Thursday, August 16, 2007
The River - July 23, 2007
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.