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Travel the Northern Woods and Water Route

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Most drivers in western Canada are familiar with the Trans Canada Highway or the  Yellowhead Highway, both of them crossing the Prairie Provinces east and west, and the Trans Canada continuing to the east and west coasts.
Fewer people are familiar with or even know about the Northern Woods and Water Route (NWWR), another east to west highway that connects Winnipeg to Dawson Creek, B.C., utilizing infrastructure farther north of the Yellowhead Highway.
The NWWR runs through Swan River, coming from Dauphin and The Narrows, heading north to The Pas before turning west to Saskatchewan.
“The whole goal is to get people who are already travelling to come to the north and spend the money,” said NWWR President Dale Harrison, who visited the Swan Valley last week while on a summer tour of the highway himself. “Whenever you are travelling in an RV, you’re spending more, you’re buying gas, meals, groceries, and repairs and maintenance on your vehicle. If we get (travellers) up here, it’s outside money being spent in small communities. For some of the really small communities, having an extra couple units a day over the season can mean the difference between your gas station staying open or not or your grocery store staying open or not.”
Harrison is also a former economic development officer and current village administrator in Alberta, and makes it his mission with the NWWR to encourage a little more exploration on the road less travelled, teasing the woods, water and wildlife that the highway is so aptly named after.
“It’s a much more enjoyable tour across Canada and I like to say that we can show you a whole different Canada than what you’re going to see down south,” he said, taking note of the common joke about Saskatchewan being so flat that you could see your dog run away for three days.
“In northern Saskatchewan, that dog is going to be swimming a lot.”
Harrison spends a few weeks in the summer travelling along the NWWR, finding hidden gems in the innumerable small communities found in the prairie north. He publishes a magazine promoting the highway and looks for new ways to encourage people to take the trek.
Harrison explained that the route was originally developed by a group of campers travelling between Dawson Creek and Winnipeg, stopping at communities along the way to have a cup of coffee in the morning and afternoon, as well as stopping for supper and overnight stays.
“Over time, the communities came on board and joined the association, and the association got a logo designed and lobbied the provincial governments to get the highways signed,” he said. “We’re looking at going back to that same model.”
Harrison is interested in organizing a small group of RVs and motorhomes to travel the NWWR together in a cavalcade, with everybody enjoying the highlights and the company together.
He hopes to extend the route from Dawson Creek to the lower mainland of British Columbia, potentially creating a loop around Vancouver to encourage city dwellers to join the tour that could potentially start with about 22 vehicles.
“Having 22 vehicles isn’t a lot, but it’s all about those 22 having friends who also have motorhomes,” said Harrison. “If they have a good experience, they will tell their friends.
“Nowadays, there are more RVs and motorhomes on the road and people who are travelling want to see something different.”
Harrison expects that a cavalcade can be organized and marketed by as soon as next May, with his limited time this summer being spent travelling the NWWR with the intention of researching what areas could be highlighted during such a tour, and when would be the best times to visit. He noted that there is the potential to have themes involved even, stopping at golf courses along the route or taking in the various rodeos that take place across the prairies.
“I know a little bit about each community, but we’re concentrating on what are the events, what would the timing be, and if we plot them out in all four provinces, when would be the logical time to take the trip,” he said. “Should we start from the east or the west? Is it going to be 30 days or 45? Can we run two of them? Should it be in spring when things are starting to green up or at harvest when the combines are in the field?
“There’s so much to promote and all we have to spend is just promotion dollars. Each community has their own things already and we just need to put it in a package.”
Harrison sees a large market for such an experience and wants to sell it not only to RV campers already living in western Canada but also to the thousands of people in RV clubs in the Unites States, and sees big potential in that region once the national borders open up more freely.
Harrison also told a story about stopping in a small community in central Alberta during the Calgary Stampede, which was attended in part by eight tour buses of European tourists. He noticed when they stopped in a small nearby town that had a large western wear store, they would buy lots of belt buckles, Stetson hats and souvenirs to take with.
“That’s the economy in a small town,” he said. “You get it where you can and bring outside dollars in.”
And, the potential for outside dollars is significant, even if RVs are just stopping in the community for a rest break.
“They’re dropping money every stop to gas up,” said Harrison. “My motorhome is $300 when I gas up.
“We deposit $4,500 in travel expenses in three weeks on the road. If you want to do the cavalcade and show the communities what 22 campers deposit, it starts to add up to real money really quickly. And, that’s just one group. There are different associations and different travel groups that, if we promoted, they will come.”
To learn more about the Northern Woods and Water Route, or check in on the progress of the cavalcade, visit nwwr.ca, which features photographs of sites along the highway, as well as the electronic version of their magazine.

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Jeremy Bergen
REPORTER
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