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Walking Into The Past

Dennis Allen is an award winning filmmaker, accomplished writer, recorded songwriter, and hopeless storyteller originally from Inuvik NT. He apprenticed as a storyteller under his father, legendary Inuvialuit storyteller, Victor Allen, late of Inuvik. Dennis is currently working on a memoir of Inuvialuit elder Agnes White of Tuktoyuktuk, as well as a book of short stories. Dennis was longlisted for the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize, winner of the 2023 Edmonton Storyslam, and Winner of the 2017 Sally Manning Award for Creative Non-fiction.

Walking Into The Past

By Dennis Allen

In 1999, myself and another filmmaker were hired to document the repatriation of a traditional Dene walking route between Colville Lake and Fort Good Hope, Northwest Territories. It would take us from Colville Lake, eighty miles through the bush, to the Rabbitskin River, where a boat would take us the rest of the way to Fort Good Hope. No one had walked that route since 1963 and the last man to walk that route, an elderly Dene man named Paul Kotchilly, was to be our guide, along with elders Hyachinthe and Marie Kochon of Colville Lake. 

Before we left, the organizers assured us that everything would be taken care of, including food and a pack dog to carry our heavy battery packs. But when we got there, somebody forgot to send the memo because we had to fend for ourselves, including finding a pack dog. We ended up kidnapping a mangy old mutt named Chocolate. After loading up on the lightest food we could find; instant porridge and dry noodles, we donned our backpacks and headed out on the first leg of our journey, a five mile hike to the head of Belot Lake. 

We got to Belot Lake and had a much needed break. The new hiking boots I bought were cutting into my ankles and I could of killed the kid who sold them to me. He swore up and down that they were perfect for this kind of terrain. I doubted if he’d ever hauled a fifty pound pack through this thick brush. 

To cut down on time, a boat took us the ten miles to the other end of the lake where we set camp for the night. I was ever so grateful for that boat ride. 

The next morning, as I was nursing my swollen feet, and trying to get footage of the encampment, the group abruptly broke camp and left, without us. Between shooting footage, nursing my feet, and relearning my bush skills, I had to scramble to keep up. 

There was a faint outline of the old walking trail which became our guide. That afternoon, after a steady march, we stopped for lunch. Three of the packdogs carrying our traditional food of dried fish and dried meat, caught wind of a moose and bolted after it. Hyachinthe instructed us to keep walking and they’d catch up to us after they found their dogs. They walked into camp and two in the morning with no dogs, and no food. After a few hours sleep, we decided to march on. We had a fishnet and a rifle after-all if we needed food. 

A few hours after we started walking again, we came to a small creek. The men built a bridge across it with fallen trees and set the fishnet across the creek. We waited for a couple of hours and then checked it. Nothing. We packed up and kept walking. Everyone had a little stash of food which would sustain us anyway.

Soon, we came upon an old forest fire, and lost our trail. We fanned out in search of the trail and finally came upon it a couple of hours later. It became a common occurrence.

We were running dangerously low on food, especially for the dogs. Everyone had a few scraps of food to give to their beasts of burden, except us. At one point our dog began to growl. I thought he was gonna turn on me and start ripping apart my flesh. Lucky for me it was a rabbit scurrying through the underbrush.

The next day we made an emergency call for a food drop. It wasn’t much but it was a welcome change from the instant porridge and dry noodles we were eating. 

Finally, on the sixth day, we spotted the ridges of the Rabbit-skin River to our south. As custom has it, we fired three times with the rifle to announce our arrival. To our relief, there was return fire to acknowledge us. A few hours later, two angels carrying plastic bags full of cold pop and chocolate bars came into view. We had made it. I flopped on the ground and literally cut my hiking boots off my feet. I guzzled a can of cold pop and inhaled three chocolate bars. As we boated the remaining miles to Fort Good Hope, I thought about the last few days and how much I learned about myself. I learned that you can fight off hunger by dunking your baseball cap in shallow pools of slough water and gulping it down. I learned that you can fight of sleep by mumbling incoherently and slapping yourself in the face. But most of all, I found out I could always muster up the strength to take just one more step.