When you live in a mountain town like Nelson, you get to see many adventure film documentaries. There is the annual ski movie, the annual mountain bike movie, the local films, and the traveling film shows, like my favorite, The best films of the Banff Mountain Film Festival. (Both Nelson and Yellowknife have been on the tour since the very beginning, which says something about the folks in both places I think – this might very well be a new and reliable marker for great communities to live in.) So I’ve seen many, and I’m always inspired. So inspired in fact that I come home every year from the BMFF on fire with a desire to see my own film up there on the big screen. After a few years of resisting that impulse, I decided to look at it differently. I probably don’t need to quit my job and spend 2 years learning how to be a documentary film maker, and I may never see my film in the best of BMFF, but I could buy a camera and make short, amateur films for fun. So this spring I bought a GoPro to get me started, just in time for Martin’s trip. (I kind of wish I was going along to document the whole adventure, although every night when I curl up in my cozy bed I’m quite happy to be there.) So I sent Martin off with strict instructions to take lots of photos and shoot some video and generally try to capture some of his experience on film. And I specifically told him to make sure he doesn’t forget the crying scene.
The crying scene is an essential element of any epic adventure story. After months/years of planning/training/fundraising, the brave adventurer sets off, finally and joyfully underway. Eventually there arise the unforeseen and uncontrollable challenges that create additional difficulties, difficulties which usually require significant planning and detouring/delays in the journey, and that in fact may threaten the ultimate success of the venture. At some point, after days/months/years of backbreaking slogging in wind/rain/dust/cold/solitude/high altitude, battling adverse weather/distance/political boundaries/health conditions/financial destitution, our hero is worn beyond measure. This leads to the crying scene. This scene often involves Hero laying down by the side of the trail, or taking shelter from the vicious elements. Hero is interviewed by companion, up close and candidly. Hero is physically exhausted, thin, worn, dirty, often ill and emotionally fragile. Hero expresses the pain of the journey and the heartbreak of the realization that his vision may not be realized. Hero cries, openly or silently, according to personality.
I wasn’t actually expecting Martin to film a crying scene. I know him better than that – at times of adversity he’s much more likely to get mad and to stomp around, and he might just throw the camera down some crevasse. I’m the crier in this family. So although he is not crying, t it seems like they have arrived at the crying scene part of their journey. They have come up against jumbled ice.
According to wikipedia, jumble ice is a phenomenon that occurs when ice atop a river or other flowing body of water fractures due to the different flow rates beneath the ice. On a lake, pond, or other stationary body of water, ice forms undisturbed and generally does not move as long as the entire surface of the body of water is frozen. When a river freezes, water flow typically continues beneath the ice, exerting pressure on it. If the ice fractures, pieces of ice torn free by the river’s current will collide with stationary or slower-moving pieces. After becoming stuck in place, the loosened pieces of ice refreeze irregularly, causing a rough, or jumbled, surface. Jumble ice is a hazard for winter travelers, as the broken “ground” formed by the jumble ice can cause accidents or injuries to sled dogs. (And fireball Spanish husbands.)
Max and Martin are on sea ice of course, which is also prone to jumble ice, and it can extend for 100s of miles. And they have been dealing with jumble ice for nearly the entire trip. Imagine trying to ski and route find and get a 14 foot sled through those conditions.
Although they are skiing for 6 or 7 hours per day, they haven’t been making the 30 km/day distances that they had conservatively planned. Its been more like 20. Although they went out with plenty of food to spare, they have realized that at their current rate of travel, they will not make it to their food drop location in Paulotuk without running out of dog food and probably people food. And as Martin said “This is no place to run out of food.”
So yesterday they turned around and are now heading back to Tuktoyaktuk. Today is day nine of the trip, their first rest day (the dogs have been fighting and are torn up – punctured legs, torn ears, loose teeth. Plus they may be having a crying day too, who knows?). It will take them another week to return to Tuk, and then the fun of figuring out the new logistics begins. How will they get to Inuvik- can they sled there on the winter ice road still? How will they get their food drop gear back from Paulotuk to Inuvik? Then how will they get home? They can fly of course, at great expense – 2 people, 11 dogs, some 8000 dollars, or drive. But where is the vehicle? Aha, interesting question…
Our friend Fred volunteered to take a few holiday days and fly from Yellowknife to Inuvik to drive the truck home, as the guys were planning a one way trip ending in Kugluktuk, which has no road access. (Apparently Fred is one of those people who think a 3000 km car ride is fun.) He saw it as a great opportunity to see the scenery, including the spectacular Dempster Highway.
Digression: I too once drove the Dempster, for the view. Unfortunately it was in the middle of a forest fire so we saw not one thing. (We did get 5 flat tires, put 800 km on the lawnmower sized spare, stopped twice at the only service station or sliver of civilization on the 800 km road – what else, a tire repair shop – AND we even had two flats at once, which we managed to McGyver with a miniature toy bicycle pump long enough to limp our way off the Dempster, wobbling a little with the undersized spare). I think you get the idea – its rugged, even in the summer. Imagine it in the winter. Wait a minute – this sounds like good material for an adventure film too!
When the guys realized they might have to turn around, Martin called me to see if Fred had left Inuvik with the truck yet. Of course there is no cell coverage on the Dempster, but I managed to track him down via his two way satellite based ‘spot’ device, which sends GPS location information and can also text. Turns out he was at Eagle Plains, also known and the only service on the Dempster, some 400 km south of Inuvik. ( and the tire repair shop too.) Fred managed to call me, and it went like this:
Fred: I only have 60 seconds to talk
Fred: I can’t go back to Inuvik. There is a blizzard and the road is closed. It will be closed-
Operator: Your 60 seconds have expired. Please deposit another 25 cents.
Fred: The road will be closed for days. I had to drive through 2 feet snow drifts. It was so windy it was windy INSIDE the truck. Beautiful-
Operator: Your 60 seconds have expired. Please deposit 35 cents.
Eventually, I was able to find out that the road from Inuvik to Eagle Plains had been closed for 3 days, and only opened for a few short hours, which was exactly when Fred wanted to get through. It was then closed again. Fred said the scenery was amazing though. So Fred continued on home with the truck. Until a few days later, when I got another text from his spot.
“Truck going to break down. Am limping along. Should I go forward to Fort Simpson or back to Fort Liard?”
“Truck broken down.”
Tandi to self: Who do I know who knows if there is a tow truck or gas station in either of these places? (Mike, our pilot friend knew – definitely go to Simpson.) Do I know a doctor who lives there? (No, that is in fact Fort Smith, no where near Fort Simpson.) Via the miracle of modern technology, I managed to call Alberta Motorist Association who were so very kind as to let me sign up Fred for a membership, via his text and my cell phone. They then dispatched a tow truck, at no charge. (It took longer than you’d think – their maps did not include Fort Simpson, and we hit a brief snag when they wanted to send a tow truck from Inuvik, some 2000 km away, but they were so very nice.)
So now the truck rests, its own crying scene finished, at the garage in Fort Simpson, awaiting the end of the Easter weekend and resumption of normal services. Fred is at home. The dogs are having a rest day. Martin and Max are no doubt eating dinner right now. They’ve had a good day too.