Remote outpost provides crucial services to isolated region

Vital services in isolated land

Kim Fundingsland/MDN A dirt landing strip and a few support buildings comprise the remote outpost of Points North in the northern Saskatchewan wilderness.

POINTS NORTH, SASK. – It is one of the most remote, isolated and forbidding places in North America and that is exactly why it is also vitally important to the region. Points North is an oasis, sometimes a lifesaving one, in the wilderness of far northeast Saskatchewan.

Points North Landing is 450 roadway miles north of Prince Albert, the last major city en route from the southern region of the province. The outpost can be reached overland by traveling a remote roadway, when passable. Rainfall can turn much of the roadway to a slippery mess. Sometimes the fierce flames and choking smoke of forest fires forces travelers to turn back. During wintertime sudden snowfalls and drifting snow can make the road impassable.

North of Prince Albert but still nearly 300 miles south of Points North is La Ronge, a small community that is a very welcome one to rugged and weary travelers daring to trek the winding trail to Points North. A few miles north of La Ronge the broken pavement turns to a combination of gravel, clay and mud. The crude trail that is deceivingly labeled Highway 905 on roadmaps ends at Points North.

The road was widened a bit a few years ago. Until then it was an utterly harrowing experience when meeting on-coming traffic on a roadway scarcely wide enough for one vehicle. Still, no one new to the roadway would consider it “improved.”

So rugged is Highway 905 that it is common for vehicles traversing the treacherous road to carry several spare tires. Pickup trucks may have several extra tires visible in the box. Passenger vehicles often have two or more spare tires strapped to the roof, proof that the road is unrelenting to vehicles and, with lengthy stretches of roadway without services of any kind, a very necessary and wise precaution.

A solo canoeist prepares to load his craft onto a float plane while others continue to unload their gear following several days in the remote Canadian wilderness.

The road winds past countless lakes, large and small, nearly all teeming with fish. While access to the lakes is usually quite crude, such as sliding a boat into the water off a weedy shoreline, the chance to fish in a wilderness setting is much too tempting for many sportsmen to resist. Boats are necessarily small. No boat trailer can stand up to the pounding routinely delivered by the unforgiving roadway. Boats are either tied down in the back of a pickup or strapped tightly to the roof of a vehicle. Outboard motors are optional. Oars are easier to transport and more reliable.

Sometimes traffic on the roadway from La Ronge to Points North is dominated by semi-trailer trucks, many of them hauling logs from timber operations. At the edge of either side of the road is a sharp drop-off of two to three feet and, quite often, large granite boulders. Travel at 30-40 miles per hour is common, less during rainy and wet weather. Even with an extra couple of feet courtesy of the widening project, it remains one of the most treacherous appearing stretches of roadway in all of Saskatchewan. Fortunately for travelers, there’s incredible beauty surrounding it too.

The road cuts through some of the most remote forest land on the continent. The occasional black bear or moose can be seen along the edge of the tall pines lining the route. Ravens and spruce grouse perch in the trees. Bald eagles soar above. The route crosses numerous streams and rivers, vivid reminders of how the land must have appeared to the first visitors hundreds of years ago, and each presents their own unique and picturesque view. Fast moving water tumbling over and around huge boulders serves as a stunning reminder that real wilderness still exists. A person’s sense of appreciation for unspoiled nature is immense.

So too is the relief provided by a few tiny outposts where a brief rest, perhaps a primitive shower, gasoline and food can be found. Without those vital stopping points travel to Points North by vehicle would be virtually impossible.

After traveling many miles through much of the untamed wilderness of northern Saskatchewan the visitor may encounter an unusual site, a helicopter hovering over the trees. It’s a sure sign that Points North is only a few miles, or kilometers, distant.

Kim Fundingsland/MDN Flat tires are common on the nearly 300 miles of dirt, clay and gravel that comprises Saskatchewan Highway 905.

Northern Shield Helicopters has been operating out of Points North for half a century, called upon to do everything from emergency medical evacuation to sight-seeing, forest fire suppression and various other services necessary in the remote region. Helicopters are often the only way to get from one place to another.

There’s fixed wing aircraft located at Points North too, with one dirt landing strip on firm ground and the other on an adjacent lake where float planes arrive and depart, hauling passengers and their gear farther into the roadless wilderness. Seasoned bush pilots fly fishermen to wilderness camps. Other travelers choose to be dropped off at a nameless remote lake or stream, surrounded by tundra or forest, just for the unforgettable wilderness experience.

Canoeists, sometimes a single person seeking complete solitude and willing to match survival skills against whatever the wilderness brings, seek the services at Points North. All hope the weather cooperates to allow a return flight that will pick them up at the chosen time.

Weather aside, there’s many other important factors to consider for those choosing a visit into the wild. Physical injuries, no matter how severe, may not be able to be dealt with by a professional for hours or days. The response to satellite phone calls to Points North for an emergency relief flight might be that the weather, either at Points North or the destination, will have to settle down before a flight can be made. There’s predatory animals to be aware off too, namely bears and wolves. Rare perhaps, but encounters between man and animal can be deadly serious.

Those working at Points North and regular visitors there know the story of Kenton Carnegie, a tragic example of how dangerous life can be in the far north. In 2005 the 22-year-old geological engineering student from Ontario stationed at Points North decided to take a walk in the snow near the outpost when he was surrounded by timber wolves. Investigation into his death showed Carnegie put up a struggle to defend himself before being killed. Some speculated that ever present black bears were to blame but only wolf tracks were found in the snow near the student’s bloody and torn body.

Today wolves and bears are still attracted to Points North. Most recently a large white wolf was seen frequenting the area of the runway and stalking near occupied buildings. Many black bears have been too curious and too close for comfort as well, including a few that had to be dispatched due to safety concerns for staff and travelers.

There is a seldom traveled road that leads north out of Points North, but it is little more than a crude trail through forested and rocky terrain. It is not maintained. Those rare individuals who use the trail do so at their own peril. There are plenty of challenges. Ruts, gaping potholes and sharp rocks all take a toll on vehicles and tires and people.

Oddly, the crude trail leading to sprawling Lake Athabasca, remote uranium mines and a few tiny hamlets in the wilderness is primarily used during winter. It is then that heavy snow covers the roadway, essentially leveling it out, allowing “ice road truckers” to venture onto it carrying supplies vital to winter survival in the region. It is then perhaps, that the life-saving services available at Points North are most indispensable.

The most reliable way to travel in northern Saskatchewan, often the only way barring snowmobiles in winter, is by helicopter or float plane. Points North Landing provides both along with emergency shelter, food and fuel. Arriving there is always a welcome site. Watching it fade away as a float plane jolts into the air during its take-off from the waves of the adjoining lake, for a destination farther into the remote wilderness of the far north, creates conflicting feelings.

For some it awakens the senses that have been longing for solitude of the kind that can be found only in a true wilderness setting. For others, perhaps all, there is an awareness that the individual is soon to be left to his or her own abilities, or those of a small traveling party, to cope with whatever happens in the hours and days ahead.

No cell phones. No internet. No television. No radio. No electricity. Catch a fish for supper. Drink water from a lake or stream, preferably filtered. If you want a bath, use the same source. The melodic call of the loon provides pleasing music. Thoughts at those times can be great company. Sunsets and sunrises are sensational.

If all goes well and the weather cooperates, the float plane from Points North will arrive on its designated pick-up day and time. First there’s the sound of a distant motor. Then there’s both a cheer for the plane’s arrival and a lengthy silence when it lifts off the water, bringing a somber end to a highly cherished immersion into the far north.

In contrast, the return landing at Points North is welcome, marking a successful and safe conclusion to days spent far from civilization. Included in the reward is a return trip on forbidding Highway 905.