Three Rivers to Tuktoyaktuk 4000kms
The Mighty MacKenzie
Day 33 – Tuesday July 8th
Tony and I had just paddled 2000kms in the last month and it was now time to greet Alaine and Leonie who were going to paddle with us the next 2000kms.
The girls were arriving today so before going to the airport Tony cycled into town to do some shopping, whereas I cycled straight to the airport. The day was sunny and hot with clear blue skies. Only a handful of people waited at the small airport and only a handful of passengers got off the plane when it arrived. The girls looked quite refreshed and clean looking in their bright coloured T-shirts. They came off the plane excited and awestruck by the size of the huge Great Slave Lake that they had seen from the plane‘s windows. Although impressed with the flight from Edmonton, Leonie was a little miffed because an airline on an earlier flight had lost her paddle, sleeping bag, sleeping mattress and a few of her clothes.
There were no crowds to fight through so we were out of the airport in no time at all. As Tony and I had cycled to the airport I suggested to Alaine that she should get right into exercising and cycle back to Harbour House. So Tony and Alaine took off, whilst Leonie and I waited for a taxi.
There was so much to catch up on that there was rarely a quiet moment for hours. We later took a taxi into town and had an enjoyable meal at a restaurant.
Day 34 – Wednesday 9th July
After a good breakfast we caught a taxi into town and visited Doug to sort out the rental canoe, but he was still waiting for it to come back from another trip. We also called in at Superior Sound to see if I could have the images from my digital camera uploaded onto a disk. Craig Kovatch very kindly took the time to put the photos on a disk, which took a long time as he was encountering problems. Thanks Craig, your help was very much appreciated.
It was then time to grocery shop for the next four weeks. As I was now paddling with Alaine and Tony with Leonie, Alaine had prepared a meal planner for her and me, so she had a fairly good idea of what she wanted. I too added a few things into the trolley. We were pleasantly surprised that there were only a few things that we couldn’t get in the supermarket. We returned to Harbour House and began to pack the food into day packs, seemingly a never ending job. A squirrel however, seemed to enjoy foraging through the empty packets and plastic bags. We had so much gear and food that Alaine was worried it wouldn’t fit into the canoe.
Shopping for a few weeks.
The hostel had several new occupants coming and going. Tonight there was a man who was flying a light-weight plane around the north, and a female community worker from Yellowknife who canoed fairly regularly and had plenty of stories to tell. We also got to know Rick’s wife, Jane, who was the parliamentarian member for Hay River and spent a lot of her time in Yellowknife, the capital of the North West Territory. Rick, Jane and Jordan told us that we had to come back in winter to experience aurora borealis, (northern lights) as it’s one of most amazing sights that you will ever see.
The canoe arrived with a spray deck that afternoon but Leonie’s missing gear still hadn’t arrived.
Toilet paper is extremely important.
Day 35 – Thursday 10th July
Doug kindly lent us his vehicle so we could get around town. We finally finished our last-minute shopping and were busily packing with the hope of leaving Hay River in the morning, although the weather didn’t sound very promising and Leonie still didn’t have her lost gear. In the evening we were invited by the Groenewegen family to join them on the beach for ‘smokeys’ (sausages) and coffee. Although Tony and Leonie went across earlier, Alaine and I were still packing until late and joined them for coffee after the beach barbecue at Jordan‘s home.
A squirrel investigating our rubbish.
About 40 minutes into our celebrations, Rick received a phone call and then came across to me. He took me to the other room and told me that the call he had just taken was sad news. Alaine’s mum had died that morning. Although Alaine wasn’t aware what was going on, the party instantly broke up. As we returned to Harbour House we walked back along the beach and sat down on a step overlooking the lake. I could see that Alaine was a little puzzled and had no idea why we were sitting or what I was about to tell her.
How do you tell someone that your mum has died? I didn’t really know what to say and so I didn’t beat around the bush, I simply said, “I’m so sorry Alaine, but your mum has died.” It was quick and simple, but so devastating. Alaine immediately broke down in tears.
Alaine had known for months that this day was coming as her mum had been seriously ill for a long time, and maybe in some way, Alaine had already begun to prepare herself for this devastating news. In reality, perhaps you can’t prepare yourself, so it is still extremely painful when it happens. Long before Alaine left Australia, she, along with her Dad and Mum had discussed the possibility of this happening and they all came to the decision that Alaine should not go back for the funeral. Instead she should continue with the trip and enjoy it the best she could. I could see when Alaine was telling me this she was in two minds as her Mum meant so much to her and not being at the funeral would be so devastating. It also meant that she wouldn’t be home to comfort her own daughter, Emily whom she loves dearly or be there for the rest of her family. Not going home was a very hard decision for Alaine to make.
“Mum just waited for me to leave before she died. I knew in my heart that my last goodbye was just that, but at the time I couldn’t bring myself to think about it,” Alaine said.
Day 36- Friday 11th July
It wasn’t the day to be leaving, Alaine had several calls home to make and the weather forecast was for strong winds. Leonie’s bag had finally arrived so she was a much happier camper. With Tony and Leonie all packed up and ready to go they asked Doug if they could use his vehicle to go out and visit some waterfalls. I thought it was a little cheeky, but Doug had no problems loaning it.
Alaine and I decided to stay in town so she could contact home and send a few emails. At lunchtime we were having a meal in a local café when Jane Groenewegen came across to our table and told Alaine how sorry she was to hear the news and presented Alaine with a gift. Alaine opened the small package and she took out some beautiful, colourful earrings and bracelet made by the Navaho Indians. It was such a beautiful gesture and touching moment. Alaine was in tears and my eyes also welled up. Jane shared her story of not going home for her own father’s funeral, and how she had never regretted that decision. I think Alaine took some comfort from that. Alaine had definitely decided not to go home for the funeral so over our evening meal and a wine or two we talked about leaving in the morning if the winds were right, although it seemed that the weather forecast still wasn’t that good.
Day 37 – Saturday 12th July Hay River
When we awoke there was hardly any wind despite the weather forecast saying there was going to be 15 – 20 knot winds. I had breakfast and then I started to walk our gear 150 metres to the lake. Alaine helped put the wheels on the canoe and then we dragged it across the gravel and through the soft sand to the water’s edge. The idea was to get the canoe and gear over to the lake and if the conditions were right we would take off. If it wasn’t, we would wait until nightfall, when hopefully the wind would ease.
The wind was still light by the time we had all carried our gear to the water’s edge. Just at that time Jordon came walking along the beach with his two husky dogs, one on a lead and the other running around like a race horse. Rick also arrived and we settled our accommodation bill. Jane came soon after with her small dog, so the whole family was there to see us off. We took photos, got ready and just before 10.00am we were ready to go. Alaine had chosen to wear the brightly coloured earrings and bracelet that Jane had given her. She was going to wear them from start to finish, and then remove them at the end of the trip to keep as a heartfelt memento.
The Groenewegen family see us off.
Donning our PFD’s we dragged the canoes into the water and entered them for the first time as mixed pairs. Ahead was a new adventure for us all, but more so for the girls who hadn’t camped out self-supported from a canoe for more than two days before. As the lake beckoned, four different individuals in two canoes paddled away from civilisation and into the big, vast yonder. I couldn’t help but wonder what the group dynamics was going to be like.
The skies were clear apart from some wispy clouds. Within metres we looked back and waved goodbye to our new friends and then steered the canoes through a group of logs and a barge that had been stranded in the shallows. Once around a point we lost sight of our beach and all the familiar sights, skirted a line of waves running into the shallows and passed by a few houses on the lake’s edge. Once we had passed the Hay River’s western channel we were really on our way.
In front of us there was nothing but the massive lake. Alaine was still amazed at its enormous size and couldn’t believe that she was actually paddling on it. She also couldn’t believe how lucky she was that she was here, but I could feel that deep down she was a little apprehensive about leaving, as her mum‘s death was clearly on her mind.
We moved away from the shoreline and started to cut across the bay. Several kilometres away we could see a bunch of houses or houseboats in the distance. The breeze lifted, but within the hour it had dropped and we experienced perfect paddling conditions.
We paused on the lake about half way across the bay and saw a guy in a single canoe heading our way. He paddled a few strokes on one side and a few on the other. Occasionally he dipped his hand into the lake, scooped up some water in his palm and drank it. We stayed there and waited until he caught up. Stephen who was originally from Hungary was paddling a Kevlar Clipper single open canoe. He was only wearing a pair of shorts, his body tanned by the sun. He kept his distance, as he said he was out of shape and also so we couldn’t see his aging body. Stephen had seen us when we passed the western channel and couldn’t resist finding out what we were up to. He paddled after us and had been trying to catch us up ever since. He started talking and he didn’t seem to want to stop. He talked about his Kevlar canoe, told us of his daughter who was travelling around Europe and he warned us about the weather, which may delay us on the lake. He then apologised for delaying us, wished us well on our journey and then turned his canoe and raced away.
The Great Slave Lake is like an ocean.
As he departed, a flock of pelicans flew over a few hundred metres to the north-west, in a similar direction to that of a power boat. We couldn’t see it, but we could hear its engines. There was a hum for some time and eventually we noticed a dot on the horizon, kilometres and kilometres away.
The lake was magnificent and calm, so very different from a few days ago! I mentioned to Alaine how calm it was and she reminded me that the First Nation people believe that if you talk about the wind, it comes up. “What a load of bull,” I said. Strangely enough, only minutes later the wind began to blow and shortly after white caps and waves were right across the lake. With the increased wind, paddling all of a sudden became that much harder. We went from paddling 6kms an hour to 3 – 4kms an hour. The girls were no longer laughing. Alaine and Leonie, who were in the front seats began to feel the brunt of the wind and the wet of the splash over the bows as we headed for a point 8kms away that took a long time to reach.
A few hundred metres from the point we were sheltered from the big waves, so we could finally relax. The point was very rocky and littered with large driftwood logs, and this was where we would be camping for the night. We had no choice as there were no other spots for kilometres and it was just too rough to go on.
We landed on rocks and using driftwood timbers we pulled the canoe above the lapping waves onto a shaly spot. Tony and Leonie moved a few metres along the point and found a clear spot near some bushes, but for me the open area, which had big boulders to shelter us from the wind, was clean, clear, fresh and away from mosquitoes.
We levelled the shale and erected our tents. Our gear was spread all over the large boulders, which were warm from the sun and gave shade from the wind, and were just great for drying our clothes.
Leonie decided to practise her steering so she took the canoe out alone, but when she tried to get back to shore she was blown away again. She tried several times to get back and twice disappeared into the next bay. Whilst we looked on, slightly worried, but more amused, three pelicans flew overhead. Eventually she managed to get back to camp but somehow I didn’t think she would try that again!
When we were all settled in, we sat next to Leonie’s tent on the shore, which was covered with different coloured rocks. It was here that the girls first began to collect small coloured rocks from each campsite. Leonie called them ‘Keepers’. The array of different textures in the colourful stones that they collected, were wonderful. We slowly drank a cup of wine, savouring its flavour. We chatted and watched both the wind waves roll across the lake and Leonie’s underwear fly in the wind on her make-shift clothesline.
Dinner was a little different from the usual supermarket pasta dishes that I had been living on. Alaine made instant mashed potato, dehydrated vegies and spam. What a treat! The left over spam was saved for tomorrow’s lunch. Driftwood was plentiful, but we cooked on the stove and the breeze kept the insects at bay.
For some crazy reason Alaine brought a solar shower. I scoffed at the thought of having to carry it full of water for 2 – 3 hours a day to allow the sun to heat it up. We had enough gear I thought, but when I erected it behind some bushes and took my evening wash I was more than pleasantly surprised at how well it worked. Not such a bad idea after all.
Checking the maps.
Day 38 – Sunday 13th July
The wind was still blowing quite hard when we got up, which wasn’t a good sign. But we packed up nevertheless and got ready to go by 9.00am. As we took off we saw that Leonie was in the back of the canoe so today she would be Captain.
We paddled around the point and straight into a fairly stiff wind, not hugely strong but strong enough to slow us down and make the boat bob up and down. We slogged on. Leonie was doing a fantastic job with the steering and keeping the canoe relatively straight as it’s not an easy thing to do if you haven’t practised.
The wind would occasionally calm only to reappear again. At times I thought it would stop blowing, but it didn’t, so we were in for a tough day. An hour or so later we found a small island at which to stop. We all took the opportunity to have a loo break and eat our morning tea of nuts and dried fruit, but it was extremely chilly so we didn’t hang around.
We could just see the point where we were headed, but our exceedingly slow pace made it seem a very long way. At the 10km mark Tony wanted to go to shore to have lunch so we changed course and made our way towards a bay. As the bay got closer the water shallowed and the lake’s edges were too swampy to land. We moved along the shore trying to find a spot, but there was nothing but shallows and flooded vegetation. We decided to swing back out into the lake and scraped over a few rocks before heading to the next point. Pelicans stood on stranded logs close to shore and over to our left a helicopter flew overhead.
As we got closer to our last point before entering the river mouth, the water shallowed again and we had no choice but to go further out into the lake. An island was situated across from the point and as Leonie started to lead us through the gap, their canoe ran aground. Alaine and I veered off out into the lake to paddle around the island and check out the hundreds of pelicans that were standing in the shallows and on the rocks near by. It was a magnificent sight. We crept closer to the pelicans but a few became agitated and started to stir. In the blink of an eye, the mass of pelicans began frantically skipping across the water, their black-tipped white wings beating as they took off. Within seconds they were all airborne heading out into the lake, only to land on the water 200 metres further out.
Hundreds of pelicans.
Leonie and Tony had made it through the gap and had landed on the mainland shore. We made our way across to them, stepped out and followed a faint track up to a clearing that was swarming with gnats and mosquitoes. It was like hell. We soon retreated back down to the canoes, which we dragged into the shallows and then pushed them further along the shore to get away from the cloud of bugs.
Now, not only did Alaine bring a shower with her, she also brought a flask with the idea of filling it with boiling water in the morning and then using it for hot drinks or to cook noodles with at lunch time, which meant we didn’t have to light the stove and boil water. It worked well for soup but not so good for noodles, as the noodles didn’t quite cook because the water soon cooled.
Lunch time. The bugs were bad.
We were all rugged up for paddling as it had been cool (I had two thermals and my Kokatat Gore-Tex jacket on) but we had become particularly hot when we were in the shelter of the wind, so it was good to get back on the water and paddle just to cool down. As we left the point and headed to the next one only a kilometre away we were getting very close to the start of the MacKenzie River but there was nothing but water on our right. The Great Slave Lake was massive and impressive and the girls were still in awe of it. As we approached another small island, the last before the river entrance, we noticed a cabin. I stopped to check the island out for camping as we had already had a hard day and I didn’t want to push the girls too much on their second day of the trip.
The last kilometre on the lake before we hit the start of the McKenzie River.
I called Tony and Leonie over to have a look. They didn’t seem keen to stay here, but we had been paddling for seven hours and it was time to stop. In my mind it wasn’t sensible to go on when we were tired and had no idea where we would find another camp. I asked everyone if they were happy to camp on the island and both the girls said yes. They had blisters and Alaine had a sore arm, so she was more than happy to stop. Tony still wanted to go on but the three of us agreed that we should stay, so we started unloading the gear.
We unpacked and erected our tents on the long grass. I was looking out towards the river, the trees and reeds framing the beautiful scene. I later tried my hand at fishing with my cheap new rod, but I couldn’t cast it too well. It was disappointing not to have caught something. Later Tony had a go, but he wasn’t successful either. As we fished the air was full of dragonflies and it was quite a sight. Tony had started a fire on a small but neat beach on the northern side of the island and afterwards we sat and drank a cup of wine, and looked out over the huge lake that had pelicans dotted all over it. This would be our last night on the lake and it felt fitting that we should be camped on the junction of the mighty Mackenzie River and the amazing Great Slave Lake.
As Leonie tried her hand at fishing, Alaine cooked macaroni cheese with bacon. The wind kept the insects at bay as we sat by the smoky fire and reflected on the day.
Trying to erect the mosquito tent.
Trying to catch a fish.
Camped on the small island.
There might be a few mosquitos but the view is great.
Day 39 – Monday 14th July
The insects were worse on the beach when we were making breakfast due to the lack of wind. Alaine made a couple of very tearful satellite calls to her Dad and sister, and then needed to bandage her blistered hands. As a result, she was somewhat slow in getting ready and was obviously struggling to hide her sorrow. Tony and Leonie were waiting, so they canoed into the lake to get away from the insects.
Tony and Alaine chatting and making dinner as no fish was caught.
Leaving the Great Slave Lake and into the McKenzie River.
With Tony not liking a few decisions I had made along the way it was certainly refreshing to be paddling with Alaine who appreciated everything around her. Our spirits lifted as the current started to push us down the Mackenzie River. Although the river was named after Alexander Mackenzie in 1789, to the Dene First Nation people it has always been known as Deh Cho, which means “Big River”. Not only is it big, it is long, being 1738 kilometres from the Great Slave Lake to the Beaufort Sea and we were now eager to explore it. At this point though it was far from being spectacular. The forest on our left was totally burnt out and looking a sorry sight. To our right a big island appeared similar to the rest of the spruce-covered landscape around us.
The wind soon increased in strength which was a concern as it could make crossing Beaver Lake ahead so much more dangerous. I suggested stopping on the last island before the open lake to wait for the wind to calm. The lake was about 40kms long and 6 -10kms wide with the terrain around it low and featureless, generally marshy, boggy with extensive weed-covered mud banks separated by reaches of forest. Once we got going we wouldn’t be able to land easily before reaching the far end.
As calm winds usually came at night that was the most likely and safest time to cross it, so we needed to rest up and more importantly try to sleep as we would be paddling most of the night. Finding a camping spot on that last island though proved to be difficult, but luckily just before the end we managed to find a small clearing with just enough space to squeeze in the tents. The water was lapping at the shore and because of the wind, the insects kept away as we ate lunch. Although it had been cloudy most of the day the sun did come out and made it warm in the tents as we tried to sleep.
At 7.00pm I rang T2 at the shop to get a weather report. It appeared that the wind was in our favour and due to the lake being calm at that moment we decided to take off much earlier than our planned 11.00pm start. This was a big moment for the girls as it was going to be their first night paddle and they would have to paddle longer than ever before. I just wondered how they were feeling.
As we pulled away from our tight but cosy camp at 8.30pm we could see timber tent frames that the First Nation people use as shelters erected on another island two kilometres across. A bird, singing almost like one that I used to hear in the Kimberley, saw us off. We soon bypassed the small island and found ourselves paddling deeper into the lake which was seemingly endless. The sun peered through the clouds dazzling us as we headed for our distant destination. It was 40kms and the way ahead looked long, however with so much water and varying tones of blue, the surrounding scenery was almost surreal.
We pushed on with the lake blossoming with beauty, and fluffy clouds skating in different directions across the sky. The setting sun was dazzling in more ways than one, but on a slightly down side, it was shining directly in our eyes. It was bright in front, but much darker behind where a double rainbow had formed right across the sky. How much more perfect could the night be?
Crossing Beaver Lake at night.
We paddled on, the two canoes coming together and then drifting apart. The current was helping us so we were travelling from 6 to 7.5kms an hour. Thank God there was no wind, though Alaine reminded me not to talk of it in case it came in.
With every hour the sun was getting lower in the sky and eventually the moon began to rise. It was huge and virtually full and an incredible scene. We paddled on looking back, the sky brightening as the moon floated up from the water and began to arch across the sky. There was still no wind, the lake was like a millpond and Alaine was excited as she had seen nothing like it before. Just as we were getting used to the big, bright and beautiful moon a cloud started to drift towards it. As the cloud partially covered the lower part of the moon, it was as if something really special was being dragged away from us. We were disappointed when it disappeared behind the cloud leaving our enchanting and magical world a little less special. Nevertheless it was still an exhilarating sight.
The sun goes down on Beaver Lake just before midnight.
I was pleased when at midnight the sun had dipped below the horizon. It stopped the glare and it left a red haze that added another dimension of wonderment to the sky. The moon at times shone through a thin layer of cloud haze and when it did, it looked exquisite. Looking behind was like peering into a completely different and darker world. It too was incredible. As the calm glassy lake met the green shores on our right and the water and the sky on the horizon blended into different shades of blue, we truly were immersed in the magnificence of nature. Whichever way we looked, the scene around us was quite glorious.
The beauty of night paddling in the north. It only got semi-dark for a short time.
After cutting directly across the lake on the middle part of our journey we came across the buoyed channel where the water was deeper and which the towboats and barges have to follow. At least with the slower water speed on the lake, we didn’t have to worry about being dangerously swept into the buoys that lined the channel. Way over to our right, three dinghies swiftly flew by, another boat was stopped and it appeared to have a man in it standing and fishing. We were too far away to get a good look.
The edge of the lake was now only 1km away and my thoughts were on the bison that are supposed to roam the shores in the reserve. Disappointingly I saw nothing. It was time to try to land to take a loo break and have a stretch. We paddled towards shore in the hope of finding somewhere to land but drawing close to the shallows we could see it was just too swampy. Tony and Leonie paddled to the edge of the grasses but they found no place suitable to stop. They only managed to stir up the mosquitoes that soon swarmed around our heads. We were being attacked from all sides, so we had to get back into the lake quickly. A rock sticking out of the water had two birds sitting on it. They stayed there until we started to pass by, then they took off.
The darkness started to engulf the sky and it became much more difficult to see exactly what was around us. Way over on the other side of the lake a set of navigation lights were blinking red and green. Further along at our destination where the lake narrowed we could see a very bright light moving across it. We couldn’t help but wonder what it was. A barge maybe? It looked as if it was coming closer and then it didn’t. It was hard to judge what it was and where it was going in the near darkness. We needed to get to the other side of the lake, but the light had us so confused we didn‘t dare go across.
Eventually when the light didn’t appear to be getting closer we made the decision to cross the channel, however we crossed with haste, being a little fearful of the approaching light. I could even feel my heart rate race a little faster. It was amazing how the darkness had us so confused. In the far corner of a bay, just before the river narrowed I noticed an open area, a limestone embankment or something that appeared to have two caravans on it. We were too far away to tell what it was, but whatever it was it didn’t look swampy, so it looked the best place to land.
Through the faint light we could see navigation buoys over on our left. They didn’t seem to be getting any closer so we paddled harder as the current had accelerated and was making it difficult for us to reach the limestone embankment that was sticking out from the shoreline. Despite the increasing water speed that was against us we made progress and reached the desolate shore.
As we pulled up to the limestone groyne we could see two RV vans nearby on another groyne so we tried to be quiet. The limestone groyne was pushed out at least 100 metres from the shore. We were that tired we really didn’t care about anything but sleep. It was about 4.30am when we crashed and it was so nice to just fade away into a peaceful sleep. It was such a magical paddle and I know Alaine holds the night paddle close to her heart for it was here that she felt a very real closeness to her Mum.
Day 40 – Tuesday 15th July
It seemed a while before I nodded off but I’m sure it would have only been a few minutes as I’m usually snoring straight away. The next thing I knew I could hear the voices of two boys speaking in a foreign language. Was I dreaming? I peered from under my sleeping bag and I could see the boys, one RV and Leonie fully dressed getting on with things. I really wanted to hide and sleep longer as it was only 6.30am. We all got up and one by one we walked about 200 metres to the end of the groyne and into the vegetation to go to the toilet. The ground was hard and digging a hole was a task in itself.
Having arrived in the dark, our surrounds looked so different in the light and the water was crystal clear. We paddled away from the groyne being helped by the current and with my fishing line in tow, but it only gathered weed in the shallows. As we rounded the corner and paddled back into the river we could see a ferry going back and forth and several cranes building a bridge across the river. The place was abuzz with activity. So the light in the night was most likely to have been from the ferry continually crossing the river.
There was a lookout and a picnic area with toilets on the hill to our left. The current really accelerated, so much so that the water pushing against the buoys was piling up and violent. It was certainly not the time to be swept into a buoy as it could be fatal. We paddled out into the centre of the river and within a few moments we were travelling at 16kms an hour. We were beside ourselves with the exhilaration. If only the river stayed at this speed it would be great. Tony and Leonie led the way travelling at a rapid pace. The ferry crossing the river was carrying several cars and huge trucks. The current was sweeping us along so fast that I was a little concerned we wouldn’t be able to get out the ferry’s way if it crossed our path.
The water was swirling, the buoys were being tugged from their anchors and within minutes we had passed the bridge groyne and away from the pylons that were lined across the river. We then stopped paddling and drifted and looked at the work and activity taking place on the bridge and the southern shores. In a way it was sad to see a bridge being built in the wilderness and across the wide Mackenzie River. Tony and I hadn’t seen a bridge for 1000kms and there is not a bridge downstream at all over the next 2000kms. Imagine, not a bridge for 3000kms. At least the bridge was only partially made so it would be a while before it would be finished.
Leaving the lake and entering the river again near the new bridge.
The new bridge would allow traffic to run freely summer and winter to the capital of the North West Territories, Yellowknife. At the moment vehicles have to take the ferry to cross the river in summer but in winter they have to wait until the ice is thick enough to make an ice road. There is a period where the ferry cannot run and the ice is not thick enough to support vehicles, so nothing crosses the river at those times and Yellowknife is isolated and only air traffic is able to reach it. I wonder how many state capitals such as Yellowknife, have to rely on a ferry to reach the outside world? Thinking about it, Juneau is Alaska’s capital and the only way to get to it, is by air or sea.
The building of the new bridge across the Mackenzie River.
The ferry had pulled up at the shore and was loading more big trucks. Some looked longer than the ferry. I was amazed to see how many vehicles were waiting to cross and I had thought it was isolated out here! The road on the northern side led to the small village of Fort Providence but most of the traffic was headed to Yellowknife. Yellowknife is situated in a huge wilderness system and beyond it there was nothing but lakes, more wilderness and isolated mining camps. The only way to get to these mining camps was by air in the summer and by the ice roads in winter. These ice roads were mostly formed on lakes or rivers. In winter there is only a short window of opportunity for truckers to take supplies and equipment that get stockpiled in Yellowknife over summer, to the mines on the ice roads. It is a dangerous job, but extremely well paid. There was a show called “Ice Road Truckers” on the TV when we returned. It portrayed the hazards of the truckies and was very interesting.
Ferries are used to transport vehicles across the river.
We were soon well away from the action around the new bridge as the current carried us along at a good pace. We started paddling, keeping to the right side of the river where the main road followed it for a while. We were still staggered at the amount of traffic that was on the road.
As we started turning a wide bend we could see buildings of Fort Providence several kilometres away. The current started to accelerate again and we were flying, taking off at 20kms an hour leaving Tony and Leonie behind. We drifted out of the main current and we were soon overtaken by Tony and Leonie who were now flying by us. It was great fun! What a way to go, we’ll be at the end in no time!
A camping ground of sorts and a few shacks and houses were along the right bank. We had now lost the main road which had moved inland. Ahead a large island divided the river. We were still flying, the main channel with shipping markers went to the left but we needed to take the right channel to link up with the town. The other guys were going that fast I thought they may be forced to take the left channel but they managed to get over to the right into the slower channel, just in time.
The current slowed a little as we speared into the right channel and within a few minutes Tony suddenly took off to the right bank. He had seen the store and was heading straight for it. The speed of the water made it extremely difficult to go straight across, so we performed a very fast ferry glide and within minutes landed on the shores below the Northern Store. People sitting on benches aloft the high river bank looked down on us. What were they thinking….more gringos coming to town!!
We pulled the canoe up the rocks, got changed and climbed the steep hill to where the local First Nation people were sitting. I asked them where the library was as Alaine needed to get on the internet to send an email home. They directed us to the town office. Just as we headed out Alaine befriended a dog that had walked up to us. I knew instantly that patting and talking to a stray dog was the wrong thing to do as it followed and wouldn‘t stop jumping up at me and chewing my fingers. Alaine befriended the dog, but I was the one being followed and harassed. In a stern voice I told it to stay, go back, but it wouldn’t listen. It reminded me of my godchildren. When they play up, I try to put a stern voice on, but they don’t take any notice of me either.
When we found the town office they told us to go to the school as it was the only place which had public computers. The dog had waited outside and became our friend again as we walked the gravel road. The electrical wires were littered with pairs of shoes, which had been thrown over them and were swaying with the wind. Before the school a large flock of ravens were on top of a building roof, next to three more pairs of shoes on electric wires.
A dog took a liking to me.
The school was closed until 1.00pm so we filled in time and went over to the church where two dogs in a back yard started to bark and growl at the dog that befriended us. It sparked a commotion for a few moments. As we returned to the store by the river path the dog continued to walk beside us.
We paced around the store looking for things to buy, but there wasn’t much that we needed and things like bread that we could have used, they didn’t have. Our doggy friend was waiting patiently outside and followed us over to a park bench where Tony and Leonie were sitting and having a bite to eat. We sat with them and tucked into the bits and pieces that we had bought from the store.
The Fort Providence church.
At 12.50pm Alaine and I walked back to the school so she could send her Eulogy for her Mum’s funeral. A water tanker had just finished unloading water at the school as we arrived. With the pipes freezing in winter it looked as if water had to be stored at each household. We waited outside for a few moments until a young guy came over and opened up. He chatted to us as he led us to the computer room where he was about to take a small class for computer lessons. Within minutes the local students started to arrive as Alaine typed away trying to hide her tears. They soon got on the internet and I noticed they were searching sites not related to their lesson. The guy worked as a volunteer over the summer months and had three different roles to play, so it kept him extremely busy. As he walked us out of the school he said he was of Persian origin and I found it interesting that he didn’t say Iranian origin. He was a very nice person and I wondered how he was treated when people knew where he was from. Perhaps that’s why he said he was Persian.
Leaving the school we walked back to the canoe and quickly got changed. The dog followed and patiently sat on a rock beside the canoe. Brownie-black on its back with a white belly and legs, it had a nice cute, though sad face that reminded me of a teddy bear. As we entered the canoe it walked to the water’s edge. It hadn’t just come to see us off, but wanted to come with us. As we dragged the canoe into the river it jumped onto a near submerged rock, balanced on three legs and pawed the water as a sign to say I want to come.
The dog just wanted to come with us.
With a little sadness in our hearts, especially Alaine’s, as she’s very fond of dogs, we paddled away from shore and with the help of the current headed downstream. Six hundred metres further the young school teacher whom we had met and two other people were high on the river bank waving madly.
Leonie was at the controls of her canoe as we weaved through a few islands and across sparkling waters towards Mills Lake. Although Mills Lake wasn’t half as big as our last lake we didn’t fancy being caught out in it near nightfall, so after paddling about 20kms we stopped on an island a few kilometres before the lake started. It was early but everyone was happy to make camp on the south-east side of the island. Although a bit rocky it was flat and clear of vegetation. Firewood, which was quite sparse was collected along the forest edge, which was dotted with a stunning collection of wildflowers by crossing a muddy section first.
After erecting my tent I got out my hand line and started fishing. I unwound about 20 metres of line and coiled it on the ground. I tossed my lure out into the river and slowly pulled it in, repeating the action over and over. The water was very clear, a perfect place I hoped to catch a fish. After a couple of tugs on the line I excitedly pulled one in. My first fish was less than 60cms long, but it was a start. Soon after Tony caught one which was bigger, so with the two fish we now had enough for a meal. After gutting the fish we sat down in the sun and ate oysters, biscuits and dip and drank wine. How civilised.
What a whoppa! Fish for dinner.
With the girls’ knowledge of cooking, the fish were spiced adding a special taste to our meal. Huge black clouds had built up to the north and they looked threatening but we still enjoyed the evening sunshine. By the time I was ready to retire most of the cloud had gone, leaving a perfect sunset over the forest to colour the water and sky with a beautiful red hue.
Relaxing after a fish meal.
Day 41 – Wednesday 16th July
The sun came up and dried our tents. It was calm and near cloudless and so perfect that we couldn’t have wished for a better day. The paddle to Mills Lake, about 4.5kms was easy. A kilometre into our paddle we passed a half-burnt piece of wood from our fire that I had thrown into the water earlier. In the distance to our right there were a few basic cabins hidden in the trees. At the 20km point the lake which had narrowed slightly was still quite wide but at the 30km point the shores closed in making it a much safer place to paddle.
Alaine commented that she couldn’t understand why there weren’t more water birds around. Then the hundreds of tiny bumps that we could see on the lake started to take off as we neared. They were waterbirds. In the next two hours large flocks took off before us and continually landed ahead. The lake to our right and to the north stretched for 16kms but much of that was shallow and marshy, filled with weeds and drying banks, a haven for waterbirds. The shores were quite flat but well wooded with no prominent features.
We plodded on, finally reaching a corner where we could land. A small boat with two First Nation men dressed in camouflage gear came alongside. ”Watch out for the big waves around the next bend if it blows up,” they said. “A canoeist died here some years back.” They motored off leaving us to land on shore and have a break and a few nibbles.
After taking off and rounding the corner a huge patch of weed 300 metres from shore ran parallel to the shore as far as the eye could see. We needed to go across the lake towards the right side, so we decided to plough through the weed to get to cleaner water on the other side and a more direct route to the next point some 10kms away.
From afar we could see a beach which looked much like the famous Ningaloo beach (one of Western Australia’s tourist destinations). Upon arriving though, it was yellow rock or some sort of limestone, but it was still a perfect place to have lunch. With no vegetation for several hundred metres Leonie found some low scrub to go for a pee. Leonie isn’t afraid of anything much, but she does have an aversion to birds and just as she crouched a seagull swooped her and to our amusement she came running back. The girls then picked a big rock 100m along the shore to hide behind for their toilet break.
It looked another good fishing spot so I started tossing my lure into the water whilst Alaine prepared lunch. I had high hopes of catching a fish before she had the tortillas and cheese ready, but I didn’t. Excited with the thought that I just might catch one I started casting again as soon as I had eaten. I suddenly felt a jerk or did I snag a rock? Another throw and I could feel a struggle and tension on the line. Whoopee doo! I pulled in a good sized fish and took it further up the rocky beach so it couldn’t wriggle and escape back into the water. Luckily for me it came off the hook when I was well away from the water, so all I had to do was to pick it up and gut it. I washed it thoroughly so the bears couldn‘t smell it in our canoe on the afternoon paddle.
As we left our Ningaloo Beach the lake narrowed and it turned into a river again. It was warm and calm and Tony took the opportunity to jump overboard to cool down. By day’s end Tony and Leonie, who were well ahead, found a campsite on the right side of the river. It was another good campsite with of course the usual bear prints. I tried hard at fishing again and caught another Northern Pike. Tony didn’t want any and Leonie and Alaine wanted little. I didn’t really have the right knife to fillet fish so when I tried slicing it with my blunt knife I made a real mess of it. Nevertheless when cooked it still tasted great.
We sat around and enjoyed our evening cup of wine and nibbles. Soon after, as Alaine was pumping and filtering drinking water a Coastguard vessel motored up the river labouring against the current. As it slipped by us it looked low in the water and didn’t seem to have much freeboard. The vessel though created a big wash and a large wave thumped the shore, and a few minutes later another. With the waves hitting the shore it stirred up all the mud and our clean river turned muddy and stayed that way until way after we had gone to bed.
Day 42 – Thursday 17th July
It was going to be another emotionally hard day for Alaine as it was the day of her mum’s funeral. Nevertheless she put on a brave face, but because she was in the front it was hard for me to see the tears streaming down her face. We were planning to stop at twelve noon to pay our respects, but Alaine then realised the funeral was at midnight our time and not midday. I couldn’t begin to imagine how difficult today would be for Alaine as I knew she was dreadfully missing her own daughter Emily, and was feeling bad that she wasn’t there to comfort her daughter and her dad at the funeral.
We crisscrossed the river all day heading from one point to another. I had planned to find a suitable camp at Browning Point, where a river entered, but Leonie noticed a beach one and a half kilometres before it. We were several hundred metres away and a little downstream so with the current flowing quickly we had to fight to reach it. It was well worth the fight though as the beach was one of the best we had seen so far. We landed at Browning’s Landing, where there was an old cabin and a boat that lay deteriorating in the forest. A large set of seats and table was set away from the water and close to the forest line. It was an abandoned sawmill site, but it looked as if it was now used by the First Nation people as a fish camp, a place to camp at and relax.
Our tents were soon erected and we all went about our business. I fished again but this time without success, while Tony wrote and went for a walk along the shore. Alaine pottered and Leonie washed and then put on a mud pack face and sat there on the beach in her deck chair taking in the sun, resting and looking like the queen. We joked about it, as it was more customary to put a mud pack on your face in a beauty salon rather than out here in the wilderness, but I suppose women do have to try to keep their skin looking young. Leonie spent a long time every night washing at the water’s edge with her towel draped around her. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t go further away from camp, so she could be naked and have a good strip wash, but she probably felt safer near camp. We were in bear country after all.
Leonie’s beauty salon. A mudpack today thank you!
As the evening drew on and midnight was close, Alaine and I walked 200 metres along the beach to erect a cairn in her mother’s memory. We stopped at the prettiest point and carried different coloured boulders from around the area and placed them on top of each other about 15 metres from the water’s edge. The cairn was surrounded on three sides by green grasses, a few bear footprints and faced the beach and a number of big boulders and the calm, beautiful Mackenzie River. Although it was very sad that Alaine couldn’t be at home with all her family and friends to console one another or to share the happy memories of her mother’s life, Browning’s Landing was a lovely place for Alaine to mourn and leave a memory of her Mum. It seemed quite fitting that the cairn overlooked the Mackenzie River, which was named after the Scottish explorer Alexander Mackenzie, as both of Alaine’s parents are Scottish.
A great campsite.
Alaine placed smaller pebbles on the cairn and then on the ground in front, portraying the letters, ‘MUM.’ As the sun went down, she wept as she placed some white bush flowers between the rocks of the cairn. Wearing the colourful Navaho earrings and bracelet that Jane gave her, Alaine stood before the cairn with a face full of sorrow and read a recitation that she had prepared beforehand. It was a beautiful reading and such a moving moment, that I too had tears streaming down my face.
It was a tearful time for Alaine. A cairn erected in her mum’s honour.
Alaine was close to her mum and she always made time to ring and visit her parents regularly and take them out or do something with them on a Sunday. Before leaving, Alaine and her mum had talked about the possibility of her dying, whilst Alaine was on the trip and they both agreed that Alaine shouldn’t return home for the funeral once she had left Australia.
“Mum said she’d be at my back, pushing me on, so even if she should die, she would still be there with me. I’m sure she is,” Alaine said. We walked barefooted back along the sandy beach to camp in silence. The early morning was calm, cloudless and peaceful.
Day 43 – Friday 18th July
Browning’s beach was such a beautiful place to be on such a sad but important day. On the surface it seemed that Alaine was coping quite well, but from the little she said, I knew she was covering up her true feelings. There were a number of occasions along the way when she wouldn’t turn around in the canoe to talk to me, because she’d been crying
As we passed Browning Point and the Trout River there were tepee poles standing erect on the west side. Ten kilometres further, at the Head-of-the-Line, where an island divided the river, it narrowed and the current accelerated. This spot derives its name from the days before powered craft were used on the river, when scows, York boats, and canoes were hauled upstream with track-lines. We were at the upstream end of a 100 kilometre section of the river where it is only 0.2 km to 1.25 km wide and attains speeds of 4.5 to 6.3 knots. It was great, we lifted our legs to lie back, relaxed, looked at the high gravel banks and enjoyed 15 minutes of leisure, letting the faster current sweep us downstream.
It was 35kms to the community of Jean Marie River (traditional name, “Tthek’ehdeli,” meaning “water flowing over clay”) and it didn’t take us too long to get there. When we landed the village looked deserted but within minutes a vehicle stopped near Tony and an elder gave him the rundown. We were hoping to find a store but they didn’t appear to have one, or it was hidden and closed. A young man riding his bike towards us stopped and started talking, introducing himself as Eric. He wasn’t shy and told us that he had been to University in Inuvik and had returned to Jean Marie to be a recreation manager. I was surprised that there was a University in Inuvik as I thought it was a small place. Although it was closed, he told us that they would open the kiosk inside the recreation centre so we could get something to drink. We were all frothing at the mouth at the thought of a cold drink. A biggish-built girl opened the counter and asked what we wanted. She passed us all a can of soft drink, but they hadn’t been in a fridge so they were hot. I mean hot! I had a few sips and it was too hard to drink. I tried forcing myself but it made me feel sick, so our little treat ended up not being such a treat at all. But the generosity of people opening up the kiosk for us was very much appreciated.
Everyone kept telling us we had to try fishing in the Jean Marie River as there were some great fish in it. Fishing wasn’t our priority though, so we left the smallest community in the North West Territories, which boasts of about 75 residents and paddled downstream, stopping for lunch just before Spence River, which runs near parallel with the Mackenzie for 40kms.
Twenty kilometres further it was time to find a campsite. Since the ‘Head-of- the-Line’ the river had been quite narrow with near 30 metre high river banks but as it widened 2kms before Rabbitskin River it was more exposed to wind and waves and the river banks became less steep. We were undecided where to camp as the shoreline didn’t look very accommodating for four tents, but we decided to try for Rabbitskin River, the headwaters of which are in a series of lakes north of Mills Lake. A power boat was anchored on the north side of the river, so we paddled towards it. We pulled alongside and met Celine and Jim Antoine. After talking to them for a few brief moments they said that we could camp on their family land on the corner of the two rivers 200 metres away. We retraced our steps back to the main river and landed near a small track leading up the hill. At the top there was a good cabin, a makeshift cabin where Celine and Jim slept and a timber tent frame. There was also a flat section of grass that was freshly cut by Jim and perfect for camping on. The view from the top of the ridge was just amazing and we could see for miles.
Everyone carried their gear to the ridge top and set up tents. Some time later Celine and Jim pulled up in their power boat after having done a spot of fishing upriver. They came up and lit a fire and we all sat around and talked. Celine was a very attractive woman, though she smoked heavily. The girls thought Jim was good looking so they didn’t mind sitting opposite him to enjoy his easiness on the eyes as well as his stories. Jim is a well respected First Nation Leader and he now runs his own consultancy business. Jim knew Jane Groenewegen from Hay River when he was in politics.
A First Nation Camp.
Celine shared some of the Deh Cho (big river in Dene) stories and talked about some of the medicinal purposes of plants that we would find along the way. Then Jim and Celine showed us some of the local edible plants that could be found around the area and shortly afterwards, Tony and Leonie scrambled around picking berries.
I erected the solar shower down by the river behind some bushes. Just being able to strip off and have a warm shower, was without doubt a highlight of the day. There was such an incredible sunset. The clouds were spread across the western sky like waves, with hollows of clear sky where the sun bled through. Like a fire flaring in a furnace, the sun dipped towards the horizon leaving the sky and wide river different shades of red and pink. The air was full of dragon flies flitting around like hundreds of micro helicopters. It was nearly too perfect to go to bed.
A stunning evening.
Day 44 – Saturday 19th July
The morning was clear and sunny. We had breakfast overlooking the water and watched a towboat motor up river, creating a huge bow wave that fanned out until it hit the shore. I carried the gear down to the canoe as Alaine strapped her blistered fingers and talked to Jim who was sitting on a rail with his dog near his side. Our night had turned out to be much better than we could have imagined, thanks to Celine and Jim, whose kindness allowed us to camp on their family land and for welcoming us as friends.
Alaine chats to Jim.
We moved away from Rabbitskin River heading across a big expanse of water to a much narrower channel at Strong Point. We were soon gliding along watching the shores fly by as we entered Green Island Rapids. Our information indicated that the next section was swift and lumpy and caution had to be taken as the current exceeded 5.5 knots. A detour around Green Island avoided the turbulences and the Green Island rapids but we wanted excitement so we followed the main channel and readied ourselves for a livelier river. Although the ride became a lot more thrilling the rapids didn’t live up to our expectations and we were out of the turbulence much quicker than we wanted to be.
When the current started to ease, several barges were parked along the southern shoreline at a place called Naylor’s Landing, which was a barge tie up-point. Several tie-up points with securing steel cables are located along the entire Mackenzie River usually before and after a narrow or turbulent section. At these points tugs will drop off some of their barges and relay two or three barges at a time to make it a safer journey.
As we pushed off we could see Fort Simpson in the far distance. Fort Simpson was going to be the last town that we would come across that was situated on a highway. As we got within 2kms of it, we started to pass the steep 65m high cliffs of Gros Cap, which forms the eastern entrance point of the Liard River. Beyond these cliffs the Liard River met the Mackenzie River and it was here we suddenly met a big expanse of water coming from the Liard which was amazingly dirty. We were immediately disappointed. The change in colour was due to the water being fed from glacial streams where rock particles and silt are washed downstream. From now on all rivers joining the Mackenzie from the west would contain milky glacial water, yet the rivers running in from the east would be clear because they don’t drain from high mountains. Up to this point, the Mackenzie River water was so crystal clear because it ran directly out of the massive Great Slave Lake. Now not only did the river look awful, our fishing would also suffer as we were told that fish were less likely to see a lure in murky water.
We paddled across the Liard ensuring the current didn’t sweep us too far downstream as we needed to get across to the left bank to stop at Fort Simpson. A huge cross that we could see at the south end of the town, near the camping ground was erected for the Pope’s visit in 1984. However the Pope didn’t get there for that visit due to a fog bank 200 metres thick. It was deemed too dangerous for the Pope’s plane to land and in fact, it was Jim Antoine as Chief who had to make the announcement to 3000 disappointed people. A promise was made that the Pope would return to Fort Simpson as soon as his schedule allowed. He returned to Fort Simpson in September 1987. Fort Simpson is now the home of 1,200 Dene, Metis and non-aboriginal people and has all the modern conveniences.
Once close to shore we crept along it for a while until there was a chance for Tony to climb the embankment to check out the town. When he returned he told us to paddle further to where three float planes were anchored along the shore. As we dragged the canoes way up above a boat’s wash line, a towboat pushing barges motored by on the other side of the river. We changed into our visitor’s clothing while Tony and Leonie, who were much quicker at getting ready, waited. We walked along the road into town. It was quiet. The library was closed so we walked further past the store to the Tourist Office. I wanted to email our progress but their computer wasn’t working, however the girls kindly allowed us to fax my diary instead of emailing it. Unfortunately they had no idea how to use the fax, so we had to work it out ourselves.
Landing at Fort Smith.
The tourist office / museum was full of interesting pieces, historical facts, an old bark canoe and picture books of the area, especially of the South Nahani River. It is one of Canada’s most scenic white water rivers and a canoeist’s dream. Dotted with rapids held in by canyons and vertical cliff walls, it also included Virginia Falls, which plunges 90 metres, twice the height of Niagara Falls. The landscape in the pictures looked amazing and it made us a little depressed that we were so close but didn’t have time to visit the area. However, it was impossible to see everything in the time we had, and we had to be content with what we were able to see.
Walking back towards the shops we met an Australian lady, and believe it or not she was also from Perth. Like thousands of others she had booked a rafting trip down the Nahani River so she could see the amazing scenery, but she didn’t like water, was concerned about the rapids and was understandably quite nervous. However it was the only way that she could see it and was determined to give it a go. The travel agent in Canada who she had been dealing with didn’t tell her that most people start the tour at another place and not at Fort Simpson. So she was angry at the travel agent who was very unhelpful and who had caused her to rent a small plane by herself, which would cost her thousands of dollars, to get her to the main meeting point. She was like a fish out of water here in town, but a guy from the local hotel was driving her around and helping her out.
We tried to find Tony and Leonie as we had planned to meet at the pub for lunch but somehow our wires got crossed. They did their shopping before lunch and we decided to do our shopping after lunch so when they arrived for lunch we had finished and we were ready to do our shopping. It was a terrible meal with poor service, so we were happy to shop. Carrying several bags of groceries I left Alaine at the store to ring her family and walked to the bottle shop to buy some wine. It wasn’t cheap, at about $50.00 for 4 litres. In Australia we pay much less but I had to remember we were in the north and a long way from a big city. One woman was trying to buy several bottles of wine but she was refused and it appeared there was a limit to what you could buy.
We lugged the groceries and wine to the canoe. Tony and Leonie were ready to leave. Tony was giving his frying pan to a pilot of one of the float planes when we arrived. It looked as if he had given up making damper. Just as we cast off, a couple in a canoe paddled, well, floated by. Apparently they asked Leonie if we wanted to stay the night and have a bbq but we were on our way again, so we decided to keep heading downstream rather than backtracking.
A large sandbar looked like heaven as we passed it a couple of kilometres from town. The river on the left side, which came from the Liard was milky but it was still clean and clear on the right side. Eventually it would mix and become all milky. The wind soon picked up and the straight river turned into a mass of chopped up waves and Tony and Leonie started to lag behind. They caught up when we stopped at a sheltered place about 12kms up on the left, just before the river narrowed.
Once around the bend we started looking for a camping spot. There was nothing close, but we expected to find something on one of the two islands that we were coming up to, on the east side of the river. To our dismay the islands were rocky and too steep to erect a tent.
At the south end of the second island we reassessed our situation and decided to paddle across the river to a spot that looked suitable on the other side. The current was swift so we had to do a big ferry glide or be washed downstream beyond the spot. It was a fast, fun ferry glide. The shore on the western side looked perfect. We pulled up and found the bank was flat, but slightly angled and with just enough room on the second higher tier of flat ground to pitch our tents. Directly behind us there was a steep one metre bank that kept shedding a little sand and as we hammered in our tent pegs we caused the sand to cascade even more. Luckily the bank wasn’t high enough to cause a serious landslide.
We were very pleased with the camp as it was much better than we expected. I climbed the ridge behind and found bear prints and patches of fluffy white flowers like dandelions. A few spindly saplings, weeds and piles of rotting timbers were also spread over the 60m wide sandy flat. Like a fortress wall, the thick pine forest spread along the western shores of the river, seemingly going on forever.
The vegetation behind our camp.
I was up at midnight watching the sun slowly descend. The evening was so still. Black clouds started to gather and engulf the sun but at the last moment the sun was allowed to filter through a gap that suddenly opened up like a huge door. As the sun disappeared below the horizon the clouds started to break away and fade, leaving only wispy bands of clouds across the sky. When the horizon cleared of cloud a two-tone pink colour filled and filtered across a narrow part of the lower north-westerly sky and reflected beautifully into the water like a cluster of pink pearls in an oyster shell.
I loved the sunsets. They were always late but staying up to watch the wilderness change before my eyes was irresistible. When the wind calmed I could virtually hear my own heart beat in the silence. As the sun set the skies would change colour, sometimes so dramatically and beautifully it was hard to believe I was on the same planet. Watching the calm water I could see small ripples made by fish and when I looked into the air it was often crammed with dragonflies. As the sound of the odd coyote, wolf or waterbird echoed across the big expanse of water, I felt so humbled and so lucky to have the courage and conviction to follow my passion and experience life in all different parts of the world. In the wilderness I truly feel I am at home. I am also lucky to have a wife who understands and allows me the time to do these things.
That perfect evening.
Day 45 – Sunday 20th July
It was yet again another beautiful, windless sunny morning. The campsite had proved to be a good one. Once on the water it soon got choppy as the wind started to bite but the current was still good so it helped us to keep cheery. Then later a little frustration started to develop as Tony and Leonie kept paddling through our break time and we had another late nibble stop. Over the last few days our routine had been a little erratic and our breaks didn’t conform with our usual eating and resting pattern. I suggested that we get back to some sort of order as our stopping times were not uniformed and our routine was all over the place. Just when we thought we were about to have a loo and nibble break we didn’t. Over the years I’ve learnt that even while paddling, it’s best to stick to some sort of routine, as you look forward to stopping for a drink or a break. If it doesn’t happen it can be disappointing and cause friction.
We paddled on for another hour or so against a strong wind and Tony and Leonie were lagging, yet when it was calm they were always faster than us. An hour after lunch we saw a ferry in the distance crossing the wide river. It was like civilisation coming to meet us. Deep down I didn’t want to meet civilisation. It was perfect being in the big wilderness alone. We pulled into shore just upstream of the ferry, jumped out, dragged our canoes up and walked over to some old barges and a tug lying across a wooden slip. The tug was named ‘Hay River’. It was interesting to see the tug out of the water as we could see the underside, its propeller and four large rudder blades that steered it. The wooden slipway was used in the winter to get the barges and tugs out of the water and away from the ice when the river froze.
A barge crossing.
We walked down to the ferry which was still docked and two men started talking to us. They were very friendly. Dave was the skipper and Danny was the deck hand. They offered us a coffee which we gladly accepted, and they led us into their tiny lunchroom to fill our mugs. Back on deck we talked and we learnt a lot about one thing and another, but then a car pulled up on the other side of the river so Dave asked us if we wanted to take a ride across the river to collect it. We jumped at the idea. Danny started lifting the ramp and the engines revved up. Meanwhile Alaine had gone to the toilet. When she heard and felt the boat moving she thought we had left her and gone on shore, so she quickly pulled up her pants and ran on deck. We hid and you should have seen her face when she saw the ferry moving away. She laughed when we came out of hiding.
Having a ride.
We climbed the ladder and onto the bridge. Dave steered the ferry with a lever rather than a wheel. It had controls on both ends of the cabin so he didn’t have to turn the ferry around. Dave, who used to drive barges in British Columbia, was here working seven days a week during the summer season when the river was free of ice. He said it was good money and worth working the long hours as he could take time off the rest of the year and go travelling if he wanted. The company was keen to have him sign a contract for three more years, but he had to talk it over with his wife as it is a big commitment. In fact, Dave and his wife had been to Australia. They both enjoyed it and found the Australians to be friendly and helpful.
I was so surprised to see how strong the current was and how much it was affecting the ferry‘s line. The ferry ended up doing a big ferry glide and as Dave steered it across to the eastern side of the river where he started to do a tricky docking manoeuvre, Alaine started talking to him. I was a bit concerned that if he became distracted he would mess up, but Dave took it in his stride.
Dave lowered the ramp, the car came aboard and Danny placed blocks under its wheels. With the vehicle in place the ferry backed off and we were on our way again. Looking north through the wheelhouse windows we could now see the beautiful Nahani Range, which we hoped to be close to by the end of the day. Our journey was getting more exciting!
As the ferry returned to the ramp it had to do an even more angled ferry glide to hit the ramp. Today Dave had only crossed the river eight times, but yesterday he crossed thirty eight times. On returning Dave gave us a banana and an orange to share. He also gave us his wife’s address just in case we needed something in Vancouver. We thanked him and said our goodbyes. By the time we were in our canoes he was off again to fetch a truck that was now waiting on the other side. We were all on a high after meeting two fantastic people and having the experience of travelling on a ferry with them. It’s amazing how small things can make your day that much better. We took off drifting with the fast current.
Once around the bend the wind picked up. The current was fast so the headwind made little difference to our speed, but Alaine got wet from the splash. The Nahani Range came into view, a welcome sight after so much of the same; spruce, willows and poplar trees. It was nearly time to stop. An island or two on our right side nearly enticed us but they didn’t look quite perfect enough and as we were a few hundred metres away we decided to move on.
From a distance the terrain on the next bend looked too steep to camp, but as we got closer the chances of camping looked more positive. We landed but there appeared to be a better spot a few hundred metres further, so I ran along the shore to check and it was perfect. The rocks were nicely laid out near the water’s edge, there were patches of level ground to erect our tents, no mossies and a view of the mountains you could kill for. Only a stone’s throw away, the North Nahani River carved its way through the mountain range. We could only imagine how beautiful it would be to paddle it, as tomorrow we would pass it by.
Another beautiful camp with a view of the Nahani Range .
Alaine did some clothes washing, I fished without success, probably because the river was milky and fast, Tony started cooking, Leonie did her washing ritual near the river’s edge and later we all busied ourselves with our routine tasks and little jobs. It was a perfect evening. Tony was in bed first, but that was quite usual.
As Alaine, Leonie and I milled around I noticed a porcupine with long quills on its back walking along the shore towards our camp. We all hid behind a big washed-up tree and watched it come closer. As it neared it must have spotted or smelt us because it walked steadily up the slope and into the trees and disappeared. Several minutes later I saw it come out of the trees and back onto the clearing, but on the other side of our camp. It had just walked around us, now it plodded along the shoreline fearing nothing.
It was a late night by the time we cleared up. I wrote in my diary, but I kept nodding off so instead of legible writing, there was only a bit of scribble on the pages.
Nahani Range later in the evening.
Day 46 – Monday 21st July
The trees blocked out the morning sun making it fairly chilly until the sun rose high enough to shine through. The range was looking majestic and once again I couldn’t help but rejoice at my good fortune at being here. The wind had calmed only to become windy again. Fortunately it calmed again before we left. Tony and Leonie were ready 10 minutes before we were, so they took to the water and drifted in the sun. The setting was tranquil and they too looked at peace floating with the Nahanni Range as the eye-catching background.
As we paddled off and rounded the bend the view extended northwards for kilometres and what a view it was! The mountain range was simply stunning and the feeling of being in a true wilderness was absolutely exhilarating. Clouds were just beginning to form and hover over the range. I couldn’t help but take several photos, so we lagged behind. When we caught up with Tony and Leonie they were over to our left and it was a perfect place to be for my next camera shot. The scene was striking and it was exceptionally peaceful.
Perfect conditions and lovely scenery.
As one range came into view another would back it up. The Nahanni Mountain, about 10kms away, was 4038 feet high. Standing a few kilometres further north, and separated by a low ridge, was Lone Mountain. They weren’t as big as the peaks of the Rocky Mountains but out here they were really something special.
There was no wind, so paddling was an absolute joy. We stopped frequently to take photos which meant that Tony & Leonie who continued paddling ended up being well ahead. Both Alaine and I were wondering why they didn’t stop more often and immerse themselves in the scenery, to soak it all up and to store in their memory banks.
Feet up and relax and watch the stunning scenery go by whilst being help along by the current. What more could you want!
We cut across our first big stretch of open water and stopped for a break on an island directly east of Lone Mountain. The stunning panorama seemingly continued forever. The current was still swift and by lunch time after passing between an island and sandbar we came up to the North Nahanni River which was shallow and braided as it entered the Mackenzie. Looking upstream there was a break in the mountains but less than a kilometre away the Camsell Range began to form.
We landed for lunch north-east of Mt Camsell at Camsell Bend, where we were witness to a beautiful vista of the mountain range that stood vertically to the north and to the south. Rocks paved the shoreline so perfectly it seemed as if they had been laid by tradesmen and Alaine even thought that someone had truly done it. A long log was stranded on shore, impeccably placed for us to use as a seat and to be able to look at and marvel at one of the most magnificent scenes that nature could present. Looking towards the range of vertical cliffs, this was surely going to be one of, if not the best lunch spot that we would find along the way. It was a stunning place to camp but unfortunately it was way too early to stop.
Time to stop and take in the beauty.
Our lunch may not be appetising but the location is great.
The day was still, hot and calm. We were blessed to have such a glorious day on this part of the journey. Reluctantly we had to move on. Tony & Leonie left a few minutes before us and we could see them floating around the bend with the swift current. I took another photograph, I couldn’t resist the temptation. I wanted to ensure that I had a hard copy of this magical place so that each time I looked at the photo I could recall just how special Camsell Bend was.
It just gets better.
We took off racing around the bend to catch up. Channel buoys were scattered along the river and a pile of unused ones were on the right bank. The guys had their legs up and were lying back and drifting when we caught them. They didn’t move, so we too decided to enjoy the pleasure of lying back with our feet up. We took in as much of the amazing scenery as possible and longed for it to continue, but a few kilometres later the river started to move away from the craggy range and after Root River a smaller range began to block our spectacular view.
At the Root River confluence Tony said he saw three moose crossing the river. Excitedly we looked on but when I checked through my binoculars it turned out to be tree branches stuck in the mud. We all had a bit of chuckle.
Within 12kms the river divided into two big channels, we took the main one to the left and found a camp on an island 3kms down. With the water level going down, due to less snow melt and summer weather, sandbars at the end of islands were becoming more exposed which suited us as we had more chances of finding a good camp. Tonight’s camp, apart from a little mud on the river’s edge was a stunner. The island was dry, level and sandy, perfect for our tents. A large sandbar fronted it and it was a good place for a game of cricket.
Watching a barge go by our island camp.
A gull kept squawking overhead and then it let loose on Leonie’s tent. We all laughed at Leonie’s misfortune and poor Leonie thought the birds knew she didn’t like them and as a result was being targeted. Leonie said that birds were always swooping down on her. A tug pushing several barges powered up the eastern side of our island struggling against the current and leaving a big bow wave to erode the shores.
After settling in I found three long thin branches and created a tepee behind some bushes to hang the solar shower from. Being high it worked perfectly as I didn’t have to bend to get underneath it. To undress and wash in warm water, with a gentle breeze blowing across my body, with such a stunning visual wilderness backdrop, plus no insects to interfere with the pleasure, was just a magical moment. I was beginning to like the solar shower. It was much more pleasant than washing in the cold milky river.
What a great place for our solar shower.
When dinner was served we sat on the dry fine sand near our tents gazing southwest towards the sun that was going down behind the spectacular range. A few white clouds languishing on the mountain slopes looked very much like snow. Just a little reminder of what it may have looked like in the beginning of winter.
Day 47 – Tuesday 22nd July
It was another beautiful morning. Through a deep hollow in a smaller range fronting it, we could see a small part of the vertical Camsell Range which was strikingly lit up with the morning sun. There was a stark yet beautiful contrast in colours around our camp. Our yellow, blue, green and orange gear was sitting on the white sand which was peppered with a few young green stems of foliage. The white sand blended into the grey muddy shores which met the blue water. On a far undulating ridge grew a deep green forest, but a hollow in the ridge allowed the brightly sun-lit Camsell Range to show through, as if it was a place from another land. A band of wispy white cloud above the mountain ranges unhurriedly and dreamily moved across a beautiful blue sky. The last two days had been so perfect, just like this morning and we wanted it to last forever.
The distant range is lit up by the morning sun.
We moved off to start our day and a kilometre or two from the island we had camped on, and at the first bend a tug with several barges motored around the corner carrying two semitrailers and some earth-moving equipment. We kept our distance to stay away from the bow wave and heard the captain say good morning over the loud speaker, which brought a smile to ours faces.
We stopped on the left shores near an island, just north of McGern Island and where the two main channels met up again. As we were about to take off, a police boat came speeding down the river, saw us and then came across and asked us for the name of the group and where we were from. Apart from asking if we needed anything, they took off. When we took to the water the police boat seemed to be drifting. We thought with a bit of extra speed we might catch it up but just as we closed in they started the motor and took off.
For lunch we headed for the ’Between the Mountains River’ which I thought may be a good place to catch a fish. As we approached it, the current was moving swiftly due to the Mackenzie River narrowing. We suddenly had to paddle solidly to ferry glide across to it, so as to not miss the river mouth.
The river was small but crystal clear. We landed where I thought the river was deep on a shore that was covered with boulders. Tony and Leonie paddled upriver to where the braided shallow river cascaded over the last rock bar. They collected water, whereas I threw out my fishing line and started fishing before they joined us.
Lunchtime fishing with no success.
I fished for 15 minutes, but I caught nothing. It was a bit disappointing considering everyone told us that the fishing was great in the clear rivers. It looked as if I didn’t have the right touch. Never mind, it was a beautiful place to have lunch. Leonie took the opportunity to wash her hair and we took the opportunity to collect fresh drinking water.
Leaving the ’Between the Mountains River’ .
As we left, we drifted and peered over the side of the canoe and looked into the clear water trying to find fish. The clear water soon mixed with the milky Mackenzie and within minutes we could see nothing. The river narrowed further and the current quickened. An island on the right looked as if a bulldozer had levelled it out. 15kms later we pulled up to the village of Wrigley where five canoes were strapped together on shore. Within minutes of landing a young guy came over and started asking questions and telling us what he and the group had done. The rest of the group soon came down and started chatting. It was amazing. There were so many excited young people talking at once. The group, half male and half female were all in their late teens from a school in Calgary on a forty four day trip from Fort Providence to Inuvik. They were so excited at the fact that they had been enjoying the trip so much they just wanted to tell us everything. It was fantastic seeing them on such a natural high. Leonie and Alaine mentioned that some of the young ladies were good lookers, although I can’t say I noticed…..much!!!!
Part of the Camsell Range.
We needed to get to the store so one of the girls showed us a track that led directly up the steep hill to the village. We followed it, puffing and panting all the way. When we reached some green steps on an even steeper part we rested a minute and looked down towards and across the river. At the very top, the view was stunning, as the north end of the Camsell Ranges met the river straight across from us. What a picturesque place to live.
We walked onto the dirt road heading towards the store. Looking east, over to the church, the Franklin Mountains were the backdrop. The small houses along the road were very modest, there seemed no riches in this part of town. Tony asked an elderly First Nation man sitting on his balcony where the store was. It appeared that he didn’t understand English but a lady from the same household did. She stopped a car heading in the opposite direction from the shop, the driver of which happened to be the shop manager. He turned his vehicle and drove back and opened the store just for us. As we entered the community building, some of the local youth sneaked inside too.
The small store was well stocked, different from rumours that we heard along the way. However the ice cream was on a truck that was a couple of days away and an ice cream was just what we fancied. We walked around checking out all the goodies, wanting to buy something, but there wasn’t much that we really needed. We bought drinks and crisps but that was it. As we left a women greeted us like a long lost friend. I responded to her and said we had come all the way from Australia just to see her. She laughed and gave me a quick witted reply. The First Nation people were always chatty and had a great sense of humour.
When we left the building a few more local youth sneaked inside as we opened the door. We returned to the steps but before going down we walked along the ridge on a foot track to a large Canadian flag overlooking the river and took a photo. Back at the steps we descended and met five of the students who were going up to the village to play with the kids. At the bottom we talked to the students and two leaders before returning to the canoes.
The outskirts of Wrigley.
Some of the students paddling the river.
I was all for camping at Wrigley and having some friendly faces to talk to, but the others wanted to move on. Pity really. It would have been an interesting night getting to know the group better. The others thought I wanted to stay because of the good looking young ladies but that’s not my nature at all!
We took off just as a guy with a crossbow jumped into his power boat. He was obviously going on a hunting trip. We moved on not knowing where we were going to camp, but luck was on our side as we found a great beach on a beautiful rock island about 5kms downstream, just opposite Wrigley River.
The river swirled and ran quickly in front of our beach which was penned in by rock on three sides. It was just the perfect campsite. Clouds hovered over the magnificent peaks of Roche-qui-trempe-a-l’eau and Mt Gaudet to the north. Ominous black clouds slowly moved towards us and smothered the sky in the west bringing with it wind and a very definite chill.
I tried fishing, but caught nothing. I had a strip wash and stood there naked in a rock gulley and although it was a perfect place, the cool evening forced me to wash quickly. The view from the top of the rocks was spectacular. The water rushed and swirled around the western side of the island and due to the falling river levels it left water in rock pools which would eventually dry up.
What a great camp until the wind storm.
Back in camp, the wind picked up violently and moved around in a 360 degree circle. A whirlwind of sand particles infiltrated our tents, Leonie’s tent especially, due to its inner being totally mesh. She wasn’t a happy woman as she started putting tarps around her tent to keep the sand out.
As the wind intensified it was like a sand storm in a desert and our perfect campsite became a shambles as we wrapped up from the cold and the flying sand particles. Violent clouds surrounded us, rain threatened and occasionally the sun bled through creating a fiery sky, but it was the wind that made it that little bit uncomfortable. Bed was the best place to be.
Day 48 – Wednesday 23rd July
It was still cloudy but the wind that had left sand piled up around our tents had at least abated. Further along the island some of the rock walls had people’s names painted on them. Although painted several years earlier they looked a real eyesore. It was such a shame to see graffiti way out here.
Just downstream of the Rock, on our left side there lay the former, and now abandoned, settlement site of Wrigley. We saw little of it as we were taken up with the beauty of the rock on the right side that started as a prominent round mountain when we first saw it. It then changed into a sheer cliff face that rose 213 metres. For the next 1.5kms the mountain formed a great amphitheatre with another mountain, the Roche-qui-trempe-a-l’eau on the downstream end.
Roche-qui-trempe-a-l’eau on the downstream end.
This mass of Devonian limestone also rose sheer from its water’s edge to a height of 366 m. Tony and Leonie canoeing beside it looked like dwarfs compared with the mountain. What a fabulous cliff for rock climbing. Tony’s son would have been at home here as he is an avid rock climber.
Dwarfed by the mountain.
The range veered away from the river in a north-easterly direction. We could see Mount Gaudet 488m, 4kms north of the Rouche which was slipping in and out of clouds, and further beyond was the Franklin Mountain Range. But with the visibility being poor our views were interrupted.
The loss of the view of the mountains was a blow as the river was virtually straight for the next 60kms and there seemed little to focus on. Clouds were deepening all around us and in the far distance we could see rain moving towards us up the river. It was getting chillier with every minute, so we stopped to put on more layers of clothing. As the scenery before us was now pretty plain I looked back several times to take in a better view of the ranges that we were paddling away from. Mt Gaudet was now completely in cloud. Rivers, creeks and gullies were entering the river from both sides. Some had formed their own little canyons which gave us something to look at and talk about.
Stopping on the left side of the river for our morning break we had a great view upstream of the distant mountains and the clouds dissipating. Alaine’s wrist was swollen and sore and she could no longer pretend it was going to get better. Using a strapping technique that Tony had been shown by medics on the Murray Marathon, Tony helped Alaine strap her wrists. A few years ago Tony and Leonie paddled the Murray Marathon Race, a five day event. Tony had developed wrists problems and had to be strapped up. At the time Alaine was part of their support team.
Back in the canoe Alaine noticed a rainbow that arched into the river only a few hundreds of metres away. It was as if the pot of gold was right there. We paddled towards it, but it faded and eventually it was gone.
Although the sky was full of clouds the sun at times peaked through. The wind however was unrelenting and although the current was very good the wind hampered us and made paddling hard. Having a swollen wrist wasn’t what Alaine wanted.
After about 60kms of near straight river we rounded a bend and Mt Gaudet was finally out of view. Although I was hoping to get to the Blackwater River where I was told it was good fishing, Alaine was ready to stop early to rest her wrist.
Campsites were hard to find, but we found a sandbar near a small creek. A skull and the antlers of a moose were embedded in the sand. Alaine said, that moose shed their antlers, as if to say that these antlers had been shed, I replied that, yes they do, but I don’t think they usually shed their head as well!! We couldn’t help but have a good laugh hearing that comment.
It was pleasing to be fresh water that we could filter.
The sand was wet at that point and not suitable to camp, so we walked back upstream beyond the creek and found a firm spot to erect our tents. I tried fishing but without luck so I worked on our schedule instead. We had paddled 70kms which was our day’s target but my job of getting us to the end of the trip on schedule was becoming a little more difficult. I had to be careful not to push Alaine too much or she may break down, but we couldn’t take it too easy or we would never get there. Every night I would check the amount of kilometres to the end of the river and divide them by the number of days we had left. As Tony had decided to leave the trip before we did, we had to make sure that we got to Inuvik for his flight. Although we were not completing as many kilometres as I would have hoped for every day, we were still on track to finish on time.
The local seats. Perfect for dressing.
Day 49 – Thursday 24th July
It was cool at 6.30am with a lot of cloud cover so the sun couldn’t get through. Two large gulls landed on a small mud sandbar next to the stream. An eagle flew overhead and I went to the toilet, twice, just like old times at home. When Leonie got up she saw this black thing squatting up river and thought it was a bear, until she saw me hopping forward for the toilet roll. She still talks about it and thinks it was one of the funniest things she has seen!!
Alaine pumped and filtered our drinking water for the day. We didn’t get going until 9.20am and although it wasn’t windy when we got up it was windy by the time we started to paddle. It was really hard work paddling around the first bend but it got easier when we crossed over to the other side and got closer to the Blackwater River. Cables that were used to tie up barges were on the right side not far from Blackwater.
I wanted to stop at the Blackwater River to fish, but I wasn’t quite sure what resistance I would have from Tony as he now seemed eager to keep moving. When we pulled into the Blackwater River it was extremely cold and windy. The rocky shoreline was wet and slippery with mud patches. Huge bear prints were imprinted into the dry mud. I knew we couldn’t stop long as everybody would get cold, but I just needed to try and catch another fish. I took out my fishing line and cast it into the black, but clear river. Tony soon followed suit, which was a nice surprise as there was certainly something bothering him but we didn’t find out what it was.
Trying to catch a fish on the Blackwater River.
The girls pottered whilst we fished but after about 10 minutes neither of us had caught anything. So much for clear water! With no success, my title as a hunter was in jeopardy and Alaine said I was no longer Harry the Hunter but was instead Gail the Gatherer. It was just too cold to stay any longer, so we moved on. The black, but clear water of the Blackwater River met the milky Mackenzie River and where they met there were two distinct lines of different coloured water. It was quite a sight. We looked over the side of the canoe for quite some time looking through the amazing clear black water watching the bottom slide by.
The incoming Blackwater River was clear but soon got mixed in with the milky McKenzie.
Within a few minutes we were going around a wide bend with a swift current. We were flying. The current from the Blackwater River to Old Fort Point was said to be fairly turbulent and would attain 5 to 7 knots reaching the maximum rate near Saline Island. The information was right.
A few kilometres further Alaine noticed a boat which turned out to be the police boat. Tony and Leonie were first to reach them. They stopped and asked if we wanted anything and as we didn’t they were off within minutes heading back upstream to Hay River, returning again to patrol the river in August.
It was nearly lunch time so we made for the next point on the right. At the same time we spotted a driller’s camp way across the other side of the river to our left. We were intrigued with the piles of what looked like timber sleepers and if it hadn’t been so far across and the current so fast, we would have made the journey over. A semitrailer and a couple of front-end loaders were also there, but at a standstill. It was windy, so once on shore we used the canoe as a windbreak and hunkered down behind it to eat our lunch.
When we pressed on the river was wider but still quite fast. We were doing 10 – 12kms an hour. We skirted an island and made for the left hand channel of Birch Island. We stopped 3kms before it and put our feet up for 15 minutes. Alaine lay on her tummy so she could easily dangle her sore wrist in the cool water to reduce the swelling.
We decided to make for Redstone River which we hoped would be good fishing and camping. The current was very swift before it, and we were doing 14kms an hour. Reaching the southern side of the river we pulled into an eddy. The Redstone River although shallow was racing. We ferried across it, but it was too fast and too shallow to paddle up, so we got out and pulled the canoes up against the current to a spot with small sand patches. We erected our tents on cleared sand patches between small collections of boulders just a few metres from the river’s edge. As we settled in we could see a tall aerial on the summit of the range to our north.
The Redstone River was too shallow to paddle up.
Tony and I tried fishing, I upstream of the camp and Tony where the river met the Mackenzie but we had no luck as the water coming from the mountains was very milky. We settled for wine, cheese, olives, biscuits, and oysters instead and later had a meal of spicy rice with dried fruits and peanuts. It wasn’t too bad a meal, and it was followed by a dessert.
Camp on the Redstone River.
I washed as the wind dropped. Later when everyone had retired, I watched as the sun went down and the dying rays were shining and reflecting on a large bundle of varying sized round rocks nearby. It was another late evening magic moment that I shared with no one but myself. There had been so many magic moments and magnificent sunsets along the way. I got a great photo.
The beauty of boulders.
Day 50 – Friday 25th July
It was another cool, cloudy morning and the current was moving at 16 – 18kms an hour. We were flying again so it didn’t take us long to do the first 20kms. Above the northern range an amazing cloud had formed looking more like a spaceship than a cloud. I hadn’t seen anything like it before. I paddled on without thinking to take a photo at the time but some time later when it had broken up a little I took one. I was quite amazed.
A space ship!
We passed the Keele River and stopped at Little Smith Creek for a break. A drilling company had pipes and steel on shore just before it, near a few old cabins. We couldn’t see anyone as we paddled by, only a helicopter flying in the distance.
The high vertical river banks were full of landslides and there was even dirt tumbling as we passed some spots. Alaine put in her iPod ear phones and listened to music, which kept her quiet for a while, but every so often I could hear her singing along to a song. Thankfully one of her ear pieces kept falling out, which usually stopped her from singing. I think she’s bad but she thinks I’m worse!
A crumbling cliff.
We were going to stop at Big Smith River but it didn’t look very inviting, so we moved on passing more landsides and a lot of small creeks. The river was still swift and just after a bend 2kms before Old Fort Point we ferried across the river to stop for lunch on the gravel shore. The river was getting lower with every day that passed, due to the summer, and less rain, creating more and more sand and gravel bars to be exposed.
Back on the water we passed Old Fort Point and the former site of Fort Norman in no time. We saw a sign saying ‘480 miles.’ Around the next bend the river was wide and we had to make the choice, to either stay with the swifter current and follow the barge channel, or take a short cut to the right that would lead us to Seagull Island. There seemed to be some flow through the short cut passage, so we took it. Some short cuts don’t always pay off but this one was worth it, and we saved lots of time.
Tulita (once called Fort Norman) was only 35kms away, but it was still too far to get to that night so after 70kms for the day we decided to stop near the end of Seagull Island opposite a coal seam that was supposed to glow in the dark. It was earlier than usual, 5.20pm, but the terrain ahead didn’t look favourable to make camp. The ground on the island was littered with driftwood trees and branches, but there was plenty of flat ground to erect our tents. I tried fishing with no luck. It was a bit windy but it dropped by 10.00pm and I didn’t notice any glowing coals from the coal seam when the sun went down.
Day 51 – Saturday 26th July
It was cool and cloudy when we moved off with only 35kms to go to the town of Tulita. Along the first straight it was pretty cold and the other three were rugged up in balaclavas and warm hats. As we rounded a bend at Police Island the Norman Range, which was quite impressive came into view. The range near Tulita came straight down to the water’s edge and another range beyond was partially lost in the haze. The river on the horizon also faded into the haze and then just vanished as if the world had simply disappeared. Much closer, on the left side of the river there was a tepee and a community of houses.
The range looked more striking the closer we got to it. We were looking for the patterns on the mountain of three beaver pelts that Celine had mentioned back at their camp at Rabbitskin River. She told us a Deh Cho First Nation story of Yámoríyá and the giant beavers. The story has it that Yámoríyá killed and skinned three giant beavers and placed their pelts on the side of Bear Rock. Yámoríyá went a little ways down river and cooked the female beaver on the shore. Burning grease from her dripped into the ground and burns to this day. If you travel by this area and see the flames from this burning grease, it is a sign to you from Yámoríyá that your life will be prolonged in this world.
We saw smoke appear on the distant mountain but then minutes later it was gone. As we got closer we could see the shapes of three pelts on the mountain and we knew now what Celine had meant. Some kilometres from Tulita we could see the glint of car windows on a point ahead and when we reached the point, it was actually a boat ramp. Here we saw houses on the hill but we didn’t stop until another kilometre further near some large washed up trees stranded on the river bank and where the old Northern Store stood on the ridge overlooking the river. We arrived about 12.20pm quickly changed into our visitors’ clothes and walked up the gravel track past a lifejacket stand and towards town. A sign said that the lifejackets on the stand were donated and they could be used by anyone in town who was going out on the water. We passed some abandoned buildings, a town office, a large bbq area and the Northern Store. We walked along the main street for a few minutes and when we could see nothing of interest we turned and walked back to the store. The town didn’t appear big, population 487, but there were several four wheel drive vehicles moving around.
Surprisingly the store was quite big inside considering Tulita was a small place. It virtually had everything that you would ever want, although they didn’t have bulk nuts, dried fruits or a good selection of vegetables. We shopped for essentials but really they were luxuries as we really didn‘t need them.
On the way back to the canoe we stopped off at the old church which was built with square logs which was unusual as most cabins were built with round logs. The spire above the door held a bell that presumably used to ring at mass times. Inside there was a sign above the alter that read ‘Till He Comes‘. The wooded floor was severely bowed in the centre making the wooden bench seats sit on an ‘A’ shaped angle. Apart from a couple of picture frames the bare timber walls had only an oil lamp fastened. We took photos and returned to the canoe. We had lunch back at the canoe and then Alaine and I took our rubbish back to a rubbish bin before having our last treat and buying an ice cream at the store.
Tulita by-gone church.
As we left, two old men sitting on a bench high on the ridge overlooking the river watched us paddle towards the Great Bear River. Huge trees that had been washed up on the river bank had been cut into manageable pieces and were piled in heaps, most likely to be used as firewood in winter. We had seen hundreds of driftwood logs washed up on the river bank along our way but it was the first time that we have seen people making use of them.
The Great Bear River is about 112kms long and is the outlet of the Great Bear Lake. The river is shallow, fast flowing, remarkably clear and cold, but it is not navigable all the way to the lake due to the St Charles Rapids about 40kms from the lake. The Great Bear Lake has an area of about 31,088 km2 and is the largest freshwater lake in Canada and the fourth largest in North America. The lake is 156m above sea level, descends to depths of 446m and has a shoreline of 2190kms long.
When we reached the Great Bear River it was crystal clear. We ferry glided across it, stopped near the north shore and filled our water bottles. Apparently tugs also replenish their water supply here. The water was so clear it was such a joy to be looking into it. When all our containers were full we drifted with the current back towards the Mackenzie. It was great to look into the water and be able to see the river bottom, but I couldn’t see any fish! The water remained clear along the east bank for several kilometres before it finally mixed with the milky Mackenzie.
We stopped on the corner for a quick pee before floating by a big mountain at the end of the Norman Range that had small streams flowing down several of its gullies. The range before us was a fantastic scene and it got better especially when Tony and Leonie paddled in front of it and gave it some scale. We could see the three large pelts that we saw earlier much easier now and it was a wonderful picture. The mountain was also quite arid and the mountain side was dotted with caves and overhangs.
Look at the three pelts on the mountain side.
As we left the mountain behind, we noticed the banks of the river ahead smouldering which turned out to be one of the coal seams that we had been told to keep an eye out for. Tony and Leonie reached it first and it wasn’t long before Tony scaled the burnt out smouldering slope that was backed and surrounded by green vegetation. After Alaine and I landed we walked across the smouldering ash and onto the red and brown tinted earth that resembled a ploughed up moonscape. There was a pungent smell and as I climbed higher across the burning dirt, which at times was more like quicksand, the smell became almost unbearable. It was great to explore but the sulphur smell and the intoxicating smoke made it feel quite hazardous to our health.
A smouldering coal seam.
Further up the slope Tony, Leonie then I looked into a crater in the side of the hill where smoke was escaping and the earth was scorched. It was hot and our feet were burning, but worst of all the fumes that were escaping, and we were breathing in, tasted toxic. There was no lingering as I was quite concerned with the smell and taste and of course our health. As Alaine was on the way up I descended quickly using my hands and carefully picked foot supports to avoid overbalancing and falling. Near the bottom where my foot prints were embedded into the soft mud I began to breathe easily again.
It was a fun climb but the fumes didn’t appear to be healthy.
We continued on, heading for Halfway Islands and passing sandbars, but when we saw how far away they were, we decided to stop early and landed on the shores just before a point. The area wasn’t perfect where we landed so Leonie and I walked along the shore towards the point. A fisherman had just landed, so we raced over to ask him a little about Norman Wells, our next community. The First Nation man was filling his fuel tanks and was on his way to hunt a moose which he was told was on one of the Halfway Islands opposite. We returned to the canoes and paddled to the point which turned out being a good camp site.
As soon as I had my tent up I started fishing. The river at this point was still quite clear as the clean water that drained out of Great Bear River hadn’t yet fully mixed with the milky Mackenzie water. I didn’t expect to catch anything though, but when I got a nibble on the line, it gave me hope. I continued to throw out my lure, pull in the line allowing it to coil up on the ground. Five minutes later I pulled in a whopper and I proudly became the ‘hunter’ again. I immediately took the fish well away from camp and gutted it, throwing the head and guts into the water not only to prevent it from luring the bears but also to allow other fish to feed on it.
Fish for dinner.
I started a fire and cooked the fish in foil. With the help of the girls I added herbs and spices. Tony had eaten, Leonie was cooking and only wanted a little and Alaine didn’t want much either so the fish was virtually all mine. It tasted beautiful and it had so much meat, but I couldn’t eat it all so I saved a portion for another meal. Three boats went by at great speed and the occupants were waving as they passed. It was a gorgeous night with no wind and a beautiful sunset.
Day 52 – Sunday 27th July
It was a cool morning but it soon became sunny. There were 48kms to Norman Wells and the river was like a millpond. The ranges were hazy due to smoke. The river in the distance and all the features ahead looked as if they had melted away, engulfed by the haze and completely disappeared.
On our left there were a number of cabins, two boats and the sound of dogs barking. We had a break on the right shore, sat on logs and we all threw stones at a rock. Somehow Alaine won our little competition, surely it must have been luck!
In the distance we could now see oil tanks and other buildings and a little later, oil wells, oil rigs, a barge and islands began to appear. Norman Wells was getting close. Conditions were extremely calm and warm so I was nearly nodding off but a power boat passing by made enough ripples to wobble the canoe and wake me up.
As we passed a boat ramp we met a lady called Cheryl paddling her feather-craft kayak close to the shore. Her dog was getting some exercise by running along the shoreline beside her. We stopped for a quick chat. She said when she went across the river the dog rode in the kayak. She was a quietly spoken person who invited us to call into the town office in the morning where she worked.
After passing the first groyne that jutted out from the shore and had boats and trailers parked on it, we landed on a beach at 2.30pm. As we dragged our canoes ashore we walked over to a couple and their daughter who were walking their dog. Tony asked them a few questions about the town and it just happened that the man was the manager of the local Northern Store which we would be visiting later.
We further dragged our canoes well away from the water’s edge onto the sand which was littered with driftwood. Out in the river there were several man-made islands with oil wells on them. We wasted no time and changed our clothes to walk into town. At the top of the track where it met the main road there was a fairly new hotel. For a moment we had thoughts of checking in but it looked too swish and expensive for us.
We walked left along a footpath and crossed streets with street signs in the shapes of the Raven. Within minutes we came across a church and a museum and went in and had a good look around. It was an amazing museum with a great gift shop full of wonderful gifts and books. There was so much to look at and the complete history of the region was right there. By looking at the exhibits we could really get to know what the area around Norman Wells used to be like.
The Norman Wells Church and museum.
During the World War 2 (1939 – 1945) the United States had a road construction headquarters stationed nearby for the building of the Canol Road (Canadian Oil). The US government built the road from near Norman Wells to Johnson’s Crossing and onto Whitehorse in the Yukon Territories to accommodate an oil pipeline. There was great concern that the Japanese would try to invade Alaska as oil was much needed for the war effort. The oil pipeline, considered uneconomical in peace time was dismantled in 1947. The Canol Road is now closed to traffic on the North West Territories side and is more of a walking track as it has never been upgraded. However on the Yukon Territories side it is still maintained most of the way. From photographs of the abandoned road, the area looks particularly spectacular.
In the museum a huge moose head was positioned on the wall with several other wildlife trophies scattered around the building. It was sad to see, but out here killing the wildlife was very much part of life and in the early days, it was what the locals lived off. Even today hunting is still popular. I must not forget that in Australia we have plagues of kangaroos which are hunted and overseas visitors would find that cruel.
With some reluctance, we left the museum and walked further into town until we reached the town shopping centre where we bought some goodies. We met an Englishman, his Canadian wife and three very young kids. They had driven up from the south to Norman Wells a year and a half before on the ice road in mid-winter. They admitted that they were ill-prepared for the journey and on the way he flipped their caravan. They had limited warm clothing and he only had sandals to walk around in but luckily he and his family were helped by other motorists. He said it was a very scary trip.
We ate an ice cream and then walked back towards the canoes. I walked further to find the Chinese restaurant that we had been told was a good spot to eat at. By the time I got back the girls had teed it up with the hotel attendant for them to have a shower in his room and that Tony and I could have a shower as well. However I wasn’t feeling that I needed to have a shower especially in someone’s personal room, a wash in the river was okay with me and much simpler. Tony wasn’t going to either but he changed his mind. I found out later that they paid $10.00 each for the shower. Tony wasn’t impressed but the girls who were more concerned with their personal health and hygiene, said it was well worth it.
When Alaine and Leonie returned they had arranged to buy steak and potatoes from the hotel attendant so we could cook for ourselves using a barbecue at a picnic spot. I wasn’t too happy about this arrangement as we had earlier decided to go to the Chinese Restaurant and have a nice sit down meal and a beer. They also had a public phone which I could use to call home and I knew Alaine was keen to talk to her daughter and her Dad. I was a little puzzled why we would want to have a barbecue after camping every night when we could have a relaxing sit down meal in a restaurant!
Oil well islands in the background.
Tony and Leonie took off to start the barbecue and Alaine and I followed soon after. I was in a bit of a sulky mood and talked little. We met them on the way back and they said the barbecue had no wood, so unless we found some wood we really couldn’t use the barbecue. At last we decided to go to the Chinese restaurant which cheered me up. We met two Philippine women on the footpath and chatted to them for a while. They told us they were working in town as Nannies. They said that when they had worked for two years, they could become Canadian citizens, and be able to bring their families over.
At the restaurant I ordered a Greek salad which was absolutely brilliant, some fried rice and I sneaked my leftover fish that I had caught the night before onto my plate, which was just delicious. Our main meal was followed by blueberry pie and ice cream and two beers which we drank with our meal. The food was so good, much better than what we had tasted in the cities.
Alaine called home and was very sad after talking to her family. Being away when her mum died was hard and she longed to be back in Australia but she also longed to be on the river.
A man from the next table was arguing with the restaurant owner, an Asian lady. He said that they had only drunk 19 beers and was charged for 21 and that she overcharged them. The woman was doing a good job in responding to him and wasn’t allowing him to intimidate her. The argument soon spilled over into another room.
Just as we were leaving we chatted with two riggers who were on the next table. They’d ordered Caribou meat which they said was delicious. They worked on one of the oil wells and lived in Edmonton. Once we left the restaurant it was still hot outside despite it being so late and as soon as we got back to the camp the others were soon in bed. I was the last as usual and just as I was having a pee, a guy walked down a track from the road above. He introduced himself as Darcy and said “I heard you were down here.” Darcy was staying in the hotel where the girls had their shower. He was a contractor on the big new drilling rig and apparently its drilling bit had become stuck, so all work had stopped. He said the drill bit cost five million dollars and whilst there was no work going on, the company was losing thousands of dollars every day.
Day 53 -Monday 28th July.
It was extremely hot when I went to bed so I was half in and half out of my sleeping bag. It rained a couple of times in the night and I woke up at 4.30am and at 5.00am. I awoke again at 6.30am when I heard dogs being walked outside so this time it was time to get up.
We packed our canoes so we would be ready to go after our visit into town. Alaine dropped in at the clinic and made an appointment to have her wrist looked at but a few minutes later she cancelled it, as she didn’t think that they would be able to do anything different to what she was already doing. There was no chance of resting it for long periods and she was sure that is what they would suggest.
We called in at the town office to see Cheryl whom we had met on the river the day before, to ask if we could send a fax. She was very helpful and a lovely person with it. She gave us hat pins and flags of Norman Wells to remember the town by. Cheryl told us that a family had just drowned along the coast going up to Tuktoyaktuk in a boating accident. A big wave had overturned their power boat. Only a teenage son survived.
Apart from the river Cheryl also did a lot of paddling on Hodgeson Lake, which was about 7kms away at the base of the Norman Range, the highest point being Mount Hamar (3209ft). She told us that many tourists came to town to paddle the Keele and Mountain Rivers, which are on the western side of the town. Apparently those rivers have excellent scenery and good rapids.
There were no public phones easily accessible, so I had to wait for one of the stores to open to call Jenny. She was excited as she told me that she nearly bought a new automatic Toyota Corolla. It was the same price as a manual so she thought it was a good deal.
I also called Doug Swallow at Hay River, from whom we hired the canoe. He would book our flights out from Inuvik for us. We did a little more shopping at the northern store and then met at a diner next door. I had coffee and an Oilman’s Omelette. It tasted much better than it sounded. The guy serving us was friendly with a good sense of humour and it wasn’t long before he asked if we wanted to send an email home. Leonie and Alaine took up his offer and played around with his computer for a while. It was Leonie’s son’s birthday the next day, so she sent Matt an email. The guy told us that the winter roads were only open 2 – 3 months of the year. The Great Bear River is the last to freeze over, so although the rest of the land is totally frozen and ready to drive on, motorists have to wait for the Great Bear River to freeze before leaving or coming to town. They have been building bridges over some of the smaller rivers to make it much easier in the future, but the Great Bear River is much wider and he said it would be too costly to build a bridge.
The breakfast was exceptional. We were coming to realise that the food in the north was actually better than most places in the cities. Apart from the awful meal we had in Fort Simpson that was! Back at the canoe we finished the last of the packing up and left by 12.45pm.
Oh what a breakfast.
The Norman Wells area is rich in fossil and petroleum deposits and has been in production for 90 years. The river leading away from town was littered with man-made islands that had oil wells silently pumping away. The big drilling rig was way across the other side of the wide river probably still broken down and out of action. Behind the rig was the Mackenzie Plain and further west the Mackenzie Mountains. I was a little sad that we hadn’t organised a trip into the mountains, but I had to be satisfied with what we were already achieving. As usual, the more I see and do, the more I want to see and do.
We soon passed the Rayuka man-made island with an oil well pump on our left and the public wharf and the refinery wharfs on our right. A barge/ferry pulled away from the refinery wharf, as did another working boat that sped across the water at one hell of a speed. Several man-made islands were scattered out in the centre of the river. Some had one drilling rig on them but others had three. The one closest to us started to pump as we were passing, the big arm striking up and down. The man-made islands with oil wells on were spread across a relatively small area of a few kilometres. It seemed strange that they weren’t further along the river as well.
An oil well island.
On shore there were lots of storage fuel tanks which I understood were emptied every year when the ice road is open. There were also a few oil rigs silently pumping up and down, large buildings and a processing plant with a tall chimney with a flame alight at the top.
The ferry barge returned to the wharf after dropping off a truck at one of the islands. We passed it by and suddenly after a kilometre or two all the man-made features were gone, and ahead was nothing but natural country. The transformation was quick, the wilderness returned but cloud and haze ruined our views of the mountains. We cut between Rader Island and the mainland but the current slowed as the main shipping channel went the other side. As the day wore on the haze began to lift and the ranges on both sides started to come to life. We stopped for a break under a marker light before paddling towards Ogilvie and Judith Island. Mt Morrow (1326 ft) and the higher mountains of the Norman Range (2517 ft) to our north were really putting on a show. They were beautiful.
We studied the western shores of Judith Island for good camping. Less than 2kms from the northern point we came across a stream that was running at a good pace. It was surprising really as the island was low and the stream of brownish-colour was only about 3kms long.
Camped on Judith Island next to a stream.
All the clouds had gone by the time we landed, there was a light wind but it dropped later. It was a glorious evening. The girls were in their element. The stream provided cold running water to wash our bodies, our hair and wash our clothes. It also provided Alaine with a source of cold water to cool her wrist. She could sit by it and drape her hand in a pool. It was so cold though that it caused her wrist and arm to become very bruised, but it certainly reduced the swelling. The stream became the centre of attention with each team member utilizing it in different ways.
The stony beach ran all the way along the island. A huge amount of logs were washed right up to the tree line which was at least 60 metres away from the water and others were sitting stranded half way up the slope. I followed the stream and overgrown creek right into the tree line. It was like a new world with moss covering the ground. I moved under the canopy of trees and apart from a slight trickle from the stream, a crackle of moss and leaves under my feet, there was complete silence. I could feel a sense of isolation, a sense of solitude, tranquillity, beauty, but yet, it was easy to imagine a lurking threat of danger.
Wearing only my sandals and shorts I explored less than 20 metres into this creepy new world. My exploration was short-lived as thick tree branches and green vegetation prevented me from penetrating the jungle too far.
Back at camp Tony had a fire ready and the steak, potato and corn that the girls had bought the previous night were being cooked. Apart from the fish, the meal was one of the heartiest meals that we had beside the river.
There were no mossies, the stream trickled only 3 metres away, we had a great view of Hoosier Ridge and two sand cranes flew overhead. It was quite magical. For the rest of the night I could hear the call of the sand cranes on the other side of the river, it is a delightful sound with almost a soothing sense to it. We were told that there are many people that hear the call but very few actually see the sand cranes, so we must have been some of the lucky few.
Day 53 – Tuesday 29th July
The cranes were calling when I went to bed and were calling again somewhere slightly north of us on our island when I got up. There was quite a bit of dew on our tents and because the sun didn’t appear over the trees before we had packed up, the tents were put away a little on the damp side.
We passed to the east side of three islands, Stanley, Willard and Patricia, which were all wooded with spruce. Mount Thomas (1298 ft) and the other ranges were all peaking through the haze. After a short stop on the corner opposite Patricia Island we had a 15km straight stretch to reach the Carcajou Ridge. From a distance it looked like a steep-angled sand cliff, like many that we had already seen. By midday we were nearing the ridge and it was only then that we could see vertical cliffs lining the river as it flowed west. They looked fantastic. For a few minutes, by the side of Svenson Shoal, we floated, laying back, our legs up just soaking up the hot sun. Alaine was enjoying it even more as she had her head phones on listening to music. What a glorious day.
We stopped for lunch at 1.00pm at the second cliff section. They were absolutely stunning and one of the most scenic backdrops that we have had at lunch. We sat on a big rock and ate tortillas and jam and cheese-spread looking directly towards the cliff face.
Lunch with a view.
The next rock face further along was even more spectacular and amazing as it dropped vertically into the river, making it impossible to land. The different textures in the rock formations were most incredible and intriguing. Rock layers like sheets had fallen away leaving newer, cleaner rock exposed. We drifted closely by them, taking photo after photo and just looking at all the beauty around us.
Carcajou Ridge what a special shoreline.
As the 276 metre cliff line receded I suddenly spotted a bear walking along the shore. I told Alaine and we quickly started paddling towards it. By now the others were about 250 metres across the river and downstream of us. I didn’t want to shout as it would scare the bear away but luckily they saw us change direction and they too slipped across towards it. It continued to walk steadily along the shore but when it finally realised that we were close, it looked our way, paused, walked on, looked again and then walked closer to the bushes, walked on again and stopped near the tree line. It looked quite surprised to see us there and looked more afraid of us, than us of it. When Tony and Leonie arrived we were drifting by the bear. At the same time the bear reared up on its hind legs showing us it wasn’t that small after all. It was a fantastic moment, but I was so intent on looking at it I forgot to take a photo.
A black bear wonders what we are?
At the same time I noticed a large otter sitting on a rock a few metres from the shoreline ahead of us. We looked towards it, but also tried to keep an eye on the bear. The bear suddenly took off into the trees grunting away and pushing through the undergrowth.
As we got close to the otter it slid off the rock and into the water. Every so often it would surface and disappear out of sight again. The bear also came back to the clearing but we had drifted too far away to go back. What a day it was turning out to be and we still had the Sans Sault Rapids ahead to negotiate.
We started to leave the big cliffs behind, but then a line of lower Kimberley type cliffs with ochre colours came into view. These would have been a highlight of the day on a normal day, but somehow they faded in significance to what we had seen earlier. At the end of the cliffs we came to Axel Island where the main channel went to the right, which we took. It was longer but probably a faster route. About half way round we heard a boat’s motor. Within minutes the police from Norman Wells in a big run-about boat came over for a quick chat. They said they were going to check out the rapids and then head back to Norman Wells.
They took off leaving us to paddle over their dissipating wake. The thickly-wooded 1476 ft East Mountain was over to our right and at the west end of the range the Sans Sault Rapids were waiting for us. We didn’t know how big they were but going by a photograph I had, they didn’t look too bad. Nevertheless, we couldn’t be complacent, things happen. About 1 ½ kilometres from the rapids there was a sign on the bank saying, ‘Warning, Sans Sault Rapids One Mile, small craft keep to the left side of channel’.
By this time the police boat was speeding back up river but they didn‘t stop to let us know how the rapids were and how to tackle them. It was probably a sign that they were small. At the corner of East Mountain we started to ferry glide across to the left side of the river to where the Mountain River joined the Mackenzie. Unfortunately the ground around the mouth of Mountain River was low-lying and rocky, not a good place to camp. Although I had wanted to camp at the head of the river, it just wasn’t suitable, so we had no alternative but to paddle the rapids and land downstream on Dummit Island.
Approaching Sans Sault Rapids. East Mountain.
I stood up in the canoe to get the best view. From a distance it looked as if the best route was to go down on the left side of the red channel buoys and then move over to the right when it was safe to do so. We talked about the route and then Tony and Leonie started the descent. I started taking photos which meant that Alaine was paddling by herself and the guys ended up well ahead. It didn’t take long before we hit the swift current. We were away from the main lot of standing waves but it was the red marker buoys that were more of a danger to us. The current was so swift that water built up on the upstream side on the buoys and was pushing them partially under the water. Becoming broadside to a buoy would spell instant disaster.
We were soon into the turbulent swirls, boils and small standing waves. I kept my eyes glued on the buoys and made sure that I was steering well away from them. Tony and Leonie were over to our right moving across the water at great speed. We bounced up and down over the waves and hit great speeds ourselves but within minutes it was all over. I think Alaine was relieved that she only got a bit of water in her lap, but I think Leonie, who loves the exhilaration of white water was disappointed because they hadn’t gone through any big waves. It’s nice to have fun, but it’s nice to be safely on shore and not swimming.
We landed at the southern side of Dummit Island. It was quite rocky but it had enough tiny sand patches for us to erect our tents. Behind us the high shore, which at that time was 50 metres from the water’s edge, had been eroded away by floods and the trees were taking the full brunt and falling down the slope. It was such a beautiful place to camp and the panoramic view was stunning. We were looking directly into the rapids, towards East Mountain and over to the east were the Bat Hills and the Franklin Range. There was an amphitheatre of mountains. It reminded me of the Prince Regent area of the Kimberley. It was a sight of some grandeur.
We settled in doing our own little chores. Tony went scouting and found more bear tracks, Leonie made her own rock pool, so she could wash her clothes, drop them back into the pool and not lose them to the swift current. She also did some stretching exercises on her sleeping mat. It was a perfect night and a clean camp to do our washing. We erected a line across the canoe to dry our clothes.
Our camp on Dummit Island.
Out of the blue we spotted a boat heading down the rapids. It turned out to be a tourist boat, the only one that operates on the Mackenzie. It wasn’t your normal looking tourist boat, in fact it was a funny shape and looked more like a work vessel. It didn’t stray from the channel but kept between the channel markers. We watched it through our binoculars, trying to see tourists on board. The name on the boat was ‘Norweta’. It had a capacity to take 20 passengers, but we didn’t see one.
The tourist boat ‘Norweta’ passing between our camp and East Mountain.
When it disappeared around the bend we were left alone once more, surrounded by the magnificent wilderness which left me wanting to see no element of civilisation again. I retired for the night with some sense of reluctance; it had been such a great day I really didn’t want it to end.
Day 54 – Wednesday 30th July
We slept in till 6.25am which in turn caused us to leave thirty minutes later than usual. Unbelievably Alaine and I were the first to leave camp and that was highly unusual. We drifted until Tony & Leonie caught up.
The morning was slightly hazy but otherwise perfect. The scenery still reminded me of the big expanses and mountain ranges of the Kimberley without the rich ochre colours. It was a grand scene all around us. The Bat Hills to our right were very close, the Canyon Ranges were well in the distance, a little hazy, but still quite beautiful.
As the two channels around Dummit Island converged, there were some rapids on the right side of the river. North Rapids were easily avoided but Tony and Leonie wanted some fun so they paddled over to the right and into the mass of standing waves. We could hear Leonie shout with excitement as they bounced up and down. She loved it, it must be fun I thought. We had heard that the Avon River back in Western Australia was high and in flood. This made Leonie a little home sick as she loves to paddle the Avon and I think she was feeling that she was missing out.
Now leading the way we paddled to the left of Hardie Island and the deeper we got into the channel the less we could see of the mountain ranges in the distance. Sadly our mountain views were slipping away. At the end of the island, just when Tony and Leonie caught up, Alaine pointed towards a golden cloud which actually turned out to be a dust storm heading our way. I looked across to the north east and saw the dust. My first thought was that a vehicle must be driving down a gravel road. Of course that was impossible as there were no roads around here for hundreds of kilometres. We soon realised it was a strong wind that lifted the dust off the sandbars, creating a sandstorm and immediately it turned the river into one big mass of white caps. Only seconds before it was like a mill pond.
Start of the big blow.
It was an awesome sight and the sand was whipping into clouds over to our right where sandbars had formed due to the falling river level. I just couldn’t miss a photo opportunity. “Keep paddling Alaine,” I said, but she wasn’t keen to paddle by herself and she soon voiced her objections. I clicked away for a few seconds and then took control again. The wind had become so strong we could hardly paddle, as our paddles were being tugged from our hands. The other two were further from the shore and I could see them battling. It was just so amazing how the day had changed, and so rapidly.
From the calm to the rough in a few minutes.
Alaine and I managed to get to shore. Alaine jumped out and straight into the mud. Oh dear, she was not happy, her facial expressions told me that. The rain and wind also made it very cold so she started putting on more clothes. Tony and Leonie came alongside our canoe and because the waves were now crashing towards and up the shore, the canoes banged forcefully together. It was not a good position to be in, so Tony and Leonie tried desperately to paddle back out into the river to get away from us.
Alaine was extremely unhappy to be paddling into the strong wind as she couldn‘t see any sense in it. Although we were in the calmest section close to shore and we were safe, her wrist was giving her trouble and the harder the conditions the more her wrist hurt and the angrier she became.
It was hard to know what to do, as it was very cold and it was better to be paddling than standing on shore. The other two were keen to keep paddling. However Alaine was finding the conditions tough, and although she was hurting and unhappy, she was still paddling extremely hard and the others couldn’t keep up. I kept telling her to slow down, but she didn’t listen, I think she was in a mood. Well, actually, I knew she was in a mood! Every so often we waited for the others as we didn’t want to be too far away, just in case one of us capsized. In the meantime the sand was still being blown as if we were in a desert. The river was absolutely teeming with white caps, although the closer we got to the next point the calmer it became. Our speed still varied from 5.5kms to 8.5kms an hour, so although the wind was slowing us, the current still kept us going.
We landed just before a point where it was calm and rocky. We sat on a log had a bite to eat and drink and sat in silence until the main storm had passed. Back on the water Alaine and I were ahead again and I spotted another bear walking along the shore. When we caught up with it, it dashed into the bushes and appeared to be eating berries. The current soon washed us by it, despite the wind blowing the other way.
Reaching Hume Island we decided to take the left sheltered channel just in case another storm should hit us, but when we lost the main current it was terribly slow progress and frustrating. When we saw a small channel run between Hume and Spruce islands we decided to take it, to get into the main channel again. A few hours had passed by since Alaine’s mood had developed but I eventually managed to get her talking again, even though it was only a few grunts. She was still not happy with me for not stopping for the day to avoid paddling into the wind.
It was hard to please everybody. I had to be realistic and look at the whole picture. If we didn’t keep on schedule we would not make it to the end, yet if I pushed Alaine too hard she might physically break down and not be able to paddle. I was always able to pace myself but with four of us, I felt as though I was treading a thin line.
As we filtered our way through a number of very small rock islands 1 – 4 metres wide, which looked like coal and man-made, the channels shallowed. When we got beyond them, the wind came up and made steering very difficult as it hit us side on. We struggled on to Spruce Island where we had to stop for the night as the wind was too strong and a rain storm was about to hit. I really wanted to reach the Ramparts and camp beside the cliff-lined river but with the weather and Alaine’s injury it just wasn’t possible to reach there. Alaine had worked hard and needed to rest.
The rain storm hit us quickly but we had managed to erect our tents on dirt patches between rocks without being blown away. It was also cold, but being wrapped up in our warm gear it wasn’t so bad. The rain eventually eased and we were able to go on with our chores and have a meal.
Someone is happy.
Seven kilometres in the distance we could see a rain storm battering the Rampart Cliffs. I was really disappointed that we weren’t camped beside the cliffs but things don’t always go to plan and I had to accept that.
Day 55 – Thursday 31st July
There was mist on the river at 6.15am and it stayed there for at least forty five minutes. The sky was near cloudless, surely a sign of a good day. We carried our bear-proof food drums, (which we placed away from our tents at night just in case bears came visiting), back to our camp and had breakfast. We saw bear prints literally every day, so we had to assume that they just might visit us during the night.
We were away by 9.10am heading across the water towards the sunny Rampart Cliffs. They looked spectacular from a distance. When we got within 2kms of the gorge there were islands and rocky limestone ledges. These ledges created rapids and standing waves. By heading over to the right we managed to avoid them. I took some photos and spotted another rapid section in the middle looking bigger so we diverted over to the right again. This time Tony and Leonie didn’t try to ride them as they looked bigger and more dangerous than the last ones.
Skirting the Rampart Rapids.
When we passed them by, the way ahead into the narrow gorge looked safe. Smaller cliffs that were illuminated on the left side of the river by the rising sun looked great. Beaches between them created some beautiful camp sites. The entrance to the 60 metre high vertical limestone gorge was only 300 metres wide. Because it is deep the current is slower than I would have imagined, attaining 3 knots throughout the 15 kilometre gorge. The current was certainly racing a lot faster on the approach.
The Rampart Cliffs
Once inside the gorge the cliffs looked smaller than they did when approaching them, but even at 60 metres they were still more than impressive. For the first ten minutes I clicked photo after photo and we just allowed ourselves to drift and absorb the absolute wonder of nature. The cliff tops were barren and on our right side they were in the shade and didn’t appear anywhere near as spectacular as the sun-burnished left side. The weather though couldn’t have been better and we certainly appreciated the beauty more as the sun threw down its warm rays, and allowed the cliffs to glisten and shimmer. It would have been a duller experience if it had been a cloudy day. We had come a long way to reach the cliffs and although I was a little disappointed that they were only 15kms long, it was a 15kms worth waiting for.
The Rampart Cliffs. Hi Tony.
About a year before, Alaine, Leonie and I had been celebrating the planning of the journey at the shop with a bottle of wine, or was it two?? The following day I told Alaine I would tell her something that happened that night after she and Leonie left. However I wouldn’t tell her until we were halfway through the Mackenzie trip at the Ramparts. Throughout our year of training I would mention to her from time to time that I had that special story to share. She always wanted me to tell her there and then but I wouldn’t. So here we were, it was time. Alaine had been waiting for this moment for nearly a year so as we drifted between the spectacular cliff lines I began to tell the story. I told her that after leaving the shop that night I drew my vehicle out of the gate and when I got out to lock the gate, my car had started to roll towards the road. When I realized what was happening, I rushed back and jumped in the vehicle and although the handbrake hadn’t quite held, I pulled it firmly which stopped it from running onto the road. And that was it. It wasn’t much of a story and I had played it up to be something bigger but at least it had kept Alaine in suspense. Alaine looked at me with disbelief and then started to laugh as she had waited so long to hear this story. She had been thinking it was something really, really special, but it wasn’t. I still laugh about it.
The Rampart Cliffs
The craggy cliffs formed several different formations, many like castle buttresses. We allowed our imagination to run wild and each of us saw different things in the various shapes and formations. Leonie needed to pee so we stopped next to a gully on the left just where the cliffs changed direction and height. Here the cliffs were sheer and although it was early in the morning, it was hot beneath them. We took off again, paddled by a gully and lower cliffs where an eagle flew above Tony and Leonie, and then landed on the very top of a spruce tree. The river widened and after rounding a corner we could see the white church at Fort Good Hope.
A break in the cliffs
A kestrel soared above the cliffs on our right. It just stayed in the thermals and did little but glide. A fish camp cabin appeared on our left side and what a perfect position to be. As the cliffs started to decrease in height we concentrated on the view ahead of Fort Good Hope. We were keen to get there to see the church that we had been told had quite spectacular paintings inside. Fort Good Hope is the oldest settlement in the lower Mackenzie Valley, having been established by the Northwest Company in 1805 as a fur trading post. The post was moved to several localities before being rebuilt at its present site by the Hudson Bay Company in the period 1836 – 1839.
A Kestrel soars overhead
We landed at the muddy boat ramp next to a few small boats at the entrance to the very muddy Jackfish Creek and pulled up our canoes and got changed into our visitor’s clothes for our walk into town. The church stood prominently at the top of the hill overlooking the river, its cemetery packed with headstones. Most of the headstones were for those of young children. We looked around, tried the church door, but it was locked so we couldn’t see inside.
A little further on we met a female health worker who shared a lot of information about the town with us. Apparently the priest was out of town so in his absence there were some sisters looking after the church
Fort Good Hope church. Many of the graves were of young children.
The Northern Store was bigger than the one at Norman Wells which was a surprise as the town was much smaller. A few teenagers inside were playing with new battery toys that were still on the shelves and still to be sold, but no one said anything to stop them. At the checkout was a young man called Chris who was about 20 years old. We got chatting and he told us he had a twin brother who was working in Tuktoyaktuk and that we should look him up when we get there. We had a very wishy washy lunch on a table near the church and big cross but the brilliant view of the Ramparts and the river heading north more than made up for our unappetising lunch. Before leaving I knocked on the door of the priest’s house for the second time. When there was no answer I walked to the police station and asked a policeman if he knew where the sisters were, but unfortunately he didn’t know. Disappointingly we weren’t going to be able to see inside the church.
Fort Good Hope – looking over the Ramparts.
Back at the canoes a First Nation man in a power boat asked Tony over. Tony was very kindly given the pick of some fish. He picked a small one and then gave it to me. As we left the muddy shore we used a parked wooden dingy to walk on to get back into our canoes so we could keep our feet clean, it worked well. Drifting away from the shore a barge pulled up to the big gravel ramp and suddenly there was a hive of activity.
The swift current soon helped us along Manitou Island and to Hare River where a boat was coming out. The Hare River was supposed to be good fishing for trout and a pick up point for tugs wanting fresh water. We followed the channel around the next two islands and stopped later at the corner opposite some fairly high cliffs that formed the northern end of the Ramparts.
Sandbars pushed us over to the left side of the river for a time and just before another un-named island there were cabins on the left side of the river. We took the right and main channel around the island and came across one of the most beautiful sandbars that we had seen on the river, on the southeast end of it. More cabins were on the east bank, near the Loon River, but it was the impressive sandbar that we all rated 10 out of 10 that was taking our fancy. I asked if the crew wanted to stop and take advantage of the sand, but Tony wanted to go on another 2kms to the northern point of the island. Unfortunately when we got there, the point was muddy and most unimpressive, so we moved on trying to find another brilliant sandbar.
We had now crossed the Arctic Circle, which we had been looking forward to for several days, though nothing had actually changed. The next sandbar was too low to camp, so we moved a little further and found a higher sandbar that was not too far from the water’s edge. Once the tents were set up I gutted the fish, that Tony was given, well downstream and then walked a few hundred metres to collect wood for the fire from a stranded driftwood tree in the middle of the huge sandbar. It took some time to burn enough wood to make decent coals for good cooking and by that time every one had eaten and the fish was left for me. It wasn’t as big as the others, but it still had a lot of meat on it and tasted so delicious with the vinegar, which I had recently bought, sprayed on it.
Camped on the Arctic Circle.
Gutting a fish.
In the meantime several sand cranes glided gracefully over us and landed on the sandbar a little upstream. It was amazing to see them glide just above us and as I mentioned earlier we were apparently lucky to see them at all. Three of the cranes walked towards our camp singing and calling as they neared. The cranes had a truly beautiful call. Leonie, Alaine and I hid ourselves behind our tents and watched them at close quarters. We felt very privileged to see them. They drew even closer and closer, but then something startled them and they were off. We could hear them calling throughout the night.
About 11.00pm the wind changed and as it started to blow strongly the rain followed. This prompted Leonie to get out of bed, take her washing off the line and to secure her tent for the big blow. We were camped virtually on the Arctic Circle, quite mind blowing really!
Day 56 – Friday 1st August 2008
The storm in the night hadn’t been so bad and the rain not that heavy. The morning dawned chilly but turned into a beautiful morning as we set off. We left to the sound of the cranes calling. It got cold and windy just before the Tieda River, where there was a faint track leading up the range. We stopped for a break where the river narrowed and soon after the wind increased, so we kept to the right side of Askew Islands and close to the range. We stopped for lunch on low lying bed of dried out rock near a creek just after the island. It was chilly. We noticed the remnants of a camp fire so we knew someone had been there recently.
The wind increased further and the river chopped up. We kept to the right side and a few kilometres further we came across a family on shore. Cheryl in Norman Wells had told us about this family, and her friends, who were paddling the river. They were paddling from Norman Wells to Inuvik and had intended to stop for a few days in Fort Good Hope to go to a wedding, but apparently they had carried on instead. The family consisted of Michelle and Wes, their young daughter and their two adopted First Nation boys. They had stopped because the wind was too strong for them to paddle in, so they were resting. We landed on a rocky shore being pummelled by wind and waves. Michelle greeted us joyfully but her partner Wes was lying beside a tree and much less happy. Wes wasn’t very talkative, although he told us that Little Chicago, a location we were getting closer to had been abandoned for years and there was nothing there. The conversation soon stopped and then he got up collected wood and started a fire, and that was that. Alaine talked to the little girl who had lots of toys and dolls. Her mum Michelle was really chatty. They were all in T-shirts and wearing no shoes. I felt cold just looking at them. We left them to rest up and wait for the wind to drop.
We paddled on passing to the right of the next islands. It was calmer but it seemed a slower route. Many of the short cuts had a much slower current, so progress was often not as good as we had hoped. The current became much faster when we met up with the main river again, which was great. We sped along the straight river for about 10kms before finding a camping spot that was fronted by mud and laced with big bear tracks. And, I mean big. Actually, I mean enormous. We knew they were fresh because they went right down to the water’s edge, however despite those enormous prints it was a good camping spot.
The area was called the Grand View and a grand view is what we had. The river was flat and amazingly calm and ranges in the distance were spread around us. We were relaxed and taking in the incredible evening, drinking a little wine and eating canned oysters, nuts and crackers and this was for entrée. Alaine later cooked dinner and just as we had finished I saw a log floating in the river, although it seemed to be travelling too fast. After checking more thoroughly through my binoculars it turned out to be a bear swimming across the river. After several minutes it swam across the wide river then drifted beside an island on the other side and rather than getting out of the water as soon as it could, it seemed quite content to stay in the water and just float on by.
At the same time as the bear was floating downstream, a tug was motoring upstream. The river must have been shallow as the tug had to dogleg around buoys and then weave across the river. The fact that it was also pushing upstream against the current, it took some time to reach us. The skipper of the ferry tooted as he passed us.
A towboat pushing a barge at Grand View.
I looked through my binoculars again to check on the bear and noticed two moose or caribou across on the island, but after the tug had passed they were gone. Still using my binoculars I kept looking and to my surprise and delight I saw the bear climb the bank, go back down to the river and then climb the bank again and disappear into the forest. At least now I knew it hadn’t swum back onto our side of the river!
With the bear activity now gone I was able to put down my binoculars and relax. Just at that time the family paddled by. Wes was in a canoe with the second eldest child (probably around 9 or 10 years old). The eldest child (around 12 or 13 years old) was paddling a Feathercraft kayak by himself and Michelle and her daughter were in another canoe bringing up the rear. Michelle’s daughter was facing her mum and playing with dolls and chatting away, much like she must do at home. It was just a remarkable sight, so tranquil and quite surprising as we thought we had left them well behind. They were using the calm of the night to make progress. Within minutes they were gone and lost in the dying sun and were just a dot on the river’s horizon after half an hour. The clouds begun to roll in and ruined a perfect sunset, but it was still a Grand View.
The family taking advantage of the calmer evenings.
Day 57 – Saturday 2nd August
I woke a couple of times during the night. It was chilly, in fact it was quite cold and even colder when we got up. We used timbers to help launch and keep us out of the mud which had amazing suction. We followed the right side of the island and then moved across between the next islands to the left to keep in the main current. There was a southwest wind blowing so steering was difficult.
Where the river narrowed we could see some markers on a high sandbar that stood on the west side of the river. As we got closer we could see tents and canoes. It was the family and the eldest boy was the only one up. We waved and sped by as the river narrowed and current quickened. Within minutes the tents had disappeared from our sight.
We had to hit the rocky shores quickly as Alaine was dying for a pee. The others were well ahead, but we were back on the river in no time and chasing them. The river widened so we cut across it and skirted a sandbar that jutted out, moved through a gap between an island and then rejoined the main channel. When we got close to the shore again we stopped just before the abandoned trading post of Little Chicago and had lunch just a little downstream of an abandoned cabin. We sat on a large log and ate lunch. Under our feet the shores were littered with beautifully coloured rocks that we just couldn‘t help but admire. The girls picked one each and added them to their collection.
The vista was grand but not as good as the Grand View. We could see for kilometres and although it wasn’t super impressive, there was still enough beauty to make us admire it, especially towards the hills in the north.
We followed the channel buoys and our speed was good, so we took the opportunity to lay back, stop paddling and enjoy some quite time. The heat was quite intense so Tony decided to cool down and jumped into the river. it was hot out but cold in.
We had a short break where the river narrowed and current accelerated on the shores of a huge eddy. When we returned to the water we paddled with the turbulent flow. The waves were jumping and so were our canoes. It was an exciting few minutes.
We decided to stop near a corner before a sandbar and an island as it seemed a good place and we didn‘t know what other camp spots lay ahead. A racoon type animal scuttled away and ran up the bank and disappeared. It turned out to be a good camp. The wind dropped and I wrote in my diary. A waterbird in the river was making one hell of a call. It sounded quite weird. Leonie wouldn’t believe the noise was from a waterbird, she insisted that it must be a call of an animal.
It was late, 11.45pm, and as I got up to take a picture of the sunset, I saw the family coming around the corner. Would you believe it, they had caught up again! It was quite amazing as they had paddled at least 60kms today and they were passing us. The kids were still chatting away. They shouted out, I shouted back and they just kept paddling towards the sunset. It was a wonderful scene.
Day 58 – Sun 3rd August
We paddled between a sandbar and island and then back into the main river, passing a creek. I glanced over to the right and saw two moose way over on the island. We started paddling towards them very quietly keeping close to the island, so they couldn‘t see us. Each paddle stroke was carefully placed to ensure that we didn’t splash. We crept up and they didn’t even notice. We stopped within metres and looked on and still they grazed. We were there for several minutes before the calf spotted us, but they still didn’t move. When mum eventually saw us minutes later, they started walking slowly into the bushes.
Because we had paddled away from the main channel we ended up in a big eddy and well away from the main current so paddling became slow. Our canoes drifted further apart as we both tried to find a faster current. We joined up and paddled through a narrow gap in the sandbars and made our way towards the left bank to where the main channel was. We stopped on a beach on a left hand corner where the shoreline was quite steep.
As we left the shore a tug came up from behind. It was travelling much faster than we were and it was following the channel close to the right hand side where the shoreline was high and steep. We cut the corner and Tony and Leonie took off at speed trying to catch it up. Despite all their efforts they were left behind.
The clouds had moved in and visibility was getting worse and by the end of the straight it was raining. We moved across to the left to follow the channel but it soon got rough and windy and it was difficult to hold onto our paddles. When we managed to reach shore we put on more clothes and had lunch. We took off again and the rain pelted. Alaine wasn’t happy. She didn’t want to paddle in these conditions, and she thought the family was far more sensible by paddling when the wind had died down in the evenings. It was cold, wet and windy. In fact it was too windy to cross back over the river or even go any further, so I made a decision to stop and wait until the storm passed over. It was too chilly to sit around though, so we started to erect our tents although Leonie was having a hard time trying to erect hers because of the really strong wind. Tony helped, but it still persisted in trying to take off. By the time we got a couple of tents erected and after a few minutes of sitting near-frozen, but out of the wind, the storm was calming.
After the storm – extremely & bitterly cold.
A beaver seemed to love the weather as it was patrolling up and down our shoreline and continually slapping its tail. Within the hour the weather had improved, so I had to make a decision, to go or stay. Alaine was not keen to move on as she said paddling in the windy conditions placed extra strain on her hurting wrists. Although Alaine was hurting we still needed to make a certain number of kilometres each day. If we didn‘t, we would get behind schedule. Being above the Arctic Circle the weather was known to be very unpredictable and it just might get even rougher than it already was and if it did we may be forced to have a day or two off. However until that time we had to keep moving. I was confident that the wind had eased enough to be of no danger so we moved on.
All rugged up.
The main channel crossed to the right of the river. We followed it but we kept out of the fastest current where the steep waves were being created by the current going one way and the wind going the other way and colliding. As we paddled on the edge of the waves, but partially in the current, our route proved safer and worked well. The other two started to lag and although we were trying to miss the worst, the river was still quite rough and Tony seemed to be doing it tough. By the time we had reached the right shore the river was much calmer, the high winds had stopped gusting and the storm was running to the south.
The Travaillant River entered the Mackenzie at a place on our map called the Trading Post where a couple of cabins were situated. Tony and Leonie were in the centre of the river, but when they saw us pull in, they paddled across. The water in the Travaillant was crystal clear, so we were happy to have a short rest and fill our water containers.
The main current followed the high right bank, which was sheltered and flat, for several kilometres. It was icy cold and when we crossed from our sheltered route to the left side of the river it was rough again and the sky was dark and bleak. A few kilometres later, at 8.30pm we found a camp about 8kms south of Big Lake. As usual we levelled the ground to erect our tents and to stop us from rolling out of bed.
It was cold. Occasionally a streak of sun would come out, but it didn’t last long as black clouds soon closed the gaps. Huge bear prints covered the ground around our tents and I followed them along the shore. The footprints were pressed into the shale and sand. They were not very well formed at first until the odd one was imprinted in a patch of mud. It was then I realised how big they were. I walked further, becoming more intrigued and in high spirits for having found such imposing prints. I then came across a large wide 25 metre mud patch that had huge bear prints perfectly preserved in the mud. They were amazing and particularly striking, and it was almost as though someone had imprinted the mud with a branding iron. Seeing the tracks brought a satisfying thrill to my heart. To be out in the wilderness and so close to the wildlife, not knowing if or when we would meet a bear head on was pretty exciting.
Huge bear prints.
On the horizon, to our north we could see something that looked like an antenna. We were a long way from any community so we were confused as to why it was there. Every few minutes I would look its way and I eventually realised it was moving. We soon found out, when it got closer that it was an aerial on top of a big towboat pushing barges, one of the biggest we had seen on the river. We waved when it went by.
The Norweta, the tourist boat that we had seen at Sansaults Rapids was following only a few minutes behind, this time it was motoring upstream. Despite the freezing temperatures a man and women braved the weather and came out onto the deck to wave. I must admit to wondering what they thought as they saw us camping out there in the miserably cold conditions. I smiled to myself when the woman went inside after only a few moments. I couldn’t blame her, it was bitterly cold. In between doing my chores I watched the two boats zig zag from one side of the river to the other following the buoys and channels of deeper water. I rang T2 at the shop and he told me that the river level was very high water for this year’s Avon Descent. Apparently there were many paddlers who capsized and came to grief and lost their craft in the rapids along the valley. I think Leonie was really missing the thrill of the event.
A towboat pushing barges back upstream to Hay River.
By the time I got to bed it was 12.15am and I still had my diary to do.
Day 59 – Monday 4th August
For breakfast Alaine decided to make pancakes as a treat, but it took a really long time and so we didn’t leave till 9.45am. When we took off it was quite calm but the wind increased as the day wore on. It was cold so we just kept paddling. We finished lunch, hiding from the cold behind a log. A few kilometres upstream of Rabbit River, two power boats came around the corner flying a Ranger’s Flag. The First Nation people stopped and talked and told us they were going to meet some other Rangers at Fort Good Hope and then lead them back to Inuvik, so they didn‘t get lost.
As we paddled away from a huge eddy it appeared that we were somehow held in its grasp for the next few kilometres as our progress was very slow. The Rangers told us it was going to be rough around the next corner so we were prepared, but it didn’t seem as bad as they had indicated. A basic fish camp was on a corner to our right. We couldn’t see anyone, but there were fish drying on a wooden frame and a canoe on shore. The river, which had been heading in a south-westerly direction for the last eighty kilometres was now sweeping around a long bend and heading back in a north-westerly direction towards the Lower Ramparts. It felt good to be heading north and in the right direction again. We criss-crossed the river once more before we hit a long straight where we were able to paddle forward rather than continually across.
First Nation Rangers stop for a chat.
We passed another fish camp at the entrance to Dzien Die Creek and decided to camp a few kilometres downstream just before we had to cross to the left side of the river to follow the channel. It was icy cold, we still had 5kms to complete our desired daily target, but it had been a hard day despite paddling only 68kms. We had a good hot meal of mashed potato, gravy and luncheon meat for dinner and a choc bar for dessert. After a hard day there was nothing better than having a hearty meal and a sit down, looking out towards the river and being able to reflect on the day.
The Rangers sped by with four other boats following. I waved from my tent. The wind calmed by 11.00pm.
Day 60 – Tuesday 5th August
I was up at 6.00am in the hope of getting an early start but the others weren’t as eager to get out of their sleeping bags. Leonie was lagging, her tent was still erected and gear spread when we were ready to put our gear in the canoes, yet she was still ready by the time we were. Leonie is pretty organised and very easy going.
The river was calm, the weather was again bitterly cold, and the sky was dark and cloudy. For some reason Tony and Leonie decided to paddle on the shallow side of the red channel buoys so they lagged well behind because the current was much slower and their route much longer. I was often puzzled with some of the routes that they chose.
We had our first break on the first bend of the Lower Ramparts, a stretch of cliffs just before Tsiigehtchic (Arctic Red River). Although impressive they were a different type of cliff and not as spectacular as the Upper Ramparts that we had passed earlier. The cloudy weather didn’t help to enhance their beauty either. Scouting around on our break we were once again fascinated by the different coloured rocks. We spotted a big black stone with a white band which looked as if it had a piece of white insulation tape wrapped around it. It was so different from the others.
The Lower Ramparts.
Rounding the cliff-lined bend we spotted life as a ferry crossed the river a kilometre or two away. Within minutes the Catholic Church at Tsiigehtchic appeared on the left hillside, followed by all the other houses of the community. We pulled ashore beside some local boats, just before the Arctic Red River entered the Mackenzie River. We could see the Dempster Highway come over the hill and stop at the river’s edge on the other side of the Arctic Red River. The Dempster highway, although unpaved is regarded as one of the most beautiful highways in Canada. It winds its way across the Richardson Mountains and finishes at the old gold mining town of Dawson City in the Yukon Territory. Because of the Arctic Red River the road doesn’t quite reach Tsiigehtchic, so a ferry carries cars from the highway to the town and it also crosses the Mackenzie River and shuttles cars and trucks to the highway that heads north to Inuvik.
The Arctic Red River, starting from its headwaters at Misfortune Lake in the Mackenzie Mountains is 450kms long. In 1993 it was designated as a Canadian Heritage River in recognition of its historical significance to the Gwich’in people. It is also a very scenic river and passes through a range of ecosystems.
We landed and I changed into fresher clothes, but the others walked into the community in their canoeing clothes with Tony and Leonie leading the way. It was bitterly cold as we walked 400 metres towards the community centre which has a population of 144. The locals of Tsiigehtchic, Inuvik and a few other small communities speak the Gwich’in language.
Catholic Church at Tsiigehtchic
Tony and Leonie noticed a few berries along the road verge so they soon started picking away and eating them. There didn’t seem to be much to see around town, but at least the small shop was open. The local children inside were chatty and warned us of the wet weather that was on its way. An older guy dismissed their weather forecast, but it turned out later that the kids forecast was quite accurate.
We bought more tortillas, which we enjoyed with cheese spread and jam, but sadly, the tortillas were mouldy so lunch was a pretty ordinary affair. Fresh food is certainly difficult to acquire in the tiny communities. Before walking back to the canoes the shopkeeper kindly allowed us to use the toilet upstairs and fill our water bladders from the tap. A local dog, still almost a puppy with incredible blue eyes followed us back to the canoes where he watched us, with some anticipation, eat our lunch. It was still icy cold so getting back on the water was welcome. The dog looked quite sad to see us leave.
A dog wanted lunch.
The sun shone a little when we left, and the Lower Ramparts began to sparkle but they could never equal the beauty of the Upper Ramparts. The ferry was taking cars and trucks across the river to the north shore. Not far from the ramp was a slip-yard, and this is where the ferry will be hoisted out of the water for the winter months. Looking well ahead, the straight river faded into a haze and then into oblivion, just nothing. Leonie was steering which was unusual because although she often wanted to, Tony preferred being at the back. Alaine was happy to be in the front and I felt happier being in the back so I had control of the canoe. The river soon became rough, as the current slapped against the wind waves. We kept closer to shore in the calmer waters but our speed slowed because we were out of the current, but it meant that Alaine and Tony, who were in the front, kept a little drier. The Richardson Mountains were over to our left but they kept disappearing from view as the rain haze came and went. We stopped early at 5.15pm just before Point Separation. The sun had come out and the camping site was a good one. The day’s temperature had changed from being icy cold to being relatively warm. We were in for a good last night’s camp on the main river and as the evening unfolded we were blessed with the view of the Richardson Mountains showing their splendour and rugged appearance. The range reminded me of scenes I had seen from a documentary about migrating caribou. It was way over those mountains that the amazing migration took place. One day I have to get there.
A ferry crossing the river at Tsiigehtchic (Arctic Red River).
The Rangers passed again returning from Inuvik and going home to Tsiigehtchic (Arctic Red River). Alaine took out her speakers and played music over dinner which was quite enjoyable. As we were now ahead of schedule I rang T2 to change our flight and bring them forward so we had the same dates as Leonie. We had our return flights booked from Inuvik a week after Leonie as she had wanted to return home for her partner’s birthday, whereas we had allowed more time to finish the trip.
Day 61 – Wednesday 6th August
It was raining quite heavily when we woke and it was very bleak and very cold outside. I rang Jenny on the sat phone for a weather forecast, she said there was a 60% chance of rain, but the forecast was for clearing weather. She also told me that she had gone ahead and bought the new car and was happy about her purchase.
We all stayed in our tents snuggled up in our warm sleeping bags, calling out to each other and waiting for the weather to become brighter. Eventually when the rain did ease, we wasted no time in packing up. The sky was choked with low, black, heavy clouds and the Richardson Mountains were not to be seen. The day didn’t look good.
As always Tony was ready first and patiently waiting. Everything was wet as we put things away. We were now near the end of our trip and up to this point we had only taken one group photo and although it was cold and wet we made an effort and set up the cameras. It resulted in a great picture. We moved off for the last time on the main part of the river. There was now a realisation that we would soon finish the trip and with that realisation there was also a sense of sadness. When we reached Separation Point the Mackenzie River split into three main channels and became a delta. From these three channels, other channels split off them, so the Mackenzie basin was one huge area of water stretching for hundreds of kilometres. There are said to be 25,000 lakes in the Mackenzie Delta. About a third of the Mackenzie’s lakes are flooded once every two to five years, while the remainder are flooded every spring. Flooding of the delta lakes is critical to their existence. The evaporation rate in summer is immense and lakes often dry up, so they need to be flooded at least once every decade to remain healthy.
We took the first channel and I had thoughts that it would be much narrower than the main river but it started off very wide, exposed and rough. It was also wet, especially for Alaine who was at the front of the canoe and taking all the splash from the waves that came over the bow. It was also a hard slog and it took some time before we felt the current was helping us along. Eventually we started making 7kms an hour.
We had a pee stop, but we didn’t stop too long as it was so cold, despite being all rugged up in several layers of clothing. Paddling was much warmer. When our channel met up with another big channel coming in from the west I expected the river to become rougher, but a sand bar separating them killed the big wind waves and for a short time it was a little calmer. About 6kms later and 20kms from our last camp we started veering to our right and into the East Channel, which would take us to Inuvik. We were happy as it felt as if a new chapter was born. It meant that we would be out of the wind and away from the big waves, but on the downside we would have a slower current to assist us.
The McKenzie River before entering the Delta.
The McKenzie River before entering the Delta.
The sky was still full of the dark angry clouds and rain squalls and drizzle persisted when we moved into the channel. With the delta came a much muddier, marshier low-lying shoreline, so when we attempted to land we were put off by the oozing, gooey mud. We tried again this time on a more vertical, higher bank. The task was tricky and although it was higher ground it was still muddy and to slip into the water would have horrendous consequences. I managed to climb the bank and onto the marshy, soggy grass and then helped Alaine up. Tony was up on the bank next leaving Leonie sitting in the canoe. Tony began coaxing her out. “Jump out,” he said as the canoe moved slightly away from the bank but just like a naughty, defiant child Leonie folded her arms and refused to move. She even uttered a few choice swear words. Tony soon got the message that Leonie wanted a much better and cleaner way of exiting the canoe. He pulled the canoe closer to the bank and put his hand out to help her out. Alaine joked with Leonie, and she said she could see how Leonie would have been as a displeased child.
Ready to move into the East Channel
When everyone was safely onto the marsh grasses we had lunch. Violet flowers mingled with the lush green grass that stretched towards the entrance of East Channel and for 25 metres from the water’s edge. Spindly trees were thick there-after giving great cover for any wild animals and nice coverage for us to pee. We cooked noodles in what felt like the lost world. We were truly in a bleak wilderness. The weather was decidedly miserable and distinctly chilly and as we sipped the hot noodle stock, we wondered if it had been worth stopping as we were colder than before and we faced the difficult task of getting back into our canoes. The bank was steep, slippery and even muddier than it was before and holding the canoes close to the bank without falling into the water was quite a tricky task.
Lunch in the calmer East Channel.
The East Channel was much wider than it looked on the map. After 30kms the channel divided into two. Kalinek Channel went straight on, East Channel turned to the right. We stopped for a pee at a good camping spot on the right and although it was late the team wanted to keep going, so we had fewer kilometres to travel to Inuvik the following day.
Minutes later we passed a big two storey house on the right side of the river. The deserted mansion looked most out of place way out here in the swamps. A flag on the flagpole barely fluttered as the wind had calmed and the quiet of the evening allowed us to hear a nearby stream flow from a lake through some thick vegetation and over a bank and into our channel. The water looked good but as we were only a day from Inuvik we didn’t need to collect any fresh water.
We were surprised to see such a flash house in the delta.
We finally found a camp 55kms from Inuvik. The banks were muddy so we used driftwood to help slide the canoes up the slippery bank. It took all four of us to drag the heavy canoes well above the water. Our tents were erected on damp, semi-firm ground with almost a water bed feeling to it. We were surrounded by bear scat but it was of little concern to us as bear scat and bear prints were commonplace at our campsites. Every night we all had our bear spray and bear bangers at the ready, placed within easy reach just in case of a late night visit from an inquisitive bear.
Our last night’s camp with Tony.
Loons were making noises throughout the evening and night but it was the wolves that started howling just as I was about to retire that was totally amazing. Alaine and Leonie were still awake, I could here them commenting about the wonderful sound of the wolves. Alaine described it as listening to an opera, there was the deep baritone howl along with the light tenor howl and all the tones in between. I lay there listening, it was so humbling, so inspiring; this was truly an amazing place to be.
Day 62 – Thursday 7th August
The wolves continued howling throughout the night, and what a marvellous musical it was. The sense of truly being in the wilderness was cemented in both my heart and mind.
After a breakfast of cereal we slid the canoes into the water using logs to avoid the mud. Tony and I sat in the back of the canoes and the girls gave us a big hard push to give us a cleaner entry into the water. We then picked them up at a higher, less boggy ground.
The channel twisted and turned and the current had slowed considerably and although we only had 55kms to reach Inuvik, it would take us all day. After a few minutes of paddling we saw a black wolf sitting under a tree. It didn’t move until we got close, it then stood up and watched us. I’m sure it was wondering who the hell we were. We eventually moved off before it did. Some time later we saw another black wolf trotting along the shore on the other side of the river. The day was cold and the wind made it even colder. Nearing lunchtime we paddled another bend to find two fairly new cabins perched on a hill with a boardwalk joining the two. It was the valley of the rich! A flat rock shoreline nearby prompted us to stop for lunch. Considering the cold wind, in hindsight, it wasn’t the best place, but at least we didn’t get our feet muddy!! Mud was becoming our bugbear. Rock shores were scarce around the delta so it was probably our last opportunity to walk on rocky ground. The icy wind was harsh and while eating lunch we nearly froze. I was forced to put my leggings on to warm up.
A black wolf had no fear.
We started paddling as soon as we had finished eating. More eagles soared in the skies above and loons constantly flew in front of us. We even saw planes flying over. In the distance at the end of the straight we could see a vertical cliff face of one of the cliffs of the Big Rock Range. It soon went out of view.
Now that we were getting closer to Inuvik there were several cabins along the way, though most were deserted. One was a huge place, which we thought was a Ranger’s building or headquarters. Whatever it was it was big and expensive. Another cabin had a heap of logs pulled up onto their beach and it looked as if they were stripping and preparing them for sale or to be used for building purposes. The skies were grey. It was very cold, in fact colder than other days. On the last corner before the straight into Inuvik we stopped for a pee. Across from us were two guys stripping and chopping some big logs.
Using timbers to avoid sinking in the deep mud.
We started seeing a few cabins.
We could now see a really big boat ahead, but it was on land, abandoned and rusting away. Buildings began to appear, most looked industrial and the town didn’t look the prettiest of places but we shouldn’t forget that we were in the frozen north, where for most of the year the town is under snow and ice. It was hard to believe that we were nearly at our destination.
Alaine is happy to reach Inuvik.
We finally arrived at a picnic area in Inuvik on a chilly evening. Our canoes hit the bank and they came together. As Tony was leaving us here at Inuvik we shook hands. He said thanks for the trip, but I wondered how much he had enjoyed it as he had been distant with me on some days along the way.
We took a few photos before walking up the bank and across the picnic area towards a guy near his truck who had just let his dog off the leash to run around and exercise. He was originally from England and he and his wife had been in Inuvik for several years. He advised us not to stay near the park but to go to the town wharf, which he felt would be safer from the sort of people that hang around the park.
Tony’s finish line was now a few hundred metres further so we all jumped back into the canoes and paddled on to a spot on an upstream side of the town wharf, landing at 7.15pm. Another paddler, a French guy (Alain from Paris) had arrived an hour before us. He had started at Hay River and had taken twice as long as we had to get here. He said a Japanese paddler had also arrived earlier that day. It seemed that every paddler on the river was now in Inuvik. We unpacked our more expensive equipment, gear and a few clothes to take with us to town and for safekeeping. We were told it wasn’t far to the hotel so we walked to it in our canoeing clothes. What a sight. For some reason the locals under the influence of alcohol took a shine to us and warmly welcomed us to their town. We showered which was such blissful luxury and then went out for a very enjoyable meal across the road at a pizza place.
Tony leaves us here.
We talked about the trip. On reflection we had been amazingly lucky with the paddling conditions. Although we have had some rough conditions, some cold and wet days, we have also had many days with blue skies, calm winds, NO mozzies, NO flies and NO bear problems. However, more recently, five days ago since crossing the Arctic Circle the weather had been a bit more hostile and wintry. Tomorrow Alaine, Leonie and I would paddle off again heading to Tuktoyaktuk leaving Tony to wait for his flight home in two day’s time.
Here in Inuvik was our last staging point. From the information I read it has a population of 3300 people with 42% being non-aboriginal, 37% Inuit, 14% Gwich’in, and 7% Metis. The Arctic Ocean is now only 120kms away to the north and the Arctic Circle is 200kms to the south. Inuvik is the administration and commercial centre for the Western Arctic and it was the busiest in 1990 at the end of the petroleum exploration boom.
Like most northern towns the permafrost posed a serious problem and we noticed when we walked into town earlier that the water and sewerage pipes were enclosed in a network of aboveground utilidors which ran through Inuvik’s backyards. It wasn’t the prettiest sight to have in your back garden but they were necessary. With the intense cold and the permafrost, gardens were difficult, if not impossible, to establish. For that reason, gardens in the northern communities were not that pleasing to look at. Due to the 24 hours of daylight, many people blocked out the light from entering through their bedroom windows with blinds, paper or foil. That way people slept easier. In the winter however we were told that for several days of the year it doesn’t get light.
To The Arctic Ocean
Day 63 – Friday 8th August
We spent most of the day gearing up for our last fling to Tuktoyaktuk, updating the trip blog, as it had been hard to do it in other communities along the way and shopping for a bit more food, although we really didn’t need any more. Alaine and Leonie shopped for more clothes as the weather was becoming colder and colder every day and they wanted more layers to put on. I tried to hurry them, so we could get going as we were losing precious time, but they couldn‘t be rushed.
Around 5.00pm Alaine and I loaded our canoe once again. Leonie was still shopping and arrived later. Tony came to wave us off, though we still couldn’t understand why he had decided to stop at Inuvik. With Tony leaving us at Inuvik, the three of us had to paddle two canoes 190kms to Tuktoyaktuk. This may be the hardest part of the paddle. There would be no current once we reached the tidal areas, it had become colder and wetter, and we’d have to paddle in the ocean for 45kms. The locals were still reminding us of the family that had drowned in the area recently after their boat capsized.
Alaine packing for our final leg to Tuktoyaktuk.
Leonie or I had to paddle a canoe alone. I had volunteered but Alaine was concerned about paddling with Leonie on the rougher sections and the ocean leg as their combined skills might not cope with the conditions. Alaine had little confidence in herself and she was also unsure about her own skill level and abilities to cope if things went wrong. She didn’t want to lose my experience and skills and preferred that I stayed in her canoe.
Once Leonie’s canoe was loaded she went for a test paddle. The bow of the canoe was lifting way out of the water, so the weight had to be rearranged to make the bow of the canoe heavier to level it out. After checking it and rearranging the gear two or three times, we set off around 5.15pm. The river was quite rough and straight away Leonie’s canoe was slapping against the waves and being lifted and thrown about by the wind. We pushed on however, as Leonie looked content. A little more than a kilometre downstream we passed between barges at the Government wharf. Workmen were busily working but they looked on as we passed. They may have wondered why we were paddling so late in the afternoon against strong winds, light rain and a sky that looked as if it was going to explode. Although with 24 hours of daylight, it was not uncommon for the locals to go fishing in the middle of the night, and they probably didn’t give it a thought.
Passing the wharf.
Just after the barges we stopped and discussed a better way to travel. Leonie was going to have a hard time if we didn’t help her along, so to help her track better and stop her from being blown around, I suggested attaching a tow line to the front of her canoe. We tried it and it worked well. It kept her in line and she didn’t get left behind (and this actually made Alaine feel better also as she wasn’t constantly turning around to make sure Leonie wasn’t too far away). We paddled for three and half hours and covered 25kms before finding a campsite on the left side of the river a few kilometres from the start of Caribou Hills. It was muddy but a metre from the water’s edge the ground was firm enough to allow us to walk without sinking below our ankles. It turned out to be a good campsite. It was the first night to have only three tents lining the riverbank. The wind dropped at 10.30pm. I fell asleep to the delightful sound of what I thought was an owl hooting.
Day 64 – Saturday 9th August
There was dew, mist and drizzle when we woke, and not forgetting to mention it was particularly cold. I had left my leggings outside overnight, so they were soaked. I had a good sleep, but the girls said they heard a beaver slapping its tail in the night. A barge, which we had seen three times since Fort Good Hope, came by. We watched it negotiate the narrow channel without any trouble.
A misty cold morning. Alaine and Leonie bought extra warm jackets in Inuvik.
An eagle was perched in a tree when we moved away travelling at 6 – 7kms an hour. The influence of the colder weather was apparent in the size of the trees. They were much smaller here than further south and some of the spruce trees had ball-shaped branches on the top. This is apparently called “Witches Brooms” and is caused by an abnormality in the tree’s growth. They looked quite bizarre but they kept us intrigued. The Caribou Hills, which were intersected by beautiful valleys, steep ridges and vegetated gullies were now appearing on our right. Our channel soon met up with two other channels coming in from the left (west). When the hills met up with our channel there was a cabin tucked away in a gully. It looked very smart. We carried on in the cold and stopped for a break where a track came down to the water’s edge. We walked up the track to find a cabin surrounded by a battery powered electric wire fence which was to keep the bears out. A sign said, “Annie’s Cabin”. We looked through the window to check it out but we didn’t try to get inside.
There were a few odd looking trees around.
Annie’s cabin complete with an electric fence to keep the bears out.
Back on the river the weather was becoming really Arctic weather, wet and very, very cold. We managed to land, with some difficulty because of the shallows, at the abandoned Reindeer Station where there was a derelict house and a few old buildings close by. This was once a Reindeer Farm. Years before, the government imported reindeer from Norway to be raised by the First Nation people as a subsidy. The long grass was wet, and our feet and bodies created a path through it as we searched to find a place where we could rest and eat. It was too cold to sit down and light the stove, but we had filled the flask at breakfast so we had instant hot water for our drink. I had originally thought it wasn’t such a good idea to carry a heavy flask but it was now proving its worth.
A seal appeared directly in front of us. It lifted its head right out of the water and looked straight at us with a quizzical expression that appeared to say, who are you? What are you doing here and have you got anything for me? For the next few minutes it entertained us as it dived, swam in a circle or two and surfaced several times to look at us, before eventually giving up on us feeding it and headed up river. The seal’s presence left us in no doubt we were getting close to the ocean.
A seal checks us out.
Alaine put on more clothes to combat her shivering, but she was already wrapped in five layers so she couldn’t put too much more on or she wouldn’t be able to move. For the next 10kms the river narrowed further and meandered before meeting up with another channel to our left and becoming much, much wider again. From here the river was virtually straight for over 30kms and with the increased strength in wind the river became one big mass of waves. The current flow helped us along but the wind and waves were against us so Alaine who was paddling strongly soon became drenched from the rain and the waves that were breaking over the bow. Within no time she became extremely cold and suddenly developed a mood that turned into anger and frustration.
Happy to be heading to the Arctic Ocean. But it was so cold.
At the end of the first straight 15kms on, the Caribou Range met up with the river again. For kilometres we were able to see a high, sloping, bare sand cliff with a moose or animal track running across it. A little further there was a channel marker way up the hill. We took the opportunity to land to have a pee on a pebbly shore at the bottom of one of these big hills. Cold and wet Alaine’s behaviour displayed a person under great stress. She was very cold from the constant waves washing over the canoe and was less than impressed with the inadequate spray deck that allowed the cold water to seep through and into her lap. She felt unsafe and didn’t want to go on. “This is stupid, we are not even at the ocean and it will be worse there,” she said.
We were so close we could sell the ocean.
I calmly tried to reason with her but being in such a mood, she wouldn’t listen and her mind was set. She didn’t want to go on. Whilst this was going on, Leonie walked some distance away. I knew that Leonie would secretly be hoping that Alaine would go on, as in some ways she’s much like me, very determined and eager to reach our goal.
Alaine hung her head to hide her tears. She wasn’t a happy person and I was wondering how I was going to get her to calm down and change her mood. We just couldn’t stop now. As I tried to reason with her and her tears and anger started to dry up, we noticed a mass of colourful pebbles, mostly green, beneath our feet. They were quite amazing and we couldn’t help but pick some up, touch them and look at the beauty. This distraction took her mind off the discomfort that she was enduring, so much so, she managed to get herself together and she suddenly stepped back into the canoe and we were off. I was most surprised when we paddled away.
With the high beautiful ridge beside us the river calmed and we warmed a little. Our environment to the north was getting noticeably harsher, the trees smaller and stunted, the sky more hostile but I was feeling much better when we were moving and getting closer to the ocean with every paddle stroke. Alaine said nothing, she just paddled on.
After about 4kms and just before reaching Spruce Island, we had decided to stop on the higher and less marshy east side of the river, when we noticed a promising campsite. It was sheltered on the east side by a high ridge but the weather was coming from the north-west so it gave us no shelter from the wind. Nevertheless it was near perfect. It was about 40 metres from the water to the vegetated spruce-covered ridge. The ground was quite flat, in parts a little stony, some parts quite damp but there was a lot of sand to erect our tents. It was so cold, the wind was whistling around our faces and despite wearing several layers of clothing and balaclavas to keep warm, it was hard to concentrate on what we were doing.
We were surprised to have sand to camp on in the delta.
A large amount of driftwood had been washed up along the shore a few metres from the ridge, and although it was wet, it was hollow, light and weathered and we soon had a fire going. Each piece of wood burnt quite quickly, so our supplies around camp soon dwindled. Nevertheless, we still had enough to warm our bodies and wet clothes for several hours. Admittedly I hadn’t expected to find a sandy beach nor such a good campsite with so much wood here in the delta area but we had the Caribou Ridge to thank for that.
The fire and the warmth cheered us up. We sat around it dangling our clothing closer to the heat to accelerate the drying process, but with the heat being so intense I dangled a thermal too close and a sleeve melted. With it being so cold I couldn’t afford to destroy any clothing, so I took a little extra care.
Day 65 – Sunday 10th August
I was raring to go when I woke as we had less than three day’s paddling left and it was only 120 kilometres to Tuktoyaktuk. When I stuck my head outside the tent the weather wasn’t looking good with more rain and black clouds. Despite the weather forecast two days earlier saying it was going to be favourable, it didn’t seem to be the case outside. We were in the Arctic and it was beginning to show.
With the weather still deteriorating I thought it best to ring Jenny for the latest forecast. We were too exposed to take risks and I was more than a little concerned with Alaine‘s mood and her anxieties that to her were very real. Jenny said there was going to be a 10 -15 km NE winds for Monday and 20 km NNE winds for Tuesday, when it would be against us on the ocean crossing.
With this new weather information I had to make the toughest decision that I’ve had to make in years; to keep paddling into weather that we knew would be difficult to paddle in, or retreat back to Inuvik against the current with the knowledge that we hadn’t got to our finishing point of Tuktoyaktuk. Not to get there though would be a huge blow, so it was going to be a hard decision to make.
The weather changed for the worst.
We had confirmed our flight tickets out of Inuvik so we only had few days to spare to wait for a change in the weather. With the weather being wet, very cold with maximum temperatures of 5C over the last few days, I was in a quandary as to what to do. Will the weather get any better or will we get stuck in the inhospitable Arctic delta? We also had to consider the wind that was blowing from the north, north-east would be against us and so with the continuous rain, the intense cold weather and with the wind waves that splashed over the bow of the canoe making it an extra cold/wet trip for Alaine, the paddle wasn’t going to get any easier. Despite Alaine wearing several layers of clothing she was far more chilled than Leonie and I, who were sitting in the rear of the canoes and much drier. We had to be careful of hypothermia. I have worked with Alaine for several years and when she is not happy she can become tearful, hard to reason with and a little stubborn. Due to the conditions, Alaine was now desperately cold and feeling a sense of despair.
I expected it would get more difficult in the next few days for Leonie to paddle the canoe by herself against the wind, but not impossible. It could also get very dangerous when we reached the rough ocean but I was confident that we could cope. We would need to tow Leonie if it got rough to keep the bow of the canoe in line and make it easier for her to paddle but I didn’t see that as a huge problem. If we did experience 20 kilometre winds, big ocean waves and bleak weather, that would certainly be a problem but as long as we could land and camp we would be able to wait for the weather to calm and get better. Our biggest problem though was that our flights were booked and we just didn’t have too many days to spare to sit around.
Despite the dangers and problems we faced, Leonie and I wanted to go on. I knew that we could make it. We just had to be sensible about the conditions we paddled in. We tried to conjure up some options. Although Tuktoyaktuk was our finishing point, the ocean was our main goal. My main aim was to paddle from the mountains to the Arctic Ocean. We were so close to the tidal waters but not quite there.
Our options were:
Option 1: Turn and head back to Inuvik. Safest option and would be back in time for our flight home.
Option 2: Paddle to the ocean and then paddle back to Inuvik. Relatively safe but we wouldn’t have the time to paddle back against the current to get our flight home.
Option 3: Paddle to the ocean and hope the ocean would be calm enough when we reach it to paddle on to Tuk. We would make our flight home from Tuk.
Option 4: Paddle to the ocean and if it was rough, wait until it was safe to paddle into Tuk. We would definitely miss our plane if we had to wait a few days. Leonie would miss her partner Dan’s birthday that she had promised she’d be home for.
As we stood in the rain on a beach a few kilometres from tidal water and 70kms from the ocean, I could no longer put off the decision. Leonie wanted to go on, but like me, we knew we had to do what was best for the group and our own safety. Alaine was concerned about the extreme cold, rough seas, Leonie’s ability to paddle alone and our safety on the ocean. After discussions, Alaine suggested we camped there another day and see what the weather was like the next morning, I didn’t think that would help, as our days were running out and her mood may not have changed.
I was more concerned with how Alaine would react if we went on and the weather and dangers did become worse. Being cold and afraid of the elements may accelerate her defiant mood and we would be left in a bleak wilderness. With everything taken into consideration I decided that we should turn back. I knew the decision to turn back would affect us for a long time to come, but we had to accept it. I have completed four other very long rivers to the end and Alaine and Leonie were looking forward to completing the entire MacKenzie River, and although we had paddled thousands of kilometres, we all had the same hollow feeling inside. We were just thinking of what we hadn’t achieved and not what we had achieved.
I secretly cursed the decision, but I knew deep down that I couldn’t put other people’s lives at risk, and there was a risk. I tried not to blame Alaine, but a small part of me couldn’t help it. The decision did bring some relief, I knew there was little danger ahead of us by going back and no lives would be lost. On most of my long trips I only have myself to think about. It was different here.
We had breakfast around our most northern campfire. The sky was still black with cloud and rain haze fading in and out as the rain passed over to our south. Leonie tried drying her socks, but set them alight. It didn’t really matter now, we could be wet, we could be cold, as in three day’s time we would be all warm and tucked up in a hotel room. Leonie and I kicked sand on the remnants of our last most northerly fire until nothing could be seen. It was such a turning point in our trip and quite sad.
We were trying to keep warm and drying our socks and gloves.
Leonie and I kicking sand on the fire – we would go no further north.
It was time to pack up, take the tents down and fill our canoes with all our gear. It was a difficult time and we spoke little. We took a few photos on the self timer, which turned out being a short movie, as I didn’t have my glasses on, so I pressed the wrong dial on my camera. Looking back it was quite amazing how our team of three had become one team since Tony left.
The rain clouds were low and our surrounds were grey. Our decision to turn back only made the day look even bleaker. It seemed that there was nothing to look forward to and certainly it didn’t seem the sun was going to appear to brighten the day up either. It was easy to get into the canoe, but it was hard to paddle in the opposite direction to where we were supposed to be going. My heart was feeling such pain and I don’t believe that I have ever felt as disappointed in my whole life, as now. Our goal was only kilometres away, but it was so far and now never to be reached. We had failed. I usually tell others, it’s not important to finish a trip, it’s about giving it a go that matters, but at this point I didn’t believe my own words.
The long wide straight was familiar but we were going against the current so our pace was much slower than the way down. Leonie wanted to be let loose and paddle without the rope but Alaine still felt that she would be safer and easier for her to be on the line. Alaine worried too much. She always worries about other people and animals, but that is her nature. We left the rope off so Leonie could paddle back to Inuvik under her own steam. This time though she paddled with her canoe paddle, instead of the kayak paddle that she had used from Inuvik. Having not used a kayak paddle for months, the last two days of paddling with one had made her muscle sore.
Leonie felt much better not being tethered. Although it was going to be a little slower, she needed to run free and because we were headed for home it really didn’t matter if we took a little longer. I must admit though, when she started paddling with a canoe paddle she looked awkward paddling on one side then after a few strokes paddling on the other side, but she was happy and made good headway.
At 3kms an hour we eventually reached the corner where the river split into two channels and narrowed. We were desperate for a pee and to have a bite to eat, but it was so cold and wet it made it hard to stop. There was an elevated bank on the east side of the river with spruce trees leaning or toppled over from the erosion. The bank was muddy but we managed to get out and climb the slippery slope to a small clear spot and lean against a huge log that had drifted onto the bank in high water.
Behind us was a hectare of driftwood which was piled up thickly and surrounded by short spruce trees and bushes. Beyond them a mass of small lakes that we knew were there, but couldn‘t see. The rain was still pouring, we were cold and it really felt like a cruel day. A cup of hot chocolate didn’t seem to help to ease the cold or the pain. In life we have good days and bad days and unfortunately today was a particularly bad day.
On the way back to Inuvik. Having a break but it was extremely cold and wet.
When we entered the narrower channel it was comforting, the corners shaded us from the wind and at times when a corner created an eddy the current was easier to fight. Suddenly the rain stopped. The sky became just that little bit brighter and for once in the day, it brought a little cheer to our hearts. I had noticed a place to camp on the way down, but a kilometre before that place we found another that would accommodate us just as well.
I jumped out to check, leaving the girls sitting in the canoes on the side of the river. Two solitary figures sitting in separate canoes, each with their own thoughts of the day. It was a great photo. The bank was quite flat about 10 metres from the water and 5 metres from a line of bushes. The ground was very damp and inundated with bear prints which made deep holes. But, we decided to camp anyway. It was hard to avoid them when erecting our tents. The bear prints stretched from one end of our 150 metre shoreline to the other. The line of bushes beside us hid everything from our sight and if a bear suddenly stepped out from the bushes we would never see it until it was on us. The tracks were not too fresh though, so I wasn’t overly concerned, although I wouldn’t have camped quite as close to the bushes as Leonie did.
A welcome campsite.
Unlike our last camp there was little wood to light a fire. I searched along the shores and in the bushes. What I found was all very, very wet, but it had to do. I gathered a pile before trying to light it. It was difficult to light but Leonie started blowing and blowing and it finally took hold.
Once going we had to pile the wood on the fire to encourage an intense flame, so it would dry the wood and never go out. It worked. Our clothes were soaking again so we tried drying them by the fire. Unfortunately, although there was a good flame, the wet wood created a huge amount of smoke that spiralled and wafted into our eyes and permeated our clothes.
The campsite was full of bear tracks.
What’s camping without a smokey fire.
It was wet and cold and we were retreating but it’s still time to be happy.
Day 66 – Monday 11th August
When we rose to an icy cool morning Alaine was admiring the river calmness and beautiful colours that blended into the water and trees. She asked me to take a picture of it. She saw beauty in just about everything. We took off ferry gliding across a swift current at the first bend. We soon reached the Reindeer Station, but passed it on the opposite side of the river. At least the view of the buildings and the hills were much clearer today as there wasn’t as much mist as on the way up.
We kept close to the shoreline to keep out of the main current. It was slow going but at least we were moving. A few channels entered from the west, they were inviting us to explore but we passed them by.
I noticed movement way ahead on the left side of the river. It was a moose that walked out of the undergrowth, onto the mud flats and entered the water. I urged Alaine to paddle harder so we could get closer for a photo. The moose was swimming fast and within minutes it was half way across the river. I urged Alaine to go faster, but she said, “We shouldn’t get too close we’ll frighten it”. She cared about everything. “Frighten it, don’t worry about frightening it,” I said, “I want to get a picture, that’s more important.” With the extra speed we still couldn’t get close. Within minutes the moose had crossed the river, started to rise up as it walked into the shallows and then onto the mud flat. Immediately it started running across the mud flat like a camel. It was such a funny sight and the girls couldn’t stop laughing. It stopped as it entered the vegetation, looked back at us for a few moments and then ran off.
A moose swims across the river.
After a brief stop at Annie’s cabin for a pee we pressed on towards the deluxe cabin which we had seen two days earlier on the side of the Caribou Hills. We easily landed on the only rocky shore for kilometres and had lunch sitting on a log near a path that led to the cabin. On the way past we had named it the hunting lodge because of its grand appearance. After lunch we scrambled up the muddy trail stepping over rusting metal culverts, and avoiding holes that streams of water were flowing through and then pushed through high grasses and weed to the wooden steps of the cabin. Amongst other bits and pieces lying around there was an old winch that stood rusting on the side of the path.
We were still smiling despite our retreat to Inuvik.
Playing darts reminded me of my younger days.
From the river the cabin looked quite new, but on closer inspection it was a little run down, although a busy bee would soon get it back in shape. Up on the balcony we had splendid views westward of the river and surrounds. To think that for eighty kilometres directly west there were just channels, lakes and mudflats. Imagine how many mosquitoes lived out there. We could see lakes, low vegetation and short spruce trees. Further over another channel, the Oniak Channel met up with the main Middle Channel that carried most of the water out of the MacKenzie River. It was a magnificent spot to have a log cabin. Behind us, looking east were hills and gullies with low vegetation, scattered spruce trees and impressive slabs of rock and boulders. It would have been a great place to rest up, relax and admire the views.
A dart board hung from the wall which brought back memories of when I was a teenager and used to play darts in the local pubs. I was an average dart player but fancied myself as a better one. Three plastic darts were stuck in the board begging to be thrown, so I picked them up and threw all three in the 20s. Not too bad I thought, but I guess I was less than 2 metres away! It gave me pleasure to throw them for a while and to think about my days when I was 15 – 18 years old.
We peered through the windows and checked the workmanship of the cabin before retreating down the slope and back to the canoes. Within 15 minutes we were back into the narrow channel and moving away from the hills. There was a cabin to our left and another to the right down a channel opposite to where a barge had parked. They were deserted.
It was bleak and we were paddling against a current.
Taking the turn we were now on our last leg of the journey and soon reached our first night’s camp. It was a great camp. We stopped briefly to have a pee, but we decided not to camp there but to move on a few more kilometres. We would then have less distance to paddle the following day.
The grounds around a cabin a few kilometres ahead looked inviting, but when we got close the grass was tall and wet making it very unsuitable to camp. We drifted towards shore as a porcupine swam towards us from out of a small bay. We watched it and then moved on, stopping further to check out another campsite. It wasn’t suitable but it gave me the opportunity to see the lakes and a new world on the other side of the bank. There were hundreds of lakes marked on my map on the other side of the river bank only metres away from us but without being in the air or walking to find them, they were invisible from the river.
We finally found a small camp spot where a creek entered the river on the left. It wasn’t the idyllic spot that we were hoping for, on our last night on the river, but it would have to do. We dragged the boats up the 1 ½ metre slope and I managed to erect my tent in a tiny area between the bushes and the girls’ two tents. I was safer from bears there!
We were all in good spirits, we ate popcorn and marshmallows, yet there was a definite sense of something missing in our hearts, a big hole caused by our retreat. Even with one day left, it was really hard to be excited because we hadn’t reached our goal. Sadly we had forgotten what we had actually achieved.
My mind was full of thoughts and I couldn’t shake them. I was still wondering if I had made the right decision. Should we have gone on, could we have done it? If we had kept going we would have been so close to Tuk at this moment. But instead we were heading back in Inuvik with our tails between our legs. It was quite awful, I could have cried.
Our last camp.
Day 67 – Tuesday 12th August 2008
It was a cruel finish to what has been an amazing trip! After paddling nearly 4,000kms (2,000kms for Alaine and Leonie), the weather dealt the final blow, yet this morning there was no wind, the sun was out and there were very few clouds about. I felt cheated. I would have much preferred if it was raining, I would have felt better. I wondered if it was similar weather around Tuk.
We only had about 15kms left to paddle, so we didn’t need to hurry. Over breakfast we started reflecting on what had happened and doing a sort of debrief. I was eager to talk about it because I knew that once we got back to civilisation and back to work our lives would take on another course.
Unfortunately our talk didn’t go so well. At first it was great, we were just talking about what we had gone through, remembering all the good parts and what a great trip it had been. Then when Leonie and I suggested that if Alaine hadn’t been so cold, wet and didn’t have grave concerns about the journey ahead, we would have gone on. I thought Alaine was alright and accepted what we said, but she took it hard. I then must have said something else that she didn’t like to hear as she became quite furious with me and after that she wouldn’t talk.
We packed up in deadly silence, slid the canoes down the bank and paddled off against the current. I’m not sure what I said that made her really angry, but whatever it was, I was paying for it now. It was such a glorious day, quite hot as we were back in our T-shirts, but Alaine wasn’t bubbling with enthusiasm and talking about the beautiful countryside like she usually did. I was keen to enjoy our last day on the river, to talk about the country around us and have some laughter, but whatever I said had really and truly hurt and angered her. It was such a shame to have silence on the last day.
After days of foul weather the sky turned blue.
Leonie was still paddling hard, often flitting across the river and trying to keep the boat straight with her canoe paddle. You could see she was enjoying the paddle, the sun was beating down so she had exposed her shoulders to capture the last rays of the Arctic sun.
The town wharf was much busier when we arrived than when we left. Several fishermen and council workers were putting in or taking out boats. A pile of gravel was dumped on the road nearby and a loader was loading a barge. It was making such a mess, but this is the north and this is how it’s done.
It was that warm Leonie stripped off.
Our last kilometre.
We paddled to the muddy shore between two boats. I wanted to do a high five, but Alaine still had a closed look to her and really didn’t want to be happy with me. I took a photo, smile I asked, but nothing lit up. Leonie took out a bottle of champagne that she had been carrying from Hay River and she placed three mugs on a bow of a boat close by. I set up my camera and we all toasted but it wasn’t the toast that we had been waiting for. We weren’t at Tuk and Alaine’s smile wasn’t a smile. It was the end, yet it was such a disappointing celebration. We had achieved so much, paddled thousands of kilometres, had strong bodies, but at that moment it felt as if we had achieved nothing. It was quite sad.
Back in Inuvik.
The wharf was busy with loaders and trucks. We sorted through our gear and put them into piles and washed everything that we could with the river water. Two hours later I carried some gear to the hotel and then hired a taxi to fetch the girls and the gear back to the hotel.
That’s it after 4000kms.
We celebrate with a bottle of wine.
When we reached the hotel our trip was all over. All we had to do now was to wash and dry all our clothes and gear and then paddle the canoes back down river to the commercial wharf where we would leave them with a barge company to be freighted back to Hay River. The rented one would go back to Doug Swallow and we donated ours to Jordon from Hay River.
Alaine soon began to thaw and her mood lightened up and she started talking to me again. She finally told me that I had made her feel that it was entirely her fault for not getting to the end.
A Trip to Tuktoyaktuk
With one day to spare before flying out we decided to take a flight to Tuktoyaktuk as I believed we really needed to see it to have some closure. By doing so we would at least be able to see our goal, to experience a few hours next to the Arctic Ocean and be more satisfied with our decision to retreat. We were so looking forward to the trip after failing to get there by canoe but then our flight was delayed because of bad weather and it didn’t seem as if we would get to Tuk after all. It was quite soul destroying sitting there in the airport for hours not knowing if we would get there.
Inuvik local church.
Over three hours later we boarded a small plane, took off and headed north. Talk about being happy. Instantly we had an amazing view of all the lakes and waterways that were beneath us. As we flew further north the views became better, the lakes became bigger and for a long time it looked as if we were flying across the ocean, but it turned out to be the huge Eskimo Lake system.
Arriving in Tuktoyaktuk.
The weather at Tuk airport was cold, cloudy and the sky was full of rain. Our guide met us in shorts. It was certainly too cold for shorts, but I suppose he was showing us how tough the locals were up here. We jumped in a tourist van and began a tour around town, our guide feeding us information as we slowly drove around. The town was small with few people braving the weather. The community has a population of nearly 1000, it is the largest Inuvialuit community in the Western Arctic. We stopped at a sod house, a replica of what was once typical housing of the Inuvialuit. Sod houses were framed with driftwood timber and whale bone and covered with the local sod, (earth, grass). Our next stop was going to be a chilly affair at the local freezer, which was a big, deep hole dug into the permafrost ground. To get into the Community Ice House we had to climb down a long wooden ladder that plunged 13 metres underground. At the bottom, a passage led to several small rooms. Most families in town shared a room / freezer which were stocked with animals or whale after a hunting season. The passages and rooms took a long time to dig out and we were told they were only half full of produce at this time of year. The icy walls sparkled and glistened and it was very cold, not so strange I guess considering we were after all in someone’s freezer.
A sod house.
Climbing down into the community Ice House.
The walls were crystallised and by-golly it was cold.
Back at the top we drove by an Anglican and a Catholic Church, continuing to a point which had a monument of the Trans Canada Trail. The trail built and looked after by different communities along the way was 16,000kms long and said to be the longest trail in the world. It links the Atlantic with the Pacific, and to the Arctic, starting at St John, Newfoundland. We were standing next to the most northern part. It is used by five activities, walking, cycling, cross country skiing and snow mobile. I couldn’t help but wonder how people made it all the way from the start to Tuktoyaktuk.
Next stop the Arctic.
The girls walked over to the ocean and stood there and looked out across Kugmallit Bay, (Beaufort Sea) from where we would have come. It looked very bleak and Alaine felt a sense of vindication after she had asked the guide what the weather had been like during the week. He responded by saying that it had been bad weather all week with cold and drizzle and that the strong wind had only abated for less than half a day. So maybe, just maybe the decision to turn back proved a good one!!
It was great to see some pingos.
It was gloomy and cold outside so it was comforting to get back in the bus for a short trip passed our guide’s home and to the local pebble beach where we had the opportunity to dip our feet or go for a swim in the Arctic Ocean. I wasn’t feeling that I needed to prove anything, so I kept my clothes on. We walked along the beach checking out the amazing number of coloured stones and viewing the intriguing Pingos that were scattered across the desolate country. Pingos are conical hills which in some amazing way are formed because of the combination of draining lakes, permafrost and unfrozen ground that begins to freeze and expands pushing the lake bed up and up until a hill is formed. Some of the highest Pingos are near Tuktoyuktuk and I did so much want to canoe by them. It would have been the perfect ending to the finish of our journey but it wasn’t to be. Seeing them now gave me a slight sense of satisfaction and as our journey was near the end I was extremely happy and much more satisfied that we made it to Tuk, even if it wasn’t the way I planned.
The community was small and very isolated and the only way in or out was either by air or by water, but in winter when the water is totally frozen the locals are able to travel on an ice road, which follows the ocean, then the river to Inuvik and Aklavik.
Alaine and Leonie dressed in locally made goose down jackets.
Our tour was soon over and we returned to the airport. As we took off it was hard to see anything as it was raining and the clouds were low. The pilot said he might not be able to follow the river back to Inuvik as planned because of the deteriorating weather. My heart sank. Luckily within minutes of taking off the weather cleared and we were able to cross the ocean to the head of the river. As we followed the river it was great to see what we had missed out on and to see exactly where we had camped and paddled. We could also see hundreds of lakes and channels that were thickly scattered throughout the basin. It was an amazing trip back and to have been to Tuk, to have seen our goal was just magnificent.
On the way home. We paddled down there.
From our canoes it was hard to see what was on the other side of the river bank.
Our paddle route was beside the ridge.
We had one more night in Inuvik before leaving the north so we had another chance to experience northern food and yet again we had another superb meal. Since staying in Inuvik we have had some delicious meals, far better than I have tasted in Perth. The amazing thing was that we used four different places to eat and they were all excellent.
The following day we got a taxi to the airport. For some reason our flight was cancelled so we were put on another flight. The trouble was our flight wouldn’t connect with our other flights so we had to pay for another flight to get us from Edmonton to Vancouver. Leonie had more troubles because if she missed her flight she would have to pay for a complete new one back to Australia. She did miss her connection, though she managed to get a flight back but she was told she had to go via Sydney then to New Zealand before flying back to Perth. However in Sydney Leonie decided to change flights and pay for a new flight back to Perth instead of going to New Zealand and back.
A few days later we were all back in Perth, our journey was now just a memory and it was back to work and into planning my next expedition!