50 DAYS PADDLING ACROSS THE CANADIAN BARRENLANDS
by Andrew McEwan
On July 1st, Middy Tilghman and I, excited and impatient after two years of planning and organizing, checked out of our motel and walked over to the charter company at the edge of the Great Slave Lake. We were almost to the surreal point where anticipation gives way to realization. Just not quite yet. Thirty hours of delay later, we finally loaded our wildwater racing kayaks into the float plane and took off. Our hassles were behind us, and we watched out the window as the landscape turned from pine forest to the treeless tundra of Canada’s Barrenlands.
Our pilot dropped us off on Sussex Lake, at the headwaters of the Back River, and we enthusiastically began packing 100 lbs. of food and 20 lbs. of gear into our 14′ boats. It was a struggle, but we were eager to be on our way. Even the fact that I could not get my sprayskirt on for all the gear in my lap failed to bother me as we paddled across the lake and got our first glimpse of the river. I use the term ‘river’ in the lightest sense here. What we found would be more accurately described as a rocky trickle; that evening Middy and I started perfecting the wading technique that proved so valuable later in the trip. After a few hours of this, we stopped for the night; it was 12 am, but the sun was still lingering above the horizon. It would be another month before either of us saw anything resembling night again, but I found that getting to sleep would be the least of my troubles after a hard day of wading or paddling.
The next morning we were learning our day’s routine: breakfast, a frenzy of packing, then packing everything we packed into packed boats, when a grizzly moseyed past camp. I was certainly thankful for its indifference to us, but mainly I felt a bit foolish; here we were on a ‘lightweight expedition,’ and we still needed all these bundles just to get along. Bears do not even have pockets, and they survive in the tundra no problem. For the first time, it hit home how out of place we were here.
We spent 10 hours on the river that day, wading, portaging, and occasionally even paddling. It was frustrating with the boats so loaded down; we only made five miles in that time. But the tundra spread out for hundreds of undeveloped, wild miles all around us, and that made up for any inconvenience we suffered. In the evening we got our first taste of northern insects. The mosquitoes swarmed, delighted to relieve us of our warm blood. We fought back with headnets and thick clothes, but they had the numbers and the experience. Those first few nights at least, the bugs triumphed; I paid for it heavily later in the trip.
After its confluence with the Icy River, the Back River finally became paddleable. Middy was starting to worry about making mileage, since in order to stay on schedule we needed to average 24 miles per day for the next 50 days. Normally I am not too concerned about schedules, but the possibility of running out of food in the Barrenlands is another matter. On the second day, we paddled for 7 hours, struggling to get across windy and ice clogged Muskox Lake, then made excellent time down some class II rapids. At the end of the day, we sat in the tent, exhausted, and measured the distance we covered – 18 miles. I am usually the more optimistic in my estimates, but that night I wrote, as if finally awakening, maybe making 25 miles a day is going to be harder than we thought .
We hit our first big rapid almost immediately the next morning, at the outlet of Jim Magrum Lake. The river constricts against a cliff on the right bank and makes a few big waves, leading into some even bigger breaking waves. I scouted from the bank and told Middy the line, which he made nicely, despite having obvious difficulty controlling his gear-laden boat in the strong current and waves. It hit me as I got in my boat how dangerous it would be for me to flip with all this gear in my lap. Just getting out on shore took me 30 seconds, so who knows how long it would take me if I were upside down. My boat plowed right through the lead-in waves, but I did not have the control to thread the breaking waves at the bottom as planned, and I hit my stern on a rock in the biggest one. Luckily my boat was fine, but it was clear I should be much more cautious; if one of us destroyed or lost a boat out here, the trip would be over for both of us. We continued and, with some effort, paddled our 25 miles, mostly across lakes and flatwater.
During the next few days we began adjusting to the huge distance we had to cover every day. Occasionally Middy and I would paddle together and talk, but generally we would paddle alone, so we could choose our own tempo. Once I found a rhythm, I would phase out, and miles would go by effortlessly. Middy tends to be more observant, spending his time watching the abundant waterfowl or walking around, looking at the vegetation that covers almost every inch of land in the Barrenlands. Meanwhile two opposing forces of the north fought for control over us. The wind some days would come screaming across the tundra, turning the river into something more like the ocean. With a tailwind, we could surf big, rolling waves from one end of a lake to the other. In a headwind, we would crawl along, inching past rock after rock until either the river turned or we had made our mileage. Nothing was more frustrating, though, than the dreaded crosswind. No amount of sweeping could keep a high volume, rudderless wildwater boat going straight in that kind of wind. We quickly learned to throw technique out the window and let the crosswind push us around rather than be frustrated and miserable all day. When the wind faded, mosquitoes took over. In unlimited numbers they came from near and far, attracted by our heat. While we paddled, they were never so bad, but off the river, they would swarm. Middy referred to changing as the pin-cushion- when dozens of bugs suddenly see their opportunity with an exposed back or bare legs. Mainly though, they bit our hands while we cooked and ate. At night we closed the zippers on the tent and killed bugs by the dozen in order to sleep. The chorus of mosquitoes outside sounded like motorcycles shifting gears on the highway.
Day 7 was entirely lost looking for the outlet of Beechey Lake. In a stunning misjudgment, we opted not to buy the Beechey Lake topographic map, preferring to save the $15 and use a hand-drawn copy instead. Of course there was a considerable lesson to be learned here, and every time we were disappointed by a deceptively promising- looking bay, the lesson dug itself deeper into our brains: bring ALL the maps! Not that it is really possible to call a day out in such an amazing place a waste, but this was as close as it comes. We paddled 25 or 30 miles around the lake and ended up farther from the outlet than we were in the morning. It was obviously quite frustrating, make no mention that we would have to paddle a little faster every day thereafter to make up for the time lost.
The next day we found the end of the lake and the extremely long class IV-V rapid that follows it. The river hits bedrock and drops around 30 feet in the first part, flattens out for a while, then gradually picks up speed and drops over some shallow ledges into a deep pool. We managed to paddle some of it, but the bulk of it we had to portage in four arduous, mosquito- plagued trips.
After the rapid, we had five days making good mileage on the river, with nice current, as the river remained narrow. It cut through several rocky esker gorges and even a short bedrock canyon with a hawks nest that was seen by George Back on his first descent of the river 150 years ago. There were a few big- water rapids with disagreeable consequences, but the lines were wide open and easily seen from above. Fortunately we had grown accustomed to the sluggish handling of our boats, and we had no problems with the whitewater. It was during this time that we began seeing more non- insect wildlife. One day we came across a herd of muskoxen grazing along the river. We hopped out and tried to stalk them paparazzi- style, but they just walked away, no doubt rolling their eyes at our obvious, blundering chase. A few days later we saw a wolf jogging up the side of the river. It gave us a minute to take pictures, then continued upstream, a bit wary but not spooked. We stopped on an island in the middle of a massive lake a few days later and found a lone caribou. This was our perfect wildlife photography opportunity, as it really had nowhere to run.
We reached the big lakes halfway down the Back on day 13. There was a crosswind that became a headwind on Pelly Lake that slowed us down, but we stopped around 5 o’clock and had already paddled 20 miles. Middy suggested that, since we had spent every waking moment of the trip paddling or eating, we get out and see an historical marker shown on our map. It turned out the cairn there had been destroyed by vandals, but what we found was even better- people! We met David, Laurie, and their son Eric, who had come down the Consul River to the Back. I was ready to get going and finish the day, but Middy had been getting more and more hungry in the past days. They were exceptionally nice, offering us dinner using the magic words, ‘cheese and sausage’, so we opted to stay and camp there. It turned out to be one excellent decision, as David and Laurie made us a perfect, greasy spaghetti dinner. We sat in their cooking tent and talked well past sunset before going to bed, full for the first time in what seemed like ages. The next morning, we were sent off with a fishing rod and lures, as well as chunks of salami and cheese. These we two hungry paddlers prized and saved for weeks.
The wind only let up once in the next three days while we paddled across Garry Lake. Big waves rolled down the lake, presenting the usual troubles to our wildwater boats when they surfed out of control. We were not too irked though, since they also gave us a break from the drudgery of endless flatwater. Excited to get back on a real river, we finally made it off Garry Lake on day 19. That night in the tent, as was customary, we stared at the maps and found more lakes in our future – in fact – beginning first thing in the morning and continuing most of the next two days. The Back River might more accurately be called the Back Series of Connecting Lakes.
Day 20 was the coldest day of the trip; Middy and I awoke to exceptionally strong winds and scattered, chilly rain. Basically our options were, paddle 25 miles, or, go back to sleep and fall even further behind schedule. We bid our sleeping bags a reluctant farewell, put on everything we could afford to get wet, and took off into the wind. It took me about a half an hour before I warmed up; soon after, we hit some rapids, and all my hard earned warmth was immediately absorbed by wind and spray. Pushing against that kind of headwind even made running rapids a slow motion exercise. In spite of the big accelerating strokes we took, our boats unhurriedly floated by waves and rocks, so that the flowing water did not seem to make the mileage go by any more quickly. When the white water gave way to flatwater, I warmed up again, and then came another big lake, where we camped on an island.
We began the next day confident that we could take anything the Barrenlands served up – and our confidence would certainly be tested. Amazingly, the wind was even more powerful than the day before. There were big breaking waves crashing onto the shore of our island. It took a group effort to pack the tent away. Meanwhile my sleeping pad blew out from under my sleeping bag and took off into the wild, not to be seen again. We managed to get our boats away from the shore, only to find progress exceptionally tough. In any other type of boat, we would have done just as well to sleep in that morning, but our wildwater boats were fast enough and aerodynamic enough that we could make our needed mileage, albeit with some difficulty of course. That day ended up being a 10- hour marathon on the water. We crawled for hours up the lake and into the wind, then when further examination of the map revealed another stupid navigational error, we abashedly had to return from where we came. We crossed from one lake into another and surfed some impressive rolling waves down to its outlet. Finally we were out of the lakes, but we were behind schedule, and the sun was threatening to set, so we charged down a few miles of interesting, big- water rapids without really appreciating the variation. Byu 10 o’clock we reached Sinclair Falls and quickly portaged our equipment with an amazing, distracting, slow tundra sunset taking place across the river.
Then the sun’s departure brought immediate cold. Middy caught a fish below the falls, and the stove identified this fortunate moment as perfect for a confrontation. I always know I’m in a bad state when I start to personify petty problems. We could not get it started. We took it apart and cleaned all the parts twice. I was ready to ditch the fish and eat a cold dinner just to get into my sleeping bag. But Middy has infinite energy when he ís focused. He went at the stove with another thorough cleaning and that got it working. Soon after a bit, were eating like kings. It had been a long, rough day, but I went to sleep with more confidence. Later in the trip, as the days got harder, I kept in mind the day we paddled 25 miles despite wind, cold, and shaky navigational skills, and thought, it may be miserable sometimes, but anyway we’ll do it.
There is a section of the Back River below its big lakes where the white water really picks up. Of course at no other point in my life would I have considered six or seven rapids in 100 miles to be continuous white water, but at the time it seemed downright intense. By the time we reached mile 400, the Back was a huge river, and the addition of a little gradient made for massive white water features. There were holes and breaking waves that would have absolutely demolished our loaded, fragile composite boats. Luckily, the lines through the rapids were generally wide open; we stayed near the banks, where it would be possible to stop, only going to the middle to cross or to avoid nasty features on the sides of the river. We had no problems with the whitewater on this section: Rock, Escape, Wolf, and Sandhill Rapids. Although it was some of the biggest water I’ve seen, we hardly had to get out and scout from the bank at all – as the drops tend to be gradual. It was great fun, and we were making excellent time. We started hoping to finish the river by day 25.
Starting day 20 Middy and I agreed to push hard to get to the bottom of the Back on schedule, five days away. In the next six days we paddled 30, 35, 32, 35, 31, and 27 miles respectively and reached the confluence with the Hayes River, pleased to have finished the first leg of the trip. We had been on the Back for 600 miles, in which distance it grew from an unpaddleble trickle to the largest of the Barrenlands rivers. We had seen some amazing land and wildlife along the river, but after two and a half weeks, we were ready for something different. So we started up the Hayes, having no idea that the push for mileage that began at the end of the Back had barely begun.
The Hayes was for me the highlight of the expedition. Although the tundra was similar to the terrain we had been paddling through all along, the river was narrower and more personal, often constricted in gorges between steep, rocky eskers and intricate, ice- carved sandbanks. The water was a pretty green color. Most striking though, was the feeling of remoteness on the river. We really began feeling our isolation, as each day of paddling upstream took us farther from civilization.
Near its mouth, the Hayes is a winding, sandy, flat river. Sandy rivers tend to have uniform current and few eddies, which makes going upstream – or attaining – slow going. But the first day we managed almost 25 miles upstream. We figured we could do the same mileage downstream just by floating for 8 hours. Each day our progress slowed as the river became smaller and faster. Although we were pushing harder and harder, the miles did not float by like they did going downstream. But for our efforts were rewarded with some spectacular scenery. Ridges of sand paralleling the river had been carved away by melting ice, forming miniature buttes, formations you see in Arizona or southern Utah. At one point, there looked to be a big castle by the river, complete with ramparts and towers.
We spent five days attaining 100 miles of the Hayes. For the most part we could paddle all the way, hopping from one eddy to the next up mild class II and sometimes class III whitewater. Occasionally we had to walk up the side of a rapid and pull our boats up the shallow water along the bank. At one such rapid, as we were pulling our boats up on opposite sides of the river, I saw a grizzly strolling down the river towards Middy. I yelled out a warning across the river, but I thought he must not have heard right. Instead of getting into his boat and paddling away, he tied it to a rock, got out his camera, and started walking up the ridge. I may not be an expert on dealing with bears, but I was pretty sure that was not the thing to do. So I yelled over again, just as the bear came over the hill 50 feet from Middy. Then, in about seven seconds, he was back in his boat. The bear came down to the edge of the river to investigate for a while, but then as Middy had done reconsidered the company and went back into the tundra.
At the end of day 30 we reached our tributary and found to our relief that it was deep enough to paddle – for the moment at least. We also found that there would be some serious doing ahead. We had 90 miles and 700 vertical feet of continuous, shallow, fast rapids to climb up with an occasional pool between them. Really the pools were probably more than just occasional, but since we flew through them and spent most of the time grinding and hauling up rapids and current, my memory is a bit skewed. We soon perfected frenzied bouts of high rpm half- strokes that became the hallmark of Hayes tributary attaining. But on the Hayes, Middy and I were both struck by the remoteness and beauty of our surroundings.
Our tributary lost water as we got closer to its headwaters, and paddling began to give way more and more to wading and portaging. On day 35 we came around a corner, saw our creek disappear into a pile of rocks, and officially began the trip’s portage – fest. No expedition would be complete without one. We portaged in two trips, carrying our food around first, then returning for the boats and equipment. And thus went the last two days on the Hayes tributary, slogging through the tundra, ferrying our stuff across short stretches of flatwater, and donating much needed red blood cells to hungry bugs. There was little change when we left the Hayes drainage and crossed into the headwaters of the Quoich River basin.
It took a day of portaging to get across the divide and onto the lake at the top of the Quoich tributary. For me this was the most painful and frustrating day. Certainly when we came up with the idea for the trip I was not looking for a leisurely jaunt through the wilderness. Rather I wanted to push myself and see some of my limits. On day 37 I got a good glimpse of these limits. I woke up tired and a bit hungry and began the misery. My hands were a big part of the problem. The first week out they had been absolutely hammered by mosquitoes. Although annoying, it did not seem like a big deal at the time. Around day 10 my hands started to itch, and a few days later some welts started to appear. Pretty soon my left hand was swollen and each of my fingers had at least one nasty welt growing on it. With constant hand use, welts inevitably begin to pop, and so by day 25, I had about ten open sores on hands and wrists. Every night the sores would scab over, only to be soaked and knocked off during the day, at the expense of some comfort. Particularly envigorating was the morning and evening ritual of sliding tight latex drytop gaskets over them. Day 37 was no exception; in fact, just scouting out our portage route, the bugs were terrible. They seemed to really love the skin between my swollen fingers, where I had to remove them delicately to avoid aggravating scabs. Middy amazingly was motivated to be done with the portaging, and he took off with a single- minded energy. He surprised even himself with his good spirits and feelings of tranquility. Upon seeing this, I cursed darkly. We carried for about 8 hours of misery and at last reached the lake that we hoped meant an end to portaging.
Crossing the lake, we were both in an excellent mood. The sun was out. The bugs were left on land. Best of all, we were paddling again. The marshy, flat tundra no longer seemed desolate and hopeless as it did a few days before. Even that evening, after being forced to portage immediately upon reaching the outlet of the lake, we were hopeful of downstream paddling, a fun river, and possibly catching a fish to make up for missing calories.
Of course, we had hoped too soon. The Quoich tributary consisted of a series of short pools connected by shallow, unrunnable rapids. Another day was spent making insufficient mileage, paddling, wading, dragging, and portaging. For Middy it was heartbreaking after having invested so much in the day before, thinking it was absolutely the last frustrating day he would face. He spent the day banging his ankles against rocks and then cursing about it loudly. It was tough for him to deal with disappointment after disappointment eroding his optimism. Certainly we reached new heights in the abuse of our equipment, paddling rapids we never would have considered in a less exhausted state. After ten hours the sun set, and we were forced to pull off for the night.
One of the exciting things on an expedition like this is, you never know what to expect around the corner. Certainly this can disappoint as easily as it can delight, but at least it is never boring. The next few days served up quite a few surprises. The morning of day 39 we started off expecting inpenetrable rock gardens like those we faced the previous day. We paddled around the bend and saw flatwater, followed by another bend. And around that bend was more paddleable water; wow, we were actually going somewhere. We had only ten miles to go before the confluence with the Quoich River, where we were sure to have plenty of water and swift current again. Our tributary slowly gained volume, and, though we still had to portage and wade a lot, it was much easier than the day before. As we neared the confluence we actually paddled 5 or 6 miles without stopping! Around four oíclock we stopped to eat and check the map. To our dismay, the gps informed us that we had already been paddling on the Quoich for five miles. We had been disparaging the size of our tributary before, but now we realized the Quoich was only a trickle added to that tributary. We would not be getting any more water from the Quoich. Middy was just about speechless, which is rare; he and I were both seriously concerned that, if the river remained shallow, we might not be able to handle our 25 miles let alone make up some extra for the past few slow days. We had only ten days of food left. Our chances of finishing within that time was looking grim. Of course, what else could we do but start paddling again? Surprise number two was right around the corner: suddenly the creek that trickled through the rocks, narrowed down, became a single channel, and turned into a real river, with bedrock rapids and deep pools. The next two hours we started making good time again despite not having more volume of water. By the end of the day, I slept confident that we had made it to the final leg of our trip.
The first few days on the Quoich were- surprise, surprise- mostly flat. There were occasional class II rapids preceded and followed by big flatwater straightaways. Middy and I did not mind at all; indeed, having just finished a week of arduous toil, we were endlessly pleased to be moving downstream on a nice deep river. We made time without looking back, paddling around 170 miles in the next five days to get back on schedule. These were the last days of the push that had begun three and a half weeks earlier near the bottom of the Back. Once again we were feeling good; the landscape, though still rocky and unfriendly, just seemed impressive to us rather than threatening. It was a good chance for us to paddle alone and think. I had hoped at the beginning of the trip to have time to think about life, future, and all that, but I recognized now that that is nonsense on a hard expedition. The real opportunity I had was to challenge myself almost constantly for 50 days. It forced me to live in the moment, even when – most particularly when – the moment was a miserable one. I realized the second great thing about a trip like this was, you know for certain life is not slipping by unnoticed. When Middy and I paddled together, conversation generally revolved around food – foods that we like, foods that we do not like (we could not think of any), and foods that we knew awaited us upon returning home.
The lower Quoich River turned out to be great fun. We ran long sections of class III with big waves and holes everywhere. We could generally scout from our boats, as the lines were wide open. Only a few times were we forced to the side to portage, when the drops were too powerful and rocky for our fourteen- foot glass boats. The last rapid of the river is St. Clair Falls. Here the runoff from 30,000 square km of drainage is forced between cliff walls 40 feet across, creating some massive breaking waves and strange boiling eddylines. We got there after a spectacular day paddling beneath the sun, watching caribou run around on the bank, and stalking a wolverine at lunch. At the first drop Middy and I took turns holding safety while the other ran it. The water was much pushier than I had imagined. I took a few accelerating strokes up and over the first wave and hit the second one right in the middle as planned. I held on while my boat snapped to the top, and together we continued downstream between two ugly eddylines that converged in the middle of the river. My run was a bit out of control, but that just seems inherent to big- water paddling. We sneaked past a wicked hole that stretched across from the left side of the river, then turned a corner to see the water drop out of sight. We portaged and camped there beside the falls. That night the shrubs growing in the little gorge yielded enough wood for a fire – only the second one of the trip. Middy caught a fish, which we fried in mayonnaise, and an excellent day was concluded with a tremendous feast.
On the next day came for us an abrupt end to the expedition part of the trip. We paddled to the mouth of the Quoich River where it meets Chesterfield Inlet, noticing trash here and there along the bank. As if this were too gradual a reintroduction to civilization, a helicopter flew overhead, and a motorboat drove up to greet us. We met three hunters who were searching for the caribou herd. Apparently dozens of locals from the town of Baker Lake motor across the lake every weekend to follow the herd. So for the next few days we paddled across the Inlet and then Baker Lake with a constant chorus of motorboats in the background, resonating across the water. It was a sudden end to our wilderness experience. However, paddling across the lake was still incredible. It took us three windy days to cross it, the swells pushing us along toward our destination, making for relatively easy 25- mile days. In the evening, we would hike up the nearest hill for a 360 degree view, the lake stretching to one horizon, endless rocky green hills to the other. It was an inspiring sight, but I still did not feel at home in the tundra. Even in this, the most accommodating time of year, it felt a bit precarious to be in such an inhospitable place, still so far away from assistance should we need it.
On the morning of day 51 we packed our equipment for the last time and threw it with ease into almost empty boats. Then we changed, killed a few mosquitoes for the sake of nostalgia, and paddled the last seven of 1200 miles to get to Baker Lake. It was another surreal moment, like the one we had almost two months before flying out of Yellowknife. It was time to leave the wilderness and fall back into the safe patterns of civilization. We must have looked strange sauntering into town in our matching blue fleece jackets, nylon pants, and mesh river shoes. We certainly felt it. Of course that failed to slow our beeline to the grocery store, where unhealthy food was purchased and hastily consumed. We camped one more night beside town, then paddled over to the airport the next afternoon and left the tundra for more inhabited regions- Rankin Inlet, Yellowknife, Edmonton, Toronto, and finally New York.