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What one travelling family did to come home during the COVID19 crisis

Jason Fox from southwest Ontario and his family are regular travellers with Adventure Coordinators. And Jason's photographic skills have lit up our Facebook page on more than one occasion. So it was with great interest when I found out what Jason had to do to come home from a recent trip he had booked himself to the North West Territories.

Here's Jason's story.

A few weeks ago, we were gearing up for our trip to Iceland.  My wife, daughter and I had been before, but this time we were staying at a relatively remote lodge known for their Northern Lights views.  But, by the Wednesday two days before departure, I was getting nervous about the state of international travel.  So I bit the bullet and cancelled our flights (from Detroit as it is closer than Toronto for us), the hotel, the rental car and various hotels that went into that trip.  As it turns out, it was a good move as later that night, the US banned foreigners from travelling to the States through Europe (of which, Iceland is of course). But, we still wanted to travel and Yellowknife had always been on our list.  So I scrambled, found a great, remote (ski-plane fly in only) lodge, booked our flights, pre and post lodge hotels, etc.  While understanding that the Covid-19 pressure was still low in Canada, I specifically booked flights through smaller airports, in this case London-Calgary-Yellowknife.  We left on Saturday, a couple days after booking, and uneventfully arrived in Yellowknife mid-afternoon.  We went for a walk, had some of the best fish I’ve every had at a local legendary restaurant called Bullock’s Bistro (looks a wee bit like a scary dive bar from the outside).

On Sunday, we flew out to the lodge, a fun little 25-min ski-plane flight from the lake in Yellowknife.  The Twin Otter plane was pretty much full, and while I never counted, there were about 20 or so of us spread between 2 flights out and back from the lodge.  There were flights on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and we were going Sunday to Friday.  By Tuesday, we started to hear grumblings about flight cancellations (commercial, not to/from the lodge) and guest cancellations.  Wednesday came and most of the guests left and only 2 new couples arrived.  This made for a great experience as it was now just the 3 of us plus 2 young couples occupying the entire lodge designed for about 30 guests.  I asked a few questions and found out that 14 of the 18 new guests that were to arrive had to cancel as they could no longer travel to Canada (as I understood, most of that batch were Americans).  We also learned that most of the restaurants in the NWT had been ordered closed, an increasing number of commercial flights were being cancelled and that the lodge itself would be closing a month early, in two days on the Friday we were scheduled to leave. There was no cellular service at the lodge, but there was a bit of slow satellite based internet access, so I checked my email and WestJet had already changed our flights, from the simple, small airport routing I’d booked to a Yellowknife-Edmonton (overnight)-Toronto (long layover)-London.  I didn’t like that, but I accepted the change and booked a hotel for the night in Edmonton. The next day, there was another email with a similarly awful flight change and routing and then a 3rd.  Again, I understood that the infection rate was low in Canada and that we really weren’t at significant risk flying, but between the risk being higher than it would’ve been on the flights I’d booked and my decreasing level of confidence in WestJet getting us home in a reasonable fashion, my wife and I started to consider our options.

Clearly, flying was still an option, but it was becoming less appealing by the second.  Simply not leaving Yellowknife had some appeal, I mean we really liked our visit to the town and our time at the lodge, but visiting a place that regularly has temperatures below -30C the middle of March and living in a place that regularly has temperatures below -30C the middle of March are two very different things, we decided. So, the only other reasonable option was driving (my father had done the drive 3 times, once in the 1960’s and once each way in the 1990's), and it was a drive I’d wanted to do, just not both ways.  So, driving seemed to be a good choice, although we knew it would be about 500kms further than normal as we’d have to go all the way through Canada, there would be no short-cuts through the States like we’d normally have done. I never really looked into renting a car, as I imagined the cost of a one way, 5,000+ km rental would be simply terrifying.  As a farmer, we always have uses for trucks on the farm, and by the time we’d left the lodge on Friday, I’d patiently surfed the slow internet and found a Dodge dealer (all of our farm trucks are dodges) and made contact (mostly just to say I’d be coming in to chat about a truck, and the logistics of the plan). So, after the ski-plane flight back to Yellowknife, we checked into our hotel and the dealer came and picked me up.  They had a 2016 Ram pickup, lightly optioned, but 4wd and a good potential farm truck.  The dealer had brought the truck to pick me up, and by the time we reached the dealership, I was sure this truck would work.  Now, we did briefly look at some other options, but given that it was 2 pm (4 pm at home) on a Friday afternoon with the world going crazy, we only had a limited time to get things done.  Firstly, I learned that there was no way for a non-resident to get a license plate or even a temporary tag in the NWT, and there was no way to get one from home as Service Ontario was closed -I’d even reached out to a Dodge dealer friend, and while he had a way to plate vehicles he was selling, there was nothing he could do for me since he had no ability to plate a private vehicle in this situation.  So, the decision was made that we’d just drive it home and explain to any police that pulled us over and hope that commonsense would prevail. Insurance was an important issue, though, and I was able to get the invoice for the truck to my agent in time for her to get me the liability slip showing I had insurance before the end of her day back in Ontario.  The last significant issue was paying for the truck… usually you can’t go in with a credit card and by a vehicle, but I had no chequebook with me (which wouldn’t have helped anyway, there would be no way for them to verify the cheque had cleared before we left), but with a bit of negotiating, I talked them in to allowing me to put the entire thing on my credit card.

So, we had a truck, we had insurance, we had more than 5,000kms to go and we had no license plates.  And spring had come early on the farm and I needed to be home to start planting.  We went and stocked up on snacks and supplies and turned in early (FYI, even though there were no cases of the virus at that time in the NWT, all the toilet paper was gone at the grocery store). After spending the night in Yellowknife, we headed out about 7:30am on Saturday morning, got some coffee at breakfast in the drivethru at McDonald’s and headed out.  As I’d imagined, the road was quiet, and was now paved all the way from Yellowknife – not the horrors I’d heard from my father of hundreds upon hundreds of kilometers of potholed gravel roads.  But, I hadn’t expected the first 500 kms to be snow covered and icy.  We made good time, and by about 8 pm that night had covered the first 1,200 some kilometers and had stopped a couple hours north of Edmonton in a place called Slave Lake. We stayed at a Holiday Inn Express, and it was a pretty normal stay, except the breakfast area was closed and they gave you a “breakfast bag” on your way out with muffins, juice and the like.  A decent and appropriate alternative given the situation. The roads had be clear since about halfway through the drive yesterday, and continued to be today, and well, for the rest of the trip.  We drove south and skirted around the North East corned of Edmonton and worked our way South East towards Winnipeg.  We passed into Saskatchewan, through Saskatoon, finally stopping about anther 1,200kms closer to home in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, again staying at a Holiday Inn Express.  Basically the same setup as last time, but tonight they asked if we’d been outside of Canada in the last 14 days.  Not sure what would’ve happened had I said yes, but since the answer was no, there was no issue. Not pleased with the distance covered yesterday, we headed out earlier today, around 6am.  Today would be a little tougher as we were going to lose two time zones, if we got as far as I was hoping.  And after driving all the way through Manitoba and to Thunder Bay, we stopped a bit short of where I was hoping to get to (thanks to a wasted hour in Kenora trying to find gas and food), but we still made another 1,200 kms despite losing 2 hours due to crossing time zones.  The stop in Thunder Bay was routine by now, another Holiday Inn Express, another “have you been outside of Canada in the last 14 days.”  Only difference was, there were about 15 people all hanging around the check-in counter doing god knows what, but all close together.  We social distanced and waited outside until the crowd was gone and went in when it was just us, shaking our heads that so many strangers would be hanging out in such a small group given the circumstances.

We had nearly 1,700 kms to go today, so we started early-ish, leaving around 6:30 am.  After driving all the way around the lakes, through Toronto, stopping at the airport in London to pick up our car in the parking lot, we arrived home, 1,682kms later around midnight. So, in 4 days, we drove 5,217 kms, across 4 provinces and 1 territory in a truck with no license plates.  All because the world has gone mad. But, it was a good drive.  We just wish we’d had a little time to stop at all the curious road-side attractions across the country.  But, there’s always the next panic.


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