Coppermine – Six Dimensions
By O. Ross McIntyre
Regular readers of these pages will be familiar with this writer’s obsession with the schedule-generated accident – the error of judgement made because people have plans for the hike itself or commitments in the outside world that lure them into seeing things the way they want them to be instead of the way they really are. Gene Daniell, Appalachia 52 (June 15):118, 1999
July 4, 1999:
Even before we left the float plane after landing on Point Lake in the Northwest Territories this last July I could see that the water was high. I spotted a willow bush clinging to the rocky shore where we were to unload. It was, I estimated, two and a half feet below the water level. As that bush came into view my thoughts flicked to Daniell’s words (written for the Accident Notes section of Appalachia) and rested there for only an instant; I then returned to the job of getting myself and gear out of the plane.
While the pilots moved things from the plane onto the float, the eight of us formed a baggage brigade and passed the gear from one to the next until in a few minutes it was all up high on several wide ledges. Our four folding Pakboat canoes, twenty eight days of food, and the rest of our supplies made quite a pile. The pilot said softly, “Do you have your camera ready? I will make a pass.” A few minutes later my film caught the plane low and fast, its props stopped by the shutter, as it zipped by on its way back to Yellowknife. We were now committed.
Point Lake spread before us. Although our original plan had called for landing near Obstruction Rapid, where the Coppermine River enters Point Lake from Providence Lake, we were 15 miles further north. Only a week before the pilots reported that the lake was covered with ice. The north wind had driven much of the ice that remained on the lake to the south where it packed the area around Obstruction Rapid. To the west and north of us the lake was clear. The black clouds that had hovered over the ice-filled end of the lake were breaking up. We had sun. The air was clean with an occasional aromatic hint of Labrador Tea. The breeze was soft and cool making ripples, not waves, on the lake. There were no bugs! This was the kind of day that yields the photos on the covers of books about arctic canoe trips - the kind of day that one sees in the background of advertisements for paddles – not raingear.
We assembled our four Pakboats, folding canoes that are made by Alv Elvestad in Enfield, NH. They were in four large duffel bags each weighing between fifty and sixty pounds. Selecting this type of boat for the trip had made it possible for eight of us to travel together. Otherwise the Twin Otter can carry only three rigid canoes and six passengers. The boats went together easily – three seventeen footers and one sixteen and a half foot. We reinforced each of the nylon catches connecting the aluminum framework, binding the crossing with wire-ties, and inflated the airbags along the sides. This tightened the vinyl covered polyester hull over the frame.
After lunch we loaded the canoes and headed down the lake. The fine weather, lack of wind, sleek canoes despite their heavy loads made for easy traveling. We stopped for brief rest where a granite slab provided a convenient landing. Kathie immediately spotted the dorsal fin of a large lake trout cruising near the surface. As we peered down into the crystal clear water we observed several others. I suggested that we might have trout for diner and received permission to delay our departure for a few minutes. Finding the Mepps #3 spinner and setting up the rod took longer than catching two lovely trout and cleaning them. That night, poached, the fish was tougher than our pizza crust – but good. Fishing remained excellent throughout the trip but they remained tough until we adopted the mayonnaise frying method that we learned from a fisherman acquaintance, in Alaska. (Coat the fillets with mayonnaise and drop onto a maximally heated non greased skillet. Cook for two or three minutes per side according to thickness of fillet.)
During the night there were brief rainshowers. Morning dawned on a placid lake and during the day we paddled under a dramatic skyscape. Viga (precipitation that evaporates before it reaches the ground) slanted down from the dark underbelly of numerous cumulus clouds that studded the otherwise blue sky. We coasted along on smooth water and avoided any problem with the weather until we were setting up camp that afternoon. Then there was a sudden rain and squall that tried to blow Chet and Kathie’s tent inside out. I assisted them in getting some guy lines out to the arctic birch and willow bushes while surf pounded the nearby shore.
Point Lake is a large lake, around 90 miles long with many large bays or arms that offer themselves to the strong winds of the north. Although we expected to be windbound on some days, the vehemence with which this squall arrived and the rapidity with which it dissipated startled me. As the spray from the dashing waves rained down on the nearby vegetation, I imagined the struggle we could have been having out in the whitecaps. The words of a Sally Rogers song about Lake Superior came to mind:
“I told that boy a hundred times not to take the lake for granted.
Behind us, above Obstruction Rapids and Lake Providence, was another lake, La de Gras, even larger than Point Lake and below us lay two more, Red Rock and Rocknest. Together, these lakes comprise a reservoir more than 200 miles long and at times 30 miles wide which feeds the Coppermine. I wondered whether the willows on Lac de Gras were under water also. If so, we were riding a huge volume of water moving toward the exit from Rocknest Lake. Because of the great depth and width of Point Lake the movement of the water was imperceptible, but it nevertheless was moving and our efforts were carrying us inexorably to the point where the reduced depth and width of the channel would reveal motion. How would it be then, this motion? Smooth, with boils and whirlpools, the rapids drowned out? Or would it be tearing itself to bits over boulders and slamming into steep walls? Would the outgoing ice have ground along the shore so that despite the high water the shoreline would be relatively free of brush - like the Saint John in springtime - or would the water be in the trees? Others must have been having some of these same thoughts, but no one spoke of them.
The sun set a bit after 11PM and rose at 2AM. During the twilight hours in between, I awoke. Cold. I pulled out the extra sleeping bag and draped it over us. I was glad that an earlier visitor to the Northwest had described how cold this summer was and that we had included an extra layer of warmth.
We awoke early to find heavy frost on the canoe. The air temperature was 23 degrees Fahrenheit. The lake was so cold that no mist was rising. The sun warmed us at breakfast. Jean and I packed up in a hurry and left half an hour before the others.
The lake was placid - the sun shown down from its perch in the huge blue dome of arctic sky. There were just enough fair weather clouds to make it a proper sky. Within a couple of miles we entered a unique and mystical world. In the distance, the rocky shores and undulating tundra over the hills beyond was reflected perfectly – an inverted image, but twin of the upright one before us. Above the shore was the sky dome growing more brilliant as the sun gained height. On the lake right in front of us that sky was reflected, perfectly. Soon we were paddling on a plane between these two worlds, our clue to the real world being the occasional view of the lake bottom passing by 20-30 feet below - in water so clear that the torpedo shaped trout that sometimes passed by appeared to be airborne.
If the rocks and sand we could see on the lake bottom was the real world, then where were we? We were moving silently between two imaginary three-dimensional worlds, one above, and one on the lake in front of us – six dimensions. We were in sight of a seventh dimension, the real one, the lake bottom, to which we could not – or dared not go. I was disconnected. I wondered if this feeling was of the same sort that I might possibly have in the future - confused about which room was mine in an assisted living facility. It was not disturbing, but it was not entirely pleasant either.
The sun warmed us. We took off our warm gear. And then the interface of these two worlds, the space between the upright and inverted shorelines began to dance as the cold air over the water began to warm. The narrow meeting of the true and reflected shoreline now became wider; growing until it became the equivalent of the Great Wall of China running along the lakefront. Reflected light from patches of snow reverberated, flashing with the intensity of strobe lights on a runway approach. And then we found our path blocked by islands and points that evaporated into nothingness as our canoe approached them.
I had heard of arctic mirages, of islands over the horizon that come into sight and disappear as the air becomes a lens that bends miles of light, but I never expected to participate in one.
We ate lunch on a rocky point just northwest of where a broken wooden rack filled with drill cores spilled the cylinders onto the ground. A record of the underlying rock strata punched out by some mining company, they dated from the early 1990’s. Up on Lac de Gras the first diamond mine is now in operation hauling out 18 million pounds of rock a day so that 2 pounds of diamonds can be sent to your local jeweler. If you want to see Point Lake as we saw it, it would be a good idea to go soon.
We should have crossed to the north shore before lunch. By the time we had eaten, a strong breeze from the northwest had begun which freshened as we started our crossing. Unlike a rigid canoe the Pakboats are flexible, able to bend into the waves. Instead of slamming their bows into steep waves, they snake along, undulating over the wavetops, making little commotion and staying quite dry. I was delighted to see that we maintained reasonable freeboard as the waves passed behind Jean’s seat and flowed back toward the stern. Despite this advantage, however, making a crossing on a big lake with heavy loads in the canoe is serious business.
That evening as the tired paddlers settled into places on the rock that best suited our personal contours we entered that relaxed-after-scalloped-potato frame of mind and watched as the cloud pattern changed to mares tails and the wind gradually rotated to the south. “A bad sign,” said Bruce. Someone noted that weather lore and food seemed to have displaced sex as the principal topic of discussion – that is what happens, I guess, when the average age of the party exceeds 65 years
The weather sign was correct. We awoke to a strong northeast wind, light rain, and pounding waves. In the lee of a rocky ledge we put a tarp over a rope that was secured at one end around a chock stone placed in a crevice at the ledge top. The headroom was low and the rain let up about the time we had got the tarp hung. Tarps are not very practical or useful in this country. There are few trees on which to support them and the winds during the storms are too strong.
After breakfast as the rain diminished, Jean and I walked up onto the hills behind the camp. Up there we encountered Chet and Kathie. They pointed out the clumps of mountain azaleas in full bloom, their bright almost microscopic flowers brilliant even on this cloudy day. The spotted saxifrage was also in bloom as were the pea-like flowers of a small vetch. We sampled the alpine rosemary, and, as the wind began to drop, headed downhill to the camp.
We had a hasty lunch in the dying wind, but by the time we were loaded the wind had returned, this time blowing against us, and we struggled up the shore. Just ahead of us was a crossing to the large island occupying much of the northwest end of Point Lake. Crossing over to it exposed us to a couple of miles of open water where four arms of the lake intersected. The arms had 5 to 15 miles of water on which the wind could work. We had no intention of canoeing this in a strong wind and called it a day after only a few miles of progress.
That evening the air cleared and the wind dropped. As this happened the bugs, which up to this point had been only temporary nuisances or chronic mild irritation became bothersome. Above us on the slope was a sandbank that did not appear to be an esker remnant. We decided that it might be the beach of an ancient lake. Anyway, it made for easy digging and was the destination of those seeking a toilet. It was also in slack air and home to swarms of black flies. Later, in the security of our tent, we observed the aftermath our act. Dozens of crushed black flies fell out of our bloody underwear as we prepared for bed.
Morning arrived at 2 AM through heavy clouds. We arose at 5:30AM and paddled off under a gray sky. The gentle breeze raised only small ripples. We made the crossing in good time, moving swiftly on smooth water and under a light rain. The shore of the large island now lay to our left and we were able to cross from point to point along it with no wind threat from the large bays along its north side.
Later in the day, the sun came out and once more we had a fine crop of cumulus in the sky. Reed directed our gaze toward a “pornographic cloud.” Indeed, there it was, a puffball of a cloud with a huge phallus extending from it. The more inhibited members of the group interpreted the cloud pattern as a “teddy bear” which, of course led to additional discussion as to what the teddy bear might have been doing to himself. I regarded this discussion as evidence that our biological age was less than our numerical age – perhaps a lot less.
That evening we had a good dinner, the wind keeping the flies under control, but later when it died, they were troublesome. When I washed up that evening, I found blood-filled black flies still alive inside my pants from the exposure that morning. Jean and I had experienced flies worse than this once in northern Quebec. The others, with more experience in the Northwest Territories than us felt that the bugs were the worst they had ever encountered. High water = lots of black flies.
We left the island shore and crossed over to the north shore of the mainland under a clear sky and with increasing wind. We completed the crossing as whitecaps appeared. Jeff’s GPS showed that we had covered 1.2 miles in one hour of hard paddling. This is what the day was going to be like. We pressed on for a bit against increasing wind before landing for an extended rest and lunch. This provided the opportunity to climb to the height of land where we obtained a good view of the country to the north. Below us a maze of caribou trails was imposed upon the dwarf birch and willows. In the distance, beyond the island on a bay of the south shore we could see several buildings. The view through binoculars failed to reveal any sign of activity. Below us to the northwest was a small lake and we speculated about outwitting the wind by portaging and lake hopping over the isthmus separating Point Lake from Red Rock Lake. This was in jest only, since it would have been a long hard portage.
As we moved north and west down Point Lake a few spruce started to appear. Indeed, the map shows some large areas of green (denoting forest) near the outlet of the lake. Perhaps the wind moves the ice out of this part of the lake often enough and early enough so that the climate at this end of the lake is has just enough warm days for the spruce to survive. It certainly is a borderline situation. Bruce demonstrated this by pointing out that many of the spruce had a “mop head.” In this configuration the tree displays a bushy base about 12-18 inches high from which a nearly naked pole rises for a foot or more, followed by the resumption of branches above the naked area. The healthy appearing base exists because during the winter the snow cover protects it. The bare stem results when the leader on the tree grows above the snow cover. The side branches are then subjected to the full blast of the wind and the abrasive effect of the layer of wind driven snow which is most pronounced just a above the surface of the snow pack. They die as a result of this treatment, but if the leader has received sufficient nourishment from the base of the tree it may struggle upwards despite the loss of branches below it. Finally, the leader reaches a level above the worst of the abrasive blowing snow and the side branches now survive, thereby creating the head of the “mop”.
Returning to the canoes, we convinced ourselves that the wind had dropped a bit, but this proved to be wishful thinking. We struggled up the lake past a couple of additional points and called it quits.
For several days we had discussed getting started earlier to avoid the wind that was usually stronger from noon until evening. After our experience of July 9, we resolved to get moving early. At 4AM I woke people with the following: “Good morning. It is 4AM. The wind direction is unchanged, but the intensity has diminished. There are no white caps or squalls. The sky is almost cloudless blue. The temperature is in the low 40’s.”
We got our early start and reeled off 2.5 miles in the first hour against a slowly rising wind. We heard and then saw a peregrine falcon on the rock cliffs and watched as it circled away and then returned. By 9:15 we were at the end of Point Lake. Here we found a low shoreline on both sides of the narrows. On the left was a large metal building with no signs of activity and further along a smaller metal building outhouse in size supporting a small antenna which had been blown loose. I wondered whether it might be an automated weather station. We found ourselves in a brisk current as the river course narrowed and slid down through a long S turn in gentle waves. I was especially interested in the water level here in view of our earlier observations on Point Lake. As we examined the vegetation it was clear that my earlier observation of the water level was too conservative. The willow bushes were standing in at least 3 to 4 feet of water.
Soon we were slugging it out with the wind coming down Red Rock Lake. At least we had made some progress earlier before the wind came up. Ahead of us, Bruce and Laurie stopped paddling and pointed up the hill above the south shore 20 yards away. A white wolf was loping up over green groundcover and rock outcroppings, pausing to look over its shoulder at us from time to time. Eventually it topped the rise and disappeared behind it. Despite the ability of our Pakboats to flex, it was a rough ride in the waves at that point and no one tried to get a photo.
We tucked ourselves into what little shelter lay behind the shallow points and rested in an unattractive inlet as we struggled up the lake. Finally, we camped at a site of “convenience” since the shore beyond lacked any indication of good sites. We were a few feet above the water on a narrow strip of reasonably flat ground. Behind the site there were standing pools of water and the insects, once the wind had dropped, were formidable. Previous parties had stopped there. Some of the flat red shale that gives the lake its name had been thrust into the ground so that tent guy lines could be fastened to it.
We got another early start departing in a light ripple and cruised down the lake making good time. On the right shore where a high cliff gives way to a nice point below and north of it, we found a cluster of buildings and a person standing on the dock. As we approached, he called out, “What’ll it be?” The coffee drinkers were quick to respond. This is the camp of Max Ward, the bush pilot turned airline entrepreneur.
Beyond the dock there was an interesting collection of buildings. A couple of small cabins, some white-painted privies with fanciful rooflines, and a long gambrel roofed building with a view out over the docks came into sight first. Beyond these there are two recently built homes that would fit right into a high quality suburban development.
Gary MacDonald was the man who had greeted us. “Did you hear the shot this morning?”
“I fired at a grizzly bear that swam the lake. Before I could get the gun out and load it, it had come ashore and had ripped the top off that locker over there.”
“Did you hit it?”
“Oh no! I was only trying to scare it. I don’t want to have to deal with a dead bear. I’ve got no way of handling it.” It then occurred to us that having to skin, butcher and clean up 500 pounds of dead bear in the middle of this camp of suburban houses would be a problem.
MacDonald informed us that the Ward family was spending the summer in Norway and that he was the only person here. He was doing some maintenance work and planned to do some caribou horn carving.
By noon we were at the outlet of Red Rock Lake where a brisk current and a few boils indicated the volume of water moving into Rocknest Lake. We ate lunch on a rocky outcrop at the juncture of the two. From this vantagepoint we observed two canoes as they came around the corner from Red Rock Lake. As they drew near, our speculation concerning them proved correct. They were Ally canoes, a folding canoe made in Norway. They were trim and well equipped with tight fitting spray covers. Alv, our friend, imported Allys into the U.S. for several years before coming up with his Pakboat design. As they came near, I suggested that they “Join us for lunch.”
This proved to be a mistake, since the four Austrians in the boats interpreted this as our offer to provide them with lunch rather than to simply share the lunch site. The confusion was quickly cleared up, however, but in the future I will be more careful in how I phrase invitations. They were planning to complete their trip on the Coppermine on August 5th, seven days after we planned to finish our trip.
That afternoon as we moved down Rocknest Lake, I started to feel very sleepy. This was not good, since Jean had already stumbled a couple of times with her paddle. We could not both fall asleep at the same time! In order to prevent the loss of one or both of us from the canoe, we moved over to paddle alongside Chet and Kathie who were nearby. Soon we had a delightful discussion going and were wide-awake. Suddenly, about 200 yards away near the west shore, there was a terrific rushing noise. Instantly moving our eyes in that direction we observed a water spout being raised by a whirlwind that hustled it up 50 feet over the water for a bit and then collapsed leaving a spray that fell back down over the water. The sky was clear, there were no storm clouds near. I remembered the stories of people struck and killed by lightning on clear days, “Out of the blue.” Instinctively I reacted, preparing myself for a change in wind direction and within a moment it arrived – a gentle but cooler breeze 180 degrees off the existing wind direction pushed us down the lake for a minute before it faded and disappeared. That was it. No more. If we hadn’t been paddling with Chet and Kathie I would have concluded that I had fallen asleep and that the whole thing was a dream.
We camped that night on a small island in Rocknest Lake. Rather than haul our gear up the slope Jean and I made do with a rough spot near the takeout. There were no ideal campsites and this one was no worse than average. We had covered 21 miles by 2:30PM – enough for one day. We bathed in the lake and washed some clothes. Once the skin is thoroughly chilled by the water, the bug’s infrared sensors fail to pick up signs of life. They have learned that there is no point trying to suck blood from a dead animal. By moving fast we got our clothes back on before the bugs realized that we were alive.
We moved off at 8:00AM under cloudy skies and in light rain. We twisted and turned as the lake gradually narrowed and from time to time I imagined that I was able to sense a current. We passed an esker that came down to the lake on the left and we stopped briefly on a sandy beach just beyond the esker. Here we found fresh caribou tracks. A few hundred yards later we passed a forlorn cache set in some low spruce on the right. It was surrounded by fuel drums and looked like a miserable place to do anything other than fuel a plane.
Shortly thereafter we were in a brisk current. I noted that the brush covering a point on the right was well under water and paused for a moment to photograph the drowned shoreline. As I view the photo now, it confirms my mood of that morning. It is dark, under low clouds, the cold water courses through the underbrush. Landing on the shore below that point would be risky. The huge river boils along toward the first rapid.
The first rapid is shown as one line on the 1:250,000 map. The trip notes we were carrying with us show a rocky bar arising from river left which pushes the current to the right. Behind it is a large eddy. We pulled over to river right and clutched at willows, careful to avoid getting broadside to the current as we threaded our way to the drowned shore. The rocky bar was gone, submerged and replaced by boisterous white water. Below us on the right the river flowed into and through a clump of spruce. At lower water these trees stood on a point, now submerged. We could not see around these trees to scout the water below. Bruce and Laurie ferried across to the left shore and climbed a hill to scout the lower part of the rapid. While they did this we prepared lunch on a rocky flat where a fire ring indicated that others had visited this spot, perhaps to confront the same water conditions, The bugs were so numerous that it was difficult to eat. Lifting the bug nets briefly to stoke a cracker and cheese was hardly worth the effort. Soon a couple of people had ingested their hat straps along with the hastily engulfed cracker. Hilarity reigned!
The decision was to bang down through the brush to place just above the spruce covered point and to portage from there. My photo shows our canoe with its spray cover on crammed into the brush on that shoreline. It is not a nice place. The portage was not nice either. The trail was poor, crossed patches of loose boulders, and the high water sent rivulets ashore that trickled down the path. The rocks were slippery and we had not packed for efficient portaging. While carrying our canoe I stepped onto a slippery rock that suddenly tilted and nearly went down. Through the brush I spotted Kathie sitting down while wearing a pack frame to which a food barrel was strapped. She was not resting. Chet says that he hates portaging! The only serious injury that I have witnessed in 15 years of wilderness tripping occurred when a person slipped and fell on a portage trail. I worried about our portage today.
An unexpected portage tends to do interesting things to people. We had all figured that this first rapid would be runnable. Several of us had talked ourselves into it being runnable. When Bruce and Laurie told us that they would not run the corner around the spruce tree point because they could not see around it, and when, once below it they commented that the eddy line below it was likely to upset us, we greeted this information with a healthy dose of disbelief. Confident of our abilities and fed up with lifting our gear over slippery rocks and embarking amidst tree trunks the temptation was to “get out there and run it”. Some of us paid too little attention to what lay below the point, what we would have to swim through in very cold water if we did upset, and the formidable barriers confronting our potential rescuers. Furthermore, from just downstream we could pick up the low pulsating roll of the Class V rapid we had been hearing while still on the lake several miles back. Despite this compelling rationale, the group was not happy. For the first time on the trip we were not of one opinion.
Finally, we reloaded the canoes in the midst of a flooded spruce grove and floated out into the current again. We passed some quick water where the Napatolik River enters from the right and zoomed on down to the top of the Class V rapid about a mile below. We stopped and walked down the portage trail. This shoreline was remarkably clear of brush and on the right a series of eddies arising below several shallow points ran down it. A quick inspection suggested that sneaking along through these eddies would be a piece of cake. It is always a good idea, however, to inspect the entire rapid, and I’m glad we did. The sneak route on the right, disappeared into a huge hole below a pourover about two thirds of the way down the rapid. To avoid this hole meant riding out in a sluice that ended in a catastrophic collision with the big stuff. A definite portage at this point, perhaps more below.
I climbed the side of the esker that ran along the right shore a few yards back from the river bank. At the top there were a few widely scattered spruce. There were fine campsites here with a view of the tumultuous water below. Suddenly, I felt tired and cold. The day was almost over.
I returned to the river and met the others. It was decided to bring the boats down to where we could camp and prepare for the portage. We floated down the right shore doing a gentle backferry, keeping the stern tucked into the shore. While going around one point, I found that I could not draw the stern downstream enough to keep our ferry angle correct. Just for a moment we were headed toward the big stuff and making those on shore nervous. Then the stern pulled around and we were in the clear.
The photo I took that evening shows us cooking while in a gentle rain. We are in heavy gear and it looks cold. I had decided that the climb to the top of the esker with our gear was worth it. We had a fine spot for the tent as a reward. It rained hard that night, but we were dry and snug. I slept soundly without thinking about the days ahead.
Shortly after I crawled from the tent into the crisp morning air, Bruce and Laurie came over from their tent. They had not slept well, confiding that they had spent the night poring over the maps and trip reports and pondering what lay ahead. They suggested that we not take our tent down, since we would be spending some time at this site as we considered our options. Ordinarily, our tent is down and our gear is packed before breakfast, so this was a change.
In essence their concern was that we had taken 2 and a half-hours for the portage of the first rapid. Because of the high water levels there could be 11 or more portages. If they all took the same amount of time that would be 28 hours of portaging. Two or three days of portaging! I agreed that it was time to have a talk. The four of us clambered down off the esker to the river’s edge where the others were camped.
Against a backdrop of the boisterous rapid behind us, we ate breakfast and discussed the future of our trip. Into this interchange went baggage that was at least as heavy as that weighting down our canoes. First, we had come a long way and had plunked down quite a few dollars to get to this place on the river. Second, half the people on the trip were 65 years of age or older. While none of the group regarded this trip as their last hurrah, we were all mature enough to recognize that as we age, the opportunity to make trips such as this can vanish without much, if any, warning.
It didn’t take us long to achieve a majority with respect to one premise. If the river were in New England we would not paddle it at this water level. If it were not safe to paddle in New England, it certainly was not any safer now that we were in the wilderness 3000 miles away. The water was cold, the chances for lining the rapids diminished or eliminated by the lack of a clear shoreline. Most eddies were in the trees or brush. Any swim would likely be a long one. Long enough to cause hypothermia. Getting a swamped canoe and swimmers ashore through the maze of inundated brush and trees would be a challenge.
Bruce ticked off the options:
We also dealt with several uncertainties. The radio transmitter was untested. We didn’t know how long the batteries that powered it would last. The further north we went, the further we were from Yellowknife and the weaker our signal would be. We knew that Gary MacDonald had a working radio back on Red Rock Lake and that we could get there, if our radio did not work. The place where the river became wider could be too shallow and rock-filled for a plane to land. In any case, it was too narrow to provide an alternative set down to avoid a “cross wind” landing. The rapids further down the river could be “drowned out” by the high water and we could have fewer portages than existed in the worst case scenario. However, they could be worse, and there might be a need for more, rather than fewer, portages.
Above all, it was important that we avoid injury to ourselves and our boats. That premise, however, in each of us entered the part of the brain that deals with self-preservation through a filter. I refer to this apparatus as the “belief filter”. If a person really believes that they and their canoe will not be hurt – that they can make it through the challenge without undue risk – then there is no alarm. The filter is calibrated by past experiences, by the opinion of others, by what one ate for breakfast, and whether one is having a “good” or “bad” day. More than some of us are willing to admit, that filter is calibrated by the willingness to gamble with our lives.
When asked, I said I favored going further down river to the point where it widened. I quoted the optimistic widower who remarries, “a triumph of hope over experience” saying that I would rather go down the river I hadn’t yet seen than go back up one that I had. Jean favored going back up to Rocknest Lake. She was not looking forward to longer portages that would be coming up. Even with the total weight of the food packs going down by 16 pounds a day, the group would still have a lot to carry.
Kathie got angry. Angry at the situation. Angry that others felt that the risk of proceeding downriver was too high. She was confident of her ability in the big water and suspected that there would be fewer, rather than more, portages. Chet sized up the situation as an engineer would. In addition, he saw the direction in which the majority was leaning and drifted comfortably into that position. Jeff was for the conservative option. Two years previously we had found ourselves riding a big flood in the first canyon of the South Nahanni. While the rest of us enjoyed an exhilarating ride, he had been most anxious, picturing what would happen to a swamped canoe and its passengers if they swam in the surf that pounded the canyon walls. Jeff was in favor of returning to Rocknest Lake. Reed, who ordinarily, I believe, is more willing to gamble with her life than Jeff, did not take a strong position, but opted for returning to Rocknest Lake.
Bruce and Laurie seemed to be more objective than the rest of us. They were better able to list the pros and cons of the options and to assign a score to them. Perhaps this is because they sensed that the only way to resolve the issue was to approach the emotional members of the group in this seemingly detached manner. However, there was never any question about what option they favored.
So the decision was to get out the transmitter to see if the float plane base could be reached and, if so, to request a pickup in 6 days at Rocknest Lake. We climbed onto the hill above the esker and strung out the 100-foot antenna between paddles held high over the rocks and tundra. Jeff and Laurie, crouched out of the wind in the lee of a boulder and reading from a script that contained the essential information, successfully raised the float plane base. Our message went through.
I had been against bringing the radio, feeling that it would intrude into the isolation characterizing such a trip. The temptation is great, once one has a communication device available, to use it to communicate. When one picks up the phone these days the voice that is heard may be from just up the road but sometimes it is from the top some previously unclimbed mountain. I was afraid that once we had it with us, the radio would be used to convey birthday or anniversary greetings, or possibly to learn what the Dow Jones Industrial Average was doing. I also ran down the list of medical emergencies for which radio communication from this particular spot would make a life or death difference and found very few. However, when Jeff, the prime mover with respect to the radio, offered to put it in his pack and get it out only when the group reached a consensus that it was needed, I backed off. Now I was glad that he had carried the orange box and batteries for us.
So the decision was reached, cast in stone, since we could not be sure that the radio would work again. Several of us headed off to the height of land behind our camp. From here we could see our river heading west and finally disappearing north around a right hand bend. A river storming along with some big “Vs” and standing waves. A river we would not take, at least for now.
After the big decision everything becomes an epilogue. A very pleasant one, however. We worked our way back up the river, lining up along the rapid where we camped, working in our lightweight wet suits in morning air that registered 38 degrees. We had some neat moments when our canoes swung out into the current on 100 feet of rope that was just long enough to get us past a point. This was followed by some eddy hopping as we ascended the river. After ferrying to the other side we reached the bottom of the first rapid we had portaged on the way downriver. Here – on the other side from the one we had come down - we found a fine portage trail that frequently dipped, disappearing into deep water for a hundred feet before emerging again. We avoided the portage trail and made a two-stage portage along caribou trails further back from the river. In contrast to the portage on the way down-river, the spirits of the group were good - everyone was pulling together.
We camped amidst a few spruce trees at a lovely spot high on a gravel hill overlooking the rapid. As I carried our pack up the gentle rise I spotted a small area covered with reindeer moss and lichen, surrounded by arctic birch into which several small stunted spruce had seeded. This garden was as fine as any of the Zen Temple gardens of Kyoto. It was hard for me to accept the idea that what I was seeing was the product of biology and randomness, not that of an artist. I put the pack down and got out the camera. Just then a cloud came over the sun so the photo is dull. The garden’s brilliance will have to reside in my memory.
That evening, the four Austrians in the Ally canoes came past, lining and carrying along the flooded portage trail. I watched as they put their canoes in just above the inundated “rocky bar” and disappeared amidst the drowned brush around the corner. The next day we met Bill Layton and his paddling partner. They had started on Lac de Gras and were making good time. We spoke about river conditions for a bit. Chet and Kathie loaned him the hoops that supported their Black Feather spray cover. Layton’s hoops had been left aboard the floatplane at Lac de Gras and he was going to need a means of supporting his spray cover in the rapids ahead.
After a lazy day at this campsite, we then paddled upriver once more, sometimes stalling out in tongues of water that were moving too fast for us, and at other times pulling ourselves upriver using the tops of bushes that were protruding from the water. We camped on an esker at the end of Rocknest Lake and spent the next couple of days exploring the lakeshore, eskers, and hills by foot and canoe.
The day of departure was cold and wet with a wind that struggled against the guy lines on the tent. Most of our gear packed, we had no foam pad to lie on in the tent. The arctic soil beneath us and the flapping of nylon under tension was a reminder of where we were and why. Then we heard the turbines of the Twin Otter and it was time to take down the tent. The trip was over.
When Bill Layton returned the spray cover hoops to Chet and Kathie he sent along this description of his trip:
The people who passed us on the river while we were on our way back up were younger and stronger. Our collective wisdom was sound. The river was dangerous. It may take a life in the high water, but it won’t be one of ours.
Copyright 2000, O. Ross McIntyre. All rights reserved.