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Thelon River, Northwest Territories & Nunavut (1993)

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    Originally posted by PaddlingPitt View Post

    One more posting tomorrow, and then we are done with this Trip Report.
    I know you have another update but like you meeting the lawyers I think this trip report, even though I must finish reading it, is over for me.

    I've tried to respond a couple times to your recent posts but have been unable to find the right words. I still can't. The last two updates spoke to me particularly. Thank you so much for sharing so many intimate details of your trip.



      I enjoyed reading your trip report, lots of really interesting stories. I was surprised when you mentioned the trash, and I can see you paddling for long periods wondering what that colorful object is up on some distant shore. Someones tent, an abandoned kayak, parts of an aircraft... An oil drum. UGH.
      That was a long time for two people to go without more than one argument, just the two of you to vent to each other. Heck, me and herself can't make it downtown with arguing about what station to listen to on the radio...haha, those poor geese would have headed so far out onto the tundra to avoid our bickering they would be an endangered species now. All in jest. Good job by the two of you to get along so well.
      Anyway, a really enjoyable read, another real plus for this website and the folks who gather here.
      Thank You for your effort.


        Another enjoyable report. Regarding your experience with the final rapids above Baker Lake, I checked the flow data. In August 1993, the Thelon at the outflow of Schultz Lake had an average flow of 1820 m3/sec - just over 62,000 cfs in US units - the highest average flow for August over the period 1983 - 2018 and well above the mean flow of 1300 m3/sec. No wonder things got a bit more exciting than expected.

        Thanks for posting.



          I have often experienced that trip "Let Down" at the end. It seems that I am only ever really alive on a canoe trip, when the daily decisions are all pretty much pertinent to the immediacy of survival. The trip becomes an act of meditation, where everything is in the now, and the artificial stresses of modern life usually fall away by day three.

          What a fantastic life the two of you are living!


            I must've slept in while you all broke camp and moved on. It was that canyon portage that wore me down, that blunt leveller of confident men. I'm no longer so confident, but after meditating on the view, chasing away the mosquito hordes and cutting my way through gusting wind I may be back on track, I'll catch up to this trip story eventually, don't anybody rush me. I am only a tripping week behind.
            Wind and biting insects I find most discouraging. They challenge my 4 letter word vocabulary and dauntless spirit.


              Originally posted by wjmc View Post
              Another enjoyable report. Regarding your experience with the final rapids above Baker Lake, I checked the flow data. In August 1993, the Thelon at the outflow of Schultz Lake had an average flow of 1820 m3/sec - just over 62,000 cfs in US units - the highest average flow for August over the period 1983 - 2018 and well above the mean flow of 1300 m3/sec. No wonder things got a bit more exciting than expected.

              Thanks for posting.

              I have seen those flow numbers before, wjmc. A friend of mine knew a hydrologist, who asked about water flows on the Thelon. I sent him some long term averages, as well as for August 1993. He emailed back to question the data. “Are you sure,” he asked? “Those flows are larger than the Colorado in flood!” I didn’t try to verify his assertion, but that was hard to believe. On the other hand, the Thelon is a large river.

              I do have some trip reports of other people who have gone down the river to Baker Lake. Schematic diagrams show a rapid just upriver from Baker Lake, although my 1:250,000 topographic map does not. The brief canoeing guide I had from the NWT stopped at Beverly Lake.

              In retrospect, now that we have more experience with big water, we should have known, or at least suspected, that the whirlpools and boils indicated that the river was “backing up” as it approached the constriction in the S Bend. We should have gone to shore to investigate.

              In 1997, I bought the new book “Snow Man,” by Malcolm Waldron, about the “misadventure” in 1924/1925, when Hornby and Critchfield-Bullock overwintered on the Barrens in a small cave dug into the side of an esker. They eventually paddled out to Baker Lake, and talk about their near disastrous run through that very same rapid. Oh, now you tell me!

              Still one more adventure for Kathleen and me on our return flight to Fort Smith. I will put up the last post this afternoon.


                Saturday, August 7

                We spent our two-and-one-half days in Baker Lake in leisurely walks, attending to errands and business. Two trips to the RCMP to inform them that we had arrived. Three visits to each of the four arts and crafts centres to select gifts for family, house-sitters, and work colleagues. For ourselves, to commemorate our Thelon River adventure, we purchased a pastel drawing by Simon Tookoomik, a Baker Lake Inuk. Writing postcards, buying stamps, frequenting the visitor's centre, and dinners at the lodge easily filled our time. Best of all, the vagaries of wind no longer dominated our senses and actions.

                On Friday morning we called Loon Air in Fort Smith to confirm our flight that afternoon. After three unsuccessful attempts, the operator informed us that Loon Air's business number was no longer in service! Had they gone out of business, stranding us in Baker Lake? Not likely, we reasoned, and tried again an hour later. Our call now went through, and we learned that all lines had been knocked out by an electrical wind storm, and that our charter plane was already in the air.

                Moments later, the Cessna 185 flew over the Baker Lake Lodge, and landed in front of the Northern Store. We scurried to our room, portaged the gear to the canoe, and paddled to the now-fuelled plane.

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                While we stood on the pontoon waiting to enter the cabin, two paddlers just in from the Kazan River walked across the beach to talk about Barren Grounds canoeing. They had arrived only hours before, and their faces literally glowed with enthusiasm and excitement. I envied them, as my own emotions were much less joyous. Perhaps now that we had paddled the Thelon River and its tundra lakes, simply by living one day at a time, the journey's very remarkable qualities seemed normal, arcane and mundane. Perhaps the joy and sense of special accomplishment will come later.

                As always before a flight, my heart beat faster and my stomach churned. I relaxed somewhat watching our pilot, Paul, inspect all the plane's checkpoints. Our depleted supplies allowed much more room for me to sit comfortably in the rear of the cabin, and I snuggled down amongst the packs. After a smooth take-off, we flew evenly over the tundra. Only one more take off and two more landings. We just might make it!

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                Paul took off easily into the north wind, and we banked south toward Fort Smith, our direction "locked in" by the global positioning system. Below, the Barren Grounds stretched endlessly, dominated by lakes and water courses. We flew silently across the unchanging landscape. Had we really traversed this open emptiness alone? Wow!

                We crossed Dubawnt Lake, an immense body of water, purported by Paul to be as large as Massachusetts.

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                A short time later we landed at Damant Lake for refuelling. The float plane coughed and wheezed, and sputtered against the shore next to the ubiquitous red-and-yellow fuel drums.

                "Cracked fuel line," Paul remarked, with incredible nonchalance. “I'll try to fix it." (Note: In fact, I had been smelling gasoline fumes in the plane for the last 30 minutes. Paul hadn't looked worried, though.)

                I watched nervously as Paul removed the front fuselage and unpacked his screw drivers and other tools.

                "I could jerry-rig this to work, but I don't want to take a chance. I'll radio for help."

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                Kathleen and I considered this to be good news. We weren't ready yet to go home.

                Michael and I wandered onto the esker, then back down into the trees -- a special treat for us after nearly six weeks on the Barrens. We settled in the shelter of a hill away from the strengthening winds. Our sausages, peanut butter, crackers and gorp made a good meal. Paul joined us after relaying a message to Fort Smith, through Yellowknife. As the afternoon lengthened into evening, we considered putting up the tent. Michael eagerly talked about catching fish for dinner. I was hoping not to be saved just yet, as I very much wanted to continue living in the Barren Grounds. All too soon, however, we heard the drone of the approaching rescue plane that would eventually carry us away, back to Fort Smith.

                About 8:30 pm, a second Cessna 185 landed on Damant Lake. Dick, the manager and mechanic of Loon Air held the required replacement part in his hand, and he immediately began repairing the broken fuel line. The pilot, Don, greeted us enthusiastically, and pumped us for information about our adventures since he had left us at Lynx Lake on that warm afternoon in June.

                After quickly completing the repair with a 50-cent piece of tubing, Dick suggested that Michael and I should travel in the "rescue" plane. I worried about flying in the now deepening dusk. Even though we couldn't make Fort Smith before nightfall, both pilots wanted to at least get off the Barrens. Thekulthili Lake, about 1 hour away, became our destination. Paul took off first, without incident. We followed, but soon passed the first plane, which was slowed by our canoe strapped to the pontoon. Although not yet legally night, the lake looked dark as Don flew low over the water surface, looking for rocks and shoals. Paul landed about 5 minutes later, and we all tied up to shore in front of a rustic fishing lodge.

                Once our sleeping bags were spread on the bunks we enjoyed a beer, compliments of Dick and Loon Air. The rest of the evening passed quickly, as we listened to stories of flying and mishaps in this vast, empty land.

                We awoke to a heavy mist hanging over the lake. As we drank our coffee, we stared toward the end of the lake, searching hopefully for signs that the fog may be lifting. Don and Paul studied the maps, looking for water routes above which they could fly safely. Don was ready when the far shore became visible, so we taxied down the lake and took off for Fort Smith.

                The fog soon thickened, and I strained ahead to see potential obstacles that might suddenly emerge from the mist that now covered the land. Don banked sharply, and turned back and landed on a small, unnamed patch of water barely visible beneath the thickening mist. Another landing! Rocky, steep, well-treed banks surrounded this lake, contrasting sharply to the open tundra to which we had become so accustomed.

                Don flew in fog only when he could see lakes, which provided potential emergency landings. He never flew in fog over land. We appreciated Don's cautious motto: "Never close the back door. When the Barrens bite, they bite hard."

                We had violated Don's creed when we entered the S-bend without scouting, and without knowing beforehand that we could get off the river if necessary. We had closed the back door when we entered the canyon (The S Bend), and barely slipped through the front door before it slammed shut. We narrowly, and somewhat luckily, avoided being bitten very hard.

                About an hour later, the ceiling lifted slightly, revealing the lake's far shore. After taking off for the second time this morning, the southern horizon continued to become brighter. Just before lunch we taxied up to the Loon Air float dock on Four Mile Lake. Paul didn't arrive with our gear and canoe until around 4:00 pm; he had been unable to leave the fishing lodge this morning, as the fog returned to Thekulthili Lake only moments after Don, Michael and I had flown away.

                We returned to the Pelican restaurant for the pizza we'd been looking forward to since arriving in Baker Lake. After dinner Don, Paul and another young pilot joined us at our Fort Smith campsite for beer and more bush-pilot stories. The skill of these pilots had safely transported us to and from the Thelon River. It seemed fitting to end our adventure in their company.

                (Note: You might remember that when we left Fort Smith last June 28, that I told Don we were at 600 pounds, when we were actually at 650 pounds, 50 pounds over the allowed maximum. I mentioned this to him, and told him how worried I was when the plane wasn't lifting up. He said, "I know. People often lie to me about their weight. When suspect that, I put my ball cap on backwards, get a crazed look on my face, and scare the hell out of them.")

                Back Home

                It's good to be home, but I miss the river already. Despite being dominated by wind and water, we alone determined our daily activities. If the wind whipped up waves too high for paddling, we rested. If the river plunged through canyons or over ledges, we portaged. Other than for our self-imposed deadline of August 6 for reaching Baker Lake, time was interesting, but otherwise meaningless.

                We had lived and travelled through an everlasting landscape. We had shared our journey with plants, birds, caribou, muskoxen, bears and wolves, all of us participating in the predictable progression of seasonal change. The concept of linear time, with beginning and end, is viewed by many native cultures as an artificial perspective. In reality, there is no beginning. There is no end. Seasonal cycles spin forever. As they always have. As they always will. Living within such cycles, time is irrelevant. Time can not be saved. Time can not be lost. Without a linear construct, time can not exist.

                In Vancouver, time assumes nearly paramount importance. We arrived home on Wednesday evening, with four days to be ready for our commute beginning precisely at 7:06 on Monday morning. I spent Thursday and Friday tending to eight weeks of accumulated garden weeds and household chores. As I collected together the necessary gardening implements, I noticed a flat tire on the commuter car. No problem. I expected this, as the tire had been leaking slowly before we left. I wrestled the spare out of the trunk. It too was flat. Not too flat to drive, though. I inserted the key in the ignition. Dead battery. A call to the BC Automobile Association instructed me to be ready in exactly 40 minutes.

                Into the garden with hoe in hand. Ten minutes later Kathleen emerged from the laundry room with news that the dryer no longer produced heat. Back to the phone to contact the appliance store. The unseen voice told me they opened at 10:00, and might have replacement parts for our 20-year-old dryer.

                On the river, all our equipment was functional and reliable, with virtually no moving parts. Self-sufficiency was blissfully easy. Alleged conveniences of civilization in Vancouver were frustratingly domineering by comparison. The phone rang demandingly. News of a house-warming party in the Fraser Valley. Drinks at 4:30 pm for dinner at 6:00.

                The assembled guests expressed genuine interest in our Barren Grounds adventure. We basked in the 15 minutes of fame promised to all of us by Andy Warhol. Our fans ebbed and flowed during the evening, asking questions that invariably followed a predictable pattern.

                "Did you see any bears?"


                "How close?"

                "One was about from here to that far wall."

                "Did you take a gun?"

                "No, just cayenne pepper spray."

                "Were the bugs bad?"

                "They were horrible. Worse than I ever imagined they could be."

                "How was the weather?"

                "Variable. Wind -- particularly wind. Sun and rain. No snow, though. Our coldest temperature was 40 C."

                "How long was the trip?"

                "Five-and-one-half weeks; 950 km (590 miles). But it didn't really seem so long. You just live one day at a time no matter where you are. It's no different or longer than living in Vancouver for five-and-one-half weeks."

                "Did you have an air drop for food?"

                "No, Kathleen dehydrated all our food, which was excellent. We even have food left over."

                "Did you have a radio?"

                "No, but we did take an EPIRB for emergencies." (Note: I know the discussions around an EPIRB. Don't yell at me. It's what our club had. We borrowed it.)

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                Our camp on Eyeberry Lake, where our canoe blew to shore on July 2.

                All very logical questions, but all of them totally missing the essence of wilderness canoeing. When my thoughts drift back to our quest, they settle comfortably on the multitudes of geese that gave us constant companionship. I can still see us drifting toward shore, anxiously surveying the bank for suitable camping sites. I can still see us eating bannock on a sunny morning, gazing restfully over a lake equally at rest. I can still see the orange-spotted white petals of prickly saxifrage, growing delicately among the riverside cobbles at the Mary Francis River. I can still taste the tart fruit of the blueberry, growing modestly in a tangle of lichens above Aleksektok Rapids. And, I can still remember lying in the tent pitched above Schultz Lake, listening to the hushed breath of absolute silence that reached out to us from beyond infinite, isolated tundra lakes and mountains.

                More important than these images, however, is the enduring magic and memory of the nomadic experience of travelling through Canada’s pristine, northern landscape. It seems that none of our friends ever asks us the question most relevant to why Kathleen and I canoed alone 950 km across the Barren Grounds.

                "How was the freedom?"

                "Exquisite and absolute.

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                "It was as though Kathleen and I were the only two people in the world, travelling through a landscape so vast that it still functions as it has since the days it was first created.”

                We could hardly wait to go again.

                Last edited by PaddlingPitt; 03-02-2020, 03:16 AM.


                  Thank you so much for this trip report. I really admire your perseverance in the face of wind and bugs and the ability of the two of you to face all of the challenges so well.


                    I enjoyed reading the preparation before the trip. You two really put a lot of thought and work into making the trip a success. The return home is always a bummer, except a hot shower and cozy recliner. Thank you for posting this trip
                    I enjoyed it greatly.


                      An amazing trip and an amazing trip report! Thanks so much for all your hard work posting it here, it is very much appreciated!


                        Thank you for the awesome trip report for an area I will never go to.
                        One man's Wilderness is another man's theme park. ~Unknown~


                          Originally posted by Mihun09 View Post
                          Thank you for the awesome trip report for an area I will never go to.
                          I hope it wasn’t my TR that has you saying you will never go there!!


                            Originally posted by PaddlingPitt View Post

                            I hope it wasn’t my TR that has you saying you will never go there!!
                            Perhaps it was your description of the bugs. I thought, as a rule, we were supposed to adopt the British style of massive understatement in regards to insects on northern canoe trips. "The swarms of mosquitoes neither blocked the sun in it's entirety nor did they cause our eyes to fully swell shut. The tent provided an easy respite."

                            Thank you for yet another great trip report.



                              Originally posted by PaddlingPitt View Post

                              I hope it wasn’t my TR that has you saying you will never go there!!
                              No, not at all. Not the bugs either, the ones here in Manitoba are likely as bad. Something epic like your trip is something I can no longer do. Due to some health issues I have not been on a trip in 3 years and not even in a canoe the past 2 years.

                              One man's Wilderness is another man's theme park. ~Unknown~