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Thelon River, Northwest Territories & Nunavut (1993)

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Better to be portaging through the Barrens than the dogwood trees we did on the Albany River.

Yep. Portaging was very straightforward on the Barrens, Doug. A few years ago, Kathleen and I went on a trip on the Paull River (Yes, it has two “ls”), which is part of the Churchill River system. It’s a very popular trip. Trip reports indicate that everyone loves it. Many people have done it multiple times. We thought we’d give it a try, as it was a short trip, and close to home. A friend came to look after our five sled dogs.

Well, the “River” was actually a lake interspersed with numerous must portages. The ports were not cleared. We spent a lot of time forcing our way over, under and through downed trees. On day three, I severely sprained my ankle. As we were paddling down this flat water section of the river, Kathleen said, “There’s a fishing lodge a couple of hours ahead. Why don’t we stop there, and call a plane to pick us up?”

”That seems like giving up,” I said.

”Do you like it here?”

”Not really. Flat water paddling. Lots of portages. Lots of power boats and cabins. Not really wilderness.”

So we bailed. And I have no regrets.

To be honest, I don’t think I would enjoy canoe tripping centred around lakes and portages. That’s certainly a function of what I’m used to. Don’t hold it against me!!
 
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Strangely enough, there is a brand of paddler who enjoys the bush whacking of nasty ports instead of walking over the cleared ones. I have had some paddlers say that signing ports and keeping them open destroys their wilderness experience. They probably use poison ivy for arse wipe and wear hair shirts too, dedicated masochists I guess. I kinda like ports though, but the cleared kind, that bushwhacking stuff really destroys my wilderness experience, lol.
 
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Strangely enough, there is a brand of paddler who enjoys the bush whacking of nasty ports instead of walking over the cleared ones. I have had some paddlers say that signing ports and keeping them open destroys their wilderness experience. They probably use poison ivy for arse wipe and wear hair shirts too, dedicated masochists I guess. I kinda like ports though, but the cleared kind, that bushwhacking stuff really destroys my wilderness experience, lol.

To actually “like” bushwhacking with a canoe must be an acquired joy. It all depends on what one is used to, I suppose. Although Bill Mason did say that “ Anyone who says they like portaging is either crazy or a liar,” he also extolled the virtue of portage trails. I can’t remember the quote exactly, but he indicated that portage trails allowed one to escape the crowds, most of whom would not go over more than two portages.

Kathleen and I cut our canoeing teeth on rivers. We much prefer rivers, where we can just zip along. We don’t mind portaging around rapids on a river that moves. In fact, I kind of enjoy portaging in these situations. They are just short backpacking trips interrupted by jaunts back to get another load. But, flat water paddling, with no help from a current, combined with multiple portages per day? We will do it, but we might complain.

Our canoe club in Vancouver organized weekly day trips nearly year round. After the first couple of years, Kathleen and I eschewed the lake trips. No current.
 
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Thanks ! I'm trying to catch up on this trip report !

Enjoying it !

Thanks Michael, and Kathleen !

Jim
 
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I have my doubts that anyone actually enjoys bushwhacking a long portage through rough terrain with heat and bugs. But I don't doubt that a lot of people enjoy the memory of having done it.

I enjoy a mix of river/lake paddling. Or river paddling with regularly scheduled and, at least mostly, cleared portages. A handful of portages through the day helps break things up and gives me a different look at the landscape. One stinker of a portage per trip is nice as something to look back on.

Sadie gets really bored if we aren't portaging regularly. Sometimes I get bored too.

Alan
 
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Thursday, July 1

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Me cooking bannock, which was our most common breakfast. We are wearing bug jackets, which proved to be an indispensable piece of clothing. We saturated them with Deet. We applied only a small amount of Deet to hands and face. This approach, with the nearly constant wind, was generally very effective. Now back to the journals.

The endless sky occupied my thoughts on the river today. Clouds seem to hang motionless, as though suspended from the very ceiling of the horizon. Rainstorms are easily visible, even though they usually remain many kilometres distant.

A map is essential in this flat, limitless tundra. With little or no current, we have difficulty finding the right route down this wide river, with its many deep bays. Today, we paddled around a bend toward some trees growing in the centre of the channel. As we aligned the boat with the current to drift by the small islands, we seemed to be slipping backwards. The strong head winds and waves affected our ability to read the current properly. After a few more attempts, we realized that we were actually paddling up stream on a side channel of the Thelon!

We carried our four loads of gear around another long rapid today. Portaging allows time on the land, where the colourful flowers of miniature plants, such as alpine azalea, are just beginning to bloom. This floral display lifts my spirits as I trudge beneath heavy loads. We have become discouraged having to portage nearly every stretch of rapidly-moving water, although we did run one rapid today. The river also began to flow a little more quickly, and we made good progress, even into a strong head wind.

I wore my bug hat for the first time today. Although stuffy, and hard to see through, the netting brought welcome relief when the swarms of mosquitoes became unbearable.

Another difficult day. On the river at 8:45 am -- off at 6:15 pm. We struggled against head winds all day. We remain 25 km behind schedule, and failed to even reach the reportedly “gruelling” portage listed on today's itinerary.

The wind makes life tense. We paddled beneath overcast skies, and the temperatures reached only 17 degrees compared to 20-21 for the last few days. Quite cool, but fewer bugs. We've camped on very open alpine tundra this evening. Thank goodness we brought our backpacking stove, as no wood is available for cooking fires.

The Barren Grounds stretch infinitely flat, and the river offers many large side bays to fool the unwary pathfinder. There have been highlights today, however. The horizon filled with clouds and light/dark patterns that cloaked distant rain showers. Arctic terns hovered and plunged into the water, submerging themselves head-first in pursuit of fish. At the end of the paddling day, we saw our first caribou, and after dinner we were able to strip and wash, as the winds kept all mosquitoes cowering at ground level. I hope that tomorrow's portage isn't too difficult, and that we don't fall much further behind our schedule. I would be disappointed to use any of our planned rest days for travel, as we haven't had any time yet for plants, birds and leisurely tundra hikes.

Friday, July 2

(Just a little aside, here. The slide show of our trip does not always follow our journals very closely. That's particularly true because we both kept a separate journal. I am having a hard time inserting today's images, with today's journal entries. So I will present my journal first. Then the slide show images. That Kathleen's journal. I hope the journal entries aren't too boring. If they are, just skip to the pretty pictures!)

We're in the tent at 9:30 pm. The winds are finally abating slightly after blowing steadily for nearly 48 hours. We were driven to shore early today by the wind on a "lake" section of the river below the confluence with the Elk River. The canoe was being blown backwards, and waves began breaking over our bow, as we braced against the metre-high rollers.

Despite the wind, however, it's been a good day. The portage, although the lengthiest so far, wasn't as gruelling as promised. We began packing our gear along the edge of the canyon before noon, when we were still comparatively fresh and strong.

After lunch, capped with a reward of juicy, greasy, vacuum-packed sausage, we strolled back along the canyon ridge to photograph plants, such as alpine azalea, which were just now coming into full spring bloom. We then returned for one last look at the falls, which, surprisingly, are un-named on the topographic map. Standing above the precipice, the cataract's power and grandeur swept over me, similar to my feelings at Virginia Falls on the Nahanni River three years earlier. Although not rivalling the height of Virginia Falls, the sudden, multi-channeled maelstrom before me created an impressive transition to the low Arctic plain extending to the East.

Below the falls and its outlet rapid, the river finally offered quick-flowing, runnable white-water. My confidence grew with each rock dodged, with each ferry executed properly, and with each eddy hit high. Kathleen performed very well, controlling the back-ferries and reading the flow of water to avoid rocks and souse holes. Although my mouth dried on several occasions, I'm beginning to think we won't need to portage all rapids before the Hanbury junction.

During these first days on the river, I have felt somewhat intimidated, even by grade 2 water. I think I feel personally responsible for our success or failure. I worry that a dumping, which can occur even with a trivial mistake, could be fatal in these cold waters. At best, a capsize would likely be the end of our adventure. I sense that Kathleen is somewhat disappointed with my timidity.

At camp, we climbed a low knoll, and were rewarded with endless vistas of horizon, tundra, and innumerable lakes and water flowing seemingly everywhere. In all this space, we are the only humans. We have seen no people, have heard no planes, and only on a portage trail did we notice signs of previous human activity: one glove and shards of mosquito netting. The Thelon River drains a vast region populated primarily by animals, functioning as it has since the ice receded 8,000 years ago. I'm feeling content, even though we have now fallen 55 km (34 miles) behind schedule.


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Maps are essential for keeping track of ones position on the river, such as narrow or wide sections. The symbols for rocks and rapids are sometimes inconsistent. A single line sometimes produced a negligible riffle, and sometimes an un-runnable rapid. You must always make your own decisions. The winged line, however, always indicates a waterfall.


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This un-named, spectacular fall was quite a surprise after travelling through such flat country. Very few people have stood here before, and we felt honoured.


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Such an honour, however, has a price - a trip along the portage trail. Our fifth portage in four days. We leap-frogged our gear on this 1.2-km portage. As we trudged back for the final load, I’m sure I could hear the canoe mocking me, as it waited impatiently for me to carry it overland once again, on what had been planned as a floating vacation down the Thelon river.


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Long, turbulent rapid below falls, marked with only a single symbol. This rapid certainly not runnable, as we had hoped it would be.


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Put-in after the portage. We enjoyed lunch, and rewarded ourselves with energy-laden sausage. We took time to walk back to enjoy the canyon rim.

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We see alpine azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens) in spring bloom.

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Blueberry, only 10-15 cm tall, (Vaccinium uliginosum) in spring bloom.

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The delicate rock cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), only 2-5 cm (1 inch) high; nodding, urn-shaped flower traps warm air within, raising temperature and speeding development of fruit.

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Mosquitoes pollinate many tundra plants. Bog laurel (Kalmia microphylla) in bloom, with anthers held in petal pockets, spring up to dust mosquito with pollen.

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Camped on open stretch of river. For the third time in four days we had literally been blown from the lake. We soon learned that you didn't need to search for campsites. Rather, camp is simply where your canoe happens to blow to shore.

After a tough paddling day, we camped sooner than planned, as the rising wind forced us from the water at 5:00 pm. The wind has blown steadily for the last two days; strong enough last night to cause me to worry about the tent holding up. I feel vulnerable with no relief in the terrain to protect us from the wind.

Today brought another portage, the longest of the trip so far -- "1.2 km over some pretty rough country," according to the NWT guide. Although the map clearly indicates a waterfall, I didn't expect the falls to be so spectacular after travelling through such low country. Almost as soon as we heard the roar of cascading water, we left the canoe to scout along the ridge. Michael and I tend to be cautious, and assumed we would be able to paddle closer to the falls before beginning our portage. There were no more chances to eddy out, however, which justified our prudence.

Canada geese have become our constant companions. Again, today, we saw hundreds. I'm still fooled by large groups of "animals" running up the riverbanks, only to realize the animals are actually moulting geese fleeing by foot, their only means of escape. The geese have revealed many of their summer secrets on this river, and I very much enjoy their company.

Wind also provides constant companionship, although its threatening, pervasive presence brings far less pleasure than does my new friendship with the geese. Before the portage around the falls, we paddled two hours directly into an unceasing head wind. Back on the river below the outlet rapids, we encountered some quite challenging white water, made even more so by the strong, wind-generated waves. It was difficult to distinguish the waves caused by wind from those caused by rocks, adding tension to running the rock garden.

Although our evening camp spot was again forced upon us by the wind, we found a sheltered place for the tent above a smooth, sandy beach. We are protected from the strongest winds, yet are still mostly mosquito-free. We even took off our clothes and sponge-bathed in the warm sun.

Our first food "disaster" nearly occurred today; the white bucket containing the gorp wasn't closed properly, allowing water to leak in. All but two packages, though, were
completely recoverable. Before burning the water-soaked clumps of lumpy gorp, Michael patiently retrieved and ate every licorice allsorts.

Saturday, July 3

We spent a long day of contrasting emotions: satisfaction, calmness, accomplishment and utter fatigue. The day began warm and calm, which allowed us to complete a long, lake-like section of the river at approximately 4 km/hour. Our best flat-water pace yet! The river then narrowed and quickened, easily carrying us 12 more kilometres until we stopped for lunch at 12:30. We were pleased with the ease of our progress, and chattered confidently about being able to gain on our arbitrary, but ill-informed schedule.

Twenty minutes after lunch, we approached the narrow outlet of Jim Lake, beached our canoe and climbed the low bank to have a look. Jim Lake is a large expanse of water, certainly much larger than any of the lakes we had previously traversed. We shared relief that the Thelon didn't force us through Jim Lake's cold north-western bay, still jammed with ice pushed there by the last two days of constant south-east winds.

After Jim Lake, the Thelon finally became a river, transporting us 12 km in slightly more than one hour. A joyful time of care-free canoeing on a sparkling river with no hazards. Such exhilaration embodies one of the major joys of canoeing!

The river then emptied and turned into a 12-km, west-flowing “lake,” the last large body of flat water before Eyeberry Lake. We now enjoyed a tail wind, but dismissed the idea of hoisting our sail as too much trouble. I soon realized, however, that by angling the canoe slightly broadside to the wind, the effect of sailing could be reasonably approximated. We covered nearly half the “lake's” distance in only 45 minutes. This was wonderful. We really were gaining on our schedule!



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Beautiful, white sand esker at lunch. We usually had soup, steeped in water kept warm in thermos from breakfast.

At a narrows in the “lake,” in a bay on the north shore, we saw a cabin and several outbuildings, our first indication that other people inhabited our region. We chose not to cross the open water for a visit.We did, however, decide to cross immediately after the narrows, as the Thelon flowed out from the north side of the “lake.” We had been "sailing" and paddling very comfortably, protected from the southeast wind in the lee of the south shore. We reasoned, however, that we should cross to the north shore now, rather than risk a larger crossing opposite the outlet.

As soon as we reached the north shore, winds and rolling waves bounced and tossed the canoe. Whenever the south shore veered away, the waves became larger as they gained momentum across this lake-like section of the river. The conditions reached the limit of our comfort, skill and strength. We continued to struggle, though, as we very much wanted to be off these flat-water sections of the Thelon River. We longed to wake the next morning on a flowing river, free of threats from latent, lurking head winds and breaking waves.

Ninety minutes later, we turned north onto the flowing Thelon River into a world of quiet, light, calm, and swiftly-flowing water! Such a complete and instant transition from the wind-blown lake environment. We drifted along, repeatedly entertained by the flightless geese running before us along the riverbanks. At 6:00 pm we agreed to camp at the first suitable, riverside spot, preferably one with a sandbar and grove of trees for shelter and wood. At 7:00 pm, we lowered our expectations, and stopped to assess a gravel slope with dwarf birch, 100 m from the river's edge. In the past hour, we had seen no better camping spots. The Thelon’s banks were still lined with large bands of ice, which obviously filled the narrow, high-walled channel, scouring all sand, soil and vegetation with each spring breakup. There was nowhere to camp.

At 9:00 pm, we'd had enough, and were ready to accept any campsite large enough to pitch the tent. We ferried to a small eddy, impatiently lugged our gear up a 10-m boulder-strewn embankment, and set up camp. By 10:30 we had dined on beef jerky stew, and are now lying in the tent, sipping tea. It had actually been a very good day. No portages, and we had travelled 60-70 km (37-43 miles), nearly as far as the first four days combined. We were only 20 km (12 miles) behind schedule, and only 40-50 km (25-30 miles) from the Mary Francis River, a distance we should be able to gain in one day. We decided to sleep in, and take our rest day one day early. We are camped on open, flat tundra, which should provide good hiking and bird-watching.

It was a very good day. Of all that happened, though, I was most impressed with Kathleen. Coming straight from her Vancouver office, she has calmly endured grueling portages, innumerable swarming bugs, threatening rapids, vindictive winds, and very long days. Despite all these obstacles, Kathleen perseveres with enthusiasm and grace; she was truly spectacular in the way she paddled, without complaint, for nearly 12 hours, despite her frustration and physical fatigue. I can't imagine sharing this adventure with anyone other than Kathleen.
 
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I'm really enjoying this trip report! The photography and narrative are superb! I like the two different perspectives from journal entries. It shows how we all experience things differently, but also demonstrates how those differences contribute to a better "team" experience. Michael and Kathleen are obviously an accomplished, compatible team. Although as I follow vicariously along I'm often on the edge of my seat, I very much like their chances on this trip!
 
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Wow, was that really white sand on the esker or did I miss an obvious joke? I would have sworn it was snow.

Alan
 
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Sunday, July 4

Our 12th wedding anniversary. A very appropriate and relaxing rest day. We awoke at 9:00 am, and I surprised Kathleen with a card, and a pair of silver, west-coast Indian earrings. The card had successfully hidden from her discovery in the first aid kit, even though she opened the kit daily. Kathleen was quite touched. I did well.

I then made tea, and approached the river to try to catch a grayling or two for breakfast. The Arctic grayling may be the world's most perfect fish for canoeists: easy to catch, just the right size to fit in the pan, and very tasty. After the 10th unsuccessful cast, I decided to return to camp to prepare our usual bannock. Turning toward the bank, I saw Kathleen with the camera. I decided to cast a few more times for the photographic pose. On the third attempt, I hooked a gigantic fish! After 15 minutes and three runs, the 78-cm (31 inches) lake trout lay on the rocky beach.

In the afternoon, we strolled casually across the tundra -- limitless, generally featureless, and repetitious in its mix of plants: bog Rosemary, bog laurel, red bearberry, dwarf birch, northern Labrador tea, cloud berry, crowberry and lichens. The spaciousness seemed empty of large animals.

Back at camp, Kathleen read, while I napped and replaced a broken snap on the spray deck. I played at erecting a tarp for shade, but the wind proved superior to all knots, bracings and angles. I finally succeeded, or the wind stopped playing, at 8:30 pm. We wrote in our diaries behind the tarp's shade.

Tomorrow our goal is the Mary Francis River - - 45 km to be back on schedule. Twelve km (7.5 miles) of rock gardens. But that's tomorrow. Tonight we head to the tent for anniversary brandy.

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Twelfth Anniversary camp.

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I was only trying to catch a grayling!

After yesterday’s 12-hour, 70-km (43 mile) paddle yesterday, I'm appreciating our first layover day of the trip. Last night we kept paddling, looking for a river-level, dry, unexposed campsite. Such sites don't exist in this part of the country, as the river is constrained by high banks. Although not a sandy beach, we are happy with this lovely tundra camp on a ridge with a view high above the river. We had hoped that being so exposed to the wind would cut down on the bugs, but they continue to torment us in hordes that surpass anything we have seen so far.

I awoke this morning to find a card and present on my pillow. My thoughtful husband Michael had carried them in places I looked every day: the card in the first aid case; earrings in a box in the toiletry case. I must be blind. As usual, Michael wrote a beautiful inscription that made me feel so special and loved.

We enjoyed a pleasant rest day just taking it easy. Michael fished and I retrieved the camera to capture our anniversary camp on film. I anticipated a perfect picture, with snow and ice on the opposite bank, and Michael fishing in the foreground. My hopes were ruined when Michael walked away from the shore. Seeing me peering through the lens, however, he cast again to allow me to get my picture. As the shutter clicked, Michael called out that he had a "giant fish." I helped guide the fish into the small net, which barely contained half the fish's length. We estimated the lake trout's weight at about 8 kg (17.5 pounds). We enjoyed a delicious breakfast, and expect to have many more meals from this trout.

We tried to erect our tarp today, not because of rain, but to obtain relief from the 28-degree (82 F) sun that never seems to fully set. The strong, tundra winds flattened the tarp on every attempt. We continued to bake in the unceasing sun, and I retreated to the tent for shade. Cut off from the cooling winds of the open tundra, I felt even hotter than before. Even so, I preferred to hide in the stuffy tent, rather than endure the direct rays of the afternoon sun.

Reading excerpts from Edgar Christian's journal “Unflinching,” I was impressed with the perseverance of Hornby, Adlard, and Christian in the face of so much hardship. These 3 men entered the Thelon Region during the winter of 1926-27, and intended to live off caribou while they trapped for furs. Unfortunately, Hornby, Adlard, and Christian arrived too late, as the vast herds had already migrated south; all 3 men subsequently starved to death. Only 19 years old when he died, Christian survived until June, and succumbed just 3 weeks before the Arctic spring returned; his diary makes compelling reading regarding the extraordinary endurance of which the human
spirit is capable, despite what turned out to be insurmountable odds against survival. We hope to be able to find their cabin at Hornby Point, which now lies only a few days down river.

Although this land lacks trees and has little relief, the tundra is by no means barren or uninteresting. There are many varieties of low-growing plants, most just starting to bloom. Today we also saw 3 gulls, a few meadowlarks and one Lapland longspur. Other than mosquitoes, however, geese are the most abundant wildlife.

We had benefited from a light tail wind most of yesterday, but in the afternoon we had paddled away from the southern, lee shore to battle strong winds and high waves for the last few kilometres of the lake-like, 1-km wide section of the Thelon. We knew once we left this open stretch, that the winds wouldn't be able to affect us as much. We continued to stroke hard to reach a narrow section of the river flowing out of the north side of the “lake.” It was like heaven when we paddled around the island at the river's exit from our flat-water, wind-blown, struggle. The island blocked the wind, and the current flowed quickly. We lay our paddles across the gunwales and just drifted. Now that the Thelon is moving, we expect to make up the kilometres lost on the "lakey" part of the trip. We hope to be able to leave the Mary Francis River, as planned, on July 6.

Tomorrow we paddle through a rock garden section that will require considerable maneuvering. We're worried, but the combination of our river skills and our conservative natures will get us through safely.

Monday, July 5

As befits a day spent running rapids in a rock garden, tonight we are camped in a rock garden. Rocks are everywhere -- large and small, round and flat. Rocks, just scattered, all around. Although there didn't appear to be anywhere to place our tent, we are becoming adept at finding a spot just the right size. We reached the Mary Frances River about 7:30 pm. Most of the rock gardens section was easy, but a couple of bends proved challenging. The last section consisted of two rock ledges that extended most of the way across the river. We portaged the first ledge, in a strong wind, which made carrying the canoe very difficult for Michael. After scouting the second ledge, we decided to ferry to river right, where there appeared to be more room around the ledge. This river is substantially wider than those we usually canoe. Ferries are therefore much longer, and must be initiated well above the obstacles.

We finished the fish for dinner, our last of five consecutive trout meals. Although tasty, I look forward to eating something else for variety.

After making camp, we watched four muskoxen across the Mary Francis River. They seemed to enjoy butting heads, and shattering the tundra quiet with their noisy impacts.


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We are used to narrow rivers, with rocky rapids that require technical paddling. The Thelon River is bigger and wider than we're used to, with ledges often extending all the way across the river. We noticed turbulence downstream, and wondered what lay ahead.

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Rocky rapids are often not as intimidating as they first seem, as one can almost always paddle on one side or the other of the rock. With river-wide ledges, however, there is no where to go except over. Reversals at the bottom of the drop could trap a canoe, and us, indefinitely. We portaged around.

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This section had 12 km (7.5 miles) of rapids, and we didn't reach the Mary Francis River until 7:00. We had anticipated a sandy beach with shelter and fire wood. We decided to push through the willows. There must be a good place to camp.

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The tent fit nicely among the rocks. We had lots of surface cooking area, with large rocks as protection from the wind. One must be flexible about what constitutes a good camp.


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We camped next to some willows and some spruce among the muskox trails. Note rubbings on tree.

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Muskoxen across river. Display of head-butting. I was glad they didn't cross the Mary Francis river that evening. We wouldn't have liked to see them looking into our tent's front door.

What a day. Once again it began in sunshine, with relatively calm conditions. The mosquitoes were as bad as they've been on the entire trip, but quite tolerable with our bug jackets. I prepared a leisurely breakfast of lake trout and tea, and we were on the river by 9:20 am, hoping to reach the Mary Francis River before we camped.

The topographic map showed many rocks, particularly in the 12 km (7.5 miles) before the Mary Francis, a section also indicated in our guide as requiring considerable maneuvering to canoe it safely.

By noon we had covered nearly half the distance, and virtually all of the alleged rocks lay safely submerged below the surface. The current was gaining speed, the sun shone, and a light breeze from the north provided ideal paddling conditions. I felt optimistic and happy.

We stopped for lunch on a gravel embankment, and enjoyed lake trout pate′ on crackers. Just like having hors d'oeuvres at a cocktail party. I’m bored with eating lake trout all the time, though. Not wanting to keep fresh fish in camp, because of our concern We ferried out, headed for the "V," and then noticed for the first time a large rock, hidden behind a flashing wave. We side-slipped right, perilously close to the ledge, avoided the rock, side-slipped left, and hit the "V."

"Oh, my God, these may be just haystacks, but they're awfully big." We braced with all our strength, hoping to exit upright. It seemed we were held in place by the standing waves, forever suspended in the brace position. Would we remain here until freeze-up, at which time we could walk across the haystacks to shore? Eventually we emerged from the white rollers, and congratulated ourselves for having taken the time to wear our spray skirts, stretched water-tight over the cowling of the spray deck.

Only two more ledges before the Mary Francis River and the anticipated white sand beach. We lifted over the first ledge, a short portage of 50 m. We avoided the second ledge by ferrying all the way across the river. At 6:45, a strong north wind blew directly towards us. Why does the wind always shift to meet us at the end of the day, no matter what direction we're travelling?

We arrived at the Mary Francis River at 7:30 pm, with four muskoxen visible on the far shore. The white sand beach of our visions and hopes had rudely metamorphosed into an expanse of large boulders. Too tired to continue, we fitted the tent between rocks as best we could, made a fire, and ate the last of the lake trout.

After dinner, we strolled up the Mary Francis River to view the muskoxen browsing and head-butting. Although we enjoyed their display, I hoped these impressive animals would stay on the far side of the river. We had pitched our tent on their trail, and the adjacent spruce and willows showed obvious signs of muskox rubbing and damage.

Back at camp, as we packed and stowed our gear for the night, the north wind intensified. The tundra bugs that had plagued us continually for the past week fled before the strong gusts. For the first time, we enjoyed sitting outside, lingering, without our bug jackets. It's now midnight, and I'm lying, very tired, in the tent. Our previous extended canoe trip on the Nahanni River was a float compared to this challenging adventure. I hope tomorrow will be a short, easy day.

Tuesday, July 6

Well, I got my wish for a short day. Up at 8:00 am, and on the river at 11:00. Off the river at 3:00 pm. Writing in the tent 2 hours later. I didn't receive my wish for an easy day, however. We awoke to a strong north wind (a head wind, naturally), and a cool 10-degree (50 F) morning. No bugs. We paddled continuously against the wind. At first, the current proved a strong ally, and we made progress. As the Thelon flattened and braided into a delta before Eyeberry Lake, the current abandoned us to struggle alone against the wind. The outcome was never in doubt.

Here we sit in the tent at 5:30 pm, grounded by wind. We're camped on a low, sandy island, on the lee side of a dune. It's warm, calm and comforting out of the wind. Also, still no bugs, for nearly 36 hours now. We paddled about 16 km (10 miles) of our intended 38 km (24 miles) today, mostly into a head wind that grew continually stronger. The river's shoreline was often broken by large bays, and we were unable to make the open crossings safely. Instead, our only hope was to paddle directly into the teeth of the wind to reach the lee shore at the foot of the bay.

Entering one particular inlet towards the end of the day, we managed only to barely hold our position against the unceasing wind. Refusing to yield, I muttered defiant challenges to the wind: "This time I will not stop. I will keep paddling no matter how hard you blow!" We managed to push forward slightly, and finally reached the lee of the harbour. As we rested in the relative calm, Michael acknowledged that he had nearly given up, and had been resigned to making camp. I felt proud when he said that only my determination had brought us this victory against our unyielding opponent.

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Despite our struggle with the wind, the day provided memorable wildlife highlights, including 12 muskoxen just beyond the Mary Francis River. Just before we stopped for the day, a lone greyish-white wolf approached to within 50 m as we neared each other along the shoreline. As we floated by the wolf, a cow moose and calf leaped from the willows into the water not more than 20 m from the canoe. At that proximity, the cow moose looked menacingly large. The moose retreated to the bushes, but her calf remained in our path. The wind was so strong that we drifted backwards whenever we stopped stroking hard. We certainly didn't want to lose any of our hard-fought progress.

We also didn't want to paddle between a cow moose and her calf, so we ferried across to the island on which we are now camped.


We intend to nap for a while, get up, eat dinner and return to bed, hoping the wind will diminish in the evening so that we can begin paddling about 3:00 am. Most nights and mornings have been calm, although there have been a couple of nights when the wind didn't ever subside. Wind continuously hinders our progress, and we are very worried about reaching Baker Lake on time. I know my parents will expect to receive a telephone call from us no later than the day of our anticipated arrival; I don’t wish to cause them needless anxiety by being late.

We have a nice camp. A sandy, flat spot, and plenty of broken driftwood for a fire. We plan to sleep until the wind dies, get up and cook our chili dinner, and see how close we can get to the Thelon Canyon tomorrow.

After napping until 11:30 pm, we awoke to a lesser breeze. Encouraged, we dressed, enjoyed watching a pair of greater white-fronted geese nesting on a small, nearby pond, built a fire, and dined on chili and cornbread.

After our midnight snack, the wind remained brisk, making the 20-degree (68 F) temperature seem cold. We discussed our options and retired to the tent, hoping for calmer, warmer conditions in a few hours.
 
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This report is re-kindling my desire to do some serious tripping again, it's got everything in it. I'm wondering, did you have your trusty BLR along on this trip?
 
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Wow, was that really white sand on the esker or did I miss an obvious joke? I would have sworn it was snow.

Alan

Alan,

Minus 36 (-33 F) here this morning. We’ve had snow on the ground since October. I know snow when I see it, I think. But that sand certainly looks like snow. But we were right there. Even at the time, we said, “Wow, look at that white sand esker!” We never said, “Is that sand or snow?” We were right there. We could have paddled over if uncertain. But we didn’t. In our minds, it was sand. But the image sure looks like snow. It was on a south-facing slope. Would have easily melted weeks before we arrived. In our minds, it was sand. But.........?

Mem,

My mind is obviously going, if I can’t tell the difference between sand and snow. But I don’t remember if I took my trusty Browning .308 lever action or not. I would say yes, but a search through our digital journals didn’t yield any hits. What is happening to me?

By the way, congratulations on the 50 lb loss. Very impressive!
 
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Alan,

Minus 36 (-33 F) here this morning. We’ve had snow on the ground since October. I know snow when I see it, I think. But that sand certainly looks like snow. But we were right there. Even at the time, we said, “Wow, look at that white sand esker!” We never said, “Is that sand or snow?” We were right there. We could have paddled over if uncertain. But we didn’t. In our minds, it was sand. But the image sure looks like snow. It was on a south-facing slope. Would have easily melted weeks before we arrived. In our minds, it was sand. But.........?

Oh, I'm not doubting you at all. But sometimes someone will make a deadpan joke (like calling snow white sand) and I miss it. Just wanted to be sure that wasn't the case. I saw the picture before I read the caption so already the idea of snow was fixed in my head and then you threw me off.

Alan
 
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Alan,

If someone were to accuse me of being a memory-addled old man, subject to moments of reality-challenged perception, I couldn’t dispute it! But I’m still going with sand. I’ve said it way too many times in public to alter course now.
 
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This report is re-kindling my desire to do some serious tripping again, it's got everything in it. I'm wondering, did you have your trusty BLR along on this trip?

Mem,

I look forward to your reports of resumed serious tripping! My current report doesn't have everything in it yet. But it's coming. I'm going to post a bit more now, but I'm wondering if people are getting tired of the Thelon River. Not getting very many replies, or the much coveted likes. Anyway, here goes the next three days.

Wednesday, July 7

Up at 6:15 am. The wind blew all night, but has slackened to paddleable conditions. We breakfasted on granola, quickly packed and loaded the canoe, and paddled away an hour later.

Into the wind -- 8-degrees (46 F) -- it was cold. I had on all my gear: wet suit booties, long underwear, shirt, sweater, windbreaker, toque, hat and neoprene paddling gloves. I felt warm, but not toasty. Even the exertion of paddling against the wind didn't generate excess heat.

We reached Eyeberry Lake at 9:00 am. Perhaps we will have a good day, and put some miles behind us. We could hug the west shore, which would buffer us partly from the now brisk NNW wind.

We rounded the point into the Lake, turned north, and gazed across an ocean stretching before us. We could see no end to Eyeberry Lake -- just wind-blown whitecaps rolling toward us from beyond the horizon. Don't think about the destination. It's too daunting. One bay, one point at a time, would get us there. We sneaked down Eyeberry Lake along its 3-m embankment. Comparatively little wind. This will work.

We reached our first bay. Too far across the mouth to traverse in these breakers. We paddled around the point, directly into the wind. Virtually no progress, even though both of us paddled with maximum energy. With each stroke closer to the distant shore, the wind and waves slackened imperceptibly, but assuredly, until we reached the calm, 2-m-high lee shore. Then, broadside to the wind, we sailed down the foot of the bay until we reached the opposite shore and turned out, running before breakers and wind.

"We can do this. This will work. If only that wind would die, damn it!"

By 2:00 pm we had struggled 5 km to the north end of the lake and rode the current through the narrows.

"We win!"

Now we can let the current work for us. Around a bend and into a wide part of the river with a very deep bay extending into the wind. Its opposite shore, only one metre high, offered no wind protection. Rollers piled towards us. We struggled, gained half a canoe length; struggled, gained a quarter canoe length; struggled and lost the battle. Two-thirty. Camp is where your canoe blows to shore.


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Tonight's home is a low piece of tundra fringed with dwarf birch, which provides sufficient numbers of small sticks to cook our stir-fry with rice. During dinner, the wind stopped, and innumerable magnitudes of small, mosquito-like bugs rose from the birch-clothed tundra. They didn't bite. They simply rose, and with the first breeze, fell to earth, covering our gear, inundating our packs, and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Better than biting mosquitoes, though. (Note: This is a poor image. I just scanned and cleaned it yesterday, as I don't have many images to present in this section of the trip. We didn't take many pictures. We spent most of our time just struggling against the wind.)

The wind has not lessened at all for the last 2 days. Yesterday we woke at about midnight to stand on the beach. Even in the lee of our sand dune, we felt oppressed by the wind, which remained too strong to paddle against. We ate dinner and then slept until 6:00 am. Following a quick breakfast, we began paddling into a blustery, grey morning. After travelling only about 15 km, the wind and waves again forced us to shore, and an early camp near the outlet of Eyeberry Lake. The evening is now calm, but we're both tired. We'll go to bed immediately after dinner, get up early, and try again tomorrow.

In the tent at 6:00 pm. The wind has now slackened substantially. If only it stays that way, we can be on the river at 5:00 am. Assuming we can run all the rapids, we will reach the canyon tomorrow afternoon. I hope so, as we're 45 km (28 miles) behind schedule again, even though we're working very hard.

Thursday, July 8

The wind renewed its attack at 2:00 am, reinforced soon after by rain. "A short storm would be fine. We could still be on the water in sunshine and calm by 5:00 am."

The assault continued at 6:00 am. We were warm and dry, though, in our new tent, designed to withstand all but the most extreme weather conditions. The open vestibule at our head provided ample protection even for the boots and daypack stored outside the sleeping area.

We preferred to sleep with both tent doors open, for ventilation and to be able to scan our environment. I peered through the front door at our feet to confirm that canoe, gear and food had remained undisturbed during the night.

"Oh, no!" Rain had been blowing into the tent for the past four hours. My shirt, sweater, bird and plant books, and the bottoms of our sleeping bags lay soaking in tepid water. What a stupid, careless mistake. I hate such mistakes because they're so easily avoided. The clothes and sleeping bags would dry, but the books would never recover completely.

Our bird and plant books comprise a major part of all our wilderness trips. Although we know most of the common plants by sight, books are necessary to recognize species that are new to us. Without our book, we would never have identified the prickly saxifrage, white petals delicately spotted in orange, growing among the riverside cobbles at the Mary Francis River. Without our bird book, we would never have confirmed the greater white-fronted goose in the pond behind last night's camp in the delta south of Eyeberry Lake. The books will still be serviceable. Their crinkled pages may even be viewed with admiration as having "field character," but I don't like it.

Ten o'clock in the morning, and the rain and wind have continued mercilessly for 8 hours. There's still time for a full day of paddling, even if we leave by two or three. It seems, however, that today is becoming a rest day, even if imposed upon us.

It stormed all night and day. We remained in the tent, very discouraged with our lack of progress. After breakfast of bannock and tea at 6:00 pm, we loaded the canoe, and set out in a calm breeze. We easily completed the crossing of the bay at the north end of Eyeberry Lake and reached moving water, where the wind began to blow again. We stopped at the first bend to scout a rapid marked on the map. We were both very pensive about the wind. Paddling into the wind is not only hard work, but also risky. On a calm river, rocks identify their positions by creating waves. Additional waves made by wind complicate the difficulty of river-reading. A strong wind also forces additional canoe-alignment adjustments when maneuvering around rocks. While waiting for the wind to die down, we walked the entire length of the river bend. Although the wind never slackened, we eventually decided that we needed to run this stretch of river to gain confidence.

Beyond the bend, the river opened into a wide section, where the wind now blew very strongly. As we paddled through the haystacks into the flat water, a large bay opened up on river-right. We suddenly found ourselves far from the safety of shore. I was truly scared as we sought to reach the beach, running in silence before the large waves. We stopped about 12:30 am, ate some soup and retired to the tent. Just before we reached camp, the sky had been nearly completely clear. I now looked out at an almost completely cloud-filled sky. The air is quite cool in the low sun and strong wind. Another storm seems to be blowing toward us. I am so frustrated not to be able to make any progress because of poor weather.

I'm now back in the tent, 20 km (12 miles) past last evening's camp at Eyeberry Lake. Two o'clock in the morning. We're both very tired -- only a cup of soup for dinner. While still at Eyeberry Lake this morning, we played some cribbage, napped a bit, and then made afternoon tea. At 4:00 pm the wind stopped, and soon the rain also stopped. We make a breakfast bannock, and were on the water at 6:00 pm.

It felt good. No wind. At 6:30, a gentle breeze arose.

"I don't like this."

"It's just a breeze," came Kathleen’s response from the bow.

By 7:00 pm, we reached moving water north of Eyeberry Lake, and the wind direction reversed to once again blow directly into our faces. Combined with a fast-flowing current, some rocks, and an approaching rapid, the wind made controlling the canoe difficult. We were off the water at 7:30.

"Oh, well. Time for a tundra hike."

While being harassed incessantly by a peregrine falcon, we strolled very disconsolately down stream, along the cliff, assessing the rapid.

"We could do it easily if it weren't for the wind."

Two hours passed and the gusts grew stronger and more prolonged. For the first time I considered the possibility we would never reach Baker Lake. Maybe we should just run this rapid, wind or no wind.

A few minutes later, Kathleen voiced my thoughts. "Why can't we run this rapid? Is it only because of the wind? It's one thing to be cautious because we're all alone, but we still have to run what we know we can run."

And so, here we are - - finally beyond Eyeberry Lake - - finally relaxing - - finally enjoying a beautiful evening in low-angle sunlight. Only 40 km and one portage behind schedule. The wind is blowing strongly once again, but I'm a happy guy. I believe we will reach Baker Lake on time.

Friday, July 9

Today began windy, following a noisy, turbulent night of what were probably the strongest winds of the trip so far. While fetching water for breakfast, I was attacked by an Arctic tern. Believing I must be near the nest, I closely watched her retreat. She flew to her nest on an exposed, rocky beach. The tern's colouring makes her very difficult to see, even now that I know where she is. The storm last night was fierce; but, this little bird sits on her nest without any protection from the Arctic winds.

The wind blew very strongly all night, stronger than at any other time on the trip. The noise interrupted our fitful and restless sleep. I'm just glad the tent withstood the unceasing gusts.

We arose at 11:00 am, and found a sheltered spot behind a willow-clothed sand dune to cook a spaghetti breakfast, a meal originally intended for last night’s dinner. The sheltered "kitchen" was quiet -- so nice to be out of the wind. The sun appeared sporadically from behind the clouds, and we lingered over the campfire, even taking time to heat water for bathing and washing underwear. It felt good to take off our clothes and bathe in warmth. A short hike over the ridge revealed an American tree sparrow, perched atop a 2-m spruce in a dwarf willow thicket. The bird seemed pleased to be tossed back-and-forth by the wind. I couldn't share its enthusiasm.

At three in the afternoon we put on the water, as the wind dropped to a steady breeze, and the rollers on the large bay no longer broke off-shore. It looked canoeable. We made slow but steady progress along the bay.

"This isn't so bad, but don't tell the wind. We don't want to make it mad."

Ninety minutes later we turned into a 12-km (7.5 miles) arm extending directly north. The wind lay in ambush, and immediately sent breaking waves rolling into our path. We were making so little progress that we agreed to stop. At 5:00 pm we stood on the shore.

We trudged up a small ridge above a bog, again thinking we'd never reach Baker Lake.

"We can't possibly paddle 12 km directly into this wind."

We lay down in a small depression in the tundra, and were greeted with the pleasingly sweet essence of crushed northern Labrador tea. We also experienced why tundra plants so commonly grow no more than 20 cm (8 inches) high. At their height, we were out of the wind, baking in sunshine and enjoying silence.

After about 20 minutes, we convinced ourselves that the wind was slackening, so we resumed paddling. We made reasonable progress until we rounded a point extending into the lake. Waves crashed over the bow, and we turned to run before them. Driving hard for shore, and leaping out to avoid broaching, we again stood on shore. We were very depressed to have put so much effort into paddling against the wind, only to make almost no headway.

Once more we trudged back up the ridge, lunch in hand. Chinese noodles steeped in the thermos of water heated at breakfast. Crackers and cheese followed the soup. Kathleen has done an excellent job with the meals, which are certainly highlights of the trip.

As the cheese disappeared, we looked at each other with hopeful disbelief.

"Is the wind really stopping?"

"I think it is!"

Back in the boat for two full hours of paddling into a gentle breeze. Gliding into twilight, periodically circled by a flock of curious old squaws, we finally were able to develop a paddling rhythm. (Note: The Old Squaw duck is now officially called the Long-tailed Duck>)

The wind returned as we neared the first of the marked rapids leading to the Thelon Canyon. We exchanged our light, wooden flat-water paddles for the heavier, more rigid, river paddles, which are far superior at moving and side-slipping the boat in white water.

The first two rapids were only riffles -- almost disappointing. The next five rapids occurred in close sequence on a bend to the right. We eddied out on the inside corner to assess the upper stretch of foam. A ledge followed by a few rocks, with sufficient room to make the necessary moves left, right, and left. We ran it. Then a series of rocks in shallow water, which required only that the canoe be kept parallel with the current. We ran it. Our spirits were high. One rapid to go.

We eddied out on river-right to scout. A serious ledge, with a 2-m souse hole, extending all the way across the river. Through binoculars, we could see a possible sneak route on the distant left bank.

"Can we ferry all the way across without going over the ledge?"

"I think so."

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Paddling at 11:30 at night to make up for lost time.

Back in the boat for a must-make ferry. Broad-siding a rock or losing the ferry angle would likely be fatal. The water was not pushy, and we held our position for the 200 m across to the left shore.

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Walking to the ledge revealed about 2 m of runnable water between the shoreline and the vicious souse hole below the ledge.

"It's getting late in the day, and we're tired. Why don't we line it?"

Usually, if you can't run a rapid, you can't line it either. We would have infinitely more control of the boat, in the boat, with paddles in hand. Attempting to guide a boat through rapids only with bow and stern lines held from the shore often results in the canoe turning broadside and broaching on rocks. This rapid was probably runnable, though, with a reasonably clear channel next to shore. We just didn't wish to risk a mistake so close to the souse hole, from which canoe and paddlers might never reappear.

Thirty minutes later, we drifted downstream, in complete calm and perfectly clear skies. Floating into a pink northern horizon, we are happy with today's achievements. We are now camped at 12:30 am, perched above the Thelon River, about 7 km (4 miles) above the dreaded Thelon Canyon portage. We ran seven of the rapids marked in this section, and are encouraged that maybe we can run some of the Thelon Canyon. Michael lined one rapid tonight - - a ledge that extended almost completely across the river. We are not accustomed to ledges; so far we don't like them. Ledges afford so few canoeing options.

For me, it only takes a few days of living -- in the open -- on the land, before I become enveloped by quiet exhilaration. It is as though the very power of the earth and the wind penetrate to my soul, and I truly never feel so free, so strong, and so alive, as when I am paddling down a wilderness river. If the wind can be unceasing, so can we. If the rapids provide challenges, we can meet them.

Lying in the tent, we hear the muffled thunder of the Thelon Canyon waiting for our descent tomorrow. This tundra landscape seems limitless and supremely powerful. Nonetheless, we feel at home in this landscape, and share its power and limitless possibilities. We are confident that we shall persevere.
 
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A wind trip! I remember back in 75' at the mouth of the Albany River as it entered the James Bay the winds were so severe we paddled a couple hundred feet before being pushed to the opposite bank where we were literally held by the wind and stayed there for two days. When the wind dropped we headed out in the pitch black onto the James Bay heading to Moosenee. I remember those winds coming in off the Bay were so bad that me being a massive buck twenty-five in weight at the time just collecting wood I would get blown over. And the paddle down the Bay was a windy interesting time.

There was a few trips where the winds would really play havoc with running rapids as they blasted you while running them really messing up your line! Or the flat water where the little swirl left by your paddle was only an inch behind you with every stroke leaving you thinking I'm never gonna make it home!

I think any of us who have tripped have had the wind as our foe. Hell, I just can't understand how the wind just, regardless of which way you turn, knows to blow in your face!

This is a great trip report Michael, I'm really enjoying the hell out of it!

dougd
 
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I'm going to post a bit more now, but I'm wondering if people are getting tired of the Thelon River. Not getting very many replies, or the much coveted likes

I don't think you have to worry about that. I'm guessing that most other members are like me and their vocabulary only contains a handful of superlatives. I'd hate to use them all up at the beginning of the trip and not have any left for the finale.

I always enjoy your trip reports but so far this is ranking up there with my favorites. Great scenery and I enjoy the journal entries. It's nice to hear what you two were actually thinking at the time. Sometimes that's different to what you think you remembered feeling 30 years ago.

I hope the wind stops blowing soon. It sets my nerves on edge to just read about someone else having that roar in their ears all day long.

Alan
 

Zac

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I am loving the detail and all of the pictures (lack of photographs on those incessantly windy days is forgiven). I especially enjoy the horticultural shots from a couple of posts ago! So many people fail to stop and 'smell the flowers' properly. I am glad your ID books made it through, however waterlogged. Seeing unique species identified and photographed in a trip report is an inspiration for wannabe amateur naturalists like myself to keep learning the trade. What books did you carry for this purpose? I know some volumes can be quite large and heavy.

I am glad that you included the 'it only takes a few days' passage. I did post it to Odyssey's 'quotes to trip by' thread.

Alan, your Wollaston Lake report is on my short list of favorites, as is this one. I swear that neither are on that list due to schadenfreude nor sadism as both trips were defined by brutal weather. You and the Pitt's were prepared and managed to keep your spirits up and carry on. It's easy to say now, safe in my heated home, but I do enjoy nature when it is at it's worst because being prepared and overcoming is superlatively rewarding, mentally. "If the wind can be unceasing, so can we."

Zac
 
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