Chance Meetings with Stephanie and Marcus

Stephanie had left her dentistry practice behind for a month as she and Marcus toured north from Grand Canyon to Alaska via the Yukon and a canoe trip. Mountain motorcyclists and hikers, they too had felt in peril in the winds and freezing waters. I drove them, gear and canoe and we stopped at a look-out above the Five Finger rapids. Karen stayed north to set camp and re-hydrate some stew.

We were all a little frayed when we parted, each of us not yet grounded and needing supper and a safe, deep sleep. Stephanie’s English was better than Marcus’ and my German is non-existent. She said, “I don’t want this to sound wrong but I am happy that you found trouble also, so that you could help us. It was a happy accident to meet you and Karen.” We embraced and I left them to their camper to drive back north.

Three nights and 300 km later, Karen and I drove up to the Dome of Dawson City. It was past midnight and we wanted to see the strange little city subdued and mostly sleeping beneath the midnight sun. We found Stephanie and Marcus atop the mountain. What a happy reunion.

Another chance meeting: Karen, Stephanie, Marcus and Catherine atop Dawson City Dome with Yukon River in background, at 1AM –it’s lighter than the photo looks.
Everything in Yukon is extra large.
Everything in Yukon is extra large.
Yukon River 1am “sunset”

Yukon River to Klondike Highway

Having hauled our 90-pound canoe up the hill, we were preparing for the highway when suddenly in front of us were Germans Stephanie and Marcus. They too had been dreadfully convinced to get off the mighty Yukon River. Their camper van was south with ours. After some strategizing, Karen and I hiked to the Klondike highway.

A few hours later, Karen was telling me not to feel so dejected. Twenty vehicles had whizzed past our pleading thumbs. We were getting worried when Kelly stopped. She lives in Nanaimo but has travelled the world with a mining company, working 3-weeks on, 3-weeks off. At the mine, situated between Whitehorse and Dawson City, she lives in a retrofitted shipping container. Having already wondered about such containers we’d seen on our trip, she hosted our curiosity. We traded stories for the journey as I did later with Marcus and Stephanie.

Housing for mining and forestry staff.
Housing containers for mining and forestry staff.

Yukon River 2

We broke camp and planned our route to get to an opening in the shoreline where we could hike up to the highway. It was our last chance to get off the river before Dawson City which was still about 250 river km away. Rain and black storm clouds had tailed us earlier and we had no proof the wind would stop. Against wind and current we worked to sideline it to the eastern shore, our hearts lurching and bodies at full tense, fighting back each time the wind spun us about. A moment’s pause from either of us, gave the wind full command.

On the map, Minto was marked as a ghost town with potential to camp. That was our hopeful destination. We worked together to stay in the thin-between of shoreline sweepers which could toss us into water, and the current that would take us against our plan. We saw a few cabins and made our approach. At the shore we both grasped onto a series of branches and brush to slow then stop the canoe. Bracing land, we held firm the ropes –the current still able to easily take our canoe and gear away — and carefully climbed onto steady ground.

Climbing up the hill we eventually found Margaret of the Selkirk First Nation. There is no more Minto camp nor cell tower that our research had advised. A bus load of tourists were about to descend for bannock and soup and enormous moose antlers photos. She offered the satellite phone and said we could stay and get our bearings. Her quiet generosity and calm hospitality was comfort.

The campground that housed our vehicle could not get our car to us and we owed the outfitter their canoe in Dawson. The tour bus heading south was full. Margaret offered us lunch after the tourists left and we filled up before storing our gear and hitting the road to hitchhike the Klondike Highway, bear spray on hip.

Next: the German canoeists who found us and asked for our help. Note: we’ll be offline for  a few more days. Leaving Inuvik today–Sunday June 21 as I schedule this post.

Below: camping on Selkirk FN, photo 1 is taken at 2am “sunset;” photo 2 Karen setting camp with tourists in background; 3 & 4 eagle feather and moose antlers

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Yukon River June 10-14

Having canoe tripped in near-North Ontario wilderness every summer, we were looking forward to a river trip–no portages and the current running our way north from our put-in at Carmacks to Dawson City. A 400+ km trip by water with great intentions of purposeful drifting much of the time.  We’d read up on the river, talked with outfitters and took river training before going in. With our dehydrated dinners and water pump, we prepared to take photos and watch the wild world go by, sterning efficiently and following the Klondyke gold rush trail.

We made it through the Five Finger Rapids then Rinks Rapids then hit the relentless wind.

Many islands and steep banks in the mighty Yukon.
Many islands and steep banks in the mighty Yukon.
Five Finger Rapids from viewing stop on Klondike Highway (taken on our way back to Carmacks).
Five Finger Rapids from viewing stop on Klondike Highway (taken on our way back to Carmacks).

By Saturday we’d only reached a third of the way and decided to leave the river. Wind was twisting and turning our canoe around and we were increasingly terrified of tipping into the freezing water. The longer the wind battled us, the more this became a real possibility. We wore wet suits and had about 10 minutes to get to shore and light an emergency fire to stave off hypothermia. But it’s a big river with high walls of cliffs, hoodoos, and overgrown banks thick with bush.

Karen realized much sooner than I that our emergency plan was not executable. She knew that, although our gear was tied off to float, if we tipped, we’d lose our canoe and gear to the strong current and fierce wind. And with the high water levels, there were few offerings of a safe and unimpeded landing. Bald eagles kept passing over us which I took as a sign to push on and Karen read as a protective warning. She was afraid and I was afraid of her fear. At one point, we found a calm eddy to rest in and eat and think out our options. A single eagle feather floated by me and I lifted it with awe and gratitude into the canoe.

We couldn’t find a place to camp and paddled against the wind and in the long light until 10 pm Friday. We found a small sand-gravel island not much larger than our canoe and tent. Geese and ducks talked through the night entering my dreams like voices of all kinds of people I know and have known. Karen couldn’t sleep. When I woke she told me that her heart was pounding and rested her head on my chest. The wind was shaking the tent walls. As I held her, the eagle feather came into my mind and I realized she was right — we needed to get to safety.

Where the North from Whitehorse

Karen and I visited Whitehorse last December –our Northern Lights photo on the masthead of this site.We loved Whitehorse and since leaving, Karen has been craving Antoinette’s guava ribs. We were happy to reunite with our new Whitehorse friends and talked about the North and the Yukon River. When our canoe outfitter sent us Being Bear Wise in the Yukon there was Tanya (p. 15, 17 with grizzlies) — real live Bear Bait. Tanya is a graphic designer and created the backdrop produce in the photo below. This pic is taken at 10 PM in natural light, no flash, outside on Antoinette’s patio!

Wonderful Whitehorse food and friends (l-r): Karen, Jennie, Tanya, Antionette
Wonderful Whitehorse food and friends (l-r): Karen, Jennie, Tanya, Antoinette
Arwin & Sara--our camping neighbours
Arwin & Sara–our camping neighbours

Meanwhile, back at the Robert Service campground, we set site right next to a couple who live in BC but are from Australia and are taking maternity leave with their 4-month old daughter Georgia to travel across Canada. Going all the way to NFLD! They said, “We’re from down under so anywhere north of the equator is north to us.”

Halfway to North

Before leaving the BC Liard River camp, I asked Ranger Jeanette if this was North. An Acadian, she studied in Ottawa where she met her partner and they’ve travelled west to find their North and settle. “Geographically, we are at the half way point to North,” she told me. “But every American who passes through here considers all of Canada to be North.”

Cinnamon Rolls and other comfort food after Liard River. We signed the trailer.
Cinnamon Rolls and other comfort food after Liard River. We signed the trailer.

On mountain highway: I asked Karen for her driving comments and she said “We are just alone. I like it. That is something about the north — like the woman from Liard River who made a deal with her neighbour not to sell gas if he doesn’t sell full food service. Her neighbour is 75 km away… You have to have time to experience the north, time to drive these roads. That Cold Creek gas station is the whole of the town.”

Just us and the buffalo
Just us and the buffalo
Everywhere is WOW
Everywhere is “Wow”

Calcium Sulphate Hot Springs

June  8, Day 7: Drove over 1000 km yesterday through tremendous mountains passing bear, moose, and families of wood buffalo.  Watched little mountain sheep scale the ridges behind their parents. We pushed through to Liard River hot Springs where we set camp in the nightlight of the North then hiked after midnight to the hot springs. The protective boardwalk passes through wetlands. Somewhere west of us, the sun must have been trying to set because a few mountain clouds mimicked the pink of wild roses. We walked toward the rising steam passing tiny bluebells and strawberry flowers with their fruitful intentions.

Went back in the early morning, startling a moose who quickly moved on. The Liard River descends, heats then rises, bringing minerals. My eyes full with poetry I thought of the water emerging from the earth to meet the air, and exhaling to the tall tips of spruce, Getting into BC, we’d gained another hour. People in the springs said they gained a few more years from the waters.

Alkali Lakes and Gas Station Attendants

Saskatchewan farming machinery posed along the prairie highway are huge and fantastical–like giant Transformers. Far away, sections of fields methodically burn. Little birds hopscotch across the warm pavement then rise together to chase off crows, smacking the giant birds on their heads.

Ethereal mist across Alberta grasslands makes the highway blanch to invisible, sheets of rain hundreds of kilometres away mask your approach; the disappearing self, and a grey falcon settles on signpost.

Innisfree AB: We stopped for gas atop a rise to see the lake below releasing sand into the wind in great gusts of white.

Birch Lake drying up
Birch Lake drying up

We visited with the young attendant who wore a tall turban and sported a long beard. Before it became too busy for me to take his photo and name, he shared that he was originally from Etobicoke. He explained that a number of Alberta lakes are drying up and so they blow off alkali. I asked him about being in the North. He said, yes, especially through the long quiet winter nights, this is North.

Another gas station stop found us meeting 2 women from Japan here on a visa and another who is happy to live in Fort Nelson (originally from Phillipines) and enjoys the small town community.  Asuka and Tomoyo don’t want to go back and while the winter was hard, they were awed to see the northern lights 4 times. Mary asserted (like an old-time Canuk) that Pshaw! This past winter was mild! To all of them , Yes this is North…although they’d been even more north to the Liard River hot springs which was our destination that night.

L to R: Asuka (Toyko), Tomoyo (Hokkaijo) and Mary from Fort Nelson BC
L to R: Asuka (Tokyo), Tomoyo (Hokkaido) and Mary from Fort Nelson BC

Alberta notes

loved driving through Saskatchewan–austere, stately–more later(?)

Construction detours in Edmonton  conspired to delay us further but we cheered with the radio to the winning goal of the World Cup opener in Edmonton followed by news reports of Edmonton Pride. Such is media, how we can feel connected just by listening and as though we are participating in these events as we trail slowly behind pick up trucks making their way through the city street detours to get back onto highway.

June 7; Day 6: Writing on the road to Alberta. About to touch down onto the start of the Alaska-Canada highway. We have travelled 4218 km. This morning we rose in a dirt road municipal campground built around oil pipeline stations, wild rose bushes, and plenty of biting bugs. The birds sang past midnight as it was still dusky light when we drifted off.

Alberta camping
Alberta camping
near our site...
near our site…

We drove a couple hours before stopping in Grande Prairie for coffee and a bit of clean up. Maryam was just opening her Fusion Cup and we waited for her to set up. From Mississauga of Pakistani ancestry, Maryam moved to GP in 2011 and opened the cafe 11 months ago. She has found a Muslim community of over 100—comprised of people from different national origins. Her mosque in Mississauga was more culturally similar. We commiserated on the fast stress of Toronto. Her welcome friendliness led us into conversation about her northern experiences and I asked her if GP is North. “There is much much much more North than here,” she said and then described the awe of seeing the Northern Lights with her husband as they drove along the road one night, pulling over to watch the brilliant majesty of the universe. Most Grand Prairie people she’s met have never seen them and she spoke about how living in a smaller community lets her slow down to enjoy such events and even our conversation then. She has painted these words inside her cafe: “Enjoy the Journey. Life isn’t measured by how many breaths we take but by how many moments take our breath away.”   Relocating has pluses and minuses. Karen mentioned one day leaving Toronto and Maryam left us a question to ponder: Of the places you’ve seen or will see, where would you relocate to? Fusion Cup

Maryam in Grande Prairie
Maryam in Grande Prairie