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Reports

Wednesday, 19 March 2003
Grande Prairie, BC --> Hay River, Northwest Territories, Canada

I had a long trip ahead of me today. Therefore I shouldn’t be leaving too late from Grande Prairie.

I had some troubles to wake up at 7am this morning and kept killing my alarm. But I had to get out, get the stuff together and have a quick breakfast bite.


Jane had woken up especially for me. Normally she would be at the school at 7am, but this part of the season she’s free and only has appointments with students who are on internships.

While I had a bowl of cereal for breakfast, Jane got out an already prepared big bag with food that would let me survive for at least two days! It had bagels, grapes, apples, oranges, strawberries and even two boiled eggs in it! While I only asked if she could help me out with a little bit for lunch on the road, last night…

It wasn’t a real cold morning today. The sun was already up (I noticed that it already differs a lot with Prince George for example. It’s much longer light as I am heading northeast) and it was only a bit freezing cold outside.

Jane could drop me on the highway, just north of Grande Prairie. It was just after 8.15am when I started to hitchhike. Totally covered in warm clothing and with my gloves on. And with my ‘nice dutch guy’-sign.

But I was standing on a stretch of highway where the traffic wasn’t much. Not like I would have expected at this time of the day. I guess there isn’t much to go for up north?

It took me again almost two hours to get a ride. But am I happy when somebody simply pulls over and says: “Yeah, throw your stuff in the back and hop in!”

“I am only going up some 50 clicks,” the man said, but that was alright with me. And while I sit in somebody’s car the questions always come: where I am from, what I am doing in Canada, how long I am staying, and etcetera.

Sometimes that’s all a driver takes and expresses a bit of amazement and from there I can talk about what he is doing for example. Not often I have to explain the whole deal about my travels. I prefer to stay low profile on the road; I am just a backpacker travelling through the country. “For how long?” Some five months. “Really? You are lucky!”

The first man, original from Newfoundland, dropped me off at a crossing up north that same highway. He had to go left and I had to get out. There was a gas station at the corner and I asked the lady there if there is much traffic heading north as I didn’t see much on the road. “Not really. If you were here earlier this morning, you would have had all the trucks heading north…”

But it was already past 9.30am… That was early for my point of view.

One hour later I finally got a ride up north again. This man in a pickup truck (next to those big trucks, most cars I see are pickup trucks anyway) was on its way to Fort St. John, which is off west into British Columbia. I had to get off where he would pull to the west, in Fairview.

He left me at the crossing right in town. My highway was going northeast, but out of experience I knew I wouldn’t be lucky in a town itself. So I walked along the highway until I was all the way out of that small 2k wide town and hold the sign up again.

Walking that distance with the sun already at 11am I was already sweating. I wish I had not worn that thermic under stuff, because sometimes it can really be too warm. And it must have been above freezing point.

I got a lift from a young couple that could take me from Fairview up to Grimshaw. That’s why my most important highway would start off. The MacKenzie Highway starts in Grimshaw and goes straight up all the way to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories.

The couple consisted out of the talkative Laura and Dan. They were from Peace River, east of Grimshaw, and the idea of travelling countries was too overwhelming! “So Europe,” asked Dan, “isn’t that next to The Netherlands?” I figured out I was speaking to people for whom Prince George or Calgary was already the other side of the world.

Some 60 minutes later the drivers who had the best ideas to save the world (“Just get rid of all the governments! They talk crap anyways!”) dropped me off on the Mile Zero of the MacKenzie Highway.

It was 1pm. It was there when I had my first bites of my lunch bag. The sun was shining nice and I was standing along the road and eating my bagels and strawberries. Too funny for words, I guess.

It took a while until I got a ride that would take me up the road more than just a couple of miles, as most of the people who were now pulling over for me, were saying. Eventually I met up with a man named Dale who could take me up to Manning, another 100 km up the road.

He told me that it is nearing spring break at the moment. And that is the time when the oil industry closes up for a while. As snow is melting and mud is moving, there can’t be done much oil transporting in those remote areas. All people working in the oil fields of Alberta (and there are hundreds of them!) will be free for a while.

And as spring break is coming soon, the road was busy with wide loaded trucks carrying parts of whatever-it-could be and oil trucks were driving up and down.

So it sure shouldn’t have a problem trying to hitchhike from a gas station just north of Manning, should I? Actually it was.

I was standing along the road for hours and the only things that passed me were big fast driving trucks (they never stop on the road to pick up hitchhikers anyway) and some local pickup trucks. I wasn’t lucky at all!

I finally got back to the gas station and waited in the shade. When the sun shines bright and the snow is as white as it can be, it starts to hurt a bit I can tell ya.

It was outside the shop where a man approached me where I was heading. I told him I was on my way to Hay River and he started laughing. “That’s another 7 hours from here, ey! But I can take you up to a gas station one hour south of High Level. At least it gets you up there.” And I decided to come along.

The ride up north is honestly pretty boring. There is either dense woodlands to the side of the roads, or there are flatlands of snow. Rest stops along the road even stopped having those little wooden toilet booths.

And the traffic wasn’t really going fast. All these ‘trains’ of wide loaded trucks don’t go faster than 70km/hr and there is no way to pass them. I was looking at my watch and figuring out that it would be pretty late if I make it to Hay River today. Especially with this speed.

Then something else, rather exciting happened on the road. There was a car on fire, right along the road. We had to stop and the driver found out from other cars that it just caught fire no less than five minutes ago. Police and fire departments were on their way from Manning. It was not safe to pass the blazing car as the fuel tank was full and the fire was spreading. A few trucks even blocked the road so the dare-devils that were in a hurry could not get through anyway.

We had to wait here and it was pretty interesting to see how a car burns down to the black wreck that’s left of it. Eventually the fire trucks arrived and the actually let us get beyond the car as they were going to block the road of for all traffic for a while. And then one minute later, right as I looked through the back window, the fuel tank seems to have exploded. There was this big delayed boom and a big black mushroom of smoke.

I was dropped off at this very remote gas station and motel along the road. It was mentioned to me as a part of Kate River (?), but I could not even find that hamlet on my map. I dumped my gear there and had a look around.

A small girl was jumping around in the potholes of the street, getting all wet and making her screaming mum angry. The mother pulled her out of the water and the kid walked back onto the street and did the same thing again. The mum screamed again and these events happened repeatedly a few times.

I was running out of time so it was time to make a phone call.

It was 4.30pm and according to the lady at this gas station it would be another six hours to Hay River. I called up my hosts up there and told them I did not think I would make it. But they told me to call back in half an hour as they might be able to contact some people along the road or in High Level that would be able to help me out. Either with a ride or else a place to stay overnight.

While I waited there a man parked his car and asked me if I was hitchhiking and where I was heading. He wasn’t going north, but knew about this man heading north and he would be here in about fifteen minutes. “His name is Larry and he drives a grey pickup truck. Just talk to him when he arrives.” Really? “Yeah, he will help you out.”

So when a grey pickup truck pulled over I approached the man. “You must be Larry!” I said and he laughed in a way of ‘now what have I done now’. I immediately noticed this was noble person with a good grin. I told him about my journey up north and that I was a bit stuck out here. “That’s okay. I have to pay some bills inside and I’ll be out in fifteen minutes.”

I made another phone call to my hosts in Hay River. “Ramon, don’t you worry,” I heard. “Try to get yourself up to High Level. I will leave here and I will pick you up.” How long will it take you to get to High Level then? “Oh, some three hours. So we’ll meet up at the Shell gas station in town. Around 8.” I was stunned. There is this host up north who is helping me out by driving three hours south to pick me up and then three hours back to his house. Wow!

Larry could take me as far as High Level and there I would be in safe hands. Larry is an overall consultant in the oil industry and he lives in Red Deer, a town between Edmonton and Calgary. “I basically drive up and down along the hundreds of oil fields here and advise in construction, transport and other logistics.”

His car was totally high-tech. Next to three cell phones, GPS, his entire car was also connected with a security company in Toronto.

To show off, he called in to a lady there to say that the light ‘check engine’ was blinking. “What would that mean,” he asked. It wasn’t for real, so we were already having quiet laugh about that. After about a minute this lady had all the info on the location of the vehicle and it’s conditions. “Well, Mr Wilkinson….I see you are on the MacKenzie Highway heading north. The temperature is 8 degrees… But I can’t see what is wrong with your car. Is the light still blinking?”
“No, it actually stopped blinking when you picked up.”

Larry loved to show off that technology. He told me that if somebody was going to steal his car, it would be easily traceable by GPS and the police would just create a roadblock to stop the thief. Talking about smart cars!

It was 6.30pm and the sun was about to set when we arrived in High Level. Located at the 58th parallel, this town is not only one of the most northern communities in Alberta but also one of the fastest growing as well. Depending on all the men that work in the nearby oil fields, they harbour most of them in the town’s motels. The whole town seems to run on that workforce and the trucks that pass by. No wonder that some real estate man decided to copy bits of Las Vegas on the main strip of High Level.

I had explained Larry what I have been doing and we had some good chats. He’s been famous in the past, as he was the Canadian Arm wrestling Champion in 1985. “But then I was really strong, I worked hard on the job.”

When I told him I had to wait at the gas station until 8pm, he said: “Come with me, I’ll buy you supper,” and as it was totally natural for him he took me along to the Flamingo bar where he helped me out with tonight’s dinner.

Larry, nicknamed “Loppy” by his friends, seemed to be a very influential person as he knew lots of people around here. It was fun to listen to his stories in which he shared the town’s gossip with me.

I thanked him very much for his support when he dropped me off at the gas station at 7.30pm. “Oh no problem,” he said and waved my thanks away as he would do it every day. The world needs more Larry Wilkinsons!

Around 8pm I met up my host from Hay River. It was Fred Lepine who came all the way south to pick me up and drive me back home again. The first thing I asked him when I sat in his car was “why are you doing this?” But his answer was logical enough. “I love driving! Actually I just returned from an 18-hour trip from down south yesterday. I really love it.”

Fred Lepine lives in Hay River with his Ukrainian-descendent wife Gwen. While we chatted in the car it was clear to me that Fred is a Canadian native and he was the first aboriginal I am meeting during my travels through Canada.

When I figured this out, he started telling me about how his ancestors lived here and how, for example, the American government signed a treaty with them (long before Canada existed) allowing them the freedom of movement through North America. “The Canadian government never recognized that treaty, so they are not allowing American aboriginal up north that easily. But I can just go across the American border and show my driver’s license and they’ll have to let me through.”

And then he told me about more of these restrictions and early treaties. It was sure that Fred was proud of his background and tried hard to make me understand some cultural difference.

At this moment the Canadian aboriginals are in court versus the Canadian government about a treaty that was signed some hundred and fifty years ago. It said that aboriginals would never have to pay tax. “But since then, it’s never recognized and e have to pay tax.” There was some luck a few years ago, when the Aboriginals won a few cases. “I did not pay tax for one month!” Fred almost cheered.

I honestly wondered if he does not feel guilty about that. I mean, he drives a car, drives on roads… don’t they have to be paid.

But then he said something that complete made sense: “This is our land. It’s taken away from us. We barely have something to say about it. We were even seen as exiles and we not allowed to vote until the 1960s.”

Fred was having a point there.

If you sign something, you have to keep your promise. Just like – for a good and sensitive example – the US at the moment.

If you sign that you always consider war in agreement with other countries in the club you are a member of (however childishly never paid your contribution fee for almost 50 years!), you shouldn’t be dropping some weapons of mass destruction of your own on a country you are simply afraid off and can actually also use some oil from.

Diplomacy is apparently only used by smart governments I guess!


Fred is connected to the Cree, which is an Aboriginal clan that has lived here for some 9,000 years before the first white man arrived from Europe. “Our land covers a big part of Canada. It goes from the south of the Great Slave Lake (north of Hay River) in a circle all the way into Ontario, the north states of the US and covers the prairie states of Canada.”

Meanwhile we drove up north. It had actually gotten rather dark and when tonight’s full moon rose in the sky everything got very pretty.

Now that is peace.

Then Fred pointed out to the other part of the dark sky, where – for the first time in my life – I saw the northern light! (and I can unfortunately not photograph it)

taken from another websiteHowever I was tired and my eyes would rather close than concentrate on the dancing of the northern light, it was an amazing thing to see. It moved from the west to the east and disappeared. Then it would just suddenly appear again in big green flames going up and down. “It’s like somebody is waving with a curtain,” Fred said.

The northern light, scientifically called aurora borealis, is visible over an area centering on the geomagnetic pole of the northern hemisphere. The aurora borealis is said to occur with greatest frequency along a line extending through north of Norway, across central Hudson Bay, through Alaska, and through Siberia. And I am seeing it in Canada!

It was a fascinating thing to see. We even stopped along the road to watch it, and to take a look at the stars shining bright in the dark sky. The aurora occurs some 150 to 1000km above the earth.

It is caused by high-speed electrons and protons from the sun, which are trapped in a radiation belt high above the earth and then channelled toward the Polar Regions by the earth's magnetic field.

We finally arrived in Hay River around 11 in the evening. I was so tired that Fred had to elbow me awake.

But I made it! After being on the road for over 16 hours I had a good reason to be totally wrecked.

Just like the fact that not all Canadians live in an igloo, means that not all ‘Indians’ live in a wigwam and wear feathers on their head. Well, Fred and his wife Gwen don’t either!

So inside their warm and cosy house I said hello to Gwen, who immediately saw that I was a goner for the remaining of the evening. Fred showed me the guest room I would stay in for the night and wished me good night and told me I could sleep in as long as I wished tomorrow morning. Ooooh!

You should know how fast I jump towards the pillow and dozed off after this long day.

Good night Hay River!

Ramon.