Fort Simpson, NWT
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.