The Right Stuff
by Paul Hughes & Don Worthington
For many of us, adventure consists of getting away in our snowmobile for an afternoon in the Pemberton Ice Fields. The vastness of the landscape and its remoteness from anything resembling civilization gives us the illusion of being away from it all, of being alone. We are explorers charting new territory.
Photo - The Dempster Highway to Heaven.
But illusions are transitory and have a way of clouding our perception. After all, Vancouver is only a couple of hours away on the Sea-to-Sky Highway from the Ice Fields. Squamish is only a few minutes away by helicopter. Whistler even less.
Don Worthington enjoys sledding in BC’s Pemberton Ice Fields. And in the shadow of Mount Garibaldi . He has a chalet on Brohm Ridge, just below the Garibaldi Peaks, that he has spent the last thirty years or so transforming into a snowmobiler’s paradise. Hot Tub. Television. Rock fireplace. Wood stove. Running water. Generator. All the comforts of home, you might say, without the hustle and bustle.
So why would he suddenly take it into his head to leave this Eden, load his snowmobile on the back of his pickup and head for Inuvik in the North West Territories to make a trip to the remote community of Paulatuk – a distance of some 748kms? Did I mention that this snowmobile trip had only been done once before? Or that Don chose to go in March when the temperature would dip to bone chilling depths?
The answers to that question are anything but simple. There are as many layers to Don as there are sheets of ice on the Arctic Pack. But, in the interest of time, we shall delve only into: the fulfillment of a lifetime dream and the chance to rise to a challenge.
Don is now sixty-two years old. For much of his life he has worked for Westech, a division of BC Hydro. A good job. Secure. Well paying.
A different king of challenge was needed, now it was time to get out there and follow his heart… (a little hokey any ideas here ????.. phuck the world, live dangerously, closest to death closer to life ???).
When he was a young man, Don worked in the North for the Department of Transport, Meteorological Division. This job was exciting, and Don excelled at it. For reasons that are too involved to go into, he was forced to leave a land he grew to love. He moved to Vancouver, married, had a child and became burdened with responsibilities that only a job at BC Hydro could relieve.
Forty years later, though, the north was still in his blood and he dreamed of making a trip there and at the same time burst the bubble of monotony.
A few emails and at least a dozen phone calls later, Don had made up his mind to do the Inuvik-Paulatuk trip.
Don’s first contact was Julian Tomlinson, who holds a Master’s Degree in Northern Studies from the University of Fairbanks. Julian lives in the North and loves it as much as Don does. No stranger to challenges, Tomlinson led a snowmobile expedition to the North Pole in 2002. Julian put Don in touch with Gary Reidford, co-owner of Bekere Lake Lodge along with Jonah Nakimayak, located on the southern edge of the Barrens ninety miles from Paulatuk. Jonah and Gary wanted to break away from the usual guided hunting trips they offered to their guests and branch out into something a bit more extreme. Jonah could offer his expertise both as an Inuvaluit intimately connected with the land and as an experienced head guide. Sledding from Inuvik to Paulatuk seemed just the ticket. And Don would be the perfect guinea pig.
After meticulous and detailed planning – such a trip was obviously not going to be a weekend at Camp Howdy – Don was ready to go.
On March 25th, Don and two Inuvaluit guides, Jonah Nakimayak the senior lead guide, Reidford’s partner in the Bekere Lake Lodge and Ruben Green another hunting guide from Paulatuk, left Inuvik along with Julian Tomlinson who would accompany the adventurers for the first leg of the trip.
Photo – Bekere Lake Lodge south of Paulatuk, beginning of Barrens.
Thanks to Paulatuk RCMP Const. Ron Rose.
After passing the reindeer station on the East Channel of the Mackenzie river, they ascended to the crest of a hill and burst through to the barrens. That first sight of the barrens was a momentous moment for Don. A vast treeless landscape of snow and ice beneath vault of the northern sky, the Barrens make an impressive display. To see them for the first time in forty years took Don’s breath away.
It was not to be the only unforgettable experience that day. As the sun dipped beneath the horizon and darkness settled on the land like a hard fist, the temperature began to drop. And drop. And drop. By the time the three men set up camp that first night, it had sunk to -47 degrees. In temperatures this extreme, exposed skin freezes almost immediately and the danger of frostbite is a constant threat.
“I was never so cold in my life,” Don said. “nor so exhausted. All I wanted to do was lie down and go to sleep.”
Don admits he was no help in setting up the tent that first night. Had Jonah and Ruben not been there, he would have been content to curl up in a snowbank. If he had done so, he would have surely died.
But Jonah and Ruben had no intention of letting Don sleep beneath a blanket of snow. They set up the tent within an hour or two, lit the stove and began melting snow for water. Don wondered if he would have the strength to go on with this trip. If he were this tired and this cold on the first day out, could he cope with at least three more days of such bitter weather? Did he have the right stuff?
He fell asleep that first night, full of doubts and listening to the easy chatter of the two Inuvaluit. He thanked whatever powers lorded over this land for their presence.
The next few days would prove equally challenging to the spirit as the first. But with each passing hour, Don grew more accustomed to the climate, more sure of himself. Gradually the stark beauty of the landscape and the exhilaration of rising to a challenge began to smother his fear.
“This trip scared the shit out of me,” he would say when they finally limped into Paulatuk. “But I have never felt so alive in my life!”
There were many moments as awesome as that first glimpse of the Barrens. Two days into the trip, we ran into seven herds of caribou migrating across the ice. Not only did the Caribou provide a magnificent expression of life in this desert of ice, but they also provided meat and warmth. Jonah shot three caribou with only three shots from his rifle. The meat would keep the adventurers fed for the rest of the trip. Whatever was left over, would be distributed to friends and family in Paulatuk. That night Don slept on top of one of the caribou hides, his body warmed by the fur and his belly full of its meat.
Photo – Cozy but still -25 C. Thanks to Inuvik RCMP District Commander Allen MacCambridge.
There were plenty of other unforgettable sights. In the Smoking Hills outside Paulatuk, they met up with several herds of muskox in groups of five to fourteen.
Again Don was struck by such vibrancy existing cheek-by-jowl to unimaginable desolation. The Smoking Hills rise 1500 feet above this otherwise flat land. Deep beneath the mantles of ice and snow, peat, coal and other combustible materials have been smoldering for thousands of years.
Photo – Jonah is surrounded. Thanks to Inuvik RCMP District Commander Allen MacCambridge.
There was Stanton Mission, an abandoned Catholic outpost that served as a place of warmth and spiritual solace for the roving bands of Inuvaluit hunters. Located at least 200 kilometers from the nearest sign of civilization, the mission was an eerie place that had a deep effect on Don as he walked through it.
“The hairs on the back of my neck stood up,” he told me later. “I couldn’t believe that a priest could or would stay here so far from any kind of community.”
Photo – Abandoned Stanton Mission.
Yet Don’s trip was not only made up of such sublime moments. There were plenty of hazards along the way. Only the resourcefulness of the guides prevented a catastrophe.
“Without Jonah and Ruben, I would have been a goner,” Don said. “At one point early on in the trip, the slider of my VK540 blew out. It was a very serious situation. If we could not fix it, we would have to abandon my sled and double to Paulatuk.”
But within three hours, Jonah and Ruben had completed the necessary repairs. There was a delay, but no disaster.
There were blinding blizzards with howling winds and bad ice that had Don clutching the handlebars of his sled for all he was worth, terrified of losing sight of the two guides. Only a few kilometres from Paulatuk, the shock absorber broke off the skidoo and had to be gerry-rigged to the undercarriage – another problem that could have been disastrous in such extreme conditions.
But at the end of six days, facing extreme conditions, unbearable cold and the kind of fear that clinches your sphincter, Don and his guides made it to Paulatuk.
Photo – Metropolitan Paulatuk.
“I kind of expected a heroes welcome,” he said. “Surely the premier of the NWT would be waiting for us. There would be a band, probably and maybe a parade through the streets of Paulatuk”
But there was none of that. Jonah and Ruben went home to their families as soon as they got to the village. Don felt suddenly lonely. Over the course of that trip, he had grown to respect these two men beyond comprehension. Solitude was not what he wanted right now, but companionship with those he had shared so much. The spinning of yarns and the telling of lies.
Yet in the end it was just such solitude that allowed Don to realize what he had accomplished. He had fulfilled a dream. He had risen to a challenge. He had the right stuff.