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August 27, 2007

...in a VAN down by the RIVER!!!

Two weekends ago, I was in Nahanni Butte again. It was a very last-minute trip in that I wasn't sure it was a "go" until mid-Friday morning. Check-in at the airport was Friday around noon.

On the flight there, I got to chat with a friend who was returning to Yellowknife. I pointed out a couple of the geological features along the way, but the plane flew directly over Virginia Falls, so I couldn't point that out.

At the Fort Simpson airport, I caught my ride into Nahanni Butte on Wolverine Air's Cessna 206. The flight uneventful, which most people would consider to be a good thing.

I was there for a Friday evening meeting. When the meeting was done, I was presented with two options:
  1. Return on the Cessna 206 and spend the weekend in Fort Simpson until Monday, when I would catch my return flight to Whitehorse, OR
  2. Stay for the 58th wedding anniversary celebration of Elsie and Jonas Marcellais and figure out some other way to get back to Fort Simpson by Monday.
There are decisions that each and every one of us must make that will lead us down very different paths. We make these decisions every day and seldom realise it. I knew, right off the bat, that this was one of those decisions.

I didn't want to miss the anniversary celebration, but I also didn't want to miss my flight back to Whitehorse. I asked around to see if I could catch a ride with someone who would be going to Fort Simpson on Sunday. I quickly found a ride and opted to stay.

Elsie and Jonas Marcellais

The celebration was a lot of fun. A lot of Elsie and Jonas' family was there to help celebrate. I was asked to be the "official photographer", but pretty much everyone else had their cameras blazing as the food was cooked and eaten, the music was played, and as the adults and then the kids played musical chairs. As it got darker (since my flash didn't work), I retired back to my accommodations at the General Store to let the family celebrate.

I woke up on Sunday morning, had a quick breakfast, grabbed my bug jacket, gloves and a few other essentials, and headed out of the community to hike to the top of the Small Butte.

I'm sure the Small Butte has a really great Slavey name, I'm just not sure what that name is (I'll have to ask the next time I'm in Nahanni Butte). The Butte itself has a rich history - It features in one of the major Dene legends of the Nahanni, Liard and Mackenzie River areas and was, apparently, a prime lookout for the Nah?a when they were looking for camps to raid in the Liard Plain.

The Small Butte looks like a steep ramp that someone placed at the end of the South Nahanni River Valley. The Butte is steep and covered in spruce and birch on West side and has a sheer cliff that runs down the Eastern side, like someone sliced a small mountain in half and carted half of it away.

A wide path runs along the west side of the Butte and I followed the path until a section of muskeg made the trail too wet to use. Abandoning the trail, I bee-lined straight for the top. I walked through a forest of mature spruce and deep moss. Moose tracks, sunk deep into the moss, criss-crossed my way up the mountain. The terrain suddenly went steep, but the ground remained mossy, making it easy to step my way up the small mountain.

The mosquitoes were out in force. They were far worse earlier in the summer, but there were still enough of them to drive anyone who wasn't wearing a bug jacket insane.

The higher I climbed, the thicker the brush got. The spruce turned into dense willows before turning into a veritable wall of small, branchy spruce. I removed the head-net of my bug jacket, since the branches were doing an effective job of brushing mosquitoes off my face. The spruce branches tugged and pulled at my bug jacket, but the jacket never tore.

I began to wonder if the wall of spruce would ever end. I turned on my GPS and, when it finally acquired the satellites, realised that I was going to be late for the ride to Fort Simpson that I had arranged for noon. I was close though, and figured that my ride wouldn't be on time anyways, so I pushed on.

And I'm glad I did. The trees at the top of the Butte were still thick, but there was enough of an opening in some spots to allow me to sit and take in the view.

Reaching out before me was the Liard River Valley to the South and Northeast, flanked by the Liard Range to the Southwest. I could feel the heat radiating up the rock wall and watched as three Peregrine falcons flew closer and closer to investigate me. At one point, I could have reached out and grabbed one, had I been so inclined. I wasn't. I was enjoying the show as they danced on waves of rising warm air.

Looking to the Northeast. It's a long way down!

Looking to the South - The mountains in the distance are part of the Liard Range.

Looking along the Small Butte towards the Liard Range.

I could have stayed there all day, but my ride was probably going to be wondering where I was, so I headed back to the community, making my was, as much as possible, along the top of the Butte. Eventually, I gave up on following the ridge and made my way downwards. I managed to find a route that was not as dense. The going was easy as I bounded down the mountain on the spongy moss. I realised I was bounding too much when I noticed that I had dropped my knife - an essential tool in an emergency situation. Retracing my steps in the moss, I quickly recovered my knife - much to my relief.

Near the bottom of the Butte, I stopped to sip from a small creek. The water was running in small streams, cool, clear, tasty and refreshing. It was delicious.

I walked quickly back to the community, arriving an hour late for my ride. When I got there, I quickly realised that my ride had gotten caught up in festivities of their own and were now intoxicated. I started looking for alternatives.

A group from Fort Liard who were in Nahanni Butte for the anniversary celebration was going to boat out to Blackstone Landing later in the afternoon. The acting Chief suggested that I catch a ride with them and then use the Band's van to drive to Fort Simpson. After discussing a few logistical items such as gas and keys, the plan was set.

We were supposed to leave at 16:00 and then at 18:00. I'm not sure what time we finally left, but it was much later than 18:00. We piled our bags into the boat and then piled into the boat ourselves. To help keep the boat trim, I climbed onto the luggage in the bow and settled in. Other than the mosquitoes hitting me on the back of my ears (which we soon left behind - the mosquitoes, not my ears), it was a very comfortable ride on a beautiful evening.

All piled into the boat, bound for Blackstone Territorial Park.

After unloading at Blackstone, I went straight to the Reception Centre to get the keys. There was a sign on the door that said "Gone for Lunch". It was either a very long lunch or a very late lunch. I went to the attendant's cabin, but he wasn't their either. For that matter, neither was the Band's van.

Tommy, the river taxi captain, helped me figure out what was going on. He had gas for me to put into the van, if it ever arrived. He figured that the attendant was visiting the Lindbergs down the road and he was right. The band's big diesel truck was there, and Tommy suggested that I use it, but the keys weren't in the ignition and they weren't stashed in the truck.

At long last, the attendant and the van returned. I looked at the fuel gauge, which showed that the tank was nearly empty.

I walked with Tommy down to the river and grabbed the gas can from him, waving as he pushed the boat out into the river and motored back up the Liard to Nahanni Butte.

Back at the van, I opened the gas can and groaned when I realised that there was no spout. I now had the van and I now had the gas - I just had no way of getting the gas into the van. The attendant checked the park's shed and, much to my relief, found a spout that I could use. I filled the van and headed out of the park towards the Liard Highway. It was getting dark and I didn't want to miss the ferry to Fort Simpson.

As I drove to the highway, I was stopped by some of the members of our boating party. The grandparents of a four-year-old boy were supposed to meet them there and take him back to Fort Simpson while they headed back south. Because the boating party was behind schedule, the grandparents left so they wouldn't miss the ferry to Fort Simpson. Their back-up plan (a ride back to Nahanni Butte), under the impression that everything was fine, had already left. I was their only option for getting the boy back to Fort Simpson.

He seemed like a nice kid, but he was quite shy around me at the anniversary celebration. I didn't mind taking him - I was more worried about whether or not he would be willing to ride with me.

I'm not sure what his aunt said to him, but he suddenly became an outgoing and even adventurous young man. We booted it down the highway and talked and sang up a storm while he munched on the last of my cookies. Eventually, after the sun went down, he fell asleep.

I continually glanced at the clock, wondering if I could make it to the ferry on time. The highway was in good shape, but I knew from experience that one section was not a good indicator of the rest of the highway's condition. I drove quickly, but carefully. Lightening flashed in the distance at the base of a huge storm cloud.

We finally made it to Checkpoint and turned onto the chip-sealed Mackenzie Highway. "Sixty-five kilometres to go," I muttered. The boy opened his eyes and then lolled off to sleep again.

Nighthawks and bats flashed in my headlights as I followed the twists and turns of the highway. I began to wonder what we'd do if we missed the ferry. The temperature was dropping rapidly and there weren't any blankets in the van. Did I have enough warm clothes to keep my charge comfortable? Did I have enough warm clothes to keep me comfortable? Fortunately, I did. Be Prepared is, in my opinion, one of the best mottoes ever.

The boy awoke as we pulled to the stop at the river crossing. The ferry was mid-stream, heading for the opposite shore. We had just missed it. It had left early.

We turned on every light in the van we could, hoping they would see us and take pity on us. The Lafferty docked on the opposite shore and its single passenger drove off. A truck drove down towards a small pull-out overlooking the river, its headlights shining across the river towards us; likely a ride for one of the ferry crew. Then the lights on the ferry went out.

"Well, buddy," I said consolingly, more to myself than to him, "It looks like we're spending the night in the van. Do you want the front seat or the bench in the back?"

The little trooper never let on that he was disappointed; that he wouldn't make it back to his own bed or see his mom or his grandparents that night. He took it all in stride.

I turned for one last look at the ferry, drifting downstream with nothing but its navigation lights on. Docking a little downriver for the night, I thought.

Then, I watched as the three white navigation lights slowly shifted against the dark bank. The ferry was turning. The lights aligned. The ferry had turned our way. It was coming to get us after all.

The boy's worried mom was waiting for us on the other side, admonishing the boy's aunt. I wasn't sure if she was upset because the boat was late, because her son got stuck riding with a stranger, or both. I explained that it wasn't the aunt's fault (it really wasn't) and unloaded the boy's bags into his mom's truck. I left. The boy's mom never said thanks. I'm not sure if I expected her to or not.

I tentatively had a place to stay that night, but when I drove by, the lights were out. It was 00:34 when I pulled into the Nahanni Inn (a place I try to avoid), about thirty-four minutes later than I would have arrived if I hadn't waited for the boy to be shuffled into the van. The sign on the door read, "The lobby closes at midnight. Please make arrangements with hotel staff if you are planning on returning later."

"Probably a blessing in disguise," I reasoned, "I'll be sleeping in the van after all. I guess that's the way it was destined to be."

A fleeting shadow down the road caught my eye. The shadow ducked into the door of the "Fort Simpson Gardens". A faint light gleamed from the second floor. "They're still up!"

I ran down the road like the wind, feeling the damp air wash across my face. To the east and then the southwest, lightening flashed in the sky. I pulled up at the door and tried it too vigorously. It flung open.

I ran in and shouted to the top of the stairs, "Hello!"

I waited anxiously for the response, "Who's that?"

I breathed a sigh of relief. I had a comfortable place to stay for the night and that made up for the fact that I was hungry (no dinner - just some snacks that I had brought along) and tired.

The next morning, I awoke, got breakfast, and did a little bit of visiting. As previously arranged, I dropped the van and the keys off at Simpson Air. The employees in the Simpson Air office told me that the Band had called to ask if I had the keys for the diesel truck. Puzzled, I responded, "No, I was driving the mini-van."

"The keys for the truck are in the glove compartment of the mini-van."

The flight back to Whitehorse was cloudy so I couldn't take in the scenery. Fawn didn't answer the phone when I got back to Whitehorse, so I started walking home. She met me part way and I hopped into the car. For some reason I was tired.

The Band got their mini-van back without any trouble.

1 comment:

Anthony said...

Quite the journey. Planes, trains and automobiles, northern style!