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Mackenzie River Country of the Northwest Territories
By John Holt

(The following is excerpted from the author's book Arctic Aurora - Canada's Yukon and Northwest Territories published by Countrysport Press)

By John Holt
The road to Wrigley with the McConnell Range 
in the background.


  The tale above seems to make sense from my own outsider perspective. The country up here is so large, powerful and in devoid of nearly everything human, that anything seems possible. Apparitions in the form of albino moose, three-foot grayling and even hunks of meat falling from the sky seem quite possible. Everywhere I drive in this land something new, something awesome (as in "causing respect combined with fear or wonder" and not the meaningless contemporary "That's awesome, dude" nonsense), something that feels like natural magic appears. On my left the Mackenzie River flows powerfully towards the Arctic Ocean. The river is well over a mile wide and I notice a large boat pushing a barge upstream back towards Great Slave Lake and probably the port of Hay River. The craft looks like a toy from my vantage point hundreds of feet above the river. And this effect is exaggerated even more so by the towering Canyon Ranges and the Mackenzie Mountains beyond them in the west. The river is nearly tow-miles wide here and many feet deep. More water is flowing north here than in all of the rivers, streams and creeks of combined in Montana. The scale of everything in the Territories is enormous, immense to the point where size, space, distance, all of it is meaningless to me. Despite a number of trips to this land I still have not spent enough time in country to gain an sort of reference points or sense of perspective. Everything I do or see appears new and alien. I fell like I'm in another dimension whose boundaries far exceed any drug I've ever done or read about. The power I feel from this unfamiliarity is immense. It's as if all the B.S. of down south, all my past screw-ups and disappoints no longer exist, perhaps never exist. I'm free and the hell with the past nonsense.

  It is past 7 P.M. but the sun is far above the horizon on this mid-June day. Rafts of white, silky clouds drift to the southeast powered by a gentle wind that formed far above the Arctic Circle, up in the ice-clear sky that soars in a transparent silver-blue dome above the icecap of the North Pole. The bright green leaves of small birch flutter in the breeze. Down-sized fir, darker green but still radiant, tilt at odd angles on this plateau of small rock hills, glowing marsh grass and bright moss. A large moose, not white but dark brown, shows itself as it glides out of birch-tree cover then disappears with speed and silence into a copse of taller trees. An enormous raven slides across the road just a few feet ahead of me. The bird squawks twice, its black head and beak angled down towards me. I'm rolling along at about 45 mph, a large salmon-colored stream of dust in my wake. To the north and east I see first the Ebbets Hills, a rounded collection of rock that is covered with pine that gives way to eroded cliffs of grey rock. They're called hills, but they look like aging mountains, rounded and stooped from hard living and rough weather. Ahead, beyond where I perceive Wrigley to be, is the McConnell Range and then the Franklin Mountains. These mountains are also smooth, but also front large reefs of broken cliffs that cascade down the ranges' western faces in a still life rock fall. Leafy trees mark the softer portions of the slopes in patches of light green, while the conifers stretch in dark, ragged bands that stretch north and out of view. There are no clouds floating over these peaks that seem to be generating their own large updrafts and whirlwinds that keep the air clear. Sunlight sparkles off distant waters falls and I imagine lakes hidden in ancient, eroded cirques filled with never fished for northern pike or perhaps isolated populations of grayling. Moose, grizzly, wolves, caribou and wolverines wander the surrounding forest.

By John Holt
Woodland Bison were everywhere along
the highway to Yellowknife, the road 
to Fort Smith and even along the Liard Highway.

  The view, this country, overwhelms me. This is something that is of dreams for a person who loves wild, unspoiled landscape.

  A few hours further on I think that this may go on forever. That I've seen all of this before Maybe it does. Maybe I have. The reddish dirt and gravel road still drifts its dusty way through subalpine fir and stunted poplar growing with apparent stubbornness here above the 62nd parallel. The trees are leaning at odd angles, tilting and listing like hapless drunks making a last attempt at decorum as closing time approaches in some unknown bar. Black bears wander across road and silently vanish in the trees. Small bands of woodland caribou ghost through the trees. A bald eagle cruises the thermals nearly out of sight. To the west the Mackenzie River still flows deep, wide, immense towards the Beaufort Sea far above the Arctic Circle. Beyond the mile-wide and more river mountains rise up and tear at a sky that is the essence of purity. The clarity of the blue above me drops down on the land as wisps of white cloud float through this sapphire on a wind that moves easily from the north along the front of the Canyon Range. The breeze swirls and eddies, pushing aspen leaves like foam on a mountain stream, before moving on. Wild peaks and ridges many miles away shimmer purple, salmon, rock-hard gray, all of this shaded azure with distance.

  Beyond these and rising higher are the Mackenzie Mountains eventually giving way to the Selways in the Yukon Territory. Hundreds of miles of seldom seen or even explored mountains running as far as Montana, my home 2,000 miles to the south, stretches east to west. Much of this country wasn't even mapped a quarter-century ago. There are canyons thousands of feet deep and high plateaus of rock, snow and ice that have never seen a human. Spending several months for each of several summers-falls is a goal of mine. Dolly Vardon and grayling measured in pounds and not inches, moose, grizzly and wolf that have never heard the sound of a rifle shot, and no adventure, eco-tourist bullshit. In three years both my son and daughter will be in college. After that, at the youthful age of 56, I'm gone. Perhaps to wander the country of burning coal seams below the Great Bear River, a site described by Sir John Franklin with "…a few miles above the Bear Lake River…the banks of the Mackenzie contain much wood coal, which was on fire at the time we passed, as it had been observed by Mackenzie (1789). Its smell was very disagreeable."

  Well, maybe not.

  Immense country here in the heart of Canada's Northwest Territories. Enormous, wild, unpopulated. This road is a very long way from home - all the way north through Alberta, itself one-and-a-half times the size of my Montana, then northwest for hundreds of miles on paved road that gives way to packed dirt and crossings by ferry over both the Liard and Mackenzie, gigantic watersheds making the Yellowstone running through the town I live in take on creek-like dimensions. The Dene, who've lived this land for thousands of years call the Mackenzie the Deh Cho meaning "big river." This road I'm on keeps rolling, climbing, twisting and dropping as though it means to pierce the heart of pristine eternity like a long-lost, halcyon acid trip.

  Wrigley has been on my mind for years, ever since I looked at a map of the Territories and saw that the place of less than 200 inhabitants was at the end of the road, as far as a person can drive unless he waited for winter and was up for traveling the snow road with its creaking and crackling ice bridges over the big rivers. Then it is possible to advance for hundreds of miles to places like Tilita, Norman Wells and Ft. Good Hope in near constant night with the billions of stars and the aurora borealis flaming overhead. Some year I'll make this surreal journey. And the name Wrigley appeals to me because of my life-long affliction known as being a Cubs' fan. Genetic birthrights can cause terrible woe.

  The Dene, who still practice the old ways of hunting and trapping to exist, call Wrigley Pehdzah Ki or "clay place." I find myself preferring the sound of their language and its natural life meanings for their world. The town was originally known to traders as Old Fort Island when the Dene settled at what was then a trading post operated by the North West Trading Company beginning in 1870. The first few years of the twentieth century were mean ones for the Dene, One-third of their people died from tuberculosis and famine. The remaining 48 families moved about 30 miles away to a landform called Roche-qui-trempe-a-l'eau or "the rock that plunges into the water." The site, now called Old Fort Wrigley, remains in the form of a few decaying log cabins along the riverbank. Thirty-five years ago the town to moved to higher, drier ground in a clearing surrounded by poplar and spruce. Drier ground translates into fewer mosquitoes, which drive caribou mad and can suck a weak animal blood dry in minutes. Nothing can prepare an individual for the numbers and ferocity of the insects. They are a presence, an all-pervasive presence.

  When the people moved they brought with them by barge the Roman Catholic church, the Hudson Bay store and warehouse, the one-room school and the teacher's residence. All of this, the end of the road, the hard times, the relocation of important structures, all of this set in the middle of some of the most fantastic landscape anywhere, appeals to my romantic nature.

  Nearly everyone I meet up here is friendly, and unlike in the U.S. where a firm handshake is a curious indication of inner strength and honesty, everyone I meet greats me with a soft, warm grip and a polite probing with their eyes along the lines of "Why are you here from Montana?" "What do you think of our land?," "Where have you been?" I experience this style of greeting everywhere I travel up here, from the crews on the river ferries, to Dene in Ft. Providence to a well-read campground operator in Ft. Smith. Territorial residents all live hard, determined lives but they also impress one with their friendliness and enthusiasm for just about everything. Diamond, tungsten, copper, emeralds, and timber fuel the economy as does a burgeoning sport fishing industry where float planes taking off in a steady buzz whisk the sports far north to the above-tree line barren grounds to fish for large Arctic char, lake trout, Artic grayling and northern pike. Eco-tourism is coming on, too. An ambitious, industrious place racing into the new world. Yet the always tough, remote land and extreme weather with brutally-cold winters and long nights doesn't appeal to many of us outsiders. Those that live in the North are a special breed of human that is focused, hard-working yet tempered by the fire of the enormity of the untamed wilderness.

  Wherever a road leads in this country, powerful, unchecked waterfalls blast, tumble and cascade over towering rock shelves or boulder jumbles as rivers carve and gouge their way deeply through bedrock. The energy of the Territories is palpable, sizzling and crackling through the country, charging the air with what seems to be a perceptible platinum glow.

  Wrigley Church, Photo by John HoltWrigley appears abruptly out of the forest with its combination of new and old - some modern homes next to teepees, dirt streets and new pickups, a hotel holding forth within a recent assemblage of trailers like the ones used for oil rig crews out in west Texas. Entering town I see a barricade to the winter road that will carry people and supplies to towns farther north in a few months. The track through the forest is thickly overgrown with tall emerald grass studded with wild flowers - indigo, crimson, orange, white. The McConnell Range can be seen in a narrow slice of open sky between the tall poplars. At the north end of town I stop in front of the Catholic church to take pictures. The building is a perfectly maintained structure of white with green trim, numerous windows and a tall steeple of silver metal. The cross at the crown flickers in a sunlight perfectly chilled by the cool offered on the wind moving down from the polar icecap many miles above.

  "A peaceful town isn't it," said a voice behind me. I turn and a Dene man of sun and genetically darkened skin in his forties is smiling and offers his hand. The soft, warm grip once again. We introduce ourselves. He's Albert. We talk about his country. He offers to take me far into the mountains whenever I have time on a return visits - "I can see that you will return here" - where grizzlies, wolves and "many fish" can be found as can lakes, crystalline streams.

  Albert goes on to tell me that generators provide his town with electricity for lights, water pumps, satellite TV and even computers. He says his son "chats" with people from all over the world on the internet. He smiles, shakes his head and says, "This is beyond me. It doesn't make sense. Perhaps it's good. I don't know. Many of us prefer the old ways, yet we hunt with snowmobiles and high-powered rifles. Life is change for all of us. We have a small hotel for tourists over that way. How we adapt is what matters these days," and he smiles and lights a non-filter Players cigarette. He draws deeply and exhales, the smooth cloud of bluish smoke dispersing a few mosquitoes that buzz in the evening air with no apparent intent.

By John Holt
Scene along the Liard Highway that courses just
south of the Mackenzie River winding through taiga 
and boreal forest

  We talk some about the fishing and he says that there are many fish in the river. That the Mackenzie is a reliable source of food. Graying, northerns, Dolly Vardon and much farther downstream towards the sea, arctic char in late summer. Moose, the ever-present black bear, caribou, even sheep in the high country provide meat and the hides are used for clothing. Furbearers like beaver and fox are plentiful.

  "Everything we need is given us, including herbs that help with wounds and sickness," he said. "Alcohol is not the problem here," and he looks around his peaceful village, the sound of young children playing drifting across space. "Not like it is for the People in Fort Simpson and Fort Smith, very bad there, and down in Hay River. Of all the things that have harmed us, of those things brought by whites, alcohol is the worst, more so than disease and government and its laws and regulations. We are fighting these, but alcohol kills our spirit." He stops, lights another smoke (They're around ten bucks a pack up here), looks at me and laughs with a resignation borne of experience. "I see you know what I'm speaking of," and we both nod and laugh a little.

  Despite being after 9 P.M., the sun is still well above the northwestern horizon where it will dip briefly out of view after midnight before rising a little after one A.M. to begin another June day. The birds will rest in this short span before resuming their singing and free-form chatter. As I top a rise I see the river and its islands, and Nahanni Butte many miles away. I stop the Suburban, step out and take all of this in with my eyes and on film. I turn to look behind me and an off-white wolf is standing in the middle of the road forty feet away staring at me with dark eyes. His fur would be pure white were it not for the slight dusting of coal black hairs through his coat. We hold each other's gaze for a long time until I shift my view back to Nahanni. When I glance back I see the wolf moving silently through the small trees. Then he is gone. I get back in the car and continue driving.

Hay River. Photo by John Holt  About 20 miles down the road a small two-track cuts off towards the Mackenzie River as the narrow path winds through a tunnel made by overhanging birch leaves. We splash through puddles left from last night's rain as the course twist, turns and doubles back on itself before eventually fading completely as it leaves the trees and enters a sandy, grassy open area that looks like downs along the Atlantic Ocean down near Kiawah Island in the South. The Mackenzie is about a quarter-mile to the west, its surface sparkling and flashing in sheets of quicksilver interspersed with ripples of pewter with an internally soft glow of cerulean fired by the Mackenzie's many feet of current. Just ahead a river about the size of the Madison in Montana flows clear though tinted brown from the tannin of pine needles. The water rushes and boils over a gravel and large rock streambed. Boulders block the swift current up and down the river that heads in the McConnell Range. It is unnamed on our maps as are many streams up this way. To earn recognition on all but the most detailed of maps a river must be enormous or ferocious like the Mackenzie, the Liard, the Slave or the Hay. A minor stream such as this plies its course in relative anonymity.

  I park the Suburban on a level spot overlooking both rivers and we set up camp. Rachel does the tent then gathers fire wood while I unload the rig - cooking crate, food containers, water jugs, chairs, sleeping gear. As I move around the spot I see plenty of moose sign - large tracks in the sandy soil and large oval-shaped dark-brown droppings. All at least a few days old judging from the worn edges of the prints. I also see weathered bear tracks in damp areas. Because of the smaller size they are probably black bear and more than a week old. A bit of big-game caution is required here as anywhere else in the Territories. I spot a northern shrike, distinctive with its hooked, carnivore's beak, perched on a nearby limb with what looks like a vole or possibly a lemming. Similar creatures except voles don't breed in winter. I walk down to the bluff overlooking the Mackenzie. Large trees floating towards the arctic that look like matchsticks. Several Sabine's Gulls ride easily upriver on the breeze coming down from the north. The birds are easily recognizable with their forked tails and ink-black wingtips. Swallows by the hundreds swoop and plummet in downdrafts along the banks. (Seeing all of these birds conjures of the self-righteously mad Audubon who killed thousands of birds, then tacked them to his studio walls so he had real-life models to paint from. His approach to wildlife art and orintholgy has always bothered me to the point of anger. I supposed all of us should be grateful that he wasn't drawing the human form in all its many shapes and colors.) I identify these species later while sitting around the cooking fire. The first sighting of either for me.

By John Holt
River Hay

  Next is the setup a pair of nine-foot flyrods for us. Nine-foot leaders tapered to a delicate 1x (a slight hedge against the murderous rows of razor teeth of the northerns) and a red-and-white woolhead bendback for me and a #2 long-shank, olive woolly bugger for Rachel. The water is fast and several feet deep so I add a split shot to each outfit - delicate casting here in the north country.

  The river is too fast and deep to wade, but large, relatively flat rocks help us work out into the current and allow us plenty of room away from pines, birch, alder and willow. The birch are a subartic hardwood known commonly as paper birch (Betula papyrifera) and have a cream-colored rather than white bark. They are also called Alaska birch and some botanists consider them a separate species. The pines are mainly black spruce (Picea mariana). The black along with the white spruce are the two most important trees up here because of their numbers that provide shelter from the weather, wood for fires and for building cabins. The black spruce can thrive in soils of less than 10 inches that consist of heavy clay or the acidic peat bogs. While Rachel is already fishing, I pause to puff on a Honduran cigar and read about these tree species in E.C. Pielou's A Naturalist's Guide to the Arctic. I clearly drive my daughter nuts with all of this information, but she manages as best she can. And reading these guides allows me the illusion of acquiring serious educator-type knowledge about where I roam. "You bet, buddy. Those Picea mariana are some kind of trees. Shallow soil, wide-spread roots and such, you know." Right. You bet.

  After finishing my cigar and reading, I look up and see that Rachel is moving away from the shore with her arced rod held high. A large fish is thrashing in the water near shore. I hustle down and scoop the northern onto the moss and grass. It's maybe 30-33 inches and fat, perhaps eight-ten pounds. I have a stringer in my hip pocket and I run the metal point through its left gill and out its mouth and stake the other end in the ground with a large stick.

  We both say "Dinner," at the same time, and head off to catch some more for the hell of it. I work about a 100 yards upstream from my daughter, making sure she is in clear view. Animals and current concern me, though she is cautious. My first cast quarters up stream about 60 feet above a mid-stream boulder. I let the heavy pattern swing and sink in the current, but the line quickly grown taut and I reach back setting the hook. A northern shakes its head then hunkers down behind another boulder. I pull as hard as I can and get nowhere for a minute, then the fish gradually gives ground before releasing its hold in the icy water and races down stream. I check the fish. Move down even with it, repeat the process gaining half my line, do the dance one more time and now have a northern nearly as big as my daughters at my feet. I'm not wearing waders, so I manage to get wet as soon as possible much like a Lab will find a puddle to play in the middle of the Gobi Desert. I release the fish. It rockets out of sight in a long flash of bluish-olive greens, creamy whites, and reddish browns streaked on the edges of its fins. For the next few hours I catch these fish on nearly every cast. All about the same size.

  I watch as Rachel does the same. I walk down to her and see a larger northern casually follow her bugger as she drags it to her and out of the water. No way in hell would we go meatless in this drainage. I've also seen a number of spruce grouse along the road. They appear as intelligent as their Montana cousins as they stand dead still in the middle of the road oblivious to the motorized potential carnage bearing down on their feathered bodies. I clean and scale the pike on the stringer and then cut it into two-inch steaks similar to salmon, place them in a plastic grocery bag I have. We walk back to camp. I start some charcoal in an old fire pit while Rachel slices a brace of large Yukon baking potatoes. She wedges onion slices in the cuts, adds lots of butter, salt and pepper, then triple-wraps them in aluminum foil. I place these in the coals, then arrange a grill on three flat rocks over the fire.

  I sip some iced tea and look across the wide Mackenzie into the distant mountains, scanning the ice and snow fields and the deep-cut canyons with a pair of Nikon zoom binoculars. I can't observe much detail in the dusk-like light of midnight, but have fun anyway. Easily amused. The mind of a child. Rachel reads a novel in the dim light. Beyond the capabilities of my eyes. The air is around 65 degrees, slight breeze, only a couple of stars or planets in the light night sky. Way in the distance, too the east and the Ebbets Hills the sound of a wolf, then another slides to us like an ancient ghostly call to wild arms. The wolves keep this up for a long time and when they've finished I feel as though I'm as far from home as I've ever been. The territories are magic every second of every long, bright summer day. After about an hour I place the pike now seasoned with more black pepper and sea salt after being brushed with olive oil over the grey coals. The potatoes finish up in the few minutes it takes to brown and cook the northern. Thick paper plates, Chinette of course!, placed on metal camp plates, hold the potatoes, fish and some sour dough bread. We eat in silence enjoying the sunset-sunrise of 2 A.M. The sun is just visible above the northern horizon. The entire half of the sky downriver river glows orange, blood red, pink, golden against a background of indigo and deepest purple. Thin rafts of clouds play with this light, shooting it in subtle shade variations down into the river and through the sky towards the invisible stars. Shafts of new-day sun light arc above the clouds and fan out like searchlights at a Hollywood Premier. The magic of this place continues, never ends, varies, flickers, alters shape among the seconds that string together in their own concept of time.

By John Holt
1 a.m. in the Northwest Territories

  We finish eating. I smoke a couple of cigarettes with a cup of tea Rachel's made, then take a long look through the entire 360 spin of our campsite before reluctantly going inside the tent to sleep. The wolves howl again across this eternal space. That's all I can remember.

Text and photos by John Holt 2005 ©

John Holt lives in Livingston, Montana. He’s the author of 14 published books including Montana Fly-Fishing Guides – East and West, Arctic Aurora – Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories, Coyote Nowhere – In Search of America’s Last Frontier and Hunted: A Novel. AK Press will publish Yellowstone Drift – Floating the Past in Real Time in February 2009. His work has appeared in publications including Men’s Journal, The Denver Post, Fly Rod & Reel, Fly Fisherman, Outside, American Cowboy, E – The Environmental Magazine and The Art of Angling Journal. His wife, Ginny Holt, has collaborated with me on articles for the above publications as well as with me on Yellowstone Drift, Coyote Nowhere and Arctic Aurora.  


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