July 22, 2007

How to get from Nahanni Butte, NWT to Dawson City, Yukon in just one day...

I was in Nahanni Butte this past week for some work that I'm doing with the community. I love getting back to Nahanni Butte and the Dehcho Region. Although it's been almost two years since we moved to Whitehorse, it still feels like home.

Normally, I like to drive there (which also involves a river taxi ride in the summer), but my schedule didn't allow me the time to drive for this trip. Instead, I flew with First Air to Fort Simpson and then split a charter flight to Nahanni Butte in Wolverine Air's Cessna 206. Both were uneventful flights, the cloud cover obscuring the normally great views.

When I left Whitehorse, it was pouring rain and it was cool. In Fort Simpson and Nahanni Butte, it was very, very hot and, surprisingly for the area, very humid. The mosquitoes were out in Nahanni Butte. They still weren't as bad as last year, but they were enjoying the new habitat made by rainy weather and were out in force.

A growing thunder cloud, reflected in the oddly calm South Nahanni River.

One evening, mist drifted down the river.

The air was hot and humid and the bugs were bad, but how often do you get to enjoy a view like this?

It was an interesting week, work-wise. At a discussion with the Chief and Council on Thursday morning, an incredibly violent storm passed over the community. The sky went death-black and the rain poured in thick white sheets, blown sideways by the sudden winds. The building thrummed from the winds and rains before the knocking of hail begain. From safe in the Band Office, we watched as the weather churned. It seemed as if the base of the storm cloud was only a few feet above the building. A child screamed in fright and the adults spoke with a mix of concern and awe. Almost as quickly as it had arrived, the storm was gone, leaving deep puddles in the ditches.

Later that day, I checked the Environment Canada website and it showed a weather warning - issued after the storm had passed - calling for up to 80mm (3 inches) of rain before Saturday afternoon. That evening, I called up Wolverine Air to ask their advice. My flight to Whitehorse leaves at noon. Should I attempt to get a flight out tonight or wait and see if the weather was good enough in the morning? Chris, the owner of Wolverine Air, has a reputation for playing it safe, which is a quality that I like in my small aircraft charter pilots. He told me that the cloud systems were too tricky for a flight that night and that it was likely best to wait until the morning and make alternate travel plan just in case. He told me that he would call at 7:00 am to check the flying conditions in Nahanni Butte.

True to his word, he called me in the morning and informed me that the cloud base was only 100 ft above Fort Simpson - too low to fly safely. I was just getting up when he called and looked out the window. There was a large black mass hugging the mountain outside my bedroom window, with complex, whispy clouds over the river, and very, very tall fluffly clouds to the North. I didn't even have to describe it to him - I knew that no pilot in their right mind would fly through that and I didn't want to be on the plane of a pilot who would.

Tthenaago (the Nahanni Butte) with some freaky storm clouds moving in.

I called Ernie, the manager of the Nahanni Butte General Store, and told him that I needed to be out of the community and in Fort Simpson as soon as possible. My plane was leaving at noon, with or without me. This meant arranging a river taxi and road taxi at the last minute. We would be calling it close. I was thoroughly impressed with Ernie and Earl, the river taxi operator, who had me on the river only minutes after 8:00.

Fortunately, the water level on the Liard River was high, allowing us to shortcut behind islands and over sand and gravel bars. I think it was the fastest river taxi ride out of Nahanni Butte I've ever been on.

A view of Tthenaago on the river taxi ride out of Nahanni Butte.

The clouds move in on the mountain.

The Nahanni Range, as seen from the Liard River between Swan Point and Blackstone Territorial Park.

At Blackstone Territorial Park, where everyone from Nahanni Butte parks their cars in the summer, we bee-lined for the General Store's van. We had managed to avoid the rain while we were on the river. Now our concern was the condition of the gravel Liard Highway. When there is a lot of rain, the conditions on the highway deteriorate quickly, creating soft spots that, in the spring time, have been known to capture 18-wheelers.

To our surprise and delight, the highway was in great condition. It rained, but the road was fine. We were making good time. We would make it. As long as we didn't have to wait too long for the ferry at the Liard River crossing into Fort Simpson, we would make it...

And we did make it. The ferry was just finishing a trip to the other side of the river and, since it's back onto a demand system, as opposed to the scheduled system they tried for a couple of years, they came right back across, allowing me to get to the airport in time. We even had enough time to drive the 15 km from the Airport into Fort Simpson to get some lunch.

The flight from Fort Simpson to Fort Liard was uneventful We hit clouds almost immediately after take-off and didn't see the ground again until we came in for our landing in Whitehorse.

My trip wasn't done, though. Fawn, Jade and I were planning on going to Dawson City for the Dawson City Music Festival and to visit with some old friends who used to live in Fort Liard.

I said hello to Fawn, Jade, Nanuq and Crook, took the shower I didn't get in the morning, ate a little more, repacked my bakgs and loaded everything that Fawn had already packed into the car. We were on the road by 3:00.

We stopped just outside of Carmacks for dinner. Jade finally fell asleep an hour past Pelly Crossing - an hour past her bed time, but woke up again when we picked up a hitchiker at the Dempster Highway turn off.

Jade places an order for her evening meal.

Tantalus Butte near Carmacks - from one Butte to another.

It doesn't take much to amuse Jade sometimes.

I liked Dawson the second I saw it - it's a pretty neat place - and it's certainly a busy one this weekend because of the music festival. We're lucky that we have a place to stay and aren't sleeping in the car or on the grass in a park (though I wouldn't mind that so much if it weren't for Fawn and Jade) like so many others we've seen.

After pitching the tent, Fawn went to work putting Jade to bed. I had tea with Anne and Nathan's neighbours and strolled around the festival grounds a bit before crawling into the sleeping bag for the night. I fell asleep to the thumping of the bass from whichever act was on stage. I was beat. I'd travelled from Nahanni Butte to Dawson City in one day. The Klondike Stampeders would have been jealous.

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