To read parts one and two, go here:
That first day we rode across the vast plains of Saskatchewan, gliding on a ribbon of asphalt. We’d gotten a later start than we planned, so by the time we reached Prince Albert, we decided to stop and rent a room. So much for our grandiose plans to camp the whole way! However, the hotel lobby included a diorama of a campsite, so Sylvia suggested I take a picture:
“This is what we should be doing,” she said.
The next morning we headed northeast, the sun beating down on us, following the 55, eyes scanning the road for the junction that would take us north to the Hanson Lake Road. It wasn’t much of an intersection, just a couple of lonely road signs and a choice: go straight to Nipawin, bear left for parts unknown. Or at least, so it felt, with the two lonely highways and the road signs the only signs of civilization in the middle of the vast, dense forest we were about to traverse.
It was shortly after made the turn that the trouble started: the ominous orange glow of the “Check Engine” light slowly burned into being. We pulled into a lonely gas station, practically abandoned, with an old-style pump and an empty garage, its frame sagging under the weight of years. There was an ancient tricycle with faded red paint; it reminded me of the one in “Miri,” sad, silent monument of innocence lost and a civilization long gone.
When confronted with a mechanical problem, I leapt into action as I always do – by phoning my dad, who informed me that the most likely cause was an improperly fitted gas cap. Well, that didn’t sound too serious. On the other hand, we were heading into pretty sparsely populated territory, and if the car broke down halfway between Flin Flon and Thompson…
The hell with it. We pulled out of the lot, tires kicking up gravel just as if we were in a 70s cop show, and returned to the highway. North by Northeast, along the Hanson Lake Road.
Time and conversation whittled away hours and asphalt, just as our northward push steadily diminished the frequency of human contact. We’d see other vehicles once every fifteen minutes or so, and road signs warned ominously that your next chance to stop for fuel would be your last for hundreds of kilometres.
Accordingly, we stopped at Caribou Creek, which consists of the building you see here and not much else. The combination diner/convenience store within was dimly lit and populated by a half-dozen locals, obviously regulars. Knick-knacks that must have been decades old lined the shelves, and I was almost surprised that they accepted my debit card.
Our fuel tank replenished, we returned to the road, plunging back into a forest held at bay only by that fragile strip of pressed carbon (and, I suppose, the appearance of regular maintenance crews). We enjoyed each other’s company for a while, moving easily from conversation to silence and back again.
But as time passed, nature beckoned – in more ways than one. We kept our eyes open for a rest stop, but for what seemed like an age, nothing but endless waves of trees passed us by. At last, after nearly two hours of increasingly desperate driving, a sign of salvation beckoned – a simple white-on-brown pictogram, depicting a picnic table.
We took the turnoff and found ourselves driving down a long, winding gravel road, the trees closing in on either side, large divots presenting a real hazard to the car. We crept along cautiously, and two brown rabbits scooted out in front of us, just a couple of metres away. They froze in the middle of the path, ears twitching, examining the intruder.
“Don’t run over them!” Sylvia squealed, which made me wonder if I’d carried the whole curmudgeon-who-doesn’t-like-cute-things act a little too far. When it became clear that I had no interest in running down the creatures, Sylvia was reassured enough to coo over the bunnies, obviously delighted. They stayed in place for so long that I thought perhaps I’d have time to snap a picture – but of course, as soon as I had the camera in hand, they darted back into the bush.
Once the welcoming committee had departed, we moved on, eventually coming to a rest at…the rest stop, a single double outhouse (one door for male, one for female) and a half-dozen or so camping stalls, each with a metal fire pit. After making use of the first structure, our thoughts turned to our bellies. I had no intention of setting up a tent, but at least we could pretend to camp by starting a fire and cooking a meal.
Amazingly, despite the presence of endless hectares of tinder-dry forest, a sack of briquettes and lighter fluid, I managed to start a fire without burning down the province. I even cooked a couple of decent pork chops and a small crop of potatoes, and it tasted fine. There really is something about food cooked in the wild over a natural flame, even if the food itself comes from your local grocery store.
We took a few pictures, cleaned up after ourselves, and moved on. Manitoba drew closer with every minute, and our next stop would be the strangely-named Flin Flon, my birthplace…the sunless city.
Well, not quite the next stop. I pulled over to take a couple of shots that explained the history of the Hanson Lake Road:
Next: Manitoba at Last. Click here to read Part IV.