Saturday, February 6, 2010

Aug. 23 - Aug. 18, 2002 / La Loche - Methe Portage

8/18 LA LOCHE RIVER Mark writes:

On one map, the La Loche (rhymes with "wash") looks for all the world like a 34-mile long range river, a slow meandering trail of water through low marsh. We talked to several folks in Buffalo about the river, and while everyone had a few tips for us, we met only one person who had been on it. His info was sketchy at best. Perhaps he's only been there on a Ski-Doo in winter, because he assured us that the rumors we'd heard were all but false, and that our maps were right: there were no rapids.

"Canoeing The Churchill" refers to the river as the roughest waterway on the Voyageur Highway. But how tough could it really be? Besides, our thoughts were a day or two ahead on the Methye Portage. That 12-mile portage is such a landmark for us that it cast a huge shadow over the surrounding area, and helped make us seriously underestimate the treachery of the La Loche.

We slept in today, getting on the water after noon, well-rested and confident that we could kick off the 34-mile swamp before sunfall.

What were we thinking?

The start of the river is a calm, sandy twist, but in short order, we encountered the first big shock of the day: current! Fattened up by all of the recent rain, the La Loche was busting at the banks and pushing a torrent of steady water at us.

We were slowed to a persistent crawl.

Then we got to the rapids: strong, rough to negotiate, and endless. I have no idea how many we went up today - we stopped counting very early on in the game, at 20.

Some of the rapids were short, sharp drops that we had to get up -- the water funneled into a narrow and dangerous chute. These were a puzzle to be studied and solved. We often made several attempts in a few different routes before meeting with success. Others were extended rock gardens that required walking in the foot-numbing water, colored the tint of well-brewed coffee,each step a mystery, now the water 4-inches deep, now 4-feet. Now a rock is jabbing your shoe, now there is no place to step at all, and you can never tell because you can never see. To spice up the game, the water is freezing cold, so that in the longer sets, your feet and legs numb, so that you can't feel the rocks on the bottom either. It was crazy.

Our last set of the day was a brutal mix of rock and a huge chute that created a deep navigational nightmare.

After better than 30 minutes of pulling and realigning our way up the drop, we attempted to get back into the canoe, from our perch atop a log jam. We had a solid plan, but were almost instantly sucked back down into the set. I jumped out into the waist-deep water and yanked the canoe back up, but in the process, twisted my knee and banged up my shin. That experience, along with the fact that it was cold, and we were totally wet, plus the very low angle of the sund in our faces, combined to make it nearly impossible to see what was ahead, and led us to crasha campsite on a tree-strewn hill overlooking the river.

We found a tent-sized spot among the fallen trees. Dinner cooked in the bug tent, and we're off to bed.


I am continually surprised by the size of the lakes here, and Peter Pond is no exception. Yet another beautiful, desolate lake that I cannot see across. It is really amazing up here.

We awoke to a phone call, at 6:30, letting us know that our breakfast was ready in ten minutes. We had gotten little sleep, and we drowsily found the hotel owner, Doug, peppy and energetically cooking up a huge send-off meal for us. Steak and eggs, sausage, hash browns, toast and good coffee awaited us, as well as good conversation with Doug, his brother-in-law Isador Desjardin, his daughter, and Doug's brother, Dave. We ate and chatted with our new friends util we could put off our departure no longer. Isador had kindly offered to drop us off at Peter Pond Lake, and we found out too late to protest, that he had even built a canoe rack for his truck, in order to take us.

Isador had grown up around Buffalo Narrows, and had lots of interesting stories to tell. The one that struck me most was when he walked 100 miles from a fish camp to his house in the middle of winter. Amazing enough as that would've been by itself, he did it when he was 10 years old! He had been working at the camp, and after they flew the fish out, he and another kid had to get home, and walking was the only way. He said the snow was waist deep, and they carried fish from the camp to eat along the way. It took them a mere 4 days. Isador recounted the days of the old Buffalo Narrows, before thjey had water and a sewer, a road, and T.V. --all of which came in the early '70's. From what he said, all of them, including T.V., had a huge and irreversible impact, and some, of course, still plague society today. One of Isador's memorable comments was that when he was 10, he was considered a man, and today 20-years-olds are still considered youths. Definitely food for thought. He helped us with a load across the boardwalk to the famous sand dunes -- beautiful, fine sand in the middle of the swampy wilderness. We bid him a fond farewell, and launched our canoe. It would turn out to be a long day in the canoe: 30 miles, interrupted by an hour-long nap on a sand beach a couple of hours into the day.

The sky was threatening all day long - thick rain, and dark clouds circling nearby, but we were lucky and escaped relatively dry. On long lake paddles, I spend a lot of time looking at the clouds and sky, trying to guess what it will do. I'm getting better at it, but it is very difficult to tell which way the clouds are moving, whhile in a canoe! We're never really still until we're on shore, so sometimes we get it all wrong, and suddenly it's raining. Today, however, we rode the edge of a front all the way to the mouth of the La Loche River, where we camped after sunset. We had heard about a sand beach, but it got dark fast and we ended up camping in a swampy site. We were beat: a short sleep the night before plus a 30-mile-long day helped us to decide to skip cooking dinner and opt for cold cereal in the tent. The bugs and effort were too much work for us tonight.

One last thing: a beautiful, vivid, bright and HUGE rainbow graced our paddling today. Beautiful moments like these usually surprise us and always make us so grateful to be here. Goodnight!

8/16 BUFFALO NARROWS Mark writes:

We tried to leave Buffalo Narrows. Really, we did. We spent the day relaxing, writing updates, socializing and waiting for the Canadian flag (which was blowing straight East) to dip down a bit. Finally, at 3 P.M., we loaded up all of our gear, donned our warmest clothing and best Kokotat raincoats, and bid the kind folks at the waterfront, adieu. We left in a gale of wind and cold and rain. Our destination was Peter Pond Lake, somewhat like Lake Winnipeg (only smaller) in that it is shallow, wave-prone, and windswept. We were set to put a dent in to the 50-miles we needed to paddle up the lake.

3 clicks later, we rounded the corner, exiting the protected channel that led us into the lake and were hit with a blast of the best Peter Pond could throw out: driving rian, winds gusting to 50 and waves choppy and large enough to bury our bow and wash over the midsection. Norah shouted back, "What do you think?", the words almost lost in the rain and wind --a few short statements, later hollered from stern to bow and back again, and we decided to give it a shot.

If just one or two fewer elements had been working against us, we might have made some serious headway - or at least a respectable push, but after crossing a kilometer or less up the shore, it was clear that the total sum of sub 40-degree cold, growing wind, no safe place to land, pain and inconsistent and dangerous waves, were more than prudent paddling could stomach. We seized on the one decent landing spot, and waited for more than an hour, growing colder and wetter and more daunted by what old Peter Pond could kick up before pulling out the satellite phone and calling back to the waterfront. In an hour or so, we were back in Buffalo. Doug, the owner of the waterfront had gone to the store for us, and had treats in our room to cheer up our cold selves when we arrived.

Somewhat frustrated, but more resigned and glad we'd at least given it a shot, we made ourselves comfortable, changed into dry clothes, secured our gear, and got some food.

In our memories, the rocks, trees, and water can occasionlly blend together. Campsites become hard to decipher from one another, certain parts of rivers or lakes become blurred, but the people we meet, interact with, and are befriended by, make a serious imprint on our brains. Tonight we stayed up late with some of Buffalo Narrows' finest, or at least, most entertaining characters, who will certainly hold a place of honor in our memories:
Chai: immigrated to Canada when he was 14, speaking 3 languages, none of them English. He studied Canadian tax law and decided the best way to "make it" was to own your own business. He went to school and now owns a pahrmacy in Buffalo. He's well versed in politics (has interesting opinions about Canada, the U.S., the world), religion (raised Buddhist, he muses about the fuzzy lines between religion and culture), and humor (he has great stories about growing up, camping, family, culture, and travel).
Daryl: self-employed, he drives a truck. He is based out of Saskatoon, hs a great sense of humor, a quick, contagious laugh, a wealth of wit and a delight in others.
Doug: runs the hotel and will soon own the waterfront. He is generous to a fault, a great host, a legendary sandwich maker. He once worked in Detroit and now owns Kid Rock's' Dad's old 'fridge and a passle of his kitchen cupboards. He's a funny storyteller, a hard worker who can stay up late and get up early. He turned over his washing machines to us so we could do our wash. He's Great guy.

In the big plan of this trip, staying up until the wee hours, thus making travel tough the next day, isn't really in the puzzle. But in reality, this is exactly why we travel and why it is fun to share our experiences with others.

Norah Writes
August 19?
La Loche River, Saskatchewan

Yes, we're still on the La Loche River. Its almost funny how completely we misjudged this river. We were thinking mellow and swampy--instead we've found rocky, fast and quite difficult. the rapids we began yesterday continued for what seemed like 100 km. Actually, it was about 6 km, but it was a hard-fought battle.
As Mark told you yesterday, it was a foot-numbing experience. I'm not sure if it was the recent rain or what, but the water was by far the coldest we have encountered, and it felt like a glacial stream! Our one consolation was that by the end of the day we would be off of the La Loche River and onto Lac La Loche. Hmmm. Once again, our expectations were wrong. When we finally reached the end of the rapids(in the rain, I might add), we entered the NEVER ENDING SWAMP. Actually, it was quite pretty, but it seemed interminable since we just wanted off. As we sometimes have to do when we have a different goal in mind, we set our minds to appreciate where we were, and took in the blowing grasses (from the headwind), scores of ducks, geese flying overhead, and the cozy feeling of the narrow river. It was, indeed, never-ending, as it cut sharp meanders. Sometimes Mark would stand up to see if we could cut a path in the grass between the winding channels. In the end, we stuck with it and eventually reached some high ground where we could take a break.
The spot was in a burn out, probably a couple of years old. We see burned areas of forest very often--practically on every river that we travel. Some were put out, and some were left to burn naturally. There are lots of Jack Pine growing here, which is no surprise since their pinecones only open to release seeds in extreme heat. So while a forest fire is burning trees down, it is also opening the door for lots of Jack Pine. If you are ever camping, you can lay Jack Pine Cones on your grate over the fire and watch them open. It's pretty neat!
Anyway, the spot we stopped at was an old burnout, and had fireweed everywhere ( a pink flower that grows in old burnout). Fireweed is an excellent indicator of blueberries, and they were everywhere!! We had not seen such a patch on the trip, or I in my life, and we dug right in for 15 minutes or so. Even Scout could not resist, and she grazed as well. The berries were everywhere! And they stretched back into the burned woods as far as we could see. It made us wish we could stay and pick.
Instead, we took off our icy wet boots and put on our new $10 rubber boots from Buffalo Narrows. Cozy, but mainly dry. Hooray! We paddled that night until dark, camped about 20 feet from a beaver house on a pretty wet spot, and skipped dinner again. Instead, we carefully ate lunch stuff in the tent and went to sleep as soon as we could. Still on the La Loche River.
A last note--while it is thrilling to see beavers, you may not want to camp right next to them. I heard about 246 tail slaps in the night. So did Scout.
Thanks for reading!!

Mark Writes
August 20
La Loche River to Methye Portage

We're Here!
We are camped at the staging area before the Methye on a crisp evening. The moon high and bright. A big pillar with a plaque announcing this as one of the historic places in Canada.
We ate a feast of grilled cheese sandwiches cooked on bread that we had picked up as a special treat in the town of La Loche. It is, as always, the simple things - like bread - that bring delight.
The La Loche packed a few final surprises for us today. Several more sets of rapids complete with the now familiar shallow and deep spots, fallen trees and torrents of water. The last of these saw us into a lengthy stretch of marshy, sand bottom, river that varied in width from 1 to 5 meters. Ducks were plentiful. All kinds of them. Geese are starting to group up and fly south.
It was sunny and warm as we emerged from the reeds onto Lac La Loche. The lake was a mirror of blue sky and puffy clouds. We took advantage of the rare mix of total calm and proximity to a town to listen to the radio as we paddled. Some request show playing everything from the latest country hits to the best of Pink Floyd. All in all a pretty fun treat. Of course one of the great things about travel is learning from those in the place where you are traveling. The radio - and especially request shows like this serve as a peak into life here.
We spent too much time in town. We'd wanted to get here early - but we had business to attend to. In order to rid ourselves of unnecessary weight we gave away all of our extra food. We were looking for a food shelf of some kind, but instead found a very willing and pleased store clerk who was happy for the donation to her family. We left her close to 40 pounds of food.
As a funny side note, we did give this lady a half a dozed cake mixes that Widji had given us. We forgot until after we handed them over that our friends there had written notes, with words of encouragement or inside jokes, and put them onto the bags. I wonder what she will think when she cooks up the cake.
We would have bought more that just the bread, but we had no way to get cash. Apparently Master card is the preferred credit card here as they pay the vender instantly, while Visa can take a month or two. Anyway, we did pick up a pie as well - but is was really gross and we gave it to Scout.
La Loche is a town with a reputation that precedes it. We were advised to give it amiss, and perhaps would have if we had not wanted to give our food away.
5,000 or so people live there. Lots of bikes, four-wheelers (Quads) and trucks. Dirt roads. Lots of trash and evidence of vandalism. And, as we have seen everywhere - very kind people.
One local described La Loche as the "free life." A kind of lawless town where no one really bothers anyone else and everyone does as they please. From what we saw the description fits.
As soon as we left town a 20 click headwind came out of nowhere and blew down on us for a few hours - causing us to arrive here after sunset. We ate dinner in the bug tent, because even with the cold the mosquitoes are still bad in the evenings - especially when you are squatting in the tall grass.
All this said, our thought are really on the portage. We are gleeful at the thought of being here and proud to be on time. We'll get up early, pack our packs for the portage and head off.
This is a night for celebration and expectation.

Norah Writes
August 21
Rendezvous Lake, 8 miles into the Methye Portage
Boy, am I tired. Maybe more tired than I have ever been in my life? Very possible. The only comparison I have to the way that I feel right now is how I felt after the Birkebiner last February, a 50 km. ski race that I finished. Then, I felt like just laying down and a little bit like crying. If only we were done with the whole Methye Portage!
We are, however, in a beautiful spot. Rendezvous Lake is more than halfway into the grueling portage, and is the historic site of much trading. Rendezvous, which means "meeting," is fitting, for here Voyageurs exchanged their goods for furs trapped during the winter, and before that native people traded with each other here. I can see why they met here, rather than each crossing the whole 12 mile trek.
We started our day later than we had planned. It took us a while to fit all of our stuff into 3 large packs and 2 small packs. We normally have that many, but also have things loose in the canoe--the tent, or Therma-rests, an accessible bag of warm clothes, raincoats, toilet bag, cameras, phone, videocamera, water bottles, lunch sack, and personal items. These are all in individual dry bags, and we needed to get them into our packs. By the time we did this, our packs were unbelievably huge. We maxed out our big Granite Gear packs, which we did not think was possible. Mark and I did not really think we had that much stuff. Then again, we seemed to be rather unrealistic when it came to our expectations of the Methye.
We loaded our stuff into our canoe--we still had about 1 km of a windy stream to paddle--and set out. We had a hard time finding the portage. The river was less than 20 feet across, and sometimes we would take a wrong fork and have to paddle backwards to get out. Finally we found a brand new cleared 4-wheeler trail, got out and took our first load over it. We soon realized it wasn't the absolute quickest way to the portage head, so after we walked back we paddled a little further down the river. We took out our canoe, grabbed our big packs, and started the historic Methye Portage.
As we began, we thought about Peter Pond and Alexander Mackenzie and how they must have felt walking over it. What it looked like when they were here, etc. Unfortunately, our attention did not stay with the "historic" Methye Portage all day long. Instead, we quickly started thinking more about how long it was.
Let's go back to our unrealistic expectations for a moment. First, we pictured it being cool and bug-free. Instead, it was very warm out and very buggy. Mosquitoes and black flies made the voyage with us. Somehow I don't think they are as tired though.
Second, we thought we would do it in 1 day. Come again? In retrospect I don't think I could walk 30+ miles in one day in the city with nothing on my back, let alone with packs. I'm not sure what rose-colored lenses we were looking through, but we were very wrong.
Third, we thought we could do it in 12 1-mile segments. Walk a mile, put down the packs and go back for the canoe and third pack. Bring them up and repeat. Hmm. Definitely harder than it sounds.
Well, reality quickly set it, for better or for worse. My pack weighed between 100-120 lbs., and Mark's weighed between 130-150 lbs. Way too heavy. Our idea of walking 1 mile at a time changed to 1 km at a time, and then to 15 minutes at a time. We also thought it would be enough just to make it Rendezvous Lake with all of our stuff. So we were back to reality, and on our way.
The Portage itself it wide and mostly dry. Mark and I could often walk side by side. The scenery was beautiful--trees in a bright green moss, lots of open spaces, and tons of blueberries. Scout was happy as a clam, running around part of the time and staying by our sides for the rest. Again, I had pictured a cool day, fall colors, no bugs, Mark and I talking and laughing. I even left my binoculars out.
But this portage was hard work! Harder than anything I have ever done, perhaps. Our packs were so heavy that they were painful, and when minute 15 came around we would stumble to a resting spot, throw our packs down and stretch out. Because of the bugs, we did not rest for long and would start the walk back for load 2. Mark would carry the canoe, and I would carry the pack.
We were progressing all of our stuff at the rate of 1 km per hour. At 6 o'clock, we realized that we would not make Rendezvous Lake that night with all of our stuff. We thought about camping along the portage, but there is no water until the lake. So we decided to leave the canoe and as much stuff from the 3rd pack as we could, and just take the 2 packs as far as we could. We had come about 4 miles so far, and had 4 more to go. We did not want to leave food, for fear that a bear would get it, so we (incredibly) put more stuff into our packs and set off.
The next 2 1/2 hours were horrible. Our packs were practically unliftable. Our 15 minutes crept down each time, and soon walking 8 minutes at a time was a triumph. Sanely, Mark decided to risk the bear and left some of his additional load hanging on a branch. We struggled on, loudly huffing and puffing, alternately losing steam. Luckily, we had decided to use our GPS on the trail, so at each break we could assess our true progress. The middle was the hardest. I had gotten blisters on my feet that I could not find a way to relieve, and each step was extremely painful. Lets just say that tears were shed.
When we begun to get within shooting distance, we took heart and trudged on. Eventually we could see the lake, and soon found ourselves in a well-used campsite. We threw down our packs and let our some loud Whoops. We had made it, and we were proud of ourselves, even if we hadn't even gotten all of our stuff here.
My feet are pretty bad off, and I've tried to stay off them. We are ready for bed and for what tomorrow brings. This whole thing will bond Mark and I even more, and I'm sure we will laugh about it later. Probably not, however, until we get to the end.

Mark Writes
August 22
Methye Portage - Day 2
Clearwater River at last!
I have just gotten back from the campfire of Tarcisse and Aime - Two gentlemen from La Loche who helped us out. They were headed over here to their camp (here the term means ' a place where a tent frame or cabin is set up.') From here they are going out to look for some lost paddlers who left La Loche and then headed down the upper Clearwater on Tubes. They were supposed to be in Ft. McMurray a few days ago, but never showed up.
These are really interesting folks. Full of stories about life up here. Both grew up in the bush - not speaking any English. Neither has ever been to school. Tarcisse traps some, has 42 grandchildren and an endless supply of stories. He told us about everything from life in La Loche, "These people, they never bother nobody."
To the trapping life. "You give me your Address and I'll send you something. You need moose hide?"
To his phone bill, "I can call any time. I only pay $82.00 a month. Everyone use my phone."
To travel cuisine, " We don't bring nothing out here. We got all the food we need. Fish. Ducks."
To housing, "I'm going to build nice house in West La Loche. Go back where I came from. No T. V. No Cable. No electric bill."
On working he says, " I won't work for anyone else no more. I only work for my self. No boss. Only me."
To their search efforts, "We hunt. Fish. Look. We do everything."
He is quite a character and Aime is his side kick and traveling companion for 50 years or more.
The two really made it possible for us to be here tonight.
We walked back up the trail 6k (4 miles) to our canoe and pack. Norah limping awkwardly- even crying at times due to the pain in her feet. Both of us feeling like we'd run a marathon the day before and wanting only to rest and rehydrate.
This is the challenge of this trip. The unceasing nature of it.
The portage is beautiful and all. Mostly we just walked. Slowly. Looked around. Remembered certain spots. Were amazed at how far back our stuff was.
The walk back to our camp on Rendezvous was slow and protracted. The fact that so much effort was being put forth to merely get us to where we had already been was a tough reality.
It was late in the day when we got back. We crashed. Lay down in the tent. Escaping the bugs. Settling for the heat of the tent.
We'd sleep for an hour or two and then get going.
A 4-wheeler interrupted our rest. Tarcisse and Aime rode up. Our introduction to them a muffled explanation of Aime's bleeding head. He'd collided with a t branch on the portage. His pants red with the blood from his scalp.
While he cleaned up in the lake - it turned out to be just a deep scratch - Tarcisse told us of their mission - to find the missing paddlers from La Loche. The two were riding a quad and pulling a trailer full of things for their journey. Outboard. Guns. Fishing tackle. Odds and ends. All wrapped up in a blue tarp.
They offered to take some of our heavy stuff. We debated for a minute and then decided that we could give them enough to allow us to single trip the portage. Relief. Our things were all scattered, because we were going to repack our loads anyway, so we gathered up a host of things and handed them off. The two men departed and we set to taking down our camp.
We had not given them close to enough to achieve our goal. When we got it all packed up we had two huge packs and the canoe. More than one trip for sure.
We paddled the 1 K across the lake and started out. Norah and I each carrying a pack. I going back for the canoe while Norah rested her feet. A good plan for the final 4 miles.
We carried the first stage, something short of 15 minutes. Norah was resting and I was returning with the canoe. I'd run-walked back, but it still took me 25 minutes to go there and back. We'd have to leave our canoe at some point if we were going to make it there tonight. Come back for it in the morning.
I heard the 4-wheeler as I approached Norah. Our friend Tarcisse - come back with an empty trailer this time to help us out. His kindness and willingness to go out of his way to help - the cornerstone of northern people. He took the rest of our heavy loads - leaving Norah with only a light load and me with the canoe.
We set out again. Hopeful. Deciding to walk as quickly as possible. Figuring it meant fewer steps for Norah. Less time with a 20 foot canoe on my shoulders.
The bulk of this section is on switchbacks down the valley wall. The highlight an overlook that provides a glimpse of the Clearwater. For hundreds of years people have been writing about the breathtaking nature of the view. It did not disappoint.
1K and a little more slogging across the low ground and a maze of trails crisscrossing through the marsh and we were here.
On the shores of downstream travel. In a beautiful Valley.
Aime and Tarcisse took off in their boat. "We're going hunting."
Norah and I ate - forced down the food really. Our bodies - racked by more than 30 miles of walking - much of it with heavy packs - were reluctant to accept food. Our feet and backs sore.
Our spirits high.
We made it!

Mark and Norah Garrison
Trans-Canada Canoe Expedition
236 Courtland Street
Excelsior, MN 55331
(952) 380-9727

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