I left dark and early from Nahanni Butte for the seven hour drive to the Liard Hotsprings. In the winter, I like to break the 1,400 km trip into two stretches. It's not that I have anything against driving for fourteen hours or more, it's because I don't want to drive the Alaska Highway between Steamboat and Fireside in the dark. There are a lot of very large animals on that stretch of highway and, for some reason, those animals think that the highway is a good place to hang out. The last thing I wanted to do was hit one, especially in the rental vehicle I was using.
I've driven worse rental vehicles, but this one had an anti-lock braking system that was as effective at stopping the car as the "War on Terror" has been at stopping terrorism (or the "War on Drugs" has been at stopping drug abuse and the "War on Poverty" has been at eradicating poverty). On the sometimes icy highway, if I wanted to stop at Point A, the vehicle would continue past Point A, all the way to point Z, no matter how hard I pressed on the break pedal. The ABS kept the vehicle in a straight line, I'll give it that much, but the system placed a lot more emphasis on "anti-lock" than it did on "breaking".
The all-wheel drive that it was supposed to have wasn't much better, which is why I was nervous as I crossed the Liard River ice bridge. On the opposite side of the ice bridge, snow and ice are banked-up to make a steep ramp up the river bank. Sometimes, when the river level drops, the ice drops too, leaving a big crack in the ramp. Ideally, it's best to drive slowly up the ramp, but if I were to drive slowly, would the rental vehicle with the wimpy all-wheel-drive make it up? If I were to drive too quickly, would I miss the hard right at the top of the bank and go careening into the log safety cabin at the top?
Fortunately, there was no crack in the ramp. Fortunately, I had enough speed to make it to the top of the bank. Fortunately, I was going slow enough to make the turn. I drove on into the morning darkness. It was about 7:30 am and I had a long drive ahead. It was seven hours to the Liard Hotsprings, where I planned to spend the night.
A Perfect Moment
I stopped in Fort Liard to get some gas for the next stretch to Toad River, and at Acho Dene Native Crafts to get some birch bark baskets for someone who asked me to pick out a few for them.
As I left Fort Liard, the sky was kissed with the orange glow of early morning. As I got further down the Liard Highway, the sun rose over the horizon.
You know that commercial where the guy is driving his car through the Australian Outback and everything slows down? He says something like, "This is it. A perfect moment." Replace the Outback with the boreal forest, the summer weather for winter weather, the middle of the day for the sunrise, the car for a rental SUV crossover, and the old guy for me, that's what it was like. Perfect.
The sunrise was the most spectacular - most beautiful - that I can recall seeing in my life. I wanted to share that sunset with the world, but I couldn't. I was a hundred miles from anyone and probably even further from some batteries for my camera.
It was then that I realised that the creator/god/the universe/whatever deity you may or may not believe in likes a good practical joke. Because it wasn't just the most spectacular sunrise that I've ever seen that I wanted to take pictures of. During the entire drive, I saw landscapes that were more beautiful than any that I had ever seen on the drive before - and that's saying a lot, because it is already a beautiful stretch of country.
I wanted to take pictures of what I was seeing because the views were just too hard to describe. I wanted to take pictures of what I was seeing so I could put them on my blog. I wanted to take pictures of what I was seeing because that's what the readers of Michael's Meanderings want (according to the survey results). Spectacular pictures! Perfectly framed! Beautiful beyond words! And they were everywhere!
It was like the creator/god/the universe/whatever deity you may or may not believe in was teasing me the same way that I tease my cat with a piece of string. "Here it is! Isn't that great! Oops! You can't have it! Ha ha!"
It was also then that I realised that the creator/god/the universe/whatever deity you may or may not believe in has a very sophisticated sense of humour. Some cultures teach through friendly joking or teasing. Just like that, I was being taught a lesson, I only needed to see the lesson in the practical joke.
I was being told, "Enjoy this moment for what it is. Savour it. It's yours. Only yours. So stop trying to document it. Just enjoy it."
So that's what I did.
By the time I got to the top of the hill past Steamboat on the Alaska Highway, it was snowing big fat flakes. I saw a coyote out of the corner of my eye and it took me by surprise. It came flying out of the trees on a kamikaze collision course with my vehicle. The trajectory was perfect. It had only to jump over the bumper of snow on the side of the highway for us to hit each other. Instead, it disappeared.
When I looked back in the mirror, I saw it standing on the snow bank, grinning from ear to ear. The coyote had been running full-tilt. I have no idea how it stopped so suddenly. Maybe it dove into the snow. I don't know.
That coyote. What a trickster.
The snow was piling up on the roads, but the maintenance crews were out clearing and sanding the roadway. A big truck going too fast and cutting into the inside curve nearly forced me off the road near Tetsa River Lodge, but the driving was otherwise fine, even with the snow.
By the time I got to the Liard Hotsprings, it was only 2:30 in the afternoon. With two hours of daylight left in the day, I didn't want to stop and have a seven-hour drive the next day when I could make it to Watson Lake before dark and have only a five hour drive the next day. I cancelled my reservation at the Liard Hotsprings Lodge and pushed on for Watson Lake, pulling into the gas station just as it was getting dark.
I had a decision to make: stay or push on. I wasn't tired and I was eager to get home, but I also knew that fatigue can strike in a moment, especially when driving in the dark. I decided to stop for a meal and make my decision afterwards.
The meal wasn't great, but it filled my stomach. When I stepped back outside, the moon was out. The sky was crystal clear. Great nighttime driving conditions.
I decided to push on.
A Moonlight Drive
The moon wasn't full, but it was close. It was bright. Not that I could have or would have turned them off, but I wouldn't have needed my headlights. It was so bright that I could see every detail of the landscape - every tree - right off into the horizon. Like beacons, the snow-covered mountains glowed in the bright blue light of the moon. Most importantly, I could see all the way down the road. It was clear.
The driving was easy. I stopped in Teslin to play a little trick on Fawn. I wanted to surprise her by coming home a day early, so I phoned to tell her that I was safe and sound at the Liard River Lodge. I got the feeling that she suspected something was up, but it was worth a try. Fawn has known me long enough that she can spot a trickster a mile away.
After being on the road for a little more than fifteen hours, I pulled into the driveway. I was very enthusiastically greeted by my dog, then my wife (somewhat less enthusiastically, but still enthusiastically), then my cat (somewhat less enthusiastically still). I would have to wait until the next morning to see Jade again. It would be a surprise for her to find someone other than her mama in the bed when she was brought into the room for her morning nurse. She didn't notice me at first, but when she did, she enthusiastically claimed, "Bapa!"
It melted my heart.
It was good to be back.