Tuesday, August 28, 2007
The Nahanni river is an antecedent river. It meanders much like a slow prairie river might, taking the course of least resistance through the softer sedimentary rock where it can. This is not typical of most mountain rivers, which descend rapidly and on a straight course from high to low. What this means, then, is that the Nahanni did not begin life as a mountain river. Rather, it began life as a plains river wending its way through the sedimentary rock of an ancient ocean bed. It was much later that the mountains began to form by the tectonic forces that created the Rockies. The river carved its way through the mountains as they formed, faster than the mountains rose, hence the sweeping, meandering turns known as oxbows.
Our destination today is a curiosity that sometimes emerges as a result of a change in the river's flow around and oxbow (a hair-pin turn in the river). Sometimes the river will push through a new channel, stranding the outside of the turn in the oxbow, this forms a lake known as an oxbow lake. We were told by Ann, the Warden at Rabbitkettle lake, that the last campsite before Virginia Falls was at Oxbow lake ten kilometres from the falls.
We broke camp today at 11:30, later than expected. It seemed that people were tired from the last day's paddle. While we were having breakfast the "Rub-a-dub 8" rafters passed by on their way to the falls.
The paddle in this section was relatively slow. We managed an average of about 8 - 10 km/hr. The current was not much help to us and we had to work at making any headway. In addition to a slow current, we fought a moderately strong head wind for most of the day.
Our first break was at a campsite on an island called Last Chance. This was a very nice spot with a creek entering from river right. We took advantage of the creek to refill our water bottles and drink. Lunch was leftovers from yesterday's chili supper and today's multi-grain cereal served on tortilla wraps. The resulting concoction had a distinct resemblance to grizzly bear scat, more tasty than it sounds.
Leaving Last Chance we paddled for another three hours until we found a gravel bar about 500 metres upstream from the creek entering from the Oxbow lake. There were dark clouds gathering all around and we anticipated a late afternoon storm. We had just enough time to pitch the tents and put up the rain tarp before the rains came. It was a brief and intense storm that lasted about an hour and was followed by a clear and sunny evening. Our spirits were high knowing that tomorrow morning we would be able to arrive at Virginia Falls in time to enjoy a full day of exploring. We spent the evening enjoying the scenery, playing guitar, singing and telling stories by the campfire.
We had traveled 35 kilometres today and it had felt like 50!
Monday, August 27, 2007
We woke up early and broke camp by 10:30, our plan was to make significant distance today. For the next two days we needed to make good time on the river to make sure that we arrived at Virginia Falls on the expected date. Our plan was to camp close to the falls on August 2 so that we could canoe a short distance and arrive on the 3rd before noon.
The day was sunny and hot and the paddling was strenuous. The river had good current and we averaged 10 - 15 km/hr. in three shifts of one and one half hours. We found the vistas quite spectacular with the Sunblood range of the Mackenzie mountains dominating river left and the Ragged range on river left.
Many small creeks flowed into the river creating gravel bars and silt deposits along the way. These were excellent places to stop and have our snack breaks. As the day progressed, however, we found it increasingly difficult to find the gravel bars to make camp. We anticipated staying at Flood Creek where there was an excellent campsite on a large gravel bar. When we got there, however, we waved at the Rub-a-Dub 8 rafters who already occupied the site. We had hoped to find another gravel bar campsite further down the river, but instead found silt and sand. We were all getting tired at this point and started to get irritable about finding a camp site. Just beyond our endurance for the day was an excellent campsite at Hell Roaring Creek. As it was we settled for silt and sand for a second night in a row.
When we finally settled on a place to camp we had plenty of time to set up and to prepare so few portages that this trip entails. dinner. We camped against some scrub bushes where we could see the evidence of recent moose activity; both scats and footprints. In the evening under the mosquito netting we enjoyed some very good scotch and sang some blues songs with guitar accompaniment. I have a Martin backpacker guitar that I made a waterproof case for before setting out on the trip. It's a little heavy, but worth while having especially on a trip with so few portages.
Our total kilometers traveled today was 43.5 km.
Sunday, August 26, 2007
We were out of the tents early today and on our way across the river to the Warden's cabin. Ann, the warden we had met the day before, was going to lead us on a tour of the tufa mounds. This was an interpretive hike about the area, which is renown for its volcanic activity that has resulted in what was once romoured to be a tropical paradise. Geothermic activity has given rise to hot springs, emerald green lakes, and tufa mounds.
Tufa mounds are created when minerals are dissolved to the point of super saturation in hot springs that originate deep within the earth. As the water reaches the surface it begins to cool and the minerals, predominantly calcium carbonate, begin to precipitate out of solution and form a large structure resembling a mound of sandy coloured concrete. Indeed, calcium carbonate is one of the ingredients of cement, which is in turn one of the main ingredients in concrete. The tufa mounds in the Nahanni region are believed to be 10,000 years old and because of the fragility require us to walk on them in our bare feet.
On the hike in the morning were the five people in our group, plus Brian and Bert, two guys who had been camping on Rabbitkettle lake. They were the early risers in a group of six people who were headed to Virginia Falls in two days time.
The round trip to the tufa mounds took us about four hours and involved hiking three and one half kilometres one way. We needed to cross the Rabittkettle river and this was accomplished by a scow-ferry attached to a cable and pulley system. Four of us went on the first crossing, to be followed by the other four in the second crossing. Those on either shore who were not in the boat, pulled on the cables to pilot the scow across the river. This proved to be ab adventure due to the strong rapids currents in the river!
We learned that the tufa mounds were thought to be a sacred place and efforts to preserve their integrity arise from their geological and their cultural significance. The tour was tightly scheduled and we were required to remove our footwear to walk on them; only four people were allowed at one time. There is a another reason that the tours only occur at two times in the day. The country we are in is a significant summer habitat of the grizzly bear. This is due to the fact that their is an abundance of buffalo berries, the primary food source for the bear in the summer months (July and August). Tours at 8:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. have minimal impact on the bears, because they are more likely to be active in the early mornings and the later afternoons. Interestingly, the presence of a bear or evidence that a bear is in the vicinity means the cancellation of the hike, not only because of the safety of hikers, but also so that human activity will have low impact on the bears.
We arrived back at camp at about noon, just in time to see the "Rub-a-Dub 8" raft head down the river. We made a quick lunch and were ready to move on ourselves by mid-afternoon. We had planned to make as much time as we could today, given that it was a reasonably good afternoon for paddling. We didn't get off the river until after 8:00 p.m., having made 30 kilometres down river. By the time we made camp, no one was particularly pleased with the spot chosen because of the wet location and because of the sandy conditions. The wet and the sand made for lots of mosquitoes and lots of dirt in the tents and other gear.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
We'd been so long at Brintnell Creek that is was difficult, in many respects, to leave this camp. Consequently, we took our time taking down the tent when it was nearly dry, having a leisurely breakfast and packing the gear carefully. Alex, Tania and Andrew, the climbers, were tired and were glad for the relaxed pace. Having prepared the maps, I knew that to make the campsite at Oxbow Lake above Virginia Falls on the August 3rd (our expected date) we needed to paddle 122 km in four days. Since we were planning to stay at Rabbitkettle Lake tonight and the next night that left just August 1 and August 2 to paddle about 100 km. I was a little nervous about the distance since I had read that the river was slow in the next section.
As with most mornings here it rained a little, but by the time we were prepared to leave it was mostly clear. We loaded the canoes, put on the spray skirt and shortly after noon we were ready to leave. We had only 15 km to travel today, so we paddled leisurely and enjoyed the view. By lunch time we had reached the boundary of the Nahanni National Park Reserve.
Despite the fact that the river is slower than above Brintnell Creek, we still made good time and by early evening reached the Rabbitkettle campsite and visitor check in. After docking the canoes we chatted at the kiosk with some members of a group of guys who were traveling the river by raft. There were 8 of these fellows who collectively referred to themselves as the "Rub-a-Dub 8". They were from B. C. and have been doing canoe trips together for about a decade. This was the first time they had tried rafting.
We also meet a canoeist who was traveling the river with a friend who was recently diagnosed with cancer. He agreed to do the heavy work on this trip in order that his friend, an experienced paddler, can enjoy a trip while his health lets him. This man confirmed for us that there are many reasons why people come to the Nahanni. Bill Mason, Canada's canoeing icon, was brought here one last time by family and friends just before he died of cancer in1988 1 (Becky Mason).
With the canoes safely stowed we walked to the warden's cabin on the shore of Rabbitkettle Lake. It was good to be out of the canoe and hiking, it was hot and we soon worked up a sweat as the trail wound its way up the slope to the lake. At the cabin we checked in and met with wardens John and Ann, who talked to us about the park regulations. The check-in posts at various points along the river ensure that in the event they get lost their last whereabouts are known.
We took a welcomed dip in Rabbitkettle Lake to cool off and to get clean. It was a warm afternoon and the coolness of the water was very refreshing. We leave the lake with reluctance and returned along the trail to the canoes. Ferrying across the lake we arrived at the campsite which is well marked with tent sites and food caches designated. We were warned to use the caches because it was only a few days ago that the area was closed because of the presence of a grizzly bear.
Setting up our camp, we talked to the Belgian canoeists who we met a few days ago. One of them asked if we have had dinner yet. When I said that we haven't, he offered me a large pot half filled with pea soup, the remains of their dinner. I eagerly accepted and thanked him wholeheartedly. The five of us ate the soup with gusto and began the preparation of our own dinner of pizza.
The weather in the afternoon and evening took a dramatic turn as the wind picked up and blasted down the river valley. At the far end of the campsite we saw the Belgians under a tarp that blew frantically in the wind. It began to cool down and people put on windbreakers and rain gear in anticipation of the impending storm. Our own rain tarp, that Alex and Tania pitched, came down with a crash. As predicted, the rain came down in a driving torrent for about 15 minutes and then as quickly as it came, resolved into a sunlit sky and a rainbow against the peak on the opposite bank. Despite the onslaught we continued to prepare the Pizza and re-pitch the rain tarp.
We have our dinner under the tarp and prepared bannock for our lunch tomorrow. The evening ended with a nightcap of vodka cocktails and songs.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
I awoke restless today and found it difficult to get organized; I spent an inordinate amount of time searching for my glasses. I left them by the creek the night before and this fact annoys me.
Glen and I are becoming accustomed to this place. While I have enjoyed the relaxing pace of the trip so far, I am getting anxious to leave. Glen, however, has settled into life at the creek; he busies himself with routines such as cleaning the canoe of sand, collecting firewood and doing laundry.
Glen and I prepared breakfast of oatmeal and double-smoked bacon. It was raining for the early part of the morning, but now the sky is clearing. Typical for the days that we have been here, rain clouds encircle the mountain tops and clear sky streams down the river valley. Whoever said that the area around
After breakfast today I spent personal time doing some reading, meditating and GPS mapping. We expect our traveling partners to return today and in the mid-afternoon their canoe appears up river across from the campsite.
Alex, Andrew and Tania have arrived back safely from their climb to the Cirque. Glen and I are very glad to see them and hug each one of them in turn. They are quite happy with their accomplishment and the five of us share stories of our experiences of the past few days over tea.
Andrew tells us that at the Cirque they met quite a few Europeans from
I make a call home on the Sat phone to let my family know that I'm okay and Glen and I prepare supper this evening giving the others a chance to recuperate. After a dinner of Beef Stroganoff and blueberry crumble, made with blueberries collected on the trail by our comrades, we finish off a bag of red wine. Under the mosquito netting we play a game of "Oh Heck" and talk about the plans to leave camp in the morning.
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
As a youngster I was a boy scout and I learned a number of skills needed to survive in the woods. In those days it was acceptable to practice "full impact" camping. Early scouting books showed how to build a variety of pieces of camp furniture such as a kitchen (complete with shelves), a privy, suitable seating, campfire tripods and bridges. All required freshly cut young saplings, plenty of cord and the knowledge of a few good knots. The structures built were semi-permanent and designed to remain in place for other campers to enjoy and to build onto. Thankfully, the trend of the past few decades has been toward "no impact" camping, practiced by most but not all outdoors people. I have been on a few campsites where inconsiderate campers have left garbage, trails of used toilet paper, plastic wrappers and abandoned shelters.
Glen and I need a place where we can sit out of the sun and rain for the next few days until our friends return. We intend to build a structure that is temporary, uses driftwood and that can be easily taken down when we leave. We locate a large uprooted tree to serve as a bench and several long poles in the driftwood piles around the camp. Using the lashing techniques acquired through scouting we soon build a lean-to using a ground cover as fly tarp.
There are other chores that need to be done and after breakfast we set about to organize the site. One job that I tackle involves the tent. At the planning stage of the trip I told Glen that I had an expedition style tent that would be ideal for the trip. It has a large vestibule area for storing gear out of the rain and it weighs less than the tent Glen would have brought. This made it a hands-down choice.
One thing that I should have done before the trip was to check the tent for water tightness. After the first rain on the river, we learned that it was not. The one solution to this problem was to cover the tent entirely with a fly that is normally used as a rain shelter. This created two problems, the first that we didn't have an extra fly to use as an eating and sitting area; the second that we needed about an hour to set up our tent at each new campsite.
It was clear after a couple of days on the river that my reliable tent was going to choose the biggest trip of its lifetime to resign. Yesterday the zipper began to bind and to leave large sections of the mosquito netting open to the free entry of all bugs within the vicinity of the vestibule. There was usually about a million of them, including five different species of mosquito that inhabit the Nahanni area. A necessary chore, therefore, was the reparation of zipper by sewing it shut for a section of its length where it was not closing. That left a small section where we could crawl in and close it behind us, inconvenient but workable.
I also spent some time making a duct-tape lens cover for my under water camera bag and repairing my glasses that had fallen into the fire this morning at breakfast. I had lost one lens and now needed to work a solution, using wire, that would allow me to wear the clip-on shades. By the time I had these things done and the maps organized it was early evening and time to prepare dinner. A perfect day of idling.
In the afternoon we meet another group of travelers on the river. Like the Belgians they are interested in how to get to the Cirque. We give them the same advice we gave the Belgians yesterday and they are appreciative. We learn that they are from Montreal and from France. They ask if they can beach their canoe at the site and then are on their way up the river. There are six of them in two canoes.
In the early evening after dinner Glen tries his hand at fishing. Some of the species of fish that are likely include, Dolly Varden, Arctic Grayling, Pike and Mountain Whitefish. We imagined a breakfast feed of fresh fish, and thought our location was ideal. After about half an hour Glen returned to camp having snagged his line. We decided to retrieve the line in the morning when we could better see where the lure had lodged. So much for a Dolly Varden fried in butter over a morning fire.
We retired to the tent after we had braved the bugs long enough in the fading glow of the campfire. We expected the others to return tomorrow , so our mood was generally upbeat. We compose of song for our friends' return based on the tune to "Michael Row the Boat Ashore". Glen has a terrific sense of humour and we tell stories and laugh for some time before falling asleep.
Monday, August 20, 2007
Glen and I awake at first light after a cold and fitful sleep. Although it is raining we decide that the trek back to camp will be warmer than lying one more shivering moment on the cold ground.. We were glad to be on the move back to the relative warmth of our tent at Brintnell Creek, where we can have a long afternoon nap.
It is raining that slow and persistent rain that foreshadows a day long pour and before long we are drenched from top to bottom. We stopped briefly to eat the last of the jerky and the vegetable chips. The trail was closer to the creek on the way down and we get much better at picking out the main trails from the false ones. We conclude that we must have deviated a little from the main trail on the way up, likely because the trail next to the creek is mostly under water and fellow hikers have chosen a route further away from the creek.
At one point Glen tells me I have stepped on something in the trail. Something dead and gray.We stoop down to investigate. We are unsure what it is, but one thing is for sure it is a rodent. It was about 4-5 inches long, gray or black in colour with feet that looked like those of a rat. We take note of the details about the creature in hopes of identifying it later.
In a few hours we have descended the hill from Glacier Lake and have returned to our canoe still beached beside the creek where we left it. Without delay we load our packs and get into the canoe to paddle back down the creek to the river and our camp.
Our creature turned out to be a Meadow Vole, commonly known as a field mouse. These rodents are abundant in the area and are sought out as food by hawks, foxes and other predators.
A Little R' n R
Reaching the campsite at about noon, we have a very quick bite to eat and a cup of tea. We are very tired from the short, cold night and the 5 hour trek down the hill. Very soon we are in the tent and sound asleep during what turns out to be a warm and sunny afternoon.
Glen asked, "Do you hear voices?" Out of my returning consciousness I responded that I hadn't. I open the the flap of the vestibule and see that no one is there. Glen insists, "I heard voices near the water."
Getting out of the tent I declare, "There is no one here Glen, you must have been dreaming."
Glen and I both wonder to the shore in our long underwear and teeshirts that pass for pajamas out here to be met by an older and younger man in large hats like those the Australians wear. "I was right", Glen nudges me, "there were voices."
We learn that our visitors are from Belgium and that it is their intention to climb to the Cirque. Glen and I give them information about the trail and they still seem determined to make the effort. They tell us that they have been on the Nahanni twice now, once two years ago they paddled down the Flat River to where it meets the Nahanni, and on from there to the Laird river. We are very impressed by their sense of adventure and their ability to mount two such demanding expeditions. Glen and I wish them well and later in the afternoon we see them again, along with four other comrades, paddling up the river past our campsite, to the trail that leads up to the Cirque.
The rest of the afternoon was spent idling with a campfire, buckets of tea, a great supper of Thai chicken and rice and a cherry crumble dessert. There is plenty of nothing to do today, and we revel in it. We feel strong in the knowledge that we have survived an unscheduled camp out deep in the boreal forest.
Sunday, August 19, 2007
Daylight floods the tent quite early, but we are in no hurry to get up. We have nowhere to be and the thought of a relaxing and do-nothing day is appealing. Glen has made a full and timely recovery from his heat exhaustion, his energy and enthusiasm returning. Outside the tent it is clear and the sun heats things up quickly. We look forward to accomplishing a few small chores that will occupy most of a lazy morning on Brintnell Creek. But first, there is breakfast. Both Glen and I like to talk and we discuss everything from the correct way to boil tea and coffee to the probability (or lack thereof) of the existence of God.
Glen and I prepare oatmeal and some rashers of double-smoked back bacon acquired from Brady's Meats in Waterloo. Rob is the friendly butcher who runs the store and I remind myself to tell him when I get back that his bacon made it all the way to the Nahanni River. Before leaving I packed the bacon in vinegar soaked cheese cloth and sealed it in plastic bags, and it remains fresh and mold free well into the latter days of the trip. Today the smells waft enticingly into the the gentle breeze in the river valley. I remind myself to make sure it is tightly sealed in the food barrel when we are finished and that I wear an apron while cooking. There are neighbours in the area who just might know about double-smoked bacon and may try to help themselves, uninvited, to a free meal! These neighbours can be surly, mean-spirited and a trifle territorial about food that they believe is theirs.
After breakfast Glen and I set about doing some laundry and hanging our wet clothes on a line to dry. It is a good drying day. At least at the moment. The ever-present clouds hang over the Cirque up river as if the place is a magnet for continual rain, which it likely is. The cold air generated by the Glaciers, the ring of high peaks and the heat of the summer sun create some kind of self-perpetuating cycle of rising moist air cooling at the higher altitudes and gathering as clouds and rain in the late afternoon.
Glen and I reason that because it is sunny, today would be a good day to do the hike to Glacier Lake. We haven't yet figured out the geography and its climate yet to fully appreciate that the sun may not last all day. We have enough sense, however, to always carry with us rain gear in the event of a shower.
We decide at 1:00 p.m., when the chores have been done, to take the hike up to Glacier Lake so that we can get closer to the Cirque where our traveling partners have gone. We have read Peter Jowett's and Neil Hartling's guide to the river and the book says, "This hike from the river to the beaitiful blue-green waters of Glacier Lake is an 18 km, 5 to 6 hour round trip of moderately strenuous trekking." We judge this not to mean arduous, death-defying, superhuman, monstrous or other possible adjectives. We use the advice of these experienced Nahanni guides to time our trip accordingly and reason that we will be returning to camp at about 8 p.m. in lots of time to cook dinner and have an evening all to ourselves by the campfire of our new home.
Like yesterday, Glen and I travel up the river using the eddies on the left bank of the river (The reader should know that the side of the river is determined relative to direction of the river. "River left" is so-called because it is on the left side of the canoe when traveling downstream. It is still called "river left" even when traveling upstream and it is on your right.) We have packed a lunch, some beef-jerky, toasted vegetable chips, and a bag of trail-mix (a mixture of dried-fruit, seeds and nuts). We are traveling light to make the trek a little easier on ourselves. In addition to my day pack, I carry a fanny pack carrying a "space-aged survival blanket", a first aid kit and a can of bear spray.
We take the eddies in the river as far as we can by paddling, poling and eventually tracking with a rope. Glen points out that when R. M. Patterson, the English adventurer, met Albert Faille, the trapper, on the river in 1927 he learned the skill of tracking from him. It involves tying a long rope to the bow and stern of the canoe, wrapping the rope around your back, keeping the bow rope longer than the stern rope and pushing the bow out into the current with a paddle. You then simply walk along the bank of the river, pulling the canoe as it rides the current. Glen and I do this now and are able to pass well upstream of our friends' canoe, adjacent to a gentle creek mouth on river right.
We ferry across the river and enter the creek as far as we can go. There is a dead-fall across the creek about 300 metres upstream and it is here that we beach the canoe, change into our hiking boots and start the hike to Glacier Lake. The trail is well marked at this spot with flagging tape, the modern equivalent to trail-blazing. We follow the trail from the creek down to the river trail with little difficulty, picking up the main trail in about 100 meters. It is sunny and hot but we have brought 5 one-litre bottles of fresh water and the day promises to be fun-filled and adventurous. A great alternative, for a couple of older guys, to the arduous trek that our friends are doing. We are looking for the spot where the trail bends sharply to the left and up the hillside.
After walking for about 20 minutes we begin to suspect that we have somehow missed the main trail up the slope. We reverse our direction and in about 10 more minutes we find the place our companions spoke about after their evening reconnaissance the night before. We recall Andrew saying, "The trail is marked by about 15 pieces of flagging tape. You can't miss it." Somehow, we had.
The most likely place to find black spruce is in a spruce bog. Bogs are generally wet places, filled with mosses and alive with mosquitoes. True to form the one we are in now is like this. The trail rises steadily up hill, for a time out of the wet and with a clearly defined path. There is the occasional detour around deadfall and areas that are underwater, where the path is less well defined because other hikers have taken a multiplicity of routes. Making matters worse is the fact that the trail is intersected by game trails throughout the bog.
Near one of these intersections we see a bright red swath of what looks like berry jam complete with seeds and gelatinous remains of unprocessed berries. We suspect that it is something left behind by one of the local residents. A few days later our suspicions are confirmed when on a interpretive hike we learn this is what grizzly bear scats look like this time of year after they have gorged themselves on buffalo berries. Other scats in the area look like those of wolf and woodland caribou - we realize we are not alone.
Glen and I take breaks to drink water and to rest when the rise in elevation causes a precipitous rise in heart rate. I am surprised, initially, at how much lactic burn must be endured, despite the pre-trip training I have done in preparation for the trip. Our first long rest is at the height of the first rise, it is here that we take lunch and a look through the trees at the river valley below. We have attained an elevation of about 200 metres in a distance of 950 metres and it has taken us 2 hours!
From our lunch spot there is a third rise in elevation before the trail levels out and swings back toward Brintnell Creek. There is a blessing and a curse in this change in topography. It is good that we no longer have steep inclines to negotiate. It is less to our advantage that we have dense forest cover and frequent pooling of water trapped in the bog. Our feet get increasingly wet and the trail disappears into numerous areas of braiding around stagnant mud holes. We are sweating profusely, cursing the bugs, and rapidly running out of water.
By 5 p.m., three and one half hours after beginning this hike we have gone an impressive 3.2 km! That makes our overall speed (breaks included) less than 1 km/hr. It is at this point that I start to have the idea of sending a very pointed letter to Mr. Jowett and Mr. Hartling about their estimate of the time necessary for this trip. I begin to wonder whether they have ever done this hike and suspect that they relied on secondary sources for their research. Six hours return!? For who?
Over the next couple of hours Glen and I wrestle several times with the thought of turning back. Had we turned around at five o'clock we would have likely been back at the campsite within the time we had allotted. We would have come a long way, however, without reaching Glacier Lake and a view of the Cirque. Still convinced we could make it back before dark, we press on.
After the last steep rise, the trail heads towards Brintnell Creek until it meets it at a set of rapids where we are able to pump some clear and cold water. The scenery here is wonderful. We now catch a glimpse of a mountain with glaciers within the Ragged range. Despite being tired we carry on, determined to reach the lake by six or seven o'clock; allowing ourselves plenty of time to be back at our campsite by nightfall.
The spruce bog seems endless, it stretches out before us in soggy-after-soggy kilometre for the next two hours. From time to time we can see the creek to our left through the bush. But there is no sign of the lake. It has been six hours since we started, our feet are sore, we are dispirited and down to our last few veggie chips and pieces of jerky. Instead of writing to Jowett and Hartling, I am tempted to seek them out personally should I ever get back from this "moderately strenuous trek". Glen and I agree the adjectives used in the guide are indeed wrong. We recommend terms like "onerous", "backbreaking", or "grueling" would be better descriptors.
Reality imposes itself at 7:30, when we finally make sighting of the lake, that we will be unable to make it back to camp tonight. It has taken us six hours to get this far one-way. We now wonder whether the authors may have made a misprint that they and their publisher failed to catch. Raising my fist to the now cloudy sky, I curse Nahanni Neil and defy that he show himself in my presence.
We are worried. There are several problems with our current situation. At the top of our list is that we have no food and it is dinner time. This fact is made doubly difficult to take because of the decision we made on day one of this trip. You may remember that I said that Tania, our organized fellow traveler, helped us with the logistics of the trip. One concern that I had about her planning was that she had convinced us not to bring the energy bars. Bars that I usually carry in my fanny pack for the situation in which we now find ourselves. The next problem is that we don't have a tent and the prospect of sleeping in the open outdoors is less than appealing. The final problem on the list was that is was getting cloudy, threatening rain and we were wet with sweat from the heat of the day. We contemplated our fate as we spotted several beached canoes at the end of Glacier Lake.
There is a reality show that I have caught occasionally on television. This really fit guy of about 30 years strands himself for fun in some difficult terrain; for example the boreal forest in winter, or the heat of the desert with very few supplies. The drama of the show is created by watching this guy get himself out of these self-imposed jams and walk back to civilization and safety. All the while he teaches you about the skills needed to survive when you are lost. Glen and I are not lost; we are, however, stranded without food and shelter for the night.
We start to take stock of our present reality. We need shelter with the possibility of rain coming up. Glen suggests, "We have no food and this could be a real problem."
"Glen, I think we can survive for a few days without food and we are only a half a day away from our camp", I assure him.
But Glen is not consoled. He is hungry and about to expire from starvation. I remember that I usually pack a energy bar in my fanny pack and with any luck their may be one that escaped Tania's scrutiny. Finding one I offer Glen half of it. He is immediately revived and in good spirits. He remembers that he has with him a Coghlan survival kit that he has been carrying with him on canoe trips for about 15 years. With glee he exclaims, "This is just the occasion I have been waiting for to use this thing! We are going to survive!"
I look in my fanny pack and I find the space-aged blanket that can reflect 99% of the body's heat when worn correctly. Around us there are several canoes. It occurs to me that if turned upside-down they will make almost ideal tents - no bug screen, but tents nonetheless. I overturn two of them facing each other and make a rather cozy domicile. Just before it rains I harvest enough spruce boughs to make a sleeping platform, feeling quite proud of my resourcefulness.
Meanwhile, Glen has emptied the contents of his survival kit. The usefulness of the items appears at first glance to be quite dubious. At second glance I am convinced of the total uselessness of most items. Glen, however, remains enthusiastic and starts to insist that we use every item to ensure our safety. The kit includes; a metre long piece of nylon string, a book of matches with an application to a college of engineering, fire starter cubes , a small plastic compass whose needle points to the east, a poncho (actually a piece of plastic thinner than Saran wrap), a fish hook and length of line, salt tablets, a Bandaide and first aid sheet, a boullion cube, a tea bag, a razor blade and two nails.
"Look, we have same nourishment. The boullion cube. We can make some hot soup."
"Glen, how are we going to heat it up?"
"We have matches for a fire, their is plenty of dry wood and we have the fire starters."
"That is a good start, for sure. Did the kit come with a small pot to hold the water in while we boil it?"
"Good point, we'll have to find uses for these other things though! What a great survival kit!", chirps Glen enthusiastically.
We secure our shelter for the night. In no time we have a cheering fire going. We use the plastic poncho to cover the gap between the over-turned canoes, the fire starter and matches to get the fire going and Glen insists that we take the salt pills because we have been sweating all day. I resist initially telling him that the jerky is plenty salty, but Glen is adamant. We are contented and have time to take in the beauty of our surroundings. Across the lake, shrouded in clouds and mist, is what we came here to see, the Cirque of the Unclimbables.
Saturday, August 18, 2007
The hike to the Cirque of the Unclimbables takes a minimum of three days, but we are told by Jock the guide at Fort Simpson, to be fully enjoyed fives days is required. Glen and I discuss the possibility of a five day backpack in rugged terrain and agreed that a five day stay at the Brintnell Creek campsite would be more to our liking. Alex, Tania and Andrew, however, have been enthusiastic about the hike from the beginning and this morning they begin to pack out for their journey. I arranged the topo maps that they would need and gave them to Alex to add to his gear.
It is raining. A slow steady rain that is likely to last most of the day. Despite the effort that it takes to prepare a fire and get breakfast ready, our friends slowly, with determination prepare their packs for the strenuous five-day trek. Glen and I assist where we can to deliver them to the trailhead up river about one kilometer. This required a more or less vigorous paddle across to and up the left shore eddy and a ferry back to the right shore above a small creek. We took two canoes so that we could carry them and their packs to the trail that follows the river for some distance before cutting sharply into the bush and up the slope to Glacier lake.
Glen and I wave good bye to our friends, now ladened down with heavy packs, and begin the much easier paddle back to the campsite. It is just before noon and the rain has subsided. It promises to be a warm and partially sunny afternoon.
The Art of Relaxation
Glen and I have very little to do for the next few days. We can enjoy at a very leisurely pace the joy of camp life and the chores of splitting firewood, preparing meals, drying wet clothes and trip planning. The latter task I begin in earnest after lunch by folding the correct topos and entering the route waypoints into my GPS. It is then that I realize that I have given Alex the wrong topo for the route to the Cirque. This causes me some concern, but I know that he will have his GPS with him and that the trail is reasonably well marked.
In the afternoon Glen complains of a headache. He is listless and feeling unwell. I wonder whether he has drank enough water in the heat and exercise in the past few days, as dehydration is often the most likely reason for the symptoms. I get out a copy of my St. John's Ambulance Wilderness First Aid book and with little difficulty I am able to diagnose Glen's condition as heat exhaustion. It didn't help that he sat for most of the hot afternoon on a space-aged blanket with the reflector side up. The literature with the blanket boasts that it returns 99% of the body's heat to the wearer. I prescribe water and pain killers for the headache and advise him to rest for the afternoon in the shaded tent. He sleeps soundlessly while I take in the serenity of our surroundings.
I promised my family that I would attempt to reach them from time to time to let them know that we are safe. Later that afternoon I attempt to reach my daughter by Satellite phone. I leave messages at two of the three possible numbers. We are safe, having a great time, tell Leona that Glen is living out his 44 year-old dream and by the way please cancel Ompah's taxi in Fort Simpson on account we arranged our own shuttle.
When Glen was a young teen he recalls seeing a movie about Nahanni trapper Albert Faille. The film is a short National Film Board documentary about the latter days of Faille's life on the river. In his seventies, Faille seems obsessed with locating the legendary gold mine above Virginia Falls, a dream that occupied most of his life on the river. Needless to say gold was never found, either because there is none, or because one of the many creeks that flow from the mountains has yet to transect a vein of ore. Glen's dream of paddling the Nahanni river began when he was 16 inspired by Faille, Patterson, Kraus and of course Bill Mason.
I try to recall when paddling this river entered my life list of things to do. I began canoeing when I was very young, having attended outdoor camps when I was eight. My first big canoe trip was in a Lakefield (a subsidiary of the Peterborough Canoe Company) freighter canoe when I was 10. I began whitewater canoeing in my adult years after my children were born and began reading about rivers and the whitewater experience. I eventually learned about Bill Mason and his art and film work. In his book "Canoescapes" there is a picture of Virginia Falls, which is the most likely seed of my curiosity about this river. In the late '80's I met Neil Hartling, the so-called, Nahanni Neil, about the river. I was then bitten by the Nahanni bug.
The afternoon is hot, we relax with tea, surrounded by mountains with clouds amassing and dissipating along the ridges. Across the river are some of the lower peaks of the Mackenzie range. Across from our campsite is an unnamed peak in the Selwyn Mountains. Referring to to the topo map I learn that it is about 6000 feet or 1800 metres above our location
Thursday, August 16, 2007
The Cirque of the Unclimbables lies within the Ragged range, so named because of the irregular appearance of the peaks. The peaks were formed when igneous batholiths from deep within the earth were pushed upward. The subsequent erosion of the overlying sedimentary rock eventually exposed the harder batholiths leaving a rugged range of mountains that is an attraction, we learn, of climbers from around the globe. The Cirque is situated north of the Nahanni Park Reserve's northwest border above Rabbitkettle lake.
Camp 3 - Brintnell Creek
We are headed to Brintnell Creek because it offers a trail that leads to the Cirque by way of Glacier Lake. Our traveling companions, Alex, Tania and Andrew are determined to make the four to five day trek up and back. Glen and I are less sure about the prospect of doing such a hike with large packs on our back.
We take our time breaking camp today with the luxury of a shorter paddle than yesterday, about 32 km. We arrive at the campsite in the early afternoon and spend the time drying out wet gear in the sunny periods between cloud bursts. During the time we are on this site we see patches of blue sky upriver past the peaks of the Cirque, surrounded by dark clouds on all sides. This vista remains pretty much unchanged for the five days of our stay. It is as if the mountains in this area attract rain-filled clouds like a magnet. We can be assured of sunny mornings, increasing cloudiness during the midday, rain during the early evening, and clearing in the later evening.
There are a number of chores that must be done each morning before we can get into the canoes. Personal gear must be organized and packed, tents taken down, breakfast prepared and dishes washed, camp gear organized and packed, water pumped and purified, food placed in the lunch bucket and finally the canoes loaded. The younger members of our group are much quicker at these chores than Glen and I. While we will try as the trip progresses to get faster at breaking camp, the best that Glen and I seem to be able to muster is two hours.
On the first morning of the trip, we break camp by about 11 o'clock. This tends to be the norm, and it means that in order to make any distance we end up paddling late into the day. Up here it doesn't matter at this time of year because it doesn't get dark until quite late.
After a good breakfast, we load the canoes and start down the creek leading to the river. The creek is quite pretty with willow lining the bank, it meanders slowly and within twenty minutes we enter the main flow of the South Nahanni. We notice immediately that the currents on the big river are fast and strong, we average about 13 km/hr. All around us we are treated to vistas of the mountains of the ragged range on river right and the more regular peaks of the Mackenzie range on the left.
After a short paddle we come upon a rustic cabin on the left side of the river. We land the canoes and take the time to explore. The cabin was built by John and Joanne Moore in 1978 who lived here during their year long honeymoon. I guess that the Moore's left the area because of the warm climate created by the nearby hot springs, making the area a prime location for hordes of mosquitoes!
When we have had enough of the bugs, we also leave without visiting the hot springs. Back on the river we paddle for another hour or so before taking a break for lunch on a gravel bar on the right side of the river. Lunch is a decent fare of dried turkey strips (turkey jerky), bagels, humus and cheese.
The lunch site is located at a section of river with strong currents that resolve into riffles, or small rapids. Listening to the rushing of the water, we relax into a reverie brought about by the beauty of the alpine scenery and the realization that we are in fact on the legendary South Nahanni river. I am taking all this beauty in when I here one of our group exclaim, "We have a visitor, there's a grizzly".
There are two species of bear that make the Nahanni area their home. There is the black bear, ubiquitous across Canada, and there is the mountain grizzly bear, a much larger and more aggressive cousin. Interestingly, the black bear occasionally sees humans as prey, whereas the grizzly seldom does. On the other hand, grizzlies can be very territorial when it comes to food and their offspring and they like a good fight.
Our visitor is a yearling, he is a large cub. He is swimming in the rapids, headed for our lunch spot. This is not good, we realize it, and when he finally gets wind of us, he realizes it too. Rather comically he begins to back paddle into the main flow of the current which will take him past us. Paddling with some panic he ferries himself to the left bank, gets out of the water and shaking himself, begins to walk up the shoreline, occasionally eying us through a clearing.
It then occurs to us that if youngster is here, given his age, mama is not far behind. We expect that she is waiting for the safe return of her cub somewhere on the left bank. We decide not to risk an encounter with a concerned mother and pack out our lunch quickly.
We learn something about the climate of the mountains today. It is sunny and very warm and we are dressed lightly. Shortly after lunch we can see dark clouds amassing on the higher peaks. Throughout the afternoon the wind funnels down the river valley and the air gets cooler. In time it begins to rain and with the wind and cooler temperatures, we run the risk of hypothermia. We all find our rain gear and put it on on top of our already cold and wet teeshirts.
Another risk here is that we can get caught on the water in a thunderstorm. When you are the highest point in the river valley, you worry about being hit by lightening. We hear thunder, but as of yet the storm centre seems to be somewhere in the mountain peaks.
We are making our way to a campsite we know is after the 90 degree bend in the river called an elbow. The campsite is still quite a ways off, but the flow of the river is fast and we are making good distance. Our destination is the Broken Skull river. There is a large delta here, as the river fans out into many different branch through a large gravel bar. This is an ideal place to camp, and we are excited about the possibility of a comfortable place, with large tent sites, a place to cache our food and plenty of firewood.
There is only one problem with the site. It is presently occupied and while the occupant is gracious enough to vacate the spot in a hurry, we are all too aware that his type has a tendency to return unannounced. When we pull up to the site we see a large adult grizzly bear dashing away from the structure used as a cache. He has gotten wind of us and is afraid. This is good. It is not good that he has decided to use the campsite as a place to forage. There is the real possibility here that the last campers may not have exercised enough care in avoiding food odours and that our bear may return when he gets wind of our goodies. We decide to may on a little further along the fan of the Broken Skull river and choose another spot.
We make camp late in the day. Today we have covered 56 km. on a fast flowing river through spectacular scenery. Supper is welcomed and we retire to our tents tired and wary that our bear might find a way to our site during the night. We keep our bear bangers and our pepper spray close and make sure to minimize all food smells.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
My canoe partner, Glen and I have been driving for two days from Edmonton to Fort Simpson in the North West Territories. It has been a scenic trip of about 1500 km along the Alaska Highway through the Rocky Mountains n British Columbia. The last 400 km has been less than scenic through the subarctic boreal forest, where a dense forest of black spruce, poplar and birch makes up the unchanging vista. The monotony of the drive gets broken occasionally by the sighting of a raven or a bird of prey and once, a small herd of Wood Buffalo. There are very few villages, no cross roads and very little traffic once we turn on to the Liard Highway, a gravel road that will lead us eventually to the town of Fort Simpson.
The night before, at Blackstone Landing on the Liard River, Glen and I meet our traveling partners, three young people from Yellowknife. After several months of trying to piece together a group with enough experience to handle the large rapids at the source of the South Nahanni River, we now have five people with intermediate level paddling skills. This number is one short of our goal so our plans have been scaled back to a start from the Island Lakes, avoiding the very technical moose ponds start at the base of Mount Wilson.
Glen and I have met Alex and Tania before when they came down from the north to brush up their skills at the Madawaska Kanoe Centre in Ontario. We made a good impression on them when during a peel-in after an eddie turn, we unceremoniously dumped our canoe in the cold waters of the Madawaska River. Glen and I had ready excuses for the error, we hadn't paddled together in a year, the canoe wasn't fully loaded and we weren't used to our "new" paddling positions with Glen as bowsman and I as sternsman. But Glen and I could see from Alex's and Tania's facial expressions that they weren't buying it. The real reason we tipped was because of a fundamental error, Glen and I had forgotten to lean into the turn once we had crossed the eddie line and the strong current grabbed our exposed hull and hurled us into the water. Our experience in those rapids some months before must have been on the minds of Alex and Tania as we organized our gear on the shores of the Liard at the South Nahanni Airways lot.
Alex Lothian and Tania Hercun are a newly married couple working in a diamond mine north of Yellowknife. Alex is an engineer and Tania is a metalurgist. They are young and energetic and have been enthusiastic about the trip from the outset. It is Tania that has been the lead as far as trip logistics and organization is concerned, her skills have prevented needless duplication of gear and the forgetting of essential items for the trip. Today, however, she will make one small mistake in planning - in order to save space in the food barrels she will convince me to leave my energy and snack bars behind.
Alex is an easy going man of 30 years. His family has a long tradition of canoe camping and his mother and father have canoed with Dick, who canoed the river back in 1971. He subsequently made a movie based on footage shot during the that trip. Dick was to travel with us on this trip and had recommended Alex and Tania as good candidates as trip members. It was unfortunate that Dick had to pull out of the trip early in the planning stages because of health reasons. Alex's experience with wilderness camping and his calm and assured manner was a definite asset to the trip.
The fifth member of the trip, who Glen and I met for the first time today is Andrew Robinson. Andrew is a earth science grad and is currently working for an energy and resources management NGO out of Yellowknife. Andrew is knowledgeable about northern communities and is a conscientious and self-sufficient young man. He will in fact paddle the entire trip in a 16 foot canoe outfitted as a solo boat, using a kayak paddle.
It takes us the better part of the morning to organize our gear and to grab a quick lunch. Our flight to Island Lakes is at one o'clock, so we have time to gather intelligence for the the trip and to explore the community of Fort Simpson which is situated at the confluence of the Liard and Mackenzie rivers. The latter is the longest river in Canada, flowing into the arctic ocean. The local indigenous people, the Dene, call the river Deh Cho which literally translated means "big river".
Today the Liard river is running quite high, there are large trees whizzing past us as we sit on the bank. We a Dene couple who are net fishing across the river. They are afraid that the debris in the river will get caught in the nets. We chat about some of our favourite foods and agree that blue berries and Saskatoon berries are a real treat if you can get them before the bears do.
We learn from one of the outfitter guides, Jock, that the river is high because of the rainier than usual July. He advised that it is beat to camp on gravel bars of the many creeks that flow into the South Nahanni as they represent the best places to pitch a tent. He strongly suggests that we tie everything down before going to sleep because should the river rise any lose gear will be swept down stream. He also tells us about hikes and trails that are good to visit should we have the time. Our three traveling companions are especially interested in the hike to the Cirque of the Unclimables, a grouping of granite pillars located above Rabbitkettle lake in the Ragged Range.
The plane is loaded and we are about to take off from the Liard River, headed for the small grouping of lakes called the Island Lakes. Our destination is Haywire Lake, which on the topo maps is referred to as Honeymoon Lake. The pilot's name is Jacques, a friendly and gracious man who is South Nahanni Airways. Because of the clear and fair weather Jacques treats us to a flight through the valleys of the mountain ranges through which the South Nahanni River has cut.
The view from the windows of the Twin Otter is indescribable. Glen makes an attempt to compare it to the surface of an unknown planet. The ridges range in colour from dark gray to buff and sandy red. In places there are striations in the rock formations that run parallel as if some child has taken several coloured pencils in a bundle and drawn jagged and undulating lines. There are many creeks and river that course through the ranges opening to expansive valleys and alluvial plains. On some of the higher peaks there are glaciers and ice fields. At times it is possible to recognize the Mackenzie, the Ram or the Ragged rages and to identify sections of the South Nahanni River. Glacier Lake at the base of the Cirque is clearly identifiable.
After about 90 minutes we land safely on Haywire lake. We thank Jacques for the fantastic spectacle. With a laugh he reminds us that we paid $7000 for the view. We unload our gear from the plane onto the shore of the lake, Jacques compliments us on being more help than some of the adventure outfitters. We wish him and his co-polite Mike a safe trip back and he leaves us to begin our 3-weeks journey down the legendary river.
Awestruck the five of us take in our surroundings. We decide rather than head out on the river today, we'll stay and soak up the scenery in the valley of Bolagna Creek in the Selwyn Mountains. It is early evening and the sun won't go down until 11:40 p.m., it probably won't get fully dark.