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.