An ‘exhilarating’ ride over Sachigo Lake winter road

Create: 12/01/2015 - 19:32

When the green Ford F-150 hits the ‘ice road’ some 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, the six bodies crammed inside the truck rattle and bobble.
The keychain of the ignition continually smacks against the wheel and everything on the dashboard falls the floor.
“This is (expletive) crazy,” says Sarah Furlotte, a 30-year-old from Thunder Bay, as she laughs and hangs on to the dash. The truck continues to rumble on, skidding from time to time. “This is nuts.”
The truck is bound for Sachigo Lake First Nation, one of the northern-most communities in northwestern Ontario. Onboard are Henry Beardy, Sarah, and four other passengers who are on their way to Sachigo Lake First Nation, Henry’s home community, to attend the reserve’s ninth annual fishing derby on Feb. 25.
Sarah and two other passengers are classmates of Henry’s. They are in their second-year of the film production program at Confederation College and have never been north of Thunder Bay. Igor Matic, a 21-year-old who grew up in Mississauga, Ont., Alex Dobson, from Ottawa, and Sarah, from Thunder Bay have never been to a northern reserve. For 20-year-old Jordan Bowes of Kingston, Ont., it is his second trip to Sachigo.
The truck left Thunder Bay that morning at 10:30 a.m. It was a bit late, Henry said, but the non-status members of the party (everyone but Henry) needed to get a fishing license to be eligible for the derby.
The group drove northwest on Highway 11/17 until turning off onto Highway 599 just before Ignace. The truck ambled on through Savant Lake and then the first reserve the group would experience on the way – Mishkeegogamang.
“This is a reserve?” Sarah asked, surprised at its relative small size. It is explained to her that there is more to the reserve off the highway and that the community spreads out into two parts.
Nearly six hours after leaving Thunder Bay, the truck pulls into Pickle Lake. The former gold mining town, with a population of less than 500, is the last stop before the isolated north. There are no gas stations or convenience stores beyond here, so Henry advises the passengers to buy any food, drinks or cigarettes while they can.
By 4:30 p.m., after refueling and buying some minnow bait, the truck hits the road again.
The first leg of the trip leaving Pickle Lake is what travellers call the Windigo Road. This road is an integral part of the winter road experience in going to or leaving the northern communities, but Henry insists it’s not part of the winter road. It’s actually an all-season gravel road that has several turnoffs to other winter roads as well as Gold Corp’s Musselwhite site.
While anyone with knowledge of Aboriginal mythology can point out the ominous name of the Windigo Road – “It’s that spirit that’s like a cannibal, right?” Sarah asks – the name is derived either from the Windigo Lake where the road ends or the fact that the Windigo Tribal Council – of which Sachigo Lake is a member – maintains part of the road.
The truck passes a turnoff that leads northeast to the first winter road. A hand-painted sign reads: Webequie, Nibinimik, and Neskantaga. Later, there’s another northeastern turnoff with sign indicating it leads to Wunnumin Lake, Kingfisher, Kasabonika, Wapekeka and Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug.
The travelers from southern Ontario inquire a lot about reserves and the way First Nations operate: does everyone have a job? Do you get paid to be the chief? How often are chiefs elected?
And the answers lead to more questions: if there aren’t enough jobs, why don’t they leave? Why is alcoholism a big problem on reserves? Those answers lead to a brief overview of Aboriginal history never taught in school: the treaty signings and oral promises, the Indian Act and the agents that enforced it, and, of course, the residential school system.
Igor, who was born in Macedonia before moving to Canada, compares residential schools to the attempts of Serbians to assimilate his people. They also targeted the children and it involved acts violence.
“Honestly, I think the way they do it here is a lot of more sick,” Igor says. “Because, like, it’s a lot more orchestrated and it’s a lot slower. And over there, at least, you know who the enemy is. Here, if you fight (the government), it’s like, ‘whoa, you’re fighting your friend.’”
There is still daylight when the truck hits Windigo Road but within two hours, dusk settles and the road is enshrouded in darkness.
Henry drives about 90 km/h on the Windigo Road, but the many turns make it unnerving. Sarah advises Henry to stay behind a white van up ahead so that they can anticipate the turns. It works for a while until the van speeds ahead and disappears from view.
By 8:30 p.m., the Windigo road ends.
“I hate this part,” Henry says as he makes a tight turn onto the winter road. The momentum and anticipation of going on the road for the first time is deterred however as two gas trucks block the entrance.
The white van that disappeared from view now sits idly by while the truckers unchain tires that were dragged behind.
Sarah asks why they do that.
“So they pack the snow down,” Henry says.
Once the trucks move, the van takes the lead again and the group follows.
The winter road is full of bumps as the ice forms around the natural mounds of the muskeg earth. Henry slows down but still maintains a steady pace of 50-60 km/h.
“Is this normally how you drive the road?” Sarah asks. “I feel like we’re on a horse.”
Later, Alex remarks: “I feel like we’re on a Universal ride….like we should be paying for this.”
Henry first drove on the winter road when he was 14 years old, but only from Sachigo Lake to Round Lake. When he was about 17, he took turns driving from Sachigo to Pickle Lake. The Highway & Traffic Act does not apply on the winter road, so Henry was able to drive without a license.
The 25-year-old’s experience is evident as the truck skids at various times and he’s able to regain control. At one point, he does it while holding a cigarette.
“That was a one-hander,” he remarks matter-of-factly.
The van, which had been ahead since the Windigo road, slows down and allows the truck to pass. Henry continues at his speed unfettered.
As the van disappears behind, the truck’s headlights are the sole source of light on the road. Igor stares into the darkness.
“Man, this is crazy,” Igor remarks. “It really makes you feel that you’re in the middle of nowhere.”
There are a few spots where a vehicle had slid into the snowbank. Alex asks if anyone has gotten stranded out here.
“Well, people get stuck but someone usually comes along and helps,” Henry says. He does not know of anyone dying while on the road, be it due to being stranded or crashing into another vehicle. The experienced winter road drivers are usually prepared by having an ax, shovel, and rope in the back of their truck.
And while some might be reluctant to drive the winter road at night, Henry says it’s better than the day.
“That way you can see the textures (of the road) with the headlights,” Henry explains.
The group reaches a turnoff that leads to North Caribou Lake First Nation, but Henry continues down the road that bypasses the community, ultimately driving on the actual lake.
With no trees on either side, Sarah stares out into the darkness.
“It’s like there’s nothing out there,” she says. “Just nothing.”
The truck stops on the lake as the travelers step out to stretch. The constant bumps of the road create an odd feeling now that the truck has finally stopped.
“I feel like I’m still moving,” Alex remarks.
After they resume, the group passes another turnoff that heads west. The sign reads: K.W.W (Keewaywin), Kouchiching, and Sandy Lake.
The group continues north and, after a couple more hours of bumps and trees, reach a checkpoint just before Muskrat Dam.
The two workers manning the checkout inspect the luggage and truck interior for any alcohol or drugs. The checkpoint is part of tri-party agreement between Muskrat Dam, Sachigo Lake and Bearskin Lake. Each community contributes to fund its operation and community members from each reserve alternate shifts.
Once it is certain that they aren’t smuggling any illegal substances, and a toll of $15 is paid, the group passes through the community and continues northwest to Sachigo.
The last leg of the trip, which lasts more than an hour, is the worst for road conditions.
Whereas the other roads had relatively smooth bumps to traverse, sections of this road have been obliterated by trucks.
“It’s been pretty mild this year,” Henry says as the truck bounces and bounces. Add in the fact that this road receives less traffic, and thus the snow isn’t packed down as much as the other roads.
Henry drives 20-30 km/h on this section of road, which did not exist until the early 1990’s.
At 12:30 a.m., after nearly 15 hours since departure, the travellers reach Sachigo Lake. Henry gives a brief tour of the community before stopping to check in with his parents. Then the travelers settle into his grandparents’ vacant home. Like most people in the north, they are taking advantage of the winter road by visiting family in other communities.
To complete their northern experience, the travelers get the fireplace going and forego running water. Then, exhausted, they go to bed to sleep after a day of traversing the winter road.
When Igor sits on Sachigo Lake the next day with his fishing line dropped into the ice hole, he remarks how the long journey was worth it.
“I gotta say, this is nothing like I’ve seen before, that’s for sure,” he says. “I’ve never been on a frozen lake before, so it’s kinda blowing my mind right now.”
While the winter road was more ‘brutal’ this year compared to last year, Jordan says he still had a great time.
“It’s a fun trip,” he said. “Just 14 hours with your buddies (on the drive) and taking part in the community event. It’s awesome.”
Sarah describes herself as a thrill-seeker and adventurer and found the winter road drive exhilarating.
“The drive up here was so awesome,” she said. “I’d definitely come up again next year.”

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