The heroes of Hurricane Alley

Blizzard. Wind northeast 60 km/h gusting to 80. Low minus 31. Extreme wind chill minus 52. Frostbite in minutes. That's a pretty typical Environment Canada weather report for Rock River, Yukon.

EAGLE PLAINS

Blizzard. Wind northeast 60 km/h gusting to 80. Low minus 31. Extreme wind chill minus 52. Frostbite in minutes.

That’s a pretty typical Environment Canada weather report for Rock River, Yukon.

Fans of CBC radio will be familiar with hearing the forecast for “Rock River on the Dempster,” but few pay attention. Some might wonder why the forecast exists at all.

No one lives there. Few even pass through.

But to Cathy Brais, the Rock River weather report makes all the difference in the world.

Brais is the road foreman for the Eagle Plains maintenance section of Dempster Highway, between kilometre 286 and kilometre 465 at the N.W.T. border. She leads a crew of six charged with doing whatever it takes to keep that stretch of highway open year-round.

If there’s a problem in the winter time, you can bet that the source is at Hurricane Alley.

RELATED:View more images in our slideshow.

That’s what truckers and locals call a small stretch of road just south of the border, near the Rock River weather station.

It’s a valley surrounded by mountains on three sides. When the wind picks up, the highway finds itself crossways in a wind tunnel of blowing snow.

The weather station tells Brais when trouble is about to hit. For her, it’s a lifeline.

Gusting winds can reach speeds above 100 kilometres per hour. There are tales told of trucks coming back empty from Inuvik that simply blow over in the wind.

Snow drifts on the road can be a problem, but the bigger issue is visibility.

Poles are stuck into the snowbank along the highway at 30-metre intervals. Reflective tape means that drivers can see where the road should be, even if they can’t see the road itself.

The reflective tape is gold on one side, silver on the other, so even if you get turned around in a white-out you’ll know which way is which.

If you can only see one or two snow poles in front of you, it’s time to turn around, said Brais.

Usually it’s only then that the highway gets shut down.

This year, the crew has had to close the road because of blizzard conditions almost every few days.

One day this winter, conditions were so bad that Brais had to drive halfway past one snow pole before she could see the next one.

The last three trucks heading north out of Eagle Plains that day were dilly-dallying, and two of the men on Brais’s crew stayed out to make sure they got past the border.

All five vehicles got stuck in the blizzard. Brais took her truck out to rescue them.

She checked on the truck drivers, who were happy to camp out in the cabs of their trucks for the night.

When she told her crew members to get in her truck so she could get them out of there, she didn’t hear any complaints.

* * *

Brais was born in Whitehorse, and began working for the Department of Highways in 1994 out of Beaver Creek.

She started out flagging and patching potholes, and gradually learned to operate all of the heavy equipment.

She moved to Eagle Plains in 2008. Yukon’s most northern roadcrew works eight days on, six days off. Most of them commute back to Whitehorse or Dawson. Brais had a different idea.

“When they asked me to come up, I said, ‘Well, OK. But I’m moving there.’

“‘You’re what?’

“‘I’m moving there.’

“They said, ‘Have you ever been to Eagle Plains?’

“I said, “Nope.’

“They said, ‘You might want to jump in a pickup and go up there and take a look.’

“And I’m like, ‘Why?’

“I said, ‘I’ll give you a couple years, and I’m moving there.’”

Although the Beaver Creek highway maintenance section has its own challenges, Eagle Plains was a different story entirely.

“I had never seen a blizzard until I got here,” said Brais with a laugh.

After living in Eagle Plains for four years, even Beaver Creek can seem like the big city.

“I went from population 100 to 14. This is more my speed. Now if I go there it’s like, ‘Woah, look at all the people!’”

In 2010 she became the first woman to earn a permanent position as a road foreman in the Yukon.

Being the female lead in an otherwise all-male crew in the middle of nowhere doesn’t phase Brais.

When asked if she preferred to be referred to as a forewoman or foreperson, she said, ‘Foreman is fine.’”

Her gender doesn’t seem to be something she considers a whole lot, except when she needs to pee on the job. (Her advice? Lean against a bumper, and be sure to point your butt into the wind.)

* * *

“She’s worked with men a long time and definitely knows how to handle them,” said Jerry Geddes, one of the men on Brais’s crew.

Geddes used to be an RCMP officer, but he retired in 2002.

He likes working up on the Dempster because of the beauty of the landscape, he said.

“My grandchildren are all Gwitch’in and this is their country,” he said.

“You never get tired of the scenery. It changes every day.

“It makes you appreciate that there are still places in the world left untouched.”

Geddes’s ancestry is Scottish and Tlingit, but his former wife is from Old Crow.

He currently commutes the 10-12 hours to Whitehorse for his days off, but he’s thinking of moving to Eagle Plains full time.

“These are, I believe, the most volatile wind and storm conditions in the North,” he said while driving a snowplow through Hurricane Alley on an unusually calm and blue day.

Just the day before, the road had been closed because of blowing snow, and Geddes was plowing up Border Hill in a blizzard.

“Yesterday, holy shit, I’ll tell you. I came up here, I had a bead of frickin’ sweat on my forehead. I didn’t think I was going to make it, eh?”

Getting stuck in a snowbank is a regular event for the work crews as much as the truckers and travellers.

“Out here, you got to look out for each other,” said Geddes. “Every day, the foreman sends someone north or south to make sure there’s nobody broke down or stranded on the highway.”

* * *

There’s a sign at the Dempster Junction that says, “There are no emergency medical services on the Yukon section of the Dempster Highway,” but that’s not entirely true.

In addition to running the road crew, Brais also runs the volunteer ambulance service out of Eagle Plains.

She is trained as an emergency medical responder, and her crew members all volunteer with the ambulance as well.

Brais earned an award for excellence in EMS in 2012.

It’s pretty quiet normally, and most of the requests she gets are walk-ins – people rescued by others along the road and brought to Eagle Plains for help.

The last call she got to take the ambulance out was in August.

Now that the truckers along the route have gotten to know Brais, they sometimes ask her to check them out if they have a cough or a weird rash.

Some of the incidents she responds to are more bizarre than life-threatening.

“We had a kid on a bicycle that went over Border Hill and was cruising down the hill and got wobbled and landed on his bear spray,” said Brais, struggling to tell the story through her laughter.

“Some people hauled him back here. My nose is running, my eyes were weeping. I’m like, ‘OK, here’s a gown, here’s this garbage bag, put your clothes in it.’ And then I got his clothes washed for him and everything and he waited a couple of days – he had cuts and bruises – but he just had to have a shower to get that bear spray off.

“He landed right on it and it just exploded all over him. I can’t imagine. He was in a vehicle – some people had picked him up – and there were four of them in the vehicle, and five with him, and they were all weepy and runny nose and everything.”

The young man, about 18, was cycling towards Inuvik. He got back on the road again after he had recovered from the incident.

“I felt kind of sorry for the kid, but he added me to Facebook, so he made it!”

* * *

Brais’s ability to keep the roads open and in good condition affects no one more than the truckers who haul loads on a regular basis between Whitehorse and Fort McPherson or Inuvik.

Jim Sherburne owns the truck he uses to haul freight to the N.W.T., and that makes a huge difference in how he views the road. Every pothole he hits means more money spilling out of his wallet.

“When YTG says they don’t have a budget to fix the road, well where’s my budget to fix my truck?”

He has been driving the Dempster since 1984. He told stories of the good old days over breakfast at the Eagle Plains Hotel on his way back south.

“I’ll tell you what, in 1984 the road was a hell of a lot better. When they put their boys to work, the boys worked.”

Now, he just doesn’t see the same level of maintenance activity that he used to, said Sherburne.

“When you go up and down this road and you don’t see any equipment on the road, what’s up with that?”

But he doesn’t blame the road condition on Brais or her crew. It’s the administration in Whitehorse that’s the problem, he said.

They don’t understand or appreciate the amount of economic activity that the Dempster generates for the Yukon. They don’t see the tourists in the summer – or the expensive snowmobiles, trucks and equipment shipped up to N.W.T. communities – like he does, said Sherburne.

For a tourist going up the Dempster, the rough, gravel road just adds to the adventure. But Sherburne sees it differently.

“When you drive the road day in and day out, it’s no adventure.”

Like everyone else who works on the Dempster, it’s the wide open country and ever-changing scenery that keeps him there.

Despite the complaints, Sherburne insists that he loves his job. He certainly doesn’t do it for the money, he said.

“There’s no money in this. I gotta keep fixing my truck.”

* * *

Eagle Plains Hotel is located about halfway between Dawson City and Inuvik.

It’s a sanctuary for truckers, tourists, bikers and cyclists (but mostly truckers outside of the short summer season).

“One road up, one place to stop, and this is it,” said Kyle Reid, a trucker of 38 years from Alberta.

He now hauls gas and heating oil to Fort McPherson, N.W.T.

“From Klondike corner to here is 370 kilometres. There’s nothing. There’s no places to stop and eat or stop and get fuel – you just have to make it. You don’t have any other choice.”

Sometimes, the only choice is not to go, but to stay.

“I’ve sat here for up to six days waiting for the weather to change and the wind to stop blowing.”

Even when the road is open, the trip through Hurricane Alley can be unnerving, he said.

“The wind comes over the mountains and literally howls through there.”

For today, he’s safe. He has just finished breakfast at the hotel and the weather looks good for today’s trip to Fort McPherson.

The lodge is decorated with antlers and hunting trophies. The walls feature archival photographs and tell the story of Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper of Rat River. A 1932 manhunt for Johnson by the RCMP resulted in a media circus.

The event ended in a shootout in which Johnson was fatally wounded near Eagle River.

Eagle Plains’ population of 14 consists entirely of the hotel and service station’s staff, plus Brais and her crew.

The crew stay in staff housing behind the hotel with a shared kitchen area and living space.

They eat breakfast and dinner together in the hotel’s restaurant, and take their lunch to go.

Brais has her own apartment, complete with hot tub and deck.

On Boxing Day she loaded her hot tub onto a trailer and hauled it up to the Arctic Circle for a dip. It was a bucket-list item, she said.

“It was minus 11 and not a breath of wind, and it was the most perfect day, where everywhere else was 30 below and colder.”

It’s an unlikely place to call home, but Brais is now part of the fabric of the tiny community.

Brais and Reid chat and joke over the radio as Reid heads north towards Fort McPherson.

He asked her for the weather report, and they both speak in awe of the unusually calm and bright conditions in Hurricane Alley. They’re not used to being able to seeing the mountains.

He asks if he’d be better off staying in Fort McPherson, or coming back to Eagle Plains.

Better to come straight back, she tells him. There’s a blizzard coming in.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at

jronson@yukon-news.com

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