February 22, 2011

The Bridges of the Liard Highway

When I drove from Fort Simpson, NWT, back to Whitehorse, Yukon, I decided that I would take a picture of every bridge on the Liard Highway. What amazed me was how these simple river crossings could bring back so many memories of my time living in the area.

The Liard River Ice Bridge
While this ice bridge, just outside of Fort Simpson, is not technically on the Liard Highway (it's part of the Mackenzie Highway), how could I not stop to take some pictures?

The TV show, Ice Road Truckers, with their tension-inducing music and dramatic voice-overs makes it sound like imminent death awaits anyone who crosses an ice bridge. And I suppose it's true. Tragically, it happened at this particular ice bridge not long ago. Still, it doesn't take many crossings before the novelty of driving on frozen water wears off, especially when you're following a beast like this one.

If you stay alert and follow the posted speed limit, though, you should be fine. If crossing an ice bridge makes your palms sweaty and fills you with dread, you can always fly out - or wait until spring breakup and take the ferry.

Drydocked for the winter, when spring comes and the river is clear of ice, they'll grease up some massive logs with used cooking oil from the restaurants and will slide the ferry down into the river (unless they've since changed how they do things). Black bears can be seen for weeks afterward, licking the delicious, energy-rich grease off the logs.

The Poplar River
The first bridge one crosses when heading south on the Liard Highway is the Poplar River Bridge. There are two single-lane bridges on the highway and this is one of them. It must be hard for wide loads to get past this one.

A friend and I were traveling back to Fort Liard after a day of meetings in Fort Simpson. We were in the midst of a glorious summer, late in the brightness of evening, and decided to make a stop. I pulled out my fishing rod and cast a lure below the bridge. Something big and strong grabbed my hook. I started reeling the large fish in, but then my line went slack. My hook was gone.

I tried again and another fish stuck. The same thing happened. The lure was gone. It happened one more time. I had only one lure left, a monstrous red devil, four inches long. I cast and I cast with nary a nibble. The beast that had been nabbing my lures was gone. I decided to try the river above the bridge.

I walked up the bank, over the road, and down the other side. I cast the monstrous lure up into the current (into the hole where the ice has collapsed in the picture above) and saw the flash of a fish striking immediately as the lure landed in the water. I started reeling in the line, but it was too easy. I paused, but could feel a fish fighting, however feebly, on the other end. I reeled in faster.

I couldn't help but laugh as the fish came into sight. My 4-inch red devil lure had been taken by a 3-inch jackfish.

Birch River Bridge
When heading north, the Birch River Bridge was always a landmark that brought some relief. The highway is, at times, "rustic". In recent years, trucks have sunk up to their doors in the water-saturated earth that the highway is built out of. There's a reason why some people still refer to the highway as "The Liard Trail". Anyway, it was always with some relief when I passed over the Birch River Bridge because I knew that the rest of the drive would be relatively smooth. Most of the time, anyway.

The Unnamed Bridge

When one takes a drive down memory lane, one cannot help but notice the changes. Like this little bridge (which is really just a culvert). Change is inevitable.

I was shocked to see that, further along the highway, there were telecommunications poles with fibre-optic cable strung between them. Indeed, as I drove the highway, there were work crews at numerous sites pulling fibre through the frozen ground. This poles were a shock for me because I had always viewed the Liard Highway as a wilderness highway. The highway winds nearly 400kms with nothing to see but wilderness and road infrastructure. There are no houses or service stations on the highway and you'd need to have eagle eyes to spot the camps and small cabins tucked into the bush along the way. The poles represented a type of progress that chafed at first - and then I remembered my days in Fort Liard, struggling with a dial-up Internet connection after having gotten used to broadband. It would be a definite improvement for everyone who would get connected up the highway - just as the new culverts improved the quality and safety of the road. It's what people want, even if it means that a little of the romance of the north is lost.

The Blackstones
The Blackstone and Upper Blackstone rivers mark a sort of refuge for highway travelers. Halfway through the worst of it, the Upper Blackstone has a little pull-out with a couple of outhouses and a sometimes-functional well where one can pump water. Just a few kilometers away is the fantastic Blackstone Territorial Park Campground.

Before the access road to Nahanni Butte was improved, everyone who wasn't flying to Nahanni Butte in the summer would come through either Lindberg's Landing or Blackstone Territorial Park. Unable to drive to the Nahanni Butte, the parking lot at the campground was usually filled with the vehicles of Nahanni Butte residents. It was at Blackstone that I would meet the river taxi operator of the day and then spend an hour winding up the Liard and South Nahanni Rivers to Nahanni Butte, sometimes in the warmth of the summer sun, and sometimes in the frigid dark of autumn, just before the ice set in.

Whenever I reached the Blacktone bridges, I knew that my next boating adventure would soon begin.

Creek Bridge
Sometimes, the simplest names are the best ones.

It was somewhere around this area when, traveling back from a long trip to Yellowknife, Fawn and I were marveling at an incredible display of the northern lights. It was a freezing cold night with clear skies and no moon. The sky was lit up from horizon to horizon to horizon to horizon in a breathtaking shroud of dancing red light. Up ahead, I noticed the glow of distant headlights. The road was narrower than usual because of a heavy snowfall days before. I slowed so we could pass the other vehicle safely. The headlights disappeared and when they didn't appear again, I expressed my concern to Fawn. Had the vehicle gone off the road? We crept slowly forward, looking in the ditches and prepared just in case a truck thundered over a rise in the road.

Eventually, I just stopped stopped the car. It was too weird. Then, a lynx walked right out in front of our car, bathed in the brightness of our headlights. It looked at the car and its eyes shone bright - like distant headlights.

For fifteen minutes, we were treated to the sight of a lynx grooming itself in our headlights while a northern lights show unlike any either of us had seen before went on overhead.

Netla River Bridge
My memories of Netla aren't so much of the bridge, but downstream of the bridge, where the Netla meets the Liard. It's where many of the residents in Nahanni Butte lived before the move to Nahanni Butte. Some Nahanni Butte residents still keep cabins out at Netla and get out there whenever they can.

Once, while paddling down the Liard River, my companions and I stopped to enjoy a lunch on the mudbar at the mouth of the Netla. We watched a lone bison stampede into the trees. Idyllically, across the river, sat a cabin in the fullness of the summer sunshine and I remember thinking that a more perfect cabin simply does not exist.

I continued my drive along the highway and pondered the difficulty of distinguishing between "up the highway" and "down the highway". In a place where people still use the river for referencing direction, "downriver" leads to the North. To go down means to go north. To go "up" means to go upriver (and up in elevation). And yet, the kilometer markers along the highway work in the opposite direction.

The Liard Highway, following a generally parallel path to the Liard River, swung East and I knew I was about forty minutes away from Fort Liard.

Big Island Creek Bridge

It was at Big Island Creek Bridge that I thought of my friend, Dolphus. It was here that we stopped once during our many trips along his "trapline". He had shot a beaver and needed help retrieving it. His knees were giving him trouble, so I rode along as his game retriever. He gave me a long spruce pole with a hook fastened to the end and I pulled the beaver out of a tangle of willows to the shore. It was just one of many such trips where we would travel north and south along the highway, spending more time talking about life than hunting.

Dolphus has since passed on and I miss him.

Rabbit Creek

My friend, Eva, would often talk about how we should have interpretive signage at the rivers. She always used Rabbit Creek as an example. "It should tell the story of why it's called Rabbit Creek," she would say, and I would always agree. I have yet to ask her the story, though I've often wondered, because I have yet to see any rabbits or rabbit tracks anywhere near the Rabbit Creek culvert.

The Muskeg River Bridge

The Muskeg River probably deserves a post all on its own. I have such fond memories of this river, swimming in its warm, dark tannin-rich waters, basking on its sandy shores and playing with the clay on the opposite bank, hunting ancient marine corals, and more. It was here that Nanuq learned to swim. It was here that I honed my canoe tracking skills, and it was further upriver where Fawn and I spent a memorable couple of nights camping after tracking our canoe upriver only to be incessantly woken by some aggravating sort of waterfowl that sounded just like my alarm clock.

This river was historically used by the people who lived way off in the Trout Lake area as a route to the post at Fort Liard. I would, one day, love to track my canoe as far upriver as I can and cut overland to Trout Lake, re-establishing the historic overland/overwater route between the two communities.

Although it's no longer used as a travel corridor between the communities, it's still used by the local people. Some even live along the river, year-round. I stopped in to briefly visit another good friend, Dolphus (not the Dolphus I mentioned previously). It was an unfortunately brief visit, but I was glad to see him again. With a newly-acquired piece of dried moosemeat, I was on the road again.

The Fort Liard Junction

Driving down into the river valley where Fort Liard sits, one cannot help but notice Pointed Mountain. It was on the peak of that mountain, nearly nine years ago, that I proposed to Fawn. But that's a story for a another day.

I visited as many people as I could in the brief time I had. Then, I was back on the road. High in the sky, a pair of jets raced to their destinations. It reminded me of a trip to Europe when our return flight passed right over Fort Liard and I thought it might be fun to know a thing or two about skydiving.

About forty minutes south of Fort Liard is the NWT/BC border. The signs have improved in recent years, as have the roads. The BC side is now chipsealed (paved) right to the border. Just past the border, heading south, is the Petitot River.

The Petitot River Bridge
Like the Muskeg River, the Petitot is filled with memories. Gatherings are held here and I try to attend whenever possible. I have paddled down the river so many times that I've lost count - and yet I've never been upriver past the Betthale's camp, just upriver from the bridge.

Old William Betthale and his wife are very, very, very old, and they stayed living out on the land as long as they could, harvesting from the land and moving from one seasonal camp to another. Even today, they don't live in town, fending for themselves as best as they can. Oh, they've got stories and, through the translation skills of his many children, I've been able to hear but a few of them. They are a remarkable couple and have lived truly remarkable lives. The have seen tremendous changes. Where they once spent their lives harvesting from the land is now ground zero for an armada of oil and gas exploration companies.

Deasum Creek Bridge
Eric is one of those guys who is rooted in two worlds. He's got a camp near the Deasum Creek Bridge - now surrounded by oil and gas access roads and pipelines. He's comfortable in the bush, but is also investing in the modern economy. He recently bought a bobcat and is ready to go whenever someone needs his services.

By now, the sun was getting lower in the sky. I had wanted to reach my destination before dark, but knew that I had spent about an hour too long in Fort Liard. The days are getting noticeably longer and it felt good to absorb the bright sunshine through the cloudless skies.

The Fort Nelson River Bridge
The Fort Nelson River Bridge is an old Bailey bridge; a portable pre-fabricated truss bridge. It's the other single-lane bridge on the Liard Highway, not to mention the longest and highest of all the bridges on the highway. When I first saw the Fort Nelson River Bridge, it stood like a gateway to adventure. Over time, it began to mark the relative nearness of the Alaska Highway on southbound trips, and became a major landmark on the trip back home to Fort Liard. Today, it stands for me as a little bit of all three.

A long descent marks the southern terminus of the Liard Highway. The descent provides a great view of the distant Northern Rockies.

At the junction of the Liard and Alaska Highways, I turned right. Traveling westward, I would be soaking the in Liard Hotsprings that night. By mid-afternoon the following day I would be back in Whitehorse with my wife and kids.

My kids have yet to travel the entire length of the Liard Highway. One day, we will. And we'll stop at all the bridges along the way. We'll play in the water. We'll fish. And I'll tell them stories of what the highway used to be like, while at the same time, creating new memories of our own.


Alex said...

This post = greatness.

Even though I didn't get to meet're always welcome in the Dehcho!

Meandering Michael said...

Ha ha, that's good, because there's no way I'm NOT going back. It's like home for me.

Maybe next time we'll get together for tea - since we didn't this time to make Megan feel better about you not calling her for coffee the last time you were in Yellowknife.