Dempster Odyssey: Characters

Nearly twelve months ago, I was wrapping up CSci 5109 – Visualization at the University of Minnesota (where I am now a graduate student in Computer Science).

Mean while, my long time friend, Andy Baldwin, was wrapping up his life in Bozeman, MT; he was waiting out the Spring term for his girlfriend to wrap up her undergraduate career.  By the end of the summer, Andy and Jen would be in the Seattle area.

Very early on the morning of May 17, 2013, I headed out the front door of the house here in St. Paul, got into the Volkswagen, turned the engine on and drove west.  Sixteen hours later, as the sun was starting to drop behind the Rocky Mountains, I arrived in Bozeman, MT, at Andy’s apartment.  Andy and I were Yukon & arctic-circle bound, but leaving Montana would wait for one more night; I was tired; Andy was, however, jazzed about the trip.

Over the course of the trip, which would stretch on for nearly three weeks,  we  traveled through plains, mountains, inland-rain-forests, coastal boreal regions, and tundra.  We would see the sun never-really-set; some of the most beautiful “sunsets” I have ever seen.  We saw a crazy-assortment of North America’s large mammals; woodland bison, caribou, elk, whitetail deer, brown bears, grizzly bears, and black bears.  We even saw skeletons, at a museum in the Yukon, of North America’s largest-ever land mammals.

I also chronicled a large swath of the adventure on this very blog (here, here, here, and there are many others, apparently). Since the trip, like one would expect, life has gone on. Andy and his girlfriend have uprooted from Montana and now live near Seattle, WA.  In reminiscing, with Andy, recently, about the trip to the Yukon & the arctic circle, he kept bringing up one point: we met a lot of characters on the trip.  And, so, Andy came up with a rough list of characters and I filled in some of the details and these names are in no real order.

Aloof Border Crossing Guy

Crossing the Alberta/Montana border, the border patrol person (Canadian side) never actually looked at me.  He just watched a monitor which showed the output from a camera that was pointed at me.  It was surreal.  He also asked me no less than six times, if, “[we] had any guns? handguns, rifles any guns.  sometimes people forget about a handgun under the seat or a rifle behind the seat.”

“Nathan Lane”

This person was actually a woman.  Between lack of sleep on our part, the truck having just broken down, and we, ending up at Eagle Plains by way of hitchhiking, “Nathan Lane” was the name that popped into my head to best describe the woman who ran the outpost.  She was extremely nice, yet, very gruff.

Toothy Guy

Another character at Eagle Plains.  He was one of the cooks; nice, yet, a bit simple.  He also had some interesting teeth.  I was nice to him and in return, he told me his story about how he ended up at Eagle Plains.  He had been in Calgary, living with his sister.  She had told him that he either needed to get a job in Calgary or leave.  He somehow applied to an job placement agency that subsequently placed him with the Eagle Plains Hotel.  Over the course of the day twelve or fourteen hours we were stuck at the hotel, Nathan Lane, filling out paperwork, asked him several times whether he wanted to be employed full-time or just part time.  He decided to go with full-time and then tell us as such several times.  He also had a gap between his front teeth that would make Lauren Hutton proud.


I was waiting in the dining room of the Eagle Plains Hotel.  Picking a way at a very greasy breakfast that Toothy had cooked up for me.  Nathan Lane had given me the password to the WiFi, and so, I was updating Melissa (my wife) with the status of things.  Andy and I rode in different trucks and Andy was still back at the oil platform; he’d be up to Eagle Plains shortly.  Frenchy saw that I was kind of tired, so, he asked, “What’s bothering you, mon ami?”  He had a decidedly heavy French-Canadian accent.  I told him that our truck snapped an axel a few kilometers to the south.  He proceeded to say, “You think you have troubles, I have troubles:  woman troubles.”  (remember, when you read this, read it with a French accent).  He continued to tell about his “dead beat girlfriend” in Montreal who “stopped sending him money.”  In my head, I said to myself, “You mean, your ex-girlfriend, mon ami.

Potato Woman

Again, it was likely the lack of sleep, but this woman’s physical construction struck me as being similar to that of a potato with pipe-cleaners for limbs.  Like most of the people at the hotel, she was nice, unlike most of the people at the hotel, she did not talk at all to anyone besides herself.  She just sort of busily made the motions of a person doing things.  Attempting to clean, going to get cleaning supplies, semi-mumbling to herself all the while.  Shortly after Andy shot the video (below), she came back through – making the motions of vacuuming with the vacuum cleaner…except it wasn’t plugged in.

Elvis the Walrus and His Sidekick

“Elvis” and sidekick were Yukon Highway workers we ran into on the Dempster.  They were the two man crew that were going to grade the Dempster near Eagle Plains for the spring once the top layer of the road thawed.  These two individuals were obscene and vulgar beyond belief.  We never caught their real names, and we last saw them tearing south on Yukon Highway 2 – heading toward Whitehorse – going 100 mph in an F450 pickup truck.  It should also be noted that these two individuals were supposed to be the responsible parties for that section of the Dempster Highway.  The very section that we broken on.  The section of the road that was so rough, we sheered a ball joint on the truck and tore an axle.  If it was not for these fine individuals, Andy and I may very well have had a different trip and a different set of stories.

Jamie, the Truck Driver

Jamie was the water truck driver that I caught a ride with to Eagle Plains.  He was in his late 20s, chain smoked cigarettes and loved hip-hop.  He was from Inuvik, NT – a small hamlet near the Arctic Ocean, on the Mackenzie River delta.  Jamie was also Inuit; he also had two kids.  During the week, Jamie and the other water truck driver would make at least three trips each day with water from a river to the north of Eagle Plains to the two oil rigs that were south of Eagle Plains.  Jamie said he made a lot more money than most in Inuvik and that he stayed away from alcohol; added, “If you and your buddy wanna make a few [hundred] dollars, take a few bottles of vodka to Inuvik.”

Norm, Eagle Plains Tire & Service Shop owner

Norm was in his mid-50s, and like many others in rural Canada, he chain-smoked cigarettes.  He ran the tire & service shop at Eagle Plains.  His shop consisted of a couple garage stalls and small office.  He had a nudie calendar on the wall – it was a current calendar and also had his shop’s name on it.  Norm was also the person who lent us a truck to finish out the last few kilometers to the arctic circle.  He also told us stories about when the Dempster Highway was punched into the wildnerness in the 1970s.  He was on the road crew that built the Dempster; he just never left once the road was completed to Invuit.

Doug’s Towing: Doug Ukrainetz

Doug is by far the most memorable character of the trip.  We initially did not speak to him – Norm took care of calling him.  We would not see Doug for nearly ten or eleven hours.  I mostly slept or took advantage of Eagle Plains’ wifi; Andy slept or fretted about where the hell Doug was at.  Andy was hoping for flatbed tow truck – something with a cushy quad-cab.  Instead, Doug rolled into Eagle Plains with a rebuilt 1982-ish Chevy C50 – single cab, single axle and exhaust pipes cut off just at ear-height by the cab.  As Doug hooked up the Andy’s Chevy 2500HD, he mused out loud, “With this much weight at the ass end [of the tow truck], I bet the front will bounce like a mother fucker.”  That would not be the last time we heard the word fucker or a form of it from his mouth for the ten hour drive back to Dawson.  Doug burned through 40 gallons of gasoline on the trip up; when we asked if he was going to refill for the ride back, he said, “Norm’s got the market up here by the balls; fuck no.”

We learned a lot about Doug on the drive back.  He had been a logger in British Columbia for a number of years and then decided to head north, you know, “…to get away from the people.”  His girlfriend, while he was in B.C. was a hot number from California.  Toward the end of that conversation about his old flame, he bowed his head slightly and said, “God rest her soul.”  Head up, he turned to us and said, “Fuck all, she’s dead, you know, ahy?”  He had wandered into emotional territory and want to clear up that he was still tough.

Doug smoked more than his rebuilt C50 tow truck.  He talked about wanting to quit but he also admitted to being addicted to the things.  He got a kick out of me when I said, “Well, you know, each cigarette is your last cigarette.”  He smoked from the time was left Eagle Plains, until the time we arrived at the repair shop in Dawson.  Twenty packs of cigarettes.  He had nicotine and tar in his mustache on one side – where he exhaled the smoke through one nostril.

Doug also ran through his reasons for not trusting most ethnic groups; I tried to sleep; it was difficult in the bouncing, stiff-shocked truck.

We finally parted ways with Doug a day or two later – in Dawson.  The only ATM in town was broken, and Doug only took cash.  I joked that, “Cash makes it easy to not leave a trail.”  He quipped back, “I pay my fucking taxes, fuck all, ahy?”  With the machine fixed and we got our enormous stack of Canadian $20 bills (85 of them to be precise), we paid Doug his loot (as he called it), we shook hands, and Doug drove off in his early-1990s Ford Taurus.

When Andy and I got back to Montana, we dropped Doug and his girlfriend a letter with some pictures of the adventure up the Dempster.  We never heard back. Maybe I will drop him another letter soon.

Doug’s girlfriend Louise

We never actually saw Louise, but we talked with her a couple times on the phone.  Doug had described her to us while we drove back to Dawson.  A “short little number with curly black hair; she’s from Quebec.”  Doug joked about being too tired after the Dempster-run to “chase her around the house.”  Doug seemed very enamored with her; he talked at length about her, and what she did around the house.  Kept a flock of chickens; they had had pigs a couple summers back, too; she also maintained their garden and greenhouse.

Italian gold miner in Dawson

His name was Sandro.  We met him at the bank in Dawson.  He was hoping to get some cash, but, the cash machine was broken.  So, we bummed around the town with him for the morning.  He owned the mineral claim he was reconnoitering, but he was tossing around having a company from Italy do the heavy work of mining.  He motioned at one point in the general direction of the proposed mine, and said, “it’s out in the sticks a long way away.” He was an interesting fellow to hangout; he was educated, did not use the word fuck as a speech dysfluency, he did not use that word at all.

“Muktuk” – Drunk individual in Whitehorse

We rolled into Whitehorse at 10:00 pm, and pulled into the Best Western Gold Rush Inn.  Stepping out of the truck, we were immediately pestered by an intoxicated First Nations’ guy.  He mumbled to himself; Andy thought he was saying, “muktuk”.  That’s how we named him.  He asked us for money.  I told him we didn’t have any, and sorry.  “Just a dollar or a toonie, fuck, come on.”  He seemed to disappear into the shadows when an RCMP (“Mountie”) drove by the hotel.

Later that night, after Andy and I found the only place open in the town, a place called Boston Pizza, we headed back to the hotel where Muktuk was back, slightly drunker, and demanding larger sums of money.  “Come on, guys, I just five dollars, that’s it.  Maybe you got a light?  ”  I silently mouthed to Andy, “Wow, inflation?  It was a couple dollars last time.”

Beringia Museum Paleontologist/Archeologist 

The last major character to bring up is also one of the few highly educated individuals.  Andy had looked him up before we left Montana, and so, when we arrived at the Beringia Museum, Andy made a point of asking for him.  Sadly, I cannot recall him name.  He showed us around the museum, and we sort of parked ourselves with him between the skeleton of North America’s largest wooly mammoth and the skeleton of an extinct species of boar that once inhabited the Beringia region.  Andy and the scientist talked for at least an hour.  The topics ranged from his time at Penn State as a PhD candidate, to moving back to the Yukon, to his dissertation topic: caribou shit and miniature “glaciers”.  He pointed out the window of the museum at a hillside; “See that snow-pack in the shadows, it never really melts. I took core samples of those – they’re full of caribou shit – you can then analyze bits of their DNA, and get a profile of how they have changed over the years.”  He went on to say that you can find old arrow heads from First Nations hunters; the caribou will gather on this spots of snow in the summer which made them easier to hunt.

Finally, there were many other minor players in this adventure.  Like the highschool-aged waitress at Burnt Toast Café in Whitehorse; she seemed so bored with Whitehorse and could not fathom the idea of driving up the Dempster.  There was also the RCMP officer in Smithers, B.C., the college student working her summer job at Jade City, the resort owner at Fraser Lake, B.C. who kept apologizing for smelling of patchouli oil, the inept shopkeep at Dease Lake who wanted so hard to tell Americans what was exactly wrong with the United States.  For over an hour, we listened and chatted with her; her trinket shop smelled heavily of mothballs and mildew.

The last set of characters to make note of are the five people from Temptations Bakery in Stewart, B.C.  Hilarious, vulgar, and obscenely Canadian.


Video Blog: Arctic Circle

Andy and I are big fans of recording things; this would include both analog forms of record as well as digital. For example, we shot 59 mini-digital-videos on the trip in addition to the 2,031 digital photos. We, also, each shot roughly sixty-five 35mm photos. I cut together a bit of video with a few photos from around when the truck broke down to when we reached the Arctic Circle.

As a side note, this was such a hell-of-a-trip, that I likely have enough material in my brain for a whole string of posts, but I will refrain for now; later in the summer, I may weave a bit more of this tale. There is always the woman who looked like Nathan Lane, the crass and foul-mouthed Yukon highway workers, and of course, the ramblings of our tow truck driver – Doug Ukrainetz – the “Doug” in “Doug’s Towing”. But, for now, here is a video. (If you do not see the video, head here)

Arctic Circle

I have been sitting on this post, in draft form, for a couple weeks.  I finally polished it a bit, and have kicked it out there.

We made it to the arctic circle.  This was Andy’s first time to the arctic circle.  I have been to and crossed it before — just on the other side of the planet — in Finland.  Arctic Finland versus arctic Canada: a huge difference.  For one, Finland is almost entirely devoid of permafrost with the exception of the far northern fells and mires.  When I was in Finland – near Kemijärvi – the landscape looked nearly identical to that of northern Minnesota. Arctic Canada – not so much.

But, just saying we made it to the arctic circle is leaving out a piece of the story.  The time from when I last wrote about and when we reached the arctic circle is leaving out about eight hours of the story.

Around 11:00 pm, we stopped for a break.  We fired up the camp stove, brewed a bit of coffee, and made a delightful meal of pasta.  Sitting on camp chairs, we ate and just marveled at how much driving we had done and how, with the engine off and there being a lack of wind, it was quiet, incredibly quiet.  This was listen-and-you-could-hear-your-heart-beating quiet.  The only times the silence was broken was when a curious animal – a hare, a fox, an arctic ground squirrel – would make leaves or grass rustle.

The clock in the truck was telling us it was night, but the ever-present sun was trying to trick us into thinking otherwise.  I will likely post – later – a set of photos we took of the longer-than two hour sunset we watched as we pushed onward.

At 1:15 AM, the sun ducked ever-so-slightly behind the horizon; the northward horizon.  Things never really went dark, and the sun’s light never fully vanished.

We took some photos, shot a video, and then got back into the truck.  The Dempster turned and began to work its way up a ridge; higher, and higher.  The river valley below spread out – lit dimly by the sun from the north.

We could make out an enormous oil derrick/rig off in the distance – 20 or 30 kilometers.  I fell a sleep.

The next thing I remember was the road getting a bit rougher – it woke me up. Andy turned to me; “Hey, you’re up; we passed that oil rig – about 5 kilometers back.”

I was still partially asleep – around 2:30 AM.

The truck suddenly lurked toward the left; a very loud sound – like that of a chicken bone or knuckle cracking and popping – coming from the left front wheel.  The truck slid to a stop; the front-end left and forward.

I turned to Andy; he let fly several expletives.  I asked him if we had blown a tire; “[Expletive], something more substancial, I think.”

We assessed the situation; it appeared that a ball-joint had been sheered.  The front, left axle was pretty mangled from the weight and torque.  The truck would not be moving on its own.

Andy mentioned the derrick/rig we passed about five kilometers back; I decided to hike north – up the road a bit – we were on the side of a very long, but tall hill – I wanted to see if there was anything on the other side of the hill and if so, how far away was it.   Around this time, Andy tried the CB radio; nothing.  We would later learn that truckers use HAM radios or land-based relay radios.  CBs just do not have the range.

Andy went back to the truck to sleep a bit while I hiked up the road.

About three kilometers up the road, and finally over the hill, I could see another derrick/rig – relatively close – another three kilometers out – lit up brightly with flood lights.  A bit further out in the distance, I could see a microwave tower.  Hungry and a bit cold, I hiked back to the truck.

A bit of cheese, some crackers and then a quick nap; something caused me to wake up.  Coming south was a large-sized pickup truck.  This was around 5:00 AM.

Flagging down the truck, the driver told us that there would be – in an hour – a couple semi-trucks coming up from the south.

The rest of travel toward the arctic circle went something like this:  hitchhiking and riding with Inuit truckers, meeting a cadre of colorful characters at Eagle Plains, borrowing a pickup truck from a worker at Eagle Plains, and finally, driving the short remaining distance to the arctic circle.

The drive back to Dawson in a tow truck is yet another story for another day.

This isn’t Wyatt Earp’s Tombstone

Andy sporting his Lester River Bushcraft Boreal Wool Shirt

Tombstone Territorial Park is located just a short way up the Dempster Highway.  If you find yourself in Dawson and want a fantastic day-excursion, Tombstone Territorial Park would be a fantastic place to visit.

I would go as far as making Tombstone the destination if I ever find myself in the north-central part of the Yukon.  Once again, latitude and elevation have the interesting interplay that produces a convergence of the boreal, alpine and arctic biomes – all within the 850 square miles of the park.

We saw red fox, grizzly bears, parliaments of owls and multiple moose.  But, if there is one creature that could sum up the fauna-equation, it would have to be ptarmigan.

Ptarmigan seemed to be nearly everywhere.  We stopped at one point, and the intention was not to photograph or watch ptarmigan, but it turned into that.  We watched and listened to males attempting to court females.  Males make an absolutely bizarre sound; it is akin to wobbling a steel handsaw.  The males were also incredibly easy to spot.  Their white bodies, with brown necks/heads topped with a bright red cap.  The females, on the other hand, were quite difficult to spot.  You had to listen for a return call to a male, and then look for movement in that general direction.

Can you spot the female ptarmigan in the photo to the left?

Along with the quantities of wildlife, the other utterly amazing aspect of the park was how it was somewhat barren.  There were dwarf willow, and dwarf spruce, and clumps of taller-than-ground-level vegetation, but the entire park had the feeling that, if it was winter, it would have been a vast, white blanket of snow with the Dempster cutting through it like an offwhite ribbon.

Dempster Diving

Dawson City, Yukon

Just the number of RCMP that we saw in Whitehorse, a city of 23,276 people made me feel slightly on edge.  I am not saying it was an inherently dangerous place – there was just a definite edge to the city.  The First Nations vagrants -there was one that kept popping up, each time asking us for something else – trying to hustle you for cigarettes or cash as well as the many individuals we saw stumbling out of or in front of taverns; yet, at the same time, there were trendier restaurants, cafés, bookstores, and clothing shops.  It was like a slice of the Pacific Northwest had cleaved off and somehow drifted to the Mesabi Iron Range – and specifically, Gilbert – of Minnesota.

We had breakfast at a hipster-esque breakfast place called Burnt Toast Café; we rolled out of town heading north toward the Dempster Highway.  The entrance to the Dempster sits at around 64° N. latitude.

Our original intent, based on the distance our map, from the Dempster to Dawson City, was to skip Dawson entirely.  The map had mislabeled the distance as 64 miles.  We thought why should we travel a total of an extra two+ hours to get diesel.  But, as we got closer to the Dempster and distances between places were shown on roadside signs – we realized that Dawson was much closer than the map had led us to believe.  We could fill up with that precious distillate-fluid: diesel.  We would definitely have enough fuel to get to Eagle Plains.

We stopped for fish and chips at Sour Dough Joes.  I do have say that Sour Dough’s had fantastic fresh salmon fish and chips.

With full stomachs and a full tank & jerrycans of diesel, we rolled out of Dawson City.

Shortly down the Dempster Highway, there is a sign that is the equivalent of Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.  The sign basically warned of the total lack of modern services as well as the lack of prompt emergency medical services.  We continued on; The sun was still high in the sky at 7:00 PM.  Tombstone Territorial Park, with its snowcapped mountains, loomed in the distance.