Barging Down The Mackenzie

May 1, 2002 by Graham Chandler

The river tug Vic Ingraham awaits its skipper at Fort Providence, N.W.T.

Sir Alexander Mackenzie never had it this good. I’m in the middle of the river named after him, soaking up the Indian summer rays that bathe the deck of the river tug Vic Ingraham, lost in an after-dinner reverie brought on by two oversized platefuls of roast prime rib and a generous chunk of Black Forest cake. As we pass a small backwater just south of the Arctic Circle where Mackenzie and his crews camped for the night more than two centuries before, I watch a startled bear splash its way up the bank, black coat glistening under the arc of a rainbow.

This historic river, part of Canada’s longest river system, does indeed cut through some mesmerizing scenery. Sir Alexander wrote of it too, but then he didn’t have to manage 7,000 tons of cargo on a flotilla the size of two football fields through the fastest rapids on the river either; which is what has brought me here.

The experience started on the southern shore of Great Slave Lake when I arrived at the Northern Transportation Company Limited’s posh head office and barge loading terminal at Hay River, N.W.T, approximately 560 miles north of Edmonton. My job was to accompany a new specially built $16 million arctic drilling rig and its camp 1,098 miles on a barge trip to Tuktoyaktuk and then write about it.

Companies don’t get much more Canadian than this one. NTC is 100 per cent owned by the Inuvialuit of the Western Arctic and the Inuit of Nunavut. It is an integral part of the North’s logistics. Each year during the ice-free months —between May and October—NTC’s tugs and barges move thousands of tons of supplies, including 90 per cent of the North’s fuel oil, to scores of villages and towns scattered along the Mackenzie and Canada’s northern coast. “We move anything so long as it’s not perishable,” says Gordon Norberg, NTC’s manager of marketing and traffic coordination. “In the spring it’s mostly bulk fuel. Right now, it’s mostly oilfield cargo.”

Returning barges tote things like cleanup waste from the Distant Early Warning Line.

I start the morning with a mug of coffee at a planning meeting. Highlights of the easygoing but serious conversation hint at the cargo potpourri: “A fuel tank for Aklavik.” “Another six loads of insulation.” “14 totes of glycol.” “One wireline unit.” “Will all that pipe fit on a 15?” They’re organizing which cargo will go on which barge, and they haven’t forgotten the drilling rig and its camp, either; it has been arriving piece by piece the last few days aboard semis from Edmonton, 113 loads in all.

Supervisor Ed Malloy leads me out to the gravelly mud of the 70-hectare terminal. It’s busy as an anthill; there are forklifts and cranes picking weighty components off flatbeds, and workers in orange coveralls recording and checking everything in sight. Trucks are weighed, unloaded and re-weighed. Drivers get their eight hours sleep before hitting the road south again at two o’clock the next morning. Drilling consoles, pipe racks, travelling blocks and other complex bits of rig sit in the yard awaiting their boarding call.

The massive barge lowers in the water as a 40-ton forklift inches on board with the A-legs, one of the heaviest parts of the rig. I’m standing on a 1500-series barge, the largest on our trip—80 by 20 metres. It can take over 2,000 tons of cargo on deck or 20 rail cars worth of bulk fuel below deck or a combination of both. At this weight the gauge on the barge’s hull would show a draw of five feet of water, but for the shallower waters of September, crews usually load them to just four feet. Higher waters are great for barge loads, but disadvantages abound. “High water brings its own set of problems,” explains Norberg. “Debris from spring runoffs takes out buoys, clogs propellers and piles up in front of the barges.”

Loaded barges are pushed out into the bay marshalling area by a harbour tug and then tied up to await the river tug that’ll take them on the long journey north. One of the river tugs is the 47-metre Vic Ingraham where I’ll have my own cabin for the next six days. She’s at the dock taking on 10 days’ worth of fuel when I arrive to meet first mate George Power. He’s wearing an easy grin under his NTC baseball cap. Power will be the acting captain until we reach Fort Providence where we’ll board the regular skipper James Walsh who’ll be fresh from a short holiday. Fort Providence is located on the Mackenzie, not far from the western end of Great Slave Lake.

Power and Walsh are Newfoundlanders, as are seven of the Ingraham’s 13 crew members.

Chief Engineer Bob Lycett’s accent is decidedly un-Newfie. He hails from Lancashire and as he supervises the refuelling, tells me of his years seeing Africa and the Far East in the British merchant marine. “Then I came to Hay River 12 years ago,” he says, “and stayed.” It was here he met his wife who stays in their fifth-wheeler in Kelowna, B.C., while he lives on the tug in summer. Once he’s done for the season, Lycett jumps into his pickup and heads for the Okanagan, where the couple will hook on the camper and split for the boundless sunshine of Mexico.

Lycett’s annual work rhythm is typical of the river tug crews. Most earn enough during the 22 or so trips the company does in the 4 1/2-month season that they do as they please the rest of the year. “But,” the lanky engineer adds, “our hours add up to a normal years’ worth.” After a little mental arithmetic I had to agree with him. The gruelling six hours on, six hours off, seven-days-a-week work schedule that the engineers and deck officers squeeze into their 142-day contract matches the annual hours of the average Canadian worker’s 35-hour work week.

The appropriately named Buster Helmer is at the helm as we cast off. Slim and trim in denim, he started working northern rivers as a 15-year-old deckhand in 1950; the last 40 of his years he’s spent on the Mackenzie. With a muffled rumble from the four V-16 engines, he eases toward three waiting barges. As the tug makes contact, deckhands scramble onto the barges, pull the heavy steel cables off our bow and loop them over the barge’s securing posts, or horns. Another jumps back and spins the wheel on the foredeck winch, snugging the barge tight against our bow.

Two more barges are added, one on each side of, and slightly behind, the first. This arrangement forms a niche from where the tug can push all three across the lake. I ask Helmer why they don’t tow the barges, like in the ocean. “You’d have no control over them following you in the current going downstream,” comes the logical answer.

Cone-topped red—for port—and flat-topped green—for starboard—buoys mark the channel west across the lake to Wrigley Harbour at the mouth of the Mackenzie. The buoys end after three-quarters of a mile and Power takes the wheel, steering a 300 degree heading. Here, proximity to Magnetic North renders a standard magnetic compass useless, so Power is using Global Positioning System data for heading, speed and location. Soon we’re comfortably under way, hitting 10.4 mph across the glassy lake, the maximum speed with our load. Power hums along to Newfoundland singer Johnny Drake on the ghetto blaster as he squints into the setting sun.

Nearing Wrigley Harbour, a series of almost imperceptible bumps tells Power the water is shallowing so he eases back on the throttles to ensure the props won’t churn into the lake bottom. We’re nearing the entrance to the rapids, known as Danger Zone One on the Canadian Coast Guard river maps. Power reports entering the zone on the Single Side Band radio, so the Coast Guard can warn ships coming upstream. There are nine of these danger zones on the river.

An experienced kayaker would hardly call these rapids. There’s no whitewater and they aren’t even the fastest on the river, but to push three fully loaded cargo barges through them demands a complex set of skills. We pass through at 15 mph, tie the barges to shore posts and chug back to Fort Providence to board the affable skipper James Walsh, who takes us back to the barge tie-up. More clattering winches, growling engines and groaning cables and we’re hooked up again, this time to our full tug of six barges; three had been pre-positioned. The Vic Ingraham’s six rudders deftly turn her as Walsh skilfully reverses into the river, allowing the powerful current to bring the bow around and into the channel. I remark on his surgical precision. “Well I bin doin’ it fer 36 years,” comes the reply. The crews will go all night, using spotlights fore and aft to pick out the buoys and on-shore range markers; along with the radar.

With the engines humming we head down to the mess for dinner. And what a dinner it is. No problem putting on a few pounds around the waist here, with Chief Cook Diane Rattray and her galley partner Annie McIntyre planning gourmet menus and working overtime to put them on the table. Today it’s breaded pork chops, scalloped potatoes and a side table of healthy salads. As if that’s not enough, most of the crew help themselves to drooling desserts like home-baked pies and blueberry cheesecake. “I keep the guys happy,” says the twinkly-eyed Rattray. She’s the kingpin of morale, the ship’s mother. She keeps discipline in the mess room, serves the occasional surprise treat like a Jig’s dinner especially for the Newfoundlanders, and keeps up that all-important team spirit in the cramped confines of the boat. In the off-season she and her husband, who also works for NTC, enjoy their home in Yuma, Arizona. McIntyre spends time with her 10 grandchildren.

An abandoned cabin, one of many along the river, stands guard over the end of our third set of rapids, at Naylor’s Landing, Mile 201, where the tug is re-assembled after relaying the barges through. Deckhands again are a flurry of activity, jumping from barge to barge throwing cable loops over horns and spinning the big wheels on the winches. The ship has four deckhands, from apprentice to hardened sailors, one an Inuit. Three work four hours on, eight hours off, and one does the 8 to 5 routine. They don’t mind the shifts because usually all four are needed at once and those off duty get overtime premiums. A deckhand can make $10,000 per month during the season, “thanks to the (Seafarers’ International) union,” says Allan Strickland. Not bad, considering “handyman special” houses in his Newfoundland home town go for as little as $5,000.

After the 72-mile long Blackwater Rapids past the majestic Camsell Mountains to starboard at Tulita, we’re halfway to Tuktoyaktuk. The Mackenzie Mountains loom to the west, but eastward the land is gently rolling and the trees more stunted as we approach Norman Wells.

Despite the river’s six sets of rapids and nine danger zones, the crew settles into a daily routine to the muffled rumbling of the engines, the swish of the bow cutting through the water and an occasional burst from the radio. Other traffic is limited to the odd Coast Guard boat or local outboard. The deck officers on the bridge know every tree and creek on the bank and how they’ve changed over the years. I’d hear comments like “Look, that creek’s full of water now, a little high for late summer,” or “Y’know you don’t often see caribou there any more,” interspersed with gossip about someone’s recent divorce.

Fifty miles shy of the Arctic Circle comes the journey’s highlight: The Ramparts, 672 river miles from our start. After hundreds of trips up and down the river, even the off-duty crew often come out on deck to sightsee. This final set of rapids is where the Mackenzie slices through towering white limestone cliffs. It’s the most-photographed part of the journey. But there are some crew members who can’t relax and play tourist through here. The Ramparts demand the undivided attention of the officer at the helm and an engineer standing by in the engine room in case a power boost is needed. First mate Power is driving as I feel the current push the tug faster. High silt deposits make a sinuous channel not much wider than our tug. The channel is marked by buoys but Power concentrates as he plans his turns. This is a 7,000-ton grand slalom and “she’s not gonna turn on a dime,” says Power. The thrill is over all too soon; a couple of miles later we’re serenely passing a picturesque church overlooking Fort Good Hope.

By our fifth morning on the river, we’re approaching the Mackenzie Delta near Tsiigehtchic, and we’re into the worst weather of the trip. Doors and windows are battened down. Powerful winds buffet the barges, pitching and banging them against each other. White spray breaks through grey fog over the deck cargo. Suddenly Helmer throttles back. “We’ve broken a line,” he says, accompanied by a popular four-letter word. Deckhands are summoned to don exposure suits and check it out. Turns out it wasn’t a line, but just as dangerous, a barge had torn an upright bumper off the one in front. Taking no chances, the skipper heads for a shore tie-up to switch the damaged barge to a safer position at the side of the tug.

Now we can travel all night through the delta’s silt-laden Middle Channel. We tie up in the wee hours at Kittigazuit, Mile 1,070 where fresh Mackenzie water tastes salty Arctic Ocean. It’s flat and shrubby, and we await the weather forecast before crossing Kugmallit Bay to Tuktoyaktuk. If the north wind is too strong it will hit us broadside and drive the swell towards shore, and the rolling barges could snap their lines.

Next morning fog rolls in from the east but Walsh deems it okay to take three barges across the final 28 miles to Tuk. He’s prepared to switch to a tow line in mid-bay if things turn rough. It’s not needed; soon two massive white spheres loom out of the fog— Tuktoyaktuk’s DEW Line radar domes. We arrive at NTC’s terminal, capping off 1,098 miles and six days of travel. The crew will rest a day before the 12-day trip back—longer because it’s upstream, and through some of the rapids the tugs only make one or two knots. In fact, late in the season the company keeps a tug on the high side of The Ramparts in case one needs an extra tow to get up the rapids.

As the rig and cargo are unloaded, I bid farewell to my Vic Ingraham ‘family’. The rig is now home for a while—her first well will be just 12 miles from here. By the time it’s spudded, contented crew members will be sipping margaritas or snowmobiling out to Newfoundland’s Ten Mile Pond for an afternoon of ice fishing.

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