AT THE TAIL END of the summer of 2012, with a large amount of flannel, some money in the bank, and no real plans for the future, I decided to hitchhike a thousand miles from the logging town of Prince George, British Columbia, to Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory, and then to paddle the Yukon River some 400 miles north to the mining outpost of Dawson City. This is the story of the wheels and thumbs that took us north.
I. It is the beginning of August, 2012. We are standing on the side of the Yellowhead Highway, just north of Prince George, British Columbia, near a gas station advertising cheap coffee. It is about 20 degrees centigrade out and there is dust everywhere. At my feet is a backpack that weighs about 65% of my body weight. There is a tall redheaded man named Nic with me. We are heading north.
II. The man behind the pickup’s steering wheel is just out of boyhood, only a little older than me. His name is Chris and he works as a mechanic on a gold mine project. A 10-second impression suggests that he is a decent everyday fellow. We talk about extraction jobs in northern BC.
“There’s a ton of money to be made here if you don’t care about the environment.”
I forget who says this, but it’s true. Nic and I are heading north from a job whose purpose is ostensibly to fix the ills left behind by the logging industry — namely, the lack of trees. We plant thousands of conifer seedlings a day by hand in the middle of clear-cuts that often look like a war or a tornado has gone through. Now we’re heading to a place too remote to be reached by logging. I wonder for how long.
But for now we’re just going 20 minutes up the road to Vanderhoof.
III. Vanderhoof is a sunny and relatively pleasant place to be stuck. Nic and I buy praline ice cream and talk about making ourselves more attractive as freight. Nic comes up with the idea of turning oneself into an automated story machine. “Say ‘one’ for a story about ducks. Say ‘two’ for a story about scooters. Say ‘three’ for a story about Scooter. No one wants to hear story number three.” Scooter is our boss, an eccentric if there ever was one. A book could be written about the exploits of Scooter. Almost exactly a year after this scene, I am to witness Scooter fall asleep on the floor of a dirty motel room, mumbling to me, “People who have their lives together are boring.” This phrase is to bring me comfort for months and likely years to come.
IV. Todd is going back to Terrace from his friend’s bachelor party. Todd likes Eric Clapton and the Doors. Todd likes fishing. We stop at a waterfall whose name I do not remember, sometime in the golden hours of the afternoon. Three native girls sit on the guardrail with a puppy and gaze into it. There is a large banner in the meadow on the other side of the chasm, above the waterfall. The slogan is one you can see all around Canada’s North: THIS IS INDIAN LAND.
V. As the sun is setting, we stop in Smithers, BC. There’s a brewery here called Plan B. Nic and I buy large bottles of oatmeal stout and dark ale and I drink one in the passenger’s seat, legs resting against the dash, talking about fishing and the music of the ’60s with Todd. I was born half a world away, in a small, fenced-in land that invented crisp and clear pilsners and lagers, but these are the beers I’ve grown to love in Canada, first in the heartstring-wrapped French East, now in the free-for-all West. Suddenly there’s a euphoria to the sunset.
VI. Todd leaves us by a bridge in Kitwanga, BC. There’s a giant sign pointing the way. Whitehorse is still some thousand-odd kilometers away. I cook onions and powdered soup while Nic sets up my tent. The night is uneventful, but when I think how this is our first night untethered, how no one in the world has any reasonable idea of where we are, I feel weightless. The feeling is unusual but not unpleasant. I fall asleep easily.
VII. We spend the morning wandering around Kitwanga between intervals of flagging down passing logging equipment. This is pointless, we know — a scarifier is not going to take us to Whitehorse. We do it anyway out of blithe optimism. Kitwanga is beautiful and desolate in the way all outpost towns are — there’s this overwhelming sense that someone is carving, with fingernails and teeth, down to the bone, a little enclave of human comfort against a wilderness that may be beautiful but is also wild and uncompromising and harsh. There is effort and grit and bravery in the wood of these houses.
VIII. We’ve only been clowning around on the side of the Kitwanga road for about 20 minutes when a tiny green sedan pulls over. We don’t know it yet, but this is to be our Deus ex machina. The sedan turns out to contain a man named Bobby and a dog named Voodoo. Bobby has more tattoos than it would be practical to count, including stylized clockwork on his skull. Bobby has just cut ties in the south, rather abruptly, and is careening north to Whitehorse. We barely fit, but all parties are pretty excited about this arrangement.
IX. The next 16 hours or so can best be described in terms of scenery. There are shining lakes and rocks of improbable color. The woods turn deeper — there is no logging this far north — and the horizons turn vaster. When we get into fire country, we start seeing tall purple fireweed everywhere. A burned forest is a sight you do not forget. Sometimes Bobby and I talk about this or point at things to marvel at, but the hours are long, and we can’t talk all the time, so a comfortable silence often spills out over us. Sometimes I read Tolkien’s The Two Towers. It fits well here.
X. In what seems like no time at all we’re standing in the parking lot of Yukon Brewing, Yukon’s microbrewery, based in Whitehorse. The situation calls for a beer, we feel. Tomorrow, we will look for a canoe and a bear barrel and whiskey for the road, but today we will drink fantastic red ale in the afternoon sun. Really, it occurs to me, we couldn’t be happier than we are right now.