37 Above 60, Part
Story and photographs by Adam Sholder
Wednesday, August 2nd
awoke the next morning, Wednesday, August 2nd, to find the campground
socked in with fog. No matter, I thought, as I had quite a day planned.
I headed out to the office that would arrange to take me about 130 kilometers
further north, to the native fishing village of Tuktoyaktuk, or Tuk,
situated right on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. I arrived at 8:30
and was told that the weather was worse in Tuk, and no planes were flying
out. The Inuit woman told me to check back in an hour. I walked next
door to the Arctic Regional Visitors Center, where a 17 year-old Inuit
girl greeted me. Jodie was a very sweet girl who liked to talk a lot
about life in Inuvik, and I loved hearing about it. She had a deep,
nasal voice, such as someone who suffers from severe allergies and asthma,
with a wickedly deviated septum to boot. And, she was a gassy, gassy
girl. At one point she told me that she wasnt feeling so well
and was having some stomach problems. No kidding. But, despite her colons
occasional interruptions, I enjoyed her talk of life during their nine-month
winters. She told me about her Skidoo (a snowmobile), beaming like a
proud parent (every home in Inuvik has at least three Skidoos parked
out front). She urged me to attend the Gwichin Feast, to be held
later that day at the Family Center. She made a cup of coffee for me,
and went on and on about life in the Far North, as she casually hand-beaded
a case for her cell phone, and farted.
At 9:30 I checked in next door about my flight, but
the weather had only worsened. The woman, distracted by her three small
children who ran amok around the office, said I should try back again
in another hour. So I returned once again to the visitor center, where
I asked Jodie to give me a tour of the interpretive displays. She told
me that her great-great grandfather was, in fact, one of the members
of the Lost Party. The same Lost Party that was found in an unfortunately
frozen state by Sergeant Jack Dempster himself. She went on to tell
of how her family just got back from a whale hunt, with a successful
catch of a Beluga. The native people of the region rely heavily upon
the land, and whale meat is no exception. Her father, her brothers,
her sister they all had boats and they all hunted. The whale
blubber is boiled in great vats to create whats known as Muktuk.
She promised to bring me some to sample the next day if it was
I checked back an hour later on my flight, with no good
news. No one was flying in this weather. I would have to try again tomorrow.
I was a bit disappointed, but I also reminded myself that things have
a way of coming together just as they should, whether we can see it
at first or not.
I wandered the town for a while, peeking into this building
and that, filming the odd corners of this unique town. I soon found
myself at the Happy Valley Campground, situated on the banks of the
river just outside downtown. I chatted with the attendant, seeing if
she knew of a place where I could rent a canoe or other boat, or if
she knew how I could get to Tuk. She happily began making calls on my
behalf, but it quickly became apparent that things happen according
to no plan or schedule up in this part of the world. Phone numbers were
no longer in service. Town maps were inaccurate. People came and went.
Despite their enthusiastic willingness to help, people simply didnt
know what or when or where or who or how. I thanked her for her efforts,
and was in my car about to move on, when she came running out, arms
waving above her head.
I think these people want to talk to you, ay?
These people were Peter and Irene Bowal. They and their
five children were camping at the park, and had overheard my attempts
to get to Tuk. They too were looking for a plane to take all seven of
them. We decided that, with my inclusion, we should be able to charter
someone to get us there. Peter, a law professor at the University of
Calgary, wearing a large floppy hat and a mosquito-netting jacket, was
immediately on the pay phone trying to work it out. Warm and soft-spoken,
he was talking with Roger up in Tuk, reviewing our options, while I
chatted with Irene. Things went back and forth for a while until it
looked as if we may all be able to get on a plane at 6:00 that evening,
but would need to stay in Tuk at least overnight, and maybe until Friday
morning. This was acceptable by all of us, but the weather was still
a factor. Roger, the voice on the other end of the phone, was going
to work on it, and also try to find someone with a boat. Meanwhile,
Peter and I agreed to meet in an hour to ring Roger back for a status
update. I ran into town for lunch, and enjoyed a musk-ox burger for
lunch with a side of poutine, and was back at the payphone an hour later.
Peter and I both spoke with Roger, who had a deep, warm, and wise voice,
but things werent looking good. Only a few planes were flying,
and those few seats were filled with locals. I would have to try tomorrow.
I thanked Peter for his time and effort, we exchanged business cards,
and we wished each other luck on our adventures.
I continued exploring the town, including a stop in
the community greenhouse where I met a woman from Finland. She would
spend a few months every year in Inuvik, doing research on a proposed
gas pipeline through the region. While in town, she kept a small plot
at the greenhouse, growing carrots and tomatoes and the like. We chatted
for a while, before I wandered back across town and stepped into the
Igloo Church. I showed up just in time for a short docent-led tour,
and, as I entered the chapel, I found myself face-to-face with my brand-new
Canadian friends, the Bowals, who enthusiastically greeted me as if
we were all old chums. They and their brood were there for the tour,
which we all enjoyed together as the docent informed us of its
interesting history. After the tour I went on to stroll through the
enormous family center, which housed many meeting rooms, game rooms,
and an Ice Hockey rink, as I attempted to find the Gwichin feast.
Again, no one I met knew exactly where or when it was happening. I continued
on like this for some time, wandering the town, talking with the locals,
talking with the few tourists, and just exploring the area. I came across
a small grassy area near the river, strewn with a few picnic tables
and scavenging Ravens. Sitting atop one of the picnic tables at an odd
angle was a wooden chair. I took the chair down to the shores of the
river and found a spot to sit. Two dogs briefly joined me, splashing
around in the water. Their owner and her friend stopped to chat a while
as they passed by my way.
I sat for a few hours, contemplating all that one contemplates
when sitting alone in nature by a river. I imagined this land in the
winter, covered completely by a blanket of pure white. The McKenzie
River, when frozen solid in late December, becomes an ice road upon
which one can drive all the way to Tuk. I imagined the Northern Lights
dancing their multi-colored way across the ever-darkened sky. I considered
coming back here in the winter to witness all of this first hand. I
also considered my options for getting to Tuk, realizing that I may
not get there the next day either. John Steinbeck said, A journey
is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control
it. I decided as I sat there on that shore, that if I couldnt
get to the Arctic Ocean the next day, then I would have to delay my
return trip home until I could get there. I simply couldnt come
this far and not make it the last few miles to the Ocean.
As the day drew to a close, I ended up at the Peppermill
restaurant in the Finto Lodge, where I sampled some local Arctic Char.
I reflected on how sometimes staying away from the popular vacation
spots and tourist traps, and simply finding a unique place in the world
and getting to know the locals is where one can really find the true
value of travel. Today was truly an example of that.
It was a great way to spend my 37th birthday.
My Birthday Chair
Despite another foggy morning, the next afternoon I
found myself in the one-room airport in Inuvik, waiting to board the
single-prop, six-passenger Cessna 205. Our pilot, Simon, who couldnt
have been more than 20 years old, came out of the back room and collected
us for the 40-minute flight. I boarded along with a few fellow travelers,
including Andrew and his Belgium-born wife Marie-Anche, who reside in
Victoria, British Columbia, as well as Jean-Pierre and his wife, visiting
from France. We taxied down the dirt runway and we were off, finally,
towards the Arctic Ocean. We climbed to 2500 feet, and from this vantage
point the true scope of the terrain became apparent. No trees, no mountains,
no sign of humankind for as far as the eye could see, which was quite
far in this flat landscape. Nothing but tundra and what must have been
ten thousand lakes of every shape and size in all directions. As we
flew further Northwest, following the delta, the green patches of tundra
began to shrink, while the blue glacial lakes grew bigger, until, at
last, sitting on a relatively small scrap of tundra, was the native
fishing village of Tuktoyaktuk, with the Arctic Ocean spreading out
beyond it to the horizon. We landed on the precarious gravel runway
I had finally made it.
Once inside the small, pre-fab building that served
as the airport, Roger, the voice on the phone from the previous day,
greeted me. He was a large native man, who perfectly matched his deep,
Welcome to Tuktoyaktuk, Adam.
How he knew it was me stepping off of that plane I was
never quite sure. I was also warmly greeted by, yet again, Peter Bowal
and his wife Irene and their pack of five, who made it in on a flight
just before me. They would be staying until Saturday, borrowing Rogers
truck to get around, and his trailer to sleep. Roger escorted us by
van to various sites in his town, and discussed life this far north.
This was a true fishing village, with tumbledown wooden smokehouses
lining the small harbor. 500 Inuit and Gwichin call this place
home, year round, and while the modern world has managed to make its
way all the way up here, they still live very much a traditional life.
The highlight of the trip was making it to the shores
of the Beaufort Sea on the Arctic Ocean. Despite the warning of cold,
40-degree water, it seemed much warmer as we walked across painful rocks
and entered the sea. I stood there for a long time, water lapping at
my legs, bending my mind around where I was and what I was doing. Not
the usual Thursday. Later, while inside the villages small church,
I asked Roger how his people could manage to walk great distances over
the spongy tundra in pursuit of elk or caribou. He placed his large
hand on my shoulder and leaned in close, as if he was about to whisper
some magical ancient Native American wisdom. He looked me dead in the
eye and simply said, Very carefully.
A few hours later we were back on the plane. This time
I sat in the front, in the co-pilots seat. Simon the Pilot told
us that we would fly out over the Ocean, then pick up the river and
follow it all the way back to Inuvik. We sped down the landing strip
and were off over the Arctic waters. A few minutes into the flight,
Simon leaned over to me and asked, You wanna fly the plane, ay?
Without hesitation I grabbed the yoke. I must admit that my father is
a private pilot, and I have some experience flying small planes. However,
our pre-pubescent pilot was not privy to this information when he asked
me to take control. I thought maybe it was his nappy-time and he had
to go sleepy-bye. Whatever his reasons for deputizing me a bush pilot,
he pointed off in the distance and said, Head for that lake.
With a thousand lakes in all directions I had no idea to which one he
Which lake? I asked.
That one, ay.
Still, no clue. I banked the plane in the general direction
in which he was pointing until at last I saw the river. He told me to
follow the river all the way back, which I did. So there I was, flying
this Cessna 205, at 150 mph, 1500 feet over the wild Arctic Tundra.
Was this really happening? I wondered if the four passengers in the
back could see that their fate was now in my hands. I flew from Tuk
all the way back to Inuvik. I swear this child-pilot would have let
me land the bird if I hadnt insisted on handing the controls back
over to him so I could get some footage of Inuvik from the sky. We touched
down safely, if not a bit roughly, at the Inuvik airport (my co-pilot
admitted it may have been a smoother landing if I had stayed with the
controls). I headed back to the Finto Lodge for my last dinner in town.
Just as I sat at my table in this small restaurant that
doubled as the hotels lounge, Andrew and Marie-Anche, my fellow
flight passengers, walked in and I suggested we all dine together. Over
dinner, I learned that they work as consultants, modeling various trends
on vast areas of land in Western Canada. He had recently completed work
trying to determine if the Spruce Beetle infestation of Eastern British
Columbia would migrate to the west. He told me that it definitively
turns out the little pests may, or may not migrate west. Okay then.
We talked about ecology and the environment and politics
as we enjoyed our dinner and the local beer. I learned that Canada has
allowed the native peoples of the vast territorial regions of the country
to not only continue to live on the same land as their ancestors have
for millennia, but to also co-govern these territories. As recently
as 10 years ago, the Canadian government split the Northwest Territory
in two, giving half back to the Inuvaluiat people, an area now known
as Nunuvat. The indigenous people continue to live a traditional lifestyle
in harmony with other Canadians of the region, as well as owning cooperative
businesses such as supermarkets, banks, and airlines.
After dinner I made my way back to camp, where I stayed
up as late as I could, watching the midnight sun work its way
slowly across the sky, illuminating this hauntingly beautiful delta
at the top of the world.
Back to Whitehorse
I spent the next morning at the deserted campsite, enjoying
the peace and quiet and scenery, and slowly packing up my gear for the
flight back to Whitehorse. I donated some items that I would no longer
need to the camp attendant, trying to lighten my load. This included
my red and white Canadian cooler, purchased only a week ago, some D-cell
batteries, my can of Gunk tire repair, and a few bottles of Gatorade.
By noon I was again at the airport and ready to board my plane for the
2½-hour trip, via a short stop in Dawson.
The airport provides no security whatsoever no
metal detectors, x-ray machines, or security guards. You can keep your
mukluks on, and you dont have to take your laptop out of your
sled-bag. There is, however, a large, stuffed Polar bear in the middle
of the small waiting area an intimidating deterrent to all would-be
Arctic terrorists. As we exited the terminal to board, an elderly native
man stepped in front of me. The attendant asked for his boarding card,
but he simply shook his hand at her and grunted. She allowed him to
pass without further question, and this brazen stowaway boarded the
plane directly in front me.
Although the gleaming silver 34-seat twin prop airplane
looked sturdy from the outside, the inside was another story. Duct tape
held together cracked walls. There were burn marks, chips and gouges,
missing screws and buttons, ripped-up carpet decor you generally
DONT like to see inside an airplane. I wondered if the maintenance
of the inside of the plane in any way reflected the maintenance of the
far more crucial outside of the plane. A few people didnt bother
to fasten their seatbelts, and a child played in the aisle. The plane
sounded more like a Warner Bros. cartoon character than something supposed
to be dependably airworthy. And, it was if Mel Blanc himself voiced
the starting of the engine of this airship. It sputtered and choked
and coughed and spat and wheezed and buzzed and sounded like Sylvester
the Cat having a grand mal.
Once airborne it was a surprisingly smooth flight. I
caught glimpses of the Dempster Highway and even a look at the Peel
River ferry and Fort McPherson as we headed for Dawson. Ninety minutes
later we touched down in a disturbingly narrow canyon. We all had to
disembark while they refueled the plane. Ten minutes later the flight
attendant announced, If youre going to Whitehorse, follow
me. We followed her back on the plane, picking up a few more people
for the ride. This takeoff was a bit rough, as evidenced by the young
girl behind me who filled not one, not two, but three barf bags. I donated
mine, and my bottle of water to the cause, as her grandmother wiped
beads of sweat from her green forehead. Things eventually smoothed out,
and we flew through a blanket of cloud cover until we landed in Whitehorse
an hour later, in the pouring rain.
Slim, Bob, and Caribou Stew
I decided to rent a car for the remainder of the wet
afternoon, and after I checked into my hotel I drove around Whitehorse
proper, investigating its funky little corners. I stopped at the worlds
largest wooden fish ladder, and watched some Chinook Salmon dance around
in the water for a bit. It finally stopped raining but it was chilly
and a cold wind was blowing. I ended my day at Yukon Rib & Salmon.
Soon after I was seated, Slim and Bob entered the joint. Slim, and Bob.
As the place was a bit crowded and I was alone at a table for four,
I offered to share the table. Slim, an older gentleman, had grown up
in the Territories, and worked the McKenzie River in Yellowknife as
a young man (where you can still work a river). Now he spends
his time flying his plane with his son. His pal Bob, as it turns out,
was the president of Norcon, the company from which I rented the SUV
for the trip. I thanked him for the excellent customer service, and
sung the praises of the vehicle that served as my home for the last
week. For my final sampling of Northern cuisine I enjoyed Caribou stew
with bannock bread, and another few bottles of Arctic Red.
After dinner I walked over to the 20-hour store behind
my hotel and purchased a fine Cuban cigar. As I was fighting the wind
to light my smoke with a match, a small Rastafarian man appeared out
of the mist and produced a gold lighter. As he held the lighter in place
while I lit my cigar he said, A tourist sees what he expects to
see, but a traveler sees what he sees. I thanked him for the light
and he assured me, No fuckin problem, ay. As I walked
away I questioned the experience for a brief moment, getting a little
mystical, wondering if this little Arctic Rasta had been watching over
me the whole time. I turned around to catch another glimpse of him,
but he was gone.
I enjoyed my cigar while strolling through the brisk
streets of Whitehorse. It was the darkest evening I had experienced
in a week. After the Summer Solstice, the region plummets headfirst
towards its two-week autumn at the beginning of September, losing five
minutes of sunlight every day. I wandered the streets enjoying a significant
Cuban tobacco buzz, and reflected on my past week. I thought of the
many people I had met, and the sturdy, brave, and friendly souls that
inhabit the region, not just enduring the harsh conditions, but actually
enjoying them. As my vacation was winding down, I was already feeling
the familiar fires stir for my next adventure. It would only be a few
short months before I would lose myself in the jungles of Central America.
As for this night, the last on my journey, I finished my cigar as it
started to rain again. The clouds darkened the sky and I could have
almost called it night, except for a sliver of purple light that remained
in the sky to the west.
Above 60, Part I: You’re Going Where?; A
Return to Alsaka; Alaska
Marine Highway; The
Frigid Temperatures of Alaskas Mighty Interior; In
My Wildest Dreams; Dalton
Highway and Prudhoe Bay; Sitka
By The Sea; An
Expedition to the Norwegian Arctic