By Jeff Moag
We turn a corner and face the first hard ferry move of a 13-day, 210-mile descent of the Mountain River, one of the premier canoe trips in the Northwest Territories. Our lead guide, Jamie Burdon of Nahanni River Adventures, makes it look easy, deftly swinging his bow upstream and leaning into his strokes. His canoe slides smoothly across the current, well clear of the roiling pillow of foam climbing three feet up a wall of sheer quartz.
Now it’s our turn. I steer the canoe upstream to ferry across the speeding current, but with Guy up front, churning for all he’s worth to hold our position, I can’t power the bow across the eddyline. After about 30 seconds in this limbo I gamble on a quick rudder stroke, and lose. The canoe stalls and turns broadside to the current. “Get ready to brace,” I say in the most neutral tone I can muster while piloting an overloaded boat sideways toward a sheer cliff.
The canoe lurches up onto the pillow, which mercifully deflects our momentum and saves us from impact. I steal a glance at the serrated wall, which is inches from the gunwale and jagged, as if the river had bored through this canyon yesterday. Then I feather my low-brace into a forward stroke, shouting, “Go, go, go!” and we slide clear. A hundred feet dead ahead, the river pummels into another rocky outcrop and jags 90 degrees left.
Three more sharp bends follow before the river emerges from this unnamed canyon into a foam-flecked quarter-mile straightaway, the first unbending section in two days of paddling. We’ve dropped more than 400 feet in elevation from our put-in, and along the low banks I notice trees for the first time, waist-high dwarf birches. Storm cells loom menacingly on opposite horizons, and the sun is midway through its daily orbit. In July this close to the Arctic Circle, it doesn’t cross the sky from east to west. It makes a giant, off-kilter clockwise circle, barely kissing the northern horizon in the wee hours. It’s disorienting. For the first time in a life spent largely outdoors, I feel that I’m in true wilderness. I’m gaining a visceral appreciation of the immense scale and utter wildness of this place–precisely the reason I’ve come.
This part of the Northwest Territories is ground zero in one of the largest conservation movements in history. These are lands first explored by canoe, and the affected waterways read like a list of North America’s greatest wilderness paddling trips: Mackenzie, Keele, Thelon, Nahanni. I’ve come north at the invitation of the Canadian Boreal Initiative (CBI) and Nahanni River Adventures to paddle the Mountain River and see for myself what’s at stake. Traveling by canoe provides insight into the long-term strategy for the protection of as much as half of the Northwest Territories and, by extension, the plan to develop the rest of it for industry.
Many factors are driving the conservation effort, including First Nation treaty rights and the scientific consensus that Canada’s boreal forest is a vital hedge against climate change. But the primary impetus is a $14.3 billion project to pipe natural gas from the Arctic Ocean to northern Alberta, where gooey black soil covers a patch of boreal forest larger than England. Mixed with that soil is more petroleum than there is in all of Saudi Arabia.
Energy companies use steam to separate the oil from the sand, a process that uses enormous quantities of water and natural gas. With business booming, tar sands operators are eager to get gas from the Arctic Ocean to the Alberta oil patch, 800 miles south. But before work can begin on the pipeline in 2014—and to make the Canadian project a viable alternative to a rival Alaskan project—land-use agreements must first be settled with First Nations communities along the route.
That imperative has added momentum to this precedent-setting conservation action. In the last three years, portions of the Northwest Territories have been protected in state-sized chunks: interim withdrawals for regions as large as Virginia, and permanent protection for an area the size of Maryland, including the six-fold expansion of Canadian canoeing’s crown jewel, Nahanni National Park.
Though not linked to the pipeline, other large conservation efforts are underway in northern Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia. All told, more than 50 percent of the Canadian boreal forest could come under some form of protection, says my trip-mate, the CBI’s Sue Libenson. “That’s an area one and a half times the size of Alaska,” she says over breakfast in the territorial capital of Yellowknife, where she has arranged meetings with government officials, environmental groups and Stephen Kakfwi, a Sahtu elder who was the premier of the Northwest Territories from 2000 to 2003.
We’re half an hour late for our meeting, and Kakfwi, a small man in a business suit and ponytail, clearly is not interested in wasting any more of his time. But Sue follows him into the stairwell and persuades him to share his story. He starts at the beginning, his childhood in the village of Fort Good Hope, a day’s paddle downstream of our takeout on the Mackenzie. His generation of Dn (the word means “people” in Athabaskan languages) was the first to graduate high school in the early ‘60s. Kakfwi was at the vanguard of the native rights movement in the ‘70s, when he took a leading role in the successful fight to derail an earlier pipeline proposal.
Like many Dn, he supports the current project, but only if their lands are safeguarded first, and the oil companies agree to share revenue with the First Nations. “We’re not asking for it,” he says pointedly. “We just think it’s ours.”
The region’s First Nations have been the leaders in the conservation movement, with financial and organizational help from the likes of Ducks Unlimited, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and CBI.
The other big player is industry. “When I was premier I went to Texas with [then-Prime Minister] Jean Chrtien,” Kakfwi says an hour into our meeting, his tone now expansive. “We met with Terry Koonce, who was the president of Exxon-Mobile. He is a thin, hawkish-looking man, and he was brutally frank with the prime minister. He said, ‘Whatever else you hear, you can hold this to be true: We’re not going to pay for a Mackenzie pipeline and an Alaskan pipeline. We’re just going to build one.’”
The oilman was telling Canada to take it or leave it. Canada decided to take it.
The next afternoon we’re in Norman Wells,a town of fewer than 800 people named for the oil derricks perched in the center of the Mackenzie River. We meet our bush-plane pilot, Justin, at a one-room cabin surrounded by blue plastic fuel drums. He looks as if he could be in high school, but straps a travel-worn canoe to the starboard float of his Turbo Porter with practiced confidence.
I’m looking forward to an aerial view of this virgin landscape, but as we circle out of ‘the Wells,’ I spot a tangled web of thin scars reaching in every direction across the valley floor.
“What are those?” I ask Jamie, pulling back my headset to hear his response. “Roads?”
“Seismic lines,” he shouts above the roar of the plane. In the ‘70s, oil prospectors bulldozed pathways into the delicate muskeg in order to set exploratory explosive charges. Some 35 years later, they remain the most visible manmade artifacts in the valley.
The seismic lines reach only as far as the first sloping foothills. The plane labors over successive mountain ranges, cresting one saddle with no more than 100 feet to spare, the turboprop straining on the rise, then coasting down the contour of the mountain. Each ridgeline seems to be composed of a different type of rock; some red, others yellow or black. The low mountains are covered in stunted evergreens, the higher reaches carpeted with lush grasses or worn bare by the weather. Dense clouds hang close over the mountains.
We’re flying into Dusty Lake, three days upstream of the regular Mountain River put-in. That means none of us, guides included, knows anything other than hearsay about the upper section. When Justin lifts off and buzzes low over the lake, we’re alone with three canoes, one deflated raft, and a very large pile of gear. The nearest human settlement is 250 miles downstream.
A half-mile portage over soft, treeless terrain brings us to a narrow canyon of flaking quartzite and a small, swift-flowing river heavy with silt. Downstream it piles into a hard bend, foams white at the base of a rock wall, and disappears. The stony black beach is wet with recent rain; the ever-present sun plays an unending game of hide-and-seek with swift dark clouds. The first storm catches us just as Guy and I finish stretching a worn canvas spraydeck over our canoe’s copious load. We huddle beneath a tarp, 10 of us in a close circle, laughing and shivering as falling ice batters the fabric like 10,000 tiny drumbeats. When the hail turns to rain, fat drops penetrate the improvised shelter, filling it with a fine, icy spray that mixes with our misting breath. This is what passes for summer in the North. When the rain clears we bail two inches of fresh rainwater from our canoe and shove off.
The Mountain River immediately reveals itself as a superb canoe route. This high in the drainage it’s three boat-lengths wide, driving at a steady six or eight miles per hour over shallow riffles and into abrupt corners. The current threads a sinuous line between sheer walls and turbulent eddylines, making each bend an engaging test of skill and nerve. The first day I cautiously hug the inside of the turns. We slip into eddylines and spin out three times.
Thankfully Guy, a retired British Army major, has the fortitude to keep plugging, and the good nature to take our learning curve in stride. Our close call in the canyon comes on the second day. After that we begin to feel our rhythm. The Mountain River carries us through an ever-changing succession of landscapes at the rate of 25 or 30 miles a day. The river does the work, growing ever broader and stronger.
At every beach we see sign of game—woodland caribou, moose, bear, wolf. We flush a ptarmigan, and formations of Sandhill cranes fly low over the river. Larger animals are suspiciously absent. In the first five days the only big mammals we spot are Dall’s sheep high on the mountain flanks. We squint at them, wonder whether they’re sheep or rocks, and settle the debate with 7-power binoculars. When we finally float up on a small grizzly swimming the river, we’re thrilled. The bear isn’t. He immediately alters course for shore, shakes water from his thick brown coat and rambles into the brush.
That shy behavior makes the next day’s encounter all the more baffling. We round a bend to find a small caribou, not yet fully grown, standing up to its hocks in the whitewater. It regards us warily but holds its ground as we bear down. Suddenly we catch a glimpse of the reason: a dark, thick-limbed wolf, trotting along the brush line at the edge of the rocky beach. We pass within 10 yards of the caribou, spin the canoes and drift backward through the swifts, watching this natural drama unfold. Then we round the bend. The fate of the caribou, and of the wolf, remains a mystery.
As we descend, the river constantly changes character. Each day we lose 200 to 300 feet of elevation, and the trees along the banks grow progressively taller, changing every few days from birch to poplar to willow. Each tributary seems to bring a new type of stone to the beaches. The rough-hewn red pebbles common in the upper drainage become increasingly rare, replaced by timeworn black and gray granites, yellowish quartzes, basalts and micas.
On a map the Northwest Territories is a blank expanse, almost completely devoid of human landmarks like roads and towns. But it is far from empty. Traveling across it at ground level, measuring our progress in days and weeks, we’re constantly reminded of how rich and varied this country is.
The River runs across the grain of the Mackenzie Mountains, passing from one valley to the next through a series of deep canyons. The first dealt us winding whitewater channels; the fourth gave us the trip’s only Class IV move and the most spectacular rock formations—massive slabs of sedimentary rock whose perfectly straight striations met at cockeyed angles.
We reach the final canyon on Day 11. Inside, the river grows narrower and swifter. At the crux, a powerful current sweeps right-to-left in front of a jumbled mass of boulders before piling into a sizable hole. Jamie’s instructions are simple: Start far right, point your bow straight at the boulder field and paddle like hell. The current will sweep you clear of the rocks and, if you time it properly, you’ll skate through a tongue of greenwater between the boulders and the hole.
Guy and I aren’t what you’d call an ace team, but having paddled nearly 150 miles of whitewater without major mishap, we’re becoming confident. We round the bend in good position. I spot the bubbling current shifting hard toward the hole, which is so far to my left that it’s almost out of my periphery. I paddle easy, coolly waiting for the river to pull us clear of the rocks. I’m kneeling high in the stern, striking a bit of a pose for Irene’s camera, when suddenly I feel the hull lurch left and accelerate toward the hole. I shout at Guy for full power, lean into my strokes, and assess options.
The first lesson of whitewater is that you can never out-muscle the river. It’s obvious that we’re not going to miss the hole, and if we clip the corner we’ll surely capsize. So I swing the bow a hair to the left and drive for the center. If this 700-pound decked behemoth can’t punch this hole, I think, nothing can. Guy steals a worried glance over his shoulder and I flash him a grin. “We’re going in!”
The hull drops away like an elevator
The hull drops away like an elevator lurching into a tiny room with whitewater walls. I can feel the hydraulic grabbing at the canoe, slowing it, trying to pull it backward into oblivion. I stroke twice, reaching deep for clean water, and feel the river slowly begin to loosen its grip. Suddenly we’re in the clear green, upright and drifting toward the bright sunshine at the end of the canyon.
We meet our motorboat shuttle two days later later at the confluence with the Mackenzie, on a muddy beach lined with enormous driftwood logs. Like nearly everything else alien to this country, the wood came north on the broad shoulders of the Mackenzie. It’s time to part ways. While Guy and the othersreturn upstream to the Wells, I clamber into a motorized wood/canvas freight canoe with Sue, Irene, and Sierra magazine writer Nancy Lord for the 40-mile run to Fort Good Hope, the principal Sahtu settlement.
The Sahtu are Stephen Kakfwi’s people. Like many other First Nations in the Northwest Territories, they have sponsored large portions of their ancestral lands for protected status, including the Mountain River and its watershed. The formal process began in 1999, and its roots stretch back generations.
Thirty-four years ago, Stephen Kakfwi and another university-educated young Sahtu named Frank T’Seleie shared a hearing table with Robert Blair, the president of a company then vying to build the pipeline. T’Seleie, in waist-length hair and dark glasses, eviscerated the businessman. “You’re the 20th-century General Custer,” he told him. “You’re coming to destroy a people that have a history of 30,000 years. Why? For 20 years of gas? Are you really that insane?”
Passion for the land runs deep in the T’Selie family, as it does among First Nations throughout the Northwest Territories. That morning we meet John T’Selie, Executive Director of the Sahtu Land Use Planning Board, on the front porch of our guest house. He looks a little drawn. Someone had brought in a moose after midnight, and in the broadening light before 3 a.m., neighbors were crisscrossed the streets carrying plastic bags of fresh meat. No one seems to sleep in the North this time of year. Teenagers circled the town through the sunlit night, crammed four abreast into jacked-up pickups. There are no roads out of Good Hope.
That has been its saving grace. For all the talk of protected areas, the endless hearings and big-spending lobbyists, the Northwest Territories remains relatively pristine because it is hard to get to. The pipeline will change that.
Environmentalists say that once the pipeline goes in, the Mackenzie Valley will never be the same. Oil and mineral claims already cover about half of the Canadian North. The pipeline will bring the permanent roads and infrastructure to make those claims profitable. It also will bring boomtowns full of workers from the south. Eventually, the Sahtu and other First Nations could become a political minority in their own homeland, just as their Alaskan cousins did a generation ago.
T’Seleie nods when I ask if he sees it the same way. “This is our home,” he says, lighting a cigarette. His tone is calm, but there is deep resolve in his body language. “We have nowhere else to go. We have to protect this land.”