Award Year: 
Award Recipient: 
Debbie Olsen
Best Spirit in Canada
Honourable Mention
Published in: 
BBC Travel
May 10, 2017

A 518km ice-road across the tundra

The first paths into Fort Chipewyan were forged by dog sleds. Life moved slowly then, but the creation of an ice road changed everything.

Living off the land

The tundra’s silence was broken by a swoosh of sled runners and the excited yips of dogs as Robert Grandjambe’s sled surged across the frozen muskeg outside Fort Chipewyan in north-eastern Alberta, Canada. He slowed his team of Siberian huskies to a stop at the centre of a lake, cleared a hole in the ice and fished the way his father taught him to – with a net suspended under the ice between two holes.

As he pulled in the day’s catch, his dogs relaxed nearby, their brightly coloured harnesses clashing against the snow.

 “There was a time when you could measure a man by his dog sled,” Grandjambe said.

The last real dog sled in Fort Chip

Grandjambe owns the last traditional dog sled in Fort Chipewyan. Built like a toboggan, it’s stronger and heavier than a racing sled and is able to carry passengers and cargo, including the fish he catches. He takes a great deal of pride in his dogs and his sled, and dresses them and himself in traditional Cree attire sewn by his wife, Barbara.

“Only the most successful trappers could afford all the fancy accessories,” Grandjambe explained. “If a man came into town with a fancy sled, most parents would be happy to give their daughter to him as a wife because they figured he’d be a good provider.”

A simpler way of life

Until a few decades ago, every household in this tiny northern hamlet – Alberta’s oldest settlement, established as a North West Company fur trading post in 1788 – kept a dog sled and used it regularly. Back then, Fort Chip residents relied on the land for survival, hunting and fishing for food, and trading furs for sundry items at local trading posts. It was a slower, simpler way of life.

But all that changed when the first ice roads were developed in the 1960s. 

A road made of ice

Now, more than 500km of ice road connects residents of Fort Chipewyan to Fort McMurray (280km to the south) and Fort Smith (228km to the north in the Northwest Territories). When it gets cold enough, large trucks apply water over the muskeg until the surface is about 15cm thick and reasonably smooth. Come spring, the ice melts and the road becomes impassable. When winter returns, the road is rebuilt.

It takes about four-and-a-half hours to drive from Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan and you need a sturdy 4x4 vehicle with good winter tires to do it. There are no roadside services, and there is no cellular signal for vast tracts of the route. If you run into trouble, you need to be prepared to help yourself or to wait in the cold until help comes.

A lifeline for Fort Chip

Eighty-five-year-old Oliver Glanfield, Fort Chipewyan’s resident historian, remembers when Highway 63 was extended 200km from Fort McMurray south to Wandering River in 1963, and when the first ice road connecting Highway 63 to Fort Chipewyan was built in 1986.

“Highway 63 followed the general path of a forestry road that was originally mapped out using dog teams and snowshoes,” Glanfield explained. “It takes many hours to build and maintain the ice road each year, but it’s been a real benefit to the people who live in Fort Chipewyan.”

The ice road has become a lifeline for the residents of Fort Chip, allowing many residents to make their living outside the community by working in oil and gas or other trades. During the winter, prices for food, fuel and other sundries drop, because it costs less to transport goods on the winter road than it does to bring them in by airplane. It’s expensive to live in the remote north. A four-litre jug of milk costs about CAD$10 in winter and CAD$17 in summer.

 “The ice road has changed Fort Chipewyan, but it’s hard to say exactly how. Life was slower before the road. It’s not really an isolated community anymore,” Glanfield said.

Maintaining tradition

Grandjambe owns snowmobiles, but he tries to use his dog sled as often as he can to check his trap lines for ice fishing and hunting, and to provide tours to the few visitors who make it to the remote community in winter.

When it comes down to it, Grandjambe doesn’t blame the ice road for the changes in his tiny community. He attributes the differences to a money-based economy. As he watches his neighbours purchase bigger, fancier vehicles and travel farther and farther for work, he fears that soon they will lose the ability to live off the land and a piece of their identity along with it.

 “Fishing and hunting is part of our culture and it’s important that we remember who we are as aboriginal people. Living off the land is part of our very being. If we lose those traditions, who are we?” Grandjambe said.

Part of the family

Others in the area breed Alaskan huskies specifically for racing, but Grandjambe disagrees with this practice, noting that dogs can become sick, injured or exhausted from running long distances at high speed.

He considers his 13 traditional Siberian huskies a part of his family and he treats them well. For much of the year, they eat the fish he catches in Lake Athabasca. He always boils the food to ensure it’s safe to eat. He’s also careful to stock up on medications and vaccines when he can, as there is no veterinarian in the remote community.

“Owning a sled team is a lot of responsibility,” Grandjambe explained. “You can’t just up and leave when you feel like it.”

Ready to run

Out on the ice, Grandjambe re-secured his nets and packed his bounty of fresh fish in his sled. His dogs were once again alert. Tails wagging, they stood in a single-file line in front of the sled, pawing at the ice and snow in anticipation of the return trip home.

Returning home

The soft taps of paws hitting the snow and the scrape of metal against ice reverberated off the white-washed walls of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Roman Catholic Church as Grandjambe steered his sled back into town. The fish he caught will last him, his wife and his dogs for several days.

The dogs trotted towards home, the tiny bells on their harnesses tolling with every step. Their tongues flapped lazily from their open mouths, and tiny cloud-like wisps of condensation rose with every breath. 

Surviving in a changing world

Grandjambe hopes that by maintaining his dog sled, he can help preserve a larger aspect of Fort Chipewyan’s heritage. “Wisdom is teaching the next generation our traditions, but also educating them so they can survive in a changing world,” he said.

As his neighbours speed on by, Grandjambe stoically continues living life slowly.