Three Rivers to Tuktoyaktuk – Stage 1

Three Rivers to Tuktoyaktuk 4000kms – Stage 1

From the Rocky Mountains to the Arctic Ocean

This expedition was the last in the big four North American rivers that I had planned to paddle. I had already completed the 4000km Mississippi River, the 3400km Yukon River, the 4000km Missouri River and now the focus was on a near 4000km journey down the Athabasca, Slave and MacKenzie Rivers from Jasper in the Canadian Rocky Mountains to Tuktoyaktuk on the shores of the Arctic Ocean

 

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To take us to the start of this latest journey Ed Jager and his wife Sue Van Allan were waiting patiently at the Vancouver airport. I first met Ed and Sue while competing in a canoe race called the Yukon River Quest on the Yukon River in 2004. Ed was the oldest competitor. Two years later, when I planned on a solo paddle of the Missouri River, Ed offered to drive me hundreds of kilometres to the headwaters of the river, meet me at the halfway mark and then meet me at the end of the trip. I couldn’t have asked for any better assistance. Now he and Sue were here again to help me out.

After introducing Tony and having a quick chat with Ed and Sue we got comfortable in the back of their Recreation Vehicle (RV) and relaxed as Ed headed out of the city and towards the town of Abbotsford, our first base camp and where we also had a second-hand canoe waiting for us at the Western Canoe & Kayak Store.

Our schedule was tight. Not only did we have to lower the seats in the Old Town canoe, to help with stability in the big rapids, we had to buy a Spot Messenger locator beacon, a GPS, more camping gear and all our food for a month.

Everything soon fell into place and with all the important communication equipment purchased, it was time to shop for four weeks of food and then repack it all in day packs. Having the wonderful support from Ed and Sue allowed us to zip around to all the different shops and get everything together in a couple of days. Without them our trip would have been so much harder and near impossible to organise.

With everything purchased it was time to drive to Jasper in the northern Rocky Mountains, which was about 800 kilometres away and a near two day journey. Ed and Sue had already driven thousands of kilometres from Salt Lake City to get to us in Vancouver, towing a trailer to carry our canoe. After we left Abbotsford we climbed through a range of mountains and were treated to some magnificent views of the countryside and a number of fast-flowing rivers.

Later, on a mountain highway we stopped and passed through a toll booth. Although Ed took off fairly slowly we hit a bump in the road and the next thing we knew the trailer had left the vehicle and began to overtake us with the nose of the canoe dragging on the road. There was a sense of the surreal, witnessing the trailer unhook and then pass us. We were on a slope on the road so when we stopped, the trailer kept going but it finally came to rest several metres away. Boy, were we relieved to see it stop although by then the rough road surface had worn a hole in the bow of the canoe. Although the trailer had travelled thousands of kilometres, the bump in the road had somehow caused a pin to come out of the sleeve that connected the two part draw bar together. 

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As we crossed the Rocky Mountains and got close to our destination we passed moose, bear and a number of other animals roaming the roads. The mountains were topped with snow and the rivers were raging and swirling with white water. We reached the town of Jasper and although it was striking, I had, for whatever reason, expected something more special. Although the longer I was there, the more I began to appreciate it.

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Ed soon had us at a huge campground a few kilometres out of town which mainly catered for the large number of recreation vehicles (RVs). It was heavily wooded, with a number of cleared grassed areas and was home to countless squirrels and elk. We set up camp, settled in and then started work on repairing the hole in the canoe. Luckily I had brought with me from Australia, some flashtack or bitumen tape which is generally used by plumbers. It is a great product to use to fix a crack or hole in a canoe or kayak in emergency situations. I cut the flashtack into the shape required to cover the hole. We borrowed Sue’s hair drier and warmed up the bitumen so I could push it into a smooth shape and when it cooled, it stuck well. With previous experience I was confident that it would last much of the 4000km journey.

Though it was late it was still light, affording me an opportunity to walk to the river to see what awaited us. The milky river was flowing swiftly, the spruce trees were tall and the mountains stood proudly before me. It was a beautiful scene, a few clouds were to the west, but it was clear in the east. The landscape ahead of me was a mixture of blues and greens. It was still, and although it was late, the lighting was striking. I walked upstream checking the rapids and trying to memorise the boulders that were littered along our route. I paused and looked upstream. It was in the far distance below that tall mountain where our journey was going to start.          

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Thursday 5
th June 2008

It was the day of reckoning. Our plan was to drive upstream of Jasper and launch our canoe on the Athabasca River below the Athabasca Falls and paddle back to Jasper with an unloaded canoe as a test run. The scenery was stunning on the way there and when Ed parked along the roadside near the falls we walked about 300 metres down a track to the river.

The river was running swiftly and the mountain tops were white and heavily laced with mist. Rain clouds moved across the sky in bands, occasionally lifting and allowing the snow trails that were leading down the mountain ravines and petering out on the lower slopes to become visible. Across the river, the green spruce trees stood tall and dominant.

Immediately before us were rapids, raging white water and drops, vertical cliffs and a narrow canyon. There was a rock island sitting in the middle of the river and as we walked along the river’s edge trying to get a better view of the white water downstream, it became obvious that it was impossible to see around the canyon bend.

I paused. We were just about to start our 4000km canoeing trip to the Arctic Ocean and we had to make a decision – should depart at this point or not! My adventurous spirit egged me on. It would be such an adrenalin rush to paddle down the rapids through the canyon door and be spat out into the open vista of the stunning Jasper National Park, but deciding between wanting an adrenalin rush, or allowing common sense to prevail had me with mixed emotions.

From the rocks, I stood and looked intently at a huge wave crossing much of the river. It was about halfway down the rapid and approximately 100 metres from where the rock walls narrowed and formed the canyon. At this point there seemed to be more drops, and going by the height of the waves the drops looked big. Where the canyon narrowed, the water hit the rock walls and created a long row of big standing waves that roared and thundered down the canyon and out of sight.

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The gorge downstream of Athabasca Falls

Fallen spruce trees were spread around, and many dangled dangerously on the rock wall above the river. The sparsely snow covered mountain in the background became clear of cloud, but my mind wasn’t. As I stood looking into the canyon I asked myself, did I really want to risk the whole trip by starting from this point when I knew nothing of the difficulty downstream? Were we being reckless to start here or was it part of the adventure? What if we lost the canoe before we started our trip? There was a lot at stake. Alaine and Leonie were meeting us 2000kms downstream at the halfway point and we had to do everything that we could to get there safely.

I balanced on a boulder and reached my decision. For me common sense had to prevail. I felt it too risky to put in upstream of the canyon not knowing what lay ahead, so with Tony being happy to take my advice we had to find another launching point downstream. We returned to Ed and Sue’s RV passing a group of school children and a few tourists milling around at the water’s edge.

 

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I was disappointed to be heading further downstream, but I was also relieved. We really needed to start our journey safely. Ed started the engine and he drove along a minor road that led north on the west side of the river. A few kilometres downstream we crossed the Whirlpool River and found an easy spot, on the junction of the Whirlpool and Athabasca Rivers to launch our canoe. We were somewhat happier to ease into our journey without any immediate danger.

It was interesting to learn that it was here that the early explorers and fur traders paddled and portaged from one watershed to another. The Whirlpool River, 24 kilometres upstream of Jasper was discovered in the winter of 1810 by David Thompson as a fur trade route. By paddling upstream from this point the Whirlpool River led to the 1737 metre high Athabasca Pass in the Rocky Mountains, where fur traders portaged and then launched their canoes again on the other side of the mountain range and used the rivers on that side to reach Vancouver and the Pacific Ocean. 

The canoe was taken off the trailer and placed next to the river. There was a chill in the air but Tony and I donned our thermals and paddling jackets and we were warm. It took only minutes to load our emergency equipment in the canoe, strap on the spray deck and push the canoe out into deeper water. The freezing water seeped into our booties and our senses were shocked by the intense cold, but the cold served as a good reminder and incentive not to capsize on our downstream trip.

It was time to take off. Ed and Sue took photos as we posed near the river bank. Rain suddenly started and lashed us at a 45 degree angle, but it didn’t bother us too much as we were all rugged up, the adrenalin was pumping and we were ready to take on the river. Minutes later we took our first paddle strokes, paddled slightly upstream and then turned to head downstream towards Jasper. This was really it! This was the start of another new adventure.

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Our canoe wasn’t loaded as this little excursion was only a test run, a familiarisation. Tony hadn’t paddled a canoe in white water before and we had only paddled a few times in flat water together as we had both been paddling with other paddling partners in training. Therefore because I had paddled extensively on white water in a double and single canoe for over 30 years, and was the more experienced paddler, I took the position in the stern. The stern paddler is responsible for doing a lot of the steering and has more control of the canoe but working as a team was paramount if we wanted to get through the rapids safely. This morning’s paddle was going to be the only chance we would have to practise our white water skills before we took off with a fully laden and much heavier canoe.

We waved to Ed and Sue before being whisked away by the strong current and right into a mass of standing waves. The water lapped over the bow for the first time and a little reached me in the rear, but Tony was getting the freezing cold water in his lap. At the bottom of the rapid we paused with our paddles and drifted and looked towards the mountains. It was hard to believe that we were actually here in the magical Jasper National Park after so many months of planning and looking at pictures on the internet and in glossy travel books.

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An island upstream of Jasper

The mountaintops showed their jagged peaks, then low clouds that were passing over hid them for a while. The water was moving swiftly and although flat one minute, it was running wild and spirited the next. With little weight in the canoe we were able to zip around, enter eddies with ease, move from one side of the river to the other and to be free. Tomorrow would be very different when the canoe would be loaded with all our gear.

We seemed to be working well together as we breezed through grade 2 rapids which gave us no trouble at all. With it being a wide river we were able to skirt most dangers and stop in eddies to take photographs or view the scenery. We reached a bigger rapid, the waves were higher, but it still looked easy. Then from out of the blue a rock was suddenly in our path. With quick evasive action from both of us we sidestepped the rock, but only just! The bow ploughed into the stopper behind the rock, the water swamped Tony’s spray deck and the canoe tilted to one side but we kept it on track. This was a good  wakeup call for us both early in the journey. We must never become complacent!

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After challenging several grade two rapids and viewing stunning mountain scenes that were truly inspiring we neared the end of our practise run, passing a raft and stopping just beyond the town bridge where Ed and Sue were waiting. As we pulled in we thought the section that we had paddled had been easier than what we were expecting from the literature we had read. We talked to a rafting guide who had been working in Jasper for a year and asked him about the dangers downstream, but he knew nothing of the river beyond this point.                                 

We were quite happy with our day’s paddle and before returning to the campsite we did a little shopping in Jasper and had a meal in a restaurant. It would be our last dining experience for some time.

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Fully loaded we are ready to go

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Stage 1 – Jasper to Hay River

Day 1 – Friday 6th June

At breakfast Sue made delicious muffins, coffee and juice. The park abounded with squirrels, there were elk grazing in a meadow and ravens were rummaging around. But it was time to leave this beautiful campground and head for the river for the real start of our epic journey.

At the river we unpacked our gear from the vehicle and lifted the canoe to the water’s edge where we started loading it. Towards the west, beyond the spruce trees, mist was covering the snow covered mountain tops. It was cool and cloudy and light rain was falling, but we were warm, rugged up in our thermals and Gore-Tex jackets.

The canoe began to look a little overloaded. I felt disorganised and a little embarrassed as we placed, pushed and fumbled to squeeze things into any vacant gap. Although we had practised loading beforehand it was now like a jigsaw with too many pieces that wouldn’t fit into place. Thankfully we didn’t have a crowd of people watching as I’m sure they would have thought that we hadn’t done this before.

With cold hands we tied the spray-deck down. Once on, nothing could escape, even if we capsized, which was a horrible thought in these bleak weather and water conditions. Ed and Sue were looking on. We had become good friends and I am truly appreciative of the help and support that they had given me on this and the last trip. Without their support it would have been much more difficult to organise and to get here. We now had to say goodbye. We gave them a hug, our thanks once more and then stepped into the canoe to take off.

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We peeled out of the eddy and into the current and oh boy the canoe was heavy and hard to control compared with the day before. We waved to Ed and Sue for the last time and I felt a sense of sadness as I waved farewell. We paddled on the right side of the river where we slid down a few channels that had shallows and stranded uprooted drift trees on either side. Within a few minutes Ed and Sue were gone from our sight. We were now all on our own heading towards the Arctic Ocean in a northerly direction. Before us were big rapids, huge lakes, annoying mosquitoes, the constant threat of bears and 4000kms of pain and strain.

A near-white coyote or it may have been a wolf, paced on the right side of the river not too far downstream. It stopped, turned and watched us intently before trotting off and disappearing into the trees. The rain became heavier, shrouding the mountains around us in cloud cover. It was such a shame as we were now being denied the sight of the magical and enchanting scenery.

We passed under the 12-mile bridge and noticed a sign downstream saying ‘camp’ so we pulled over to a small island to have lunch. We were now absolutely freezing! Even though we were well dressed against the cold, the frigid wind still managed to blow straight through us.

We walked up the bank and found a table, a campfire ring and dry wood. I paused before walking a little further to where the area opened up and tents were allowed to be positioned. It was a great camping site, but it was too early to stop and we were so cold we could only think about paddling to keep warm.

We took out the stove, placed it on the table and boiled water to cook noodles. The extreme cold made it difficult to think clearly or even muster up the enthusiasm to enjoy lunch, but once the hot noodles hit the spot it helped to motivate us again.

We left the island moving from one channel to another avoiding the fallen dead trees that were drifting. The current accelerated and we soon found ourselves being swept sideways narrowly missing a huge drifting tree with the stern. I straightened up and minutes later we watched an eagle glide overhead. The wind dropped and as the day became still the clouds hovered around the high peaks giving the river a sense of eeriness.

We entered Jasper Lake which was shallow at the beginning but later deepened. We kept mostly to the left and to our surprise there was still a faint current in places. We could see smoke from a cabin way over to our left and my thoughts drifted to the occupants of that cosy cabin. Over to our right a few cars were on a distant highway. Tony and I spoke little.

As the clouds cleared, a mountain came into view with sheer, steep rock faces looking something like Mt Matterhorn, the famous but notorious mountain, which straddles the Swiss/Italian border. It disappeared from view for some minutes and reappeared again. We paddled around a big bend, the water slowed then quickened. With clearer skies we could see the mountaintops were carpeted with fresh snow. The visibility deteriorated once again and the rain poured down in torrents. We found a campsite on a corner near Brule tunnel. It was not as grand or as beautiful as our lunch spot but it had to do.  

Cold and wet, we pulled ashore and carried our gear for 35 metres across the long wet grass to the campsite. We dropped our gear near a table and fireplace and when all the gear was over, we collected wood and Tony tried to get a fire going. The wood was soaked, but after using some toilet paper and stove fuel to create a blaze, Tony got it going.

The evening was quite miserable and the rain, the mud and the bitter cold didn’t help to lift our spirits. Even the rice seemed to be against us as it took forever to cook. However it was most gratifying to enter my tent at 11.30pm, strip off and get into my warm down sleeping bag. The rain got heavier as I wrote in my diary and a train passed by, tooting its horn before it entered the tunnel. It may be a long, cold and noisy night, I thought as I drifted off to sleep.

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Near our first campsite

Day 2 – Saturday 7th June.

When we awoke, fresh snow during the night had covered the mountain peaks and a cloud layer had gathered half way up them. The mountains looked spectacular. As the clouds lowered and dispersed all the mountains, including the one we had named Mt Matterhorn, started to appear.  It was cold, but beautiful, a much better day than the day before. I made for the loo which was amongst the trees 20 metres along a narrow foot track. It was enclosed on three sides, but it had no roof or door, it was a real open air toilet. Although my bum was chilled due to my pants being around my ankles, just being able to sit there and gaze at the white mountain range was something really special.

We took our time packing the canoe and didn’t get moving until 10.30am. The scenery around us was absolutely beautiful. The nearest mountain had a cloud band encircling it, like a halo. We could see the mountain above and below the cloud. Small flowering trees and wildflowers were blooming, creating splashes of vivid colour contrasting with the tall green spruce trees. We pushed the canoe from the mud bank and jumped in, our feet becoming wet and cold in the process. The current helped us downstream allowing us time to take in the amazing scenery. On the left, the shores were rocky slopes and on the right was a spectacular jagged mountain that rose vertically above us.

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As the river turned into Brule Lake the whole scene ahead started to open up and the mountains turned to hills. Behind us though, the impressive mountain range was once again slowly coming into view as the bleak black clouds began to disperse.  On the nearer mountain range a long, slender band of cloud looked so perfect and part of the landscape, that I just felt I wanted to walk on it.

An extended line of extraordinary sand dunes stretched before us on the right, but minutes later to our horror, motorbikes and quad bikes were tearing up and down the steep sand hills. Our peace was shattered, and it no longer felt like a wilderness, but it wasn’t all bad. For the next 45 minutes we were given an incredible display of riding as we watched them tackle the steep slopes and dig up a lot of dirt.

The sun tried to come out as we headed back towards the narrow river. Brule Lake wasn’t as shallow as Jasper Lake so it felt easier to paddle. About six power boats were ahead near the next corner, where the lake turned into the river, but they moved off when we neared. The current accelerated as the lake narrowed and we were soon paddling at high speed through a section of small waves, which on our map were called ripples. Some of the waves were quite high and Tony ended up with a lap full of water.

We were now unfortunately heading away from the snow clad mountains where the sky above was full of grey and black clouds. It was disappointing to leave the magnificent mountain scenery behind so early in our journey. Near the locality of Entrance the water was pushing and rushing against the concrete road bridge pillars at a frightening pace. It was scary stuff and I could see how novices could get into difficulties and be drawn into them by the current. Luckily we had the experience and sneaked through on the left, well away from the pylons, whilst being pushed along by the tremendously fast current.

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The Weldwood Pulp Mill before Hinton Bridge was an unwelcome sight. We were told that many Hinton locals were concerned with the river pollution it created and paddlers were warned not to drink any of the water downstream of the pulp mill. We stopped just after Hinton Bridge on the left near a car park. Noisy trucks and cars were tearing up and down so we decided to move on to have lunch. Within a few hundred metres we saw a good spot on an island so we stopped and cooked noodles again.

The water was still swift and when we reached a bridge used by a mine, there were warning signs against trespassing posted on each bank. It rained on and off most of the afternoon and there was little to keep us amused along the way apart from spotting a few waterbirds and two elk. We stopped on a small Island before Plante Creek at 5.50pm after paddling 72kms. The rain finally stopped, Tony lit a fire and we had an easy night, though there wasn’t much conversation between us. It was still light at 10.25pm.    

Day 3 – Sunday 8th June

Our little sandy island camp was a great find as ninety nine percent of the river’s edge so far was vegetated and mostly unsuitable for camping. Whilst having breakfast, birds were singing, wader birds and ducks were milling around and geese flew overhead.

We reached and passed Emerson/Sundance Bridge and it was here that I tried my GPS maps for the first time. I soon found the GPS was working exceedingly well and for someone who usually uses maps and compass, I was truly impressed and duly converted to now being a GPS user!!  I have Brett Murdoch, the manager of the Valhalla Pure Outfitters Outdoor Store in Abbotsford to thank for that. After I bought the GPS in his store he happily took it home and loaded all the maps along our route onto the GPS, a task which took him several hours.

As we got closer to a grade 1+ rapid we heard the sound of white water. For a moment my heart fluttered. The amount of noise was a surprise, but as we approached the First Oldman Creek we realised that the loud water tumbling sound was coming from the boulder-strewn creek that entered before the main rapid. When the river grade steepened the water quickened and really livened up. There were several channels of grade 1+ and they were all getting faster. We knew that we needed to be alert and although it was only a grade 1+ the current was extremely fast and one missed move and we could easily be pushed against a tree or a rock. Feeling as if we were paddling a barge, we weaved our heavy canoe down the swift current, with Tony getting wet as we punched through the waves. The turbulence threw the canoe all over the place and as I struggled to keep it straight my back strained, but the ride was too exhilarating for me to care.

We saw elk, then moose, then more elk. We were doing speeds of 12 to 15kms an hour and about 8 – 9kms an hour without paddling. It was great! We covered lots of ground and passed through Tunnel Rock with its superb cliffs. This part of the river was rated grade 1+ but it wasn’t as bad as the other fast part we had gone through earlier. I saw three ravens and spotted a nest that was up on a ledge.

There were several cliffs before ‘Tunnel Rock’ which reminded me of the cliffs around Sydney. 18kms further we came to ‘The Gates‘. There was a big high cliff on the left and a smaller one on right so we could see why they were named ‘The Gates’.  It was quite a spectacular sight.

We had lunch on a tiny island where animal foot and hoof prints were scattered in dirt between the rocks. A little further the Berland River entered the Athabasca and it had a good flow of water coming from it. We moved under the Berland Bridge at high speed making it too difficult to stop, so we kept going.

When we stopped for afternoon tea we walked along a rocky low-lying sand bar looking at animal droppings and foot prints trying to guess what animals had been here. At most of our stops we both enjoyed checking things out as it was interesting to know what was around in our wilderness. Then out of the blue Tony said, “If I killed you now, no one would know.“ I think Tony was meaning, if some one killed someone out here, no-one would know…. well at least I think he was!!

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From snowy mountains to cliffs and forests

The current kept a great pace as we moved towards the 947 Highway Bridge. There were about five guys fishing from Pine Creek on the right and they shouted a greeting as we passed. Ten kilometres further we were intending to stop at an old log cabin marked on our map, but just as we saw it, it was too late. The current swept us by and it was just too strong to paddle back. We managed to find a good camp on an island about 6pm. We had paddled 102kms, which was fantastic. The wood was much drier than the night before so Tony soon had a fire going to cook damper.

As we slowly unpacked and erected our tents, there seemed to be a tense atmosphere. Making small talk was difficult, in fact we didn’t talk much about the day at all. Soon after, we saw a moose swimming across the river heading towards us. I thought that it may be coming across to our island, but it stayed in the middle of the river and only moved slightly to one side then to the other. It didn’t seem to know what it was doing and as seconds passed by it was being swept downstream. His head and big ears were sticking up out of water and bobbing up and down. I could see panic in the moose’s eyes and as it passed our island it hardly moved from the centre of the river. It continued to swim upstream against the current, but got swept downstream and when it was too far away for me to see it clearly I got my binoculars and followed it for another 5 minutes at least. It just kept swimming against the current and eventually it was swept out of my sight.

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A moose swimming upstream against the current

Day 4 – Monday 9th June

 It was a dry morning and a little warmer especially when the sun was trying to come out. We thought that we could hear another pulp mill as there was a hum in the distance.

When we left we looked for the moose that had swam by the night before just in case it got swept into and hooked up in the timber piles, but there was no sign of it. Soon after we saw a deer swim the river. It was going okay in the shallows, but when it hit the fast moving current it got swept downstream at a quick pace. We followed the deer but it was too quick for us to catch up and when it got to the bank it was soon out of the water and gone.

We saw another moose, this time with a calf. We drifted and looked on. It was thrilling to see so many animals. The day was hot, then chilly and the temperature varied throughout most of the day. We made good progress and soon passed under Windfall Bridge which had hundreds of swallows nesting under it. There were a few tatty caravans over on the right.

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A moose and its calf

The current was still fast and a little technical for beginners. At times it was hard work and often risky trying to negotiate a heavy boat back and forth across the river. But for us it was great fun. Two eagles were perched on a huge pile of stranded logs and they were a little more majestic than the ravens, wader birds, ducks, geese and seagulls that were part of the river scene.

Near a pumping station, the river split in two, and we decided to take the left channel which joined up again a couple of kilometres from the Highway 43 Road Bridge near Whitecourt. We expected to see a few buildings and a caravan park on the right-hand side of the river after the bridge, but the vegetation was so dense that we couldn’t see anything.

We kept paddling, hoping that we would find a shop nearby. Instead, we came across the junction of the Athabasca and McLeod Rivers, where we found the local Whitecourt Boat Club, a park and a great little grassed area with a picnic table. Apparently they have a lot of jet boat racing along the river here.

Whitecourt was a few kilometres up the McLeod River, but it was too flooded and fast for us to take a side trip up it. We made ourselves at home at the picnic table and cooked noodles. It was chilly so the hot noodles helped warm us up. There was no one at the park when we arrived but shortly after, a car pulled up and a man sat there, just looking at the river. He was probably looking for some peace and quiet. We went across to him and asked him if he knew where we could get some drinking water. Immediately he very kindly volunteered to go and fetch some. Whilst we were waiting, a family who looked as if they were Amish pulled up and began to set up for a picnic. We had a brief conversation with them as they walked by.

Half way through our lunch a huge tree came floating down the Athabasca River. Why we didn’t see it on our way down the river was a mystery as it was enormous. We watched it until it left our sight and later when we were back in the canoe we noticed that it had come to a halt 1km further downriver.

The McLeod River was swollen from the recent heavy rains, which was good news for us as it meant more water flooding into the Athabasca River, hopefully making the current faster. The man came back with our water and we thanked him for his trouble. We then moved on chasing the fast water and passing some steep, sandy cliffs with some unusual formations.

We stopped for afternoon break under Highway 658 Blue Ridge Bridge. Two creepy looking guys in a pickup truck came down to the river’s edge and told us it was going to rain tomorrow. I had thoughts of the film Deliverance filtering through my mind as we talked, so I was relieved when they moved on.

We saw another moose and calf on an island in the middle of the river. The calf was tiny and as we paddled by, I thought it looked very vulnerable, we floated by. As we were drifting at 13kms an hour, more sand cliffs came into view. The terrain didn’t afford us any good campsites and we had to stop and check three places before finding one. It had muddy edges, ant trails and even an ants nest, but at least the ground was quite level and there was a big fallen tree to sit on. Tony soon had a fire going and he looked very content sitting on the log in his camp chair writing his diary and eating his food.

I had a strip wash before cooking dinner and then rang Alaine on the satellite phone. She said the Spot Locator had worked properly for the first time yesterday. Apparently I had been pushing the button for four seconds instead of two which meant that it went to tracking. Alaine told me that she had badly gashed her forefinger when T2 dropped a boat that they were carrying. She was now a bit anxious that it wouldn’t heal in time for when she and Leonie would be joining us.

The Spot Locator is an ingenious invention. It allows people to keep track of us from anywhere in the world. The Spot has three buttons. The first button is for letting friends know where you are, this is the OK message, and the button is held down for two seconds. Holding it down for four seconds puts it into the tracking mode, allowing others to track the route that you have taken. The second button is for letting your friends know that you are not in a life or death situation but that you do want help and the third button is the emergency beacon and help from emergency services is needed.

We didn’t have maps for a few kilometres of this part of the river so I was now totally dependent on the maps on the GPS, which worked well. This little gadget was well on its way to becoming an essential part of my expedition equipment.

The evening was quite beautiful. We were surrounded by birds, grasshoppers, big bumble bees, ravens and tiny wader birds, similar to stints. And of course, not forgetting the ants. The sun went down about 10.00pm but the birds were still chirping at 11.00pm when I was trying to sleep.

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A time to relax

Day 5 – Tuesday 10th June.

When we crawled out of our tents in the morning, fresh deer tracks had been made in the night and were scattered around our camp. Apart from the muddy river bank, the site had actually proven to be a good one for camping. The day was fine although cloudy, but it soon got chilly as we rounded our first corner. It didn’t take long to sight a moose with calf, geese with goslings and several deer. We heard industrial noises somewhere in line with the small locality of Tiger Lilly but we saw nothing. There were more deer and later one jumped in the water, but upon seeing us, climbed out again.

Tony had a headache, and that might have been the reason for the lack of power he was putting into his stroke, or the reason why he was quiet. We stopped for a break at a place where several game paths fanned out into the forest and I climbed the hill behind which was laced with vividly coloured wildflowers. I followed the tracks up the hill finding nothing else except a good view of the river. In the last two days there had been a strong scent of perfume which had radiated from the flowers and bushes on the side of the river.

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When we stopped for a rest we walked into the forest to check out animal tracks and plant life

The river snaked around. The current was slower than yesterday and down to 10 – 12kms an hour, occasionally a little more. A big moose, I think the biggest we’d seen up to then was standing overlooking the river with her calf nearby.

We stopped just before Highway 33, a few kilometres from Fort Assiniboine. A man fishing had caught a fish but he didn’t hang around for long once we arrived. We sat at a picnic table about 20 metres from the river and the same distance from a long drop toilet. The doors on the toilets were very fancy house doors and they even had male and female signs on them. Sadly only the doors were flash, inside wasn’t so elaborate. Tony only had a cup of tea, deciding not to eat anything because of his headache.

We hugged the left channel as we paddled under the bridge soon meeting up with another moose and calf, geese with goslings and more deer. There were again many corners, some with sloping sand cliffs but unfortunately the current slowed as the river started to widen.

The forest opened up and a few fields began to appear and for the first time we saw a farm. At our afternoon break, near a pile of stranded logs we climbed the bank and beyond the line of trees we walked into our first field. It was one of the very few that we would see along our way. There was a big farm yard and house on the hill opposite, but there was no movement over there. It was silent.

As we sat on the pile of logs munching on our snacks, Tony mentioned in conversation again how easy it would be to kill somebody and how easy it would be to dispose of the body. At least this time he was in a much friendlier mood so I didn’t think he was referring to killing me. Although we were near a farm it still felt very remote and like Tony said, no one would know if someone killed someone else out here!

There were loose logs amongst the big heap that we were sitting on and I urged Tony to try riding one of the logs, just like you see in the Canadian movies. I grabbed my camera as he walked out from the log debris onto a single log, but when it started to sink he soon retreated. Pity really, I was expecting him to put on a show or at least fall in. Our little excursions at our break spots made our day that little bit more interesting and we even talked a little more.  

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Log piles build up at certain places along the river

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Later that day as we started looking for a camp spot we came up to a gaggle of geese. The mum and dad flew off upstream leaving the chicks to fend for themselves. The chicks just floated downstream. A little further we saw two big beavers over near the left bank. They looked at us and began chattering. They dived and then came up again. The expression on their faces was priceless and something I will never forget. As we drifted they kept up with us. When they surfaced they made their funny little noises again. They followed us for several hundred metres. Up until yesterday we had seen little beaver activity along the river but today we had seen many trees that had been felled by beavers. Beavers will chew at the biggest of trees.

We left the beavers in search of a camp spot and came across the goslings huddling in a circle in an eddy a kilometre downstream from where we first saw them. I felt bad that we had disturbed them and I wondered if they would find their parents.

Around the next bend we found a camp spot on the right bank on an old track that came down to the river. It wasn’t the best but under the long grass there was level ground. At the top of the track, beyond the trees there was a field of lupins. The thick line of trees sandwiched between the river and the field were riddled with beaver bites and there were many fallen trees on the ground. Within the trees we saw a colourful bird, black with a white, brown and red breast. I thought it might be a woodpecker but not knowing Canadian birds that well I was just guessing. It now looked as if we had been passing through some farming country but we were shielded from seeing the farms because of the thick line of trees that grew along the riverbank.

A magnificent, but ominous cloud band drifted overhead, which looked to be part of a thunderstorm, and we couldn’t help but watch as its beauty engulfed us. When the downpour started, we soon retreated to our tents. When the rain stopped 40 minutes later we were able to go back outside to cook our meals. The air was fresh from the thunderstorm.

Day 6 – Wednesday 11th June.

The morning was misty and fresh and the day had a good feel about it. We were off by 9.20am paddling around a big bend to where a ferry was positioned. The man operating it walked to the water’s edge but said little apart from hello, so we just kept paddling. Again we came across geese with goslings, and once more the parents flew off leaving the goslings to fend for themselves. The little fellers didn’t know what to do, so they followed us around the corner. They split up into two pods with about four or five in each pod. It was amazing to see how fast they were paddling with their little feet and how easily they were keeping up with us. Eventually they decided that we were not their parents after all and stopped, but we kept going soon losing them from our sight. A few minutes later their parents flew over, heading back towards them.

The water ran swiftly for the next few kilometres but it soon slowed again. There was a house on the hill and a tin boat on the right which appeared not to have been used for a very long time. Two people were fishing on the left as we passed a creek and soon after a power boat flew by.

By lunch time very little had changed on the river but we found a nice spot on the right shore to cook noodles under a forest of spotted beech trees. We named this place Woodlands. We would try to give a name to every place we stopped at, reflecting the camp’s surroundings and hopefully making it easier for us to remember it at a later stage. The forest around us was now inundated with a flower which looked very much like a bluebell. It is amazing how little things like seeing a flower or even a forest of white and black beech trees can give extra cheer to the day.

When the boat that we had seen earlier came roaring back up the river it stopped. Two guys, who were up for the day from Edmonton came to the side of the boat with a fish in hand. In fact they had caught three, but sadly they didn‘t offer us one. “How are you going?” they asked. During our conversation they told us about a camp that they had established downstream several years ago and which they used on a regular basis. But unfortunately some vandals had recently set fire to it, chopped down trees and smashed up their benches that they had made. They were angry about this and justifiably so, as when we found it several kilometres later it was black and charred, so it had lost its charm and wilderness feel.   

A bit further we found another deserted camp on an island. No one had been there for years. It had an old ramshackle toilet, a fallen tree laden with fungus straddled the clearing, and some old weather-beaten tarps strewn under a tree. A little further downstream we had our afternoon break at a place where we found several goose eggs. Like kids we scrambled up and over yet another large log pile, exploring and seeing if we could find any evidence of animals being there. Talking to Tony on top of the logs I found out that he watches the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) and SBS (another Australian broadcasting station) a lot but he didn’t watch the ABC program Spooks, a program I enjoyed. I was finding it hard to get Tony chatting. I’m not much of a chatterbox either, however Tony was even less chatty than me. As we stood on the rotting wood pile a moose and her calf moved out of the woods on the other side of the river. They grazed for a short time, but after seeing us they soon disappeared.

Further downstream we noticed another moose and calf swimming across the river. The river was about 300 metres wide and when they saw us they didn’t know which way to go, so they swam back towards the bank where they had come from. A cloud of flies were swarming around their heads, it was distressing to see but we, or they couldn’t do a thing about it. The calf was struggling to keep its head above water and we were hoping it wouldn’t tire too soon so we followed it to the bank just in case it went under. Its mother soon climbed the steep bank with such agility making it look effortless but the calf was still struggling to keep afloat. It was exhausted and it looked as if it was going to drown but it kept going. As it neared the bank it then got caught on a fallen log and slipped under the water and out of sight. We held our breath not knowing what was going to happen but then it managed to surface and stand up, first its nose, then its eyes and finally the rest of its small head poked out of the water. We were relieved. It was now more exhausted than before and with the bank being steep and tree branches spread above him like large deer antlers, it had no chance to climb out. We didn’t know whether to help it out or leave it for its mum to sort it out. We had been told that mothers can become very agitated and aggressive and as we didn’t fancy coming between an angry mum and her calf, we decided to move on in the hope it would rest and mum would come to its aid. It looked a sorry sight as we looked back, before disappearing downstream.

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A moose and its calf swim across the river

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The calf is unable to climb the bank

A thunderstorm was heading our way so we stopped next to the Pembina River to put on our jackets. It became windy and rough and the current was sluggish which made our progress slow. Several geese were spread along the river and a big fire had burnt much of the forest, decimating it. The only green was the regenerated bushes at ground level. We tried finding a camp and eventually stopped near the locality of Chisholm on the left side. Although there was a clearing with tall grass it was on a slope and not a good campsite so we decided to ferry glide across the current to the other side where we saw another track reaching the water‘s edge. To keep a low profile and to not attract attention from the nearby village, we didn’t light a fire. I cooked one of my special freeze dried meals on the stove. Further along the track there was a cleared area and a gravel pit, an old hut and a rubbish bin about 200 metres over. Although there was supposed to be a small village close by, we didn’t see any life. Later however, I did see a man walking his dog on the gravelled area, but he didn’t appear to have seen us.

Day 7 – Thursday 12th June.

I woke up during the night but fell back to sleep and didn’t get up until 7.30am. We tried to hurry our packing but we still didn’t manage to get off until 9.20am. Even here near Chisholm the forest was badly burnt and the trees were like telegraph poles as they had few limbs left on them.

Nevertheless there were birds twittering and swallows had made nests inside several red cones that were on electric wires that crossed the river. It was cloudy but the sun managed to peek through at times. An eagle’s nest in one of the burnt out trees on the right stood out like a sore thumb in the devastated forest. The forest was now burnt on one side of the river but not on the other.

We spotted a spring on the right with water cascading down the embankment. We stopped paddling and drifted by it whilst being circled by several swallows which flew very close to us before swerving away at the last moment. Another eagle’s nest was prominent in a burnt out tree near the corner before the Highway 2 Bridge. The eagle was taking advantage of the thermals and soaring high above the matchstick forest.

We stopped before the bridge where we saw a track about 5km downstream of Chisholm. The disused track made a great camping spot but other than the track there was nothing, not even a picnic area. As we paddled further we could see good camping spots on an island after the bridge where four deer, one with small horns, were grazing. We passed under a disused old rail bridge and reached another road bridge around the next bend at 12.45pm, near Smith. We pulled up at the muddy bank before the bridge. A dirt track led to the bitumen road where Tony stopped a car and asked the driver how far it was to the nearest shop. Apparently it wasn’t that far, but we didn’t really need anything so we decided to move on.

A few kilometres further we found one of the best flat areas to stop so far on the trip. A walking track along the river’s edge led us to a wooden footbridge that crossed a small creek. The creek was running and perfectly clear and it was a spot where we could actually see small fish beneath us. Across the creek there was a cabin surrounded by a forest of beech trees and fronted by an open area of grass. It seemed as if we had found our paradise camp. In the middle of the grassed area was a large steel dish that was used for the fire pit and four large rocks that were used as seats. The cabin was nothing grand but it didn’t matter, the surrounds were just beautiful and I could imagine relaxing out here. Before we walked back Tony visited the bush toilet nearby. With no door on the toilet, the view of the beech tree forest must have been pretty special. The mosquitoes however were fierce and they surely wouldn’t allow anyone to take in the beauty for too long.

We walked back to the riverbank happy and buoyant with this beautiful area to have lunch under the hot sun. With a low hanging tree branch near by, Tony took the opportunity to hang from the branch and stretch his sore back for a while. We were both in good spirits as we moved away.

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Tony stretching his back

Within minutes of leaving, a moose crossed the river and a little further a wolf with black on the end on his bushy tail paced along the left bank. Some time later we heard an amazing sound of a raven, which when we looked up was chasing and annoying an eagle. It just pestered it and seemed to have had the upper hand.

It was a still, beautiful hot day and as we drifted we could hear the wind coming towards us as the trees began to rustle. The rustling of leaves was such a beautiful sound but it also sounded a little scary. We thought there was a storm brewing but it turned out to be nothing other than brief wind rush. We passed a farm house and stopped on other side of the river for a break. There were lots of game trails running into the hills from the water‘s edge. I followed one and found a number of interlocking trails fanning out in the forest.

When I returned Tony was lying over a log with a hunter’s arrow that he had found, sticking out of his chest playing dead. “We should pretend that we have been attacked by Indians when we meet the girls,” he said. We both joked and thought it was a great idea. It was good to see Tony lighten up and joking and I even felt a sense of camaraderie. It was a good moment. Tony has a good, dry sense of humour and I was happy to see it appear again. We called our rest spot ‘Broken Arrow‘.

 

 

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We left at 5.15pm and when we turned south on good current we drifted for what felt like forever. I was waiting for Tony to start paddling so we could reach the town of Athabasca and have plenty of time the following day to post letters, do our washing, shower and shop. Eventually he put in a paddle stroke and I must admit, I sighed with relief, we were on our way, but by the time we got going it was just about time to find a camp. The site we found wasn’t a great one as it turned out to be muddy and was just big enough to fit in the two tents and the canoe. But it was home for the night.

We had seen lots of deer, four pelicans with small beaks and it was the first day that we didn’t see moose.

Day 8 – Friday 13th June.

There was mist and low cloud and everything was damp including my sleeping bag when we woke.

Just after rounding a bend, near a cabin, two pelicans were gracefully flying by, no more than a metre above the water. They looked like flying boats. Three more pelicans were drifting with the current and fishing. We also drifted on, startling a moose and a very small calf that looked only hours old. The wind was behind us for a change which felt good. More pelicans dotted along the river, geese were flying over and several deer stepped out of the forest and down to the river’s edge.

We stopped on an island for a break next to a huge collection of built up rotting logs. We named it ‘Driftwood Island’. We walked on the logs looking and investigating whilst eating a snack of nuts and raisins.

When we got close to the town of Athabasca we passed a clear area on the right that led to houses, a gravel pit on a river bend and another house. The wind picked up from behind us making it hard to control the canoe. We passed a couple of islands that were home for a flock of seagulls. For the last 75kms we had been heading in a southerly direction but once we reach Athabasca we would be heading north again and heading in the right direction, towards the North Pole.

The weather had a definite chill in the air but we were excited to be heading towards town, our first real stop along our route in a week. We pulled in at a boat ramp and Tony went over and asked a pair of First Nation men who seemed a little worse for wear, the location of the campsite. They told him it was a little further downstream near a creek. As the town used to be a staging point for river boats heading north into the wilderness I expected a wharf and a few buildings backing onto the river, but there was nothing. The shore was vegetated and we couldn’t see anywhere ahead that resembled a campground, however our minds were put to rest when we came up to a small creek.

We arrived at 12.30pm. Several young, undisciplined lads were gathered in a vandalised picnic shelter yahooing and generally doing what it seems all youth do today. There were a few dodgy-looking males hanging around too. Although we intended to camp next to the river we now didn’t think it was the safest place as the kids and fishermen gathered along the shore to fish. We instead carried our gear across to a camp site well away from the river and from where the two drunken First Nation guys had their camp. For $20.00 a night our site had power which was a plus as we could charge our camera, satellite phone and mobile phone batteries. As we started to put our clothes and gear out to dry the rain suddenly came down, so we quickly erected our tents. When the rain had stopped, we sorted out our washing and put together a few things that we didn’t really need to send ahead to Hay River.

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Camped at the Athabasca camp ground

With raincoats on we walked into town to the post office and packed the gear into boxes. When Tony went up to the counter one of the women told him he smelled “sweet.” In fact his clothes reeked of smoke and he hadn’t showered for days. At first I thought she must have fancied him, or was she just being nice as Tony smelled awful. We joked and then left to find the Laundromat. The owner of the Laundromat was very friendly and offered to take us to a steak night at the university but we declined his offer as we had a lot of things to do. We spoke to him about our trip and he didn’t realise that the water from the Athabasca River, which runs through the town, eventually ran into the ocean. I suppose the ocean was over 3000kms away.

With our clothes washed and dried we walked back to our tents and then went and had a hot shower, which was absolutely heaven. For a dollar it gave me just enough time to appreciate the hot water cleaning, massaging and relaxing my body. Soon after we walked back into town to check out the outdoor shop and buy some fishing lines and lures and to our amazement they didn’t sell hand line reels. With the shopping complete we asked the lady behind the counter where the best place was to go for dinner, and she told us the 3rd Street Grill. We wandered out of the store and found the 3rd Street Grill. I ordered steak, squid and salad and managed to polish off two traditional beers and later a coffee. The service was very friendly and during the course of conversation Tony asked our waitress if she hunted. We were both surprised when she told us she did and that her husband was leading a bear hunting trip at that moment. That was even more of a surprise as I thought that bear hunting no longer existed, but it appeared to be a popular sport in Alberta.

Both feeling a little jollier than before dinner, we made our way back to the tents. It was now a beautiful, fine evening and because the sun didn’t set until late, we still had time to sort out our gear.

The park area fronting the river had several historical boards and murals on a wall depicting the past. Athabasca was once famous for the staging point for travellers, explorers and traders heading north by river.

I didn’t realise until it was too late that the toilet used by the general public and the campers closed at 9.00pm so when I was ready to pee before going to bed I had to pee in the bushes down by the river because it was closed. I was in bed by 11.30pm.

 Day 8 – Saturday 14th June

It never really got dark so it seemed that no one went to bed making it a noisy night. By early morning the traffic was noisier still, so I didn’t have the best night’s sleep and once again, when I wanted to have a pee, the toilet was closed, so I had to go in the bushes again. Not the best system for campers.

As I pottered around camp a man came rushing over and said there was someone in the water drowning and he needed a rope. The guy looked a little rough and I wasn’t sure if he was bluffing. I took my wallet out of my pocket and threw it into the tent and grabbed my throw bag from the back of the canoe and hurried over to the water. Low and behold the First Nation man that Tony asked on the previous day the whereabouts of the campsite was in the murky water up to his neck. All the grass and shrubs that he had been trying to use to pull himself back up the bank were floating in the water with him. Who knows how long he had been there!

The man who fetched me turned out being a fisherman and before seeing the guy in difficulty he had noticed all the grasses floating in the water. He climbed down the bank, whilst I held the rope and he tried desperately and eventually succeeded to get the rope around the guy, (whose name we found out later was Richard). So now Richard was in the water with a rope under his arms tied by a slip knot (probably not the best knot), but the easiest for the fisherman to tie. We tried pulling, but Richard was so drunk, so cold and so out of it that he wasn’t in any position to help himself. With every tug he just fell over. We encouraged him to try and help himself but he had no strength and we didn’t have enough might to move him. Another chap, who was camped nearby heard the commotion, so he got himself out of bed to also help.

I slid down the bank, grabbed Richard’s arm and the fisherman held mine. We pulled, but just as you see in the movies, Richard slipped from my grasp and fell back into the water again. With his head back above water he kept saying ”please help me out, please help me”. The fisherman who had a mobile phone called 911.

Even with three of us we were getting nowhere and I could see I had no choice, but to get in the water and try to steady him and push him up as he kept falling over. I stripped off to my underpants and lowered myself down the slippery bank.

I now positioned myself in the water behind Richard and wrapped my legs around his body. I pulled on one of the ropes that I tied to the picnic table to stop me from falling back and the other two men pulled on the rope that was around Richard’s body. With both guys pulling in unison and with me pushing from behind we were able to slowly inch him up the bank. We would gain a few inches and then Richard would fall over. I would get him to his feet and try again. He was so limp his body was dead weight.

Eventually we managed to ease Richard up out of the water and to the top of the steep bank. I was now wet, cold and covered in mud and parading around in my underpants but Richard was in an even worse state than me. When we had him on flat ground, he was so heavy, that even the three of us could hardly move him. At last we managed to sit him down on a bench, three metres from the river, but moments later he tried to get up and his legs gave way and he went head first into the bbq plate and ring. So now Richard was not only hypothermic but he also had a cut lip and blood was running down his face.

The police or ambulance still hadn’t arrived and Richard was shivering excessively. We asked a First Nation guy in the tent if Richard was his mate but he told us he didn’t know him and he wasn’t any friend of his, though we knew he was. We asked Richard if he had any family or friends and he mumbled he had no one.

Richard was getting colder. I was still in my underpants and getting colder too. Fortunately the ambulance came speedily into the park followed by the police. The ambulance drivers had blankets to help warm him. Although Richard who was a First Nation drunk and could be seen as a no-hoper, the ambulance men treated him with respect, and did everything they could to make him comfortable, which was good to see.

How long he had been in the water we didn‘t know, but I suspect a long time. There were a dozen or so beer cans under the bench and several pieces of his clothing were in the water and some more on the bank.

Just as Richard was tucked away in the ambulance, the Fire Brigade arrived. The police took a few notes from me and then I made a hasty exit to have a shower to warm myself up and to get the mud that was up to my waist, washed off.

When I was all warm and clean, Tony who was in town at the time and knew nothing of the rescue, arrived back at camp. We walked over to the hotel for a huge breakfast of hash browns, two eggs on an English muffin and three coffees. Just what I needed after my unplanned early morning dip.

We visited the hardware store before going back to camp to begin the ritual of packing. Once packed up, we started carrying our gear over to the water. The second rescuer and his family gathered around to see us off and take some photos. We posed for the photos before pushing the heavy canoe into the water and paddling away by 1.00pm.

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About to leave the Athabasca camp ground

Within minutes we passed under the town bridge leaving civilisation behind and heading towards the wilderness and a group of difficult and feared rapids. We were now heading north with the wind behind us helping us along. There were several deer, a moose with calf and a beaver that jumped into the water whilst we were drifting. The sky turned cloudy.

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Heading into the most dangerous section of our journey. Grade 4-5 rapids lay ahead.

By the time 6.00pm had arrived we had started looking for a camp. We passed two islands and then noticed the boat ramp of Poachers’ Landing Ramp on the right side. Just after we pulled in, a boat followed carrying two males and one female. We talked about fishing for a while, but they hadn‘t caught anything. They mentioned that we should call in to see a guy called Greg who was a friend of theirs and had a cabin at La Biche River, a little further on.

There was a brilliant camping area further up the hill, but it was too far to walk, so we erected our tents on the side of the track near the ramp. Whilst cooking one of my special freeze dried meals, a beaver swam up and down the river, slapping its tail. Most of our evening meals were the cheap dehydrated pasta meals from the supermarket. However, we had bought a number of freeze-dried foods from a camping shop that tasted a little better, so these became our special meals.

It was 11.00pm, light rain was falling and I was writing in my diary when two quad bikes came down to the boat ramp revving and doing wheelies. They revved again and then took off quickly leaving me to continue writing and to listen to music on my ipod.

Day 10 – Sunday 15th June.

The quad bikes returned again at 2.00am. This time there were three of them revving and shouting and I was a little concerned when they started letting off fireworks. I kept looking out of the tent door to see if they were aiming them at us. Fortunately it didn’t seem as though they were, but the sky kept lighting up and crackling and they were laughing, joking and very drunk. I was one happy camper when they left!

At daybreak I used the toilet in the picnic area and it felt good to be sitting and not to be squatting with a swarm of mosquitoes around my backside. When we left at 9.00am it was drizzling, cloudy and a little cold. It didn’t take us too long to reach Greg’s cabin, which was a mobile unit on the junction of the Athabasca and La Biche Rivers. There was nothing charming or rustic about his mobile quarters, unlike some of the other wooden cabins that we had seen along the river.

We were surprised when we saw a man walking, because from a distance the camp looked quiet and sleepy. We called out and asked him if he was Greg, he replied that he was. We introduced ourselves and told him that we had been told to call in.

Greg had just got up and we were lucky to catch him as he had ‘Keep Out’ signs prominently displayed and we wouldn‘t have gone ashore if we hadn’t seen him. He offered us coffee and soon lit a fire in a fire pit. He had a great tripod system rigged up over the fire so he could lower and lift the kettle and pots easily into the flames.

Two horses were walking around, some chickens, a cat and somewhere there was a dog. He leaves the horses, chickens and cats there for the winter. We were surprised as when the winter moves in it is very hostile with thick layers of snow on the ground. He said he leaves them plenty of food. The horses nudged up to us and seemingly loved the fire and the smoke, which appeared to keep the insects from their eyes. They were very friendly horses and it would have been great to have been able to go for a ride through the forest.

We were chatting about all sorts of things when Kevin and Fred (Greg’s friends, who were from the city of Edmonton), eventually got up and joined us. Apparently trappers still work the river for beaver and wolf. I was surprised as we hadn’t seen too many beavers along our way although I suppose we were only paddling a small part of the Canadian waterways. They also spoke of bear hunting and how people pay a lot of money to shoot a bear. Although I used to shoot duck in my teenage years when I lived on a farm, at least it was to eat. Now, I feel a sense of regret at having done so. But to shoot a bear for fun just didn’t seem right.

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Greg’s wilderness camp

Greg made coffee and offered us some Bailey’s Irish Cream to add to it. I jumped at the idea as I loved Bailey’s in my coffee. It was a real treat. It was the first time Tony had experienced this great brew and he enjoyed it immensely. Greg told us of all the other cabins along the river ahead of us and gave us a sheet of paper listing them all. He also said that he and his friends were considering taking their jet boats for a test run in the afternoon, so they just might catch us up. 

We had learnt quite a bit about the river from Greg, but the time had come to leave. The bank was a little steep to get in and out of the canoe but he had a jetty of sorts that helped. We waved goodbye at 11.30am hoping they would catch us up on the river later that day. It’s good to be alone, but sometimes it’s also good to meet people as we learn so much more about the country around us.

When we passed the Calling River I was a little disappointed. I was expecting it to be much bigger; at least as big as the La Biche River. There was an old cabin nearby and once upon a time there used to be a ferry here, but it had long gone. As a moose and calf came into view we stopped for lunch in the hope of watching them graze, but they left and two eagles, one on a nest became our distraction instead. It was warm and with the warmth the mosquitoes had increased making our break a little less enjoyable as they tried to eat us.  

We passed two islands and then came up to a feature called ‘Red Rock’ which really was just a big rock mound with only a tinge of red in it. Again I was expecting something special, something impressive but it was nothing to write home about. We drifted for quite some time and watched six pelicans dropping into the river like harrier jets.

By late afternoon, and half way along a long straight we could hear the sounds of engines. It was Greg and the boys flying down the straight in their jet boats. They soon pulled up beside us and introduced us to another guy called Kal. Kal told us he had a cabin further down the river, near Pelican Rapids and he said we could stay there and help ourselves to anything.

Kevin gave us a beer followed by another and then another. We had three beers whilst drifting and chatting and I started to feel a little lightheaded and very happy. The trip had suddenly got better. This is what life is all about. Meeting great people and feeling good about what we were doing. Then to top it off, two deer or was it four skipped along the shore as we chatted!

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Greg and his friends treat us to a beer or two

After talking about everything possible the guys left us at 5.20pm just as another deer skipped off. It was an absolute joy to have met the guys again and we appreciated them making the long 60km trip to catch us up.

It was a little lonely on the river after they left. Tony and I still weren’t gelling as we should, so the sparkle fell out of the day. However, we later saw a moose and deer grazing together, which seemed unusual as all the moose, apart from one, has had a calf as company. I threw a fishing line out, the beer had instilled some confidence in my fishing technique, but sadly I still had no luck, so there would be no fish for dinner tonight. We reached McMillan Creek where Greg told us the German-built cabin was going to be, but we couldn’t see it, so we slowly drifted by. I thought it must be further along as we have discovered that people often tell us a general area, rather than the exact spot.

We stopped in an eddy just downstream. I heard a noise that sounded like a motor starting, slowly revving up to full power and then stopping. The hut must be down stream, I thought, but Tony wanted to paddle upstream and check the creek again. With a bit of effort we paddled against the current back towards the creek for a better look. Tony’s hunch paid off as the little old cabin was just visible with straining eyes. It was certainly well camouflaged, hidden amongst the vegetation and trees.

As we paddled further up into the small creek a duck suddenly flew out heading straight at us. I reacted like a hunter instantly raising my paddle and clipped it. Dinner I thought, as it crash landed in the water behind me. To have duck for dinner was very exciting, but as I turned to retrieve it, much to my amazement it flapped its wings and happily flew away.

To our delight there was an area of sand nearby. Places with lovely sandy areas were rare along the river, so I was eager to make camp as the campsite was just beautiful, just perfect. We explored the area further and found a track to a stream and another newer locked cabin hidden further back amongst the trees behind the German log cabin. Tony decided not to camp in his tent but to sleep in the log cabin, whereas I chose to camp.

Apparently the cabin had been built by two Germans who later lived in it for a few years. It wasn’t flash, in fact it was quite low in height and the bottom of the door was quite high, it starting three logs up while the whole cabin was only six logs high. I suppose it was built so the door would open even if there was two feet of snow outside. Like all log cabins the log cross joints were amazingly crafted, although gaps that appeared between the logs had to be sealed to keep the draft out. The cabin was now used by passing boaters or winter adventurers.

The wonderful sandy area was so clean and free of insects I just had to erect my tent on it. I imagined the cabin would be full of bugs and mosquitoes but Tony seemed happy to sleep in it. I fished for a while, then Tony fished, but neither of us caught anything. With the water coming from the creek being clear we thought we had a good chance of catching a feed. Apparently fish can’t see lures in the milky water so fishing on the Athabasca was quite difficult. It must have been true as we weren’t doing very well.

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One of the better camps

As I watched twelve pelicans land nearby, looking just like float planes, the noise we had heard earlier struck up again. I had been hearing the same noise for a number of days and it was only now that I realised that this wasn’t any man made noise but it was that of either an animal or bird. I’m surmising that it could have been something like a deer hitting the ground with its feet, or a woodpecker pecking at a tree, but I really didn’t have any idea.

Tony got a campfire started in a fire ring near the cabin and he used logs from a big pile of sawed up timber that was neatly stacked near the cabin. An axe was even left there to chop it. Someone had been busy. I cooked another special freeze dried meal and had some of Tony’s damper, with jam which tasted real good. I must say Tony was good at making damper and he persevered just about every day at making it.

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Tony camps in a log cabin

Day 11 – Monday 16th June.

 About 6.50am I heard Tony chopping wood and after having a good night’s sleep I soon stirred. I packed up a few things and went up to the fire to have breakfast with him. The water boiled slower on the fire than on our stoves, so breakfast took longer than usual. As the sun started bleeding through the trees, it was a perfect place and a perfect morning. However, Tony said he hadn’t slept that well as the mosquitoes were bad in the cabin in the night. As a result, he ended up being tired all day.

I dismantled my tent from the first bit of real sand that I had camped on during the trip. The damp left sand particles on the tent floor but they were soon brushed off and we were off by 9.05am. 

The river meandered and we saw several deer before stopping at a trapper’s cabin for our morning break. No one had been there for ages. The grass was high and mosquitoes thick, and we were ravaged again. Rows of firewood were stacked neatly around the cabin and some of the trees close to the cabin had been wrapped with metal sheeting at the base to stop the beavers from gnawing at them. This cabin was more like a basic house with a colour-bond roof and a neat finish.

We checked the piece of paper that Greg had given us with a few landmarks and cabins marked on it, so by lunch time we stopped at a creek where our notes said Garry’s cabin was supposed to be. Greg told us to call in to see him. There was a track but no cabin. Nevertheless it was a beautiful spot to have lunch next to a small clear-water stream that cascaded over boulders and out of the hilly forest. We sat eating our lunch next to the canoe, which was tied to a log and left in the stream to save us having to drag it up the boulders. To our delight a deer stepped out of the forest and crossed the stream unaware that we were there. It was a perfect sunny day and magnificent lunch spot, but within minutes, dark heavy clouds came over and the rain had us scurrying down the river dressed in our rain jackets.

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The beauty of stopping is checking out the area

Only 600 metres further downstream we saw Garry’s cabin on the outside bend. Although we couldn’t see all of it, it appeared better than most cabins and it looked as if someone was at home. We passed it by, soon reaching Parallel Creek, which the name suggests ran parallel to the river on the western side for about 70kms. Less than 5kms further on the left we came across Kal’s place which he had named the Pelican Hilton. There was a small cabin on the opposite side of the river but compared with Kal‘s cabin, it paled in significance.

We pulled in and walked through the long grass up to his huge timber log cabin. Now we knew why he called it the Pelican Hilton. It was one of the biggest cabins we had seen on the river. It was hard to believe that someone would build such a huge cabin, way out here and use it so little. From high above the river we took photographs.

It was a bit untidy on the outside of the cabin with building materials and other stuff lying around on the porch. Inside it was big and amazingly spacious. It seemed to have everything, TV, stove, you name it every modern convenience was there. Although it would have been a grand place to stay, apart from all the mosquitoes, we decided it was too early to camp. Around the back of the cabin there were solar panels for electricity, tractors, old machinery in a small clearing and his old cabin. His little old weather-beaten cabin was no comparison to the new one.

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Kal’s cabin – the Pelican Hilton

The long grass was wet and as we walked through it, the mosquitoes started preparing us for lunch. Needing no further encouragement, we moved back to the canoe quickly. The Pelican settlement was marked on our map on the left side of the river as being about 7kms long. I think this was one place along the river where people could own a portion of land. Most other cabins were on Crown land so people using them could be evicted at any time.

We left, paddling with a fairly fast current and in no time we were passing several deer and the Pelican River mouth where the north end of the Pelican Settlement finished. Two to three kilometres later we approached the Pelican Rapids where there just happened to be some pelicans milling around. The rapid looked easy. It was long, wide and shallow with a number of rocks and boulders, but no big drops. However we had to treat it as a major obstacle as only one boulder not seen could easily capsize us. Much to our delight there were some big waves. We dodged most but others we rode out. In our research the rapids along this section were not hazardous so there was little we had to fear.

About 5kms after Pelican Rapids we paddled through Stony Rapids which were easy. Beyond them we saw deer, a moose and calf and the air was full of flying cottonwood particles (parachute seeds). The banks were now dominated by many high sand cliffs and an abundance of landslides. It was very strange to see so many landslides (probably caused by much higher water in the past) so far back from the river. It just looked as if heavy machinery had been working and had flattened and terraced the landscape, but that wasn’t the case. This was all caused by nature alone.

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Landslides

We drifted by a moose and calf and were able to get very close before they walked into the forest. For some reason we didn’t have an afternoon break, although we drifted a few times to make up for it. I fished, but had no bites. The river meandered and as the day progressed the weather changed from being sunny to a little rain and very cloudy.

We reached the last set of rapids, the Rapides Du Joli Fou, which shouldn’t really be called a rapid. They were just an area of fast flowing water. After the rapid, having paddled 100kms for the day, we camped just before a long straight on a small ridge of sand. It was just big enough for two tents.

It was sunny until 9.00pm. I heard that noise of the engine starting again, and I would have loved to have known what was making the sound. (I was later told it could have been mating male grouse.)

Day 12 – Tuesday 17th June

It was a misty morning and we couldn’t see anything further than 15 metres ahead. It eventually started clearing but when the sun did begin to peep through, within minutes it would cloud over again. We managed to get up earlier and leave camp by 8.20am. It was going to an interesting day as we were approaching the notorious Grade 5 Grand Rapids.

A moose and her large calf didn’t move as we passed within metres of them and soon after there were two pair of deer and they too just stood there and looked at us. We were puzzled because usually they run away. Not far from a small cabin, but on the left and opposite side of the river we noticed three big plastic drums. We felt the need to investigate so we pulled over. Next to the three drums was a heap of barley and some rotten fruit, just dumped. Tony picked up an orange which looked good, but I didn’t fancy eating one. We were mystified as to the meaning of the dumped ingredients, but some time later we were told it would have been bear bait. Apparently the hunters mix barley and a few ingredients together and because bears have an extraordinary sense of smell, they can smell it for kilometres. The hunter then sits up a tree close to the mixture waiting for a bear to arrive. Bang and the bear is dead………. somehow to me, that isn’t very sporting!

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Bear bait

We arrived at House River where we were told that a guy called Darcy, who ran a Wilderness Outdoor operation, had a cabin. We passed below a beautiful cliff face, by some geese and paddled upriver and around the next bend. It was hard to see anything with the high banks towering, but at least we spotted some rusty metal walls on the north bank. We moved back around the bend where the banks were lower and where we were able to get out. There were no tracks so we walked through some very long grass for about 200 metres and found an abandoned cabin. It certainly wasn’t what we had been looking for.

Puzzled as to where Darcy’s cabin was, we moved on and stopped at another spot which turned out to be another false lead. When we had given up all hope of finding the cabin we paddled on downstream and then came across another track. This time, after following the track for about 250 metres up a ridge we found Darcy’s Hunting Lodge. There was no one there, only a few buildings and the major cabin which had five large antlers and five smaller antlers attached to the front of the cabin. Also pinned to the front was a sign with “Registered Trapline 1346” and another sign with “Mine & Darlene Zelman.” Again the grass hadn’t been cut for some time and the fenced vegetable patch was well overgrown. Nothing seemed to have happened here for a long time. We had a look around and then left. We were a little disappointed as it would have been great to have talked to someone who knew the area and the Grand Rapid. But it wasn’t to be, so we had to find out what the rapid was going to be like for ourselves!

It was said that we would hear the roar of the Grand Rapids from about 7kms upstream, but we were a little closer than that when we first heard the roar. It grew louder as we drew closer. Although I had read a couple of more recent accounts about the Grand Rapid, I got most of my information from reading manuscripts and looking at old photographs of early expeditions. To see photos of timber longboats going down the rapids was quite amazing and many didn’t make it. In the early days expeditions not only went downriver they also had to return so when negotiating the rapids by going upstream the boats were pulled up the rapids by man-power alone. Imagine how hard that would be. When I thought about us actually being here and retracing history in our own way, I felt very privileged.

In my research prior to the trip, I was never able to find any recent photos of canoeists tackling the rapids here on Athabasca River or find any of the Grand Rapid apart from a few historic ones, so we were about to run the rapid blind. Even Google Earth only had blurred images, so they weren’t of any great assistance to us at all.

From a kilometre away the river looked like a huge funnel as it narrowed to nothing and dropped away out of sight in the far distance. It felt as though the edge of the world was near! We were entering another phase of our journey, the most dangerous one and like many of the early explorers we also faced the possibility of dying. The challenge of paddling into the unknown, hundreds of kilometres from help with our lives on the line was certainly more spine-tingling, gripping, and exhilarating than if the way ahead was safe, but strangely I wasn’t nervous. I relished feeling like an early explorer.

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The left bank of the river looked steeper and more vertical than the right and the hills beyond the rapid overlapped. But in the foreground where the rapid started, just left of centre there was an outcrop of logs piled up and stranded. Other logs that were stranded on outcrops were protruding well out from the right shore and upstream of the island and behind these features the river fell alarmingly away and disappeared into a canyon.  

As we got close we could see an island and before it the white water spread across the river. Early explorers used to row their York boats to the upstream end of the island, the part that we could see, unload their gear and passengers and with an empty boat, the best boatmen would tackle the rapid. Many boats didn’t survive and several people died. But that didn’t stop people from coming this way as at that time, it was the only way to get into the northern regions of Canada. The passengers’ gear was then transported to the north end of the island by a tramway that was built on the island. If the boats managed to get down, the passengers and gear were picked up at the downstream end of the island and often this could take days.

After reading historical accounts of the rapid it was hard to believe that we were actually here doing it. We were reliving history, but we too, couldn’t forget about our safety as we were about to paddle into a set of difficult rapids. My notes mentioned a portage track somewhere on the right hand side, but we were in the dark as to exactly where it was. Several hundred metres before the rough stuff we started looking for the track as well as concentrating on the smaller drops and accelerating currents that we were now amongst. At a safe spot after our first rapid we grabbed the opportunity to land. The shore was well vegetated and the hill, where we thought the track may be, looked impenetrable. We walked along the shore and inland towards the hill trying to find the track, but without luck.

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We decided to move a little further downstream, although we certainly didn’t want to miss the track or we would be forced to tackle the huge rapid with a high likelihood of killing ourselves doing so. We side-stepped several waves and rode over a few small drops before riding across a mixture of cross-currents. We eddied out again, pulled ashore and I took the opportunity to search through my notes that I had made during my research for this trip.

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Reading them gave me a much better idea as to where the track was located, making me feel much more confident. We didn’t want to be spending all day trying to find the track. Before jumping back in the canoe we walked along the shoreline over loose shale, rocks, vegetation and at times a steep crumbling slope to find it. At first, things weren’t looking too good as the banks ahead were getting steeper. But just at the point where it was too difficult to go any further, we noticed a small creek and a track a few metres inland leading vertically up the hill. An old sign saying ‘Portage’ confirmed our thoughts that this indeed was ‘The Track’. I don’t know about Tony but I was certainly relieved to see that signpost, because now we could get on. Before scrambling back to the canoe I made a GPS note of where the ‘Portage’ was.

Looking downstream beyond our portage point looked quite frightening. Not just the fact that there were some serious rapids, but it seemingly just kept going and going and we couldn’t see what was around the corner. What we did know however, was that for safety sake we couldn’t paddle any further than the portage point, although the thought of a difficult portage did make us think momentarily about paddling on.

We returned 200 metres or so to the canoe checking out all the drops, eddies and currents. We had to decide if we were going to line the canoe down the rapid or paddle it. If we did paddle, it was crucial that we paddled into an eddy about 20 metres upstream of the portage point. If we missed it we only had one other chance to get to shore and after that, we had no hope of getting out at all! To line means to lower the canoe down the rapids by using a rope instead of paddling.

It was going to be tricky to paddle and we knew from research that the other two expeditions that had been this way, had lined their canoes on this section. After a good inspection we were confident that we had enough skill to paddle it.

It was make or break when we paddled away from shore. The rapids that we were going to tackle before the portage were not big, just grade 2s but that wasn’t to say that we couldn’t make a mistake and end up capsized, broadside to a rock or more importantly, miss our take-out point. We had so much gear in the canoe that if we did capsize we would never be able to swim the canoe to shore before being washed away. The chance of us getting the canoe back if it was swept down this long rapid was remote, more remote than where we were. So we had to paddle perfectly to avoid any mishap, our lives depended on it.

Rocks, some shallow and others well buried created white water. It was my intention to steer the canoe between these sections on the unruffled waters. Shallow rocks could push us off course or even capsize us, so I watched carefully, but with Tony’s body blocking my view it was a little hard to see everything. Logs stranded on rock shelves and rock boulders protruding from the shore forced us to paddle away from the bank and into the faster currents where we skirted some of the drops and paddled over others. The rapids were not really that difficult but it was what could happen if we capsized that made the attempt that much more dangerous. When we reached our get-out eddy we performed a perfect break-in (turn) into the eddy which I was very proud of.

We had taken it easy and at no time were we under any threat of losing control of the canoe. We cut into the eddy ensuring the bow was pointing upstream which gave us more control. The elation and relief of being safe was very satisfying. All we had to do now was to line the canoe around a rock shelf that jutted out from the shoreline into the river for about 6 metres. With throw lines attached to both bow and stern we held onto the ropes and lowered the canoe down slowly and carefully. When the canoe was safely guided around the rock shelf we used the stern and bow lines to pull it across the eddy and back to shore.

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Lining the canoe around a rock shelf a few metres before the portage point

We had done it! We had managed to get the canoe pulled up onto the rocks only metres from our portage route. I felt like celebrating with a high five, but unfortunately as Tony and I weren’t gelling it put a dampener on it.

A few metres from where the overgrown portage trail started there was a white square sign with the words, ‘Grand Rapid Portage Start’ and a red triangle with an ‘X’ inside. We loaded packs on our backs and bags over our shoulders and water containers and bladders in our hands. We were really laden down and as we started our steep climb we didn’t have any idea how long it would take or what terrain we were up against. Within seconds the slippery trail had us out of breath. It headed near vertically at times levelling off to a steep incline. For 25 metres or so the track was on the edge of a steep embankment, and had we slipped, we could have fallen to our death into the cascading creek.

Once the trail started to move away from the creek I felt a lot safer though it was still slippery and steep. Breathing heavily as we neared the top of the hill we came to a clear area, a small meadow. It would have been interesting to know if the meadow had been cleared by man or if it was a natural clearing but at the time it didn’t matter. It was a relief to drop our heavy bags and sit down for a few moments to rest and catch our breath. We didn’t get to sit too long though as the mosquitoes were soon having a feast of our bodies.

We immediately returned for another load, covering a distance of 100 metres or so, and went through the same routine. Up the almost vertical hill, slipping and sliding, and drawing deep heavy breaths with the sheer exertion. We rested for a few minutes at the meadow and instead of returning for the canoe we decided to carry on and portage the next section. Although this section was not as steep, it was still incredibly tough and demanding. It appeared that the trail hadn’t been used yet this year as trees were strewn across the trail. We either had to break our way through the branches, climb over them or make a new route around. The heavy loads on our back and in our hands made it all the more strenuous to fight our way over, under and around and the mosquitoes didn’t make it any easier. There were several creeks that stood in our way and had to be crossed. A couple of them were particularly muddy, deep and steep which made it difficult to get out. The thick gooey mud sucked at our feet and legs making it near impossible to move, but it was the steep gully sides that created a near impenetrable barrier to get up and over. We struggled, but we just kept trudging on. If we didn’t the mosquitoes would make a meal of us. Tony was slipping, sliding and falling on his bum, his newly acquired sandshoes providing little, if any assistance as they didn’t have much grip in the mud.

The forest was quiet, but at times when there was a slight clearing down to the valley we could hear the whistle of a kite and the roar of rapids. As much as our trek was so very hard and very physically demanding, I couldn’t but help revel in the feeling of being in the midst of the Canadian Wilderness.

When we eventually reached the end of the portage we were muddy, we were sweaty and we were literally covered with mosquito bites. Despite this, there was a sense of elation at what we had achieved, even with the knowledge that we had to repeat the process again and again. We spotted a wrecked canoe lying in the bushes, a sober reminder that we had made the right decision to portage.

Here, at the bottom of the portage, we scrambled over to the rocks in the river, trying to get a better view of the rapids in the right channel, this being the channel we would have come down if we hadn’t stopped. Although it was a mass of bubbling white water it didn’t look as bad as the books and information described. We felt a slight temptation to paddle down it with our empty canoe but at the back of our minds was the wrecked canoe laying in the bushes just metres away. We knew that if anything should happen and the canoe was lost or severely damaged our trip would be over. The rapid was graded as a 5, which is the most dangerous and difficult of all rapids and although we couldn’t see around the bend, what we could see, certainly didn’t look like a 5. However, saying that, a rapid always looks smaller from a distance than it really is and looking closer at the nearer holes, they did look bigger than they first appeared!! Yes I think it was too risky to run it in a canoe, but for a white water kayak in the right hands it looked possible. 

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The rapid didn’t look as rough as we expected but it never does until you are paddling down them

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We started our walk back. It had taken us 40 minutes to get from the meadow at the top of the hill to the water’s edge at the end of the rapid, but it took only 30 minutes to walk back without any gear. Walking back free of gear felt wonderful. We noticed another canoe that appeared intact near one of the muddy washed-out creeks. I wondered if the owners had got fed up with pulling it and just left it there as it was a difficult section to traverse. But if they did, how would they have gotten out of the area without a canoe. It was a mystery!

Returning for our second load was no easier. It was still arduous and very tough and there was no denying that our load was awkward and really heavy to carry. I felt that my arms had been stretched, almost as though they had been put in a torture rack and lengthened.

Eventually we returned for our last load, the canoe. This wasn’t going to be fun or any easier than carrying the gear as we had to get the heavy canoe up the steep, slippery slopes to the meadow whilst still carrying some gear on our backs. The first steep part, with the sheer drop into the creek just metres away was gruelling. The canoe was heavy and the mud seemed to suck it down making it difficult to move and at the steeper parts it wanted to slide back down the slope. We slipped underfoot and grunted with sheer strain while the threat of being pulled back over the vertical edge if we lost control was very real. Tony took one end of the rope that was attached to the canoe and walked about ten metres away whilst I pulled from the bow of the canoe. Together we pulled and inched the canoe slowly and laboriously and painfully up the hill. When we could see the top we sighed with relief, though that last part up onto the meadow was still tortuous and difficult with a tight turn and one last steep section to negotiate.

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We started the final journey from the meadow to the portage end with wobbly legs. Tony pulled on a long line and I now pushed from behind the canoe. With all the ups and downs, sharp corners, muddy creeks, felled trees and narrow path the canoe proved to be a handful which stretched and strained our bodies to the limit. Crossing the muddy gullies, especially the two big ones we were straining painfully as they were so difficult. We still had some gear inside, so lugging 45 plus kilos with a heavy load on our backs was tough to say the least. We’re no spring chickens, I’m 57 and Tony 52 but we just kept plugging on till we got the job done. I was both amazed and impressed with Tony’s commitment and stamina. I suppose because I didn’t think that he was really enjoying the journey as much as me, he may have been tempted to go slow and have less enthusiasm. But he didn’t, he kept working right up to the end and there was no doubt we were both shattered.

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Throughout the portages the mosquitoes were relentless with their proboscises continually piercing whatever part of our bodies they could, and even when we were near the water’s edge and away from the long grasses, they never let up.

Once settled in at our campsite I went for a walk downstream to check out Little Grand Rapid, so as to be forewarned of what to expect the following morning. I could still hear the kite whistling away but it was the amazing rounded rocks that showed me that nature has no bounds. These rocks were shaped like giant eggs and some were broken in half, almost like a saw had cut them across the middle. I’m sure a geologist would have a field day here. It was truly remarkable to see such incredible rocks.

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Interesting boulders littered the shores

 

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From the riverbank, Little Grand Rapid didn’t appear to be a life-threatening rapid and it looked as if we could paddle it without portaging. I returned to camp pretty happy and then walked upstream to have another good look at the grade 5 rapid section that made us portage. We would have come down the left channel, looking upstream but the main drop which was on the right side of the island was several hundred metres away and a few hundred metres wide. From a distance it didn’t look so bad. Looking through my binoculars though was a very different scene, especially when I took into account that I was so far away from the big drop. In fact I think it was quite huge and there was a mass of difficult rapids below it. The right bank looking upstream was just a vertical cliff so getting out and portaging would have been impossible. There were also huge rock bars, one close to the island and another in the centre of the channel that obstructed the water and diverted it in different directions. So on second thoughts it would have been suicidal for us to paddle it in a canoe. One day though, if they haven’t already, someone will do it in a canoe.

I looked at the north end of the island which was closest to me and visualised the long boats from the past coming down the rapid and stopping before the two channels came together. There was a flatter eddy area to the right (west) of the island which was probably caused by the rock bar upstream and this I imagine was most likely the place where the boats stopped and loaded gear and passengers. 

Back in camp I had a good wash which felt just brilliant after such a hot, sweaty and dirty day. Once clean and sparkled up, I made dinner. The portage took five and a half gruelling hours. I was in bed by 11.30pm and asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Day 13  – Wednesday 18th June

I woke to the sounds of the thundering Grand Rapid and a beautiful sunny morning. When I crawled out of my tent I saw the sun shining on the far side of the river. Tony, who had risen early, said the rapid looked pretty special earlier as it had been completely covered in mist.

Huge round rocks were protruding the vertical cliffs on the other side of the river. One day, with a little more erosion, they would simply fall. Disappointingly just when I wanted to take photographs the cloud covered the sun taking the colour and sparkle from this dramatic scene.

We packed up our gear with some reluctance as this was an incredible place to be, a place that has changed little if at all, since white man first saw it. At 9.20am we finally pushed our canoe off the rocks and into the wavy water. The waves created a few problems as they constantly slapped into the canoe, pushing it back towards and against the rocks that we were trying to launch from.

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Ready to leave Grand Rapid

Having scouted the rapids the previous night, I felt both confident and excited about paddling the ‘Little Grand Rapid’, first we kept to the right and then moved over to the left dodging all the bigger waves. We were still being bounced around so when we saw an easier route we then crossed back to the right side again and seemingly in no time, we were clear of the ‘Little Grand Rapids’.

We paddled over a few swift but choppy sections before the valley fell into silence. No longer could we hear the roaring thunder of the rapids, not even the sounds of running water. All was completely quiet and we began to see grazing deer again. Along with the silence came the beautiful hills and sand cliffs, particularly in the region of Brule Corner. We knew little about Brule Rapid only that it was a grade 3 – 4. Although I should have been feeling tense about what lay ahead, I felt a sense of composure and calmness as I basked in the clear fresh air and the wonders of the magnificent wilderness around us.

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Peace after the Grand Rapids

About a kilometre from the Brule Rapid we began to get ready to tackle it. I took my camera and GPS off the deck and we both donned our helmets and jackets. We swapped our paddles from our bent shaft to our straight shaft paddles. The straight shafted paddle would give us more control in big water. Within minutes, and without us having to paddle, the current had soon swept us into the beginning of the rapid. It didn’t look too bad as far as we could see, so we started paddling. Then the waves began to get bigger and by the time we had sliced through some really good standing waves, I thought it time to head to the left shore to check out the rapid from the bank. When we stopped Tony held onto the canoe whilst I scrambled along the rocky shore for a closer look. The rapid was classed as a grade 4 but the route that we were about to take close to the shore would only have been a high 2 or a grade 3. It was much, much bigger in the centre of the rapid but we fully intended keeping away from there.

I could see several big standing waves, a few boulders that we certainly needed to avoid and a few drops that would swallow us up if we didn’t miss them but on the whole, the rapid didn’t look too much of a problem.  

We started our paddle down the left, made some tight turns to avoid boulders and blasted through some big waves that were far more exciting and certainly much bigger than they looked from the shore. When we were safely at the end we were well pleased with ourselves, and quite relieved in a way as the grading of the rapid was perhaps a bit higher than was warranted.

We had lunch just downstream of the rapid at 1.30pm. I set off the ‘Spot Locator’ so as to give our latest position to our crew back home just in case we came unstuck at the next rapid. At least they would know where to look if we didn’t contact them for a few days!

It was about 28kms to the next rapid and although the current didn’t feel very fast, we were drifting at 10kph. The scenery was good with steep hills covered with deep green spruce trees and intermingled with patches of vertical rock and dirt cliffs. However, we didn’t see any wildlife until a lot later when we saw deer walking up a steep embankment.

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Sections of cliffs

About 500 metres before we approached ‘Boiler Rapid’ there were a few waves starting to rear up. I steered to the left and tried to reduce the difficulty by dodging many of the waves but we still had a pile to go through. They weren’t that difficult, but we still kept a sharp eye for hidden rocks. When the rapid began to look a little more frightening we decided to land on the left to take a look ahead. There was a low, wide swampy section downstream, which was muddy from the dropping water levels. Once out of the canoe we were instantly under siege from the mosquitoes, and then there was the mud with bear tracks. During an expedition the year before, kayakers had talked about seeing several bear and of having close encounters with them at nearly every rapid. The bear tracks were a warning to keep a sharp look out, but the mud was far more unsettling. We slid, slipped and sank in the mud as clouds of mosquitoes followed. Thankfully it was only mosquitoes and not bears that chased us!

After checking the rapid from the side of the river it didn’t look too difficult if we tackled it in sections. However, there were plenty of rocks and several big boulders that we would have to move around to safely negotiate the rapid. We stumbled 200 metres back to our canoe, muddied from our walk. Again the rapid looked much easier than the notes we had read indicated, so our confidence was high. After pulling away from the shore we paddled down the left side of the river dodging several rocks and a number of big standing waves until we were safely in the flat water.

It was only a couple of kilometres to the ‘Middle Rapid’. We took it on the left and stopped half way down. I jumped out and walked downstream until I could see enough of the rapid to feel that we would be okay. It was dotted with boulders, waves and holes but with good steering and teamwork it appeared, from the bank at least, that we could negotiate around them all. The current soon whipped us away and it wasn’t long before we had to dodge boulders that if we hadn’t, would have proved fatal. We slowly moved away from the bank to miss some ugly holes and rocks before moving back over to the left to avoid some of the big waves. The water then flattened for a short distance before we approached one last set of large standing waves. We sidestepped the deepest holes and powered through some towering waves, which in actual fact, were much bigger than they looked when first approaching them. On that last section Tony was lucky as he was nearly washed away by the force of the waves, but we had triumphed through rapid number three and what a feeling it was!

Our day was not over, as 4.5kms downstream was ‘Long Rapid’. My information told me to go left at most rapids, but my Google photo of Long Rapid showed a better route on the right. Although the picture was taken from a great height I could still see the biggest white water. I decided to follow my instincts and take it on the right, but before the main rapid I got out for a reconnaissance run. A steep earth embankment followed the left shore and between us and the bank, the river ran for several hundred metres with a continuous stretch of grade two/three white water. Apart from several big boulders, the waves and the standing waves looked very manageable from the bank. When we paddled it, it proved easy to dodge the boulders and the standing waves, which actually were just plain good old fun.

With four of the big rapids behind us it was time to relax and forget about the two big grade 4 rapids that we had yet to tackle as it was that time of day to find a campsite.

The river banks had steep sides giving us no camping options so we kept going and eventually found a good place on the left after the next bend. We camped on sand, with just enough room for two tents. The campsite was surrounded by grasses and logs, but at least we had rocks, instead of mud on the river bank. The mosquitoes were bad, but so were the hundreds of large black flies that settled on everything.

 We had paddled nearly 100kms today and we were both pleased with our performance in the rapids.

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Not the best campsite but the best we could find

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Day 14 – Thursday 19th June

Though it was a sunny morning, the sun hadn’t yet reached our campsite, so when we moved around camp we were still in the shade. I went for a number two and millions of mosquitoes followed me. When I took my pants down they went berserk. I couldn’t pull my pants back up as I had already begun the morning task so I tried to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. I flapped and slapped at my backside but the mozzies were unrelenting. I ended up with four bites on my penis and way too many for me to count on my bum. I tried not to scratch them!

We left around 9.00am and paddled a few kilometres to ‘Crooked Rapid’ where the river did a big ‘U’ turn to the right. My Google Earth pictures of the rapid were very poor so it was impossible to have any idea where to go. We kept to the left side and the outside of the bend where the rapid appeared to be calmer. Over to the centre and far right the rapid raged as water cascaded over high long ledges. With the water being fairly high we were skirting most of the white water. Ahead, we could see two bears on shore, which was pretty exciting, but as we got closer they appeared bigger than bears and in fact, they turned out to be two young hefty moose! We looked at them and they looked straight back at us. I felt like drifting and really watching them for a while, but as we were floating between the white water sections, and we were bound on the right by big rapids with another rapid coming up, we couldn’t be too complacent. As we left the moose to continue to graze our focus turned to the rapid ahead, which was rough on the right, rough on the left, but slightly calmer down the centre.

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Moose stare at us as we pass by

I steered towards the centre of the river where the canoe started to accelerate and slice through some big waves. Water broke over the bow giving Tony a drenching but I soon skirted over to the right and into calmer waters. It was quite pleasing to have negotiated another big rapid. We knew that Rock Rapid was 500 or so metres away, and although we didn’t have any idea how to negotiate it, our confidence was still high.

All the big waves were on the left hand side of the river, so we kept to the right side which was still the safer. As we approached ‘Rock Rapid’ it didn’t look so bad downstream, but as we got closer I could see a bundle of big waves peaking and exploding like an erupting volcano a few hundred metres ahead. Knowing that we were heading for trouble we had no option to divert and as it now looked completely calm on the left hand side we headed over, foregoing the chance of getting out and checking our route.

It seemed safe enough to take the rapid on the left so as we moved across the river on an particularly swift current, our heavy canoe was being whisked away as if it was a cork. By the time we reached the centre, I suddenly noticed a flat line of water that spanned the whole width of the river and beyond it the river dropped and disappeared over the wide ledge. At the bottom of the fall there was a huge high wave waiting. We couldn’t escape to the safety of the left side as it was too far, the water too fast and the bank was actually lined by a vertical cliff and worst of all, we had come too far to go back to the right shore! The only way forward was straight towards the ledge. I looked beyond the ledge and thought shit – bloody hell…..this is a big one, we could be in trouble here.

Over the roar of the rapid I shouted to Tony to straighten up and just go for it. There was nothing else we could do. Our chances of getting through it seemed slim as it was one hell of a drop with a massive wave that followed. Although we could have been looking at death in the eye or at least be subject to a horrific capsize, I didn’t feel any panic or any real fear.

Tony put in two good strong bow draws strokes which brought the bow around, so within seconds we managed to get the canoe straight. We were soon at the top of the ledge with the massive wave dancing wildly before our eyes and I could only think of paddling strongly. We slid at great speed, down what seemed to be a giant water slide. The wave at the bottom was colossal. I shouted to Tony to paddle hard as we had to hit it with speed – oh shit……

As we headed down the ramp and towards the monster wave I expected to be sucked in and spat out. I still felt no fear and I don’t know why. Maybe things were happening too fast to sense fear or I just knew there was no turning around, and we had no choice but to deal with the situation. At the bottom of the slide we looked up to see the wall of water towering above us and it really didn’t seem possible to get through it without capsizing. The size of the wave was bigger than anything that I had ever been through before.

What goes down must come up and by hell we did come up. The heavy canoe charged through the wave and Tony got a walloping. For a fraction of a second he was gone, then the wall of water crashed on me holding me captive for a few seconds under the bubbling aerated mass of water. It took us a while to adjust our vision and see what was ahead as a waterfall of water was cascading down our faces. I was expecting another big wave but the next one was much smaller and we speared through it without problem. It was an amazing experience! We thought we were going to be gobbled up by the huge roller coaster and somehow we came out of it intact and still upright.

With a ton of water now held on the top of our canoe causing a little instability and Tony praying to any gods that would listen, the waves started to ease. It was hard to believe that we had gone through such a massive wave! But the rejoicing had to wait as the canoe was filling with water as it puddled on the full-length of the spray deck, drained into our laps and seeped through our leaky skirts. Although at the time of breaking through the waves the canoe didn’t feel remotely unstable as it started to fill with water it soon became much heavier, tippier and a lot harder to control.

As the river started to turn to the left we could see water falling off a small cliff. We desperately needed to bail out so landing on a rocky shore next to the waterfall and low cliffs was a bonus. As we pulled into the eddy we were pumped with excitement but most of all, we were relieved to have passed through the last rapid without swimming. Capsizing could have been a disaster. The weight of the canoe upside down would have been one hell of a hard job to drag to shore and with the water being so cold we might have frozen to death before we got there.

I had read the account of a pair that paddled the rapid in 1977. They had capsized on Crooked Rapid and ended up swimming down Rock Rapid and further for over twenty minutes. Separated and near frozen to death they managed to get ashore at different places. Luckily the next day a research team in a jet boat just happen to be doing a survey and found one of them and later both were rescued. If it hadn’t have been for the research team being there on that particular day they could have died.

Anyway we were safe, we had learnt a lesson and experienced a bit of adventure. Before the trip I would never have believed we could have taken a fully loaded canoe down such big rapids and felt so stable. Having so much weight in the canoe though, caused it to handle a lot more sluggishly than when there is little weight inside, but it was extremely stable.

We took photos of the waterfall, emptied heaps of water out of the canoe and talked little about our experience, although there was no dancing a jig in celebration as there was still a little tension in the air. Once back in the canoe, we continued on, passing an island before reaching the ‘Little Cascade Rapids’ which we were able to skirt on the left.

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Water cascades from the small cliff

As we approached the next grade 4 rapid the ‘Cascade’, I could see that it was clear on the left but raging over on the right. I said to Tony that we could keep going and then eddy out before the next set of big waves, which from a distance didn’t look too bad. As we approached a place where we dared to go no further we turned the canoe and tried to eddy out. Unfortunately there was no eddy, the current was fast and the shore was smooth rock so it was near impossible to stop. As we tried to grab the rock shore without any luck the canoe started slipping backwards so we had no choice but to attempt a quick turn and head downstream and paddle the rapid blind.

To our right the river was full of white water, as the water dropped over ledges and created holes and waves downstream of the ledges. We hurried our turn, straightened up and readied for the worst. What we had seen over to our right was quite frightening but we were quite lucky, as, apart from a few boulders being in our path, we were only challenged by some big standing waves which we managed to sail through without problems. We noticed an eddy behind a long log that was caught up near the last part of the rapid, so we paddled into it.

We landed and then walked along the shore and had a good look at the rapid further over and realised we were lucky to have taken an easier route through Cascade, which was classed as one of the biggest rapids on the river. We watched on as the water cascaded over the big ledges and drops that spread over three quarters of the river.

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Cascade Rapid

We had a break and took photos before scraping over a shallow ledge at the last part of the rapid. We were free and apart from some small rapids there was only one big rapid left, Mountain Rapid. In the last two days we had been negotiating the most dangerous section of our trip, so the challenge was to get through it all without swimming! Only Mountain Rapid now stood in our way.

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Having a break at Cascade Rapid

Just before Mountain Rapid we were able to eddy out on the right. This time, the picture I had of the rapid from Google Earth was clear, so I could see that the rapid was impressive and it looked better to do it on the right, rather than the left.

Tony stayed with the canoe while I walked along the edge of the river to check the rapid. It was quite big, but there were narrow gaps without ledges that we could sneak through. Right here, left there, miss the big hole, back to the right. I was pretty confident that we could follow the route as long as I remembered it. From the information that I had gathered this was supposed to be the most feared rapid on the river, but to me it didn’t look too bad especially when I broke it down into sections. I expect the river must vary in difficulty at different river heights so we were probably lucky the river was as high as it was. Despite the last expedition seeing lots of bears at the rapids, some unfriendly, I didn’t see any as I walked the shores.

Back at the canoe I explained to Tony our plan. We took off following the route I set in my head. We steered right of the first ledge, then moved into the centre of the river to follow the ‘V’ chute which led us to a mass of standing waves, but at least we avoided big drops on the right. Once through the waves we paddled back over towards the right to clear several other waves and drops that looked much too big to mess with. The longer we paddled the more relaxed we became, but we still had to concentrate as we weaved our way down the last major rapid. The current pushed us along at great speed and all of a sudden we found ourselves beyond the major drops and heading into calmer water. Skirting the last set of rapids I looked over to our left and beyond the hills and realised that we were no longer in danger. It was exciting to be safe, but also a little depressing that we had finished all the rapids. I felt like celebrating but we had little to celebrate with, so we just moved on. 

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Mountain Rapid

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Within minutes we were out of the valley of rapids and to our credit we had paddled them without too much drama. In fact, I felt a little disappointed, not only because we were leaving them but because all the rapids had been much easier than what we had expected. It may have been because we were more experienced than some of the paddlers before us or the water was at a good level making the rapids easier. We were also very fortunate to have been one of the very few people to have travelled on this part of the river as the big rapids and the wilderness were a big deterrent to most paddlers. With the rapids all behind us there was nothing that could stop us now from getting to Hay River – Oh what a feeling!

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After passing through the gap the big rapids were behind us for now

Five hundred metres downstream, I looked back to see two steep-sided cliffs form a gateway and as we drifted downstream a little further the hills overlapped and the gates suddenly closed. It was like stepping out of one world and into another.

As we paddled through an area of rapid ripples, the hills fell back and the area before us opened up and we began another chapter. Power lines straddled the hillsides. Black tar sands were embedded into the steep shoreline, a sign of getting closer (12 kilometres) to Fort McMurray the oil sand capital of the world.

We saw a sign of life as small figures were walking on a golf course way over to the left. Further, a family was walking on a beach closer to town near an easy, but swift rapid. We paddled hard across the current and landed at their feet to talk for a few minutes and find out how to reach the town.

Moving on, we paddled under a bridge which was heavily crowded with vehicles. Fort McMurray was virtually at the end of the road and to see so much traffic was very surprising. The shoreline beyond the bridge had a spectacular low cliff line which we followed before turning up a channel that led to the Clearwater River, a nationally listed wilderness river. The Clearwater wasn’t clear at all, the current was against us and as we paddled close to the marshy mosquito-infested shore to get away from the current, it was shallow and slow going.

We eventually came to another channel on our right, which turned out to be a landing strip for float planes. A beach on the corner of the two waterways was full of cars, sightseers and fisherman. We were told by the couple we had met earlier that it wasn’t safe to camp in the area as there were too many drug addicts around. With Fort McMurray being a mining town full of well paid workers, drugs were said to be rife.

We pulled up next to a cyclist sitting on shore as we thought he would be a respectable local and be able to share some information, but he was surrounded by empty beer cans and slurring his words. We moved on and landed a little further and then I walked over to the office of a float plane company and asked if there was any way we could either camp or leave our gear in their compound. A young lad seemed happy to oblige and was helpful, but his father wasn’t quite sure. He didn’t want us to camp, although he eventually agreed to let us leave our gear in his shed and the canoe in the compound.

A motel was now beckoning in town, but first we had to get our gear together and leave what we didn’t need in the shed. With everything secured we walked into town loaded down with washing and found the Ace Motel. It cost us $165.00 a night which, after being used to paying nothing for campsites, was a lot of money. Nevertheless it was well worth it.

It was great to have a shower, do our washing, make phone calls and be able to go out for a meal. We had been told that the Montana Steak House, a short walk away served good food. I ordered salad, Yorkshire pudding and beef, two Canadian beers and a small sweet taster. It was pretty good. The waitress who was from out of town was very pleasant. She was there like most people, to make money. We tipped her. It was customary to tip, but it was so annoying to have to tip everyone in the service industry.

Tim Horton’s coffee seemed to be a Canadian institution, so we had to try one whilst we had the opportunity. There would be no chance further north of here, but after drinking it we didn’t think the coffee to be anything special. We sat by the window and watched people of all nationalities, who were employed in the oil sands industry, come and go. A very long queue of mainly huge four wheel drive vehicles filed through the drive-through. It would have been quicker to park and buy it inside but that was life now. We were astonished to see such a big queue. Why do people wait forever at a drive-through? The supermarkets and shops were still open, so before retiring to the motel, Tony and I went our own ways to check them out.

Day 15 – Friday 20th June

Tony was snoring in the night, but after 4.00am when his snoring got worse, I had even less sleep. That was a good thing about sleeping in our own tents, we could keep well away from each other’s snoring. We enjoyed a continental breakfast of toast, cereal, muffin, coffee and fruit juice which was included in our bill.  

I called my wife, Jenny and walked to the post office to collect some river maps and at the same time I sent some used maps and film back home. With all the mosquitoes making our life difficult and unbearable we needed to buy more insect repellent, so I checked all the shops. I couldn’t find any anywhere even after checking out two service stations as well. I walked back to another store that opened at 10.00am and met Tony trying to find the same thing. We eventually found some, which I was quite relieved about. The spray didn’t work that well but being without it would make living in the swamps unbearable. 

We returned to the hotel, had a shower, packed quickly and we were out of our room by 11.00am which was checkout time. Minutes later we walked back to our boat with a heavy load. It had only been one night but we saw and learnt so much about Fort McMurray. It was a town that I couldn’t imagine I would pick to live in but nevertheless it was very interesting to visit.

Back at the canoe we reapplied the bitumen tape on the hole in our bow as it had nearly worn through with all the dragging over the rocks that we had done. As we filled our water containers behind the float plane office we were virtually eaten alive by mosquitoes. It was such a pleasure to return to packing our gear into the canoe and be away from them. A float plane taxied down the channel, turned and attempted to take off. It revved up, sped across the water and then stopped. It revved again but took another two times before it managed to take to the air. I imagine the plane was taking some tourists or fisherman out to one of the remote wilderness lakes.

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Float plane air strip at Fort McMurray

Before leaving I gave the young lad Ethan $20.00 for all his help. I said to him, “Can I give you $20.00 for all the help we received?“ Without hesitation he replied with a yes. Ethan’s father was a pilot and he was a lot friendlier today than when we first met him, showing us maps of the area where he flew. He said that float planes were more expensive to hire than conventional planes and because there were more airstrips being built in remote areas they were losing customers to conventional planes. Business was now much harder to come by and he didn’t know how long the business could keep going.

We eventually left some time after 2.00pm, paddled out of the creek and back down the Clearwater River. Locals were still fishing or throwing sticks for dogs on the beach at the river junction. The Clearwater which is heritage listed and supposed to be beautiful upstream was slow going, so we were pleased to get back on the Athabasca River which had more current. It’s amazing how spoiled you become when the current helps you along, even if it is only a couple of kilometres an hour.

The steep right hand shoreline was embedded with tar sands in places and in other spots water was cascading down the rocks. The current was going well at first, but slowed as the country got flatter. The wind had also picked up. The wind became a real pain and we were reduced to 7-8kms an hour. A dingy motoring upstream with two guys aboard stopped and told us they were testing the water flow and quality along the Athabasca River downstream of the oil sand mines. The Oil Sand Mines posed a big threat to the river so they were looking for oil concentration in it. A huge oil spill happened some years earlier which threatened communities downstream.

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Tar sand embedded in the steep shoreline

We met a slightly bigger boat and the driver also stopped. The man told us he was a Cree Indian from Fort Chipewyan and he was in the tourism business arranging dog sled and boat tours. He was currently working for the government ferrying research staff downriver. He was very talkative and told us that the Cree Indians had lots of money because they invested wisely. In the early days the Cree Indians worked with the white man and led them into other Indian Territories. He said that the Cree, the Chipewyan and Nanhany tribes didn’t mix too well so they have their own fishing spots and settlements within the same communities.

Before he left we asked him about camping spots along the way and he said it may be another 10 – 15kms before we could stop because of the mines. Only minutes after leaving him we came across a decent camp spot on a corner of an island. It was still a bit muddy but beggars couldn’t be choosers on this river and as we were only a short distance from the mining leases and industrial area we thought it was better to stop before them instead of paddling on for another hour or two.

We settled in. We could see a tailings heap and some heavy machinery motoring along some dirt tracks spreading clouds of dust. Other noises filtered towards us but our view was blocked by the vegetated shoreline. Sadly much of the landscape in this area was ravaged by open pit Sand Tar mining, although it wasn‘t so obvious from the river. I sat in the canoe on land putting kilometre marks on our maps and Tony had a go at fishing without success. A beaver was swimming up and down and every so often it slapped its tail on the water. A four wheel drive vehicle over to our left, on the mainland, kept stopping and starting.

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Camped on an island upstream of the Oil Sand Refinery and then were told to leave

At 10.00pm just as Tony was about to sleep, the truck that had been going up and down all evening stopped, put it’s flashing lights on and then a guy shouted through a loud hailer. “Campers you are on Suncor private property and you have to move on.”

He continued, “I know it’s late and it will be dark soon but you have to move on.” I shouted back, “How far is the next camp site,” but he didn’t respond. He just kept saying we had to move on. He repeated this several times, and only when he saw us packing up to leave, did he get back into his car and drive off.  But not before saying, “Have a good journey”

As you can imagine we weren’t very happy being told that we had to move. Tony was ready for bed but if we were going to pack up, we couldn’t dilly dally as it was nearly dark. What a idiot the guy must have been to insist that we paddled on as we were hurting no one on the island. Nevertheless we were guests in a foreign country so we decided not to resist and quickly took our tents down, packed up and threw all our gear into the canoe and managed to get away in the quickest time ever.

As we moved around the bend the water shallowed so we had to follow the deeper sections. Tony wasn’t that happy to be moving on, but I saw it as another adventure and quite fun. It was after 10.30pm and the sun was setting as a bridge and the industrial site came into view. The scene in front of us I thought was quite spectacular although Tony wasn’t so enthusiastic. The sand tar plant in my fantasizing thoughts looked futuristic, but in reality it was an unsightly disturbing landscape. However the red setting beautiful sun and smoke haze blended together creating a strange but oddly beautiful scene. The plant was huge with chimneys, kilometres of steel pipes, smoke, lights, noise and lots of dust. It was an amazing sight. Not one that I applaud, but with the mixture of pollutants, the bustle of activity and the hectares of structures, it surprisingly held a different kind of beauty.

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For a moment there I forgot the damage and pollution it was causing. The Americans apparently call this type of mining “dirty mining” and the revenue raised “dirty money” as it takes a lot of energy to extract the oil from the sand. And because all trees and vegetation are removed it changes the landscape forever.

Thick smoke funnelled from chimneys, the air was shockingly polluted and I could only imagine how unhealthy it would be to work there. As we passed I tasted the thick dusty air and noticed oil scum on the water. I didn’t want to linger long as my throat was caking with dust, but Tony said he didn’t notice.

Banging sounds from automated scarecrow guns were going off every few minutes. The bangs were to stop ducks from landing on the oil-laden settling ponds. A few years ago several ducks settled on one of Suncor’s settling ponds and got covered in oil. The company was heavily fined.

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We paddle by the refinery around 11.00pm

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As the night grew darker we eventually found a sandbar at 11.10pm a few kilometres downstream and out of sight of the plant. There was just enough light to see to put our tents up, but the mosquitoes were in plague proportion and ravaged us. The river was one side of us and a swamp that was home for ducks and geese was on the other side. Our sand bar was flat however and we were settled snugly in our tents in no time.

Day 16 – Saturday 21st June

We left late at 9.35am mainly because of my slow progress. Tony was waiting for me to finish packing up as usual. It was very hot and still and we drifted under the last bridge we would ever see on the river and where a huge number of trucks were driving over it. Fancy over 3000 kilometres of river ahead and we would see no more bridges. It must be a record for North America at least.

Five kilometres later we arrived at Fort McKay where we noticed several new houses and big Tepees erected in back gardens. When we landed there was no one around, so we walked up a track to our right. An old guy on a quad bike stopped and told us we were headed in the wrong direction. We turned and walked the other way meeting a young kid and his mum also on quad bikes.

At the top of the hill, the building that was supposed to be the shop was closed. As we walked around, a workman building some timber stalls for the up-coming Treaty Day celebration weekend, asked me if he could help. We chatted for a while and he went on to mention that Cree and Dene First Nation people lived there. He said the new houses were paid for by the mining royalties.

With no shop to investigate there was nothing to keep us at Fort McKay. In small villages like this one, when there was nothing to see or do, I often felt that we were invading people’s privacy. We moved off downstream, soon coming to a large gravel area, barge moorings and a wharf on our right. A few caravans, several cars and machinery were scattered over the area. We noticed a guy with a shaved head, wearing sunglasses fishing from the wharf so we pulled up to have a chat. He turned out to be a Scotsman called Doug MacLennan working for one of the mining companies and earning big dollars. He was a supervisor and he told us there were workers from all nationalities working with him.

It was still hot and calm when we reached a picnic area that was shown on our map. As we trampled over the long grass and explored the site, we noticed it was littered with beer cans and rubbish. Not such a nice place to stay so we didn’t hang around. As we paddled further away from people we could see an abandoned plant in the distance. We then realised it was Bitumount, the first ever tar plant to be operating in this area, but it was on the other side of an island that we were passing, so we didn‘t bother trying to get to it.

By day’s end and after trying to fish, but unsuccessfully, we got more evidence of the river dropping when we came across a big sandbar. Although only recently exposed and still very damp in places, we erected our tents on the highest and driest spots. If a big rain was to fall in the night though, our island would be under water. For now it was the best refuge we could find to get away from all the mossies, so the gamble was worth it. It was good to have a lot of freedom and to be able to walk around with bare arms and legs and not be bothered by insects. As the sun went down before midnight, the night sky was incredibly dark, and violent-looking black clouds moved in from the west. It looked spectacular.

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Camping was much better on sand bars than at the forest edge where mosquitoes were a huge problem

Day 17 – Sunday 22nd June

Before leaving our island refuge a small flat-bottomed boat with a cabin that looked like two wooden outside toilets motored heavily and slowly upstream against the current. They didn’t seem to notice us. Some time later that morning we noticed three other boats ahead. Great we thought, they might stop and offer us a beer or a fish. Suddenly they slowed and stopped well ahead of us. We wondered what they were doing as they started motoring towards and around us like they were surrounding us. For a while they looked very suspicious and I had thoughts of our canoe being boarded by pirates, but then they motored by, one guy shouting out that they were from Fort McMurray and had been on a fishing trip. Disappointed that they didn’t at least stop for a chat, never mind giving us a beer, we paddled on.

Our luck was about to change when we saw a cabin ahead on the right with two children playing near the water’s edge. We drifted by and as soon as they said hello, it gave us a reason to pull over. High on shore there were two men and a woman sitting on chairs under a tarp just down from their cabin. When we reached them we saw that they were smoking and curing a moose in their makeshift smokehouse. They had killed the moose the day before and taken most of it to Fort MacKay the previous night for the Treaty Day celebrations. They had saved some for themselves. We made small talk and Tony was very keen to taste moose, but they didn’t offer us any, most likely because it was still raw. We left somewhat disappointed.

The day was hazy, slightly cloudy, calm and oppressive as we moved off and for the next few kilometres I found it hard to keep awake. We had lunch on the biggest sand island that we had seen so far. It was quite exciting to have sandbars and be away from mosquitoes. Three boats shot by. We were hoping that someone would stop and offer us a drink, but sadly, no such luck! We passed a cabin or two and then had our first real relaxed drift, put our feet up and laid back and let the current take us. Previously we had drifted for short periods, but this was the first time that we actually put our feet up and laid back. On my Yukon expedition with Ed Van Eer, drifting and lying back had become a daily ritual that we called our ‘quiet time.’ The rest seemed to energise and refresh me.

Eagles soared above us and the wind picked up as we paddled between some islands. I tried trawling a lure but I still didn’t catch any fish. We checked for a camping spot opposite Kenny Woods but it was too muddy, so we moved on to the next island where we managed to find enough space on some type of bright green samphire grass to camp on. To our delight the mosquitoes weren’t too bad, at least not until later. There were masses of dragon flies though and it was great to see the sky full of miniature helicopters. What a pleasure to have them around. Several landed on me whilst I was cleaning my teeth, I felt quite privileged, they were certainly much better than mosquitoes.

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The shores were not easy to camp on so when something decent came along we grabbed it

Day 18 – Monday 23rd June

It rained during the night. It was also warm and somehow mosquitoes managed to get into my tent. They were so annoying that I got up an hour earlier just to get away from them. However, there were thousands more waiting outside and lots were trapped between the tent fly and inner tent. We were packed up and ready to go by 8.10am. The morning was cloudy, raining and cool as we paddled down a long straight where there were high sloping sand cliffs at the end. Beyond them our map showed the position of the Embarras Airfield, but I expected it to be abandoned.

It was now windy, the water was choppy and it was very unpleasant for paddling. We rounded the next bend and came across another set of sand cliffs. I thought I could see a caravan in the distance but after getting closer it turned out to be twenty or so pelicans. They took off when we got close only to land in the shallows a few hundred metres away. Near the end of the sand cliffs we could see a few buildings and a sign.

We pulled up below the locality of the sign and dragged the canoe up the sand. The sand cliff was steep and as we climbed it our legs forged forward but the shifting sand slid us back down again. Eventually we made it to the top to a large grassed area, which was full of mosquitoes. Over to the right there was a timber information sign and as we walked across to check it out a very excited white Labrador type dog came charging towards us. It continually jumped up almost knocking us over. It was impossible to walk without it jumping up. A smaller dog also ran around. We walked over to read the sign which gave some history of the area and we then walked to a house some 60 metres away and knocked on the door. A man came to the door and although he said come in, he let the door go and it closed before me. As Tony and I were wet, we didn’t try to go in. His room was full of mosquitoes and it must have been a nightmare living with them. We asked him which was the best route to the lake, the Embarrass Channel or the river itself? He said, “The river,” and that was it. He wasn’t that friendly, but he did say he had to get to work, so perhaps he was just too busy.

The Peace–Athabasca Delta, located in northeast Alberta, is the largest freshwater inland river delta in the world. It is located partially within the southeast corner of Wood Buffalo National Park, Canadas largest national park, and also spreads into the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, west and south of the historical community of Fort Chipewyan. The delta encompasses approximately 321200 ha, formed where the Peace and Athabasca rivers converge on the Slave River and Lake Athabasca. The delta region is designated a wetland of international importance and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We happily left with a cloud of mosquitoes and the two playful dogs following. The dogs ran down to the canoe and sniffed around and then ran straight back up the steep sand cliff without any problem. After our attempt, that surprised me. We cast off very happy to be away from the mosquitoes, killing the ones that had hitched a ride.

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Two dogs investigate our canoe

I had read reports of other parties taking the Embarras Channel to get to the lake, but we decided to pass it by and follow the river channel as far as we could. When we had passed the Embarras Channel entrance the current quickened, which gave us hope that we had made the right decision. We looked for ruins on the right bank, a place called Old Fort but we didn’t notice anything from the river, only kingfishers flying from one tree to another. It was very cold as we had lunch 8kms downstream next to an oxbow, which was once part of the river but now it is just a backwater.

Further along amongst the willows and cottonwoods high on the left bank we noticed an old cabin. The bank was steep but like kids exploring a new world, we scrambled up the bank aided by impressive exposed tree roots which we were able to hang on to. We reached a flat area with particularly long grass and where the cabin was standing. Amongst a cloud of mosquitos Tony entered the neglected white cabin and minutes later walked out with two rifles, one under each arm and looking just like John Wayne. He posed for a photo. I was expecting him to say, “If I were to kill you now no one would know,” but he didn’t, much to my relief! The cabin which was probably only used on the odd occasion was full of other stuff that had been left there. The mosquitoes were eating us alive, so I was pleased when we had finished our journey of discovery and climbed back down the tree roots and into the canoe.

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Tony finds two rifles in an old cabin

Our maps now indicated that the entire area for tens, if not hundreds of kilometres around us was low-lying swamp, lakes and channels, a perfect breeding ground for the mosquitoes. We pressed on whilst killing the ones that were still attached to our legs and our clothes soon became bloodied. It wasn’t long before we passed the first decent house that we had seen for a long time and were hoping to see someone as the offer of a cup of tea would have been nice. With no such sighting we paddled on but then just as we got 100 metres beyond the house a guy came out and waved. By that time we had gone too far past and the current was too swift to think about paddling back. Damn, that cup of tea would sure have been nice.

The afternoon turned cold and gloomy with rain, but the birdlife was abundant with the grey and white birds swooping to catch insects and the kingfishers tree hopping.  

Our surrounds were far from perfect for camping, in fact we would be lucky to find a dry spot that was flat, spacious and had enough room to take our tents. At Ess Bend we were hopeful, but it turned out to be one big low lying waterlogged mud bar. Two hundred metres further though, as we turned south, we found a flat spot full of animal prints that was high and dry enough to take our tents. It continued to rain so for the second time we erected the tent fly shelter and changed underneath it. It was cold and wet so we were early to bed.

Day 19 – Tuesday 24th

It rained on and off throughout the night. Everything was wet and the mozzies had congregated under the tent fly though most were dead. At least the rain had stopped by the time we got up. With the mossies being out in force I decided to spray my backside with mozzie spray before going to the toilet but it helped little.

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Mosquitoes outside of the tent

We were off by 8.20am finding an old abandoned portable home on the next straight. It was weird seeing it way out here when we knew the whole area was swamp and there were no roads for miles and miles. With a log or timber cabin you can imagine it being cut from the forest or planks being transported down river by boat, but a large one piece portable building was so big to transport. It was easy to forget that most movements of equipment is done when the river freezes and when trucks are able to use the rivers as ice roads so obviously this place must have been transported in winter time.

There was another cabin further along and a few more on the far bank as we approached the Fletcher Channel Junction which was 30kms from Lake Athabasca. We turned left into Fletcher Channel on our last leg of the Athabasca River just as a power boat whizzed around the bend. The first cabin on the right hand side looked as if it did get used as the grass around it had been recently cut. There was another less attractive cabin on the left a little further. The current was still flowing well enough to help us paddle 8 -10kms an hour. We soon came up to another channel that joined up with the Embarras Channel. It was bigger than the Fletcher Channel that we were headed down, but we decided not to take it, but to carry on. We found out later that most power boats took that channel as it joins up with the deeper Embarras Channel and misses several kilometres of the lake.

The river narrowed further and it was home to lots of ducks and geese with goslings which constantly flew off in front of us. On our final few kilometres we scanned the way ahead eagerly waiting to see Lake Athabasca and its big body of water. Although the land was flat, spindly trees blocked our view and though our map indicated we had reached the lake, we were still following the river which had several bends that tricked us into believing the lake would be around the next one. Finally it appeared, but somewhat disappointingly, it looked nothing special.

The lake was calm and from what we could see it was shallow and swampy around the edges. The clouds had moved away and it was sunny. There was only a slight wind so we expected the crossing to be easy.

We stopped the canoe and looked back down the river seeing only low willow trees, and flat terrain. The Athabasca River was completed, though Tony and I didn’t rejoice, as we had a strained relationship and lack of conversation.

As we moved further into the lake we could see hills on the other side. It looked much better over there, rather than on our low-lying swampy side. It was about 12kms in a straight line across the lake to Fort Chipewyan where we could see a number of man-made features. We cut across a shallow bay and headed towards the mouth of the Embarras Channel before cutting across the lake towards the islands fronting Fort Chipewyan. The odd seagull was proudly perched on top of poles or on dead trees that had been washed up in the shallows.

The lake was still calm, so we were lucky as it often gets extremely rough and dangerous when it’s windy. As we neared the islands close to Fort Chipewyan the area looked a little like Albany, a town in the south-west of Western Australia. The area was beautiful, the 30 metre high rock islands looked much higher than 30 metres and were widely covered with spruce trees and rock. The scene really lifted my spirits as we hadn’t seen rock like this since leaving the mountain areas around Jasper. I was just hoping there was a lot more to come.

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Getting closer to Fort Chipewyan

Two runabout boats were speeding across the water in the far distance leaving a white trail of wash. The houses of the community got closer but there was one in particular that caught my eye. It was a huge place perched high on a ridge overlooking the lake and it looked like a hotel. What a place to stay I thought, however it was too far from the water and I’m sure too expensive for us mere paddlers to stay at.

We made for the small boat harbour which was locked in by a rock wall. Tony jumped out at the boat ramp and walked across the road and talked to some locals who told him that we could camp on a beach in the next bay. We paddled back into the lake and around a headland to find a great looking beach. The water was very clear at the water’s edge, something we hadn’t seen at all since starting our trip. There wasn’t any shade or trees and there was a row of houses nearby, making it extremely difficult to go to the toilet without being seen, unless it was in the dark of night. Given that it doesn‘t get dark here, there was no chance of hiding! The beach was full of driftwood, but there was plenty of sand to erect our tents on. It was sunny and the sand was warm under foot. It was a little like paradise, but not quite paradise. With everything being damp due to the rain, the sun gave us an opportunity to dry everything out and wash some clothes. The most refreshing part of the day though, was going for a swim in the particularly cold lake.

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Making camp at Fort Chipewyan

As I pottered around camp washing pots, cleaning, and just fiddling about under the sun, (most pleasant with no mud and no mosquitoes) Tony walked to the shop, checked out the town and brought back some juicy apples. When everything was done we walked over to the café. It was small and there was only one person drinking inside. We sat down and Tony was soon asking the slightly inebriated First Nation local several questions, but his answers were a little muddled.

We ordered T-bone steak, chips, vegetables and a Canadian beer from the petite First Nation woman. The vegetables were from a can, but who cared. We were also served toast with the main meal, which we thought unusual. It was just so nice to have a proper meal sitting on chairs and eating at a table with country music playing in the background. We ended up having the main meal, two Canadian beers, ice cream and coffee which cost us $42.00 each. It wouldn’t have been as cheap as that in Perth!

Before leaving we thanked our cook come waitress and Tony asked her if he could have a photo taken with her. Outside there was a small portable building opposite with a fence around it displaying ‘Hard Hat Area’ signs. It just seemed so out of place to have such a sign here in the middle of nowhere at Fort Chipewyan where there were very few people.  As we walked back to camp Tony and I went our separate ways. I walked to the hill behind the museum to check out the view of the lake which had a few small boats crossing it. Here I met Jeff Shatford who was also taking in the brilliant view. Jeff was from Fort Smith and worked for the Wood/ Buffalo National Park. He told me that he and his helicopter pilot had recently found two canoeists lost in one of the thousand channels in the park. We stood there on the hill talking about everything possible whilst looking over the Athabasca Lake and scenic islands. Three quads bikes shattered our peace as they tore and chased around the nearby gravel tracks. Jeff said if we were able to get to Fort Smith before 4.00pm on Saturday we were invited to a pig roast. It was 11.00pm when I left him, and a beautiful evening.

The Wood Buffalo National Park, located in northeastern Alberta and southern Northwest Territories, is the largest national park in Canada at 44,807 km2 (17,300 sq mi). Larger in area than Switzerland, it is the second-largest national park in the world, and thirteenth-largest protected area in the world. The park was established in 1922 to protect the world’s largest herd of free roaming wood bison, currently estimated at more than 5,000. It is one of two known nesting sites of whooping cranes.

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An outlook at Fort Chipewyan

Day 20 – Wednesday 25th June

I was woken in the night by the water lapping up the beach, it was probably from the wash of power boats crossing the lake. The sun was hitting the tent early making it warm inside and as I popped my head out Tony was returning from the toilet. To find somewhere private he had to walk a few hundred metres away to the disused harbour. I did well to hang on as it is usually the first thing I need to do when I get up.

We slowly packed up and with the help of the sun all our gear was dry. We walked to the museum where our guide very thoroughly went through every display with the utmost passion, sometimes in too much detail. Before leaving I took the opportunity to have a thoroughly enjoyable sit on the toilet, something I hadn’t done that many times on the trip so far.

While we were there, the Parks Office called the museum and asked us to call in and sign the register. With the two canoeists getting lost in channels in a nearby lake, they wanted to know where we were going and how long it would take us to get there. The lady behind the desk was very helpful and asked us to fill out forms and give an ETA in Fitzgerald at the other end of the park. She photocopied some A4 maps of the river for us which were very useful as we only had maps of this section in my GPS. She also told us that the town was thinking of creating a camping site for visiting canoeists. We said that would be great as it was a bit hard to find a toilet spot on the town beach.

We walked to the store and I bought a vegetable pack with onions, mushrooms and capsicum, a small can of baked beans, two bananas, a coke and a Snickers bar. It was a big, clean and fresh-looking store and had almost everything. I was surprised to see so much food. We ate lunch back at the canoe and watched a family swim in the lake. Oddly though, they swam fully dressed.

We left the beach at midday heading into a brisk wind that slowed us to 4 – 5kms an hour. The scenery was good, the town dwellings were spread and we could see the prominent white church in the near distance. Before leaving the lake there were some fancy and neat looking houses situated on rock shelves along the shoreline. Certainly a beautiful place to be. We rounded a bend and entered the Riviere des Rochers, (French for “River of Rocks”) leaving the lake and all the buildings behind. The Riviere des Rochers is only 47 kms long from Lake Athabasca to where it meets the Peace River and changes it’s name to the Slave River. The wind eased but it was still strong enough to make it tough on steering.

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Some of the houses at Fort Chipewyan

The right shore was rocky and the left shore was low and swampy and dotted with channels. We hadn’t seen rock since the beginning of the trip, but now it had become part of the trip ahead. We turned right at the first channel passing more rock. I was feeling good about the country, but as we moved further downstream the rock dispersed and our surrounds became flatter. As the river widened, it became slow going and hard work due to less current. At one stage, when the wind picked up, we thought we were going backwards.

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We were happy to see rock shores after so much forest and low lying land

The river narrowed again and became scenically beautiful as we started to pass through a group of islands and rocky outcrops. At a sharp bend where a colourful cabin stood, the river ahead appeared to have disappeared. Of course it was an illusion. Another channel then came in from the left and the river widened again.

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We were excited to have rocky shores

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Further there were bald eagles circling overhead as we forged past the odd cabin towards Little Rapids and a water controlled weir. We stopped and took a break on a rock outcrop a few kilometres before Little Rapids. It was a magical feeling lying on the rock slab that was warmed by the sun. Once back in the canoe, we pushed on to the weir at the rapids, but it was hard to see how difficult the rapid was when we reached it, so we decided on the safe route and followed the channel that diverted around the rapid.

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Just lying on smooth rock instead of lush greenery was like being in haven

In 1975 there was a dam built on the Peace River called Bennett Dam. Although it was more than a thousand kilometres away from the delta region of the Athabasca, when the water was held back to fill the dam there was little water flow on the Peace River, which in turn affected the Athabasca delta area. Water drained from the Athabasca River much more quickly then and many of the channels became very shallow and dry and the natural habitat of the beaver, moose and waterfowl began to deteriorate. The indigenous people (who hunt the area) and the government worked together to improve the wildlife habitat and as a result, they built a number of weirs in the delta region to hold the water back and keep the water level in the delta higher.

We took the channel which narrowed and made a ‘U’ turn around the rapid and an island on the right hand side. The water ahead was like a millpond and reflections of the trees were mirror images. It was absolutely beautiful. The channel became blocked by a bedrock obstruction and a tramway (a solar powered battery-operated lifting device) had been installed to portage small boats over it.

We could have portaged but we opted to use the tram instead as it would be much easier. We pulled up to the tram and dragged the canoe onto the tray. The tray was pulled up and over the bank by a do-it-yourself winch. Tony pushed the button and started the motor that was generated by solar power. The tray with canoe on top was slowly winched up the hill to the top of the mound.

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One way of getting around rapids and a portage

Although it was early we decided to camp there as it looked a much better place than almost anything we had passed. We unpacked the canoe and took it off the tray, just in case another boat wanted to use it.

I was interested in seeing the rapid, so I walked several hundred metres through the forest guessing my way towards it. The undergrowth was quite dry until I reached the other side of the island where the vegetation became thicker and swampy, with water seeping underfoot. I came out near a narrow and swift overflow channel which bypassed the main rapid. If we had known it was there we could have paddled down it, as there seemed to be only one drop which didn’t look that bad. As I neared the edge of the channel several pelicans flew down it and into the river. The rapid was quite big, so we actually did do the right thing by not tackling it. I peered into the rapid for a few minutes watching pelicans glide and land on the exposed rocks.   

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Pelicans gather around the rapid

Back at the camp I washed in the sun. There were a few mosquitoes but they were bearable. Tony cooked spaghetti and lemon meringue for sweets. The night was simply beautiful, the river was stunningly still, there was the sound of thunder in the distance and later, the sound of Tony snoring.

Day 21 – Thursday 26th June

I awoke to mosquitoes waiting outside to ambush me. It was cloudy but with an edging of sun sneaking through the cracks of the clouds. Everything was dry and the birds were whistling. It was good having the rail platform to put my gear on whilst packing up. We loaded the canoe on the rail, started the electric motor and lowered the canoe to the water.

It was really slow going down the channel as there was no current. Once back in the river we looked back to the weir to see the water racing down the rapid and the pelicans perching on the rocky outcrops. It felt good to have the current help us along again though it slowed the further we got away from the weir. A small marsh bird like a stint kept calling and following us.

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Around 11.15am and 17kms on, we paddled into the Slave River at the junction of the Peace, the Slave and the Riviere des Rochers which we were on. It was now 433kms to the Great Slave Lake, so we were getting closer and right on schedule to meet Alaine and Leonie at Hay River. The river at the junction of the three rivers was very wide but it was running faster than the Riviere des Rochers, so it felt good. I looked upstream wondering what the Peace River was like. My original plans were to paddle down the Peace instead of the Athabasca but those plans had changed when I thought the mountain region around Jasper would be a much more spectacular place to start from.

We were hoping to see more rocky outcrops on the Slave River but it wasn’t until we had paddled a few kilometres that we began to pass some small rocky islands and a shoreline with a sloping rock slab. It was here near a hut we decided to have a break. Things were looking up and it was really good to have rock to land on, after so much greenery and mud. The hut was boarded up and lots of rubbish bags were lying outside. Halfway through our meal the sky turned black and the heavens opened up. We quickly packed up but the thunderstorm lashed us before we could get going. Luckily we had our raincoats handy. Tony jumped in the canoe, I took a quick photo and jumped in as well and we were off again.

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More rock and less mud. We like it.

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A storm suddenly arrives.

The current quickened as it ran through a group of rocky islands. A few kilometres later we approached another group of rocky islands that reminded me of Lookout Rapid on the Avon River in Perth but on a wider scale. Although the current accelerated the rapid posed no real danger. Further on we paddled through Primrose Rapid which wasn’t very noticeable and we were soon beyond it passing a large rock slab on the water’s edge and a cabin further inland on the forest boundary.

The wind picked up creating a headwind and choppy waters. There was some current turbulence and the wind soon became a side wind which made it harder for me to steer and paddle. We paddled around a big U bend, and rested on the easterly run as it was a back wind but it rained on and off so we soon got cold. When we reached Demicharge Rapid, although it was larger than the previous one, it still wasn’t big, but there was a lot more turbulence especially as we came out of the rapid and another channel swept in from the right.

We started looking for a good camp. We spotted a big sandbar, but our hopes of camping on it were dashed when we discovered that it was only recently exposed and still very soggy. A little further we found a small island that had sand built up around a bunch of rocks and low vegetation. With the water level going down parts of the sand was even dry enough to camp on. It was a great campsite, one of our best so far.

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With kilometres of muddy shores we seek refuge on an island

We pitched our tents on the highest dry point which was 2-3 metres wide by 15 metres long. Patches of beautiful red rock slabs were scattered around with a few low bushes close by. There appeared to be no mosquitoes. We collected wood and made a fire. I had a quick go at fishing but kept snagging the hook on the river bed. With no luck I stopped and had a strip wash before the sun went down. It was another beautiful evening. We had paddled about 70kms and hadn’t seen any power boats.

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Day 22 – Friday 27th June.

It was such a nice feeling to walk around the camp without getting muddy feet. The sun was in full bloom, no hiding behind clouds this morning and a tern circled the island several times chattering to itself. We left about 8.30am helped by a current that was allowing us to gain 8.5 to 10kms an hour. It was calm and quite hot.

We saw three power boats on shore where a track from Hay Camp came down to the river. We pulled up next to them at 10.20am and then walked along the track trying to find some buildings. There was nothing to be seen and when I eventually put my glasses on to check the map I could see that the Wood/Buffalo National Park Buildings were over a kilometre or so up the track. Although it would have been great to meet some researchers from the park, which was one of the very few places left in the world where buffalo roam free, we didn’t know if anyone would be there if we attempted the walk.

I later read that in 1922 the Federal Government established Wood/Buffalo National Park. Between 1925 & 1928, 6600 bison were moved by rail and barge from Wainwright to the present park. In spring 1973 the Athabasca Delta flooded, drowning 4000 buffalo.

We returned to the canoe and pushed off passing a couple of cabins, but there were no good campsites. We drifted along a limestone cliff of Stony Island which resembled cliffy areas around Sydney. They weren’t high, maybe 10 metres but they were jagged and had a number of colourful tones and were backed with glinting poplar and spruce trees. With so much of the landscape being trees it was a pleasure to look at such rock beauty that would probably be nothing in a more scenic part of the world. As a falcon took off and glided in the thermals above us, swallows also darted in and out from under the unstable rock overhangs.

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We appreciated the cliffs after so much low country

Ten kilometres further we had an early lunch on Rocky Point next to Buffalo Landing. It was a big rock slab polished clean by the water, it was lovely to walk on, lovely to lie on and easy to land on. A few metres away though, there were some huge bear prints imprinted into some mud that had gathered between the rock. We had fun following them for a while.

Three kilometres later we came to a narrow but deep short channel that had a big rock face and the rocky ‘Lemon Island’ at the head of it. We drifted, admiring its beauty which was typical Canadian Shield country which we had seen little of so far.

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In the space of forty minutes four big jets, high up in the blue sky passed over us leaving long vapour trails. At times white fluffy clouds blocked them out of our view. Wondering where the jets were headed filled in a bit of time.

The weather changed quickly and the sky turned black and thunder and lightning struck all around us. Just over 4kms from Fitzgerald and before the rain set in, we stopped on a rock slab for a short break to put on our rain jackets. The rain came, but it soon cleared leaving the scent of fresh air.

The wharf at Fitzgerald, our pull-out point was deserted and partially derelict. No one had used it for ages. It was a little sad really to see such a decline in a place that once was so important for establishing the area. The steep-sided wharf had two ramps leading down to the water. One was too muddy to contemplate using while the other could be used, but the water was half a metre below it which would make it difficult to get our fully loaded canoe up onto the ramp. In a slim hope of getting the nose of the canoe up onto the ramp we tried paddling towards it with speed, leaning back to help bring the nose up and ramming the ramp. Unfortunately we didn’t get the nose up high enough, so we just crashed into the timbers with a thud. We couldn’t help but laugh, it was obviously wishful thinking that we would succeed in such a task.

We brought the canoe parallel to the ramp, jumped out and went in search of timbers so we could make our own ramp to help drag the canoe up it. We managed to find a few timbers but they sank deeply into the mud when we started to haul the canoe up them, but it gave us just enough height to get it up onto firmer ground.

Unloading wasn’t a pleasant task as our surrounds were far from inviting and the mosquitoes were horrendous. However, saying that, we had camped in worse places. It was here that a 25km section of grade 4 & 5 rapids started. We could see a large sign downstream which warned paddlers of the dangers and the fact that canoeists have died trying to run them. Only a few sections of the rapids could be paddled in an open canoe so most of them had to be portaged. Instead of portaging each rapid though, which would take us a very long time and probably kill ourselves trying, we decided on an easier route, to portage along the gravel road and then put in below the last rapid at Fort Smith.

Initially Tony had agreed to portage and we bought a set of wheels especially to do it, but in the last week he had changed his mind, saying he had an injured leg. I didn’t mind Tony not portaging, but my plan had always been to go from the mountains to the sea under my own steam. That meant if it couldn’t be paddled, it would have to be walked. When I said I still wanted to portage and not get a lift in a vehicle, he became a little angry.

We started unloading the canoe with tension in the air as we both wanted to do different things. Soon after a pick-up truck drew up and Tony started talking to the driver and asked if he knew anyone who would give us a lift. Within minutes the guy had offered to come to pick us up in the morning and within minutes he was off. I wasn’t pleased with this arrangement and I mentioned to Tony that I would still be portaging in the morning, but he wasn’t happy with my decision.  

A boat with two people aboard pulled in from Fort Chip. They were going to a wedding in Fort Smith and were being picked up by a friend. They had taken a different longer route down the river than what we had, to avoid the rail portage that we had to do. The guy used to work at Fitzgerald which he said was once a thriving little town, but it wasn’t thriving any longer.

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Camped near the wharf at Fitzgerald

Another couple arrived in a car with a dog. We talked to them and they said they would pick us up in the morning if we didn’t get picked up by the other guy. They had a daughter in Toowoomba, Queensland and were very keen to help.

We were then left alone. The night was still and we could hear the noise of the rapids downstream. I put the canoe on the trolley and walked around with it to make sure it wouldn’t fall off on my portage. Tony was still unhappy with my decision to walk so I decided to compromise. I would get up early and walk the canoe and some of my gear along the road and when he caught up in the pick-up truck I would put the canoe on the pick-up and walk the rest of the way with just my pack. This meant that Tony would have the canoe at the end and while waiting for me he would be able to put all his gear inside it, which would be safer for the gear.

Day 23 – Saturday 28th June.

I woke up at 5.15am had a quick breakfast and quietly packed things up ready for the big walk. 25kms seemed a long way pushing a canoe, but I was still adamant that I was going to do it. Tony was still sleeping when I left camp with my big gear drum, a pack and 3 litres of water in the canoe. I was soon straining as I had to drag the canoe up a hill to get out of Fitzgerald. The mossies were still active and the horse flies were abundant. At the top of the hill I looked behind, seeing the river fade into the distance. Although the canoe, supported by the wheels rolled more smoothly on the flatter terrain, it was still hard work. The wheels had no bearings so the weight made the wheels bind a bit more than I would have liked. I started getting into a rhythm and stopped every half hour to check to see how many kilometres I had walked and have a drink. By now the horse flies had increased and were pestering me almost to despair.

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The long walk around the big rapids

It was hot and sunny and I tried using the tall trees as shade but as the sun rose higher in the sky all the shade vanished. I pulled the canoe and then pushed it trying to take the strain off my muscles. I mainly pulled up the hills and pushed downhill. After several kilometres my legs started to feel the full effect of the work that I was putting in. A car stopped to see how I was going and took off leaving behind several horse flies that I really didn’t want. The horse flies were remarkable; they could even keep up with a speeding car!

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I pushed as hard as I could and when the pick-up truck came along from Fort Smith on its way to collect Tony, I had walked half the distance. I hurried trying to get as far as I could before it came back again with Tony aboard. Another hill came along and a lookout. I wanted to walk to the lookout to see if I could see the rapids but I daren’t go off the road just in case they went by.

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I spotted rapids through the trees that I was walking around.

By the time Tony and the truck had caught up I had walked 14kms. It took only a few minutes to lift the canoe onto the truck and it was soon gone leaving me with my backpack to walk the last 11kms.

The day was hot, and my feet began to burn on the stony gravel road as I carried my heavy backpack putting pressure on my tender feet. A few kilometres out of town I saw a car with two play-boats on top coming towards me. I was keen to stop it just to talk to other kayakers, but I let it speed by. Suddenly it stopped, with the dust flying by, backed up and pulled up beside me. A guy jumped out and amazingly it was a young man from Perth called Josh Singleton. “I thought it was you” Josh said, “and knowing some of the unusual ventures that you have done in the past it had to be you”. When I noticed the Canoeing Down Under logo on your cap, I was totally convinced.

Josh, who lived only a few kilometres away from my home in Perth, said he was visiting his friend Dave Gemmell, who lived in Fort Smith and he was there for a week. The two met during Dave’s three year stay in Perth.

It was great to meet someone that I knew, if only slightly, and Dave seemed a top guy as well. We talked for several minutes, still hardly believing the chances of meeting up like this in the middle of nowhere. We chatted for several minutes and the boys mentioned about the ‘Spit Roast Pork’ night (the barbeque that Jeff invited us to at Fort Chipewyan) and said we should come along. Dave also invited me to have a shower at his place once I got into town. I gladly accepted the offer if it could be arranged.

They left in a cloud of dust and soon after I diverted down a dirt track that led to one of the big rapids. I walked along it for about 500 metres and when it looked as if the track just went on for ever I turned and walked back to the road.

The couple with the dog who we had met the previous night, Henry and his wife, came to see if I wanted a lift. They had picked Tony up this morning from the canoe which was left at the bottom of the last rapid and dropped him off in town. I thanked them for their offer but declined.

I passed a sign to a lake and a few other signs that indicated that I was getting closer to town. When I hit the bitumen I was soon passing a roadside full of cars in scrap yards and kennels full of huskies. I turned to head towards town at a service station and found an ice cream shop near the small town centre. I sat outside and talked to a couple whilst eating. It was quite nice to have a conversation with other people.

I called in at the supermarket for a few odd things and hurried to the canoe which was about 2kms out of town as I had told Tony I would meet him there and I was running a little late. I was a bit weary when I arrived, but he wasn’t there. I could have relaxed for longer in town, I thought. There was a note pinned to the canoe from a woman called Libby who was out paddling around the islands across the river. She had heard about us and wanted to meet us. Tony arrived 30 minutes later.

I was about to go for a walk to the rapids when I spotted a kayak which I thought may have been Libby’s on the other side of the river coming our way. I waited and watched them slowly paddle across the river battling the currents. When they got close I could see that the two women also had two children with them. They were paddling a Russian folding kayak. We had a good chat, one of them worked for the National Park and had been told by Jeff Shatford whom I met at Fort Chipewyan, that we were passing through Fort Smith.

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Slave River Rapids

When they left I walked towards the ‘Rapids of the Drowned’ which was roughly 2kms away, first on a gravel road and then onto a narrow dirt track churned up by quad bikes and cracks from landslides. As a narrower track slipped down towards the rapids it steepened before coming out at the rocks. The rock slabs were littered with rubbish left by thoughtless partygoers. It was a huge disappointment being beside some of the most beautiful and biggest rapids in North America and surrounded by rubbish. As the water thundered viciously over the big drops that spanned the wide river, pelicans were gathered on rock shelves in the middle of the river, fishing. These rapids are world famous not just for the spectacle and ferocity of the big drops but because the pelicans here are supposed to be the only big colony of pelicans that feed in rapids. I wasn’t convinced that this was true, but the locals were convinced. When I was talking to Libby I mentioned that Australian pelicans were bigger than the Canadian ones, but she went on the defensive and argued the point. I soon let the subject drop!

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Pelicans on the Slave River Rapids

As I took photographs of the rapids with my little camera a couple nearby were taking photos of the pelicans with a huge telephoto lens. They also told me how important this colony of pelicans was. I kept quiet this time about the Australian pelicans being bigger as now I had my doubts!

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When I returned to the canoe, Henry and his wife came to check on us. Minutes later Josh and David came to pick us up and take us to David’s home where we could have a shower. David’s mum and a few relatives were there. I took a shower, it had only been nine days since my last one but it felt good after a long hard day’s walk. Tony didn’t bother to have a shower, he said he was happy washing in the river.

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West Australian Josh Singleton & local David Gemmell

After a good talk, that could easily have lasted all night, David took us to the camping ground where the pig roast was taking place. Everyone was already there and some had finished as we were the last to arrive. The pig roast was put on by the French sector for $5.00 a head. David mentioned there were a lot more social things going on than at any time before, because the French/Canadian community was taking the time and trouble to organise things.

One of the canoe club paddlers who sat at our table was also the local reporter and owner of the paper. He asked if he could interview us and during the course of the interview he found that we had been told to get off an island by a Suncor employee and he pounced at the opportunity to write about it. I think he was against the Oil Sand Mining and the damage they were doing to the environment.

David and Josh dropped Tony off at the camp and me into town at the phone box so I could ring home. By the time I walked back to the canoe I had walked well over 30kms that day and at midnight just as I was about to get into my tent, a guy approached me and asked if I could help him get his car out of a bog, which was one kilometre or so away. He also mustered the help of three other foreign tourists who were camped nearby. The night was swarming with mosquitoes. Luckily I applied some mosquito repellent before I left, but the others hadn’t and they were being eaten alive. When we reached the car it was bogged too deeply and no matter what we did, we couldn’t shift it. It really needed another vehicle to pull it out.

The guy who was bogged was pretty embarrassed and it seemed that he didn’t want to bother any of the locals to help pull him out. He was a pilot on a three year contract to Fort Smith which he seemed to be dreading, because so far he didn’t particular like it there, but he had little choice as he had just become a qualified pilot and had to build up his hours.

There was a huge lightning storm in the night and although it was extremely windy, my tent stayed up.

The article below appeared in the local paper after we had left.

Interview with Slade River Journal on 2nd July


Tony Chounding and Terry Bolland are pleasant older Australian canoeists who started their river trip in Jasper National Park and are paddling down the Athabasca, Slave and Mackenzie Rivers to Tuktoyaktuk and the Arctic Ocean. They were in Fort Smith for a brief one-day stop June 27 and lucked into the Francophone St. Jean Baptiste Day pig roast with all its fun and hospitality.

The most notable experience of the two men so far was getting kicked off an island in the middle of the Athabasca River adjacent to the Suncor oilsands mining property. They had run some of the class III rapids upstream of Fort McMurray and portaged the very large ones. After a long day of paddling through Fort McMurray, they found a nice island, set up their tents, made supper and around 10.00pm were about to crawl into their sleeping bags for the night. They had observed traffic moving about routinely on the Suncor property for some time when a truck stopped across the water from them and turned on its flashing red and blue lights. The driver, using a blow-horn, ordered them off the island. They tried to reason with him, calling out saying they did not know the river and did not know where to go to camp at that time of night. The Suncor employee ignored them, and continued to order them off.

Finally they packed up camp and left. Chounding said ironically, as they departed the island the Suncor employee called out, “Have a good journey!”

They continued on past the Suncor plant, which they said was an extraordinary spectacle and a unique experience with all the smoke and lights and pipes of the industrial installation. Chounding likened it to seeing Hades. He said the fumes from the plant were so noxious he could taste them.

Aside from the Suncor incident they have enjoyed their trip so far. They saw a great deal of wildlife upstream of McMurray, including cow moose with calves almost every day, but had seen nothing but eagles on the Slave River.

Bolland is an experienced canoeist and this trip is his fourth on major North American waterways. He had already done the Mississippi, Yukon and the Missouri Rivers. His website (canoeingdownunder.com.au) describes him as “the most qualified and respected Canoe/Kayak Instructor in Western Australia.”

They are in a bit of a hurry, with a plane ticket leaving Vancouver in mid August, so they cannot tarry long in any one place. Chounding said when they see a community, “they drop in from nowhere and make up their mind in a hurry what it is like.” He said Fort Smith has a “strong sense of community” and they were impressed with how helpful people are.

 Another article appeared in the paper a week later. 

Suncor admits it wrongly evicted canoeists

By GABRIEL ZARATE, SRJ Reporter 09.JUL.08 Two Australian campers evicted by a Suncor employee from an island in the middle of the Athabasca River should never have been bothered. A spokesman for Suncor said the company “regrets the inconvenience” to the two Australian canoeists who were evicted from an island at 10.00pm as they were about to go to sleep on an island just offshore of Suncor’s industrial operations. “I think this is a case of good intentions misapplied,” said Brad Bellows of Suncor. On June 20, Tony Chounding and Terry Bolland (featured last week in the SRJ as “Visitors of the Week”) were canoeing down the Athabasca, on a journey from Jasper National Park to Tuktoyaktuk. After a long day on the river they set up camp on a small island just upstream from the bridge linking Suncor facilities on both sides of the river. The two made supper and were about to go to sleep when a security guard using a blowhorn ordered them off the island. They protested, saying it was night and they did not know the river. But the Suncor employee would not listen. Oilsands leases end at the banks of the river. Suncor had no legal right to evict the campers.
Asked why the action took place, Bellows explained the island was in the middle of an industrial site. “The foremost concern of our security people is the safety of our employees and the public,” he said. Bellows indicated Suncor would review its security procedures to ensure recreational users of the river were not interfered with.

Day 24 – Sunday 29th June

We were both a bit tired when we rose, but it was a relief to have portaged the rapids and the hard lifting was behind us. The river ahead was destined to become wider and slower, a dismal thought when we still had lots of kilometres to paddle. The rapids were behind us and we had little ahead to fear, except having to do a hard slog until we reached the lake.

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Leaving the rapids

The wind started off strong and became even stronger as the day wore on. Our day brightened when we met a very vivacious lady at Salt River who filmed us with her video camera during our rest break and was interested to know everything about what we were doing. She now lived in the city and was visiting relations at the nearby village. Whilst we rested she nipped back to her village and returned shortly after, bringing with her three local elders to meet us. We chatted for some time and they shared with us that they still lived their traditional ways as much as they could and didn’t want to see their culture nor surrounds change.

Leaving the Salt River boat ramp we talked to a family in a boat who told us to call in at their cabin when we passed. We thought we would take up the invitation, but with the wind severely slowing our progress, the cabin seemed a long time coming. We couldn’t miss the cabin as Earl, the owner, had used a bulldozer to push a track from the river’s edge to his cabin up on the ridge. We walked up the track and saw an old cabin on our right and a huge new big cabin in a clearing to our left. Earl immediately stopped work, ushered us up to his cabin’s wooden veranda and his wife and sister brought out some finger food whilst two of Earl’s relatives continued to cut the grass on the clearing. We ate whilst his 5 year old grandson shot at targets facing the river with a real rifle. He looked so young to be using a loaded rifle, but he was happy and Earl was proud to be letting him learn how to shoot at such a young age.

We talked over an enjoyable lunch and learnt a great deal about the country. Earl had been a trapper all his life and worked during the winter months, but conceded that the days have gone when you could make money from the fur of animals. He told us that the cabin used to be much closer to the sandy cliff edge, but due to the fear of erosion and the cabin falling over the cliff edge he had pulled it back with his bulldozer using timbers as rollers.

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Lunch with the locals

As we didn’t want to overstay our welcome, we left the family to continue clearing up and paddled off into a tremendously strong wind, at times doing less than 4kms an hour. We only paddled 59kms for the day, but we found a beautiful wide sandbar for camping that didn’t have any mozzies. The wind finally died down at 10.00pm.

 

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The Arch

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Another great campsite

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Day 25 – Monday 30th June

The morning dawned with a slight wind which didn’t take long to pick up making the next 12kms particularly hard work. With the canoe not having a rudder the side wind was a nuisance, more so when Tony paddled on the right, as steering was a lot more difficult and it put an enormous strain on my shoulders.

We rounded a 2km bend in the river passing an eagle and its nest before entering a long straight where we had the wind on our backs. It was a welcome relief, but it didn’t last long. We stopped for a short break on a small muddy island at the end of the straight and tried to hide from the cold wind behind some spindly trees.

For the next 17kms the wind didn’t trouble us too much, but when the river changed direction, and the mist, the clouds and rain moved in, our struggle continued. The bitter cold grew even more so as the wind chill increased. We couldn’t find any shelter for lunch so in the end we sheltered behind a big tree trunk that had been washed up on the muddy swampy shores. We collected pieces of driftwood and logs to form a drier platform for us to stand on and cook our noodles. The tree trunk helped to shelter us from the wind, but did little to keep us warm so as soon as we had eaten we stepped back into the canoe and were pleased to be paddling again, just to warm up.

The rain eased to a drizzle and the day looked as if it was improving, but as we rounded the next bend the wind was howling. It was slow progress and it had been a difficult day, the last day of June. After paddling for hours in a strong side wind, a niggle started to develop in my shoulder blade. The day hadn’t been fun, but at least we had seen eagles, geese, ducklings and ducks that flapped in front of us for ages.

Although progress was slow, only 67kms for the day, and the paddling had been tough, we at least found a decent campsite on a flat narrow piece of sand under a sloping sand cliff with plenty of firewood. We were quite content to settle in, to wrap up from the cold and to have another campsite without mozzies. Tony dried his clothes by the fire and I had pilchards for dinner as a treat. The odd thing about expeditions is that food that I wouldn’t normally eat at home, such as pilchards, actually become quite a treat.

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A bit tight but it was home for the night

Day 26 – Tuesday 1st July

At daybreak there were small logs drifting in the current, bobbing up and down and as I watched them I became mesmerised and my imagination ran wild. Suddenly they looked like people having difficulty swimming. I felt like putting my hand out to rescue them!! Sometimes three floated by at the same time. I could have watched them for hours.

The wind had eased a little, but it was still beanie weather. We started off doing 7-9kms an hour but it soon slowed when the river divided. I couldn’t help but chuckle when a bunch of juvenile geese 100 metres away tried to get away from us by running along the shoreline, jumping logs, hopping into the water and back onto shore again. They ran and ran until eventually they ran out of shoreline. Illogical really as we were so far away from them, that they were in no danger. Then a couple of them jumped a few more logs and then tried to climb the sloping unstable sand cliff. As they climbed up, the sand slipped from under them and they slid down again. When they realised that we had gone by and they had nothing to worry about, they stood there and watched us. The scenery was pretty average around here so watching the wildlife brought some cheer into the day.

At 11.00am we found a good sandbar to have a break. The sun came out and the day was looking better. A little further we took a short cut to the left of an island that had a steep sided vertical bank and was forested with tight willow trees. There was no wind and it was hot so I took my shirt off to start a tan. Ducks, seagulls, eagles and the parts of sand cliffs falling into the water kept us amused. We had lunch below a sand cliff and whilst eating, part of the cliff caved in only metres away.

We rounded a big, long bend and continued down a straight and found a low-lying bare sandbar that was dry enough to camp on. We were less than a metre higher than the water, so if it flooded in the night it wouldn’t have been a good place to be.

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The falling river provided some good camp sites.

It was still sunny and warm enough to strip off and have a wash in the river, although the water was cold! I had spaghetti with sauce for dinner. As the sun faded I noticed my belly had caught the sun and it was laced with pink and white stripes where my tummy rolls had been. I looked a real idiot.

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It was still light at 10.40pm when I retreated to my tent and the sun was finding it hard to peer through the black clouds. Today, ‘Canada’ Day we had covered 74kms and we hadn’t seen a soul.

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Day 27 – Wednesday 2nd July

Ducks and seagulls were chattering early and there were no mozzies for the second day running. Things were improving, – party time! Tony had an infected big toe, so we had to work out a system of getting him in the canoe without it getting wet. We managed to find a log to use as a platform, a stepping stone to get into the canoe.  

After taking off, we noticed something swimming across the wide river. As we paddled hard to get closer we realised it was either a coyote or a wolf, we couldn’t tell the difference. It was swimming swiftly, grunting and groaning, very much similar to myself when I’m working hard. We caught up with it about 50 metres before the shore and paddled only metres away. His eyes reflected a sense of fear, although, little did he know he had nothing to fear from us. His whole body was well out of the water, so much different from most dogs which usually swim with only their head above the water. I could only think that the hair fibres in its coat must help to keep it buoyant. Once on shore, he shook his thin body and quickly took off up the sand cliff like the cartoon character ‘Road Runner’.

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A magnificent bald eagle was flying overhead and squawking just before we took a break on an island bend. I didn’t realise that it had a nest in a tree virtually above us until we took off. There were also kingfishers hopping from one tree to another along the way.

Because I had taken my shirt off yesterday my tum was just like a zebras, not a good look. On the positive side and to my delight I noticed that my belly was somewhat flatter than when I started the trip.

The current increased to 9.5kms but slowed again when going around a long wide right hand bend, though it increased again on a big left-hand U bend that was 15kms long. We drifted with the current, at times seeing several tiny marsh birds feeding in the muddy shallows.

We turned into a shortcut channel and immediately saw a bear on a log. It looked at us, but quickly walked back up the log and off it ran through the undergrowth. Our first bear sighting, but to our disappointment it didn’t hang around. At the end of the 3km channel we stopped briefly on a wet mud bar before moving off, desperately trying to find a good camping spot. The shores were either swampy or steep and fully wooded with no place to erect a tent. Many banks had caved in and behind them were impenetrable willows, spruce and poplar trees.

We were now well in the Slave River delta and getting close to the end of the river, but at that moment, our thoughts were on finding a camping site. The further we went into the delta the less chance we thought we would have to find a camp spot. Kilometre after kilometre and we saw nothing. It seemed as if we were in for a rough camping night when suddenly we saw a white picnic table and old cabin on a high flat area near where another channel entered the river. God must be shinning on us, we thought. We cut the corner but the water shallowed and the canoe bogged. I got out and pushed Tony into deeper water but I got stuck in the deep mud. He paddled to a rocky ramp whilst I struggled to get to shore.  

Our camp wasn’t the Ritz, but it was far better than anything we had seen for the last 50kms. The ground was flat, there was a large clearing and a track that led down to the water’s edge. The cabin, which might have been inviting if it was winter, was full of rubbish and bugs and no match for my cosy tent.

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A welcome campsite after nothing but swampy, wooded shores

As we settled in, some locals from Fort Resolution drove down the track and stopped for a talk. They told us a few bear stories and that the channel next to us was a short cut to the Great Slave Lake. One of the guys was a foreman on the roads and knew Earl from Fort Smith. “Earl’s a big hunter,” he said. Two more vehicles arrived bearing more locals who talked to us. One was an Offenders Officer and his wife had a drug rehabilitation job. He said that he often goes out to the islands in the eastern part of the lake. “It is so beautiful out there,” he said. The water was crystal clear, full of amazing islands, brilliant fishing and magical scenery.

The mozzies were quite fierce, but with hundreds of dragonflies, and the odd kingfisher around, it made it a much better campsite than we could have imagined finding in such a location as the delta.

Before the locals left, they had the last word and mentioned again that our camp was a favourite haunt for bears!! Compared with all the other camp sites that we stayed at, this was probably the one that was more likely to be attracted to bears because it was well used by the locals, but I wasn’t at all concerned.

Day 28 – Thursday 3rd July

Going to the toilet in the morning was always a big ordeal with the mosquitoes being out in force and I always had to go as soon as I got up, but after all the bear stories we had heard the night before, it was good just to see the morning and face the mosquitoes. It started raining, so I returned to the tent for 15 minutes. We were away by 8.05am and for once I was ready before Tony.

We hadn’t expected to paddle down such a narrow channel to enter the lake, but we didn’t complain as it was the shortest route. Within minutes ducks and loons were flying and landing in front of us. The river edges, which were only metres away, were covered with lush vegetation. It was a lot different than the wide river we had been paddling for weeks. A large owl flew from one tree and landed a little further up the channel in another tree. As we came level with it, it flew ahead again, but on the third time it sat there, just looked at us and allowed us to pass.

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To paddle a narrow section was enjoyable

We passed a boat ramp, a jetty, a toilet and a sign saying “Nagle Channel”. It was such a pleasant change to be paddling down a narrow channel, but there was no current, so it felt such a long way to the lake. Two and a quarter hours later we finally caught sight of the open water. We stopped and stepped onto a log to have our last break before entering the lake.

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A quick rest before heading in the Great Slave Lake

There was a light side wind, but it was still a little hard on my shoulders as we crossed a bay to a point. Rounding the point the water was so clear I could see fish beneath us. I cast my line in the hope of catching one, but it was not to be. By the time we reached Fort Resolution we had paddled another two and half hours. It looked a lovely place from the Lake and it appeared to have a number of new buildings.

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Arriving at Fort Resolution

We landed on the local beach, not quite to West Australian standards but up here, it was a magnificent beach. The beach had a volleyball net, a very basic change room and a big sign stating all the beach rules. We dragged the canoe up the sand, quickly changed into attire more suitable for shopping and walked over to the store. Before buying an ice cream we asked where we could get a weather report but no one knew. We were eventually directed to the community office a few hundred metres away, where a lady employee rang the airport, which gave us only a vague report. 

We returned to the store and bought a few bits for our lunch. One of the checkout girls seemed to be spaced out and in her own world. She knew simply nothing when asked a question. A young male employee seemed more switched on. He was from a town over in the southeast of Canada and was working there to experience the north. When we asked at the store where we could get water, they just said we had to buy it in bottles as there wasn’t a tap to fill from, which seemed very odd. Where do people get their water from, we thought? Then someone mentioned something about the water plant not working at the moment.

Before landing Tony indicated that he wanted to stay the night, but I was concerned with the weather and wind as the lake was renowned for its bad weather. We still had a 142kms to paddle to get to Hay River to meet the ‘girls’ so I felt it important that we kept going to ensure we didn‘t get stranded half way across it and miss our deadline.

The local school teacher Ted, who we had seen in the store, and his wife came across to us as I ate my bread and cheese that I had just bought. His wife was a Kindergarten teacher and they had been in Fort Resolution for nearly three years. They enjoyed their time in Fort Resolution as it was so different from down south, especially winter, but the harsh climate was difficult at times. They were now yearning to move to Hay River where there were more facilities. Ted’s wife carried a blow-up crocodile which their child used to swim with in the lake. It must have been cold but the child didn’t seem to mind. People are tough up here. Ted kindly said we could get water from his home, which was a nice big red house that he was renting on the lake front. It appeared that a truck delivered water to each household. Ted said we could have a barbecue if we stayed that night. This was tempting, but crossing the lake in time to meet the girls seemed more important at that particular time.

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The bay looked calm and the weather report seemed quite reasonable for the afternoon, so we took off across the bay heading towards Little Buffalo River 20kms away. We were told that this was a particularly beautiful spot and that we should take the opportunity to stop there.

Paddling was good for the first hour, but the weather began to deteriorate as the wind increased in strength and the waves in size. The next thing we knew, we were paddling in pretty rough conditions. Waves were breaking over the canoe and at times with such force that they pushed in our spray decks allowing water to enter the canoe. We bailed out every so often. With the waves hitting us at an angle, it was really difficult to keep the canoe on a straight course and it wasn’t a good idea to surf down the big waves which could potentially cause us to capsize. The closer we got to our goal the rougher the lake became. Two or three big waves hit us broadside and we wallowed and braced to prevent the canoe from going over. We continued to fight, hoping that we would stay upright. It would be horrendous if we capsized.

The wind kept pushing the canoe around and making us go in a direction we didn’t want to go. So every so often, when the waves decreased in size I would turn the canoe and paddle directly down the waves to head in the right direction. When the waves got bigger we would change tack and paddle across them again. When we finally approached the Little Buffalo River entrance it was difficult to see the best way to enter as the shallow water had a big build-up of surf waves. Luckily they were manageable as we attempted surfing across them. Although I was used to paddling in such rough conditions, Tony wasn’t and he was relieved when we entered the calm water of Little Buffalo River without capsizing.

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Up the Little Buffalo River

Cold, wet and a little tired we came across a lot of shacks along the river about 500 metres from the lake. We disembarked at a jetty where lilies were growing close by and went for a walk, but there was no one around. A little dejected we got back into the canoe and although we couldn’t see anything ahead, we paddled upstream a bit further. We were so relieved when we saw a cabin with a number of people sitting outside. We slowed and neared the jetty hoping that they would see us and they did. They generously invited us to share their fire and have coffee and a bite to eat and we were more than happy to accept their invitation. Immediately our spirits were lifted as we joined them for damper, sow belly, potatoes, onions and hunks of pork steak. Terry, a farmer, who was with his three daughters and three friends on a fishing holiday from Manning in Alberta was very welcoming. We sat around the fire drinking coffee whilst the guys were cooking the meat and food. We were wet but the fire took away the chill and the chatter gave us a good feeling inside. They said they had found the fishing great at the mouth of the river.

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It was great to meet other people

Chloe, the eldest daughter was about to get her hunting permit and she was excited about it. Terry had thirteen guns, chewed tobacco and he was proud that his daughter wanted to hunt. We stayed for about two hours helping to eat food that they had to eat before going home or it would be have been wasted. Lucky for them we came along!! But in reality, we were the lucky ones to be able to enjoy their good company and their good food.

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Chloe, (middle) was excited because she was about to get her hunting permit

We left them around 9.45pm to set up camp at a nice campsite just beyond a road bridge a little further upriver. Tony just got bedded in when an RV came and camped right next to him. The guy talked loudly, his wife said nothing and when it was time to go to bed they started chopping wood, lit a fire, invited someone else across and talked till after midnight. I don’t think Tony got a lot of sleep. At least I was further away and heard little. Today had been testing at times, but yet in the end it turned out to be a pretty good day.

Day 29 – Friday 4th July

Today is America’s Independence Day. Because we were at a campsite, we had the luxury of being able to use a toilet again which was our treat for the day. We left at 7.45am paddling down a very clear river. After the cloudy Athabasca and Slave Rivers it was a delight to paddle in clear water. Passing the cabin, where we had been treated to amazing hospitality, we shouted our goodbyes. They all rushed over to the jetty and wished us luck.

When we reached the lake, unlike the day before, the horizon was pretty flat and the water calm, but not long after leaving the river mouth a slight wind started to blow. We later landed on an island that had looked like a loaf of bread from a distance. It was wooded and rocky and we found a box full of fishing nets sitting in the trees. A vicious attack from mosquitoes soon had us moving on.

Well ahead we could see a big white object that we thought must be a boat, but on closer inspection it turned out to be a big rock covered with seagull droppings. We made another stop on rocks nearby which we soon found to be a gull rookery. Hundreds of gulls, several ducks and pelicans took to the air and a great number of chicks walked and swam in all directions trying to find hiding spots. We got out and stretched our legs for a few moments skirting around nests, eggs and chicks that were hiding under the grass. I soon didn’t feel good about being there so I returned to the canoe and as soon as Tony returned we moved away leaving the birds alone again.

The wind increased and the conditions on the lake deteriorated and so by midday it was just too rough to paddle. We had only paddled 21kms in five hours by the time we reached Dawson Bay. The southern shore was being pummelled by small surf so we headed to a spit on the northern side of the bay to try and find shelter from the wind and have lunch. We found shelter next to some logs and cooked noodles, but the chill had us shivering. The day was not getting any better and after watching the lake become even rougher we decided that it was too rough to go on and leave the safety of the bay.

My GPS map showed a road and a cabin across the bay, which we soon found was abandoned and in ruin. We landed near a clearing where the cabin stood, but it was tricky as small surf was hammering the rocks. Luckily we managed to get ashore without hitting or damaging anything. We pulled the canoe across the rocks on to dry land and walked towards the cabin some 100 metres or more away, passing an old boat and some concrete footings where a building used to stand. There were two cabins, the bigger one was made of chipboard, the older one of logs that had a number of rags pushed between them to fill the gaps and keep the draught out. They were a sorry sight and a disappointment after thinking for days that the cabins marked on my map would be in a good condition.

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The lake turned rough so we took shelter and started paddling at night

At lunch we decided that if we wanted to complete our average daily distance we would have to paddle at night as the wind was always calmer or we just wouldn’t get to Hay River on time. We returned to the canoe to make camp but Tony picked up his gear and walked back to the chipboard cabin and stayed there until we were ready to go that evening. I sat beside small bushes in shelter from the wind, but still in the sun and checked my maps on the GPS and worked out all the potential sheltered spots along the coast where I thought we may have a chance to land. By doing this it meant we had places to paddle to and take refuge if the weather turned rough or foul. Unfortunately most of these places were at least 14kms apart and although they looked okay on the map, I didn’t know how good they would be in reality.

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It turned cloudy and the wind got worse so I erected my tent and rested for two hours trying to get some sleep. Amazingly there was no mossies around, although I’m sure the wind had something to do with that. I woke up cold and readied myself for our night paddle. It was still choppy at 11.00pm, but by sunset at midnight it had calmed enough for us to start paddling. When the wind dropped the mossies came out, but by then we were ready to go. The rocky, heavily drift-wooded shore had started to quieten as the wind and waves abated. We wanted to start our paddle with dry feet, so we placed logs in the water to use as stepping stones to avoid getting them wet.

The sun set a few minutes before we moved off leaving a dying red sky in front of us. We pushed into the bay and moved across to the other side to where we sneaked through a rock bar of the spit and paddled into the lake proper.

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As the sun goes down near midnight we get ready to take off

Day 30 – Saturday 5th July

We headed towards the red sky on the horizon and then slowly moved in a more westerly direction. The wind was still strong enough to be a nuisance so steering was still challenging.

We stopped at a few places to pee, stretch our legs and have nibbles of fruit and nuts. At Lie De Mort Bay, where a navigation light was housed, we pulled up beside a small old derelict wooden wharf. I suppose it wasn’t really a wharf but a few sleepers forming a wall along the shore filled with rock and dirt to keep its shape. The mosquitoes were particularly active. I walked around the bay and found an old table and bench on shore amongst the high grasses and weeds.

We moved on around the point and passed the light and headed towards a bay I called Foot Bay, but it turned out to be very disappointing as it didn’t have the same amount of water in the bay as my GPS map had indicated. Maps always have big blue lines to indicate water, and even if there is no water in the river or lake, the blue is always on the map. The bay was bordered by grass and weeds, and was very swampy. This made landing impossible, but we managed to move around a rock bar, through the shallows and find a cluster of logs that allowed us to stand and rest.

By 4.30am the sun was rising again. It never did get completely dark. We by-passed my next two sheltered points, Woodpecker Nose and Point Bay by cutting across the bay to Sulphur Cove. I didn’t think that Tony would want to risk cutting across the bay, but the shorter distance must have helped to persuade him.

By 8.30am the wind was quite strong and the wind waves and the wind swells increased with every passing minute. With no rudder, apart from my arm straining to be one, I let the boat run with the swells and then when the big waves had passed I headed the boat in the direction of the waves which were usually headed towards shore. When the big ones returned I ran across the swells again as it was safer and easier. Like in the ocean, the waves seem to get bigger and more confused when rounding points, so for our safety sake, I stayed well away from Sulphur Point.

Halfway across a bay Tony suddenly erupted. “Why are we so far from the point? Are you taking us to South Africa, the point is over there,” he snapped. I said nothing, turned the canoe towards shore a little and carried on. I deliberately kept a kilometre or more away from the points to be safer, as I knew conditions often got worse around points. If we were to capsize at least we might have time to rescue ourselves before being buffeted on the rocky shore.

I continued going across the wave swells and then turned to follow the smaller waves which worked well, but some time later Tony questioned my route again. “Where are you going?” I told him we had to be careful as the wind made steering almost impossible, so it was best to do what I was doing and wait for the right opportunity and smaller waves to bring the canoe around.

Then he said, “I’m part of the team you know and we are going miles around, you should be headed over there.” I tried to compromise by slowly bringing the canoe around and using bigger waves to get closer to shore. It was a risky move as some of the waves were too big to mess with. Keeping a keen eye on the waves behind we slowly moved closer to shore, but then a big wave managed to sneak up and broke over the top of the canoe. The canoe twisted and buckled and flipped to my non bracing side. Water poured onto our spray deck and I could feel the boat wallow in a way I didn‘t like. Luckily we both braced hard, but it nearly went over. It was so close. The wave passed by and we managed to take control of the canoe again. I sighed with relief. This was probably the closest I’d come to capsizing a canoe in years.

We paddled on and as we rounded Sulphur Point the lake got calmer as the point sheltered us from the bigger wind waves. Rocky reefs lined the shore for a while so we kept well out from them. Once safely into calmer waters Tony wanted to land on a nearby beach which was being buffeted by small steep waves. I didn’t have the nerve to suggest finding a safer spot, I just agreed to land. I steered towards shore and followed the waves in. We quickly jumped out and pulled the canoe up. The canoe clipped my heels, but we soon had it up onto the sand. The cold was intense and the wind cut through our clothes like a knife through butter. It wasn’t pleasant. We tried to get out of the wind but there was little shade or shelter, so we got colder as our wet clothes acted as a refrigerator. We fired up the stove and cooked some noodles, but the hot fluid did nothing to warm us up. We stood there shivering.

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Another rest spot and it was so cold

The surf was still breaking on shore. We looked at it and started to work out the best way to leave the shore without getting pummelled. If we let the waves hit us broadside, we would most likely be washed back to shore and probably be capsized. We straightened the canoe on shore and stuck the bow into the water. With one big shove from both of us we speared the canoe towards the oncoming waves, jumped in and we were gone. Another wave smacked into us, but we hit it head on and it gave us no trouble. Within seconds we were out beyond the breaking waves and into the calm. We were pleased, relieved and amazed at how perfect an entry we had done.

We finally arrived at the Buffalo River entrance after paddling for 49kms. A line of waves were breaking in the shallow waters and onto the sandbar. It didn’t look at all good but as we moved further along I could see a better route. Waves started to pick up. Thankfully they weren’t that big, so we were able to surf two or three of them to reach the calm of the river.

We landed next to an old jetty, which led to an old cabin, which had another older cabin close by. The place was deserted. It looked as though no one apart from the mosquitoes which ravaged us had been around for months. The surrounds were pretty miserable and the cabins quite dirty inside, so I was hoping that Tony didn’t want to stop in the hut. I was happy when he agreed to go back to the sandbar and camp there. It was open, clean and free of mosquitoes. As we erected our tents thirty seven pelicans landed near the river mouth. We tried to sleep that afternoon as we were going for another midnight run, but it was hard to sleep in the middle of the day.

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Camped at the mouth of Buffalo River waiting to paddle at night

Day 31 – Sunday 6th July

As the sun went down, just before midnight we donned our PFD’s and warmer clothing and headed out with the river’s swift current into the lake. Between us and the fiery red sky ten pelicans flew by. The lake was calmer than the previous night so steering the canoe was much easier. Our first stop was at Island Bay, which, compared with what it looked like on the map, wasn’t much of a bay at all, but it was enough to give us a bit of shelter. A little further, there were six pelicans standing near a bend, their white feathers contrasting brightly with the darkened corner.

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Securing the spray deck on the canoe just before midnight for another night paddle

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Pelicans fly by as we paddle into the lake

As we reached ‘Fish Point’, where the sea was quite calm and where we could just make out a shadow of a shelter, we turned into a small bay, dodged a few rocks, scraped over others and got out on the rocky shore. Another break, another snack and to our surprise a black wolf came out from the shadows and walked towards us. From 15 metres away it appeared to be wearing a collar, but as it got closer it turned out to be a band of greyer coloured hair. Silently and steadily it walked closer. It wasn’t at all frightened, but with a sudden impulse it stopped, pricked its ears, turned and walked slowly away along the rocky shore. It stopped again looked back and then slipped into the forest.

We canoed away in the dim light just as the wolf came out of hiding. It was free to roam the forest and shores as there was no civilisation for kilometres. Within a few kilometres we were passing Birch Creek where mist was rising from its waters between the shores. It looked beautiful, calm and inviting. I had thoughts of paddling into it, but we kept going.

We were both tired from the lack of sleep, so we were nodding off as we paddled. I thought about singing to keep awake, but that might not have gone down well. By 3.00am there were signs that the sun was starting to appear and with a band of clouds stretching across the sky in a line above the horizon it was quite a sight. Within minutes the sun’s rays were slowly seeping into the cloud until it was a flaming red. We watched it with anticipation, waiting for it to rise. We expected the sun to appear a lot earlier, but at 4.15am it eventually rose. It was a truly spectacular sight, something you would see in a fairytale picture book.

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The sun is about to rise

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The sun rises at 4.15am

Unlike the last few days the wind came up, but then died leaving the water calm and with our tiredness it made it difficult to stay awake. Tony suddenly saw hundreds of pelicans flying directly towards us, but I saw nothing apart from the land appearing out of a haze. The lack of sleep had Tony hallucinating. Later I saw two white boats leaving the Hay River Mouth, but Tony thought they were marker posts. He was so tired, he was seeing things. His paddling also became so soft and ineffective that our speed was slow.

The lake stayed calm and at 7.30am after paddling 39kms, and having spent seven and a half hours on the water, we neared the river mouth. We rounded some small waves stretching out from a shallow bar and paddled around a point and towards the river. Driftwood logs were held captive in a big eddy. Large barges were lined up in dry dock in a yard across the river. Big sheds and a number of buildings were scattered around. I don’t know why, but I was surprised to see so many buildings. We had left Jasper after lunch on the 6th June and now arrived in Hay River before breakfast on the 6th July.

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Arriving at Hay River

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We were relieved to be there and now because we had paddled at night we were ahead of schedule and there before the ‘girls’ which was better than being late. We paddled across the river and landed on a beach where there were several barbecue plates and a closed change room. We had booked in at a Bed and Breakfast somewhere in the area but we didn’t quite know where it was. I walked across the soft sand, along a boardwalk and onto the gravel road which led towards a big house. I then realised it was actually ‘Harbour House’, the place where we intended to stay.

There was no one around, so we asked a guy who was on his balcony next door if he knew how we could make contact with the manager. Jordon just happened to be the son of the owner, Rick Groenewegen. He gave us a key so we could get in and have a shower and make ourselves at home. As we walked back to the canoe, Jordon told us about a canoeing adventure he had with some friends and his wife’s brother. Apparently he and his wife’s brother were in a canoe that capsized and he thought he was going to drown. To this day he is still getting over the terrifying experience.

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Relaxing at ‘Harbour House’

We had a great shower and sat outside in the sun waiting for Jordon’s dad Rick to arrive. It gave me time to catch up with my diary. A few hours later Ric arrived and allocated us a room. He looked only 30 years old, when in fact he was about 52. He said he often gets mistaken for his wife’s son or his son’s brother.

Later that day Jordon called in and lent us two bicycles so we could get around and then offered to take us into town in his car which we accepted. He took us to Doug Swallow’s store, where we were going to hire our second canoe, although the store wasn’t open. He then showed us all the other stores in town that we may need. Before returning home Jordon drove us by the bright and controversial purple school, the students of which had chosen the colour.

Tired from three days of little sleep I was in bed by 8.30pm, the earliest I had been to bed for years.

Day 32 – Monday 7th July 2008

Tony cycled into town an hour or so before I cycled in. Although it was better than walking the 12kms, I couldn’t raise the seat on my bike so it was hard work because I couldn’t extend my legs. When I reached the Laundromat Tony was just about finished and ready to shop in town.   

From the Laundromat I cycled to Doug’s to see about the rental canoe. The canoe was still being hired out so I couldn’t see it, but I had a good talk with him. I scouted around town and checked the shops for all the things that we would need for when the ‘girls’ arrived.

On our return to Harbour House Jordan invited Tony and I to have dinner with him, his wife Catherine, his young daughter and his friend. Jordan’s house was a large home, designed with style and looked out over the lake and forest. They had two big husky dogs that lived outside in an exercise pen and kennel next to his house.

It was so good to sit down and eat a meal from a table that had a great view of the lake. We talked, Jordan told us more about the near disastrous canoe trip again and he said he was keen to have our canoe after we had finished with it, if we didn’t want it.

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Having dinner with Jordan, Catherine and Jordan’s friend

We returned to Harbour House after a beautiful meal. Tomorrow the girls would arrive and our 4000km journey down the McKenzie River in two separate canoes would begin.

End of stage one…… Stage two to follow

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Book for sale: $15.00

The Three Rivers Book is available @ $15.00. Three Rivers to Tuktoyaktuk is an almost 4000km journey along the Athabasca, Slave and Mackenzie Rivers in Canada starting from the Rocky Mountains and finishing at the Arctic Ocean. The first part of the journey Tony Chounding and Terry Bolland paddled the Athabasca and Slave Rivers experiencing high mountains, swamps and flat-land, huge rapids, total wilderness, insects, local First Nation people, big lakes and a multitude of wildlife. At Hay River on the Great Slave Lake they met up with Alaine Davin and Leonie Cockman who paddlded the second part of the journey across part of the Great Slave Lake and down the longest river in Canada, the Mackenzie. There were now 2 canoes and 4 different personalities. 254 colour photographs, 260 pages and 4 maps. Printed in WA. It’s just not a great story but also a Canadian wilderness colour picture-book.