"Follow Your Dreams" by Karl Johnston

For those that live outside the North and who have never been up here before – yes we have roads. Some. Sometimes. Traveling by road in the North is not uncommon – especially in the North & South Slave regions where the largest percentage of the population resides.

Tumbling Diamonds by Karl Johnston

Tumbling Diamonds by Karl Johnston

It is not unusual to see a small compact car or a gleaming luxury Cadillac, Corvette or Mustang soaring around the streets. In the past year or so Fort Smith received completely new walkways, bike paths and pavement – a several million dollar development well received by my own compact car and its lackluster off-roading abilities. When it does come to off-roading we take a jeep or a truck to get where we are going.

The highway 5 that leads into Fort Smith is partially paved and as a result one acquires an infamous “northern windshield’ within short time of going up and down it. Highway 2 is mostly paved, if you do not count the ferry river before Fort Providence on the road to Yellowknife. The unfinished Deh Cho bridge idles nearby.

Often I have found myself in trouble on the roads – breaking down in -40, or colder with the wind chill. Sliding off the road and getting sucked into the ditch is no fun and being stuck out there is even worse.

These days I take along a Spot Tracking Device and a cell phone – just in case. What is really unusual is whenever I do not have it I run into the most trouble and whenever I do have it I never encounter any problems.

Murphy’s Law..

On this particular spring evening , Tom, and I had the idea to go for a short cruise out on highway 5 to this old back road trail we had found with very little light pollution. The night was crisp and sharply chilly despite the melting snow during the day. The night was still and quiet, with crinkling ice crunching underneath the tires as we drove down the quiet back road.

Our hope this night was to get some wide-field star scapes, startrails or auroras. No time to contact a model but those shoots can be quite fun too.

Adventure Model - South Slave Region by Karl JohnstonSide from the odd stair trail, widefield or meteor shower we were generally planning on having a relaxed night of shooting.

My car was still in pieces so I borrowed an old 1988 Crown Victoria. Anyone who has driven these beasts knows how heavy the cars are, and although equipped with a v8 – they’re not power horses and definitely not made for making it up long icy steep hills (bit of foreshadowing there).

To our dismay we realized a little too late that we had met our match when it came to how far we could take a non 4×4 equipped vehicle. The car is a beast after 400 000 kilometers and I am a strong believer in the durability of Ford..however it was not quite enough to handle these particular unknown back roads.

The ice was slick and the mud thick underneath it. In the day the ice would melt and seep into the mud, softening it and then hardening in the evening again. Within a kilometer down the road and down a hill we found the road came to an end. The road was made of slick ice past that leading down into the river. We also found that the car would not back up past a few feet, trapping us at the bottom of the hill.

This could be a prediciment…

476,000 km

Time to get innovative.

I used the tire iron to chip away at a half of inch of remaining ice on the dirt road to access the gravel underneath. It took about 45 minutes to carve up enough ice to create traction for the car, a good pathway of it up the slight incline of the road. Tom kept his finger on the cellphone for me to have a light to work with (unfortunately we’re outside cell range so we weren’t being stupid here by not using the phone to call for help).

There was a good half a kilometer to get in the clear and a slight lip to clear. I began to curse having a beard as the tiny droplets of ice collected and refroze with each of my out-of shape breaths.

So much for keeping my face warm in the winter. I can’t tell if my cheeks are red from the cold or embarrassment at how bad the situation is.

Climbing back in the car and sticking it in low gear I inched backwards until there was enough space to get a run at the hill. Putting the car in gear again it surged forward and over the newly “paved” ice chips.

We were getting some good speed – all the way up to 30 kilometers an hour – which is as fast as we could go without spinning out and risking getting caught in a snowdrift.

Going too fast would spin our trusty (albeit heavy) battleship into the ditch and we would be stuck until July. No matter how hard we tried we just could not seem to clear the last little bit of the hill. Unfortunately after several attempts and over an hour of this I realized the tank was getting low and the engine nearly overheating. Time to jump ship.

Abandoning our efforts we grudgingly decided to walk back into cell range and call my dad to come out with car #2: A 1980 Pontiac Parisienne (AKA “rusty”) which had turned the clock several times. With only minutes to spare before he had to go to work, he was not pleased to hear I had stuck the car in tight on a dead-end unknown back road.

Nonetheless, he saw fit to come and rescue us. That’s just what Dads do. 

We passed the time waiting to be picked up walking down the road back to town. The night sky was blank, not a star nor a snowflake fell from the blackness. I realized I had forgotten to turn out the interior lights of the car and Tom offered to go back to turn them off. If the battery went on the car we would really be screwed until July. I waited in the dark watching the silent trees for him to return. I wondered if there were wolves or bears out yet.

Probably not a good time to wonder such things…

One of the biggest enemies for the winter traveler is getting too hot and getting wet from sweat as a result. Getting wet means getting cold faster, as the body loses heat much faster when it is wet or huddled in wet clothing. Fortunately we did not have to walk more than 20 minutes, as Rusty came chugging up the highway doing at max 85 km/h.

We loaded our gear into the car. There were 10 minutes left to the hour before he had to get back into town in order to go to work. About halfway back there came a rubble from the back and the smell of rubber, smoke filled the cabin. We could not stop and had no spare so we just kept on going anyway. The only other alternative would be to sit out here, wait for someone to come and ultimately have him miss work. Not a very appealing idea. So instead we chanced it, and with a “Ho Skipper!” from my dad, we roared back into town with a flush of smoke following behind.

We got out in the parking lot and took a few pictures of the aftermath. Fortunately it held up to get us back into town.

Tom and I thanked my Dad and let him get on to work. We would walk the rest of the way back home. I walked with Tom and navigated the icy road with my tripod as a support. The night was cool but we were warm having walked a quarter of the way back. We had a lot of energy left, despite working for hours trying to get out of our conundrum. As a couple of young lads with nothing better to do that night but go home we decided we hadn’t had enough of a kicking yet and decided to drag the car out with a 2×4 f-150 Tom would borrow.

Photo by Jacque BradleySo we borrowed a truck and set off down the highway again to drag the car out. The wind felt warm and we left all the windows down, piercing the vehicle down the highway again around about 3 AM.

It was simply too heavy to drag out…even with a truck. Feeling defeated we rode back into town. Time to really call in the cavalry. A neighbor has a giant Nissan Titan (AKA “The Titanic”) with advanced off road abilities – thankfully he was willing to come out and help come the following morning. It handled the car like a breeze – effortlessly pulling it back on to the main highway as if it were a toy.

While I had enough punishment for one spring season Tom hadn’t. He went out to the same spot the next weekend and got incredibly stuck to the point where he had to get a 4×4 fully customized Jeep Rubicon to help him out.Some of us never learn. But when there is magic in the skies, the risks are worth it.

9 Responses

    • Karl

      Thanks, I’m glad you like it! The sky gets like that nearly once a week, in earlier years I remember it nearly every night. Dazzling place the NWT is!

  1. K Fields

    Love your photos and your story.. been there done that too many times. Living in Alaska is very similiar to where you live. I cannot resist those Aurora Nightlights either.. 🙂


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