DAY 70 CLEARWATER RIVER
Ahhhh! Downstream! Mark and I spent a lot of today just watching the shoreline go past us, as we floated downstream. We were probably drifting at no more than 3 mph, but it felt great! After more than 35 days going upstream, taking a paddling break AND making forward progress at the same time feels incredible!
To make things even better, the Clearwater is indescribably beautiful. Tall evergreens and poplar line the banks, the river valley looms up behind, and lots of small sets of rapids and riffles make for marvelous scenery. With the blue sky, the day could hardly have been more perfect.
We awoke to sun, to make it even more pleasant. Walking still isn't the most enjoyable experience for me, due to blisters and bruises from the Methye portage, so packing up took a bit longer than usual. We made pancakes, and watched the river go by. We still can't believe that the heinous days on the Methye are behind us!
Tarcisse and Aime, the two men who helped us on the portage, left before us on their hunt for the missing people who were "tubing" down the river. Finally we followed suit, and began pleasant day of paddling.
We paddled for a couple of hours before we reached our first rapids and portage. We had hoped to portage only once today, around White Mud Falls, but ended up doing 2 instead. White Mud Falls are big, long and dangerous. Parts of it are Class 6 Rapids, which basically means deadly. The campsites around it are gorgeous, and we hope to go back there one day to camp.
The next portage was around a long and unscoutable set of Class 3 Rapids. In general, we shoot only Class 3 rapids alone in our heavily laden canoe, and that only after extensive scouting. Since we couldn't scout this set of rapids, we hesitatingly packed up for a 1 cm. portage - not bad, on a normal day, but we were pretty sore. We shot lots of breathtaking and gorgeous Class 1 sets after that - easy and fun.
We ran into Tarcisse and Aime again, resting in the sun, in the woods, along the river. Nearing retirement age, they seem to be living the good life! They wished us luck, and we paddled on. We saw a big cow moose swimming across the river, lots of beavers and ducks and unbelievable blueberries! We also paddled by a huge limestone outcrop in the middle of the river with foliage on the top, making it appear to be the perfect picture of a flowerpot! In general, the area is very pristine and untouched.
At the end of the day, we started to see a few cabins, and figured they were only reachable by canoe at this time of year. The sun was getting low, making it hard to see because of the reflection on the water, but we pushed on anyway, because we weren't ready to say goodnight to such an enjoyable river. Our last set of rapids was Class 2 and 3. It looked okay - the danger was in its hallow nature and some small shelves -- so we started down. Midway, though, we pulled over and made camp in the woods, because the low sun made it too dangerous. It was almost dark and we figured we would try it in the morning.
We had snacked on lunch stuff all day, and weren't too hungry, so we climbed into the tent without dinner. After reading more about the river in some info we had, we realized that we can make it to Fort McMurray tomorrow, where we meet Mark's Dad. Mark called his Dad there to relay the happy news, and we geared up for our 100 km. day tomorrow. We will have to paddle hard to make it there by 5 P.M.. Mark's Dad is planning on meeting us 30 km. upriver, in a rented kayak. It should be a lot of fun.
So I'm outside the tent, about to go in, looking out at this perfect wilderness and the light reflecting on the rapids, when 2 jetboats come up the river and actually go up the rapids! Incredible! I guess we're closer to civilization than I realized. Oh well - it's still beautiful.
I think we're finished portaging -- for our whole trip. Hooray! Until later, Norah
8/24 DAY 71 CLEARWATER RIVER TO FORT MCMURRAY 60 miles
We are highly motivated by the goal of seeing family, and so on this day, when we were set to see my Dad, we pushed hard all day attaining miles normally not possible.
We did a similar push back on the Saskatchewan River when we made it to The Pas to see Norah's parents.
The fog was still heavy on the River when we broke camp, loaded up our canoe, carrying everything down our cliff and into the rushing water of the Rapids below. The set we were in is characterized by 2 ledges that are impossible to navigate in low water, but doable in high water, like we had. We'd shot through the first ledge into the sun last night and had hit it perfectly, not a scrape on our canoe. Such success made us scoff at the Class 3 rating of the set, and head off.
To navigate the next ledge, we had to get into the center of the river where a very narrow chute allowed passage. Our first strokes of the morning are never our strongest, and today that was no exception. We missed the chute and were sent scraping at some speed beyond our control over the roughest spot on the ledge.
By luck more than anything we were rocketed into an eddy where we could reassess our predicament. From there the set rounds a blind turn and then races over a shallow rock pond. We made it through that part easily and decided to bypass the portage around Cascade Rapids: we'd shoot them instead.
With more caution, we approached the Rapids slowly. We'd paddled through quite a bit of fast water to get to them and we were wary. The 2 ledges in this set were much larger. We walked the canoe at times, lined it at others. There were a few very harrowing moments - Scout alone in the canoe as we lined it down a drop, only to have it sucked out and upstream by some rogue current. We hove to onto a cliff face to "walk" around a deep section of rapids. There was massive water in the middle of the set.
It took us a full hour and a half to paddle those first 3 K. Far behind our own schedule, we opted to eat breakfast in the canoe as we floated and then paddled as fast as possible until we met my Dad. It was a beautiful late summer day, on an amazingly beautiful river. We saw huge mountainous meadows, lovely little side creeks, some sulphur smears and lots of boats.
Hordes of Fort McMurray's boaters were out to enjoy the last blast of summer. It was strange to be so instantly back in "city" areas. We did our best to take in the beauty of the day while also paddling as quickly as possible. We took short breaks every 10-15K, but never out of the canoe.
The bottom of the Clearwater is more marshy and it made racing through it more desirable than it had been further up. At something like 5 P.M., after 9 hours in the canoe, we rounded a bend, shot a little Class one set and saw my Dad, in a kayak, waiting for us. Yippee! It was great to see him! We headed for shore to stretch our legs, and dive into fruit, cheese and oranges he'd brought, traded news, stories, smiles, and decided to paddle the remaining 20 miles into Fort McMurray. He had been dropped upstream in the morning, by jet boat, with a group of other paddlers, out for a day of fun.
It was close to 10 P.M. when we arrived at last. We'd talked and paddled, and taken turns in the kayak, and watched Scout swim. It was a long, but leisurely paddle.
We also paddled, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind, 2 brothers from Moose Jaw. They'd been out for awhile on the Clearwater. It was good to talk with fellow paddlers. Mostly, though, it was good to see my Dad. He told us of life back home, and we tried to paint a picture of our last several weeks.
In the darkening sky, we loaded our things into his car and drove up to the Super 8, where he had a room for us. After being thrilled when our own river speeds would hit 6-7 or even 8 miles per hour, it was unnerving to be in a car in a city with stoplights and fast speed limits.
However, a clean, totally dry hotel room, pizza for dinner, and good company made it all worth it.
AUGUST 24-29 THE FORT MCMURRAY DAYS MARK WRITES:
We' intended to spend 2 days in Fort McMurray, but by getting there early, we thought we could stretch it into 4, making for a more relaxed time. We never intended 6 days!
On our third day, Norah got sick. We thought it was just the flu, then took her in to the doctor, where he figured, given our mode of travel, it was probably Giardia. We didn't learn until days later when the lab tests came back, that she'd had food poisoning. Yuck!
On the plus side, the time did allow for more time with my Dad, and that was great. He ran countless errands for us, to the post office, to the store, to go pick up our spraydeck (we'd had some zipper pulls replaced). Plus, he and I played many a game of cribbage, and in general, just enjoyed each others' company. Norah spent most of that time in bed.
Fort McMurray is a boom town. The population of 60,000 is expected to double by 2005, one local resident told me. People have come for the oil jobs. The oil is extracted out of the sand by some process that involves something like open pit mining, coupled with a pipeline, that shoots the oilsand to the refinery, under steam power.
Many people here have come from Newfoundland, a strange destination, but Fort McMurray's population rise matches the decline of the fisheries out east. And while people come for the oil jobs, we also met restaurant owners, hotel workers, and even a doctor, all sporting "Newfie Pride". "This is Newfoundland's third-largest city", one local joked.
Hastily thrown together, McMurray is not the prettiest of towns. There is a lot of history here, but now it is lost in the strip mall architecture of the town. Our time was spent in a rather generic hotel room, packing up, sorting gear, and nursing Norah back to health. There was much to be done to prepare for this last leg of the journey: food to be sorted, resorted, and packed, winter clothing to be fit into packs, equipment to be repaired. There were trips to the grocery, and to several local restaurants (one of which probably left Norah with her sickness). We went to the library to answer e-mails, visited with my Dad, and rested up as much as we could.
My Dad had driven 1600 miles to resupply us and we were grateful for his help and generosity. It was a joy to spend the time with him and we are honored to have had his company and his totally willing help. He was game to do all the errands that needed doing, and he was a terrific companion to Scout, who loved to race down to his room for a walk and a good bit of head scratching.
On the 28th of August, with Noah and me on the brink of departing, my Dad reluctantly left. He'd waited to make sure that Norah was fine, and that we'd get back on the river in good speed. It was only after arranging transport for us and running one last errand that he continued his driving odyssey down through Banff and Jasper, and finally to Seattle, to visit Jenn and Jeff, and their new baby.
It's hard to say where all the time went in McMurray; in retrospect, it is a blur. We did, however, see a couple of great soccer games, on TV. Canada advanced to the finals in the Women's U-19 League. They beat England, and then played an amazingly rough, but exciting game against a sneaky Brazil team, which Canada won in a shoot-out. We left without hearing how they did in the Final vs. the USA. Let us know if you caught the game on TV.
DAY 77 ATHABASCA RIVER, FINALLY!
I'm finally feeling better! We actually got to paddle today, and it is a huge relief to be back on the water. John, from Points North Adventures, picked us up at the hotel at 11 a.m. today. He was yet another extremely generous person who helped us out. He runs an outfitting company that rents canoes and kayak and outfits trips for this area. He was kind enough to let us store our canoe at his place, while we were in Fort McMurray. He is also a fount of information about the area, and he gave us lots of good advice for the upcoming portion of the trip. His web site is www.pointsnorthadventures.com
So we loaded our gear into his truck, and made our way to his outfitter's, where we experimented with new packing arrangements in the canoe. We have more warm clothes now, and we had to find a way to fit it all in. I did some final errands in town, we ate a few doughnuts, and we were off. The weather was rainy when we departed, so I donned my cold weather rain bibs from West Marine. They are the coziest! They kept me warm all day!
The weather actually cleared up after an hour or two of paddling. We felt funny at first, back in the canoe. Our compartments felt small and cramped, our paddles awkward. It had been the longest break we'd had yet, and we didn't exactly like it.
This river is big - 1/2 mile across - and contains many islands and channels. Today there were big tar sand cliffs on the east shore. In the old days, explorers would use the tar in the sand to patch their canoes. It's dark, and smells like summer roadwork in Minnesota.
Somehow I'd always imagined these northern rivers to be lined with pines, but the forests are a mix of spruce, birch, poplar, and (I think) ash or elm. There is lots of brush along the shore, and mud banks and beaches. We heard we get back into the Canadian Shield after Fort Chipewyan, on Lake Athabasca. Perhaps we'll be camping on rock again, after all!
Tonight we're camped on some limestone and hardened mud. I'm still not 100%, so we decided to camp early. We made pasta and parmesan cheese for dinner, reorganized some of our stuff and went to bed. The bugs aren't horrible, but irritating enough to drive us into the tent. We heard we will pass some mining operations tomorrow, and we think we can hear it - big thumps that sound like distant fireworks, and some truck noises. I doubt they will keep us awake.
Tonight we're grateful to be well again, and for how much easier Points North Adventures made our stay in Fort McMurray. Thanks!
DAY 78 Aug. 31
36 miles today 1554 miles so far
We awoke to sounds of the refinery at work and even by paddling better than 35 miles today, we went to bed still within earshot.
We saw 4 bears today, a mother with 2 tumbling cubs, who kept grabbing onto small trees and falling onto their backs, rolling down an embankment and then scrambling up again. About a mile before we camped we saw another, a small young one. We crossed to the opposite shore before setting up our tent. We saw huge flocks of ducks and geese today, as well.
The Athabasca itself became a braided maze of sand bars. We'd crisscross the river looking for a channel deep enough to float our canoe; the whole day was like that, the river a changing mass of sand. Usually we'd read it right, but from time to time, we'd have to get out and walk the canoe across a sandbar to deeper water. Scout loved these times, racing back and forth in the ankle-deep water.
Mostly, however, the day will be remembered for the refinery we passed, an endless mass of buildings and pipes and smokestacks and tanks and bridges and newly made roads, trucks as big as a house or bigger, and noise and smoke, abandoned buildings, fire belching out of tubes, water intake stations, front-end loaders and other gigantic machines, and the smell of tar. It took us an hour or more to paddle past it. It was like something out of a Mars movie or a postcard from the Saudi Oil Fields. All in all, it was a pretty strange sight for two people who've been neck-deep in Wilderness for nearly 80 days.
We're camped tonight just downstream of 100-meter tall power lines that pump energy into the refinery and beyond. Tomorrow should bring more of what we think of as Nature.
DAY 79 30 MILES ATHABASCA RIVER NORAH WRITES:
...a nice day on the river today. We paddled about 30 miles, some into a headwind. Mark wasn't feeling well, and we took lots of breaks along the way.
The river seems bigger now than it did before, but the current varies wildly, and we often stand up to try and find where it is running the most swiftly. The islands, channels and sand bars make it even harder to predict, but we do our best. It doesn't seem to follow the usual current conventions on a river. I guess we're still learning! The river water is rather murky, so we stopped by a stream coming down from the hills to gather other water. Again,. the smell of tar is so strong! The stream water was clear and ice cold, and made for good lemonade.
Scout seems delighted to be back on the water. Whenever she gets out, she runs around at full speed for a good 5 minutes before slowing down to sniff around. She is so cute! I'm biased, of course, but I think she's just the greatest. She's been cuddling up under our sleeping bags at night to stay warm. It keeps us warm too!
We saw a bear today onshore, standing on both legs, getting something out of a tree. It didn't see us at first, and we were able to sneak up really close. Scout didn't like it at all, and Mark has to fight to keep her turned away from the bear. Eventually it saw us and ran off.
Most of today, we spent paddling away from a big thunderstorm. I am afraid of lightning, so I shuddered every time we heard thunder. We pulled over after we saw 2 bolts, but otherwise we seemed to avoid the main part of the storm, so it turned out to be a nice day after all.
We camped around 8:30 tonight, which leaves us just enough time to get everything done before dark. By 10 p.m. now, it is dark, and by 10:30, it is pitch black outside. Mark spent time replacing some zipper pulls on our spraydeck, while I put up the tent and made Annie May's 3 cheese. Our spraydeck has been fantastic, but we have put it through an unusual amount of strain, and have exposed it to a ton of sand, so new zippers were in order.
So it's time for bed, and as usual, we're tired! Thanks for reading! Norah
DAY 80 ATHABASCA RIVER, SAME SPOT NORAH WRITES:
We awoke today to a strange noise, and realized a flock of birds must have taken off right next to our tent. Scout didn't stir, so we knew it was harmless. She's our gauge for danger, and if she doesn't growl, we rest easy. We kept listening, though, and after the beautiful beating of wings we heard a misty rain on the tent. Mark hadn't been feeling that well for the last couple of days, and he felt worse this morning, so we slept in for a couple of hours. The rain continued off and on, but when it stopped, we packed up and made oatmeal for breakfast. We kept the tent up in case Mark wanted to rest again, and after breakfast, he did. We crawled back into the tent in our rain gear. Mark and Scout slept, and I read for the next 3 hours.
As I read, the rain came and went, but flocks of geese flew overhead at a constant stream. I love the sound of geese, and even high up, the geese were loud! I wonder if they honk the whole way south! They're flying very high, in large numbers. Someone told us it's a sign of early winter. We hope not.
When Mark woke up, still not feeling well, we read out loud as the rain continued. Mark's Dad gave us a book called "Silence of the North", by Olive Frederickson. It's her story - that of a girl growing up on the Canadian frontier, enduring hardships and workloads almost unimaginable. She never went to school, but knew everything about frontier life: trapping, hunting, cabin-building, fishing and surviving. She spent some tough days on the Slave River, and we look forward to seeing where she was. It's quite an amazing life story, and has made us think about other people who have been here. We're doing this trip as some kind of personal odyssey, but in essence, for fun. It's good to remember that other people came here to find a better life, or to make a living, or were born here, and endured very difficult situations. When we complain about the cold rain, it's good to remember people like Olive Frederickson, who spent a winter with her husband and baby in a small log cabin they built on the Slave River, and spent lots of time outside, without high-tech rain gear. Anyway, it's a good and easy read about one tough lady.
We read a lot today, and when the rain stopped, made chicken noodle soup for sick Mark. The tarp blew down, and knocked over the first batch, much to Scout's delight, but the second batch tasted good to us.
DAY 81 SEPTEMBER 3 38 MILES TODAY, 1622 MILES SO FAR MARK WRITES:
The first day of school today! Although it is in our thoughts, we are embarking on a very different kind of day, but we're learning, more or less.
The swooshing push of wings awoke us again this morning. A flock of geese flew low and quiet over our sand-colored tent, probably unable to distinguish it from the earth, what with the very heavy mist and all. Rain and sun played tag all day. We had our share of both.
We paddled hard, finally feeling back in the swing of things, after our long break in McMurray. I'm still a bit under the weather though, so we stopped early, about 7 P.M.
The river continued to be a twist of sand bars. The heavy mist made depth perception a trick of navigation, and took much last-minute second-guessing. The river is the dumping ground for a few pulp mills, many towns and the refinery, so we've been getting water out of side streams when we can. Today we went a hundred meters or so up a clear feeder creek, the mud banks checker boarded with bear prints.
As we re-entered the Athabasca, a small outboard passed by, then stopped. 3 folks from Ft. Chipewyan, coming back from a ball tournament in McMurray. They told us of an alternate route to Ft. Chipewyan, bypassing the delta and the biggest crossing on Lake Athabasca. We could take the Embarrass River (Brian and Blue-Eyes say "Em-briss". Albert, Brian's nephew, didn't say much except that he was not saddened by missing the first day of school), and from the Em-briss, we'd pick up a creek called Mamawi, head across Mamawi Lake to a small channel hidden in a swamp and then head into Ft. Chipewyan. We might give it a shot.
The on and off rain kept us from eating much today. We made a little rice and planned to cook something else to augment it, but we were driven into the tent by a hard and sudden rain. Norah is still hungry. I'm mostly happy to have my stomach calmed down. We're camped on a high rock bank, ready to fall asleep, and happy to be out of the rain.
We're thinking of our students tonight and hoping that they have a great start of the year. We can't wait to get to know them in October!
DAY 82 EMBARASS RIVER NORAH WRITES:
We've started the "short-cut" suggested to us and hope it works out. We just met 2 men from Fort Chipewyan, who kindly stopped by our campsite to chat, and they affirmed that we were on the correct path to "Chip", as they call it.
This river flows into the Athabasca, then with it, and then out from it, and makes up part of the river delta. Right now, it just looks like a smaller version of the Athabasca River, with high mud banks, mixed forest, and sandbars. We're camped on a sandbar again, and everything is sandy. It wouldn't be so bad if it was dry and sandy, but everything is wet, cold and sandy. Not only does it make you want to not touch anything, but it gets on our dishes, our clothes, socks, paddles, packs - everything! It's really hard on zippers, (which break if sand gets into them) and tent poles (which can crack if sand gets into the joint). The only places to camp on the Athabasca are on sandbars, so it's unavoidable. You can only imagine how much sand Scout brings into the tent. Sometimes we try to brush off her feet, but it's hard for her to be that cooperative. The weather today did not help with the "sand problem".
We woke up to 45 degrees and rain, cold and yucky. It was a light rain, and we decided to do some journal catch-up until it stopped. Unfortunately, the rain only got stronger, drenching everything and making it ready to: yes, attract sand. Eventually we had to set out in the rain. I wore heavy long underwear, my rain bibs, 3 shirts and my raincoat and hat to stay warm. A brisk northern wind made it difficult.
The people we met yesterday recommended that we stop at "Kathy's", an hour or two down river. They said, "She's got everything you need", which to our ears meant hot coffee and maybe roast beef sandwiches. When we arrived, we were greeted by a large black dog, who really wanted to smell Scout pretty much all of the time. A nice guy there opened up the "store" for us, which sold candy bars, pop, and cigarettes. We bought 4 candy bars. The good surprise was that Kathy apparently collects artifacts from the area and had created a museum. It was in an old post office that had been moved from an old settlement called Embarrass Portage, and was now filled with all sorts of pictures, furniture and stuff from the early days of settlers in the immediate area. We love that sort of thing, and spent some time out of the downpour poking around. Again, it's always good to remember those who chose to live here when it was much more remote than it is today, and to think of the reasons they loved it here.
The black dog followed us down to where we had tied our canoe. We pushed off into the river, and to our surprise, the dog followed us on shore. We thought it would stop, but it kept going, over deadfall, swimming a bit, running and slipping We tried going towards the opposite shore, but the dog actually swam after us! I was afraid the poor thing would drown, so we went back and tried to scare it off. Instead, Scout kept getting off the canoe, or the black dog would try to get in, and every time we said, "Go ON!", in a mean voice, Scout would get scared and jump off the canoe again. Finally we just left, and it followed us, swam out a bit, barked, howled and wailed as we paddled away as fast as possible. Thankfully, after some last big howls, it turned for home. Scout whined after it. Puppy love?
Part of the reason I feared for the black dog was the pack of 7 wolves we had seen earlier today. We were probably 50 yards away, but there they were on the beach, running and playing. We watched them for a bit before they took off. Scout was unaffected. Strange, since she is very interested in wolf dung, which she sniffs cautiously, stretching her neck out and keeping her body as far from it as possible. It was really neat to see the wolves. Apart from the one or two I'd seen in Ely, this was the first time I'd ever seen a real pack.
Mostly though, today was marked by cold wind and rain. We were grateful to find this small sand bar and to be able to cook and eat in only a cold mist. Alessi Pesto made a delicious dinner!
Tomorrow, finally, we should be in Fort Chipewayn, to collect mail. We think and talk of school and our students a lot. It's hard to miss the beginning of the year, even if this is the trip of a lifetime. We will definitely look forward to seeing fellow teachers and students when we return!
Cross your fingers for sun tomorrow for us! Norah (Mrs. Garrison to all our students!)
DAY 83 9/05 EMBARASS RIVER TO FORT CHIPEWYAN MARK WRITES:
So we took Brian Blue-Eyes' advice and we lit off for the Mamawi Creek. Our maps do not show the creek actually connecting with the Embarass, but we picked out a point where they come very close and figured it must be the spot. It wasn't, and from there we had almost 10 K of wondering if we'd missed it altogether.
Getting descriptions of a place is always tricky. When they said, "It's by that place where all of the logs are pushed up on that far island", and you've passed 10 such islands, have you gone too far? Which island are they talking about? From what we'd heard, we expected the creek to be a 2 meter-wide chute with fast current and lots of dangerous sweepers (trees lying across the river, that can swamp a canoe) and deadheads (stumps sticking up out of the water). In fact, the creek is 10 meters at the start, and 15 or 20 later on. The current is slow and the only problematic deadhead area comes in the first kilometer.
We thought everything would go faster today. I skipped breakfast today - nothing sounded good - thinking that I'd eat a solid lunch in Fort Chip. In fact, we barely made it here before the only restaurant closed at 7:30 P.M. The creek took forever. All of our gear is sandy and wet, and the on and off rain only added to the mix. BUT - it is beautiful here and teeming with waterfowl. The leaves are starting to turn in small yellow patches. And we saw a fox.
It was a nice change to be on smaller water again, and the creek's delta has grown quite a bit since our maps were printed in 1971. We got a full 2 kilometers of extra river before we were hit by the wind on the shallow expanse of Mamawi Lake. We were searching for a pinpoint of water 9 kilometers away, a tiny opening in the marsh of the far shore. The wind blew, it rained a little and the sky was a portrait of cloud formations, very striking.
Apparently there is a red beacon at our mystery channel, and more through luck than by anything, we spied it and headed out of the wind. Once again, I recall Walter's words on the La Loche, "You don't need a map. You just go."
Go we did, down a channel that feeds into the Peace River. Our channel runs west to east and when it forks north to the Peace, it continues on to Lake Athabasca. What we didn't realize was that the channel from Athabasca also flows to the Peace. We paddled the last 9 kilometers upstream. The current was slight, but it had slowed us nonetheless. It was late when we finally rounded the last bend and saw the rocky hills of Fort Chip. A short paddle later and we were across the mighty Lake Athabasca, and on the shores of the most aesthetically pleasing town we've yet visited.
The Canadian Shield is back in force here, and this entire town is built on its rocky face. The lake is huge and picturesque. We were quite taken by the scene.
We raced to the only restaurant in town, and got there just as it closed. We ate burgers there, and then set up our tent on the beach well after sunset.
Day 84, September 6
We have had a fun and busy day! We're camped on a big
pile of rocks in a small side channel of the Riviere des
Rockers, which connects Lake Athabasa to the Slave
River. One person called it a Wier, which would be used
to trap fish, and someone else called it "the big dam."
It's about 15 feet high and 40 feet across, is manmade
and blocks the river. I'm not sure when it was put
here, or why it's here. There's a motorized motor-boat
tram running over the dam too, but it's broken. Bummer.
We paddled 20 miles today from Fort Chipewyan to here.
All downstream and with a nice current. The grasses in
the marshes are starting to turn fall colors, and this
area is teeming with geese and ducks. We're on the edge
of the shield, so rock outcrops are spinging up again.
We're big fans of rocks. Anyhow, it's a beautiful area,
and again, so unpopulated. Amazing.
One of the best things about today was the spider hang-
gliding we witnessed. It was sunny and breezy on the
water, and right away we started to notice spider webs
blowing in the wind. Across a HUGE lake! The webs were
thick, and every now and then a spider would be
connected to at the end, skidding across the water
faster than we could paddle. We watched in astonishment
as the lucky spiders would get lifted into the air,
foing 20 feet or more, until we couldn't see them any
more! This went on for the whole 7 hours we paddled,
and was awesome to watch! We tried to get a picture,
but we couldn't.
Another good thing about today was the Fort Chiewyan
museum. Great people working there and interesting
information. We learned lots about the importance of
the Fort and town, which is the oldest Euro-Canadian
settlement in Alberta.
September 7, Day 85
about 45 miles
This was a perfect day, and it is ending in a scene that will likely be remembered fondly for years and years to come. As a rule, Norah and I go to bed as soon as we can. But tonight we're sitting up around a fire on a small cliff overlooking the mighty Slave River, watching the stars and Milky Way and the Northern Lights. Off to the southern horizon, a growing thunderstorm is picking up steam. It must be far away because we can see the tops of the clouds. Now and then a bolt of lightning shoots across the face of it and reflects off the river. A momentary flash. That storm may rain on us tonight or tomorrow. But now - just after midnight - the sky above us is clear, starry and streaked with the dancing green of the Aurora.
It's cold - cool at least. Norah is dressed in a winter coat and hat and gloves. This is autumn.
Leaves and grass are starting to change over, with a bit more vigor, into yellows and browns. But the bulk of the color won't emerge until after the first real hard frost. That day will also mark the probable end of misquito season. The bugs are close to done already, but they still make their presence known around sunset time.
Now! The Northern Lights grew fast and bright covering the whole sky. We must have watched them for a half hour or more, taking a break from our journals. Sometimes pink or spiraling or circling around one spot. Or a block of light flashing or pulsing or doing the Aurora version of the wave.
With this fire and the light show our campsite would be the envy of many this night.
This day, too, was enviable. Mostly sunny. Hot when the sun was out, cool when it hid behind a cloud.
The Rochers, which flows from Lake Athabaska to the Peace River, is a silty waterway that ambles along at something under two miles per hour.
We stopped by a shallow, clear, side creek to get water and Norah sat backwards in her bow seat, facing me, and pumped the water to flush out any badness. We talked some, and I paddled as quickly as I could. We'd wanted to make big miles today in spite of a late start.
Ten or twelve miles into our day the Peace and Rochers combined to form the Slave River. The pace of the current kicked up a notch and we set in to paddle hard for the rest of the day.
This is a magnificent river. It must be a kilometer (10 football fields) wide. And it moves through some beautiful country. Rock outcroppings and reedy meadows. Pine and Aspen stands. Every now and then a small rapids pushed us forward at even greater speed. These were mere raffles really, but complete with the churn of waves and the noise to boot. These mini drops were really fun.
The scenery is top notch. Stands of Aspen, Birch and Marsh trees mixed in with the Pine. Some mud/sand banks, some rock. You can really get the feel of the power of this river when you see log jams stacked up 10, 20 or 30 feet high on the upstream ends of the islands. The thick pads of river silt are to be found on every rock shore, sometimes making a line that is meters above the current water level.
We saw a cabin every now and then, but no people today. The cabins belong to trappers who "own" the lines on either side. So each new cabin makes a new line. They must be pretty expansive as cabins are few and far between.
Again we think of the pioneers in this area. Olive, who Norah wrote about, seemed so tough, once paddling for four days, while seven months pregnant, eating nothing but the winter bark of trees. It makes out own push pale in comparason. But we are working very hard. We rarely make a fire like the one we had tonight. The comfort of its warmth is not worth sacrificing the miles we could be paddling instead of gathering wood. We always eat a cold breakfast, in the canoe, to save time. Even coffee is a rare treat. Our time is better spent taking down the tent and packing up. It is one of the tricks of traveling so rapidly with only two people. Many jobs. Few hands.
Still, we've seen an awesome amount of territory and while we fall, exhausted into our sleeping bags each night, we do not regret our route. We've seen a great slice of Canada, much wildlife, and a growing number of kind folk.
One such person was a guy we only talked to for a short spell in Ft. Chip. Edward McCullough is an archiologist who works in the field doing environmental assessments as well as digs. Based out of Calgery, he was in Ft. Chip working at the old Fort site across Lake Athabaska. He told us of the high pecentage of Lebonese people living on one leg of the Voyageur route, dating back to the fur trading days. They were already well established in the world of trading and bartering because of their country's geographic local at the crossroads of the continents, and came to this country to peddle furs. Who'd have thought? He says that the story is detailed in his book, Lac La Biche And the Early Fur Traders. We'll have to check it out.
September 19, 2002
Email from John Scanlan
Day 97 4TH WEDDING ANNIVERSARY!!
Norah reports that they are at Fort Providence, on the Mackenzie River. Weather has been "cool", with a high of 7 degrees centigrade (approximately 41 degrees Fahrenheit) with a misty rain. They were on the Great Slave Lake for two and a half days, and then into Beaver Lake. Beaver Lake is actually a 10 mile wide stretch of the Mackenzie River. There they met strong head winds, requiring 10 hours to paddle the 20 miles down stream.
They have not had access to the Internet, so have not seen their mail. There are no Internet Cafe's in Fort Providence, or on their recent route. They were in Fort Resolution on a Sunday, so couldn't get into a school. And now, the school at Fort Providence is in full session, so they cannot access the internet there. They have access to a phone, so watch for their updates, including a Scout vs Porcupine story.
They are both well. They very much enjoyed their time on the Slave River. And they are looking forward to their trip down the Mackenzie.
HAPPY ANNIVERSARY NORAH AND MARK!!
Mark and Norah Garrison
Trans-Canada Canoe Expedition
236 Courtland Street
Excelsior, MN 55331