Up at 7:00 AM – Moderately high winds and rains in the morning resulted in our decision to hold out for improved conditions…we brewed coffee a couple of times throughout the day. Played 500, read books, slept in tents and kept an eye towards the skies. By mid-morning the dark clouds had retreated and blue skies and a brilliant sun accompanies us the remainder of the day. I gathered a few more interviews and went for a short walk to a nearby knoll with Quinn. The sun casted a glorious light over a landscape I had seen almost exclusively in a dull overcast state the past week – the crimson red shrub that I first began noticing near Point Lake glowed with a brilliant gold eminence. I shall not soon forget. The termination of our trip is beginning to set in for me.
By the way, we laid-over at the cabin after receiving weather reports from Bev.
The sun is starting to set, Paul, Axel, Bram and James are playing quite possibly the longest game of 500 ever – Quinn is lying on the ground scrolling through photos on the Leica, and there are enthusiastic murmurs of an Aurora Borealis watching party this evening.
Up at 5:30 AM, breakfast of granola and sunflower butter. Paul made the coffee extra strong J. Paddled a few stretches to nut break, Quinn was trolling and caught a nice sized grayling that he dragged to our lunch spot. We paddled past a mansion and a few gentlemen walked down to the beach, greeted us and welcomed us in for coffee. We were given 20 apples, 15 pounds of pulled pork, 2 loaves of bread, large cups of coffee and 6 beers. We left the mansion surprised by the activity and grateful for the effusive hospitality. We made a stretch to lunch where we fileted Quinn’s grayling and ate sun-butter tortillas. James caught another grayling even fatter than Quinn’s, so we ate that too and just reveled in our first official shore lunch of the trip…it was a good feed. We paddled and are now camped above the first real set of rapids since reaching the Coppermine. We ate mac for dinner and literally ALL of the pulled pork. Most of the trip members clutched their bellies in the bug tent after dinner as they tried to sooth their stuffed stomachs – less than 250 miles to go.
The cold morning and the hint of winds, made getting out of the tent a chore beyond the usual lingering soreness and the wet clothes. The days are getting shorter and the extensive cloud cover made the scene quite dark, even though I elected to sleep in until 4:00 AM. We paddled up through the narrows into Greenstocking, knocking out a couple of short portages through the open tundra and puling up small sections of the river. The going was slow, as the headwaters of the Yellowknife have narrowed considerably into a shallow, bouldery stream. A couple of times, I was once again, up to my waist in the river although the fall-like weather made the decision more consequential. We paddled into Greenstocking-an increasing northerly side-wind and wet clothing provided a “welcome” into the tundra. The scenery, however, was spectacular. Looking out over the barren hilltops was enchanting and the sense of adventure tempered the misery of the conditions.
The wind kept picking up all day, but we made it across Greenstocking before lunch. While finding the portage trail into Singing Lake, we were forced to paddle through a small, shallow, boulder field. I elected to follow Ax and Bram’s push to the head of the portage trail, encountering a section that looked impassable but that held their signature white paint on the tops of the submerged rocks. I carelessly decided to continue and was met with a devastating “pop” from the middle of the boat. Scared we had put a hole in it, Quinn and I attempted to offload gear but the conditions up the river bed made for hazardous walking and I was unable to move to land without rolling my ankle and dropping the packs in the water multiple times. After some loud profanities, which I later shamefully apologized for, it was discovered that there was not puncture through the boat. We camped a mile or so later at the beginning of Singing Lake, not wanting to dare the ever increasing northern headwind. Did some gear inventory, epoxied the boats, and hit the bags.
Up at 5:45 AM – granola for breakfast for the first time in a while. We battled strong headwinds up Lower Carp reaching the first set of rapids around 8:30 AM. We portaged 100 yards over boulders and spongy moss to the top of the set and quickly paddled up to the next one, which we portaged around. The second portage was roughly ½ mile and put us into Upper Carp Lake. The wind was ripping out of the northwest generating two-foot wind waves. We watched the water while we ate our nuts and plotted our next moves. Unfortunately, there was little in the way of camping at the end of the portage. Quinn spotted a promising open patch of land on a peninsula 1/3 of a mile from the put-in, so we paddled across the lake and scouted the area – nada. The wind had only gathered strength and was getting up to 30 mph by James’s count. We decided to climb up the shoreline and look for a campsite to wait out the winds. Upper Carp Lake seems to be guarded by expansive boulder fields, which make for pretty visuals but poor campsites. We pulled over to the most hospitable plot of land on the eastern shore and made pancakes for lunch – this is a ritual we do on windy days to cast a spell on the weather and shift it in our favor. We foraged the woods with cups and collected blueberries for the pancakes. Bram and Axel collected heaping 3/4cups of berries in 15 minutes, but I only turned out ¼ cup – fast pickers I guess. Quinn made the pancakes, a skill he has mastered. He flipped a golden flappy for me and lathered some butter on the top. Totally delicious. We brewed coffee and watched on as the winds blew on. After a time, we were convinced that we’d be waiting a while, so we set up the wind shelter and gathered inside. Most of us read books or napped. By dinner, we were still stuck so Bram hopped into the kitchen and chef’d up some Thai noodles – perfect soup to noodle ratio. He asked us what ethnic food we craved most. The answers varied from Asian – Korean Bbq or Chinese, to Paul’s classic Tex-Mex. We voted to camp at this spot and hit the lake early tomorrow. The sky was overcast all day and we had scattered rainstorms lasting no more than 20 minutes each downfall. I enjoyed the respite from the last days of work. It’s the first time we’ve slowed down all week and provided me with some much-needed time to reflect. I love my team.
P.S. James devastated himself at dinner. He put his foot on a stick as he was setting his bowl down, the stick popped up and knocked the bowl out of his hands – his noodles went everywhere. He picked up what he could, including noodles and goodies and moss. He said it didn’t taste any different.
Woke up at 3:30- heavy bugs in the morning encouraged us to eat quickly and get on the water fast. We paddled up Prosperous Lake under a leaden gray sky and and reached the dam after a solid stretch. The portage was a mile long and the group agreed that it was the most mosquitos we had ever encountered before. My hands became windshield wipers to clean the buggers from my face. At the end James and I dumped out our dry sacks and grabbed our bugshirts. Sweet relief! Heavy rain in the afternoon- a few rapids to line up and portage around. The first portage was extremely thick, and was closer to bushwhacking than portaging. The second portage was equally unkempt and lightly travelled, but less thick, though it was more windy. We ate dinner at the bottom of Sito Lake and paddled 400 yards to the opposite shore to camp.
We were up at 3:30 AM – chocolaty oatmeal for breakfast. The sun was starburst red. We paddled in between a few islands, sheltered from the wind. As we rounded an island more densely covered with trees, we saw a baby moose and its mamma booking toward the shore.
We made it to Wilson Island by lunch and climbed to the top of the tallest point to get a view of the crossing to Jackson Island. There were a few whitecaps and the winds were blowing moderately so we opted to hold out until conditions improved. The group used that time to relax, recline, read and rest. I found a plush spot nestled under a willowy bush and a mound of soft moose moss. The view of the lake was marvelous. The water is clear with a hint of emerald and rocks ranging from jagged to smooth dot the horizon.
Bram prepared delicious chocolate chip pancakes for us and asked me to rank them from 6 to 9. They received a 9 from me.
By 1:30 PM, the winds had subsided and the way forward was clear. We paddled a stretch to Jackson, passing a beautifully secluded beach on the north side that struck Quinn’s fancy – unfortunately, we had our eyes on the crossing to Caribou Island so we passed it to go ½ mile further down Jackson where the crossing distance is shortest.
Whitecaps filled the space between the two islands so we are now camped at Jackson at a unique spot where our tent sites are on top of a large hill with sweeping views of the lake.
Quinn made mashed potatoes and pemmican/sausage gravy for dinner – Que Rico! Now at 5:00 PM we all head to bed in anticipation of our 2:00 AM wake-up.
We woke up to the faint but visceral smell of forest-fire and a slight hint of haze. We decided to eat breakfast on the water and make some miles. As the sun rose, the extent of the haze became more apparent; not terrible but clearly impeding visibility. After about an hour we ran into Mike Ranta and Steve again. They offered us some coffee and we said goodbye one last time. We spent the morning paddling into the haze as the temperature quickly rose. By 9:00 AM the horseflies were out and worse than ever. The sediment in the water made swimming undesirable, and eventually many of us decided to drink the water without filtering it. The haze cleared up by mid-day but we were all resigned to sweat and swat horseflies all afternoon. Made 54 miles and camped at 4:30 PM on a grassy knoll.
Shooting the rapids between Fitzgerald and Fort Smith always seemed like a pipe dream, but Leif, an American kayaker, Fort Smith local, and our guide, helped make it a reality. We shuttled to Fitzgerald in the early afternoon, linked up with Justine, Ben and Kira, some canoe enthusiasts, and began the day (we also bumped into Mike Konta again).
Cassette is the first rapids set and we shot far right. From the beginning the water was pretty big. We carefully followed Leif who navigated us through the winding, rocky, sneaky and spicy channels. I could not believe I was shooting some of the stuff we went through. Under any other circumstances I would have portaged half of the stuff we shot. Not normal circumstances. I was with the boys and Leif had me fired up about everything. The river is so wide at some points and there are actually rapids gushing through every inch of it. At one point we ferried into a set of islands in the middle of Pelican Rapids, the biggest set of rapids I’ve ever laid my eyes on and I was just in awe of the power of the river. It felt like being in the belly of a beast. There were waves the size of barns. We paddled down the eddy line right beside them and I had the sense that we were edging our way alongside a deathly train you didn’t want to get in front of. Paul and I had a fun swim after swamping 3/4 of the way through roller coaster rapids. We punched through the hole at the top, but submerged through a monster wave train. By the end, after slicing through the last section of rapids, I had an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. What the hell did we just do?
We finished the night off at Leif and Natalie’s place, sharing stories with other paddlers and oozing with mirth.
We woke up at 3:30 AM, opted to do breakfast on the water, and floated over three miles with the sunrise. The current on the Athabasca was still ripping and its murky, tree-infested water still horrifying. After yesterday, learning that we were hours behind Mike Korta, we spent the morning scouring the shoreline for him and his companion, the judge. We navigated the confusing delta, not seeing Mike, and paddled into the large Lake Athabasca which was somehow moderately shallow (we missed the correct channel by a significant margin). Some wind kicked up during our short crossing, creating small choppy waves that highlighted the shallowness of the part of the lake we were paddling. We decided to eat lunch at a small island about 5 minutes past Fort Chip (Chipewyan). After a quick discussion, we decided to paddle back to town to flesh out the narrative of our cross-country pre-Arctic trip. We fount Mike Korta and had a few beers with him then camped by the town beach.
We slept until 7:45 AM – Axel woke me up to yet another hot meal for breakfast -eggs, hash browns, and sausage. We paddled from Clearwater to the Athabasca River. The current was RIPPING – soooo fast it feels illegal. There are lots of sticks and logs floating on top of the water, which is brown and murky, similar to the Saskatchewan River. There’s decent elevation on either side of the river and I saw a moose around 2:00 PM. It was a big boy. He was right up along the shore, frozen in place, starring at me. I come in peace, big boy.
Paul and I had our first date in the boat. He’s very quiet at first, but I can tell that after a few more dates, we’ll be chatting up a storm. Just like old times.
We had a dramatic late afternoon as we approached and passed a Suncor Mining/Refining factory. The sky was dark black and thunder echoed out along the river. Occasionally, streaks of lightning would strike across the sky – truly ominous conditions. Meanwhile, loud explosions were ringing out from the mine every 15 seconds or so and huge metal poles at that refinery were shooting out fire. Dark webs of pipelines, rebar and containers were dotted with a red luminescence. Rain poured from the sky suddenly and I felt like I was passing through hell.
Not many campsites on this river so far, were camping underneath a bridge and were not listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers.