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?

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