Travel Blog – Northwest Territories Part 1 – Vancouver to Hay River

Before I start, I have to answer the question everyone has asked me before I started this trip: why go to the Northwest Territories?  One of my “life goals” (or “bucket list items” for those who prefer that terminology) has always been to visit all of Canada’s provinces and territories.  I got to the last of the 10 provinces six years ago, when I crossed the Confederation Bridge into Prince Edward Island.  After moving to Vancouver, I decided it was high time I complete the set, and went to the Yukon this past September.  The trip was so amazing I decided I needed to see the other two ASAP.  So I booked this trip – first to the NWT, then to Nunavut (or, more specifically, just Iqaluit).

Now that I’ve been here a few days (I’m writing this on my fifth day in the territory, and posting much later), I realise that my approach was unconventional. All the tourist brochures (of which there are not many) and the travel books (of which I’ve only found two –the AAA guide which has NWT buried in a “Western Canada” edition, and the Moon guide) assume people will drive up here from Alberta.  I guess I could have done that, but I wanted to see Yellowknife, so I flew there.  There are no direct flights from Vancouver so I had to connect in Calgary. Despite my original flight via Edmonton being cancelled, the plane was only a little over half full.  Unlike my Yukon trip, I’m actually here during “tourist season,” which officially started May 15th… but I have yet to encounter even one other tourist.  The flight was uneventful until the last half hour, which was amazing – it was a clear day so I had an excellent aerial view of Great Slave Lake, which freezes entirely in the winter and is still mostly frozen.

Descending over the mostly-frozen Great Slave Lake

I landed in Yellowknife and picked up my rental car – a Ford Taurus.  Despite the awful experiences I had with a Ford Focus in New Zealand a couple years ago, this car is pretty great… and surprisingly high-tech for a basic rental car.  I’ve particularly enjoyed the hands-free USB sync with my iPhone, and the censor that beeps when I’m about to back into something.  Anyway, I drove to my hotel in Yellowknife and had a few hours to explore the town.  I also took off all my extra layers of clothing – it was around 10 ° C when I left Vancouver and in the mid-20s when I arrived in Yellowknife.  It’s not often Canadians go North for warm weather!

On first impressions, Yellowknife is a small rural city – or maybe a big rural town.  It has all the things a small city requires, and not much more.  But the people are relatively friendly and remarkably ethnically diverse – the city seems to attract people from around the world.  At least one person I spoke to said she preferred living there than in a big city like Montreal or Toronto, because she can (literally) walk to everything.  I was hungry and didn’t feel like searching for a restaurant, so I grabbed a quick dinner at the A&W and got settled into the hotel.  I did take the opportunity to go for a walk around the waterfront, and to see the sunset – at 11PM.  The sky remained light until well after midnight, and it never really got dark.  It was a weird phenomenon – but the novelty wears off after a few days.

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The next day, I set out in the car, headed for Hay River.  The freeze-thaw patterns up here do a number on the roads – the first stretch on the way out of Yellowknife is like riding a rollercoaster as the road has buckled in a wave pattern in a number of places.  Things levelled out past the town of Rae (and as the road leaves the Canadian Shield).  I stopped briefly at North Arm Territorial Park where I had lunch at a picnic table overlooking the North Arm of Great Slave Lake.  From there, it was a pretty unremarkable drive until I got just past Fort Providence to the Mackenzie River.  Shortly before the (brand new) Deh-Cho bridge which crosses the river, there is a rest stop where you can view the river and the bridge.  The river was a constant flow of ice – so beautiful to just sit and watch. And, of course, cold – so I didn’t stay long.  I continued over the new bridge and stopped again briefly at Dory Point Territorial Park which overlooks the other side of the river, which was worth it as you get much closer to the river.

From there, I continued on to Lady Evelyn Falls, which are a short drive off the main road and accessed near a campground.  The signs were ambiguous so I asked if a permit was required just to walk down to the waterfall and, apparently, it was not.  The falls themselves were beautiful – and huge! Having grown up near Niagara Falls, I’ve never been that excited by waterfalls but these were comparable to Niagara Falls, only much less overrun by tourists, and much muddier.  And shorter, of course.

The next stop was Twin Falls Gorge.  The ambiguous sign trend continued, so I parked the car in an otherwise empty parking lot (save a family playing at the playground) near Louise Falls.  Louise Falls were a very short walk from the parking lot and an unusual three-pronged shape.  The Hay River is so muddy at this point that the water looks like chocolate milk; it was like a Nestle Quik commercial!  There’s an option to walk down to the base of these falls, but the landing of the stairs was in very poor condition (a large portion of one of the barriers had fallen off entirely) so I wasn’t confident that taking the stairs down was in any way safe and decided against it.

I decided to walk to Alexandra Falls rather than drive – this was ultimately worthwhile, but I doubted myself the entire hike. It’s not a long hike – maybe 20-30 minutes each way – but there are only two directional signs the entire way, and they’re in the wrong places.  The sign near Louise Falls says “You are here” beside where Alexandra Falls is on the map, and vice-versa.  It was a bit disconcerting, as was the ambiguity over exactly how long the walk was.  It didn’t help that there was at least one detour due to unstable cliffs, and numerous downed trees along the way.  I was worried that if park staff wasn’t taking care of the downed trees, they weren’t looking to see if other parts of the cliff had become unstable too… I’ve become much less of a risk-taker in my 30s, I guess.

Anyway, I did ultimately make it to Alexandra Falls (where parking was much more clearly open to everyone without registration – I wish I had started my trip there), which are quite beautiful.  Another Niagara-like waterfall, the volume of water was just amazing, as was the chocolate-milk appearance to the water.  It was simply beautiful, and I was again practically alone to experience it.

I made the trip back along the same route I came on, and got in the car headed for Hay River (the town, named after the river, obviously).  I checked into my hotel and, lacking anywhere else to get food, ate there as well.  I’ve discovered that outside of Yellowknife, the NWT is still trapped in the old-world state of restaurants being inside hotels since the only people eating at them are travellers.  It’s kind of quaint, though it also yields pretty limited options when you’re hungry.

After dinner, I headed out to “Old Town,” which sits in the flood plain near the mouth of the Hay River, which leads into Great Slave Lake.  I was hoping there would be some waterfront access on the lake itself, but virtually all of it is private property. I did find the one small public beach, though, and spent at least an hour there watching the ice on the lake melt (it’s mesmerising!) and watching the sun set over the lake.  I’m still not quite over the fact that the sun sets in the North here – besides the general rule that the sun sets in the West, I’ve always thought of the sun as being aligned relatively close to the equator, so seeing it go down in the North is a weird feeling.  Regardless, it made for a beautiful sunset!


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As I post this, I’m now in Iqaluit on really slow hotel internet but will be posting more photos from this trip in my NWT set on Flickr, here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sweetone/sets/72157633701067683/

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One response to this post.

  1. […] is a continuation of my travel blog from my trip to the Northwest Territories. Part 1 is here, and Part 3 will automatically link in a comment below when I post it.  These were written en […]

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