Hitting the road at -50 C? This Yukon elder has some tips

Mary Maje, a Kaska elder from Ross River, knows what it's like to have a vehicle break down in the brutal cold. That's why she's always well-prepared when she hits the road.

Mary Maje knows what it's like to have a vehicle break down on a cold, lonely road

Mary Maje is shown in her wall tent. She always packs a tent along with lots of other survival gear when she hits the road in winter. (Submitted by Billie Maje)

Yukon's been gripped by brutal cold for the last couple of weeks and it has made getting around not just a hassle — but potentially dangerous.

A highway breakdown can quickly become a struggle to survive, waiting for help at –50 C. Just ask the poor folks who drove off the road last week and then set their vehicle on fire to stay warm.

Mary Maje, a Kaska elder from Ross River, and her husband Ted Charlie also had vehicle trouble this week, on a remote, empty road. But Maje said they were well-prepared — so it ended up being no big deal.

Here are some of Maje's tips for staying safe on a frigid road trip.

Safety in numbers

Maje and Charlie were headed to Watson Lake on Monday when a belt on their truck broke. They were still about an hour's drive from Watson Lake, on the Campbell Highway — and they didn't have the spare part. It was about –46 C, Maje says.

Her daughter was also on that lonely road, though, and travelling a little ways ahead. When she noticed that Maje and Charlie were no longer following, she turned back — reaching them about an hour later. 

Maje keeping warm earlier this week, after her vehicle broke down on a remote road, about an hour from Watson Lake. (Submitted by Billie Maje)

Maje and Charlie left their truck to return the next day with a new belt.

"Make sure you contact someone to your destination, and always travel in pairs," Maje said.

Bring gear — lots of it

"Have all the necessities for cold weather," she advised.

When they broke down this week, they managed to quickly get a fire going while they waited. They had everything they needed in their truck — cut wood, kindling and firestarter, and a chainsaw kept warm inside the vehicle.

"We kept putting wood on that fire," she said. "We didn't even get cold."

Here's what else she carries with her:

  • warm clothes, including parkas, heavy boots, mitts, fur hats
  • sleeping bags
  • tent
  • snowshoes
  • food and water
  • propane torch and 20 lb propane tank
  • generator and electric heater
  • "And don't forget your snow shovel!"
Lots of people avoid hitting the road during a severe cold snap. That means there are fewer people to stop and help if you have vehicle trouble. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

That may sound like a lot to haul around, but it's about survival, she says. 

Besides, she says, "you're not really packing it on your back!"

Think of the children

This wasn't the first time Maje was forced into survival mode at roadside.

"Oh no, we've broken down before at –50 — we did the same then," she said.

"We had our kids with us. We had them all bundled up and they were warm."

That time, they were stuck long enough to set up a wall tent with a small woodstove, and cover the ground with brush. They stayed relatively comfortable because they had everything they needed, and then some.

"When you have kids traveling with you, you have to be more prepared," she says. 

Written by Paul Tukker, with files from Nancy Thomson


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