Charly Kudlacek is from Frankfurt in the German state of Hesse and, as eggs go, is hard-boiled. We met Charly and his wife Marion in a remote campground at Summit Lake on the British Columbia portion of the Alaska Highway. The place is named for its location on the highest point of this international byway.
The “Alcan” starts in Dawson Creek, B.C., and ends 2,237 km later in 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, Summit Lake was still 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 couple of weeks sunning and boating on a warm lake in the Okanagan. 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 who have been to the parts unknown. 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 Reserve, 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, Urs the bush pilot, own this beautiful spot on Muncho 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 Charly 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 meagre knowledge of the Nahanni (which I had gleaned from a guide book 15 minutes earlier). The floatplane seats nine and Marianne had told me 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 Highway adventure would include a spur-of-the-moment side trip to the Northwest Territories.
“We shall sleep on this,” announced Charly.
In the morning crispness, Charly informed me in a precise clip 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, grizzly bear, stone sheep, caribou, wood bison and a countless variety of flying creatures.
Charly 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 rental camper van was fully equipped, except for an axe. Charly brought his own finely-edged Fiskars from Germany.
Charly seems like a strange name for a German. Marion told us he was actually christened Karl. But in West Germany in the 1960s, the name Karl (for reasons I didn’t ask and she 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, Charly asked if I would like to join him for a short run down the highway. Naturally, I was stupid enough to acquiesce. Ten km and an hour later, I stumbled back to camp, lamely following his tireless legs.
Charly was apologetic: “In former times, I was not so slow and the distance would be much greater.”
When I collapsed into bed that night, Charly 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 morning repast of eggs, meat, cheese, tea, fruit and five pieces of bread, and had completed 50 pushups and 100 sit-ups. Then he buckled down to real breakfast: a hearty bowl of muesli.
Did I mention that Charly is older than me? He’s no weichei.
They say the Irish (my heritage) would rule the world were it not for Guinness. After observing Charly for a few days, I’ve concluded that there’s 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 was to land. But Marianne told us Urs was en route from Vancouver and would arrive 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. He 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 dusky.
“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. Charly 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 Charly, who paced the morning away, unable to control the situation, awaiting word from Urs.
“Impatience. This is a minus point for me,” Charly 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, sans reservation – but expecting top-notch service. Invariably, it works like a charm.
At noon, Urs announced the flight was a go.
He gently lifted the retrofitted 1959 de Havilland off the emerald waters of Muncho Lake and banked over the lodge. Our 90-minute flight crossed the B.C. border at 60 degrees north, swiping a corner of the Yukon Territory before entering the N.W.T.
Urs treated us to a spectacular 360-degree view of Virginia Falls before landing upstream of the cascade. He touched the plane down softly, wary of deadheads floating down the swollen Nahanni River. We were Nahanni’s first visitors of the year, arriving even before the Parks Canada people set up camp for the season.
The falls, a world-renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site, are twice the height of Niagara Falls. An icy spring pillar hung precariously in the centre of the water’s 102-metre descent. 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.
Our stay in the Nahanni was brief – after just a few hours aground, we were skimming back up off the river. Urs offered us a last spectacular glance at the falls. Then the old plane banked southward, skirting vast unexplored ridges of the Northwest Territories. In the early evening light, the northern-most tip of the Rocky Mountains appeared, signalling our return to British Columbia.
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 hopped from the plane’s floats to the dock and bid goodbye to our German friends.
Before heading down the road, Charly offered a heartfelt hug – confirming that all good eggs are soft inside.
Travel writer Gerry Feehan, QC, is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer.