Arianna was right, a new adventure has just begun. We’ve arrived in Inuvik and our vehicle is not here. It was scheduled to arrive the week of August 29th but there’s no guarantee of that either. We’re simply at the mercy of the barge company that is shipping it.
We set up camp at the Happy Valley Campground, about a 10 minute walk from the boat launch. We have so much gear that we need to call a taxi to help us transport it. We’ll leave the boats down by the water for now but will look into a way of getting them up to the campground as soon as we can. It looks like we’re going to be in Inuvik for a while and we don’t want to risk leaving our kayaks unattended for long. It’s late - past midnight already - and we’re tired and haven’t eaten yet. We do a quick run up to main street to a 24 hour convenience store and buy bread, cheese and salads. We’re not in our sleeping bags until near 3:00am.
I rise early and call NTCL, the barge company shipping our boat, and enquire to where our vehicle is.
“Your van is still in the yard,” says the NTCL employee from Hay River, her voice sounding frazzled, “We’re loading the barge now. What do you want to do?”
“Don’t load it, please,” I say with emphasis, “Leave it where it is. Don’t load it.”
I need to get to Hay River. I'll drive the vehicle up to Inuvik. It's our only choice. I start making calls. Booking a flight out of an Arctic community can be a stressful affair. Prices are extremely high and availability is poor. I call a travel agent in Hay River to help me out and by pure luck fall on the most helpful person there is.
“Top of the World Travel,” says the woman on the other end of the line, “Cindy Romanow speaking. How can I help you?”
“Hi Cindy,” I say, “Let me tell you my dilemma...”
And so goes my explanation, a flurry of uninterrupted talk for the next 5 minutes, likely a jet engine wash of words for Cindy but she listens patiently and quickly eases my concerns.
“I’ll get you out today,” she says, “I have a 1:15pm to Yellowknife I can get you on. You’ll connect there to Hay River. You’ll be in at 5:00pm. I’ll see what I can do about the price. Sound OK?”
“OK?! I say, “Sounds fantastic!!”
A call from Cindy 15 minutes later has me booked and set to go.
“Get to the airport now,” says Cindy, “You don’t have much time. I know the folks down at NTCL. I’ll grab your van for you and meet you at the airport with it. See you at 5:00pm”
I can’t believe my ears. Not only has Cindy booked me the cheapest flight possible out of Inuvik, she intends to go over to the barge company in Hay River to pick up my vehicle for me this afternoon and then she’s going to come to the airport to pick me up with it. I didn’t ask her to do this, she’s doing it because she wants too. Again, northern hospitality at its finest.
My flight from Inuvik to Yellowknife is an interesting one simply because of the woman I’m seated beside. She’s carrying a drybag and a small backpack and looks like she’s come back from an adventure.
“Did you just finish a trip?” I ask
“Yea, I just flew out of Paulatuk,” she says, “I was on a kayak expedition but had an injury and had to come out.”
“You were kayaking the Horton River I take it?,” I say.
“No, no, we were trying to paddle the Northwest Passage,” she says. “I had a bad infection in my hand and needed to come out. My teammates are still out there"
She must have thought I had a mild stroke for my expression. “You’re kidding?! You were part of that team?!”
“You heard about it?!,” she says with genuine surprise.
“I was part of the team that tried to row the passage in 2013,” I say, “I was very aware of your expedition.”
"Really?!, she says, "I know all about that trip."
I discover that Emily Cole is an Albertan canoe guide who works out of Alaska. She and her three teammates are attempting to kayak the Northwest Passage and are experiencing everything I’d expect they'd experience - brutal winds, wild weather and dark uncertainty. The Northwest Passage is an environment so raw and savage that just existing in it feels challenging enough. Another woman has replaced her on her team and they'll be starting out of Paulatuk soon. They have tempered their objective and are no longer attempting the full Passage but are now aiming for the hamlet of Kugluktuk at the mouth of the Coppermine River - a bold objective in its own right.
“I’ll be following along,” I tell her, as we bid farewell in Yellowknife.
It’s a quick hopper flight to Hay River with a heart in the mouth cross wind landing and Cindy is waiting for me as I disembark.
“You must be Kevin,” she says extending her hand in greeting. “Here’s the key to your vehicle. Do you mind dropping me home.”
“Of course,” I say, laughing in disbelief that she’d ask, “I can’t believe how helpful you’ve been to me. It’s so above and beyond what I’d ever expect.”
“It’s no problem,” she says, “It’s what we do.”
I drop Cindy off at her house. Her husband Tom lays out the best route I should take north, they feed me food, provide me with a map and set me up with a jerry can for the extra fuel I’ll need for the journey. I may have got the poor deal from a barge company but any sense of dejection they created has been erased by the incredible hospitality of Cindy and Tom.
By the time I reorganize the car, fill up with gas and purchase food for the journey it’s 8:00pm. I arrived in Inuvik 16 hours earlier after a 35 day expedition. At this moment I had hoped to be soaking in hot tub letting the aches and grime melt from my body but instead I’m faced with a 3300 kilometer journey over rough and remote roads just to get back to where I was a few hours ago.
I elect to take the more direct but more challenging Mackenzie Highway and Liard Trail to connect to the Alaska Highway. The road is more difficult but is shorter and shorter at this point is the most appealing. The only fuel stop is in Fort Liard 600 kilometers down the road and the bulk of that road, over 500 kilometers of it in fact, is gravel and dirt.
Darkness comes earlier than I expect and true night envelopes me just after 11:00pm. I haven’t experienced real darkness in over 5 weeks and stop on occasion to grab fresh air and stare at the stars. The road is difficult and varied with some sections being fast and hard while others are soft and loose. I fish tail on one corner and feel my heart pounding through my chest. Nearing Fort Liard in complete darkness I am startled by giant black forms bounding in my periphery only to realize I’m speeding through a heard of bison. I roll into Fort Liard at 3:00am, the inn I booked a room with is all locked up and unreachable. I was looking forward to a shower - I didn’t have the opportunity to take one when I finished yesterday - but sleep comes easily in the back of my van and the bulk of this gravel section is now done. Little do I realize the real road challenge lies just ahead.