The Manitoba website says the Winter Road is open. The people at the Manitoba Highways had told Wes that the route was open. There's a sign at the start of the trail to say it's open. The lady who had taken our reservation for the hotel in Fort Severn that same morning asked whether we were arriving by air or by the road and had warned us that the journey by road from Gillam might take us 14 hours. The road had to be open right?
We left the gas station and follow the route we've created using Gaia mapping software to lead us to the next leg of the Wapusk Trail out of Shammatawa to Fort Severn. Our Gaia route is spot on and the head of the trail is easy to identify on the ground.
We find a wide tree lined avenue much like the one we'd arrived in town on disappearing off into the distance. The one significant difference being, the deep snow that stretched ahead of us clearly hadn't been ploughed... There were snowmobile tracks but not a single pair of vehicle tracks to speak of. The winter road was open, but what nobody had told us, not least the woman who took our booking at the hotel in Fort Severn, was the winter road was only open as far as Shamattawa. We imagined the woman who took our hotel booking laughing with her colleagues. 'I've got a pair of idiots think they're going to drive here tonight. Shall I tell them the road hasn't opened yet?'. Or was she like everyone else we seemed to meet in the region, with the exception of the girl, just oblivious to the world around them?
With the trail closed and an absence of accommodation in Shamattawa, there was only one option. Turn the Ram around and head back the way we came. It had taken us almost eight hours to travel 200kms. It was five in the afternoon and we had another eight hours drive back to Gillam. With a lack of any cellphone signal we couldn't reserve a room back in Gillam and we already knew that the front desk of the motel in Gillam wasn't manned all night. Not ideal when our ETA in town was going to be 1:30am-ish...
The journey back down the trail was all in the dark. Wes has installed an LED light bar to the front of the Ram and we were thankful for it as it picked out the shadows in the undulating trail. It wasn't any quicker heading back the way we came. Once again, the mile marker posts on the trees tormented us every 10km with their count down of the 200km distance we had to travel that night.
The eight and half hour journey through the night provided us with lots of time to reflect on the trip. The trail was a lot slower than we'd ever anticipated. Way slower. The ice road to Tuktoyaktuk two years previous had spoilt us. This was a real test of endurance that in truth, wasn't much fun. The landscape you're travelling through doesn't change much. You could shut your eyes and wake up an hour later and be forgiven for thinking you'd not moved an inch. The trail cuts through a vast swathe of Manitoba tundra but the altitude changes little. That means your view out of the windshield is the same low level pine tree vista as far as the eye can see. And obviously snow. Lots of snow.
Shamattawa isn't a glamorous destination. Whether Fort Severn is any more picturesque we can't say but this is a trip where getting to the end of the trail becomes the only real objective. It's long and its tiring. If you're anything like us, you'll just want it to stop.
Were we disappointed we didn't make it to Fort Severn? Of course we were, but after eight hours of slow speed crawling not having to endure another 300kms and ten hours getting bounced around came as blessed relief. Except of course we had to do it all again on the way back.
We had scheduled three days on the trail in total. The reality is you could theoretically spend six days on the trail including the leg that extends southwards to Peawanuck into the Polar Bear Provincial Park. However, the lack of places to stay and gas availability makes the Wapusk Trail a logistical headache. To make a successful crossing of the Wapusk Trail, the ideal set-up would be to be set out completely self sufficient with a camper and big fuel reserves. And then of course you're at the mercy of the weather. Now we started to understand why we could find no info on the trail when we were planning this trip. It's not that remote, but the Wapusk trail remains just remote enough to make it one of an unreachable destination. It's a helluva slow crawl to get to the end and turn around and do it all again.
It's 01:30am when we make it back to the trail head outside of Gillam. We make the decision not to bother try waking the motel in Gillam and push on to the larger town of Thompson. Thompson is a mining town and we know there are a collection of larger motels where we're more likely to find a room. The downside being Thompson is a further three hours south of the trailhead but we either do the three hour drive or sleep in the car. We're exhausted and the lure of a real bed has more appeal than the Ram's front seats and we're even willing to ignore Thompson's reputation as Canada's most violent crime city.
We empty 50 litres of fuel from the jerry cans into the Ram to ensure we have enough fuel to make it to Thompson. Shooting stars fill the night sky and the northern lights swirl around us. We're too tired try capture the God's own light show with long exposure photography. It's the early hours of the morning. It's -35, we're tired and we just want to empty the jerry cans and escape the bitter cold. We take turns emptying the jerry cans into the truck. Wes gets ice cold gasoline on his gloveless hands and will wake up the following morning with a touch of frostbite. Since we figured this had turned into a real adventure, now was the time to crack open the Kendal Mint Cake.
The parking lot of every motel in Thompson is filled with contractors’ pickup trucks. It doesn't look good. We try a few motels without any success until we find the last room in town. We check in at 04:30am. We've been driving for just short of 20 hours straight.
When we check out at 9am, the lady on the front desk notes our check in time and says to us 'why you guys barely stopped for a nap!' When she asks us where we're travelling from, we keep it simple and tell her 'we've been up north'. Her reply is fitting “Up north? why? There's nothing up there...”