Pete Marshall, Winchell Delano, Steve Keaveny and Matt Harren are currently on a four month, 2,600 mile canoe journey across Canada’s Northern Territories. Click HERE to read the team’s first dispatch
By Pete Marshall
When we left our last resupply point, fueled by a huge (and by this point novel) breakfast of bacon, toast, eggs, and coffee, the sun was blazing, we were well rested, and hope was high. Then we saw that river we had managed to forget during our thirty-six hour binge of food and rest. The familiar current still raged between the flooded banks, and with it returned the familiar dread of having to paddle up this beast of a river.
But it was not long before we eased into the rythym of paddling, and as we adjusted to the routine, we began noticing what we had so long been waiting for: the water level appeared to be dropping. The grey trunks of willows and other vegetation, covered with silt carried by the river, emerged from the flood. At last, I thought, perhaps this daily routine of exhaustion and frustration might ease. And indeed, as we paddled off the Pelly and onto the Ross River, a smaller tributary that would bring us north to the continental divide, we fully thought that things would finally become easier.
The Ross had much less water flowing through it, the rapids at its mouth were manageable. Without much effort we could line or walk up the shores. The current slowed and for almost a week we had brilliant weather. Clouds were a rarity. At this point the Ross proved to be a rather lazy river, and we made more miles, more easily than we had ever made on the Pelly. However, this week or so of good weather and relaxed current would later have to be repaid with exorbitant interest.
The once manageable current grew strong; the river grew steep. And as the gradient which we paddled, waded, and lined against increased, the weather deteriorated. We were not only battling against the steady current, but formidable rapids. This was slow, cold work. While we juggled tow lines and walked against current up to our chest to maneuver around pillows of whitewater and rocks, the clouds seemed to have permanantly closed in around us. Rain would pound against the tent when the morning alarm went off, and at the end of the day pound against our tarp as the four of us huddled around a stove and waited for a mercifully hot supper. After supper we would head into the tents and be lulled asleep by the dreadful patter. We were living between a cold, mountain-sourced river and the damp air that hovered just above freezing. Water began to seep in through even our most watertight seals. Our world became a damp and bitterly cold.
On one of these days we had a break. Flat water. Amidst the rain and the cold, the three lakes located a little more than halfway up the Ross were met with big, though sober smiles. These were the first lakes we had paddled on that were not encrusted with ice, and after hundreds of miles of slogging upstream, paddling on the remarkably calm water felt like we were in motorboats. That day the rain stopped, and the clouds, as if following a cue, broke up and let in a little sun. We were surrounded by mountains, and the mountains had all received a fresh coating of snow. It was a wonderful day.
But we were behind schedule, and as we continued up the Ross we only fell further behind. The river became narrow, strewn with boulders and violent whitewater that ran almost without pause for over ten miles. It was arduous to work up a river like this. Ascending these rapids gave us a twisted taste of what was to come and made us eager for what lay on the other side of the continental divide: downstream travel. More specifically, running whitewater that went with the current.
That long-hoped for day, when we set out on the portage from the Ross River across the continental divide to Moose Ponds, the headwaters of the South Nahanni River, was of course, wet, cold and miserable. At times sun would burst through the clouds, only to be followed by hail.
Hail. We hadn’t had that yet.
But the bad weather was brief, and nothing that came from the skies could dent our spirits. We were elated. After all, we had crossed the continental divide in a canoe, and for myself, and I suspect for the other three guys, this was the most challenging and perhaps proudest accomplishment of my life. We sat on the shore of Moose Pond, with the sun cresting behind Mount Wilson and warm light pouring over four faces that were laughing and chewing on bites of macaroni and powdered cheese , it seemed that all the frustrations, hardships, cold and doubt we had gone through, were somehow necessary to experience this rare moment where our dreams had finally become reality.
Now comes the real challenge: describing the South Nahanni River. Steve said it best: “A lot of really great things have been written about the Nahanni. They’re all true, and really understatements at that.” Words fall short. Photographs are two-dimensional, and added on top of everything, we were going down river at this point. How can one describe such an experience? I mean, we were headed down river. With the current. It was euphoria.
Water levels were a little above average, and so we were able to get the full experience of the infamous Rock Gardens, the bouldery and rapids-strewn portion of the upper Nahanni . For all of us, these were the biggest rapids we had run in a loaded, wilderness canoe. On top of this, there were ten or fifteen of these technical and big water rapids in a row. It was great fun. At the end of each of the three days we experienced a different kind of tired; a too much adrenaline over an eight hour period sort of tired.
And we were going downstream, which made us giddy like kids on the night before Christmas.
Because we were almost ten days behind schedule, we moved quickly on the Nahanni. There were no side hikes to the numerous splendors along the way, but nonetheless, because of the swift and easy pace of the river, we allowed ourselves to relax, float, and enjoy the incredible scenery. Nine days after setting out from Moose Ponds, we had canoed the length of the river and were camped in Nahanni Butte. After a two day paddle down the Liard we arrived in Foprt Simpson and were treated to the extraordinary warmth and generosity of Orville and Jeannine, proprietors of Janor’s Guest House, who held our resupply packages and treated us to showers, beds and much a needed laundry cleaning.
It was an extraordinary seventy-five day voyage through the mountains.
Ahead of us is the Great Slave Lake, and past that the barren lands, the Thelon River, and Hudson Bay. I can barely contain my excitement to go out and experience the adventure that awaits us.
To learn more about their route, the crew, or support the expedition, visit Canoe2012.com. Click HERE to read the team’s first dispatch, and stay tuned to CanoeKayak.com for more in the field updates from The Trans-Territorial Canoe Expedition.