August 26, 2009

In other news...

Off the coast of Paulatuk on a summer mid-morning.
  • I took my first real "business trip" to Paulatuk, NWT, 400 kms northeast of Inuvik, with a mining exploration company.
  • I discovered getting a brand new camera will not magically make me an amazing photographer.
  • I was surprised (not unpleasantly) to find a fellow ex-Cornwallian up here above the Arctic Circle.

Katie's first ever Dempster adventure
Part Three

So where was I? Ah, yes: the music fest from a month ago. This has gone on long enough.
Which is exactly what I was thinking on my way to and from the "big event." I made it there in time to snap some photos of the band - a country/rock setup from the prairies that played Pink Floyd's "We Don't Need No Education." Not super-appropriate given the audience, I thought, but maybe I'm just losing my edge.

I can't post any of those pictures here, since the copyright belongs to my employer and posting photos taken on assignment, no matter "the hour or the camera used" has been expressly forbidden via staff memo.

Anyway, I also made friends with some little kids who were catching leeches in the lake and secretly wished someone would invite me into their camp for dryfish. Or s'mores.

It was a long, dark drive home, sprinkled with a couple skulks of almost-road-killed foxes, a bald eagle and (oh shit!) a wolf. Though I only had a little less than half a tank left upon arrival at Midway Lake, I didn't stop for gas back in Fort McPherson. I didn't want to miss the last ferry and besides, it was only four hours between gas stations and by that time I'd be home, safe and sound.

The worst thing that could happen was that I'd run out of gas and be stranded on the Dempster in the middle of the night under the almost-autumn dusk. I thought I'd wing it. That was before I encountered the wolf, obviously, or I might not have been so blindly brave.

But four hours later, around 3 a.m., with the gas meter drooped half a milimetre below the red line, I saw city lights and my tires once again felt the ecstasy of pavement.

So, my first Dempster adventure turned out to be a successful execution of beginner's luck. Just what I needed to boost my already foolhardy personal sense of invincibility. I'm not exactly looking for excuses to do it again, but I won't look for excuses not to, either. My next road trip won't be for quite a while, though, mostly due to a vehicular incident in which I had absolutely no part. But that's another story.

I still haven't checked to see whether there was actually a spare tire in the trunk. Better not to know.

August 08, 2009

Katie's first ever Dempster adventure
Part Two

By the time the brakes had the tires back under their command, I'd done a 180. The Blazer pointed me back to from whence I came as I sat there in the driver's seat, white-knuckling the wheel, wondering what in the hell had just happened.

One might think, after my little conversation with God, that I'd have taken the whole incident – which lasted probably no more than 15 seconds – as a sign to head home. And if I wasn't the type of person to yearn for mass murder on a slow news day, I may have done just that. I turned the car around and kept going.

About two hours on the road after leaving Inuvik, I saw this sign:

A welcome most welcome. Tsiigehtchic, formerly known as Arctic Red River – but now only referred to that way by old, white men who can't pronounce Tsiigehtchic (sig-uh-chick) – is a Gwich'in community of about 150 people. It has no airport, so is only accessible this time of year by crossing the Arctic Red River on the Louis Cardinal Ferry. The Dempster continues on the other side of the river. As the ferry operator waved me aboard, I asked him what the toll was.

"What?" He squinted at me with a bemused, belittling smirk reserved for stupid tourists.

"How much does it cost?" I shouted over the whirring boat engines.

"It's free!" He shouted back. "You staying on the Dempster?"

"Crap," I thought, nodding my answer to him as he pulled up the ferry gate behind me, "he totally thinks I'm a tourist."

Though being mistaken for a tourist doesn't really do much for my street cred as a reporter who's supposed to know what's going everywhere in the Beaufort-Delta region, I guess I was a tourist – one who'd never been on a government-run ferry before. After all, I was just passing through en route to a new adventure. I'd never been to Tsiigehtchic and I didn't have time to stop there now. The sun had faded from view, it was raining harder, and I still had two hours of driving ahead of me.

This is a cabin just outside of Tsiigehtchic that may or may not have been part of the community's cultural centre. I don't know; I didn't have time to stop. I just liked the lonely chair.

Once I knew I was halfway to my destination, everything around me magically became more beautiful. The landscape was suddenly so scenic and not scary at all. But I still hadn't seen any wild animals. Here I was, travelling through untamed territory at the height of bear season, and I wasn't even going to get a glimpse of one? Even the tiniest little black bear? Unbelievable.
Eventually, I experienced the simple yet overwhelming joy triggered by a glimpse of the "Welcome to Fort McPherson" billboard.

Finally, I'd made it! I pulled off the highway and drove through the village streets, past rows of peeling-paint houses, the North Mart, the Co-op store with its two gas pumps, the Inns North hotel, the canvas tent factory, the Tetlit Gwich'in Council office, the – wait, was that it?

I parked outside the inn and knocked on the doorknob-less front door, figuring someone there would be able to succeed where Google Maps had failed and give me directions to the music festival. Then I saw the "closed" sign in the window. Of course. It was 7 p.m. on a Sunday. Everything was closed.

I looked around, hoping to see someone, anyone, who could tell me how to get to Midway Lake – and maybe let me use their bathroom. I spied a man working in his front yard and went toward him eagerly. When I got close enough, I saw he was chopping wood with a certain swagger that made me think approaching an axe-wielding stranger might not be my smartest move.

As I headed back to the Blazer, two middle-aged guys who looked like they hadn't slept or showered in days pulled up to the inn. I told them it was closed.

"It closed early," one of them said.

"We can't go much further," said the other.

Fearing they would expand on their surely tragic travellers' tale, I quickly interrupted.
"Hey, any chance you guys have been to the music fest?"

Yes, they said, they were there the day before. I briefly wondered to myself what they'd been doing in McPherson ("McPhoo", as the locals call it) for a whole day, especially without a place to stay. They told me to get back on the highway and keep driving until I saw a bunch of tents. Then, they said, I'd know I'd made it to the festival.

I quickly learned that not only was I still 40 kilometres away from the festival, but that there was yet another ferry ride in my future, this time across the Peel River.

I was the only one waiting at the ferry dock on the McPherson side of the river while the boat brought over a full load of four or five cars. Four or five more were lined up on the opposite bank, on their way back from the Midway.

The operator on the Abraham Francis Ferry was chattier than the last one had been, and no way did he think I was a tourist. I told him I was a reporter and he didn't even look surprised. He didn't react at all, actually. He told me the festival got off to a late start that afternoon but that people had been dancing jigs for hours under the big tent, out of the rain. This year the Midway Lake Music Festival, as it had almost every year since 1986, featured local fiddlers and country/rock bands from the Prairies.

The ferry operator, who looked to be in his mid-50s, was sad to be missing out. He'd started his shift at 5 p.m. and would be on until the last run at 2 a.m., but he worried local kids would break into his house while he was gone. That's what they do, he told me, especially now when most people are out camping at Midway.

"They're bad," he said. "You gotta be careful." His crooked teeth were brown with rot.
If I wanted to make it back before the ferry system shut down for the night, he told me I'd better "dance until 10:30 and then come on back." That way I should be able to make it to the Peel River dock by 11 p.m. and arrive in Tsiigehtchic by midnight, in time for the last boat across the Mackenzie.

It was 8 p.m. That gave me two hours at Midway. Would it be enough time?

August 06, 2009

Katie’s first ever Dempster adventure
Part One

I didn’t peek into the trunk before I left. That way I couldn’t know for sure if I was doing something dangerously stupid or just stupid enough. I drove to the outskirts of town and turned onto the gravel highway wondering whether I had a spare tire.

I knew I didn’t have a map. But I had glanced at the route on Google Maps a couple of hours before I left the apartment. As far as I knew, I was all set to head out on this beautifully sunny Sunday afternoon to cover the annual Midway Lake Music Festival in Fort McPherson, the next hamlet over.

From Inuvik to Fort McPherson, 182 kilometres southwest, it was the Dempster Highway all the way. I couldn’t get lost. Could I? I told myself of course not; I’d have to be a supreme idiot to get lost on the only road out of town. Then my demoralized self told my demoralizing self to shut up and focus on driving. Both selves mostly agreed I was a capable driver. But the thing about the Dempster was, I’d heard too many horror stories.

The federal government began building the Dempster Highway in 1959, when it heard tell of oil in the Yukon, but nothing much happened construction-wise until the Americans discovered oil deposits in Alaska a decade later. Then the feds hurried up and finished the highway in 1979. Now it stretches for nearly 700 gravelly, soily kilometres from Dawson City, Yukon to Inuvik, Northwest Territories. People who’ve driven it say it offers some of the most breathtaking scenery through the mountains, into the undisturbed, wide open wilderness.

But I’d read too many retired couples’ “arctic adventure” travel blogs not to grasp the other, darker meaning of the “breathtaking” Dempster. Mountain views mean narrow, winding roads over cliffs and deep rivers. A wide open landscape means no service stations, no street lights, no traffic and a lot of wild animals that fordamnsure know they outnumber you. Roll over a too-sharp stone and it’s game over.

Unless you have a spare tire. Which I didn’t know if I had. Could I even change a tire? Gulp. The only things I had beside me on the passenger seat of the company’s Chevy Blazer were a notepad, a camera, a light jacket, sunglasses, bug spray, a bottle of water, my wallet, my cell phone and my iPod (don’t ask about my reasoning there). I discovered my cell phone to be useless about five kilometres out of town, paring down the list of worthwhile travelling supplies in my possession to two, both of which I possessed through no foresight of my own. One was the company’s satellite phone and the other was a full tank of gas.

“Luckily for you,” Andrew mentioned casually as I headed for the door after announcing my departure in a burst of spontaneity, “I just filled up the tank.”

The camera was also pretty important, since festival coverage translates in print to a photospread. And that, again, was Andrew’s doing. He offered up his Nikon D90, which I gratefully accepted – but only after he insisted and after I realized the batteries in my company-issued camera were dead.

So I set off, seeing straight to the horizon, turning up the volume on the CD that was already in the player: Dire Straits. Around the third or fourth time the disc looped back to Track 1 and the chorus of “So Far Away” filled my head, my demoralized self crept back up and I started to doubt if I was even heading in the right direction. I hadn’t seen any road signs (or any signs of civilization at all) for the past hour (or was it two?) Not even a tiny marker to specify that this was, in fact, the Dempster Highway. I hadn’t passed another car for at least half an hour.

I thought of turning back toward town, buying a map, checking the trunk for a spare, getting a good night’s sleep and trying again the next day. But my demoralizing-turned-inspiring self coaxed me on with the promise of adventure.

And then it started to rain. Just drizzle, I told myself. I’ll be fine. I repeated it out loud.
The Dempster, I knew, turns into a spiraling mud-coated Slip ’n Slide when it rains. I had already delayed my departure a day to wait out a thunderstorm for that very reason. I’d heard of travellers getting stuck in the mud, tires perilously spinning and sputtering.

But this was just a light drizzle. Tiny droplets. I didn’t even need the wipers. Still, I dropped my speed down well below the maximum, or what I imagined to be a reasonable speed limit, since I still hadn’t seen one posted, and kept steady. My inner selves praised my calm demeanor, my unflappable courage, my heroic prowess.

I crested a small hill, turning the wheel slightly to the right. But the tires veered left, toward the ditch, and then sharply right, then left, then right again, spinning out of control. The brake pedal was playing opposites.

I had forgotten that beneath the road’s gravel surface, the dirt was still soaked through and slippery from the previous day’s rain. But in the moment I couldn’t rationalize what was happening. I desperately tried to regain control while trying to think how best to protect my head so as to maximize my chances of survival when the vehicle rolled over. I squeezed my eyes shut and launched a pleading split-second monologue that went something like this:

“Are you there, God? It’s me, Katie. I spent far too much time reading Judy Blume novels as a child and consequently I have no survival skills. But I swear to God I will learn some and never take your name in vain again if you give me a free pass on this one….”