Editor's note: When the crew from Willy's Garage travelled to the north to film
Season 3 of their television series, Willy's Garage, the guys decided they needed
to do a road trip. Joining Willy on this journey was his friend, Jay McLeod, Far Point Films producer and director Scott Leary, director of photography Dave Gaudet and sound technician Kevin Bacon. The five-part documentary series
on their nine-day road trip, Willy's Garage Goes North, will be available on
MTS TV Winnipeg On Demand this summer.
A century ago, when my grandmother, Molly, was only five years old, making the journey clear across Manitoba from Buffalo Point to Tadoule Lake in the dead of winter would have been a feat similar to flying to the moon.
When I was a boy, she told me many times that merely travelling a few miles from home for supplies in the winter months was a monumental challenge that required careful planning and considerable danger. When Molly told me to wear a sweater, she knew what she was talking about.
There were many obstacles for Manitobans to overcome when travelling in the winter in the early 20th century. There were no cars or trucks, no airplanes and trains were just gaining steam. Snowshoes, a team of horses or dogs pulling a sleigh were your only options for winter travel. There was no well-stocked hardware store to purchase the latest winter survival gear. Furs on your back and a keen sense of survival were your only protection from the elements.
In addition to Williamson, there are many names in my family tree. My Métis ancestry genealogy document chronicles our existence. In fact, we've been documented here in Manitoba as far back as 1771. Even if we have never met, if your name is Dubois, Toussaint, Lariviere, Moreau, Laplante, Vandal, Branconnier, Desrosiers, Coulombe or Berthelet, there's a good chance we are related.
Long before these names ever made it to the records of the census of the day, it's a sure bet a voyageur from France made an epic journey across an ocean and paddled and portaged his way into what is now Manitoba to start a new life. His union with a First Nations woman resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of Manitobans.
One of them is me.
It was in the spirit of these ancestors I embarked on this trip.
Granted, I didn't have any furs to carry on my back and my Chevrolet Silverado bears little resemblance to a horse-drawn sleigh or a birch-bark canoe. But rest assured, this trip meant more to me than any other road trip I've ever taken.
In the end, our journey took us more than 1,600 kilometres from home to the furthest point north by winter road in Manitoba.
Voyageur is a French word that literally means "traveller." On this trek, I travelled so far I finally found myself.
Here's the story:
First, we headed south on our way to the north. On our first day, we met up with Claude Lussier, the reeve of the RM of La Broquerie. Lussier was born in the area but moved away to Quebec many years ago. He came home a couple of years ago to retire, but that didn't last long, and he is now enjoying his first term serving the area.
Further south, we met up with Drew Thunder, the son of current Buffalo Point First Nation Chief John Thunder and the grandson of past chief and community visionary Jim Thunder. Drew Thunder gave us a great tour of his homeland and spoke of the keen relationship that exists between southern Manitobans and their American neighbours. In fact, Thunder was educated south of the border in nearby Warroad, Minn., and has dual citizenship. Hunting and fishing are a way of life in Buffalo Point and many American outdoor enthusiasts travel each year to enjoy the lush scenery and abundant wildlife the Lake of the Woods area has to offer.
With wishes of good luck and the border at our backs, we headed north.
This was to be our last night in our own homes before the big trip, but my friend, Jay McLeod, a fellow Cooks Creek resident and avid outdoorsman, convinced me that in order to prove I was prepared for a trek of this magnitude, I needed to sleep in my truck and fend for myself. We built a fire in my front yard and cooked dinner over it. I lighted a candle inside my truck. Throughout the night, my dogs, Buzz and Boomer, barked incessantly at the coyotes howling eerily close to my makeshift campsite. The best advice I know about being stranded in winter is to remain with your vehicle, and that's exactly what I did, bundled up in my sleeping bag for eight hours.
We were on the road surprisingly early, packed with enough gear to make members of any self-respecting expedition jealous. McLeod was in a rented 2012 Chevrolet Suburban, and I was behind the wheel of my recently purchased, freshly pimped 2000 Chevrolet Silverado 2500.
Our first stop was at Arnold Clark's farm just outside of Ashern, where he showed us his ultra-cool vintage Bombardier. According to Clark, this machine was used by the City of Winnipeg in the 1970s to plow sidewalks, and he intends to restore it to like-new condition. Clark, whose personalized licence plate reads "wolfhuntr," has been calling this area home his entire life. In addition to being a farmer and a mechanic, Clark is also a seasoned hunter and recently shot a coyote that had been wreaking havoc on his livestock. Up close, it didn't look nearly as scary as the pack of hungry beasts I envisioned circling my camp the night before.
Later that day, we stopped for dinner in Gypsumville and ran into my cousin, Mike Borud, who is building houses for a nearby First Nations community. We laughed at this chance meeting hundreds of kilometres from home. This would be the first of many chance encounters we would have with friends and family along the way.
We arrived in Thompson, the Hub of the North, just before midnight and, after checking into our motel, we had just enough time to guzzle several nightcaps. It was much colder in Thompson than in Cooks Creek, but the generosity of our new friends warmed the northern air. Everyone we spoke with was keenly interested in our trip and offered much advice about what we could expect the farther north we got. Tales of blizzards, impassable roads and winter-road pirates filled the air. It was good-natured fun, but I think they were trying to scare us. It worked.
THOMPSON TO LYNN LAKE March 2
We were up early and off to the Thompson open-pit nickel mine for a tour that was easily worth a massive dump truck full of shiny nickels. Peter Paulic, vice-president and general manager of Smook Contractors, provided us with a safety briefing and hard hats. Normally, I'm not a huge fan of ladders, but climbing this one put me behind the wheel of a massive Caterpillar dump truck.
Driving a truck as big as my garage with a price tag of more than $500,000 was a thrill that took complete concentration. When cameraman Dave Gaudet climbed out onto the truck's platform in the bitter morning cold to film me driving this beast, the truck's usual operator, Matt Delaronde, commented we had it much better off inside the warm confines of the cab. Truer words were never spoken.
The massive truck we were driving was brand new and one of only two on Earth. According to Delaronde, it was brought to Thompson for cold-weather testing. The city has earned a reputation for its cold-weather testing conditions. Automobile manufacturers including Chrysler, Ford and Hummer have tested their vehicles in the winter months in Thompson. McLeod also had the chance to drive a huge Volvo dump truck and, following our test drives, the nice folks from Smook cooked an amazing chili lunch with the proceeds going to a cancer charity.
We were back on the road after lunch and arrived in Lynn Lake late in the afternoon.
Other than hearing about the tremendous fishing, I had no idea what to expect in Lynn Lake, about a four-hour drive north of Thompson. We promptly got lost in the town, and all I could think was the place looked like a ghost town. Many of the houses and commercial buildings are boarded up and, at first blush, it looks like the town time forgot.
But as we cruised slowly down the streets, we spotted a group of young boys playing street hockey. I bailed out of my truck and joined in the game. As soon as we stopped, the largest kid, who looked enough like me to pass for Willy Junior, started cheering my name. Apparently, the townsfolk were expecting us.
After scoring at least one hard-fought goal on a kid who is surely destined for the NHL, we found our motel, freshened up and headed out for dinner. Lynn Lake Mayor James Lindsay and his wife, Diane, met us at the restaurant. We made plans to attend a social later that night at the local legion. We headed over to the social late in the evening and were greeted by what is best described as an entire banquet hall of long-lost friends. Later still, the rest of the crew had a tour of the fire hall, but I went to a rocking house party. Ultimately, Lynn Lake made me feel so at home I was convinced I was in my hometown of St. Norbert circa 1985.
We finally got to sleep in and, following a huge breakfast, we headed to Mayor Lindsay's small farm just outside of town. He and his wife, Diane, have horses; in fact, the horses we met can lay claim to being the most northern equines in Manitoba. McLeod and I helped with feeding and even contemplated riding, but no horse deserves me on its back so we passed. We interviewed Lindsay in front of his barn and although he had only been the town's mayor for a week, his passion for Lynn Lake is apparent. In addition to being mayor, Lindsay is also a volunteer captain with the fire department and a teacher at the high school. Lindsay told us about the grand days of Lynn Lake, when the mine was running at full steam and more than 3,500 people called the town home. Now that number is more like 700, but the pride these folks have for their pretty little northern town is inspiring.
Later that night, we made for the headquarters of Timber Wolf Trucking and met one of the company's owners, Audie Dulewich. Timber Wolf has the contract to construct and maintain the winter road we'd be travelling the next morning. Interviewing Audie set our minds at ease. He loaned us the one thing we failed to bring along: a satellite phone. Later that night, we shut down the Lynn Inn, and I left with a cool T-shirt from the hotel's bar, aptly named Crazy Horse. The locals were quite interested in our TV-show antics, and we made even more friends. We then headed to the lounge across the street with a parade of revellers behind us for last call. Gaudet brought along his guitar and I sang a few off-key numbers. We stumbled our way through a few songs, but Jim Croce's You Don't Mess Around With Jim was easily the crowd favourite.
TO TADOULE LAKE
The film crew had some filming and interviews to do around town, so McLeod and I got to sleep in again. When we finally hit the winter road, it was about noon and we were filled with excitement. I was jacked up on Red Bull, but sadly, that stuff really doesn't give you wings. About 10 minutes onto the road, with McLeod and I jabbering back and forth on our CB radios, it suddenly occurred to us just what we'd got ourselves into. For the next 12 hours, we bounced and hammered our way down what is best described as a roller-coaster of a road. McLeod's rented Suburban may have absorbed the bumps a bit better than my older heavy-duty truck, but my aggressive tires provided more traction and the additional suspension clearance on my truck resulted in less bottoming out. I don't really think it would matter what you were driving, though; this road is tough as nails and 40 km/h is about the best speed you can make.
About an hour in, we stopped to help a guy who was having mechanical problems. As the supposed hero of the show, I felt compelled to help the guy out, but no good deed goes unpunished. This is the point where I ripped off my left thumbnail. The bloody mess will surely make for good TV. After the guy barrelled off ahead of us, we never saw him again, so I'm guessing our assistance paid off.
For the entire winter-road trip, Gaudet rode shotgun in my truck while McLeod piloted the Suburban with Leary and Bacon bouncing around like bobble-head dolls. At about the halfway point, we stopped at Timber Wolf Trucking's camp and met with William Boulton and Dennis Shworob.
These guys are essentially the northern equivalent of lighthouse keepers, and spend the entire winter in a bunk-house trailer. The winter road requires constant maintenance and ,for many, these guys are the only help out there. As an added twist, I actually know Boulton. He was a bartender at Winnipeg's Palomino Club a few years ago, and we have mutual friends. It cracked me up to meet an old friend so far from home and sealed the deal that no matter how far I go in Manitoba, I will always find someone I know.
We arrived in Tadoule Lake well after midnight and found our home for the next two days with the help of the band constable. When my head hit the pillow, it was as though I was still being bounced around in my truck, but it seemed to lull me to sleep.
When the sun came up in Tadoule Lake, I was so impressed with the place. Neat rows of homes weave through the community with a snowmobile parked in front of almost every one. We headed to the school where Chief Jimmy Thorassie met us. He shared the tale of the Sayisi Dene First Nation. In 1956, the Manitoba government decided to relocate the Dene community at Duck Lake due to Manitoba wildlife officials' incorrect assumptions about the impact of the Dene's traditional caribou-hunting practices. (Some say the Hudson's Bay Company also wished to close its nearby post, which had served the band and was not as financially lucrative as it had been.) Ultimately, the Duck Lake Dene were moved away from caribou lands to Churchill. For a decade, the Little Duck Lake band lived in tents and shanties on the outskirts of town. About 1967, the Canadian government developed a housing project for them called Dene Village. But the transition from a traditional nomadic caribou-hunting economy to a non-migratory urban life was unsuccessful. Tragically, as much as a third of the "Churchill Chipewyan" population died as a direct result of the relocation to Churchill. In 1973, under the leadership of the late chief Peter Yassie, a new community was developed.
Chief Thorassie became emotional when he spoke of his journey as a young man to his new home and, for the first time in a very long time, I cried openly. My sorrow lifted later when a gym full of excited children listened intently to the story of our travels and how an uneducated Métis kid like me wound up writing for a major Canadian newspaper. Following dreams, no matter how unobtainable they may seem, is and always will be my message. We'd brought gifts for the kids, a mirror ball, lighting equipment and a fog machine: Chief Thorassie's suggestions. The older girls at the school were already making plans for a dance when we departed.
Listening to Chief Thorassie speak and meeting the children from the community was inspiring, but what happened next was life-changing.
"Hey Willy," Chief Thorassie said. "How would you like to go caribou hunting?"
Within an hour, I was suited up and aboard a Yamaha Bravo snowmobile. Gaudet packed his camera and with guides Joseph John (JoJo) Thorassic, Raymond Powderhorn and Peter Duck leading the way, we were off. I'm a seasoned snowmobiler, but always strictly for fun. These guys rely on their snowmobiles the same way their ancestors relied on dog teams. Although we never found any caribou, we were treated to some of the most amazing scenery on Earth and some amazing stories of life in the north. JoJo shared the story of fishing, then cooking his lunch on an open fire when a huge black bear walked up behind him. "I don't even remember loading my rifle," he told us with excitement in his eyes. "All I remember is a dead bear in front of me with a bullet between his eyes."
TO LYNN LAKE
The sun was shining when we rolled out of Tadoule Lake, and our new friends were there to bid us farewell. Perhaps the greatest compliment I've ever had was Raymond Powderhorn's invitation for me to return by plane in the summer to go fishing with the boys. Powderhorn and his friends believed I was merely the crew's driver and guide. They had never heard of Willy's Garage. To him, I was just another bro who loved the land and was eking out a living like the rest of them. It's a good thing I had dark glasses on when we rolled out of Tadoule Lake, or they would have surely noticed the tears in the eyes of their new friend. The ride home down the winter road was a lot better than the trip in; it had snowed and the road was much smoother. We stopped and filmed along the way, and McLeod and I both agreed driving on a winter road under a bright sun is a riot. We finally arrived in Lynn Lake about 2 a.m., and the thoughtful mayor had stocked our rooms with refreshments. I've been many places in my life and, truthfully, sometimes folks aren't quite sure how to take me, but in Lynn Lake they accepted me and my band of buddies with open hearts.
LYNN LAKE TO HOME!
It was a long day of driving, but throughout the trip you couldn't have wiped the dumb grin off my face if you tried. As for our crew, we may have griped and moaned and kidded and cried (OK, only two of us cried), but I'm certain I speak for my friends, Jay McLeod, Scott Leary, Dave Gaudet and Kevin Bacon, when I say we are all different men after our trip. In addition to sharing what is surely one of the most epic journeys, we cemented friendships that will endure.
On behalf of the entire crew, I thank you, Manitoba, for being the greatest place on Earth.