July 01, 2008

The long way home.

My apologies for the lack of postings; I've been on the road for the last two weeks. The trip was, in part, one that I was supposed to make several weeks ago when Jade started having seizures. The other part of this trip was to attend the annual Dehcho Assembly in Kakisa, NWT, at the request of one of my clients. 

If you're not familiar with the highway system in the Yukon, Northern BC and Alberta, and the NWT, this post will be easier to read if you have a road map handy so you can follow along.  Or you can reference the places I'm talking about here.

Whitehorse to Fort Liard
I started on my journey later than I had wanted. My plan was to reach Fort Liard, NWT by the end of the day. With just over 1,100 km of driving on the Alaska and Liard Highways, it's a drive that I'm getting to know quite well. The drive always seems shorter when I take frequent stops to investigate new places. Because of my late departure, I wouldn't get to make as many stops as I would have liked, but I would get a few chances to stretch at least.

The highway was fairly busy (by Alaska Highway standards) but, since I was driving the speed limit and so was everyone else, I rarely had to pass another vehicle (some RV drivers must think the speed limit is 80km/h or even 60 km/h, and that's on the straight stretches).

My first stop was for a late lunch at the Wolf it Down Restaurant at Nugget City, just outside of Watson Lake. I'd eaten there once before and remembered good things about it. This time, I was disappointed. I figured, for $12, the little caesar chicken wrap they served had better come with fries or something on the side. I left unsatiated and dissatisfied and continued on to Watson Lake to top up the gas tank.

I decided it was about time to visit Lucky Lake and bike the trail down to the Liard River. "Lucky Lake" got its name when the Alaska Highway was being built. According to the interpretive signage, an "enterprising young woman" established a "business" on the shore of the lake where the lonely soldiers who were building the Alaska Highway got a chance to "try their luck". I'm guessing the odds of winning were pretty good.

I, one the other hand, seemed to have terrible luck - as far as my camera was concerned, anyway. I wanted to take pictures of the Liard but, when I got there, realised that my camera still didn't have batteries in it. Not a problem, though. I had brought spares. I opened my bag and started looking for the spare batteries, but could only find three out of four. Dismayed that I couldn't take any pictures, I rode back to the car. The fourth battery was sitting on the ground beside the car. Grumpy that I wasn't able to take any pictures but glad that the entire trip wouldn't be picture-less, I continued on my way.

These are the first two pictures I took:

Muncho Lake on a late summer evening.

An alluvial fan near the head of Muncho Lake.

As I drove, I passed bears and bison and places that made me want to get out and explore, but I resisted the urge and didn't stop again until Toad River. For about the same price as my skimpy chicken caesar wrap, I ordered a roast beef sandwich with a side of peas and carrots and onion rings. The gravy was exceptionally salty but at least it filled me up for the final leg of my day's drive.

Evening flight over the Liard Highway

Midnight sky, a few days before the summer solstice.

Deciding that it would be too late to drop in on friends in Fort Liard, I decided to sleep in the car at the Petitot River bridge on the Liard Highway. Ah! The benefits of owning a station wagon! I walked down to the river, brushed my teeth, and then crawled into the back of the car with a kazillion mosquitoes. The mosquitoes didn't seem to be interested in biting me as much as they were interested in flying up my nose or buzzing in my ear. I pulled my sheet over my head, stretched out, and fell fast asleep.

Petitot River bridge in the morning.

The next morning was sunny and the sky was clear. I washed up in the river. Stopping at the Petitot reminded me of all the times I've paddled down this great little river from the bridge to Fort Liard. Thinking about it made me want to do it again. The river starts out of Bistcho Lake in Alberta where it winds its way into BC, then into and out of and into the NWT. Also known locally as the "Black River", because the tannins in the water give it its dark colour, it is said to be the warmest river in BC. What a great trip it would be to paddle the river from its source...

Ah. So much to do. So little time.

It was still early when I pulled into Fort Liard. My first stop was the fuel centre where I was immediately informed of the election results for Chief and Council (which had happened the night before). After saying a few "hellos" and "how've you beens" , I decided to drop in on a friend. Unbeknownst to me, it was her son's graduation day. I had once coached her son in soccer. They invited me to attend. After a few work-related phone calls, I decided to stay for the proud occasion.
Cottonwood snow.

I biked around and visited with old friends. The day was hot and the the willows were unleashing the fluffy seed packets. The sky was filled with cottonwood snow. Thunderheads grew and I began to worry if I would be able to drive the next leg of my trip to Blackstone Territorial Bark (and then by boat to Nahanni Butte).

The Liard Highway between Fort Liard and Blackstone Territorial Park has been closed for much of the season. Melting permafrost and rains have turned the otherwise fine road into oatmeal mush. This season, many vehicles have sunk right up to their axels. I already knew that I would be driving the road "at my own risk", but I also knew the heavy equipment operators that were attempting to repair the road, and was certain they would pull me out if I got stuck.

The graduation ceremony was great. With six graduates, it was one of the largest graduating classes in a while.

Graduation night.

Fort Liard to Nahanni Butte
After some humming and hawing and a little more visiting and catching up with old friends, I decided to make the drive to Blackstone Territorial Park that night instead of risking rains the next day. It was approaching midnight when I left. It wasn't long before I came across a couple on the highway. Their four-wheeler had become mired in some muskeg and they spent most of the day walking out. They were exhausted, so I drove them back down the highway to their bush camp before turning northward again.

The highway was better than I had expected (a tribute to the long hours put into it by the maintenance crew) but it was still much, much, much worse than I had ever seen it. Long, deep ruts and super-soft-spots made me glad I wasn't driving a 2-wheel drive vehicle or a smaller car. I pulled into Blackstone River Park after 1:00 am and crawled into the back of the car where I was lulled to sleep by the discordant hum of the mosquitoes.

I woke early the next morning and drove the last few kilometres to Blackstone Territorial Park to make some breakfast, have a shower, and wait for my boat ride.

Down by the river, I made a fire in a fire pit and started cooking my breakfast. A couple of Quebecers drove into the park. When they got out of their vehicle, they started doing the mosquito dance. After a while, they asked me why the mosquitoes weren't bothering me, so I invited them over to the fire so they could take a smoke bath - one of the most effective mosquito repellants, in my opinion.

The view of Nahanni Butte from Blackstone Territorial Park.

I had barely eaten, cleaned my dishes and had a shower when my boat ride arrived early. We loaded my gear into the Lund and started upriver. The water level was high and there was some debris in the river, but I've seen it much worse.

Local footwear and, in my opinion, the most comfortable and sensible shoes ever: beaded moosehide slippers with beaver fur trim, covered by moccasin rubbers.

The sun was shining and the air over the river was fresh. I lay back on the bench seat and, before I knew it, fell asleep. I woke forty-five minutes later as we entered the South Nahanni River, just before we arrived at Nahanni Butte.

Nahanni Butte is the last community in the NWT to get a gymnasium. The construction crew was in the community and the hotel was fully booked so, even though I was invited to stay with some friends, I decided to camp out in my tent. A wolf was seen lurking around the community, but I didn't have to worry about it - I pitched my tent in a friend's back yard.

The rest of my day did not go according to plan. For various reasons, a couple of the people that I needed to meet with were out of town, but I still had lots to do and the evening was a productive one.

Nahanni Butte archers, practicing for NAIG.

Nahanni Butte to Kakisa
The next day, I learned that two of the local youth were supposed to go to a youth and elder's gathering in Kakisa for the weekend, but that they didn't have a ride. Arrangements were made for them to fly to Fort Simpson to get a ride, but there wasn't enough room for their bags in the Cessna 172 (the only plane that was available at the time). Since I still wasn't able to meet with the people who I needed to meet with, I offered to go to Kakisa a few days early and take their bags with me.

I packed my tent and caught a boat ride out later that afternoon.

Back at Blackstone Territorial Park, I made a late lunch and visited with Pauline and Burton, who are managing the park for the summer. We watched some videos about the Nahanni and Albert Faille and talked about some of the local history.

I hadn't realised how late it was when I got back on the road. The highway was fine from Blackstone to Checkpoint. Normally, I would have bought gas a Checkpoint for the next leg of my journey, but the owners decided to close for business last year. I hoped that I had enough gas to get to Kakisa and that Kakisa had a gas station, which would save me a trip to Fort Providence (not that there's anything wrong with Fort Providence, it's just a little out of the way).

Heading east on the Mackenzie, it started to rain and the washboard on the gravel highway began to fill with water. I listened to some podcasts and calculated my mileage as I drove. I didn't want to get to Kakisa too late because I had the kids' sleeping bags, so I only made a quick stop just before Sambaa K'e Territorial Park to hike along the Trout River canyon.

The Trout River canyon.

It had stopped raining, but the trees and shrubs were soaked and, since the trail is overgrown, it wasn't long before I was soaked too. Still it was worth the hike. The trip left me wondering, where did these red rocks (below) come from and how did they get so red?
Red Rocks. Where did they come from?

And how did they get so red?!

The canyon is such a pretty place and I wanted to spend some time at the falls at the territorial park, but I needed to push on. I figured that I could spend some time there on my way back. I figured wrong (that's a little bit of foreshadowing for you).

A small but tall waterfall in the Trout River canyon.

I was soaked, but I felt better for stretching my legs and the rest of the drive to Kakisa was an easy one.
Dirty wheels.

Kakisa - Nahecho and Youth Assembly
I was late when I arrived and the recent rains had brought the mosquitoes out in force. As I set up my tent, I put my mosquito jacket on for the first and only time during the entire trip. Pulling out my Liard Firebox, I made a fire and whipped up a hot meal. After a bit of visiting, I crawled into my sleeping bag.

I slept deeply and peacefully. I always sleep better in a tent or out in the open. I don't know why that is. I think it's the fresh air.

The Nahecho and Youth Assembly began the next day. The event was an opportunity for Dene youth to get together with elders from other communities and to learn from them. They practiced some traditional skills and discussed the importance of the land - and how things have changed. The movement into communities is a recent development, by historical standards, and many of the elders were raised out on the land.

It was an interesting and educational experience and I learned a lot. Even though I was the only non-Dene there, I was always welcomed warmly. That's the Dene way.

Drying fish in Kakisa.

Dene elders, speaking with a youth.

The view of Kakisa Lake from the community.

Roy Fabian of Katlodeeche (Hay River) teaches a lesson about the drum.

Tommy Kotchea of Sambaa K'e (Trout Lake) listens as Roy speaks.

After a couple of days, I decided I should wash up. Early one morning, I hopped only my bike and rode the 5km to the territorial park at Lady Evelyn Falls. I was there too early for the showers to open, so I went down to the falls instead.

The falls tumble over an ancient coral reef, the edge of which is another 15km downriver.

Lady Evelyn Falls.

One of the most amazing things about the falls, to me, was how water forced itself through the limestone and tumbled out of what seemed like solid rock.

Water, forced through the limestone.

Lady Evelyn Falls.

Close-up on the falls.

Upriver from the falls, there are a series of ledges, making for a long portage if you ever want to paddle from Kakisa Lake to the Dehcho (Mackenzie River).

A ledge, upstream of the large falls.

After a little bit of walking, I found a clear creek where I washed up. If I had followed the creek downstream a little bit first, I probably would have taken a shower instead.

A small waterfall, just downstream of Lady Evelyn Falls.

Kakisa - Dehcho Assembly
I went to Kakisa for the Dehcho Assembly. The Assembly is an annual event where the member communities of the Dehcho First Nations get together to discuss the big issues. Basically, it's a national parliament for the First Nations in the region. Instead of happening in parliament buildings, though, it happens in an arbour, around a fire. Communities are represented by their chief, an elder, and two other delegates, one of which may be a youth - although others may speak if they are given permission from their chief.

The Assembly had some huge decisions to make, and they weren't easy ones. While I'm not prone to discussing political issues on this blog, I will touch on this more in another entry.

Before the Assembly started, some youth and I gathered at our camp and we started making tea and bannock-on-a-stick. Before we knew it, others started trickling into our camp. We were eventually joined by the Grand Chief, other former chiefs and northern celebrities, the former Premier of the NWT and the current Premier of the NWT, who joined us for fresh tea and even fresher bannock. That's just how it goes in the north.

The week-long Assembly was officially opened later that night with a prayer, prayer song, speeches from the Grand Chief, the Chief of Ka'agee Tu First Nation (Kakisa), the Commissioner of the NWT and the Premier of the NWT.

Ceremonial fire, surrounded by spruce boughs.

Grand Chief Gerry Antoine welcomes everyone to the Assembly. Ka'agee Tu First Nation Chief Lloyd Chicot listens.

Elders Sam Ellize and Joe Punch

NWT Premier Floyd Roland

The Assembly was fascinating and many of the topics were of national significance. As much as I enjoyed it, and as much as I learned, it was tough to be there - especially when I heard about Jade's latest ambulance ride. Thank heavens I have a strong wife.

Kakisa to Whitehorse
At the Assembly, one of the topics of casual conversation was the Liard Highway. Would it be open? What would the conditions be like. Would I be able to take the short way back to Whitehorse (the way I had come), or would I need to take the long way around? The long way back is 2,200 km; 631 km longer than the short way back, taking me into Alberta - a province that I wouldn't normally need to go through.

The "moccasin telegraph" is an efficient system. While it's not always reliable, it's a good tool when backed-up by several similar reports. The final day of meetings came and the moccasin telegraph was telling me that several days of rain had rendered the Liard highway unpassable. According to one report, one maintenance guy's truck sank so deep that he couldn't even get his door open.

In the end, I decided to take the long but guaranteed way back to Whitehorse. This involved driving the rest of the "Dehcho Travel Connection", down the Mackenzie Highway past Hay River and into Alberta, then across the Alberta/BC border to Fort St. John, where I could reconnect with Alaska Highway. While I'd worked with the group that promoted the loop for years, I'd never done the entire loop myself.

I was able to get gas in Kakisa, so I had avoided the trip to Fort Providence. Again though, it was late when I left. My plan was to make it to the 60th Parallel, where I would spend the night in the car.

They call the Mackenzie Highway the "Waterfalls Route" for a reason. I'd been to the Sambaa Deh Falls and the Lady Evelyn Falls, but I'd never been to Alexandra falls or the Louise falls. Not entirely sure where to find them, I turned off the road to the "Cataract Creek" campground. I didn't realise it at the time, but the campground was a group site that could be booked for special events. Unintentionally, I drove right into a birthday party. Fortunately, as often happens in the north, I knew a couple of the participants. We hadn't seen each other in a while, so it was nice to see them again. After quickly catching up, I was back on the road to the falls.

It was getting "dark" (approaching 23:30), so the pictures don't do the falls justice, but the falls were great. Because of the late hour, I had them all to myself.

Not such a good place to be caught in a canoe. Louise Falls.

Bigger than they look in the picture.

Alexandra Falls. A whole lot of thundering water.

At the 60th Parallel, I had a light sleep in the back of the car. Several other drivers had the same idea as me. Early in the morning, a loud vehicle pulled in and woke me up. I rolled out of my sleeping bag to be greeted by Canada's answer to the northern sovereignty issue.

Part of Canada's northern sovereignty program?

Border crossing on the Mackenzie Highway (full of graffiti and looking a little run-down)

It was pretty obvious when I entered Alberta. Gas fields and agriculture marked the border better than any border sign could have. The roads got straighter and I started to get used to waiting in construction.

Waiting for construction on the Mackenzie Highway in Alberta.

Leaving the boreal forest and entering the Land O' Agriculture

Flatter than Saskatchewan (which isn't really flat).

The under-achieving roadside attraction in Manning.

I stopped for breakfast in High Level and for gas in Manning. I didn't have a map with me, but knew there was a short-cut to Fort St. John. I pulled into Grimshaw, Mile Zero on the Mackenzie Highway, and stepped into the Visitor Information Centre. The information guy was friendly and gave me a shorter cut than the short-cut I knew about. Then he gave me a Grimshaw pin to add to my pin collection.

The Mackenzie Highway monument at good ol' Grimshaw

A brief history of the Mackenzie Highway

The loop I drove, A.K.A. the Dehcho Travel Connection

One grizzly bear sighting, and a little more construction later, I pulled into Fort St. John for lunch. I still had enough gas to get to Fort Nelson and was there in what seemed like no time. I had driven 867 km and planned on doing 684 km more before I stopped for the night.

River valley near Fort St. John

After refueling the car and myself in Fort Nelson, I struck out for the Liard Hotsprings - my destination for the night if I felt alert enough to make it that far. I felt like I was coming down with a cold and my neck was stiff, so I was looking forward to the warm soothing waters, if not the mob of people that occupy the springs in the summer.

Near the edge of Fort Nelson, I saw a hitchhiker who was obviously a hitchhiker and not a crazy axe murder. I pulled over and picked him up. His name is Kenny. I'll write more about him in another post.

The drive went by quickly with Kenny there for conversation. Together, we admired the scenery and the wildlife and stopped for the biggest flock of stone sheep I'd ever seen. The pictures below only capture a few of the sheep.

How many sheep can you see?

Lil' lambs.

I want to go for a hike that-a-way.

I dropped Kenny off at the Liard Hotsprings Lodge, where he resumed his hitchhiking. I drove back to the roadside pullout to claim a spot (the campground was full and the pull-out was getting that way, too). One of the people at the pullout warned me that a grizzly bear had been seen hanging around. It may have been true or it may have been an attempt to make the pull-out a little more private. Regardless, I grabbed my bathing gear and walked to the hotsprings.

Oh, it felt so good! At the springs, I met a couple of people from Whitehorse who I'd never met before and ran into an old acquaintance from Fort Nelson. I soaked until late into the night and, when I returned to the car, slept deeply.

I woke at 9:00 am to the sound of the wind rustling the poplar leaves. Most of the vehicles had left the pull-out. I got some breakfast in the lodge and then hit the highway.

Hay! That's a pretty wide load! This truck was parked at the Liard Hotsprings Lodge.

Apparently, word had erroneously gotten out that the speed limit on the Alaska Highway was only 60km/h (as opposed to 60 mph) because that's what a lot of the RV drivers were doing. Perhaps they were Americans who were driving rented RVs out of Alberta (where most of the slow drivers were from) and they were getting confused by the conversion between kilometres and miles (60mph = 100 km/h). It sort of happened to me once, so I figured it wasn't something I should get all worked up about. I just zoomed past them at what must have seemed like remarkable speeds.

I can just picture an old couple in their vehicle exclaiming, "Why, Wilbur, he must be doing double the speed limit!" I wasn't doing double the speed limit, but I was certainly doing double their speed as I passed them.

I skipped lunch and, after getting gas in Watson Lake, pushed on to Whitehorse. When I got home, I was immediately greeted by Tim and Nanuq, followed shortly by Fawn and Jade, the latter of which squealed with delight when she figured out who was hiding behind the tan and week's-worth of stubble. It was great to be reunited with them.

I was probably meant to be a nomad or an explorer because I love to travel. Fortunately, it's one of the perks of my work. It's not as easy as it used to be, though. It's very hard to leave Fawn and Jade for such a long time - especially now that Jade is having seizures and Fawn is halfway through the pregnancy.

I love to travel. If I don't, I get a little weird. I don't just have itchy feet, I have itchy everything (not in a medical affliction sort of way). It's already so hard to leave Fawn and Jade,  I sometimes feel like I'm torn between my love for my family and an overwhelming urge to be mobile. I don't know if things will get better after the Nugget is born or if they'll get worse. And I don't know how I'll reconcile those things when that happens.

But that's a different journey for a different day.


Unknown said...


(I'm lamentables elsewhere on the interwebs.)

I guess I should have commented here before to say how much I enjoy reading your blog and how especially fascinating I found the account of your trip.

I'm brave and self-sufficient in some other ways, but I don't think I'd ever be confident about this kind of adventure. I shall continue to enjoy it as a vicarious pleasure!

Meandering Michael said...

Thanks for commenting! I shall try to post more adventures to be enjoyed vicariously in the near future.

Anonymous said...

Good afternoon Michael. It's been wonderful reading of your meanderings, the graciousness and hospitality of the North. It's reminded me while living in "oil-town, Alberta" with my wife and newborn of what a small world it actually is even in this gargantuan country we live in. Neighbors knowing neighbors isn't a myth... it's maybe just a beautiful trait attributed to the north now.
Thank you for lightening our hearts this cold spring day.