cities and larger towns prosper, a lot of small “towns” are actually crossroads – there are no stores, gas stations or hotels.  Success  is a tiny hamlet with a couple of dozen homes. The signpost is pocked with bullet-holes – target practice or frustration?

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Grasslands National Park is about 35 km. north of Montana, and Val Marie is the closest small town in Canada – again, about 35 km. to the campground. Our original plan was to stay one night in Val Marie to reorganize our car, power up our devices, buy some food and get set for 3 days of rustic (no showers) camping. It did not turn out that way. The one bed and breakfast (Convent Inn) was closed for the long weekend (?!?) and our other option, the Val Marie Hotel, was horrifying filthy. It was a shabby building with a Beverage Room Entrance, but we were willing to overlook the externals until we saw the shared bathroom. Off to the campground we went (minus groceries, since the grocery store also closed for Holiday Monday).

Our first sight of the campground saved our sagging spirits – this would be a great adventure. Our first night we sat in front of a campfire, watched the night sky and listened to coyotes howl.

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Grasslands is relatively new (4-5 years old), and infrastructure is still a work in progress. This campground has 24 sites, as well as 4 cabins and an overflow site, with spotlessly clean pit toilet buildings, potable water taps, dump pits for grey water and animal-proof garbage and recycle bins. The main building to the right is the Parks Canada office/wifi centre, and there are plans for showers at some point.

It is also populated with dozens of Richardson ground squirrels, who have an impressive system of tunnels. They seem willing to share their home with us and while they run and chase each other and pop in and out of their tunnels, they do not come close to people (or their dogs). They are also impressively car-smart.

There is an 80-km. Ecotour drive that runs the periphery of the park, providing a comprehensive and scenic overview of the lay of the land, as well as several lookout stations. We stopped at the black-tailed prairie dog colony. Grasslands is the only place in Canada where they exist in the wild.  They are often confused with ground squirrels, but these little characters are much larger and way more sociable. They bark and chat and chase each other, and have created a fascinating inter-connected community of big mounds and tunnels.

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And of course the big draw are the bison herds. They were brought into the park in 2006 from Elk Island National Park and today the herd stands at about 350. We were given a dangerous animals brochure (bison and rattlesnakes) and advised to remain at least a football field away from bison, particularly at this time of year when they are calving and more aggressive. These are majestic creatures – woolly and shaggy and huge.

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This one was right at the main gate, but we stayed in the car for photos – he was stomping and shaking his big head – clearly he was not on welcome committee detail.

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As for rattlesnakes – we had no luck with sightings. They advised us to wear boots and long pants tucked into socks, and we could have borrowed snake garters, but we ventured out and kept a close eye on the ground cover.

We headed out on an 11-km. trail, which was well marked and great for the hamstrings (described modestly as undulating prairie). No animal sightings on that hike, but lots of panoramic vistas.

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Very happy to be heading back to the barn – we had hiked out to the far range of hills and back.

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Unfortunately, the weather turned suddenly, as is often the case in the Prairies. We experienced significant howling winds on our last night, with our tent snapping and falling in on us – a long night and terrible sleep. We woke up to a changed forecast – really strong winds (up to 90 km.), followed by rain, so we reluctantly made the decision to leave.

On our way out of the park, we stopped to chat with a couple from Victoria who are also travelling across Canada, but doing it with a lot more comfort. They are pulling a bright yellow trailer emblazoned with Big Canadian Stuff and will be on the road until October. They have definitely made the case for having a warm, dry home-away-from-home, especially for travelling long distances through North America in three seasons.

We’re rethinking…

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We drove east on Hwy, 13, part of the historic Red Coat Trail. This is the trail taken by the North-West Mounted Police to bring law and order to the wild west; now indicated with distinctive route markers.

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We are hanging out for a couple of days in Weyburn, home of Tommy Douglas. We’re in  a Canalta hotel (a Western chain of hotels) and decided to stay an extra day to regroup.

This is a hotel that caters to work crews and once a week they leave out dinner for them. Last night it was cabbage rolls and potato salad. We rolled in with a filthy, bug-splattered car packed to the rafters with smoky camp gear. We hadn’t had showers for three days. Within minutes, we were checked in and sitting down to an unexpected and delicious meal. We were taken care of by very kind Prairie folks who made us want to stay a little longer. Another hidden charm –  the people. When Steve commented this morning how much he enjoyed the cabbage rolls the night before, they arrived over to our breakfast table with two plates of leftovers – “You can heat them up later.”