Where the Tłı̨chǫ Highway turns off from Highway 3 sits a sign flashing “Road Open”. The local road crew, all with big smiles, direct us to travel a couple minutes apart and at the speed limit of 70 km/h.
The caravan of vehicles heads down the Tłı̨chǫ Highway, a two-lane road, which is a smooth ride without the washboard tracks. Growing up in a small town and no stranger to dirt roads, I wonder what it will be like in spring? After all, it is a gravel road.
We stop at a cabin where Grand Chief Jackson Lafferty and Chief Clifford Daniels are offering up tea to visitors. It’s warm with the woodstove and folks are chatting about how much things will change. I listen to the excitement in the elders’ voices talking about how having to pay so much for food or for flights to visit family outside of Whatì will no longer be an issue. The owners of the cabin talk about the big fire 15 years ago when the previous cabin burned down but not the outhouse, nor the family patriarch’s favourite tree.
We head back on the highway, and I’m sure each driver is noting the blowing snow and how it’s affecting the visibility of the road.
I look down at my speedometer and it says I am going 90 km/h! I didn’t even realize that I was speeding because the road is so smooth. I slow down, but imagine that once drivers get used to the road, they will be flying all the way to Whatì.
The Tłı̨chǫ Highway is nice and wide at some parts; others are narrower because the road is built up with deep ditches on either side. As a truck sped by me I had my hands on the 10 o’clock-2 o’clock position of my steering wheel completely aware of the deep trench to my right. I slowed right down as the flying snow impaired my vision. I wonder, ‘Will they be putting in guardrails for these sections of the road?’
I look out at the land, a few parts very sparse from the forest fires and other parts felt like I was in BC heading for the mountains to ski. The trees looked so big. The forests, snow covered and so thick and dense I wonder how the bison manage to squeeze themselves into the forest. I saw no bison along the way but I did see a Cross fox and a few ravens.
I finally arrive in Whatì and take a little drive around the community. So peaceful and quiet, I wonder if the new highway will change all that?
The people I spoke to are looking forward to visitors and are hopeful that tourists will find their way to the community. Residents are excited to show their lakes, their fish, their waterfalls, and their world. They are excited to travel outside the community without it costing so much money. Little things like trips for youth to Yellowknife for soccer tournaments are now possible for everyone. No longer will they have to pay thousands of dollars for an airplane charter.
A few joked about Yellowknife losing out on business because now the people of Whatì can drive all the way to Edmonton to shop for supplies.
As a fly-in community, there is a feeling of safety from the rest of the world and its problems. Now that there is a highway right to Yellowknife it means that not only can the people leave anytime they want, others can drive into the community anytime too.
But right now, no one is thinking about anything negative because after forty years of waiting for a road, the Whatì people are happy that the Tłı̨chǫ Highway is finally a reality.