A Thelon summer
From June 24 to August 8, 1997 - Canoeists: Jack Oliphant , 63 , and Larry Warwick , 59
By L.H. (Larry) WARWICK
. This trip was a long-held dream of twelve years. We had read much on the trip: Eric Morse, the Tyrrell brothers, and Billy Hoare, among others. And we carried with us the diaries of Doug Howe (1976) and Michel Landry (1995).
We were hoping to expect the expected: 1/3 headwinds, 1/3 tailwinds,1/3 still waters! But this was not to be. We were windbound for eight days (and these were early in the trip), had high headwinds for 14 additional days, therefore instead of canoeing from Campbell Lake to Baker Lake we had to settle for Smart Lake to Beverly Lake.
For many reasons this first-time sub-Arctic canoeing experience was not pleasant. There was little time for relaxation, as we were constantly battling the elements. We didn't have much time to "explore", as is our wont. We didn't see as much wildlife as expected, and the Thelon River wasn't as beautiful, or as magical as others found it to be. We are aware of the the lyric, "I never promised you a rose garden," so we can't complain too loudly. At the very least we can say that the north threw down a challenge and we take satisfaction from having measured up to the task. Here are some observations on our first Arctic adventure.
We saw sandy bluffs, sand dunes, sand beaches, sand flats, sand islands...
The first thing that our outfitter,Tundra Tom Faess, did when we arrived in Yellowknife, was to introduce us to Bob O'Hara. Bob is a Minnesota school teacher who teaches 185 days a year and canoes 125! We asked Bob for suggestions in canoeing the Arctic. "What's your footwear?" he enquired. "Rubber bottom/leather-topped boots and hiking boots." He said that the hiking boots were a good item to bring, but that what was essential for the Arctic was high-topped rubber boots. So he took us shopping and that's what we bought. Well, what a blessing they turned out to be. My feet did not get wet once on that 36-day trip-a first for me. They were so useful. They permitted us to more easily launch and land a canoe, get drinking water in deeper water, land fish, wash clothes and body, and to brush teeth further from shore. They certainly came in handy when mucking around in the swamps. They were the best article of clothing that we took on this trip. Thanks for the fantastic suggestion, Bob!
The blackflies and mosquitoes were not as much of a problem for us as they might have been. Why? Well, the numerous high-wind days kept them at bay. But on those days when they were bad, they lived up to their reputation. When under attack, a person eats quickly, by unzipping the head net and shoveling the food in then zipping it shut. One line I coined concerning flies was, "Out here you eat fast and you shit faster!"
The flies seemed to have a special fascination for powdered milk. As soon as you dropped a spoonful of milk powder into the measuring jar of water, the flies descended en mass and covered the milk.
When going to the "bathroom" (#2), a person does not drop his drawers until the last possible second. Then it's down, out and up. It wasn't until near the end of the trip that we discovered a trick to minimize this ordeal-drop the drawers, reach around and give yourself a quick spray with the fly spray, do your thing, then up bloomers.
First Falls on the lower Hanbury River
just before it hits the Thelon. Is that a person on the flat rock to the right of the white water?
Some people go through the nightly ritual of killing, one by one, all the mosquitoes in their tent. This could easily number a couple hundred bugs. We lit a small piece of Pic, and let them choke on the fumes. The only problem with this method is that while lying there reading a book you had to suffer the indignity of having flies drop off the ceiling one at a time and land in your hair, face, eyes, beard, and undergarments. But before long, they'd be gone. In the morning, however, you'd notice a hundred or more flies back on the ceiling. Where did they come from? It seems that black flies experience their own form of, "The Resurrection and the Life!"
The "No Fly" Zone: As mentioned above, the high winds often kept the flies at bay. You would notice them on the ground, but they were unable to launch themselves into the air. When the flies started to eat away at us, we knew we could leave.
Most of our days were either 4-layer days or 5-layer days. Five layers? Undershirt, shirt, fleece, life jacket, wind jacket, and rain jacket/parka. Most days our heads were 2-layer days-toque-under-Tilley. If the sun was out, you felt its warmth, but as soon as a cloud obscured it, it was cool. On these days I frequently recalled that line from the song, Oh Susanna -"The sun so hot I froze to death".
Peculiar weather systems: One unusual day, we were paddling under two weather systems- on the left, a grey brooding sky, on the right, sunny and clear. For most of the morning we paddled along this demarcation line with the two systems running parallel to each other. Another common occurrence was to see in the distance, rain storms, big sheets of rain, as many as five at a time, and yet you might not get rained on once. You would see this phenomenon because of the Big Sky effect-the limitless horizon that permits you to see in all directions at one time.
There were times when we felt that this was, "The land God gave to Cain." It was never easy or even possible to find a good campsite. Bruce Hyer in Ontario use to mark on his maps some campsites as 'World Class'. Well there were no World Class campsites up here. In fact we were hard pressed to find any good campsite e.g., a flat 8 by 10 camping spot. The ground is either sandy, or pebbly, or muddy, or hummocky, or willow-choked. A lot of the time the ground resembled a construction site, one where a city block has been levelled and the material carted away leaving a ruptured surface recently vacated by bulldozers, with uneven ground, and some "blocks of concrete" still in evidence. Jack kept expecting to see rebar sticking out of that rubble!
Why does the ground up here lack the flat cultivated look of southern lands? I surmise that what we were seeing is what the glaciers left behind 10,000 years ago. Because of the short season and the lack of developed soils, there is nothing that has filled in the holes and depressions, thereby levelling the ground.
Along the shorelines of the rivers and lakes, you actually think you are seeing the marks left by grader blades. The blades in this case are huge blocks/sheets of ice that are pushed along the shoreline each spring. Truly amazing.
"Sand, sand, everywhere and never a grain to. . ." There are sand dunes, sand beaches, sand flats, sand islands, sand spits and sand storms. Many kilometres of lake and river bottom are sand-ladened. Where does this sand come from? Geographers talk in terms of esker degradation. The tremendous winds that blow continually up here blow the grains of sand off the eskers and deposit them elsewhere, leaving behind smaller eskers of stone, rock and boulders. The eskers are amazing structures. They are all over the place. And you are left to wonder from where this material originally came. The land is flat. There are no hills, cliffs, or mountains in evidence so where did the glaciers get this material to deposit as eskers? Incredible.
THE TWO CONSTANTS
The two constants on this trip were wind and sun. The wind blew often and blew long and strong. It might blow for three days straight with undiminished velocity. During the night the tent would flap fairly violently and during the day there would be no mosquitoes. At times the wind would blow you off balance. When the river's current finally presented an opportunity to make headway, the headwind would set up interesting configurations as it confronted the waves of the rapids. This produced pyramid-shaped waves that shook and shimmied the canoe. In order to proceed down the river, we had to travel sideways, aiming the canoe at the shore, and paddling hard so that the current could push us down the river! Once or twice we thought our paddles were going to snap, as we had to put so much pressure on them to keep the canoe from spinning around and heading back up the river!
The other constant, the sun, only disappeared for about four hours a day. It was possible to wake up at any hour and read a book without requiring artificial light. You might awaken at 3:30 am and have the tendency to get up and get on with the day's business. It was impossible to get any relief from the sun or the wind, because there's no shelter. No trees, no cliffs. So you depend on good equipment-a wide-brimmed hat, sun screen, long sleeve shirts and pants are essentials..
Here are some of the names and expressions that sprang to our minds to describe what we were seeing in the NWT:
The Land God Gave to Cain
A Land of Extremes
The Thelon: River of Disappointment
Big Sky Country
The Land of 360 degrees
The Canoe Trip from Hell
The Thelon Wind Tunnel
THE BEST PART OF THE TRIP? THE PEOPLE
The most enjoyable part of the trip had to do with the wonderful people we met. Bob O'Hara was an interesting character ("I canoe 125 days of the year.") We were the grateful recipients of his ready hospitality. He took us around to various shops in Yellowknife so that we could buy last-minute items. He drove us to the Prince of Wales Museum to enjoy an hour of learning about the history of the area. Bob says that he is not interested in canoeing in the southern bush (Shield Country) anymore, having fallen completely under the spell of the North.
We were windbound for three days at Tundra Tom's Whitefish Lake base camp. How interesting were the people we were windbound with Russ from Ontario, and his friend Stefen from Alberta. Ehor and Ian, also from Calgary, and the four young filmmakers from the States, among others. We had a wonderful three days here eating, sleeping, reading, and conversing. (The best three days we spent on the trip!)
He said he knows Thunder Bay, having been involved in a theatre group at Kam (Kam Theatre Lab?) Now there's a person who personifies the type of individual who has become a legend in the North. He doesn't seem to be well-regarded by others in Yellowknife-fellow business-types, government officials, etc. He's a maverick. He kept telling us that he wasn't in the outfitting business to make money, and there's reason to believe him. I thought it quite telling that he did not get a mention in David Pelly's book on the Thelon. He deserved to be.
This is how Tom gave his preflight safety talk: "Behind this seat, you'll find the first-aid kit. In the back of the airplane is the survival pack. Also back there is the ELT, but it isn't armed. Someone will have to do that if we go down. There are three headsets for the four of us. Share them. Now if we do go down, put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye!"
Tom has quite a collection of native artifacts, a number of them confiscated from his clients. "You are not allowed to take artifacts out of the North. I will confiscate them if I find them." Supposedly he went to the museum folks in Yellowknife and offered the artifacts to them. They said they'd like to have them and directed him to bring them in. Tom said, "No. If you want them, come and get them. I want you to see where they were originally found." Respecting Tom's wishes, Jack, after finding a perfectly formed arrow head, took a photograph and placed it back on its spot.
Tom has an impressive library of northern books. He even has a few rare copies, Tyrrell's Across the Sub-Arctics of Canada (an incredible book of adventure), Unflinching: A Diary of a Tragic Adventure by Edgar Christian and George Whalley's The Legend of John Hornby. We spent many glorious hours browsing through them.
It was along Dickson Canyon on the Hanbury River that we met our first canoeists-six young men, fellow graduates of the University of Waterloo, all 26 years of age. They were from all parts of Canada, except Anders who hailed from Sweden. I was impressed with the trip they had undertaken, paddling from Fort Reliance on Great Slave Lake to Baker Lake. Their first hurdle was Pike's Portage, a 40 km portage (not to be totally walked, as you portage and paddle many small puddles to the height of land). By the time we got to Dickson Canyon, Jack and I had consumed 3.5 litres of fuel and had made no fires because there was "no firewood". When I asked the boys how many litres they had used, they replied-less than one! Imagine how surprised we were when they told us that they had cooked most of their meals by fire. At meal times all six would fan out and gather willow twigs until they had enough to cook with. They agreed that two people would not have had much success in doing this. They reckoned that they had consumed 30 to 40 kg of fish! These young Canadian adventurers sure boosted our flagging spirits and gave our psyches a much needed boost.
At Last Falls on the Hanbury, late in the evening, I inadvertently left my life jacket on the shore, and by the time I had recognized this fact, we were 2 km down the current and in no condition (too tired) to paddle back up. So I was left with the hope that someone might retrieve it for me. (I am, by nature, an optimist.) Well, nine days later, where the Thelon flows into Beverly Lake, and windbound once again, a canoe hove into view. "Is Larry Warwick here?" My life jacket! For the next day and a half we were fortunate to be windbound with Chris and Jonathan Morris. Chris said that if he hadn't found the person who owned the life jacket by the time they got to Schultz Lake, he would have set the life jacket into the water in hopes it would reach Baker Lake on its own!
Jonathan is a budding chef who works at Hogan's Inn in King City north of Toronto, and his brother Chris is a doctoral student in Philosophy at Cambridge University. Their proposed trip made ours seem insignificant. Their trip started at Yellowknife, and they were to proceed to Schultz Lake, then travel North to the Arctic Ocean, then paddle to the Coppermine River, and find their way back to Yellowknife, possibly a 90 day trip. But of course they were battling headwinds, too, and felt that they would have to scale back their objective. (In fact, they did reach the Arctic Ocean, but had to settle for Gjoa Haven where they ended their marathon trip). [See Che-Mun 91]. We invited them to stay with us whenever they pass through Thunder Bay and I promised Jonathan that I'd drop into Hogan's Inn for a meal, the next time I was in Toronto. Up to this point I was thinking of retiring from canoeing, but these two made me reconsider that rash thought!
ANTON &PAULA ZYBACK
We met these Calgarians on our fifth day on the Thelon. They are whitewater experts and this was their first flat-water trip (at least the Thelon section was flat water). They decided to take an inflatable canoe! With this, they could and did run Class 3 and 4 rapids, (even running Last Falls on the Hanbury!)
For three days we played "hide and seek" with them, then lost sight of them, not knowing if they were ahead or behind us. But since we knew that they were expecting to meet an airplane at Beverly Lake on August 6, we knew that we'd better be there in order to get a flight out. At 3:00 am on August 2, we were awakened by a voice that announced, "We are here to check to see if you are in possession of a Territorial Fishing License!" Our immediate reaction was, "Thank goodness we do have our licenses," then as the cobwebs disappeared, we realized that the voice did not come from a game warden but from Paula Zybach! Because the headwinds played havoc with their inflatable canoe, they'd been getting up at midnight and paddling in order to get to Beverly Lake for the 6th. (Two days previous to this they'd been 84 km up the river!). We rendezvoused with them at Beverly Lake and spent three wonderful days camping and fishing. We caught grayling, pike and lake trout. One very windy day, the wind ripped our tent from its moorings and tossed our canoe into the lake! We shared meals, tea, cake, bannock and stories.
Why were the people we met on this trip so wonderful, caring, and interesting? It later dawned on me that who else but very unique people would make trips into such remote areas?
Jack and I left Thunder Bay on June 24, l997 and returned on August 8-46 days. We began paddling on June 28 from Campbell Lake and arrive in Baker Lake on August 3, l997-38 days maximum.
We began paddling on July 1 and were picked up on Beverly Lake on August 7-39 days. The original trip would have been 880 km in length The actual length of the trip was 626 km.
We were windbound for 4 half days and 6 whole days for a total of 8 days We had strong headwinds for 14 paddling days We had tailwinds for 5 days We had 4 calm days of paddling The rest of the days were a mixed bag of conditions
1 - 5 hours for a supposedly short and easy portage
2 - 2 hours into Lac Du Bois - 300 to 500 m portage
3 - 5 3/4 hours for Grove Rapids - 1.5 km
4 - 9 hours for Caribou Rapids - 1 .5 km
5 - 1 hour for Macdonald Falls - 800 m
6 - 12 hours over two days for Dickson Canyon - 3.2 km - a 16 km total distance covered with an 92 pound canoe and 80 pound packs
7 - 3 hours for Ford Falls - 1.5 km
8 - 7 hours for Helen Falls - 3.2 km
This story first appeared in Che-Mun Outfit 93 in 1998.