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Reports

Thursday, 20 March 2003
--> Hay River, Northwest Territories, Canada (day 2)

The coming days I will be moving through the Northwest Territories, from Hay River through the small town Fort Providence and onto Yellowknife. Yellowknife will be my hub to get me to other destinations in the north, like Whitehorse in Yukon and Kugluktuk, Cambridge Bay and east coastal Iqaluit in Nunavut.


Although much of Canada still has the flavour of the “last frontier”, it’s only when I got on the mainland push north from Alberta that I knew for certain that I left the mainstream of North American life behind.

In the popular imagination, the north figures as a unendingly frozen wasteland blasted by ferocious gloomy winters, inhabited – if at all – by hardened characters beyond the reach of civilisation.

In truth, it’s a region where months of summer sunshine offer almost limitless opportunities for outdoor activities and an incredible profusion of flora and fauna; a country within Canada!

The character of whose settlements has often been forged by the mingling of white settlers and aboriginal peoples. The indigenous hunters of the north are as varied as in the south, but to groups predominate: the Dene (pronounced "deh-neh", and meaning "people" in the Slavey language), people of the northern forests who traditionally occupied the Mackenzie River region from the Albertan border to the river’s delta with the Cree in the southeast of the province of Northwest Territories, and the arctic Inuit (literally “the people”), once known as Eskimos or “fish eaters”, a Dene term picked up by early European settlers and now very much discouraged.

The north seems to be as much as a state of mind as a place. People “north of 60” – the 60th parallel – claim the right to be called northerners, and maintain a kinship with Alaskans, but those north of the Arctic circle – the 66th parallel – look with lighthearted disdain on these “southerners”.

The Northwest Territories that I have entered last night is the region at its most uncompromising. Just three roads nibble at the edges of this almost unimaginable vast area, which occupies a third of Canada’s landmass – about the size of India – but contains only 60,000 people, almost half whom live in or around Yellowknife, the town’s overblown capital.

I have mentioned in my March 11 report that I was trying my luck in actually getting to these places that are only accessible by air. So I need some air support to get there.

I brought up my host Jeff in Yellowknife who got in contact with a member of the board of directors of a northern air company and the chances are getting bigger that they are indeed willing to help me out.

As Yellowknife was still the only invite in this area and I would have had a lot more troubles in getting there if Jeff had not helped me out. He actually contacted Fred and Gwen, some of his friends in Hay River, to invite me over and be a bridge on my trip to Yellowknife. Gwen was found it a good idea and filled out the form and Fred was too happy to help me out the most!


Understandable after yesterday’s long journey to the Northwest Territories I had an enormous sleep-in. Around noon I appeared in the living room and felt I had to introduce myself again to Gwen as I had only said hello to her last night and then fell asleep.

Today’s worldwide topic was the undiplomatically action of the United States over Iraq, as the bombings on Baghdad (I don’t get it why the media keeps calling it Bagdad!?), which was a good reason for Gwen, Fred and I to turn off the television and get out.

After lunch Gwen and Fred took me out to show me the surroundings of Hay River. Well, actually, I took them out as Gwen had invited me to drive her Ford Explorer!

Within almost a blink of an eye I had seen the centre of town, where the highest building of the Northwest Territories is located. I saw the main street (“This is it?” – “Yes, on to this corner here.”). Hay River has a supermarket (“they don’t have much and it is very expensive”), a bar, a few office buildings, a school and a gym, a senior’s complex, an alcohol/drug treatment centre (don’t guess why) and some residential housing for the some 3500 residents.

It’s obvious that the town’s tour did not take us longer than five minutes. But Gwen proudly wanted to show me the old Dene village on the Hay River Reserve, located on the East Bank of the Hay River. To get there you can actually drive over a bridge, but during the winter periods there seem to be ice bridges everywhere. Wherever a road track goes down the ditch, it seems to just continue over the river and follow the road again on the other side of the river. And of course I enjoyed driving those ice bridges as I was driving the truck!

On the shore of Great Slave Lake is the West Channel fishing village and there is also the "old town" or Vale Island which is both residential and industrial. We passed the snowy Hay River beachfront and the port, where in summer times the boats transport goods to Yellowknife.

It was a refreshing drive around town. The remaining of the day was spent inside the house, where I worked on yesterday’s report (darn, too many words, huh?) and Fred tried to fall asleep in front of the television but could not as he was disturbed by bombs.

Fred is an artist and video producer by profession. He has made numerous documentaries about local native bands (clans) and company promotional movies and made some impressive 'native' paintings. Some ten year ago he was a partner with Yellowknife Jeff in a small multi-media company. And way before, Fred was the specialist in waterbombings (you know, to kill forrest fires with).

I was quite impressed with the equipment he works with in his office studio. Gwen told me she does “anything for a buck”. Well, as long as it has to do with her talent with computers and data. At the moment she works on information databases for local companies and is the busy lady behind a wireless laptop in the kitchen table. Around and through the house meanders their Dalmatian dog Seventeen (“she’s only eleven”).

(By the way, Gwen, I looked it up. Dalmatian dogs have probably developed in the Austrian province of Dalmatia, now known as Croatia).

Tomorrow I head out again, like I wrote to Fort Providence (see summer air photo). I already know it will be an easy ride.

Good night Hay River!

Ramon.