Trucks, Trains and Skidoos
Tires, Narrow Gauge Railways and a Northern Style Rescue or Two
Yeah, there was that old argument about wide tires on trucks. Some stood by those fat, oversize galoshes that made your half ton look like a four legged duck waddling up the road, believing that more contact with the road meant better traction. Others simply thought that a narrower tire cut through the surface sludge quicker, making contact with the ground that much faster, and real traction that much more secure. Who knows. I guess it depends on what is covering the road - mud, gravel, sand or snow.
One thing I did know for sure, was that it’s handy to have tread on the tires, and tread on my current vehicle was in short supply. The little bucket of bolts did, however, have front wheel drive; which helped.
In the north, a truck can be the most useful vehicle you own. It can also be the most useless mode of transportation ever designed. Its advantages are obvious. In an environment where hauling wood and water, picking up building supplies and quarters of moose meat, shoveling gravel for your road, and carrying musical equipment to the gig is a necessity, it is your best pal. If you have four wheel drive that is.
On the other hand, if you own a simple two wheel, rear wheel drive tub, you can find yourself in worse situations than you ever would driving your dad’s old Toyota Corolla. Without weight in the back, a snowy road is just a playground for those rear tires. They can spin, sashay from side to side, and party on down while you struggle with the steering in an attempt to stay out of the ditch.
One of the peculiar solutions to this problem is to fill the bed with firewood to get some weight over the back wheels. Not a bad idea unless you are interested in gas mileage or, god forbid, you want to use your vehicle as a truck. As it turns out, I didn’t have to deal with any of these scenarios, as my vehicle of necessity for this winter trip was my lightly treaded Mazda station wagon.
Now it’s a long trot to Dawson City – the kind of trot that gives a guy time to think about all kinds of stuff - stuff like: ‘Why am I burning through so much wood? It’s not that cold. Maybe the mice have nested in the roof again and re-arranged the insulation’, or: ‘Whoa! This is where we went off the road last year in Billy’s three quarter ton with that moose in the back’, and: ‘Man, this road is awful. I’d be better off riding a skidoo’ - a thought that immediately reminded me of a little pickle I got myself into a few weeks before - one that required a little northern style help from my friends.
You see, I’d taken it into my head to grab my pack, my Martin Backpacker guitar (the greatest invention for bushwhacking guitar players ever contemplated), stick on my skiis, and head across the lake for a couple of days. My first destination was to be a pal’s cabin on the Atlin River - ten miles or so of grunting and wheezing after all is said and done. The conditions were beautiful. The temperature was -15 celsius, the sky was blue, there was no wind, and the snow was nicely packed on the lake.
This area is magic. In the old days, long before the road, paddle-wheelers and screw driven lake boats plied the southern lakes, supplying the local towns and transporting passengers. The rivers between these lakes had to be portaged somehow, and the span between Tagish and Atlin Lake was no exception.
The solution, in this case, was a 2 1/4 mile narrow gauge railroad consisting of a tiny steam engine, (the ‘Duchess’), and several cars that climbed a bare few feet over the rise, then fell just as abruptly down the other side to a dock where the Tarahne (our local lake boat, still alive and well) waited for its payload.
Ahh, to have seen that train in the day! I was born a couple of generations too late. Still, here I was, skiing down the old road bed of the little railway, and marveling at the skill and ingenuity of my forebears.
The cabin sat on the bank above the Atlin river. It was a log affair, much like my own, but a tad more complicated. I was settling down for a late lunch on the rustic wooden porch facing out over the water. The sun had a tiny bit of warmth in it and a light breeze was rustling my tee shirt hanging over the balcony, (skiing is a sweaty business). I had no sooner unwrapped my sandwich when I heard it - the sound of a skidoo in the distance.
“Harrumph,” I muttered, “Oh well, he’ll be gone soon enough. It’s a big lake”. But it was not to be. The machine was coming closer, and it sounded like it might be headed for the train track. Sure enough, down the road bed it came, approaching ever closer. And now it was making its way down the path to the cabin. It pulled up, the driver gave the throttle one last twist, but left the motor running. “Damn”, I grunted as I stalked around the side of the cabin, ”Who could be …” and ran right into our local cop.
“There you are!” he sounded relieved. “You realize that you’ve got a gig in Whitehorse tonight right? What are you doing way out here?
“Uh, I …”. Sheesh, what an idiot! I had forgotten all about it.
“Well, I’m glad I found you. There’s a bunch of folks headed into town expecting to hear music”.
He stamped his pack boots to rid them of the snow, turned to look at me then, beaming mischieviously, croaked out, “You wouldn’t want to further tarnish the reputation of musicians around the world by not showing up for the gig would ya?” - a bit he evidently found hilarious, because it initiated a series of belly laughs and an exuberant round of thigh slapping.
‘Great,’ I thought, ‘everyone’s a comic, even the local gendarme.’
“I’m thrilled to bits that I could inject a little humour into your day Larry.”
“Well, he wheezed”, out of breath now, “no time to dilly dally. Grab your stuff and hop on, we gotta keep movin’.”
Small towns. I love ‘em. Everybody knows way too much about your business, but when you need a hand, the help comes with bells on. Just like the time Peggy took that little yellow Datsun out on the ice a tad too early in the year, and the town watched from the bar as it humped over an ice berm and ploughed nose down into overflow between the shore and first island.
All of a sudden, without a word, everybody ups and storms out the front door to yard the thing out with whatever tools were available; then, job done, they simply picked up where they left off without further ado.
These are the folks I want around me when the shit hits the fan.