October 22, 2007

What happens on the road, sometimes happens off the road.

A while back, Fawn and I discussed taking a trip to Fort Liard to visit some friends at their Bovie Lake bush camp. Because of other travel, we were unable to time our visit with them when they were at their camp. They spend most of their days there, but were going to be at their house in Fort Liard when we came. It's probably for the best. The weather was lousy.

The drive from Whitehorse to Fort Liard was great and went by quickly. We pulled into the Liard River Lodge, across from the Liard Hotsprings. After checking in and after eating a hot meal, we walked over to the hotsprings.

It was dark out and there was a heavy fog around the pools. Jade wiggled and giggled with excitement as I carried her through the darkness. She knew we were going swimming and she was obviously looking forward to it.

We quickly shed our clothes and hopped into the lower pool. The water was comfortable, though it was hard to see anything. Jade smiled and played the whole time we were there and, by the time we got out, we were all pruney.

The next morning, the staff at the lodge fawned all over Jade and spoiled her like crazy. They were from Newfoundland, there to run the lodge for the winter. With their kids and grandkids living in Fort Nelson, this was a way for them to be near. They made no secret of the fact that Jade was helping them deal with those "baby cravings" that grandparents get.

We spent a little more time in the hotsprings before piling into the car and striking out for Fort Liard. As is so often the case, there was a lot of wildlife on the highway; especially the stretch between Liard River and Tetsa River Provincial Park. Caribou, mule deer, stone sheep, and moose were out in droves - especially the caribou. It made for a lot of stop-and-go driving.

We were in Fort Liard in time for dinner. We ended up staying with our friends Ken and Dianne and their gigantic dog, Radar. Nanuq was with us and he and Radar hit it off.

Nanuq and I went for a walk the night we arrived. The sky was exceptionally clear. I have seen many beautiful night skies, but cannot recall one where the stars were so very bright and plentiful. The Milky Way arched across the sky in a band of speckled brightness.

There was no moon and we were staying on the outskirts of town. We walked toward the main part of Fort Liard, past the end of the airport. As clear as the sky was, and as bright as the stars were, there was no moon so the road was dark with an inky blackness. I was relying on the orientation of the stars, my sense of direction, and the feel of the road beneath my feet to tell me that I was going the right way. Nanuq heeled to my side, but I didn't notice him there.

I heard a scratching sound from beside me, on the shoulder of the road. I turned to look, but couldn't see anything. It was too dark. Suddenly, I heard the sound of stampeding hooves on pavement. The sound was coming towards me. It was very close. I froze. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a faint flash of white dash by me. It was Nanuq, lunging ahead, growling and barking. The hoof beats stopped and then turned away, retreating down the road.

My dog had just saved me from being trampled by a herd of bison.

The rest of the visit was a fun one. While we were there, I was finally able to get my last-year's Christmas gift - a pair of 5' Dene-style snowshoes made by Pierre Berrault. I can't wait to use them this winter!

It was so great being back there and catching up with old friends. In the end, the week just wasn't long enough. Before we knew it, Saturday rolled around and it was time to head back.

Between Steamboat and Liard River, the driving was all "Go" and "Slow". There were caribou and sheep everywhere, scattered all along the highway, around nearly every bend and over nearly every hill. The weather turned bad, here and there, but it was still a pleasant drive. Jade was a fantastic passenger the whole way. I doubt that I was as easy-going at her age on road trips half that distance.

The lodge at the hotsprings was fully booked so, after another fun dip in the springs, we pushed on to Watson Lake. We checked-in at the Bighorn and stepped out for some dinner. On our way there, we ran into Larry Bagnell, MP for the Yukon. That guy is everywhere! He mentioned that the Yukon Chamber of Commerce was having a banquet that night and that a lot of participants had had to leave for other meetings. He also suggested that I drop by, so I did! I'm glad I went. It was a good opportunity to meet others from the business community, see a little more of Watson Lake's incredible recreation facility (if you haven't seen it, you really should drop by), eat a great roast beef dinner, and win a night in the Jacuzzi Suite at the Yukon Inn. It's funny how things work out sometimes.

The next morning, we went for breakfast and then Jade, Nanuq and I went for a walk up the highway while Fawn loaded the bags into the car, gassed up, and bought food for our lunch. It was a cool, windy morning, but we were dressed for it and the walk was nice. With Jade on my shoulders and Nanuq running along in the ditch, we were halfway to Upper Liard by the time Fawn arrived with the car.

I climbed in and, after giving Jade a snack, started reading a book while Fawn drove.

Shortly after, the car started swerving and I looked up. It had drifted too close to the edge on a curve in the highway and started to skid. Fawn was working to recover the vehicle and almost made it, but it wasn't enough. The car went off the road and down into the ditch towards the trees.

Fawn thinks the ditch wasn't steep, but it was steep enough and deep enough. In a vehicle with a higher centre of gravity, we would have rolled. We didn't because Fawn entered the ditch at the correct angle.

For some reason, I felt a profound sense of calm. I didn't have control of the vehicle, but I knew - I just knew right down to my very core - that everything was going to be fine. I said so. We were hurtling towards the trees.

Fawn corrected the car so we were hurtling along the ditch instead. The snow and brush in the ditch did little to help slow the vehicle.

I saw the backside of a 4'x8' road sign - the kind that tell you how far it is to your next destination - as we flew headlong towards the 8"x8" posts. I said, "It'll be fine." I didn't say it for me. I said it for Fawn. I already, somehow, knew it would be.

We hit the posts and the large sign flew over our car. The vehicle was steady and smooth. I could scarcely tell that we had hit anything.

We were still moving. Fawn turned the car out of the ditch and back onto the road. Again, it was smooth. The car was handling like a dream. It was then that I said, "Brake."

To which Fawn replied, "Oh, yeah."

Fawn pulled over and stopped. She looked back at Jade and I got out to inspect the car. Jade was fine and was still eating her snack as though nothing had happened. We had a flat tire and another was hissing. The windshield, headlights, fog lights, sunroof and bumper were all cracked. There was a bit of plastic panelling missing from the driver's side door and the left front panel was was dented. There was a small dent on the hood and another on the roof - likely from when the sign flew over the car.

Fawn got out and we hugged.

I rushed to change the tire before the other went flat. A couple of passing motorists helped me to get the tire off, which seemed to be fused in place. When this was done, I climbed back into the car and started it.

The car had a message for me. "Coolant empty. Turn off engine." I did.

I didn't need to pop the hood to see that the coolant had leaked out. It was there in a puddle underneath the car. I felt awful that I didn't have some kind of mini spill kit. I asked a couple of northbound vehicles if they had phones, but none of them did. There were no southbound vehicles.

I asked Fawn if she had any water. She did. She always does. Pouring the water into the coolant reservoir, we were able to make it back into Watson Lake. The first shop we stopped at was closed and the second wasn't interested in helping us patch our coolant leak that day.

Pondering our options, I went out to see how quickly our leaky tire was leaking. It wasn't and when I checked it, the pressure was fine. I went in and bought a large jug of coolant. Fawn went into the Super A and bought a large jug of water. It was going to be a long, slow drive home, but I had calculated the risks and it was our best bet.

The return trip started off fairly well. Jade fell asleep and Nanuq was curled up beneath Fawn's feet. Fawn was still upset with what had happened, but I really think she had managed it quite well.

About halfway to Teslin, I noticed that the steering was acting a little funny. The front tires were out of alignment and I think it was doing funny things with the all-wheel drive. It would act-up particularly on icy patches and where the road was deeply grooved. The driving became difficult, especially when the snow started to fall.

We stopped once at the continental divide and once at Johnson's Crossing to refill the coolant. The reservoir had never quite emptied. It seemed to be fine as long as the engine was running. It was when the engine was stopped that it leaked.

The rest at Johnson's Crossing had helped, as had the cinnamon bun we got there, but the drive after Johnson's Crossing was the hardest. The snow was falling hard and, because of it, the steering was becoming more difficult. I was physically tired now from staying on the alert and making sure we stayed on the road. I was driving very slowly to make sure that we got home safely.

And finally we did.

And if anyone asks me, I would still say that it was a great trip.


Anonymous said...

*hug* That's for being so cool!

ExploreNorth said...

Wow - thank heaven you're all okay. Are you part cat, Michael? It sounds like your nine lives are almost used up - too many adventures!

What a shame you lost your Volvo - that's what Cathy wants.

Meandering Michael said...

Cathy's got good taste!

I'm not sure how many lives I've got or how many I've used up - let's hope there are at least a few more in the ol' life bank.