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Letters from the end of the Dempster

INUVIK, Northwest Territories ? On Aug. 24, I departed Inuvik with my wife Renie and my daughter Caroline for a day trip to our hometown of Fort McPherson, which is a two-hour drive south on the Dempster Highway.

The Dempster Highway begins at Dawson City in the Yukon and snakes through the Ogilvie Mountains to Fort McPherson in the Northwest Territories, and then on to Tsiigehtchic and finally to Inuvik. The all-weather gravel highway is about eight hundred kilometers or about five hundred miles.

The first part of the highway from Dawson to Fort McPherson contains some of the most beautiful country in the world: mountains, valleys, low rolling hills, clear mountains streams and wildlife such as Dalls sheep, caribou, moose, to name a few.

The drive from Fort McPherson to Inuvik is flat and the scenery goes on forever, or so it seems.

Anyhow, back to my trip.

In order to get from Inuvik to Fort McPherson, you have to cross the Mackenzie River by means of a diesel-powered ferry. In order to get from Fort McPherson to the outside world, you have to cross the Peel River by means of a cable-operated ferry.

I dropped my wife off with her friend, Enna, and my daughter off with her cousin, Autumn, and I was on my own for a few hours. I took a drive up into the hills and took some photos and returned.

As I was getting on the ferry, the deckhand asked if I was going back to Inuvik tonight. When I said I was, he told me that the ferry might be broken down, but it may be operating later that night. I thought nothing of it, since this is the norm up here. We tend to take things as they come and don't fret too much about the little things in life.

I phoned here, there and everywhere and the consensus was that the ferry would be operating around nine that evening.

At eight, we took off and passed some vehicles on the highway, which was a good sign. It meant that the ferry might be operating. But it also may have meant that the drivers of those southbound vehicles couldn't wait for the ferry to be fixed and were on their way back from whence they came.

When we arrived at the Mackenzie River, the ferry was moored on the Inuvik side and that was not a good sign. After a few minutes, a boat came across, and one of the people onboard was a truck driver. "I hope you brought your tent," he said.

"Oh, no," I said. "How long?"

"Tomorrow noon," he said. "That's what they say."

So me and my wife and my daughter and my other daughter, Krista, turned and headed back to Fort McPherson.

The next morning, I called the highway department's 1-800 number and was told that the ferry may be operational later that evening, so my wife and I decided to take another run into the mountains, since we'd heard that there were millions and millions of caribou up there. Actually, millions and millions in the Gwich'in lingo could mean anything from one or two to a few hundred.

The caribou are from the Porcupine Caribou herd. They winter in the Ogilvie Mountains, and then migrate to the North Slope of Alaska in the spring, and then return on their never-ending cycle of survival.

It was a beautiful day: the sun was shining and some of the leaves on the trees and shrubs were already changing color, which is the norm for this part of the country. Actually, despite the fact that it's still summer, it's really autumn up here. Winter begins in October and spring arrives in April and summer in June.

As we drove into the hills, we could see snow on the mountaintops. It fell a few days earlier, but it won't stay, not this time. We passed Midway Lake, the home of the Midway Lake Music Festival, and continued into the mountains. As we approached the Northwest Territories ? Yukon border, we saw the caribou, about six of them on the flats about four or five kilometers from the highway.The caribou, to the Gwich'in, have always been a means to survival in one of the harshest, albeit beautiful, lands in the world. They, the caribou, have been a mainstay of our diet. Without the caribou, survival and existence would be next to impossible.

On our way back to Fort McPherson ? the drive up to the border is about an hour and a half ? we stopped in at Midway Lake to find Bertha Francis and Mary Teya camping out and working with caribou meat that they'd harvested a few days earlier. Meat was hung up in the sun and over fires to dry and preserve it. I took a few pictures as my wife ate some fresh caribou meat and we had some tea made from clear mountain water. The sun was still shining, but there were scattered rain showers here and there. It was peaceful, like the good old days. But the good old days, like I've mentioned, were not so good. It was hard and time-consuming. Today, we have the luxuries of modern living: washers, dryers, running water, furnaces, microwave ovens, everything you ever need in the stores and jobs in the wage economy, for now.

But there was a time when those jobs were non-existent and being a hunter and trapper was the only life our people knew and had. Today, very few, if any, people still make their living totally on the land. The price of fur is not as good as it was before the environmentalists emerged from the primordial swamp to take away a way of life that has sustained our people for thousands and thousands of years.

Today, we have people stuck between two worlds. People who were born and raised on the land and who, at one time, must have thought they'd spend their life out on the land making a half-decent living. It isn't so. These people have very little education in the white man's system, but are experts when it comes to surviving on the land.

Anyhow, sitting with Bertha and Mary, made me think of how much things have changed in the last three decades. Our people moved off the land and into the wage economy, and then into the twentieth century where we remain, despite it being the twenty-first century.

It also reminded me of when I was young and used to spent summers with my grandfather and grandmother at their fish camp up the Peel River. Time meant nothing to us back then, at least when we were there.

I remember eating fish, fried, boiled, roasted and dried. I also remember sitting in a warm tent when it rained and watching my grandmother make bannock, cooking fish, while my grandfather told stories and sang. The tent flaps were open and you could see the rain falling and hear it on the tent. It was idyllic: the best of times. We missed nothing from town but friends. There was no television, no electronic games and other distractions that we have today.

I do recall the summer of '69, when we were all listening to the radio to learn that Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon. I remember looking up at the moon, thinking nothing of it, and then going off to see what trouble I could find.

But watching Bertha and Mary also made me lonely. My mom passed away last November and she was always a reason to visit the old hometown. It's lonely without her and we all miss her, and her cooking, especially her bannock.

Renie and I returned to Fort McPherson and were appreciative of the caribou meat Bertha and Mary offered us.

Bertha and Mary are sisters and are the children of the late John and Bella Tetlichi of Fort McPherson. John was Chief from 1960 to 1970. He was also a member of the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories. His wife, Bella, was my godmother; therefore Mary and Bertha are my godsisters. And to me, that's an honor: to have them as godsisters.

Renie and I returned to McPherson and went back to Inuvik the next day. All in all, not a bad two-day unexpected stay in the old hometown. But like I said, it gets lonely up there.

Or maybe I'm just getting old.