Thursday, July 5, 2018

Sunday July 5, 1998 - Lake Laberge

Lineup for Fox Lake fire convoy
Lake Laberge - windy, sunny and hot

It was cool, cloudy and smoky at the Yukon river campground and I couldn't sleep. I was up at 5 am and feeling like Yohan was doomed and I couldn't bear to be alone without him. but he got up and walked around, peed and ate some which cheered me up; maybe he'll make it after all. Ray came by and helped me get Yohan into the truck and I left around 7.30 am without saying goodbye to anyone.

At the Dawson Visitor Centre they said that there was a fire on the Dempster which is where all the smoke was coming from, and that the road to Whitehorse (the Klondike highway) was open. Once I passed the junction with the Dempster the smoke cleared.

Bear by the side of the road
I had put Yohan on the front bench seat instead of behind where he usually sat. Sometime after we passed Pelly Crossing he was struggling to change position so I reached over to help him. In doing so I swerved the truck into the steep-sided ditch on the side of the highway. There was no shoulder on the side of the highway, just a 4-5 foot embankmenty down to the ditch, overgrown with 2-3 foot high bushes. I thought for sure the truck would flip over and Yohan would be killed but amazingly I just ended up driving along the ditch because I never took my foot of the gas pedal. Which I did now.

I came to a stop and looked around. The ditch was about one car-width wide and the embankment was too steep to drive back up onto the road. Also it was deep enough that anyone driving past on the road would never see me. I decided that my only hope was to keep driving along the ditch in hopes of finding a spot where the embankment wasn't too steep for me to drive back up onto the road. I drove slowly along the ditch, hoping there wouldn't be any boulders in the way, which I wouldn't be able to see anyway because of all the bushes. I tried a couple of times to get up the bank but bottomed out each time. Finally I found a spot where I could drive back up onto the road.

As soon as I was out of the ditch I stopped and put the flashers on. I got out of the truck. I was shaking from nerves and Yohan looked bug-eyed scared. I'm sure he thought I was trying to kill him! I checked under the truck to see if I had done any damage but I couldn't see anything obvious. So when I was a little calmer I continued driving until I got to Five Finger Rapids. there was a big mess in the back of the truck from my episode in the ditch, mainly a blackened cast iron frypan that slid around all over my clothes. I checked the oil and the transmission fluid levels and the tires. Everything seemed OK and there hadn't been any suspicious engine noises so I carried on.

Around 4 pm I reached the lineup for the convoy through the forest fire at Fox Lake. It was very long. Apparently they had let a few cars through earlier in the day but things had gotten worse and they were debating whether to let anyone through today at all. I could see thick smoke and trees burning on a ridge west of the highway. Waterbombers circled. They carried containers of water that they dumped on the fire, but it just looked as if they were dumping thimblefuls on a conflagration. The RCMP said that the smoke on the road was too thick and they didn't know when the next convoy could go.

Some people turned around and left the lineup. I looked at the map. There were two other routes to Whitehorse, one involved backtracking to Dawson and heading to Alaska and the other also involved backtracking but not as far. The word was that there were fires on that road too, no one knew if you could get through or not. In any case it meant 2 or 3 days of driving even if the road was clear. Fox Lake is just north of Whitehorse; if I could get through Fox Lake I would be in Whitehorse in an hour or so. It did not seem worthwhile to try another route.

Fiddlers entertain the lineup
So I waited, we all waited. There was a travelling group of child fiddlers in the lineup, they moved slowly up and down the lineup playing their fiddles. They were from Whitehorse, returning from a tour of Yukon towns. I talked to a nurse from Haines Junction and told her about Yohan. She gave me a plastic glove and showed me how to squirt water into Yohan's mouth by snipping a small hole in one finger, filling the glove with water and then twisting it closed and squeezing it. It took two of us, one to hold the glove and the other to hold Yohan's mouth open. He didn't want to drink.

I was wearing my Great Northern Arts Festival T-shirt that I bought in Inuvik and it turned out that the woman who founded that festival was in the lineup. She didn't live in Inuvik anymore but said that seeing me wearing the T-shirt made her proud of what she had done. I also met a guy who was transporting an airplane and a tank full of fish. The airplane had foldup wings and sat on a trailer along with a big plastic tank of fish. Apparently if you stock an otherwise unoccupied lake that does not have native game fish in it, it's yours. So he had a lake picked out and was going to fly in with his tankful of fish to claim his lake. He has lived in the Yukon for 20 years, working construction in the summer and spending his winters in Costa Rica.

After waiting about 4 hours we got the word that they were going to start the convoy through the fire. We had to drive single file and maintain a constant speed close enough to the next vehicle to be able to see it through the thick smoke. Of course you had to keep all your windows closed tight. The smoke was like a very heavy fog and there were blackened tree skeletons and grey ash on the ground. There was no underbrush. Occasionally there were unburnt patches and also plumes of smoke and fire shooting up from the ground. It was like a scene from hell.

A squirrel that had been run over by the vehicle in front of me was still squirming on the road while its mate streaked back to the ashen forest. I couldn't stop. It was just misery everywhere.

I don't know how long it took to drive through, it was just too shocking to see what a forest fire looks like from inside. In any case it was too late to get to the veterinary clinic in Whitehorse so I stopped at the next campground on Lake Laberge, just north of Whitehorse. I would have to take Yohan in next morning. I fed Yohan and cleaned up and went to bed without supper, I was too nerved up to eat.

A helluva day!

No comments: