The Sub-Arctic Tundra

You don’t feel -50 until you feel -50. The air is so dry that not a single wind can be felt. You’re wearing more layers than you’ve ever worn before and the only part of visible flesh underneath it all is the skin around your eyes. So when I hiked up to Pilots monument to get a photo of the city I stupidly took one glove off to capture the city lights shining in the darkness at midday. The result… my fingers being welded to my camera by the unforgiving climate.

Welcome to Yellowknife, North West Territories.

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The Journey:

It’s 4:00am. Partaking in the Canadian tradition, the first stop of any road trip is Timmy’s (Tim Horton’s). It is a 16 hour drive. Most who do the journey between Central Alberta and NWT do the trip in two days. We aimed to do it in one. Packing up the truck we journey into the darkness and head north. It is mid December and we’re headed to the arctic.

After only being on the road for a few hours the sun starts to rise. It is a typical Canadian setting. Herds of Moose and deer seen in clearings between pine trees trudging through the snow. Picturesque. Then we hit ice.

Fishtailing between two vehicles, we loose control and the truck ends up rolling into the snowbanks on the side of the road. The truck sinks in deep. It’s a blaming -30 outside. Without a shovel, we’re digging the truck out with our boots. Unable to start, we have to hitchhike to the nearest town.

What was to be a day’s drive turned to three days as repairs we’re made at a local shop. The engine flooded and the breaks destroyed. Partially restored,  we’re back on the road. Covering a fair distance it isn’t until we reach High Level, Alberta that we run into a snow storm. The blizzard so intense, impossible to see five feet ahead. Total white out. The journey once again set back a few days.

It’s nearly a week by the time we reach the boarder to the Arctic. Civilization abandoned and replaced by nothing but vast wilderness. Wild buffalo line the only highway for miles. By the time we reach Great Slave Lake there is only a few hours until we reach Yellowknife. Sun-dogs shinning over frozen wasteland.

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Climate:

Yellowknife is unofficially known as “The Land of the Midnight Sun”. Which is true of summer. The further north one is in the world, the days are longer. The sun never fully sets, and midnight is just the same as midday.

Winter is the opposite. Nights are long, and you can experience nearly twenty-four hours of darkness. With the sun rising at 10am and setting just before noon… the days truly turn to nights. This makes for some of the best star gazing, and with a bit of luck the Northern Lights just may dance across the sky.

The Aurora Borealis is caused by a disturbance in Earth’s magnetic field from solar storms. Electrons are pushed to the polar regions and the result is a beautiful display of light. To the naked eye they appear at first grey or bluish in colour, the stronger the light the more green it becomes. The sensor inside of a camera picks up on green tones and the result is images that can captivate a world.

What’s In a Name:

250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Yellowknife sits on the edge of the Great Slave Lake. One of the largest in the world. The name derives from the Dene, who came to be known as the Copper or Yellowknife Indians from trading copper tools with new comers. Shortly after the gold rush in the Yukon took hold was the discovery made in Yellowknife. Although the discovery was made before the turn of the century it wasn’t until the commercialization of aircraft lead to the settlement grew to become the small city it is today. Recently the discovery of diamonds has lead the city away from the decline of the gold rush.

Ice Roads and Log Cabins:

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It is only mid-afternoon but the sky is pitch black. The skyline of Yellowknife disappears in the rear-view mirror, ahead the orange moon rises from the tree line. Somewhere along the way the road changes from gavel to ice. You won’t find these trails on a map.

Ice roads are exactly as they sound. Roads made of ice. In the north, temperatures drop to such extremes that the water particles bind closer together to make any lake a solid structure. Combine a lack of sun (or heat in general) and the lake becomes so strong it can withstand the weight of any vehicle from a passenger car to a semi-truck.

At first I am uneasy about driving a Jeep across a lake as vast as Great Slave, but in time confidence grows as other vehicles zoom past. Navigating across open water we’re in search of a cabin tucked into a small bay belonging to a friend of a friend.

Unhitching the snowmobile we send out a scout into the darkness. Hours later the headlight shines across the white canvas towards us. Cabin found, he informs us the ice is to thin around the dock. Loading up the supplies onto the snowmobile, we try and distribute the weight as we follow behind on foot leaving the jeep behind.

Unaware of the time, I keep searching for the Aurora. If I am to ever see it it would be tonight.

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First Nations Culture and Dog Sleds:

After having spent over two weeks in the north, including being one of the last time zones to welcome in the new year we have word that the truck has now been repaired and we can safely make the journey back home.

All week I’ve missed the sun. It’s unusual to say you’ve slept in only a few hours and the sun is already setting in the east. There is just one last thing I have to experience before I go. I have to know what it is like to drive a dog-sled.

Before horses we’re introduced to North America, the Inuit and First Nations relied heavily on dog-sleds not only just as a means of transportation, but as a way of life. Huskies and Malamutes run everything from a fresh hunt of caribou or sea-food to people. Today you can take a quick run across the ice with either Beck’s Kennel Tours or Enodah Kennels.

Contrary to popular belief, these dogs cannot roll up and down mountainsides and you do not give voice commands such as “Mush”. The dogs simply run, they do not pull the wight of the sled let alone your own weight. It is really basic physics at work. And like any sort of vehicle, the sled has a break.

After some basic training a snowmobile takes you and the dogs out onto the lake and you do a short circle around the peninsula. Standing at the back of the sled with your feet only resting on the back of the ski’s with a metal break in-between. The only thing holding you in place is yourself as you grip the sled. The cold air rushing past you. In no time at all you wrap around and the dogs head back home.

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Epilogue:

In comparison to the journey to the Sub-Arctic, the journey home was warm, mild, and completed in just a day. Driving the same road back you can’t help but comprehend how nature can so dramatically change a landscape. The lesson learned may have been not to travel to the land of the midnight sun during total darkness… but then I would not have had a story to tell.

-rt

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