Hay River to Fort Smith
The 270-kilometer (168 miles) road linking Hay River to Fort Smith (Hwy. 5) is paved for the first 60 kilometers (37 miles) then turns to improved gravel. No services are available along this route. A gravel road to the north, 49 kilometers (30 miles) from Highway 2, leads two kilometers (1.2 miles) to Polar Lake. The lake is stocked with rainbow trout and has good bird-watching around the shoreline.
Another 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) beyond the Polar Lake turn-off, the highway divides: The right fork continues to Fort Smith, the left to Fort Resolution.
This historic community of 470 is in a forested area on the shore of Great Slave Lake around 170 kilometers (106 miles) east of Hay River. The original fort, built by the North West Company in 1786, was to the east, on the Slave River Delta. When the post was moved, a Chipewyan Dene settlement grew around it, and in 1852 Roman Catholic missionaries arrived, building a school and a hospital.
A road connecting the town to Pine Point was completed in the 1960s, and today the mainly Chipewyan and Métis population relies on trapping and a sawmill operation as its economic base.
Continuing to Fort Smith on Highway 5
From the Fort Smith/Fort Resolution junction, 60 kilometers (33 miles) east of Hay River, it’s another 210 kilometers (130 miles) southeast to Fort Smith. After an hour of smooth sailing, the road enters Wood Buffalo National Park, the largest national park in North America.
Five kilometers (3.1 miles) beyond the park entrance sign is the Angus Fire Tower. Behind the tower is one of many sinkholes found in the northern reaches of the park. This example of karst topography occurs when underground caves collapse, creating a craterlike depression. This one is 26 meters (85 feet) deep and 40 meters (130 feet) across.
The next worthwhile stop is at Nyarling River, 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) farther east. The dried-up riverbed is actually the path of an underground river, hence the name Nyarling (underground, in the Slavey language).
As the highway continues east, it enters an area where the Precambrian Shield is exposed, making for a rocky landscape where stunted trees cling to shallow depressions that have filled with soil. To the north, an access road leads to several small waterfalls in Little Buffalo Falls Territorial Park and a campground (mid-May–mid-Sept., $17) with pit toilets, a kitchen shelter, and firewood.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition