August 13, 2008

The Petitot Gathering

I've been looking forward to the Petitot Gathering for since I moved from Fort Liard to Whitehorse three years ago. With the exception of the past two years, the Gathering has been held every year since 1996.

The Gathering is an opportunity for people from around Northern BC, south-western NWT and south-eastern Yukon to get together with industry and government in a non-political setting. t's a non-political event; more of a "getting to know you" affair, where local people can learn about industry and government and industry and government can learn about the local First Nations culture. For me, it's an excuse to camp along the banks of the Petitot River and to visit with old friends.

Fawn was reluctant to go because of the long drive and the stress of packing. Jade's seizures were also at the top of our minds, especially since the Petitot Gathering is held at the Petitot River Bridge: a thirty minute drive from Fort Liard, which only has a nursing station, and an hour-and-a-half drive from Fort Nelson, which has the closest hospital. Distance to medical assistance aside, we considered that Jade responds well to her emergency medication and the likelihood that we would have to use it was low. Still, we left the final decision to go until a day or two before because we wanted to see how she would respond to her new medications, seizure-wise.

We packed on Tuesday morning and were gone by 13:00. We stopped at the Rancheria Falls for a little stretch and then at Watson Lake for an MSG-laden dinner.

On the trail to Rancheria Falls.

Rancheria Falls.

After our meal, we drove to the Liard Hotsprings, where we had reserved a campsite. By the time we got there and got the tent set up, it was Jade's bed time.

While Fawn stayed with Jade, I took Nanuq for a walk. I've long wanted to investigate the "Designated Vehicle Route" that runs north along the Liard River toward the "Grand Canyon of the Liard". After snacking on a few wild raspberries, we walked down the road.

The birch and poplar and willow trees in the valley are thick and tall, casting a large, dark canopy over the road. The sun was behind the mountain and it wasn't long before it started to get dark.

If explorers were to have mottoes, they would be "Just one more bend..." and "Just over the next rise...". Interestingly enough, the explorers' curse would read the same way. Sometimes it's hard to have the good sense to turn back when the route you're taking is so intriguing. I could feel myself getting lulled into that trap. I did just one more bend and then I did just one more rise. I was just about to turn back, knowing that it was time, but I was also seriously tempted to walk to the next bend.

Shortly after I made the decision to turn back, I heard a loud rustling in the brush from the bend I had decided turn away from. It could have been a bear or it could have been a bison. It could have been nothing more than a very, very, very large squirrel. I turned around and walked briskly back to the campground and arrived just as the last of the evening's glow faded.

The next morning, we ate at the Liard Hotsprings Lodge and then spent a very pleasant couple of hours in the hotsprings, nearly all of it in the "cool" pool. Although there were many more people than there are in the winter, I didn't mind it this time. I think the summer morning crowd is a little quieter and friendlier (as in, less drunk) than the summer evening crowd.

Source of the Liard Hotsprings Beta Pool.

Soaking in the Liard Hotsprings.

A deceased road-side lodge at Liard River

We had lunch at Toad River, where we were treated to a cow and calf moose walking along the highway, right through town, and to a bull moose, who was feeding in the large pond behind the lodge.

Nanuq waits patiently outside the Toad River Lodge.

A bull moose behind the Toad River Lodge.

Bull moose.

Although she didn't get much sleep (she woke from her nap when we stopped at a construction zone), Jade was great for the whole trip. I remember thinking that the three-hour drive from Regina to Saskatoon used to take forever, but maybe that was because I had to sit next to my sister the whole way and she liked to pick fights whereas I just wanted to read. Regardless, more than 1,000 kms in two days is pretty good for a two-and-a-half-year-old.

And she hardly had a seizure the entire time.

Stretching our legs at the junction of the Liard and Alaska Highways.

When I opened the car door at the junction of the Alaska and Liard Highways, we were hit by a wave of heat. It was the hottest day we'd experienced all summer. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. We were near Fort Liard: "The Tropics of the Territories."

We pulled into the Petitot Gathering site around 18:00. We set up camp and then went for dinner. One of the neat things about the Gathering is that all of the food is provided. All you need to do is bring your dishes, cutlery, and a place to sleep. Of course, donations and volunteers are always welcome, but everyone is always somehow taken care of.

It felt really, really good to be back at the Petitot River. Beautiful yet familiar, it was like coming home.

After we ate our meal, Jade had a seizure where she pitched forward and banged her jaw on a large metal pole. She cried until we walked down to the river where some drummers were doing a prayer song to pay their respects to the river. She stopped crying at the sound of the drumming, listening intently. The large red welt that formed on the bottom of her chin never seemed to bother her after that.

Jade dances around the pole, hardly bothered by the large red welt on her chin.

After setting up camp, I decided I needed to wash up. I smelled sulphury from the hotsprings and sweaty from the heat of the day (it was over 30oC, which Whitehorse hasn't experienced all summer). I went to wash up in the tannin-dyed river. The Petitot River is also known as the Mehchola (if you're from Fort Liard), Mehcholia (if you're from Fort Nelson), and the "Black River". The early fur traders called it "La Rivière Noire". A relatively shallow river, it flows out of Bistcho Lake in Alberta through hundreds of miles of muskeg. Along the way, it gathers plant tannins that give the water a rich, dark brownish black colouring, not unlike black tea. The water was cooling, but comfortably warm. The Petitot is, reportedly, the warmest river in British Columbia.

Later in our stay, on a hot afternoon after Jade's nap, we all waded out to a sandbar in the middle of the river. The water felt good. We felt good. As we lounged on the sandbar and Jade played in the sun and sand, I thought, "This is everything that a vacation was meant to be."

Wading across the Petitot to a sandbar.

Throughout the Gathering, there were lots of workshops and lots of drum dancing, live music, and games. There was a moose camp where you could help yourself to moose, rabbit or fish. The food was good, but mostly I enjoyed visiting with old friends, catching up on each others lives, and marveling at how much the kids had grown. We played handgames (stick gambling) one night and our team won every game. One of the drummers from down the Alaska Highway called me "flukey", implying that all the times I didn't get guessed were just a fluke, but he knows it was all skill.

Jade investigates the band.

Jade was very sociable and, although she didn't talk much, asked to be held by almost everyone she saw. Everyone seemed quite pleased to be chosen for a Jade-hug.

Bee dances with Jade.

Generally, our nights were good. Our camp was along the bank of the river, somewhat away from the main site. Jade likes sleeping in the tent. Fortunately, the late-night and early-morning light didn't seem to interrupt her sleep much.

Good morning!

One night, however, was not a pleasant one. As I walked down the dark trail to check on things at our tent, I saw an old coworker carrying a teenaged girl up the trail. He was exhaused, but I could see in his eyes that he couldn't stop. The girl looked like she was either dead or near-death. Pale and cold and covered in dirt, she looked like what you might imagine a body might look like if it were freshly stashed in the woods.

He carried the girl to a tent while we waited for the first aid crew and their ambulance, who had a couple of vehicles on-site. The girl had either alcohol poisoning or was on a dangerous combination of substances.

As a rule, where there's one drunk kid, there are others. We quickly organized a search party and managed the crowd (and the upset parent and guardians) while the first aid crew got the kid ready for evacuation to Fort Nelson.

The girl's father and I lifted her on the spinal board, into the ambulance. Then, word came back up the trail that a second girl had been found. I ran down the trail to assist.

She was conscious, but having a lot of difficulty. When someone shone a light on her face, I recognized her and it hit me hard.

When I lived in Fort Liard, she used to drop by our house all the time to read our books or play our piano or to stay for dinner. A super-bright, happy, and genuinely good kid, I always felt she had a great future ahead of her. Now, eleven years old, she sat on the trail more than just drunk. She was on something else.

We tried to get some information out of her. Were there other kids? What had she taken? We got some slightly-coherent information and then she passed out. We needed to get her to Fort Nelson, too.

The head of site security, a large, strong man, carried her as far as he could. When he couldn't continue, he passed her to me - this girl who I kept seeing as an eight-year-old and who I couldn't imagine being in a situation like this.

We got her into the ambulance and then searched for more kids, but found none. I questioned a group of kids who were hovering around the site. They were fairly forthcoming with information but they knew much more than they were letting on. There were some suggestions that the girls had been somehow forced to consume a combination of alcohol and ecstasy.

I just couldn't imagine this girl doing something like that willingly. She's a good kid. But I also know that three years is a long time in the life of a kid. A lot can change in just three years. A person can change a lot in just three years.

I didn't sleep well that night. I kept listening for kids, lost and helpless, lying in the trees, cold and alone.

That night, Jade started having seizures every six minutes from 3:30 until 5:30.

It was a long night.

Sleep. Precious sleep.

Halfway through the next day, after spending a bit of time volunteering with the security crew, things were back to normal. Better, even. The big drum dance was that night. There were no more problems with drinking or anything else, and people were happy. I saw people get up and dance who I had never seen dance before. Everywhere, people were smiling.

As with all great things, the Petitot Gathering came to an end. It was with some reluctance that we got ready for the drive home.

We stayed at the Liard Hotsprings that night. I went to bed early with Jade while Fawn walked Nanuq. I wish I could say that I slept well, but there was an annoying, yappy dog in one of the nearby campsites who wouldn't shut-up. I staggered out of bed to go find out where he was. His owners weren't in the campsite and the dog was tangled in the trees. I went to go untangle him, but he was aggressive and wouldn't let me anywhere near. Fawn left a note on the windshield of their truck, but it still hadn't been read when we went by the next morning.

Jade and I pitch the tent at the Liard Hotsprings Provincial Park.

Jade concentrates on her rock collection.

The drive home was relatively uneventful. We stopped for a stretch at Whirlpool Canyon, saw a large, happy, black bear hovering over two dead bison that had been hit by a truck from Watson Lake the night before, grabbed lunch at Watson Lake, and had dinner at Mukluk Annie's in Teslin. The trip is a lot longer when traveling with a dog and a kid, but I'm still glad we went.

Hopefully there'll be another Gathering next year.

Stretching our legs at Whirlpool Canyon.


Anonymous said...

Hey! I took some darned good pictures. ;) But that one you took of me and Jade in the hotsprings... she actually looks like *me*!

This is a great summary of our trip. I think I'll have to just link to it, rather than trying to top it. :)

Nemmy said...

Sounds like a great time! :)

Anonymous said...

I love the photos! Especially the one of Jade "concentrating", she concentrates like I do - with my tongue out.