I was living in Yellowknife, in the spring of 1998, when I got a call from fellow filmmaker Terry Wolfe who was asking for help on a film shoot the following week. The people in the Sahtu Region were planning to recreate a traditional walk, between the two communities of Colville Lake and Fort Good Hope, and wanted it documented on film. Before air service in 1964, people would walk, with pack dogs, from Colville Lake to Fort Good Hope, to buy supplies—an eighty-mile trek through the bush. The few remaining elders who remembered the route wanted to show the younger generation the way, in more ways than one.
How walking six days through the bush helps you make sense of life
Before we left Yellowknife, they assured us that all we needed to bring was our camera gear, a mosquito net and a sleeping bag. They confirmed, several times, that they had all the food and there was no need to bring any. But when we got there, someone forgot to send the memo because no one had any extra food for us. One thing about the North, people expect you to hold your own and think on your feet. So we went over to the Co-op store and stocked up on the lightest, most-nutritious food we could find—dry noodles, instant porridge and raisins. There was no freeze-dried tofu, that’s for sure. So we made do.
That was just the start of our problems. On the day of, the walking party was gathered at the band office, each with a pack dog. A pack dog is a large husky that carries a canvas bag stuffed with camping essentials like food, sleeping gear and survival equipment. Again, no one got the memo that we might need one, too, with an extra hundred pounds of camera equipment and sound gear.
In the North, if you can’t laugh at yourself, they’ll do it for you. Cause they broke out laughing, suggesting that we go around and look for a dog to steal. Someone had pity on us and we went looking for a pack dog. There was a mangy husky mutt tied to a post just down the road. The owner was out of town and we figured he wouldn’t miss it if we borrowed it. So he instructed me to undo his chain from the post and go fit him for a dog pack.
I don’t think that dog had been let loose since last winter, cause he dragged me halfway back to the band office. It’s a good thing I had experience with sled dogs from growing up with my brother Gerry’s dog team. You gotta show them who’s boss, so I grabbed a handful of his neck and bent down low and growled a few choice words, which cooled him off. Northern dogs are not pets; they are beasts of burden for all you Cheechakos.
We finally got all our camera gear split up between ourselves and “Chocolate,” our faithful pack dog. As much as we tried to pair down our camera and camping gear, all three of us (Terry, myself and Chocolate) had a wobbly start from the weight on our backs. Nonetheless, off we went.
The first leg of the trip was a six-mile hike through a cutline from the community of Colville Lake, to Belot Lake. To save time, they boated us across the vast expanse of Belot Lake. We’d budgeted six days so that we would arrive in Fort Good Hope on June 21, National Aboriginal Day as it was called then.
When we got the call to do the job, I went and paid over a hundred bucks for a pair of top-of-the-line hiking boots. The kid who sold them to me assured me that they were MADE for hiking on the tundra. I noticed that all the Dene were using wraparound moccasins, and I felt sorry for them because they didn’t have hundred-dollar hiking boots, like me. Well, by the time we hit Belot Lake, I could have choked that kid because the boots were cutting into my ankles and I was having trouble keeping up. Too embarrassed to complain about my boots, I swiped some lard from the cook and cut up an extra pair of underwear I had and wrapped my ankles with them. It worked for a bit, till the lard dried up, then I had to repeat it later.
We got across Belot Lake and decided to camp for the night. It was June fifteenth and the mosquitoes were out in full force. Everyone scrambled for the best camping spot—a clearing with either trees or willows, on either end, to tie the mosquito nets to. Once those were set, we placed our sleeping mats and sleeping bags underneath, then had a supper of dry-fish and bannock. After supper, I unwrapped my bloody ankles and tried to figure out what to do about them. I decided to pick some fresh spruce sap and slather it on my ankles. I used an extra pair of socks to wrap my ankles, and it felt very soothing. Someone eventually loaned me some sneakers.
The next morning, we had a quick breakfast, broke camp and trudged on. I was amazed at how quickly the Dene had broken camp. We had the extra burden of not only trying to break camp, but to film and document it at the same time. Once they were packed, they took off; they didn’t wait for anyone. They just expected you to keep up. I was lucky that I grew up in the bush and held my own. But my partner was struggling and I had to give him a hand, a few times.
We stopped a couple of hours later to look at the map and take a rest. There was an elderly couple named Hyacinthe and Marie Kochon, who were in their early seventies. Despite their age, they were leading us through the bush at a brisk pace. Being true people of the land, they were accustomed to this life and were outfitted as such. They had six pack dogs, with everything from a small canvas tent, a radio, a wash pan and bundles of dry-fish and dry-meat. When we stopped, two of the pack dogs caught wind of something and bolted off into the bush. They just happened to be the ones with the dry-fish and dry-meat in their packs. Immediately, three of the young men dashed after them. We waited, expecting them to come back with the dogs shortly. But after an hour, they came back empty-handed. The dogs were gone, and so was most of our food. After a quick consult, Hyacinthe and Marie decided to go after their dogs themselves. They took some bannock and a thermos of tea and instructed us to wait for them at a certain creek, about five miles away. That night, they walked into camp with no dogs. We decided to sleep on it.
We woke to a dilemma … call it off and go back, or carry on. We had a fishnet, a rifle and probably enough food, if we rationed it, to complete the journey. We decided to carry on.
The sun was exceptionally hot that morning, so we decided to lick our wounds, where we sat, and carry on in the evenings when it was cooler. The guys decided to set the fishnet across the small creek, but they had no way of crossing it. So they chopped down a bunch of spruce trees and made a bridge. We actually had to do that over a few creeks we came across. At any rate, they set the net and checked it throughout the day. Nothing. Oh well, there’ll be other creeks, we thought.
That night, we broke camp and walked into the coolness of the night. We found our rhythm and were soon marching along. The lost dogs set us back half a day and we had to make up for it. I’d brought along a water bottle, but found I didn’t have time to refill it, shoot some footage and keep up at the same time. So I would just dip my baseball cap into shallow pools of water, along the way, and dump it over my head and hopefully some into my mouth.
When we stopped for a break, Chocolate was starting to whine because the mosquitoes were driving him crazy. So I would make him a smudge, to lessen his suffering. It became a running gag for them to see me tending to Chocolate like that, and they got a lot of laughs.
Like I mentioned, food was scarce and everyone was expected to feed their own animals. The others had bits of fat and dry-meat that they’d packed, on their own, and somehow were able to keep their dogs fed. But not us. Once in a while someone would take pity on Chocolate and throw him a morsel of food. I felt sorry for him, so I made him a mush of instant noodles, instant porridge and raisins. Hell, we’d been eating that goop all along, and I figured he’d be grateful for a scoopful. I dumped half of my precious meal onto the ground, at his feet, for him to enjoy. But the sonofabitch turned his nose up at it! The gall, I thought. No one was looking, so I scooped it back into my bowl, twigs and all, and gobbled it up. I bartered a pack of noodles for a chunk of dried caribou fat and fed it to Chocolate, but not before taking a bite myself.
Although no one had walked that route for thirty-four years, a faint outline of the walking trail guided us through the bush. But almost daily, we’d come across an old forest fire burn and lose the trail completely. We’d fan out in all directions, sometimes even losing one another. But ultimately we’d find our way back. Our main guide, Elder Paul Cotchilly, remembered the landscape with exact detail and got us out of a lot of scrapes. Paul was the sergeant of the local Canadian Ranger troop and carried the nickname “Sarge.” After taking breaks, Sarge would bark orders to us. “Saddle up. Lock and load. Forward hoe.” He had a great sense of humour.
On the sixth day, we could see the Mackenzie Mountains off in the distance. The elders announced that we were close to the Rabbitskin River, where a party would boat us the remaining miles into Fort Good Hope. As tradition would have it, we shot three times with the rifle to announce our arrival. The receiving party returned our call with three shots of their own, and we knew we were close. Later that afternoon two angels appeared, in the distance, carrying shopping bags full of chocolate bars and cold pop. When we met, all the walkers collapsed in sheer exhaustion. I immediately swallowed a chocolate bar and swallowed a can of Pepsi. They had a package of beef jerky, which I snatched first out of the bag. I ripped it open with my teeth, called Chocolate over and thanked him for his selfless service, then unceremoniously dumped the sticks of jerky at his feet. He swallowed them in a blink.
The dogs eventually made their way back to Hyacinthe and Marie, in Colville Lake, minus the dry-meat and dry-fish. I still have scars around my ankles where my hundred-dollar hiking boots cut into them. Chocolate’s owner came home to find his dog missing and put out an APB. He was found roaming the streets of Fort Good Hope and sent home on the next flight, after his owner threatened to charge us for theft.
I found out more about myself in those six days of walking than I could in sixty hours of therapy. I found out that hope feeds stamina. I found out that you can overcome hunger by drinking enough slough water. I found out that you can endure hordes of mosquitoes by simply ignoring them and not scratching your bites. I found out that you can fight off sleep by mumbling gibberish to yourself and slapping yourself in the face repeatedly. But most of all, I found out that if I dig deep enough, I can always find the strength to take another step forward.