Stage III Completed – Long Days, Hard Paddling, Maddening Insects & the Challenge of Great Slave Lake

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!

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