Days 1 and 2
“It is really, really sensational not to have to be somewhere at any specific time! It is so therapeutic. I hear bugs & a duck.”
So here it begins, the great BIG MAC ’01 Expedition – Tuk or Bust with Eric Kris Ty Zaak. Papa and Kris’s dad drop Kris and I off in Fort Providence on July 7 and 8 from Edmonton. It is about a 13 hour road trip, so quite a nice gift for them to do this for us. So, I would like to thank Papa and Tennyson for this sacrifice.
In Fort Providence we meet up with Ty and Eric who have arrived in Ft. Providence a few days before via canoe. The Mackenzie River expedition is the second leg of their trip which began at the end of May in Hudson’s Hope, BC. We load up the canoes, theirs the amber Clipper Tripper and Kris and I in the red Old Town Discovery 169. We say our goodbyes, take our team photo, and push off into the misty evening to begin our 5 week voyage down Canada’s largest river.
Aside from the initial anticipation, the bugs are the most noticeable: Black flies, robust mosquitoes, and horseflies. The quiet too is easing to the rushed and anxious soul. We paddle and drift for 3 hours then settle on a campsite after having gone 16 kms, a good introduction for the unskilled and out of shape newcomers. The water is calm and the sun low when we pitch our tents in the sub-arctic regions. This is my first night in the Northwest Territories, north of 60º, I must get used to the 23 hour daylight. We play a few hands of Rummy and eat fettuccini alfredo and a can of beans.
Our second day is spent on Mills Lake, a bubble at the start of the Mackenzie River. The current is hardly noticeable and we only get 43 km downstream in 9 hours on the river, but we are not straining ourselves. Lunch is a 2 hour affair and the breaks are plentiful. I try out my $20 WalMart fishing pole with Eric’s help and much to our surprise, I reel in a clam, clamped on to my hook. Sort of a shocker. Kris and I eat light, not sure how much to ration for the day. In our canoe we have all the food necessary for the 35 days we may have on the river. The lake is like glass and it would have been fantastic to go waterskiing, though I would have protested if anyone else was out there as the peace and solitude I was seeking would have been disrupted. The flags I have rigged up are in full swing. The Canadian, Indian, and Acadian flags are all flying in the rear of the Old Town. When evening comes we paddle up a creek that we mistake for Axe Creek on the map (Axe Creek is actually non-existent, we camped just east of Axe Point at a creek, so it might as well have been Axe Creek for all I care). There is a young bald eagle in a tree and lots of Pike in the water. Eric and I each catch and clean a pike each though we didn’t know what they were that day. My fish is 25″ long and full of delicious meat. We filet it the next morning and fry it for breakfast. Fantastic. I am awed by the variety of flowers I have already seen at these two campsites. They are plentiful and very colorful.
“Kris suggested i induce vomitting, it sounded good & was probably best, so after fighting a small battle in my head, I lay on my side and thrust my right middle finger – after clipping the nails & washing it in the river – down my throat, I gave myself a kink in my nech my body responded so violently, anyhow i did vomit off the side and it took about 6 heaves to finish the job. After 1/2 hour I did feel better.”
The title of day 3’s entry reads Optimistic. It is a day filled with odd misshaps. The sun beat down on us all day and the water was calm. Before taking off, we eat the fish we caught the night before – my pike is fileted and breaded while Eric’s is roasted on a spit. It is delicious. Kris is i
n the stern today and I get to mindlessly paddle like a horse, though we don’t strain ourselves much. The current is negligible and I begin to wonder if we will have enough time to reach Tuk in the 5 weeks that I have. I am nauseous in the morning as we take off and lunch doesn’t help. The banana chips and some of the trail mix I have packed is stale and tastes of the drybag it has been sitting in for the past week and a half (I packed long before the trip in high anticipation). Then I feel really ill, but not a stomachy kind of ill, more like car sickness. Kris suggests I self-induce vomitting – so I do, i don’t want to do it ever again as my neck gets a pretty bad kink in it. It does the trick and I do feel much better a while later. Kris kept paddling even when I am laying on the cargo, sick – what a hero!
We pass a sand island in the river with hundreds of gulls on it. Because it reminds me of the Edmonton city dump I am not greatly impressed, but the others passed in awe.
We make camp at 9 pm on a sandy shore and it is my turn to cook. I end up spilling a few cups of rice on the ground as I am pouring it into the pot. As I light the stove I err and end up with a big flame singeing the hairs on my right hand and burning a couple small holes in my mosquito shirt. After supper I head into the bush for a, well, personal business that was thoroughly satisfying, on my way out with spade in hand I spit a loogie without realizing that I have a bug net over my face so the loogie gets caught in the net. I manage to clean it without difficulty and it is well worth the good laugh I get out of the accident.
Ty bakes a small cake and we eat it as we play Hearts. Eric wins.
I experience the horseflies today in a real way – about 10 good bites on my ankles. I have 4 verses of Jonah memorized now. We get to bed at 11:40 for the third night in a row.
“I took a wiz off the canoe while standing up. I almost fell in however”
We wake up to the sound of rain. So we stay in our tents all morning and into the after noon. It is nice especially since we are dry and I like it because I can read. Ty and Eric barge into our small tent dragging their damp selves into our dry hearth. We play cards and discuss freedom and God.
At 3:15 we push off in the drizzle and paddle against the head wind with no current to support us. I am in the stern and I find it fairly difficult to keep the canoe on it’s heading. I feels like eternity between each point and on the map it feels like we are going nowhere. Indeed we only make 33 kms in the 6 1/2 hours we paddle. We pass some land on the north-east shore owned by the Canadian coastguard and another camp with lots of grass and even more mosquitoes. So we continue.
I eat glossette raisins and dried apricots for lunch and granola for breakfast. By 9:45 Kris and I are famished when we land at a camp where 6 people from Calgary and Airdrie are sitting by a fire under big blue tarp. Oh the warmth! They give us tea, company and a couple fried potatoes. There are two 12-year old boys in the group who we enjoy getting to know. It is their first big expedition (as it is mine), so we enjoy swapping stories. Their names are Tim and Jordan.
Kris and I are still famished when we set up our tent on rocks up the beach a bit. Supper was at 1 am. Kris made white cheddar pasta and boy did we eat with gusto despite its disgusting texture and taste and the temporary disappearance of my spoon. I fall asleep at 1:30, exhausted.
“It was a beautiful sunny day, no wind, and a great big bald eagle was right near us 2 times. I missed a great photo opportunity because of my hat, I got one picture, but my lense isn’t close enough, next time!”
Finally a current! Kris and I eat grits for breakfast and pack up and leave as the group of six from Calgary and Airdrie leave. Just around the corner from where we spent the night, the river bottlenecks to about 1/3 of its width and the current picks right up. Plus, there is no wind and the sun shines all day long. We get 63 kms without much strain and in full comfort and warmth. Oh what a great day.
The shore alternates between solid birch and solid spruce, and usually they don’t occupy both sides of the river at the same time. A great bald eagle greets us on the north-east shore mid-day and awes me. I attempt to photograph it but come out with only one shot against the blue sky. I am so pleased at how close the eagle gets to us.
We make camp on the south-west shore beside a high bank. A couple planes can be seen passing overhead now and then. We expect to be in Fort Simpson by tomorrow mid-day where I can call my wife.
“I e-mailed a bunch of people @ the library (the librarian is from St. Albert, living here for 12 years) then bought apples and plums and a 6″ veggie pizza @ the Pizza Hut Express in the Northern. I called Amber. I could tell she was smiling the whole time.”
I wake up Kris and get him to photograph me as I writhe in the cold Mackenzie waters. The water is as clear as it will get on our trip – though still very murky. It becomes even cloudier once the Liard joins it later today. Again the sun is shining and the blue sky offers us the view of the occasional plane flying overhead. The shoreline has risen too, 20 foot banks emerge and debris from earlier flooding and breakup becomes visible, the current is still strong as it was yesterday and we float quickly to Fort Simpson.
We arrive in Fort Simpson at around 2:30 pm after crossing the mouth of the Liard River. Many sand bars and a strong current make the crossing interesting. Once our boats are on shore and we are ready to walk into the town, the 6 voyagers from Airdrie and Calgary arrive up the beach. Kris, Ty and I walk in together and find the library as quickly as possible so that we can send an e-mail (read the e-mail) before it closes. Happy Gilmore is playing in the corner. I got to see the fight with Bob Barker. Then the food: I crave fresh fruit and so I buy a nine pack of plums and six apples at the Northern (the grocery chain of the north) and a 6″ veggie pizza at the Pizza Hut express. I call Amber and talk to her for the first time in 6 days. I can tell she is smiling the whole time. What a lift to hear her voice! Ty and Kris have ice cream. I talk to Papa too and try to call Mom but she’s not home.
Another group of river dwellers has been in town for a day already. They are from a YMCA camp in Canmore, Alberta. The four of us are invited to share their campsite with them – great cause we do not feel like paying. There are 10 of them, mostly high school grads on their way to university in the fall. One of the girls on the trip is curious about my religion and so I was able to share my basic Christian faith with her, she had no idea of Christianity at all. Their guy counselor is Chris, a philosophy student. His philosophy is post-modern deconstructionalism – tear everything down to its roots and there is nothing. I enjoy talking to him, but they begin eating so I head into town. Eric is invited to a house party by a guy who just got out of prison and who an RCMP officer called a violent mofo. I register our travelling party at the RCMP office with Constable Leduc so that if we do disappear for some reason, they will come look for us. I give us lots of time to get to each town so there is no pressure on time wise.
I run into Ty at the phone booth and as I wait for him to finish, a gang of four 14 year old boys approach me and ask me if I smoke weed, drink and if I know where the party is tonight. They try to teach me some of their language, all I am able to retain of Dene is Deh Cho because it is on a big sign on main street. It means Big River – referring to the Mackenzie. The kids talk of ski-dooing, hunting and government – one of their fathers is the representative in the territorial assembly. Ty and I walk around the town some more. There is major road construction down the main strip – paving and sidewalks. We talk about the trip, enjoy the view from the cliff overlooking the mighty Mackenzie and where the Liard enters it. Ah, the Sabbath is almost here (sunset is really late, actually into Saturday…). We pray and it begins to drizzle. We haul the last of our camping gear to the campsite. We stop and talk with the campground caretaker, his fiancee, his fiancee’s mother, and two others. We learn a story about four brothers in North America who were sent in the four directions to see what they could see. The Eastward brother saw tall ships (pilgrims). The Westward brother saw ships and slant eyed people (Asians). The Southbound brother saw white men fighting each other (the Civil War). The Northbound brother never returned and is believed to have began the Slavee nation. Interesting story despite the obvious problem with timing. They explain the meaning of the cross, prominently displayed everywhere. It is both a Christian emblem to them and it represents the four directions. Ty and I go back to the tents and I get to sleep at around 1:30 am.
“[Kris and I] finally resorted to racing each other. Kris won the sprint, but I won both hopping ones).”
I wake up and trudge to the showers at the campsite at 9 am. This is where Ty and Eric had showers last night and where most of the YMCA group had showers too. My towel is gone – Kris took it about 5 minutes earlier while I was sleeping. When I get into the concrete walled shower, I find that there is no more water. This is confirmed when the caretaker drives by me. Oh well.
We eat at the Nahanni Inn where there is not enough waiters for all the people, nor chairs. I manage to squeeze in next to Tim, Jordan, and Doug from Airdrie, Alberta. It turns out that we have a friend in common living in Airdrie. Kris and Eric are here too. Ty is on the street chatting it up with one of the road constructors. I am concerned about eating. I finally receive my two eggs, toast, hash browns, and coffee. $7.30 – what a deal! We visited with some adventurers about to participate on a South Nahanni Canoe Tour.
Kris and I are ready to push into the river before Ty and Eric leave the Inn, so we visit with the YMCA group who are also leaving this morning. I take some pictures of flowers and the Liard River. Kris and I race on the beautiful sandy beach. There is a wind coming from the west and the sky is grey as we push into the river. The sand bars are difficult to see from far away and so we maneuver around them as we paddle past Fort Simpson. Kris and I have a heated discussion in the canoe about being rich and simultaneously carrying the title of Christian. We camp on the southwest side of the river on a sandy beach near where a small river enters the Mackenzie.
“Rained all day long. Our tent was wet coming down and going up. Even my drybags are pretty damp on the inside.”
We all stay in our tents late into the morning. None of us are eager to paddle in the rain. We shake the sand and water off what we can and pack up, leaving at 1:45 pm. The river bends are shrouded in mist as we make our way past small islands. My blisters are nearly all gone, but my feet and hands are wet the entire day. I look forward to sun, soon. It is peaceful though, paddling in the rain.
A coast guard boat passes us and I snap a picture, there is nothing else to capture. We land on the north shore so Eric and look at a log cabin where some people are camped up on a bank. The earth stairs up to it are extremely muddy and we it is funny to watch everyone slip around. The people there are quiet and though I was hoping to be offered a hot drink, I do not get one. We eat lunch at the bottom of the bank. I keep 2 plums and an apple for tomorrow.
We set up camp at 8:40 pm on a small peninsula of a sandy island just beyond Burnt Island (where the foliage was no longer burnt). Kris and I get stuck in shallow water trying to get to the inside of the tiny harbor that the peninsula makes, it is quite hilarious. I make supper – fettuccini alfredo with couscous to add volume, it is not bad. The four of us play 7 slow hand of Rummy, a continuation of a previous game. Eric wins. My feet warm up in wool socks and my sleeping bag.
“We could see the base of Lone Mountain when we woke up (the clouds were stsill pretty dense) & we paddled by it 2/3 of the day.”
The mountains arrive. Our first mountain can be seen when we get up, though the mountains are still dense. Oatmeal and a litre of orange juice feed Kris and I. We sing most of the day, from James Taylor and Natalie Merchant to hearing Ty sing Metallica and Queen. The sun clears the clouds before we reach the mouth of the North Nahanni River. It is good to feel heat again. It brings cheer too as we laugh a lot. Kris is our official score keeper of smart remarks. I am awarded one – but I dare not repeat it here as he will likely take my point away. Kris shared a saying he heard about the Mackenzie – “it’s a little to thick to drink and a little to thin to plow.” Ty keeps repeating “perilous nausea.”
We round the Camsell Bend in the river to have the Camsell range rise before us. The scenery is the best we have had so far. We make camp on the east bank so we can view the mountains, though our tent is pitched on slightly uneven ground… We snap lots of pictures of the mountains and a beautiful green island south of us that is lit up by the setting sun. Ty and Eric share with me some photography pointers and their lenses. I know understand aperture, exposure time, and depth of field a little bit, so picture taking should be more purposeful from now on. Eric shows us his hand made knife. I wash my feet before retiring because I simply can not stand the stench.
Once I am reading, then nearly asleep, I hear Eric yell “hey Zaak, wanna see me pick up a porcupine.” I wouldn’t miss that. Ty and Eric have a porcupine cornered onto a rock that is surrounded by water on the shore. They are snapping pictures left and right. I take a couple myself. Eric decides he won’t pick up the animal, I don’t blame him. He does manage to snag a few quills for us as souvenirs.
“The Camsell Mountains are directly in front of me rising to over 4000 feet with white misty clouds hovering below the blue sky like a blanket. There are multitudes of bushes of wild roses behind me.”
Water gushes from bushes behind us as we awake. The sound is a refreshing reminder that it was raining a couple days ago and it is now warm and sunny. Blooming wild roses line the bank where we spent the night. I also spent the night on a 15 degree slant and there is a plentiful share of mosquitoes.
The current is magnificent. With only 3.5 hours of actual paddling, the rest just drifting, we go further than any other day we have been on the river – 67 km. It was a nice change from the more exhausting head winds and the cold rain. We read and played cards on the river as we barged up with our painters and floated gently. A transport barge passes us today.
We eventually stopped at the River Between Two Mountains. Some really cold, clear water allows from some nice swimming and washing. on the north shore of the small, fast, rocky, mountain river there are bear tracks. The group from Airdrie is camped just a few hundred yards past the River Between Two Mountains. The married couple quit the trip the day after they left Fort Simpson so it just the four guys; Ken, Doug, Tim and Jordan. They offer us tea and chocolate pudding, welcome fare for the four of us who live on pretty plain food. Ty and Kris play frisbee with Tim and Jordan as Eric fishes and I chat with Ken and Doug. It is a late night before I turn in.
“Ty and I are waiting for Kris and Eric to climb & descend the mountain behind us, we are on a sandy shore on teh east bank and the sun is on us in a huge way. It’s quiet but the water and the crickets.”
Oats and walleye feed us when we get up in the morning. Doug, Ken, Tim and Jordan pack up and leave before we do.
3 hours pass on the river as two sun showers washed over us before we reach Wrigley, or Pehdzéh Ki in Dené. There are people working on a house where Kris and I walk in to town. There are some side streets and many trees in the town which make it feel alive. Wrigley is the end of the Mackenzie summer highway. The black flies are atrocious and Kris walks too slow so I go ahead of him and reach Ty at the other end of town. The YMCA group is here, they passed us last night when they floated all night long. We heard them singing just before we fell asleep. We do laundry at a small inn there. I call Amber and she is surprised that we have gotten this far in just 5 days. I eat a poutine and play a couple innings of baseball with local kids and the YMCA group. I forget to pay for the poutine, but when I return to pay, the diner is closed. I leave the balance with the seamstress next door. Eric tips me off that I can e-mail at the cultural center here so I do (read the e-mail). I read e-mails from Amber, Carl, Mish, Alan, Helen, Peter, and Pastor Todd. I buy maple Shreddies and apples at the Co-op. This will enhance my lunches on the river which consist mainly of dried fruit, chocolate and nuts.
The current takes us further down the river to a rock on the east shore when we leave Wrigley. The rock is called Petanea or Mount Gaudet and fireweed blankets its base. Kris and Eric and keen on climbing it so Ty and I mind the canoes and relax on a sandy beach at Petanea’s base. We read and talk about Wrigley and the people there. Eric and Kris get back with lots of bug bites and they tell of a nice view. We paddle on into the evening and land at a river where the four guys from Airdrie are camped. We camp there too with the help of Tim and Jordan. They give us tea and licorice before bed too. The sky puts on a tremendous sunset for us at 1:30 am and everyone takes a picture.
“Kris and I started the day by floating for 3 hours or so, I read Crime and Punishment, Rodya talking with his sister + mother + and Rhazhumikin.”
What a lazy day today is. Wow! The sun beat down on us from the beginning and does it ever feel great. Kris and I load up and are ready to go ten minutes before Ty and Eric, so we push off knowing full well that they will pass us in the next hour. The weather causes us relax and so
Kris and I almost immediately cease paddling and float for 3 hours reading. I read Crime and Punishment as Kris reads The Odyssey It was blissful.
Catching up with Ty and Eric is not as blissful and it takes several hours. Once reaching them, we float some more. The shore is painted with fireweed and stabbed with the washed bones of a purged forest. I take a couple pictures of the scene at a shore break in the early evening. We pause at the Dahadinni River so Ty can climb the bank and take some photos. There, I cast my line and attempt to fish to no avail. The water is swift and shallow and my hook finds the rocks. We make camp on the western shore just north of the tributary river. There are wolf tracks in the mud. I make supper, but we are still hungry so Kris makes soup and later Eric makes Devil’s Food Cake to accompany the end of our blissful day.
“The last 1 3/4 hours was sheer will power, I was just wasted – I’ve got to hand it to the boys here, made of pure iron, gold might be pushin’ it but I may venture there someday.”
Today we paddle 138 km. It is a stark contrast to yesterday’s “gently down the stream” feel. We set out at a record early 9:30 am. We decide as we set out that we ought to leave early to avoid a late arrival in the evening. Last night the bunch from Airdrie was about to bed down when we caught up to them. Starting out we paddle for 3 hours without a break then pause for lunch. The sky maintains it’s brilliant blue and the sun warms us. There is a steady wind from the south cooling us off, easing the charge of the sun. The wind prompts the idea of using it’s energy instead of our own, so we rig up a sail using my tent fly wrapped around our paddles. It works, but probably expends more of our energy than paddling the same distance. The current is carrying us at a steady 5 km/hr.
By 5:30 pm, we think of looking for a campsite, having gone more than 90 km. Eric attempts to explore a dead creek – deep, still and muddy, looking for fresh water and perhaps a place to bathe. He emerges a minute later, covered in mud, but still smiling. The Mackenzie surprisingly washes the mud off of him. While he is exploring, we discuss what we should do for a campsite and when we should pull in. I mention that it would be nice to call Amber tonight as she is preaching tomorrow morning and I would like to pray with her and wish her well. It would be a complete surprise for her as we spoke yesterday when I was in Wrigley and I said it would be nearly a week before I reached the next phone. Ty asks me how far to Tulida and I guesstimate that it is about 35 km, though after checking the next day it was more like 42 km. Ty asks Kris and Eric if they are game for driving on to Tulida tonight and they say sure. So we go, with a mission.
This last leg lasts 3 1/2 hours, hard paddling, no breaks until we reach the stony shores of Tulida (Fort Norman). For me it takes sheer will power, I am just wasted – and hungry! I have to hand it to the boys, they didn’t have to do this for me, I appreciate it.
At 9:10 we rest our canoes on a crowded beach at the south end of the town. There are teens everywhere and a few pick-up trucks blasting music. Ty and I walk into town to get water and to find a telephone. This proves to be a quest of its own. I am told by a father with two children up the beach that there are payphones by the Native Complex in the middle of the town. We walk up the dusty road up the bank to town center, which is the Native Complex, a double winged building with a circular, open air meeting area in front of it. No sign of phones anywhere. We ask a passing young girl and she says the phones are right over there and we would have to be blind not to see them. We return to the Complex and circle it inspecting every inch of the building. It is past 9:30 now and surprisingly there is an open door to the now vacant Complex, Ty and I venture inside and have access to nearly all of the rooms. To our dismay the water is turned off and there are no phones anywhere. Puzzled we leave and roam the town looking for a store that might have a payphone or outside tap. One girl tells us there are phones at the airport (4 km inland) and that we might have luck there, given our tired state and our luck so far, we don’t even consider walking that far. The RCMP building is empty and a dog harasses us. We ask a couple people who are outside their homes if they know where we could use a phone or get water hoping they may invite us to use their own, but alas we are answered with puzzling looks and replies of “I don’t know.”
The redemption of Tulida in my mind comes when a guy on a bike passes and says that should talk to Rosie Norweigian because she always helps strangers. We knock on her door, explain our cause and she invites us in to use her phone and to fill up with water. I call a surprised Amber from Rosie’s living room phone looking out her window at the near dusk over the mighty Mackenzie. Rosie is terrific! She is an elderly woman with Native and Scottish blood, we had trouble making the connection to her interesting last name but reason that it must be a married name. She gives us some dried moose meat with butter on it and some for the road. Ty reasserts that we must judge a town by its best example, Rosie is it.
We get back to our site on the beach. Eric and Kris are chatting it up with a few teenage girls with a ghetto blaster playing old Metallica. We eat pasta with bits of dried moose in it and pitch our tents forty feet from the water with our canoes between our two tents. We fear being robbed as there are lots of people still roaming the beach as we drift again today, but on a river or dreams.
“We leaped into Great Bear River. It is icy cold and crystal clear.”
We relax today. Kris fries up some flapjacks for breakfast. In the first hour we hang out at the mouth of Great Bear River, whose source is Great Bear Lake to our east. Tulida is built south of the meeting of the two rivers. The water of this river is
starkly different from the Mackenzie’s and we can even see a line where the waters meet. Eric tries several times to have his picture taken under water. The rest of us are content jumping in and out of the water.
A great bald eagle perches on the white bone remains of a tree lately destroyed with fire. The shores around the burnt forest are still aflame with pink fireweed – a nice alternative to the brown Mackenzie waters.
I coax Kris to talk about his spiritual views over lunch as we drift. We camp next to Vermillion Creek, a very small tributary. The water is clear, shallow and not too cold. I wander upcreek and play with my camera. I discover that I am moving much slower these days. I pause to think about everything, likely because of all the time we have. Kris and Ty skip stones. I read my book and recite what I have memorized of Jonah.
“I spent some time in the historical centre — fantastic, I wish I had spent more time there.”
We celebrate our eighth consecutive day of no rain and of severe sunshine. A woman in Norman Wells tells Ty that it is 37 degrees Celcius today. Remarkable how hot it gets at 60 degrees latitude North.
As we approach Norman Wells we can see the manmade islands that house the many oil pumps that fuel the local economy. We park south of town centre and hike into town to find pizza. We pay dearly for it. I eat a whole spinach pizza (I share only 2 pieces). I pick up a Lacombe grown cucumber, strong old cheddar and bagels for the coming lunches. There is one pay phone that we must all share with the travelers from Calgary. I leave a message for Amber and talk to Papa for 20 minutes. There is an excellent historical centre which I visit before leaving Norman Wells. There is plenty of taxidermy and a terrific detailed map of the Mackenzie on a scroll. I buy Amber a gift and head to the canoe.
I relax and sweat in my tent reading for two hours once we set up camp 45 minutes north of Norman Wells. Our friends from Calgary float by a few minutes later. Nikolai has just confessed to Porfiry Petrovich in Crime and Punishment. I am enjoying it very much. Once I am finished reading Kris suggests I take the fly off the tent. It is a tremendous suggestion, one I would have gladly received two hours previous. We sleep under our screen and under a low sun.
Day 16 and 17
“It is now raining. We are camped on sand. I don’t like sand.”
We paddled into a headwind most of the day. At least there are no bugs. The Franklin Mountains are visible on the east shore. We paddle by Perry Island – nothing to speak of really, just a landmark on the map. Rain seemed
imminent, so we camp on a sandy beach. I win at a game of Hearts in Ty’s tent. Eric and Kris discover a grassy pond on the bank and go swimming.
I visit the pond in the morning and shoot some pictures. We pass through a corridor most of the day bordered by rocky cliffs on the north side. As we approach the legendary Sans Sault Rapids, we visit a pretty waterfall. There is triangular pyramid metal monument on the hill south of the rapids memorializing a victim of the rapids in 1961. Hugh Gordon was only 21 when he died there. Interestingly, the guest book contains an Edmonton resident named George Bernard Shaw. The troupe from Calgary is there as well.
We prepare for some rough water when we leave the monument. We can sort of see some white caps on the east channel, but they are vague (ha ha). Eric is excited to get some white water – I am not. Luckily for me the river remains uneventful as we bypass the rapids. We camp on Hardie Island when it begins to cloud over and rain. The Calgary gang needs water so they camp on the west side. We fortunately never lack drinking water – Kris and I alone carry 22.5 L in our canoe. I win a game of Rummy.
Day 18 and 19
“I saw a cougar walking along the bank, I watched him for 45 seconds as he turned into the bushes.”
We start the day paddling strong into the wind for two hours. The current doesn’t help us until after lunch. I eat figs and two bagels with cucumber and cheddar. I have become quite proficient at relieving myself while standing in the canoe. Remembering my first attempts I can safely say that everything lands in the river now. Still, it is quite a chore maintaining my balance.
We are close to the east shore when I spot a cougar about 40 yards away. I think it is a wolf at first, but it is clearly a cat the more I look at it – the long tail and brown colour. I am very surprised to see one so far north. Kris does not see it and and the cat bolts into the low shrubs before I can point it out more clearly. It isn’t too encouraging knowing that your canoe partner can’t see very well. I am glad our canoe is so sturdy. We turn in to a tributary just before reaching the ramparts. I catch a pike for supper. I have trouble catching the second as my hook catches on the rocks and twigs.
The ramparts appear to be a majestic wall as we approach. It is difficult to discern the opening to the narrow waters until we get very close. I express my desire to hike to the top of the ramparts so we try and camp on the west bank. This means fighting the very strong current across to the other side. When we arrive we see that it is very rocky and not fit for camping. As we turn to go through the ramparts we spot a black bear trapped at the base of the cliff on the east shore. We again fight the current to shoot photos of our prize. It is a young cub and very frantic. He even jumps into the water to get away from us. We find a collapsed part of the cliff that allows us to hike to the top of the ramparts. We take many photographs. A hawk tries to scare us away by diving at us though she never comes too close. Kris perches on a rock.
The perfect campsite is found, but on the west side of the river so we spend the last of our energy battling the current again and cross over. There are many bugs, but it is remarkably scenic amidst the fortress. An eagle has her aerie on the cliff face above us. Next to our tents we have a small still river surrounded with greenery. I clean my fish and fought the mousquitos. We ate until we were content. I miss Amber.
We wake to clouds and a light drizzle. Fort Good Hope is poetically situated on the high bank facing the ramparts. A steepled church rises in the mist. We hide our boats up the tributary and hike into town. I am anxious for a shower and for e-mail. The school obliges us once we find it. The shower is in a janitor’s room with graphic drawings that Ty point out to me. The water is mildly warm.
I report to the RCMP that we are in town. It is the first time I can find an RCMP in a town since Fort Simpson.
The Northern grocery store lets me use their washroom after I buy some potato chips and apples. It is nice not having to fight bugs while taking care of business.
The government office lets me use their photocopier. I make enlarged copies of the three pages of Jonah so that I can place them on the inside of my smallest drybag (which is made of clear plastic) and read it easily as I memorize it.
Our Lady of Good Hope Church is opened for us and it is beautiful inside. I spend time resting and taking photos. The ceiling is painted deep blue with yellow stars. There is nice woodwork too. Ty considers signing the guestbook “I’ll be damned, this is a nice church.” I’m grateful that he doesn’t.
I carry the five gallon water jug back to the canoe and we push off. We camp on a sand bar in the middle of the river. It is much colder now and I sleep with wool socks and long underwear.
“Ty and Eric got way ahead, as usual, right from the start, we only caught them three hours later once they stopped for a shore break and lunch.”
The sun came back. This is the main event of the day. Kris and I have another good talk and I am grateful that he is my canoe mate. His honesty is commendable. I don’t feel like I can share as openly with the other two as they usually return comment with sarcasm.
The Jonah photocopies are working great. I manage to memorize six verses today which is a much better rate compared to 13 verses in the first 19 days. I will have it finished very soon. I cook up some leek soup, rice and soy protein for supper. We cross the Arctic Cirle at some point on our journey.
“I felt like a real emergency lad, dashing about in my underwear and paddling boots at 2:10 am with the sky afire with sunrise and rain coming down.”
The rain during the night causes me to get up in the middle of the night and close up some bags and move the canoes more onto the beach. My rain gear is moved from the puddle in the middle of the canoe. Kris and I try some couscous for breakfast with sugar and raisins, but it turns out a bit watery.
Once in the canoe, we paddle for six hours under a mild sun. We plan on being in Arctic Red River in three days after todays progress. A remarkable thing happens as we paddle today. We are surrounded by rain clouds pouring their fresh water all around us but never landing on us. We can see sun spots cutting through clouds and we stay in different sun spots all afternoon. We never once get wet.
We pass many nameless islands and camp on a high banked sand island which I would call Seagull Island. Eric catches a baby seagull and tries to convince us that he should butcher it and we should eat it. We manage to get some nice photos of the bird before we let it go. Kris cooks up fried rice and eggs – it is delicious.
Day 22 and 23
“Finally at around 4 pm, still no sign of Ty or eric, we stopped for a bit on a sand bar – insane blowing sand and waves crashing against our canoe.”
I study my plane ticket for 15 minutes this morning. Kris and I pull out before Ty and Eric, but they pass us within 20 minutes. The water begins to get rough. We take shore breaks on opposite sides of the river and Kris and I pause longer then the other two. This is our last sighting of them for several hours. Our shore break takes place on a very unique sand bar. Marsh grass grows very sparsely, but so do alders. Kris and I are compelled to relax here wandering to a long thin inlet of water opposite this sand peninsula.
The wind picks up and the waves become a barrier to good momentum. I am in the stern and keep the canoe close to the shore. Kris nearly falls into the water on a shore break because of the waves crashing on the crumbling bank. Another break later in the afternoon lands us in a sand storm. It is difficult to keep our canoe from tipping over and from water and sand from blowing in. We pause there for 30 minutes and decide to go on another two hours and camp with or without Ty and Eric.
40 minutes later we sight a flare on the east side of the river after rounding a bend. We cross the river over massive waves, surfing occasionally. We are given hot tea by the Calgary group and we are reunited with Ty and Eric. We spend some time under a tarp exchanging stories on oil tankers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, train hopping, youth pastoring, guns, Bangladesh, and Greyhound trips. Tim and Jordan are great guys and real troopers. They travel in jeans which makes it very uncomfortable in the rain. Some pancakes are cooked up and everyone feasts. The Calgary bunch are traveling only as far as Arctic Red River. They plan on arriving tomorrow night.
I cook up cornmeal for breakfast and open one of my tetrapaks of citrus juice. The river is calm until mid afternoon. We pass the five British boys. They have tied their canoes together and are allowing the current to take them. They are funny, but are not enjoying their river trip very much. There were hoping to sight a bear, to the point where they were leaving open cans of tuna over night in order to attract them.
Ty shares airport stories during lunch. The temperature drops substantially before we make camp on a pebbled beach. After a supper of Singapore noodles and extra rice, I wander with cold hands collecting bright red rocks. The stones are so bright when they are wet and so colorful with every shade of the rainbow. I don’t feel sleepy, instead I read and study the maps. Eric arises at 11:30 thinking it is 7:30 am and time to leave. He visits with Kris and I for a couple hours. I enjoy the sunrise alone. I have memorized up to the middle of chapter 3 of Jonah.
“We also went through the Lower Ramparts – they would be spectacular if we had never seen the Ramparts, but also they aren’t as sheer and rocky as the Ramparts – no pictures.”
Plans to leave at 9 am are foiled due to sleep. We leave instead after noon. I sponge water and a lot of sand out of the canoe. Kris is in the bow and gets wet often as the water is choppy. I have Jesus Christ Superstar and the Cranberries “Forever Yellow Skies” in my head most of the day. We pass the Brits once again.
The Lower Ramparts are not as spectacular as the Ramparts before Fort Good Hope. They are not as high and not as rocky.
Arctic Red River is now called Tsiigehtchic and is a prohibition area. The Calgary group arrives three hours before we do with some harrowing stories of cold. Ken says he would not have made it without Tim and Jordan. The boys had set up camp, cooked up supper and made a fire the night before. I rush up the hill into town to try and call Amber before her class, but she is not available. Mom’s number is out of service as
she has moved to Red Deer. We buy some food at the store. I chat with Mark, a linguist from Vancouver, who is spending the summer in Arctic Red studying the native language. Mark tells me that six or seven teachers quit at the small school this past year, many of them consecutively. Kevin from Windsor, ON reporting from Inuvik interviews Ty and takes our picture. Tim and Jordan help me eat my bread and peanut butter. A young boy in town comes up to me with a caterpillar in a jar. He wants to know if it is slimy and what the black part is. He is really cute and asks lots of questions.
We camp just past the ferry crossing, though we could easily have gone on. I break my spade as I hike into the bushes. My hands are enduringly dry and I am thankful for the vitamin E cream Amber has sent along. Kris’s nipple has become infected.
“We stopped for supper on a mosquito farm swampy area and then floated for a couple more hours covering perhaps 8 km.”
The others think we leave earlier than we do. I am the only one with a watch. We do leave earlier than ever before however. The first five hours are spent paddling. We then break for a long time. Ty and I play cards. We lose one to the wind and river. It is no use trying to catch them once they hit the water because of the five centimeter visibility. I read Crime and Punishment until we camp. Luzhin has tried to pull his stunt at the funeral luncheon.
The delta is very green, but not very bright. We pause and eat on a swamp and fight mosquitos the entire time. We float for a few more hours and make camp in a territorial park. The river is very narrow here and it is refreshing to see both shores up close. The shores usually have spruce and poplar on the low shore and cliffs on the other shore. It is a nice change of scenery.
Day 26 and 27
“Then the golden eagle – huge, magnificent. We got within 5 feet of him. Ah.”
We wind through the delta for hours. I see a snowshoe hare. Ty sees a wolf. At one point there are five bald eagles soaring over our heads and perching on nearby treetops. Kris is patient with me as I try to take their pictures. The payoff is a massive golden eagle who perches on a branch. We manage to glide right next to him and we have to back up a bit in order for me to get him into my frame. His wing span is surely more than six feet.
We arrive in Inuvik to find comfort and cleanliness. Bill has loaned us use of his trailer so we have TV, shower, stove, fridge, and most importantly — telephone. Amber and I talk for an hour unhindered.
In town we see Peter Carrington at the Macs store. I eat a musk-ox burger at To Gos. It was good, but way too small. I enjoyed a poutine, icecream, e-mail, laundry, and TV. Ah the luxury of it all!
We spend the next day in town, eating out and visiting Boreal Books. I eat a steak sandwich and potato salad for breakfast at the Sunriser. I buy Dick North’s two books on the Mad Trapper. I did some more e-mailing. My friend Jeff is now married to Marta. We feast on omelets at the trailer for supper.
Kris is concerned for our belongings in the canoe. We discover that Kris’s and my paddling boots, two platypus, and Kris’s sun hat are missing. Our canoes have been moved. While the others are getting water I fish around the bushes and find our boots. We paddle out of town and stop and talk to some NT Barge people regarding a possible return trip from Tuk.
We play some cards and Eric wins. I accidentally leave Ty’s tent with his cap so my head is warm all night.
“Then at the top of the plateau is Tundra – a vast array of different plants – white sponge, red berries, green leafy, needly, blueberry, yellow sponge… beautiful!”
I wiped the tent down. Kris and I take off before the others. It is a very sunny and warm day. Eric and I have a big disagreement, but make peace once we stop to make camp and Reindeer Station.
Reindeer Station appears to be an abandoned settlement. There is a new bbq set on the porch of one of the houses, so it is likely to be a set of about eight cottages now. We hike up to the top of the Cariboo Hills. There is a magnifiscent view of the Mackenzie Delta and Richardson mountains. I am amazed by the color in the tundra. Dragonflies are very numerous and small lakes are scattered every where. We relax on the top of a tin shed away from the bugs and watch Eric try to capture a partridge. We are on the northern treeline and it is surprisingly visible where the trees stop and tundra starts. A road travels south next to a pipeline.
“-5C bag, mercy! I wish I had a -40C.”
Squirrels wake us up by jumping on our tent. We get a late start because none of us want to get up. I fry up corned beef hash and curse as I try to clean the pan afterwards. We are taking the east channel to Tuktoyaktuk. The day is rainy and cold. I finish memorizing Jonah, but it will require a little honing before I recite it, probably tomorrow.
We manage a mere 30 km in five hours. The cold seems to really be affecting our speed. I am warm in the canoe, but once we set up camp I freeze.
“I brushed my teeth.”
It is my first wedding anniversary today. I am the first man out of the tent. I read then cook breakfast. We start with a tailwind but it dies down soon. Eric blows his whistle to ask if we would like to climb the white gas tanks on Tununuk Point. The view is pretty. I am most impressed with Burial Island, immediately south of Tununuk Point. It is a hemisphere – steep and bald on top. This stop proves to be our worst encounter with mosquitos. They follow us in our canoe. There are between 50 and 100 dead ones in my part of the canoe. Eric is keen on floating whereas I would like to keep moving. We pass by some oil drilling with people in heavy machinery and helicopters.
We camp just before rain hits. We eat supper and play Hearts in Ty’s tent. I drink half the bottle of fake wine I bought in Inuvik and eat dried mango to celebrate Amber and my first year of marriage. I miss her.
I complete one of my life goals: Memorize a book of the Bible. I write down the entire book of Jonah as Kris is not interested in hearing me recite it.
“But the waves, some got to be 8 feet, in a canoe that’s big, even bigger when you don’t have a spray deck.”
I prepare oats, raisins, and honey for breakfast. We depart just before noon with a strong tailwind. We reach Kugmallit Bay after three hours. The wind is nice because of the speed, but the waves cause trouble. We are forced to stay in the middle of the now wide open mouth of the river because of the danger of turning over. We follow the buoys.
Just beyond Whitefish Pingo we take as shore break at 6 pm. I cook supper at a fishing station. We are of interest to some squirrels and possibly a marmot as we eat. We decide to blitz it the last 28 km to Tuktoyaktuk. At supper, Kris is drenched by a wave as he pulls the canoe in.
This last leg of our journey proves to be our most perilous. Again we must paddle far from shore to avoid the breakers. Waves reach as high as eight feet. I am seriously frightened of the possibility of turning over. I contemplate what my last words ought to be. It is a sobering time for me. Kris and I lift eachother’s spirits in song, especially with some classic Tracy Chapman. Kris does an excellent job in the stern tonight. When Tuk is within sight, Ty and Eric pull up and Ty tells us one last time the story of when Frasier attempts to hook up with Diane on Cheers.
“How will I live without your passionate kisses?”
“You won’t have to”
“Frasier, she was only kidding.”
“So was I!”
As we paddle by Tuk, following Ty and Eric’s lead, we see people start to gather on the beaches. Kris and I patiently wait for the other canoe to find a landing spot. Suddenly we see the other canoe wildly surfing on some large waves. I am tired and am not impressed that they are playing when I am ready to land. They are actually just trying to keep the canoe in check and not playing at all. They choose an inlet and as we wait for them to land Kris and I are turned over by two waves. I did not tie anything in after supper, for the first time in 31 days. The only things we lose however are my bag of red rocks, one platypus, my blue and white folding chair (gift from the McKeans), and our 5.5 gallon water jug smashes.
With an audience, we collect our things with Ty and Eric’s help. Fortunately the water is only waist deep and surprisingly quite warm. The water is not yet very salty. I am surprised to see that it is midnight, expecting our last 28 km to have been completed by about 10:30 pm.
Jackie and Jenny Jacobson graciously welcome us into their yard to camp and into their home for coffee, soup, and hot showers. I change into dry clothes. They have four children who are happy to have new people to play with. Jackie is good friends with Randy Gregg of the Edmonton Oilers. His father and grandfather were famous Inuit carvers.
We pitch our tents for the last time at 2 am in twilight and with lots of wind. I sleep deeply on a rocky beach of the Beaufort Sea.