August 12, 2004

Edmonton to Yellowknife

We left Edmonton a day early, in the rain.   We'd serviced car and laundry, and it seemed better to spend a trip day in the far north rather than around a big city (population 700,000).     As we drove north habitation and infrastructure gradually gave way to a long flat 2-lane road through stunted forest, out of the rain.   We enjoyed our first-ever CD player, listening to a talk about the Alaska Highway, including the recorded voices of Robert Service and workers who built the road in 1942.   We are not on that Highway, but will connect to it near Fort Nelson in a week.   We had planned to drive the 940 road miles from Edmonton to Yellowknife in 3 days, but are doing it in 2.   Technology makes the remote seem not so.   Our near-new Super 8 Motel here at the half way point of High Level, Alberta, is our fanciest yet, with satellite TV, free high-speed Internet, friendly people, and an excellent Boston Pizza restaurant next door.    Our next 3 nights will be in Yellowknife.

August 23.  We drove 450 miles from High Level, Alberta to Yellowknife, capital of Northwest Territories (NWT).   We had left agriculture behind, so all vegetable products and most meats, except buffalo and fish, have to be imported.   Some wood buffalo have brucellosis and tuberculosis, so the government inspects every one killed for human consumption.   The trees, underlain by permafrost, were steadily shorter and more anorexic as we approached their northern limit, just beyond Yellowknife, which is where the vast Barrens begin.   Sometimes the road was completely straight for 10 miles, with no other cars in sight.   We chatted with the lonely lone man at the tourist information post at the Northwest Territories border, the 60th parallel of latitude.   Soon after, we crossed the Mackenzie on a free ferry.   The river, which drains Great Slave Lake and thousands of square miles around it, here flows at 18 knots as it is compressed to a narrow width.   It's the shortest crossing for the ferry, the bow of which is pointed about 45 degrees to its path.   From here the river flows more than 1000 miles northward until it empties into the Arctic Ocean near Inuvik.   Northern rivers, especially the two biggest, the MacKenzie and the Yukon, were vital paths before the airplane, and are still useful avenues.   Heavy equipment originating in Canada is trucked up to Great Slave Lake, then barged down the MacKenzie and along the Arctic coast to Prudhoe Bay and exploration sites.   North of the MacKenzie we passed many buffalo-beware signs, and a few small groups of grazing buffalo.   We began to see many inukshucks, which are aboriginal rock cairns used to mark trails, locate things, and assert "we are (Dene, etc.) and this is our land". Like this: 

**  MINING.   Only those products with a high value per pound are worth the high cost of extracting and shipping them south.   There's so much copper along the Coppermine River up north that the "Copper Eskimos" (that's Inuit: Eskimo is an offensive word to them) extracted and used it, but copper from Chile is far cheaper.   Yellowknife had three waves of prosperity in the last 2 centuries: beaver skins, gold, diamonds. The last gold mine closed last year, but diamonds had arrived just in time. Diamond deposits were discovered in 1991, the biggest claim rush in Canadian history ensued, and production/extraction began in 1998.    In Canadian dollars, production last year was 1.7 billion, quadruple that of 2002.   Since GE-made diamonds and cubic zirconia are just as pretty, Yellowknife's economy rests on vanity, imagination and hype.   Of course the DeBeers cartel has offices here.   Other minerals are mined, and they've recently found emeralds.
**  GOVERNMENT.   In 1999 this province split in two, with the greater area, including all the islands of the high Arctic, and peopled almost entirely by a few thousand "aboriginals", becoming the new province of Nunavut. The national and NWT governments still have to oversee 1.3 million square miles with 65,000 people. That's about 20 square miles per person. I remember that about 40 years ago when Canada's big neighbor- us- sent our first ice breaker and oil tanker across the Northwest Passage, Atlantic to Pacific, Canada was impelled to pay more attention to its far north.
MacKenzie is freezing in the fall, and the 3 weeks of breakup in the spring.   Then lettuce etc. comes in by air.   What's not imported: lake fish, the principal ingredients of CONCRETE (sand, gravel, water), and buffalo meat.   Gasoline is about $3 US per gallon here.   However, Canada has tremendous reserves of fossil fuels.   Work has begun on the 2000 (?) mile MacKenzie pipeline, from Inuvik (where we saw the many capped wells in 1996) on the Arctic shore to the existing grid in the south.   In northeast Alberta are the Athabaskan Tar Sands, more petroleum than in Arabia but up to now too expensive to extract.  (PS: By 2009 extracting petroleum from the tar sands was a huge business).     On two (I remember from the 1950's) Nunavut Arctic islands oil seeps from the ground, too remote to harvest yet.   East of Inuvik the whalers found smoke from smoldering coal seams, which still slowly burn.   Halfway betwixt Yellowknife and Inuvik is Norman Wells, where the Canol Project started producing oil in WWII just as it was no longer needed or worth the expense.   From revenues of its oil fields nearer the USA, Alberta has just paid off all its debt and is running a 9 billion dollar annual surplus.   But the earth's supply is finite: a recent National Geographic headlined, "The End of Cheap Oil".   Ethnicity: On Yellowknife's streets, it's about 40% Dene (Indian) and Inuit (Eskimo), 40% Caucasian, 10% Asian, and virtually no blacks.   The legislature has an aboriginal majority, as do the mine workers.    I wish we had time to write here about the many friendly helpful Canadians we have encountered.


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