We struck out west from Winnipeg on the Yellowhead Highway under clear blue skies and snow covered fields. We were on the Great Plains again and squinted south into the low sun, looking towards Oklahoma where the Bobos were no doubt festively preparing the house in the week before Thanksgiving. We on the other hand felt quite alone, eating dry sandwiches and staring at the road that lay before us for hours. Outside of the car, the temperature began to plummet. We planned to make it to Fairbanks, Alaska in time to celebrate Thanksgiving with my aunt and uncle, except that we’d recently realized that Winnipeg was not as far north as we imagined. It turns out that Winnipeg is at the exact center of the North American landmass. This bit of troubling geographic reality had us reviewing our route, realizing that the Alaska Highway alone was going to take us four days to drive – after – four days of hard driving to reach the beginning of the famous northern road.
We pressed across the anvil flat plains and stopped for our first night well short of our first goal, Saskatoon. Wynyard is a speedbump of a town, but seemed like our best bet as darkness fell. The car’s thermometer read -7º and we had no reason to doubt it – especially after I stepped out to inquire after room rates at the Arrowhead Motor Inn, frost nipping at my earlobes. Inside, the front desk was shuttered and a cordless phone sat where you might normally find the concierge. Next to the phone was a maddeningly confusing sign explaining how to call the attendant. I must have been staring at it like a moron, wondering what other sort of moron had drawn the bizarre diagram, when the shutters flew open and a short, round young woman snarled,
“It was too pathetic watching you figure out how to use the phone.”
I was taken aback but her sudden arrival, glanced around for a security camera, found it, then wondered inwardly why if she could see me the phone was necessary in the first place. She had mousy brown hair, some of it dyed with either food coloring or a healthy dose of cherry Kool-Aid.
“I think your sign needs some work” I kindly advised.
“I think it works great. You want a room?”
She led me upstairs to a hallway full of doors. It was warm in the hall which made me feel positive about the prospects of a warm room. She fumbled with the keys, trying and failing multiple times to get the key in the keyhole.
“I guess i’m not very good at hitting the hole.” She mumbled, and then looked back at me a little bashfully, “I mean, I’m not into that.”
I stared at her as if I had no idea what she was talking about. Despite our odd hostess and the bed with Corinthian columns as bedposts, we decided to stay, the next motels were too far and possibly more expensive. After unloading our things we shuffled through the snow towards the neighboring Chinese restaurant, chill air chaffing our lungs with every breath. The Chinese was bad, but edible.
The temperature dropped to -11º F overnight. In the morning the cold nearly stopped me in my tracks as I walked out to inspect the car. It was another bright clear day with the sun just starting to rise over the horizon. I sat behind the wheel and turned the ignition only to be greeted with a whimpering moan. The Subaru had frozen solid overnight. I returned inside, nervous again about what this meant for the rest of the trip: the forecast for Fairbanks read -30º. We took to the internet and found some advice for starting an extremely cold car. It suggested we return to the car shortly and try again, the first attempt having probably warmed it slightly. We did so and it worked. The Subaru moaned again and then came to life. I let it run until it reached a reasonable temperature and then we were on our way towards Saskatoon.
Outside of Saskatoon is the Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a well designed visitor center and museum dedicated to the nomadic Native Americans who’d camped and hunted here for 6,000 years. We were some of the few people there and wolfed down some hot bison stew in the cafeteria before heading out to walk the grounds of the park. The museum building is appropriately designed as a stepping stone into a large wilderness area. Teepee rings, rings of stone, have been found in sheltered hollows where tribes had wintered outside of the blowing cold. The interpretive trails were empty and unplowed, leaving us to trudge through shin deep snow in the new winter boots we bought in Winnipeg. Other tracks showed animals had trotted before us, deer and coyote most likely, but apart from these, we were alone with the chill relentless wind and the ghosts of the plains.
Just before we reached Edmonton we decided to stop at Elk Island National Park. What convinced us was seeing three or four dozen bison covered with snow, lounging near the freeway that cuts the park in half. Along with bison in their semi-natural habitat, we thought it might be a great chance to see the elk or moose that had so far evaded us. We turned up a well plowed road and again found ourselves alone in a lovely preserve shrouded in its winter blanket of white. As for wildlife, all was still. We paid our entrance fee and drove down what was called the “Bison Loop”, figuring we’d at least get another peek at the big herd we’d seen from the freeway. There was nothing, just a pristine vista of white. We spent two hours in the park, driving through and appreciating its wintery beauty, but seeing nothing much apart from a couple of birds. We returned to the freeway to stop and photograph the mighty bison in repose. As we left it began to snow again in ernest.
The days of driving dragged on. We started to bicker as car-fever set in, both of us questioning the wisdom of our speedy trip across Canada. There was much to see, but it felt like we weren’t seeing it. We drove an average of 8 hours a day on our way to Jasper National park and by the time we arrived we were tired and grumpy.
Entering the park after dark it was impossible to see anything but the taillights of the car ahead of us. We had the sense that we’d gained some elevation, but apart from that it was had to believe we’d entered the dominion of the Canadian Rockies. A sign told us to watch for wolves which at one point would have made me peer eagerly into the brush – but darkness, road weariness and a growing skepticism kept me from getting too excited. I was starting to think all the moose crossing signs throughout Canada were a marketing ploy. We checked into the cozy Marmot Motel in Jasper, ate an overpriced dinner and then crashed into bed, exhausted and unexcited about moving on the next day. We bickered more about the future of the trip, the past of the trip, especially the present of the trip. Where we making a terrible mistake driving all that way? Why hadn’t we allowed ourselves more time in this massive, beautiful country?
In the morning we made the decision to stay in Jasper for one more night. We clearly needed a break and the dawn light told us it was going to be a beautiful clear day. We saw for the first time that from our window we could see the peaks of the Rockies just starting to glow golden with dawn. The car started right away as we jumped in to explore the park. The thermometer showed it was a balmy 28º.
The Outback handled well on the smaller icy roads of Jasper. It mastered the climb up the Maligne Canyon road, towards Medicine Lake. Just as I began to grumble again about the complete lack of animals in Canada, a herd of bighorn sheep appeared before us. They stared with rectangular pupils as we passed.
As we were driving the snow covered path that cut through a heavy stand of aspen, Magda yelled, “Moose!” and I slammed on the breaks. The car skidded twenty feet in a shower of ice before I could turn around and return to where she’d spotted a moose cow and her calf. They were still there, looking defiantly in our direction. We watched until they moved off into the woods.
I told Magda paternally, “You know, that was the most dangerous animal in the park, a moose cow defending her calf.”
She pointed to the park brochure which unequivocally stated that the most dangerous animals in the park are elk. Chastened, I allowed as to how that might also be true.
We drove as far as we could on the road until we reached Maligne Lake where the way was closed. There were three cars at the trailhead but their occupants were nowhere to be found. We walked around ourselves, then went in search of an open restroom. I burst through a big powder drift into an unplowed parking lot. The Subaru sank up to its doors but managed to push through towards a clean looking free-standing restroom. Magda jumped out, walked three steps then quickly turned around and got back in the car, her eyes wide.
“A moose!” She said for the second time that day.
Sure enough a giant moose cow was sitting not twenty feet from the bathroom door, chewing her cud. Her calf sat nearby. It wasn’t looking at us, rather, past us, but we were on her radar for sure. Unfortunately this was the only open restroom. I drove to another but it was locked. We came back to the moose and asked her to leave. She didn’t. Another car pulled up and the occupants jumped out then started towards us. I rolled down the window to warn the couple,
“Have you seen the moose?”
“No!” Answered the woman excitedly, “but did you see the fox?”
“Um, no, but the moose is still right there.” We pointed to the giant, a refugee from the pleistocene with her large ears and little eyes – eyes that were focused better now on all of the noisy creatures disturbing her calf’s nap.
The couple jumped back when they saw the moose and walked in the other direction.
Our extra night at the Marmot Lodge did wonders for our spirits. As did the many animals that began to appear in the evening and the next morning. Big herds of elk and mountain sheep, two big bull elks right next to the highway. By the time we’d left Jasper we were slightly refreshed. We jumped onto Highway 40, headed north towards the start of the Alaska Highway. The packed snow melted off of the car as the temperature hit 40°, a minor miracle. A bright sun warmed us and seemed like it had climbed higher than it had in weeks. It all only lasted an hour or so; soon enough it was below freezing again and has been ever since.