Back in 1961 or thereabouts, I won a competition among my sixth grade peers and my brother won one over his fourth grade classmates. Of the school population, I think we were the two best in that event. As a prize, our elementary school principal in Maysville, Oklahoma – Roy West – offered us our choice of textbooks (the teacher’s version) from among all those which had not been chosen by the district. One of us chose a world history book and the other chose a world geography book. A bit nerdish even then, we took them home and read them like they were merely the latest in the Hardy Boys series.
I blame Mr. West and those books for my fascination with northern Canada, the Arctic Shield, Great (and Lesser) Slave Lake and Yellowknife. Those who know me know I’ll use any excuse to justify a motorcycle trip to Canada, and the farther north, the better.
Some weeks back, I conned a friend – a motorcyclist from Overton – into joining me on a ride to Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories. We loaded our tents and sleeping bags and away we went.
Some 6,700 miles later, allow me some observations:
• Canadians love the outdoors. Virtually every hamlet of any size offers at least one campground/RV park. Tenters welcome. As a rule, they include nice, free showers. Sometimes they even include a camp store where you can buy critical things like insect repellent, fire starter, maps, candy bars and diet cola. And the staff is invariably – at least, in my experience – friendly.
• Somewhere in Canada there’s a school that teaches classes in friendliness and attendance is mandatory.
• After some centuries of mistreatment, and ongoing issues like missing and murdered women, European-descent Canadians appear to be trying hard to come to grips with their historic maltreatment of indigenous populations. As in The States, the native (First Nation, Metis and Inuit) population has been mistreated – abused – by immigrants from European countries. We were in Yellowknife on Indigenous Peoples Day and found it taken seriously – though as in (again) The States, it appears indigenous people are missing out on economic opportunities.
• I like Tim Horton’s. It’s trendy to look down one’s nose at “Timmie’s” – just as it’s cool here to pooh-pooh McDonald’s or Taco Bueno – but I find their breakfast pastries pretty darned good... reliably so. Like McDonald’s here, Tim Horton’s is ubiquitous. And, doggone it, the people are ridiculously friendly, even to confused guests deafened by days of exposure to wind and engine noise.
• The oil boom in northern Saskatchewan and Alberta is as messy as it was here and as it is in West and South Texas. On a rainy day, the paved streets and highways of communities like High Level and Red Earth Creek are a red-mud mess.
• Great Slave Lake is the second largest lake wholly within Canada. It is 2,000 feet deep at its deepest point. It’s named for the Slavey Indians, one of the Athapaskan tribes of the area, and was added to European maps during the development of the fur trade northwest from Hudsons Bay in the mid-1700s. In winter, it’s crossed by an ice road – in the summer, travelers making their way to Yellowknife follow a paved (and frost-heaved) highway for what seems like forever, crossing the HUGE Mackenzie River on a bridge completed only a couple of years ago. Before that, it was a ferry crossing.
• Bears are less common than you’d expect, though they present themselves at the shoulder of the road. A greater danger to motorists in the Northwest Territories are the herds of buffalo crowding the pavement.
• I really wanted to like Manitoba and Saskatchewan but there’s a limit to how long I can be fascinated by row crops. Blame it on my ADD. Having said that, the Gordon Howe Campground in Saskatoon (I think Saskatoon is currently the fastest-growing city in Canada) is a dandy example of a public RV park (tenters welcome).
• And, finally, 67 might be the upper age limit for crawling comfortably on all fours out of a one-man tent in the morning. At 68 years, I’m convinced I passed that age limit sometime in the past.
• There’s no place like home.