October 15, 2009

All the way to Hudsons Bay; The gravel road tour.


The North Saskatchewan River flows through the center of the Edmonton Alberta.  The entire river front and most of the river valley in the city is park.  Edmontonians, including me, spend a lot of time watching the waters of the North Saskatchewan flow eastward.  I would take my boys down to one of the many parks bordering the river, and whenever we threw sticks and stuff into the water, the boys wanted to know where it would end up.  I alway said it was going to Hudson Bay.  The North Saskatchewan was once the original Trans Canada Highway for the Hudson's Bay Company's fur traders.

Few Canadians have stood on the shore of Hudson Bay. It is a defining feature of our Country.  A vast inland sea that covers more than 10% of Canada.   I wanted to see  Hudson Bay for myself after throwing all those sticks in the river.  I had considered doing it the old way, paddling all the way in some kind of boat or canoe, but my preferred method of travel is  motorcycle. 

My newly acquired KTM 640 Adventure is well suited for touring on the kinds of road I would encounter.  Light weight and long travel off road suspension to handle any kind of road.  Givi luggage easily adapts to just about any motorcycle made.  With some racks from Motech, the bags snapped right onto the KTM looking like they were meant to be there.    This would be my first experience on gravel road touring.  I had toured some on pavement, the previous year I qualifed for the Iron Butt Saddlesore 1000 and  Bun Burner 1500 on a round North America tour, but that is another story.  That one ended me with wondering if there were any roads uninfested by nose to tail 18 wheelers, hence the gravel road thing.

I went for day trips locally to improve my off pavement riding skills.  We were ready.


I plotted a route that would allow me to stay mostly on unpaved gravel roads and take me through the same country the fur traders travelled, more or less following the Saskatchewan Route.  I discovered that there is no road to Hudson Bay.  The closest a road gets is Gillam Manitoba.  To get to Churchill, my destination, I would have to (a) ride through the bush, (b) paddle one of the rivers, (c) take a plane or (d) a train.   I opt for d, keeping option a open.  My brother worked in the nickel mines in Thompson in his student days.  When I shared my plan to see Hudson Bay with him, he had been thinking about going back to see Thompson, so we decided to visit the Bay together.  They would be coming from Eastern Ontario by car.  We  reserved seats on the train for August 8.


July 30, 2007 was D (departure) day.  From Edmonton I go to Cold Lake, and cross into Saskatchewan, at Meadow Lake Provincial Park.  Most Canadians think of Saskatchewan as billiard table flat with only grain elevators to relieve the monotony.  A place, as the old joke goes, where you can sit on your front porch and watch your dog run away for the next week.  Northern Saskatchewan destroys that stereotype.  Pristine lakes and endless forests untouched by urban development.  Here  is the beginning of the Boreal Forest, the world's largest land based ecological zone.  The Boreal Forest is a ring around the top of the world, through Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Russia and Scandinavia broken only by ocean's that separate Eurasia from North America.


Up till Meadow Lake I had been on pavement.  In Meadow Lake I head for the great unpaved.  The first problem I encounter on unpaved roads in the hinterland is that the only people using them already know where they are going, so signs are sparse.  I got myself lost and found several times and ended up losing a lot of time.  That night I stayed in the campground at Flotten Lake, a place I had visited before.  There is a road that heads north from Flotten Lake towards Canoe Lake, and I had always wanted to see the end of it.  The sign says the road is closed.  I asked the campers what was up, and they thought it was washed out, but that I could probably make it on the KTM.  The road is about 90 km and eventually meets up with the main road to Canoe Lake.  As it turned out I probably could have made it in a Chevy Impala, but still it was nice to have my first expedition on the KTM end up successful.  Nice to have a road all to one's self.


I stop at  La Ronge that night.  La Ronge is the gateway to Saskatchewan's North.  The road north ends here, to go farther you have to take a bush plane or boat.  The town is located where the Montreal River flows into  Lake La Ronge, it has always been a transportation center.  Formerly for the fur trade, today for tourism, mining and mineral exploration.  Float planes are  landing and taking off from Air Ronge. 

The modern bush plane  looks like any small  commuter type plane except that they have stand on two canoe size floats in water instead of wheels on a runway.  I watch as they load one up with all manner of freight including what appears to be a washing machine.  If you have ever carried a washing machine up the basement steps you know how heavy they are.  I am sticking around to see how this will end.  I have heard the stories about how the old bush pilots would have to tie their planes to a tree on the shore so they could rev up the engine until it was going to pull the plane in half and then cut  the rope with a knife so they would have enough power to take off before they crashed into the opposite shore.  Bet they never carried a washing machine.  No drama here though,  the plane left the dock and wound up its turbo prop with roar and pretty much leaped straight into the air.
I take some pictures of a group of kids jumping into the river.  To me it looks like the people are living with the land but still enjoying the benefits of 21st Century, and doing it very well,  but have not given the land or their lives over to technology.

I stay overnight, but I have to move on.  I am anxious to arrive in  Thompson in time to join with my brother Rene and his wife Shirley and the train to Churchill.   
   From La Ronge I travel all gravel and dirt roads through virgin forest.  The KTM floats over the gravel and dirt roads.  I get  comfortable with the roads and become a connoiseur of the unpaved road.  Another old Saskatchewan joke is that Saskatchewan is Cree for bad roads.  If it isn't it should be. 

Gravel roads are maintained by constantly grading them.  On a freshly graded road the gravel is loose and thick.  The bike skates about on the loose stones, and if the front wheel falls into a thick layer of gravel it may start to shake wildly from side to side, a gravel induced tank slapper.  Just when you are sure you are going to dump the plot, it finds digs its way out, straightens up and carries on.  The trick is to relax the grip on the bars.  Fighting a tank slapper will only make it worse and you will dump it.  Slowing down carefully helps, or conversely speeding up to the point where the front end rides on top of the loose stuff.  This is risky on  a narrow road.   The best gravel road is one that has not been graded for a while.  The gravel piles up in the center and the outsides of the road leaving car tire wide bare strips of hard pack that is as good as pavement.  Some roads are just plain dirt, no gravel at all.  These are the best unless it has been raining.  When a clay dirt road gets really wet it is slippery as ice. This time you are going to go down.  Tires load up with mud, all forward motion ceases, and gravity takes its toll.  This would make a great you tube video.  Man vs bike mud wrestling.   Ride the grassy shoulder if you can.  If you don't have real knobby tires you will probably have to wait until the road dries or turn back and find another route.  The Saskatchewan dirt is more sand than clay, so the tires don't load up, you just sink down and do the tank slapper thing.  Wet gravel on the other hand is pretty much like dry gravel except less dusty, which is a good thing.  A dry gravel road can be extremely dusty, which is not a big problem unless you are behind someone.  The dust will be thicker and impenetrable, worse than the worst fog.   If you are in this situation, and you cannot pass, it is better off to pull off  until the dust has settled and all traffic has gone by.  Riding the loose stuff requires a lot more concentration, which is fatiguing, add to that reduced speed if you are chicken like me, and you will have to allow for making less daily progress than you would on pavement or good hard packed dirt.  I find my average speed is between 80 and 100 kph dropping to between 60 and 70 when things get loose.

Everywhere I go people are surprised to see that I rode there all the way from Alberta.  One guy I meet on the road works in the oil patch and tells me has a Harley in a town nearby, which he only rides around town, he is driving  a 4 by 4 pickup, which is pretty much all you see on these roads.  He can see how easily I handle the roads on the KTM, and I can tell he is thinking about his choice of bike.

Flin Flon, the next major town after La Ronge, is on the Canadian Shield, the dominant geographic feature of the Canada's northern interior.  The shield is granite rock scraped bare by the glaciers of the last age covered here and there by a thin layer of soil and vegetation.  All that rock is a storehouse of minerals.  Flin Flon is a mining town, copper and zinc.  The giant smoke stacks of the smelter dominate the horizon long before you arrive.  In Flin Flon everything is built on an uneven foundation of solid rock.  Roads and houses  have to conform to the land, quite a change from the prairies where everything has been laid out with a ruler, tee square and bulldozers that can only go straight.    An unused mine shaft deep underground is being used for a government run marijuana grow-op, for medicinal purposes :-)  Way to go Canada!


 The next day I meet up with the same Hudson Bay Railway that will take me to Hudson Bay in a few days time.  The road from Flin Flon to Thompson and Gillam follows the railway.

Churchill was one of the great Canadian government mega projects of the 1930's, but not as well known or successful as the east west railways, the St. Lawrence Seaway or Trans Canada Highway. 
The Government wanted to build a major port on the Hudson Bay and use it to transport prairie grain and northern minerals through the Bay to the rest of the world, exchanging thousands of miles of land transportation for cheaper sea transport.  The weak links were land transport to Hudson Bay  and 6 months of ice covered bay.   The rail line uses conventional wooden ties and steel rails.  Extreme cold causes steel to shatter like glass.  Temperature fluctuations from very hot summers to very cold winters plays havoc with the road bed.  Wooden ties rot. Permafrost, swamps, rivers and lakes to cross or go around.  A white elephant, the railroad got passed from one rail line to another after the government lost interest, each milking it for its meager profit, none investing in upkeep.  It looks bad, but someone is working on it.  The maintenance vehicles are wearing New York State license plates.

I reach Thompson by mid day, days before I am to meet my brother and sister in law, and get on the train.  I decide to push on to Gillam that same day and see what there is to see.   The 300 km to Gillam is all upaved except for a few miles of pavement at both ends.   The country here is flat,  the trees are like sticks, this is the muskeg, also known as moose pasture.  There is a thick swampy mattress of vegetation everywhere consisting mostly of peat low shrubs and reindeer moss, which is not a moss at all but a shrubby lichen.  The trees  would barely make broom handles.  The topsoil is so thin over the permafrost that trees lean in all directions, the slightest disturbance knocking them about.  The Russians call this the drunken forest.


It has rained recently, there are puddles on the road, but where I ride the sun is shining.  The main road is fine, nice hard packed and no dust.  I pull off about halfway to visit Split Lake where there is supposed to be gas and accommodations.  I arrive as some kind of carnival is being set up.  The town is pretty much booked up, and nobody has time for an old guy on a motorcycle, so I head back to the highway.  The road in and out of Split Lake might be the worst road I have ever encountered before or since.  There are so many potholes they touch each other, and all are of them are full of water.  The bike handles it OK, but is not happy about it, and neither is the rider.  Fortunately it is only a few miles.


When I get to Gillam the sun is going down.  There is room at the inn.  I spend the next day exploring Gillam and the surroundings.  Gillam sits behind a number of huge dam and hydroelectric projects.  The power generated here is sold to users in Southern Manitoba and the USA, thousands of kilometers to the south.

Gillam is a company town for Manitoba Hydro, but there is plenty of private business to serve the needs of the Gillamites (Gillaminians?).   Manitoba Hydro employees are mostly skilled technicians, if you squint Gillam could be a suburb in any southern Canadian city, the difference being that is 300 kilometers of treacherous road to the next suburb.

A small mall has all the conveniences and necessities.  The largest and most imposing building in town is the railway station, built in a day when the train station was the most important building in any town.  Despite its remoteness, a 21st Century moment occurs when the town's only gas station locks its doors all morning because their data line went down, which meant they were unable to sell anything, thanks to our brave new world of computer network retail management.  Fortunately service was restored at noon, or I would have been unable to leave.

It does not take me long to decide that an overland bike trip to Hudson's Bay would quickly end in disaster.  While the KTM is a highly capable bad road bike, it is too big and heavy for true off roading, and I don't have the skills.  The country is too wild and hostile for a 'cidiot' unfamiliar with survival in the bush.  The land surrounding the Bay at the Nelson River Estuary is a National Park, but it would be more accurate to call it a preserve.  Casual travel is not encouraged.  The black flies are everywhere and they are hungry, not to mention the Polar Bears.  As someone who's wilderness experience was restricted to National and Provincial (State) Parks I am sobered by how hostile to city people (me) this country is.  In summer it is an impenetrable bog populated by endless hordes of hungry insects.  I don't want to imagine being here in winter when the temperature is 50 below in either scale and the wind is howling with nothing to stop it between here and the North Pole.  I say this not to discourage anyone,  I encourage everyone to see it for themselves, but this is the true wilderness,  hard country,  Bambi and Peter Rabbit never lived here.  I suspect that all truly untamed wilderness is the same in its own way, whether it be jungle, desert, or the plains of Africa.  If you want to understand why we humans live in cities, towns, and tamed countrysides, come and see what the alternatives are.

I return to Thompson to find a room and wait for my brother and sister in law to arrive.  Thompson is the site of  several underground nickel mines and a smelter.  It is also Manitoba's northern administrative center, government is also an important industry.   Thompson has a well deserved reputation as a rough town, but not, as I discovered, because the miners are drinking and carousing in the bars.   Most of the miners are settled in long timers who have survived  many layoffs and are now marking time for pensions and retirement.   Everywhere I go in Thompson are clumps of young people doing the sorts of things idle youth do all over the world, pissing everybody off.  It is not often that I am nervous walking the street in broad daylight, but in Thompson I am a little nervous, especially when I walk past a scrum of 30 or so a few feet from my nice motor hotel and hear, 'Pass me the pipe!",  I am thinking this is probably not the peace pipe.

On the plus side, the Thompsonites have done a great deal to keep their town looking nice.  Typically a northern town will look scruffy to southern eyes, when it is freezing cold most of the year, it is easy to let outside maintenance slide.  Northern buildings tend more to the utilitarian than the architectural.  Extreme cold and long arctic nights means buildings have more wall and less glass.  One solution to the unimaginative exteriors is to cover the featureless walls with huge murals.  A medium rise apartment building sports a wolf head mural that covers one side of the building.  Painted and decorated wolf statues complete the wolf theme all through town like those painted cows in other cities.   All the familiar food and retail franchises are represented.  Even a mine building has been turned into a giant canvas celebrating its own history.

While waiting for my brother I was investigating what to do with my motorcycle while I complete my trip to Hudson Bay.  I visited the local motorcycle/ATV dealer, they store their outside stuff behind a barricade of chain link and razor wire that would be overkill at a maximum security prison.  Hmmm.  I spoke to somebody there who told me I they would store my bike and gave me a cell phone number to call when I needed to lock it in, I suspect this is someone who may change their mind later.   The train station is located in an industrial area which looks to be completely unsupervised most of the time.   A private campground on the edge of town parks vehicles for train travellers and  provides a shuttle service back and forth to the train station.  When it came time to board the train, the ATV dealer had closed, and I was unable to reach my contact, so I opted for the campground, as did my brother with his car.  An excellent choice as it turned out.   The campground is a family run operation, from their home in the grounds, so there would always be people around.  The KTM is parked in view of the house and one of the campground owner's sons, a fan of dual sport motorcycles, takes personal charge of watching over my bike. 

My brother and sister in law and I do the Thompson tour.  My brother visits his old haunts, and we arrange to tour the Inco nickel processing plant.  The Inco tour is very cool.  We are seeing the smelter and how the ore is processed after it is mined.  Ore is crushed,  melted in crucibles, dissolved in toxic looking green liquid and deposited  electrolytically as medallions that vaguely resemble half size silvery turtles candy.  The whole process including smelting is done electrically,  it was the nickel mine in Thompson that kick started the hydro electric damming of the Hudson's Bay watershed. 

The train trip was supposed to only be about 20 hours, so we had declined a private cabin with beds, as we wanted to see everything anyway.  The train was  about 8 hours late.  We were supposed to board at noon and arrive in Churchill the following morning around 7 AM.  Instead we left at about 7 PM and it was late in the afternoon of the next day that we arrived in Churchill.   I had already noted the poor condition of the tracks when I had followed them on my motorcycle.  The track was so bad that the train rarely exceeded 16 km/hr (10 Mph).  I had my GPS with me, so we always knew exactly how fast we were going.  However, 10 miles per hour is a perfect speed for sightseeing, and traveling by train is a very pleasant way to travel.  The cars and seats are roomy, you can stand up without hitting your head and you can walk around.  Meals are served in the dining car in high style.  The food is excellent.  The train is operated by VIA Rail, Canada's national passenger train service, but the tracks are not, the tracks are owned the Hudson Bay Railway who are owned  by Omni Rail.  The result of all this Gordian complexity is a railway that is in terrible shape.


Something about train travel makes passengers gregarious,  pretty soon everybody knows everybody in their car, where they are from and what they are doing.  We had interesting mix of travelers on board.  One couple was on holiday from their regular job, living and working in a research station in the Antarctic (!!!), taking the busman's holiday to extreme.  They were going to have to go immediately to the airport when they got to Churchill because the lateness of the train messed up their schedule, leaving them with no time in Churchill.  There were kayakers and canoeists who were here to paddle in the rivers and creeks of Hudson's Bay.  One retired gentleman fom the US was fulfilling his goal of riding every passenger train route in North America.  A Winnipeg dad shepherding bored teens was showing them the Canadian North, but the only thing that held their interest was emailing and texting their firends back home.  Maybe 20 years from now they will be talking about the great trip to Churchill they had with their dad, but probably not this summer.  

When we finally arrived in Churchill around 7 pm, we went straight to the rooms we had booked.  Our rooms were actually good sized one bedroom apartments, with a small kitchen, large living room and a loft bedroom and bathroom.  Very nice accommodations.  Up here the nights are long and light, even in August, so we still had plenty of time to explore.  Churchill is a deep water port, but the port looks almost abandoned, a few small work boats and some abandoned rusty relics.    Seemingly far more important is tourism and northern administration.  There are a lot of government buildings, including offices for Nunavut, the newly created territory that was once recently the eastern part of the Northwest Territories.   There are also weather stations, research stations, military installations,  and a large airport.  There are plenty of roads and vehicles, but the roads don't go anywhere except back to Churchill, just like the domed town in the "Truman Show".  Every restaurant in Churchill is excellent, they are staffed by trained chefs, mostly in their twenties.  There is a large population of 'twenty somethings' in Churchill, mostly from the south, university educated adventure seeking types.  Another group, like the owners of our hotel, are the young retired, 'fifty somethings' who have taken their savings and are operating tourism related business.  In the distance I see a guy without a helmet riding what appears to be a mid to late 60's Harley stripped down bagger .

The main tourist attraction of Churchill are the polar bears.  Twice a year, fall and spring, the polar bears come through Churchill on their migration to and from the ice covered bay.  In the middle of summer there are few bears, and we did not see any, although there were supposed to be a few young males hanging around.   Polar bears are unpredictable and dangerous when hungry.  The residents carry double barrelled shotguns when bears are around.  We are told that polar bear will kill and eat humans if they are hungry.  'Do not feed the bears' has a more personal meaning here.   During the migration tourists are taken out on all  terrain mobile campers, tundra buggies,  a cross between a school bus and a monster truck.   Tundra buggies are about ten feet off the ground, and completely self contained.  A flat tire might be troublesome though.


Instead of bears we see the beluga whales.  Beluga whales are about twice the length of dolphins, which they resemble.  They are in the Churchill River estuary to feed on capelin, a herring size fish.  The belugas are everywhere, they can be seen from shore as they surface to breathe and  dive below the surface again to feed.  We go out on a tour boat to watch them.  Before we leave we are given a short introduction to the biology of the Beluga.  Beluga, like dolphins experience their environment through sonar, they emit high pitched squeals and use the echoes to locate and observe what is around them.   We go out in the water, and are soon surrounded by beluga.  They appear to be oblivious to our presence in the way that cows feeding in a field are aware of but ignore human trespassers.  They are busy, and they don't care about us much, but you sense they are watchful just the same.


The boat also takes to the site of a British fort that had been destroyed by the French.  The Fort fell victim to the rivalry between England and France in the 1700's.  Not long after the fort was built, it was captured by the French, who spiked and broke the cannons, and leveled the walls.   Parks Canada was restoring the site, but many of the busted cannon were still  scattered about, looking pretty good for 300 year olds.  

Things that get left in the arctic seemingly last a long time.  We came across the remains of a crashed airplane near the airport.  Other than the numerous bullet holes from local hunters, presumably after the fact, it all looks pretty much like it had just crashed.  Shiny but broken engines are still amongst the litter.   The plane has been sitting there for over 30 years.


 There is no forest here just a tree here and a clump there hiding behind a large rock.  Churchill is on the edge of the tundra, which looks like a clipped lawn or a cow pasture, but is actually small shrubby plants a few inches high.  There is a lot of bare rock. 

There are walking trails, but they have warning signs indicating that strollers will be eaten by bears.  We take a chance anyway, we are hoping to see a bear, but we don't.  We do see a bear trap, a section of culvert on trailer wheels with a door that slams shut on a bear that tries to take the bait.

We are to leave on the next train out.  This time the train is even more late.  A freight train has derailed somewhere between Churchill and Thompson.  A common occurrence, and the single track must be cleared before anything else can move.  We finally leave, but  track troubles are not over.

 We end up sitting in Gillam most of the next day.  Better to wait in the station then in the middle of nowhere.  Fortunately somebody has arranged for those interested to tour the generating stations at the dam.  I go, and am glad I did.  Our tour guide is a technician.  This means we get a highly informative tour from someone who knows what they are talking about.  She also takes us places that I suspect any professional tour guide wouldn't dream of taking a tour group.  At one point we are standing underneath the rotor of a spinning generator that is pushing 140,000 horsepower worth of electrons down a few half inch thick wires to Minnesota.  We are all crouching because if we stood up it would take our heads off.  We learn that a technician was killed that day checking the transmission wires by leaning out of a helicopter hovering beside the wires somewhere in the middle of nowhere.   We take our electricity for granted, if you ever get a chance to stand on top of or underneath a 600,000 pound spinning generator rotor, do not miss the opportunity.  You can feel the power by the way it shakes earth around it.  The energy it creates is keeping the lights on Manitoba, Minnesota, North Dakota and Northwest Ontario.  Impressive stuff.


We also learn of what Manitoba hydro had to learn to neutralize as best they could the effect on the environment of damming huge rivers.   More projects are underway.  One impression I get after seeing the amount of water just one river flows into the Arctic Ocean, I will never again be able to take seriously the claim that there is (or will be) a water shortage.   

The tour is over, the track is clear, and the train departs Gillam, still at 10 mph though.  Travel schedules, connections and reservations for those who have them are ruined.  The staff on the train are apologetic, even though it is not their fault.  Passengers get treated to free meals by the train staff.  Neither me or my brother has a schedule so we enjoy the extra time.  The train trip to Churchill has been well worth while and I would recommend it to anybody, just make sure your schedule is totally flexible.

My return to Edmonton was uneventful.  I chose a slightly different route back that put me through more southern and populated areas, but still in the north central parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.   A little south of Thompson, muskeg is replaced with deep soil, big trees and old timey looking farms with big red barns green fields.  Nipawin Saskatchewan is the nearest thing to time travel to the late 1950's.   Everybody in Prince Albert knows what a KTM is and thinks they are cool.  All the gas stations are gone from the small towns of north east Alberta.

This was my first trip to what I consider the real north.  I don't have to travel very far to see the boreal forest, it is in the river valley a few blocks away.  But Edmonton is the last city of the south not the first city of the north.  The north is still untamed frontier, there isn't much left on the planet, but there is still a lot more of it up here.











 



No comments:

Post a Comment