From here north by east to the Peel River ferry crossing the country is so huge and naked, so tough and cold—even under bright Arctic sunlight—as to subdue conversation. Only our dust plume, quickly dissipated by the wind, marks the fact that we are actually here. I try to imagine crossing this wasteland on 10-pound snowshoes in the dead of winter, a dead squirrel and a whiskey jack in my pocket—impossible. Then, at a spot where the road widens at the top of a flat ridge to provide an emergency landing strip for light planes, we see something alive—a big black bear standing about 200 yards off the road in the midst of the tundra. We stop and stare at the bear. He stares back for a minute or two, then swaps ends and gallops back down the bare mountain the way he had come, awkward and swift in the same instant. We watch him diminish to a black dot on a gray screen.
"What was he doing here?"
"Traveling," says Marco. "Like us. Bears like to get out and around, see the country, move."
Actually, apart from the bear, this section of the road proved disappointing when it came to readily viewable wildlife. Except for the odd, cracker-crunching marmot who invaded our campsite at every stop; the wheeling, whiterumped flight of bald eagles over every bald peak; and, of course, the inevitable Canada Jay (or whiskey jack, or camp robber—same bird regardless of name, each as pugnacious as the last—one of whom made so bold as to perch on my head during one stop) there was little to see but tundra, rock and hard-blue sky.
Now the Dempster begins its long, looping slalom run down to the Peel River drainage, and soon we are back in thick, short spruce forest. The Peel was, until mid-July of this year when the ferry began operating, the end of the line running north on the Dempster. We wait on a crudely graded ramp for the ferry to cross the deep, green water. There is an Indian fishing camp here, and slabs of pale meat are air-drying on wooden racks. The smell of smoked fish and diesel exhaust fills our truck. On the far side of the crossing we take a break. An old Indian is mending a gill net beside the landing. Tethered huskies bark and snap beside the smoke rack.
The old Indian turns out to be William Nerysoo, who had blown the whistle on Albert Johnson 48 years before, thus triggering the hunt for the Mad Trapper.
"Oh, yes, I used to hunt and trap all this country when I was a young man," he says, his smile showing that he still has all his teeth. "I'm 84 years old now, but the country has changed less than I have. I used to take my wife and kids with me up over the Richardsons in the winter, hunt and trap around the Eagle River country. Had a team of five or six good dogs. When I had enough meat and furs, I'd leave the family behind and mush over the Ogilvies down to Dawson. It was 1914 or '15 that I first saw Dawson—a nice little town then, nice people. I'd sell my meat and furs and buy clothing for the family, then sled back up the mountain.
"Albert Johnson? Oh, yes, I was on the hunt for him. Quite a man he was. Led us a hard chase, he did. Why he should have made such a fight of it, no one will ever know. The Mounties never found out who he was and where he came from." The old man sells us a side of smoked whitefish and we prepare to push on. I wish him another 84 years of good health. "Oh, not that much, I'm afraid," he says, laughing. "I've got another 10 to go, anyway. That ought to be enough for one man."
The country between the Peel and MacKenzie rivers—some 50 miles of it—is thick spruce forest pocketed with small, clear, bog-edged lakes that look like good water for northern pike. The road has a caked-mud feel to it. Given a splash of rain, it could be slip-sliding-away country. The ferry crossing at the confluence of the MacKenzie and the Arctic Red rivers has an aura of civilization. At the far side of the mile-wide river, as we ready the truck for the final, 70-mile dash on the smooth, well-settled road into Inuvik, a Delta taxicab pulls up. The driver, a beautiful Indian girl in a sealskin coat, gets out and carries two cases of beer to the ferryboat. Marco and I look at each other and burst out laughing.
After all those miles, all that emptiness—a taxicab lugging beer!