Travel Blog – Northwest Territories Part 3 – Fort Smith to Fort Providence, and Sambaa Deh

This is part 3 of my travel blog from my trip to the Northwest Territories. Part 2 is here, and Part 4 will automatically link in a comment below when I post it.  These were written en route and are being posted on a few week delay.

Today (Wednesday – I will post this all in chunks later on), I woke up and headed out feeling a little tired and becoming disinterested.  I was beginning to think I planned too many days in NWT – the only plan for Wednesday was to stop at Salt Plains Overlook, if it was open, and then maybe Little Buffalo River Falls and then just drive all the way back to Fort Providence.  The day after I had scheduled to drive the dirt road part of the Waterfalls Route (the paved part was where I’d seen all those other falls on the first full day), but looking closely at my guides I figured there was really only one stop to make along that route, and if it was anything like driving anywhere else in NWT, it would be a really boring route.  Then Friday would be spent driving back to Yellowknife (only a 3-hour drive), followed by two full days in Yellowknife where there are only a few actual sights to see and not a big enough population to have very many interesting things to do.  And after a couple days in Fort Smith where there’s very little to do that doesn’t involve a long and complicated hike through a potentially-impassible trail to a sight that may be really interesting or may be terribly average, the notion of a long drive or hike for anything at this point became uninspiring.

I’ve also felt, since leaving Yellowknife, like an outsider.  I’ve encountered zero fellow tourists – I’ve encountered very few people in general, but those I’ve had an encounter with have mostly been locals.  They all seem confused and/or surprised by my non-Alberta-based route (“you flew to Yellowknife??”) and almost suspicious of why I would be here (“so what are you doing here, exactly?”)… That’s when they say more than one or two words to me (such as “that’ll be $21.03 please.”)  Everyone’s been cordial, but I’ve definitely felt awkward and out of place; more so than I usually do when travelling alone (which I do often).  Maybe it’s just the time of year, but there’s definitely been some discomfort.

Anyway, I headed back along the same road as I came into Fort Smith on, and hoped for an open road to Salt Plains Overlook. Sadly, it was still barricaded and closed.  I went on to Little Buffalo River Falls, and got confused about where I was actually supposed to go (there was a picnic area with no signage, adjacent to a trail with an ambiguous map, and a road that continued on – I eventually decided to continue on the road).  I found a place to stop, and discovered the falls are only sort of visible from the top part of the territorial park – unless you go down a road explicitly labelled as “non maintained” and “use at own risk.”  Knowing how rough the conditions are on the roads that ARE maintained, I opted against this and just viewed them from the top of the gorge… and had lunch in the nearby completely-empty campground.


I spent the rest of the day driving pretty well straight to Fort Providence (except for a stop in Hay River for a snack).  As I approached the Mackenzie River, I realised there was no longer any ice flowing in the river – it was just water, with very small patches of ice.  I checked into my hotel where the woman behind the counter told me [of the ice] “oh, it’ll be back – there’s lots more up there.” She was also very friendly – it was the first conversation I’d had with anyone in a number of days that was more than mechanical, and she gave me some good tips on where to get things (including gas) in town.  I immediately felt better about the trip, and this was bolstered by a room with a view of the river!  I had dinner at the only restaurant/cafe in town, part of the hotel complex of course, and took a walk by the river before coming in and typing up all my travels to date.


Thursday, my only plan was to drive to Sambaa Deh Falls, a little under 200km from Fort Providence.  I was worried it was going to turn into another long journey for not much of interest at the end – there were really not many other interesting stops to make on the way.  Nevertheless, there was not much else to do, so I headed out.

After turning onto Highway 1, a little ways over the Deh Cho Bridge outside of Fort Providence, I expected the road to turn to an unpaved one, as every map I looked at suggested it was.  After about 20 km of paved road, albeit in rough condition, I was beginning to get my hopes up that the maps were wrong.  In the end, only the first 40km of the road are paved, and the last 5-10 km of that is really badly chewed up – it’s as if the road was once paved and they just decided to stop bothering to maintain it.  Fortunately, the remaining 100km of unpaved road was in relatively good condition (and being maintained as I drove by), so the drive from Fort Providence took a little over 2.5 hours in total.

I arrived to yet another empty campground, only this time there was a pickup truck parked in front of the caretaker’s residence and a GNWT caretaker was out front chopping wood. He didn’t see or hear me arrive and I went hunting for the washroom, which I discovered was locked so I went in behind it.  I then went looking for the river, as there are supposedly two waterfalls – I wanted a sense of where things were before I stopped to sit for lunch.  I didn’t quite figure out where the second waterfall was (the first one is near the road), but found a river with another pickup truck and two employees working away – not wanting to bother them I stood on the river bank nearby and looked out, still not seeing the waterfalls, so I headed back to the car to grab lunch before exploring further.

The caretaker had by now noticed my car and was looking for me – once he saw me he gave me a very friendly greeting (much friendlier than any parks employees at any of the other stops I’ve made so far on this trip) and explained where everything was, how to get there, and what else was good in the area (including another river down the road which I had no intention of visiting, but I politely listened to him tell me how great it was).  He offered me cookies, and told me all of the buildings had running water that comes straight from the river so it’s great to drink (in actuality, while it was fine to drink, it was a rather off-putting brownish-yellow colour from the sediment in the river – fortunately my water bottle removes sediment).  He also asked that I sign in at the guestbook, as day use visitors are supposed to register upon arrival.  When I did so, I observed that, despite the parks season being 15 days old, I was the first visitor they’d had all year!

Anyways, I ate my lunch at the picnic tables and then followed the trail up to Coral Falls, but only after startling the two employees I had seen earlier (their truck was blocking the sign leading to the trail which I why I didn’t see it the first time).  I learned from the caretaker at the front they’re installing a sensor to detect bats – when I asked, he said he’s never seen a bat there in however many years he’s worked there.  Oh well, science.

Coral Falls were pretty, but hardly felt worth the 2.5 hour drive – especially after the spectacular falls earlier in my trip.  I made my way back to find Sambaa Deh Falls, which are under the bridge where Highway 1 goes over the Trout River.  After wandering for a bit on the road (there was no one driving on it) I found the falls, which were actually quite unique.  The water falls in a complex twisting sort of pattern and bounces off the walls of the small gorge the river has carved before making its way to the bottom… it was definitely interesting and I spent some time observing the waterfalls in the mist.

At some point on the walk back to the car, I felt a sense of ease I hadn’t felt in a number of days – I was feeling tense and anxious for a while and finally felt calm again. Maybe it was getting to watch the falls, maybe it was the feeling that the ‘rural’ portion of my trip was coming to an end (this was stressful primarily because of the long drives on dirt roads), but I felt relaxed again.  It was good.

Ultimately, Sambaa Deh was worth the drive, but if I were to make a recommendation for anyone else, it would be to camp at the campground and spend a couple days just relaxing out there – it’s not really the kind of thing you drive a long way to see and then turn around like I did.  And that is what I did – I then headed back to Fort Providence and planned my time in Yellowknife on a picnic table by the Mackenzie River.


NOTE: All my photos are now uploaded and in the Northwest Territories set on Flickr.


One response to this post.

  1. […] « Travel Blog – Northwest Territories Part 3 – Fort Smith to Fort Providence, and Sambaa Deh […]


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