Gillam, Manitoba. A tiny town with a population of 1,200 people, none of whom seem to know where the gas station is or whether there's somewhere to get something to eat in their own town. We find the gas station but there is no place to eat in Gillam beyond the microwavable burgers on offer in the grocery store. We pass on the burgers.
Gillam is literally the very end of the road in this part of NE Manitoba. Beyond Gillam lies a vast empty wilderness of swamp, forest and lakes the only road out of Gillam is the same one you arrive on. Except for six to eight weeks a year when a route east is carved out of frozen tundra and crosses rivers and lakes to link Gillam with the remote settlement of Fort Severn on the isolated coastline of Hudson Bay. At over 750kms, The Wapusk Trail is the world's longest winter road but we can't find anybody in Gillam who's ever bothered to drive it.
We'd arrived in town the previous night to find the gas station closed. This morning the gas station is late opening. The girl in charge arrives at 9am explaining she's had a burst water pipe at home. The temperature outside is -35. The very definition of a bad start to your day. Ours isn't great either. We've got 500kms to go to get to Fort Severn and had wanted to get an early start to avoid driving in the dark late in the day. The early closing and late opening hours of the one gas station in Gillam means we're leaving Gillam much later than we'd wanted at 09:15.
The start of the trail warns that 'Winter survival and communication are recommended'. We have plenty of food and water on board plus multiple layers of clothing and a Garmin inReach emergency communicator. We're also equipped for the worst case scenario of camping on the trail but it's not something either Wes or I particularly want to try. Wapusk translates as White Bear and this is prime 'white bear' season. Mix that with the local Wolf population and I'm thankful Wes has packed a shotgun and more importantly, 'the right kind of shells'...
It's 200kms to the Cree settlement of Shamattawa and the only settlement on the winter road between Gillam and Fort Severn. More importantly, it's the only place en-route that we can get gas. We're carrying an extra 150 litres of gas in the bed of the Ram so we know we won't run out, however, we're conscious that we need to get to Shamattawa while the gas station is open. One thing that our experience in Gillam had taught us, was that out here, regular opening hours can't be relied upon for anything.
Wes and I had both driven the Ice Road in Canada's North West Territory where the rivers are ploughed and scraped with a grader to create a polished highway where you can cruise of 60mph. We quickly discovered that the Wapusk Trail wasn't that. The first stretch was a roller coaster of moguls, bumps, craters and channels across the trail that required a careful steady approach. It wasn't tricky or even slippery but what it was SLOW. We thought to ourselves 'It can't all be like this can it?' We were to discover that it was. It never let up. Just when we'd hit a smooth stretch and get our speed up the bumps and craters would start all over again. It was relentless. Our average speed was 20kph. More worryingly the Ram was averaging 6mpg...
We encountered plenty of the trucks who use the short Wapusk Trail season to stock up the bulk fuel dump and grocery store in Shamattawa. The trucks travel in convoys at barely above idling speed, creaking and groaning their way over terrain that you would think impossible for 60-tonne tractor trailer combination to negotiate. The crazy way the trailers twist and flex through the bomb-holes and moguls goes a long way to explaining the random chunks of steel and aluminium debris littering the trail.
Several hours into the trail we stop to chat to the driver of a pick-up travelling in the opposite direction. He works on the trail over the winter. He explains they have a machine down right now so it's not as smooth as it should be and that they almost lost another machine when it broke through the ice on the frozen Hays river crossing. He's never been on the trail as a far as Fort Severn (has anyone?), but tells us it's another 4/5 hours drive to Shamattawa. It's midday and progress is painfully slow. Distance marker posts nailed to trees alongside the trail serve as an ever-present reminder of just how slow we're covering the ground. We then start to do the maths and work out as this rate we're going to arrive in Fort Severn after midnight. We also know we need to get to Shamattawa before the gas station closes. The pick-up driver had advised us not to leave it much after 5pm which at our current average speed we figured was exactly when we'd arrive. Suddenly pretty pictures and drone shots go out of the window as getting to Shamattawa becomes our chief priority. We're running way later than we expected and the trail isn't getting any smoother.
We had called to book a room that night at the seven room Niska Inn in Fort Severn, but in the absence of any form of cell phone signal there was no way we could inform them of our late arrival. By now we'd also worked out our stay at in the Inn might be shorter than we expected. The eight hours it was going to take us to travel the 200kms as far as Shamattawa was the least of our worries. Our hotel for the night in Fort Severn lays another 300kms beyond that! The only online account we could find of someone driving the trail was a motorcycle rider who had completed the Wapusk Trail in 2012. I recalled him underestimating the time it took to get to Shamattawa... We wished we'd paid more attention.
Google Shamattwa and you'll get a depressing scroll of stories. A local was recently convicted of drowning his wife and the mother of their five children in the Hays river. The school failed to open after the summer break because of a lack of teachers and when the one grocery store in town burnt to the ground, a group of children were found responsible, but were too young to be charged with any crime. More tragically, the town of Shamattawa is renown in Canada for its child suicide rate where in a single year, more than one-quarter of the youths on the reserve either attempted suicide or threatened to end their lives. Shammatawa is one of the poorest areas in Canada. With a road link to the rest of the world for just eight weeks of the year, it's 1000 inhabitants remain cut off from society and exist the best they can. Graffiti daubed houses, upturned and abandoned snow mobiles plus packs of squabbling dogs are the sight that greets us as we roll into the town in the fading light. Shamattawa doesn't have a hotel. Even if it did, you probably wouldn't want to stay too long. There's a distinct lack of what they call 'kerb appeal'. We ask for directions at the rebuilt local store. The store is clearly the place you go to socialise but then, we figure there's nowhere else to go. To those troubled kids who live here, Twitter hashtags, Social Media trends, Instagram influencers or even a Big Mac and fries are literally a world away.
The gas station kiosk is housed within a rusting old container. A bright-eyed girl aged fifteen or so opens the container door for us and enquires 'what company do you work for?' When we tell her we don't work for any company or any government agency she seems amazed by our presence in town. You clearly don't go to Shamattawa unless you have to. She asks where we're heading and tells us she'd love to go to Fort Severn one day. She steps out of the container in tracksuit bottoms and sweatshirt to look at our truck. It's 4:30 in the afternoon, the sun has dipped beyond the horizon and it's -39 outside.
We pay for our gas and she wishes us good luck. Just as we're about to leave she turns to the weathered old man manning the container with her and asks him 'is the road to Fort Severn open yet?' He shrugs and replies disinterestedly 'I don't know'. Wes and I turn to each other 'you have got to be kidding me?'...