Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Slideshow

You want pictures? You got 'em.

Ft. McPherson Journal - Part Three

The other day I was speaking with Sarah, an employee at the store as she was putting out toys. The toys were action figure that included men in fluorescent furs, space-aged snowmobiles, and wooly mammoths. Sarah motioned towards the toy wooly mammoth and told me her father had once found "a...a...whatchacallit....mammoth trunk" up in the mountains. She was pointing to the toy's nose and tusks.

"You mean the tusk? The bone?"

"No. It was the trunk. It was dried out."

She held up her hands about thee feet apart to indicate the size.

I can only assume that it was freeze dried somehow. She said it didn't stink at all and that someone in the family might still have it. She also told me that her father and some others once came across "a whole bunch" of mammoths when they were snowmobiling in the mountains but that "they never went back to that place." Her father is long gone.

Sarah is a wealth of interesting and sometimes disturbing stores. The other day I got off the phone with an elder from town while Sarah was in the office with me, doing some paperwork.

"Who was that?" she asked.

"Oh it was so and so (I don't remember the name) and she's sending her grandson up to charge on her account."

"She doesn't really come around any more, ever since she got shot."


"Yeah, her brother-in-law. He shot her and four other people in the family."

"Jesus! Was he drunk or what?"

"No. They say when they found him he was still holding the gun and he just kept saying 'why do they always make fun of me? Why do they always make fun of me' over and over again."

Saturday, September 22, 2007

One Crow For Sorrow

Death seems more common here in the north. Not death itself, which is a part of life, but tragic death. The death of young people. Last year it was the plane crash. On my first day here in McPherson there was a funeral for a girl who had commited suicide. Today, the husband of an employee at the store was killed in an accident out on the Dempster.

Last night she was excited because he was coming home from working away. She hadn't seen him in a while. He made it home ok, but this morning I learned that he had been killed on his way back to work. I had just delivered them a new washer the other day. I had just ordered them a new king size bed. It hasn't even arrived yet. I wanted to drive down and see her. But I didn't have to because she came in to the store with her kids. You could tell she was crying. Her kids were crying openly, but they bravely marched through the store, picking up some odds and ends, and then renting some movies. I approached her and told her if she needed anything to call. An empty gesture, but one I felt I had to do. I couldn't just look away.

Last week, a bootleger from town rolled her car and walked away unharmed. You can't help but wonder why a hard-working family man could be taken in the same way a week later. I know it's wrong, but I can't help wishing it had been the other way around.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ft. McPherson Journal - Part Two

Days 5 through 10

Day 11
It's finally my day off. I was going to take Monday off, but the office lady ended up taking it off instead, which was fine because it rained all day Monday. Today it is warm and dry. I'm planning to drive about 200km south on the Dempster to Eagle Plains, a mid-way truck stop. All week I've been psyching myself up for this trip. Whenever tourists have stopped into the store on their way to Inuvik, I've asked them what the drive is like between Eagle Plains and McPherson. Everyone I asked said it was the most scenic part of the highway. That works for me because I won't be able to drive the next leg of the highway (400+km to Dawson).

Of course as I'm getting ready to go, a truck shows up with freight for the store. They never come when you need them, but always arrive when you're in the middle of something important (like a day off). I go in to help but Mike, the grocery manager, chases me off.

My truck is loaded with junk food, camera gear and fishing gear. I'm thinking about eating lunch at Eagle Plains, but I've brought a sandwich just in case the food there is crappy and/or expensive.

It's a five minute drive from McPherson to the cable ferry which crosses the Peel River. It looks like I'm the first truck of the day. The sign says that the ferry runs 9:30 a.m. to 12:45p.m. There is an old guy directing traffic onto the ferry. The trip across takes less than five minutes, but he comes over and asks me where I'm headed. I tell him and he tells me that I might see some Caribou. There are several herds that migrate across the highway. I pray that I'll see some wildlife. One lady who works at the store warned me not to get out of my truck if I see any grizzlies. Good advice if I ever heard it.
The highway rolls between some small hills and lakes before rising onto a plateau. Right away I stop at a look off and snap a few pictures of the mist filled Mackenzie Valley below. The sun is still quite low in the sky and I hope that it will be that way when I get to the Richardson Mountains. Any photographer will tell you that early morning and late evening are the golden hours for photography. It's that time when everything has a golden hue and shadows are more dramatic.

I think that the leaves are just a few days past their prime, but the colors are still wonderful. There aren't many trees here on the plateau and the low bushes are varying shades of yellow and red. Down below I can see some mountains, but nothing too spectacular yet. The road is in good shape; very smooth for a gravel road.

Up ahead I see a sign that says "Emergency Airstrip 1km." It takes a minute for me to realize that this runway isn't beside the highway. It is the highway. The road widens for a few hundred yards and then narrows again. There are orange and red markers on the side of the road. I wonder how often this runway is used.

Past the runway I see what I've been waiting for: Mountains. And the road appears to be headed straight for them. I can't help but stop every few kilometers to take a few more pictures of them. IT makes me wonder if I'll ever get to Eagle Plains. Especially when I stop to try fishing at a small nameless creek. As usual I don't have any luck.

Close to the mountain pass they are grading the road. Dump trucks loaded with gravel are barreling up and down the road. It is intimidating to come upon one of these things as they head at you at nearly 100km/h. I move as close to the shoulder as possible. I picture these monster trucks jack-knifing and sliding into me. I picture myself loosing control on the loose gravel and sliding into them. But each time they pass without incident.

Down through the mountain pass is a flat section and then another smaller pass. In the middle of this second pass, I cross over into the Yukon. I stop for the obligatory picture at the border. Some of my earliest memories are of my dad reading Robert Service to me. Now I am finally in Service's home territory.

Passing in to a different jurisdiction, I instantly notice a difference in the quality of the roads. I'd say they are slightly better than on the Territories' side. The mountains aren't quite as impressive, but beautiful in their own way nonetheless.

It is noon when I cross the border. It has taken me two and a half hours to go 100 km with my frequent stops. I try to push ahead while the road is good and the scenery is mundane. Before long I come to the Arctic Circle rest stop. More obligatory photos, then back on the road.

Eagle Plains, as a destination, is a bit of a let down. I almost knew this would be the case. It is an ugly hotel, restaurant, and gas bar. It was built in 1978 because there was no natural stopping point between Dawson and McPherson. It obviously hasn't been renovated since. It's like walking into a time capsule. A plaque on the wall explains how the site is completely self sufficient as far as power, water, and sewer go. The plaque even brags that TV signals in the rooms come from an "ANIK 2 satellite dish." Wow, the future is here.

There's an old hound dog asleep on the floor in the hotel lobby. I take one look at the restaurant and decide to eat my sandwich instead of eating here. It's cafeteria style, complete with orange plastic trays and coffee mugs straight out of the 70s. The carpet and walls are ugly earth tones. I get the heck out of there and go eat my lunch by the Eagle River. At least the earth tones there are real.

Then it's back the way I came. Nothing much happens until I get close to the border again. I come around a bend and there up ahead is a bull moose, facing towards me and not moving.

Like I said before, delivery trucks are never there when you need them, and always appear at the most inopportune times. As I pull over, I know that about three minutes behind me is an 18 wheeler with a load of vehicles for Inuvik. Somehow I manage to steer the truck over with one hand while reaching for my camera with the other. For some unknown reason I happen to have my zoom lens on my camera. I can't even remember putting it on, but I'm glad it's there now. I manage to rip the lens cap off and snap a few pictures before the 18 wheeler flys past me, scaring the moose into the bushes. I pull ahead to where he was, but there is no sign of him. There's no sign of my lens cap either. I must have tossed it out the window in my mad rush to get my camera out.

Even though I make better time on the way back because I'm not stopping every five minutes, the trip seems longer. I've got my Ipod to keep me company. I arrive back in McPherson right around five o'clock. The trip has taken seven and a half hours. I've burned just over half a tank of gas. At McPherson's prices (1.36/L) that's about $70.00. I don't think I'll be topping that trip any time soon.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Ft. McPherson Journal - Part One

Day 1,
The company has sent me to Ft. McPherson to do a five week relief for a store manager who is on vacation. In honor of my first trip above the Arctic Circle, I've decided to stop shaving until I return south again. I haven't told Nicole this yet. I'm not sure how she'll take the news.
I arrived at the Inuvik airport around 1pm on Friday. Shane, the Ft. McPherson store manager was there to meet me. I came equipped with one bag full of clothes, my camera, and fishing pole.

We drove into Inuvik. It is an ugly town in otherwise beautiful surroundings. Shane had to pick up a part for his water pump, and we went to the North-Mart for some dirty bird (KFC). While waiting for our food, we went down to check out the electronics. I found the fishing section and on an impulse, bought myself a new fishing lure. I'm fairly sure most lures are designed to catch the eyes of fisherman rather than fish. This one was matte black with fluorescent red spots. It's called "the black fury." Even as I was forking over the cash, I wondered what the hell I was doing. It probably won't work anyway.

After picking up a day-old copy of the Globe and Mail (half price!) we got on the Dempster Highway, heading for ft. McPherson. The Dempster highway stretches from just outside of Dawson City to Inuvik, passing mostly through the Yukon before crossing into the territories just above the arctic circle. The highway is only about twenty six years old. To even call it a highway is misleading. It is a well built gravel road with a speed limit of 90km/h. In the winter it becomes an ice road.

The Dempster attracts scores of tree-huggers,weekend warriors, RV-ers, and tour buses. We passed all of the above on our way down. I felt bad for them knowing that their goal was the uninspiring town of Inuvik. Once there, they would have to turn around and drive back. You could see the cloud of dust raised by oncoming trucks a mile away. Slowly but surely they would approach. Both vehicles would slow a bit and move to the side. Some trucks didn't seem to slow at all, and our windshield would be pelted with tiny bits of gravel.

The view was mostly monotonous but strangely beautiful. The trees are in the prime of their fall colors up here. We drove past mile after mile of skinny fir trees and stunted birch with bright yellow leaves.
The Dempster crosses the Mackenzie river at the town of Tsiigehtchic(pronounced sig-a-chick, formerly called Arctic Red River). The M.V. Louis Cardinal ferries vehicles between the eastern side of the river, the Dempster highway on the western side, and the town of Tsiigehtchic, which is separated from the highway by the Arctic red river. We arrived at the river just as the ferry was pulling away with only one vehicle aboard. First it went over to the highway. Then it picked up someone there who had to go to Tsiigehtchic. finally, after about half an hour, it came back for us. Everyone I've spoken to curses the ferry, probably because they have all arrived, as I did, just to see it pull away. However, waiting half an hour is a small price to pay for mobility.

Day 2

You can judge the size of a town in the north by how many RCMP officers it has. Tulita has two. The Wells has four. McPherson qualifies for five.
McPherson (pronounced either Mick-FUR-sun or Mick-FEAR-sun) has about twice the population of Tulita at 800 people. It looks like so many northern towns, with dirt roads and standard northern housing. But there's something about it I like, although I cannot yet tell you exactly what it is.

Day 3

I drive Shane and his wife Alyssa into Inuvik so they can catch their plane. It is Labour Day, but the news stand is still open. I pop in for a Globe and Mail but the rack is empty.

"Do you have any copies of Saturday's Globe in the back?"

"Sorry, all sold out."

I drive around Inuvik for a bit, but there is nothing to see. Ugly residential sections and even uglier industrial sections. The speed limit in town is thirty five. My truck won't even go that slow. I have to accelerate and then coast. I decide to get the hell out of there and back on the highway. I never would have thought that driving one-ten on a dirt road would be so easy. About and hour and a half into the trip, I feel the rear end skidding out as I go around a turn. It is enough to make me back off to ninety.

Day 4

My first full day running the store on my own. The day seems to be going well until I go to put on my glasses after my shower. When I pick them up from the table, the right arm stays behind. I find the screw, but no amount of fiddling can get the damn thing to stay in. So I improvise. I use a bent staple in place of the screw and tape to hold it together.
After work, I get in the company truck, determined to get a line in the water. Out on the highway, the sun is low in the sky. CBC is on the radio.

"I'm Paul Kennedy. This is Ideas."

I cruise just over that next hill for several minutes, certain that I spotted a good fishing spot last week. Finally I stop at a lake that looks as good as any other. There is a small space on the side of the road, just large enough to park a truck without impeding traffic.

To get to the water, I soon realize that I'm not walking on ground at all. I'm walking on thick underbrush: dense and springy shrubs that grow out of marshy bog. It's ok for walking, as long as I look where I'm going, but as soon as I stop, the shrubs slowly give way. I cast twice before I start to feel the bog water seeping through my Adidas.

"To hell with it," I say.

However, my fishing is soon interrupted. It is silent out here, even though I'm less than a hundred yards from the so-called highway. But coming from the other side of the lake, I can hear someone calling "Hello!."
It is most definitely human. Of this, I am at first sure. I'm taken aback because it is out of place. I would have been less surprised to see a bear.
There is no sense of panic in the voice. Not much friendliness either. After two hellos, I yell back. There is another hello back, exactly the same as the last. It must be some lost hiker, I think to myself. Or someone fishing on the other side. There it is again.


"Are you alright?" I yell.




Then I see it. A loon swims into sight. I feel so stupid. luckily there is no one for miles who might have heard me. I guess he spotted a wet footed boobie and he wanted to move in for a closer look. Later his partner appears and they watch me fight with my lure, which is caught on a bush at the water's edge.

I don't stay long. About half an hour. But when I get back in the truck, Paul Kennedy is gone. The local radio station has taken over the frequency. With Buck Owens singing in the background, a woman is reading messages in that slow, monotone northern accent.

"This message is for Andrew Snowshoe. please Go down to the end of miller creek tomorrow to meet Judith and Dan. This message is for Ira Koe. If your listening, call home on channel 22 for an important message..."

Buck Owens comes through the AM radio loud and tinny. They call it country music for a reason. It's enough to drive you insane in the city, but I don't think I could handle anything post nineteen-eighty while driving into a dirt-road town with clapboard sidewalks. A kid is walking up the road and firing stones at a light pole, just to see if he can hit it. The sun is setting on my left, and there's a cloud of dust rising behind that truck that is driving this way.