A reddish dirt and gravel road drifts its dusty way through sub-alpine fir and stunted poplar growing with apparent stubbornness here above the 62nd parallel. The trees lean at odd angles, tilting and listing like hapless drunks making a last attempt at decorum as closing time approaches in some unknown bar. Black bears wander across the road and silently vanish into the forest. Small bands of woodland caribou traipse through the trees. A bald eagle cruises the thermals nearly out of sight.
To the west, the Mackenzie River flows deep, wide and immense towards the Beaufort Sea far above the Arctic Circle. Beyond the mile-wide river, majestic mountains rise up and tear at the sky. The clarity of the blue above me drops down on the land as wisps of white cloud float on a wind that moves easily from the north along the front of the Canyon Range. The breeze swirls and eddies, pushing aspen leaves like foam on a mountain stream before moving on. Wild peaks and ridges many miles away shimmer purple, salmon and rock-hard gray. Beyond these and rising higher are the Mackenzie Mountains.
It’s breathtaking country here in the heart of Canada’s Northwest Territories: enormous, wild, unpopulated. The Territories are an immense land several times the size of my home state of Montana, which is nearly 150,000 square miles (388,500 km²) itself. Yet the population is barely more than 30,000 people. The territorial capital of Yellowknife is located 937 miles (1,500 km) north of Edmonton, Alberta, lying about 400 miles (645 km) north of the U.S./Canada border.
To the northeast of me on this road to the town of Wrigley, along the east bank of the Mackenzie River, the Ebbets Hills rise from the seeming flatness of the brush, moss and boggy plateau. Behind the hills near my destination of this small Dene settlement (the Dene are native First Nations’ People with direct ties to the Native Americans of America’s high plains), is the McConnell Range and then the Franklin Mountains. The peaks are rounded at their tops. From 30 or more miles (50 km) away, the mountains look gentle and smooth. The covering of dense pine forest reinforces this impression.
Waves of wicked, abrupt white cliffs slicing across the slopes destroy my illusion of tameness and easy travel. This road is a very long way from home, through Alberta, then northwest for hundreds of miles on paved road that gives way to packed dirt and crossings by ferry over both the Liard and Mackenzie roaring watersheds. The Dene, who have lived on this land for thousands of years, call the Mackenzie the Deh Cho meaning “big river.”
Wrigley has been on my mind for years, ever since I looked at a map of the Territories and saw that the place of less than 200 inhabitants was at the end of the road, as far as a person can drive unless he waited for winter and was up for traveling the snow road with its creaking and crackling ice bridges over the big rivers. Then it is possible to advance for hundreds of miles farther north alongside the Mackenzie to places like Tilita, Norman Wells and Ft. Good Hope in near constant night with billions of stars and the aurora borealis flaming overhead.
The Dene, who still practice the old ways of hunting and trapping to exist, call Wrigley Pehdzah Ki or “clay place.” I find myself preferring the sound of their language and its natural life meanings for their world. The town was originally known to traders as Old Fort Island when the Dene settled what was then a trading post operated by the North West Trading Company beginning in 1870.
The first few years of the 20th century were mean ones for the Dene. One-third of their people died from tuberculosis and famine. The remaining 48 families moved about 30 miles (about 50 km) away to a landform called Roche-qui-trempe-a-l’eau or “the rock that plunges into the water.” The site, now called Old Fort Wrigley, remains in the form of a few decaying log cabins along the riverbank. Thrity-five years ago the town moved to higher, drier ground in a clearing surrounded by poplar and spruce. Drier ground translates into fewer mosquitoes, which drive caribou mad and can suck a weak animal’s blood dry in minutes.
When the people moved, they brought with them by barge the Roman Catholic church, the Hudson Bay Company store and warehouse (a trading company formed nearly 200 years ago that initially dealt in the furs intrepid trappers gathered in this wilderness), the one-room school and the teacher’s residence. I am curious to juxtapose my experiences at Pehdzah Ki with those of the territorial capital Yellowknife, which I’d left a few days earlier.
Yellowknife is largely a modern city of 19,000 on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake. Perhaps the number of people here doesn’t translate to a city in the Lower 48, but the entire population of the Territories, a land larger than California, Montana and Wyoming combined, is only 41,000. Downtown is modern and bustling. The citizens are mostly successful, with the exception of the displaced Dene who sit on benches and wander back streets probably wondering what all of this modern chaos is about.
There are Germans, French, ex-patriot Yanks, South Africans and Aussies — most of them friendly. Unlike in the U.S., where a firm handshake is a curious indication of inner strength and honesty, everyone I meet greets me with a soft, warm grip and a polite probing with their eyes. Territorial residents all live hard, determined lives, but they impress with their friendliness and enthusiasm for just about everything.
Diamonds, tungsten, copper, emeralds and timber fuel the economy as does a burgeoning sport fishing industry, where float planes taking off in a steady buzz whisk the sports fans far north to the above-tree line barren grounds to fish for large Arctic char, lake trout, Artic grayling and northern pike.
After another hour of driving in this uncommon wilderness landscape, Wrigley appears abruptly out of the forest with its combination of new and old ― some modern homes next to teepees, dirt streets and new pickups, a hotel holding forth within a recent assemblage of trailers like the ones used for oil rig crews out in west Texas.
Entering town, I see a barricade to the winter road that will carry people and supplies to towns farther north in a few months. The track through the forest is thickly overgrown with tall emerald grass studded with wild flowers ― indigo, crimson, orange, white. The McConnells can be seen in a narrow slice of open sky between the tall poplars.
At the north end of town, I stop in front of the Catholic Church to take pictures. The building is a perfectly maintained structure of white with green trim, numerous windows and a tall steeple of silver metal. The cross at the crown flickers in a sunlight perfectly chilled by the cool offered on the wind moving down from the polar icecap many miles above.
Despite being after 10 p.m., the sun is still well above the northwestern horizon, where it will dip briefly out of view after midnight before rising a little after 1 a.m. to begin another June day. The birds will rest in this short span before resuming their singing and free-form chatter.
As I top a rise in the road, I see the Mackenzie River and its islands and Nahanni Butte many miles away. I stop my car, step out and take all of this in. I turn to look behind me and a white wolf is standing in the middle of the road 40 feet (12 m) away staring at me with dark eyes. We hold each other’s gaze for a long time until I shift my view back to Nahanni. When I glance back, I see the wolf moving silently through the small trees. Then he is gone. I get back in the car and continue driving.
If You Go:
Canadian Tourism Commission
Northwest Territories Travel & Tourism Guide