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Thelon River, Northwest Territories & Nunavut (1993)

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    Thelon River, Northwest Territories & Nunavut (1993)

    I was originally not intending to post this trip report until mid-March, or even later. I have only two trips left - the Thelon River and the Snowdrift River. After that, I am all out of material, other than future trips. When I run out of material, I have nothing left to add to the CT site. And what then? How will I get any more likes? In reality, though, I will certainly run out of material eventually. So why not troll for likes now? Besides, I do like sharing these trips.

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    When Kathleen and I lived in North Vancouver, BC, we presented our Thelon River slide show many times throughout the Vancouver. Probably more than 30 times. Far more than any of our other slide shows. As you can see, we called our slide show "Three Seasons in the Wind." One time a person objected to our title. Somewhat disdainfully he pointed out that we weren't actually there for three seasons. You be the judge:

    Our chartered Cessna 185, from Fort Smith, landed on Lynx Lake, near the river’s outlet, on June 28. Ice still choked most of the lake's surface. Red-pink mats of alpine azaleas revealed the buds of a new Arctic spring. From the moment we paddled through the outlet, wind became our constant companion and adversary throughout our journey. Thirty-seven days later, on a cobble beach below Aleksektok Rapids, we lingered silently over our last breakfast on the river. We harvested blueberries, loaded the canoe, and paddled the final 80 km to Baker Lake beneath rainy, somber, fall-like skies. I call it “Three Seasons in Wind." It's my story. I can do it if I want.

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    Most of what I am going to post here is from our journals. I will try to reduce the material to keep it appealing. Kathleen and I had never heard of the Thelon River until 1991. Yet, for the past 18 months, I have been absorbed by its lure. The river consumes all my free thoughts. Several logical and emotional reasons explain my fascination with this largest river in the Northwest Territories flowing into Hudson Bay. Since 1986, after my first trip north of 60 degrees latitude, I have been intrigued with Canada's northern landscape, particularly the Barren Grounds. Historically, this limitless region north of tree line created awe and fear in the few Europeans who penetrated its frontiers.

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    “It is a land uncircumscribed, for it has no limits that the eye can find. It seems to reach beyond the finite boundaries of this earth. Brooding, immutable, it showed so harsh a face to the first white men who came upon its verges that they named it, in awe and fear, the Barren Grounds.” - so wrote Farley Mowat, in his book “Tundra.”

    The Thelon River provides one of the longest wilderness canoe trips available in Canada, traversing 950 km (590 miles) between the sub-Arctic forest east of Great Slave Lake to Baker Lake, at the head of Chesterfield Inlet. Along the way, the canoeist encounters several portages and three large tundra lakes. Native peoples hunted and fished along the water's edge, leaving behind stone Inukshuks as reminders of their vibrant existence. An isolated stand of spruce trees shelters the graves of John Hornby, Edgar Christian and Harold Adlard, who struggled poignantly before they starved to death during an unforgiving Barren Grounds winter of 1926-27. Meandering between 62 and 64 degrees north, the Thelon blesses the summer canoeist with nearly constant daylight. The river's middle section flows through the Thelon Game Sanctuary, home to approximately 2000 muskoxen, which still graze freely on the Barren Grounds, as they have since the great glaciers melted 6,000-10,000 years ago. How could there be a better trip in Canada? How could one be a Canadian and a canoeist, and not want to paddle the Thelon?

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    Kathleen and I have chosen to paddle alone down the Thelon River primarily to experience and to appreciate the loneliness and the vastness of the Barren Grounds. We want the Barrens to surround us - - to envelop us - - to embrace us. We desire to understand the words of Saltatha, a Yellowknife Dene, responding to a 19th Century missionary:

    "My father, you have spoken well; you have told me that Heaven is very beautiful; tell me now one more thing. Is Heaven more beautiful than the country of the muskox in summer, when sometimes the mist blows over the lakes, and sometimes the water is blue, and the loons cry very often?"

    This magical solitude of the Barren Grounds is likely best absorbed in the quiet, private reflection of our own company.

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    The Thelon River is divided into three major sections. The first, from the outlet of Lynx Lake down to the confluence with the Hanbury River, contains most of the rapids and portages. The second section, from the Hanbury River down to Beverly Lake is pretty much all Class I. This is the section that most people paddle. The third section crosses three large lakes down to Baker Lake at the head of Chesterfield Inlet on Hudson Bay. Most paddlers take out at Beverly Lake to avoid the common and strong winds. Our four-page brochure produced by the Canadian Heritage Rivers indicates that the "wise canoeists get out at the lakes." Kathleen and I were not wise.

    Now comes some lengthy stuff about trip preparation. Hope you find it useful and interesting.

    The Inuit of the open tundra named the Thelon "Ark-i-Linik," or "wooded river." This historical name held promise that we would be able to find firewood for cooking as we pass through the Barren Grounds. We had also read that oases of spruce forest line the river's banks from Lynx Lake to Beverly Lake. Nonetheless, we felt very uncomfortable embarking on a Barren Grounds trip for the first time, not knowing if there would be sufficient wood for meals and washing. We had decided to take two one-burner backpacking stoves, with the extra stove providing an additional burner, and emergency back-up if the first stove malfunctioned. The "burning" question plagued us for weeks. How much fuel should we take? Too much would mean needless weight and bulk on the portages, but too little fuel put us at risk of eating cold, unpalatable food.

    We decided to experiment on a snowy day in February. Air temperature equaled only 40 C, which I hoped would simulate the coldest weather that we might encounter on the Thelon River. For our trial, we prepared a sample day of meals, including four boiled pots of water for tea and soup, one breakfast bannock, and one dinner. To create even more realistic conditions, I filled a small pot with water, wedged the pot into a snow bank beneath our back yard maple tree, and waited for 30 minutes.

    The first pot of water boiled in 6 minutes, at near full power. Approximately 1 additional minute was lost to wind-screen fiddling and pumping a stubborn flame into life. To the second pot of water, I added a little snow for special effect. A more prolonged boiling, to kill potential bacteria that might infest the Thelon River, required seven minutes.

    We then decided it might be more fuel-efficient to boil large pots of water. I now poured twice the amount of water into our biggest pot. Two full pots boiled in a total of 17 minutes, and provided enough water for tea, oatmeal, and washing. Bannock averaged 23 minutes to cook to a golden brown on both sides. The spaghetti dinner consumed 27 minutes of fuel.

    These 67 minutes did not deplete all the fuel in the stove, meaning that we could supply more than one day's needs with a single filling. Our Coleman Peak 1 holds 335.3 ml, and is rated to burn one hour and 15 minutes at full power. If each day required a full stove, we would need 14 litres of white gas for the 42-day trip. Because we needed less than one stove per day, we decided to take two 4-litre cans of white gas, plus three 1-litre fuel bottles and two filled stoves for a total of 11.7 litres. We also assumed that some wood would likely be available for the first three weeks, until we reached the true tundra at Beverly Lake.

    Kathleen did all the food preparation. Her words are presented in italics.

    Food has literally consumed my thoughts for these last six months before our trip begins. The caloric and nutritional values of food obviously assume paramount importance for our expedition. Food also brings enjoyment and comfort, which are vital for our emotional well being. This is especially so on the extended wilderness trip ahead of us, where so much is unfamiliar.

    At first I thought only of the big picture. What general attributes would our food need in the context of this trip? We expect a small supply of wood on the Barrens; our menus, therefore, should require minimal cooking at mealtime. Space in the canoe is limited; the food must be compact and as light as possible. We intend to take 42 days of meals - - variety in size and shape as well as in the ingredients themselves is needed to maintain interest and enjoyment.

    Next I began to compile a plan for the dinners. I read and re-read menus and tips recommended in backpacking cookbooks. Over several months, I prepared sample meals, dried them, rehydrated them, and heated them to test their suitability. I noted the amount of each ingredient required in dried form.

    I generally achieved my best results by preparing and drying each ingredient individually. I then combined and packaged these ingredients together to form complete meals. To develop the best spicing for our riverside dishes, I experimented with packaged sauce mixes. My shopping trips to the grocery store lengthened as I read the ingredients and instructions of gravy mixes and spaghetti sauces. Eventually I was rewarded by finding a spaghetti sauce that could be prepared without adding tomato sauce. One less ingredient to dry, package and portage!

    I learned that almost any meal normally prepared at home could be adapted for our trip, and that thin uniform pieces of food dry and rehydrate best. Ground beef provides an excellent base for many meals, including chili, meat sauce and shepherd's pie, and is very easy to dry in the oven.

    With experimentation now complete, I chose 7 recipes, each of which will be repeated several times throughout the trip: chili, shepherd’s pie, Moroccan chicken stew, Szechuan stir fry, spaghetti, beef stew and baked beans. To complete these menus I added cornbread to the chili, dumplings to the beef stew, rice to the stir-fry, and coucous to the Moroccan chicken stew. The variety of textures in these foods, such as shredded beef and carrots in Szechuan stir-fry and the large slices of carrots, potatoes, parsnips and beef in the beef stew, will maintain interest and enjoyment throughout the trip. All these foods will be completely cooked before drying, which fulfills the requirement for fuel efficiency.

    I want our lunches on the river to be hot, easy to prepare, and quick to eat. Cup-of-soup and Japanese-style noodles provided perfect solutions. Both can be prepared with water boiled at breakfast, and then kept hot until noon in our thermos. Crackers with peanut butter and cheese and bags of jerky and dried fruits will complete our lunch menus.

    Breakfast menus proved easier than lunch or dinner. Oatmeal is quick, and hot. Bannock with butter and jam will give us the feeling of eating fresh bread. I included granola for those meals that we might want to prepare and eat quickly, such as on rainy mornings, or at the end of particularly difficult days.

    Dried foods all lack fat. For lunch, especially on cold days, I've included fatty sausages for added calories. Chickpeas in the chili, and dried figs and prunes add fibre to our diet. To ensure our nutritional health, we will also take a daily multivitamin to complement the vitamins contained in our dried fruits and vegetables.

    I also added extra treats to the menus. Dried bananas and pineapple rings, with or without a sugar syrup dip, produced candy-like results. I experimented with different kinds of crackers to complement peanut butter or cheese for lunch. Graham wafers kept well, without crumbling. From the deli, I acquired small cocktail breads to add variety to lunches.

    I purchased a small food dryer to use in combination with my kitchen oven. The oven worked best for ground meats, tomato leathers, and vegetables cut in small pieces. Jerky and large slices of vegetables de-hydrated best in the food dryer.

    I prepared a master list of all ingredients that we would need for all our meals. During each visit to the store, I purchased some beef for jerky, or ground chicken or beef for drying. I also bought vegetables and fruits to place into the food de-hydrator. Slowly, our freezer filled with neatly packaged bundles of dried food.

    Once the provisions were purchased and prepared, I faced the task of packaging. While Michael travelled to Kenya on business for three weeks last month, I spent most of my time packaging food. I gathered together my recipe lists, measuring cups and spoons, ingredients, bags for packaging, and paper on which to write instructions. Soon, one of the distinct meals was ready, followed by a second, then a third. I made 44 recipes of bannock, and packaged each in a plastic bag closed with a twist tie. Supplementary foods such as milk powder, sugar and flour were packaged separately.

    I especially enjoyed making our gorp snacks. At a bulk food store, I bought a couple of pounds each of nuts, raisins, yogurt-covered raisins, M&Ms, pretzels, sesame sticks, and Licorice Allsorts. At home, I mixed these ingredients in a large tub before dividing them into 84 little, separate, plastic bags.

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    A mountain of food now lay in the centre of our living room floor. To this heap, I finally added the perishables -- cheese, margarine and sausages. Would this all fit into the packs? Have I forgotten something important? In less than a week, we will leave Vancouver for Fort Smith and the Thelon River!

    June 20

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    For several months I had been mildly concerned that our canoe's centre thwart/carrying yoke may need some repair. I had always assumed, though, that the bolts securing the thwart to the gunwale had merely loosened - - that I would need only to tighten the bolts. On inspection, however, the wood through which the bolts passed had nearly rotted away. The yoke would have failed on the first portage!

    On Monday morning, 9:00 am, I placed an anxious call to the canoe store. "Do you stock carrying yokes for Mad River Canoes?"

    "I'll ask," came the reply from someone who didn't seem to know what a carrying yoke was. Five hours, or perhaps only five minutes later, the tentative voice returned with news that one carrying yoke was available. Ninety-six minutes later the yoke rested snugly in place on our canoe.

    We didn't know if the gear and food fit until two days before leaving. We were now ready for the trip physically, but we were apprehensive about the area, because we didn't know anyone who had been to the Thelon River or to the Barren Grounds. I thought about how nice it would be to stay home, to sit comfortably surrounded by my flowers, and enjoy the long summer progression into fall harvests of tomatoes, sweet peas, and aromatic herbs. Our Thelon trip will take us away from all these domestic pleasures, and thrust us into rapids, hordes of biting insects and potentially life-threatening winds on Aberdeen Lake. Schultz Lake outlet may still be blocked by ice. Aleksektok Rapids may be filled with crashing blocks of careening ice, as described in Chris Norment's book "In the North of our Lives."

    I empathize with Bilbo Baggins. Kathleen and I are really a Hobbit couple, happiest at home with our cakes and teas. Like Bilbo and his friends, though, we are invariably drawn, against our wishes, into journeys and adventures through unknown lands.

    June 21

    We have just finished our "last" supper -- barbecued steaks in the back yard. We're watching our last Atlanta Braves baseball game on TBS until mid-August. Tomorrow morning, we'll be on our way to begin the biggest adventure of our lives together. All our food is ready and packed. All our gear fits in the canoe, even with the spray cover snapped in place. Even so, I don't feel completely ready, and I have very mixed emotions.

    Mom and Dad have been very good about this trip. Despite their worries and concern about us, they have shown real interest and enthusiasm. We gave Dad maps and the itinerary of our Thelon River journey, and he plans to plot our daily route. Today, they stopped by with lunch from MacDonald's, plus treats of candy, gum, nuts and cheese for us to eat on the way to Fort Smith. Displaying his Victoria naval tradition, Dad requested an official inspection of gear. I hope they felt reassured by seeing the first aid kit and all the provisions that we have prepared for the journey.

    As they said good-bye for the summer, I silently wished I too were staying home to follow our itinerary on the maps. I would enjoy hearing all about the river quest, once it had been safely concluded. At the present moment the security of home exerts a stronger pull for me than the adventure we have been planning for 18 months; but I know, not too deep down, that I truly desire a first-hand experience of the Barren Grounds.

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    June 22

    As we drove away, we wondered what the Barren Grounds be like for us. Would they be harsh and unforgiving, or would they be a comfortable home? Leaving Vancouver, we were anxious to reach Fort Smith, the real beginning of our trip. We were impatient to complete the 2,300 km (1,425 miles), 5-day drive. But this was a very important part of the journey. We needed time to separate from our lives in Vancouver.

    Attached Files
    Last edited by PaddlingPitt; 02-12-2020, 02:05 PM. Reason: Wrong spelling

    I for one am looking forward to this! Maybe one day at a time post to keep it going as long as you can? ;-)


      O Boy, this is gonna be a good one!


        Originally posted by dougd View Post
        I for one am looking forward to this! Maybe one day at a time post to keep it going as long as you can? ;-)
        I might try that, Doug. Although it’s five days up to Fort Smith. A couple days in Fort Smith. Thirty-seven days on the River. Then reflections after returning home. Now we’re approaching 50 entries. Perhaps best to combine two or more days, sometimes, depending on the situation.

        Kathleen and I both kept journals on this trip, and didn’t share them until after we returned home. I merged the two perspectives into a single document, with Kathleen’s entries in italics. It was interesting, at least to us, to see how the events affected us similarly or differently.

        Did you notice how young and sleek our van looked in 1993? No mechanical problems back then!
        Last edited by PaddlingPitt; 02-12-2020, 04:37 PM.


          Well Michael, I think back 1993 we all looked young and sleek! Regardless of how you present it I'm all in for a great read and adventure!


            I can relate to the homebody Hobbit thing, and the strong pull to discover what lies just beyond the back garden gate, across the fields and through yon woods...lead on.


              Oh Boy! Another PP trip report! Thank You!


                I'm all strapped and buckled into my big armchair for another ride. Adding to my other likes, hoping they add up to another bar.
                "All I had were a few flies tucked into the band of my hat and an a old beaten-up Heddon rod, that had been on many trips." Sigurd F. Olson


                  I hope that second-story window wasn't left open all summer!

                  Your adventures are such an inspiration, especially in the wintertime. I am very eager to read this trip report! You've shared this story many times before, have already returned to the area once and we all know that you now plan to return again this coming summer. Considering all of that, do you still get excited re-telling it for us here?


                    Thank you for posting this. I am greatly enjoying it.


                      Originally posted by Zac View Post
                      I hope that second-story window wasn't left open all summer!

                      Your adventures are such an inspiration, especially in the wintertime. I am very eager to read this trip report! You've shared this story many times before, have already returned to the area once and we all know that you now plan to return again this coming summer. Considering all of that, do you still get excited re-telling it for us here?

                      That open second story window was on our neighbour’s house, Ian and Kathy. It’s definitely winter here this morning, -37.2 C (-35 F). I’m sitting in front of the fire, telling myself that it will be fun to take the dog out. And yes, it’s always exciting to tell and share all of my canoe tripping stories. That’s why I write it down. That’s why I joined this site. And, like everyone else, I like to get likes. To be called inspirational is even better!

                      I will post more of our trip up to Fort Smith later today.


                        June 22 (Continued)

                        (Note: Interesting to read again, for me, how worried we were. But, as I often say, I am a worrier by nature!)

                        This morning, as usual for the past week, I arose at 5:30 am. I wrote another letter of reference, modified my instructions for the Kenyan graduate students arriving in August, and e-mailed the information to the appropriate people.

                        At 7:00 am, I finished pruning the peonies in a hail storm, and by 8:00, had completed packing our van. At 9:15 Kathleen and I drove into a late June downpour for which Vancouver is so infamous. Even at this late morning hour, commuters jammed both directions of the Trans Canada highway. It seemed an incongruous beginning to a northern Canadian wilderness canoe trip.

                        Perhaps because of the gloomy, wet weather, we rolled silently for the first hour. After a brief stop at Western Canoeing in Abbotsford to procure a wide-brimmed hat (hopefully our last purchase!), the words came slowly.

                        "I wonder why we're so nervous and anxious. It's just another canoe trip, like so many canoe and wilderness trips before."

                        The answer was obvious to both of us. So many unknowns lay before us. We had never been in the wilderness for six weeks. We had never been to the Barren Grounds. We had no feel, no knowledgeable intuition of what to expect. Like all cautious people, therefore, our thoughts dwelled on what could go wrong. We could easily and quickly visualize potential obstacles common to all wilderness canoe trips: wind, rain, bugs, rapids and portages. Yet, we could not visualize any of the positive aspects of canoeing for six weeks on the Barren Grounds. We were depressed.

                        "Why are we going?" Well, we wanted to share an adventure together, to know our strengths, to build our collective understanding of our relationship. We wanted to see the tundra and its lakes, plants, and animals. We wanted to canoe to Baker Lake. Certainly we would accomplish all these goals. Nonetheless, the unknowns still dominated our thoughts.

                        For lunch we stopped at the Skihist picnic area, our usual first-day rest-stop on any driving trip into British Columbia’s interior. Perched above the Thompson River, enjoying a beer in the sunshine, I felt relaxed. In the evening, camped at our usual first-night stop at Blue Lake, 20 km north of Williams Lake, familiar routines began to assert themselves. We began to enjoy the knowledge that we were actually going to the Thelon River.

                        Blue Lake B.C.

                        The day is ending with familiar routines: camping in the van; barbecued Bavarian Smokies; cool beer; relaxing in the quiet, fresh air. Despite these pleasures, the apprehension that filled the day remains. Today’s quiet, leisurely drive through southern B.C. gave me too much time to think. Our modern civilization, which surrounds us even here at Blue Lake, seems to offer the only certain source of life-sustaining support. For 6 weeks, though, Michael and I will be completely alone. Our safety will depend on our strengths only. Can two people on their own in such a wilderness really safely tend to all their needs? Michael and I are luckier than most people. We have a chance to try.

                        Perhaps it's the beer, but I'm starting to relax and feel the excitement. I remember the long winter of preparation, when we dreamed of the challenges of testing ourselves as individuals, and as a couple. Relying on each other, without external intrusions, we can become true partners. The personal potential of such a relationship excites me.

                        Wednesday, June 23 - Moberly Lake B.C.

                        The splatter of rain on the van this morning shattered my calm resolve of last night. We know so little about the area in which we will spend our entire summer. Our closest personal experience lies approximately 800 km west of the Thelon put-in.

                        The Northwest Territories’ brief profile of the Thelon River describes the portages as "arduous" and "excruciating." Accounts of Barren Grounds trips recount intense rain storms, mid-summer ice-bound lakes that make canoe passage impossible, and tents shredded by the unrelenting wind. What will the weather be like for us this summer? Even on this familiar highway, rain heightens my anxiety.

                        Because of the rain, we left Blue Lake this morning without breakfast. Driving all day in a grey drizzle, I sensed that both of us were becoming happier and less anxious with our Thelon journey. Vancouver now seemed very far behind us emotionally as we drove through a very familiar environment of grey-green, dense spruce intermixed with boggy opens. We passed through landscapes still comparatively unaffected by human activities, particularly so if you ignored the light green cutblocks regenerating quickly in response to the temperate precipitation.

                        We sped along on new highway, and occasionally the old road, certainly no more than 20 years abandoned, approached our smoother, newer concrete. I'm sure that some of the old road sections had been unused for as little as 10 years, yet already they supported grasses and shrubs. In a few years they would be barely visible. In 50 years the old highway would appear to be reclaimed by native forest.

                        This fact comforted me, as I always imagine what any landscape would have looked like before industrial activity stamped its mark. Tapes played on the stereo. Songs from the '60s and '70s. Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkle, Dylan, Jackson Brown and Jessie Colin Young. Young's lyrics, presented from a native American perspective, reminded me of why I always seek roadless areas, beyond the reach of noise and artifact.

                        "I dreamed I was riding in a South Dakota field.

                        The sweetgrass whispered to me as I rode.

                        The sun, it was at mid-day.

                        It shone hot across my face.

                        Our land lay still in grace.

                        Yes, a crystal silent place.

                        Before you came."

                        I hope and trust that the Thelon River remains a crystal and silent place.

                        We are now enjoying dinner at our picnic table at Moberly Lake. Michael erected a tarp, beneath which we sit - - snug and dry - - protected from the evening rain. My tension concerning bad weather on the Thelon River is beginning to fade. For this trip we purchased new rain gear. We made a canoe spray deck and skirts to keep us dry while paddling. We also bought a new tent specifically designed to withstand strong winds. And surely we will enjoy some pleasant weather during the next 6 weeks. Not all days on the river will bring wind, rain, and cold.

                        Thursday, June 24

                        I awoke at 5:30 am, and rose to the song and dance of ravens and crows in the 8-degree morning air. All alone, I started a fire, one of my favourite camp activities. Kindling axed from the inside of split halves, lay piled on newspaper, beneath a teepee of thin, wood strips. Still wet, the fire required repeated blowing until a bed of coals finally produced a sudden, small inferno. With a great deal of satisfaction, sipping a cup of tea, I sat in front of a fire well-made. Kathleen arose two hours later.

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                        (Note: I didn't really wear a tie, but I did have trouble leaving Vancouver behind, and called the office three times. I brought along my Associate Dean outfit to create this pose, knowing that we would eventually prepare a slide show. This image usually gets a laugh or two.)

                        Waking to a beautiful calm day, we took our time breaking camp. Michael made bacon, eggs and tea for breakfast, and even did the dishes. I strolled around the camp, with time to botanize and bird watch. Next to the roadside, I identified the small, white Canadian violet. Following a leisurely breakfast, we ambled though the campground with binoculars in hand. After 20 minutes of patience and perseverance, we were rewarded with a magnolia warbler -- the first time we had ever seen this summer resident of northern, coniferous forests.

                        The day's drive was slow. Heading east, we climbed above the spruce into the rolling uplands of the Peace River. Fescue seed and yellow canola -- interspersed with strands and splotches of aspen. The region is vast, yet somehow unappealing in its utility and organized network of roads jutting perpendicularly every mile from the highway.

                        Twin Lakes, Alberta

                        On the highway, we occasionally stopped for a few last provisions - - at Dawson Creek for propane, and at Grimshaw for gas. All-in-all, a pleasant day. During dinner,we encountered our first irritating swarm of mosquitoes. A smudge fire, a walk to the open lake, and a quick retreat to the van completes our day. I hope the bugs on the Thelon River are not incessant.

                        Knowing what to expect gives me great comfort; the unknown is very intimidating. With 42 unknown days stretching ahead, seemingly without limit, I might have no peace-of-mind. Today we entered new territory; however, the time spent watching birds and looking at plants reminds me that much is familiar. The Thelon River will probably be the same. I need to allow each day to be a new adventure - - new places, new birds, and new plants. I will strive to “live for today.”

                        Friday, June 25

                        Up at 6:30 am, an hour later than usual for the last few weeks, but probably only because our clocks are now on Mountain Time. I set busy tasks for myself around the morning camp while Kathleen slept. I prepared and stacked all the morning firewood. Kathleen slept. I made tea and started the fire. Kathleen slept. I set out all breakfast materials. Kathleen slept.

                        It's unfortunate that our internal alarms are three hours apart. I try to be patient, as she deserves to awake on her own time. I looked for bread in the Van, shutting the door quietly, but firmly. Kathleen slept.

                        I paced. Didn't we have to leave by 9:00 am? Already it was 7:30! At ten minutes to 8:00, I couldn't wait. Opening the door, I announced, ever so politely, that it was nearly 8:00.

                        On the road, northern Alberta views were mainly large tracts of forest broken for agriculture. The road stretched infinitely - - and straight - - into the horizon. It reminded me of the last night of our Nahanni River trip in 1990. We had left Kraus Hot Springs in the morning. At the end of the day, nearly 100 km later, on the Liard River, we peered into the darkness, searching for the takeout at Blackstone Landing. Paddling into twilight, we were seemingly transfixed in a photograph, moving, but always remaining in place.

                        Kathleen and I continued to drive north into the unchanging Alberta landscape that stretched before us. Finally, beyond the town of High Level, spruce began to reassert its natural dominance. Deer and black bear became more frequent. Robins, red-winged blackbirds and flickers darted across the road, seemingly playing a dangerous game of avian automobile tag. Frost heaves swelled the pavement - - signs of deep, northern frosts.

                        Twin Falls Park, Northwest Territories

                        We arrived at the NWT border, and stopped at the tourist centre to acquire maps and information. A canoeing brochure summarized the hardships and necessary precautions of northern water travel. All these things we knew, but the fear of uncertainty struck again. We talked of our misgivings at Louise Falls, where voyageurs must certainly have cursed their three successive portages around deep canyons on the Hay River. We were going to the Thelon River for an adventure -- our adventure, shared with no one but ourselves. We might even enjoy the trip, we reassured ourselves. At times, I think we actually believed we might even have fun. Regardless of any potential struggles, however, we would certainly return to Vancouver, our mutual and personal heroes.

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                        Twin Falls Park contains two spectacular falls: Louise and Alexandra. A short driving day gave us time to explore the park, and to hike along the trail that skirted the canyon wall. The sound of the river was both calming and exciting. Vancouver, and our lives there, now seems very far away.

                        Along the trail between Louise and Alexandra Falls, we encountered our first horde of northern mosquitoes. We tested various methods of dealing with these bugs, from ignoring them to completely covering ourselves with clothing. Mosquito repellent and covering up afforded the best protection. Nothing stops their incessant, annoying humming. I suppose our patience will be tried severely over the next several weeks.

                        Nevertheless, w
                        e had now become more in tune with the slower, calmer rhythms of nature, camping at Alexandra Falls on the Hay River, we listened to the water as we fell asleep at night.

                        This afternoon, we picked up some new information packets at the 60th-parallel information centre, operated by the Northwest Territories government. One of these brochures expounded on the dangers of canoeing wilderness rivers in the NWT, which immediately re-awakened my carefully buried worries. With more careful consideration, though, I actually become reassured. Our trip plan already included all the brochure's suggestions such as bringing appropriate gear, allowing adequate time, and allocating a few layover days for bad weather. We can relax tonight, knowing we are finally in the north, and that we are adequately prepared for our journey.

                        Saturday, June 26; Fort Smith, Northwest Territories

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                        Seeing buffalo grazing quietly in Wood Buffalo National Park, we remembered the major reason why we make these trips: to live with the animals, plants, and birds.

                        After five days of driving, we're finally here. Fort Smith. Sixty degrees north, on the Alberta-NWT border. Leaving Vancouver in the driving rain last Tuesday morning seems so distant. Blue Lake, Moberly Lake, Twin Lakes, Twin Falls. All points on a mental line to Fort Smith.

                        After 18 months of planning and preparing, we are finally here. Fort Smith. Our departure terminus. The road from Hay River, 280 flat kilometres through Wood Buffalo National Park, contained no services or population centres. Just featureless boreal forest -- a mosaic of spruce and extensive stands of jack pine regenerating after fire. The van contained all that we would need for six weeks on the river: food, clothing, fuel, repair items, first aid kit. We dawdled on the highway, stopping to identify roadside flowers, dominated by a magenta paintbrush. We were relaxed and ready to go.

                        At the Fort Smith municipal campground, we sat in the warm sunshine and enjoyed a breeze just strong enough to keep the bugs at bay. Nearly idyllic, and similar, we believed, to what we would encounter at Lynx Lake. We were eager to begin our trip, and agreed we probably would be blessed with at least a few days of comfort and ease. Certainly, not all days on the river would bring struggle and fatigue.

                        Ever since the age of 15, I have longed to live in the wilderness -- to breathe, hear and see its natural, seasonal rhythms. I am now poised on the brink of that opportunity. Throughout the day at Fort Smith, I drove very slowly on the loose, gravel roads - - not wanting to risk a sudden loss of steering that might send us into the ditch. I stored all river essentials in the locked van whenever away from camp, even for five minutes. I couldn't bear to have anything snatch the Thelon River from me, when so close to the actual event. After 30 years of dreaming, I'm finally here.

                        Arriving at the terminus of our driving trip, in the warmth of the early afternoon, we visited the Fort Smith information centre to ask directions to the float plane dock. The receptionist informed us that Michael's contact at Loon Air was killed in a crash while testing a new plane just two weeks ago. Another small crack in my carefully-developed armour against worry. A visit to Loon Air confirmed our flight at 8:00 am Monday morning.

                        After lunch, I easily found the Catholic Cathedral in the centre of Fort Smith. This community seems surprisingly small to support a Cathedral; pews fill only half the church. When Fort Smith became the centre of transportation, at the north end of the historic portage trail from Fort Fitzgerald, its citizens expected that "Smith" would become the territorial capital. The Catholic Church naturally placed their cathedral in Fort Smith. Tomorrow's mass will not be celebrated in the cathedral, however. The scheduling of the annual parish picnic in our campground couldn't have been more convenient for me.

                        As I rest in our camp, enjoying the evening twilight, my worries about the trip are all but forgotten. Over the last 5 days, the rush and anxiety of Vancouver have been replaced with the calmer rhythms of nature. We've dealt with bugs and rain, encountered animals, and slept with the sound of rivers in our ears. Although we are 350 km (215 miles) from Lynx Lake, I feel I am now in the country where we will live for 6 weeks. The unknown has become the expected.
                        Last edited by PaddlingPitt; 02-13-2020, 03:56 PM.


                          This is fun to follow. I was feeling anxious myself just reading the last installment.

                          I'm not much of a worrier but I do remember the long multi-day car trips on the way to my two long canoe trips being a time of anxiety. At home I had the planning to keep my occupied. On the actual trip I had staying alive to keep my occupied. In between I had the long car drive to wonder just what I'd gotten myself into.

                          I'm hoping your worries float away, as mine always do, when the canoe pushes off from shore.



                            Originally posted by Alan Gage View Post
                            This is fun to follow. I was feeling anxious myself just reading the last installment.

                            I'm not much of a worrier but I do remember the long multi-day car trips on the way to my two long canoe trips being a time of anxiety. At home I had the planning to keep my occupied. On the actual trip I had staying alive to keep my occupied. In between I had the long car drive to wonder just what I'd gotten myself into.

                            I'm hoping your worries float away, as mine always do, when the canoe pushes off from shore.


                            Our slide show version of the trip was a lot more upbeat than our journals. I haven’t read the journal version in a long time. We did worry, though, didn’t we? I’m thinking that our time on the river, as you suggest, was less worry, and more just living, while struggling against the wind, bugs and rapids.

                            I shared our merged journals with a friend of mine, who said, “You say you like wilderness canoeing, but exactly when on that trip were you actually having fun?” We shall see.

                            Am sitting in front of the fire. After this cup of tea, I will walk Shadow, and then post the two days we spent in Fort Smith, ending with our flight to Lynx Lake.
                            Last edited by PaddlingPitt; 02-15-2020, 09:44 AM.


                              Sunday, June 27

                              A slow, relaxing morning. Up at 8:15 am. While Kathleen attended church, I puttered, packed, and strolled to the Slave River viewpoint to bird-watch.

                              After church, we checked into the hotel for our last night in civilization.

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                              Following a lunch of our diminished supply of highway food, we walked down to the Slave River, and spent an hour with the White Pelicans in the Rapids of the Drowned. The birds were marvellously acrobatic, like a trained, synchronized swimming team, thrusting their heads forward and down in the water, in perfect unison, searching for fish. Very relaxing for our last afternoon before the Thelon River. These are the most northerly group of White Pelicans, which nest right in the rapids.

                              We then visited the museum, bought postcards at the Northern Store, and left our river itinerary with the RCMP.

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                              We wandered back to the hotel, and leisurely spread out all our gear to assess for the last time if we had remembered all the essentials. Item locations were carefully noted as we returned them to the packs. We placed everything neatly in the van, and felt contented and ready.

                              A few minutes later, the phone rang, ever so lightly and innocently.

                              "Hello Kathleen, this is Terry. I'd like to speak to Michael."

                              I knew something was wrong. Neither of us could have guessed that ice would be blocking the outlet of Lynx Lake, and that we couldn't fly in tomorrow as planned. The strong south wind we have experienced in Fort Smith has blown the ice across Lynx Lake, clogging the outlet to the Thelon River. A Loon Air pilot plans to check the ice again tomorrow. If the wind shifts, we should be able to fly in by Tuesday. If not, it might take several days of continued strong, south winds to break up the ice against the north shore.

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                              Extreme disappointment. Oh well, we shrugged. It's just part of a northern trip. What shall we do? Would we put in lower on the River? How long can we delay and still begin at Lynx Lake to paddle the entire Thelon? We had planned 40 days for the trip. Maybe it wouldn't actually take that long. After a reasoned discussion, we agreed that we must fly in somewhere on the River by Thursday. If Lynx Lake is open by then, we could probably make up the time. We could forego our first rest day at Lynx Lake. We could forego our day in Baker Lake, and we could probably paddle from Aleksektok Rapids to Baker Lake in two, rather than three days. If Lynx Lake remained ice-bound on Thursday, we could simply start farther down the river. We would miss several portages, and still have a great trip. Satisfied with our revised plans, and feeling only slightly frustrated, we made reservations for dinner at a nearby restaurant.

                              Disappointed, we walked to the Pelican restaurant for dinner. The Chinese restaurant owners, from Vancouver, prepared a great pizza. Our waiter took our minds off our wind-delay problems with questions about life and recent events in Vancouver. He arrived in Fort Smith two years ago to help his brother-in-law and sister, originally planning to stay for only a few months.

                              Despite the discouraging news of ice on Lynx Lake, our day in Fort Smith had been pleasurable. The town’s inviting, friendly atmosphere allayed most of my fears about our canoe trip. We visited the Wood Buffalo National Park information centre, where we saw a multi-projector slide show that heightened my interest in returning someday for a vacation in the Park. Best of all, though, morning Mass - - celebrated outside, under the trees - - represented a fitting way to embark on my wilderness adventure. The recessional hymn 'Be Not Afraid' reinforced my growing calm.

                              Monday, June 28

                              We breakfasted, and renewed our discussion of revised plans. Can we really afford to start three days late? We inspected our itinerary, and agreed we could. Besides, why worry about something that hasn't happened? We may still fly in tomorrow. Heck, we could even still go today, and be right on time!

                              We checked out of our hotel room, and drove slowly south of town to Loon Air on Four-Mile Lake.

                              "Any chance of going today?"

                              "Maybe," Terry replied. "Don is out now, and will be back by noon to let us know."

                              We waited, chatted about flying and the north, but were reconciled to returning to the municipal campground to hope for the best tomorrow. I gave Terry our itinerary, and said that, We will arrive in Baker Lake on August 6. We plan to visit for two days. Can you come get us on August 8?"

                              Terry seemed sceptical. "There's something about this trip that you don't know. You don't know IF you're going to get to Baker Lake, let alone when. We've never taken anyone in to do the whole trip. And we've never taken in only one canoe. If we haven't heard from you within a week after you're supposed to arrive, we'll call the RCMP."

                              I don't know if Terry was trying to scare us. Kathleen and I are small people. We don't look like Barren Grounds adventurers. And besides, lots of people have done much more extensive trips than what Kathleen and I had planned. In all fairness to Terry, there was a year recently when the large Tundra Lakes didn't thaw, and several groups of canoeists had to be rescued. Probably won't happen to us. I didn't respond.

                              Suddenly, The radio phone crackled.

                              "Lynx Lake is open."

                              "Hey, you're going today," confirmed Terry.

                              Suddenly, I didn't want to go today. Anxiety resurfaced. I had been looking forward to a shower and barbecued smokies. Hurriedly, we donned our tundra clothes, and trundled our gear to the float dock. The piles were small, but I knew that our gear, canoe, Kathleen and I weighed 640 pounds (290 kg) -- 40 pounds (18 kg) more than permitted. Don noted casually that we “seemed to have a lot of stuff.”

                              "I don't see how larger people could stay under 600 pounds (272 kg)," I commented.

                              "They would never get off the water," replied Don.

                              We taxied to the end of the Lake and began our run into the south wind. I expected the plane to lift by the time we came even with the dock. As we passed by, I thought of blurting out my lie about being exactly at 600 lbs, but kept quiet. We continued down the lake.

                              "Lift up, lift up, lift up," I thought. I looked at Don. He didn't seem worried. We continued down the lake.

                              "Lift up, lift up, lift up," I pleaded silently. Don still appeared unworried.

                              We finally lifted at the lake margin, and banked unsteadily into the wind, seemingly headed to the ground. I continued to sweat for 30 minutes, and felt sick for the entire two-and-one-half hour flight to Lynx Lake.

                              Lynx Lake

                              We arrived at Lynx Lake only a few hours later than originally planned. We spent the morning at Loon Air waiting for news of the ice. Watching all of the activity surrounding the float-plane base provided a very interesting morning. Within minutes after our arrival, we helped an independent pilot (Stan) load double-pane windows to be delivered by air to a fishing resort. Stan was proudly flying a Norseman built in 1939, one of only 17 still in service today. The Loon Air people were continually busy flying gas, produce and people throughout the region.

                              Suddenly, as we were eating lunch, our pilot, Don, arrived.

                              "I can land you at the Thelon this afternoon."

                              After a flurry of activity, everything was loaded in the plane, and we double-checked and locked the van. In the rear of the plane, I lay comfortably on top of our gear. The orange I intended to eat on the way to Lynx Lake didn't seem too appealing. I stuffed it into one our white buckets.

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                              Even though I now comfortable with the trip, I remained apprehensive about bears. As I looked down over the boreal forest, however, I realized that surely, in this vast region, I and a grizzly bear would never be in the same spot at the same time.

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                              Our first view of Lynx Lake showed ice stretching before us as far as we could see. Fortunately, the wind had shifted to blow from the north, and the ice lay pressed against the south shore. The outlet to the Thelon River was open.

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                              In this low, wet country, it is very difficult from the ground to determine which bay hides a river outlet. Don made sure we knew by flying us over the outlet of the Thelon River.

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                              Lynx is a beautiful lake. The sun continues to shine at 11:00 pm, and everything is absolutely still. The chirping of Lapland longspurs and Harris' sparrows is barely audible above a background of humming mosquitoes. Soon after landing, we wore our bug jackets, and I expect they will be a constant part of our wardrobe.

                              I expected to feel a bit of panic as Don flew away. Instead, I wished he had left sooner. I was wishing he would leave us alone, so that we could really begin our great adventure. I feel very calm here, and am trying to enjoy this moment without worrying about tomorrow. All wilderness canoe trips include separation from civilization that signifies a new beginning. Our adventure is now beginning; its story and its ending remain unknown.

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                              This is a memory that will remain in our minds forever. Our first camp on the Barren Grounds. We are comfortable to be here.

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                              I'm very happy to be at Lynx Lake. Kathleen and I have taken two tundra walks, have dined on soup and gorp, have enjoyed a profusion of blooming alpine azaleas, and are writing in our journals beneath the bright 11:00 pm sun. A Pacific loon wails across the lake. I'm very happy to be here.

                              Ever since I first back-packed into the California wilderness as a young boy, I've dreamed of walking down the trail and never having to return. The ultimate fantasy of living free. Wilderness canoeing is as close as I'll ever come to this romantic ideal. Tomorrow morning, Kathleen and I will glide across this calm bay at the eastern edge of Lynx Lake. We will paddle effortlessly through the outlet to be swept away by the Thelon River, not only to challenge our fears of the unknown, but also to embrace our romantic fantasies of wilderness travel.