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Thelon River, Northwest Territories & Nunavut (1993)

Thanks everyone, for your kind comments!

That's a funny thing about wind, Doug.I once read, but forgot where, that "On a Barren Grounds trip you don't need a compass or map. You just head directly into the wind, and eventually you get to where it is you want to go."

Zac. The plant book we used was Barrenland Beauties by Page Burt. Not an exhaustive botanical treatise by any means, but very helpful:


Now back to the story.

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Saturday, July 10

An un-runnable 5-km (3 miles) canyon is a blunt leveller of confident men. We made nine km (5.5 miles) (15.5 miles) today; four by water, five by portage. At three loads each, we traversed 25 km by land. We brought up the packs in stages, leap-frogging each pile spread along the canyon rim. We began portaging at 2:00 pm, and finished at 1:00 am. A 5-km un-runnable canyon swiftly imposes humility on those who believe they have acquired the power of vast space and lurking winds.

Heads bent down beneath heavy packs, we noted two new plants: an Arctic arnica and a yellow lousewort. Heads up, returning to the trailing pile of gear, we saw a Harris' sparrow and a rough-legged hawk. Soaring and circling above the canyon walls, the hawk's thin whistle admonished us for trespassing into its rodent-hunting preserve.

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Beneath the packs again, heads humbly bowed to earth, we saw reminders of portaging colleagues of previous years. Campfires of those who failed, or chose not to complete their task in a single day. A broken tent peg - - a fallen and forgotten aluminum plate - - all silent but certain emblems of the true misery of the portage trail.

In the tent at 2:00 am; granola, gorp and sausage for dinner. Much too tired to prepare a hot meal. A 5-km, un-runnable canyon is a formidable challenge, and I'm relieved to be at the end of this portage trail.

Sunday, July 11

Considering our difficult day yesterday, which extended late into the evening, we rose surprisingly early -- 10:00 am. I think anxiety and tension triggered our internal alarms. We had ended our portage 0.5 km before the Clarke River, but access to the Thelon remained difficult. We would need to lower the canoe and packs 15 m (50 feet) down a nearly vertical cliff of eroding, fractured sandstone. I fell asleep last night already thinking that the Clarke would offer easier access to moving water.

A short saunter to the Clarke over mostly open terrain proved easy. Although nearly as steep, the cliff face above the Clarke River was mostly covered with dwarf birch and alder, which offered much more stable footing. Neither of us relished extending our portage by 0.5 km, but the very difficult access to the Thelon Canyon below our camp drove us back into harness.

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We first moved our gear about a third of the distance, to a sunny area in the shelter of a thin strip of white spruce, where we prepared a thoroughly leisurely breakfast in the morning warmth. Smothered in butter and jelly, our bannock was the most enjoyable of the trip.

By 4:00 pm, we were moving down the Clarke River, and rejoined the Thelon above a large island with steep cliff faces all around. Picking our way through the shallow riffles and rocks between the island and the left bank, our spirits soared as we faced only one more rapid, purported in the NWT guide as being runnable. No qualifications. Runnable. As we neared the rapid, an ominous ledge, with 2-m souse holes, stretched between both banks. No route was obvious or apparent. We beached our canoe on river-left to scout.

Very dejectedly, we forced our way along the ridge, through spruce swamp and willow bogs.

"I don't want to portage anymore."

The inside bend on river-right was too risky. A run down the centre was unthinkable. On river-left, however, a 1-m strip of water between the shore and the ledge beckoned. Access to the strip was guarded by two successive diagonal waves deflecting into the ledge and companion souse hole. The water wasn't too pushy, though, and the remainder of the run along the canyon wall could be completed in relatively calm water.

Back in the canoe, floating toward the thundering ledge, my mouth, as usual, expressed my worry by drying instantly. We easily crossed the first, small diagonal wave. The second curling crest of water proved larger than anticipated. Slicing across with forward strokes, the bow entered the eddy as the stern dipped precariously into the souse hole. Powering forward, and rocking only slightly, we safely turned up into the narrow eddy.

We had done it! We had avoided the portage. Turning tightly, we rode the eddy line along the canyon, making sure to avoid the water heading left into the undercut cliff.

Ten minutes later, we enjoyed our gorp break at the Hanbury River confluence, before being driven back to the water by the most numerous mosquitoes experienced so far.

At 8:30 pm we were in camp, squatting before our fire, sipping brandy and immensely enjoying a shepherd's pie. Neither of us could remember the last time we had experienced a slow-paced, relaxing dinner.

We had travelled only 12 km (7.5 miles) today, and are about 60 km (37 miles) behind schedule. The arduous upper Thelon is behind us, and virtually no obstacle remains before us for the next couple of weeks. I'm sleepy and tired, but very relaxed.

After many days of wind, storm and anxiety, tonight is calm and peaceful. We are camped just downstream of the Hanbury junction. Yesterday we encountered the Thelon Canyon, where we had expected a portage of perhaps 3 km. Instead, we portaged more than 5 km over difficult terrain, including bogs, willow thickets, spruce stands, huge boulders, and tundra. Scouting the portage, dragging along our hand-held buckets, required about 4 hours for the round trip. We then had two more loads each to carry along the canyon ridge. We completed this transport of gear by leap-frogging one pack ahead, and then returning for the second. Each leg of the portage became progressively more difficult. Eventually, I wasn't even able to stand up beneath the 30-kg loads, unless Michael lifted the packs while I struggled to gain my feet. After 11 hours, I was completely exhausted, and very relieved, when I dropped the last pack at the end of the portage trail.

Well, almost the end of the portage trail. During our scouting along the canyon, we selected a stopping point where we could reach the river only by climbing down a steep, unstable cliff. We camped last night at the top of this cliff, knowing that we faced a very difficult challenge to lower the canoe to the water. This morning we found an easier way to the water's edge about 0.5 km further downstream. So, after breakfast, we finished the portage, loaded the canoe, and set off in quickly-flowing water.

Just before the Thelon joins the Hanbury River, the map indicates a rapid described by the NWT guide as runnable. When we first approached the rapid, we could see only a continuous line of waves curling across the entire river. A good trail led up the cliff, on river-left. Does this path indicate a portage trail? After yesterday's exhausting portage, we weren't prepared to hike up the cliff, push through the willow thickets and spruce, and scramble down the other side. We were very discouraged. Scouting from the trail, we identified a sneak-route on river-left, just wide enough for our canoe to pass in relatively calm water. After skirting by the ledge, we would then need to power to river-left to avoid the curling waves below the drop. We appreciated our river skills and confidence, which allowed us to avoid another day of portaging. Our leans came in particularly handy, as the curling wave momentarily caught and held our stern in the souse hole below the ledge.

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We had finally reached the Hanbury River, our quest for these last two weeks. We had hoped to rest on its banks, to celebrate our accomplishment of completing successfully the first third of our Thelon River trip. The afternoon was windy and rainy, and the bugs were the worst we have experienced so far. We continued downstream to our camping spot of tonight.

We celebrated the end of our second week with a relaxing dinner and a glass of brandy. I am entertained by a semi-palmated plover that repeatedly scurries by to "peep" at me. She doesn't seem concerned -- just curious and friendly. One of the nicest parts of this trip is living naturally with all the birds and geese. Quite often, birds perch within eyesight -- so close that binoculars become unnecessary.

(Note: I think I'll stop for now. We have completed the first of three sections of the Thelon River to Baker Lake. It's a good time to take a break. The second of three sections is supposed to be easy. It's the section that most recreational canoeists paddle. Should be more like fun than work.)
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Monday, July 12

We experienced our first easy day today, which we deserved after two weeks of difficult travelling. We slept until 9:00 am, still needing rest after the canyon portage. In the warm, 19-degree sun we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast for the second successive morning, and then sponge-bathed and washed our hair. The warm water washing away the grime and toil of the previous three days felt exceptionally good. To complete our self-indulgence, we even brushed our teeth.

Just before noon, we began drifting into the sunshine, and within an hour reached Warden's Grove, where Hoare and his assistant Knox built a cabin in 1928.

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Approaching Warden's Grove

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The site served as headquarters for Hoare's assignment as first warden of the newly-created Thelon Game Sanctuary.

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An additional over-wintering cabin was constructed in 1977 by six men who spent 18 months journeying from the MacMillan River in the Yukon, overland to the Nahanni, down the Liard, up the Mackenzie, across Great Slave Lake, and then down the Hanbury-Thelon to Baker Lake and the Hudson Bay coast. Their modern-day epic is superbly chronicled in Chris Norment's book "In The North of Our Lives." (Note: In January 1978, the Soviet satellite Cosmos crashed very near to Warden's Groves. Norment and his five companions were airlifted to Yellowknife, where they stayed, IIRC, for as long as a week. It was a major jolt to their quest for isolation.)

We continued drifting, enjoying the freedom of unlimited movement and vistas. I'm sure my pleasure in wilderness canoeing relates primarily to this freedom. I believe firmly that the human psyche revels in movement. What else can better explain our species' inherent, nearly constant desire to travel, when staying home would be so much easier and more relaxing? The nomadic peoples probably experience(d) more true freedom than those of us in large houses with larger mortgages that require daily commitment to employment-servitude.

R.M. Patterson, who spent two summers and one winter on the Nahanni in 1927-1928, summarized this freedom best:

"Those of us who had the good fortune to be on the South Nahanni during those last days of the old north, may in times of hunger or hardship have cursed the day we ever heard the name of that fabled river. Yet, a treasure was ours in the end. Memories of a carefree time, and an utter and absolute freedom which the years can not dim or the present age provide."

I don't dare claim to be in the same league of adventuring and exploring as Patterson, or Norment, or Hoare. Yet, Kathleen and I are adventuring. We paddle through a land inhabited by no other humans. We drift. We camp where we want. We get up and retire when we want. We are the sole arbiters of what we do every hour, minute, and second of every day. We are in paradise.

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Paradise must also afford danger to preclude dullness and complacency. Near Grassy Island we saw two Barren Grounds grizzly bears, ambling slowly along the sandy shore. The animals we have encountered on the Thelon invariably become aware of our approaching canoe from what seems like a very great distance. The moulting, flightless geese run and flap across the water, sending forth a cacophony of raucous cackling, as they eventually leave the water and literally "head for the hills." The dozen muskoxen at the Mary Francis River stopped grazing, looked up, twitched, moved over the crest of a hill, looked back, twitched, stood still, and stared.

The two grizzlies, without interrupting their lumbering, purposeful gait, simply altered their direction ever so slightly. Angling away from the beach, they disappeared into the dunes and willows. The grizzlies moved because of our unfamiliar human presence; but they didn't look at us, and they didn't flinch. They ignored us with that sarcastic indifference that inevitably develops with the knowledge that you are the most powerful animal in the region. Although we haven't expressed it aloud, I'm sure Kathleen and I will both remember the vision of those two grizzlies as we close our eyes to sleep. True paradise must provide a sharp edge to life.

We paddled leisurely today, enjoying a current with no wind. After the constant struggles in the upper Thelon, this benevolent section of river seemed more like a secure, well-travelled highway. Becoming tourists, we stopped at a riverside attraction -- Warden's Grove. Leaving our bug jackets and insect repellent in the canoe, we hiked up hill, over the soggy tundra. The hordes of annoying mosquitoes rising from the bogs surprised us. Weren't we now in a benign land?

Our entourage of mosquitoes followed us into the boat as we left Warden’s Grove, and headed down stream. While paddling conditions have improved, two grizzly bears and a moose near Grassy Island remind us we are still in the wilderness.

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This middle section of the river is most popular, because the water conditions are fairly easy, and muskox are plentiful.

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They are very easy to see. Approximately 2000 muskox are found within the Game Sanctuary.

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Many birds nest along the Thelon, including tens of thousands of Canada geese. Because they are flightless, they would often flee from our canoe by running up cliffs and across the tundra. Geese were our constant companions.

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The muskox were often along the river, browsing primarily on willows, and were very cow-like, moving off only when we got near.

We are fortunate to be camped on a sandy beach; such beaches are rare and usually small in this section of the river. Inspecting the ground of our potential campsite for signs of recent bear activity, we noticed a circle in the sand -- just like the mark left by our white buckets used for storing fresh or aromatic foods. Other people must have been here recently! Were they tourists? Were they native people who still occasionally hunt caribou and muskoxen in the region? I was distressed to contemplate that we might soon encounter other people in our section of the Thelon River.

Yet, we found no footprints, only other circles of sizes varying between 4 and 30 cm (2-i12 inches) n diameter. We were puzzled. What, in nature, could create these flawlessly round designs?

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More careful inspection revealed a blade of grass in the centre of each circle. Strong wind rotated the blade, inscribing a perfect circle in the sand! The patterns of designs were quite remarkable in their elegant simplicity.

We had developed a habit of rushing through dinner during our previous long, tiring days. With Michael's encouragement, I'm taking more time to enjoy the food and the campsite during this evening's meal. With time and abundant fuel for heating water, we washed some clothing after dinner. Although our white buckets make great washing machines, they lack a spin-cycle. Wringing the water from long underwear certainly helps to develop new muscles. Michael was able to string a clothes-line between a few trees behind our camp, a rare treat on the tundra.

Tuesday, July 13

The Thelon River below the Hanbury and above Beverly Lake was reportedly only occasionally visited by native peoples. For the Dene, a forest people, too much open tundra existed between tree line and the narrow river corridor of spruce lining both banks. For the Caribou Inuit, a tundra people, the spruce-willow country was too boggy and buggy compared to the shores of Beverly, Aberdeen and Schultz Lakes. We can confirm the Inuit perception. This area harbours substantially more mosquitoes than the upper Thelon. Insects swarm over us, even in the middle of the river. On the upper Thelon, the only mosquitoes to badger us on the open water were those that "hitched" a ride on our canoe or hats.

I was quite relieved yesterday when Kathleen discovered that the sand circles had been fashioned by a single blade or stem of grass, rotating with the wind, rather than by people with their white buckets. Fifteen days have now passed since we last saw another human being. How long could this heady isolation last? All the way to Baker Lake?

Approaching a rocky, exposed point today, where we could lunch with minimum bug assaults, four multi-coloured objects moved strangely on the beach. People! On our beach!

We surely must be on the Trans Canada Highway! Scanning the river bank for the outlet, I noticed bright colours moving on shore. Other people? Suddenly an unfamiliar dilemma confronted us. Should we join them for lunch? Should we stop only to say "hi?" Or, should we ignore them and paddle by?

Politeness seemed to demand that we stop. From them, courtesy required an invitation to share their beach. Although we exchanged trip plans, I think the encounter disappointed both groups; however, Michael did enjoy regaling the audience with his giant fish story. The two men were impressed and pleased; without hesitation, they cast their lines into the water. We had heard a float plane land at the Hanbury/Thelon junction two days ago, and here were its occupants. These two European couples, German and Swiss, paddling inflatable canoes, would travel for two weeks before being picked up at Beverly Lake.

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We chatted, relating our stories of the terrible canyon portage, the incessant head winds and the lack of current. After lunch, all 6 of us drifted downstream together. The afternoon passed quickly as we floated by trees rubbed clean of bark by muskoxen. Three times we stopped to observe these animals for which the sanctuary was established. A pair of tundra swans entertained us as we trailed them down the river. We were not nearly so entertained by our mosquito passengers, who took unfair advantage while we were preoccupied with paddling.

We landed at Hornby Point, and commiserated in our disappointment at not being able to find the graves of three men who starved here in 1926-27, and who are now forever remembered for their heroic, but needless deaths. Edgar Christen's diary, found in the cabin stove, details their last days of suffering. Having read the diary, we felt obliged to visit their graves. The area is now overgrown, and though we searched for two hours, we did not find the cabin or graves. (Note: We have learned since then, the the graves were actually a little bit upstream from Hornby Point. Our mistake.)

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Leaving Hornby Point, Kathleen and I headed straight across the river to camp on a sandbar, while our fellow voyageurs from Europe paddled slightly upstream to establish their camp on the ridge. Our tents are visible to each other, approximately 400 m apart. Our meeting with these four interlopers on our river has been amiable and not intrusive. But interlopers they are, as we surely are to them. We shall not likely visit each other again.

Our tent is pitched on a sand flood plain between two rivulets. Although it rained for about 5 minutes as we began to eat, we enjoyed a pleasant chili and corn bread dinner.

As soon as dinner ended, Kathleen and I retreated quickly to the tent to avoid the clouds of bugs. I always enjoy watching their frustration trying to get at us through the netting. I also savour the retribution when the few that manage to accompany us into the tent are now at our mercy; unfortunately for the mosquitoes, mercy is a commodity not extended to our flying, buzzing tent mates.

For the last few evenings, it has been usual for wasps to circle and buzz around our tent, obvious insect anomalies among the hordes of mosquitoes. I assumed the wasps were attracted to the colour and landing platform of the nylon shelter. As this evening's wasp hovered back and forth across the netting, it suddenly landed on a mosquito and flew away with its prey! The flying insect predator repeated this process several times, which brought additional joy to my evening. Our tent provided a mosquito-free haven for us, and doubled as a synthetic/biological trap for mosquitoes. A nice way to end the day.

Wednesday, July 14

Yesterday evening, Kathleen and I were 65 km (40 miles) and two days behind schedule. We had appreciated two leisurely paddling days, and planned to be on the river by 9:00 am. We hoped to travel 65 km, thereby completing two days of our itinerary in a single day.

Kathleen didn't bring her watch. I brought mine primarily to be sure of the day. We haven't yet set the alarm, allowing our bodies to receive the rest they require. I didn't wake until the sun warmed my face at 7:00 am.

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During breakfast, a storm began to develop in the south, coming towards us on a fairly brisk wind. We hurried our packing, and were gliding downstream just before 10:00 am. One aspect of this northern Prairie that we thoroughly enjoyed was the constantly changing colours and juxtaposition of sky and water, particularly when suffused with light on the ever-present horizon.

Racing before the storm, propelled by a strong current and assisted by a tail wind, we covered 20 km (12 miles) in just over two hours; however, the storm inevitably caught us, and we paddled until 1:00 pm in a grey drizzle. The poor weather actually aided our goal of covering distance, as we thought only of paddling, and not of lounging on shore. We stopped at 6:45 pm. Nine hours of paddling. Sixty km (37 miles) (25 miles) travelled. Only 40 km behind schedule.

I'm disappointed to spend so much time worrying about our schedule, but we really must be in Baker Lake by August 7. We must be in Vancouver by August 16 to resume our commitments to employment and mortgage. Even here, on the Barren Grounds, professional and personal obligations inject themselves obtrusively.

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At lunch we took time to photograph lupines with raindrop-jewels held in their palmate leaves.

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Mountain avens, the floral emblem of the Northwest Territories.

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River Beauty, a close relative of Fireweed.

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Prickly saxifrage.

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Liquorice-root, also known as bear root, as it is a favourite food of grizzly bears. We were careful never to camp where it was abundant.

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Lounging in the lupines.

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Kathleen preparing dinner that has been re-hydrating since morning.

We have experienced an extraordinary wildlife day on the river: several bands of muskoxen; innumerable Canada geese (some now able to fly); Bonaparte's gulls swooping and diving in loose flocks with Arctic terns; a fox unsuccessfully but madly chasing a lone goose along the shore; our second wolf, patrolling for nesting birds along shoreline. Like the first wolf, this silent, patient predator seemed surprised by our presence. It looked briefly directly at us, as if filing information, and then stepped aside into the dense willows.

Abundant wildlife and easy paddling attracts canoeists to this section of the river. Our day was filled with wildlife. I have been especially intrigued by Canada geese. In Vancouver parks, geese are so common that I don't pay much attention to their urban life-styles. Here on the Thelon River, I've appreciated the opportunity to experience their more natural behaviours and adaptations. When flightless during moulting season, geese instantly flee from danger, whether on land or water. Following what we thought was an otter in the river, we were surprised to discover a goose, swimming with only the top of its head above the water. On land, entire flocks of geese head straight up steep banks on foot, a sight that always astonishes me.

We have chased thousands of geese ahead of us down the river. Michael worries that we may be unintentionally herding all these geese to Baker Lake. We are not a goose's only worry. Today we saw a fox chasing a goose, which eventually escaped safely to the river.

The weather remained cool and cloudy throughout the day, with only a little rain. Good paddling weather. We passed the afternoon enveloped in the aromatic fragrance of northern sweet vetch. On one wide, straight, river section, we observed 20-30 acrobatic gulls and terns diving for bugs. As the strong current sped us down the river, we counted 17 muskoxen, and watched an Arctic wolf along the river's edge. We are still a day behind schedule, but intend to catch up tomorrow, which had been originally planned as a layover day.
Thursday, July 15

Again we slept late, until 8:00 am. Even then, I forced myself up reluctantly. Because we wanted to be on the river as soon as possible, we prepared a quick breakfast of oatmeal on the backpacking stove.
On the river at 10:20, beneath a warm sun, we floated before a strong current. We stopped for lunch on a cobblestone island, where we basked in 29-degree (84 F) temperatures. We shared our lunch spot with a placid, munching muskox, the 4th we had seen during the morning.

The wind remained completely still. We ate lunch in an eerie calm; not a movement or sound around us. We almost welcomed the mosquitoes that assaulted us in the afternoon, as their attacks seemed to prove that we existed in this surreal world.

After lunch, the river turned south, toward a darkening sky pressing swiftly toward us on a south wind. By two o'clock we were paddling in rain, thunder and lightning, mixed with periods of bright, warm sun, as the fronts passed behind us to the north.

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Thunder clouds built in the vast sky during the afternoon. Our paddling entertainment focussed on predicting if and when a storm would overtake us. Dampened as we passed through the edge of a thunder storm, we stopped for a snack break.

We lightly struck shore, and Kathleen hopped out to pull the canoe out of the current. I glanced to the left, as I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. Then, as calmly and as casually as I could, I said "Yikes, Kathleen! Get back in the boat!"

Michael seemed to be slow following me onto the beach. What was he saying?

"Get - back - into - the - canoe."

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Without looking, I knew it must be a bear! Quickly back into the boat, I was eager to back-paddle away from the advancing barren ground grizzly, now only 15 m away.

"Hold still while I get my camera."

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During the minute or two we sat against the shore for Michael to take the picture, the bear continued to saunter towards us. As we slowly backed into the river, the bear continued down to the water's edge, stopping only after putting both massive front paws in the river. He stared at us, looked around, and then ambled back into the willows.

The bear wasn't aggressive. Just curious about what had disturbed his nap. I snapped a photograph - - the bear's brown image filling the frame. I hoped I would never get a better picture opportunity of a grizzly.

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We quickly canoed away, happy to relinquish our gorp position to the bear on the beach.

Searching for a campsite that afternoon, I discounted everything on river-left, the bank where the bear lived! Having found no suitable camp, we eventually reached Lookout Point just after 5:00 pm, again beneath clear skies heated to 24 degrees (75 F) by the afternoon sun.

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The delta of the Finnie River, opposite Lookout Point, made the right bank too boggy for camping. Discouraged, we nevertheless decided to hike up the steep bank to scan our surroundings. After all, it was called Lookout Point. The flat, dry point, with a wonderful, unimpeded view in all directions, convinced us to portage our gear up the 20 m embankment to make camp on the plateau. We looked forward to a relaxing evening with our spaghetti dinner, chatting and viewing the Barrens stretching before us.

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Lookout Point was certainly also used by the Inuit, as the point allowed them to see migrating herds of caribou. Although this tent ring may have been constructed by the Inuit to secure their skin tents to the ground during high winds, it is so large that I think it has more likely been created by modern travellers down the river.

By the time we had set up camp, the storms had passed and we enjoyed relaxing in the warm sun before dinner. While observing storms developing in the distance, we ate quickly, washed, and stowed our gear for the evening. Prepared to retreat hastily into the tent if necessary, we enjoyed our perfect view of storms approaching from the distant southern horizon.

Just after 8:00 pm, the sky darkened, indicating the approach of another brief shower. We put on our paddling jackets to watch the storm. Suddenly, the sky opened to drench us. High winds hurled torrential rains in 50-km/hour gusts, as thunder and lightning overwhelmed our exposed position. Too late and too wet to flee to the tent, we decided to wait out the storm. Forty minutes later, we still stood with our backs to the wind and rain. Our foolish bodies poured with water, while our new, $300.00 rain suits lay dry in our packs. At storm's end, we literally poured water out of our boots! We hurriedly retrieved dry clothes from the packs, stripped off our soaking clothes, stored them beneath the vestibule, and ran with wild gyrations into the tent ahead of the swarming, frenzied mosquitoes. Apparently it's impossible to have an uneventful day while adventuring on the Thelon River.

As I lay in the tent, drying out and warming up, I mentally reviewed our day. For the first time, I realized that we were finally back on schedule! This reassuring fact had temporarily been lost in all the excitement of the bear and the storms.

Friday, July 16

A day where the seemingly impossible may actually occur; nothing eventful has befallen us so far. The day began much like yesterday. Up at 7:00 am in 10-degree weather. The sun soon burned away the heavy mist, revealing our splendid view, as we spread our wet clothes on the ground to dry. Lighting the fire proved difficult and frustrating because of wet wood, but eventually we cooked our morning bannock, and embarked down river at 10:40 in 24-degree heat.

Lunch on a cobblestone beach -- 26 degrees (79 F) -- with the inevitable thunderclouds appearing on the southern horizon. At mid-afternoon we still paddled in ideal conditions; calm, warm, and sunny.

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We stopped to photograph a group of 14 muskoxen.

Leaving the shore, a male Canada goose sounded his alarm note incessantly as we drifted downstream together. As we passed his family on the shore, the goose dove, like a loon, reappearing in the sneak position after staying under approximately 30 seconds.

Ten minutes later we stopped to put on rain gear, as the storm overtook us. By 4:30 pm, we arrived at camp, waited for the storm to pass, then cooked and dined in sunlight and warmth.

We're in the tent early tonight, prepared for the thunder and rain that now sweep toward our ridge above the river. We are on schedule, and will likely gain a day by reaching the Thelon Bluffs, 60 km distant, in two rather than three days. We're looking forward to our rest day there, our first since July 4. We hope we can pass through the Bluffs without having to portage.

Our camp is very pleasant this evening, on a ridge with a view, surrounded by lupines, alpine arnica, aromatic wormwood, star-flowered chickweed, liquorice root and mountain avens. Nothing eventful has happened, and we have thoroughly enjoyed our evening.

We experienced a milestone today on this 19th day of our trip. For the first time, we began and ended our day exactly as proposed on the itinerary. Twice before we have begun the day as originally intended, but had been stopped sooner than planned because of wind. Even though our paddling day was short, we travelled 34 km, and, for the first time, we saw muskoxen with babies!

Good weather persisted through early evening, which allowed us to enjoy a less rushed dinner than the previous couple of days. Weather is interesting on the tundra, not only because it affects all daily activities, but also because so much weather can be seen. We had expected storms this evening, as we noticed dark thunderclouds developing in the south after a day of southerly winds. The wind has now shifted to east-northeast, however, and the storms are literally stalled on the opposite side of the river. I hear a lot of thunder in the distance. Is it coming our way? I hope not.

Saturday, July 17

After escaping last night's thunderstorms, this morning we ate breakfast and packed under partly cloudy skies. Once again we paddled in unreal stillness; not a breath of wind - - even the geese fell silent. On shore, without the action of paddle slicing through water and canoe rippling the river surface, I felt almost dizzy. I stomped along the beach, reassured by the sound of my own footsteps.

After another short day on the river, a thunderstorm forced us into the tent before dinner. I prefer to stay in the tent as much as possible, however, when bugs are as bad as they are tonight.

A Loon Air plane flew low over the river today. The pilots told us they'd look for us whenever their flights brought them near our route. It's reassuring having someone watching out for us.

We paddled away from the beach beneath overcast skies. Sixteen degrees at 10:30 in the morning. The river corridor now split low banks of willow between broad expanses of open tundra. Only a few pockets of white spruce remained. Because of the more open terrain, we again saw long-tailed jaegers, for the first time since reaching the Hanbury/Thelon junction. Also because of the changing landscape, we saw no muskoxen today; hopefully, the more open tundra will reveal herds of caribou that follow the river to calve north of Beverly Lake. We've been disappointed to see only two single caribou so far.

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This afternoon on the river was truly superb. Just the kind of conditions and moods that compel Kathleen and me to canoe wilderness rivers. The air and land were completely still, as though we were travelling through a painting. Only the ripples of our wake stirred the water's surface. The only sounds were those of our paddles and the distant distress calls of Canada geese.

It was an unforgettable two hours, when Bill Mason's "Song of the Paddle" rolled across the tundra. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to experience the crystal silence of this place. It is also very satisfying to see and to know that the Barrens do indeed lie, still, in grace.

We stopped early (3:30 pm) and pitched camp on a low ridge above a cobblestone beach. We were only 20 km from the Thelon Bluffs, an easy jaunt for tomorrow. The 29-degree heat hung oppressively around us. Why is the tundra so hot? With no shade, day or night, we hoped for a breeze to quickly bring our usual afternoon thunderstorm.

Relief came at 6:00 in the evening. Napping and reading in the tent, we felt a cool wind. Minutes later, thunder, lightning and strong gusts enveloped our tent. I relished the luxury of lying quietly, cool and dry, all the chores done, on schedule, listening to the rain striking the fly.
Very nicely written! The picture of the bear up close is more than impressive and I think I would have been searching for some clean pants after that! That part about running into your first visitors really hit home. There have been a small number of trips where running into other paddlers somehow takes away from the experience but at the same time adds to it. Thank you for sharing this trip with us winter bound armchair paddlers!

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Paddling Pitt,
Thanks so much for your trip report. I'm really enjoying it. Brings back memories of our Thelon River Trip in 2006.
It looks like you landed on the RR side of the Thelon Canyon. Did you portage on that side? It sounds like it was really long. We portaged on RL after stopping just above the first main drop of the canyon. It was a long portage with a bit of wandering around bushes and I recall that carrying the canoe was a pain with the wind but the portage wasn't too bad, once we were done.
Well done, keep on writing. Great pictures, too.
Paddling Pitt,
Thanks so much for your trip report. I'm really enjoying it. Brings back memories of our Thelon River Trip in 2006.
It looks like you landed on the RR side of the Thelon Canyon. Did you portage on that side? It sounds like it was really long. We portaged on RL after stopping just above the first main drop of the canyon. It was a long portage with a bit of wandering around bushes and I recall that carrying the canoe was a pain with the wind but the portage wasn't too bad, once we were done.
Well done, keep on writing. Great pictures, too.

Interesting, Ralph. So you probably started at Lynx Lake, like we did. Where did you take out? Did you also camp at Lookout Point?

I thought the hardest part of the Canyon portage was wandering around trying to find the best route. There didn’t seem to be any established trail.

You previously posted about the passing of Alex Hall. Did you go on one of his guided trips?

We’re getting on with the story now, Ralph. Almost to Beverley Lake!

Sunday, July 18

Another overly-hot day; 24 degrees (75 F) at 9:30 in the morning. The Barrens continue to be heated by a hazy, south wind, which smells of wood smoke. We speculate that the boreal forests of northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba may be ablaze with wildfires.

The day on the river was unusually quiet, as the geese numbers dwindled substantially. We saw only one moose, at the north end of Ursus Islands, and only one muskox, where the river bends southeast toward the Thelon Bluffs. As with all other muskoxen, this individual was browsing willows on the left bank. Apparently muskoxen are Socialist creatures; we have seen none on the right bank.

For a late lunch, we stopped at a cabin operated by the Water Quality Branch of Environment Canada. I enjoyed the opportunity to sit down at a table, out of the wind and sun, and away from the bugs. The stagnant cabin air felt stuffy and stifling after three weeks in the open. We soon left, drifted lazily downstream, and made camp at the Bluffs.

After the normal afternoon shower and thunder, Kathleen cooked another great dinner, preceded by a glass of brandy to celebrate the halfway point (20 nights) of our journey. Following dinner, two options remained: to walk along the ridge looking for caribou, or to go to bed. It was already late (7:30 pm), and still hot (24 degrees; 75 F). Bed carried the election by two votes. Besides, we had pitched our tent about 400 m (yards) from the river, on a knoll affording commanding views out the front and back doors. We could see caribou from a prone position as easily as we could see caribou by struggling up the ridge.

Tomorrow is a rest day, our first in two weeks. Just thinking about not having to get up, pack the gear, and paddle downriver comforts me. It feels good to get an early start on the rest day.

Half the days of the trip are over, and we are one day ahead of schedule. Our itinerary calls for a rest day tomorrow, so we can rest and still have an extra day to put toward the lakes section.

We paddled effortlessly today in the intense heat. So much has changed since the Hanbury junction. We travel in complete calm; at most, a cooling breeze drifts gently towards us from the south. Only a few geese live along this section of the river. We encounter mostly large animals -- usually muskoxen -- and today a moose.

We are camped at the Thelon Bluffs, comprised of high rolling hills. Rapids located at the bend, just down stream from our camp, are described by various authors as either a necessary portage or runnable. We'll scout tomorrow, but from the end of the first bend, the rapids appear runnable. The Thelon Canyon portage has put me right off portaging. I hope we can run these rapids.

We ate lunch indoors this afternoon, at a government cabin upstream from our camp at the Bluffs. The novelty of tables and chairs and NO bugs only partly compensated for the stuffy, dark, confining feeling of the Water Service Recording station. A log book containing the adventures and misadventures of Water Service staff and river travellers made entertaining lunch reading. Only one account had been entered for this year, by a party who passed here 5 days ago. While Michael added our story, I found a mirror. Not having seen myself in 4 weeks, I expected to see a healthy, tanned face. I look more like a lobster!

Monday, July 19

We spent the second layover day of the trip leisurely washing people and clothes. The brisk wind keeps the mosquitoes down, and quickly dries our laundry. I reorganized and checked food supplies. We are well-provisioned in all areas. The only spoilage is some mould on the outside of the cheese. At the bottom of a white bucket, I discovered the orange that I had stuffed there as we taxied down the lake for our flight to Lynx Lake. The fresh fruit was a real treat after three weeks of dried food.

A thick smoke, blown in by the strong, south winds, obscured our view as we hiked to our highest elevation on this trip. We were pleased to confirm that the rapid is easily runnable.

The weather continues to fascinate me as I try to anticipate what will happen next. I resolved to live in the moment on this trip, but I am so tempted to try to predict the weather. Will today be good paddling weather? Will we be drenched by rain?

Because we've been living outdoors, continually exposed to wind and sun, my hands are becoming very dry and cracked. One of my major concerns is keeping my hands healthy, as they are essential for everything we do on the river: cooking, packing, making camp, and -- most importantly -- paddling. During all these tasks, hands are constantly exposed to potential injury and damage. After nearly three weeks of cooking over a fire, soot fills, blackens and grinds the cracks in my hands. Washing them with hot water and detergent only makes them drier. I now wear protective gloves when washing the dishes; hand cremes don't seem to help. While on the river, I keep my hands covered as much as possible by wearing gloves and sun screen.

Although our rest day was relaxing and rejuvenating, we stayed fairly busy. I arose at 6:30 am, intending to catch a grayling for breakfast. The rocky shoreline produced many snags, two lost lures, one small (15 cm), unknown species of fish, and no grayling.

The wind blew all last night, and continued throughout the day, which was perfect for us. No bugs. After another great bannock breakfast, we stripped, cleaned our entire bodies, and then washed all our dirty clothes. Spread on dwarf birches and flat, lichen-encrusted tundra rocks, the laundry dried very quickly in the never-ending wind.

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We then inspected gear for required repairs, and inventoried food and supplies. Using cold-cure, a 2-mixture, glue-anything epoxy, I repaired the bow cane seat, reattached the advance lever on the camera, and reattached the soles of my hiking boots, sealed in place with ample amounts of duct tape. A few too-curious mosquitoes are now part of the inner sole and fabric of my footwear. After applying a small patch over a hole in one of the canoe-pack's vinyl liners, we sat down to lunch.

In the afternoon, we hiked to the top of the Bluffs to gain a better view of our world. Camp below looked so very small and insignificant in the grey, low, undulating vastness surrounding our knoll. At our feet, Kathleen spotted small clumps of thrift -- pink petals already fading to merge with the brown-grey colours of their dry, wind-blasted ridge.

The shoreline dunes along the Thelon Bluffs are dominated by tall stands of Beach Rye-grass. For some reason, the geese had overlooked this particular luxuriant pasture. The lush grass seemed out of place here, where all other herbs remain so short-statured. According to Page Burt, in her book "Barrenland Beauties," the Inuit use the leaves of this grass to weave baskets.

Burt also reports that the Inuit use White Arctic Heather as a fuel. Because of its high oil content, this woody species burns easily, even when green. Returning to camp, we collected some as kindling, eager to test this traditional wisdom. I'm pleased to report that the twigs burst into flame, and quickly started our dinner fire.

We've now completed approximately half our journey, and our supplies remain plentiful. We used only 1.3 litres of white gas in the upper Thelon, and only about 0.2 litres since the Hanbury. Slightly more that 10 litres remain for Beverly, Aberdeen, and Schultz Lakes, which likely have less firewood.

We also have plenty of time, having reached the Thelon Bluffs one day early. We are well-rested, and seem to possess sufficient rest days as insurance against high winds. I hope the second half of the journey is as successful as the first half.

Tuesday, July 20

The day began overcast and slightly cooler, only 19 degrees at 9:30 am. While portaging the 400 m (about 400 yards) from camp back to the river's edge, we tentatively identified a pectoral sandpiper. It had the appropriate breast marking, made the correct sound (assuming I can interpret "prrt" correctly), but didn't zig-zag when flushed. Positive confirmation must wait until we play our bird tapes in Vancouver.

We easily negotiated the rapid by entering the Thelon Bluffs from river-centre, and then running the eddy-line on river-right to avoid the medium-sized haystacks on river-left. We relaxed, believing we had run the last rapid until the outlet of Aberdeen Lake.

Around the bend, however, appeared a series of rapids not marked on the maps or even mentioned in the NWT river profile. These rapids were shallow and rock-strewn, exactly like those on which we learned our white-water skills in southern British Columbia. We simply kept our canoe parallel to the flow of water, and reached the bottom of the rapid unscathed and upright.

At 11:30 am, a soft rain began to fall. Its gentle demeanour provided a soothing, restful quality to the river and Barrens, particularly in contrast to the previous three days of heat. The greyness seemed appropriate to the landscape, and we paddled contentedly, without speaking except when one of us requested "switch" to rest a paddle-weary side.

After lunch we abruptly turned north down the narrow chute that culminates this section of the river. The sun reappeared as we rounded Hoare Point and gazed east down Beverly Lake, which lay still, stretching before us to the horizon.

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Only 3:00 pm, and we pitched camp in the most beautiful spot so far. From Hoare Point we have views back up the Thelon and down Beverly Lake. Plenty of firewood lies in large heaps on the point, piled there as the Thelon empties into Beverly Lake. (Note: During our slide shows, people ask us how we got along for 6 weeks. Usually, it's the wife suggesting that she could never get along for six weeks with just her husband around. It was actually easier for us than when we are at home, because we shared a common experience, with no intrusions.)

After dinner of chili and corn bread, we luxuriated in the sun, backs against a rock, sipping tea, looking through half-closed eyes down Beverly Lake, lulled to near-napping by the soft waves breaking on the shore. I'm more comfortable and at ease here than at any other point of the journey. A near-perfect day. If only we had seen caribou. We had seen 18 muskoxen, including two non-conformists on the right bank; but no caribou.

After paddling all day in the rain, we arrived at Hoare Point, our first camp on the large, tundra lakes. Our itinerary shows 18 days to Baker Lake, including 5 planned for layover or wind. We are hoping the calm winds of today continue on the lakes.

Our quiet dinner preparations were interrupted when three float planes buzzed low over our heads. Fortunately, they were just saying hello, and quickly flew away, leaving us alone again in this flat and limitless wilderness. Unfortunately, they left without taking the mosquitoes with them.

Thinking back on these days since we landed at Lynx Lake, I'm impressed with how quickly we established a daily pattern for our lives on the river. The familiarity of routine brings comfort and stability to the uncertainty of this adventure. Arising before me, Michael makes breakfast while I pack the items in the tent and put the sleeping bags, therm-a-rests and pillows into their sacks. After cooking breakfast, of which bannock and tea is our favourite, Michael takes the tent down and loads the "sleeping-gear" pack. I pack the pots and cooking utensils, fill the thermos with hot water for lunch, and put the day's dinner into my plastic container to rehydrate. Packs and other items are stowed in their established positions, and the spray deck is stretched and snapped into place.

On reaching camp, I put the tent up, and situate the sleeping gear, books, first aid kit and water bottles, while Michael finds firewood and makes a fire pit. He usually builds me a good kitchen, with flat rocks placed perfectly for convenient pot rests. When I'm ready to begin preparing dinner, Michael starts the fire. Most of the dinners were cooked in Vancouver before they were dried, so they need only to be re-heated. After long, tiring days on the river, we very much appreciate a quick, hot meal. After I cook and wash the dishes, we pack everything not needed during the night. Michael then organizes all the packs under the canoe, and secures the canoe with ropes to rocks and shrubs.
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Interesting, Ralph. So you probably started at Lynx Lake, like we did. Where did you take out? Did you also camp at Lookout Point?

I thought the hardest part of the Canyon portage was wandering around trying to find the best route. There didn’t seem to be any established trail.

You previously posted about the passing of Alex Hall. Did you go on one of his guided trips?

We’re getting on with the story now, Ralph. Almost to Beverley Lake!


Hi, Michael,
We started at Jim Lake. Our trip was only 16 days. We pulled out at Ursus Islands. We had almost no mosquitoes but we had amazing numbers of blackflies - our trip was in August. We had some GPS people with us so they flagged a route across the inside of the bend of the canyon(picked up the flagging on the last trip) so our route finding was easy. We didn't go on a trip with Alex Hall but read lots of stuff by and about him before the trip so felt a connection and a connection with the Thelon Game Sanctuary. We stopped at Lookout Point and climbed up and spent some time but didn't camp there. I have memories of one of my companions walking around on his knees picking blueberries - his pants were stained blue forever.
Looking forward to the rest of your adventure.
Thanks again for your trip report and pictures.
Wednesday, July 21

Another quiet day. Very quiet. Virtually no wind, no caribou, no muskoxen and nearly no geese. Except for Lapland longspurs, whose breeding plumage is already fading, we seem to have been left alone on Beverly Lake. The red bearberry flowers have been replaced by firm, green berries, and the mature fruit of the cloudberry now glistens red in moist, tundra depressions.

The weather continues unbearably hot during the Arctic summer. Twenty-six degrees (79 F) today, with a low last night of 10[SUP]0 [/SUP]C (50 F). It must turn awfully cold very soon to reach monthly norms. According to the NWT Thelon River profile, mean daily highs in July equal 16[SUP]0 [/SUP]C (61 F), and daily lows average 6[SUP]0 [/SUP]C (43 F). All our highs and lows have remained above these averages, and only 10 days remain in July.

We're both really hoping for frost. The bugs, combined with the heat, are beginning to irritate us. It's nearly impossible to sit comfortably outside. We often seek shelter in the tent sooner than we wish after dinner. These bugs will get what's coming to them someday, and I want to be here to enjoy it. Maybe frost will visit us tonight, although this heat makes such an event highly unlikely.

The upper Thelon River seemed more pristine than this section of lake; cans and small piles of garbage too often litter benches overlooking the lake shore. This debris might have been cast aside 30-50 years ago when more people regularly hunted, trapped and travelled on the land. We're ever-vigilant for Inukshuks or tent rings, but so far have seen only what appear to be "modern" creations. This evening, though, on the point opposite Isarurjuag Peninsula, I found two tent rings. They appeared small enough to be realistic, and overgrown enough with northern Labrador tea to be authentic. The rings occupy a prominent position, with views west, north and east. I'm convinced they are truly Inuit tent rings -- an exciting thought!

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Another beginning. Embarking on the final third of the trip, we paddled leisurely along the south shore of Beverly Lake. In the hot Arctic morning, we rigged a sail. It barely billowed in the slight tail-wind accompanying us; needing one person to direct the sail, we moved more slowly than with both of us paddling. In a strong gust, the canoe scooted across the water; but rounding a point and finding ourselves farther from shore than was comfortable, we abandoned sailing for the more consistent speed and greater stability of two paddlers. (Note: We are in the Keewatin District, which in Inuktitut, means north wind, which averages 22 km/hour (13.5 miles/hour) Although we had practiced sailing in Vancouver, with a sail made from the groundsheet, we had head winds virtually all the time on this trip.)

We're camped on a beautiful sandy beach in the warm sun - - early afternoon, and good progress achieved. We can relax in comfort for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes have other plans for us, and we are once again held hostage in our tent.

Working for the Canadian Geological Survey, Joseph Tyrrell convinced his superiors to allow him to explore a possible canoe route through the Barrens from Lake Athabasca to Hudson Bay. His brother James accompanied him, and wrote an account of the 1893 expedition, which I am now reading in Farley Mowat’s book “Tundra.” Their route joins ours tomorrow as we pass the confluence with the Dubawnt River. We expect the wide watercourse between Beverly and Aberdeen Lakes, with its many islands, channels and inlets, to resemble a lake, with no current. James Tyrrell, however, wrote of this section, "we pulled on with the stream now double its former strength and flowing again to the northward." Maybe we will be pleasantly surprised.

Thursday, July 22

Perhaps 100 years ago, "flowing" meant sluggish, still, and meandering. Or perhaps this waterway's character has indeed changed. We lunched under somber skies, while watching the Dubawnt's waters mingling with the Thelon's. All afternoon the compass guided us through the maze of channels. Often, not sure of our location, we stopped to gain perspective from an island rise. From Tyrrell's journal:

"That night, camp was pitched on an island and we had a roaring fire of driftwood. We hoped that for some time the supply of fuel might continue, for of late we had been entirely without fire."

Our experiences pale compared to the Tyrrell’s. Our waterproof, lightweight and warm clothing, tent and sleeping bags lessen the need for a warming fire. Our compact stove and supply of white gas guarantee warm meals.

A new insect made our acquaintance this afternoon. Never biting, it flies frenetically around, into eyes, nose, ears and mouth. Even the slightest breeze sends it to the protection of a lee, which unfortunately the paddler often provides. This afternoon, the bugs cavorted in our faces, where they were shielded from the slight tail-wind.

Comparisons to the Tyrrells’ trip are unavoidable as we pass landmarks described in their journal. We may feel frustrated with the bugs and finding a route, but we know with certainty that we're on course for Baker Lake. One hundred years before us, the Tyrrells travelled through an unmapped region, down a river that they only believed and hoped would take them to Baker Lake. We are already north of their hoped-for destination, yet the Thelon continues to flow north. The Tyrrells wondered if this new river might be leading them to the Arctic Ocean, instead of east to Baker Lake. I can imagine their relief when, as James describes, "at 64 degrees, 41'N, it suddenly swerved around to the east and then to the south-east and bore us down to the western extremity of a magnificent body of water..." Our camp is just east of what we now call Tyrrell Passage.

Ever since seeing Chris Norment's book cover, showing three canoes and two people standing on the frozen surface of Schultz Lake in July, I've been concerned about ice on the big lakes. Tomorrow we will enter the largest lake. I'm hoping we don't find ice.

The wind blew gently but steadily all night, and we rose at 6:15 to a morning of overcast skies and 12-degree temperatures. After photographing the tent rings, we hurried through breakfast, packed in a rush, and embarked at 8:45. We established our personal record of only 2.5 hours to prepare ourselves for the canoeing day.

I had previously assumed that it would be impossible to be ready in fewer than three hours; however, we hadn't previously benefited from the motivation provided by swarms of little black flies, approximately 10 mm long. They may not be the infamous biting, black flies of the North, but they're terrible, nonetheless. We shared breakfast with a quadzillion of them. No, actually more like 8 quadzillion. They positioned themselves in clouds about our heads, seemingly for no purpose other than to enter all orifices. Not to bite, simply to antagonize.

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Today we would be travelling through a maze of islands, bays and channels created by the deltas of the Thelon, Dubawnt and Tibielik Rivers. I purchased my compass specifically for this section of the trip between Beverly and Aberdeen Lakes. Setting the declination to 6o east, I sighted down the line of travel. The needle pointed exactly to where I expected the narrow east-trending channel to lie! So far, so good.

We set off into a NNE wind, accompanied by several tens of thousands of little buggy passengers. They rode along mostly on our backs and hats, sitting comfortably on the lee side of our bodies. Whenever the wind slackened, even for an instant, or if you turned your head back to check the landscape, the bugs gleefully surged into eyes, nostrils and mouth.

We paddled into the wind silently. I didn't know what Kathleen thought or felt, but I enjoyed the moment. Cool, overcast, low hills; just like the Barren Grounds should be. We entered a narrow channel, presumably taking us to the confluence of the Dubawnt River, but emerged instead into a large bay.

"This can't be right!"

"Do you know where we are?" Kathleen asked, with only a little mistrust in her voice.

"I thought so. We should be coming to the Dubawnt in a few minutes, but this doesn't look right."

Twenty minutes later, and no Dubawnt River. Had we gone into one of the deep, narrow bays by mistake? Were we ascending the Dubawnt itself? In this wind, against a sluggish or non-existent current, we wouldn't know. We stopped to check the compass. We were travelling in exactly the right direction; we couldn't have taken a wrong turn.

"Maybe that channel wasn't the one we were looking for. You did say that the channel looked so narrow on the map that it might not even be passable. This channel seemed wider than that." Kathleen's advice seemed logical.

"Let's keep going, then. The map hasn't been wrong yet."

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Ten minutes later we slipped into a very narrow, shallow channel flowing between shore and the low banks of an island. Moments later, we ferried across the sluggish Dubawnt, and beached the canoe for lunch.

J.B. Tyrrell descended the Dubawnt with his brother in 1893. In his journal, J.W. Tyrrell spoke glowingly of the copious amounts of driftwood available once they reached the Thelon. Either they celebrated by burning all firewood after their treeless journey down the Dubawnt, or his journal exaggerated reality. We found no firewood, either at the Thelon-Dubawnt junction, or in the 12 km (7.5 miles) of islands and channels below the confluence.

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We did, however, see a huge pile of driftwood, left here by ice, at the end of Beverly Lake, near the mouth of the Dubawnt River. This is the biggest pile we saw on the entire trip, and was pretty much the last pile of driftwood before Baker Lake. This location was called ‘place of driftwood’ by the Inuit.

We also saw three caribou, one of which ran wildly back-and-forth, trying vainly to escape the now 12 quadzillion small, black flies. A few kilometres below the confluence, the river offered a special gift -- a Yellow-billed Loon, which breeds only on the Arctic coast, according to our bird book. We never expected to see a yellow-billed loon, either on this trip, or perhaps in our lives. A real highlight of the day!

J.W. Tyrrell spoke of the current carrying them to Aberdeen Lake. We found no current, and continued to stroke hard, hour-after-hour, into the wind.

"Kathleen, I think that land on the left is an island, but I'm not sure. If we're in a bay, we're lost."

"Let me see the map."

We stopped. I explained my understanding of where I thought we were, and Kathleen agreed. We continued paddling. Twenty minutes later we reached a 0.75-km section of open water, crossed in a diagonal, following sea, and rounded the point where we intended to camp. This section of the trip certainly demands confidence with map-reading skills.

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No firewood. We decided against camping, and continued paddling into the wind. After leaving what we called "Tyrrell Passage," at 64 degrees, 41'N, we spotted a few sticks of driftwood on the shore. Like the Tyrrells 100 years before us, we appreciated that the river had now turned east, and it seemed an appropriate place to camp.

A very quick dinner with 16 quadzillion uninvited guests. We fled to our tent-haven at 7:30 pm, with our would-be companions hurtling their buggy bodies against the nylon tent walls. I don't know what these bugs are, but they detract, immeasurably, from the pleasure of our trip.

Friday, July 23

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We awoke at 8:00 am, still tired from nearly nine hours of paddling yesterday. During the night, the NNE wind intensified, and now sent 1-m waves across the bay, breaking on the shore in white, running sheets of water. Obviously we wouldn't be going anywhere, at least for a few hours. We can't paddle, and for one of the first times on this trip, I believe we are responsible for our delay. Last night, with no wind, we could have crossed to camp on the north shore. We knew the north shore was our ultimate goal; we knew the wind generally blows from the north. We also knew the wind comes up unexpectedly. If only we had camped on the north shore, in the lee, we probably could have paddled today.

Because no immediate need now existed for breakfast, I took time to photograph some lichens and flowers. The diminutive, 1-cm tall ligonberry, was now flowering two weeks after its tundra companions had peaked in their floral displays. A dark lichen grew commonly on the soil surface, frequently forming compact pin-cushion mats similar to moss campion.

I collected some dead crowberry, which makes excellent fire kindling. The dry twigs normally flame quickly, with heat sufficient to ignite the small sticks placed on top. This time, though, the wind instantly extinguished the flames sputtering from my inexpensive lighter and kitchen matches. I then retrieved our special "wind" matches, guaranteed to light and remain burning during windstorms; unfortunately, only the first half of the guarantee proved reliable. Apparently the matches were developed for winds other than those of the Barren Grounds.

Oh well, we still had two backpacking stoves and 10 litres of fuel in reserve. Using a lever-action flint, the stove lighted immediately, and produced a bannock 25 minutes later.

The wind brings at least two benefits, the most important of which is a bug-free environment. The wind also creates a rest day, which we both wanted after yesterday's struggle against headwinds.

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We sauntered to a knoll one kilometre distant, and stood alone, together, surrounded by our world comprised only of wind, water and tundra. No caribou. One Lapland Longspur.

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The wind also gave us time for photography. Map lichen (Rhizocarpon geographicum) and rock tripe (Umbilicaria spp.), which is the last resort of starving explorers. The rock tripe is high in acids, and caused diarrhea and digestive problems for Franklin's 1821 expedition down the Coppermine River to the Arctic coast and back.

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Back at camp at noon. The wind continued blowing hard. Even so, we saw a pair of arctic terns, nesting on small boulders at the water's edge, a position they maintained, even in the strongest winds.

We retired to the tent to nap and doze. Perhaps the wind will have abated when we wake, and we can still reach Aberdeen Lake today.

Two-thirty. The wind not only persists, but blows even more intensely. We boiled water for soup and tea, and ate a few graham crackers with peanut butter. Despite enjoying a sunny rest day, I can't help worrying about nearly everything. As the wind increased, so did my concern for the security of our tent pitched on the beach.

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After our tundra walk and lunch, we moved the tent to the south side of a small rise, where the lessened strain was immediately apparent. Satisfied with our new location, we crawled in to rest and wait out the storm. Although it doesn't appear that any progress toward Aberdeen Lake will be possible today, I must remember the pluses of yesterday's decision. Our campsite is much better than would be available on the steep, north shore; and our restful, relaxing tundra walk today represents a trip highlight not likely attainable if we had paddled.

The wind slackened somewhat around 6:00 pm, and we headed to the cooking area on the beach for another attempt at a wood fire. After a few tries, our beef jerky stew bubbled in the pot. Our success was offset, though, by our 19 quadzillion buggy friends, who had obviously missed us immensely during the wind storm.

When the wind died, about 7:00 pm, we discussed packing and paddling tonight. With four insurance days for the last 15 days to Baker Lake, we shouldn't be in a panic. We'll sleep tonight and hope for calm in the morning; however, I'm apprehensive about this decision.

Although we both felt disappointed to have spent our extra insurance day on shore, we were approximately 8 km (5 miles) ahead of schedule. Pretty good after nearly four weeks since leaving Lynx Lake. Aberdeen Lake could wait for tomorrow. We retired to the tent for tea, our ears caressed by the soft rattling voice of a nearby Sandhill Crane.
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I'm really enjoying this Trip Report! I appreciate all the references to earlier explorers traveling the same route. It amazes me that they were able to do so with far fewer navigational aids. I can relate to your puzzling through where you think you are compared to what you see, and sometimes the two are not in agreement. It's unsettling to not be sure where you are! It must have been very disconcerting to find trash in such a pristine, remote environment. The photos and story line are wonderful. Thank You!
Saturday, July 24

I awoke to the fluttering and banging of the rain fly against the tent walls. "dang, the wind is up again." Well, at least it's an opportunity to eliminate all that tea without exposing myself to those merciless insects. Even in the middle of the night, in the wind, the air remained warm, about 12 degrees. The night sky, although still light, appeared a bit dusky for the first time on the trip. A deep, crimson colour arched across the northern horizon. These endless days of sunlight are what draw Kathleen and me repeatedly back to the north. We love the freedom to move spontaneously in response to mood, need or whim. Maybe the wind will die by morning. I really don't want to spend another idle day on the beach.

With a sense of foreboding, I awoke to the sound of the tent flapping in the wind. We must get to the north shore. Studying the maps last night, we discovered a safe route to reach this goal, by using a large island just downstream from us for wind protection. Six-thirty am. The wind continues as strong as yesterday. We made tea and bannock, and filled the thermos with hot water for lunch-time soup.

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After breakfast, we packed the canoe and sat on shore watching the waves. We must get to the north shore. Nine-thirty. The NNW wind as strong as ever.

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"Maybe we can canoe along the south shore to that island lying across the channel, and cross over to the north shore on its lee side, where the waves and wind won't be so strong." (Note: Arrow points from approximately our camp to the island we plan to use to cross to the north shore in its lee protection from the wind.)

"You're right. Maybe we can. We can certainly try. There seem to be fewer whitecaps, let's go."

At 9:45 am we thrust the canoe into the surf. We paddled hard, quartering the canoe into the rollers, away from the waves breaking on shore. We then turned and quartered back toward shore, to avoid taking waves broadside, and to be near land. At 11:00, we had gained about 1 km, and stopped to rest and assess our position.

"That piece of land must not be the island on the map. I don't see any channel around it on the north shore. It just must be part of the bend in the north shore."

"You're right. What shall we do?"

"Let's cross the open water on the right bank in as narrow a spot as possible, then keep heading down the right shore until we find the island."


Back in the boat, we came to the narrow channel and crossed over easily to continue along the right bank, looking for the island.

"There it is, but it's awfully low. I thought the map indicated a 20-m contour on the island."

"Maybe the island top coincides with the contour, and it's not really very high."

"Maybe, but it's not sandy like the map suggests."

"You're right, but it's an island, and there's only one island. This has got to be it."

"O.K., let's go."

We rounded the island through the narrow passage on river-right, and grounded on shallow rocks. Kathleen hopped out to pull us through, and I noticed that the small current was coming toward us; must be a back-eddy re-entering the main current through this shallow gap.

We headed toward the north bank in the lee of the island. This was working!

We reached the end of the island, and stared across a large body of open water, seething with wind and waves. We had expected a narrow crossing, as indicated on the map. Wrong island. It was too small anyway to have been the right island. It must have been too small to even be represented on the map. We turned back, and continued down the right bank.

"Do you notice that the wind is coming from the southeast now? How can that be?"

"It just must be the effect of funnelling through all these islands and channels."

"Yeah, you're probably right." We continued down the south shore in search of the island.

"There it is! Large like it's supposed to be!"

We crossed over. Even with the wind at our backs, we lost ground to the island's shore line. Just as though we were ferrying upstream against a current. Are we going the wrong way!? Where's the sun? Can't see it. Overcast sky everywhere.

"It's one o'clock, Kathleen. Let's stop for lunch. I'd also like to check the compass."

"Good idea. I'd also like to study the map. Things just don't seem right."

On shore, the compass indicated we were heading west instead of east.

The wind direction hadn't switched 180 degrees, but still blew from the northwest. The current, albeit sluggish, was indeed coming toward us. None of the topography around us corresponded to our perception of where we were. These facts combined to suggest that we were lost.

Very disheartening. We could spend days trying to locate our position among these islands and channels. I've never felt so helpless. If we don't know where we've been since leaving camp, how can we ever find our position? Over lunch, we tried to determine our location by matching memories of landmarks passed to likely places on the map.

"Well, let's suppose we are going west. The compass hasn't been wrong yet. Where would that place us?"

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Kathleen looked at the map. "Right here." She pointed to a spot 8 km southwest of our morning camp. "There's that long narrow bay we just passed."

"Yep, you're right. Let's turn around." As we turned around to paddle north, we were fairly sure of our location; but I wouldn't relax until we reached Aberdeen Lake. (Note: We think we are approximately at the capital "D" in the word "Darn!.)

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Back in the canoe. Maps out. Anxiety running high. During our return, we paid very close attention to our surroundings, and saw more Yellow-billed Loons.

At 3:30 pm we arrived at a point due east of where we had crossed the narrow channel this morning; unfortunately, we had crossed it going south, sending us back into the maze of islands we had negotiated so successfully two days ago.

"How could we do that? It's obvious we should have come this way."

I think we had been more concerned with avoiding wind and waves, and had lost our concentration on direction. We were both very irritated with the wind, and had been speaking sharply to each other all day, even when agreeing. I had also put my compass away yesterday, declaring that the hard part was over. We had only to follow the left bank all the way to Baker Lake.

So, here we are, at 3:30, exactly where we had been at 11:00 this morning. We hadn't really lost so much time, though. We wouldn't have made this crossing this morning, anyway. The waves had been too high. All we really have lost is the energy expended. Easily replaced, and a very fair price to pay for the experience gained.

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We continued up the east side of the large bay, turned west, north and then east around a bluff and came to the island - - the same piece of land that we rejected this morning as being part of a bend in the north shore. We're back on the original island that we were looking for. We stopped to climb to the top of the island, to confirm our position. At lunch we didn't know for sure where we were. If we were still uncertain of our position, then we were really lost. But we were certain now where we were.

We struggled into the wind until 5:30, when we finally reached the lee of the north shore, and stopped for a gorp break. Neither of us wanted to quit without seeing Aberdeen Lake. Back to the canoe. We soon entered a channel with current heading east. At 9:00 pm, we approached Aberdeen Lake. A beautiful sight, not only for its inherent, stoic grandeur, but also for its very tangible affirmation that we had indeed found ourselves.

It's now 12:30 am. It's been a hard day, physically. We paddled 34 km (21 miles) in wind and waves, some of it against the current, to gain only 16 km (10 miles). It's also been emotionally difficult dealing with the very real prospect of being lost, with no one available to help us.

It's also been a good day. We found two new plants: Sea-beach Sandwort and Mountain Sorrel, which tasted very sweet, as promised in Burt's book. We also saw one muskox and four caribou -- posing, regally motionless, on ridge tops. Five km (3 miles) before camp we trudged 0.25 km from the river to a stone structure, and stood beside an Inuit caribou ambush.

Most importantly, we dealt successfully with our physical and emotional challenges, and together we reached our goal. All things considered, we will probably remember July 24 as one of life's most memorable days. Our camp lies about 16 km (10 miles) east of Tyrrell Passage, just west of Aberdeen Lake. Today's frustrations have given way to the comfort of a snug sleeping bag, and the security of knowing where we are.

Sunday, July 25

We awoke at 8:00 am to a moderate NNW wind. A perfect wind - - not so strong to prevent us from paddling, but strong enough to send the bugs to the shelter of rocks and plants. We lingered over breakfast, but still put on the water by 11:00.

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Forty minutes later we rounded a spit, beached the canoe, and walked to the height of land where the Tyrrell party also had stood to gaze with unimpeded vision east down the full expanse of Aberdeen Lake. No land to the horizon. A vista dominated solely by Aberdeen Lake. Kathleen read from Tyrrell's journal:

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"It was a lovely, calm evening, when the track of our canoes first rippled the waters of this lake, and as we landed on a bluff point on the north shore, and from it gazed to the eastward over the solitary but beautiful scene, a feeling of awe crept over us."

One kilometre later we stopped at a cabin, where garbage and debris littered the site. Much of this lake stretch appears marred by human debris, particularly empty fuel drums, their red and yellow colours visible from many kilometres away. The NWT government should enact or enforce legislation that requires fuel drums to be retrieved, rather than littering this still largely pristine landscape. Despite the comparative squalor of the cabin, two sandhill cranes rattled happily on their breeding grounds.

We lunched at a magnificently beautiful spot. A long, wide, white, fine-sand beach, in the lee of a 20-m ridge. Warm sun, no bugs. We lounged for an hour, one of the most comfortable interludes experienced thus far. I hated to return to the boat.

The wind continued throughout the day, just strong enough to make us work hard. As we followed the shore line, the wind slightly, but unmistakably changed directions to be always in our face, the better to thwart our aspirations of reaching the Naujatuug River.

The strain of the previous day, followed by only a few hours sleep, took its effect by late afternoon. My strokes became perfunctory, with little strength behind them. In the stern, my inaction remained invisible to Kathleen in the bow. By 7:00 pm, Kathleen had paddled to the Naujatuug River. As a passenger in the stern, I necessarily arrived a few moments later. We fired up the stoves, as no wood was available, ate our spaghetti dinner quickly, and crawled into the tent for our Sunday ounce of brandy. I'm quite tired, and expect to sleep very well.

Leaving camp this morning under overcast skies, the freedom afforded by endless vistas was supplanted by a mood of constraint. Like a blanket flung over a bed, the somber, grey, cloud-covering seemed about to envelop and smother us. The north-western horizon, where the straight edge of the cloud blanket still revealed brightness, afforded our only hope. As we paddled along the lake, the covering was slowly pulled south-east, returning to us that mystical feeling of unlimited potential for movement.

Completing our journey on schedule is not guaranteed. Despite a head-wind today, we gained 32 km (20 miles); but tomorrow we could be grounded. A late arrival in Baker Lake will cause worry, especially for my parents. While planning this trip, I perceived that only injury or some other horrific event could prevent our arrival as scheduled; consequently, if we were late, I wished for a search-and-rescue to begin as soon as possible. Recognizing now that we could be both late and safe, I wish that we had allowed more time on our itinerary.

Monday, July 26

"Look, Michael, a caribou king!"

"What?" I asked in sleepy, groggy confusion.

"Look, a caribou drinking - - at the lake right outside the tent!"

I opened my eyes. "Oh, yeah."

I looked at my watch. Only 5:30 am. I could rest a bit more. We could get up at 6:00, and be on the water by 9:00.

Only a few moments later, and my watch read 7:30. No wind. Maybe we'd have a calm day. I prepared breakfast quickly on the stove, and we paddled onto the lake at 9:40 am in perfectly calm weather. The ripples from paddles and canoe produced the only waves in the entire water kingdom of Aberdeen Lake.

Without wind, we glided easily across the mouths of bays and inlets. Without being required to trace their much longer perimeters to avoid wind and waves, we covered distance two-to-three times more quickly.

A slight breeze sprang up from the NNE just before lunch on a fine sandy beach. As at yesterday's sandy beach, no biting bugs harassed us. In our brief experience on these lakes, mosquitoes and the small black flies much prefer cobblestone beaches or vegetated shore lines.

After a relaxing lunch for the second successive day, we again found ourselves paddling in calm conditions. We travelled with pleasure and joy across Aberdeen Lake's beautifully blue, clear waters. So very unlike the previous two days.

Just before reaching camp, we accidentally fell into our first argument of the journey. Like most disagreements between couples, the argument developed rapidly and unexpectedly from an innocent discussion. For us, the controversy erupted while looking at the maps.

"I think we're about here now. What do you think?"

"I don't know. It's not possible to be certain with all these bays along the shoreline."

"Don't you see that peninsula across the lake? We're right opposite it."

"You can't be so sure. They all look the same."

"If you refuse to see, then I don't want to talk about it."

We paddled the final 20 minutes in dejected, sorry silence.

We stopped at a white, fine-sand beach to camp. A beautiful decision. No wind, no biting or swarming bugs, 26 degrees (79 F), and only 4:00 pm! We heated two kettles of water on the stove, one to wash ourselves, the second to wash our clothes.

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We then luxuriated in sun-bathing, skin warmed by the sand and sun.

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We moved freely without confining, hot clothes. We breathed calmly, liberated from the harassment of insects. Without doubt, the most comfortable afternoon so far. It's hard to believe that only 48 hours ago we were cold, fatigued, and lost.

Our tentative schedule lists tomorrow as a rest day. We've agreed, however, to paddle if the weather remains calm. We'd be foolish to sit on the shore when paddling is so much easier and more productive when the wind has forgotten all about you.

The lake is beautiful on this calm, clear day. We easily paddled the distance planned for today; so, when we approached a white-sand beach in early afternoon, we stopped
without hesitation and set up camp. During two bug-free hours, we undressed and washed, relaxing in the freedom from clothes, and from the pressure to achieve distance. Today we experienced our first harsh words of the trip, provoked mostly by fatigue, which reaffirmed our decision to stop, even though we could have accomplished many kilometres more. We expect to paddle tomorrow, if the calm holds, even though our itinerary indicates a designated rest day.
Years ago we kicked around the idea of a "Hotties of Canoetripping" calendar. We might have to revisit the subject.

Tuesday, July 27

When we approached camp yesterday afternoon, the tail and dorsal fin of a large lake trout broke the water's surface, and I instantly hungered to catch another fish. I attempted a few casts after we washed, with no success. Hoping later to catch one for dinner, I walked further down the shore line before noticing that sand had fouled the reel's mechanism. Back to camp for shepherd's pie and to disassemble and clean the reel for another attempt in the morning.

I awoke late, at 7:30 am. The weather was calm, and I felt an urgency to put on the water. We have to get to Baker Lake. I also wanted fish for breakfast. Ten casts with no action. I leaned the pole against a rock, and organized all the items for breakfast. I set the bag of dry bannock on a rock, and measured out a three-quarter cup of water. If I poured water into the bannock mix, I would be committed to preparing breakfast. I would no longer be able to fish. I set the cup aside, and placed a pot of tea water on the stove.

Back to the point to try for that breakfast fish. Seven casts later the fish struck! It appeared to be a nice lake trout -- about 35 cm long. It should make a perfect-sized meal for two canoeists. I felt unusually hungry, though. During the trout's third run towards deeper water, I decided I should try to catch a second fish, just to be sure we have enough for breakfast. The fish turned and swam toward shore, then darted away. The tension on the line disappeared. The trout disappeared. Bannock for breakfast seemed inevitable.

I returned to the stove and made the tea, staring at the bannock mix and the cup of water.

"Kathleen, I really want trout for breakfast. Maybe I can try just five more casts."

"Try ten."

After five casts, nothing. Feeling pressure to get to Baker Lake, I looked at Kathleen.

"You said I should try 10 casts, so I will."

Three casts later, the trout struck a second time. Again, the fish managed to escape the hook. I then completed my ten allotted casts without success.

"You know, each strike should earn an additional five casts."

"Yes, just like when you get a few nickels from the slot machine; you have to keep trying."

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Three casts later, the 40-cm (16 inches) fish lay on the beach. Thirty minutes later we enjoyed a sumptuous trout breakfast.

As a youth, I fished fanatically. I loved just to catch them. The more the better; but now I always feel a bit sorry for them. I empathize with any creature that struggles to survive, to maintain its life. Although I'm not convinced a lake trout is a feeling, sentient being, I can't summarily discount the possibility.

On the water at 10:30 am, beneath a low cover of visually and emotionally confining clouds. Hues of grey dominated the landscape of water and sky. Numerous snow banks lined the narrow beach, persisting at the base of 10-m (35 feet) bluffs, in the lee of the prevailing north winds.

Suddenly, opposite the canoe, we saw a wolf stalking geese along the shore. The geese seemed doubly panicked, uncertain whether to flee to the water to escape the wolf, or to flee inland to escape our human threat. I put in a "j stroke" to turn the canoe away from shore, giving the geese more room to elude the wolf.

I wonder why humans, a very successful predator, nearly always sympathize with the prey when the predator is non-human. While fishing this morning, I certainly didn't want the trout to escape; but now I wished success for the geese rather than for the wolf.

Perhaps it’s because, without weapons, humans are not the most powerful or fearsome predator. Perhaps, despite being sealed from the natural world by 20th century civilization, there remains, imbedded in our psyche, a lingering fear that we might fall prey or victim to bear, wolf, lion or venomous snake. Perhaps that fear provides a natural alliance with weaker, innocent prey, such as the geese, so vulnerable and so ill-prepared for a struggle to the death.

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Late in the afternoon, still paddling in a sombre, grey world, we landed on an island in a cove at the tip of Peqetuaz Peninsula. We stood before two magnificent stone pillars. From James Tyrrell's journal:

"Towards the east end (of Aberdeen Lake), other remarkable traces of Eskimos were seen in the shape of stone pillars, well and uniformly built, but for what purpose I confess I cannot tell." The common experiences we are sharing with the Tyrrells certainly enhance my enjoyment of our Barren Grounds adventure. (Note: This image is not in our slide show. It's a poor image, taken with film. You never know what you have until you get home and develop the film. But since my journal says we stood before magnificent pillars, I thought you would like to see them, poor quality or not.)

We now know that these pillars were commonly constructed by Inuit to guide caribou to cross rivers or lake-narrows, where they could more easily be ambushed and killed from kayaks. This Barren Grounds landscape is harsh and difficult. To survive here as a culture for 6,000 years certainly required ingenuity and perseverance. We saw one caribou today. To kill it for sport would be difficult for me. To kill it for survival would be easy and natural.

We unloaded the canoe at 7:30 pm, after 38 km (24 miles) of paddling. A very good day. We have completed Aberdeen Lake, and are a day ahead of schedule. Our campsite is poor. Rocky, low terrain. Wet and buggy. Weather permitting, we'll move on tomorrow, and look for a nicer spot at Qamanaarjuk Lake to enjoy our rest day.

After a trout breakfast, we took advantage of another calm day to complete Aberdeen Lake, and are now camped on a bay west of Schultz Lake. Paddling late in the chilly drizzle, we were never tempted to camp anywhere in this dull, blue-grey world. Fatigue selected this campsite for us; probably the worst site of our trip, in a jumble of rocks interspersed with wet, mossy low ridges. The quiet, sombre evening is unsettling. I don't expect to sleep well tonight.

Wednesday, July 28

"Why does it sound like a river outside?" I had awakened to the sound of flowing water.

"It's the rocks," answered Kathleen.

"I didn't know rocks made noise."

"You hear the sound of waves washing up on the beach."


Outside the tent, the temperature had dropped to 8 degrees (46 F), made colder by a brisk wind. Paddleable, but just barely. I still didn't like the campsite, so we hurried through breakfast and packing, and shoved out into the surf at 10:30.

Our direction of travel sent us mostly east across Qamanaugaq Bay. Naturally, the wind adjusted itself to blow from the east. Progress came slowly. Once again we tacked out-and-back along the shore, staying between the rolling troughs of open water and the breaking waves on the shallow bay.

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All adverse situations seem to provide opportunities that would otherwise be lost. Because the wind and waves forced us to trace the shore line, we spotted an over-turned boat on a low, rocky ridge. Stopping to investigate, we found not only the boat, but also paddles, mugs, repair kit, fishing pole, tackle box, camp equipment and clothing. All these items had been placed carefully beneath the modern, but badly-weathered fishing boat.

The Inuit traditionally interred their dead in shallow, rock-covered graves, bordered by the deceased's worldly possessions. Kathleen and I assumed that we had chanced upon such a site, commemorating an Inuit death in the ancestral fashion.

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After lunch, we cleared the north-extending spit marking the eastern boundary of Qamanaugaq Bay. Turning east, we directly confronted our unrelenting adversaries of wind and waves. Despite our strongest possible strokes, we barely managed to clear the point.

"If we can just get down this east-trending shore line a little bit, we can reach the lee protection afforded by the higher hills forming Illurjualik Narrows."

Good idea. A few minutes later, two huge troughs swept toward us. The first wave rolled underneath, lifting the bow to an angle of 30 degrees, and sending the canoe sliding, along with my stomach, down the wave's backside into the trailing ridge of menacing, green water.

The canoe shuddered, wallowed and pitched, but stayed upright. I muttered something like "Holy moly!!" Kathleen commanded "Get to shore!"

"No need to yell at me. I'm already headed that way."

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Two-thirty in the afternoon. Four hours of paddling to advance only 8 km (5 miles). Beached for the day. In the tent at 4:00, drinking hot tea and enjoying our daily allotment of gorp. We were warm, dry, and cozy. Still, we felt disappointed to have gained so little for our efforts. We napped until 6:30 pm before getting up to prepare beef stir-fry. We felt uneasy and threatened by the 11-degree (52F) temperature with drizzling rain and a persistent, irritating wind. Perhaps tomorrow will be more successful.

We fell asleep in an eerie calm last night, but awoke to wind and rain. After paddling only 8 km, we were forced to shore, where our tent is now pitched, exposed to the brunt of the wind. I'm glad to be on shore. After rounding a point we took the full impact of the north wind and wallowed in the waves. Our landing skills were severely tested.

After a quick, 30-minute venture into the cold and wind for dinner, we snuggled back into the tent. Although we stopped at 2:30 this afternoon, and travelled only a short distance, we remain about 15 km (9 miles) ahead of schedule. Wind causes me to worry about when we will be able to paddle again, and whether the energy we expended today was worth the short distance gained. I hope tomorrow is a calm day.

Thursday, July 29

I awoke at 8:00 am, well rested, but still pinned down by the wind, which blew unceasingly throughout the night. Still plenty of time in the day, though. If calm weather arrives, even by noon, we can still reach today's destination. I stepped outside into the drizzle, and stared at the eastern horizon. A thin strip of blue lay beneath the dark mass of clouds. Maybe the storm will break in a few hours.

The wind blows stronger today, and the rain continues. I'm frustrated. We are capable of completing this trip on schedule, but today we'll make no progress due to events beyond our control. Because by nature I am very impatient and like to feel in control of all situations, today promised to be a very bad day. I resolved to try to live each moment, and not worry or try to determine what will happen next. Normally, I would have been anxiously listening to hear if the wind were abating. Normally, I would be perpetually peeking out of the tent to see if the horizon were becoming brighter. This time, however, I spent the day in the tent playing solitaire. I established some "Barren Grounds Records" for "Thirteena," and I continued to see each new record fall throughout the day.

Back in the tent to doze and daydream for the next two hours. Thoughts of Baker Lake. Will there be camping available? Will there be pizza? Will the hotels be very expensive? Most often, though, my quiet visions centred on home and my garden. Will the sweet peas be blooming? Will the root weevils have defoliated my azaleas while I'm not there to conduct my nightly flashlight searches? Will the thyme and hen-and-chicks have overgrown the stepping stones? Will this wind ever stop? Will we ever reach Baker Lake?

By 10:30 am, I became impatient with being imprisoned in the tent, and escaped for a hike along the adjacent ridge. Eight degrees (46 F) -- strong winds driving a stinging rain. Grey skies merging with cold tundra. Waves racing each other to disappear in foam on the sandy beach. The Barren Grounds were at their summertime best.

I boiled tea water while Kathleen rehydrated beef jerky stew for dinner. We willingly re-entered our tent-cell at noon for a dry, granola brunch. Not exactly eggs Benedict; but sufficient to continue our wait for calm weather and a departure for Baker Lake.

By 5:30 pm, we abandoned the faint hope of paddling today. No panic yet for reaching Baker Lake. We're only 20 km (12 miles) behind schedule, and our itinerary for tomorrow lists a rest day. We can easily catch up if we're blessed with good weather.

We are warm and dry in our tent, but must leave our shelter to cook if we want a hot supper. We have had only tea and granola so far today. In most accounts of early exploration found in Farley Mowat's book "Tundra," no food was distributed on days when poor weather forced stoppage of travel. No provisions could be wasted on days when work was not accomplished. My storm-bound day was certainly more enjoyable than those of the early explorers. During the rain, Michael went outside to make tea for us. I never once had to leave the tent during today's nasty weather.

At 6:30 pm the rain stopped, and the wind slackened a short time later. Outside it had warmed to 11 degrees (52 F), and the southeast-facing hills across the water glowed faintly golden with sunlight penetrating the clouds. Still too cold and threatening to cook dinner outside. Instead, we decided on a snack party in the tent. Food catered by Kathleen. Tea, beef jerky, peanut butter on rye bread, prunes and our daily gorp. An excellent, easy meal.

Michael and I have developed a gauge to determine if the wind is too strong to paddle. If bugs are out, we can paddle; if not, canoeists must stay put. Despite the nuisance of the bugs, their adaptation during wind is entertaining: to survive, they must cling to the leaves of plants. The wind seems a much greater problem for them than for us. Around 8:00 pm, a dozen airborne mosquitoes gathered on the vestibule door netting. A beautiful harbinger regarding calming conditions. Maybe tomorrow we will escape this campsite.
I admire your willingness to hucker down in a tent. I've been in that spot and find I hate it even with a book. I have a tendency to want to be out and moving but that is me. The wind certainly has been your foe this trip but I think even though you write it was ok and you made it through I'm sure there were some pretty dicey words running through your mind while in the midst of it. I do know the that the constant beating of the wind on me, especially my ears, plays havoc with me. Thank you again for this trip report. You paint a picture that brings me back to some of my trips into my minds eye again.
Wind can be a real terrorist. When it's not actively sabotaging your progress, it can be destroying a beautiful day. A small breeze becomes the beginning of the end in your mind, even if it doesn't manifest on the water. I have had many conversations with the wind, but I think you have mastered the language.
I admire your willingness to hucker down in a tent. I've been in that spot and find I hate it even with a book. I have a tendency to want to be out and moving but that is me. The wind certainly has been your foe this trip but I think even though you write it was ok and you made it through I'm sure there were some pretty dicey words running through your mind while in the midst of it. I do know the that the constant beating of the wind on me, especially my ears, plays havoc with me. Thank you again for this trip report. You paint a picture that brings me back to some of my trips into my minds eye again.

Glad to revive memories, Doug. My own have been revived. Good to re-live this trip again. Your admiration is misplaced, though. I am more or less happy in the tent. Besides, I never get tired of studying my topo maps!
Wind can be a real terrorist. When it's not actively sabotaging your progress, it can be destroying a beautiful day. A small breeze becomes the beginning of the end in your mind, even if it doesn't manifest on the water. I have had many conversations with the wind, but I think you have mastered the language.

Mem: Mastery of a language comes with practice, of which Kathleen and I had plenty of this trip. More practice still in our future.
Friday, July 30

My ears awoke shortly after 4:00 am to a wonderful sound. Silence. No tent flapping. No wind. Silence. I jubilantly dressed and stepped outside.


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Four degrees. Cold, but not as cold as yesterday's wind. Not cold enough to kill the mosquitoes, although they seemed dazed, and easy to slap into oblivion.

We savoured our bannock, which we missed yesterday, and paddled away from the beach at 7:00. Our earliest start yet. We intend to cover distance.

The morning was absolutely beautiful. A slight east breeze maintained crisp, fall-like conditions. The symphony of loons, sandhill cranes and herring gulls rose in full, joyous concert after two days of wind. Scores of misty columns of black flies rose as armies from the shore line. The mosquitoes may be dozy, and fall may have arrived; but bug season continued, as the breeze blew innumerable flies into the path of our canoe.

While riding the current in Illurjualik Narrows, we saw a pure white wolf on the left bank. Still a puppy, it broke into a bounding gait 100 m from the gaggle of geese it pursued. The geese escaped in a frenetic frenzy, and the wolf stared at the disappearing quarry in bewilderment. The look on its face seemed to say: "Just how in the heck do I catch these things, anyway?"

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We drift easily into Qamanaarjuk Lake, enveloped in autumnal silence. Four common loons enchant us with an extended performance. The call of the loon certainly must be the quintessential sound of the Canadian wild. We stop to listen, to absorb the sound as it reverberates off the surrounding hills and glides musically back to us along the lake surface. This is certainly going to be a stunning day.

At 10:00 am we began to cross an open section of water on the east side of the peninsula. The wind had tricked us, and resumed its attack at the half-way point. We reached the shore with effort. No real risk, but still much too close to my comfort threshold.

We spent the next six hours in continued battle with our very familiar antagonist, but reached Schultz Lake at 1:30, and put in at a lovely, sheltered cove at 4:00 pm. A good day.

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We saw Inuit tent rings

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and, I believe, a stone hearth built against the prevailing winds on Qamanaarjuk Lake. We encountered three muskoxen and one caribou, and completed 37 km (23 miles) aided by the current in Illurjualik Narrows and Aggattalik Narrows.

Our large-grained sand beach presented a new flower: an Arctic Poppy. Our tent is situated perfectly. A view of 10 m (35 feet) out the front door to a gurgling stream, and the same distance out the back door to the now gentle waves of the lake lapping up onto the shore. The evening is calm and sun-filled. The Barren Grounds are again beautiful; but they are so moody and utterly unpredictable.

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Because of the high winds and unchanging landscape on these lakes, the brief NWT guide to the Thelon River suggests that “the wise canoeist gets off at the Lakes.” When I think back to our trip, however, it is the beauty of these lakes that I remember most, particularly when they were at rest. These lakes were also used intensively by the Inuit, with many signs of their past.

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. (That's me backing up a day or so. The images in our slide show do not follow the same order as references in our journals, and I forgot to include the following images where they should occur.

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At the end of a long day, we beached our canoe at the tip of Peqetuaz Peninsula at the east end of Aberdeen Lake, which is approximately 80 km (50 miles) in length.

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Stone structures are common in Aberdeen Lake, and have many uses, including this stone shelter from which to ambush caribou.

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These stone pillars (Inukshuks) were used as directional aides, or as markers to guide the caribou to slaughter. Stretching out in a lengthy “V” across the tundra, the pillars appeared as groups of men.

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The caribou, would be guided to cross narrow sections of the lake or river, where they could be more easily killed by Inuit in their kayaks.

Here I sit in the sun. We began paddling this morning at 7:00 am, in calm clear weather. We made good time; but at about 10:00, the wind came up and hasn't quit yet. The east wind blew mostly in our faces; and when we arrived at Schultz Lake, very large waves swept toward our position on the western shore. It is difficult, emotionally and physically, to paddle in the wind. The water in these lakes is frigid. A swamping could kill us. To play it safe, we follow the shoreline, which often triples the distance we must paddle. It is tiring, but we made good distance and are now ahead of our itinerary. We are approximately 65 km (40 miles) from Aleksektok rapids. Only 65 km of lake travel remaining before us, except for the last stretch into Baker Lake. Hopefully, this is also the last 65 km that we will be affected by the wind.

When I started this adventure, I didn't fully appreciate that we would have to paddle and work as hard as we have. Much of our trip has been on large bodies of wind-blown water. Even though I enjoy being in this big country with just the two of us, it would be nice, sometimes, to have more hands for camp chores.

Building camp becomes more tiring each day. First, we have to find a suitable site, and this has been difficult the last few days. Then we must lift everything out of the boat, portage all gear to the campsite, make dinner, do the dishes, clean up and pack everything away. Only then can we retire for the evening.

Our tent has sheltered us very well, both from the wind and the rain. We feel very cozy with our pillows and therm-a-rests. I'm glad I purchased my over bag, even though the weather hasn't been cold enough to require it. I use the over bag like a blanket, which is more comfortable for me than the mummy bag. In many ways, our tent provides a reliable nest, to which we can retreat for security and warmth, no matter how hard we toiled during the day, and no matter how anxiously I may anticipate tomorrow.

Saturday, July 31

I stood on the shore at 7:00 am, fishing pole in hand. I had promised fish for breakfast, confident because of the tributary delivering food to waiting lake trout or grayling. The small bay was very shallow, though; only about 35 cm (about 1 foot) deep at the distance I could cast. Too shallow for fish; its rocky bottom would most likely ensnare my spinner.

Oh well, a promise must be attempted to be kept.

"Crum." Snagged on the first cast. I jerked quickly to free the lure. "Hey, it's a fish!"

The trout escaped near shore, but my optimism had been renewed. A second cast produced a second fish. A 30-cm (12 inches) lake trout. Another delicious breakfast.

While enjoying breakfast tea, we studied the maps and again noted the cluster of buildings indicated on the north shore of Schultz Lake. Brochures describing the recreational opportunities in the Keewatin District on the Northwest Territories confirmed that a fishing lodge existed here. About a week ago I began thinking that we could get coffee at the lodge, to vary our usual fare of tea. Three days ago I began to think “Heck, why should we get just coffee? If it’s a lodge, we can get blueberry pie to go with our coffee!”

After breakfast, we prepared ourselves to become guests. W changed into our freshest clothes - - we brushed our teeth for the second time that morning.

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Feeling appropriately prepared we set out for the lodge, and less than 60 minutes later gained our first view of the cluster of plywood buildings that stood shrouded in the silent, morning mist. We eagerly walked up the beach, only to find the lodge still boarded up from the winter, except for the cookhouse, which had apparently been broken into and ransacked by a grizzly bear. We paddled away, very disappointed to miss our blueberry pie and coffee, but content to know that we still remained alone in our Barren Grounds.

The ensuing canoeing day, highlighted by reaching our northern-most point at 64 degrees 48', seemed quite tedious. Hard paddling into a slight breeze in the morning. Easy paddling in calm conditions after lunch. By 4:00 that afternoon, my butt ached no matter how I positioned myself. To drift in moving water, would be such a relief.

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We pitched camp on a tundra ridge on Schultz Lake at five o'clock. A stunning view out of the back door of the tent. Thirty-two km (20 miles) completed. We'll certainly make Baker Lake now, almost no matter what tricks the wind may still spring upon us. I have mixed feelings tonight. The trip seems about over. This may well be the last night we ever spend as the only people camped at a large, silent, tundra lake. Whalebone Hill in the background.

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The lake and western sun are visible from the tent door. Two muskoxen stand on the nearby ridge. They occasionally look apprehensively in our direction, but otherwise graze in pastoral, bovine, placidness. I'm looking forward to moving water, where the wind will exert less control over our destiny; however, I will miss these lakes, particularly at times like this, when the resting water can be so very tranquil and alluring.

We've made it to the Schultz Lake Peninsula. We are within a day of moving water, where we expect the wind to be considerably less debilitating. It is very calm and quiet tonight, except for the hum of mosquitoes. We're camped above a ridge of rocks pushed up on the shore by moving ice. As we climbed over the bank this afternoon, I stooped to appreciate the pink display provided by a large mat of River Beauties. Many other flowers, including Arctic Poppies, also adorned the bits of turf interspersed between the river-bank boulders.

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Up on the tundra ridge, the graceful floral plumes of Mountain Avens indicated that another Arctic summer was coming to an end. Two muskoxen graze quietly nearby. I can see them from the tent as I write.

We enjoyed fruit cake after dinner. Michael, particularly, has looked forward to this sweet dessert; and he doesn't even like fruit cake!

Today, as on other occasions, Michael told me we were about 20 minutes away from some landmark. I know 20 minutes means close, but actually arriving at the location is what counts for me. Michael brought a watch, but I didn't. It's difficult to tell the time of day simply by judging the quality of light in the sky; but knowing the time is not important to me. What matters is the distance travelled or the chores accomplished. We eat about one hour after arriving at camp. We leave camp about three hours after getting up. That is, we accomplish tasks in the time required to do them.

Michael caught another fish for breakfast. He left the head and entrails on the shore, and they were quickly eaten by a herring gull. The gull then sat and waited all through breakfast, and watched us from the shore while we packed. I guess the gull expected Michael to catch more fish for it.

I've truly enjoyed the relationship we've developed with all these tundra birds, which appear so completely unconcerned by our presence. We have paddled past Arctic terns sitting nonchalantly on rock points. Yellow-billed Loons have landed calmly alongside our canoe. Terns and gulls commonly visit our camp to inspect our gear and to observe our activities. Smaller birds, such as American tree sparrows, semi-palmated plovers and Lapland longspurs, land near our camp, to sit on rocks or sand, seemingly just to say "hello."

Even though birds have journeyed here to reproduce in the short summer, I have the feeling that they are also on vacation. We seem to be sharing our vacations together. We also seem to be sharing the same feeling of safety and security. Although this land is demanding, Michael, the birds and I feel safe. Light persists long into the night, and the spacious Barrens are relatively empty of wild predators and human threats.

Sunday, August 1

Down to the river to catch a trout for breakfast. This time I take the frying pan in which to carry the fillets back to camp. Again I face a shallow, rocky shore line. Twenty casts, a dozen snags, one broken spinner. Back to camp to fill the frying pan with bannock.

We sit digesting a leisurely breakfast in the sun and calm. Conversation of reaching moving water. Kathleen reads a chapter of a book written by Clara Vyvyan, a British woman who travelled Great Slave Lake with her female companion in 1925. From there, these two adventurers descended the Mackenzie River to Aklavik, hired two guides to lead them up the Rat River to the height of land, and then descended the Porcupine River by themselves, past Old Crow, to the Yukon River. Their daring and courage, particularly for two women in the 1920s, far exceeds any of our exploits on this five-week holiday.

Vyvyan's book is a pleasure to read. Her description of Great Slave Lake simply, yet eloquently captured the grandeur and majesty of these lakes at rest. Kathleen often stopped reading, to compose herself, moved by the lyrical beauty of the words and the waterscapes before us.

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"I was alone again with that stillness emanating from sky and water, that magic stillness of the north, which is not the quiet of a little thing too weak to strive or cry, but the breath of a power brooding over all." -Vyvyan

We set out at 9:30 am in search of the outlet. Down the west side of Schultz Lake Peninsula, the wind blew at our backs. We rounded the point heading north, into the wind. "These waves aren't so big. There's not even whitecaps. We can easily handle this."

I left these thoughts unspoken, as the wind may be listening. I only hope the wind can’t read my mind.

The island on the southeastern tip of the peninsula proved impassable on the landward side, so we paddled out into the channel and wind. Clearing the island, we found ourselves in waves breaking on the island shoals. Quartering into the breakers, we intended to lunch when we touched the mainland in a few minutes.

The shore line, however, receded from our quartering direction, which we needed to maintain to prevent the waves from striking us broadside. The more we paddled, the further we distanced ourselves from shore. The wind now intensified, making our position more precarious than we wished. This combination of island, wind and receding shore line had occurred on many occasions. Too often to be mere coincidence. I'm convinced that this land-and-water juxtaposition has been conceived by the wind to lure careless canoeists into more vulnerable positions.

Eventually we accepted the broadside blows, and headed straight to the beach.

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While waiting for the soup to steep, I took a compass reading, and discovered we were directly opposite the point of a bay where the Schultz Lake outlet should lie. Five km (3 miles) of open water in a stiff breeze.

I'm sure that other people would have attempted the crossing, and likely could reach the opposite shore 99% of the time. That remaining 1% of the time, however, when the wind unexpectedly throws 1-2 metre breakers at your 16-foot canoe, is too much of a risk. Only three outcomes are possible. With luck, the shore is reached safely, without mishap. With no luck, the canoeists swim to shore, frightened, cold and wet. With bad luck, a mid-crossing capsize proves fatal.

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Kathleen and I are on holiday. The risk of an open crossing, with no tangible benefit, is unwarranted. It's precisely this situation that we believed could be problematic and contentious when travelling with other people. There will always be someone who accepts the risk, foolishly or calculatingly. In these situations, peer pressure often encourages the entire group to accept the same risk.

Kathleen and I continued up the peninsula another 7 km (4 miles), seeking the shorter 2-km crossing indicated on the map. I steered the canoe as far from the west bank as seemed safe, to provide a head start to the eastern shore when the crossing seemed appropriate. After 45 minutes, I posed the question.

"Do you think we can make it?"

"I think so."

Ten minutes of hard stroking and we turned south along the east bank, the final crossing of the lake section of our journey completed. The wind would no longer pose such a threat to progress or peace of mind.

After only two-and-a-half hours from lunch, we entered the rock-strewn bay containing the outlet. For what seemed like the 82nd time, no obvious outlet existed. Once again, the compass proved valuable, pointing 40 degrees to where the outlet should take us from Schultz Lake. Although no current seemed to flow in that direction, we trusted the compass, which had been remarkably accurate, even at this latitude.

We reached moving water at 4:00 pm, and ran the outlet rapids on the inside bend, where two attorneys from California were fishing from shore. We shared conversation, and talked of Baker Lake. Later in the evening, their guide motored up-river in a boat, with a companion and a dog. We seem to have reached civilization.

I'm pleased to be off the lakes, and am now very tired. The tension of worrying about reaching our goal has dissipated completely. Only 90 km (56 miles) to go. Only one rapid, and perhaps one portage, separates us from Baker Lake. Perhaps that's why my satisfying feeling of isolation terminated the moment the river's current bore us down to the attorney's camp.

We're off the lakes! We are camped tonight on moving water with the roar of rapids in our ears. Tomorrow we will come to our last major obstacle, Aleksektok rapids, about one hour down stream. It's funny how things are -- and then they are not -- with no transition to ease the change. Last night we were in the wilderness -- just Michael and I.

Today we are not, and won't truly be again on this trip. This morning, overhead, we saw a plane with wheels for landing at airports, not pontoons for landing on water. When we rounded the first bend in the river to stop at our expected camping place, two men were there already, fishing. The men were transported here by motor boat from Baker Lake in 3.5 hours; so, even though I expect we'll be alone two or three more nights, we know we're easily within reach of other people and civilization.

Our lives on the Barrens have changed so suddenly. At lunch we still hadn't made the crossing from the peninsula extending into Schultz Lake. The wind was strong, and we were faced with a paddle of many kilometres up the peninsula and down the other side to make a safe crossing. What if the wind became stronger, though? Might we still be on the other side, perhaps winded for days? We are now on moving water, and within one or two days of Baker Lake. We should arrive several days ahead of schedule.
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About those circles from post 42

I have seen that before, it happens when a piece of grass is broken over and the wind blows it around in circles. I believe that you can see your culprit in your photo

great read!

thank you for taking the time to post it here!

Thanks Jason. Yes, we saw the grass blade. We do mention it in the post right below the picture. Thanks for your feedback. It makes a huge difference!

Monday, August 2

Feeling elated at reaching moving water, we slept in, and enjoyed another dawdling breakfast of lake trout. So wonderful to catch breakfast so easily on nearly a daily basis. We chatted a bit with the attorneys, who had broken camp at 9:00 am, and now waited for their guide to return from Schultz Lake to take them down-river, three hours to Baker Lake.

The guide, his companion and the dog returned shortly before noon, and all seven of us clustered on the shore. The Thelon seemed very populous. We fired several questions at the guide.

"Where's the campground in Baker Lake?"

"How far does the current extend into Baker Lake?"

"Where's the portage trail around Aleksektok Rapids?"

After five weeks of making all our own decisions, only one day of civilization and people began to erode our independence. The attorneys, guide, companion and dog left shortly after noon, leaving us behind on the beach. They'll be in Baker Lake in three hours. We'll be there in three days.

Suddenly we felt as though we were canoeing and camping on the Trans Canada Highway; a pointless activity. Our trip was over. We no longer felt that we lived in a pristine, wilderness landscape. Why, then, must we still continue as though we did? No choice, that's why.

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We reached Aleksektok Rapids at 1:30 pm, and spent two hours trying to convince ourselves that we could run the rapid. High, standing waves in the centre channel; pour-overs throughout; diagonal, curling waves on both shorelines. Probably runnable, but not guaranteed.

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This rapid had claimed several lives, most recently when a power boat's motor quit. We were very irritated. Our trip was over. In a perverse way, we had been excited and challenged by the Thelon Canyon portage. The portage route that now stretched before us represented only an imposition. Our adventure had ended at the outlet of Schultz Lake, the moment we exchanged greetings with the attorneys. We had celebrated our success with two glasses of Sunday brandy last night instead of our usual trip-allotment of one glass. I haven't even taken any photographs today. Our journey was over, and yet we must now begin our second-longest portage of the trip. We were very irritated.

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Only two kilometres (1.2 miles). Just one more obstacle. Kathleen and I carried the white buckets and our day packs to the end of the portage, scouting the best route as we went: in-and-out of the boulder field, through the boggy swamp, past the dead gull, and over the rise down to the river. Kathleen had been feeling ill all day and we decided she should stay in camp to set up the tent and prepare dinner while I retrieved the rest of our gear. Back over the rise, past the dead gull, through the boggy swamp, and in-and-out of the boulder field brought me back to the canoe packs. I loaded as much as I possibly could carry on my back, and then attached some smaller packs to my heavy load. I then re-traced my steps back to camp: in-and-out of the boulder field, through the boggy swamp, past the dead gull, and over the rise down to the river. Kathleen handed me a snack, and cut some mole skin to place over the blisters on my very hot and weary feet.

I now returned for the canoe: back over the rise, past the dead gull, through the boggy swamp, and in-and-out of the boulder field brought me back to the last portage load of our adventure. I lifted the canoe over my head, and rested the carrying thwart on my shoulders. Half way through the boulder field, my shoulders began to ache, and I flung the canoe to the ground. A few minutes later I was off once more, but stopped again when I reached the end of the boulder field. My body, hardened after 5 weeks on the river, now seemed to rebel at carrying any more loads. I stared at the canoe. I surveyed the landscape.

I took a deep breath, but was barely able to lift the canoe onto my shoulders. I vowed to carry it until I reached the dead gull, but searing pain in my shoulders, plus the blisters on my feet forced me to lower the canoe to the ground half way through the boggy swamp. I breathed heavily as I looked around the tundra. No sign of the rise, beyond which lay our camp, dinner, and Kathleen. No sign of any humans to help me. I seemed alone in the oppressive afternoon heat. Millions of bugs swarmed about me, as I stood ankle deep in the tepid, boggy water. I looked at the canoe. I surveyed my surroundings. I looked at the canoe. My mind focussed on the task before me, as the following single, satisfying emotion permeated my existence: “My God, this is beautiful!”

By 8:30 pm we had carried all the gear to the end of whitewater, had pitched camp, and were relaxing with tea after the chili and cornbread dinner. The river is blasting along at least 10 km/hour (6 miles/hour). Maybe we'll be in Baker Lake tomorrow. I hope so. These bugs are really beginning to irritate me.

It seems the trip as we knew it has ended. It just feels different -- not as nice. To avoid the two-kilometre Aleksektok rapids, we had to portage through hummocky, boggy, wet country. The bugs were terrible. We are camped in the only semi-flat, dry spot available; even then, we pitched our tent on rocks.

The river has picked up a very strong current, and we are concerned about what conditions will be like between here and Baker Lake. Yesterday, the attorneys said that no more rapids lay below the portage, but that several narrows constricted the river into large waves and rough water. The Tyrrells wrote about difficult sections, through which the Inuit showed them the best chutes. Until now, we have accepted all adversities in stride; but somehow, the uncertainties we now face seem different. We have received first-hand information, and no longer have the opportunity for personal discovery. The current is strong enough that we could complete the 80 km (50 miles) to Baker Lake in one day. I wish this (these) last day(s) could feel good, as the trip has been so wonderful

Tuesday, August 3

Our tent had been pitched on gravel along the river bank, on a 20-degree slope. As such, we claimed the best campsite for kilometres around. I slept fitfully all night, concerned about the tumultuous river between us and Baker Lake. The Thelon, after five weeks of meandering, usually with no current, suddenly seemed desperately eager to reach its mouth at Baker Lake.

I arose at 7:00 am to brooding skies and brooding, grey, boggy tundra. No hint of sun to warm the brisk, southerly wind. The air was cold at 12[SUP]0[/SUP] C (54 F), and the water even colder at 7[SUP]0[/SUP] C (45 F). After breakfast, we hiked back along the ridge to photograph Aleksektok Rapids and plants. Apparently, when we weren’t looking, autumn had sneaked into the Arctic landscape.

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The blueberries were now ready for eating.

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The fruit of the red bearberry had turned the tundra floor a scarlet colour.

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Few-finger lichen

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Worm lichen.

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Back on the cobblestone beach, we loaded the canoe, which was difficult to restrain in the sliver-eddy beside the very swift water. The river was larger and faster than anything we had ever paddled. We spoke apprehensively about the river's two remaining obstacles. One waited for us about 20 minutes downstream, while the second, an island, lay 18 km (11 miles) away. Both spots constricted the flow of water, likely creating even higher standing waves.

"Are you ready?"

"I guess so."

We shot into the current, and sped quickly away from our rocky, river-side camp. We reached the first constriction almost instantly. After a brief scouting from shore, we climbed back into the canoe, and easily avoided the large haystacks by ferrying to river-left. This isn't so bad, and we're making great progress! We proceeded down-river, gaining confidence and comfort in the boils and large waves.

After 45 minutes we had completed 10 km (6 miles) with very little paddling. Mostly, we merely sat in the canoe, and maintained our anticipatory high braces to keep the canoe parallel with the current, and to prevent a sideways entry into the wallowing troughs. We reached the island in an hour and 20 minutes. Again, we easily skirted the large haystacks on the outside bend, although the deflecting boils and waves from the inside bend provided some concern.

We were through, though. The last obstacle! Lots of current. We're averaging about 13 km/hour. This is actually fun! We spent the next few hours following the fast water from outside bend to outside bend. After lunch the rain began, and we paddled in silence, heads down, hoping vainly for sun. At least there's no more obstacles. Even the whirlpools and boils in this section of the river aren't too bad.

I really dislike whirlpools and boils. It's like paddling in cotton candy; there's no substance. The canoe seems suspended, with the paddle providing little purchase. Yet, as with sticky cotton candy, the canoe becomes entangled, drawn in a variety of directions, each of which melts into a new set of whirlpools and boils.

By 4:00 pm we had covered 60 km (37 miles). A cold drizzle began midday, and intensified in late afternoon. We were about 20 km (12 miles) and 3 hours from Baker Lake, riding a swift current, when we agreed to push on rather than camp one last night on the river. Good camping spots had not been evident along the high, soggy banks, and we were wetter than we'd been on the entire trip.

All day I had paddled with my white-water paddle, in case I suddenly needed to make forceful strokes. The fast water intimidated me, and I continually gazed ahead for evidence of rapids. On this very straight section of the Thelon, I was often fooled by the white horizon-line. In late afternoon, I again thought I saw white, frothing water; but, peering through my rain-stained glasses, I again discounted the potential threat.

We approached the 2-km (1.2-mile) S-bend that emptied into a wide, shallow section of the river just upstream from its delta that drains into Baker Lake. Suddenly the boils and whirlpools became larger, and decidedly uncomfortable.

"Why are these here now? I don't see any reason for them."

"I don't know."

"Do you see rapids down there?"

"No, do you?"

"I don't know. It looks a bit white, and I think I can hear rapids."

"It's probably just a tributary spilling over rocks. You know how loud they can sound."

"Yeah, that's right. Let's go."

We entered the right-trending portion of the S-bend and immediately wished we hadn't. Only then, and too late, we realized that the bend constricted the river into enormous waves. Standing waves nearly two metres high deflected off the left bank, and swirled toward us in an ominous series of whirlpools. Our only hope to avoid capsize would be to hold our boat steady in the circulating boils without being dragged across the eddy line into the powerful reversal-current. My body went completely ice cold. I felt I might not have the strength to make the necessary strokes. I called into the wind "God be with us. Please God, be with us."

"I'm scared."

"I don't like this either."

We braced, heading right, toward river-centre, to escape the diagonal, curling tongues of green and white. My breathing came in short, staccato bursts. This looks bad.

Ahead, we could see the river channel bending back towards the left. The river surged toward this outside bend, and slammed into the cliff face. Our canoe sped toward the cliff, where the water piled up in 2.5-m-high standing waves. Adrenaline and fear fought for control of my body and mind. To continue right meant certain capsize. In silence, we struggled to reverse our direction. Kathleen drew left. I swept right. The canoe turned sluggishly toward the inside bend on river-left. (Note: Reading this now, I wonder if we were exaggerating the actual height of the waves. They were very big, though!)

Still in silence, we powered diagonally across deep haystacks created by the current deflecting off the point around which the river narrowed and veered sharply left. Immediately beyond the point, a powerful reversal eddy re-entered the main current in a mountainous ridge of breaking, irregular waves.

"Oh God, oh God, I don't want to be here!" Too late, though.

"Oh, most terrible expletive!" Five weeks on the journey, and we're going to die three hours from Baker Lake. Most of all, though, I feared the humiliation of knowing what our fellow canoe club members in Vancouver would say about our self-inflicted demise: “They committed the worst sin of wilderness canoeing - - entering a blind canyon without scouting first. They should have known better.”

We braced against the waves as we guided the canoe toward the eddy line below the ridge of water. Struggling against the opposing currents, we alternately powered and braced to hold our parallel position between the dangerous reversal on our left and the impossible waves to our right. Fear continued to assault my being. Would we ever reach the end of this canyon?

Finally, the broad opening beyond the S-bend appeared. I think we're going to live! Fear had now sapped all my energy. I knew I couldn't paddle through another rapid. All I wanted was to get to shore, but the strong current of the wide Thelon continued flushing us down-river. From the map Michael knew the river soon opened up into its delta, and that we had already passed through the worst of the rapids. I hadn't studied this section of the map, and didn't know that we needed only to brace against the haystacks created by moving water emptying into the delta. I accepted Michael's advice, though, to keep paddling until we reached calm water.

The river ejected us through the gap, and we rode the dissipating haystacks to river-left, where we beached the canoe for a gorp break and the pleasure of standing on land. I felt genuinely pleased to be alive. That was the most scared I have ever been in my life.

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Back in the boat, after a sausage and gorp snack,we rounded Hornet Point at 6:30 pm, and paddled easily toward the tight-clustered collection of buildings comprising Baker Lake.

In the still, grey evening, water seemed to stretch beyond the horizon. Only a sliver of land was evident to our left. We paddled along this left bank, and eventually gained our first view of the town of Baker Lake. From our vantage point, there seemed no movement or sound; but as we drew closer, life became evident - - a man tended his fishing nets on the shore. We touched shore at 7:30, just under nine hours -- eight on the water -- to complete 80 km (50 miles).The fisherman, an Inuk, held our boat against the shore while we relaxed in our bow and stern positions.

"Did you see many caribou?" the fisherman asked.

"No, only about a dozen, all singles."

"Not many caribou this year,” he said. “Where did you come from?"

"Lynx Lake."

"Long trip. Bet you saw lots of mosquitoes."

"Yeah. It was a hard trip. We're tired. We've come all the way from Aleksektok Rapids today. The current was pretty fast."

"High water right now," replied the fisherman.

"Do you know where the campground is?"

The man looked around. "There used to be a picnic table over there, but it's gone now."

We asked about hotels.

"The Baker Lake Lodge is not as expensive as the Iglu. Closer too. Just up this hill," as he pointed to a new building only a few hundred metres away.

We thanked him for the advice, and for offering to store our canoe on the beach in front of his house.

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Our appearance at the lodge, dripping wet and still wearing our PFD's and spray skirts, obviously surprised the hotel proprietor; but a room was available, and we moved in moments later. As Michael portaged the packs up from the canoe, I began hanging wet equipment to dry. I soon filled the room, and spread the rest of our gear in the hall and on the small porch. "How did we fit all this into the canoe, when it won't even fit into a hotel room?"

We're now at the Baker Lake Lodge. A hot bath, a bed, brandy, and no bugs. I am very satisfied to have journeyed these past 5 weeks. I'm equally satisfied to have reached our destination.

I'm sitting in a bed, surrounded by drying clothes, packs, and tent. I've soaked in a hot bath, and am protected from the mosquitoes in our warm, dry room. We have accomplished our goal embarked on so many weeks ago at Lynx Lake. Why, then, am I not exhilarated or even content?

Since the last day on Schultz Lake, there has been a sadness within me. Our trip was ending too soon. Last night my mood was intensified by worry about the strong current evident as we scouted the river below Aleksektok Rapids.

Shaken by our experiences in the S-bend rapid, we are sipping brandy while assessing our feelings. My parents congratulated us when we called them tonight. Perhaps, with time, the trip will feel more like an accomplishment. Tonight, though, I feel mostly loss. Our special time alone together is over. Our special relationship with the land, birds and animals is over. Maybe this moment is just part of the natural cycle. It is fall, and even the birds will soon fly south, leaving this vast land as empty as I feel tonight.

I arose at 7:00 am, and prepared our bannock breakfast on the porch of the hotel room. Five-week-old habits, particularly enjoyable habits, are changed only reluctantly. We look forward to tomorrow's bannock breakfast.

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Fellow Baker Lake Lodge guests.

We spent the day touring Baker Lake, meeting new people. It's intriguing to learn how non-native people came to live in this Arctic community. Marie Bouchard, owner of Baker Lake Fine Arts And Crafts, arrived eight years ago to write a book about the starvation of Inuit during the 1950s. Ironically, she opened the store to prevent her own figurative starvation while pursuing her literary aspirations. Liz Kotelewetz arrived as a nurse over 20 years ago, and now manages the very delightful, spacious Baker Lake Lodge. She continues to administer to the community as social counsellor.

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It's difficult to accept that our Barren Grounds canoe quest has ended. The anticipation of this journey has dominated my thoughts for 18 months. The splendor of solitude and isolation is not available in urban centres. Even in Baker Lake, civilization supersedes all. The sounds of mechanized travel, on ATVs, permeates the community, even though virtually all buildings can be reached in a 15-minute walk.

We watched the CBC news this evening, and were distressed to realize how incapable humans seem to be of solving their problems. All headlines remained unchanged since we left Vancouver seven weeks ago. War in Bosnia. Riots in South Africa. White police officers on trial for beating black motorist Rodney King. Prime Minister Campbell, condemned for giving Quebec special concessions, might call an election soon. The U.S. Congress might not pass the North American Free Trade Agreement. We have witnessed three Arctic seasons. The earth has revolved around the sun 40 times; but, all the while, humankind has remained at a standstill. Our home and garden beckon, but I wonder what will fill the void of freedom lost.

We gently eased out of our river routines today. Michael fired up the backpacking stove to make breakfast tea and bannock on the porch. There are no restaurants in Baker Lake. The Lodge provides one sitting for a family-style breakfast, which we declined in lieu of sleeping late.

We traversed the town, absorbing the atmosphere and searching for souvenirs. Many people in this friendly town were interested in our adventure. We purchased hand-made duffle and fur slippers for Mom, and a sweatshirt with an original Inuit silk screen for Dad. For my kitchen, I bought embroidered, duffle oven-mitts.

Our room is still littered with drying gear and equipment. Hopefully we can start packing up in the morning. We've spoken to Loon Air; weather permitting, they will retrieve us on Friday. The 900 km (550 miles) to Fort Smith is a long distance for a Cessna 185. I've been dreading the flight back to Fort Smith in the cramped little plane, and have been trying to determine a way to avoid it. But, if we want to take our canoe, the Cessna is our only choice.

I wore my anniversary earrings for the first time today, exactly one month after receiving them. That day in June, more than 900 km upstream from Baker Lake, doesn't seem so long ago. I haven't had much time yet to think back on our adventure. I'm sure we will reflect much more on our Thelon journey once we're home in Vancouver.

After dinner at the Lodge, we watched the CBC news, hoping for information regarding how well the Atlanta Braves were doing in their drive for a third-straight divisional title. As I watched and listened vainly for the baseball scores that never came, the main news items were reminiscent of the last news report we had heard six weeks ago.

The world has continued on with its unrest, fear and violence, while we have lived in the freedom and simplicity of our Barren Grounds adventure. (Note: Hope you don't mind all that retroflection. It is interesting to see what was happening in the world during our trip.)

One more posting tomorrow, and then we are done with this Trip Report.
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