North

'Determined' N.W.T. elders snowmobile to Old Crow, Yukon, 7-year-old grandson in tow

'I do what I want to do, and anything I want to do, I do it slow,' says Ernest Vittrekwa, who turned 74 this month after a 200-kilometre journey over the Richardson Mountains.

'We never looked at ourselves and said, 'Oh we're too old,'' says Alice Vittrekwa

Ernest Vittrekwa and his wife Alice Vittrekwa snowmobiled to Old Crow, Yukon, from Fort McPherson, N.W.T., this month. Ernest celebrated his 74th birthday after the 200-kilometre feat. (Leonard Linklater/CBC)

Ernest Vittrekwa turned 74 years old this month.

And he celebrated his birthday in Old Crow, Yukon, after snowmobiling there from Fort McPherson, N.W.T., on the other side of the Richardson Mountains. It's a distance of over 200 kilometres, not including the twist and turns and backtracking along the way.

"I came as a young man, now I'm gonna go home a year older, eh?" said Ernest, laughing.

It's a trip that Ernest had done a few times in his life. But five years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer.

All of a sudden, I seen a ski just fall off the Ski-doo.- Alice Vittrekwa

"I'm not a healthy man. I had cancer and I wanted a challenge, something that I could do, even if you were sick," said Ernest.

"I just told my wife, I'm going tomorrow," he said. "She told me, 'I want to go with you,' and I said OK."

Old Crow is about 200 kilometres west of Fort McPherson, across the Richardson Mountains. (CBC)

Broken snowmobile and blocked routes

So the couple, along with their 7-year-old grandson Brenden, set out on a snowmobile on the morning of Tuesday April 11.

"The beauty of the mountains and the land, brought back a lot of memories of way back and how people used to travel on dog teams," said Alice Vittrekwa, 67, Ernest's wife. It was her first time making the trip.

Ernest, Alice and Brenden Vittrekwa in front of the emergency cabin near Curtain Mountain, also known as Mount Millen, in Yukon. (Submitted by Ryan Vittrekwa)

But they soon met some challenges.

The route Ernest decided to take was covered with deep snow, forcing him to break trail, when his snowmobile couldn't push past a certain hill.

"I couldn't make it over. I kept sliding back down," said Ernest.

From there, he decided to backtrack and take another route.

Then the snowmobile began to feel clunky, said Alice.

We never looked at ourselves and said 'oh we're too old.'- Alice Vittrekwa

"All of a sudden, I seen a ski just fall off the Ski-doo," she said. "All that came to my mind is 'What is Ernest gonna do?' I know he's got something up his sleeve."

"I lost a bolt in the ski," said Ernest.

"And the next thing, he had his screwdriver and he had string," recalled Alice. He laced up the screwdriver and ski with the string, and off they went again.

At around 11 p.m. that night, the three made it to an emergency cabin near Curtain Mountain — also known as Mount Millen, in Yukon.

The cabin near Curtain Mountain. The couple made the return trip home Friday with a few others who helped them bring back caribou meat. (Submitted by Ryan Vittrekwa)

The next day, when Ernest tried to start up the snowmobile again, it wouldn't turn on because it was "too cold," said Ernest.

"I was sewing, and all of a sudden I heard the Ski-doo start," said Alice, who was waiting in the cabin.

"I left it for a while. Honestly, I prayed," said Ernest, who said the snowmobile started after that. "I had a lot of challenges like that."

Stiff, tired, but determined

When the couple finally made it to Old Crow at midnight Thursday, they were met by people in awe of the journey.
Alice and Ernest Vittrekwa. (Submitted by Ryan Vittrekwa)

"They can't believe we made that trip," said Alice.

"I'm fighting it. I do what I want to do, and anything I want to do, I do it slow," said Ernest, who says he wants the young generation to learn determination.

Alice says that they didn't do this trip for recognition.

"We made this trip because Ernest and I wanted to go. Because we love the land. That's what our parents taught us," she said.

"We never looked at ourselves and said, 'Oh we're too old,'" said Alice. "Sure we were tired, we were stiff… but that didn't stop us. We had determination that we could make it, that we're not gonna give up."

Ernest, Alice and Brenden made the snowmobile trip back to Fort McPherson Friday, with caribou meat as souvenirs.

With files from Leonard Linklater

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