Monthly Archives: May 2022

Yellowknife, Northwest Territories

5/15/22

On a planet containing seven billion people, it is difficult to imagine that there are still places as empty as the Northwest Territories. A vast swath of boreal forest and Arctic tundra five times the size of England, it has a population of a small provincial town. After driving through one of the most remote stretches of highway in the world, we arrived in Yellowknife. Coming into the Capitol of the Northwest Territories, we discovered a vibrant and crowded city that contains 50% of the Territories’ residents. Sadly, like many Canadian and American cities, it also contained a sizeable number of homeless and destitute people. The city was founded in the 1930s as a gold mining town and the Old Town still retains the look of its rough and tumble roots. Diamond mining has replaced gold mining and Yellowknife still has the feel of a boomtown. However, like in many boomtowns, some locals are wondering what comes next when the stones run low in the next decade or two. 

After checking in to the Explorer’s Hotel, we were surprised to find an excellent Ethiopian restaurant in downtown Yellowknife. The refugee couple that owned and ran the business were struggling but somehow managed, through hard work and deep faith, to keep their hopes alive. After today’s long drive and a great meal, we decided to spend the rest of the evening enjoying the clear sky and perpetual dusk of the Far North.

We followed a beautiful trail the city has created along a shore to the Museum and the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly. We later walked over to the Old Town and immediately felt that this part of town was our home in Yellowknife. It was filled with small, funky shops, cafes and old pioneer houses. From the Bush Pilot’s Monument atop a large rock, we had a sweeping view of this entire area. We looked down on a small frozen inlet and noticed several people on cross country skis out on the ice. After our initial trepidation, we gingerly stepped out onto the frozen lake and immediately understood why this is a magical place. We walked out to the hand-built houseboats frozen on the lake and talked to a young man living in one of these quasi-legal homes. It reminded me of a photo-essay I did years ago on a similar quasi-legal community living on boats in San Francisco Bay that were called “anchor outs”. The people here embodied the free spirit of this alternative community living at the end of Yellowknife Highway.

The next morning, we photographed the exquisite Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly Library. The librarian explained that this modern circular building was built to mimic the design of an Indigenous igloo. Prior to the construction of this building in 1990s, the Legislative Assembly would meet in different communities throughout the Northwest Territories carrying a large, throne-like chair to establish their authority. 

Our next stop was the Public Library of Yellowknife. The library seemed to have some issues with security. I was asked several times to show my letter of permission to photograph in the library which indicated that the mean streets outside sometimes came in here. However, it was full of great public art purchased by the city created mostly by local artists. Libraries like this are often a reflection of the complicated reality of the communities they are in.

After photographing these two libraries, we were determined to see and experience as much of this area as possible. Although located next to the vast Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife didn’t seem to have much public access to the fifth largest lake in North America, and the tenth largest in the world. We drove along the Ingram Trail to the Indigenous community of Dettah which is right on the lake. From the shores of the Great Slave Lake, we could see the ice-covered water stretching off to infinity. The opposite shore was beyond the edge of the horizon.

We continued east from Dettah on the Ingram Trail until the paved road ended. Ahead was a gravel road that continued for a few more miles and then, no road at all between there and the North Pole. This spot defined the word “remote”. This marked the most remote Walker and I had ever driven.

Driving back, we stopped at one of the most amazing hikes that I have ever been on. The Cameron Falls Trail in the Hidden Lake Territorial Park clambered over Canadian Shield rock through pine (what kind?) and birch forests ending at the breath-taking Cameron Falls. The river had been covered in ice that had recently partially collapsed revealing a raging torrent beneath the blanket of ice. For both of us, this view represented one of the defining moments of the trip and one of the highlights of the spectacular Northwest Territories.

Back in Yellowknife, we headed to the oldest building in Old Town called Bullock’s Bistro. This place has been through a lot and it did a good job of retaining the memory of its earlier, rowdy days. The character of the place seemed real, but it is very popular with tourists, especially during the summer. When we were there, all the people we talked with were locals and everyone wanted to talk with us. We became instant celebrities when we said that we had just driven from San Francisco. The place was filled with characters. Our French-Canadian waitress was speaking in French to our neighbor who was Arcadian from the Maritimes. Her husband was a mining engineer who spoke French and Spanish and had worked for long periods in Mexico. The couple in back of us invited us over for drinks and everyone thought that Yellowknife was the greatest place on Earth. After today, we would tend to agree.

We ended the evening with another short hike out on the nearby ice lake. The temperature today had gotten up to the 60s and we could tell that the ice was thinner. At one point my feet broke through the crust and my boots got soaked. Fortunately, the underlying ice held, and I quickly scampered away to more solid ice. Of course, this didn’t stop me from photographing several of the quirky houseboats sitting on their icy beds in the Arctic twilight. 

We will be very sad to leave tomorrow after our impossibly short stay in Yellowknife. As we headed back to our room at the Explorer’s Hotel, we paused to take a selfie in front of a much-photographed polar bear. I am thankful for our explorer’s spirit that compelled us to make this long but incredible journey. I am sure that we will be back.  

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EDMONTON TO THE ARCTIC

5/14/22

International jet travel has given us the ability to quickly see parts of the world far away from our normal lives. But by driving to the Arctic from San Francisco, we are able to see the gradual change in the landscape and culture from the Pacific Coast of California to the high latitudes near the top of the word. Northern Alberta is little visited and even less known. North of Edmonton the population drops off to Siberian levels. The sense of remoteness here is almost eerie. After we left Edmonton, we left the Great Plains and entered the Peace River Valley. The hard scrabble town of High Prairie, AB had an unusual looking library that obviously meant a lot to this working-class community. The photograph of Queen Elizabeth at the entrance was a good reminder that we were in a country with deep English roots. The next small town we visited was the proudly French-speaking community of Fahler, AB. Alberta has a surprisingly larger number of descendants of French settlers showing the important diversity that is one of the best things in this vast country of Canada.

As we drove north of the Peace River Valley, we left behind the last of the agricultural lands of the region and entered the lower Arctic. The transition was gradual as we entered the mixed forests of birch and pine. We could see that the trees were shorter here than the forests of the south, but we had been told that these woods very old. We were surprised to see over a hundred kilometers of burnt trees from a vast forest fire. Although we are far north, this region is relatively dry, and climate change seems to have taken its toll here too. At this latitude, these Boreal forests of the North stretch all the way around the globe. I imagine that this forest in Canada looks a lot like forests in Siberia and Scandinavia.

Continuing  north, we began to notice that vast areas of water and ice had formed on both sides of the road. Parts of the road itself was severely damaged or even under water. Our mighty Prius is definitely not an off-road vehicle but passed the rugged conditions in great shape. We had hoped to spend the night in the small town of Hay River on the shores of the Great Slave Lake. As we checked the road conditions ahead, we saw a warning that the entire town of Hay River was being evacuated due to a massive flood. We quickly made reservations to stay in the small Indigenous town of High Level in northern Alberta, the last settlement of any size before the Northwest Territories border. It was a good thing that we called ahead because all the motels in town were filled with the people evacuated from Hay River. Most of them were Indigenous, and we began to understand a little what people fleeing a natural disaster go through. The motel had special programs and meals available for the evacuees and we began to see how people within this region help each other. The Canadian government also played a big part in the relief effort.

The entire staff of the Best Western were very polite and helpful under extremely stressful circumstances. I was surprised they were all from the Philippines and wondered how theyl got to this remote outpost in the Canadian wilderness. Walker and I drove around the community in the impossibly long Artic evening. The plain looking High Level Public Library was closed and looked like a police station. But it was surprisingly beautiful in the crystal-clear light of the Far North. Later, we took a short walk through the woods near our motel in the slanting sunlight of the late evening. A white-tailed Deer scampered into the darkening forest as we marveled at the red dappled light and the strangeness of being here.

As we crossed the border into the Northwest Territories, we were amazed that we had traveled this far so quickly. Crossing the invisible 60th Parallel made us feel we had finally entered the far North. The forests continued to shrink and thin. Strange new trees appeared, and the fire damage and flooding continued. We were trying to travel long distances on these drives but vowed we needed to stop at some of the scenic spots along the way. One of these places was Alexandra Falls on the mighty Hay River. Never before have I seen such a powerful river so close. Coming to this remote spot and standing next to such a full-throated force of nature was emotionally overwhelming. Frothy muddy water carried giant trees over a roaring waterfall to the white foam-covered river below. Massive sheets of ice clung to the shear cliffs on either side of the river. We met a small group of Mennonites from a nearby village. As we happily chatted with the men, the women stood silently in a group to the side in their long skirts and head coverings.

From the Falls, we continued north along the Hay River near the south side of the Great Slave Lake on to the Mackenzie River. The small Indigenous village of Ft. Providence is beautifully situated on bluffs overlooking the Mackenzie, the longest river in Canada. The ice had broken, and the river was making time here on its way north to the Arctic Ocean. The river becomes an ice highway for cars during the frozen time of winter but today it was blue and fast. The Aurora School in Ft. Providence contained a small library open to the community. I walked into the office with my camera gear wearing my Ukrainian flag cap. The principal immediately recognized the flag, smiled and said he was of Ukrainian ancestry. I photographed some wonderful symbols of this village’s Native heritage in the library such as a small teepee and Native language books. I then went outside and photographed a large teepee in front of the building in the snow. In this region the teepee is a ubiquitous symbol of Native America.

Heading north, we drive over roller coaster bumps caused by the melting underground permafrost through bogs, taiga and pinkish outcrops of Canadian Shield rocks. We follow the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary which is home to Canada’s northernmost population of around 4,000 free-ranging Wood Bison. The animals are bigger than our car and have tempers, so we give them a wide birth as we slowly pass them by. We continue our long-haul journey to the northern most spot on our journey – the Native village of Behchokó. This is the largest of the NWT’s First Nations. This area had no community library, but we felt it important to see this remote but busy Indigenous village. After we got out of our car, we were dazzled by the crisp, clear light and the clean, bracing air. We stood on the banks of the North Arm of the Great Slave Lake and tried to soak it all in. I even photographed the Prius next to the water to prove to myself that we had really made it to the Arctic. Next to us was a beautiful old wooden church where we met a gentle local Native man who was my age and had lived here all of his life. We also met Father Mickey who came from Eastern Canada and now led this humble church as a missionary and community leader. In some ways, Benchokó represented our ultimate point north into Arctic Native America. From here, we turned east and slightly south driving along the edge of the Great Slave Lake to our final destination of Yellowknife.

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EDMONTON

EDMONTON, ALBERTA

5/11/22

Western Canada is remarkable because in many ways it looks like the Western United States, but in many ways is so different. Besides showing our passports to enter at the border, it is easy to feel like we are not in a foreign country. As we drive north from Lethbridge, even the natural landscape feels like a continuation of the Great Plains, which it is. In Alberta’s Dinosaur Provincial Park, we both felt like we were back in the Badlands of South Dakota, an arid landscape full of fossils and hoodoos.

The differences become more apparent with the people. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have some of the largest numbers of people from Ukraine outside of Ukraine itself. The small towns east of Edmonton contain the children and grandchildren of the early twentieth-century wave of mass migration from a troubled Ukraine. They came here for many reasons including friendly Canadian immigration policies, cheap land and that this part of the world looks and feels a lot like Ukraine.

Every person that we met for the next few days were descendants of these early Ukrainian settlers. In Vegreville, we encountered the world’s largest easter egg painted in the bright colors of traditional Ukrainian decoration. A sad, hand-painted sign listed the number of people who had recently died in Putin’s stupid war in Ukraine. We were told by several people that this region will soon receive another massive wave of refugees from Ukraine. I wondered how this new group of people will interact with the descendants of the old. Walker and I drove for many miles down a muddy dirt road (in the mighty Prius!) to a remote Ukrainian Catholic church. Many of the headstones in the adjacent cemetery were in Ukrainian and told the story of these early pioneers. That old saying that the past is prelude seemed to resonate here.

As we drove west towards Edmonton, we encountered Elk Island National Park. This small National Park receives a fraction of the visitors of the nearby and better-known Parks of Jasper and Banff. However, outside of Africa’s Serengeti, it contains the highest concentration of wild hoofed animals in the world. We saw many White-tailed Deer, Elk and a close-up and personal encounter with a herd of massive, wooly Wood Bison. The entire park is surrounded by a high fence which is a sad but good thing since many of the animals would probably not survive on the nearby roads.

Edmonton is the northernmost city over a million people in the Western Hemisphere. It is located roughly at the same latitude as Moscow, Russia. In 2019, Ellen and I visited the big city of Calgary, Alberta. Now, Walker and I drove into Alberta’s other metropolis of Edmonton. Both cities are vibrant places, and it seems accurate to describe Calgary as white-collar and Edmonton as blue-collar. With a population of around 1 ½ million downtown Edmonton rises from the prairie with a surprising density of sparkling corporate glass-towers and a fairly desperate street life. Much of the wealth here is from oil money or corporate agriculture and it’s obvious that income inequality is high. And like many cities, Covid has taken a high toll on the small businesses here. Like in San Francisco, the neighborhoods seem to be where the city comes alive. We are staying in the oldest part of the city called Strathcona. Old brick buildings, great hipster restaurants and coffee shops are here but also many closed businesses. The gloom is accentuated by the unusually bitter-cold weather. Wind and a swirling snow keep the street life scarce. I glance at the calendar and can’t believe that it’s May and not March. We were told that this weather is weird, and the locals are emphatically sick of the endless Winter. 

The Main library in Edmonton is extraordinary and serves a vital role as an oasis for the community in an otherwise sterile downtown. The cold weather outside drives a large number of homeless and desperate people indoors. The librarians go from being information workers to social workers, but this library seems to be able to manage the tough situation with compassion, outreach and lots of security guards. The background for this is a spectacular atrium soaring up several floors from the ground floor to the high ceiling. I encounter two Indigenous people that work for the library as roving ambassadors/social workers with people in need in the library. In another room, I met a librarian organizing the first seed library in Edmonton. The optimistic, positive force behind that effort reminds me why I still feel that libraries are so vital.

We spent the rest of the day visiting six different branch libraries throughout Edmonton. I photographed the amazing 100-year-old Strathcona branch library, the oldest in the city. It had one of the best restorations that was wonderfully sensitive to its original design. I also photographed the two beautiful Modernist branch libraries of Calipano and Jasper Place. I included two branches in shopping malls that surround the city in an endless sprawl. One of the great things in doing these endless Library Road trips is to see each community we visit on a local level and not just as an outside tourist. Our drives today throughout Edmonton gives us a much better understanding of what life is like in this part of the world.

After an amazing dinner at a farm-to-table restaurant run by a 3rd generation Ukrainian, we walk off the meal at sunset along the beautiful wooded banks of the North Saskatchewan River.   

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN, DRIVING TO THE ARCTIC

5/8/22

In spite of everything, this seemed like a good time to head to the end of the road. Driving north from San Francisco, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada is where the pavement ends. From there, If you draw a line from Yellowknife to the North Pole you would find no roads. Ellen is off organizing a big Colorado photography reunion for the Fall, so my traveling companion on this trip is our son, Walker Dawson. Like our big Library Road Trips of 2011 and 2012, this is another epic father-son bonding road trip.

We left a strangely warm San Francisco and scooted up Highway 5 and then over to Bend, OR. This wonderful town has been discovered as a remarkable small Western town that has grown dramatically with people fleeing the large urban West Coast cities of Seattle, Portland, the Bay Area and Southern California. Our hipster tacos were delicious but as we tried to sleep in our cheap motel, we were interrupted in the middle of the night by a tweaker party in the room below that lasted for several hours. Nothing like being back on the road.

After a fairly sleepless night, we drove 14 hours north by northeast through eastern Oregon, the Columbia River basin, Spokane, and then eastern Washington to the border. The Canadian border guard was a little puzzled when I said we were really excited about seeing Edmonton. We then proceeded to have one of the most beautiful drives that I have ever experienced. This part of the Canadian Rockies is just north of Glacier National Park and just south of Banff National Park. But it is just as beautiful as its more famous neighbors. The weather cooperated as well with a dramatic dusting of snow and rain as we drove through massive, jagged, heavily snow-covered peaks towering in the sky filled with enormous clouds. Spots of sunlight occasionally ripped through the complicated weather. I realized that my ability to comprehend the profound beauty around us was limited but I knew that this was a great, life-changing experience.

The one library I photographed in the Rockies was in Ferney, British Columbia. A major ski resort exists here but the downtown of this former mining town had been restored in a beautiful and not overly precious way. The library was a classic old brick building offset by the huge, snow-clad peaks surrounding it. Two of the windows contained displays with red dresses and signs about “missing sisters”. This reminded me of the sad displays we saw in Canada in 2019 about the ongoing tragedy of missing Indigenous women.

As we exited the Canadian Rockies we entered the Canadian Great Plains. We arrived exhausted in Lethbridge, Alberta after our long drive, glad to have traveled so far and seen so much beauty. Sleeping that night was more like passing out after the previous night of no sleep. The next morning, we decided to photograph the childhood home of an old friend of ours from the Bay Area. His family left Lethbridge in 1957, but he spent the formative part of his childhood in this house. As we pulled up to front of this humble little home, we found it surrounded by a chain-linked fence and a crime-scene sign posted by the police. A passing neighbor explained that the place had been raided by the police five days ago and it had been a famous and dangerous drug house for the last three years. Guys in hazmat suits had been cleaning it out over the last few days and it would soon be torn down because it was beyond repair. It was hard to comprehend the tragedy of this place and to link it to the sweet memories of our friend’s childhood memories. But as is often the case when traveling, truth can be stranger than fiction.  

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