En Route: The Trans-Territorial Canoe Expedition (Stage IV)

Dispatch No. 4 from a 2,600 mile canoe journey across Canada’s Territories

Pete Marshall, Winchell Delano, Steve Keaveny and Matt Harren recently completed a four month, 2,600 mile canoe journey across Canada’s Northern Territories. Click HERE to read the team’s first dispatch, HERE to read the second, and HERE for the third.

By Pete Marshall

In early May, when we set off to canoe from the Pacific Ocean to the Hudson Bay, and were met with snow-filled mountains and then forced to slowly push and pull our canoes through ice that, though thawing, was still several feet thick, we somewhat wished we had started the trip a little later, when we wouldn’t have to walk through twenty-foot deep snow and actually paddle our canoes.

Three months later, we were all thinking the opposite. Maybe we should have begun a little earlier. After all, even a late spring will eventually turn into summer, that magical season for the canoeist. But summer, despite your perfect tan and comfortable shorts, turns into fall and in the north, no matter how you spin it, fall turns into winter. Fast. North of the sixtieth parallel, and near the Hudson Bay, this change to the chilly seasons begins around the middle of August, and from what several locals at our final resupply point told me, you barely notice that fall has arrived before the sleet and snow hit. It would only get worse as we neared the Bay, as the days got shorter and colder. We shouldn’t be surprised if a storm suddenly whipped up and pined us in our tents for days at a time.

With these warnings, or I should say promises, of bad weather to come, we left the hospitality of our hosts in Lutsel K’e. Preparing for the worst, we traveled with over forty-five days of food that just barely fit into four packs, which weighed in at around one hundred pounds apiece. Patience, plenty of food, and a bit of stubbornness would be the guarantees we would need to wait out whatever weather hit us en route to Hudson Bay.

The weather didn’t hit, but those food packs hit us hard.

Up to this point, from Skagway, Alaska, to the eastern end of Great Slave Lake, we only had to make ten portages. A relaxing weekend in the Boundary Waters would involve at least ten portages, but to only have to portage ten times over the course of a 1700-mile canoe route is somewhat extraordinary. Lucky even. Of course, this means that while we had beaten our upper bodies into perpetually sore, but powerful paddling machines, our legs were about as useful as ice skates in the Caribbean.

Through a series of well-worn snowmobile trails that wove south through a chain of lakes and back to the eastern arm of the Great Slave Lake, we hauled the heavy packs and canoes. At the end of each trail, most of which were muddy and flooded with standing water from melting permafrost and nearby marshes, we would have to turn back for another round of gear, and then a third time, do the same thing. Triple portaging turned a half a kilometer portage into a one and a half kilometer haul.

The packs chaffed our backs and the tight mass of sore muscles below our waists was a reminder to us that we had legs and that they could do more than simply curl up under a canoe seat for thirteen hours a day. After a few days of this we reached Pike’s Portage, a twenty-mile series of lakes and trails that people have been traveling for thousands of years. This was the route that would bring us from forests surrounding Great Slave Lake into the barren plains of the tundra, a raw and magnificent land that was one of the most anticipated portions of the trip.

After two days of sweating through flies and portages as long as three-miles, we arrived at Artillery Lake. Then something wonderful happened, the weather, the force that was reckoned to be our adversary, turned out to be our friend. The fifty-mile lake stood like a mirror, broken only by the wake of our boats and splash of our paddles. Soon we were on the northern end of the lake where we pulled up a couple sets of rapids on The Lockhart River, a task we did with joy because we knew that this was the last time we would have to exert any kind of effort against the current. It was from the Lockhart that we portaged over the third and final height of land on our route; a small hill that brought us onto the Hanbury River. From this point, it was downhill all the way until the ocean.

The landscape was rapidly melting into an array of autumn colors. Willows and shrubs fanned out splotches of red, orange and yellow over the once green landscape, marking the final breath of color before snow and ice came to dominate the area. Great Sandy eskers lined the banks, and as the Hanbury rushed to meet the Thelon River, it dropped over a series of waterfalls and tore violently through a canyon, features which made for several days of long, though magnificent, portaging.

The temperature fluctuated, wind came, then would calm, and in this unstable weather we paddled the Thelon, a river that is normally associated with caribou numbering in the thousands, herds of muskoxen, wolves, birds, and every other form of life found in the tundra. In September, weeks after the last canoe party had flown off the river, the area was eerily quiet. Except for the large flocks of snow geese we would see migrating to the south, the land was empty and still. Night and darkness came earlier and during the day, it grew colder. This was all expected and we had plenty of warm cloths to counter the shocking chill that would wait outside of our tent in the mornings.

For the most part, the wind was calm, and this is what we needed, what we hoped for. We were able to paddle long days and clock over forty miles on lakes and many more on the river. Despite our need for a rest, for a day spent sleeping in tents and letting muscles and joints somewhat recuperate while the wind raged outside, we were more than happy to be moving faster than any of us expected. Our wildest hope was to get to Baker Lake on September eighth. We got there on the seventh.

The community of Baker Lake marks the end of the journey for most people who paddle the Thelon or Kazan River. We still had over two hundred miles before we would be done. Pushing our selves and taking advantage of the conditions we were so fortunate to have, had put us in a good position to finish the trip, to ensure our success. And so we set off across the north shore of Baker Lake, a dramatic and inhospitable area of gnarled rock and cold water. Utterly beautiful. We paddled hard, and paddled until the sun set. When it was calm, we paddled later, setting up tents and eating in the dark, only to wake up five, maybe six hours later as the sun rose.

Fresh water turned to salt water. Chesterfield Inlet swelled with ten to twelve foot tides. Here nature was reduced to its most elemental forms of rock and water. Plant life was scarce, heroic in its ability to survive and live among such harsh beauty. Everyday my hands would continually cramp, and before we would even have lunch my fingers would feel like arthritic knobs of pain. Then there was my butt, just sore after the cumulative months of sitting. But this was all worth it. We were making unbelievable progress.

When we talked about our plans, about our route, many people admired us for our gumption, for our ambition, while at the same time thinking such an expedition as ours was, on a realist level, impossible. As the trip progressed, I realized that these people were absolutely right in thinking we might not be able to make it. And the closer the four of us came to reaching our goal, the more anxious I became. It was more than the threat of snow, or of a blizzard, or just strong winds coming off of the Bay; it was the fact that we were in polar bear territory. Half-ton land carnivores roamed the area, and since the pack ice has been melting quicker and forming later in recent years, the bears have not been able to eat enough seals during the winter to sustain them through the summer months, and so hungry bears have been paying more attention to humans. We had been told encounters with bears in the area have become much more frequent.

But again, luck was on our side. By the time we paddled onto the Hudson Bay, we had seen no bears, and to my disappointment, no seals and no beluga whales either. On the morning of September 14th, it was only the four of us in our two canoes, bobbing over the undulating swell of the ocean, alone with the land and the water that circles and touches the far corners of the earth.

Cabins and rundown buildings began to appear along with the power lines and gas tanks outside of the community of Chesterfield Inlet. We paddled into the small harbor as the tide began to turn and come in. For the last time I stepped out of the boat and felt the blood rush to my wobbly legs. Steve, Winchell, Matt and I hugged and said little. 130 days after setting out with smoother faces and wider guts, we had made it.

To learn more about the expedition and the crew, visit Canoe2012.com.

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