NORTH DOWN THE MACKENZIE ON THE M/S NORWETA
by Jodie and Dale Wendel
This June 2007 trip was prompted by an advertisement I saw in the March/April 2005 TravLtips magazine, “Cruise Canada’s Arctic.” Our transportation north down the Mackenzie River was the M/S Norweta, a 20-passenger ship. The Norweta was built in 1971 and used as a passenger ship for 4 years on the Mackenzie before spending 10 years in the Beaufort Sea. Her present owners, Margaret and George Whitlock and son Greg bought and refurbished her in 1991.
We were on the first cruise of the season that went from Hay River, NT to Inuvik, NT. To satisfy our need to reach the Arctic Ocean, we took the offered extension to Tuktoyaktuk. Since the ship is so small, reservations fill up very early. I made ours over a year in advance.
Although the easier way to reach Hay River is by scheduled airline, we drove our motor home on good, paved highways from California. When we arrived in Hay River we checked into the territorial campground on the shores of Great Slave Lake then drove back into town to do laundry.
After the laundry we had a late lunch at The Back Eddy, a restaurant located above a drug store and whose location is not readily apparent in spite of a prominent sign above the door. When you enter the door all you see are doors to offices and a stair, but no directional signs. We went upstairs and again found no guidance but finally found the place. An excellent fish sandwich made with whitefish freshly caught from Great Slave Lake more than made up for the difficulty in finding the restaurant.
After a bit of shopping we set off to find the Norweta. I had been told by Margaret Whitlock, one of the owners, that the boat would be at the Government Wharf and that everyone in town knew where that was. It turned out, everyone didn’t so we called Margaret on her cell phone. She told us the ship was at the Shell fuel dock and suggested that we come on over and check it out - which we did. We were met at the gang-plank by Randy Freeman, he was the sort-of cruise director. He gave us a brief tour, given the size of the ship the tour had to be brief. Everyone else was busily scurrying about loading the just-arrived supplies on board. Margaret greeted us briefly then went off to take care of some crisis. Margaret arranged for us to park our motor home at the fuel dock while on the cruise.
The next morning we packed, had lunch, and left for the ship after noon. It was a short drive from the campground to the ship. We hauled our stuff aboard and unpacked. With the motor home a short distance away on the bank it was easy to go back for those little things we forgot or found that we needed since they weren’t provided on the ship, shampoo for example. Throughout the afternoon Margaret kept running off to collect additional passengers until finally about 6:30 the full complement of 19 was aboard. After unpacking we went up to the lounge and chatted with some of our fellow travelers.
Sometime later Coreen, the lounge attendant, brought out a tray of fruit and another with crackers and cheese, then offered us a glass of either red or white wine, which was refilled many times. This was our welcome aboard cocktail party. Eventually the plates and glasses were picked up and the tables set with cloths, eating utensils and napkins. Two large salad bowls showed up and Coreen offered us either a Caesar salad or a green salad. Individual containers of three kinds of dressing had been placed on the table. After we finished our salad, plates of lasagna with a piece of garlic bread were placed before us. Dessert was a brownie.
Toward the end of dinner the three engines started and we found out that we were going to take a brief ride out into the lake. Our first days cruise has been scrubbed since the Canadian Coast Guard had not yet placed the buoys to mark the channel where the Mackenzie River leaves the lake and the ship’s insurance won’t allow us to be on board while the ship transits the area. The trip out into the lake was just to let us see it. We traveled by bus the next day while the ship moved to Ft. Providence.
The Norweta departed Hay River the next morning however we weren’t on board. The passengers boarded a bus and set off to tour Hay River, both old and new, and some water falls. After touring the new town we headed over to the old town on the other side of the Hay River, a Dene settlement. Randy, the historian/cruise director, was looking for a specific grave to tell us about but he had never attempted to find it before. There are two cemeteries. The old Catholic cemetery was not the right one however while there we saw a pair of bald eagles.
The Anglican cemetery was the right one. It contained the grave of Dr. Kurt Faber, a German who began his arctic career working on the ships. At the end of a few years he was unpaid and made his way to Herschel Island where he begged funds to get to San Francisco. There he and some other unpaid crewmen successfully sued the shipping company for their back wages. When he returned to Germany he wrote a book about his experience which became a best seller. This inaugurated his career as a travel writer. His travel philosophy of minimal (or no) luggage was his ultimate undoing. He set out on a winter journey on the Hay River, against advice, and with no extra clothing. He was caught in a blizzard and froze to death trying to get into a snow-buried cabin. His body was found months later. He was buried where we found his monument.
As we were driving around Hay River and along the road leading there it occurred to me that the town is like a balloon. Material is flowing into it both by highway and by railroad to be shipped to the various communities along the river and the northern coast of Canada. But until the buoys are placed no freight can move down the river. Material and petroleum are piling up. The barges are loaded and ready to go. The story we were told as to why the buoys aren’t in is that the paint on the buoy tender is still not dry.
We visited Princess Alexandra Falls, Princess Louise Falls, ate our sack lunch, then Lady Evelyn falls. Then we headed off toward Fort Providence where we were to meet the ship. This required crossing the Mackenzie River by ferry. We passed Fort Providence and headed into the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary where we eventually found a large herd of wood bison, mostly females with many calves. When we returned to Fort Providence the ship had arrived and we boarded.
We bid farewell to Margaret and George Whitlock which was like saying good bye to family as they had become special to what seemed like all the passengers, and the ship headed north, down the river. During dinner we tied up at a coast guard buoy depot for the night. We went out for a brief look around until the mosquitoes appeared in force.
We were “at river” for most of the day. We were still behind schedule because of the late placement of buoys at the start of the river. The river is frequently so wide that it seems more like a lake, until we pass a buoy which is leaning into the current. (Most of the buoys were in the river beyond the start.) There was a rather rushed dinner at 6 since we were due into Fort Simpson at 6.
I should mention how the ship usually lands. Since the banks are dirt or mud the captain just grounds the bow and a steel cable is taken ashore by the deck hand and tied to some solid object. When it is drawn tight the ship is moored. There are metal gang planks that are lowered for access.
Our escort for the Fort Simpson tour arrived as we were eating so he joined us for a salad. Our first visit ashore was the cabin of an early prospector. When he died it was decided to leave his one-room cabin just as he left it. We then strolled down the street which parallels the river to visit the McPherson cabin. He was an early Northern Company factor here. We also saw the grounds where Pope John Paul visited in 1987. That must have been quite an event for this tiny community.
It was then a rush back to the ship for an 8 pm departure. She ran until around 10 pm when we tied up for the night at another coast guard buoy depot. (On the return trip upstream, the ship runs all night but the trip still takes two days longer because of the strong current.)
A bit about the ship. Our cabin was provided with two twin beds, bigger than on a typical passenger ship. There are two huge drawers under each bunk. In addition there is an adequate closet. A sort-of desk which seemed to collect all our junk ran along the outer wall from the closet and under the single, screened port hole. (With the swarms of bugs, the screen as most welcome.) There is an electric heater mounted on the wall under the desk which we needed a couple of mornings. A small sink with a mirror and light above and a cupboard below was at the other end of the desk. The bathroom has a typical house shower stall and a small, conventional toilet. River water is used to flush the toilet so sometimes it appears to have already been used and not flushed, but worked well. The cabins are not identical.
Most of our time was spent in the lounge which is one deck above the 10 cabins. Access is via a steep, outside stair at the bow. There is glass with screens on the front and sides of the lounge so the views are quite good. The Sun deck and wheelhouse are one deck above the lounge. The elemental wheelhouse is open to passengers. All meals are served in the lounge. Breakfast is do-it-yourself, cold cereal, yogurt, toast, and freshly baked muffins. Lunch and dinner are served with no choice but were surprisingly good. (Breakfast was usually available from 7:30 am to 9:30 am; lunch served at 12:30; and dinner around 6:30.) There is no decaf coffee available however there is a selection of teas, including herb. A limited selection of wine, beer, and cocktails were available.
Of the 19 passengers, 15 were Canadian while 2 were from England and 2 (us) from the United States. This led to some interesting political conversations as well as general topics. I conducted a very informal survey of the Canadians satisfaction with their medical system. All seemed satisfied, including the two physicians on board.
The next day was a complete day “at river.” There were four events that broke the solitude. We met a tug with barge headed up-river, a speed boat, and saw Roche Que Trempé A L’Eau, the mountain with its feet in the water. We also passed by Jean Marrie, a thriving community of 180 people.
As we were motoring down the river the next morning we spotted a mother bear and two cubs on the distant bank. She and one of the cubs were black; the other cub was brown. The ship continued at a steady speed down the river as the bears scrambled up the river bank and into the woods.
We arrived at Fort Nelson, or Tulita, shortly after lunch today. Tulita means meeting of rivers and is where the Bear River joins the Mackenzie. This is a town of around 500 to 600 people. Like most of these towns, it started as a Hudson Bay Company trading site. The old Hudson Bay Company buildings are abandoned and sit next to a very modern Northern Company store which has supplanted them.
We walked into town and wandered around a bit, visiting the functioning Catholic church and a pioneer Anglican church. There was a big gathering in center of town to celebrate Aboriginal Day. We were invited to join them and sample the food.
Some of the passengers have taken up fishing and talked the manager of the Northern Company store into opening because they wanted to supplement their lures and equipment. When we entered, Jodie headed for the sewing section where she found beaver, muskrat, and rabbit pelts. She is now the proud owner of a muskrat pelt. We believe that they are used for craft items.
We left town and almost immediately tied up at the foot of Bear Mountain. Before tying up we replenished our water supply in the Bear River.
The next day’s big event was a stop at the metropolis of the North, Norman Wells. Oil was discovered here in the 20s and a refinery was built to process the crude for use in the north. When the Japanese attacked the Aleutians at the start of WWII there was a panicked effort by the United States to defend Alaska. Part of the solution was to build the Alaskan Highway. It was decided to build a pipeline from Norman Wells to various points on the highway. This crash effort was completed in 1944. The pipeline was used for 14 months. Now it has been removed, the refinery is gone, and all signs of the construction camps have been removed. This is still an oil town. There are several oil wells on gravel platforms in the river.
We visited the town museum and then toured the town by an old yellow school bus, then did a bit of shopping at the Northern store. No pelts for sale here. A brief stroll brought us back to the ship which departed at 2. We passed through the Sans Sault Rapids after dinner. They were unspectacular, perhaps they were overwhelmed by the volume of river flow.
Early the next day we stopped at Ft. Good Hope, at town of about 600, and visited a truly remarkable mission that was built in 1804. It is beautifully and elaborately decorated. Father Emil Petitot did much of the painting using only local material, berries, etc, for pigments. There is no priest here, but there is a very pleasant nun who explained the history of the church.
Late in the morning there was an encounter with a pair of “Super Scoopers,” Candair CL-215 forest fire-fighting amphibian water bombers. As we were motoring down the river one of the passengers in the front of the lounge shouted there were some planes approaching. We all rushed out of the lounge, cameras at the ready. The two bright yellow aircraft were flying up-river, one at an altitude of maybe 200 feet but the other was right down on the water. As the low one met us it zoomed up with a powerful roar of the twin radial engines and dipped its wings to us.
We reached the Arctic Circle in early afternoon. The ship nosed into the shore and we had a bit of champagne on shore to celebrate the event. Two of us with GPS receivers, of course, had to verify the correct location of the circle which was about 50 feet from the point marked on shore.
Late in the afternoon we traversed the Upper Ramparts. This is a 7-mile section where the river passes between sheer limestone walls. At one point we discovered a rather primitive statue of the Virgin Mary that someone had placed on one of the shelves in the wall. Some of the cliffs look very much like old forts, hence the name.
On our way on down the river we turned up the Hare River and pumped water out of the river to fill the tanks on the ship. The Mackenzie is quite opaque but some of the tributaries, like the Hare, are clear. I haven’t been able to find out how the water is processed on board. From this point I have decided to consume only water from the dispenser in the lounge..
Most of the next day was spent going down river. Late in the afternoon we stopped at Tsiigehtchic, which means “place of iron” in honor of the Arctic Red River that flows into the Mackenzie here. Prior to being renamed with an aboriginal name the town was also called Arctic Red River. The Dempster Highway also crosses the Mackenzie here via ferry. In the winter it becomes an ice bridge.
We walked about the town but saw very little of interest. The mosquitos finally drove us back to the ship.
A couple of locals brought some handicrafts to the ship. We bought a musk ox horn upon which the artist, Richard André, had carved the profiles of a wolf and a polar bear. He was also going to carve an eagle at the base however the horn was hollow there and there wasn’t enough material so there is just an ink drawing. The tip of the horn was shaped into a loon head. An unusual piece to add to our collection.
Dinner tonight was an elaborate 5-course affair, including prime rib. Although we were not aware of it in advance, this was the captain’s farewell dinner.
From this point on the voyage was through the Mackenzie delta. The character of the land has changed to an endless array of flat islands, some with little vegetation and some with the stunted trees we have become accustomed to. The banks of most islands are steep and eroded. Some appear to have been attacked by a giant bull dozer, apparently the work of the ice as it went out. We tied up during the night since we had passed one access to Inuvik but will use a different access.
We approached Inuvik the next morning by the East channel and for a change going up stream. We left the ship at 8:30 am to fly to Tuktoyaktuk for the day. Our luggage went before us to the Mackenzie Hotel in Inuvik.
Our flight to Tuk on an Embraier 110 was less than an hour. It started out at 500 feet, eventually climbing to 3,500 feet, then dropping back to 1,500 feet. Because of these low altitudes we had excellent views. The land in this part of the Territory must be at least 60% water-covered. There are few roads. However in the winter travel is much easier since they create ice roads on the rivers and large lakes. Residents prefer winter because of the easier access and the lack of bugs.
All of the flight crews I saw wore blue coveralls and work boots. Our crew was flying the empty plane back to Inuvik where they would remove the seats and start freight flights to various places in the territory.
The Tuk area is noted for pingos. A pingo is a low hill or mound forced up by hydrostatic pressure in an area underlain by permafrost and consisting of an outer layer of soil covering a core of solid ice. Pingos range from 2 to 50 meters in height. If the conditions are right they grow from year to year.
A husband and wife, James and Maureen Pokiak, who operate Ookpik Tours in Tuk, met our charter flight. (Ookpik is an aboriginal word for owl.) He is a native. She came to Tuk as a teacher with a one-year contract and has now stayed more than 20. The group was split in two with one, ours, touring the town with James while the other went to their house to sample aboriginal food. The town is right on the Arctic ocean and has only just recently been free of ice. We could see the sea ice on the horizon.
There is a beautiful, wildflower-covered pingo in the center of town which we walked up. It also provides a nice view of the town. We were also given the opportunity to swim in the Arctic Ocean however only a few even dipped a toe in it. One stop on the tour was an ice cave which has been excavated 30 feet down into the permafrost. Access is through a small surface building then down a ladder to the storage rooms.
After the town tour we went to their house where the Pokiak’s daughter, Rebecca, served us beluga whale muktuk, which had to be boiled before we could eat it, although the locals don‘t boil it. We also sampled smoked white fish and smoked beluga meat. The actual meal was a musk ox soup which was delicious! The soup was accompanied by bannock biscuits and cookies.
While she was serving our meal, Rebecca talked about her life and her deep love of the area. She is happiest when she is out “on the land.” This love has prevented her from continuing her education beyond high school. She was the only graduate her senior year. After some delay she has been accepted by a college in Edmonton where she will study to become a teacher
We flew back to Inuvik on a turbo Twin Otter in a very business-like manner so the sight-seeing wasn’t as good. Inuvik, at about 5,000, is the 3rd largest town in the Northwest Territories behind Hay River at 6,000, and Yellowknife at 19,000. All the other villages we visited were under 1,000, with the exception of Norman Wells.
The Mackenzie Hotel is new and quite nice. We had dinner and breakfast in the dining room since we didn’t find any valid alternatives in town. Apparently decaf coffee is not available in Canada, at least in the Northwest Territories.
One problem with the Tuk tour was that we never knew when anything was happening. We knew we were to be picked up from the ship and taken to the airport but not when. Randy was able to call the local shuttle company after 8 and find out the time. We went to the airport and eventually someone indicated we should board the plane. After the excellent tour we went back to the airport and hung around until a plane arrived and again someone told us to board. The next morning we thought we were supposed to be taken to the airport however no one knew when. One of the passengers had a paper with the shuttle company’s phone number which she called and found out the time.
We checked out of the hotel at 11 and left our bags in storage so that we could shop. We visited a native craft store and bought a couple of things. The vans arrived as promised and whisked us off to the airport, several miles from town.
We flew from Inuvik to Yellowknife on a 737-200. Although the plane was going on Edmonton, all passengers had to get off in Yellowknife to go through a security screening. Up until this point there had been no security checks at all. We were going on to Hay River and discovered that we didn’t have to go through any screening! Our half-hour flight across Great Slave Lake was on an ATR-41. Greg Whitlock, Margaret’s son, met us at the airport, as promised, and whisked us off to the motor home parked where we had left it beside the Hay River behind the Shell bulk plant, and as promised, it was as safe as in “Jesus’s arms.”.
He told us that the buoys are still not in and that the Norweta had great difficulty getting refueled in Inuvik since the fuel barges are still not operating.
We hopped into the motor home and drove off to the Hay River Territorial campground and stayed in the same site we used before the boat trip. The mosquitoes and flies were even worse than during our previous visit. The next morning we filled the water tank, dumped the holding tanks, and set off to the Laundromat. I filled the gas tank (an especially unpleasant experience these days of high prices) while Jodie started the laundry. We left town about 11:15.
After we returned home we learned that the buoys were finally in place.
The villages we visited were similar. All had gravel roads that seemed to be in decent shape. Vehicles were mostly pick-ups and ATVs. The universal RCMP presence meant that all vehicles bore the distinctive Northwest Territories license plate, shaped like a bear and in great demand by collectors. Transportation outside of town in the summer is limited to outboard motor boats or airplane. Air travel is expensive. In the winter an ice road provides access to the outside.
The box-like homes were randomly scattered along the roads. Most homes had electricity, running water from a holding tank, a sewage system that emptied into a heated holding tank, and oil heat. Tank trucks deliver fresh water when needed. Different tank trucks pump out the sewage tanks. Community electricity is provided by diesel generators. There is also national telephone service and community wireless Internet.
All communities had a modern Northern Company store and a Catholic church but no resident priest. Some also had an Anglican church. The Northern Company stores are truly general stores and carry such diverse items as ATVs, furniture, clothing, groceries, hardware, and hunting supplies. Some larger communities also had a Co-op store. The modern schools also serve the community as a rec center and community center.
The cruise was a wonderful, relaxing trip through the wilds of Northern Canada down one of the historic major “highways” of frontier travel.