On Top of the World
The farther north that we drove, the longer the days got. By the time we crossed into the Yukon, night, at least the darkness of night, was pretty much a thing of the past. Josh and I had marveled at the sight of the sun hovering just over the western horizon at five past midnight on our first night in the northern territories. It never got any darker than dusk, even in the wee hours of the morning when the sky would normally be darkest.
Sleeping in what was effectively broad daylight took some getting used to. The only one of us that didn't seem to mind was Brutus. Brutus, who was rapidly growing and gaining weight, could sleep anywhere anytime. Often, as we were driving down the highway, we'd hear him snoring away in the back seat of the Jeep. Josh and I took to blindfolding ourselves with dark t-shirts in order to create the illusion of darkness.
Early on our second morning in the Yukon, just northwest of the town of Teslin, I awoke to the incessant chirping of the satellite phone. I managed to remove my makeshift blindfold and got my sleeping bag unzipped and grabbed the phone on the fifth ring.
"Hello?" I croaked into the phone as I glanced at my watch and saw that it was only 6:00 in the morning.
"Tom, its Darren…. we got him," said the voice, immediately recognizable as Darren Higgins.
"Got who?" I asked as I rubbed my eyes.
"Bob McNulty.... the creep you guys saw assaulting a prostitute and dealing drugs," Darren replied. "You must have been sleeping."
As soon as he mentioned Bob, I was wide awake. "That's good news! I'm glad that creep is off the streets."
"Sorry to wake you," Darren said. "I was anxious to tell you what happened and forgot about the three hour time difference. There was a Canada-wide warrant out on him and they found him driving east on the Trans-Canada near Banff. From what I heard, he didn't resist. They found 5 kilos of weed, a whole bag of ecstasy tablets, and a quantity of crystal meth in his truck."
"Christ, a regular rolling illicit pharmacy," I replied. I glanced over a Josh's sleeping bag and saw that he too had started to stir. Brutus, who had been curled up next to him was looking at me and wagging his tail. He evidently wanted out of the tent to do his morning business. I unzipped the tent to let him out as I listened to Darren.
"The drug squad and the ETF raided his Toronto place too. They found some more drugs and a number of unregistered firearms. His truck, car, and other property have all been seized under proceeds of crime laws and he's being held without bail. He's facing charges in BC for possession and sale, in Alberta where he was arrested, for possession and in Ontario for possession and probably dealing illegal substances. He's going away for a long time."
"How much time could he get?" I asked.
"Well, that depends on the judge. If we get a good judge, he could get a total of more than ten and up to twenty years. If we get a bleeding heart judge, he could get out in a fraction of that. I'd bet on about ten years, but that's only if the Vancouver police and the Mounties are wrong about him."
"Wrong about him?" I asked.
"Yeah. This is off the record and you can't repeat it, but they're looking at him in regard to the disappearance of a number of prostitutes in the Vancouver area."
I felt a chill run down my spine when I heard that. "Jesus H. Christ!"
"No kidding. Anyway kiddo, I've got to run. I just thought I'd fill you in so you don't worry about running into him on the road. Have a safe trip," Darren said and hung up.
"Who was that?" Josh asked sleepily as he rolled over and rubbed his eyes.
"Morning bud. That was Darren. The cops picked up Bob and raided his house," I replied and then filled Josh in on the details.
"Oh my God, he might be a serial killer?"
"I wouldn't jump to conclusions Josh. They're just looking at him for those crimes right now. We do know that he's a violent and dangerous drug dealer and he'll be in prison for a long time."
Just then, Brutus started barking like mad outside the tent.
"What's gotten into him?" Josh asked.
"I don't know, but we'd better find out," I replied as I slipped on my jeans and stepped out of the tent.
We were camped in a virtually deserted campground with very remote campsites and plenty of wildlife. Brutus was standing near the edge of our site facing into the bush. The fur on the back of his neck was standing on end, his tail was curled down between his legs, and his lips were pulled back in a snarl.
"Brutus, come!" I instructed.
Brutus trotted over to me while looking back over his shoulder and then sat next to my legs. He kept his eyes trained constantly on the bush. My eyes scanned the bush for any sign of what had upset Brutus so much. It only took me a second to spot it. About twenty yards into the bush, there was a very large brown bear. It appeared to be a grizzly bear eating berries from a bush.
"Joshy, there's a grizzly bear not far from the site. Keep quiet and hand me the .308," I instructed in a whisper. I didn't intend to shoot the bear, I only intended for us to watch it, but with such a potentially dangerous animal, I wasn't taking any chances.
Josh crept out of the tent and handed me the Benelli rifle and a loaded magazine. I slipped the mag into the rifle and removed the scope caps, but I didn't cock the action. As Josh stood beside me, I pointed out the bear off in the trees. Brutus had thankfully calmed down and contented himself by sitting at Josh's feet, still watching the motion in the bush.
We watched the massive bear for a good five minutes as he busied himself in search of a meal. I glanced to my side and noticed that Josh had had the presence of mind to grab the video camera and was filming the rare and wonderful experience that we were sharing.
Finally, the bear turned around, saw us, and after a second's pause, took off running in the opposite direction. We heard him crashing through the bush for a couple of minutes as he ran as fast as his legs could carry him.
"Wow, that was cool," Josh exclaimed.
"Good thinking grabbing the video camera," I replied as I unloaded and secured my rifle.
"It was a good thing that Brutus spotted him or he might have wandered into our camp. It would have been a shame if we'd had to shoot it."
"For sure. They are amazing animals," I replied.
After our encounter with the bear, we set about making breakfast and preparing to break camp. We planned to arrive in Whitehorse by around dinner time and we wanted to take our time exploring the scenic highway as it snaked through the Yukon Territory.
"Hey Dad, are we going to get a chance to fire some of this ammo?" Josh asked as we loaded our gear into the Jeep.
"Sure. It's mostly crown land up here. When we get into the deep bush after Whitehorse, I'll teach you some survival stuff and we'll set up a makeshift range and do some shooting," I replied.
We hit the road again and pushed ever farther north. The drive from Teslin to Whitehorse was actually only about two hours, but we really took our time. We stopped frequently along the way to admire the scenery and to observe wildlife. The Yukon was looking more and more like a hunter's paradise.
At one point, we detoured off the highway and headed to the tiny town of Tagish on the shore of Tagish Lake. Tagish Lake is a large, beautiful sub-arctic lake and it teems with fish. Some really massive Northern Pike and Arctic Char had been taken in that lake and we wanted to take a shot at it.
On the outskirts of town, we stopped at a combination gas station and outfitters store. We gassed up the Jeep and then went into the store to purchase Yukon Territory fishing licenses for ourselves. While we were in there, I noticed Josh staring intently at the gun rack behind the counter.
"Something caught your eye bud?" I asked.
"Yeah, take a look at that rifle," Josh said and pointed at the gun rack. He was pointing at a compact lever action rifle. It had a nicely finished wood stock and a bright and shiny blued finish.
"Excuse me," I said to the man behind the counter. "Could we please see that rifle?"
"Certainly," the man replied. Josh and I watched as he retrieved the rifle from the rack and proceeded to clear it before handing it to me with the action open. "It's a Henry .22 WMR. The tubular magazine holds twelve .22 Magnum rounds."
"It's a hell of a nice rifle," I replied. I noticed that the man's name tag read 'George'.
"Henry makes some really solid firearms," the man behind the counter replied. "That's the same company that used to make lever action rifles in the 'wild west'. Henry rifles were all over everywhere up here during the gold rush," he chuckled.
I handed the rifle to Josh. "See what you think," I suggested.
I smiled to myself as Josh, without even thinking about it, correctly proved the rifle before pointing it in a safe direction and then bringing it to his shoulder. "This feels really good," he said.
"It suits you, I think bud," I said with a smile. "How much do you want for it?" I asked the clerk.
"We have two of them. We have a similar rifle that fires .22 long rifle and that sells for $279 and that one, which as I said, fires .22 magnum rounds, is $379."
"Well bud, what do you think?" I asked Josh.
"I really like it, but I don't have a license," Josh replied.
"I know. You can get a minor's license when you're sixteen, but that doesn't let you actually own firearms, only to use them without supervision. Tell you what. I'll buy you this rifle and we'll put it under my name until you're eighteen, when you can get a full license," I suggested.
I barely got the words out before Josh set the rifle down on the counter and threw his arms around me in a massive hug. "Thanks Dad," he replied enthusiastically.
"Which one do you want, the .22LR or the .22WMR?" I asked.
"What's the difference?" Josh asked.
"Well, the .22 WMR is quite a bit more powerful than a .22 long rifle and the ammo is more expensive," I said.
George reached under the counter and produced a couple of boxes of ammunition. He placed a .22 LR round and a .22 WMR round on the counter side-by-side for Josh. "You can see that you're dad's right," he said to Josh. "The WMR packs more of a wallop, but it's plenty more expensive."
"You already have a .22LR don't you Dad?" Josh asked.
"Yep, we have that little Remington 597 that we picked up at LeBaron," I replied.
"Ok, let's get the .22 Magnum," Josh said enthusiastically.
"Good choice," George said. "I'll tell you what; I'll throw in five boxes of ammo to go with it. That'll give you 250 rounds to get yourself started."
"Thanks sir," Josh replied politely and flashed George his biggest and brightest smile.
"Do I know you from somewhere?" George asked as he stared at Josh with a bit of smile on his face.
I proceeded to tell George about our adventures in Ottawa and our cross-country journey.
"Holy cow! You're the real life 'naughty Josh'!" George exclaimed. "I nearly cheered when I saw you on TV talking to the Prime Minister. I'm part Inuit and what you said about the aboriginal peoples in this country is right on the money. Here, take this too," he said and handed Josh a camouflage sling to go with his new rifle.
"Thank you sir! Do you know anywhere that we can do some practice shooting? I'd love to try this out!"
"You're in luck. We have a small outdoor range just around the back," George replied. "You fellows are welcome to use it."
It took about ten minutes to get the paperwork done for the purchase of the Henry rifle and then George led us out back to his range. He took a few minutes to show Josh how to load and operate his new rifle.
After we all put on hearing protection, Josh stepped up to the firing line and began firing his new rifle. After he fired the twelve rounds that he had loaded, he proved the rifle and we went to look at his target.
"That has more kick than a regular .22, but it wasn't nearly as much as the .308," Josh observed.
"Yeah, the .22 WMR may be a Magnum, but it doesn't kick too hard," George chuckled.
I grinned proudly as we reached the backstop and saw that Josh had fired all twelve rounds into a grouping of about three inches. It was low and to the right, but the grouping was tight.
"Well done bud," I replied.
"But I missed the bulls-eye," Josh said.
"That's ok. We haven't sighted the rifle yet. The grouping is really good," I said and squeezed his shoulder.
"I'll say," George added. "You're a hell of a shot!"
After replacing the target, we went back to the firing line and after George helped Josh adjust his sights, Josh blasted away with another twelve rounds. This time, his grouping was dead center. Both George and I smiled at Josh's response.
"WOW! Boy, does that ever feel good! You want to try it out Dad?" Josh asked with a big grin.
"Sure bud," I replied. I accepted the rifle from him, loaded up, and opened fire. It really was a nice little firearm. It was very comfortable to hold and it did have a satisfying little recoil snap when you fired it. The lever action was very smooth too.
George returned to his store and left the two of us to our fun. Josh put all 250 rounds through his new Henry rifle in no time at all and we made a serious dent in our supply of .22LR and .308's. By the time lunch time arrived, we decided to pack it in and go fishing. Before leaving, we returned to George's store, replenished our ammo supply, [bought some bait,] and purchased fishing licenses for ourselves.
We fished from the shore and ate IMPs for lunch. It was a bright, sunny, and virtually perfect day.
When I said the lake was teeming with fish, I wasn't kidding. Josh was quick to get our fishing gear out of the Jeep and got his line setup and was the first to cast his line. Just two cranks on his reel and he had a bite. There I was still setting up my line and he was enjoying the sport of fighting a struggling fish to the shore. Naturally, I had to lay my rod down and give him a hand to net it. We were both pretty giddy at the luck of his first strike. Once we had the hook out of the fish's mouth, decided it was a keeper, Josh was ready to cast again. While he was reeling in his second cast, I was making my first cast out. We had no luck on those efforts, but on Josh's third cast, he hooked another hungry and lively catch. Luck still wasn't with me, but Josh was more excited about his second catch of the day. This time, I was busy reeling in my line, so I let him handle the netting and unhooking himself, which he did with little effort as I observed him out of the corner of my eye. It was another keeper.
I think I was as proud of Josh as he was in catching the fish.
We'd tied Brutus to a tree with a good length of rope, so he could wander, but not get in the way of a casting line. Surprisingly, as Josh would get excited about his catch, so would Brutus, yipping on and on at the end of his rope as an excited Josh raised his voice. Brutus really wanted to be part of the action, but I suppose it was difficult for him to understand that we didn't want him to get hooked.
There are some experiences that make a comfortable niche in your mind, and for me, this was one of them. I couldn't imagine a better way to spend a summer's day than fishing with my son in what was truly a paradise on earth.
We ended up leaving Tagish Lake with a cooler loaded with ice and four cleaned and gutted arctic char. Josh hooked three of them, each weighing in at about three pounds each. I landed a single fish that weighed about four pounds. We had actually thrown back a number of smaller fish. Josh of course engaged in no small amount of good-natured ribbing over the fact that he had out-fished me. I didn't care - I had another happy memory.
At around 4:00 PM, we rolled into Whitehorse. It was a truly unique experience. Even though it is the capitol city of the Yukon, it really is just a tiny town. The city is dominated by the airport on the east side of the highway with residential and commercial areas to the east of the airport and the west side of town. The north part of town contained the industrial area. There are no buildings in the city taller than three or four stories and there are mountains as far as the eye can see beyond the city limits.
The population of Whitehorse is about 24,000 and that accounts for about 75% of the population of the Yukon. Neither of us knew what to expect in Whitehorse, but we were both surprised to see how modern a city it really is. It features a university and it is very much a government town. It features many of the amenities that any small town would have including movie theatres, stores, and banks - but it has a different feel about it. You feel as if you're on the edge of civilization, the wild frontier. In many ways, that's exactly what it is. Beyond Whitehorse and Dawson City farther to the north, there was literally nothing but raw wilderness.
We checked into our motel and before heading out for dinner, we cleaned our rifles. I watched proudly as Josh carefully stripped down and cleaned every nook and cranny of his new rifle. That familiar crease of concentration crossed his brow as he worked away. From where I sat, it looked as if you could eat off the workings of that rifle.
"What?" Josh asked as he noticed me watching him.
"Nothing really. I was just watching you work and thinking about what an amazing young man you are and how much I love you."
"Thanks," Josh grinned. "I love you too. I owe you a hug when I don't have my hands covered in gun oil!"
"Tomorrow is going to be an interesting day," I observed. "We're going to cross between Yukon and BC about five different times and spend the night in BC. The next night we'll enter the Northwest Territories and spend the night in raw wilderness before reaching Yellowknife the next day,"
"I can't wait to see what it's like way up there. Great Slave Lake must be amazing," Josh remarked.
"Yeah, I can't wait either. We're going to stop a lot along the way like we did here and I'll show you different plants and animals that you can eat if you're lost. We'll do most of the survival stuff in and around Yellowknife."
"Sounds good," Josh replied from the bathroom as he washed the gun oil from his hands.
Without warning, he flew into the room and launched himself at me. "Thanks again for the rifle Dad," he said as he sat on top of me and hugged me tightly. "You're the best."
As we sat there, I wrapped my arms around him and contemplated the side-trip to Alert. Josh still didn't know about that, but I knew it was going to be one of the highlights of the trip. We were going to visit a place that few people ever get to see in their lifetimes. Alert is the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world. Flying over the North Pole was also going to be incredible, and I was trying to imagine what all the ice would look like up there.
We headed down to the motel restaurant, ate dinner before returning to the room to pickup Brutus, and take a walking tour of the downtown area. We spent a couple of solid hours just walking the streets of Whitehorse and seeing the sights. It was our first real taste of life in the far north and we liked what we saw.
Brutus was clearly enjoying himself too. Everywhere we went he received a lot of attention from people that we encountered. I had read somewhere that it was important to properly socialize puppies and get them used to being around people and we were certainly doing that with Brutus. Brutus has shown that while he could certainly be a watch-dog and he'd be willing to protect his loved ones, he was very much a people dog. He was always happiest when he was with people. Sometimes as I watched him, I almost wondered if he knew he was a dog. I chuckled mildly at the thought.
"What's so funny?" Josh asked as we headed back towards the motel.
"I was just thinking about Brutus and wondering if he really knows that he's a dog. Sometimes I think he'd be terribly insulted if anyone informed him of that fact."
Josh and I both had a good laugh at that comment. Brutus just trotted on, happily wagging his tail as he went. Dogs always stuck me as being happy, cheerful animals and Brutus certainly matched that description.
The next day we departed Whitehorse and began our westerly serpentine drive, constantly snaking back and forth between BC and the Yukon. We stopped often to exercise Brutus and I took every opportunity to pass along my knowledge of outdoor survival to Josh.
During one such stop, we noticed a rather large crop of wild strawberries.
"Hey Josh check this out," I said and knelt to pick some of the plump red berries.
"Are those strawberries?" Josh asked.
"Yep, we really lucked in here. They're delicious."
"How do you know they aren't poisonous berries?" Josh asked.
"Actually, that's a good question. With wild berries you always have to be very careful to ensure that you aren't eating something poisonous. The good news is that there isn't anything that looks like a strawberry that's poisonous. If you're lost in the woods, these can be a real life saver." I popped a berry into mouth and tossed another to Josh.
"These are good," Josh exclaimed and bent down to pick some more. I watched in amusement as Brutus joined in on the act and began to eat strawberries right off the plants.
"They won't make him sick will they?" Josh asked.
"No, I don't think so. I've seen dogs eat strawberries before with no ill effects."
"These are a lot better than some of the other stuff that you said we could eat," Josh said with a grin. I'd previously demonstrated to Josh that some common plants are quite edible. We'd tried dandelions, but they weren't high on our list of favorites.
"Well the main thing is staying alive, bud. You eat what you have to eat in order to stay alive. That might mean strawberries or it might mean ants, cat-tails, or dandelions. A lot of the stuff you find out here is really good. Crayfish taste a lot like shrimp. Morel mushrooms look pretty disgusting, but they taste really good."
"How can you tell if something is safe to eat?"
"A lot of it is just memory work. You have to learn to recognize edible plants and to identify warning signs. If you're not sure, it's best to be safe, than sorry. Some poisonous stuff can make you very seriously ill. You may find a situation though where you're not quite sure, but you're desperate enough to try something that you're not sure of."
"What do you do then?"
"You have to be very careful. It's best if you're with someone else. You begin by taking a small sample of the plant or berry and rubbing it on your skin. Ideally, you want to rub it on sensitive skin like the inside of your wrist. After you do that, wait about half and hour and watch for any redness or inflammation. If none appears, rub a small amount of it on your lips and wait another half an hour to see if there is any reaction. If you feel any burning or any redness develops, don't eat it. If that goes well, put a tiny bit in your mouth and chew it a few times then spit it out. If you feel any burning or numbness in your mouth, don't eat it. Finally, after another half hour, eat a tiny bit of it. If you don't feel sick within half an hour or so, you're probably safe to eat it. Just don't eat a lot until you're sure."
"So after you do that, it's safe to eat it?"
"In most cases, yes. You see, you don't do that unless you're reasonably sure that what you've found is edible to begin with. You don't do that with a strange plant or berry. You also have to be extremely careful with mushrooms. Some are highly toxic in even the smallest amounts."
We grabbed a couple of zip-lock baggies from the Jeep and picked a large quantity of wild strawberries. We figured that they'd make an excellent snack as we drove towards our next destination - Yellowknife.
"This has been amazing so far," Josh commented as we got back on the road. "I mean we've seen one ocean, been to six provinces and one territory so far and we still have two provinces to go back to, four more provinces and one more territory to see along with another ocean. Too bad we'll miss Nunavut and the Arctic Ocean."
I thought about it for a moment and then decided to let the cat out of the bag. "Well, we aren't going to miss seeing Nunavut or the Arctic Ocean," I replied.
"WHAT?" Josh asked. "How are we going to do that?"
I grinned at him for a second. "Did you notice that we picked up the pace a bit lately?"
"Yeah, I just thought that you wanted to get back to see Bryan and Mark."
"I do, but I've been holding back on a secret plan to surprise you with."
"Ok Dad, spill it," Josh said with a big smile.
"I made some calls and with the help of Captain Andrews, I've arranged for us to get a ride on a Canadian Forces C-130 transport flight from Yellowknife to Canadian Forces Station Alert. We'll spend the day there and if all goes well, we'll get to ride on a training flight over the North Pole."
"NO WAY! That's too cool! Isn't Alert that place right just below the North Pole?"
"Yep, it's only 800 km south of the North Pole."
"You mean we're actually going to be right on top of the whole world?" Josh asked excitedly.
"We sure are."
"YEEEES!" Josh shouted eliciting a bark from Brutus.
We pressed on and late the next day, after spending the night in British Columbia, we crossed over in the vast Northwest Territories and headed northeast towards Yellowknife. We were amazed at how remote that part of the world truly is. We passed a grand total of five other vehicles during our first full day in the Northwest Territories. There were few villages and few gas stations. There was, however, plenty of water. The Northwest Territories seemed to be saturated with lakes, rivers, streams, and ponds. Each lake seemed to be even more beautiful than the last and neither of us could even imagine the fish that must have lurked below the surface of those cold, clear bodies of water.
We encountered Great Slave Lake for the first time when we arrived at Dory Point Territorial Park. The park is located on the south side of the southwestern arm of the giant arctic lake. We dined on IMPs while we admired the lake and played with Brutus while we waiting for the Mackenzie ferry to take us across the narrow section of water that stood in our way.
The ferry trip was short, but enjoyable. It was a far smaller ship than the ferries that we had ridden on in BC, but it was still one of the highlights of the trip. On the other side of the lake, we entered the Yellowknife highway and continued northeast. The highway actually followed a route that took us well north of Yellowknife. The looping route was necessitated by the need for a narrow point at which to bridge the northern arm of Great Slave Lake.
Aside from the coming trip to Alert, we reached the northern most point on our trip just outside the tiny town of Edzo and North Arm Territorial Park. In actual fact, it was just about the farthest point in Canada that can be reached by car alone. To go any farther north required the use of an aircraft.
After crossing the north arm of Great Slave Lake, we headed southeast towards Yellowknife. The highway approached the city from the west and the first glimpse of the city was Yellowknife Airport. As we passed it, we saw a camouflage C-130 Hercules taking off.
"Hey look, that's what we're going to ride in tomorrow isn't it?" Josh asked.
"That's a Herc alright. They carry a hell of a lot of cargo."
"I like the camo paint," Josh chuckled.
As we entered the city, we were immediately struck by just how different it was from Whitehorse. While Whitehorse was a flat city with no building taller than three stories, Yellowknife was very hilly, very green with trees and had some rather tall buildings that looked to be ten or twelve more stories tall. It still had the same frontier feeling to it, but it had a very different look.
"This place is really beautiful," Josh observed. "I love that bare rock on that hill."
I looked out the passenger side as we drove into the downtown area and saw what Josh was talking about. The road was heading up a gently sloping hill, and the hill itself looked like a gigantic rock they'd decided to build a road over, rather than going around it. The incredible contrast between the broad blue arctic sky and the deep green of the plentiful coniferous trees was breathtaking.
"We've got to bring Mark and Bryan up here," Josh said.
"For sure. I promised Mark that we'd do it next year. I actually offered him the chance to come with us, but he declined because of all the stuff he has on the go."
"I'll bet he really wanted to come badly," Josh said. "There's always next year."
After we checked into our motel, we went on a driving tour of the city. The highlight of the tour was when we headed up Morrison Drive, which is located on a peninsula reaching out onto Great Slave Lake.
Standing on the shore of Great Slave Lake, the three of us turned to the west and watched what passed for sunset in the far north during the summer months. The sun just touched the western horizon and it seemed to ignite the sparse clouds and turned the sky a brilliant orange colour.
When we arrived back at the motel, we ate a hearty dinner at the restaurant and then retired to our room. We pulled the heavy curtains over the window to give us at least some semblance of night and then we settled in for the night.
I sat at the desk chair and fired up my laptop to try to do some work on the computer program that I'd been working on while Josh and Brutus stretched out on one of the beds to watch television. I must have been working for the better part of an hour when I felt Josh come up behind me and begin massaging my shoulders.
"Mmm, that's nice," I said dreamily.
"I'm glad. Your muscles are pretty tense," Josh replied.
I closed my eyes and enjoyed his ministrations and forgot all about writing code for a few minutes.
"We should probably turn in Dad, we have a big day tomorrow," Josh suggested.
"Good plan bud," I said. "Thanks for the shoulder rub."
"Anytime Dad," Josh said before hugging me tightly and then slipping into his shoes to take Brutus outside before going to bed.
The next morning we were up bright and early and after having breakfast, we loaded the Jeep and headed to the airport. Our plan was to take our backpacks with a change of clothes, survival gear, and other items that we'd need and then leave the rest of our stuff in the Jeep in the Canadian Forces compound at the airport. It would be quite secure there.
It took us only ten minutes to reach the airport. I pulled up to the gate at the military compound and spoke to the corporal on guard duty.
"Can I help you sir?" He asked.
"I hope so. My name's Tom Davis and this is Josh Chambers. We're supposed to be hitching a ride up to Alert this morning."
"Ok, let me check my list. Do you have any ID?"
I reached into my wallet and produced my military ID. It was the new card that I'd been given after my settlement, which showed my rank as being Second Lieutenant (retired).
The Corporal accepted the card, looked it over, and checked it against his list before handing it back. "Very good sir, drive through the gate and you can park over near hangar 3. Check in with the flight crew and they'll get you situated."
With that, the Corporal motioned his partner to open the gate and then snapped to attention and fired off a smart salute.
I chuckled to myself as I drove through the gate.
"What?" Josh asked quizzically.
"That was the first time anyone saluted me," I replied sheepishly and we both had a good laugh. Even Brutus got in on the act and let out a few small barks from the back seat.
"You'll have to get used to it if you want to get involved with Air Cadets," Josh replied.
I parked the Jeep and after grabbing our bags and snapping on Brutus's leash, we headed into the hangar. After checking in with a sergeant staffing the desk just inside the door, we were lead to the aircraft.
The massive Hercules was sitting in the middle of the hangar and its rear cargo door was wide open. Troops dressed in CADPAT camouflage uniforms loaded skids of supplies into the plane using forklifts.
"Who are those guys?" Josh asked. He was pointing to a group of around twenty men wearing red armbands on their coats and carrying old Lee Enfield bolt action rifles.
"Those men are Canadian Rangers," a voice said from behind me. I turned around as a man wearing the rank of Master Warrant Officer approached me from behind and saluted smartly. "Welcome to Yellowknife sir," he said.
"Thank you Warrant," I replied.
"I'm Warrant Officer Decker the load master on this flight and I'm supposed to get you situated. We're going to seat the two of you near the front of the aircraft. You'll have a window to look out of and you'll be able to visit the cockpit during the flight. You'll get a boxed lunch and we have an assortment of soft drinks on board."
"Are the rangers going too?" Josh asked.
"Yes, they're going to Alert on a week long sovereignty patrol."
"Why do they carry the old .303s?" I asked.
"Good question sir. There was some talk of replacing their weapons with the retired FNs, but the powers-that-be decided that their mission was no longer to engage the enemy, just to alert us so that we can send in the cavalry. Besides, bolt action weapons tend to handle the cold with a lot less fuss than automatics."
Warrant Officer Decker showed us to our seats and told us that we'd have about fifteen minutes before takeoff. I sat down and made myself comfortable while Josh and Brutus went to look around.
"Sir, you guys are probably going to need these," said Warrant Officer Decker a few minutes later as he returned and handed me two CADPAT camouflaged coats. "I had to guess at the sizes so you may want to try them on first. You'll need those if you want to walk around up at Alert."
The larger of the two coats fit me just fine and after inspecting the other, I knew it would be a good fit for Josh.
"Hey Dad!" Josh said excitedly as he returned to our seats. "Those rangers are neat. They're all Inuit people and they're all volunteers. They go out all over the north and check radar stations and keep an eye on things. They're supposed to call the army if they see anyone or anything out of place. They said they'd show us around up at Alert."
"That should be good. I can't wait," I replied. It didn't surprise me in the least that Josh had befriended the platoon of rangers. He seemed to make friends wherever he went.
"How long is the flight?" Josh asked.
"I think it's about four hours bud."
Just a few minutes later, we were strapped into our seats, and the big four-engine plane was roaring down the runway. During our ascent, both Josh and I were plastered to the window. I gave Josh the window seat, but he didn't mind sharing the view.
Looking down on Northwest Territories from the air, we were amazed at how rocky it really is. Yellowknife is located right on the Canadian Shield and all around the city we could see bare, exposed rock with sparse and scattered trees. The amazing number of lakes and rivers was even more obvious from the air.
Once we had our fill of the view of Yellowknife from the air, we settled in for the flight. I read a book while Josh played games on his GameBoy. Before long, I felt his head resting on my left bicep and when I looked over, I saw that he was sound asleep. I smiled and gently shut down his GameBoy, put it into his pocket, and then went back to my book.
I was surprised, although I probably shouldn't have been, that Brutus was happy to stay curled up at our feet. He didn't complain about the vibration of the plane and the new noises he'd never experienced before. Maybe, in his mind, he was still protecting us.
Before long, I'd joined Josh in slumber.
"Dad, wake up!" Josh said as he shook my shoulder ninety minutes or so later. "You've got to see this!"
I slowly opened my eyes and looked over at Josh. "What's up…" I started to say before the view outside the window caught my full attention.
"Warrant Officer Decker told me that we just crossed over the Artic Circle," Josh said excitedly.
The view outside was as stark and desolate as it was beautiful. It looked as if we were flying over an alien planet in some far corner of an undiscovered solar system. There wasn't a spot of green to be seen. The landscape was a mosaic of brown earth and gray exposed rock. The water below us was a deep turquoise colour.
"There's a town down there," Josh remarked.
"That's Cambridge Bay," Warrant Officer Decker said as he came up behind us carrying a couple of cans of Coke and handed one to each of us. "It's right at the southern tip of Victoria Island. We're about half way to Alert. From here on in, it gets more and more remote."
"It looks like pictures that I've seen of the surface of Mars," I said.
"Funny you mention that. NASA regularly sends people up here to test equipment and vehicles on Martian-like landscape. Sometimes they even go up as far as Alert. Wait 'til you see the pack ice and glaciers when we get a little farther north"
"Does this water stay unfrozen all year?" Josh asked.
"Negative," Decker replied. "It freezes up pretty solid right around here and stays that way for most of the year. We'll probably start seeing ice floes in another hour or so right around the south end of Ellesmere Island."
For most of the rest of the flight, neither Josh nor I could sleep. We kept staring at the vast tundra as it streaked past below us. As we neared Ellesmere Island, we began to see radiant spots of white and blue dotting the barren landscape. Ellesmere Island itself was largely covered in a bright white sheet of ice and dotted with mountains. We hadn't seen any sign of human settlement for quite some time.
"Take a look down there," Warrant Officer Decker said as he pointed to a very tall mountain with a very flat top. "That's Barbeau Peak. It's the tallest mountain in North America east of the Rockies. The whole range is called the British Empire range and to the Northeast is the United States Range; it's the northern most mountain range on earth. You guys might want to buckle in. The captain is going to begin his descent. The wind is out of the south so we're going to loop out over the Arctic Ocean and head south to the runway. It'll give you an excellent view of Cape Sheridan on the way in."
"Why are those mountains so flat on top?" Josh asked.
"Erosion," Decker replied. "Those mountains have been around a whole lot longer than the Rockies and the wind and glacial erosion have worn them down."
"How far east are we now?" Josh asked.
"If you were to draw a line straight to the South Pole from here, you'd just about hit Halifax," Decker replied.
It had been a long flight and we were both happy when we felt the plane begin to descend. As we banked sharply over the Arctic Ocean, we got a clear look at the northern most piece of land in North America, Cape Sheridan, only 20 km from Alert.
"That's two oceans," Josh remarked and grinned at me. "One more to go!"
"Did you ever imagine that you'd see three oceans in one trip?"
"I never really imagined seeing the ocean at all," Josh replied. "You know how much this trip means to me don't you?"
"I sure do bud. It means a lot to me too."
When we landed, we grabbed our gear and exited the plane.
"That's one small step for man," Josh chuckled as he stepped onto the rocky tundra surface with Brutus at his side.
"It does look like another planet doesn't it!"
We took a moment to look around and survey the sites. There wasn't so much as a single tree anywhere in site. The ground was rocky and uneven and the air had a bit of a chill to it. The tiny settlement is surrounded on three sides by gray hills that appeared to be composed of slate and shale. The fourth side is covered by the frozen Arctic Ocean.
Canadian Forces Station Alert is home to around 90 fulltime personnel and it's composed mostly of what appears to be trailers and semi-permanent fixtures. The tallest structures in site were the various radar and communications masts. During the cold war, Alert had been a vitally important signals intelligence facility staffed year round by as many as 200 Canadian Forces, Communications Security Establishment and CIA personnel. It was a prime location for intercepting signals from the Soviet Union. Since the end of the cold war, the whole operation had been scaled way back.
Warrant Officer Decker showed Josh and I to the barracks quarters where we were going to be housed for the night and then given a brief tour that included the mess hall and recreation facilities. Unfortunately, much of the base is still highly classified and off limits to anyone without very high security clearance.
In order to stretch our legs, we took Brutus and went for a walk along the rocky shore to get some photos and video. Just as we were heading back, we heard a roar overhead and watched as a slate gray coloured Challenger Jet came in for a landing on the runway.
"That's a cool plane," Josh observed.
"Yeah, it must be fun to fly. Bombardier sells those all over the world as small commuter planes and corporate jets. The military uses them as VIP transports and for electronic warfare training."
When we arrived back at the base, we were met by Major Brad Armstrong, the commanding officer.
After introductions, Major Armstrong had some exciting news for us. "Well guys, we had tried to arrange to get you on a Twin Otter for a polar over flight, but unfortunately that isn't going to happen. The good news is right over there," He said and pointed to the Challenger.
"Do we get to go up in that?" Josh asked.
"You sure do. But you're not going for any ride. There's a NORAD exercise going on tonight and the Challenger is going to play red force for a pair of CF-18s that are going to be scrambled to intercept it. You're going to get a front row seat to a fighter interception. You'll take off and head for the pole, then turn around, and come back at low altitude simulating a bomber on an attack run over the pole. The CF-18s and maybe even some USAF F-15s will be scrambled to intercept you."
"Oh man! That's going to be so cool. I wish Mark was here to see this," Josh enthused.
"I do too bud. We'll have to take lots of photos for him."
Later that evening, we left Brutus to socialize with the base personnel and boarded the Challenger jet. Unlike the lumbering Hercules or slower moving commercial jets, the Challenger seemed to leap off the runway and soared into the cold dry arctic air like a rocket. In no time at all, we were at cruising altitude and, according to the pilot; we were heading towards the North Pole at a speed of more than 800 km/h or Mach .84.
The flight to the North Pole took just under one hour. The pilot announced our arrival over the intercom and Josh and I looked out the windows as we circled the very top of the planet before turning south.
"We're truly on top of the world bud," I said to Josh.
Josh simply smiled and winked at me.
About halfway back to Alert, the pilot slowed the aircraft considerably and dove for the deck. He announced that we were down to 10,000 feet. The view out the window was spectacular as we streaked past.
We were looking out the window when suddenly two gray forms streaked past overhead followed closely behind by two more. "It looks like we're being intercepted," I said to Josh.
I barely finished speaking when I saw a CF-18 fighter pull along side the Challenger. In the distance, I could see the second CF-18 and what appeared to be a pair of F-15s orbiting farther out, in sort of a moving air combat patrol.
Josh looked out the window and waved to the pilot who looked to be only feet away and amazingly, the pilot waved back before breaking off and reforming with his wingman and heading for home.
Our pilot then climbed back to a more normal altitude and headed back towards Churchill. On the way, we got to see a USAF KC-135 refuel the CF-18s and F-15s in mid air. I was thankful that Josh managed to get a lot of good video footage to share with Mark. This was the sort of thing that Mark would have loved to see. I was already looking forward to the next year when we'd have Mark and Bryan with us for our summer trip.
When we arrived back at Alert, we were met by a young Corporal and Brutus. Brutus, who appeared to be having the time of his life from all the attention he was getting was none the less very happy to see us.
We spent that night in the bases comfortable barracks. The next morning after a fulfilling breakfast in the mess hall, we were flown back to Yellowknife aboard the same Challenger Jet that we'd flown out over the Pole. Both Josh and I agreed that the trip to Alert had been one of the major highlights of the trip so far. We'd been to places that few human beings had ever visited or would have the opportunity to visit. We'd visited our third territory and we'd experienced in a profound way the vast and rugged beauty of Canada's North Country.
We spent a final night in Yellowknife before heading south. Along the way, we stopped frequently and I took every opportunity to further Josh's outdoor education. I taught him everything from how to find food and water to how to build a shelter and start a fire. By the time we broke camp the morning after our last night in the northern wilderness, I was confident that Josh knew the basics of outdoor survival.
"You know Dad, I almost feel different now," Josh said thoughtfully. "I can't really describe it, but I feel like the world seems smaller now."
"I know what you mean Josh. I feel the same way. There really wasn't much to see at the North Pole, but just being there was special."
"I'm glad it was you that I was with," Josh said. "I have a feeling about this trip. It feels like its changing me or... I dunno... like planting something in me. It's hard to explain... I don't know what it is, but I like it."
"You might be right kiddo. If that's the case, I'm sure you'll know when the time comes."
The trip itself was now more than half-way over. We had a long drive back to Ontario and then we had to press onto Quebec and the Maritimes beyond. Somewhere ahead, several thousand kilometers to the east was Cape Spear, Newfoundland, the most eastern point in North America. That was where we were headed.
A couple of days after we left the north, we were scooting through Edmonton and reminiscing about the fun times we'd had at West Edmonton Mall. A few hours later, we rolled into the outskirts of Calgary. We'd called ahead to Bryan and Mark so they knew we were coming. When we pulled into the driveway, we barely had time to get out before the door flew open and Mark dashed outside with Daisy following closely behind.
Mark jumped into my arms and then pulled Josh and I into a huge three way hug.
"Welcome back, I missed you guys." I looked over the top of Mark's head and saw Bryan standing smiling in the doorway wearing a barbecue apron and carrying a pair of tongs in his hand. Daisy and Brutus were excitedly chasing each other around on the lawn.
With some regret, we were only going to be there for one night, but we'd make the most of it.
I was so happy - our family was back together again.