On March 16 I will fly from Richmond, Va. to the Yukon. An exciting sledding trip in the very far north is planned. I have left the planning to the experts and trust them to keep it interesting. I plan to update my status here whenever I am near a computer.
3/15 Tomorrow’s the day. Everything seems to be in order. I have passport, money, phone, underwear and flashy hats. It has been a long winter. It will good to be on the move. More when I am actually moving. test
Caleb titled my journal in his comment after the trip “Once in a lifetime”. Not only that but only in the lifetime of very few people. A more diverse crew would be hard to imagine. Hollywood could not have set up a more perfect stage for conflict in one of their popular “reality” shows.
The Richardson Mountains bobbed ahead, over Kluane’s sharp grey ears. Namik's one alert and one floppy white ear glided alongside in his easy, long practiced, trot. My big black engines, Yzerman, Ritter and Skor strained ahead behind them in single file. All five tug lines stretched the gang line steadily.
Delays in starting the expedition and road closures faded in the brilliance of this white world. Vague lines of mountain ridges looked invitingly soft, above the arctic sea ice, at this distance. Evocative shapes of driftwood, rupturing the snow, marked a vague line between land and sea. Cold wind was from behind and did not penetrate the pocket of warm air inside my parka hood.
My mind wandered back eighty years to a lone desperate man and wondered where up there he had tried to outrun his fate. Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper of Rat River, had evaded a pursuing army of RCMP, First Nation trackers, and an airplane before they finally killed him.
Movies had been made portraying the Mad Trapper as a victim and a monster. From a simple inquiry, regarding disturbed traps, a man killed and was killed. None of us can really be left alone, as I feel Johnson wanted to be. We are defined and ultimately judged and sentences by how we connect with what is around us. This was only one of the mysteries of this wild place.
The snow machines, carrying our gear and breaking trail, were far ahead. The other three teams of dogs were far behind. The hood of my parka reduced the cutting cold of the steady Northwest wind and muffled the sound of Skor’s panting near the front of the sled. I curled my frostbitten fingers inside my left driving mitt to warm them. This truly was what I had signed up for. Alone in the arctic with my faithful friends happily pulling me toward whatever was ahead.
Had it been ten years? Frank’s beard had been more black than white then and Mischief had been a rambunctious adolescent sled dog, living up to his name. Mischief now rested with the other retired dogs at Muktuk. All of the adventures between rushed in and brought water to my eyes that had nothing to do with the north wind.
Simple curiosity had become an obsession with the dogs and people of the far north. I had ridden a sled behind, and loved, the parents of most of these dogs. Some, like Crosby, had the light of their father’s eyes shining out at me. Others, like Chinook, made me see how much dog sledding was evolving. Small and playful, she was essentially a lap dog in a harness. A very strong, fast lap dog. She had been the first that they moved to another team to slow mine down.
In the Fall, I had been wondering if lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted fever had not ended my adventures. It was not without misgivings that I signed up for an arctic expedition. This extension of running dogs had always seemed like the next level.
In January I had started working out in the gym three hours a day. At first the residual headaches, tremors and profuse sweating made the hours torture. Twenty pounds lighter, I felt stronger than I had before the deceases. Tremors and headaches still persisted, but my mental acuity improved with my physical condition.
Both Chris and I felt something different about this trip. She held me longer at the departing drop off. I comforted her but felt the same tension. It could have been the rough past year, or the odds after leaving so many times for so many places.
My melancholy dropped away when Inge Stamm met me in Vancouver. She did look strange without bunny boots and a parka. Her bright eyes and enthusiastic smile were the same, even in her city finery. She always managed to look freshly groomed, even crawling out of a snow bank, that the sled dogs had gleefully dumped her into.
I had wisely left entertainment in Inge’s capable hands. We first drove to the repurposed industrial waterfront. Shops, restaurants and an arts college have comfortably occupied the stark old buildings. The area was vibrant with ferries providing transit to points across the water.
We caught up over lunch for an hour. A swirl of activity roiled around us as we laughed about our camping trip with the dogs and Hugo. Inge described reading my book “Raven” in a small cabin at night during her winter sledding adventure. When she described a spectacular crash that bruised her up, I asked “Was that before or after you read about me dragging along the ice on my bare belly?”
“Before” she grimaced. It had taken several nights, and more adventures of her own during the day, to finish reading the book.
Driving is very polite in Vancouver. I hope none of their pedestrians come to Virginia without a defensive walking class. The city has taken bike lanes to the extreme. In some cases whole traffic lanes have been closed to motor vehicles. Motorists are not pleased, pointing out how few people use the bike streets.
I had booked a room downtown before consulting my local expert. When I had given the address she diplomatically “hoped that I had not made a deposit”. I changed hotels. We drove through the area that I had chosen with windows up and doors locked.
Development of downtown had compressed Skid Row from all directions. The few remaining blocks were filled with derelicts, like endangered species in the last bit of rain forest. The displaced crowd the sidewalks, dealing overtly and covertly. They unabashedly urinated on walls and wandered into traffic, almost as if they were hoping to be hit. This was one of the roughest areas that I had seen in all my travels. The street people will not just quietly go extinct, as the species in the rain forest do. Something will have to be done.
At Stanley Park, the bicycle and walking paths were also separate. Both walkers and cyclists appreciate this arrangement. As we toured the park we were constantly treated to a backdrop of water, then city and the mountains reaching up to the blue sky.
Inge treated me to dinner at a fine brew pub on the waterfront. Our corner table overlooked the water, where dragon boat teams paddled by expertly until after dark. As the sunset faded, green lights formed a halo around the colosseum with a shimmery inverted image clearly projected into the water below. Intense green strobes from another geodesic dome completed the salute to St. Patrick’s day.
As revelers cranked up the noise we made our escape. Inge had found several occasions to become acquainted with other patrons, and to brag, for me, about my trip to the arctic. Everyone seemed appropriately impressed. I thanked Inge with an autographed copy of “Raven” before continuing north. Thanks again Inge. What a great way to start an adventure.
At the Muktuk dog yard Manuela sat patiently on Sas’s empty dog house. When I rushed to embrace her she warned me that she had a cold. I should have foregone that one hug. Sas was exploring the field next to the dog yard before returning home. He showed no signs of trauma from the serious injuries he suffered on a sled run with me. Maybe it was because I knew that she and Jeff were engaged, but I seemed to note a new aura of calm satisfaction that enhanced her already magnificent personality.
As I stepped away to let Rosi gently put her feet on my shoulders and touch noses with me, Homer started dancing at the end of his chain and jumping up and down off of his house. His hound dog bark was clear above all other sounds. You can not tell me that dogs do not remember you for a year. I went and wrestled with him, only remembering to stay inside the arc of the club tail after being whacked a few times.
I grabbed boots, parka, bibs and driving mitts from the dog room before being delivered to the River Cabin. I built a fire and settled in as if I had only left yesterday. By time to walk the quarter mile to the house for dinner I had my gear scattered over all three rooms of the cabin.
There were no other guests and I sat at the staff table to get acquainted. I was quickly included as if I were one of them. I did serve myself promptly when the dinner bell was rung. The rule is that staff does not dish up until guests have been served.
After dinner Homer was more than happy to join me for the evening. He had to be reminded a few times that he was not pulling a sled. He was very powerful.
Even with the blissful pause in Vancouver time shift continued. I was awake at three for a welcoming stream of northern lights over the outhouse. Only the staff and I were at breakfast. There were new faces as usual. Damaris had returned from Switzerland and it did not take long to deduce that she and Rasmus, a tall male volunteer, had connected. Romance at Muktuk is sometimes complicated, but hardly ever secret.
I spent most of the morning in the dog yard. Many of my old friends, and their progeny, were there. In addition, more adoptees like Homer, changed the look of the place. One had a very pit bull look, but they insisted that he pulled well. One nearly purebred german shepherd looked particularly out of place. Snickers was loose in one of the large pens and seemed to be enjoying his semiretirement. It was sobering to see Mischief, the puppy Chris and I met our first year, retired and roaming free. Another reminder of the passing of time was the passing of Klukshu, a favorite race dog, the night before.
I only helped a little with the several day trips. The operation was working smoothly. A huge change was underway. Frank and Anne had built a new house and mostly moved in. This left space and functional changes in the main lodge that were still in process. Don’t tell the inspectors but dogs are in the house again. To have Falcon sprawled at Manuela’s feet seemed right. Several retired dogs lounged in the office as Manuela, Jeff and Pascal worked. The dogs had nearly learned that the office and entryway were the limit of their territory.
Perry was cooking and had been at Muktuk since May. That has to be a record. Her cooking made me hope that she stayed on a long time.
As Homer went out on another team, I chaffed a little to be running dogs. I cuddled Klondike and called him Baby Face. Jeff laughed and said “ I call him that too”. He is a big white dog, but something about his face always seems a little baffled. He is always so gentle and careful in touching you.
Manuela and I went to town. We visited Erika at her new job. She had been the office manager at Muktuk when we met. She was very happy to see me but reprimanded me about calling her dog Ranger a Samoyed, when he is obviously a small Husky. She was the first to buy my book when they arrived. She was watching Bart, Pascal’s dog. A client had insisted that he was too allergic to dogs to ride in the car with him. I never met this person, but had to wonder where he thought he was going when he signed up for Muktuk.
Takhini Hot Springs were crowded, so I sat in the cafe with Manuela until the other clients were done soaking. Klondike joined me for the evening and enjoyed all the attention. He came by every so often while I read to get a scratch. He had been very nervous in the cabin the year before.
The big races were over this year before I arrived at Muktuk. There was a flurry of activity around end of the season sledding and preparing for Spring. A sprint race started from Muktuk and ran down the river ten miles and back. I was mingling with contestants when I heard an excited “Elmer!” from over my shoulder. Cynthia had not been back to Muktuk since our strange adventure in 2007. We had seen each other several times in Whitehorse. Her dogs were alongside her truck and she raced them on skis. Cynthia probably did not need dogs. I know that she can catch a runaway team on a lake in bunny boots. That strange adventure binds us.
The days of waiting ended with the arrival of Celine. She was French, trim, athletic and had a quick smile. Her pursuits included hiking and camping. She was a gynecologist and we joked that we hoped we would not need her services on this trip. She loved the dogs and talked baby talk to them in French. I did not know dogs knew French, but they seemed to understand her perfectly.
Yukiko was much quieter and communicated mostly through her mentor, Eric. She had a very slight build, even for a Japanese. Her more traditional manner was from a Japan of long ago.
Eric was big and brash, almost the caricature of a French man. He was also a doctor and an avid snowmobiler. He would be joining us on a snow machine. Two absolutes sum him up. I do not drive dogs. I do not do dishes. He did neither, unapologetically.
I started to fall into the trap of speaking louder when my English was misunderstood, but soon corrected myself.
Damaris would be handling dogs on the expedition. I was very glad of this. She was expert with the dogs and a tireless worker. She was Swiss and reminded me of Zeva on NCIS in her misuse of English idioms. Her favorite phrase is “Holy Moley!” and she might use it for any occasion.
The mountains of gear kept our minds off not running dogs, to some extent. Over 100 gallons of gasoline, special fuel for diesel and chainsaws, propane, Methyl Hydrate to heat dog water. We could have taken out two city blocks with the explosives packed for the expedition. Human and dog food, along with straw for the dogs took up more space. Three tents and the list goes on and on.
We did get our teams assigned and I was disappointed that Homer would be staying home. His light coat raised concerns about standing up to the far north. Two years ago the dogs had been buried in a blizzard for three days with no food. All survived, although Gimli was nearly suffocated.
Manuela and Damaris had picked me a big strong team. My old black friend Crosby nuzzled me gently when I gave him the news. Yzerman was as big and black but had one strange white eye to remind me of a favorite dog, Mars. Their houses were near Homer so I tried to explain the situation to him while I worked with them. Tasman was white and my senior statesman. I knew him to be strong and steady. Cedar was new to me. Long, thin and short coated made me wonder why he was considered when Homer was not. Skor was also black and white with long legs. Ritter had some border collie in him but was broad in the chest. His hair was longer but without the husky undercoat. Chinook was my only female and Damaris laughed when I asked about her. I quickly found that she was a real joker and never stopped wanting to play. She had been adopted, as Homer had, from a shelter. Her colors and coat said sled dog, but she was three quarter size.
Rosi, Freda, Arwen and Smeagal, from Strider’s litter, were on the expedition on other teams. Homer was not pleased, but I started taking members of my new team to the cabin each night. They all love the chance to be inside. I think that the attraction is mostly the attention. Some sleep on the bed and others prefer to sleep next to the bed.
We did take our teams on a run on the river. The suspected answer to my unanswered question about rookies being included on the expedition was answered. The trip clearly stated “Muktuk experience required”. No problem, we have overcome this issue before. We had plenty of support and sledding skills would not be as crucial in the relatively flat arctic.
Both Celine and Yukiko pitched in like troopers on feeding and poop scooping before the sled run. The island in the river, where we turn around on half day trips, gets closer every year. If my memory of the thrill of running dogs had been more clear, I would have been more impatient about getting a run in. I only took five of my seven and had plenty of power. Chinook’s little feet disappeared in a blur, keeping up with her longer legged team mates. She also insisted on playing with Cedar every time we stopped.
The routine of returning to the dog yard came back with no trouble. I gave each dog a good rub, congratulations and a snack, followed by a bowl of meat laced water. Celine was a keen observer and had her team put away quickly.
Celine and I perused a world map and pinpointed, Virginia, France, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland and Canada as the origins of our team.
That night Chinook watched with interest as I rummaged through the piles of gear in the cabin. Everything would eventually end up in — Need in tent — Need on sled — Might need sometime — and Shouldn’t have brought. I decided to put the sorting off another day. Chinook constantly expected attention. I mentally named her Princess. She does “come here” and “sit”, which is more than most sled dogs.
When I took Chinook back to the dog yard in the morning Yzerman and Crosby took turns wrestling with Homer. Were they consoling him for not being able to go? I had to avoid looking at him when I took other dogs to the cabin. He takes it very personally, and loudly, that I don’t take him.
That night Ritter joined me in the cabin. He had not been to cabins often but took to it quickly. He came to me for a scratch regularly through the evening and fidgeted when he needed out.
The next morning I noted that the dogs were feeling the end of the sledding season. Snow was starting to melt. Many dogs lay sprawled across the tops of their houses, not even getting too excited when teams left the yard. Pine was at a big plastic barrel instead of a square wooden house. He still attempted to drape himself over the top. I explained that if he did not eat wooden houses he would not be in a plastic barrel.
Launch was finally arriving. Our forth adventurer, Caleb, from Calgary, would not be able to join us at Whitehorse so would fly to Inuvik. Our arrival there was being adjusted to accommodate his schedule.
During packing, it was already apparent that there would be an ongoing power struggle. Frank and Eric had clearly not established a clear division of responsibility before the trip. A benefit of this was that we had two of most of the things that we would need. The mountain of gear continued to grow. My steadfast determination was to be a client and unaffected.
My sorting was done and I was pleased with the small pile of “You should have left this home”. Packing gear and dogs for an eleven o’clock departure resulted in pulling up the driveway at eleven thirty, a couple of hours ahead of schedule, Yukon time. Disconnecting was like a weight off my shoulders. In a world so connected, it gets harder and harder to go where communication can be ignored. We did have Satellite phones, GPS, etc. but I tried to ignore them.
Traveling with dogs by dog truck was not all watching scenery. The dogs needed out regularly and each needed to be lifted down and back into their cozy boxes. I was very pleased with how easily I handled even the biggest (Yzerman). The time in the gym seemed to have paid off.
The Bonanza Motel in Dawson brought back wonderful memories. In a theme that would continue, Frank, Damaris and I had dinner at the El-Dorado and Eric, Celine and Yukiko ate at the Drunken Goat. The Goat had been very crowded and we opted for the quieter venue. Frank told an animated story of delivering dog food to an expedition at Inuvik. The story included overflow and damage to a new tricked out truck.
Each handling of the dogs became smoother. Yukiko and Celine were less able to lift the dogs up and down but pitched in for the rest of the work of tending them. Word from up the Dempster Highway was not encouraging. Drifting snow had closed the road.
Eurobus was very like Klondike in temperament. He had the same innocent expression and trusting look. I do not see how anyone could help giving him extra attention. Chinook was teasing her male team mates so much that I was afraid that she was coming in heat, but she had been neutered.
After being so pleased about my strength I, of course, developed some stiffness in my back. The road closure meant a second night at the Bonanza. Only two rooms were available so I bunked in with Damaris and Frank. Damaris is the perfect woman. She loves dogs, can fix anything and works cheap.
Memories of Art Daar were strong in Dawson. I was approaching the age at which he had had his last great adventure. It made me wonder what mine would be. I am sticking to the “Angry husband with a shotgun when I am a hundred and five” theme. We tell each other that it is the journey and not the destination but we still chafe to move forward, even when we do not know exactly where we are going.
While Damaris toured Dawson with Eric and the other ladies, Frank and I tended dogs and relaxed. The dogs were totally unconcerned about the delay. They ate and drank well. Not all of them have experience with long commutes to a sledding adventure, but do not seem to care. The minus ten temperature with sun resulted in a lot of lounging in the sun. Twenty four happy animals, relying on us to make things happen. I should copy their attitude.
The other tenants of the motel did not seem to mind the periodic choruses from our crew in their parking lot. Arwen seemed to start the singing a lot. Yzerman stopped howling as soon as he saw me, he must have thought that I disapproved. Crosby sounded like a toy poodle in a hundred pound body with those fierce eyes. His father, Mars, seldom barked, he may have been embarrassed. He and Snickers used to “talk” on the line at night. The long strings of soft singing had some meaning, if we had only known what.
The road was still not open by morning, but they decided to press on to Eagle Plains to wait there. Frank, Damaris and I arrived without incident with the dog trailer. There was no sign of Eric, the gear and snow machines behind the other truck. We dropped the dogs again and watered them. Poor Weasely's pretty grey face was smeared with vomit. He was the only one of our twenty four who had a problem with car sickness.
Eagle Plains is a truck stop and motel much like many in the western United States, except for being the only stop in the middle of a two hundred fifty mile stretch of gravel road. I quizzed other truckers arriving and found that Eric had broken down. Eventually we found that a wheel bearing had burned up on his truck.
A number of phone calls arranged for the truck to be hauled back to Dawson for repair. More calls and the guides that we were to meet in Inuvik arranged to have the trailer, with our gear, to be towed by a friend “going that way”.
We settled the dogs behind the workshop. They were still totally unconcerned about the delays. We were not exactly roughing it. Eagle Plains had a restaurant and bar to lounge in. Truckers and other travelers were there, waiting for the road to open.
The owner’s wife was very taken with our dogs and Damaris introduced her to them very expertly. Damaris claims to be much better with dogs than people but can be very charming when she relaxes, as with a lady that she knows loves dogs.
I was zoning out over my lunch when a disreputable individual in a scruffy grey beard wandered in. He glanced at me and I glanced at him and we both went on about our business. When he passed my table I ventured a quiet “Harvey?”
“That can’t be you?” he shot back. I am destined to see him every time I go north. We caught up while he jockeyed for a shower. It seems that he needed to be a trucker to get one. He assured them that he was a trucker. I could not argue. Anyone who has six dogs in the back of his truck and a sled on roof is certainly a trucker. He was now seventy and still looked fit. We went out to visit his dogs. One of them had an Iditarod number on his collar. I did not quite understand how he got such an elite animal. Each dog greeted me cordially, only complaining a little that we were interrupting their nap.
The old van with the stove in the back seat was unchanged. I will forever be indebted to him for the half hour he spent raising our spirits north of Pelly Farm, on the gravel of the Quest race trail. He was planning to do some sort of trip toward Old Crow.
I introduced Damaris to bar room shuffleboard. I won, but I am sure that she would have beaten me with a couple more tries. She is a quick learner. Celine bought me a drink and then I bought her one. The evening was going fine.
Four young men at the next table were skiing and pulling sleds across the arctic. One was French and Celine got the information about their trip. Harvey was very interested, since they were headed in generally the same direction that he planned to go with his dog team.
When they threw us out of the bar, we went to bed with hopes that the road would open the next day.
We were marking time in the morning, after tending the dogs and eating breakfast when word suddenly came that the road was open. The dozen or so eighteen wheelers wasted no time in heading out. We loaded dogs and ourselves and followed as soon as we were able. I waved to the borrowed truck in the parking lot that was towing our snow machines and gear. My GPS was left gayly signaling our position in the motel window — for the next twenty days.
Frank was really highballing, for him. We passed several of the Semi Trucks. I did not see the rush. We crossed the Arctic Circle without stopping, pressing toward Inuvik. Eventually Frank commented that the other truck must really be moving. At this point I had to let him know that the other truck was behind us. From then on the ride was not quite so white knuckle.
Inuvik was a pleasant surprise. Not an “End of the Road” town at all. Our “Arctic Chalet” had modern comfortable cabins. We had cell service and internet. Chris was surprised when I was able call her with our status. Olaf and Judy had spent a decade making the business very comfortable indeed. It turned out that Judy had been raised in the next county from us in Virginia, probably no more than fifteen miles from our house. Their white sled dogs are very beautiful. They make no pretense of breeding for speed and provide a beautiful experience of dog sledding in comfort. The “lunch room”, that they tow to the midpoint in day runs, made us smirk at each other enviously.
Even with the delays we were ahead of when Caleb arrived. Based on changes in schedule, both Celine and I decided to fly back from Inuvik at the end of the expedition, to meet our connecting flights. Caleb did arrive the next morning without luggage. Somehow his bags stayed on the plane back to Old Crow, but were retrieved without impact on our departure.
As we tended dogs, Frank gave an interview to the local radio station about our expedition. Including Caleb in the dog care was seamless, he had a natural feel for where he could do the most good. One great advantage was that he was tall and getting dogs down from the top row of boxes was a natural for him.
Our guide, Gerry Kisoun, joined us at the Arctic Chalet. I knew immediately that an adventure was in the wind. At that first meeting, and every day thereafter, his first statement was “What a beautiful day!”. He was big and tan and self assured. He had nothing to prove and consistently did what was needed to make things run smoothly. It did not hurt that he played guitar and had a sweet voice. If I spent more time with him I might even sing songs in something near the time they were written in.
Gerry was full of stories of life in the far north. His telling rivaled our dear friend Bea’s ability to bring a tale to life. He took us to the shopping center and gave us a quick overview of the town. For a town of 3200 I was quite impressed. The shopping center was well stocked, the school was modern and the whole town was well managed and maintained.
Gerry’s wife, Rosa, had prepared enough bannock to supply an expedition twice our size. She used several recipes, all delicious. Needless to say the bread we had purchased for the trip went unused. The solid bannock bread keeps well and goes good with any meal that you may prepare.
Edward Lennie was a revered elder that we were priviledged to meet. Actually we were begging the use of his cabin for the first night of our trip. He graciously granted permission. We could not talk with him long, as he was driving his granddaughter to a celebration in another town. No one was sure, but he was somewhere around eighty.
Dried reindeer meat is a must for any expedition. Gerry took us to the home of a herd owner to buy our supply. His friend also supplied us with generous supplies of bone dust from the meat saw. Many dogs who do not want to eat change their mind when a little of this treat is added to their food or water.
Reindeer are not endemic to far northern Canada. At the same time that the great depression was devastating the rest of the world the Canadian caribou herds stopped migrating to western Canada. This took away the main source of food for many native people. The government devised a plan to move Reindeer across the mountains from Alaska and establish the domestic equivalent to caribou in northern Canada. The Reindeer had been earlier imported to Alaska from Siberia. A two year project took five years and most of the original herd did not reach the MacKenzie Delta.
The herd did finally arrive. Some of the original Saami herders of northern Europe, hired to bring the animals, stayed. They married and became the beginning of a herding culture. The change from hunting and trapping to domestic caring for stock was not easy for many. Before snow machines, herding on foot or skies was very hard work. Attempts to divide the herd to different families were not entirely successful. After much government meddling, and the herds changing hands several times, there is still a thriving herd in the Inuvik area. The details of this created industry are complex and fascinating.
Were we really starting? I left the start first with seven strong dogs that had been resting in a dog truck for five days. The words “Ice Road” should have been a clue. The brake pad glided along the ice, more like a noise maker than a brake. The metal brake dug in and screamed. The dogs were in heaven. With my arms hooked under the sled bow and both feet on the brake, I was applying easily four hundred pounds of force to no avail. The snow machine barely got out of my way turning onto a trail off of the ice road.
I had been able to slow the team some and my miscreants were intercepted, just beyond where we should have turned and led through the deep snow to the correct trail. From there we watched the other three sleds go by. Celine was yelling “Whoa” and some other things in French. A mile or so down the ice road the other teams were intercepted and turned around.
Mr. Lennie’s cabin was just what every traveler dreams of, a snug retreat with a warm fire. He did not get out here as much since his wife died recently. Gerry and I performed our first concert with the old guitar that has awaited my return to Muktuk each year for the last ten years. That guitar cost ten dollars at a hock shop, had been in the bottom of many sleds, serenaded women from all over the world and even gone on canoe trips that I did not go on.
Manuela’s cold had pursued us into the arctic. Damaris was fighting it and I felt it coming on. I tried “Ignore it and it will go away” but the coughing gave me away. Having doctors along means that you get treated.
Feeding went well in the morning. The four snow machines, with sleds behind, were packed and ready by the time the dogs had digested their breakfast. My team was very fast and I was asked to hold back and keep the other teams in sight. That was good for me. Snow machines far ahead and other sleds somewhere behind is my idea of perfect.
Yzerman in lead pulled to the side several times, irritating Tasman next to him. I stopped and moved Cedar to lead. I had been told that he was not a leader, but I had been told that about other dogs. In other positions he always kept his line tight. That is my rule number one for a leader.
The first time Cedar needed to poop in lead I laughed out loud. Spencer, my first retiree, always stopped suddenly with no warning to poop. Cedar did the same. In other positions you have a little more time to react. In lead you are nearly always face with a tangle of dogs. In this case I was able to sort them out before the teams behind caught up with me. I watched him closer and was able to read a slight change in his gate when he was about to stop. He kept the line tight and took direction from his senior partner, Tasman.
The six hour run was long enough for me. My dogs were also quite satisfied to settle on their straw and wait for dinner. By the time the tents were up the medical staff had decided that I should go to bed. I did not argue and took the prescribed medicine and sought my sleeping bag. I was not clever enough to realize that sending me to bed without tending dogs had not been properly approved. Medicine nightmares presaged the waking trauma of the next day.
I was advised in the morning that I would be riding the snow machine and Damaris would drive my team. After all the years of adventures and misadventures how could this happen? I had not earned enough respect to even be consulted on whether I could drive the team. My resolve to remain compliant to those in charge was tested. The slight went down like a mouth full of broken glass. Damaris should get the chance to go sledding but the change was very disappointing for me. Trading spending the day with my friends for riding backwards on a snow machine was not my idea of a good deal.
The ride closely resembled a Texas bar mechanical bull, set on level four. When you add in the gas fumes, it did not take long to realize what a deep hole I was in. The day was the longest that I remember in a very long time.
Our second guide, Robert, had joined us and we got to his family cabin. This cabin was also cozy and comfortable. Function is nearly the total concern when building a cabin in the north. I did notice that every cabin had been built big enough for company. Robert had come ahead on his snow machine to shovel enough snow from the door for entry and to start the fire. Stepping into a warm room from the cold is a joy.
I passed the guitar to Gerry and gratefully let him play and sing while I drank as much water as I could stand and tried to eat.
As we were tending dogs Damaris asked “Will you be driving dogs tomorrow?” My answer would not have been civil, so I made none. The medicine brought more nightmares, mostly about snow machines. I did sleep longer without coughing.
Gerry greeted the new day with his daily “What a beautiful day!” As I responded in kind to his round cherubic face, I wondered if he had ever had a morning that was not beautiful. Although Gerry had traveled, as an RCMP, he had been born near here and this was still his home. Gerry always knew when to make a comment. His “How are your dogs doing?” or “They are pulling very well for you today” was always timed to have the most positive affect. He managed to stay above the fray the entire trip. I think that he found all the drama amusing, but then he found almost everything amusing.
My dogs were ready, with boots on, before half the gear was packed. I sat in the snow rubbing and talking to Ritter. If I had not stayed with him he would have had the boots off in a flash. Some dogs do not like boots. He had been the only one of my big ones that ever let the line go slack. I was advised that more attention would make him work harder. As the days went by I did notice that Ritter pulled more consistently.
No one suggested that I ride the snow machine again. As we ventured out on Shallow Bay on our way to Shingle Point, the vastness of the arctic was impressed on me again. Visibility varied, but even at the clearest the ice went on forever. Without GPS I have trouble imagining how travelers could keep from going in endless circles until they died.
My team was still too fast for the three other teams and Crosby was taken in a trade for Freda. She was small but could trot amazingly fast. In the shuffling I also got Namik in place of Tasman. They were both veterans that I could count on in the lead. Caleb was running ahead of me and I would catch him and rest and rub my team until the ladies caught up with me. On the sled again, the day seemed very short.
Not to be wimpy, but arriving at the cabin at Shingle Point was welcome in place of tenting. The stove was warm and we dried gear and dog boots. Shingle Point is dotted with cabins that people use mainly in the summer. Drift wood poked up from the snow, marking areas not covered by water. This ready source of firewood is welcome to winter travelers and we gathered enough for our use and to leave more than we found. I did mention bringing two chainsaws didn’t I?
We occupied two cabins separated by two hundred yards. The feeling of having two expeditions coexisting continued. Eric, Celine, Yukiko and the guides stayed in Robert’s family cabin. Frank, Caleb, Damaris and I stayed in the other cabin, near the dogs.
The story of the last expedition reinforced the comfort of the cabins. On that trip a storm was coming from the Northwest. The team decided to try to outrun it. Wrong choice. They were pinned down for five days in the blizzard, in one tent. In addition, the fly for the tent had been left behind. The inner lining was not designed to keep snow out and did not. The clients did not leave their sleeping bags for five days. I did not ask about elimination of waste. Dogs could not be tended for three days. I like cabins.
Kluane, on Yukiko’s team, had eaten and thrown up three boots. This is quite dangerous on the trail, as the boots can become lodged in the digestive system. We traded Chinook for Kluane to have the boot eater on my team, where I could watch her closer. This is another reason for getting the boots on correctly and watching closely when a dog loses one.
Whiteout greeted us in the morning, but did not dissuade Gerry from announcing what a great morning it was. As we waited for weather changes we sang songs, played cards and told stories. I was not entirely dismayed when we decided to stay put for the day. I could use another day to completely shake the cold.
Damaris had battled her way through the cold a little ahead of me, but had now contracted a stomach virus with the usual need to visit the bathroom regularly. We had a bucket in an outhouse that made this a little easier. She insisted on helping with the dogs several times a day.
With Celine along it was natural that we should question Damaris about when she had her last period the first time her stomach was upset. After some more teasing, she was treated for a stomach virus rather than morning sickness.
Celine and Yukiko did their best to stay in on the dog care but the lack of communication between cabins often resulted in Caleb, Damaris and me providing much of the care.
Caleb was a tall, light skinned Kiwi who now lived in Calgary. He had a good sense of humor and was highly type “A”. As a professional in societal function, he must have been gathering gems with this fruit bowl of personalities. He loved the dogs and had adopted Ginger from Muktuk. She is the light of his life and attends a dog spa, with her dog friends, when he has to work.
At mid morning I stepped out into the whiteness and found Namik sitting erectly watching the hillside, while all the other dogs slept with noses under tails. Tasmin also had this habit in years past. The crosses in the cemetery two hundred yards up the hill were not visible. Graves, mostly from the 1920’s, spoke of a time when this was more than a summer fishing camp and winter stopping point.
Back inside, Caleb was reading on the top bunk. He did not mind that it was very hot up there. Long lines of frozen dog boots had been strung behind the stove to dry. Damaris slept. I opened the stove door, stuck in another small piece of driftwood and contemplated the flames. It truly was a unique adventure that few had had the opportunity to enjoy.
The evening was filled with more singing, a good meal and a string of stories. Alternate plans were discussed but everything depended on the weather. Wind whistled coldly outside and the ice crept ever higher in intricate patterns on the glass of the windows, scattering the light from outside. At eleven it was still daylight. My last thought, as I settled in next to the stove to keep the fire going, was “I am so glad that I am not out there in a leaky tent”
As light returned at six, Dimaris made another trip to the bathroom and started the snow melting to feed the dogs. After a few minutes I crawled out to help. Visibility was still not good but we fed and prepared as if we would be moving.
Caleb started down the line of dogs giving out treats. As he started to hand the frozen goody to the next dog, he hesitated. This dog looked very familiar. Cedar had gotten loose from his clip to the tie out line. He had stayed in place and taken his treat. He had then walked around the next dog to get in line again. I wondered if he may have used this ploy successfully in the past. I have, on several occasions, been pleased to find dogs not tied to the line, but staying exactly where they should be.
That morning we found that my team had worked enough slack into the tie out line for Namik to eat the lines on the front of my sled. I handed things to Damaris while she expertly repaired the damage with spare line that she had brought along. We watched Namik closely but he showed no ill effects from any of the nylon that he may have ingested. He later ate part of a sleeping coat and threw it up with no ill effect. His brother did the same a few years ago, so he was just carrying on an old family tradition. We finally got the message that he did not want a sleeping coat. At no colder than minus thirty he was not uncomfortable.
At mid morning Robert roared into camp chanting loudly enough to be clearly heard over the snow machine. “Fresh Caribou tonight!” he shouted. He had killed two. This would be good news to his family with seven children.
As we finished our lunch, dogs started up excitedly outside. When the first out the door called “Wolves” we all piled out the door. A hundred yards away, along the base of the hill below the cemetery, a line of eight wolves was passing. They moved almost leisurely, surveying the people and dogs who were taking so much interest in them. The last in the line was pure black and notedly larger than his pack. As I stared he stopped and stared back.
It was not the close kind of contact, like meeting a bear at a turn in the trail, but more of a flickering electric charge. He was not fleeing or threatening, only watching.
They were following the caribou and had probably been curious about our dogs. Sometimes wolves kill sled dogs and other times they may mate with a dog that is in heat. I do not know how they would manage either with the level of protest our teams put up.
Others more accustomed to such a singular sight scrambled for guns. I was relieved when the big black casually disappeared over the ridge next to the cemetery. I thought of the unreadable look in Mars’ eyes when he ran for me. He was black and may have been as big as this wolf.
Reality met my wolf fantasies when Robert tracked down the pack and killed the big black wolf and two others of his pack. Wolves may have been the top of the food chain before snow machines and rifles. A wolf is nearly a thousand dollars to a hunter. Robert’s family would have a better year for the animals’ sacrifice. Management by man is required since we tipped the scales of nature. Robert had to get permits for the caribou. Wolves are only taken when the number of caribou is threatened by their presence. Robert was unable to get a permit for a polar bear.
Keen yellow eyes in ebony
Jut from snow in cold arctic fog
Still - A fire blackened stump
No look from eye of any dog
The Black wolf came again last night
Framed in tangled half memories
Mocking my frailness in the night
“I choose” he gloats. Proud and strong
Only choices, flight or fight.
The Black wolf came again last night
Harder to remember when or where
This or that piece should fit
Reason flares, smokes and gutters
Like a lantern not properly lit
The Black wolf came again last night
Scream at implacable, penetrating, eyes
“You’re dead, you devil, your dead
Behind the bluster, envy of his fate
When my bullet long ago split his head
The Black wolf came again last night
Damn “civilized” management of life
Death by inches as we watch in dread
Were we meant to cling, dead lichen,
Or drift, majestic, on ice flow instead
The Black wolf came again last night
Planning sessions were one of the less enjoyable ways to pass the time. We had weather reports indicating that the whiteout would continue. The thought of the tent adventure last trip made me consistently favor patience.
At one point we voted to stay put and apply a plan “B” of going to our original destination of Hershel Island by snow machine. The next morning the visibility was too low for even this attempt. By evening it was stated that we would move in the morning, either forward or back. We had reached the point in time when another day would mean that forward would not get us back to catch scheduled flights home. There was no vote this time. Cabin fever was setting in.
The next morning was still very low visibility, a north wind, and large wet snow. We fed early and prepared to move. Fortunately, Gerry and Robert had the final say, here on their home turf, and we stayed put. Robert surveyed the morning and went back to sleep, as our dogs did. The dogs were least affected. The visit by the wolves had been their major excitement. They enjoyed the increased attention. We had brought more than enough food, so they also ate well with extra snacks during the day.
Rosie was on Caleb’s team. She was everyone’s favorite and we used the excuse that she had not eaten well to bring her in the cabin. When Damaris turned her lose she ran directly to me and put her little white feet on my shoulders and touched noses with me, as we had traditionally greeted each other since she was a puppy. She then explored the cabin and sat in Caleb’s lap to be made a fuss over, but she is still MY girl.
Finally the visibility improved enough to make the run to Hershel by snow machine. The two day dog run would only take several hours by snow machine. Both because of my opinion of the machines and my love of the dogs, I decided to stay with Frank to take care of dogs. Damaris could have gone in my place but she was still having digestive issues.
Logistics dictated that Caleb would drive the third snow machine, to get all those going to the island. Every decision now was a test of wills. Eric was vocal about the dangers of an inexperienced machine operator in the conditions they might encounter. When Frank did not relent, Eric took Caleb on a test run and came back less concerned about his ability to handle the machine. Caleb had no problem with the machine on the trip. His opinion after the run matched mine. Snow machines are transportation, not entertainment.
Taking enough provisions to stay overnight, Eric and Yukiko left on one machine with a toboggan. Gerry followed with Celine riding behind. Caleb soloed on the third machine. Damaris and I had established a good routine for dog care that did not require other assistance. The mandated “All hands on deck” for dog care had been quite inefficient. Five people tripped over each other doing the job of two. The manager in me screamed “Why don’t we have two teams that alternate?” but it was not my rodeo. The positive had been intimate time with the dogs, which was never wasted.
I was pleased with my memory. I had been taking Namenda to aid memory and had recently changed to an updated version. With all the shifting of dogs between teams and helping with other teams, I had memorized all the names and seldom called out the wrong one. Damaris kidded me about calling Destiny “girl”, when the small black dog was a male. I suppose the fickle nature of destiny had always seemed female to me.
Damaris started learning chords on the guitar. She would master it with a little practice. She had a good ear and strong fingers. I played and sang a few songs but spent most of the time with the dogs, tending the fire and sleeping. It was generally a pleasant shutdown time.
Robert had stayed at his cabin and came for dinner and did more hunting. When he came for dinner it was actually his breakfast. Circadian rhythms in the far north are dictated by the weather and Robert knew when to rest and wait for a change. He was thin and dark. He said very little but took in everything that went on. I often caught him smirking at the antics of our alpha males. I hope my smirks were less obvious. Robert gave the impression of being most comfortable alone.
I played with my dogs in the afternoon. By now Ritter washed my face thoroughly whenever he got close enough. Cedar and Skor piled on. Then I felt a dainty paw on my back, as Freda reminded me who should be getting the most attention.
Spruce and Pine, on Caleb’s team, reminded me so much of Mars and Snickers, except they are blond, rather than black, and not quite as big. They are still growing. They are inseparable. Often they lay on the tie out line with one’s head over the other’s body.
Late on the second day the snow machines returned. They had tales of Gerry tutoring them on sneaking up on seals at holes in the ice. They got very close. If you freeze in place when the seal sticks his head up he does not notice you and you can advance when he goes back down. They saw a herd of caribou and polar bear tracks. The cabin at Hershel had been spacious and comfortable, but the sauna had been closed.
The evening included more singing, with me trying to reduce my usual volume to match Gerry’s soft voice. I also made some attempt to rest when the song called for it, not easy, I have sung solo too long. Celine, our French angel, had heard the songs enough times now that she chimed in beautifully on the choruses.
Gerry told more stories. He made history come alive with personal insights. Always self deprecating, he took little personal credit for the “Land Claims” actions that he and many others had worked so hard for half a century to obtain. Very simply, First Nations now have a large voice in how the north is managed and what development will be allowed. The general attitude is very pragmatic. What will be the affect on our land and what will the people gain from proposals?
The morning brought a glimmer of a sunrise that everyone rushed out to see, like Noah’s family after the flood. The route home was planned to make best use of cabins and maximum time driving dogs. My five dogs continued to catch Caleb easily. He was concerned and I tried to assure him that many factors determine the speed of a team. He may have been starting to subscribe to my theory that having the dogs sleep with you in the cabin is the trick.
Caleb was very athletic and pushed a lot. In hilly terrain this would have made him part of the engine of the team. Out here, on flat ice and snow drifts, when to push, and how, was the key. A push that slackens the line confuses the dogs. Following snow machines, there is always a “harder” part of the trail. Keeping all your weight on the runner on the hard trail is much more effective than pushing. In fact, pushing often turns the sled enough to increase drag in deeper snow. Finally, In short drifted spots in the trail, pushing too soon slackens the line then, when the dogs have good footing and you and the sled are in the drift, the line snaps tight and you are not ready to help the sled through the drift when the dogs need you.
These are not things you can tell someone with any affect. You eventually do it wrong enough times that you figure out what works.
Six hours into the run both my dogs and I were getting tired of yo-yoing between the other teams. I suggested that Caleb’s team might chase mine if we moved mine to the lead. I expected the type of conservative pass that we had always been taught and Damaris started to move Caleb’s team into the deep snow to avoid any conflict. Frank was able to save a couple of minutes by leading my team directly past Caleb’s. Not dog handling 101, but Frank was no rookie. Birch and Pine objected, but were too slow to make contact.
We pulled away easily after the restart. Visibility was better and the sun actually came out, shining through large wet snowflakes. I watched my black dogs and stopped them for a good rest and roll in the snow, even after the other teams had caught us. At eight hours we reached the destination cabin. We would not have to pitch tents.
Even after all the rest at Shingle Point, the dogs were very tired. I could not get Freda to eat at all. She would not even take a bite of my dinner sausage. My team ate the best of the four team, but there was no shuffling around. None fussed about foot medication or liniment and massage on their wrists. I was very pleased to find no splits or excessive redness. Keeping boots on pays dividends.
Ritter was also my bad boy about boots. Most of my teams over the years had a dog who tried to remove them. My favorite, of course, was Spencer, the first dog that I took home. Immediately after the start that morning Ritter’s boots had been off. Frank put them back on expertly and quipped “I hope that you got the rest of them on better than that”. He did apologize when Ritter had them off again in fifty feet. By watching Ritter closely at stops, I was able to minimize the boot removal.
The cabin was larger with plenty of room for all of us. It belonged to the “Hunters and Trappers” and we had gotten permission to use it. Food, music and drying of boots was overseen by a yellow gold sunset that lasted until eleven. Initial discussions laid out a short day the next day and I was glad for the dogs.
Sometime before we left in the morning I totally missed the change in plans. I wheeled out in the lead expecting a five hour run and a good rest for all. I made another stop in the morning sun and talked to Caleb and praised my dogs.
A little over an hour into the morning I caught up with the snow machine. Let’s just say that I was not praised for resting the dogs, as I had been the night before. The new plan was striking for a distant cabin. Gear was shifted and directions given to “keep them moving”.
I only obeyed to the point where I started to worry about the sleds behind me. The next time my big black dogs started scooping snow I found a rare spot of shade in the narrow stream bed that we were following and waited. We checked all the teams and waited until all were barking to continue. By now we were all having to assist Yukiko. Her back caused her enough pain that she was unable to right her sled after stops. Caleb also went back to assist her with tangles regularly. A general rule is to not leave your sled. With the small teams and snow over the ice he was fairly safe. I did stay with my team and could have caught his team if they bolted. By six hours I was tired. We were assured “Only a few kilometers more” but we went on and on.
Remembering my ride on the snow machine, I identified strongly with Smeagal when he was pulled from Caleb’s team and tied in the sled basket for not keeping his tug line tight. I could hear him barking and crying a mile behind me. They finally put him back in the team. It was too late for me to learn anything from his tantrum.
I admit that by now the beauty of the arctic was lost on me. The purple stems of willow, signaling spring, were only a fence on each side of our winding prison that seemed to have no end. The MacKenzie Delta is the second largest delta in North America, only the Mississippi is larger. Here, near the ocean, a maze of waterways many wide flowed, or lay frozen. Only the skill of our guides, with a little help from GPS, kept us from being totally lost.
Freda had eaten some breakfast and treats, but her tug line suddenly went slack. Taking two steps to everyone else’s one had finally used her up. I stopped immediately to check her for injury. Finding none, I continued, using the brake to bring the other dogs to a pace that she could maintain.
I waved ahead for the snow machine to wait. I was hurt when it was insinuated that I had let the situation continue after I noticed.
Damaris scooped Freda up and held her on the snow machine for the rest of the run. Kluane took her place. Big, for a female, and strong, she added to the natural pace of the other five.
I had not been timing the run. The condition of my dogs and my own legs told me that we had passed the long distance done the day before. I hoped that the toboggan I saw ahead, with no snow machine, meant what I thought they did. Damaris confirmed my hope by asking for my tie line to start lining the dogs out for the night.
We were still in the narrow channel. Willowed banks on both sides would provide shelter from any wind that might come up. When our snow machine had gone ahead and retrieved the other support machines, they circled our string of dog sleds several times, packing the snow enough to set up a, more or less, level campsite.
The other machines had picked a spot further ahead and had started preparations for the evening. They had also decided that the cabin was out of reach.
We proceeded with our, now familiar, routine of preparing for evening. Although the dogs were very tired, their feet were in good condition. Another foot creme and wrist massage pleased nearly all of them. We did not try to feed the dogs for two hours and they universally lay motionless on their straw. Even Namik lay stretched on the snow, although he did avoid being on any straw. I was pleased that, with a little encouragement, Freda ate fairly well.
We had a small fire of dead willows. Campfires on top of snow are an art, and Gerry let Caleb get an idea of how hard it was to keep even dry wood burning on a bed of snow. Admittedly some very volatile accelerants were used before a good flame could be maintained. Stories of a boyhood spent around such fires, while trapping and hunting, soothed the sting of the long day. One sled, a little bannock and some tea seemed so simple, and so tough, compared to our grand expedition.
More alpha male tension was reduced when Eric chose to go to bed early. Even with his bold front, he did often try to avoid confrontations. Celine stayed at the fire until the rest of us went to bed and then joined Eric and Yukiko in their tent.
I had a strange dream of arriving home in Virginia and finding that the hot tub had been stolen. Just as I was giving Chris a ration for letting someone get off with it, I woke up, thankfully before she had a chance to respond. A good soak would feel good. For the first time on this trip I was stiff. I worked my shoulders and moved carefully to ease the cramps that threatened the back of my thighs. The propane heat, that we used twenty minutes in the evening and twenty in the morning, helped loosen my muscles as I stuffed the big sleeping bag into its sack.
We were promised a short run to the cabin and a good rest. I was pleased to see that Freda was rested and ate. She was moved to a team of shorter legged dogs and I got to keep Kluane, the engine.
The distances we had run on this trip had not been long, for race dogs. I then started looking back on how we had run. Not one day did we have a long lunch stop. Such a stop had been standard on all other camping trips that I had taken in the last ten years.
I did, momentarily, question the ability of our guides, and the GPS, as the five hours went by. I kept thinking what it would have been like if we had pressed on the night before. The narrow channels opened up to more main channels. The trail improved, with less drifts to push through. The trail even ran up the bank a few times into the willows. My five dogs easily pulled up the banks, with a little push from me at the right time.
It felt good to be into camp earlier than we had in previous days. The dogs were more playful and therefore required a little more effort to tend their feet. The only dog of mine who had to be held firmly was Yzerman. With his size that was not always easy. They all ate well and the cabin that Robert had “borrowed” was large. It was above a high bank, but most of the gear was ferried up by snow machine.
Our singing was getting to the stage where Gerry and I were considering entering talent contests. Some of the prizes at northern carnivals would buy a lot of bannock. A political discussion got out of hand, but it was not politics at the root of the tension.
The long days had left us with a two hour run to “Eight Mile Cabin”. I heard no complaints from clients. Yukiko’s back had gotten progressively worse. Damaris stayed back in the morning to get her started then passed us on another snow machine to watch the procession from the front. Caleb in front and Celine behind were tasked with helping her during the day.
We had a restful afternoon tending dogs. A north wind was cold on the river where the dogs were tied, but the cabin was protected on the bank. The weather had warmed to barely below freezing. This would be our last night on the trail and Eric had called ahead to arrange celebratory wine and beer. Unfortunately, this was without consulting the other alpha and head butting began. There were no spirits, except my last shot of tequila. I had rationed the tequila well and not flaunted that I had a supply. I did share with Caleb, Celine and Gerry, privately, a couple of times.
Alcohol can be a problem on the trail. Abstinence is probably best, but on many of these adventures a shot before bed is far better than aspirin. Avoiding enabling someone with a drinking problem is not that difficult.
The girls danced again as Gerry and I sang. I staked out my usual spot by the stove and kept the fire going. We dried a lot of dog boots. Feeding the fire, I dropped a log with a loud bang. Frank shouted “Holy Shit!” without waking up I think. Later he advised me to shut the damper so I would not evaporate all the water that we had melted from snow the night before. The damper was completely closed but I did add snow as soon as I got up to assure a good supply of water.
The final run to Aklavik was very short and we waited two hours for the dog truck to arrive from Inuvik, over the ice road. There are a lot more ice roads than you may think. The ice has been the winter route since man came to the north. Now there are long distances between settlements that do not have good land routes in summer.
Gerry’s nephew Kylik and his partner Amber gave Celine and me a ride back to Inuvik. He demonstrated how to drive on ice. Most of the guys on TV would have been afraid. I did occasionally feel the trailer try to pass us, but he recovered it expertly. His speed was very close to what I feel comfortable driving on dry pavement without a trailer.
After meeting Gerry and Kylik I would wholeheartedly recommend their “UP NORTH TOURS” to experience the far north.
Celine and I arrived ahead of the dogs. We sat in the sun and I played a few songs. A Canadian couple in a nearby cabin complimented me on my singing. We were ready to help with the dogs when they did arrive.
We did have our trip end libations at the expedition completion dinner at the best restaurant in Inuvik. I had Musk Ox linguini. The dish was well seasoned so I could not detect a difference between Musk Ox and beef. I met Robert’s wife and a daughter. He had sent them in his place. As I mentioned, I think he was more comfortable alone.
We were up at five the next morning and got the dog truck headed south by six thirty. Celine and I cozied back in until Gerry, Eric and Yukiko arrived to pick up the other trailer. They had stayed at a hotel in town rather than at Arctic Chalet. After they left, Olaf, the Arctic Chalet owner gave us a very interesting grand tour of Inuvik before taking us to the airport. I found the ground refrigeration methods for dealing with permafrost fascinating. One church, built in the thirties, had a completely passive solution based on a deep base of sand and thick walls. There are no cracks in the church after eighty years.
Our flights to Old Crow, Dawson and Whitehorse on Air North were pleasant. Even on these routes they provide excellent service, harking back to another time. We were surprised to find that the cross country skier that we met at Eagle Plains on the way up was flying as far as Old Crow with us. The skiers had gotten stranded at a trappers cabin, as we had at Shingle Point. He filled Celine in on his adventures, in French, and she filled me in on the next leg of the flight. I am still not clear on what he was planning to do next.
Pascal met us at the airport and detoured past the liquor store to replenish my depleted supply of tequila. At Muktuk the world had changed. Winter was gone. Even most of the staff had changed and Manuela and Jeff were gone on vacation.
At first the cancer was only a softness of the white skin. In the bright sun, soft spots grew and deepened. Ignoring signs did not slow the spread. Brown and black showed in the bottom of the spots. Ever larger, the oozing black and brown chase the white away.
We did not stay to see the advancing decease. The ooze would dry to scaly brown. More sun would draw all shades of green and flowers from the wounds. We would not be there.
Flee, flee north, where winds still howled off the Beaufort Sea. A man and his dogs buried for days in drifts of a seventy knot gale. White “earth skin” piled in drifts ten feet high.
At a lull in the wind we run with our teams again across the frozen north. Even here snow birds return and runners bog down in the mud. Tourists flood in, by boat and bus, with their hurried “seeing”. We put our sleds and dogs away and surrender to Spring.
A young Swiss girl cleaning the yard asked breathlessly “Are you Frank’s brother?”
I couldn’t help myself “No I am Frank” She nearly had a heart attack. It was obvious that the new staff members were scrambling to have the place ready for Frank’s return the next day.
Celine and I shared a good bottle of Porter over dinner. Her quick humor and willing spirit had added immensely to the adventure. I did not get up to see her off for her six o’clock flight back to France. I had one more day with the dogs and did get to see the teams return from the arctic. I could have made my plane by riding with them but was not sorry that I had flown.
There was more excitement on their way home. A toboggan came loose and took out the back window of the truck. A tire blew out on the other trailer. Eric’s truck was not ready in Dawson and Frank ran out of diesel in the truck.
Pascal was ready early the next morning to get me to the airport to catch my flight and the trip home had no problems.
On the way I pondered how interdependent we are in every pursuit that includes two or more people. We all brought something and all took something away. If it is not an Irish blessing, it should be “May you always be blessed by taking as much away from an adventure as you are willing to put into it”.
I prepared diligently, planned for the ultimate perfect adventure and started out expecting success. My reward was open spaces, good dogs, new friends and a wider view of the world. What more could anyone ask for?
Gerry will always take away more than he brings, and that is plenty.
Robert is the kind of sober companion you would choose when the going gets tough.
Eric put forth a bold front, then compromised when appropriate.
Yukiko was an enigma that I was unable to penetrate. Compliant, but with a strength to continue when she was obviously in pain. I have learned that time often reveals depths that initial contact does not.
Caleb was deliberate and caring. His love of dogs would have made him a friend, even without his other good qualities.
Celine was the kind of gem you only meet a few times. She learned quickly and, with wit and good humor, crossed a divide between worlds. Her accommodation of norms, not her own, was much better than mine.
Damaris was an uncut diamond. She had confidence in her knowledge of dogs and equipment. She will truly shine when she realizes that she also cares deeply enough about what people think to become expert in relating to them.
Frank risked so much to put it all together. I do hope that, even with all the difficulties, he was able to take more away than he put in.
To all my friends — It was truly “Once in a Lifetime”.