2008-08-28 55 -115
Today's Utikuma Lake location was a little over 50 km northeast of the town of Slave Lake. Google maps satellite images suggested that it was within 70 m of a roadlike feature. (You have to understand that while in populous southern areas you can zoom in until you can see the potholes and the lane markings on a road, up here in the north you reach the "We are sorry but we don't have imagery at this zoom level at this region. Try zooming out for a broader look," message before we can see much detail. If the zoom slider is all the way to the plus end, I have to click on the minus sign five times before I see anything but that apologetic message. The sixth level is a blurry overzoomed image, so it's only seven levels back that I get a clear view of the terrain).
In this case I saw a definite dirt-coloured surface turning south off highway 88, and branching into a number of other roads. By following the road south to a point I labelled on the map and noted in the GPS as B, it looked as if I could then make a 90 degree turn to the east, on a road that met another road that went down to a widening, probably a utility substation of some sort, and then find the geohash within 70 metres of that last road. And, and this is where I turn to the evil side of geohashing. I have the keys to a coworker's truck, and permission to go 'exploring.' I might be able to drive right up to a geohash. I knew of course that what appears to be a road can also be a creek, or a cutline. My "roads" were very straight, so I didn't think they were creeks, but that said nothing about their drivability, even if they were roads.
With guilty pleasure I walked past ICWB left it behind, climbed into the big truck and started it up. Clunk clunk clunk clunk. Huh? Oh, it was a diesel. Cool. It ran fine. The highway was very familiar by this time, from all the times I had biked it at 15 km/h against the wind. I knew every sign and crack in the road, until I passed the furthest point I had yet ridden to. Whew, nice to be this far out and not be exhausted and out of time. And then the summer travel inevitability: road construction. I saw the person in brightly reflective clothing pick up the lollipop sign as the truck ahead of me neared, and then everything stopped and waited while they did something up ahead. There was very sparse traffic on the roads, but there was still time for quite a queue to develop behind me. If I'd been on a bike I could have just gone on. And then finally we were going again, and I made up the distance I would have gained on a bicycle in no time.
The left turn appeared right where it should have, and it was a good dirt road. There was an open gate, and another truck pulled over a hundred metres or so into the dirt road. Even way out here I still manage to delude myself with thoughts of "Hey! Maybe he's geohashing." He saw me coming and pulled over further so there was room for me to go around him (dirt roads are just one lane). The road continued just as it had on Google maps, so that the trail on the GPS looked like the printout from the website. Just around the next corner the road should have an option to go left or go dead straight for about 1500 metres to the point B mentioned above. And it's sort of like that. Straight ahead are two muddy ruts through grass and weeds and puddles. I can't take someone else's truck down a road like that. I turn left, remembering that there are more turnoffs that go south from this road, and perhaps one now goes further than it did on the satellite view, or maybe there will be passable terrain for walking, beyond the utility service I find at the ends of those roads.
I take the two most promising ones, but both end in pumpjacks, like the one I photographed on an earlier expedition. I see no reason to make a collection of pumpjack photographs, so I just refer you that. It's starting to rain now, but I'm nice and dry in the truck, at the end of the road, 0.65 nm from the geohash. Now a month a go I might have jumped out of the truck and headed straight through the bush, but I now know just how far 0.65 nm can be through the muskeg, so I sit in the truck and photograph the GPS, and the rain through the truck window. And I turn around. How far do you think I get?
I get back to that corner where the sort of road goes straight. I park where a truck can get by me on the dirt road, and a quad (because no one else is going to drive a truck on that 'road' either) can get by onto the ruts, and I look at my map. I estimate 1500 m to B, then another 1500 metres down the next turnoff, then 500 metres down the last one, and 70 metres off to the side. So three kilometres. That would be about half an hour on the sidewalk, so maybe 45 minutes on a trail. And then back. And this is a virgin graticule: it's worth some effort. You know I'm going to try it. I take my knapsack and set off down the trail, which I meant to photograph on the way back, and didn't.
The trail is pretty walkable. I even jog a little, on and off. I have to go around some giant puddles, one of which I saw something swimming in, probably a frog. I don't think it was a big enough puddle to harbour fish or cryptozoological monsters. And then I get to a really big puddle. Beavers have dammed a creek and flooded what was left of the road. Yes, beavers. I can see their lodge in the middle of the lake, and there is no mistaking the deliberate placement of sticks, mud and plants that contains the water. I refuse to report that this expedition was thwarted by beavers. It's just too silly. And then I realize that there is a track all around the side of the pond, below the dam. It's wet, because some water leaks over and through the rodent engineering, but considering that I'm walking at approximately waist level to the surface of the water beside me, I'm trusting their construction work as I pass by. The road reemerges at the other side of the beavermade lake and I continue, uphill now, but still straight. The beaver pond is about a third of the way from the truck to the mystical point B.
It's starting to rain again. The turnoff at B is hilarious, repeating a previous pattern of geohashes luring me into worse and worse terrain until I'm too close to quit. I strongly suspect that if the last five metres to the geohash were over poisonous snakes wearing rusty spiked collars I'd be unable to turn back so close to my goal. The road I take now clearly has the ancestry of a road, but doesn't have any ruts or signs of traffic. It has waist-height grass and small trees growing in it. But the footing is firm. I have walked over such worse footing in the last month, that this is nothing. I am one nautical mile from my goal.
It's pouring now. I have the hood of my jacket up, and my non-waterproof GPS and camera hidden deep in pockets. One nautical mile is about two kilometres, so pretending I have a one metre stride, two thousand paces. I start counting, so I don't have to pull the GPS out in the downpour. And it should be about 15 minutes. My boots--at least I'm wearing proper hiking boots and not sneakers--are soaked through. You'd think I'd walked through a stream. They are literally filled with water, which sloshes around as I walk. But I don't feel that I am developing blisters, and it doesn't really slow me down. I check the GPS a couple of times, bending over to protect it from the rain with my body, so I get to know what my pace is over this terrain. I start counting down the number of metres left. Yes, I know my GPS is in nautical miles. Doing conversions in my head is one of the ways I amuse myself on forced marches through the bush. When I get to six hundred metres left, I remember that the last 500 metres was after a ninety degree turn. I check the GPS and sure enough I have just gone past ninety degrees to the geohash. It's 0.32 nm straight into bush. Uh uh. I've been there done that. I'm going to go ahead another hundred paces to see if that road, or even a meadow, exists.
It does. There's a big metal tank in the middle of nowhere and another road, a bit better even than the one I'm on, going south. It leads to within 0.03 nm of the geohash and then I have to bite the bullet and walk 60 metres into the trees. It's the spongy moss-covered hummocks footing here. I should have numbered the different types of terrain so I could tell people who have been following my saga that it was terrain number five. But almost all the trees are upright, and they are fairly sparse. I am 0.01 nm from the geohash and there's a fallen tree in my way. "Do I have to go over it?" whines an inner voice, "Couldn't you just photograph the GPS right here and then say 'oh rats, it went to 0.01 again while I was photographing it'?" I explain to that inner voice that that isn't the way this works. I climb over the tree, go another ten or so steps into the woods and see the real 0.00. It's even stopped raining.
I don't want to leave paper. There's no garbage here, and there's nothing I can write on with my sidewalk chalks, especially as it's so wet. Instead I leave a sign of my presence that is perfectly natural, yet will be here for many years. I take a small tree and twist it around on itself into a knot. It doesn't hurt the tree. It's very flexible. And unless a moose kicks it and undoes the knot within a month or so, it will grow in that shape. Ten years from now, if the beavers haven't expanded the dam to start their own electrical power plant, you'll be able to hike up here and see the tree growing with a loop in the side, commemorating the first successful geohash in the Utikuma Lake graticule.
Needless to say, no one else was there. Although I must admit I didn't wait around long. I reversed course and headed back to the truck. On the way out I noticed a sign taped to a tree, CAUTION: BEAR BAIT IN AREA. I wonder if that referred specifically to me.
I'm glad the geohash wasn't dead easy, or I'd be tempted to use motor vehicles more often. But I'll only be in the area for a couple more day and I didn't want to leave without nailing this graticule. And I'm also really glad I didn't have to bike 50 km home after all that.
 Photo Gallery
I'll just save this, then upload the photos.