Drive the North's unsung highway

Drive the North's unsung highway

 

Here's why to roll to Wrigley on the scenic Heritage Route

The Northwest Territories has a number of famous drives – the fabled Dempster Highway, the legendary ice road to the diamond mines, or Highway 5 through Canada’s largest protected area, Wood Buffalo National Park.

But there’s one stretch of rambling road that nearly no one ever drives – and that’s both a blessing and a shame, because it’s one of the wildest, most compelling routes in the North.

Called the Heritage Route, it’s technically the final stretch of Highway 1, linking the hub of the Dehcho region, Fort Simpson, to the tiny, rustic village of Wrigley in the shadow of the Franklin Mountains.

The Heritage Route is a dusty, lonesome, soulful drive – perfect for escapists seeking the freedom of the open road and looking to experience the true flavour of the untamed Northland.

This 220-kilometre route was the last public highway to open in the Northwest Territories, back in 1994. It was meant to run down the Mackenzie Valley clear to the Dempster, linking up our southern and northern road systems.

But the wallet and the will were lacking, so the road dead-ended at Wrigley – and there, for now, it remains.

You could get from Fort Simpson to Wrigley and back in a long day of driving – but why rush it? The trip is bliss, and should be savoured.

 

It begins by slicing through the boreal woodlands along the southwest bank of the Mackenzie River. Slowly, in the distance, you begin to catch glimpses of the Mackenzie Mountains that rise beyond Camsell Bend.

Then, at the N’Dulee Crossing, you hop the river by ferry. The spunky little MV Johnny Berens plies the Mackenzie daily from late May until early October, operating from 9-11 each morning and again in the afternoon from 2-8 p.m. (In winter, travelers cross on the ice.)

After traversing to the east bank, the rolling hills begin. Ridgetop vantage points are numerous, offering big views of the Mackenzie River and the Franklin Range. The bridge over Willowlake River is the second longest in the Northwest Territories. Bears, moose and other roadside creatures are common.

When you finally roll into Wrigley, you’ll find the community perched on a high bluff overlooking the Mackenzie, with the rumpled Franklin Range at its back door and the great Mackenzie Mountains rising to the west.

 

Home to the Dene First Nation of Pehdzeh Ki, this is the northernmost town in the Dehcho region, with just 130 residents dwelling in a scenic, serene scattering of log cabins.

There’s one store, a health centre, a two-person RCMP detachment, a small school that goes up only to ninth grade, and the adorable Church of the Holy Heart of Mary. A community campground is being developed.

What Wrigley lacks in cosmopolitan splendour it makes up for in rich culture and easy access to the great outdoors.

Slavey is the language of everyday life here. Locals spend their time much as their ancestors did for millennia – hunting in the hills, fishing the lakes, travelling the river, fur-trapping, and gathering the fruit of the land.

 

The settlement got its start back in 1817, when trading posts began cropping up in the area, including Fort Alexander, Fort of the Small Rapid, and Fort Wrigley. In 1965, due to the swampy conditions at Fort Wrigley, the government relocated locals 16 kilometres up the Mackenzie to the present site of Wrigley.

Pehdzeh Ki means “the place where the rock goes into the water” – an apt name for this setting. Just above the town is the confluence of the Wrigley River. Downstream, at the base of a cliff, is the Roche qui trempe a l’eau sulphur springs. In back of the community is 1,228-metre Cap Mountain, the highest peak in the Franklin Range.

Outdoor activities are within easy reach: camping, fishing, hiking, canoeing, rafting and nature watching.

Or you could just kick back and relax, doing absolutely nothing. The beauty, the peace and quiet, the magic of the place – it’s certainly worth the drive.

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