Its detractors call it the Road to Nowhere—a tire-shredding, car-eating lizard track through some of the most inhospitable country on the planet. Its supporters see it as the final and most vital link in Canada's excellent 185,000-mile highway system—the first low-cost truck and tourist route connecting the populous southern tier with the romantic and oil-rich Arctic North. While environmentalists fret about the new road's impact on the delicate tundra it crosses, hunters, fishermen and recreational vehicle enthusiasts worry that the magic of the landscape through which the route passes will disappear before they can get there. All are in agreement, however, that the 460-mile Dempster Highway—Canada Route 11—from Dawson City in the Yukon Territory to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories (see map, page 86) has, since its opening late in August, carved a whole new wrinkle into the face of the North.
The highway was the brainchild of former Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, whose Conservative government got the project under way in 1958. The Dief was a politician of vast—some Canadians say "overreaching"—vision, a Westerner to whom great distances and tough country only spiced the challenge to connect, relate, develop. Diefenbaker died only the week before the highway he had conceived was to open; his chair at the ribbon-cutting ceremony in Dawson was left symbolically vacant—just like the country his road had opened up. Dempster Highway is named for a corporal in the Royal Northwest Mounted Police—about whom, more later—but it might just as well have been called Dief's Deepfreeze.
In the course of its sinuous, deceptively well-graded length, the road traverses two major mountain ranges—the Ogilvies and the Richardsons. By bridge or ferry, it crosses eight rivers, some benign and some downright murderous: the Klondike, the Blackstone, the Ogilvie, the Eagle, the Rock, the Peel, the Arctic Red and the MacKenzie. There is no pavement. The road builders took their makin's from whatever source of rock or gravel lay on either side of the route. Much of it is a dark-gray shale that, when pulverized for road-surfacing purposes, reduces itself to razor-edged arrowheads. This shale seems to come equipped with an appetite for rubber: it finds its way into tire treads, point first, and after a few bumps penetrates the casing. With the incessant whine of mosquitoes and blackflies in summer and the banshee howl of 50-knot winds in all seasons, the hiss of yet another deflated tire has become a familiar sound along the Dempster. The all-class record for flats is currently held by a man from Saskatchewan who towed a fifth-wheel trailer north on the Dempster early last summer. By the time he reached the government highway maintenance camp at Mile 122.5 on the Ogilvie River, he had sustained 18 flats and was out of patches.
If the shards on the Dempster's surface only lay in wait to ambush tires, that would be bad enough. But they also have an active mode of attack. Slung from the treads of passing vehicles, they can put a hole through a windshield or a headlamp as neatly as a rifle shot. Clear-plastic headlight guards are mandatory in the Yukon, and the wise driver will also mount a heavy-gauge wire-mesh screen on his front bumper to protect both the windshield and the radiator. Gas tanks are prone to rupture under the assault of the heavier rocks thrown up by one's vehicle, so it's a good idea to strap a rubber mat or a few slabs of old truck tire under the tank. Hazardous though it may be to carry canned gasoline in a car, no one should attempt the Dempster without at least a 10-gallon reserve, along with a minimum of two spare tires and a few extra quarts of motor oil. Emergency rations, water, plenty of bug spray and heavy sleeping bags are also necessities.
October 29, 1979
An abundance of wildlife—moose, caribou, Dall sheep, eagles, falcons and bears of all persuasions—is one good reason to risk the hazards of the Dempster. But the animals are a danger, too. The road crosses the last major sanctuary of the Barren Ground grizzly. During the highway's construction, one surveyor saw his assistant waving madly in the distance. Looking up from his transit, he spotted a grizzly chasing the man. Fortunately, a helicopter pilot also noticed the chase, fired up his chopper and spooked the bear away. The natives of Inuvik still talk about the motorcyclist who was snatched from his bike and eaten not long ago. "Just outside of town," they say. "On the easy part of the road." Even the lowly black bear, normally a retiring sort in the lower latitudes of its range, is by all accounts an aggressor in the North Country. Bull moose—particularly during the rut—have been known to charge cars head on, apparently with mating-season mayhem in mind.
Considering all the dangers, it was with no small amount of fear and trembling that Photographer Bill Eppridge and I set out from Dawson City late in August for the 920-mile Round Trip to Nowhere. Though the weather was excellent—temperatures in the mid-70s and a China-blue sky dotted with saucer-shaped, fair-weather clouds—we knew we ran the risk of snow in the northerly Richardson Mountains. Last year an 8-inch "freshet" of snow hit the Richard-sons during the last week of August. Even a spot of rain on the clay road surface up here would be bad news, because in the wet, even with four-wheel drive, you cannot go faster than 40 mph without spinning, and to drive slower could mean bogging down. But by traveling the road in this season we would be likely to miss the scourge of insects—mosquitoes, blackflies and no-see-ums—that make camping in the summer North a foretaste of hell. Swarming bugs have been known to clog the throats and nostrils of caribou and moose, suffocating them. Mosquitoes can literally bleed a man to death in short order. My favorite insect story is one told by Ed Ogle, a veteran journalist who has seen more of the North over the past 20 years than any dozen Mounties. "I took a picture of an Indian girl water-skiing near Inuvik on the MacKenzie River," he recounts. "She was probably the first person ever to water-ski north of the Arctic Circle. When the film was developed, the girl looked like she was covered with hair—some sort of waterborne Sasquatch. Under the magnifying glass I could see that the fuzz was mosquitoes."
After gassing up at the service station situated at the point where the Dempster takes off north from the Klondike Highway, we stopped on the near side of the Klondike River to savor the scene. The Klondike rolled past, strong and blue-green over big boulders, and an immature bald eagle screamed from a snag on an oxbow bend. The road, empty and yellow under the sun, shot straight north through dense, green-black spruce forest toward the bare, blue crests of the Ogilvies. Behind us, surrounded by miles of rocky rubble—tailing piles created by the big dredges that took more than $500 million in gold out of this land, beginning with the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98—lay the dubious comforts of Dawson City (pop. 857). Dawson boasts Diamond Tooth Gertie's, the only gambling hall in the Yukon; turn-of-the-century gaslight follies at the Palace Grand Opera House; rickety-pastel-painted buildings dating from the Gold Rush; a splendid museum; and Robert W. Service's cabin, where his "ghost" reads the great man's verse at 10 a.m. every weekday morning.
Dawson wisely has preserved the Canadian Bank of Commerce building, on the shores of the Yukon River, where Service worked as a teller. Gold lovers can tour the vault in which the dust of the ancients was once kept. Parked on the river beside the bank is the S.S. Keno, one of the last of the paddle-wheelers that once plied the Yukon, carrying supplies and would-be Argonauts into the Klondike. But the true gold digger of the North Country is the ubiquitous raven, revered in Indian mythology as the creator of the earth. He is a bold, fearless, clever bird who enlivens his mornings with the depredation of garbage cans and double-team ploys pulled on dogs. One raven will sit on a house roof while another lures the dog away from its food dish. Then comes chow time for all but the pooch.
Dawson also has "O.P. rum," a 150-proof general anesthetic and memory eraser that could be used to good effect in tranquilizing angry grizzlies. The place was just winding down from Discovery Days, its annual summer blowout commemorating the date—Aug. 17, 1896—when George Carmack and his fishing partners, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie, struck pay dirt on Bonanza Creek and triggered the rush. The whole town had a hangover. It would be good to head north into empty, boozeless country, bears or no bears.
At least one traveler shared our sentiments. Trudging up the road behind us, a small pack slung over his shoulder, came a short, wiry man with the forward-leaning, stumpy-legged walk of a woodsman. He spoke with a heavy Central European accent. His name, he said, was Marco Kennedy and he needed a lift to Inuvik. He had temporary work as a welder awaiting him there. He wore faded-green army fatigues, a scruffy beard, a leather bracelet studded with .22-caliber bullets, a sheathed hunting knife at the small of his back, a pop-art gallery of tattoos on his thick forearms and a mottled, purplish-red shiner under his right eye.
"Sure. Hop in," I said.
As we rolled north with the Klondike flashing through the spruce off to our right, Marco lamented the alcoholic atmosphere of Dawson (Dahv-son was his pronunciation) during Discovery Days. "Is drunk out all time, day and night," he said. "No time to get sober. No sleep. Too many fights. I was at party with friends, and stranger come in, we give him to drink, and he try to steal a butcher knife from kitchen. My friend Jane—she work at the bakery in town, across from post office, you know?—she try stop him. He try hit her. I go up to him and he hit me in eye."
"That's how you got the shiner?"
"Right," said Marco, grinning, showing a gap where his front teeth used to be. "But I give him one, too. We take butcher knife back."
Marco, who is 36 years old and whose real surname is Hampel—"I always play cowboys and Indians when kid, so my friends call me 'Kennedy,' the only American name they know"—is an escapee from Czechoslovakia. In the course of our two-day journey north to Inuvik, he cautiously opened up about his earlier life. Born and raised in Prague, he began reading Jack London's books as a boy and developed a fierce desire to get to the Klondike. He belonged to a street gang that called itself the Tramps, the members having read London's book about hobo life in the 1890s. In 1966 Marco tried to slip across the Czech border to freedom but was caught and spent two years in prison. He got out just before the 1968 upheaval that saw Russian tanks invade Prague to put down the "liberalism" of the Dub‚àÜí‚àö√üek regime. In the chaos that prevailed, he made it across the line into Austria, and from there to Canada.
"I got job in Winnipeg on auto assembly line," he says, "but after a week I could not stand it no more. Went to work at a sawmill and made money enough to head up north to Whitehorse. Whitehorse was nice town then—small, real, no motels, no tourists. Now Whitehorse finished—too slick. I head up to Dahv-son five years ago. Got me a little cabin on Hunker Creek." He shares the place with seven sled dogs—wolf and Malamute crosses—behind which he mushes up and down the frozen rivers during the winter in a manner that would do London proud. (In point of fact, London passed only one winter in the Klondike, and spent most of that indoors listening to sourdoughs spin their yarns and filing away material that would later become such books as The Call of the Wild and White Fang. But don't tell Marco that, or you'll disillusion him.) The leader of Marco's dog team is named Sundance—"dumb, but a good puller," he says apologetically. Last February, one of his bitches whelped nine pups. "Was 70-below outside when she borned them—70-below for three straight weeks. No wind. Clear sky. Stars growing from roof. Smoke barely clear the stovepipe before it collapse. I build a igloo for the pups, but still five of them died." He pauses. "Just as good they die that way. I not have enough to feed them, and I not like to drownèd them."
Marco hunts his own meat—moose, usually by drifting the rivers in a canoe; bear, when he sees one; once a caribou far up in the Ogilvies. He uses either a 30/30 Marlin or, preferably, a .303 Enfield—"hits harder, and shells don't cost so much," he says. He snares snowshoe hares and ptarmigan. During the salmon run he strings a gill net in the Yukon River or in the Klondike, which empties into the Yukon on the outskirts of Dahv-son; last year he killed 500 dog salmon to feed his team, and a few king salmon for himself. "I have enough kings so I can sell some," he says. "You know restaurant in Dahv-son called Midnight Sun? They serve fresh king salmon. They buy from me for $1 a pound, sell for $9 a steak. Is criminal, but what can you do?"
Marco's life isn't all hunting, trapping, scavenging for berries and mushrooms, running traplines or gill nets. He spends some of his time cutting the five cords of firewood he runs through his stove—a former 55-gallon oil drum rigged out with legs, door and flue—each year and some painting landscapes, taking photographs with a 35mm camera, making jewelry and tattooing people. "I do good work," he says, talking of his tattoos as he rolls up his sleeves to show his craftsmanship. "Use hand needle, not the electric. Get better colors that way, more shades, more subtle."
During the long hard winter, Marco, like most people who live in this icebound land, spends a lot of time reading and sleeping. Wake up at about 11 a.m., with the sunrise, and feed the dogs, chop wood, eat a big breakfast. Then back to bed for a two-hour nap. Then maybe read a bit. (Literacy, it seems, improves with latitude in North America.) Then chop more wood, cook supper, eat, feed dogs, back to sleep. Once, during his first winter in the Klondike, Marco decided to walk into town for the mail. It was a warm day—clear, windless and a toasty minus 30°—so he wore only mukluks, longhandles, Levi's, woolen pants, wool shirt and down-filled parka. On his hands he had cotton gloves covered with fur mitts. He picked up his mail and then bumped into some friends who bought him a few beers. By the time he left town for the eight-mile hike back home, it was 3 p.m. and the sun was setting. Not that it ever really rises during midwinter in that latitude; at best it barely eases, pink and tiny, above the horizon to render a few brief, weak hours of light. "Halfway back I find I have to—you know—get rid of that beer," Marco says. "Is very cold. By time I get my gloves off, my hands too numb to work zipper. I get it open, though, and do the job. Then my fingers too numb to close zipper. I walk on best I can. When I get to cabin is dead dark, iron cold outside. I cannot fit key in lock—you damn American locks so hard to turn! I figure I'm finish now. Finally, I remember stick hands in armpits, warm them up. Barely get lock open. Build fire. Safe."
By now we have left the upper Klondike and climbed out of the spruce forest into the foothills of the 4,000-foot Ogilvie Range. The bare, blue mountains slope up from sparsely wooded stream beds—small spruce and quaking aspen, just beginning to go golden with the onset of fall—into high, dry sheep country. Off to the left rears Tombstone Mountain, a bleak slab. As Marco talks and I translate inside my head, I've adhered to the unwritten rule of this road: don't drive faster than 40 mph and watch out for sharp stone. Now the road looks so smooth and gently bended that I unconsciously pick up the pace. We are perhaps 60 miles from the Klondike crossing when the Dempster Rattlesnake strikes. Pop. Hisssssssss.
It's the left rear tire—a heavily treaded, 10-inch-wide Goodyear Tracker AT, fine off-the-road rubber for our Ford Bronco, but a sucker for this highway's sharp teeth. The gaps in the tread are wide enough to allow the bigger pieces of shale in. We pull over on a wide spot in the road. There are not very many of these, the road being, for the most part, shoulderless, having been built up six feet on a steep berm above the surrounding tundra.
As Marco and I change the tire we notice a plume of dust rising fast on the hilly horizon. It's a tanker truck, at speed. "Let's get this bastard lugged down!" The wrench spins like an airplane propeller, and we take off just as the truck tops the ridge behind us, the driver not backing off a bit, though we can see him looking at us through the flash of his windscreen. We pour down through a chain of sweeping esses into a valley drained by the Blackstone River, and as we climb up the far side the truck falls far behind. We begin to relax and settle back into the steady, sub-40 pace. I notice that one of my knuckles is red and black—a nick from a tire lug. We top a gentle rise, and on the left as we start down a straightaway, we see a small car lying on its back in the tundra, its front wheels still turning, catching the light. A pretty blonde young woman stands beside the car, her blue eyes wide with shock, her mouth limp. A tall man is moving behind the car, a yellow Fiat 128. "We're all right," says the woman in a monotone as I stop the truck. "It just happened."
The car reeks of gasoline; the pale fluid is still gushing down into the overturned body of the Fiat, and we help the young couple drag their gear out of harm's way, first making sure that the ignition switch is off. Boxes of food, sleeping bags, a tent, air mattresses, bottled water, warm beer, fishing tackle—we stack it all at the road's edge. Blackflies swarm around us in a nipping cloud, buzzing our eyes, our ears, our noses. Marco points to the raw black groove in the tundra cut by the couple's car as it did its half-somersault off the road; the moss and lichen are peeled back as neatly as the skin on my knuckle was when I hit the tire lug.
"Blackfly like fresh dirt," he says. "Maybe they come to the cool."
By now two other cars have stopped, and together with their occupants, we push the litle Fiat back onto its wheels. At least the gasoline has stopped flowing. I hear the guttural roar of the tanker truck coming up on us and run back up on the rise to flag it down. Maybe the crew can radio for help.
"Sorry, pal," says the truck driver once he has stopped. "We're in a blind spot here—no radio contact until we get to Mile 90, up the road a piece. Anyway, it would cost them $400 to get towed out of here."
We check out the car's engine and it seems to be undamaged, although the top of the car is six inches lower than it was a few minutes ago and the windshield has popped out and shattered.
The blonde woman's name is Karin Runge. She and her companion, Hans Peter Boehme, are visitors from Germany. They have driven the Fiat all the way from Vancouver—2,770 miles—without incident. "And now this happens," says Karin dully. "The car is ganz kaput." She was driving when it happened. The left front tire blew; the car lurched to the left, carrying the left side of the front end over the steep berm. Leverage did the rest, as neatly as a judo master.
"Just wait until the gas dries out," the truck driver says. "You've got food and water and it's a nice day. If you can't get her started, I'll be back through this evening and give you a lift back to Dawson." In the North, people take care of one another. If you see anyone stopped on a road, you stop and ask if they are all right. It works both ways.
From the accident scene the road begins a slow, steady climb into the Ogilvies, a beautifully engineered stretch that rises only 30 feet to the mile and needs no switchbacks. The mountains, small by Western standards—only 4,000 feet at their tallest—begin to shoulder in. It's dry, wind-sculpted sheep country with eerie erosion pillars called hoodoos sprouting from the mountainsides. We stop to pick some low-bush cranberries and blueberries and take a beer break. Looking up at one ridge ragged with hoodoos, Marco says, "Like a ruined castle." It would come as no great surprise to see a mail-clad monster rise from behind the shattered towers.
We cross the Ogilvie River, flowing in from the west clear and fast and teeming with Arctic grayling. There is a highway maintenance camp at the crossing that sells gas, for $1.60 an imperial gallon, and repairs tires, but it closes at 5 p.m. and we are already later than that. We don't need the gas, anyway; there is a station at Eagle Plains, an hour and a half north, where we plan to stay overnight. We stop at a likely looking eddy on the Ogilvie and rig up a fly rod. In Alaska the grayling love black gnats, and I tie on a No. 16. The first cast into the eddy's edge produces a rolling strike—the grayling's lavender-and-black-spotted dorsal showing like a sail as it hooks up. This one is a jumper, as are the four others I take on subsequent short casts. Five fish on five casts. Virgin waters. We wonder how long it will last.
A hunting ban has been imposed in a corridor that extends five miles from either side of the Dempster in the Yukon Territory, four miles in the Northwest Territories, but fishing is permitted from roadside. The hunting ban means, in effect, no hunting at all for Dempster travelers: the country is so boggy—and buggy—that if you were to kill a moose or a caribou outside the corridor, you could never get it back to the road before most of the meat spoiled. Drifting the Ogilvie River, though, could be very productive for both hunting and fishing. From the point where it crosses the Dempster, the Ogilvie and the Peel River (which it feeds) flow some 700 miles to the next road crossing, at the Peel River Ferry on the Dempster. Four hundred of those miles are white water; there is game all through that country and fish at every drop of the fly.
But we push on up the road, the Ogilvie River sloping off" to the east and the highway climbing out of the sculptured valley onto a high, spruce-grown, featureless erosion plain. We are now north of the line where the great icy backhoe of the last glaciation did its work: this land is in virtually the same shape it was at the beginning of the Pleistocene. Off in the distance, in the late, slanting light, something big and silver gleams. When we come up on it, it proves to be a series of disused tanks, which had stored diesel fuel while the highway was being built. "Garbage," says Marco disgustedly. "Government say it clean up. Never does."
Toward dark, at a point 231 miles north of the Klondike Crossing, we come to the Eagle Plains Hotel, a new, well-appointed 32-unit lodge complete with restaurant, cocktail lounge, country music on the jukebox, television and a full-service gas station, where I drop off our punctured tire for a quick patch job. The lobby and lounge walls are hung with photographs illustrating the two great legends of this country: the Lost Patrol and the Mad Trapper of Rat River. Over a cold beer and a hot meal, Marco fills me in on them.
The Lost Patrol was a team of four Royal Northwest Mounties who were deputed to carry the mail from Herschel Island in the Beaufort Sea, via Fort McPherson on the Peel River, to Dawson in the winter of 1911. They didn't get far. Following a dispute with their Indian guide over wages, Inspector Francis J. Fitzgerald, the patrol's leader, decided that his team should find its own way south from Fort McPherson. The party got lost in the brutal cross-hatch of mountains near the Hart Divide on the Little Wind River, west of Eagle Plains. With temperatures ranging down to 80-below and food running out, the men ate their dog team and then resigned themselves to death. They wrote their last wills and testaments and froze, except for one man who shot himself, perhaps to resist the call of cannibalism. In late February of that year Corporal W. J. D. Dempster of the Mounties was ordered to find the lost patrol. That he did on March 22, after a feat of tracking and trailing through wicked weather that has rarely been matched. Jack Dempster lived to a ripe old age, but not long enough to see the highway named for him open to softies like us.
Marco is not much moved by the tale of the Lost Patrol. The tragedy of the Mad Trapper, though, excites his imagination, and indeed it is a story that London would have loved. Albert Johnson, a loner and a trapper, showed up on the Rat River northwest of Fort McPherson in the fall of 1931. He was a small, blond man, only 5'9" and 150 pounds, but a tough one. He built a cabin, set his trap-line and stayed clear of other people—a fairly easy matter in the almost empty Loucheux Indian country. In December of that year, an Indian named William Nerysoo complained to the Mounties that Johnson was springing his traps and hanging them on trees, and a patrol was sent to question Johnson. He welcomed the Mounties with gunfire, and a six-week chase ensued, punctuated with four fire-fights at 40-below that left one Mountie dead and three wounded. Johnson, after being dynamited out of his cabin, took off for the Alaska border several hundred miles away across the Richardson Mountains. He stayed clear of the passes through those bleak 6,000-foot peaks and—wearing snowshoes that weighed 10 pounds apiece and toting a 200-pound pack, along with three guns—scaled the Richardsons and was descending toward the Indian settlement of Old Crow before the Mounties caught up with him on an oxbow of the Eagle River. It was only by using an airplane—a Bellanca piloted by World War I hero "Wop" May, who together with the R.C.A.F.'s Roy Brown shot down the Red Baron—that the Mounties got their man. Even then he died hard. Hit six times by bullets as he lay in the snow at midriver, Johnson returned the Mounties' fire until a seventh slug severed his spine. His death photograph—a face grimacing with pain and defiance—adorns the wall of the Eagle Plains cocktail lounge. In his pack when he died were a dead squirrel and a dead whiskey jack—his meal for that night, had he lived. We were eating roast beef.
"He was not mad," says Marco. "He only want to be left alone. I know the feeling. That was some man, that Mad Trapper. They should name the highway for him." We retire for a nightcap in the Spike Millen Cocktail Lounge, which is named for the Mountie constable killed by the Mad Trapper.
The next morning we push off through the Richardsons: dreary, windswept, rolling country reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, the stomping grounds of the tundra grizzly and the Barren Ground caribou. A few thickets of spruce and dwarf willow clog the few creek bottoms, and red-stalked fireweed blows its "Arctic cotton" from seeps and springs on the gray-green-purple hillsides. Some 20 miles north of Eagle Plains is the Arctic Circle, marked here by a huge truck tire painted orange and mounted on an A-frame. The tire is covered with graffiti scrawled by the venturesome few who have made it this far north on the Dempster. One sample reads:
TRAFFIC PATTERNS REVERSED
CHURCH PICNICS TERRORIZED
SAILBOAT RACES DISRUPTED
OBSCENE SKYWRITING OUR SPECIALTY
We tape a bottle of Labatt's Blue beer to the post, labeling it: FOR EMERGENCY ONLY. YUKON ORANGE JUICE.
From here north by east to the Peel River ferry crossing the country is so huge and naked, so tough and cold—even under bright Arctic sunlight—as to subdue conversation. Only our dust plume, quickly dissipated by the wind, marks the fact that we are actually here. I try to imagine crossing this wasteland on 10-pound snowshoes in the dead of winter, a dead squirrel and a whiskey jack in my pocket—impossible. Then, at a spot where the road widens at the top of a flat ridge to provide an emergency landing strip for light planes, we see something alive—a big black bear standing about 200 yards off the road in the midst of the tundra. We stop and stare at the bear. He stares back for a minute or two, then swaps ends and gallops back down the bare mountain the way he had come, awkward and swift in the same instant. We watch him diminish to a black dot on a gray screen.
"What was he doing here?"
"Traveling," says Marco. "Like us. Bears like to get out and around, see the country, move."
Actually, apart from the bear, this section of the road proved disappointing when it came to readily viewable wildlife. Except for the odd, cracker-crunching marmot who invaded our campsite at every stop; the wheeling, whiterumped flight of bald eagles over every bald peak; and, of course, the inevitable Canada Jay (or whiskey jack, or camp robber—same bird regardless of name, each as pugnacious as the last—one of whom made so bold as to perch on my head during one stop) there was little to see but tundra, rock and hard-blue sky.
Now the Dempster begins its long, looping slalom run down to the Peel River drainage, and soon we are back in thick, short spruce forest. The Peel was, until mid-July of this year when the ferry began operating, the end of the line running north on the Dempster. We wait on a crudely graded ramp for the ferry to cross the deep, green water. There is an Indian fishing camp here, and slabs of pale meat are air-drying on wooden racks. The smell of smoked fish and diesel exhaust fills our truck. On the far side of the crossing we take a break. An old Indian is mending a gill net beside the landing. Tethered huskies bark and snap beside the smoke rack.
The old Indian turns out to be William Nerysoo, who had blown the whistle on Albert Johnson 48 years before, thus triggering the hunt for the Mad Trapper.
"Oh, yes, I used to hunt and trap all this country when I was a young man," he says, his smile showing that he still has all his teeth. "I'm 84 years old now, but the country has changed less than I have. I used to take my wife and kids with me up over the Richardsons in the winter, hunt and trap around the Eagle River country. Had a team of five or six good dogs. When I had enough meat and furs, I'd leave the family behind and mush over the Ogilvies down to Dawson. It was 1914 or '15 that I first saw Dawson—a nice little town then, nice people. I'd sell my meat and furs and buy clothing for the family, then sled back up the mountain.
"Albert Johnson? Oh, yes, I was on the hunt for him. Quite a man he was. Led us a hard chase, he did. Why he should have made such a fight of it, no one will ever know. The Mounties never found out who he was and where he came from." The old man sells us a side of smoked whitefish and we prepare to push on. I wish him another 84 years of good health. "Oh, not that much, I'm afraid," he says, laughing. "I've got another 10 to go, anyway. That ought to be enough for one man."
The country between the Peel and MacKenzie rivers—some 50 miles of it—is thick spruce forest pocketed with small, clear, bog-edged lakes that look like good water for northern pike. The road has a caked-mud feel to it. Given a splash of rain, it could be slip-sliding-away country. The ferry crossing at the confluence of the MacKenzie and the Arctic Red rivers has an aura of civilization. At the far side of the mile-wide river, as we ready the truck for the final, 70-mile dash on the smooth, well-settled road into Inuvik, a Delta taxicab pulls up. The driver, a beautiful Indian girl in a sealskin coat, gets out and carries two cases of beer to the ferryboat. Marco and I look at each other and burst out laughing.
After all those miles, all that emptiness—a taxicab lugging beer!
Inuvik is more anticlimax. A "new" city built by the Canadian government to expedite oil exploration in the MacKenzie Delta and offshore in the Beaufort Sea, it has shops, bars, hotels, elegant restaurants, an Alcohol Information and Rehabilitation Center—along with plenty of reeling drunks to justify its existence—and a church built like an igloo. Now and then a striptease artist from Edmonton flies in to liven things up of an evening. Eppridge and I decide to spend just one night here and then push back south. That empty country is calling. We'll camp along the Ogilvie for a few days, try some new flies on those grayling, perhaps prowl the dry mountains in search of sheep sign. The ferries across the MacKenzie and the Peel will be open until freeze-up, sometime in mid-October. There's plenty of time, and plenty of country.
"So you're off to do some welding," I say to Marco as we go our separate ways.
"Yes. Dahv-son is getting too crowded," he says. "I earn some money, enough to buy me a ketch. I go and sail in the South Sea for a while, I think. Like Jack London."
Some days—and only one more flat—later, having caught our fill of grayling and seen our fill of country, which has a sprinkling of snow on it as we ease down out of the Ogilvies, we drive back into Dawson City through a sun-shower. I stop the truck in the midst of the tailing piles that flank the town and—sure enough—there's a rainbow. The boulders of the tailing piles are glistening in the late light like dark gold. The rainbow arcs up from Bonanza Creek, out toward the Ogilvies and the Richardsons, up toward Inuvik. It is an apt symbol: a link between the riches of the past—gold—and the Eldorado of the present—oil. But it is the link itself, the nowhere in between, that is truly beautiful.
DISTRICT OF MACKENZIE
ARCTIC RED R
Eagle Plains Hotel
GULF OF ALASKA