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Deh Cho Trail: scenery, tranquility and splendid isolation


By Donald L. Telfer


As the MV Lafferty approached the opposite shore of the Liard River my plan to meet Ted Grant in Fort Simpson for a fly-in visit to the famed Nahanni National Park Reserve sunk in the turbulent water. I had missed the hourly ferry by a scant 10 minutes, which is about the time it takes to cross the Liard River, a perilous river highway which gold-hungry prospectors on their way to the Klondike once navigated.

Lined with towering birch, spruce and spindly liard poplars in the pristine loveliness seemingly reserved to escape the hassles of the civilized world, the Liard Trail skirts from Fort Liard to Fort Simpson. Work on the highway began in 1969 but because of jurisdictional disputes the road was not made passable until the 1990s.

“We helped move it along,” said Marl Brown of Fort Nelson, who drove the 400-km-long route in winter along exploration cutlines and across the frozen Liard River to encourage completion of the highway. “We nearly froze to death,” said Brown through his bushy white beard. “We drove a 1926 Model T Ford sedan with no heater and no side windows. But the trip was worth it!”

It surely was worth it to Fort Liard. The isolated community of 600 relied on a yearly river barge for provisions. The population exploded after the road pushed through, more than tripling its population.

Inhabitated for 10,000 years and home to the gentle Acho Dene Koe First Nation — Fort Liard in the Slavey language means people from the land of the giants — trace their ancestors back some 2,000 of those years.

The Northwest Company established a trading post at Fort Liard in 1807, and Fort Liard Mission was founded in 1859 by Rev. Zephirin Gascon, OMI. The present mission was completed in 1921, built largely by hand over eight years by Rev. Mathurin Vacher, OMI.

Called “The Tropics of the North” — a mild climate and long summer days give Fort Liard a longer growing season than Edmonton — the community is renowned for its beautifully crafted birch bark baskets. Made by the women of Fort Liard, the works of art are decorated with dyed porcupine quills and spruce root beading, and sewn together with strings of moose hide.

The highway linking Fort Simpson and Fort Nelson, the Liard Trail is part of the Deh Cho Trail, a great wilderness land link which includes the Mackenzie and parts of the Alaska and Liard highways. Some 1,800 km long, the Deh Cho — which means “Big River,” the Dene name for the longest river in Canada, the Mackenzie — unfolds across lush farmland, and a primordial wilderness of unbroken forest and the rugged Precambrian Shield.

“I’ve travelled the Deh Cho six times,” said Carmel Ellis, who volunteers at the Grimshaw, Alta. tourism office. “The drive is extraordinary. The beautiful waterfalls and the variety of birds and wildlife are amazing.”

Grimshaw is Mile Zero on the Deh Cho Trail. Once the beginning of the tractor-train route to Yellowknife, Grimshaw also is the start of the Mackenzie Highway. This section of the Deh Cho could be driven in an easy two days but the waterfalls, wildlife and boundless natural beauty could extend a trip into next year.

Perched on the rocky shores of Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife has come a long way from its rough and tumble beginnings when gold was discovered on the North Arm of the lake. A diverse, cosmopolitan and thriving city of about 20,000, its only downside are roads that suffer from merciless frost heaves.

I followed my nose to the legendary Wildcat Cafe where patrons were dining on Great Slave pickerel tacos, smoked Arctic char and wild muskok medallions marinated in a generous Jack Daniels sauce. A true frontier stop, the cafe is the oldest restaurant in town and the most famous log cabin of all, serving superb cuisine on split-log tables and rickety benches where diners share tables with a gold miner or a diamond merchant from New York.

I departed Yellowknife and returned to the Deh Cho Trail, swinging over to Fort Nelson, the northernmost town in British Columbia. First established by the North West Company in 1805, the present Fort Nelson is No. 5, created when 2,000 U.S. troops made it their base for construction of the Alaska Highway in 1942. The Fort Nelson Heritage Museum contains an assortment of the Alaska Highway construction equipment along with the original Hudson’s Bay house and an impressive collection of antique cars and trucks.

“They all work,” said Marl Brown, smiling proudly as he sat on the running board of the car he drove in the dead of winter to Fort Simpson. Fort Nelson was once Mile Zero on the Alaska Highway but Dawson Creek now holds the honour.

The Deh Cho Trail continues in a southeasterly direction to Dawson Creek through rolling farmland toward the city of Grande Prairie, and makes its final leg through the delightful town of Sexsmith, across the Dunvegan Bridge and the scenic Peace River, then on to Grimshaw.

My trip from Edmonton, including diversions to Hay River, Yellowknife and Fort Simpson, totalled some 5,000 km. The distance is not inconsiderable yet it is evident why Carmel Ellis does not tire of what he calls, “the amazing long lost world of the Deh Cho.”

Former travel writer-photographer, and editor and publisher of the Humboldt Journal, Telfer has contributed to over a hundred newspapers and magazines in Canada, the U.S. and abroad.