This is the first in a three-part series on Canada’s north.
Weich Ei means “soft egg” in German. This defines a person’s character. In Canada we call them wimps.
Charlie Kudlacek is from Frankfurt in the German state of Hesse and, as eggs go, is hard-boiled.
We met Charlie and his wife Marion in a remote unserviced campground at Summit Lake on the British Columbia portion of the Alaska Hwy.
The place is named due to its location on the highest point of this international highway.
The “Alcan” traverses 2,237 km from Dawson Creek in northeast British Columbia to its terminus at Delta Junction, Alaska.
Remarkably the highway was built in just eight months during 1942, designed to stave off a possible Second World War Japanese invasion.
Although June was nigh, this high-altitude lake was covered in ice.
We arrived late evening and set up camp. A solitary beaver, freshly emerged from winter lodging, coolly went about its business.
Canadian summers are brief. We Albertans tend to enjoy them near home, with perhaps a visit to the mountains or a week sunning and boating on a warm lake in the Okanagan. Winter is when we travel afar — invariably south — to destinations distant from home: Mexico, Arizona, Hawaii.
I’d never been north of Grande Prairie. So we decided it was time to see more of Canada in its season of warmth: the great white north converted green by boreal springtime.
My trip planning is poor: peruse a map, devise a vague strategy, perhaps talk to a couple of friends (over a beer) who have been to the parts we’re hoping to visit. I’ve attempted advance-planning — reading about the sights, the flora, the fauna — but somehow it just doesn’t sink in for me until the experience actually happens. I learn as I go, waiting to see what’s around the next corner.
A stranger at a campground in Fort Nelson, B.C., told us about a bush pilot who flew floatplane charters from Muncho Lake, B.C., to remote Virginia falls in Nahanni National Park, in the Northwest Territories.
I had no idea where Muncho Lake was. I checked the map and found it was two days up the road, directly on our path to the Yukon. I phoned and spoke to Marianne of Northern Rockies Lodge. She and her husband, the pilot Urs, own this beautiful spot on the lake.
“Urs is in Vancouver getting the floatplane ready for the season,” said Marianne in a thick Swiss accent. “The lake still has ice and he can’t land until it clears. Perhaps call again in a day or two.”
That was the night we camped at Summit Lake and met Charlie and Marion. I asked them if they’d like to join us on a trip to Virginia Falls — if the ice cleared and Urs could fly in. I waxed eloquently, inflating my meager knowledge of the Nahanni (which I had gleaned from a guide book in the previous 15 minutes).
The floatplane seats nine and I’d been told Urs wouldn’t fly with less than four paying customers.
Germans have a propensity for austerity exceeded only by Scots, so I was not optimistic that our Alaska Hwy adventure would include a spur-of-the-moment side trip to the Northwest Territories.
“We shall sleep on this,” announced Charlie.
In the morning crispness, Charlie informed me that, “Marion and I have slept on this and agree that we shall join you if the conditions permit.”
We spent the next two days in the company of our newfound German friends, enjoying wonderful hiking in this remote corner of northeastern B.C., enchanted by the sight of moose, bear, lynx, red fox, caribou, wood bison, stone sheep, and a countless variety of birds and other wildlife.
Charlie and Marion have made five trips to Canada. They have seen more of our home and native land than have I — an embarrassing admission. They never arrive unprepared. Their well-appointed camper van was reasonably priced and fully equipped; except for the axe. Charlie brought his own finely-edged Fiskar from Germany.
“Charlie” seems like a strange name for a German. Marion told us that he was actually christened “Karl.” But in West Germany in the 1960s, the name Karl (for reasons I didn’t ask and he didn’t disclose) had a negative connotation. So as a young man he adopted a modern, western moniker.
After a particularly tiring day-hike up a melting mountain creek, Charlie asked if I would like to join him for a short run down the highway. Naturally I was stupid enough to agree. Ten km and an hour later, I stumbled back to camp lamely following his tireless lead.
Charlie was apologetic. “In former times, I was not so slow and the distance would be much greater.”
When I collapsed into bed that night, Charlie was alternating between calisthenics and wood-chopping. In the morning, I stumbled out into the bright sun and found him washing in the cold creek. He’d been up for hours, eaten his daily morning repast of eggs, meat, cheese, tea, fruit and five pieces of bread and had completed 50 push-ups and 100 sit-ups. Then he buckled down to real breakfast: a hearty bowl of Muesli.
Did I mention that Charlie is older than I? He’s no weich ei.
They say the Irish would rule the world were it not for Guinness. After observing Charlie for a few days, I have concluded that there is somewhat more to the equation.
When we arrived at Muncho, the lake was still half frozen and, crucially, ice still surrounded the lodge where the plane lands. But Marianne told us Urs was en route from Vancouver and would be arriving soon. Sure enough, as we set up camp, a canary yellow de Havilland floatplane flew overhead. In the morning, Urs told us that the landing had been dicey. They had spent a good portion of the night breaking a slushy path to get the plane ashore.
“Night” doesn’t mean dark here in late May. The sun sets after 11 p.m. and is up again by 4 a.m. The interval is simply dusk.
“What about tomorrow?” I asked Urs. “Can we fly to the Nahanni?”
Urs is a big man, clad always in blue jeans and red suspenders. His name means “bear” in Swiss German. He looked at me, then warily at the lake. A wind had come up. We could see a wide river of rotten ice moving northward. Open water was within 300 metres of the lodge.
“Perhaps … if the wind continues and does not reverse direction.”
I crossed my fingers. Our window of opportunity was closing. Charlie and Marion had only one day to spare before continuing on to Whitehorse, Yukon. Our schedule was more relaxed but without them we couldn’t do the charter.
In the morning, the ice had moved. It was a bluebird day. But still Urs was worried. He would decide at noon. I’m not renowned for my patience; but I am a biblical Job next to Charlie, who paced the morning away, unable to control the situation, awaiting word from Urs.
“Impatience. This is a minus point for me,” Charlie admitted.
In the past, I’ve mentioned a phenomenon known as “the Feehan thing.” This entails arriving at the last possible moment, uninformed, ill prepared, no reservation in hand, expecting top-notch service. Invariably it works like a charm.
At noon, Urs announced it was a go.
He gently lifted the retrofitted 1959 de Havilland off the emerald waters of Muncho and banked over the lodge. Our one-and-a-half-hour flight crossed the B.C. border at 60 degrees north, swiping a corner of the Yukon before entering the N.W.T.
We were Nahanni’s first visitors of 2012, arriving even before the Parks Canada people set up camp for the short season. Urs treated us to a spectacular 360-degree view of Virginia Falls before landing upstream, wary of deadheads floating down the swollen Nahanni.
This world-renowned UNESCO site is twice the height of Niagara Falls. An icy pillar hung precariously in the centre of the water’s 102-metre descent to the raging river below. A kilometre downstream, the torrent curved through ochre cliffs en route to its confluence with the Mackenzie River and the Arctic Ocean 3,000 km away.
It was well past 8 p.m. when the de Havilland touched down perfectly on the calm waters of Muncho Lake. The sun was still high in the sky.
We jumped from the plane’s floats to the dock and said goodbye to our German friends.
Before heading north Charlie offered a heart-felt hug — confirming that all good eggs are soft inside.
Gerry Feehan is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer. He lives in Red Deer. For more of Gerry’s travel adventures, please visit www.gnfeehan.blogspot.com.