We cross the Ogilvie River, flowing in from the west clear and fast and teeming with Arctic grayling. There is a highway maintenance camp at the crossing that sells gas, for $1.60 an imperial gallon, and repairs tires, but it closes at 5 p.m. and we are already later than that. We don't need the gas, anyway; there is a station at Eagle Plains, an hour and a half north, where we plan to stay overnight. We stop at a likely looking eddy on the Ogilvie and rig up a fly rod. In Alaska the grayling love black gnats, and I tie on a No. 16. The first cast into the eddy's edge produces a rolling strike—the grayling's lavender-and-black-spotted dorsal showing like a sail as it hooks up. This one is a jumper, as are the four others I take on subsequent short casts. Five fish on five casts. Virgin waters. We wonder how long it will last.
A hunting ban has been imposed in a corridor that extends five miles from either side of the Dempster in the Yukon Territory, four miles in the Northwest Territories, but fishing is permitted from roadside. The hunting ban means, in effect, no hunting at all for Dempster travelers: the country is so boggy—and buggy—that if you were to kill a moose or a caribou outside the corridor, you could never get it back to the road before most of the meat spoiled. Drifting the Ogilvie River, though, could be very productive for both hunting and fishing. From the point where it crosses the Dempster, the Ogilvie and the Peel River (which it feeds) flow some 700 miles to the next road crossing, at the Peel River Ferry on the Dempster. Four hundred of those miles are white water; there is game all through that country and fish at every drop of the fly.
But we push on up the road, the Ogilvie River sloping off" to the east and the highway climbing out of the sculptured valley onto a high, spruce-grown, featureless erosion plain. We are now north of the line where the great icy backhoe of the last glaciation did its work: this land is in virtually the same shape it was at the beginning of the Pleistocene. Off in the distance, in the late, slanting light, something big and silver gleams. When we come up on it, it proves to be a series of disused tanks, which had stored diesel fuel while the highway was being built. "Garbage," says Marco disgustedly. "Government say it clean up. Never does."
Toward dark, at a point 231 miles north of the Klondike Crossing, we come to the Eagle Plains Hotel, a new, well-appointed 32-unit lodge complete with restaurant, cocktail lounge, country music on the jukebox, television and a full-service gas station, where I drop off our punctured tire for a quick patch job. The lobby and lounge walls are hung with photographs illustrating the two great legends of this country: the Lost Patrol and the Mad Trapper of Rat River. Over a cold beer and a hot meal, Marco fills me in on them.
The Lost Patrol was a team of four Royal Northwest Mounties who were deputed to carry the mail from Herschel Island in the Beaufort Sea, via Fort McPherson on the Peel River, to Dawson in the winter of 1911. They didn't get far. Following a dispute with their Indian guide over wages, Inspector Francis J. Fitzgerald, the patrol's leader, decided that his team should find its own way south from Fort McPherson. The party got lost in the brutal cross-hatch of mountains near the Hart Divide on the Little Wind River, west of Eagle Plains. With temperatures ranging down to 80-below and food running out, the men ate their dog team and then resigned themselves to death. They wrote their last wills and testaments and froze, except for one man who shot himself, perhaps to resist the call of cannibalism. In late February of that year Corporal W. J. D. Dempster of the Mounties was ordered to find the lost patrol. That he did on March 22, after a feat of tracking and trailing through wicked weather that has rarely been matched. Jack Dempster lived to a ripe old age, but not long enough to see the highway named for him open to softies like us.
Marco is not much moved by the tale of the Lost Patrol. The tragedy of the Mad Trapper, though, excites his imagination, and indeed it is a story that London would have loved. Albert Johnson, a loner and a trapper, showed up on the Rat River northwest of Fort McPherson in the fall of 1931. He was a small, blond man, only 5'9" and 150 pounds, but a tough one. He built a cabin, set his trap-line and stayed clear of other people—a fairly easy matter in the almost empty Loucheux Indian country. In December of that year, an Indian named William Nerysoo complained to the Mounties that Johnson was springing his traps and hanging them on trees, and a patrol was sent to question Johnson. He welcomed the Mounties with gunfire, and a six-week chase ensued, punctuated with four fire-fights at 40-below that left one Mountie dead and three wounded. Johnson, after being dynamited out of his cabin, took off for the Alaska border several hundred miles away across the Richardson Mountains. He stayed clear of the passes through those bleak 6,000-foot peaks and—wearing snowshoes that weighed 10 pounds apiece and toting a 200-pound pack, along with three guns—scaled the Richardsons and was descending toward the Indian settlement of Old Crow before the Mounties caught up with him on an oxbow of the Eagle River. It was only by using an airplane—a Bellanca piloted by World War I hero "Wop" May, who together with the R.C.A.F.'s Roy Brown shot down the Red Baron—that the Mounties got their man. Even then he died hard. Hit six times by bullets as he lay in the snow at midriver, Johnson returned the Mounties' fire until a seventh slug severed his spine. His death photograph—a face grimacing with pain and defiance—adorns the wall of the Eagle Plains cocktail lounge. In his pack when he died were a dead squirrel and a dead whiskey jack—his meal for that night, had he lived. We were eating roast beef.
"He was not mad," says Marco. "He only want to be left alone. I know the feeling. That was some man, that Mad Trapper. They should name the highway for him." We retire for a nightcap in the Spike Millen Cocktail Lounge, which is named for the Mountie constable killed by the Mad Trapper.
The next morning we push off through the Richardsons: dreary, windswept, rolling country reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, the stomping grounds of the tundra grizzly and the Barren Ground caribou. A few thickets of spruce and dwarf willow clog the few creek bottoms, and red-stalked fireweed blows its "Arctic cotton" from seeps and springs on the gray-green-purple hillsides. Some 20 miles north of Eagle Plains is the Arctic Circle, marked here by a huge truck tire painted orange and mounted on an A-frame. The tire is covered with graffiti scrawled by the venturesome few who have made it this far north on the Dempster. One sample reads:
TRAFFIC PATTERNS REVERSED
CHURCH PICNICS TERRORIZED
SAILBOAT RACES DISRUPTED
OBSCENE SKYWRITING OUR SPECIALTY
We tape a bottle of Labatt's Blue beer to the post, labeling it: FOR EMERGENCY ONLY. YUKON ORANGE JUICE.