Mountain River, N.W.T.
by Christina Coffin
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(I'm inspired by the good write ups by Phil Sego, Tom Todd, and others in the November WrapAround to report on my trip on the Mountain River in the Northwest Territories in August. Those who read Phil's account of the Snake trip will note a few similarities to mine, notably regarding cold rain! )
The Mountain is a wild and fast tributary of the Mackenzie; it flows northeast out of the mountains of the Backbone Range that forms the border between the Yukon and the NWT. We would paddle 200 miles or so, and descend 3600 feet, putting in close to the headwaters and taking out at the confluence with the Mackenzie. We assembled in the town of Norman Wells, a relatively prosperous oil settlement on the Mackenzie with a population of 800, that can only be reached by plane from Yellowknife or via the river. There was snow in Norman Wells the week before our trip, so we could only guess what it would be like up in the mountains where the float plane would take us.
Sunday: Our trip started on August 20, with a fly-in from the base camp in Norman Wells maintained by North Wright Air. From the Twin Otter and the Pilatus Porter (allegedly the one used in the movie NEVER CRY WOLF) we had a spectacular preview of the canyons on the Mountain before heading into the clouds. We landed at about 5:00 pm on Willow Handle Lake, a small pond at about 4500 feet that sits in a circle of rugged barren peaks close to the border between Yukon and the NWT. In a light but cold rain we unloaded the gear and donned our foul weather gear, not suspecting that we would not be taking it off for some ten straight days.
After a short paddle across the lake we began the obligatory portage that starts off many northern trips -in our case a kilometer through relatively flat but soggy marsh. Cold and wet we made camp near "Push Me Pull You" Creek, which is really more of a channel through the marsh than a creek. We gulped hot soup before supper, and all wondered just how much colder it might get as night fell and just how warm our bags were.
We were eight people: five guests, two river guides from Wilds of Maine Guide Service who ran the trip, and a Canadian guide who knew the river and outfitted us. Three others had had to cancel at the last minute, so three of us guests - myself, Shawna, and Stan- were able to paddle with the guides, Mike, Larry and Ryan. The other tandem pair was Phil, and his sixteen year old daughter Jacqueline. Other than Ryan, our Canadian guide, we had all paddled together on long trips before.
Monday: Breaking camp in the rain the next morning we loaded our four Old Town trippers and set off, literally pulling the boats through the narrow marsh channels, until eventually we reached a creek where we could paddle, with only intermittent wading and dragging. Wet suit booties were the best footwear for the glacial creeks. Despite the cloud cover the gray, purple and cinnamon hues of the mountain slopes were beautiful. It took most of the day to reach Blackfeather Creek, the
swiftly-flowing main tributary of the Mountain, and we were able to make camp before steady rain started in again. Ryan set two huge overlapping octagonal kitchen tarps, which at first seemed excessive to our Yankee souls, but soon proved indispensable. One sheltered the cooking area, and the other, with canoes on their sides as windbreaks, formed the "living room14444" with the fire pit right outside. We also got used to Northern time: staying up until 10:30 or 11:00 with the daylight, and not rising until 8:30 or 9:00 when the temperature was often 15 degrees warmer than at our customary 6 am.
Tuesday: We awoke to find the valley socked in, and could see on the mountain slopes around us that the rain was snow not too far above us. Since we were right above several tricky narrow canyons, we decided to wait until midday to see if the weather got any better. It didn't. Somewhat regretfully we made this a layover day, knowing that we'd have to forgo one later in the trip. By three in the afternoon it was about 35 and sleeting, so we huddled, read, and slowly cooked beef stew which we ate with gusto for supper. I have to admit, some very good 12 year old Scotch figured into the picture before this day was over.
Wednesday: Ready to paddle after three somewhat frustrating days, we packed up although it was still snowing not far above us, and a cold drizzle stayed with us all day. We strapped on the bowed spray decks that covered the gear and created a cockpit-like hole for the bow person. We didn't have much time to get used to the unusual constriction before we were flying headlong with heavily loaded canoes through three narrow box canyons with sharp turns. We had heard reports of spills in these first little canyons, so were pleased just to bounce off a wall or two. We lit a big fire at lunch, and Blackfeather Creek, with it's narrow rocky turns and dramatic scenery was over too soon. We reached the Mountain later in the afternoon and camped on an open hillside next to a large stream.
Thursday: Finally saw some sun, on day 5! The Mountain is a wide, fast river, with a large volume of water which has cut many canyons. Unlike many of the rivers we'd paddled the challenge here was to avoid the standing waves and heaviest water, watch out for converging currents, and to be able to stop without the aid of calm stretches or eddies - we perfected the gravel bar turn, which basically consists of ramming the gravel at the angle you would enter an eddy, having the bow person jump out and grab the boat as the stern swings around. Kind of dicey if the bow person can't get out of the spray deck cockpit fast enough, or if the bar is steep or unstable. We finally were able to enjoy the magnificent peaks the river is named for - the real shame of the bad weather had been that we were missing the scenery! We made camp on a low bank and ate lasagna, and for several hours it was actually warm enough for just a tee shirt. But soon it cooled off as the sun sank below the mountains, and we were back to our usual long underwear, fleece, wool, hats, gloves, and rain gear.
Friday: We paddled on and soon stopped for a side hike up to a treeless plateau covered with sulfur springs, known as "the moonscape", which offered a good view of the valley. Another hour and we found ourselves above Cache Creek, a major stream which comes into the Mountain right above First Canyon. We hiked up into the woods above the creek to inspect two beautiful log hunters' camps. The delta at Cache Creek is a good camp spot, and affords a view of the river disappearing into what Bill Mason called "the ominous maw of First Canyon". After a canyon pep talk from Ryan " don't get too far apart, go slow, hug the wall if you hit it, etc" we were sufficiently charged up to take it on. First Canyon is about a kilometer long with 300 feet walls, eagles' nests, and a difficult
right turn at the end where you have to make a pretty exact line between the rough water on the outside near the canyon wall and weird whirlpools on the inside. Luckily there is a gravel bar right above the turn that makes scouting possible, and we all made it through. We camped on a high bank, in muskegy woods, as icy rain settled in again.
Saturday: More rain, and we hit bigger water that would continue for the next few days. Since we were bailing even with the spray decks, it was clear that open boats would have been out of the question. We followed Ryan's line closely but negotiating the waves required a good deal of power from both partners. The water was 35 degrees and our hands were taking a beating. The bow people took a number of waves in the face. The river is so fast, though, that we were able to have relatively short days and not overdo it in the heavy water and weather. We made an early camp where the river braids out right above Second Canyon. We were able to hike up along the canyon rim, which gives dramatic views back up the valley, and of a huge "Battleship" rock at the mouth of the canyon, and ate excellent dutch oven pizza.
Sunday: We paddled off through Second Canyon, which is relatively flat, in a cold windy drizzle. A bonfire at lunch restored us somewhat, but the weather was beginning to get to us. Third Canyon, which we hit mid-afternoon is more challenging, with standing waves in the middle of it that have to be run on the right, but have to be crossed to make a left turn at the end. We worked on the "turn around and front ferry like crazy to avoid hitting the canyon wall" technique. Tired out by about 4:00, we camped up on a high bank, still in the rain.
Monday: Fourth Canyon, which we came upon mid-afternoon begins with two channels converging that can roll a boat, and proceeds fast in a big S with a gravel bar in the middle of it, the route around which can be a little hard to call until you're into it. (On a trip the month before ours an entire party had been helicoptered out above this canyon because unexpectedly high water made it unrunnable.) Ryan had drawn us a diagram in the sand before we started, showing various scenarios, and indicating a small eddy and beach just inside the canyon. In the event of a capsize people and boats tend to shoot through before you can catch them, not good when the water is 35 degrees. The chalk talk proved useful, when sure enough, Phil and Jackie in the second boat rolled over in the aforementioned convergence. In a well-orchestrated rescue the lead boat was able to grab the overturned boat, and the other two pulled the swimmers into the eddy, for a quick change of clothes. We made it past a mean hydraulic at the very end, and decided to camp right below the canyon on a rocky beach.
Tuesday :Once past Fourth Canyon we were officially out of the mountains, where the scenery and river are most interesting, and into the Mackenzie lowlands. Ryan had planned our travel to spend the maximum amount of time above this point. The downside of this, as we had seen, was that wet weather often hangs in the mountains. And sure enough, as soon as we hit the lowlands, the sun came out. We had a good deal of ground to cover in the last two days. We made 27 miles in very fast water that braided around gravel bars to a campsite in Fifth Canyon, a beautiful spot with aspens already a brilliant fall gold. With clear weather came real cold at night - enough to freeze a pot of water into a block of ice by morning-and a spectacular display of Northern Lights at midnight.
Wednesday: With 33 miles to go to the Mackenzie we pushed on, for the longest day of the trip, and reached our takeout by 5:30. The last couple of hours, where the river snakes around, was the only slow section in the whole trip. We made camp for our last night and watched a beautiful sunset on the legendary Mackenzie. The next day, Thursday, we were met by two small motor launches for the three hour shuttle back to Norman Wells.
The Mountain is a popular trip with Canadian river guides - justifiably so - and although not many parties make the trip in a given season, several outfitters run trips. You have to be prepared for constant heavy water, and cold wet weather --although I think we hit particularly bad weather. (As a comparison, trips in the Yukon on the other side of the divide tend to be drier. Although from Phil's description, I guess not this year.) Norman Wells is hard (expensive) to get to. But all that said, this is a spectacular river trip through some of the most beautiful and most remote wilderness in the world, and what an experience. My friend Mike Patterson of Wilds of Maine Guide Service put together this Mountain trip, and is similarly addicted to this country-- I have run also run the Snake and South Macmillan in the Yukon with him. This summer I hope we will do the Pelly in theYukon which is a little easier to get to and a by all accounts a great fishing trip.