A Trip to Yellowknife, NWT, Canada

Updated: 1-Aug-2005

The last half of July, 2005, my friend Ron Sanders and I rode our bikes (BMW R1200GS for me, Suzuki DR650 for Ron) up to Yellownife, NWT, Canada -- just to see what was there. Yellowknife is on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake, the world's 10th largest freshwater lake. The 8th largest lake, Great Bear Lake, is just north of there but can't be driven to except on ice roads in the winter.

Our route is shown very approximately by the dark blue line above. We rode about 3,300 miles in 8 days, including one layover day in Yellowknife when we only rode around town. We expected the last hundred miles or so into Yellowknife would be dirt, but found all but 20 miles (32km) to be paved. In a year or so it will all be paved.

We had originally planned to return via Fort Simpson and Fort Laird (400+ miles of gravel/dirt) joining the Alaska Howay near Ft. Nelson. However, my poor tire choice plus the wetter than expected weather caused us to return instead via High Level, as we did on the way up. Lots of the gravel/dirt roads in the north have a lot of calcium in their surface, which becomes very slippery when when. Lousy for street tires -- next time I'll mount TKC 80's.

We stopped the first day to see what is claimed to be "the world's largest truck", in Sparwood, BC. It was the color of canola flowers, or an Aerostich in "Hi-Viz" yellow.

Details about the truck, in case you're interested.

We pushed on through Crow's Nest Pass into Alberta, and took Hwy 22 up to Calgary, where we stayed in the home of my friends Cy and Gwen -- who were in Seattle ordering a sidecar for their Harley. They were kind enough to give us the housekey and security code, and we got to park our bikes inside. We walked down to Earl's for dinner, and had some excellent food. It got kinda windy and cool that evening.

The next day we got into northern Alberta (damn, but that's a big Province), where we started seeing huge fields of Canola (formerly called rapeseed). Also in Aerostich "Hi-Viz" yellow. Hit a bit of rain this day (as we did about half the days of our trip).

After spending a night in High Level, we rode west to Ft. Vermillion to see if we could find the former early 1900's homestead of a friend of my wife's. Ft. Vermillion is the oldest settlement in Alberta, being founded in 1788. Above is the Provincial Court building. In spite of this being a small, remote village, they had digital cell phone service!

As syncronicity would have it, Ron and I struck up a conversation with some folks in the restaurant where we dropped in for breakfast. I asked about Wes, my wife's friend, and the guy said "Ask him!" just as this guy walked in. He knew Wes and his brothers, and knew where their homestead was, though he was only 10 or 11 when they moved from the area. They even called some folks who lived near the old homestead, and wrangled us an invite to ride out there -- though they warned us the road was quite muddy.

We got about 15 miles down this road before it started getting so muddy that it packed up the treads on my street-oriented tires. I had a few "moments" in the slippery stuff -- Ron said I had the BMW damn near sideways a couple times. There was so little traction from my tires that I wasn't even leaving a track in the semi-dry parts. Ron had knobbies on his big Single, and was getting great traction, so he pushed on for another mile or so but said the road deteriorated even further just over the next rise.

Unfortunately, we had to turn around at this point. I wasn't too unhappy, as while waiting for Ron to return the triple-sized mosquitoes found me, and were looking for a way through my riding suit!

We re-crossed the Peace River on this ferry, at Tomkins Landing, where Ron struck up a conversation with a local rancher who was haulling his production in a large semi. He had two ranches, one near Carcajou (means Wolverine in French) where he has his own small ferry boat. He was thinking of going up to Hay River to buy a larger ferry. In the winter months, he just "builds an ice bridge" and drives across the river. Lots of bears on his other ranch, wolverines too, I imagine. :-)

We headed on back to High Level, and continued our trek north. Saw our first black bear eating something just a dozen meters off the road an hour later. A little further up the road we came across these guys laying a natural gas line with this big rig that "planted" the tubing a few feet below the surface. It was being towed by another bulldozer. We wondered how the guy attending the rear managed without a mosquito net. On the way back south we saw them again, and that time the guy at the back was wearing a mosquito net attached to his hat.

The road at this point was pretty straight, and had the trees cut back 100' or more on each side, plus the brush and grass was cut pretty short. Made it quite easy to see any critters that might have caused us grief. Here's a list of some of what we saw:

Some folks we kept running into during our trip, and with whom we shared several conversations, got a brief look at an Artic Wolf 50-75 miles outside Yellowknife, but it didn't stick around long enough for them to get a photo.

Here's the obligatory photo at the Alberta / Northwest Territories border. You can see we carried sleeping bags and tents (both of us) but we did it so we'd have good luck in "credit card camping". It worked, and we did. We also both wore camelbaks for hydration. Raingear was worn most days north of here, either for the rain, or because it kept us a bit warmer.

Here's what the new NWT license plates look like. This was on a cage, but the bikes have small versions that look identical. I tried to find one for my collection, but struck out. I managed to buy a "souvenier" version, which will have to do...

Just north of the AB/NWT border starts the "route of the waterfalls" (or some such similar name). The water was pretty brown, but the falls were spectacular. I think this is Alexandra Falls.

Louise Falls, also on the Hay river (which empties into Great Slave Lake).

We arrive in Hay River, NWT, and park our bikes at the end of the road on the shore of Great Slave Lake. This huge lake freezes over completely in the winter, and they take big semis directly across the 100 miles to Yellowknife, avoiding the 300 mile paved route along the western shore.

We had some bad luck here, when we both got food poisoning at a restaurant called The Boardroom, which had been recommended to us by some locals. Ron was only sick for the evening, I was quite sick for several days and got pretty dehydrated. After I got home I got some tests and discovered it was bacterial food poisoning, probably from some under or poorly cooked chicken I ate. It kinda took the fun out of things for a few days.

The Mackenzie river drains the Great Slave lake into the Beaufort Sea on the north slope of North America. When there's no ice, there is a ferry that runs 24hrs a day near Fort Providence.

Gas stop in Rae, necessitated by the relatively small (4.5 gal) tank on Ron's bike. It's a small native village about 10km north of the road to Yellowknife, and is typical of the facilities one can find in this area. It was often hard to find the Premium that BMW wants me to run in my bike, but fortunately it has a computer with knock-sensor so it will run on regular but with altered ignition timing to compensate.

Just north of Fort Providence, the road parallels the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary, and we saw lots of these Wood Buffalo. They have a bigger hump, and are in general much larger than the Plains Buffalo. These guys get up to 2,200 pounds.

We arrived in Yellowknife about 2pm, and I went immediately to bed where I shivered and sweated for hours trying to kick the infection. Ron bought me Gatorade and forced me to drink it, which eventually made me start to feel better.

Another night in Yellowknife seemed well advised, so we did a bit of sightseeing on the second day. In the photo above we're standing on the "Bush Pilot's Hill", a memorial to those hardy heroes of the north. Behind us is downtown Yellowknife, with the tall office buildings. Lots of mining and oil stuff going on, including recently the discovery of possibly the world's largest diamond reserves.

Lots of the people we talked too had never been on the road we took getting there -- they all fly in and out. Lots of the native peoples have never been further south than the southern shores of Great Slave Lake.

Looking the other way from the previous photo, towards "Old Town" which is on the rocky island half of which is shown on the left, above. It was the original settlement, and is now primarily native homes and a few businesses. The terrain in this area is primarily rocks with small stands of short trees (conifers and deciduous) and lots of small lakes. The elevation is about 500'.

"If you visit Yellowknife, you gotta eat lunch at the Wildcat Cafe", we were told. We did. Ron had a Caribou burger, and reported that it was quite tasty. I don't remember what I had, but I didn't care for it, and wasn't much up to eating anyway. It's one of the few businesses in Old Town, and is now owned by the City and leased out to someone different each year -- thus the menu is always changing.

This was a bit of art at the eastern edge of town, done by a multi-cultural group incorporating all the cultures of the area, including Candian and French. The symbols were carved into the rock, and painted by hand. The photo doesn't do it justice.

An "Inukshuk" replica outside an art store. Inukshuk is an Inuit word that literally translated means "stone man that points the way." Inukshuks are stone cairns that were erected by Inuit at prominent locations throughout the barrens to serve as guideposts or markers. They were also erected to help herd caribou during their annual migration towards where they could be more easily hunted by the ancient Inuit.

We went to the local museum, where we saw this 42 (48?) foot "moose hide" boat, built by some villagers up north who still remembered how. The boats were built in a few days, used for moving the group to a new site, then dismantled and the components reused -- thus no moose-hide boats still existed until this one was built. Pretty amazing stuff. The really long oar-like thing is the rudder, which fits into the circular gizmo at the stern of the canoe.

On the trip home, we spent one night in High Level (460 miles south of Yellowknife), another night in Hinton (just outside Jasper National Park). The next morning, I stopped to take this photo as we neared Jasper. Our first glimpse of real mountains in quite a few days.

Athabasca Falls, south of Jasper on the Icefields Parkway. Not much to see from the highway, but if you take the turn-off anyway, you are rewarded with these spectacular views.

More of Athabasca Falls. The morning we entered Jasper, we got sunshine and puffy white clouds -- the best weather of the trip. We decided to do an easy day and take lots of photos. Most of our days thus far were in the 500 mile range, plus or minus a bit, with one 650 mile day necessary due to the distances between towns in the north.

I'm a sucker for flower photos...

A waterfall in the southern end of Jasper N.P.

Shot from an elevation of about 6,000' near the big lodge at the Columbia Icefield itself.

One of Ron's favorite waterfalls, just a few hundred yards from...

...this overlook of the Icefields Parkway, looking south towards Banff.

To prove we weren't the only crazies doing this kind of ride, this guy put us to shame. He rode from Florida to the North Slope at Prodhoe Bay and was on his way home, on the same model BMW R1200GS as I was riding. His has Al Jesse aluminum luggage, and a GPS/Satellite location system (the big white gizmo) that allows someone back at home to track his location, speed, etc. via a Webpage which gets updated in realtime.

There's some much great scenery to photograph in Jasper/Banff that sometimes your brain gets overloaded, and you just ride by stuff like this. Not today!

Trying to get some detail in the clouds without losing detail in the mountain and the trees was a trick in this photo. I took 4 versions of this shot, all at different exposures. The one my Canon Digital Rebel XT picked was the worst of the bunch -- but fortunately it has an INFO button that will show a histogram and blink the portions of the shot that are blown out (pure white or pure black). I kept shortening the exposure until I got this one, then brightened it a bit and pumped up the color with Paintshop Pro. This is pretty much how I remember it looked...

More flowers, this time from a restaurant's landscaping.

The penultimate day we had lunch at Deer Lodge, in Lake Louise. Afterwards, we rode up to Moraine Lake to get this shot. Another tough one for a digital camera which doesn't have nearly the range of a film camera (which in turn can't match the human eye). Yes, the water really was that perfect shade of blue.

The last night we spent in Radium Hot Springs, BC. After an hours soak in the hot springs (free with our motel room) we had a nice dinner at a German restaurant just down the road. At last we were back in the heat of Summer.

The final day was a short 260 mile jaunt back home, where we arrived early afternoon, tired, dirty and happy...

Camera and Postprocessing Info

About 1/2 the above shots were taken with a Minolta Dimage Xt, a 3.2mp point and shoot camera with a 512mb memory card. The scenic shots from Jasper/Banff were most all shot with an 8mp Canon Digital Rebel XT with the "kit" lens (18-55mm zoom) and a 1gb memory card. All photos were then cropped, corrected for color balance, saturation and contrast with Paintshop Pro (I'm still using v8).

Copyright © 2005, by H. Marc Lewis. All rights reserved.