Read Devil's Pass Online

Authors: Sigmund Brouwer

Tags: #General, #Performing Arts, #Family, #Juvenile Fiction, #Mysteries & Detective Stories, #JUV031040, #Music, #JUV013000, #JUV028000

Devil's Pass (9 page)

BOOK: Devil's Pass
4.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“However,” George continued, “it's worth mentioning that below us is Mile One. Here is where the building of the Canol Road and pipeline began and where base camp was established in 1943.”

Webb tuned George out and concentrated on a guitar riff in his head.

One of the things that Webb knew about himself was that, except for music, he didn't like to learn by listening. Spoken words moved too slowly for him. He preferred to get his information by reading. It was faster, and when he needed to remember the information, all he had to do was visualize the words. When information entered his brain through his ears instead of his eyes, it was a lot harder to remember. He had a lot of information stored on his iPod; to his way of thinking, his brain was as big as the Internet. He didn't need George to tell him about the Canol Trail. All he needed to do was hold his iPod in the palm of his hand, and in seconds, he could review all the knowledge he'd collected.

The chopper banked forward and headed southwest toward the Mackenzie Mountains, some 24 kilometers away.

The short stunted spruce of the flat plains of the Mackenzie River became a blur beneath them.

The first portion of the Canol Trail would have been easy to walk, Webb thought. Boring because of the flatness, but not so boring since a moose or bear could appear at any second.

If you wanted to walk all 675 kilometers of northwest Arctic from Norman Wells to Whitehorse—the entire length of the Canol Road—you walked a segment of 80 to 130 kilometers every summer. A chopper took you to your starting point and picked you up at the other end. By cutting the trek down to shorter segments, you could carry enough food to last the week it took to go between the mile markers. Or you could choose to walk the Canol Trail, a shorter portion of the original road.

Webb had no intention of walking any of the other segments.

Once he found what he had been sent to find at Mile 112, he was not coming back to hike the rest of the trail. Last thing he wanted was a return trip to Norman Wells and another encounter with Brent Melrose.

Webb wasn't great at math, but the pilot had told him earlier that they would be traveling at about 160 kilometers an hour. So when the helicopter dipped again about fifteen minutes later, at the approach to the Mackenzie Mountains, it surprised him. They couldn't already be at their destination.

This time, instead of hovering, the chopper landed on a gravel bar between sheer canyon walls near a shallow, fast-moving river. The water was so pure and clear, you could see flashes of fish.

All the noise and vibration stopped.

George unstrapped himself from his seat and opened the side door to the chopper. He pointed above him.

“Make sure you keep your heads down,” he said. “The blades haven't stopped moving.”

Two minutes later, all of them were on the ground. Webb looked around, blown away by the view. The canyon walls that rose above him were reddish brown. He'd never felt so puny, not even among the massive skyscrapers of downtown Toronto.

There was the sound of rocks tumbling high above them.

“Sheep!” George called out.

All of them looked up to see a pair of white mountain sheep, with little ones behind, edging their way along a path 50 or 60 meters straight up.

Webb pulled his eyes away from the sheep and looked downriver. Huge rocks rose like zombie giants.

He noticed a small piece of pipe, twisted and rusty, running along the river's edge. This was all that remained of the work of thousands upon thousands of men: a pipeline meant to send a precious flow of oil from Norman Wells to Whitehorse, 675 kilometers to the west. Webb thought about what it might have been like to be one of the army of workers who built the pipeline, fighting howling winds and lashing snow in temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius.

They wouldn't be going that far though.

Godlin Lakes was at Mile 168. That was near where the chopper was going to leave them. They were going to walk back from there to the old pipeline pump station at Mile 108, just beyond Devil's Pass, where the chopper would pick them up in a week.

He'd been told that was almost 100 kilometers and that they'd need to average just over 16 kilometers a day.

When the chopper dropped them at Mile 170, they'd be alone in thousands of square miles of the most remote wilderness that Canada had to offer.

If there had been any other way for Webb to get to Devil's Pass except with a group, he would have done it.

It had been tempting to use some of the money to hire a chopper to bring him in and out. Straight to Devil's Pass and back to Norman Wells.

Except that's not what his grandfather had wanted him to do.


Webb jumped at an explosion of noise and movement in front of him. Almost immediately, he realized it was a bird.

But the two Germans—Fritz and Wilhelm were their names—began to laugh. Webb couldn't tell them apart by looking at their faces, but Fritz wore black pants and Wilhelm wore navy blue. Webb didn't really care if they wore different pants on a different day. He had no intention of getting to know them.

Wilhelm pointed at Webb and said, “Little bird! Big jump!”

He laughed with a meanness that Webb knew all too well was the laugh of a bully.

Webb ignored it and watched the flight of the bird. It was smaller than a chicken, with brown feathers mottled with white. It stopped briefly and blended in with the rocks. It squawked again, getting closer to Webb.

“Ptarmigan,” George explained. “A male. Trying to lure you away from its nest. The hen is somewhere nearby, hunkered down. We'll see lots of these displays as we hike.”

“Stupid bird,” Fritz said. “Very stupid.”

He threw a rock and hit it in the head, slamming it onto its side. The ptarmigan spasmed briefly, then stopped moving.

Fritz and Wilhelm laughed again, but froze instantly as George spun on them, anger obvious on his face.

“What?” said Fritz. “Little bird. Dead bird.”

“You treat this land with respect,” George said. The top of his head only reached the Germans' shoulders, but there was no fear in his voice. Just anger. “We only kill what we can eat.”

“Yah, yah,” Fritz said.

“That means,” George said, “you killed it. You eat it.”

“No, no,” Fritz said.

“And to eat it,” George said, “you slit the belly and remove the breast meat. We take it with us and cook it over a fire later.”

“Not me. You. We pay you to be guide.”

“And if you don't skin it and gut it, the helicopter takes you back right now. Think that pilot is going to listen to you or to me? Now pick up that bird, and I'll tell you how it's done.”

“Get blood on my hands?”

George kept staring at him. “When you killed it, you got blood on your hands. Now are you going to do it, or go back to Norman Wells?”

The German shrugged and walked over to the dead ptarmigan. He nudged it with his foot to make sure it was dead. Then he picked it up, trying to hold it away from his body.

“Good work,” George said. “Now get that fancy knife of yours and slit the bird's belly open.”

In the air again twenty minutes later, Webb was once more in awe of the scenery, which had changed and now looked like the surface of the moon. They were flying over the Plains of Abraham, the trail's highest point at more than a kilometer and a half above sea level. The plains were vast and barren, amazing in a sad and desolate way. Webb was glad they wouldn't be hiking through this portion of the trail.

George finally broke the communication silence. “Now approaching Devil's Pass,” he said. “You'll see the collection of old buildings and trucks at the pump station. That's our final destination.”

The chopper climbed and then threaded its way between the granite peaks that seemed to want to pull them down.

Incredible that it would only take them another half hour by chopper to get to Godlin Lakes, and then a week on foot to make it back to Devil's Pass.

Webb didn't spend much time thinking about that, however. Instead, not for the first time, he wondered what had happened at Devil's Pass.

When the chopper left them at Mile 170, all of them stared at it until it disappeared. The distant
of the engine traveled back to them for a while, reminding Webb how alone they were.

Then, finally, there was only the sound of the wind moving through the trees.

“That's it then,” George said. “We've got a ways to go. Let's take photos first, and then get started.”

He pointed at the weathered mile marker sign.

Each of them took turns kneeling beside the sign and pointing toward it while George took their pictures.

Goofy, Webb thought. Very goofy. But if he didn't do it, they'd wonder why he was here. So he pasted a grin on his face and knelt beside the sign.

Close to four hundred men had died in the two years it took to build a road from Norman Wells to Whitehorse. That was an average of two men a week. Slipping on ice and falling beneath bulldozers. Getting washed away by fierce currents in water that would freeze you to death within minutes. Tumbling off the sides of cliffs. Just so the road could be advanced one mile marker at a time in some of the most brutal conditions on the planet.

And less than three years after completing it, the government had decided it wasn't worth the effort and expense. Or the blood of all those men.

Now the mile markers were mainly used for photo ops. This said something about mankind, Webb knew, but he wasn't going to put any effort into trying to come up with something profound to say about it.

To him, it was just a stupid waste. Although it might make a good song someday.

George stepped forward along a narrow stretch of ground that might once have been a road.

Webb's journey to Devil's Pass had officially begun.


Webb stayed at the back of the group. At least twenty steps behind. This way, he wouldn't have to talk to anyone. Happily, Fritz and Wilhelm were directly in front of him, talking with George. Their voices carried to Webb, but he couldn't hear the words.

It didn't matter.

He was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. A person could take longer strides on city sidewalks, but this wasn't even close to flat and smooth. The rocks felt slippery, even though they were dry. The trail was uneven and frequently took them off the roadbed because the roadbed had broken away.

He had his iPod and his music. He wasn't worried about running out of power. The solar-powered charger took care of that. But somehow he couldn't bring himself to put in his earbuds.

It wasn't that this land was sacred or anything.
was too strong a word. But the mountains were so untouched and the air so crisp and the water that trickled into streams that became rivers that fed the Mackenzie was so pure that it all deserved a respect that did verge on the sacred.

BOOK: Devil's Pass
4.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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