September 25 Day 103
Fort Simpson and the Mackenzie River
It is a perfect night. Cool, but not cold. Calm. Clear. Bright moon. Stars.
It was an equally perfect day. We saw a Mackenzie River we had come to fear we might never see. Nearly calm. Even though it was warmer today, I think we must be acclimating to the weather. The frost that was on the tent when we rolled it up this morning was still there when we set up the tent tonight. It fell off in little ice chunks. So we know it is is cold, but we're lying in our tent, not even in our sleeping bags, with the door wide open so that we can see the moon reflect off the river.
I guess it's -4 degrees C or something.
The morning was spent attending to town business in the very likeable town of Fort Simpson. Norah and I thought "we could live here". As the hub of the Nahanni River traffic and the govrnment center of the DEH CHO (Big River) region, it has an air of purpose about it. The people were friendly and the town comfortable.
We ate breakfast, went to the bank for cash (we've run very low and fewwer and fewer places actually take a VISA card), went to the Post Office (thanks Molly and Greg and Dorothy for the packages!) and finally to the Northern Store for crackers, batteries and a bigger thermos. Things take time, and it was close to 1:00 PM by the time we hit the water.
The river is becoming even more picturesque now. Big banks, wide expanses, huge bluffs, and the Nahanni Mountains starting to rise in the west.
Just today the leaves seem to be vanishing. Red, orange, yellow and autumn gold replaced with winter gray.
We're eager to be moving on.
We decided some time ago, probably on Lake Winnipeg, to end our expedition in Inuvik, rather than attempting a late season trek out to the breadth of the ocean and back. The decision buys us 6 or 7 days of time which we really need. It also buys us a chance to visit a couple of people along the way and to camp each night before it is totally dark out.
We are still paddling as hard as we can. With this new schedule we need to average 49 miles per day to finish by October 9th. This will give us time to dry out our equipment, rest up, and possibly fly out to Tuktoyaktuk before meeting my mom and Paul and making the long drive home.
By the way, I talked to them today. They are leaving on October 4th with plans to be in Inuvik by the 12th. We're very excited to see them.
9/27 DAY 105
56 Miles today
2508 miles so far
Camped just North of Wrigley on the Mackenzie River
Back in Fort Simpson, I met a seemingly enlightened local with a long, white, Charlie-Boulding-style beard, wearing one of those fleece-lined nylon jackets, with the name and logo of a flight service embroidered on the back. "Inuvik,eh?" he said. "This is a baadd time of year to be paddling to Inuvik." He then told me the night's expected low temp, which was something well below 0 degrees C. Then he passed on this bit of knowledge: "Snowed last night up Nahanni Butte."
Clearly this meant something to the man, one of those bits of local lore that he picks up after years of living in one place. The statement, however, had little meaning to me except that somewhere nearby it was cold enough to snow.
I pondered. Did snow in the little town of Nahanni Butte, population a couple of hundred, mean the no-turning-back start of winter? The start of a big storm system? Big winds? A drop in temperature?
The fellow said nothing more. He just ambled away, a serious look in his eye.
I've thought often of his words, during the last couple of days, and am pleased to report that much as I dreaded the reality that might occur, the weather today was downright warm. Now, when I say warm, it has to be taken in context: we do have a fine south wind today, but there was still ice on the canoe when we woke up this morning. Our olive oil is the consistency of a dark paste. We're still needing more clothes that I'd care to count, and all the little sidestreams that feed into the Mackenzie are flanked by plates of thin white ice.
We stopped by one of those creeks for drinking water today. A trapper we met near the start of the river had told us, "You can't drink the water after the Liard River comes in. Too brown." He then went on to say we should get our water out of those side creeks and he made the motion with his two arms of water coming into a bigger area of water. He spread out his fingers and repeated this motion several times to indicate that there are many of these creeks.
We were glad for this advice. Our brief water run was rewarded with very cold, clear, sweet water. Yum
September 28 Day 106 Mackenzie River
Our day today was peppered with noteworthy events. If you asked Mark, he'd probably say that the most exciting event was that we made waffles for dinner, REAL waffles in a waffle iron! We bought this compact iron after deciding that our 12-pound cast-iron waffle maker was too heavy. When I say "we", I really mean Mark, since he is the true waffle-lover. I think it was hard for Mark to consider leaving the old 12-pounder at home, and there was some talk of bringing it just on the last leg. But he found a smaller 2-pound iron from GSR, and he was sold. We've been carrying it around for a long time. At the start of our trip, the weather was too hot for fires, we didn't have it during our portage-intenseive second loop, but now it has been tested and it is great! When the rain started this afternoon, I asked Mark if he still planned on making waffles. Mark, of course, was undaunted by the weather, and announced emphatically in the affirmative. So we ate waffles tonight for dinner, on a rainy, 35-degree night, in the dark. The waffles were delicious and well worth the extra effort.
If you asked Scout what was the most exciting moment of the day, she would probably wag her tail and tell you about the moose we saw, our first since the Clearwater River, almost a month ago. I insist that they know people are after them, and that's why they're so shy these days. I'll bet 99% of the people we see on the river ask us if we've seen any moose. Anyway, this one stood stock-still for at least 5 minutes. Mark said he thought it was a rock, and I was in my own world, until we were next to it. When it moved its head, though, there was no mistaking it. What a moose! Not the lanky tall ones we'd seen in Manitoba --this one "looked like a linebacker," as Mark put it. It was seriously stocky, and it had light-colored back legs, like it was wearing white knee-highs! I've never seen the like. And its rack--wow! Scout saw it when it moved and practically jumped off the canoe, barking and growling vigorously. (She ran for miles today; the shore was perfect for it, so we let her off and paddled. My mom sent up a blaze orange neoprene vest for her, which keeps her warm AND visible to hunters. It also makes her earth-tone coat stick out from the shore, so we know where she is.) I'm glad Scout didn't meet the moose while she was off running alone--she's a fighter, and this moose looked like it was ready to take on our whole canoe, dog and all.
For me, the most noteworthy event of the day wasn't one thing, but all the details. I try to appreciate the little things because they are what really make up a day. The big things--weather, wind, or how many miles we need to go--are important, but can wear me down, and make me lose sight of what's really important. What's really important is being in such an incredible place, with everything we need in our canoe: just the three of us in a big wilderness.
So what happened today?
--fog so thick this morning that we couldn't even see the river, and Scout sighing and groaning about having to get out of the tent
--a perfect early afternoon paddle, with good current
--a weird bulbous rock that bubbled sulfurous liquid
--a long run for Scout, probably 2 or 3 miles in total, during which she got almost completely mired in mud
--flocks of ducks flying over. We almost always stop padlding to listen to the sound of their wings flapping as they pass
--a total change of weather in the afternoon--fierce headwind, low clouds and rain
--one mororboat, which didn't stop
--tens of miles of old forest fire burn on the left shore. Makes for an eerie landscape -- so many dead trees still standing
--a nice feeling, making a fire in the rain and realizing it doesn't even bother me anymore to be rained on (at least not that much)
--the comfort of our tent, the cozy-maker...funny that it's the only home I've known for 4 months
So that's what happened today. It's quite different than my days will be in a couple of weeks! So I'll take advantage of this time I have to just observe the world around me, quietly. Or to have conversations that stretch for miles, or to be totally entertained by ourselves, and what we brought; no TV or movies necessary. All in all, to just appreciate what I have here, and this oportunity to live this simply, for awhile.
September 29, Day 107
54 miles today.
2,614 so far.
Headwind. Cloudy. Cold
A heavy mist, seasoned with occasional light rain, kept us in our tent later than usual. The very low cloud cover gave us more than reason enough to relax for a couple of hours of off and on morning sleep. We were eager to get going, but we love hanging out in our tent. It is amazingly well designed. In 106 nights on trail we've never gotten wet. On cold mornings like today, we stay warm. It is our true traveling home.
We finally decided that it might never stop misting, so we got out of our very warm sleeping bags, started a fire and ate a delicious breakfast before setting off.
We're still in the mountains. When the so-called ceiling finally lifted, we watched the remaining low clouds scrape from west to east over Mount Clark, like chalk on a sidewalk, leaving the whole of this mountain white and cold.
As extremely beautiful as the mountain view was, with its miles of snow covered ridges and dusted slopes, just looking at it chilled me to the bone. The fact that so much snow and ice lay over tree and rock so close to we are paddling brought shivers, and to be honest, I was happy when a high north bank hid winter's reminder from view for a couple of hours.
Reminder or no, we were well aware of the cold today. We paddled hard into a steady headwind and made our 54 miles in just 8 hours. We pulled over at dark, thinking of how much easier it would be to paddle the river in the summer when days are so much longer and the nights are warm enough to paddle if need be.
We'd envisioned cooking our meals in the canoe as we paddled in the fast current section of the river, but it is far to cold to sit in the canoe and drift. In 1993, going down the Yukon, I employed this method of meal prep to add miles to our day - allowing us to finish our trip on time by knocking off the last 800 miles in just 12 days. On this trip, however, we'll need to find other ways of squeezing more time out of the daylight hours.
Several creeks and a couple of good sized rivers aided our efforts today by adding more water to the river and thus speeding up the flow. Now the trick is finding the strongest channel within the river.
The channel of fastest, strongest, and depest flow snakes its way back and forth across the river all of the time. The challenge is finding it and sticking with it. Usually we can look at the map and the lay of the river and figure out where to find speed. It sticks to the outside of turns and in the center of the river during the straight sections. It always avoids shallows and sand bars. Sometimes it's marked by green and red channel markers set out for barges. Sometimes we must find it on our own.
There is always a certain amount of debate as to whether of not it is worth our while to cross over the mile or two of river to get to the other side where the current is going. But we almost always do - at least when the wind allows, because if we get out of the main current we sometimes cut our speed in half. The whole thing is a fun game and it keeps us occupied throughout the day.
Needless to say, we are cautious on cold days like today. Crossing miles of open water as the wind blows one way and the current flows another, is not to be taken lightly. It is for this same reason that we pull over when dark sets in. We like to see what's coming.
We knew that the temp dropped throughout the day today, but did not realize how much until we started to unload our canoe. Some of our gear, wet from these last two days of misty rain, were frozen before we got them up into our camp.
We saw no people today. They have cleared off the river, for the most part because of the cold.
Scout has taken to riding around under our spray deck. Northwater built in a hatch for her to stick her head up through. She is much more comfortable now that she can be out of the wind, but she is eager to be out of the wet and wind altogether. She is always happy to cozy up in the tent at night.
September 30 Day 108
It is cold and dark outside the tent right now, warmish and nice inside. We're writing by the light of our headlamps, in our sleeping bags, all of our stuff around us and packed down the sides of the tent. We tried to bring in lots of gear--all of our clothes, the camera, our boots, raingear, journals, maps and all of our sleeping stuff. Scout curls up on all the wrong things: our sleeping bags as we're getting ready to open them, a jacket when we're going to move it, or on the journals when we want to write. We keep making her move, which makes her grump and sigh, or not move until we move her. When she can finally settle down, she's usually snoring within minutes.
These last few days have been hard on Scout. The air is cold, the wind is cold, and this morning the snow covering the ground was cold and wet. She paces back and forth on the deck of the canoe and whines constantly. She will only go under the deck if we force her to, and she lets us know that she doesn't like it there either. She still loves her time on shore, running, rolling and playing, but I think it will be okay with her when we get to Inuvik.
We, on the other hand, have mixed feelings about the end of our trip. We both have so wanted to greet our new students, see friends and families, and enjoy some aspects of city life. But the thought of leaving here makes us very sad, and we try not to talk about it too much. We will be proud to make it to Inuvik, and we will not complain about being out of the cold rain, but again, we'll miss the comfort of our tent, the quiet of the river, and the luxury of having so much time together.
Our first snow today was exciting, but lulled us into a long morning in the tent. Wet driftwood and a considerable wind lengthened the morning fire-building, and we left quite late. The snow melted in the afternoon, except in the mountains, whose distant peaks create a white rim above the trees to remind us of winter. The paddling was pleasant, due to little wind, which enabled us to talk and paddle simultaneously. While it was fun, we went only about 42 miles. We camped about 8 miles upstream of Tiluta, a native community that used to be called Fort Norman. We camped earlier than usual, so that Mark could do some spray skirt repairs by daylight. I built a big fire to warm up, and we enjoyed a brilliant view of the mountains followed by vivid stars. The North Star rides high in the sky, and late at night, you can see Orion's Belt, one of my favorite winter constellations.
We went to sleep after another bit of northern kindness: a late-night boater stopped by to make sure we were okay. That seems to be the spirit up here!
Enjoy your own night sky!
October 1 Day 109
Tiluta and Norman Wells
60 miles. 2,716 so far.
Cold and windy.
It is inevitable that on a trip like this some days just feel like work. Today was such a day. We woke early and paddled past Tiluta, the town at the junction of the Mackenzie and Great Bear Rivers. We did not stop in because we wanted to push on to Norman Wells, where food is waiting for us.
I've often looked at Great Bear Lake on the map. It has seemed so far north and remote. The Arctic Circle itself runs across the northern end of the lake. It makes it especially interesting to be here.
Our weather was decidedly Arctic. A small mountain range follows the Great Bear River into the Mackenzie. Clouds poured off the top of it and ridiculously strong downdrafts blasted our canoe. For nearly an hour we were pounded by gusts and gales that raced down the mountain at our canoe. Steering became a constant challenge. Forward progress slowed.
I thought of Shakleton trying to land on Elephant Island. A similar fate befell him there and for hours he was unable to land. I was happy to be passing by the windy spot and not trying to land there.
The rest of our day was paddle, paddle, paddle.
Wind, even at our back like today, is wearing and we find ourselves tiring more quickly. Still, we paddled for close to 10 hours today with no real breaks to speak of.
At times, the river widened out to 10 miles across. Choppy waters kicked up occasionally making travel trecherous. As always, we were grateful for our stable MN III canoe and our spraydeck. We did ship a bit of water in one tricky section, but it rolled right off the deck. We powered on. An hour or two later we hit a section of standing waves that stretched for nearly a mile. Wind and current tossed them in all directions making a course like canoer's version of mogul skiing. It is fun paddling, yet it demands great caution and much effort. We were happy to reach the calmer water beyond.
Happier still with the view. Great white mountains stretch down both sides of the river. We've taken some pictures, but today was very destination oriented and the mountains served only as a kind of diversion and a basis for short conversations.
Norman Wells is an oil town located in a breathtaking spot. Here, like everywhere, we met kind people, happy to help us out. Jim gave us a ride to the Mackenzie Valley Hotel where we are taking a very short break from the weather, recharging batteries, and eating good food for one last time before the big push to the end.
Some of the oil wells are on islands here, and Jim has told us that the crew boats that service them are usually drydocked by October 15 because of ice.
With 500 miles left to go, we feel a serious sense of urgency. We know that Inuvik is an attainable goal, but are well aware of the different challenges that winter paddling brings.
Everything takes longer. We must make more hot things in the morning - oatmeal, coffee and cocoa, soup for lunch. All of these things add up, and getting out of camp takes a couple of hours or more.
With shorter days, we must set out before sunrise to fit it all in. This time of day is colder, often misty and rainy or snowy and windy so it is tough to leave the warmth of a sleeping bag to venture out. It is all just part of the expeience. Part of the expedition.
It seems impossible that two months ago our problem was that days were too hot and clammy.
October 2, 2002
email from John And Dorothy Scanlan
Norman Wells, Northwest Territories (Phoned update - Norah)
Norah reports that they are in a (trailer) motel in Norman Wells, charging their batteries for the satellite phone. They are careful to keep these batteries charged as the phone is their emergency link to help. It is cold now, night and day. Beautiful snow-covered mountains are everywhere. Small feeder streams into the Mackenzie are iced over. The Mackenzie is now two miles wide, bouyed, open, and the current running well.
They are paddling 50 miles a day, with a current that carries them up to 4 miles per hour when drifting. There are many boats out and about, also barge traffic. There are no roads, so the river is THE form of transportation.
Local people say that the boats are off the water on October 15. At our expression of dismay (You're cutting it close!), Norah explained that they are "going north" - meaning that the river will ice up from south to north - which is the opposite of our experience.
They expect to arrive at Inuvik on schedule. These last 400 miles are "definitely the hardest part of the trip." They hope to fax an update before they leave Norman Wells, so stay tuned.
October 9, 2002
Note from Jennifer Garrison Brownell
I got a call from Mark and Norah last night on the satellite phone. They were about 75 miles from the town of Arctic Red River. Sounds like they are cold! There is ice on the edges of the river that's thick enough to skate on and the canoe has ice on it all day. They days are really short, so they don't have much time to paddle, everything takes longer than it did in warmer weather. For example, it takes them an hour to take the tent down in the morning, since everything is frozen. They are not sure they are ready for the trip to be over, but for the moment, they are ready to "stop working so hard."
This morning, I got another call from Mom and Paul, who left Minnesota by car last Friday and have been driving steadily to meet the Expedition at its end. They are in Dawson City and expect to make it partway up the Dempster today, hopefully staying in Eagle Plains tonight. They hope to be in Arctic Red River tomorrow by noon, and they'll wait for Mark and Norah there! Seems like the end is in sight for real.
October 11, 2002
" . . if there is any greater satisfaction in life than hard work done for a worthwhile purpose and obstacles overcome that seem too formidable to surmount, I have not found it and do not know what it is." -Olive Fredrickson
We made it!
We arrived in the Mackenzie Delta at Tsiigehtchic and pulled our canoe out of the river on a bright winter day. We were sad to be done with our trip and our time together in the north, but also excited and proud about what we had accomplished over the last four months. We agree with what Olive said, and we have, in fact, found great satisfaction in the life we have had the opportunity to lead on this expedition.
While we would have loved to have kept on paddling, the last week of the expedition was the coldest yet, and we realized it was time to get off the river for safety's sake. We have been dressed in winter clothes and fur hats for a while and have watched the shores, side streams and eddies of the mighty Mackenzie begin to ice up. It turned out that it was fortunate we weren‚t trying to get all the way out to Tuktoyaktuk today - we heard that the RCMP had to use a helicopter to rescue some boaters who were frozen in near the Arctic Ocean.
Of course it is too early for us to see how this trip will ultimately change our lives, but we are so grateful to have been able to live out our dream!
Thanks so much for the kindness and hospitality of those of you we have met along the way. You made our expedition richer and more meaningful, and we look forward to staying in touch with you. We also cannot thank enough all of you who followed and contributed to our expedition. We were awed by the encouragement and enthusiasm we received from everyone - family, friends, students, colleagues and strangers alike. Your support and interest played a huge role in keeping us motivated to meet our goal.
We are proud to have realized our dream. The updates from our final week will be up soon, but we just wanted to pass on the good news that we are safe and are resting and reorganizing our gear in Inuvik, before driving back to Minnesota with Kandi and Paul.
Mark and Norah Garrison
Trans-Canada Canoe Expedition
236 Courtland Street
Excelsior, MN 55331
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