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….”

No comments:

Post a Comment