The plane was booked and paid for, the gear sorted and packed, new tires bought and mounted and we had an overnight stopover point on our push to the floatplane dock on Findlayson Lake. We were on our way to the Cirque of the Unclimbables in the North West Territories.
We weren’t going to be the usual visitors to the cirque. Those were the climbers who came from around the world for a chance to scale some of the most challenging and perfect granite on the planet. They flew into Glacier Lake by float plane or dropped into the cirque by helicopter. Or they were the paddlers who bounced and pried their way through the rapids and riffs of the Nahanni River and then hiked from the river to the cirque. Most of the ones who hiked up were on guided tours.
We were hikers — not on a tour.
In recorded history, there have been just three groups of hikers who have explored the cirque and I was in the first group back in 1999. Two other groups, these from eastern Canada, had followed our route, which starts at the abandoned mining town of Tungsten. This year we were flying into Glacier Lake, intent on walking the trail built by Nahanni Park in the newly expanded area that includes the cirque, plus reconnoitering some routes above Glacier Lake that could possibly lead us into the cirque from a different direction.
We booked our flight with Warren LaFave from Kluane Air and gave ourselves three days to get to the air base from Prince George. Warren assured us that, weather permitting, he had a loose schedule and would be able to accommodate us at any time so we could arrive when it suited us.
Peggy’s daughter, Bailey offered us her brand new, SUV that was big enough to comfortably hold all four of us and it had those new tires I mentioned. We packed it to the roof racks and drove from Prince George to my daughter Shawn’s place in Smithers. After a gourmet breakfast, we headed up the Stuart Cassiar Highway, the 700+ kilometer road that winds its way through wilderness to Watson Lake and the Robert Campbell Highway that in turn winds its way through more wilderness to the air base at Findlayson Lake.
Our drive along the Stuart Cassiar was entertained by 1950s and 60s music piped down through the speakers of the satellite radio. The speakers worked well and the music was enjoyed by all. Except for quick pee breaks in the bush, we stopped just once, at Dease Lake for gas and food.
We telephoned Warren and he assured us that he could fly us into the cirque the following day rather than that night. We could sleep at the air base where there was a fully supplied cabin equipped with beds, bedding, food and stoves.
We were disappointed. We drove hard hoping to get to the air base and then Glacier Lake that day. Park personal were camped at the lake and we hoped to team up with them for a day or so, learning maybe, of possible routes we could try.
The Robert Campbell Highway is gravel on top of Yukon mud that, when wet, is like the slime created by Andromeda in the 1970s science fiction movie. Lucky for us, we had sun, which meant no slime, just dust.
We pulled into a gravel pit bordering Findlayson Lake. The pit was jam-packed with piles of aviation-fuel barrels and a dozen vehicles with license plates from around the continent. A weathered log cabin, located at the far end of the pit, overlooked the lake. This was obviously not the lodge Warren had pictured on his website. That lodge was described as being built entirely of cedar, was 6500 square feet, which included the large dining room, conference room, lounge, bar, store, kitchen and laundry facility. The lounge had a vaulted ceiling that housed a pool table and shuffle board. There was also a sauna and hot tub by the lake and the cost was a mere $1000.00 per night but that included a guide and transportation to other secluded lakes for fishing.
We entered the rustic cabin that was occupied by a talkative character who had two of his teenaged kids with him. They welcomed us to join them for the night and explained that they had been at the lodge which was on another lake about an hour’s flight from here. They had spent a week at the upscale lodge and were spending the night at the air base so they could leave for Whitehorse early in the morning.
“I think I’ll sleep in the tent,” I said.
“I need practice putting up my tent,” Linda said and Peg, with a brand new European tent said she too needed more training. Deb, always quiet just went out and looked for a flat spot.
After camp was set up, we pulled out our wine, placed the lawn chairs that the occupants of the cabin weren’t using, in a wagon-train circle and sipped on the wine. A vehicle pulled in. By the plates we could tell it was a rental. Four Brits got out and told us they had just arrived from England a few hours ago and driven in from Whitehorse. They excused themselves and went into the cabin. Within minutes they reappeared.
“Is this the lodge?” one of the gals asked, eyes wide open in dismay. We assured her that it was not, that they had to fly for an hour from here into the lodge. She rolled her eyes, expelled a gasp and pulled out a cell phone. Linda laughed out loud when she saw the relief on the woman’s face that this wasn’t the lodge that she had prepaid a lot of money for.
Shortly after, we heard a plane and ran down to the dock still hoping we’d get flown into the cirque that night but it was not to be. The Brits were being taken to Inconnu Lodge, the one featured on the website. The eye roller looked relieved.
Cam, the pilot is a quiet sort of guy who helped the Brits load their gear.
“When will we be flying?” Peggy asked.
He glanced at us with a look that said, “I’ll be hauling you guys out within 24 hours so what's the rush,” but being polite, he answered that we’d go in after he had taken the fishers staying at the Lodge out to their fishing spots for the day. We’d have to wait.
“Looks like Warren’s “loose schedule” really means, loose only for those paying the $1000 a day,” Linda said.
We settled in for a second glass of wine.