Video gear review on the Swedish FireKnife. Awesome bit of kit!
Video review of the Light My Fire Tinder on a Rope fire lighting stick we used on the Yukon Assignment expedition. Carving small shavings off this resinous block we used sparks from the fire steel to light the campfire in all sorts of weather conditions.
|The Rockies North of Vancouver|
Safely back in the UK after a truly awesome month in Canada! So many stories to tell, we had better get cracking!! I've got just over 3800 photographs to process, timelapses to build and then of course there is the film with the amazing Charlie of Fieldgrazer Productions.
As our expedition was extremely remote in the one of the planet's last remaining wilderness areas, we could only communicate with the outside world using an inReach SE satellite communicator from Global Telesat. One of the very cool features of the inReach device is geo-location plotting of all our posts. You can see how we progressed by following this link. Apart from the posts from wifi in Whitehorse everything during the expedition had to be scheduled ahead of time. From now on it will be our pleasure, to share with you dear reader, the photography and stories from the expedition itself. To make it easier to follow I have re-dated the posts written since our return so that you can enjoy the story of our adventure in the right order.
Many thanks for all your support during the expedition. It meant a huge amount to us and was a real treat to see once we got back to civilisation. If you have any questions, fire away!
This is the Yukon Assignment....
The resonating grind of chains against cogs and the whine of diesel engines drifted up river. It was unsettling. The unnaturalness of it jarred against the surroundings and we would now have to accept that the wilderness part of our journey had come to an end. It took the best part of half an hour after we first heard the ferry to actually see it. It marked where the Dempster Highway crosses the Peel to get to Fort McPherson. A few pickup trucks seemed to be making the crossing but mainly large freight lorries. In a few months time the ferry would be pulled up the bank and the town would be cut off until the ice becomes thick enough to support the huge trucks carrying supplies to these Northern outposts.
|The Dempster Highway|
In my head this was going to be an emotional, celebratory, moment. Reaching the Dempster Highway, the road to the roof of the World, should represent a great achievement. I didn't feel that great about it though. Partly, I think, because the presence of 'civilization' felt a bit over whelming. To keep it in perspective, when I say civilised I'm actually talking about a ferry, a couple of trucks, maybe 5 people and a few cabins. At the time it felt like too much. There was a campground marked on the map right next to the road and we had figured this might be a good base for our last day to get gear sorted before the pickup. I started wandering up the road toward Fort McPherson to try and find it. True to Canadian form, I hadn't gone 50 metres, before the one and only pickup to pass had pulled over to see if I wanted a lift. Sometimes stereotypes are a positive thing! Niall stayed with the boat whilst I crouched down over the wheel arch in the back of this very smart red F150 cruising along on the dirt, on permafrost, highway. The campground it transpired was over a kilometre away, unrealistic for taking the boat and gear, and besides it was closed! The kind Gwich'in driver and her mother where again very Canadian in offering to drive me back to the ferry. I responded in British style, saying no I couldn't possibly inconvenience them so, and we said our goodbyes. Some while later I got back to my dad. We looked about and there wasn't anywhere we could camp. Industrial odds and ends scattered over a muddy shore. Not particularly idyllic! So we took the decision to get back in the boat and paddle back up stream the way we had come.
|One Last Sort Out of Kit|
Although still in earshot of the ferry it felt so much better to be around the corner and out of site. We found a nice sandy beach that we later discovered belonged to a couple of beavers. They gave us a surprise after dusk, smacking their tails against the water surface in protest to our occupation. Bald Eagles circled overhead and we were treated to a spectacular sunset. It was just what we needed to extend the wilderness experience for a little while longer.
|The Van with a 'Dempster Paint Job'|
The next day, nature was on our side, and we were able rinse off and dry all our kit and repack it for the road transport out. I also frantically went about filming anything I thought we might have missed earlier. I felt a huge weight of responsibility to come back with some decent footage and this last day represented the last chance to record on scene. I even found time to sit down with a pair of headphones a start cataloging the film we had shot. I felt a little better after this. At least we weren't heading back empty handed.
I got Niall doing his acting bit, sitting in the beached canoe, reciting Robert Service;
"Were you ever out in the Great Alone,when the moon was awful clear,And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;With only the howl of a timber wolf,and you camped there in the cold..."
The "Pull of the North". An intangible allure that draws you in. A part of the North had entered my soul. The season changing, colder snap in the morning air, and trees turning to blazing reds made me wonder. What would it be like to over-Winter here? Don't get me wrong, I was excited about heading home too, but that magical landscape was seducing and every bend and rise tempts you to explore just a little while longer. I could completely understand how folk come up on a fishing trip and find themselves 20 years later in a self-built log cabin.
|Gopher Saying Hi|
|Eagle Plains Hotel|
Morning came, and with it, our last voyage. The short paddle took us from the wilderness, seemingly unchanged for millennia, to a highway artery linking us to the modern human world. Soon Tom arrived with the van and we were speeding down the mud and gravel, bordered by autumnal tundra, towards Dawson City. There is little out there between the Caribou and the Gophers. Just road and mountains until you get to Eagle Plains. This motel and diner in the middle of nowhere is the only place you can get gas between Fort McPherson and Dawson so makes for a wise stop! We helped ourselves to coffee and sitting down to eat the best slice of blueberry pie in the world marked the happy conclusion of our wilderness canoe adventure. The Yukon Assignment was accomplished.
|Taking It All In|
We were nearly there. A mere 20 miles not 500 flowed between us and the Dempster Highway. Somehow though, these were the hardest. Our motivation was lacking. Perhaps tired as well, but mainly we had lost our paddling mojo. Niall compared it to the feeling actors get on the last night of a show and the "get out". When we might have expected to feel excited about reaching our objective we actually felt quite deflated. Also fed up with paddling!
A large island appeared on the horizon. In places the river was 4 miles wide so taking a left or a right around a shoal such as this had mileage consequences. I got the map out, fairly confident due to the size of the island where we were, but wanting to check it against GPS. Niall piped up from the back, "is it the Isle of Wight?". I said something about how his contribution is always valued and carried on ignoring him to get a fix on our location.
True enough we had got to Shiltee Rock. You have to be careful how you say that! I was intrigued as pretty much nothing else had been named on the map like that for the previous month. Prominently rising from the ridge line a strange broken jumble of rock stood out. We moored beneath it, and Niall not feeling it, I ascended by myself through the woods toward the rock. Being alone for the first time in weeks felt very strange. Paranoia hit me straight away and I drew the bear spray canister from my hip holster. Following a trail through the dense birch and spruce it was clear others had come before. Coke cans hanging off string marked the way. At a steepening the trees parted and I was at the improbable outcrop of vertical crazy paving.
|View From Shiltee Rock|
Although I had no previous knowledge of the place I got the distinct impression that this was a site of importance, sacred even. I'm afraid the climber in me defeated my reverence and I cautiously scrambled to the top, gingerly weighting each block first, expecting the whole thing to fall apart at any moment.
What a view! Taiga forest everywhere but interspersed with little lakes and hills. The commanding position added to the cathedral like experience. I did feel bad that I may have climbed something sacred but then I've climbed a few cathedrals and churches in my time so I hope it was in the spirit of appreciation rather than desecration!
Since returning I've been able to research Shiltee and it transpires that it is indeed a special place for the Gwich'in. Legend has it that a pubescent girl defied her ritual seclusion and witnessed her father and brothers returning from the hunt. As a result they turned to stone. This seems striking similar to a San Bushman tradition where anyone witnessing a girl in her coming of age seclusion will be frozen in whatever position they are in. These warning stories could be interpreted as ways to ensure culture and tradition is upheld by the next generation. Without intending any disrespect I have to say I would be rooting for the brave girl who questioned why she should be locked up rather than the men who had put her there!
The landscape was now rolling, still covered in spruce Taiga but now with Birch, Aspen and Willow on the shore line. The wind persistently came from the North pushing us back the way we had come. When it was calm the river was so wide it felt like paddling across a massive lake. The lack of flow meant that all the power had to come from us now. Our maps where at a 1:250000 scale, much like a road map. Unlike the early days of our trip where we could cover a whole map in 3 days we were now only progressing a few inches on the sheet each day. We kept our leg stretches to a minimum as every time we went close to shore the winged beasties would soon be there to get their feed.
|Spag Bol on Flat Rock Camp|
We were also limited as to where we could go ashore as we either had steep banks, or the tail end of those hated black cliffs, or thick mud. Any disembarkation had to be done with care as we had a couple of near misses with sinking sand swallowing our feet. Probably the most life threatening moment of the entire expedition occurred silently as our canoe ran aground on a mudflat. Surrounded by murky water there was no way to know where the deeper parts might be. We struggled to push off, paddles sinking deeply into the mud grounding us further. Quite undramatic by comparison to facing off with a bear or bouncing off rocks on a white water rapids. The reality is that being stuck in the middle of a river, with limited food and no hope of rescue would kill us just as well, all be it really slowly and agonisingly. Fortunately before we had too much time to contemplate this we got lucky and the canoe started to slide again. Aluminium paddle shafts flexing as we bore down full body weight into the mud that bound us we inched our way towards what we hoped would be deeper water.
Another hazard we encountered was strong headwinds that would whip up suddenly with little warning. On one particular lunchtime, within 10 minutes the river went from mirror calm to Force 3/4 winds. To make progress we clung to the river bank. Heavy paddling with heads down would get us to the next island of safety. Some protrusion from the bank or fallen tree to shelter us for a moment before heading back out into rolling waves and icey wind. Eventually the wind died off and we rather miserably noted that the map only showed a couple of kilometres progress in the last few hours.
|Moments of Tranquility|
Finding a campsite was hard. Having been spoiled for choice on the Wind we now had poor options. Gloopuous mud, and bugs where abound. Then, as we were running low on energy from fighting the wind earlier we slipped off the map. This was not as drastic as it might sound. There was about 8km of the route covered by another map that we had not bought to save the 18 dollars or so. We rationalised that the river would keep on going until we were back on map, and we had GPS should anything go wrong. It was quite exciting entering an area that we had no information on! As if my magic almost as soon as we were off the map a huge sandbank appeared. At least for tonight we had ourselves a good camp spot. Time to get the kettle on.
|Posing on the (sort of) Arctic Circle|
So this is slightly awkward. We had intended to stop on the Arctic Circle itself, have a little celebration, and do some camera work. The problem is no one has painted the line on the ground, and having got into a good paddling rhythm, our GPS unit reported that we had over shot by 300 metres or so. Not to be robbed of the experience we faked it!
|Basic but Tasty Grub|
We marked a line in the sand and larked about jumping over it and filming ourselves "discovering" it. Perhaps the madness of wilderness travel had got to us but we enjoyed the moment. One of the attractions of this last section was the kudos of crossing the Arctic Circle. We joked about how different the landscape looked the other side of the Circle. It was of course identical Taiga forest as far as we could see. Nothing had really changed, but in our minds this was a true milestone, and there is something very cool about knowing that you are North of the Arctic Circle!
|The 'Off-Map' Camp North of the Arctic Circle at Last|
|Photo credit - panoramio.com|
Around about now though we should pass through the Peel Canyon and committing stretch of water. This will bring us to the "Taco Bar". This is the first and last place a float plane could land to pick us up early. Hopefully we are getting along fine, no injuries and haven't lost all our food by this point! Providing it is all good we will paddle on by to meet the Peel River and journey out of the mountains into the Arctic Tundra.
|Heading Down the Canyon|
We started out into lashing rain. So much for the Yukon expression "if you don't like the weather wait 5 minutes". This wet weather was persistent and there is no where to hide in a canoe. The spray deck kept the worst off the gear in the boat but the fabric that closed with Velcro around our torsos acted like a gutter channeling the rain into the seats. Well it did with me. Naill's legs were long enough that if couldn't even fully close the deck leaving a gap for the water to fall straight into his lap. There wasn't much we could do about it though, so on we paddled feeling a bit like we had wet ourselves, but thankful that at least most of the rest of us was dry.
Up ahead on River Right we saw smoke rising. It was a bit of a shock, we had almost forgotten that other people might be out here too. We cautiously made our way over to their encampment. An ancient part of the brain signalling to proceed slowly and obviously so as to not appear a threat. Ridiculous really as they were bound to be tourists just like us, but we had been in the woods a long time now, and it would seem disrespectful to do it any other way. A poncho clad figure waved from under the tarpaulin where the group was sheltering from the rain and ventured out towards us. We exchanged a few words. They had paddled the Bonnet Plume River and were waiting out the weather for a few days before heading down to Taco Bar to get a floatplane ride back to Mayo. It was a welcome surprise to be talking to another person, and there was an affinity, we all belonged to a small club that had the privilege to paddle here. It was reserved though, in our heart of hearts I think people who come this far from "civilisation" really just want it to themselves, however unrealistic that is in the modern World. We wished them well and paddled on.
In places the river valley was up to 6 kilometres wide. A huge choice of river channels, some taking us several kilometres further than we needed to paddle, some ending abruptly in strainers or oxbow lakes. Some, if we got lucky, would give a nice bit of flow and cut the corner. There wasn't a lot to base decisions on, so I surrendered to the will of the 'Force', and we 'felt' our way through.
|Endless Dark Cliffs|
Endless black cliffs! 800ft high made from crumbling dark rock and mud, these ominous walls left us claustrophobic. We commented that they would be the same height as the Wall in Game of Thrones. Not often you get to see the real thing! But they just wouldn't run out. A long sweeping left bend would lead to to another infernal black cliff heading right. It mentally tough. Nothing indicated that we were making any progress as everything looked the same. This combined with a constant head wind it was becoming a tad depressing.
|Floatplane Sign at Taco Bar|
Eventually the wind abated and the GPS showed that we were nearly at the confluence of the Snake River, our objective for the day. Getting back into stride we glimpsed a group getting out on the bank. We pulled over and it turned out to be the same folk we had briefly chatted with on one of the first days of the trip. It was like meeting up with old friends. Something about the fact that their trip was nearly at an end and that we had a unique stretch ahead of us took the pressure off. We could talk freely and exchanged a few experiences from the Wind and their Guide spoke to us about the difficulties of fishing and how the weather was the worst he has ever seen! As we waved goodbye and floated off the Guide shouted one last bit of advice "don't camp at Taco Bar, really bad, lots of flies". "Right Oh" we replied as if we had never intended something so Rookie. Taco Bar was of course our intended camp spot! There wasn't much we could do about it. Apart from where they were camped there wasn't any decent camping and we had a long day already. We pulled up at Taco Bar opposite a Bald Eagle eyeing us from her nest. On the face of it is was an alright spot, mirror calm water and sheltered from the wind for the first time that day. When no-see-ums (same as midgies?), black fly and mosquitoes are concerned sheltered, stagnant water is not a great thing for there food source, i.e. us! It was really horrific, no where to go we hid as best we could under head nets and ate moving up and down the beach. I had heard somewhere that they can't fly faster than 3kmph so I tried to eat at that speed. We went to bed, as Niall put it, "irritated and irritable".
The next morning all we wanted to do was get out of there. The emotions I had anticipated at passing this last point where there was an option to fly out early, the fortitude I thought we would need to continue, was out the window. I not even sure if we were booked on a flight whether we could have stomached waiting. We stopped by the lonely crooked airplane sign to do a piece to camera. I kept it brief, my eye swollen from bites, making me look either diseased or beaten senseless by a troll. We were free from the hell hole. After a late breakfast on the most exposed, breezy bank we could find, it was all speed ahead towards the Arctic Circle.
|Camping in the Canyon|
The rhythm had changed. The crystal bubbling waters of the Wind had been traded for murky turbulent flow of the Peel. Looking flatter than anything we had paddled thus far the grey surface belied the true force of current effecting our little boat.
High cliffs lined either side of the river. Our work alternated between hard paddling against the headwind and narrower sections when we had little sway over our direction. The boat was too heavy to maneuver in the stronger waters but we could just about ride the edges of the rapids. During the winter the river would freeze solid. This natural conduit between Dawson and Fort McPherson predates both towns. It was, and is, used by Native American tribes, such as the Gwitch'in, as a means to follow and hunt the Caribou herds and find the best spots for fishing. When the North West Mounted Police began to make regular patrols across the territories they would often employ local guides to show them the best routes. We were traveling through one such connection. Giving its name to the map sheet we were using the Trail River would have been transited from the Peel then an over land portage would get you onto the Wind and ultimately over the Richardson Mountains to Dawson City.
|Memorial to the Lost Patrol|
In the Winter of 1910 a four man patrol set out from Fort McPherson, tragically never to return. They let their native guide go after the first section preferring to go by one of the Constable's previous experiences of a patrol. Unfortunately he had only done the trip once before, and in the other direction, from Dawson City. They only had 30 days of supplies and used up most of this trying to find the creek that would lead them to Dawson. Somewhere by the Little Wind River their leader, Inspector Francis Joseph Fitzgerald, took the decision to try and make it back to Fort McPherson. Their progress was slow, limited by frostbite and lack of nutrition, making only a few miles a day. They had to resort to eating 10 of their 15 dogs.
|Canadian Flag Flying Proudly Over the Memorial to the Lost Patrol|
On day 47 of the patrol Fitzgerald made his last diary entry. Meanwhile concerned that the patrol hadn't turned up, the Mounties launched a relief patrol from Dawson, lead by Corporal William John Dempster, for whom the Dempster Highway was later named. When they found the lost patrol it was too late. Constable George Francis Kinney & Constable Richard O’Hara Taylor were the first to be found. Kinney appeared to die of starvation, Taylor from a self-inflicted bullet wound. Further down the river Fitzgerald and Special Constable Sam Carter's bodies where discovered just 40km short of Fort McPherson.
|The Lost Patrol|
For us it was a chilling reminder to by careful. This is a serious landscape that needs to be treated with respect. The smallest mistake had the potential to cascade into something life threatening. We were certainly grateful to have the support of modern mapping, GPS and Satellite rescue technology should we need it. I couldn't help but wonder though, what it would have been like striking out up some of these creeks in winter, not knowing what was on the otherside.
We moored on one of the most impressive campsite to date. A beach within a canyon. It was both intimidating and welcoming at the same time. The rocks rose vertically and displayed their tectonic scars proudly. The wall straight over from camp looked like a giant's thumb print. After amusing ourselves skimming stones and throwing echos down the canyon we cooked up the Grayling we had caught earlier. Well fed, I lay awake in my tent, coming to terms with how far we had come and listening to the eerie shrieks of some kind of bird of prey magnified by the Canyon itself.
|Getting Comfy in the Canyon|
|Niall Sizing Up the Canyon Ahead|
The infamous Peel Canyon has been playing on our minds for the best part of 2 years now. Accounts of others who had paddled this way all referred to the canyon in ushered tones of deference and sometimes fear. This was the crux section. A 90 degree left hand turn at the end of the Wind River. Having swelled with water from the entire catchment area the river here was at its strongest. A wall of rock rises from the rapids a couple of hundred metres high. The water smashes into the rock at 20-25 kmph creating a recirculating wave sucking floatsom down beneath the undercut cliff. The water that escapes hits buttresses of stone leading to a powerful series of whirlpools. Jagged splintered trees are pushed and crushed like kindling into the caves at the water line. These form pungi sticks to trap anything that has the misfortune to enter their clutches. It is enough to make a couple of paddlers setting up on the bank feel a little sick!
|The Canyon's Teeth|
We had made excellent time to the head of the canyon the day before. The river moved very fast. With the rain we had and losing 450 meters of height during the day GPS logged us as moving at 16km per hour plus. I actually found it a bit stressful as every river running decision had to be made so fast. To find another idyllic campsite right before the canyon was a very welcome treat. Framed by gorgeous flutes of orange rock our campside pool both offered a "refreshing" swim and provided some lovely Arctic Grayling fish. We set up camp and got the fire going.
|Calzone the Ultimate Camp Comfort Food|
This camp marked the end of the Wind River. We knew the next week would involve getting our heads down and knocking out some serious mileage down the slower moving Peel River. Through binoculars we tried to read the rapids beyond our camp. Neither of us wanting to say what we were thinking. An uncertain truth hung in the apprehension between us. It looked easy! Don't get me wrong if you took the line river right you would probably die! Once committed there was no option to stop so you need to get it spot on first time around. River left looked okay though. If we just made for the far side of the river and skirted the slightly submerged gravel banks without them throwing us right we might just make it on the edge of the rapids. Away from the whirlpools and caves of doom! There is a rule in paddling that the length of time you spend staring at a rapid is directly proportional to the time you spend getting mashed in it! We stopped looking.
|Super Moon at Canyon Camp|
Fortunately we had a stunning night to distract us. A rare Super Moon rose. Orbiting slightly closer to the Earth it appears larger than usual. This combined with it's full state and it being the last camp on the Wind seemed significant. I wanted tomorrow to go smoothly. Actually I wanted to nail it. Not only run the canyon without accident but run it in such away that the River would have to accept us as worthy of traveling it. Of course this was more about proving to myself that this wasn't a hair brained scheme after away and that the planning and preparation would see us through. I plugged my headphones in to accompany the roar of the rapids below, visualizing the perfect line down the river in my mind.
|Sun Setting Over the Peel Canyon|
A couple of days before we had discovered that we had been over rationing the cheese. It is hard to explain what an exciting discovery this was. With only a week and a bit to go we basically couldn't eat enough cheese! This led to a run of cheese toasties for breakfast. This morning was no exception and the dense rye bread and plastic cheese certainly crushed any remaining butterflies in our stomachs.
|Made for Cheese Toasties?|
This was a significant part of our story, so we took no chances in filming it. Batteries changed and fresh memory cards loaded, we fitted a GoPro to the front deck of the canoe facing back towards me, and another on Niall's head looking forward. The time to commit was upon us. A quick conference on the plan, we floated the boat, and hopped in. Immediately we had to paddle hard upstream as we were on river right and to do nothing would seal our fate. Glancing over my right shoulder I took in the glassy sections of water and the white froth indicating the rocks to avoid. I waited to the last possible moment and then opening the paddle to resist water the boat turned, slowly at first, then as the flow caught it we were on our way at speed. Fixated on the water we were heading towards the hazards slipped past us almost unnoticed. We had to concentrate on were we were going not what we wanted to avoid. Too much speed on the corner. The front of the boat dipped into an eddy initiating a fast tight turn. The boat rocked violently, first against the water, then against our slightly uncoordinated counter reactions to keep her steady. Two weeks before this would have been a capsize, but as it was the flutter was over, and the worst section avoided. We were relived but also felt almost cheated that it had been that straight forward. We had faced far worse on previous days. We just hadn't had the time to get worked up about those. A strong lesson in the role of mindset in these things. We relaxed into the grandeur of the Canyon itself. The Wind was behind us. We were mentally and physically heading home. All be it in completely the wrong direction, slower than before and heading into the Arctic Circle!
|Survived the Peel Canyon|
Taiga forest stretched to the horizon. Facing East the landscape would change little between us and Nova Scotia 3000 miles away with no habitations to speak of. To the West, aside from a short hop across the Bering Straits, the same kind of forest stretches across Northern Siberia all the way back to Sweden and Norway. The little patch we looked over to now, the North-West Territories Taiga forest is a mere 133,500 square miles. The same size as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, or if you prefer the same size as Hungary! The vastness of this land was hard to comprehend and day to day we were too absorbed in our little bubble of activity to fully take it in.
|The Lower Wind River|
We stood, bracing ourselves against the wind about 500 metres up. We had hiked up the side of Deception Mountain. A grand name but a hill really. A hill though with a commanding position looking up and down the Wind River.
|Niall pointing towards the Richardson Mountains|
To the Gwich'in this is a sacred place. Known to them as Vinidiinlaii, meaning where the water hits the mountain, it remains significant within the Gwich'in culture. Read more about this interesting history here.
|The Middle Wind River|
They reckon not far from where we now stood was the location of "Wind City". A temporary settlement of 70 prospectors caught out by the winter of 1898. Sadly it was also here that the "Lost Patrol" of the North West Mounted Police past by in the doomed final days of their attempted ranging to Dawson. More on the Patrol later.
For us this was a real turning point. We could see, despite the threatening clouds, the complex river channels we had already paddled and the wide chaos we would continue on to the Peel Canyon. This was our opportunity to prepare ourselves to leave behind the mountain river of the Wind and brace ourselves for the potentially more mentally and physically challenging slower waters of the Peel.
|The Indecisive Course of the Wind River|
Such a beautiful landscape. Awe inspiring actually. Sadly this pristine wilderness is under threat. Something like 18,000 mining claims are held over the Peel water-shed and the Yukon Government intends to turn over 70-80% of the land to mineral exploitation. I would implore anyone reading this to take a look at the excellent work the Protect the Peel movement and Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society are doing to fight this. It is estimated that 600 million tonnes of coal sits beneath the lower Wind river. One can see the appeal to the Yukon Government! Perhaps even more concerning is the search for Uranium. Some of the old trappers winter roads have received approval to be developed to reach these distance lodes of radioactive material. It is truly horrific to think of the wild spaces we traveled through being bulldozed, and hard to believe that the natural environment and the Native American heritage wouldn't be adversely effected by Uranium mining! I'm a realist, I get that mining is how we have the things we all use daily. I get that there will be ever increasing pressure to tap these resources. The cost in my opinion is too high. To live in a world that has electricity but no wild space, to me, would be an abomination.
They say all good stories should follow an arc. A call to adventure, a threshold experience, a home coming with new found wisdom. An Abyss!
The sky was as dark as we had seen it, day or night. Heavy rain fell to the point that bailing was required. We lost ourselves in a cold, wet, uncomfortable stupor and keep paddling. Unwilling to make any unnecessary stops we barely checked the map. We couldn't see the opposite bank at times so there would be little to gauge our progress without the GPS anyway. Wave after wave hit the bow taking my waterproofs past saturation point. I didn't want to move, as the movement would uncover the cold reality, that I was actually soaked. If I stayed perfectly still, what little body heat I had left, warmed the damp clothing and I could just about fool myself that everything was was fine. Everything was not fine! With hindsight the signs seem so obvious. Our logic was that the weather was horrible and we knew we had to leave the mountains behind. Rather than wallowing we would get our heads down and just paddle. We were hypothermic. Our bodies temperatures dropping without check, the blood gathering around our core organs to stave off the symptoms of death! It is notoriously difficult to make good judgements after you have succumbed to the cold but it is also very hard to realise at the time just how cold you have become.
Hoods firmly clamped over our heads there was no real communication. Ironically this was probably the day that our paddling really came together as a team. Through pure bloody mindedness, and the urge to warm up by flexing our muscles, we paddled hard. Our only stop was short, a handful of trail mix, then off again to quell the shivering.
A rocky shape loomed ahead of us. The descent of the river was steep, and every few minutes we rode a flume, that would take us side on into another wall of water threatening to capsize us. My synapses slow and unresponsive a few times we would hit these hydraulics without any effort to counter them. Being slapped in the face by another icey wave didn't seem to matter. Only making downstream progress. We knew that we should be out of the mountains now and into the Taiga forest. This lump ahead of us must be significant. We pulled the canoe onto the bank stumbling over rocks and mumbling to ourselves. It was only then that it really started dawning on me that we could be in trouble. When the GPS had found the satellites it needed I couldn't believe it. We where at the foot of Mt. Deception. I had allowed 2 days to make the journey but somehow we had made 70km in that one day! There was no time to celebrate. In our shabby condition this had just become a survival test. First priority- shelter. We lugged the gear further up a stream bed to find better protection from the elements amongst the trees. This helped through the physical effort to raise our temperature. It took us back to the stage were we knew that we were cold and started shivering again. When you are so cold you stop shivering that's when your body has given up on doing a self- warm and is conserving resources before you go into the long cold sleep. Mechanically we managed to get the tarp up and the tents followed beneath. Each step, painful, but also a little bit closer to those dry warm sleeping bags. We fired up the stove. I can't even remember what we ate, but it will have been basic, hot, and eaten fast. The dark colour of my pee later also indicated that I was dehydrated. With all the water faced during the day I obviously didn't think it drink enough of it. Finding my water bottle it was almost completely full. All the we wanted to do was crawl into our tents and hide but we forced ourselves to eat, drink and hang the really wet stuff to dry under the tarp. Having averted the immediate risk we had to make sure we didn't cut any corners that would make matters worse over the coming hours. The rain kept coming. Keeping to the maxim 10% extra effort, 100% more comfort, we sorted the camp, did some star jumps to raise the core temperature and jumped into our respective sleeping bags super glad the struggles of the day were hopefully behind us.
|Trying to Dry Our Gear|
Traveling by river is awesome but to get some perspective on the lay of the land gaining some height is always beneficial. Around this point in the trip we hope to climb Royal Mountain. This good looking mountain should afford great views up and down the Wind River. Just got to hope for good weather!!
|180 Panoramic from Mount Royal Basecamp|
The weather improved but the tops were still shrouded in cloud. So we moved on downstream and established camp to the North-East of Mount Royal. This was an idyllic spot. A small stand of spruce trees, our own eddy pool, copious deadwood for the fire and stunning mountain scenery all around. This would be our basecamp for the Mount Royal summit push!
|Mount Royal Basecamp|
We were used to the mountaineering tradition of getting up early to get your climbing done and back down without risking benightment. It took a bit of getting used to that it never got dark this far North so it didn't really matter but we started out early none-the-less. The peak was hidden by cloud but we were fueled on blind optimism and the knowledge that we had no more spare days. We would climb the mountain today or we never would. The day started with a challenge. As almost perfect as our campsite was, there was one major draw back. We were effectively camped on an island as another braid of the river cut through between us and the mountain. Fortunately we had a canoe for just such occasions! So we dragged the boat across tundra like Polar explorers paddled about 25 metres and changed back into dry boots. This was our only safe route back to camp so we made sure to get the canoe high up on the bank and get a GPS fix before leaving it!
Climbing a steep loose rock bank brought us to our next hurdle. A dense band of spruce forest. Ground that wanted to be bog but was dry at this time of year covered in low bushes making it hard going to find a good footing without falling over. A fair recompense though were the plentiful supply of bilberries that we near enough gorged ourselves on before reaching the Alpine zone.
|Entering the Alpine Zone|
Beyond the trees the sun was strong and the limestone crenelations above us shone in contrast to the azure skies behind. Moss gave way to a jumble of rock. Hard walking but easier than fighting through the woods. We followed the stream bed in the hope that it would lead to a gentle basin at the heart of the mountain. Finally we could go no further. The stream had cut deep into the Rock and we were starting to get tangled in a small canyon waterfall. After some lunch we decided to give the summit one last go linking steep racks together using patches of spruce as a sign that the rock at least probably wasn't completely vertical. We came close.
|The High Col We Climbed To|
Tantalisingly so. If we had been doing it in the UK if I'm honest there is a good chance we would have risked it. Reaching up for the next handhold and glancing down to see that without me really noticing I was now only attached to 80 degree rock by a few millimetres of rubber on my hiking boots. Beyond this miracle of vulcanization my dad looked on, a little concerned perhaps but mainly focusing on just staying in place on the loose scree he was occupying. Beneath us the scree fell away into the valley a thousand feet below hitting trees and rock buttresses on the way. Summit fever is a real thing and it was hard to turn away having come so far. The slightest accident that remote would have been disastrous. We crawled back down into the valley, disappointed to have not reached the top but happy with our decision and thankful to still be in one piece.
|Finding Ourselves on Seriously Steep Ground|
On the way down we had a magical treat when a herd of Caribou wandered past. We hid behind the bank to watch and photograph them. The wind changed for a moment and we were rumbled, the herd took flight.
|Large Caribou Bull|
Back at camp we had a big old fire and celebrated a great day in the hills. Nature must have been in an equally jubilant mood as the sky lit up in shades of pink. As the subtle light show came to an end I feel really quite emotional. This would be our last night in the proper mountains. In the morning we would start to leave the alpine behind and have tundra hills instead. We were sad to say goodbye.
Vinidiinlaii is a sacred mountain to the Gwich’in people. The name means where the water hits the mountain and is also called Deception Mountain. Around this point in the trip we will head to the hills again to pay homage to the traditions of this landscape and to take in and reflect upon the journey so far.
|Hammering in pegs at 'Geology' Camp|
Our camp was set in a wide expanse of low heathery scrub and grass. The Wind thundered on past, sound magnified by a thousand pebbles continuing their journey to the ocean or oblivion, whatever came first, a rotation at a time. Atmospheric mountains surrounded us. We could see so far that each mountain range had a slightly different light and weather to its neighbor. Having been confined to river level for the most part of the trip, we eagerly clambered up the steep hill beside camp. Still mindful that a bear could be behind every bush, just waiting to be startled into a man shredding rage, we were on the alert! No bears, but plenty of life, as the bank was riddled with gopher and chipmunks holes. The gophers marked our progress squawking angrily as we trespassed their manor. Although it wasn't a particularly high hill the effect of being those few hundred feet up was breathtaking. The vista opened up and the complexity of the river channels could be fully appreciated. I found renewed admiration for our little river seeing how these huge mountains had crumbled to her persistence over the years.
|Niall enjoying the view|
|The Wind River|
|Impressive Scenery from Geology Camp|
The night was cold with a brisk Northern wind funneled down the valley. One of our mountaineering objectives, Mount Royal, dominated the skyline. We scoured the ridge lines through the binoculars trying to establish what would be the best approach. Our plan was to make a summit attempt in the morning. We settled in around the fire, burning strong, in the natural scoop we were using. Tucking into a hearty Yukon Stew we set the world to rights. It was the sort of conversation that one rarely has the opportunity to have. In fact, without the luxury of long evenings of Arctic light, a fire and a few hundred of miles between us and any distractions we almost certainly would never have done so. We went to bed on full bellies ready to get up early and climb Mount Royal.
I was probably camped a hundred metres from my dad. When I poked my head out of the tent flysheet at 6am I couldn't even see his tent! The mist had rolled in with a vengeance. The mountains were gone, as were our chances of a successful ascent. The principle reason to climb the mountain for us was for the views and the cloud looked set for the day. Added to that there are no paths and the route finding was likely to be challenging in good conditions, fool hardly in these. I rolled over to get another couple of hours of shut eye.
|Coffee to get the day started|
Having leisurely consumed a pot of fresh coffee we resolved to head up the valley behind us. Just to see what was up there. We set off up a dry river bed, cloud hanging above us. Dropping into the river bed itself the first thing that really stuck us was the array of different coloured rocks. On closer inspection the colours gave away different rock types. Lots of rock types! Our limited geology knowledge couldn't explain how so many different rock types could end up in the same valley. I've never seen anything like it. Limestone, basalt, shales, mudstone and slate all within a few steps of each other.
|Amazing Rock Types|
Our hike took us up to a high col. We hadn't planned it but with the now rising cloud, and the next horizon endlessly beckoning us on, we had to actually be quite firm with ourselves to turn back. We picked a large boulder to be our destination, took in the view, then started our descent.
|Impromptu Bouldering Session|
When the tents came into view I was struck by just how tiny they seemed. Two green specks with a flash of red from the up turned canoe, then wide, wide open space. It was also amazing how much returning to our little encampment felt like going home. We had only camped there a night but it had all the associations of comfort and security (and food!) already.
|Chatting around the Campfire|
You mustn't let bad weather get in the way of having an adventure. We certainly had a great day that wouldn't have happened if the weather hadn't derailed plan A. This change of plan also paved the road for what happened next...
|Adolescent Grizzly Bear|
I stood transfixed. Something in my head wasn't connecting. What I could see playing out on the little LCD screen on the camera surely wasn't happening for real? Right now! My blood had run cold. In the same instant my gaze dropped from the calm scene down river from me. A large caribou was standing firm, in the middle of the river, apparently unfazed my us. He had given us time to get the camcorder out and mounted on the tripod in the middle of the river on a gravel bank just down from our marooned boat. Sun highlighting the velvet on the animal's antlers, it was quite the scene, and we were chuffed to have the opportunity to film it. It seemed strange though that the caribou should be so unfazed by our presence. My eyes came into focus. Red splattered arterial blood by my feet. My inner ear pounded with a sudden increase of blood flow. Oxygen desperately tried to make its way to my brain. Instinctual, primitive reactions fired through my body. Ready to fight or make flight. In the space of time it took to draw a deep breath a deep corner of my primate mind had assessed the surroundings. Escape routes established and discounted as futile. My hand found its way to the pepper spray safety catch without conscious direction.
How could we have been so stupid!? Everything fell into place. Whilst watching the caribou, an adolescent grizzly bear, entered the fray for river left. Swimming at speed he made his way towards the beleaguered caribou. Clearly he had already taken a bite out of him and the poor beast was taking refuge in the deeper water. Bear spray at the ready, and knives drawn, we scanned the horizon in case the bear was not alone. Dense scrub carpeted either side of the valley. We would have no advance warning. There was no heading down river without going through the predator and prey entanglement and heading back up would be impossible. We would have to hold our ground. Resolved to carry on filming I did my best to keep the camera on the action whilst constantly checking all around us. The bear was chasing the caribou through the water. The caribou was out swimming the bear. The caribou was swimming up river towards us! Suddenly the bear veered off from his pursuit and disappeared into the brush on river left. We formed up and braced ourselves.
Sure enough, our bear appeared. Straight out of the bushes not more than 10 metres away from us. We tried talking to it in calm assertive tones. We had heard this was a successful tactic employed by Native Americans. When you are in a situation like this it is surprisingly easy to stay calm as there is no choice. It is straight forward survival - panic, show fear or run and you're dead.
|Route to the canoe cut off|
The bear circled us, rising out of the water, with young but powerful arms. This wasn't a huge bear, but like any teenager, he was unpredictable. If he was prepared to take on a caribou we could well be a tempting alternative! Coming between us and the canoe, he stopped and sniffed the air, checking us out. Raising his nose, perhaps weighing his chances, we were afforded a glimpse of his teeth. Looking disinterested he lumbered on into the next river channel and climbed up the bank. Then he was gone.
Not wanting to push our luck we quickly packed up the boat and pushed off. We wished the caribou well as we passed. He had a chunk bitten out of his rear leg but was still standing. We felt sorry for him but couldn't help reflecting that we had been lucky the bear had found him minutes before we had come around that corner. Sobering thoughts for two little specks of humanity deep within the Yukon wilderness!
You would like to think that paddling down a river would be fairly straight forward in the navigation department! When the river spreads over a kilometre in width and is formed of a myriad of braided channels route finding can get a bit more interesting. Up in the front I would regularly stand in the boat to get a better view. We would try and judge which were the deeper courses and where the faster rapids might be.
You could probably paddle this same stretch of river a dozen times and do it slightly differently each time. Most of the time, mainly through luck, we would find a good way through. That was until we accidentally found ourselves in the Angel Lake! A shallow pebble bed led to a sweeping right bend then a left. The sun had been on our backs and it was the sharp Arctic light in our eyes that tipped us off that we weren't heading North anymore. It wasn't exactly where we had planned to be - but what a spot. Rocks of every colour of the rainbow shimmered through crystal water. By contrast to the noise on the river this was a moment of tranquility. Having come to a dead end we accepted that we would have to paddle back up-stream. This is one of the joys of exploration, you can never be entirely sure what each day might bring.
|Charging Kit at Camp|
|Cutting Firewood - Bear Camp|
Intense paddling, close Moose encounter, and we even found wild raspberries at lunchtime! The weather looked to be closing in from the valley ahead of us. Clouds building in the Arctic and rolling South towards us. We found a dry creek that looked like it might have some softer ground that wasn't bog. So that bears and other beasties weren't attracted into our camp we were keeping our sleeping area well away from the food store. To give us a good base of operations we put the tarp up a bit closer to the river, food and boat. This was a really great luxury to have somewhere we could quickly duck out of the rain and safely store kit. We were sleeping in two solo tents so it also gave us somewhere to chat if the weather wasn't that great.
|Weather Closing In - Bear Camp|
After cooking up a warming Zucchini Pasta dish, we did just that. Niall was sitting on the creek bank that we had integrated into the tarp shelter as a comfy seat. I was on the other side of the shelter, facing North, propping myself up on the camera Peli cases. We were enjoying a wee dram of Yukon Jack and discussing the excitement of the day.
|Cooking Up Zucchini Pasta|
Just as Niall was saying he thought he would turn in for the night I saw a movement over his left shoulder. Adrenaline cursed through my veins and I muttered something to the effect of "there's a bear" and went to work trying to get the camera case open. A fair way downstream, and crucially upwind, a Grizzly Bear was mooching along the bank towards our camp. We had 24 hour light at that point but with the weather it felt like dusk. That only added to the drama, watching this apex predator casually making it's way toward us, not a care in the world! Seeming as if it had been the bear's plan all along it suddenly waded into the river and started to cross. By this point I had just about got the video camera up and running and was doing my best to steady my hands to focus in on this beautiful terror. Watching now through binoculars we could see it disappear into some bushes. I was glad not to have to face it on our side and wondered whether it had picked up our scent and thought to avoid us. Then an icey thought caused me to shiver. What if, in the same way that I was thankful that we were downwind of the bear, the bear had also considered this. What if it had only crossed in order to double back behind us for a surprise attack! Despite the logical bit of my brain presenting reasoned argument why this was hugely unlikely I kept those binos trained on the bush were the bear had now settled down. 15 minutes of watching a magnified brown bear rump and I was almost satisfied that the bear didn't care less about us. That said I made sure to action a top tip I had heard once to pee around your tent to put the bears off. Not pleasant I know, but I defy anyone to watch the power of those muscles rippling beneath a rough brown coat, and climb into gossamer thin tent canvas without considering emptying their bladder first!!
|Niall's Bucket AKA "Bucky"|
The river was incredibly loud. Louder still when I tried to push it from my mind at night. The rushing sound could have been confused for a jet aircraft taking off and the drone of a busy motorway. It was our constant backing track. Crystal clear water, keen to answer gravity's call, and tumble down through the hills, over pebble beds, as quickly as it could. Today we planned to join the water. It would be our first proper paddling day of the trip. The upper Wind River is graded 2+ water. How challenging a river will be is represented as a grade between 1 & 6. One is great for picnics, 6 is death on a stick. Learn more about the grades (or class as it is known in North America) here. We were very deliberate in picking the difficulty of river. Our training in the UK had been on grade 3 water, and in the case of the River Dart, snow melt water in spate. I had been keen to ensure that we would know at the point that faced us now, looking at the Wind, that we would be able to deal with anything it threw at us. Looking back now I wonder whether this was over zealous. The brutality of the training, and particularly the visit to the hospital following the River Barle, perhaps only eroded Niall's confidence and caused sleepless nights for our wives! The truth is I felt really comfortable at grade 2 and my main worry was whether it would look too tame in the filming. This wasn't a Sunday afternoon jolly though. This was the cornerstone of our decision on grade. We wanted a challenge, we wanted it to be wild, but we also wanted a better than fair chance of making it through without capsize and certainly minimize the risk of injury. We also had high value camera gear on board so the priority was - no heroes - just get down the river in one piece!
|The Upper Wind River|
What was to follow was some of the finest open boating I have ever experienced. If this one section of river was in Europe I have no doubt it would be one of the most sought after and enjoyed. In some ways the river running was straight forward, but with frequent shingle banks threatening to ground the boat, and deadly strainers on both banks there wasn't a dull moment. A couple of times we nearly became unstuck. Caught up in the rush of a fast bit of current, we would realize too late that we where on a path to collide with the horrifically jagged branches of a downed dead tree. Despite frantic paddling, our glorified bath tub, merely lumbered a little. I spent a lot of my time standing in the front of the boat trying to absorb as much information as I could from the rivers horizon. I would then sit back down and we would take on that section and then go back to scouting. This 'read and run' method meant that we didn't lose the momentum by stopping all the time to check the path ahead. The only time we did have to stop properly was a left hand bend in the river were the main flow disappeared under a collection of dead trees. This would have been a one way ticket section. The consequences of being sucked under that web of destroyed trees would undoubtedly be fatal and I'm not even sure our bodies or gear would make it to the surface for quite some time. I had noticed a drop in the flow ahead and some deep subconscious switch had turned on the alarm bells. We pulled up on the bank river right. Had we drifted left our best paddling would have been useless. The current traveling at over 15km per hour and the weight of the boat - our destiny would have been sealed. As it turned out, we could gingerly maneuver the boat past the danger, and into a much shallower but less life threatening course.
Still moving at pace we rounded a left hand corner. Having spent most of the morning chatting I fell silent before uttering the assertive whisper - "Moose". The noise of the river and wind direction had masked our arrival and an oblivious bull moose was crossing the fast flow just ahead of us. Unable to stop I made a scramble for the GoPro and did my best to not crash the boat whilst keeping my head cam trained on our new found friend. He seemed a little surprised once he had clocked us but not scared. He watched us float past and gave us an indignant shake of his tail before wandering off. This was our first principle wildlife sighting and we couldn't believe our luck in having been on the that corner at that particular moment. As soon as we were ashore though it was clear that there was a lot going on that we just didn't know about. The soft sand of the river bank could be read like a newspaper; providing us with the stories of beasties coming and going. There were tracks from birds, more moose, caribou and even wolves.
To us this place was wilderness. It was just starting to become clear that whilst it might appear vast and barren to our eyes, beyond that naive view, there was life happening everywhere around us. Simple analysis of the chances of us being on that stretch of river, and being down wind, at that specific moment that Mr Moose decided to cross showed a low probability. When we saw how much was going on, leaving tracks, it begged another question though. How many encounters just like that were we missing?!
|Strange Geology - McKenzie Mountains|
Much of Canada was explored and navigated thanks to the canoe. Beyond the Native American use for hunting and trade, the canoe entered a new chapter with the fur trade. The trappers, extraordinary individuals, who would disappear into the wilds, the unexplored interior of Canada, and return sometimes a year later with the gunnels of their boats over flowing with animal furs for the monied gentry of Eastern North America and Europe. With modern eyes we would, of course, see this trade in a different light. Certainly it didn't do some of the rarer species of animal any good in some parts. I can't help admiring their spirit though. Heading out with little more than a canoe made from birch bark, paddle, knife, rifle, twine & wire and maybe a cooking pot. It is hard to fully imagine just how unknown the landscape would have been then. Without maps they had to rely on their understanding of nature and good links with the Native American populations to get their information. You can't rely, when journeying across a massive country such as Canada, on all the rivers to flow the way you want to go. Particularly when you need to get back! They developed and adapted Native American techniques to enable them to travel upstream, connecting them to lakes, and other water courses. Sometimes they would face rapids that were a high risk to person and cargo. To avoid having to portage (see previous installment) their heavy loads all the time they also created methods to make it safer to go downstream whilst keeping the boat and cargo in the water. We now call all these methods "traditional canoe skills" or fondly "trad skills".
|Fur Trapper in Alaska - Photo credit - http://digitaldocsinabox.org|
A lot of canoeists hate them! Well maybe not hate, but certainly tolerate their existence to complete a canoe course, such as the British Canoe Union Star Awards, then never use them again until the next assessment. For me they are at the heart of what makes canoeing special. It takes it from being a bog standard car to being the 4x4 Landrover of the river! Realistically you could paddle a canoe for a lifetime somewhere like Britain without using these skills. Our first section of the McClusky Creek though would be very dangerous without them. Some people even turn them into a discipline in their own right. Poling, where you stand in the canoe and push down to the river bed with a pole to move the canoe upstream is quite the spectator sport with competitions such as this one:
McClusky Creek is fast, narrow, and shallow. Perhaps good fun in a short playful kayak but potentially deadly in a heavily laden 17 foot canoe. If a canoe hits a rock side-on in the middle of the boat it can become "pinned". Held fast against the rock by the flow of water. If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself in this situation you have 10-15 seconds, before the water pressure is overwhelming, to try and shift your weight and angle to free the boat. After this the canoe may well start to fold around the rock. To be between the rock and canoe is not a happy place to be, crushing pressure and drowning competing to finish you off! A few inches of water with enough speed and things it hit such as rocks and trees is enough to get into trouble so we were taking this first stretch super seriously. In addition to those really bad consequences there was also the simple but very real risk of losing equipment. Everything we needed to survive was contained within the one boat. To reduce this risk we carried on our person, at all times; a knife, method of making fire (gas lighter and LMF Firesteel) and bear spray. In addition I also had a "grab bag" in the front that I would hope to snatch out of the boat in escape. This contained a further method of fire ignition, spare warm layer, GPS unit, map, compass, snare wire and the inReach satellite communicator.
|Exploring the Riverbed of McClusky Creek|
The Yukon is incredibly wild and hostile to the unequipped. Our canoe loaded with equipment was, I suppose, a little like a space capsule. So long as we had it, and looked after it, we could live comfortably. Without it we would immediately be in a survival situation. Bearing that in mind you can probably imagine how sharp my focus was as I pushed the boat into the flow of the river, connected only by a 25metre length of 10mm floatline. By "lining" we were able to float the boat with kit down the shallow rapids whilst controlling the descent by pulling on the rope attached to the back. Hopping from rock to rock and ducking under branches we made our way downriver. A trip, a misjudged chosen line or even a sneeze at the wrong moment could have easily left us standing on a gravel bank watching our metaphorical space capsule drift off into space. Despite the risks lining this section was still far preferable to trying to paddle it. Both sides were dense with fallen spruce trees dangling into the river. We call these "strainers". Yet another unhappy place to be as the flow will suck you under and through, not necessarily out the other side. At times like these you can not afford to to dwell on the hazards. Simply absorb the important information, mitigate the risk as much as you can, then act. To be honest I was loving it! The intensity was all absorbing. Dashing forward, playing the line to bring the canoe across the current, then allowing it to pendulum back into the shore by hastily wrapping the rope around a handy tree root. The scenery was truly stunning. A wide valley lined by spruce edged with jagged peaks.
|Downstream on McClusky Creek|
The sun beat down and on a long section of very shallow water we caved and stripped ourselves of the buoyancy aids (Personal Floatation Devices, a bit like lifejackets). Chasing the canoe as it built momentum I was in a pair of shorts, check shirt and knife on my belt - I was free! Rounding the corner the banks dropped off and before my internal alarm could be sounded I felt the acceleration and force through the rope straining in my hands. Shouting instructions to Niall, without being able to see, I knew he would be making for the bank river left as by then he would see I was in deep water. You don't need much water to sweep you off your feet and here the river was over my knees and moving at 15km per hour or more. Perversely I could actually only hold my balance by pulling back on the line using the boat as a counterbalance. Within a moment the boat and I where safely in the eddy beneath the problem spot. My awareness had been slapped in the face and after some strong words with myself I resolved to take more care and not to cut corners.
|Lunch Spot Having Moved to Channels River Left|
We decided to change our allegiance to river left. It involved emptying the boat and performing a 100m portage to a different braided channel. After lunch this proved to be a good decision as the progress was steady and looking back up at our original channel it would have been strainer central. It had taken us half a day to travel 2km! A bit unnerving when you have 500km to go. We were in one piece though and the boat unharmed. Having spent the entire day out of the boat in order to reach our camp the other side of the Wind River we jumped in to paddle the final 50 metres to the shore.
|Niall Making the Moost of it|
Something in the transition between being camped at McClusky, with the possibilities of aerial rescue, and where we were now felt wonderfully committing. The best way out was now along our route down the Wind. Enjoying the view we tucked into steak and turned our minds to the next bit. We were 2 days in (5 days since leaving the UK) and tomorrow would be our first proper paddling day. We settled into our tents, sun still up at 11:30 at night and tried to make the incredibly noisy river next to us sound less formidable!
|Dinner with a View - Camp One|
|Steak Dinner - Glamping in the Yukon|
|Map of the Wind River|
It was a frosty start to the day. Clear night skies had allowed ice to form on the tent canvas. Tiny shards of frozen condensation were finding their way down my neck as I made a futile attempt to dress whilst still inside my sleeping bag. Niall was already up and about gathering firewood. I'm not sure whether breakfast or the thought of a source of heat motivated him more! The lake had a gorgeous veil of mist across it, but even at that early hour, the summer Arctic sun was strong and burning through it quickly. Moments like this are fleeting. The light had the intensity out pull every last detail of colour and shape into contrast and yet softened like a great work of art. CLUNK, CLICK. Breakfast had to wait, I'd already dived into the waterproofed cases carrying the cameras and headed at speed to the waters edge to capture the scene.
|Grandpa with his Grandpa fork|
The sun was now bringing warmth to our world and I found my Dad testing out the LMF Grandpa fork to toast up slices of rye. One of the great things about traveling by canoe is the extra weight you can afford to carry, particularly in the food department! So, initially at least, there is no need to rough it and we settle into the Yukon wilds with bacon, eggs and rye toast.
The open boat, or Canadian canoe, as we know it today hasn't changed much from Native American roots - the design was that good. Canada has an incredible history of pioneering spirit that is entwined with the humble canoe. This is the method of transport of choice for this country. I can't conceive another method that we could have used for our journey.
Our first challenge was a portage to McClusky Creek. A portage is basically when you have to lug your canoe and kit over land for some reason. In this case it was because the lake the plane could land on was separated from the creek by a hill, but sometimes you portage to avoid hazards in the water, risk of capsize or transferring from one water system to another. It took a fair few trips to get all the kit from the lake to the creek fighting our way through dense scrub and trees. It was much warmer now and we were shifting over 100 kilos of equipment. The Mosquitoes were certainly loving us. Restraint found new definition in the predicament of having a large mozzie on your nose and not being able to do anything about it due to the canoe you are carrying on your head!
Our first challenge was a portage to McClusky Creek. A portage is basically when you have to lug your canoe and kit over land for some reason. In this case it was because the lake the plane could land on was separated from the creek by a hill, but sometimes you portage to avoid hazards in the water, risk of capsize or transferring from one water system to another. It took a fair few trips to get all the kit from the lake to the creek fighting our way through dense scrub and trees. It was much warmer now and we were shifting over 100 kilos of equipment. The Mosquitoes were certainly loving us. Restraint found new definition in the predicament of having a large mozzie on your nose and not being able to do anything about it due to the canoe you are carrying on your head!
|Packing the Canoe at McClusky Creek|
Believe it or not, despite 2 years of preparation and 5 traveling days to get to this point, the morning the canoe was first put beside McClusky Creek was the first time we had actually seen whether all our kit would fit into the canoe! Yes I'd done the theoretical calculations and have packed a fair few canoes, but even so, it was a tense 15 minutes as the canoe devoured the kit and sat back resplendent, taunting us as to what on earth were we worried about. I was really struck with just how amazing these canoe things are! Including us, the crew, our total weight peaked over a quarter of a metric tonne! Despite this, the canoe only needed 4 inches of water to float. Just incredible!
|Ready for the Off at McClusky Creek|
My excitement was palpable. All my concerns had revolved around errors in planing. Now the boat was packed, and as a bonus floated, the time for planning was over. A call to action sounded in the form of bubbling water over the pebble river bed. From now on we would have to think on our feet (well bums really as we were mainly sitting in the boat). What we had in the boat is what we would have for the following 3 weeks, and the only way to go was down river, and North to the Arctic. I couldn't wait to start shoveling water with my paddle.
There was a challenge to be met first though - not all of McClusky Creek is over 4 inches deep!!
To be continued..........
|Ever Item has a weight consideration|
|Photo credit - http://www.life.illinois.edu/|
The Beaver can take 500 kilos so we should be okay but you've got to add fuel, and importantly the pilot, on to that, so until we are loaded I'll be nervous! Not nearly as nervous however as I'll be the first time we load our 17 foot canoe with all the gear for a month's backcountry travel! Amazingly the Old Town 174 we are hiring is said to be able to carry 680 kilos, more than the plane! If it floats it will be a true testament to just how awesome this method of wilderness travel really is!
|Photo credit - http://www.canoekayak.com/|
|Expedition Essentials - Sat Comms, Cameras, Fishing License and a big bottle of Yukon Jack!|
It was a grey and miserable morning in Whitehorse. Having got up unnecessarily early, fueled on nerves, our stomachs knotted with the pancakes we had hoped to relish as our last good meal for a while. We must have looked a sight, sitting in the otherwise respectable hotel foyer, expedition kit littered at our feet. After the events of previous few days our egos had been suitably chastised and we weren't taking any chances in missing our ride up to Mayo.
How confident we had been in Vancouver airport 37 hours before. Watching our bags loaded onto the plane and casually commenting to each other that it was surprising we hadn't been called to board yet. Top tip for anyone catching an internal flight out of Vancouver - they don't call you to board, the information boards seem to be there for fun as no information will appear on them, the "Gate C" sign doesn't actually mean you are at Gate C, only that you are getting warmer, and oh yes, the announcer to page missing passengers only can be heard the other side of security. It still makes me feel a little bit sick to think of it now, but sure enough we arrived just in time to see the plane door closed. So having arrived at the airport 3.5 hours early we still missed the flight! Parting with a transfer fee and having to pay the luggage overage fees all over again hurt the budget sheet but not as badly as dented pride. We had 10 hours to contemplate our stupidity waiting for the next flight, half of which was spent staring at a conveyor belt, waiting for our bags to come back.
All in all our arrival in Whitehorse wasn't all that we imagined and we would have been just glad to hit the hay and sleep off a bad day. There was one last surprise for us though. In our haste to create a third bag to avoid additional charges I had accidentally packed the 1kg of plaster of Paris loose. We had had grand plans of using it to cast bear tracks. It had plans of it's own though including covering all our waterproofs and footwear. Our heads just about exploded at this point. How on Earth did we think we could carry off an ambitious wilderness journey if we couldn't even pack properly or get on a plane!? It was raining. Mixing plaster and rain would be bad. We decided to deal with it in the morning!
So you see, having spent a lot of the previous day trying to recover the kit and generally feeling pretty stupid, we were not the excited bunnies we should have been waiting for the outfitters to pick us up. Fortunately the pace was about to pick up. Out of the gloom appeared the van complete with bright red canoe on top and we were off.
Coming from the densely populated diddy British Isles the space and distance in North America is consistently extraordinary. When we were planning the trip the distance between Whitehorse and Mayo didn't look like much - a short hop. Six and a half hours later we pulled up at the jetty belonging to Black Sheep Aviation.
Everything about this scene shouted at us that we were finally living the expedition we had dreamed about for so long. Beaver aircraft looking resplendent on the placid water framed by spruce covered hillsides. Before we knew it the boat was lashed to the undercarriage and we shoehorned ourselves in.
|Niall packed in with the rest of the kit|
This was the first time either us had been up in a float plane and I found it amazing how short the take off was. Soaring through turbulent skies we snapped away at the incredible scenics between slightly unnerving drops in altitude caused by the turbulence over the mountains.
Sometimes ignorance is bliss, and it may have been a co-incidence, but I did get a little nervous when Harry, the pilot, reached for the Spot Tracker (beams out GPS position in event of a crash) on the dash to make sure it was working after a particular bumpy bit!
Our first glimpse of the Wind River was really special. Sunlight glinting off its braided channels it appeared like liquid silver draining through the wild landscape. As my heart began to float to poetical places so it plummeted as Harry banked hard to bring us in over Lake McClusky. Trying to stay professional and keep the cameras rolling I couldn't help but glance over at our able pilot to make sure he had meant to throttle back to pretty much the point of stall. This was a man who knew his business. Despite the cross winds, and the lake being the size a postage stamp, he executed the most perfect landing I've ever experienced. The really show off part of it though was, having switched the engines off on landing, the plane just smoothly floated under momentum to stop perfectly by the dilapidated jetty.
Out of the bush came Etrem. We hadn't expected to see anyone so this came as a surprise! Etrem had had a really bad time of it. Having landed there several days before he had attempted to solo paddle the river. Unfortunately his canoe had an argument with a tree not much more than a kilometer down. Fortunately he was unhurt and the canoe still in one piece but it transpired that he had lost half his kit including his satellite phone. So he had dragged his canoe back up to McClusky and had been waiting there in the hope that another plane would come in and he could get a lift back out. A salutary reminder of how unforgiving this wilderness can be and that even the smallest of mishaps can have disastrous consequences. It doesn't even bare thinking about how bad this could have been if it was further down the river away from the Lake where a plane can land. We really felt for him and it certainly put our stupid plaster crisis into perspective. It didn't do much for our nerves though!!
|The hut at McClusky's "guest book"|
We said our goodbyes and lugged our kit to the old trappers hut. The drone of the Beaver's engines quickly faded leaving us in deafening silence. Fighting to acclimatise to the enormity of the wild space we were now in we almost autonomously went about setting up our tents. What made the difference though was lighting that first fire. The comforting flames somehow brought us closer to the place and gave us a glow of confidence in the venture ahead.
It felt exceptionally good getting into my sleeping bag that night despite the -2deg C temperatures. After 2 years of planning we were finally here. Yes we were pooping ourselves that at any moment a bear would rip through the tents, or tomorrow our boat, body and possessions would be dashed against the rocks, but we were here and the adventure had at last begun!
|Cabin at Lake McClusky|