Sunday, 25 September 2016


North to Lesser Slave Lake!

Why Lesser Slave Lake you might wonder?

Ann remembered a camping trip 20 years ago, a white beach and the illusion of being seaside. It would be the first day of autumn and the colours of the surrounding boreal forest would be gorgeous. Maybe all the species of migratory birds had yet to fly. The northern lights had been active in recent days and perhaps they’d put on a show for us if we drove closer to them, toward a bigger, darker sky.

Truthfully, we wanted a top-down road trip in Ann’s silver Miata while the dwindling summer weather still hung on but both of the two places we wished to stay in Jasper were booked solid. While the four hour drive west to the national park is not quite routine it’s still a bit of a scenic bore until Hinton. Lesser Slave Lake was 60 minutes closer and in a different direction, north.

Twenty-five years ago I went ice fishing on Baptiste Lake, the town of Athabasca was not too far away. We were eight or nine men in an unfinished albeit heated cabin with running water but no working toilet as of yet. We pissed outside into a five-gallon pail that steamed and stank of ammonia. The outhouse was unwelcoming as the temperature was minus-30 Celsius, difficult to unclench. The boys laughed at my Montreal urban winter clothes and graciously outfitted me properly so I wouldn’t freeze to death out on the ice. The gang’s cook was a fat guy nicknamed ‘Baby.’ I watched him gut a pike and then scoop out a crooked index fingerful of black roe and eat it. A second later one of the other dead fish on the counter began to flop around. I nearly unclenched. That was as far north as I’d ever been in this country until last Wednesday.

By Alberta standards Lesser Slave Lake is big water. She covers some 450 square miles of the province. Great Slave Lake, her sister namesake in the Northwest Territories, is an inland sea, drowning some 10,500 square miles of land (Lake Ontario, the smallest of the Great Lakes, has a surface of about 7,300 square miles). My slightly diligent research into the origin of the Slave name turned up two possible explanations. Slave is eponymous, an acknowledgment of a northern First Nations people known as the Slavey or Slave whose territory encompassed both lakes. Slave, as translated, may also be a contemptuous Cree epithet for a member of any other tribe. Fur traders and early cartographers differentiated the two lakes by their sizes, Great or Lesser. Lesser Slave Lake drains into Lesser Slave River which feeds the Athabasca River which eventually wends its way into the Arctic Ocean.

We left the city in the morning and picked up Alberta 44, an invisible low slung car on a heavy rig route. Our first stop was Westlock. Like most Alberta towns Westlock boasts its historic and depressed main street, decimated by commercial big box retail developments more proximate to the highway. The downtown grain terminal interested me as there aren’t many classic grain elevators left in Alberta. The shapes of the three steel storage bins hitched alongside the western castle by the railway tracks reminded me of the wooden tops I used to spin on the floor as a child.

We continued on to a hamlet called Jarvie. On the threshold of the general store we fell under the spell of an overly affectionate black cat. Inside we could’ve had sandwiches and coffee with a few of the locals at a table in the back. We could’ve bought hardware, packaged food, booze, cigarettes and candy. In fact, according to the Royal-LePage sign outside on the porch railing, we could’ve bought the building and the business.

Jarvie’s Cache Park parallels the Canadian National right of way. Apparently it was Alberta’s first bat and bird sanctuary. Across the tracks a beaver dam sat like an island in the Pembina River. Ann pointed at a tin shed, ‘There’s always a curling rink.’ The infield of the baseball diamond beside it was rife with weeds, no clean grounders ricocheting on this rusty, rain pelted shale.

Once we crossed the Athabasca River we noticed that the landscape had shifted. Behind us were cultivated fields and scrubby prairie. Now we were into a green and empty grid on the Alberta Motor Association roadmap, amid a forest of spruce trees, jack pines, white birches and trembling aspens. The land was green and gold, the asphalt black - its paint yellow, and the sky blue. As we travelled farther north our surroundings became increasingly spooky. There was unmistakable evidence of past forest fires. The new boreal growth was short enough to wade through but it was porcupine needled with towering charred and spindly tree trunks.

The modern town of Slave Lake warrants inclusion in the Bible’s Old Testament. It was flooded in 1988 and was almost entirely incinerated by wildfire in 2011. Hard times after the shoddy and generic rebuild have come again due to the machinations of Saudi Arabia and that country’s attempt to quash North America’s oil producing capacity and competitiveness, a sort of tap dance to make self-reliance too expensive even as we endeavor to alter our poisonous addiction to fossil fuels. (Saudi’s price cutting strategy is also a major contributor to the anarchy in OPEC confrere Venezuela.) Unlike Westlock, which has 2000 less citizens, Slave Lake does have an actual Main Street although it lacks the pretension of decorative signs and flapping streetlight banners. There are two or three well-tended and overflowing sidewalk flowerpots, a few angled parking spaces and five liquor stores. I HAVE MIXED DRINKS ABOUT FEELINGS yuks The Great Canadian Liquor Company sign.

When Ann and I pulled off the highway into Slave Lake we gathered our wits in an empty parking lot situated between a Canadian Tire and a Tim Hortons. I stretched my legs, got a beer from the cooler in the trunk and lit a cigarette. I garbled gibberish at Ann to get out of the driver’s seat and come see: two scruffy ravens the black-cyan colour of Superman’s hair in DC comics and the size of rugby balls were hopping about in a puddle and bullying a modest flock of angry gulls. We didn’t know it then, but the Canadian Tire sign, a red triangle perched upon a pole, would be the most distinctive feature of the northern night sky during our brief stay.

The Ridge Tap House is an ample space. There’s room enough for three pool tables, a dance floor and a stage. Lots of tables and booths too. Ann and I were the only customers Thursday night. There were no guests from the adjacent inn and conference centre. There were no oil workers. There were no long-haul truck drivers decompressing over a pint. There were no shady ladies with hearts of gold doing their bit for the local chamber of commerce.

The bartender told us that he commutes daily from High Prairie, a further hour north, because there is no hospitality work up there anymore. His previous employer had closed his restaurant and then its separate bar a year later. Our bartender is married and has two kids. He figured his eldest son was a pretty good baseball player. There’s nothing he can afford to do to nurture his son’s talent except maybe drive him to games provided he can afford the gas. Up here in Slave Lake, in the Tim Hortons or the Ridge Tap House, nobody knows nor has read nor cares about The Leap Manifesto.

Our sense was that the population of 6000 works mainly in food services. With the tourists departed Pizza Hut employees serve lunch to their counterparts at McDonald’s and vice versa. Talk in the town revolved around food. The Fix bakery and cafĂ© was a welcome addition to downtown. A Mr. Mike’s casual steak and dining had opened on the highway but the best meal to be had was at the Gilwood Golf and Country Club because Chef is from Edmonton. This proved to be true as I ate the best bison burger of my life in the clubhouse.

Ann and I climbed six kilometres of bad road to the top of Marten Mountain. We stood by the fire lookout and scanned our surroundings. If the lake seemed immense, the enveloping golden forest seemed to stretch on forever. At the base of the mountain in the deserted provincial park was a white sandy beach. Our only companions on the windy shore were hunks of driftwood. We later walked through the woods at the Boreal Centre where ornithologists have been counting and banding species of migratory birds for two decades. We heard nary a note of birdsong. The silence and stillness in the trees was eerie. Perhaps we’d arrived too late in the morning. Perhaps we’d arrived too late in the year: summer was over and the birds had flown.

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