Middle Age Bulge - The Ultimate Winter Road Trip
I had lived in the region for over a decade before we seized the opportunity to drive up the winter road to Fort Chipewyan. My wife Heather had been up in Alberta’s oldest settlement several times in her previous role as a public health inspector and had driven this storied seasonal road once before. To that point, I had not been further north than the barge landing just beyond the Bridge to Nowhere (Peter Lougheed Bridge) and Fort McKay.
We had decided to make the epic trip north to coincide with the annual Fort Chip Fishing Derby about seven or eight years ago. It was a gloriously cold and sunny day as we left the highway and began feeling the bumps, twists and turns of the winter road.
I have done a number of crazy driving trips including the Going to the Sun road in northwest Montana and the twisting, cloud penetrating climb to Jerome, Arizona, but nothing compared to the pure driving joy I experienced going to Fort Chipewyan on a sunny and frigid day in early March.
We got a great sense of the size and scale of Wood Buffalo as we embraced the driving adventure of going beyond the northernmost oil sands developments and headed toward the Lake Athabasca delta. The drive took us up and down hills, around blind curves, and across bumpy ice bridges. The landscape was breathtaking, the drive, thrilling.
After getting to Fort Chip we drove around, visited the general store, found some place to grab a bite to eat, and made our way to the lake outside of town where hundreds of people were already trying to land the big one. Organizers had augered holes in the ice every 10 or 15 feet in long rows, enough to accommodate the large crowd of anglers that participate in this event every year.
You would never guess by the number of people that it was 35-below with a sharp wind from the north. They were prepared for what Mother Nature had to dish out. I was not. I was wearing jeans with long underwear. I might as well have been naked because it felt like I had nothing on at all.
I dropped a line into one of the holes after having put a few kernels of corn on my hook - someone had suggesting that as a good strategy - exposing my fingers to the numbing cold. I stood there waiting for a nibble for five or 10 minutes before acquiescing to the fact that I was ill-prepared for the cold and rushed back to the car to warm up unmentionable parts of my body that were colder than they had ever been, before or since.
Residents of Fort Chipewyan are hardy and friendly folk who are experts at adapting to the weather and embracing the winter. As I sat in the car and looked around, I took mental notes of what I would do differently to prepare for my next trip up the winter road to the fishing derby.
Despite the pain as I defrosted, I felt such contentment for having left the comfortable surroundings of the familiar and trying something new in our own backyard. The drive to and from Fort Chipewyan was truly spectacular and I would encourage everyone to give it a go. We happened to luck out and have a perfect day for driving. I would recommend that you watch the weather closely and have a good emergency kit (and plan) in case you run into trouble. It is a long drive and you don’t want to take any chances. I would further suggest that if you decide to participate in the Ice Fishing Derby to check-in with some locals about the best way to dress for success (and comfort).
Fort Chipewyan is one of the hidden jewels of our region. It is a beautiful community with some of the nicest people I have ever met. It is awe-inspiring in all seasons, but there is something extra special about being there in the winter and experiencing that amazing winter road. If you want to deepen your understanding and appreciation for Wood Buffalo, then a winter trip to Fort Chip is a great way to make that happen.
Russell Thomas writes a regular blog at www.middleagebulge.com and can be followed on Twitter @rvthomas67.