Crossing the Arctic Circle in 2003


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March 21st 2015
Published: March 21st 2015
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Started out in Central Michigan, crossed Big Mac and across the Upper Peninsula
My VW camper, the Blue Amigo, had been oiled, lubed, scrubbed clean and packed. I had had a new windshield installed which had been cracked by rocks tossed up from careening lumber trucks heading southward through BC on my last visit up to the Northwest Territories several years earlier. Probably would be cracked again before I returned home. I was keyed to having an adventure up in Canada’s north country, been too long away.



It was Monday, June 23, 2003 and I hit the road grooving to Big Bear Radio just past Grayling, Michigan as they spun CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising.” The first entry in the Blue Amigo log reads: “Left Marilyn at Kinko’s about 7:30 a.m. headed up 127, crossed Big Mac before noon. Caught some bad wind from Munising onward, lost $20 at the Christmas Casino, found Van Ripper Campground just west of Champion” The “bad wind” was problematic and shifted my canoe back and forth atop the van, the securing straps screaming like banshees. My campground had a free hot shower…paradise.



Vicious black flies aborted my morning power walk, so I bid farewell to Tommy and Lynn, fellow VW lovers. We’d connected
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The Canadian Rockies
as human beings, always nice in faraway places. I bought some excellent smoked whitefish in Ashland, Wisconsin, my rule is raw fish only in Japan, smoked whitefish only in Michigan or Wisconsin. Gads! Teenagers in Wisconsin reminded me of school days at Mount Hope Day School and Lutheran HS West; there must be Lutherans galore in Wisconsin. Again powerful winds battered my canoe atop the Blue Amigo. Crossed into Minnesota and bought wild rice in Bemidji. Wild rice is a close cousin of Asian rice, a grass that thrives in the Minnesota lake country. Over 10,000 lakes with billions of mosquitoes, but I still love Minnesota.



I drove long miles to Crookston, Minnesota. The city campground, right off Main Street was a welcoming sight to see with plenty of open campsites with clean bathhouse and hot showers, but wild looking cloud formations foreshadowed what was to come down on me. I drank beer with two hard-working Minnesotan laborers who were camping nearby. Together we finished off a six pack of cold beer. A storm raged through later that evening, rocking and rolling the Blue Amigo. I rode it out like I was in a sailing ship far
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Meziadin Junction
out to sea. I slept like a ship’s captain after the storm abated and in the morning as I packed up I saw that my two drinking buddies had already left for work. Before leaving Crookston, I found the post office and sent out wild rice packets to several of my my friends. A sad sack senior citizen sat on the post office steps staring at the parking lot. What was going through his mind; was it blank? Where did all his time go so fast? I can relate more to this old guy now twelve years later that I have joined his ranks at least in the age category.



Except for the angry storm that blew through, the downtown camping had been quiet allowing me a deep comfortable sleep. I blamed my blinking engine light on the awesome crosswinds of the Minnesotan and North Dakotan prairies. I battened down my canoe but it still kept shifting with the wind. The devilish wind was backing up exhaust under the Blue Amigo’s hood causing engine emission sensors to raise red flags. The mechanic at Gateway Auto Tech told me not to fret, assuring me that the van would
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Meziadin Lake
continue to run. It rained hard all day and the wind did not let up. Oh to be in a cozy lakeside camp somewhere with a bottle of Portuguese red and a warming book maybe “The Sun Kingdoms of the Americas” by Victor W. von Hagen beautifully illustrated by Alberto Beltrán. This book is so thick and heavy that I could use it to crack open walnuts, the perfect read for gray nasty weather days. As I drove the prairies I made the decision to stop accounting my journey: the cost of food, gas, camps and on and on, I’d go crazy keeping track of all this worthless info as I was not on any budget, just be frugal but have fun.





The Bowbells Camp in downtown Bowbells, North Dakota had a red, white and blue bathhouse and three RV sites. There were no pay phones in town but there was a well stocked general store, owned and staffed by two elderly brothers possibly there when TR came to North Dakota. I took a walk down Main Street with my camera and shot photos of this town from another era. Wild dreams over night had
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Kanaskan Lake
me abandoned on some far shore, sharing food and drink with lots of other friends. I drank whiskey before bed and in the morning brewed my first cup of coffee in the Blue Amigo this trip. My Canadian camp neighbors had already left. I hate crossing borders but it had to be done.



I was greeted on the other side in Saskatchewan by a beautiful blond customs agent who asked me all the usual questions plus the most important one: “Did I have a gun in the van?” No, I didn’t. But my answer didn’t matter I would still be searched. It wasn’t the bubbly girl agent but her superior, a totally stressed out, pissed off middle aged grump. If it had only been me and the friendly girl agent my crossing would have been splendid. For me the world be a much better place if everything was run by women and the men spent their time sleeping off hangovers. In the male agent’s partial defense he had found a gun in an American’s trunk earlier which the American had lied about. Delayed over an hour as they ran my passport number through their computer, and then
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On the way to Boya Lake
a perfunctory search of the Blue Amigo by the girl agent, who I thanked for her gentle ways, I was in Canada, heading north.



I ate a hearty lunch at Grandma’s Kitchen in Saskatoon. By the way, “Health Canada reports that the infection rate for chlamydia in Saskatoon is twice the national average, making it the chlamydia capital of Canada. Montreal has vowed to get their title back.” —Rick Mercer- I made it to Lloydminster just over the line and into Alberta. I had had my first and only experience here several years earlier with the Aurora Borealis, the northern lights, large undulating oblong globs of green up in the sky. The Roman goddess of dawn is mainly witnessed in the high altitudes although I’ve heard Michigan Yoopers make claims of seeing them. I was impressed and got the chills as I stood there watching them on that September evening years before.



More strong winds across Alberta hindered me and the Edmonton traffic was a scary thing to drive through. My engine light continued to flicker as I drove out of the prairies into the piney foothills with my first glimpse of the magnificent Canadian Rockies. In Jasper Park I set up camp at Pocahontas, warmed a flask of Hakutsuru sake and talked softly to the myriad marauding squirrels. The campground was filled with the long Canadian weekend ahead, July 1st was Canada Day. I bid farewell to the beauty of the Jasper area and hit the road for Fraser Lake in British Colombia. I bought myself a BC fishing license for $85 Canadian which is probably double that now. I was top carrying my folding canoe and it hadn’t been easy with all the wind and shifting. “Flyfishing through the Midlife Crisis” by Howell Raines was in the Blue Amigo book caché, remember 2003 is pre-Kindle. Why wouldn’t I want to fish BC’s fantastic lakes?



I followed the Yellowhead Highway through Prince George past Vanderhoof to Fraser Lake where I camped. The Yellowhead is named for the Yellowhead Pass, the route chosen to cross the Canadian Rockies. The pass and the highway are named after the fur trader Pierre Bostonais who had yellow streaks in his hair, and was nicknamed “Tête Jaune” (Yellowhead). Interned Japanese-Canadians worked on the highway in 1942.



I reached Meziadin Lake, got a
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Watson Lake, first stop in the Yukon
nice camp right on the lake’s shore. I decided that after almost 3000 miles of 400-500 miles for seven straight days, I needed a break. I stayed put for a few days, fished for the beautiful Dolly Varden trout in the lake, chilled out and finished “Blue Latitudes: Going where Captain Cook has Gone Before” by Tony Horwitz. It rained a lot at Meziadin which gave me cause to snuggle inside the belly of the Blue Amigo and finish this wonderful book. Some of the gems garnered from its pages: “Chiefs are sharks that walk on land.” (Hawaiian proverb), “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” (Paul Gauguin mural), “Not withstanding they are ‘cannibals,’ they are of a good disposition and have not a little share of humanity.” (Captain Cook’s journal) “Cook traveled because he liked to run away. It solves all life’s problems.” (my thoughts). I also now would have to check out the story of John Ledyard, an American explorer and adventurer who joined Captain Cook on his third and final voyage in June, 1776 as a British marine. I finished the book and as requested handed it over to the jolly, totally
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Al, Whitehorse VW mechanic extraordinaire
positive camp manager at Meziadin which except for the countless mosquitoes and constant rain had been a wonderfully recharging experience.



Farther north in BC at Kinaskan Lake in past visits I’d always been able to catch my dinner of the fat stocked rainbows. This time no fish but plenty of mosquitoes and a splendid storm that rolled over of the mountains. I bid farewell to the 5th wheel family parked next to me and rolled on toward Boya Lake. Bad roads and oil leaks made it a bad karma day for sure. Days like this make me wonder why I roam; maybe I have Captain Cook’s “search for novelty” gene. At the Dease Lake Post Office cum laundry most of the washing machines were broke. There were lots of construction and traffic hold ups past Dease Lake but I amused myself by flirting with a cute flagger, even played Elvis’ “Don’t Be Cruel” for her on my cassette player while I waited to be waved on.

At Boya Lake a camper passing my site pointed out a pool of oil under my van. From where was it leaking? I needed to add oil and find the
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if I lived in the Yukon this would be my dog
cause of the leak. I asked some Germans in a rented RV if they could sell me some oil, they had none, but Jack the Boya caretaker sold me two quarts, one already opened for $6.00. Jack claimed that he could fix the leak with soap. He drove the van’s front wheels up on two crude wooden blocks and took a look. No dice. I did a very stressful 70-mile drive to Watson Lake in the Yukon and found Chris at Bee Jay’s Garage. He claimed that he could fix it but not right now, he was closing, bring it back in the morning.



I made the best of the situation by watching a northern lights presentation with a senior citizen tour group from Toronto. I limped out to the Watson Lake campground, my oil trailing behind me like blood flowing from an open wound. I was at Bee Jays promptly at 8 a.m. Chris took me in first, removed the skid pan, took one quick look at the Blue Amigo’s guts and threw in his grease rag. He then charged me $37 CAD for his look see. A ripoff! So Whitehorse it had to be and
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this would be my cabin
the only reliable VW mechanics in all of the Yukon, Al and Neil. Neil had saved me and the Blue Amigo before but he was 280 long leaky miles from Watson Lake. I bought several more quarts of oil from Chris, another windfall for him; he probably doubled the price for me. I kept checking my oil level every 50 miles.



Neil’s old place was closed up so I went to the info center and got his telephone number. Neil now worked out of Carcross Corners. I found Neil and Al very busy, hard at work, but they got me in and up on the rack. They found a blown oil sending gauge which Neil had in stock, so Al replaced it. Neil is one of my favorite Yukon characters, the guy you’d want at your side in any situation good or bad. Back in the mid 80’s he and a buddy had bicycled across Canada from Labrador to the Yukon, that’s right, east to west against the wind. At the Twin Lakes camp I made a roaring fire, drank a cup of warmed sake to sooth me.



The Yukon rocks! In 2003 their
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German touring bus camped in Dawson City
campgrounds still provided free firewood, the alien fishing license was only $35 CAD, you could easily catch delicious whitefish with a fly rod and most of the Yukoners I met would be right out of central casting for Mad Mad Mad Mad World, the 1963 epic comedy. There’s even a Yukon Elvis, I met him, who in his heart of hearts truly believes that he is the one and only reincarnation of The King. I like BC but I love the Yukon.



I slept in past seven a.m. I packed up and hit the road with no fish and no more oil leaks. I gassed up at Stewart Crossing and visited the Clan Center at Tutchone River Crossing, Tutchone is a threatened Athabaskan language spoken by the native people in the Yukon. The VW sister of my Blue Amigo was camped down by the river. I was very close now to Dawson City. I purchased croissants at the Tintina Bakery. At the Klondike Information Center I logged on with my own computer and e-mailed my wife Marilyn. I wrote in my log on July 5, 2003: “What an amazing thing technology is,” I had no idea what
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downtown Dawson City
was coming in the next twelve years. Back in camp I finished some leftover spaghetti, sat in the sun and wrote my log, getting ready for the challenge of the Dempster Highway.



Beautiful weather greeted me early after a noisy overnight camp, lots of parties, I bid farewell to Rene and his wife, my Quebecois neighbors. Slyvie had taught me how to make coffee in a French press. They left to return home and I took a power walk along the Yukon River, had Dawson City to myself. I decided to stay one more night in Dawson. I had so much to do to get ready for the long difficult haul up the Dempster. I needed to organize my gear of which I had way too much. The Blue Amigo’s pop up bed was busted underneath, not sliding back up into a bench like it was supposed to. I mended it as best I could with copper wire and a bolt.



In the evening I took in a dance performance at the Cultural Center put on by Gwich’in girls. Fifteen villages scattered across Northeast Alaska and Northwest Canada are home to approximately 7,000 Gwich’in,
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Dawson City green area
the most northernly of all First Nation peoples. One of the girls was quite big with the hands and feet of a man but pretty with carved marble like features. The performance was sensuous and beautiful to the point that I was sad to have it end. Before leaving Dawson City for the Dempster I sent out all my pre-written e-mails as the internet would be nonexistent along the highway. The Dempster or the Devil’s Highway as far as I’m concerned after driving it on two previous crossings of the Arctic Circle is also known as Yukon Highway 5 and Northwest Territories 8, it connects the Klondike Highway in the Yukon with Inuvik in the Northwest Territories on the Mackenzie River delta, 737.5 km (458.3 mi) long in the summer months, during the winter the highway extends an extra 194 km (121 mi) on an ice road all the way to Tuktoyaktuk on Kugmallit Bay in the Beaufort Sea. The highway crosses the Peel and Mackenzie Rivers using a combination of seasonal ferry service and ice bridges. At the Great New Age Grocery I purchased a blank cassette tape for voice notes, remember it’s 2003, still the Age of Cassettes.
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the Yukon River
I filled up the Blue Amigo gas tank at the Mackenzie Cardlock, let air out of my tires to help avoid flats and hit the Dempster full throttle.



The first 50 miles to Tombstone Mountain were uneventful but things quickly deteriorated. The mosquitoes at Engineer’s Creek were insufferable so I kept going the extra 100 miles to Eagle Plains, an oasis on the Dempster with a campground, hot showers, a hotel and a full service restaurant serving the best omelettes south of the North Pole. However, as on past drives it was not going to be easy, strong crosswinds, rain and slippery shale mud had turned the highway into a quagmire, no flats though, thanks for big favors. Except for a military looking vehicle, a prototype Hummer, I was the only other camper at Eagle Plains. Snug in the Blue Amigo, I prepared a fab fettuccine a la marinara, listened to the CBC classical hour and allowed the pounding rain on the roof of my van to rat ta tap me to sleep. The Peel River crossing was closed due to the weather but what me worry, I’d cross it whenever.



The worst of
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the Keno sails out of Dawson City
the Dempster was ahead of me. According to Manitobans heading south, the drive from Eagle Plains to Fort McPherson was slippery shale mud with scary large truck traffic but there would be unparalleled scenery and the driving adventure of a lifetime no doubt, plus the ubiquitous mosquitoes. An elderly macho man who should have known better with California plates on his Jeep Wrangler roared past me breaking all the rules for driving on shale. Sure enough he had a couple of flats and I saw him trying to buy new tires in Fort McPherson at $300 a tire. That would surely break his piggy bank and for sure slow him down.



For me being again in Fort McPherson meant a visit to the cemetery. I visit cemeteries in cities that I'm exploring for the first time as they are an open book on a place’s history plus a sobering tonic to make one embrace their own life and live. Fort McPherson's cemetery contains the graves of “The Lost Patrol.” In March, 1911, William John Duncan Dempster, the highway is named after him, was sent out to find Inspector Francis Joseph Fitzgerald and his team of three men
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Dawson City info center
who never made it to Dawson City from Fort McPherson. They had become lost on the trail, and had died of exposure and starvation. Dempster and his men found the bodies on March 22, 1911 and returned them to Fort McPherson for burial. I paid my respects graveside and hit the road for Inuvik with thoughts about how much of the Dempster follows an old dog sled trail. Maybe that should be the transport of choice up here where every mile was a challenge for my van; dogs don’t get flat tires.



I was assigned campsite #8 at Happy Valley Campground in Inuvik with a good view of the Mackenzie Canal down the grassy slope with a crop of fireweed flourishing on all sides. Lo and behold I discovered mouse poop on the floor of the van. Yikes, what next? My plan was to relax and enjoy the sunny day. I got my powerbook up and running with the Inuvik Library internet, washed the Blue Amigo, bought and set a mousetrap with peanut butter and placed it under the rear bench. I got out “Arctic Dreams” by Barry Lopez and read until bedtime. There is no night
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the start of the Dempster Highway
this time of the year this far north, it’s the midnight sun, so one needs to check a watch to see what time to hit the sack. The sun will dip just to the horizon, linger a bit, and then start up again. The golden light of this sun and horizon meeting is breathtaking to behold. I would check in at the volunteer desk in the morning at the Great Northern Arts Festival, one of my main reasons for being in Inuvik.



In the morning I met Amir and Natalie, event coordinators, at the volunteer desk. I was hoping the festival would be as great as past years I’d attended but it seemed a bit sluggish. There were some new artists and several from past years. As in the past soapstone carvings were the art of choice, the ubiquitous soapstone fish and walrus carvings; I searched without success for the artist who in past years painted his crazy dreamscapes from the long winter’s 24-hour night. His paintings were terrifying to say the least.



Just when I thought that my VW van problems were over the sliding side door wouldn’t close so I couldn’t lock
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driving alongside the Peel River
up when I left the van. I rigged some bungee cords to keep it closed but it would be obvious to anyone walking by that the door was not locked. My assignment today was to pick up artists at the airport. Imagine their surprise when I asked them to hold the sliding door closed while I shuttled them to their hotels. I got to know the coordinators Darren, Natalie and Lynn. They were dedicated to making the festival a total success. My second day I was given art gallery security duty. I was told to keep an eye peeled for shop lifting of small art objects, for sure the larger soapstone carvings would certainly make quite a bulge in anyone’s pocket area. I finished up at 3 p.m., returned to the van where a great glorious wind was coming out of the southwest, blowing all the mosquitos to kingdom come. Thank you, Lips!



I sat with a Klondike beer in hand contemplating all the obstacles the Blue Amigo had put in my way and how I was still here in Happy Valley Camp. Maybe I am a better person for the challenges, maybe? As I sat there
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the Ogilvie Range
California whitewater kayakers set up their tents along the Happy Valley ridge, a healthier, more hardy group of kids would be hard to find. I met another Don and his wife. They were retired teachers from Ontario and had also volunteered at the festival upon arrival in Inuvik. Overnight there was a drunken brawl near my campsite, loud banging, glass breakage, shouting, screaming. I barely slept, awakening to an icy rain that brought coldness to the bone. I was more than ready to call it quits and hit the road for home, hit the Dempster that is. Crazily I fantasized about selling the Blue Amigo lock, stock and barrel to the First Nation people and buying a plane ticket. Depression can do strange things to our minds.



I left a message for Natalie on her answering service that I was resigning as a volunteer. I got a $60 refund from the Happy Valley manager for unused nights. I gave my camp neighbor Marsh a ride to Arctic Tire. He was an Alaskan landowner with a handicapped Michigan plate on his truck. His tire was being “fixed” at the garage, another victim of excess speed. Obviously not having
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muddy and slippery
learned his lesson, he later passed me at high speed on the Dempster as I was on my way south. So my Northern Arts Festival, Inuvik adventure had ended too soon, and not in a really glorious or happy way. Circumstances, mainly problems with my VW van had got in my way. I made Eagle Plains for a BBQ chicken burger lunch, gassed up and made it to Tombstone Mountain by nine p.m. Glad to be headed home, I thought how it’s not good sometimes to revisit past great adventures, better to make new adventures in new places. The Dempster this time round had been a tough on me with slippery muddy shale the entire way, incredible clouds of mosquitoes and all the woeful problems with the Blue Amigo. But no flats with only 45 miles to go. Hurrah! Looking back now, had it been worth it? Yes! I would do it again right now. It was an adventure of a lifetime.



Epilogue: Tombstone was a quiet camp. A Clark’s jay visited my picnic table and carried off a blue plastic bottle cap. For what? The last of the Dempster was wet but not too bad. I gassed up at the Junction, a chain smoking kid put air in my tires and kept the cigarette puffing away between his lips as he filled my tank. I rolled down the Klondike and Alaska Highways over 600 miles to the Gateway to the Yukon campground in Watson Lake. It’s amazing just how vast Canada’s north country is. The camp’s check in girl who happened to be German asked me: “Are you a German?” She had seen my VW van and it being a German vehicle, she just assumed that I was too. I guess that it makes me an honorary German. A big motorhome next to me was running a noisy generator. Why? There was a power plug on his site. I met a crazy kid on a tiny tire moped with a sign: “Alaska or bust from Detroit to Alaska.” He was not from Detroit but from Waterford, Michigan, now a “teacher” in Georgia. The showers at the camp were tiny. An elderly RVer told me that the shower in his camper was bigger than the camp shower. I realized that being with other campers even the big motorhome people could be refreshing, entertaining and a learning experience.
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Eagle Plains Campground, prototype Hummer 2003
I rolled on toward home.



Muncho Lake to Fort Nelson to Fort St. John to Dawson Creek where I finally camped at Tubby’s RV Camp. I crossed the border back into North Dakota and made it back to Crookston, coming full circle. To hell with camping I checked into a nice hotel downtown, its decor a flashback to the fifties but it had cable TV, quality fixtures, internet, super clean and best of all free morning coffee. A long grueling drive from Crookston to Escanaba in Michigan’s UP brought me to the Pioneer Camp. I made cabbage soup for my last supper on the road, should make home by noon the next day. I was on the final pages of Paul Theroux’s “Dark Star Safari.” I garnered wisdom from this great read: “How will the world end: when third world luxury resorts are turned into squatter’s camps.” “Strife makes people talkative, and this is a gift to anyone who wants to write about it.” “Do you ever think about the President?” (Paul Theroux) “No, because he never thinks about me.” (Karstan, the river paddler). El Fin


Additional photos below
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road doubles as a landing strip
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crossing the Arctic Circle 66º 33' N for the third time
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wild flowers
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inuksuk, Inuit caribou trail markers
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low clouds over the tundra
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driving on black shale
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incredible landscapes
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crossing from the Yukon into the Northwest Territories
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Peel River crossing
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crossing the Peel River
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Fort McPherson
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Fort McPherson tent company
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where the Lost Patrol rests in peace
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Fort McPherson cemetery
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Fort McPherson cemetery
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crossing the MacKenzie River
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Tsiigehtchic or Arctic Red River at the junction of the Mackenzie River and the Arctic River
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entering Inuvik


21st March 2015

too bad that it had to end
but it did

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