You are currently browsing the monthly archive for July 2007.

“That is a very very fuzzy rock.”

Jason

I have a confession to make. I have been intimidated as hell by Aberdeen Lake. It takes up an entire 1:250 000 map, like an ink blot out of control.

Aberdeen Lake, you make a hell of a first impression.

We struggled for 3 hours against a headwind down the last 8 km of hte Thelon that connects Beverly with Aberdeen Lake. We stopped for lunch and a cup of tea and a much needed rest in front of a small cabin.

Across the small bay a musk ox was munching contentedly by the shore.

By the time we made it over in the canoe after lunch, he had disappeared over a rise. Not to be deterred, we went for a short hike to stalk our musk ox.

Jason spotted him with the binoculars, taking a nap. The fuzzy rock.

We were upwind and he quickly got to his feet when he smalled us and took a few steps towards us, doing that foot stamping, head-tossing thing I remember from the bull fighting scenes in bugs bunny.

He was enormous. A huge hump was covered with a thick blonde mane, which carried down his back. His flanks were flowing with long silky hair. His horns ended in perfect points. He was out of another era and let me tell you, he was magnificent.

We were still at least a one or two hundred meters away, but we weren’t that keen on messing with this guy, so we slowly retreated to the boat.

As we carried on our way, he came back further along the shore, and this time he was begging for a photo op. He posed for some beautiful closeups before we reluctantly tore ourselves away.

A blue sky and a much calmed wind brought a stellar afternoon of paddling and saved significant distance as we were able to make some open water crossings.

We ended our evening at 6 p.m., later than usual, on what we have called “Tern Island”.

This trip has introduced us to the Arctic Tern. Beautiful, agile, scrappy and generaly obstinant, they have attitude and we like them.

Even if they do dive bomb us for fun sometimes.

They are raising their young on this island and the air is full of 20 or more terns wheeling and diving. They were not bothering us, so we took it that we were not near the nests. These birds are not diplomatic if you overstep your bounds.

When unloading the canoe I noticed a bit of fluff next to my foot which upon closer inspection caused Jason and I to melt into puddles of goo.

A little tern chick about 3 inches tall, all covered in down and spotted with tiny webbed feet was waddling down the beach. His mom came and got him as we stepped back to watch.

We took a walk to enjoy the terns and watch their antics as they care for their chicks, harrass the local seagulls and play aerial acrobats with each other. It’s more entertaining than Monday Night at the Movies. They’ve now taken to landing on our bug tarp.

Aberdeen Lake, we’ve only just met, but I am very pleased to make your acquaintance.

Janine

Sent from our satellite phone…live from the tundra!

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 “So Jason, how does all this make you feel?”

Janine

We’ve counted 5 graves on the Island so far.

Stone-rimmed ovals with an additional rock at the head and foot. They are old, or so the stone’s lichen coats seem to say. And their mystery adds to the power of this place, a large island guarding the narrows between Beverly and Aberdeen Lakes on the lower Thelon.

It was wind power that brought us here. Sudden swift gusts out of a clear sky transformed our last open water crossing on Beverly into a bucking roller coaster in the span of 10 minutes. I spent so much time focussing on the wave frequencies that I soon lost my bearing. The island’s steep sand bluff, trimmed with an immaculate 2 km white beach, seemed like the right place to regain it. The now-3 ft waves seconded the idea.

We got the bearing earily enough. But in doing so, the Island’s beauty and the sight of the graves sealed the trap that the wind had lead us to. We pitched camp. There was obviously a lot to explore here.

After supper, we shouldered our day packs and headed for the height of land, following caribou trails wagon-rut deep in the turf. Likely the only thing on the island older than the graves.

The height of land and its view of today’s paddle and tomorrow’s, was property of a pair of peregrine falcons and their chicks. The parents demonstrated for the kids how to run off intruders with the power of intimidation. The peregrine is the fastest animal on earth when it tucks it wings and “stoops” down on its prey. Even though they were taking it easy on us and pulling up 10 feet above our heads, the rush of air as they blew by on each pass was as audible as the screech that went with it.

The intimidation worked. We were being drawn back to the graves anyway.

They are scattered over a tundra turf plateau, just below the sandy bluff but still high enough to see North, East and West. Tent circles nearby show that this wasn’t just a cemetery. The bleached remains of a wooden sled runner lie melting back into the ground.

This was a world.

We crouch by the graves for what seems like a long time. On the walk back to our camp, when Janine asks me how I feel, I don’t have anything romantic to say. I just think about how scary-good it felt to ride those big waves. How fun it felt to have a falcon scream at ME. How deep the caribou trails were. How warm the setting sun was on my face beside those graves.

I feel good. I feel powerful.

Jason

Sent from our satellite phone…live from the tundra!

 Besides, it would be cool to say we camped on the Isarurjuaq Peninsula in Nunavut.

Jason

Today we bid a fond and temporary farewell to the Thelon River as we began our journey across the lakes.

Our flight from Baker Lake is in 18 days, and we have 350 km to go.

However, this is also the least predictable part of the trip. The lakes (Beverly, Aberdeen and Schultz) are all significant, and wind can wreak havoc out here if it has a mind to. The paddlers out here have all heard the stories.

Therefore, in the interests of playing it safe, we have set a minimum average goal to travel at the pedestrian pace of 20 km each day. On a good day, we should be able to double that easily.

This represents a tough choice, because it means that we stole of few days from our time in the wildlife sanctuary. However, we still spent 10 glorious days paddling through this section of the river, and as the caribou on the banks of Beverly Lake indicated today, the show isn’t over yet.

Today was a good day. An ideal day, you might say. With sunshine and a light keep-the-bugs-away breeze, we were able to afford some open water crossings on Beverly that put us about 35 km closer to our goal on a beautiful camping spot on the south-east tip of the Isarurjuaq Peninsula.

Yeah, it does have kind of a cool ring to it.

Janine

Sent from our satellite phone…live from the tundra!

“I can’t believe we had to come all this way to find out we don’t like lemon pudding.”

Janine

It was an interesting night.

The wind that had socked us in early yesterday died down and then intensified after we went to bed. Over the course of the evening, this produced the sight of me, running out of our tent at midnight in my grey long undies to flip our canoe in the rain, and Janine at 4 a.m. in her blue long undies and turtle neck (which I call her Smurf costume) running out of the tent to collapse our bug shelter, which was getting ready to fly to Baker Lake on its own power before her intervention.

So it wasn’t the best sleep I’ve ever had in the wilderness.

But the sun broke through and the wind died down again in the morning.

And after a breakfast of tea and campfire-baked bannock (THE best breakfast in the world after my Grandma Martin’s bacon and eggs) we were back on the Thelon.

Today, we paddled almost to the Thelon’s entry into Beverly Lake. It was a spectacular paddle – easily one of the nicest of the trip. The dense spruce of the Oasis became a memory, as the river valley broadened into a true tundra landscape. All around us, the rolling greens sloped up and away for what seemed like forever. The cutbanks along the river glowed varying shades of red depending on the light. And it seemed like every fragile arctic flower was stretching its petals a little further, trying to soak in as much light from the fickle sun as possible.

It was hard to believe that autumn here is only a few weeks away.

The highlight of the paddle was our passage beneath the Thelon Bluffs, whose pinkish ridges abruptly jut more than 150 ft up from the water at a sharp double bend in the river. But the whole day was a treat. Looking out over the land, I kept hearing symphonies in my head. And even though most of my knowledge of the symphony comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons, I still think that says something.

Beverly marks the beginning of the last phase of our trip – approximately 300 km of large lake travel before picking up with the Thelon again for a final 50 km ride into Baker Lake. We are looking forward to the Lakes trip with the classic mix of anxiety and excitement. Anxiety for the challenges that the big waters will bring.

Excitement that our goal is now so definitely in site. And excitement that I am going to be eating steak and drinking wine again soon.

Perhaps this evening should have been a time to reminisce; to savour the memories that 700 km of travel under our own power has brought us.

But we were tired.

Instead, it was a hearty meal of Sidekicks Spaghetti with a packet of tuna tossed in for protein (officially “Spaghetti Marinara”), Rasberry Iced Tea and a just-add-water lemon pudding that tasted like a mild dish soap.

After all, no need to get too romantic – it’s only the beginning of the end.

Jason,

Sent from our satellite phone…live from the tundra!

“I’m changing the name from Urses Islands to Mooses Islands.”

Jason

Bushed is what we are after a long day of paddling into a fierce and determined headwind.

Bushed is what our camp is, which we set up in the lee of a nice thick clump of alder.

The last two days have seen us decked out in toques, gloves and a few layers of much-lauded fleece and gortex.

It’s till July, right?

For the last few days, the sun has been hiding its warmth behind thick grey clouds and the wind has been racing across the open landscape.

Impervious attire is delightful in these situations.

We had set a loose goal to get to the Thelon Bluffs today – a stiff 35 to 40 km paddle from last night’s camp. We made it about 25 km before my shoulders turned to jelly.

When you’re pulling on that paddle with everything you’ve got and the shore’s not moving backwards, it’s time to call it a day.

Our paddle today took us past the Urses Islands, a place that in 1898, the cartographer J.W. Tyrrell named for the large concentration of grizzly bears he saw here.

I would love to see a grizzly out here. However I have a strong preference to see him from my canoe, rather than my tent.

We kept a close eye out as we huffed and puffed our way past the islands. No bears, but we saw two moose.

Mooses Islands.

Janine

Sent from my Iridium Satellite phone…live from the Tundra!

“I LOVE Christmas so much!”

Janine

The pattering on the tent this morning was not, for a change, bugs.

Rain. And a low, cold sky to match.

Janine woke up first, and seeing the situation, immediately declared a sleep in (without even consulting me! Outrageous!). But eventually we had to get up and decide whether this was serious enough stuff to make us reach into the bank and withdraw a rest day.

After breakfast, we were were still undecided. So we resolved to do the hike up the nearby esker we had planned the night before. From that high ground, we’d get a better sense of the weather and hopefully, see some wildlife.

Two for two.

As I crested the sandy bank, I was greeted by the fuzzy grey profile of a tundra wolf pup. He trotted up to another ridge, turned for one more look, decided we were not wolves and trotted away.

We pursued, and as we followed saw another pup a little further in the distance, not as curious as his sibling and already well on his way to his hiding spot.

We obligingly played the dumb tourists, giving our best wolf howls in an effort to convince the furballs that all we wanted to do was snuggle with them for a couple of hours and then release them back into the wild. All this got were brief pauses in the retreat, while the pups gave us a pitying stare before moving on.

Add wolf pups to the list of people who think they’re too cool for us.

But we were not to be denied! We had come a long way to see these guys and had paid a lot of money for Janine’s telephoto lens. Our howling pursuit continued.

Then momma showed up.

She was a beauty. Tawny white with a ripple of butterscotch around her collar. She’d trot back and forth in front of us, always the same distance away, keeping an eye on us and keeping up a dialogue with the pups.

We howled at her too.

Put momma wolf on the list.

By this time, the pups had gone to ground in the surrounding thickets.

Momma would howl to them (I recognized this howl from my own childhood in Newfoundland as “Stay where you’re at ’till I comes where you’re

to!”) and the cubs would respond with an almost child-like cry.

Evidently, momma was also calling for back up. As time passed, the tundra started to echo with the calls of more members of the family.

We stayed for a little longer, took some more pics of mom and half-heartedly looked for one of the pups, who was in some willows only a few feet away. But we didn’t want to stress out the animals anymore than we already had. They’d given us some time and we were grateful.

Time to go.

Momma trailed us all the way back to the esker, making sure our departure was genuine. After some milling about the den (littered with caribou bones, paw prints and fuzzy wolf poop, we headed back to camp.

The view from the denning site had reassured us that, while it wouldn’t be a postcard out there today, the rain was basically done and we could get a good paddle in.

The wolves energized us and we were upbeat and chatty in the boat, despite the grey weather. Two more wolves were sited throughout the day, as the Thelon transitioned from wooded shores to more wide open tundra.

At one point, it was noted that it was now exactly 5 months till our favourite day of the year – Christmas. And so we passed about an hour and a half discussing yuletides past, great gifts, favourite memories and best songs.

It seemed an appropriate topic of conversation on a day when the Thelon had given us such a cool present.

Jason

Sent from our satellite phone…live from the tundra!

“Aaaaaoooooooo! Wolves come oooooouuut!”

Jason

Even on one of life’s great adventures, some days are going to be grey.

Some days, like today, the sky is a boring grey, the wind is calm, the suroundings are typical and the animals are hiding.

Days like this are for travelling, enjoying the peacefulness and the conversation, and for me, the tunes emanating from my juke box/husband crooning away in the stern.

Our highlight today was a hike up to Lookout Point, a tall hill with a commanding view of a bend in the river. It is a crossing place for caribou, and therefore had many tent circles and chipping sites scattered along the hilltop where First Nations people used to gather and prepare for the hunt. Man, those guys knew their real estate. What a beautiful place.

A thorough scan with the binoculars from the Lookout did not reveal any caribou or other four-legged creatures in the surrounding countryside.

Scanning the banks of the river throughout our paddle today was also fruitless.

We passed through good wolf habitat today (I think), with lots of sandy hills where they like to den. With no signs of caribou in the area, it doesn’t surprise me that wolves aren’t in the neighbourhood either.

Jason obligingly called to the wolves, quite convincingly I believe. I know if we just keep working on our wolf howls, we’ll make some new friends soon enough.

Janine

Sent from my Iridium Satellite phone…live from the Tundra!

 This will be a great tent pad if we just get rid of the goose shit!

Jason, with genuine enthusiasm

Three weeks ago today we put in our first day’s paddle on the Elk-Thelon river system. So it seems appropriate that today we passed the 514 km mark, putting us exactly halfway to Baker Lake with another 3 weeks to go.

This amount of time puts us into new territory. We’ve never been on a trip this long before. Even our previous 2 month adventure in the Yukon was broken up by passing through cities and towns. Towns where one could purchase meat. Precious meat… Ahem. Excuse me.

All this time means that our camping routine has now become very comfortable and our standards comfortably lower. My hair’s always looked like ten day old hat-head right? There’s no such thing as a non-pasta based supper. Odours are just a matter of degree. And it takes about four years to get a good degree.

We are still in the heart of the Thelon Sanctuary, whose anniversary present to us has been two fantastic days of paddling. Yesterday, our strong tailwind continued, allowing us to sail for most of the day. My feet up on the gunwales, I contentedly watched the Thelon twist through spectacular steep cutbanks of red, white and brown sandstone. Bald eagles hovered around literally every corner, and peregrine falcons terrorized the local ducks (and sometimes, even the young eagles).

Evening brought us to a long gravel bar mid-river, within a stone’s throw of Nunavut, which we’ll cross into permanently in a few days. As we set up camp, our tailwind intensified and through the night rattled our tent and bug tarp like flags on a mountain top.

But it’s a pretty mountain top.

This morning, we woke to a sky as varied as the human race – most of the colours of the rainbow; some parts good, some parts bad, some beautiful, some damn ugly.

But the weather held off until we reached our destination just a short distance downstream – the jumping off point for a hike to a unique geological feature on the Thelon known as Musk Ox hill.

It’s a pingo, an Inuit word meaning “round hill”. A pingo normally stands where a lake used to be. Surrounded by permafrost, the lake drained. In time the residual water contained within the lake-bed froze and expanded upward into a dome-shaped hill. The hill remains covered with the lake’s silt, but it’s core is still ice.

So basically, Musk Ox Hill is a big 5000 year-old dirty snowball.

The hike to the Hill is about 4 km from the river bank. In order to add an extra layer of difficulty, we decided to get lost on the way back.

The initial leg was pretty flawless. The Hill can’t be seen from the river. But within 10 minutes of starting out, we were able to sight it in the distance (a 70 foot tall mound of sand is hard to miss on the barrens). As we walked away from shore onto the rolling tundra, we each felt a little nervous. The barrens are like an ocean – it’s easy to get out onto the open sea and feel very small and very insecure.

Comparatively, the river is a security blanket with its defined channel and constant unidirectional flow.

But it was worth the trip. The hill is like a gargoyle-encrusted cathedral at its top (an easy climb), with erosion having left it teeming with interestingly-shaped silt pillars. These are grouped together and dotted with burrows of the ground squirrels who make Musk Ox Hill their home and, judging by the poop stains on some of the pillars, their bathroom.

After exploring the battlements and getting all of the pics and video we needed, it was time to head back. Chatting happily about the sights, the lack of bugs (thank you wind), and what to get my sister for a wedding gift, we blithely strolled off into the open tundra, quickly losing sight of any landmarks, without even taking a quick compass bearing .

That was stupid.

When we finally reached the river bank again, things didn’t look right.

That pond wasn’t that shape before and he most certainly didn’t have a friend. And is it just me, or is that sandy cutbank WAY bigger than it was on the way to the Pingo?

After a semi-retreat to a high point of land, we realized where we had gone wrong. Instead of a straight line back and forth to the Hill, we’d made a right triangle out of the return leg.

So we got to see a little more the Thelon on foot than we’d intended.

Tack on another hour to the day. At least I figured out what to get my sister for a wedding gift.

A compass.

Jason

Sent from my Iridium Satellite phone…live from the Tundra!

 “Got out… too weak and all in now. Left Things Late.:”

Last entry in Edgar Christian’s diary, 1927.

Seventy-nine years to the day from the day the Hornby cabin was discovered by a group of prospecters, with the bodies of Jack Hornby, Edgar Christian and Harold Adler inside, I am pushing my way through the alder at Hornby point, peering through the dense bush in an effort to locate what remains of the site.

I spot the graves first. Three crosses; Jack’s in the middle, Edgar and Harold’s on either side. Each cross bears the initials of the men carved simply at the transept. The many arctic winters have taken their toll on the markers. Harold’s cross has fallen to pieces and has been carefully replaced with a new one. Edgar’s remains complete, encrusted with lichens, the nails holding it together rusting and starting to be worked out of the wood itself. Jack’s original cross remains as well, the arm bearing his first initial having rotted away, leaving a solitary “H” on the green-gray wood. The remains of the cabin lie just a few feet behind.

There is an initial “aha” moment when you see something familiar from photos come to life in front of you. An exhiliration at having arrived at a place you’ve wished to see for so long.

But the second and lasting impression from visiting the Hornby site is one of sadness. Thanks to Edgar’s diaries, we know who these men were.

We know what kind of people they were, and why they made the choice to come to the Thelon.

These are not the graves of strangers.

That’s exactly why this spot is so powerful. These men were a lot like us. They were not heros or explorers, as they were initally portrayed by the press when news of their deaths reached the Outside. They wanted an adventure, and the chance to test themselves in a new and challenging environment. They had dreamt about the abundance of the Thelon and wanted to see it for themselves.

We’ve come here for all the same reasons, but they faced true hardship.

We’re here on vacation.

As we stand beside the cabin, I imagine the men’s last efforts to provide for themselves in a state of starvation, in the bleak of winter.

They arrived here in October 1926 and by May 1927, on the cusp of spring and the return of the caribou, they had all perished.

Some pictures, a reading of some excerpts from Edgar’s diary and a walk in the surrounding woods, where axe scarred stumps from the men’s time here can still be seen, and it feels right to go. On the return trip, I find myself wishing, as I look down through the forest and wildflowers and out to the river, that they had had the chance to see this place in the glory of summer.

Rest well, my fellow adventurers. Your steadfastness in the face of hardship humbles me.

Janine

Sent from our satellite phone…live from the tundra!

“What is it about camping that vastly increases one’s tolerance for the truly disgusting?”

Janine

Rest day schmrest day.

After a leisurely and worthwhile visit to the Hornby Cabin and gravesites this morning, we were puttering around camp when the wind came up.

The same tailwind we had yesterday that allowed us to travel almost 50 km without dipping a paddle except to rudder.

Those who have paddled against brutal headwinds do not anger the gods by ignoring such a generous gift.

We broke camp and in an hour were gleefully sailing north.

I’m getting Hulk Hogan arms from holding on to that blessed canoe sail.

I may look a little butch in that beautiful strapless bridesmaids gown I get to wear this fall.

We paddled into a stretch of the river where the thickly wooded banks of the oasis valley are replaced by red cliffs, gravel cutbanks and sandy beaches.

After only 4 hours of paddling, but a whopping 30 km of sailing already under our belts, we made camp among the grass and willows on a beach, as a light rain threatened.

Alas, even though we delayed our rest day, I could not escape the chore I had been most dreading – cleaning the food barrel. Three weeks of camping, mostly on sand, and a leaky bottle of cooking oil had lead to a texture of barrel contents that I could no longer ignore.

Greasy sand, and throw in a few dead bugs for good measure.

Rub-a-dub-dub for the ziploc bags of food, then the barrel itself.

Tolerance of the disgusting, icky and downright gross is as useful as a map and compass out here.

It is a particularly useful tolerance since laundry will have to wait for another day.

Janine

Sent from our satellite phone…live from the tundra!

“Let’s camp on the south bank, in case of ghosts.”

Jason, looking for campsites on the approach to Hornby Point

You can get used to sleeping through 24 hour sunlight. It’s harder to get used to sleeping through 24 hour sun warmth.

During hot-spells like the one we’ve been having the past few days, while crawling into your tent after a long day’s paddle remains a pleasure, waking up is far less eagerly anticipated.

At 5 a.m. you unzip the sleeping bag and just lie on top of it, the slight cooling of the twilight hours a distant memory. By 6 a.m. the heat waves can be seen on the shore just outside your tent.

By 7, that faint sizzle you hear is you, cooking in a oily mix of yesterday’s sunblock and muskol. Getting up is now definitely on the table; along with heat stroke.

Then, what we’ve come to call “The Motivator” – someone cuts the cheese.

The tent is quickly evacuated and you are squeezed out of its front vestibule like so much toothpaste, your slimy carcass deposited on the rocky beaches of Hornby Point on the Thelon River.

After a long day’s paddle and sail, last night we reached the famous shores occupied by Jack Hornby’s cabin. It was here, in the winter of 1927, that Hornby, an eccentric Englishman who believed himself another Peary or Scott, decided to spend the winter and live off the land in one of the harshest climates on earth. He took with him, his nephew, Edgar Christian and another young man by the name of Harold Adlard.

It didn’t go well.

All three starved to death. But young Edgar’s journal of their final days made the men posthumously famous. Today, the remains of the cabin and the three simple graves that stand outside it are the most popular stopping point on the river. More on Hornby in our next post.

Since we pushed yesterday, we’ve decided to make today a rest day. I’m already on my second cup of tea and, yes, the pancakes were delicious.

Post-breakfast, we’ll ferry over to the opposite shore to visit the Hornby site (I chose a campsite on the other side of the river last night because, as we all know, ghosts can’t cross moving water).

The rest of the day will be occupied with fishing, reading, bathing and, perhaps, that most vaunted of all rest day activities, laundry.

Jason

Sent from our satellite phone…live from the tundra!

“That’s not a rock, that’s a musk ox”

Jason, peering through the binoculars

The Thelon Oasis is like a big shiny box tied with ribbon on Christmas morning. Full of promise.

The Oasis is a 250 km stretch of the Thelon that is ecologically unique.
It is a lush island in the subarctic desert, containing an abundance of plant life that is typically found hundreds of miles to the south. The animals are drawn to this place and we’re here to see the show.

With the Canyon behind us, it is time to savour the crown jewel of this journey. The vacation within the vacation. We have even lowered our daily mileage target for the next two weeks so we can soak it all in.

Expectations were high and our river rose to the occasion with flying colours.

The day began deliciously slowly after all the hard work yesterday. Our first landmark was the confluence with the Hanbury River. The Hanbury figures largely in Thelon history, and it was neat to stand on its banks, after reading so much about it.

We were going to paddle upstream for a few km to see Helen Falls on the Hanbury which are supposed to be beautiful. One look at the speed of its current nixed that idea. Masochism was yesterday’s game.

There was one last short but cantankerous rapid, which we scouted with Meg and Scott, a lovely couple from North Bay, who also paddled the Elk to the Thelon. They said the words that nearly made us burst into tears:

“We portaged river left at the Canyon and it took us three hours total”.

Twist the knife. Throw in salt and top with lemon juice.

We had heard from multiple reliable sources the canyon portage was on river right, although river left looked far shorter on the map since you can cut across overland at a bend in the river. There was also a well-marked trail on river right. Seemed straightforward.

Assuming someone far wiser than us had discovered some impasse on river left, we sighed with blind acceptance and spent far more hours than necessary as human mules.

At least on river right you get a beautiful view of the entire canyon five times.

I’ll pretend that comforts us.

When we passed Sue and Willie later in the day, they shook their heads at the revelation. Willie’s words of wisdom rang true.

“You never %*@ up in hindsight.”

On to better things…

The Oasis began with beautiful sweeping eskers, and patches of forest that are tall and thick, in contrast to the occasional clumps of stunted trees we’ve seen for the past several days.

Just past the esker and upstream from Warden’s Grove we grabbed frantically for the binoculars as we realized that the big rock on the shore ahead was actually a musk ox.

We paddled to within 30 feet of this ice age left over and let the current carry us past as we juggled binoculars, zoom lenses and camcorders. It stood with its feet in the river, contentedly chewing the shoreline brush, it’s distinctive hump tinged with blonde. Like all of the animals we’ve seen here so far, it was as curious about us as vice versa and stared as us intently as we floated by.

Smile for the camera!

We barely had time to collect ourselves before we spotted a tiny cabin about a km up the emerald-green bank on river left, in a rich grove of pine trees.

Our exploratory hike led to another exciting discovery. We had found Warden’s Grove! Hidden in the pines were three tiny hand-built cabins, with a sign indicating that they were the cabins constructed by the first wardens of the Thelon Game Sanctuary, Billy Hoare and A.B. Knox, in 1928.

As we pulled back into the current ahead of us was a magnificent bluff known as the Gap. We spotted three raptors’ nests in the cliff. Across the river was a gorgeous white sandy beach for our campsite, from which we could watch the eagles while we eat supper.

Wildlife…check.
History….check.
Great camping…check.

The ribbon on the shiny box has been untied at last. What else will we find in there tomorow?

Janine
Sent from our satellite phone…live from the tundra!

“These boots were made for walkin’ that’s just what they’ll do…
God! Get it out of my head!”

Jason, 3:37 p.m.

Sunny. Windless. Cloudless. 30 degrees.

Perfect weather for gazing out over the wonder of nature that is the Thelon Canyon.

Absolutely awful weather for portaging the Thelon Canyon.

I know what you’re thinking – rain and cold would be the WORST weather.  But you’re wrong. See, with rain and cold, I’d have woken up this morning, looked outside the tent, said “it’s raining and it’s cold”, declared an impromptu rest day and gone back to bed.

Can’t do that when it’s sunny and 30. Sunny and 30 means get your tookus out of that sleeping bag that is quickly starting to feel like a blue microwaved burrito, eat your damn Cream of Wheat and start packing your bags.

You’ve got some walking to do.

Your first 6 km carry around the Canyon doesn’t feel so bad. You get to the halfway mark by your first break and you’re feeling pretty good about yourself. You start thinking that, hell yes, you COULD walk to school everyday 5 miles through the snow, thank you very much Grandpa.
The 40 foot drop into the creek bed is just a chance to break a sweat.
The boot-sucking muck at the 4 k mark? Ha Ha! That’s why you brought gaiters! Eat it muck! The cliff face posing as a descent at the end of the trail is no problem – just take your time. Your shoulders are strong, your lumbar firm.

You are a manly man.

The trip back without a pack is a bit of a wake up call. “Shit, did we really come all this way WITH gear? Wow,” you laugh with just a hint of nervousness, “we must be really something! How much does the last load weigh again?”

When you finally return to camp at the beginning of the trail, lunch seems like a good idea. On the trip back, you’ve remembered that putting new orthotics in your old boots is like inviting your footwear on a second blister honeymoon with your tootsies. No problem though; a little protein and a sit in the shade and that 60 pound food barrel won’t look so intimidating. Besides, the view of the Canyon is spectacular! Take your time and enjoy it!

10 minutes into the third trip, you hate the Thelon Canyon.

It’s annoying – too much water. And too canyony. The 40 foot drop into the creek bed is a descent into hell. The boot sucking muck? It’s not boot sucking muck. It’s “owee muck”, re-named for the sound you make each time it grabs your boot while your blistered heel grates against it. Gaiters? Those are just to keep the blood from spilling out over the top of your boot right?

Halfway through, the canvas harness by which the food barrel is carried on your back has all the softness of a cheese grater. Your shoulders are Cream of Wheat, your back must look like those white spiral noodles you had for dinner last night.

You frantically start trying to divert your mind with song games. Yeah!
A song game! Sing a song to yourself and then think of another song that connects with it somehow! You’ll be done this last carry before you know it! Genius! U2’s Beautiful Day” seems like a great start. That becomes “Daylight come and me wanna go home” which deals with bananas, which is like “Crazy” by Aerosmith. Crazy is what you’re going to go if you don’t take these boots off soon, which leads to “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’ “.

The Jessica Simpson version.

That’s where you get stuck. And you can’t even visualize the video. Just a befuddled Willie Nelson trying to harmonize while all those coyote ugly girls twirl around him.

Now you’re contemplating suicide.

Or at least an emergency evac. You’ve got the sat phone right? It’s in that waterproof case hanging lopsided off the barrel, causing it to inch just a little deeper into your lumbar. A chopper could get in here.

Willy and Sue, our new friends who are also doing the portage today, pass us on the way back for their final load. “I don’t think there’s another portage this long!” says Willy cheerfully through a sheen of sweat and bug repellent.

Only one other Willy. It was called the Road to Calvary. And at least that was a one way trip.

Bitterness. There is no rescue coming. Despair. Why did you leave the chocolate covered almonds at the end of the trail and not take them with you? And finally, humiliated acceptance. Your wife takes the barrel for the last 1/3 of the trail just to stop your bitching.

Then, hope. That looks like the last cairn before the final descent via the cliff! Wild hope! You think the barrel would survive the impact of being rolled down to the bottom of the cliff! Tempered hope. You’re wife won’t let you do that but you are dangerously close to being done.
Finally, glory. Drop the bags and jump into the lake.

You’re done, tough guy.

Janine
Sent from our satellite phone…live from the tundra!

$%!* me, that’s hard work!

Jason

Dig a little deeper.

Geoff Ince

Today Jason rummaged around n the red canoe bag for our hiking boots.

“Guess it’s time to put these puppies to use”. He was right.

For 16 days our menu choices have not been driven by moods or preferences. “You’ll eat whatever is heaviest and you’ll like it” has been our mantra, all in preparation or this day.

The Canyon. The 7 km portage.

We spent a pleasant sunshine-filled morning of paddling a handful of little rapids (two of them being ledgy and requiring scouting). All too soon the walls of the canyon rose us before us and we knew the true challenge of this trip was finally upon us.

We have been 60% eagerly anticipating and 40% dreading this part (or is it the other way around?). It is spectacular. Yellow orange cliffs (complete with falcon nests) flank the broad river that spills over several sets of broad ledges in noisy waterfalls. It curves east and then hooks to the west. A few tenacious pine trees cling precariously to the cliff faces..

From the door of our tent, this is our view. Not half bad.

It almost looks tantalizingly runnable. In some places.

Unfortunately, we faced a dilemma. The full length of the carry would be somewere in the neighbourhood of 7 km (5 trips to do the portage = 35km to get around this beautiful nuisance.) The temptation is to put the canoe back in sooner than the confluence with the Clarke River and try our luck with the stuff at the bottom, which doesn’t look that bad.

Rumour has it that you can line the canyon on the left, but rumour also has it that the water levels are higher than they’ve been in years and it’s too risky.

Anyway, the solution to our dilemma is this:

Suck it up princess.

We strapped on our boots, Jason grabbed the canoe, I grabbed the 65 lb food barrel that I affectonately call “anti-lumbar-barrel”.

Over exposed rocky hilltops, through head-high alder, over hummocky willow fields, through sucking marshes, past the sandy pond, down and up a few times, and at last, 2.5 hours later the Clarke River. One load done. Two to go.

It wasn’t all bad. We had company, this time of the non-bug variety.

We’ve been hopscotching along the river with a lovely couple of kindred spirits from Windsor for the last few days, and today we met at the portage and decided to tackle it together. How nice it is to trade stories of rivers over a rest break.

As Jason and I were puffing our way over to the last rise before the confluence and the put in, we were thinking of our adventures hiking in the Yukon in 2003 with Matt (Jason’t brother) and Geoff ( my cousin).

Whenever the going got tough, Geoff would flash that ever-present smile of his and say:

“Dig a litle deeper.”

I think of him on days like this as I reach for those reserves of energy that see us to the end of a hard day and an accomplishment we can be proud of.

Thanks Geoff. We dug.

Wish us luck tomorrow. The portaging fun has only just begun. .

Janine,

Sent from our satellite phone…live from the tundra!

“Nice and easy does it every time”

Cole Porter

Today, the Thelon took it easy and so did we.

Having worked off some of its energies on yesterday’s whitewater, the river widened and slowed through a broad sandy channel, also marking the entrance to the Thelon Game Sanctuary.

Suddenly, after all the fast water of the past few days, it felt like we were paddling in cement. But, consistent with yesterday’s pledge to try to stop and smell the roses (tundra moss?) a little more, we decided to relax and just paddle until 4’ish, without much regard for how many actual miles we made.

It worked. We still made our dailly mileage quota and managed to enjoy ourselves. The sandy shores were alive with bird life and we also spotted another bull caribou. By 4:30 we had found a perfect beach to camp on and were set up with enough time left over for a pre-supper bath and fishing trip. The bath was successful; the fishing trip? Well, I think the KD bubbling on the campstove speaks for itself.

We are now about 15 km from the Thelon Canyon. Debate continues as to how we’ll do the 7 km portage – base camp at the beginning of the portage and do one load in the evening, finishing the next day vs. camping half way down the portage with all gear. But however we decide to tackle it, we’ll be taking our time.

Nice and easy.

Jason

Sent from our satellite phone…live from the tundra!

Okay, time for some new ground rules.

Janine

Another glorious day on the Thelon. No clouds in the sky all day long and a breeze to keep the bugs away. The North at its best.

We skirted the west shore of Eyeberry Lake today. After so many miles of swift current, Eyeberry would have been a real chore if it wasn’t so very pretty.

With sandy beaches and perfect flat mossy shelves a few feet up from the shore, it is easily one of the nicest spots for camping we’ve seen yet.

But it was not for us, alas, our day was only half over. We enjoyed our lunch and tea on Eyeberry’s beach and then set off for the mouth of the river.

After another 4 hours of steady paddling we began to think about finding a camping spot. Murphy’s Law being what it is, the river had other plans.

The next long stretch of the river took us down a long tumultuous swift with haystacks piling up on each other until they were 3-4 feet in height. Very fun, but we were a little distracted from scouting for our nook for the night as we raced past the shore in the fast water.

Once the river settled, the banks on both sides became steep-sided and topped with head-sized stones and willow bushes. No camping to be found.

Okay, now we’re getting tired, hungry and cranky. We should have stopped an hour ago. The golden rule of whitewater paddling is “get off the water before you’re tired”. I think that was the very first thing we were ever taught.

After scouting four spots along several km of river, involving ferrying across a few times, we finally pulled in to the winner. Halleluliah.

A pact was made over our noodles tonight:

“Heretofore, we, the Murphies, shall start looking for a camping spot at 4 or 5 p.m. BEFORE we’re tired.”

It’s our 2-week anniversary on the Elk/Thelon today and we’re still on the learning curve. In 4 more weeks we’ll be pros! (right?)

Janine

Sent from our satellite phone…live from the tundra!

“I don’t think we’ve had the same thing for dinner twice.”

Janine

Tomorrow is this trip’s two week anniversary. One of the pleasures of that landmark is comfort of the routine we’ve settled into. While every day has brought us new sights and challenges, our camp life has become a familiar that we look forward to almost as much as the travel itself.

The mornings start at between 6 or 8 a.m. depending on how late we were up the night before (that damned beautiful midnight sun has been responsible for more than a few late bedtimes). A quick look at our watch in order to make sure it’s not 3 a.m. and we roll out of the sleeping bags. I stuff the bags into their compression sacks while Janine rolls up our mattresses (a task I despise for no logical reason).

I start taking down the tent while Janine gets a pot of water boiling for that most crucial part of the morning – tea. I could live off rocks and grass out here, but I’d be dead in 3 days without my morning dose of orange pekoe.

With the water boiling, it’s off to the area downshore where we store our two 65 pound food barrels (downshore is the safest place for the barrel as everyone knows bears cannot walk upshore). I bring one back to camp and immediately ransack it looking for my favourite breakfast tidbits. Pancakes are always a hit. But fried bannock cakes and, lately, cream of wheat with brown sugar run close seconds. Still, I’m very excited that tomorrow has been declared a pancake day.

Breakfast is eaten in the cozy confines of our kitchen tarp. It’s a roughly 8 x 8 tarp with one end pegged into the ground and the other angled up to the top of two paddles. A third paddle propped under the middle of the roof creates lots of additional space. Noseeum bug mesh hangs down on all sides of the tarp making the whole thing a haven, not only from weather, but also from the millions of little blood suckers who bounce of the walls and ceiling like so much rain.

After breakfast, Janine strikes the bug shelter and I finish packing our two waterproof canoe bags – each capable of holding 115 litres. One bag holds pretty much everything I need to get our tent area set up at night (clothes, tents, sleeping gear) and the other contains less used and auxiliary items (extra fuel, hiking boots, our library of books and about 5 litres of extra bug repellent). The bug tarp and everything we need for a shore lunch go into some smaller bags we keep handy in the bow of the boat.

The whole kit is then hauled down to the canoe, which has to be tied to the barrels at night in case one of those formidable tundra winds should get in its head to blow our boat to Baker Lake without us.

From wiping sleep out of our eyes to dipping our paddles, the whole operation takes about 2 hours. That’s about what it takes me to get to work in the morning, so I consider that okay.

We paddle for 6 to 8 hours. We prefer to snack rather than lunch. I consider there to be three essential snack food groups – salty, fruit and chocolate – and try to make sure I get a representative from each one in every day’s snack bag.

By evening we’re ready to reverse the procedure. Within an hour, we have up the sleeping and the bug tent, supper on, a latrine dug and the canoe safely stowed for the night. Then it’s time for us to write to you, dear reader, and to enjoy some time with our books. I’ve just finished the first volume in Peter Newman’s highly entertaining history of the Hudson Bay Co. and Janine has recently closed “Cold Burial” the story of the doomed Jack Hornby Thelon expedition (he starved to death). This evening, I hope to start on J.W. Tyrell’s “Across the Subarctics of Canada”, an account of his 1893 Barren Grounds travels. And as I write, Janine is already well into Warburton Pike’s “The Barren Ground of Northern Canada”, a late 19th century account of exploration and hunting in this area by an English gentleman (he liked his cup of tea too).

The evening is now slipping away into tundra twilight. We are camped just below the confluence of the Thelon and Mary Frances River, after a beautiful day of paddling and luxiourious floating. Tomorrow, we push on past Eyeberry Lake and to within a day or two of our date with the Thelon Canyon. An impressive gorge that, depending on water levels requires an up to 7 km portage to get around.

That part of canoe travel never becomes routine.

Jason

Sent from our satellite phone…live from the tundra!

Photo credit: Richard Munn

We’ll call it the Goose Poop Resort Jason

Janine

A lazy morning in camp meant we didn’t start our day’s paddle until the shameful hour of 11 a.m.

‘What’s the rush?” we asked ourselves. “We’ll fly through today’s paddle with a current like this.” We didn’t bargain for a determined headwind all day long. But we were still right.

Even with a wind that would have kept us ashore of any lake, the Thelon carried us forward, faster than we could paddle in a dead calm.

For the first time in 4 or 5 days we got real sunshine, all day long, with nothing foreboding on any horizon. Our solar panel was soaking in the rays and we were soaking in the sunscreen.

To stretch our legs, we stopped to climb an unusually high ridge. It is always tantalizing to imagine what lies behind the ridges that follow the river. We photographed the incredible panoram of the sweep of the river. Outside of the river valley with its lumps of pines and lush alder the surrounding plateau was a stark contrast.

A green carpet of tundra stretched for as far as the eye could see, with only small ponds dotting the landscape. Not a tree or a shrub to be seen. It was the first time we really understood that we had paddled past the treeline in our 13 days of nothing-but-northward travel.

The last half of the day took us past steep-sided embankements of clean white rock and gravel, shaped and scoured by freeze-up and break-up each year. At the end of this gravel canyon, we found a little oasis of our own, where a babbling brook joins the river, and wildflowers grow among the rocks and sand. With the sapphire sweep of the Thelon flowing past, and the bright golden sunshine of late afternoon, we were happy to pull over a little early and enjoy this charming corner before we continue the journey tomorrow.

So what if the geese share our affection for the place.

Janine

Sent from our satellite phone…live from the tundra!

“Now, I could used to this.”

Jason

Rest time was over. Time to finish the Granite Falls Portage and say a fond farewell to the Elk River.

The remaining two loads over the portage did not take long to carry and within two hours (which would have been much shorter but for our stopping to watch a peregrine falcon at its nest) we were pushing Big Red into the confluence of the Elk and Thelon.

The Thelon immediately greeted us with two of our favourite things – current and wildlife. Just as we felt the water’s unmistakeable tug on the boat, we noticed a young bull moose wading across the river – probably to escape the flies that were plaguing everyone yesterday.

Framed against the sandy backdrop of a white esker, he was a nice introduction to this highway we’ll be travelling for the next few weeks.

The first order of business on this stretch of the Thelon was to paddle a wide, generally lake-like 17km section across the top of the impressively named Jim Lake. As we progressed, the landscape became bleaker, the high hills becoming increasingly bare of vegetation. No doubt, our impression was aided by the grey sky and the rain that began to pour steadily, though not steadily enough to keep the flies at bay.

Paddling with gore-tex and bug shirts on is not the most fun experience.

Rain patters on your head, bugs patter off the screen covering your face

– it’s the northern equivalent of the Chinese Water Torture.

After a few hours, however, we reached the top of the wide section and the Thelon raced around a narrow bend between two steep hills. The current reappeared, intensified and soon we were on a 15 km run of almost continual swifts and strong current, ploughing past steep banks of dark red shale, ocassionally speckled with patches of ice and snow left over from the long sub-arctic winter..

No paddling, no scouting required. The only navigation being a slight correction to avoid a cow moose, bathing in the middle of the stream.

This was travel.

We soon came to a second widening, where the river takes a lazy swing west before continuing its swift northern trajectory. But our plan to camp at the mouth of the widening was quickly changed when we felt the wind pick up strongly out of the east. Instead of stopping, we hoisted our sail and were carried half-way down the lake by the stiff tail-wind, again with me doing little work besides sporadic rudder duty.

By early evening, camp was pitched across from a sand esker, punctured with clumps of spruce; some thriving, some drowning on its grainy white slopes. After supper, the sun re-emerged, turning the remaining clouds orange, the hill gold and the clear lake pink and purple as it set for the evening.

Quite the introduction.

Jason

Sent from our satellite phone…live from the tundra!

Where are we now?

Home, Sweet Home

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