Voyages of the Sourdough

Written by Steve Olson
Friday, June 17, 2016

Steve OlsonFred and I returned to Inuvik, Northwest Territories, from Fairbanks, Alaska, on June 4, where we had been down a handful of days for plane maintenance. It was time to survey the true tundra, the mighty Mackenzie River Delta, and the Arctic Coast of NWT.

En route to Inuvik, we cross the Richardson Mountains. The northern-most extension of the Canadian Rockies, the Richardsons reside mostly within the Yukon Territories, a place still as wild as your imagination. The Yukon and Porcupine Rivers cut through this wildness, like they have for millions of years. It is always on this flight, that I recall the “Voyages of the Flapjack,” written sometime after 1940 by Johnny Lynch, and published in the book, Flyways: Pioneering Waterfowl Management in North America. Within this gem of literature is about as entertaining a short story for a duck head and Far North enthusiast as can be found. Charlie Gillham, the first Mississippi Flyway Biologist, had asked Johnny for his assistance in embarking on a snow goose banding and research mission on the Mackenzie River Delta, because he “seemed to be a middlin’-fair botanist.”

Their means of transportation were rail to Fairbanks, stage to Circle City, and then aboard this janky fold-up style boat (they named the Flapjack) they had shipped, all boxed up, from Charlie’s hog ranch in Illinois. They travelled via the Flapjack, down the Yukon River, to Fort Yukon, at the confluence of the Yukon and Porcupine Rivers. Then they made the arduous trip up the Porcupine River, and into the Yukon Territories. Luckily, they didn’t have to buck the river the whole way, as they made friends with a trader who was pushing a barge up the Porcupine to the village of Old Crow, YK. They signed on as deck hands “after a short conversation and a cup or two of ‘juice of the grape.’” After a short two weeks exploring the wetlands of Old Crow Flats, they again boxed up the Flapjack and took a bush plane to Aklavik, in the heart of the Mackenzie River Delta.

And here we are, the realization of a moment. Fred and I were cruising along Charlie and Johnny’s original path; albeit quicker in pace and quite a bit higher in altitude, but still starting and ending at the same locations. This realization was not entirely my own, however, because there was Fred like an automated tour guide over the speakers, sharing his uncannily similar thoughts. The times have changed, that is true. But a few closing remarks on this year’s survey might have you think otherwise.

First, the landscape is almost the same as it was when Charlie and Johnny embarked on their snow goose mission. The waters are still cutting through the same wilderness, and the mighty Mackenzie is still supporting a wild and dynamic river delta.

Second, the waterfowl are still present. The wetlands supported by the Mackenzie River, Arctic Coast, and permafrost are still inviting and productive to wildlife, particularly waterfowl. This year, we counted many more ducks across the entire north, especially ducks in the traditional nesting category of “prairie.” We still believe that if they give it a go (attempt to nest), they will have the food and habitat needed to reproduce successfully.

Lastly, the mannerisms of Far North Canadians are the same. Johnny wrote that the people of the Far North “sized a man up very quickly.” It seemed as though they placed a man into one of two categories. First, there was the casual visitor, to whom they were always very gracious; but that’s as far as it went. Then there was another category, but not many people made this higher grade. Yet Charlie Gillham certainly did, with everybody he met all over the Far North. Charlie was invited to go on trips where no one else could ‘buy in.’” This grading system still exists, and yet another ambassador for the USFWS, Fred Roetker, makes this “higher grade.” For the reader who follows my blogs and has read last year’s “Perfect,” you may remember that at that time Fred was seriously considering retirement. Well, this year is THE year. I cannot rewrite another “Perfect,” and I don’t want to. If you haven’t read it, you should.

I will instead, offer the biggest compliment a 30-year-old waterfowl biologist with an extreme passion for waterfowl can give to a man who’s been flying the bush for over 30 years. In that, every time I’ve witnessed Fred interact with the people of the Far North, especially other bush pilots, I witnessed them grading Fred and instantly placing him among the few of “higher grade.” I currently and will forever relive memories of Fred Roetker when rereading accounts of Charlie Gillham. They are synonymous in my mind.

There ya go buddy, enjoy your retirement! It has been an absolute pleasure to fly the last three BPOP Surveys with you! Like a buddy we share once noted at duck banding camp, “they don’t make Freds anymore.”

Two men of "Higher Grade".  USFWS Pilot Biologist, Fred Roetker and Fort Chipewyan's finest, Jumbo Fraser, celebrating their ~40 years of friendship, forged by an appreciation of waterfowl and the Far North. Photo Credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.

Two men of "Higher Grade". USFWS Pilot Biologist, Fred Roetker and Fort Chipewyan's finest, Jumbo Fraser, celebrating their ~40 years of friendship, forged by an appreciation of waterfowl and the Far North. Photo Credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.

Flying over the Richardson Mountains, and retracing the routes of pioneering waterfowl biologists of the 1940's. Photo Credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.

Flying over the Richardson Mountains, and retracing the routes of pioneering waterfowl biologists of the 1940's. Photo Credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.

Peel River, NT, before the confluence with the mighty Mackenzie River. Photo Credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.

Peel River, NT, before the confluence with the mighty Mackenzie River. Photo Credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.

Evening along the Mackenzie River Delta, with the Richardson Mountains in the background.  The sun actually will not set at this latitude, but it is indeed "evening". Photo Credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.

Evening along the Mackenzie River Delta, with the Richardson Mountains in the background. The sun actually will not set at this latitude, but it is indeed "evening". Photo Credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.

After flying over 30 years in the bush, this was USFWS Pilot Biologist, Fred Roetker's final day, and final pit-stop. Photo Credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.

After flying over 30 years in the bush, this was USFWS Pilot Biologist, Fred Roetker's final day, and final pit-stop. Photo Credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.