It’s been a while since we were last paddling, but having moved up to Peace River in Northern Alberta we could not resist the annual Paddle The Peace. This is an event that started a few years ago and is a wonderful opportunity to get out on the river and share a paddling experience with everyone from seasoned veterans of the paddling scene, to those who have never paddled before.
We signed up early and invited a couple (Ahto and Anna) whom we have become friends with since they arrived in Peace River and who have never been paddling before. It would be a great opportunity for them to taste the art and for us to enjoy a day on the river with friends which is not something as a couple we have been able to do before.
The date for the event was August 18th – a Sunday – and on the Saturday I brought the packed canoe out of our storage room, much to Tallak’s delight. I had wondered how he would react and his excitement was contagious. I had been looking forward to the day and with Tallak not being able to sit still whilst I moved everything out of our small storage room the excitement grew.
It wasn’t very practical to unpack and prep the canoe in our 3rd level apartment so I took it to the maintenance shop at the Sawridge Inn hotel where we work and built it on my own, taking almost an hour to do so. Having had the canoe packed away for so long after a journey that somewhat bent the gunwales and other aluminium rods it was a challenge to put up. The ‘marriage counselor’ as I now affectionately call it rewarded me with its clean lines and robustness even now after our epic journey in 2012. Our one nad only hole-patch along with our many preventative reinforcement strips have held snug and tight with no lifting or curling at the edges. It is evident that the repair was done in the bush as there is a ring of sand around the patch from the windy island we were camping on at the time, but I think this has actually helped bond the vinyl to patches to the skin.
The morning of the 18th proved to be cool but promising and we were at the maintenance shop just after 7am to collect the boat. It was quickly strapped to the top of the car and we were soon driving along Shaftesbury Trail; a twisting, scenic road following the contours of the river bank down to Shaftesbury Ferry, the drop-off point for most boats hitting the river that day and about 25mins from the town. We dropped off the boat and put on the splashdeck, marking our canoe with a small length of pink tape indicating we were with the Paddle The Peace group as there were a number of individuals on the river for the event also but travelling independently. We then drove back to the town of Peace River to meet Ahto and Anna at Kinsmen Park by the boat-launch to register for the event. We signed the waivers and were given water bottles, a length of rope and whistle, as well as a small pack containing information, numerous small items and a map of the route.
We were the only ones taking a dog and as such we waited until last to get in one of the two buses waiting to take the large group back to Shaftesbury Ferry to begin the day proper. After a small brief we headed to the put-in where we had a longer safety brief before we made final preparations to the canoe and waited for our friends to collect the double-kayak they had rented from Flow North, the company providing the kayaks and canoes for the event, as well as having provided the training on Saturday at some small local lakes for those who wanted it. We followed them into the water and were soon on our way.
The river was fast, the weather hot and the sun shining. We paddled to the halfway point of Strong Creek Park where the pulp mill in Peace River had sponsored the event with a brunch for those participating. After filling up we carried on with Tallak in the middle of the canoe. On the Expedition last year Tallak had very little space for maneuver stuffed in the bow or stern and on this occasion he loved it, travelling in the middle of the boat with all the space he could want. He was well received by all who saw him. We paddled on and had a break on a sandy island just before the town. With plenty of time left in the day and Tallak still burning with excitement for the paddling we released the beast on the sand and enjoyed watching him play a while.
The remainder of the journey was short and for the most part we drifted, chatting about the river and area and the talk inevitably turned to future trips on the water as it always seems to do.
After arriving at the destination in the town there was a throng of people having finished, watching paddlers arrived and waiting for those yet to finish. We spoke at length with people as we packed up the canoe but were hurried as a storm approached bringing strong winds and rain. We had finished not a minute too soon nor a moment too late. It was unfortunate that we did not have more time to speak with fellow paddlers but I did make sure I completed a small questionnaire about the day. I look forward to next years’ Paddle The Peace, it was a great day.
We didn’t stay long in Jasper upon our return, swiftly departing and heading East to Quebec, the Gaspe Peninsula. No GPS or map in a car crammed full of all the belongings that we could fit. Hastily scribbling a note of the largest towns along the way on a scrap piece of paper after closing the door to our Jasper apartment, we set off. 4,700km later we arrived in Matane, Quebec and have been busy ever since. It took us four days and I averaged 1,000km a day, a far cry from our days paddling when 50km was a good day!
We are now back in the ‘unreal’ world where job-hunting has kept us just as occupied as we were foraging for berries along the Mackenzie riverbank. Trying to re-enter the rat-race after such a rewarding absence has left us with a real appreciation of where we were and what we accomplished. We now live in a house just a stones-throw from one of the worlds great rivers: the Saint Lawrence and, now that I am required to become fluent in French: Le Fleuve Saint-Laurent. The French expression ‘Le Fleuve’ instead of ‘Riviere’ is wonderful, and is used for the Mackenzie River also. It is a word to describe a river larger or more expansive than a regular river. We could really sense the difference when we moved from the Athabasca River (Riviere Athabasca) and Slave River (Riviere des Esclaves) onto the Mackenzie. The St. Lawrence is no different. This time however, the river is not a Fleuve because it is long – as the Mackenzie is – but because it is so wide. Stood on the beach where we now live, we can just make out the other side of the river on the horizon. I am told (actually, Vicki was told and translated for me…) that when you can clearly see the other shore, bad weather will follow as the clarity heralds a storm or somesuch.
One of the most exciting and surprising incidents during our Expedition to the Arctic was that we were followed by a Bearded Seal very close to the canoe just as we arrived at the mouth of the Ocean. Our first walk along the beach here in Matane and a Harp Seal followed us almost the entire way which was great, such a curious animal; it would bob up and down in the water then disappear, to return shortly afterwards a little further along. I can’t wait to get out on the water and explore Le Fleuve, but this time it will probably be in kayaks and not canoe as they are far more suited to such large, open bodies of water. I am hoping to paddle amongst the whales commonly seen out on the river as we did for too brief a moment on the Arctic Ocean.
We have received some emails asking about the equipment we used both in preparation and undertaking, so, as promised we will be putting equipment reviews and a how-to for dehydrating food and how we did that, with success for the most part. A few simple recommendations from lessons we learned the hard way I am sure will help anyone looking to undertake such projects themselves.
We had hoped to get back to Inuvik by boat, but in the end and after running around town on our final day in Tuk we flew back to Inuvik. It was painfully expensive and the flight was only 25mins. The good part was that we flew over where we had paddled and had a wonderful view of Tuk, the Mackenzie River and Delta, and the weather system that was the reason for no boats heading to Inuvik. It was a turbulent flight and Tallak’s first time in an aircraft. It was a small, 8-seater with the cargo stored behind a net in the back of the plane. Tallak did very well, it would appear he is not phased by anything anymore and took the flight and turbulance in his stride. Watching him try to fit in a crate designed for a smaller dog with his backpack on was very entertaining.
The airport in Inuvik is quite a distance from the town. Fortunately, after having had a brief chat with the pilots about our trip by the plane we met them about to drive to their accommodation in town. At the time we were wondering what to do, stood under the cover of the building to avoid the rain. We asked for a lift and they readily agreed. We were about to push 2 airport trolleys down the highway to get to Inuvik so we are grateful to them for helping us out. They dropped us off at the same spot we had camped before which was a strange feeling. Deja vu, and the thought that we needed to be paddling to Tuk was common. The weather had changed; now the leaves were almost all yellow, with them dropping frequently.
The following day in Inuvik was busy. Trying to prepare for our re-integration into society once more was no mean feat! We have been out of the loop a while, though it took a few more days before the change really affected us. We again met up with Diane & Tom Thomson who once more hosted us for a slap-up dinner & wine which was a great way for us to celebrate our completion of the paddle. We were expecting our friends to meet us in Inuvik 2 days later but when we returned to our camp they were there waiting for us – a real suprise! They set up camp beside us and one of the pilots came to talk with us about the trip which was great, he had many good stories from his travels. We stayed up late into the night and even had the Aurora Borealis break through the clouds and put on a show for us.
We departed the next day with Yusaku Koshisaka (Koshi) and Sho Tetsumoto on the drive South to Jasper. The drive is around 3,500km which I drove in 4 days. Koshi had just driven the entire way up so I did not want him to drive back as well. The Dempster Highway is the first leg, approximately 700km and was spectacular, though it is a dirt road so I never reached above 60kmh the entire time. The entire drive was amazing and well worth it if anyone ever has the opportunity as you pass through the NorthWest Territories (NWT), the Yukon, British Columbia (BC) and Alberta, all the time driving through or alongside mountain ranges.
We camped along the way, the second and third night with all four of us and Tallak in the tipi still with enough room to comfortably cook and relax. It was great to be able to have Koshi and Sho experience a little of how we spent our time with the way we managed our camp, food, drink, etc. We did little in the way of tourist stops as the guys had spent longer on the way up exploring and we had wanted to be in Jasper on the 10th Sept so could not afford to delay much. One delay was a morning spent at the Liard River Hot Springs which is a natural sulphur spring – incredibly hot and fantastic. It was just as though we were in a giant, steaming hot bath in the middle of the forest. We could not have asked for better as a reward and to work the heat into our muscles after the trip. It is apparently good luck to place a stone at the source of the spring which I did, one for myself, and one for Vicki. Though it is no easy achievement with the water getting hotter as you work your way towards it, so hot in fact that at one point Koshi, who had been hip-deep walking towards it stood up a little further and had a bright red band around his waist and below from the heat – we were literally cooking! It was great.
To our amusement, we saw more large mammals on the drive than we did on the entire paddle, especially once we crossed into BC. We were crossing them off the list as we went: Caribou, Buffalo, Moose, Black Bear, Mountain Goat, Bighorn Sheep, Porcupine and Fox, all right next to or crossing the road.
It was approximately 01:00 in the morning of the 10th as were drove in a pitch-black, cloudless sky with the stars shining bright and clear when we crested a hill before Grande Prairie and saw lights covering the horizon before us. It was intimidating and made Vicki’s and my heart race when we saw it, like thousands of camp fires spread across the plain. It was rather unnerving to have civilisation so visible before us and I found myself unintentionally slowing the car; I was driving 60kmh on the highway as we approached until I came to my senses. It was a most surprising response, and one I had not expected as we had been in towns along the way, though with a population of over 50,000 Grande Prairie was something huge, new and – I do admit – frightening.
Travelling through the towns really did bring into perspective some of the smaller issues of our expedition which perhaps can be overlooked. For example, our combined, average water consumption per day was around 5L. This includes drinking water, rehydration of food, etc. It was only when I entered a fast food restaurant and went to the washroom did I see on the urinal that it used 3.7L per flush. I was rather horrified and as there was a button I did not flush it. That didn’t matter as when I stepped away it flushed anyway. Almost 2 people’s water for an entire day used to rinse a urinal after a single use. After some basic math about average usage per day for that restaurant alone we soon stopped as the degree of water consumption was astronomical and more than we cared to think about, especially as for us to acquire that water in the bush was such a time consuming venture, having to boil everything before use. I now feel guilty each time I have a shower, flush a toilet or wash dishes! I am sure the feeling will dissipate shortly when I become accustomed to it once more (as I have experienced in the past), but, this time I do not think I want it to. Perhaps it will help me do a little of my part to conserve in the future.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those we met on our expedition; we learnt so much and have been astonished and greatly welcomed the hospitality and friendliness of (almost without exception) all those we met along the way. I would also like to thank all of you who have read the blog, and those who have posted comments. Whilst I did not respond to them unless it was a question, it really helped to motivate us and we really looked forward to reading any comments on the blog and seeing ‘Comments’ and ‘Likes’ on our Facebook page. It is appreciated and it has been great to know people enjoyed reading about what we were enjoying doing so much.
We shall continue to update the blog with equipment reviews, a camping food section, and we have many more projects planned that we shall put on the site as we progress. We have videos that we shall be uploading from this trip and if anyone has any questions about what we did, how we did it, or anything related to camping that we could perhaps help with please feel free to contact us.
It took us 1 week to paddle to Tuk from Inuvik and was both frustrating and exhilarating.
We had a great time in Inuvik and had the good fortune to meet Alfred Moses MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly for those outside Canada) whilst he was out on a run and spotted our tipi. Having paddled a good reach of the Mackenzie he was very interested in our trip. Alfred kindly dropped by with fruit juice later on in the evening after our hot days’ paddle which was most welcome and we spent most of the next day with him getting a tour of the town and learning a lot about the town.
We also had the good fortune to meet up with Diane & Tom Thomson whom we had met down in Fort Simpson and were now working up in Inuvik. It was great to spend more time with them and they treated us with dinner, wine, a shower and our laundry – all of which was fantastic and it was the first time on our trip we cut loose a little for the night and could celebrate our engagement and a pre-celebration for Tuk as we were off early the next day continuing our great journey North.
The final paddle North was most noteworthy for the weather which was far from pleasant. It rained continually, was cooler temperatures and a cold Northerly wind was our constant companion. After leaving Inuvik we quickly moved out of the treeline and the trees went from forest, to lining the riverbanks, to a few shrubs here and there until finally there was almost nothing except the small willows less than a foot high covering the tundra. The colours were beautiful however, with yellow, orange and the most vibrant reds splashed across the landscape. The geese and swans were already in formation flying South in large numbers before we had even reached the mouth of the Mackenzie River and the Kittigazuit Bay where it first widens and becomes the Arctic Ocean.
The day we paddled from our last campsite on the river to the beginning of Kittigazuit Bay was overcast with thick, dark clouds and a constant rain drizzled down upon us. We were excited to be be heading out and had read that whales frequently swim upriver beyond the point we were paddling so we were on the look-out for anything in the water. We had almost finished our paddle when Vicki spotted something moving in the water alongside the shore which turned out to be a bearded seal which followed us a long way, slapping and splashing the water behind us. Growing to around 2m and weights reaching over 400kg it was impressive and a little unnerving. It was not until chatting to a caribou hunter in Tuk that we learned they are very defensive of territory and flip boats. Unsettling at the time, but great to paddle through and Vicki got a video we will try to upload onto the Facebook page.
The paddle from where we camped took us out onto the Ocean, out of the small (comparatively) Kittigazuit Bay into Kugmallit Bay where the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula resides. The Beafort Sea encompassses both of these bays and more and is itself situated within the Arctic Ocean. We moved a short distance when the weather broke and gave us an opportunity to Whitefish Station (Beluga Whale hunting camp) where we spent the night, preparing for a early morning, hoping for calm weather to push across the Ocean, and exploring the area, finding many Beluga Whale remains; skulls, vertebrae, etc. During the night I had gotten up to check on the canoe as the tide had come in high and strong and was beating against the driftwood and was rewarded with the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). A great show of luminescant green hues weaving across the night sky with a full moon near the horizon. It was very impressive to see and taken as a good omen for the next day. We got up just over 1hr later in the darkness to have breakfast, very strong coffee and to pack the gear into the boat. We were heading out with the tide at 06:00 before the sun had rise. The paddle was amazing, and the beauty of the North really showed as we paddled into the rising sun with the mist on the shore giving the appearance of floating Pingos as we paddled along and the sun reflecting a deep, blood red on the underside of heavy clouds on the horizon which quickly dissipated as the suns power shone forth. It was magical, and all the more of a powerful paddling experience as it was our last on this journey. It was hardwork, but we pushed hard, the excitement of where we were, lost in the experience (the coffee probably helped also) and crossed the 35km of wide open Ocean in under 4hrs, greeted close to town by whales breaching near the shore just off to our right as we paddled into Tuk.
It was great to have finished the paddle, and we were rewarded in Tuk with the good fortune of meeting Jackie and Jenny Jacobson and family who were most hospitable and generous, a great help to us in the town.
We are now on the return trip, back in Inuvik and awaiting Koshi, our frined who is on his own road trip North whom we shall meet and all head South together along the Dempster Highway. We are told it is very beautiful, especially in Autumn. Our next update shall be from Jasper!
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Well, it has been quite the trial getting from Norman Wells to Inuvik where I am currently updating from. As I wrote of on my last update we were caught in a huge rainstorm which I was worried would sweep the tipi and gear away into the river. We spent the next day drying all our equipment and having a rest day as it was around the time of Vicki’s birthday. When we set off from the town we only made it around 10km before strong headwinds and high waves forced us ashore and off the water for 2 further days, it was most frustrating and by the end we were itching to be on the water and paddling again.
We headed to Fort Good Hope after this and had a lot of rain on the way. The weather is colder and we now regularly begin our morning paddling in a few extra layers to keep us warmer. The Mackenzie River appears to have changed a great deal since Norman Wells and we passed through 2 areas of special note: the Sans Sault Rapids and The Ramparts, both very impressive. The Sans Sault Rapids is a very large rapid spanning almost the width of the river at a tight turn, raging ferociously on the right where the turn is sharpest, and less so on the left on the outside corner where there are shallows. At the time we passed through there was a large wildfire on the left shore and we had lunch on a beach with flames burning the trees within 50ft of us and smoke billowing across the river, obscuring the view of the rapids. We found it no problem, hugging the shallows tightly and paddling through. There have been quite a number of deaths in the rapids, usually from those not knowing their location or being caught on the wrong side of the river as it is wide and the current powerful it would be hard to paddle across in time. There is a small monument on the left shore we saw (because of the wildfire could not go to), and just learnt that it was erected by the parents of a man who died paddling through because he did not know to be on the left. It is designed to attract attention and draw people across to the left side. A very clever idea.
The next point of interest was The Rampart, around a 1hr paddle before Fort Good Hope. The Ramparts is where the river turns a large, gradual bend and meets a truly spectacular wall of rock, too strong for it to erode equally it has carved a huge (and compared to the river beforehand, very narrow) gorge through it. This has caused the river to bulge outwards before the gorge forming almost a lake. We were having lunch just before the final bend and so could not see the gorge entrance, but could hear the water which made me nervous, as it sounded much like any rapid we have encountered, yet I had not read anything about it so I was worried about what we would encounter. As we were finishing our tea, we watched a fascinating sight: a small motor-boat with 3 men in with wood in the shape of a large A-frame strapped to the front of the boat and being pushed (like a huge snowplough or something) ahead of the boat. Interested, and with a great opportunity to see the best way through The Ramparts we packed up quick and followed the small craft. We were not dissapointed by the sight as when we rounded the corner it appears as though the river simply ends against this vast rock-wall. Eventually, the gorge appears more clearly and the canyon seems to open up through the centre like massive doors awaiting you to enter the rabbit-hole and see where the river will take you. We had smoke from a wildfire obscuring the view behind us and as we progressed the wind increased. We were paddling in the middle of the river with the craft over on the right and when looking through binoculars I could see what looked to be a ledge appearing in front of us (fond memories from the rapids on the Athabasca…) and so we quickly turned 90O and paddled over to the right, falling in about 1km behind the boat moving from marker bouy to marker bouy. The waves were high and pushed in every direction; the wind pushing them from our left, the main current pushing them from behind us, and the water being pushed back upriver from the wall of rock forcing water and waves to come from in front and to our right. It was an interesting paddle and was harder work for us than the Sans Sault Rapids which surprised me. The gorge itself was very impressive once inside as the waves and wind ceased and we drifted through enjoying the view and the echo. I am not whether it was for our benefit (or to try and scare us) but the guys in the boat ahead where firing a shotgun regularly which produced a very loud and reverberating echo which rolled down the canyon toward and past us.
Fort Good Hope is a small town and so we could not updated from there. The people were very pleasant as we camped just outside the town. The morning after we arrived I had barely stepped out the tipi when a motor-boat arrived and a gentleman handed me a very large Whitefish he had caught in his net so we had a delicious breakfast! From here the wind was very hard work, against us and very strong for almost an entire week culminating in a huge effort on the last day to reach Tsiigehtchic (Arctic Red River). The last 15km took us over 3hrs to complete as the wind was so strong that if either of us stopped paddling for a moment the canoe would stop dead in the water, and then go backwards, being pushed upriver from the force of the wind. It was incredibly tiring.
The following days after leaving Tsiigehtchic were still windy but we paddled into the Mackenzie Delta passing Point Separation and off of the river’s main channel (we are following the East Channel) and so has spared us the wind for the most part. The weather has also changed for the better with clear skies and us paddling under a hot sun. Athough we have still had frost in the morning already! The leaves on the trees are changing colour all along the shore and we are seeing a great deal more red, orange and yellow splashed across the trees and shrubs. We paddled across the invisible boundary of the Arctic Circle just after Fort Good Hope and will be crossing the treeline just after Inuvik. The trees have become more sparse along the shore and on the surrounding hills, being predominantly small, thin, straggly-looking Black Spruce, with smallWillow and Aspen shrubs dominating the shoreline.
We had not seen much wildlife except for birds, almost since Jasper/Hinton area but lately we have met many large mammals, predominantly bears. Whilst camped at the outpouring of the Johnson River which flows into the Mackenzie we were visited by 2 large Moose which walked around the tipi before leaving. They were scared off quickly once I stepped out the tipi to see what the noise was and whilst I saw them very close, they had left before we could get a good photo. We have also had a number of occasions where on Tallak’s rounds of the camp (without specific training he does frequent circuits of the camps perimeter) he has disturbed and driven off large animals in the forest or shrubs behind the camp which we have heard passing us as he has driven them off but we did not see what they were. From tracks on the ground along the shore (we didn’t go into the woods to find out) it would appear that they were moose. It is mating season for the moose and we regularly hear the rather mournful and loud cry first thing in the morning and during the evenings. We have also been seeing and having very close encounters with bears since Norman Wells. The first were sightings along the shore, and on once occasion we drifted along near the edge as a Black Bear cub played in the water, on the shore and along a log. He looked a great deal as Tallak does when he plays, pouncing on stick, etc., so it was a lot of fun to watch and Vicki got a great video whilst I was keeping the canoe away from the shore so as not to disturb it. Our closest encounter was after a long day of around 60km where we reached a little past our planned campsite and found an idillic spot; a deep, out the current small bay to put the canoe and for easy loading, unloding, etc., with a great sandy beach protected by shrubs from any wind during the night which frequently stirs up large dust-storms. We got out and as were were looking around discovered a large number of large Black Bear tracks. Tallak was nosing along the shoreline and just as Vicki called out ‘Yo Bear!’ just incase one was around he turned 180o, barked and ran towards the shrubs behind us. It all happened so quickly we were stood on the beach and had not even put my daypack on the ground and at first (though we had recognised his interest in the tracks as they could be fresh, we were in the process of discussing it) that we thought he was reacting to Vicki’s call, and not actually a creature. We were wrong. We turned and there was a Black Bear approximatley 20 yards from us at the edge of the bushes stood up looking at us. Tallak was charging at it barking (he looked very small in comparison!) and we were worried for him so I whistled him and Vicki called. We didn’t hang around though, backing up towards the canoe as Tallak ran up to the bear it dropped on all fours and ran off to our right into the bushes with our pup in hot pursuit. We had not known how he would react to a bear (the breed is a bear-dog and traditionally used for hunting them) so we each whistled once more and were just getting in the canoe when he came trotting out the bushes as pleased as punch with himself and very calmly hopped in the canoe and lay down. A job well done, obviously. We paddled off and set up camp on the next island. Since then we have not been concerned, happy that he innately appears to understand to drive them off, and not bring them back to us which we have read dogs can be prone to do.
An further encounter was when strong winds and rain had pushed us ashore and we were contemplating waiting it out for the night and heading off again the next morning. Tallak took an interest in something on the ground which turned out the be 2 fresh tracks, a large and small set of Black Bear tracks. Again, as we were discussing he barked and set off towards the treeline and into the shrubs. We knew that this could only mean one thing and set off for the canoe. This time, we had discussed it and decided that we should call him only when he stops barking, in the presumption that if we call him before he has driven the creature away it may follow him back when he returns to us before his job is done. We called him as we reached the canoe and after we heard a yelp sound from the bushes (not from Tallak but presumably the cub) which sounded like a suprised sound and not an injured one. Tallak quickly appeared, bounding down the beach and with a final glance backwards, he again hopped in the boat and resumed his very tough daily chore of sleeping whilst we are in the canoe. We now trust him and his abilities fully, grateful we picked the right dog breed for the task we knew we would come across and could not specifically train him for. How do you train a dog for that without actively going out to find bears? We have also landed and come across fresh Grizzly Bear tracks, which are becoming more frequent, but we get straight back in the canoe and head off. We have no wish at all to encounter a Grizzly Bear.
As we are now in the Delta the shoreline is much more like it was on the Slave River; thick, deep mud and we are fortunate to find the occasional patch of sand usually when the channel bends to camp on. The current is slower here but we had expected it and had paddled larger distances to get ahead of schedule. Currently at almost 5 days ahead we are averaging 35km a day throughout the Delta and up to Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk). It gave me butterflies to arrive in Inuvik, as the next town is our final destination: Tuktoyaktuk, on the Arctic Ocean. I am very excited and, conditions being favourable we should be in Tuk in 1 week. So close! The excitement and trepidation is increasing with every paddle stroke. A few days in the Delta to go and then a larger day (~40km) across open water (the Arctic Ocean no less!) to reach our goal. I can’t yet imagine how I will feel when we arrived. I am sure it will be a very emotional experience. We have gone through a lot and worked hard for a year now preparing for the adventure that ends next week. Wish us luck All, the next time I write you will be again from Inuvik, when we return from the completion of the paddling section! The next will be the much shorter driving section down the Dempster Highway which is supposed to be very beautiful, and on to Jasper.
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The plan to update the blog in Wrigley did not quite work to plan. We did not have the opportunity in the town so pushed on, all the way to Norman Wells, bypassing Tulita (Fort Norman) in the process as the weather convinced us to hurry.
The travel since Fort Simpson and the joining of the Liard River has been good. The Mackenzie River is fast and the camping sites have been getting better as we travel further North. Initially, we were a little worried because the sides were steep and rocky, but since the Liard the shores are predominantly sandy on the left (South/West) and rocky to the right (North/East).
Our thanks to Diane and Tom Thomson in (at the time) Fort Simpson, who let us use their internet (the library’s internet not working), shared some great stories with us and gave us some snacks which came in handy over the next few days of longer distances. The terrain has changed, with us now into the Mackenzie Mountains which are spectacular. It was great to paddle towards them throughout the day and watch them gain definition through the heat-shimmer across the water and the heat-haze in the air. A sandy beach at the outpouring of the North Nahanni River between the Nahanni Mountain and the Camsell Range provided us with our first campsite along this beautiful stretch of water. Whilst the weather has been predominantly hot, the nights are cooler, and in Norman Wells, we have seen the first yellow leaves on trees – Autumn/Fall is on the way!
The weather has been uniformly hot with clear skies, though there are regularly strong gusts of wind from the North and very notable exceptions to the good weather. The insects have lessened which is a relief after the Slave River with us not being hounded morning, noon and night by the little critters. We can now enjoy the paddling that little bit more. We have seen thunderstorms though almost never on the river itself. Last night in Norman Wells being the exception. Camped on the shoreline a huge storm moved in and for a time I was considering the possibility that the tipi or canoe would be washed into the river. There was so much water pouring down the slope that the entire shore was a sheet of water, channels opening up in the now thick, deep mud, even under our tipi. The inner-tent floor turns out to not be as water-proof as we would have hoped, the zippers leaking water and having us pack everything into dry-bags, just in case. I had to get out in the storm to dig channels around the tipi so that the water would run either side of us as much as possible and not underneath, causing us more problems. A real test of equipment, with a solo-paddler`s tent set up on the beach being flattened by the wind it was so strong, and with help he was quickly moved further up the shore with his gear by another camper and myself.
We have been moving faster as planned, with us averaging 50km per day. We also wanted to – just once – break the 100km mark and paddle into 3 digits in one day. This we did to get to Norman Wells, travelling 102km in 10hrs – a long day and surprisingly, not as tough as we imagined with us fuelled by coffee and good weather, hearing risk of thunderstorm on the radio which had us paddling that little bit faster! Even though we are travelling bigger distances, we are usually finished paddling before 5pm which allows us to enjoy our evening, swimming in the river after the hot day`s paddle to cool and refresh us.
We continue to see wildfires, and spent 2 days paddling past one on the Western shore. On the 22nd July we were camped on a large island in the middle of the river called McGern Island, a sandy beach provided a great campsite and across the water a wildfire raged, pluming smoke into the sky and across the sun, presenting a stunning sunset. It was with this backdrop that I asked Vicki to marry me – and of course, how could she refuse with such a romantic scene? Our experience over the past 3 months has shown me we make a great team.
We had an interview in CBC North which was fun. I called in from Wrigley and spoke with Joselyn Oosenbrug, host of `The Trailbreaker` which made me a little nervous (first time on the air) but was fun. Unfortunately, we were out of radio range for the next few days so never heard it on the radio. One of the questions I was asked was about the wildlife – of which we have seen very little since leaving the Jasper area. Not 3 days later we have had moose walking around our tipi, black bears on either side of the river, with us filming a cub playing in the water and on the shore for a long time, as well as porcupine. The last week has been one of the best of the entire trip.
We have been seeing other paddlers as we travel, one a red canoe with family, one a yellow canoe with solo traveller though we have been passing each other at different times and have not had the opportunity to speak, constantly just missing each other. That changed after we arrived in Norman Wells as we have all met through coincidence and camped upon the shore. The family is Dan and Alice with 2 children which is great to see, and we spent a most enjoyable evening exchanging stories and laughing long into the night, the sun almost rising again by the time we each turned in to our respective homes. The next day Brian arrived, though just minutes before the storm broke so a prospective story-telling group around the campfire never materialised much to our dismay. It is interesting that we are all travelling in a similar way though through very different means, goals and aspirations. Dan and Alice are with their children, and so started in the town of Jasper and have avoided the rapids, etc., that would be too much a danger with so precious a cargo. They are, however, much better provisioned with food and very kindly gave us the extra they could not fit in their boat. Brian has been equipped by an outfitter and started in Hay River, unfortunately because of his time scale no longer able to reach Inuvik, and finishing at Fort Good Hope, a few days from here.
Norman Wells is a town that has suprised us, certainly embracing more the oil that provides the town with its subsistence for the most part. This is contrary to Fort Mcmurray, which seems to wish to hide the large refineries from its populace. Norman Wells is a much, much smaller town (800 people compared with 77,000) and is most hospitable. Alasdair Veitch, the head of tourism in the area had heard us on the radio talking about our adventure and saw us walking through the town. He has been extremely helpful (thanks Alasdair!), giving us the grand tour of the town and surrounding area, and taking us to where we can wash our clothes, have a much needed shower (especially after 100km the day we arrived) and taking us to a cafe where the burgers were great. We had heard of them from a guy in Jasper and it lived up to the hype. Very good and again, most welcome! We were also taken to the Royal Legion (Canol Branch) – the towns bar – where we could use the internet and have a nice cold beer. The museum is also fascinating with a varied history presented as well as modern arts and culture on display. Everything from the Canol Project (a WWII grand venture of building roads and pipelines across the North to support the war effort), the oil industry and geological make-up of the area, as well as Native arts and traditions displayed. The craftwork and arts on display in the museum really are amazing. The quality of craftsmanship fantastic and a real pleasure to see.
Our plan now is to move towards Fort Good Hope, from where our next update will be from.
It has taken us a little longer to reach Fort Simpson than we had originally planned, but only a couple of days. The weather has been very changeable and we have been hounded by more thunderstorms and high winds which have slowed or stopped our progress each day.
We are almost at our 3-month milestone which is very exciting, and the Mackenzie River has not disappointed. Our last update was from Fort Providence just at the beginning of the River proper and since then we have been impressed by the size and power of it. The River is very wide, and – for the most part – fast moving, with us being able to paddle at 10km per hour which is fantastic after having such slow water since Whitecourt so long ago!
Our first day on the River was an exciting and scary one. We crossed Mills Lake which is actually a bend in the river which bulges out so wide you can barely see the other side. During the crossing of this lake we were caught in a very fast moving thunder and lightning storm we did not see coming. A flash of light all around us, followed almost instantly by a huge crash of thunder. To say it was rather frightening would be an understatement! We paddled as hard as we could to get out of the danger area through 10-15knot winds, huge swells and waves crashing into and over the side of the boat as we were broadsided by the storm. Were we not to have a splashdeck and spray-skirts we would surely have swamped and been swimming to shore.
The next couple of days were spent pushing against the wind, though the campsites were good with sandy beaches to rest our weary bodies on overnight. The camping options have deteriorated since that time, and now we have seen hardly any spots we would be able to set up. The river has been clear and easy to take water from but at Fort Simpson the Liard River joins which is both a blessing and a bane. The good side is that the Liard is itself a big river and heavily laden with silt and sediment, so I am hoping the camping will be easier afterwards. On the downside, because of the silt it will be harder to collect water.
There has been a large anthrax outbreak in the bison in the area which took me by surprise to learn. Apparently, anthrax occurs naturally in the soil as bacterial spores, and in hot weather the bison roll in the dirt, releasing the spores and die in rather short order. We have watched helicopters delivering charcoal and fuel to the North shore to burn the bodies after covering them in a preservant before the burn-teams arrive. Around 150 animals have died on the last count we heard – truly remarkable as I never suspected anything like that would happen. Perhaps that is why we have not seen any!
We have also had a lot of smoke each day from huge wildfires that have been burning (some out of control) in Northern Alberta which has concerned as at times. We have awoken, and paddled in days where we can barely see the shore from dense smoke. Thankfully, this cleared completely when the river narrowed towardsthe small settlement of Jean-Marie, some 70km from Fort Simpson, a relatively large town of 1,200 people.
The fishing has been much better for us in the clearer water, and we have caught some decent Pike which have made fantastic eating. Bony, but delicious! We are making the most of it whilst we are able to catch them.
As the river is faster (hopefully this will last a while) we are going to be paddling bigger distances each day, aiming at 50km. We would like to get to Inuvik and our final destination a few days ahead of schedule just incase the Mackenzie Delta is slow or the weather bad as it can be for days at a time on the Arctic Ocean.
Our next stop is a town called Wrigley, almost a week away, so will post more about our progress and some more pictures then!
I barely know where to begin for this blog. It feels such a long time ago that I last updated (and it was, as the Fort Smith update did not work – since corrected) and so much has happened.
Slave River was hard the entire way up to Great Slave Lake. The river was muddy, so much so that our filtering sock became caked with what felt like clay and it was hard to get any water. We tried a trick suggested to us to leave a bottle out full overnight so that the sediment settled at the bottom, but after trying it we found that some would settle at the bottom, but the water was still filthy enough to clog the bag. We were living off meager water rations for the days leading up to the Lake. It didn’t help also that the camping on the river was so hard to find with the river being so high that we had long, hot days in the boat. The water was receding daily by inches (one day almost 6") so that a few more places began to emerge, but all too muddy to camp on. We had one uncomfortable night on a small island about 2" above the waterline. By the morning we had practically sunk down into the mud to the waterline – not our best camp, but our only option that day. Some of the banks were very high and steep, and we had the pleasure of watching banks collapse, dropping trees into the water as the current cut away the shore from underneath. An interesting way to spend a few snack breaks, the river being so wide we were in no danger. Perhaps the worst part of Slave River was that because it was so dirty, so were we. We would get dirtier trying to wash in the river than we already were so did not bother, and we found no creeks to use. Needless to say, by the time we reached the Lake we were filthy.
We met some Rangers on our journey, who were scouting the river for obstacles which they were tagging with GPS all the way to Nagle Bay on Great Slave Lake and as they planned to use the same channel as we, they met us later in the day and camped at the same spot giving us all the info we needed which was helpful. The next day when we set off they also provided us bottles of water and some fresh fruit which was great. Tallak was treated like a king and was given whole sausages and fish so made some friends for life there, he couldn’t get enough. We also met an Chipewyan native who told us of Ring Lake, a freshwater lake running into the river which we went to investigate. We were hoping to fish but the weather turned very poor. Not knowing how much further we would have to paddle we carried on. Through a drenching storm as it turned out. The lake was something else, as we paddled up where it ran into the river the water turned from dark brown to translucent and clean – such a delight we were practically singing its praises! The day had been so hot until then we had finished all the water given to us so filled every bottle and container we had. When we moved back onto the river, we were greeted by a thick black band of cloud which gave us a drenching. We hid under some trees which was the best we could do until the worst was over. I was in shorts so the mosquito’s had a field day with my bare legs.
The weather has for the most part been extremely hot and sunny. Good for the tan, bad for the skin, and very useful for keeping all the batteries charged with the solar charger. Moving onto Great Slave Lake was like entering Ring Lake, the water turned from filthy to pure, and we could not have been happier. We have washed ourselves and our clothes at every opportunity which has been delightful, and being able to collect water straight from the lake to boil is much better than having to filter, etc., which takes so much time. We find out after washing exactly how much of our tan actually exists, and how much was actually dirt, which is always a surprise. Bug-spray and sunscreen seem to enable all the more dirt to stick to us.
Great Slave Lake was hard. A real challenge to cross. We had to paddle the entire South shore from the SE corner, all the way to the SW shore. I have never seen, camped in, or paddled through as many thunderstorms before and it was all at once exciting, dangerous, tough as hell, and an exercise in good decision-making. We had originally started travelling in the morning, sitting out the afternoon wind, then continuing in the evening. 7hrs on the first day of this spent with a tiny fire behind a large log in strong wind was enough of this plan, and we tried another. The next idea was to travel just at night. This is harder than it sounds. The tipi is so hot during the day we could not be in it, which meant we were awake all day, ate our rations as normal during the day, then moved off at night for what could be up to 10hrs or more on the move. We have not slept properly, rested properly, or had a daily rhythm or routine to go by. What was great, was paddling through 24hr daylight and seeing sunrise and sunset over such a vast (and it is vast!) expanse of water. The colours and hues of each are beyond spectacular and worth the constant fatigue. As we were travelling West, and because the sun both sets and rises in the North, we paddled on the line between night and day, a full moon to our left and darker skies, the sunset and rise to our right, with fiery colours. It was awesome.
On one cold evening we paddled through thick fog, which was so dense that we could barely see the shore not 30 feet away. We had started paddling in just after a thunderstorm had spent the entire night and day moving over us as we were stuck in camp, but with the radio forecast of thunderstorms again, decided to get as far as we could. We rounded a peninsula to be confronted by lightning only a few km away. Not only this, but the thick fog approaching. We waited and hour and continued when there was no fog and when we presumed the storm had moved further out of our way. What we did not expect was that such thick fog could materialise and disappear within seconds. It extended our paddling by many km as we had to hug the shore the entire way. We paddled all night and early in the morning approached the public beach at hay River, much to the delight of a group of young campers who had stayed up to watch the sunrise we had gradually emerged from over the horizon, slowly paddling towards them on water like glass, with a backdrop of golden colours reflecting off storm clouds far in the distance beyond the horizon the sun was cresting over. I would have loved to have seen it from their perspective. No photo’s unfortunately, the guy dropped his camera in the water as he came over to welcome us in his excitement over where we had come from and what we were doing.
If you have been following our tracks that we post each night we move on our Facebook site, you may have noticed very erratic movement this past week. Thunderstorms and high winds. The first day trying to leave Hay River we made it 3km before we had to pull in again. A most frustrating day. The next day we made up for it. Setting of at midnight when the wind was still high we set out to conquer Great Slave Lake in one day. We did it, but the Lake threw everything she had at us to slow us down and make us earn every inch gained across the turbulent water. 13 hours later, having spent 10 hours of that pushing hard through treacherous conditions, we arrived at the mouth of Beaver Lake and to the first campsite we could find on an island at Pointe Desmarais. We spent the entire night paddling towards thunderstorms, the sheer power of which was awe inspiring. The day before we had watched one from camp; 2 hours of lightning illuminating the horizon which we learnt the next day had been – we think – the same storm cell which had wiped out power to Inuvik because of so many strikes on the ground. Well, the next day we were paddling straight towards one. We would paddle and watch the lightning striking the ground and water ahead of us, relatively (though not entirely) confident that as long as we didn’t hear thunder, it must be far enough away for us to be safe. When we saw lightning close and heard thunder shortly after, we paddled like hell to shore and waited. We did this twice. The third time, we did not. After the second wait we were cold and wet from dew having waited almost 2hrs just in front of the storm for it to pass. When we saw and heard nothing for over 30mins we carried on (I had slept in my chair I was so exhausted, Vicki had been fixated on the storm and had listened to the weather report on the radio). It had not finished. Unfortunately for us the waves and swells were huge and crashing against the shoreline, so much so we could not approach. Gone were the sandy beaches we had ridden waves onto before; here was rick and driftwood. Much to dangerous. And so, caught between a rock and a hard-place, we decided that perhaps we could sneak behind the storm. We passed as close to the rocky peninsula jutting out into the lake as we could just on the edge of the lightning storm. It was so close, it was scary to say the least. Especially in an aluminium framed canoe on open water. The swells would launch us high and drop from under us constantly pushing us this way and that as we fought to keep control and keep moving. We had to broadside the high waves. Had we kept the bow into them and is much safer, we would have paddled straight into the storm, and I wanted to keep as far away as humanely possible which meant closer to the shore, into the shallows and higher, cresting waves. We spent over 2 hours gripping the paddles watching for rocks below, cresting waves to the side, and hoping never to feel the tingling of the hair on the back of our necks which would indicate the electrical charge around us. What a day! 13 hours, 9 in the boat, and only 46km traveled. It was tough, and I never hope to repeat it.
The following day saw us paddle from the mouth of Great Slave Lake, across the entire length of Beaver Lake (as the area is called where Great Slave Lake becomes the Mackenzie River), and up the initial part of the Mackenzie to Fort Providence, where we now sit, rest, and enjoy a couple of days not paddling. This was another long day of 11 hours paddling (9 hours spent continuously in the boat), but with much greater distance: 77km, our longest day yet. It started well on placid water which helped us, but with not even a breeze it was stiflingly hot. What made it worse is that a little critter we have not seen before reared by the thousand and swarmed all over us in the form of sand-flies. Not a patch of sand anywhere, and we were swarmed by sand-flies. It turns out their habitat is long, waterlogged grass. We made the ultimate mistake of moving into a patch to see if we could get out and will never again make that mistake. Thankfully (maybe not thankfully, but at least we were prepared), we had been harassed by huge numbers all through the day so were wearing our bug-headnets. When the bow of the canoe touched the grass a literal black cloud burst from within and covered us and the boat. I was wearing short sleeves, shorts, and my shirt was undone. My skin was black, and crawling with flies. It was horrifying, and they followed us like that for around 2hours. We didn’t go near the shore again. When we did, it was at a boat launch which doubles as a community swimming area where we met a nice lady by the name of Jackie who gave us more information on the river up to Fort Providence. Lunch, and we finished the remaining 2 hours to the town.
On another note, Vicki has insisted I write about our food, and, more notably, a habit of mine she finds rather gross. Our food rations do not appear to be quite enough, though filling when we eat them, are probably not enough for the amount of exercise we undertake each day; averaging 6hours constant paddling each day. It is hard work and we burn a lot of energy. So we stock up a little on food in each town along the way (though Northern Stores are quite expensive so I feel sorry for the towns where it is the only place for locals to go). So yesterday, during the long paddle when I could barely motivate myself because of the previous long day with not enough food or water taken in, Vicki gave me her portion of Gorp which I think is surely love and an act of untold generosity! On our next expedition we will most likely pack double, and enjoy every bite! Back to the gross habit. We prepared and vacuum-sealed each meal before we left. Food such as breakfast wraps which have the bread wraps as well as the other ingredients we rolled up and placed in the bag, the wraps put in cling film to separate them from the other ingredients. We did this for all but one meal; the banana/walnut/chocolate chip quesidilla. A delicious dessert, and most unfortunate as it appears that each one we open has mould growing on it. None of the other meals have this problem, so it must be from the wrap touching the other ingredients. I watched Vicki burn a few of these fine desserts considering them inedible until I could take no more! Now, its great as Vicki wants none of the dessert so its all mine! I’m happy to eat anything at the moment as long as not too much hair is growing on it (I eat around the worst bits), and all that banana-chocolatey-goodness is too much to pass up. So Vicki, there you have it, my secret is out. Although now that I just Google’d eating mouldy food I may discontinue my little habit…but probably not!
We have recently been emailed by CBC Radio about an interview, so if anyone listens to CBC North, the program The Trailbreaker (which is a great show), we may be on that soon. I’ll let you know. We’ll keep paddling, and keep updating when we can. Vicki will be on the computer soon to publish photo’s which we have not yet been able to do since Fort Chipewyan, so keep an eye on the site!
Upon leaving Fort Chipewyan we headed up the Rivieres Des Rochers, which, when it joins up with the Peace River becomes the Slave River as it continues on to Great Slave Lake. It was a hard paddle. We had put in at a creek called Mission Creek which leads out of the town and skirts Lake Athabasca as the lake that day was so rough and windy it would be dangerous for us to be on it. It worked out to be around the same distance had we used the lake so we felt it no issue. As we paddled the weather deteriorated as the wind picked up and waves began on the river (as ever, traveling the opposite way to us) making the travel tough going. As we had read about the river flowing back into Lake Athabasca when the Peace River is high, and being that there was a flood warning on the Peace, we presumed perhaps this was the explanation and that it was only going to get harder for us. After around 30km paddling we encountered our first obstacle which is a weir. The top has eroded so now is quite dangerous if you are not paying attention. There are, however, signs on the side of the river with quite entertaining pictures depicting a canoe going over a ledge to tell you to follow a side channel to a portage. The portage is a solar powered (not working) cart (too heavy to move by hand) on large rails over a very steep, rocky (no trail other than over the rails) embankment.
The next day we battled a very slow moving river before coming to the meeting of the two rivers and the beginning of the Slave River. The Peace is in flood at the moment as we had suspected, but was not pushing the other river back. We think that perhaps the apparent backwards flow is because of the weir which causes the river to become something of an extension to the lake, reducing it’s outward flow. The Slave has provided it’s own challenges and has surprised us greatly. I have never been on a river in flood before and just to join the river it was like moving onto a busy highway; there is so much driftwood and other debris in the current that there is even what appears to be lanes of traffic as there are faster and slower flowing channels in the river. It was fun negotiating the obstacles, but this soon wears off, especially when there is so much distance left to cover!
The first day on the Slave and we stopped for lunch on an island inhabited by Ring-Billed Gulls, which dive-bombed poop at us as we came into land. Not the reception we expected! That evening, just after we had set up camp we had another close encounter with a bird; this time a White Pelican flew so low over our heads as to make us duck, dropping even lower afterwards, skimming the river with its belly – a magnificent sight! We were even more entertained this evening by Tallak falling from a rock into deep water and watching the ensuing struggle. Of course, I went to his aid but he climbed out on his own before I got there. It was very funny and the last thing he expected whilst reach for that elusive stick in the water.
On the days since this encounter we have seen pelicans every day which we really enjoy. We have also had poor weather, and we have had good weather. We have even taken some water over the bow of the canoe whilst maneuvering through rough water, a first for us since before Fort McMurray. The mosquito’s and horse-flies (called bulldogs here, I am sure they are the same critters taking chunks of our flesh) are very much out in force and can drive us crazy before we can get enough bug-spray and/or smokey fire around us.
It is along the Slave River that the largest section of whitewater in all of North America rages through a series of corners between a small hamlet called Fitzgerald (just on the Albertan side of the border) and a larger town (what used to be the capital of – and just inside – the Northwest Territories before Yellowknife) called Fort Smith, which seems a great town, we like it very much. We had arranged in Fort Chipewyan for a gentleman by the name of Kevin Antoniak to collect us and take us around the rapid section, saving us a back-breaking and grueling 25km portage. It was either this, or try and run through a series or channels and small portages between each rapid. Having since seen the rapids in the high water, we would have died. Of that, I am quite sure! No canoe would make it through there in one piece. Kevin has been very generous in telling stories with unfortunate endings about people (usually experienced in traversing these rapids) dying trying to use these channels. It is not for nothing the last is called Rapids of the Drowned. Entertainingly, there is a sign located just before the rapids on a rocky outcrop which reads: ‘ DANGER, not navigable by boat’. The area is a kayakers playground and people travel from all over the world to kayak these rapids. There is a very active kayaking club in Fort Smith which we would love to return and get involved with, to kayak these rapids. We watched 2 kayakers paddle past the sign and disappear around the corner towards the rapids. I rather thought to myself that where bullet-kayaks go, equipped with drysuits, helmets and double bladed paddles, no canoeist should venture…
Kevin has been very helpful to us whilst we have been here and was kind enough to be a guide to us, taking us to see the rapids, showing us the famous, most northerly and the only on an island, nesting ground for White Pelicans in the world in the midst of the raging Mountain Rapids. Very cool to see, and certainly very safe from predation! He also took us to see an area called Salt Plains in Wood Buffalo National Park (this park is about the size of Switzerland) which was a great sight and impressive view. No buffalo unfortunately, perhaps because it was raining, but it was good to see.
We also visited the museum in Fort Smith which was neat, it had a large amount of stuffed birds from kingfishers to eagles, as well as those unique items that have really defined the history of this area. Birch-bark basketry, an authentic birch-bark canoe (the highlight for me, though I am sure it would not have survived our trip thus far) and trappers wares such as traps, rifles, pelts and cabin. A rich variety of clothing, weaving and beadwork from the native groups of the area topped of the whole exhibit very well. If we come back here I am sure I will return to the museum again. Unfortunately, with a busy day and pressing schedule to be back on the water Monday we did not have time to visit the Parks Canada office which I am told is well worth the visit.
We had a shipment of our prepared food and sundries sent to Fort Smith, and with this collected are ready to continue. We picked up some fresh supplies in town to help alleviate our cravings for food we miss. It will be a bit longer between blogs now as we head into the North proper. We will of course continue to update when and where we can, but finding internet connection in the Barren-lands can be hard to do! Our next leg is to traverse the South-West shoreline of Great Slave Lake. Our next update may be in either the town of Hay River almost 2 weeks away, a little up the actual Hay River which drains into Great Slave Lake. Or in Fort Providence, where our second, and final, food supplies await us and should take us around 3 weeks. The distances are huge between!
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Leaving Fort McMurray, the river has changed demeanor completely. No longer is it the fast water through limestone canyons, but is slow, and meandering along its way to Lake Athabasca between islands and shallows. We were surprised at Fort McMurray, we had expected to see big industry and had seen none, only a clean, very wealthy town. This soon changed as we paddled on however, and soon we saw the true picture of oilsands appear. A few km down river we began to see huge swathes of bare earth with machinery constantly on the move. Beyond this, we then saw the refinery. It is something else. The constant sound of guns (sounds like cannon) being used to deter birds from landing in vast waste pools, huge earth moving vehicles and trucks constantly on the move, with the background hiss of the chimneys and towers which they burn the natural gas they do not use, some spitting flame, others a constant high-heat blue, and many large chimney stacks billowing smoke and steam. It is shocking. I have a car, and see the need for oil in our day to day lives, but there must be a cleaner way to extract and use it. Little wonder then that the Athabasca River is a National Heritage River. But only in Jasper National Park. After this, it is apparently not worthy of Heritage status which is a shame as it is a beautiful river, and rich in history.
We have been caught in some bad weather, in one instant we were paddling hard to keep ahead of a thunderstorm which began rumbling behind us. We did the best we could, paddling for almost 10km hoping and thinking it was moving to the West until thunder sounded all around us, lightning striking the ground on the land ahead of us, which was the only direction we saw with clearer skies. On the river was not a good place to be. We stopped at the first viable site we could find; a small patch of earth on the edge of an island otherwise covered in dense, small willow bushes. Finding the earth to be more like clay than sand helped us a great deal, holding our pegs and storm-cords for the tipi down tight. It took only a few minutes to put up, but felt much longer in driving rain, howling winds and crashes of thunder, seeing lightning strikes twice more before we had finished. The three of us went inside and spent almost the next 2hrs waiting for the storm to end. The thought that our centre-pole for the tipi is made of metal and was the tallest thing around did cross my mind once or twice, especially as the thunderclaps began directly above us, sounding as though they then rolled around the tipi and across all horizons. An amazing experience.
Our progress is slow on the river, with there beuing barely any currrent it is hard for us to move any faster than around 5km/hr, meaning we paddle for around 7hrs a day. Its certainly showing in our muscles! We met a tug-boat pushing a couple of platforms upriver with cargo on which was fascinating to watch as it had 2 guys in a motor boat out in front poling the river, finding the route so that the much larger boat could come through. Even our canoe has touched the bottom of the river in places so we know how shallow areas can be, it must take them such a long time to get anywhere, and they must be skilled to move it around. We were impressed. We also were told that the insects that had plagued us before were perhaps Dragonfly. I love them as adults, but it makes it no less horrible when they infested the tipi if correct. We are unsure what they are, however, but will put some pictures up of them so if anyone knows, please tell us!
We have also had our first major repairs. I have been progressively reducing the amount of fabric in my waterproof jacket by using the campfire to put what I like call ‘ventilation holes’ in it. It hasn’t helped in the rain! We have also burnt holes in our dry-bags, the tipi, our camp chairs (we bought some cheap ones from Zellers in Fort McMurray) – actually it was Vicki’s chair not mine, but as it may have been indirectly and completely my fault, is now my chair. I like to think of these as ventilation holes. These were all patched easily. The major repair has been the canoe. It appears that rubbing along the sides of the canoe (I think it was the limestone ledges before and just after Fort McMurray) has worn where the aluminium poles run along the outer length of the middle of the canoe, causing it tear. In most places, I have just reinforced the areas to prevent any tears or future wear, but in one spot we had a tear that ran over 4" where you could see the metal pole. Rather concerning, so that was patched. Unfortunately we were camped on a sandy beach at the time in high winds, and as the only place to camp and it had to be repaired, it has a nice ring of sand around the patch where the glue held the grains. Each patch tells a story, right? In Fort Smith we shall receive in our supplies package that we had sent up by a friend (thanks Mike) which inlcude more glue, so shall add reinforcement strips to the bottom of the canoe. No damage there yet, but am seeing lighter strips on the fabric where it is slowly being worn, so want to protect it.
Continuing to paddle, we moved into the Peace-Athabasca Delta which I believe isthe largest inland Delta in the world, but was not as we expected. We travelled along the main route (Fletcher Channel) before encountering a local guy on a motor boat with 2 dogs (one of his dogs is related to the orange one in Disney’s ‘Snow Dogs’ movie) who advised us to cut across onto the Embarras (another channel of the Athabasca leading to Lake Athabasca) around 15km upriver as it would save us time on the Lake and no-one really takes Fletcher that far up. We thought about it, and after camping where the Fletcher had a channel cutting across found the route would save us over 10km in travel, so took that. Actually, the route that we took, moving along the Fletcher then taking Canoe Portage as it is called onto the Embarras and then up to the Lake also saved us distance and time, so was the best option. It is just not quite as scenic. With the river turning less on the Fletcher, the current is faster and we were keen to get to Fort Chipewyan, the end of the Athabasca Stage and the beginning of Stage III; Slave River and Great Slave Lake. I had expected the Delta to be intricate, connecting channles criss-crossing between swamp, marshland and grassland but was not. The main channels were easy to follow, and the water so shallow there were not many options for us to turn off and get lost, especially with the main channels being so obvious.
It was the day we travelled to Fort Chipewyan (Fort Chip as it is known) and had to cross Lake Athabasca that is most note-worthy for the paddling throughout this last section. It was windy and raining when we awoke and broke camp (packed away). We did not have breakfast, only a chocolate/banana drink that we had rehydrated throughout the night (one of Vicki’s marvellous creations, really delicious) so that we could get to the Lake early. This did not happen, with the river being so slow it took us 3hrs to paddle 15km to the edge of the Lake and the end of the Delta. All my research before the trip had told me that paddler’s should never attempt to cross the Lake under any circumstance, it being so treacherous. Well, thats just what we had to do. In rain and high winds. We had planned to have lunch and then hit the Lake, paddle hard alond the edge moving South-West along the shore, until we could cut across a short gap in front of the drainage into Rivieres des Rochers (when this meets the Peace River, the two rivers merge and become the Slave River) and not have to paddle across open water for more than about 2km. An interesting side note here, if the Peace River is at high flow it can push the Riviers des Rochers backwards, causing it to flow the opposite direction to what is should, back into Lake Athabasca. Thankfully not a problem for us here at the moment. When we emerged from the Delta, we found a passage had been marked by flags indicating the deeper channel for the motor boats that pass through. We constantly tried and tried again to move away from the channel and into the shallows to follow the shore, but it didn’t work. It was so incredibly shallow we couldn’t even get the paddles into the water and kept having to move back into the channel and further out into the lake. Athabasca Lake is 283km long, and 50km across at the widest point. Needless to say when the winds blow, they howl. It is long, and generally follows a diagonal line running from South-West to North-East. On the day we crossed, the wind was coming from the North-East, blowing towards the South-West, so crossing almost the entire Lake before encountering our little boat. By the time we could turn towards shore, were were halfweay across the lake, the full width being around 10km at this point. There is a chain of islands which I was hoping we could move behind and hop between, limiting our time on open water but it took such time to get there. We were having to tack across the Lake (this is where you move with, and then against the wind to travel along, it increases the distance, as you zig-zag along and do not travel in a straight line) to limit the time we broadsided the wind and very high waves, cresting white at the top. We would be lifted high, the stern (back) first, followed by the bow (front), and surged forwards when with the waves. When against, the bow is lifted high and we would crash down into the surf when the canoe reached the tipping point, dropping the bow down and the stern upwards. It was thrilling, a real adrenaline drive as we pushed hard for 2hrs having eaten nothing all day. With the Delta having turned into swamp at the edge of the Lake there was nowhere we could have stopped to eat before meeting the Lake as we had originally planned. It worked, and we arrived in the little, more Northerly boat inlet at Fort Chipewyan a little after 14:00.
We had barely got out the canoe and were trying to straighten our backs when a truck pulling a boat stopped and a local Mikisew (Cree) guy by the name of Robert Grandjambe leapt out shouting ‘you must be the paddlers!’. Well, we had barely said a word before the canoe was on top of the truck, our gear was loaded, and we were on our way to his home to be greeted with freshly brewed coffee. We have stayed with him 2 days, heading off tomorrow to continue our journey. He has been a gracious host, and a great guide to the area with all its complexity and history we could not hope to understand without insider help. He runs a boat-tour in the summer, cabin rental and is the only dog-sled operator in winter here, so a good person to know, and very eager to help in any way he could. We went back out onto the Lake in his motor boat shortly afterwards to collect freshly caught Pickerel from his net which we ate for dinner. To our great entertainment, none of the boats went out beyond the islands along our route as the Lake was so rough that day. We were still coming down from the excitement of the paddle and had a good laugh about that. Instead, we went to the mouth of Rivieres des Rochers for the catch. We did more minor repairs to our gear yesterday, and with Roberts help and his workshop, we have built a rig for a sail which I intent to put up perhaps on the Slave River, but mainly on the Mackenzie River. It would be great if it works! I will be sure to put a picture up of it in action.
We head off towards Fort Smith which we should arrive to in about 1 week, so hope to update again then. The pictures that follow are from the Town of Athabasca, all the way to Fort Chipewyan. There are many, so I hope you enjoy!