Thursday's wait for the Dempster Highway to reopen drifts into Friday which then slides into Saturday. Idling around typically doesn't sit well with me but under the circumstances I'm resigned to the situation and grateful for the rest. I haven't had more than 4 hours of sleep since leaving Tsiigehtchic last Saturday and am exhausted. The rest is appreciated.
On Sunday morning the Dempster Highway reopens. The NWT Tourist Centre tells me the road is in very rough condition and that the ferry crossing over the Peel River at Fort McPherson is still not operational but I decide to head out anyway. I'd prefer get the bulk of the Dempster behind me and wait at the Peel River crossing rather than remaining in Dawson and wondering if conditions will deteriorate again.
I stock up with food, fill up with gas and head out.
I quickly discover battlefields of potholes still pepper the road and there are ruts everywhere but the surface is dry and the conditions manageable.
The section of road that overflowed and stranded me on Wednesday is now passable but very beat up. Scars have scoured deep channels down the edges of the roadway and wood debris is everywhere. Work crews have reinforced the eroded edges with piles of stone and have built up the driving surface with gravel. This is only one of 15 washouts on the Dempster and, from what I've heard, is far from the worst.
Over the next several hours I see that reports are correct. The volume of runoff that swept this landscape is evidenced by the way it ravaged it. Huge swaths of road have been erased and are now being reconstructed. Eroded and ragged gullies snake everywhere. I'm lucky I didn't try to push through last week.
By the time I reach the outpost of Eagle Plains the washouts have disappeared and the roadway has become very driveable. I roll into the gas station and a young attendant dressed in black strides out.
"Fill'er up, sir?" he asks.
"Yes, thanks," I reply, "You've had a crazy busy today I bet!?" I ask.
"No, no," he replies, "You're only the third fill-up I've had. The rain's been nuts. Been rolling through in waves. Never seen anything like it before."
I walk into the office to pay with my credit card. A cacophony of Death Metal roars from the speakers.
"Uhhh, I can lower the music if you'd like," he says apologetically, realizing the music is still playing. "It gets very quiet around here you know."
"No worries," I say with a laugh, "I've been cranking the tunes too."
"Whatch'ya been listenin' too?," he asks.
"John Prine for the last little while," I say enthusiastically.
"Cool!," he replies, his blank expression making it very clear he's never heard of the country legend.
"You have a great trip buddy. Hope the Peel ferry opens soon for you."
The clouds roll in after I leave Eagle Plains and soon the good conditions become enveloped in a blanket of thick fog. I arrive at the Peel River just after 8:00pm and pull in behind four vehicles parked in line at the loading area. The ferry sits about 30 meters off shore with a bright orange cable leading out to it. The motor of the ferry is running and a light is on.
"It'll be a few days yet," says a man who's come down to me from his vehicle. He's parked off the road in a flatter area. "I've been here since yesterday. The water's been going down quickly but it still has a way to go."
"I see lots of debris going by," I say. There are trees and flood detritus sweeping past me as I speak. "That would be a problem I guess."
"That's an issue but the real problem is the water height. It's gone up 5 meters since the rain started...over 15 feet!"
I discover that the ferry is as close to shore as it can get. It operates on a cable stretched between the shores and has a metal ramp that lowers to the bank to allow vehicles to board.
"The water needs to drop enough that we can get on it in its current location," the man continues, "I hope you brought a book. I grabbed three in Dawson."
I head to bed. I have no sleeping bag but I'm able to make room in the back of the van to lie straight out and I have an extra Thermarest pad to lie out on. An old carpet we have in back makes for a reasonable blanket as well.
Morning brings a group from Vancouver who turn around when they hear of the delay. Two other vehicles arrive and leave through the course of the day until two large pickups pulling RV trailers rumble in behind me.
"We're here to install portable homes in the villages," says an easy going guy named Mike as I walk over to say hi. "We're heading up to Tsiigehtchic, Inuvik and Aklavik where the barges have left them."
"I saw one of your buildings up on blocks in Tsiigehtchic last week, I say, "The community is keen to get them up and running."
An RCMP camper truck rolls by to check on the water. I saw him on my way in. He's parked up the road a bit. I give him a wave as he heads out.
There's no cell coverage here but back up the road several kilometers at the crest of a hill I can get 2 bars. The community of Fort McPherson is on the opposite side of the Peel River and is about 15 kilometers away but the clear view from up there allows me to pick up a signal. My phone binged when I first came in and let me know of the connectivity and now I'm driving back and forth so I can talk with Nicky in Inuvik.
We're only a couple hundred kilometers apart but it might as well be a thousand considering the circumstances. Nicky tells me that people in Inuvik are routinely stopping her on the street to ask if she and the girls are the kayak family stranded in town.
"It's really amazing," says Nicky, "It's non-stop! People are so supportive. They're even offering us to stay at their homes!!"
I head to bed early and another camper arrives when I'm asleep. In the morning Mike invites me over for breakfast and introduces me to the other four men that make up his team.
"Coffee? Pancakes? Bacon?" he offers as I head into the camper.
"Yes!...Please!...Thank you!," I say, "I can't believe my luck."
We spend the next several hours relaxing and chatting about the north, about the sense of community here, about politics and even about religion. The taboo topics wash over us and we still manage to finish up friends.
"Here, have some more coffee," says Phil as I ready myself to leave the camper, "Drop by whenever you want more!"
No sooner have I stepped out of the the camper do I find myself chatting with a couple from Princeton, BC who are also heading to Inuvik. Mandy, Jamie and their son are relaxed about the wait and are enjoying the social nature of the stop.
"It's not so bad really," says Jamie, "You get to meet new people and you get to hang out up north. That's why we came anyway."
"Hey, maybe we could start our own village on this side," I joke. "We certainly have a good group of people to do it with."
"Would you like to join us for supper?," asks Mandy, "We'll be firing up the barbecue at 6:00pm"
And so goes my stay in our new community of Peel River Ferry Crossing South - making new friends, easy conversations, enjoying a moment in time.
Word trickles in from the ferry captain that it'll be at least another day before the boat starts moving but thankfully for us Nicky has been figuring things out at her end too. She's met a wonderful woman named Peggy in town who insisted she and the girls spend the day at her house and now has offered to drive them and the boats to Fort McPherson today.
"We can just paddle the kayaks across the Peel River when you get here," I say enthusiastically, "I can jump a ride on a motor boat to get over to you guys when you arrive."
It's 9:30pm when I receive a text from Nicky.
"Arrived in McPherson :)"
It's not long before I see a truck on the far side and kayaks being unloaded. A motorboat departs and soon I'm helping Caitlin and Arianna off the bow.
"Welcome to your new home girls," I joke, "How was it all?"
The girls are just smiling. I can see by their expressions they're happy and relieved that we're back together.
I return with the motorboat and reunite with Nicky.
"Hey sweetie," I say with a smile, "We're getting close to being done!"
It's an easy 5 minute paddle to the far shore. The current has eased and we don't have to paddle upstream very far before crossing. I saw a group of canoers make the crossing a few hours earlier and it looked straight forward. They had finished a paddle on the Wind and Peel Rivers two days ago and have been waiting in Fort McPherson since. They're on the shore when we arrive as are Mandy and Jamie and my home builder friends. When Nicky and I slide up on shore I turn to her smiling and say,
"Welcome to your new community."
We step out on shore and before I can take off my PFD Mike and Ash of the building crew are lifting my boat onto the van. One of the canoers is helping tie the boats on too.
It's just after 11:00pm when we're packed up and ready to go. I shake hands with everyone and wish them the best on their journeys.
Nicky, Caitlin, Arianna and I get into the van and take a communal sigh of relief. We did it, we paddled the Mackenzie River, we've realized a dream we've had for years, we've come together as a family stronger than I'd ever thought possible, we've experienced something we'll cherish the rest of our lives.
I start the van, turn to my tired looking crew and smile.
"Let's go home."