Crossing the 57th

A New Latitude Record: The End of the Road in Manitoba

After conquering Ontario’s apex in 2007, the Pontiac was sidelined for the next three years so I could finally address the long-neglected holes in the floorboards and the trunk, as well as completely refurbish the rotting interior. A whole lotta money later, we were back on the road in 2011 for a nice long autumn drive through the Dakotas. Even before that trip was in the books, I was itching for a new latitude record and soon began plotting my 2012 ascent of Manitoba.

Back to the road atlas and the online maps I went to search for Manitoba’s northernmost drivable point (as previously stated, I’m referring to the northernmost drivable point that can be reached via roads that (1) are connected to the rest of the North American highway system, (2) are open to the public, (3) can be used in all seasons, and (4) are suitable for passenger cars with low ground clearance). I found the point I was looking for on the shoulder of a rather unremarkable left curve on a westbound section of Manitoba Provincial Road 394. This spot is above the 57th parallel, a substantial increase over my standing record of 52 degrees and change.

So, in the waning days of September, I rolled past Winnipeg and began the long climb up Manitoba Highway 6. I was certain that this conspiracy of ravens sharing the road was a good sign…

Speaking of birds, I also paid a visit to the giant sharptail of Ashern, Manitoba…

Scene from a gas station restroom: Some bizarre Canadian custom, perhaps?

Highway 6 is a long haul, but the pavement is good, the scenery is excellent and the traffic is very light. I had great weather on that first day out…

Mark: Still early into the trip, and I had already set a new latitude record for the Pontiac. Onward and upward…

I spent that first night in the town of Grand Rapids, about halfway up Highway 6, on the shore of mighty Lake Winnipeg. Back on the road the next morning, the sky turned gray and wet…

Higher and higher. Don’t recall seeing a “54th” sign…

Despite the rain, I wanted to stop for a look at scenic Pisew Falls Provincial Park

Highway 6 ends in Thompson, “The Hub of the North.” On the edge of town, one is greeted by the King Miner statue…

Thompson is Manitoba’s northernmost full-service city. After checking in at the hotel, I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening servicing the car, buying groceries, doing some laundry and enjoying a big dinner at a very nice restaurant.

Day three, and the rain was still hanging around; not what I was hoping for on this day’s drive. To get into Manitoba’s north country, one must travel the length of Manitoba Provincial Road 391, or as it’s known locally, the “So-Called Road,” which runs 200 miles (322 km) from Thompson to the town of Lynn Lake…

While it does contain a few stretches of pavement, the majority of 391’s course through the boreal forest is an ever-changing gallimaufry of mud, sand, gravel, rocks, washboard ruts and water-filled craters…

During dry weather, you can make the run in as little as four hours, but during periods of rain, the road deteriorates rapidly and the trip can be as long as ten hours.

Crews grade the road daily; it’s a monumental task and they struggle to get ahead of the decay…

A brief hole in the clouds, and a splash of color on a gray day…

Another notch northward. I was in no mood to stand in the mud, so I shot this from the driver’s seat and rode on…

Finally, after four hours of bumping, bouncing, dodging, grinding and inching my way over the first two-thirds of the obstacle course, I rounded a curve and, at the top of the hill, spotted a sweet double yellow line…

After prying my hands from the steering wheel, I got out to inspect the car. The Pontiac was about 200 pounds heavier at this point, thanks to a sticky cargo of mud and gravel that had completely covered my tail lights, filled my wheel wells and rear bumper, and nearly obstructed my exhaust pipe. That being less that ideal for safe driving, I thought I should stop in Leaf Rapids and try to find a car wash.

Of course, vehicles of this type aren’t commonly seen on the road at this latitude, so I received more than a few curious looks as I rolled slowly through the village. Not finding a car wash, I spoke with a helpful gas station attendant and he suggested I try the town’s auto repair shop.

Enter Lawrence Butler. Since 1973, Lawrence has been the one and only auto mechanic in the tiny town of Leaf Rapids. While I’m not intimate with the details of his work history, I think it’s a safe bet that he’s made repairs on every type of vehicle that has ever graced the roads and trails of the Great White North.

It was easy to see in Lawrence’s face that this was a man who had experienced much in life, and who was also vibrant, warm and friendly. From his first words to me, I knew I liked him; when I got out of the car and remarked, “That’s a lot of mud…” he smiled and shot back, “Why didn’t you take the highway?”

Lawrence informed me that there was no car wash in town, but he volunteered to drive down to his house, pick up his high-pressure washer hose and bring it back so I could get rid of all that mud. I thanked him warmly and he drove off to get the hose. I sat on the hood of my car, listening to the silence and watching some ravens playing across the street. Lawrence was back within ten minutes.

It took some time, but that high-pressure stream was just the ticket to blast out all of the thick mud that had encased the rear half of my car…

Service of this caliber certainly warrants payment, yet Lawrence wasn’t interested in my offer of cash for the help he had given me. As we parted, he told me that he was trying to sell the business so he could retire back east to his native Newfoundland (as this was over three years ago, he likely has left by now). He said that after 39 northern Manitoba winters, he’d seen enough of them.

I’ve traveled many, many miles in rural and small-town North America and in the process I’ve met nice, friendly people on a daily basis. Even more rewarding is the fact that, quite often, I’ve run into truly interesting characters…genuine individuals who have great stories to tell and who really grab your attention with their personality and kindness. It’s highly improbable that I’ll ever see Lawrence again, but I’m certainly glad that I had the opportunity to spend a little time with him. I hope he’s doing well, wherever he may be.

Back into the soup I drove (actually, the road north of Leaf Rapids was in better shape). Six hours and twelve minutes after leaving Thompson, I finally rolled, exhausted, into the town of Lynn Lake. I took a look around before heading over to the hotel. I found the town’s one and only gas station and pulled up to fill the tank and clean the windshield. Here, things became surreal (in a good way). Three local gentlemen approached to greet me. They were, most likely, members of the area’s Marcel Colomb First Nation. Apparently, not many visitors arrive in Lynn Lake by road (most of the fishermen fly in during the summer). They were very curious about my trip and my vehicle. While we were having a pleasant chat a gaggle of children arrived and began to poke and prod this strange car parked at the gas pump. I felt like I was Elvis and I had just landed in a flying saucer. I don’t think my arrival warranted this much interest, but they all seemed very glad to see me. It was quite a friendly and fun welcome, which hasn’t been topped in any of my subsequent travels.

Got the gas, got some food, got the hotel room and crashed.

The next morning, I was ready for the final 100 km drive to the end of the road. On the way out, I stopped at the town’s RCMP post to let them know where I was going and to get any last minute info on the condition of the road ahead. They were very helpful and I told them I’d stop by when I got back to town.

Some low clouds were hanging around as I rolled out of Lynn Lake…

But they quickly burned off, revealing a beautiful day for driving through the silent forest…

At some point near here I drove across the 57th parallel, though there was no road sign to mark the exact location; no need for one, really, as tourists rarely drive up this road and the locals…they know where they are.

As 394 makes a big turn to the left, I reached the junction of the ice roads serving the remote villages much farther north. These roads were still a few months away from opening for the season…

Yet another quaint little bridge along the route…

Which offered a great view of the cold, blue waters of Vandekerckhove Lake

I was now quite close to my destination. The point I sought was in the middle of nowhere, not at the end of the road as it was in Ontario. To make sure that I would be able to find it, I printed some aerial photos before leaving home and wrote down expected mileage readings from a few obvious landmarks. When the odometer told me I was nearly there, I looked at my aerials; full right curve, lake on the left, gentle left curve, full right curve, quick left, park the car. I walked to the north shoulder and checked my compass. I looked left, I looked right. This was it. 57° 7′ 7″ N, the northernmost drivable point in Manitoba…

Which I chose to immortalize with the infrared camera.

The silence….wow. Unbelievable silence. Impossible to find silence of that magnitude anywhere close to my area code. But when I travel out west and up north, I’ll occasionally wander into a zone of pure silence; when I do, I savor every second of it. Man, I really didn’t want to leave that spot.

But leave I did, eventually, and I continued down the road to Kinoosao. Of course, I stopped at the border to add two new photos to my Frontiers album, first with the Saskatchewan sign…

Then with the remains of the Manitoba sign…

From there, I drove quietly down the hill and into the sleepy village, parking at the true end of the road, the eastern shore of Reindeer Lake

(The true color version…)

My brief stay in Saskatchewan was over and I began the leisurely trip back to Lynn Lake. This road was in great shape all the way to Kinoosao; much better than my experience on 391. My trusty thermometer was showing 33° F, but with sunny skies and no wind, the ride was quite comfortable and enjoyable with the top down. You can follow this Vimeo link to see 100 seconds of video I shot while rolling down the 394.

Starting over: Large forest fires are not uncommon in Canada. I don’t know when this area last burned, but I would say that these trees were still rather young…

At the end of the drive, I stopped back at the RCMP, where I had a friendly chat with a Mountie about life in this area and about his day to day work. I had one more stop to make that afternoon while the sun was still up, and that was a visit to the Kingdom.

Back in Thompson earlier in the week, I had breakfast with some folks who lived in Lynn Lake and were on their way down to Winnipeg. They told me to be sure to stop and see the King of Obsolete while I was in town. I had only recently become aware of the King; while planning this trip and searching the internet for images of the road to Kinoosao, I noticed that most of the pictures of this region came from the King’s website.

The Kingdom is a large property of the east edge of town, filled with all kinds of cool vintage machinery and heavy equipment. The King can build anything and fix anything; when it comes to recycling and self-sufficiency, he sets the bar high. When he’s not hauling freight on the treacherous ice roads or making repairs and modifications to his collection of machines, he updates the Kingdom’s website and has also published a couple of books about his backcountry adventures. When I arrived, he was about to add a new line to his bio: Reality TV star.

I was unaware of this until I pulled into the Kingdom and saw someone pointing a video camera at my car. A camera crew had just arrived from L.A. to shoot for the upcoming season of Ice Road Truckers. (Fortunately, the footage of my visit to the Kingdom was left on the cutting room floor.) While they did their thing, I met the King and was given a tour of the property and a signed copy of his latest book. The King said that he had passed me the previous day as I was heading up in the mud and he was driving down to Thompson. He thought I was some crazy tourist who was desperately lost. Partial credit.

That evening, the King and I (ha!) and the camera crew (now off duty) went into town for dinner. I met the King’s delightful daughter, Xena, and we dropped her off to hang with her friends while we dined. The King is an excellent host and we spent the evening sharing road stories (and off-road stories). And having worked in television myself, I enjoyed talking with the guys from L.A. about their work on the show. A great evening of conversation.

More conversation the next morning as I joined the King and his buddies around the Table of Truth down at the gas station for their daily confab. The car was loaded and I was ready to head south; I said my goodbyes and drove away. Guess I should have stayed in town a few seconds longer (or left a few seconds earlier); just east of Lynn Lake, I picked up a souvenir, which I still have today. I posted the details of this incident a while back, here.

The trip down to Thompson was substantially smoother and faster this time around. The crews had been at it since the rain stopped and 391 was now in much better condition. Thanks go out to them for their hard work. I also want to thank the King of Obsolete and everyone in the town of Lynn Lake for their friendliness and hospitality. Stop in for a visit yourself if you don’t mind putting the miles (and a little dirt) on your vehicle…

Being this far north, I was hoping for some intense auroral displays and I checked the sky each night. None appeared. (Later, I heard that they put on quite a show a few days after I left.) I did, however, enjoy this excellent sunrise as I rolled out of Thompson early for the long drive down to Winnipeg…

So stands my current Pontiac latitude record. Tick, tock…