It was now July 23rd and I didn’t have enough time to paddle two thousand miles to Inuvik before the Mackenzie River froze in early October. A look at the map gave me an option. I could take out in Fort Vermilion, Alberta and peddle almost due north to Great Slave Lake. This would eliminate a thousand kilometres of paddling and was a safer bet too, avoiding rapids downriver, as well as shortening the paddle on potentially dangerous Great Slave Lake.
The Peace River is a tributary to the Mackenzie River drainage. Following the flow, from Hudson Hope to the Arctic Ocean, would require a journey of two thousand miles give or take. The elevation at Hudson Hope is about fifteen hundred feet. The math on that says that the river only averages nine inches of fall per mile.
I played tourist in Hudson Hope and didn’t start paddling downriver until 6:00 PM. The Peace River flow is controlled by the Bennett Dam. The flow and my timing were good, resulting in eighteen kilometres gained in two hours. I camped on the river bank being careful to pull the canoe well above any possible overnight rise in the river. But the water didn’t rise overnight, it dropped three feet, requiring a long drag to get the canoe back afloat in the morning. Shades of being back on the ocean with its tides.
In spite of the drop, the current was still strong the following day, and eight hours paddling resulted in seventy-eight km. This section of the river will be flooded when the Site C dam, the latest BC Hydro dam, is completed in 2024. Like all dams, the construction of Site C has been a controversial issue for a long time in B.C. But it will provide 35% of the power provided by the Bennett Dam with a reservoir size only 5% of the the size of Williston Lake. The reason being, it will allow the water stored in Williston to be used a second time for power generation It’s a shame to see historic and cultural sites flooded but to me this location for a new dam makes total sense.
I thought this high bluff island in the middle of the river was a likely location for Site C. Not so, but like all the islands along the Peace, and there are many, a decision has to be made on which channel to follow. It didn’t take too many wrong route decisions, to learn that the route to follow was the channel that had the most drop. The channels with the greatest flow have eroded deeper and ‘suck’ more water in their direction. My first inclination was to stick with the slower moving channel but after a few times of having to turn about because of water too shallow to paddle I eagerly sought out the channels that first showed a lower elevation.
This is rain. Rain from a cumulus-type shower. OK. Pullover and stand under that overhang until it passes. Hmm, not quitting as soon as I thought but it looks like it’s clearing further downstream. Paddle on then. Should I dig out the poncho? No, the raincoat will suffice. Looks like it’s going to quit soon …
This is standing under a bridge, an hour and a half later, very wet and still waiting for the rain to stop. Dumb of me to have continued without first putting on the poncho. It covers the entire cockpit of the boat. Without it, rain runs off the rain jacket, onto the spray skirt and eventually soaks my pants. After cooking some lunch, a change of clothes, plus the poncho, got me underway again.
This could have been very bad! The ditch, between the boat and the rock it’s tied to, was tiny when I stopped for the night. I pitched the tent about fifty feet away. As I was falling asleep I heard what sounded like gravel rolling downhill. My best guess at a cause was that it sounded like elk were coming down a distant gravel slope. I should have got up and checked. Had the wash been any bigger I could very easily have lost the canoe. Or at best, found it in the bottom of a much larger gully full of mud. I assume that the sudden flood was caused by a mudslide that had temporarily dammed the small rivulet and then let go in a torrent.
I drifted with the current when I first spotted this fellow. He never noticed me. He was on an island so I thought he was going to start swimming but he changed his mind and turned about. His back was to me when I passed closest to him and I softly said ‘Hey Bear’. That put him into full gallop into the brush without ever looking back.
If you come down to the river, bet you’re going to find … a country music jamboree weekend?!! No, I would not have imagined that. But the attendees likely never considered that a fellow would come paddling down the river, with a guitar on board, eager to join in with some country jamming either. Not in the plans at all but spent two days here at the Many Islands Country Music Festival
Caught up with a threesome, with a canoe and a kayak, doing a three day paddle down the river and didn’t pass up the photo opp.
Looking back to the town of Peace River. I resupplied with groceries here but I also needed new tires for the canoe cart wheels. The cart is not the same as a rigid trailer. The wheels, being only strapped to the canoe, can easily enough become positioned so that one is slightly more forward than the other. This causes the canoe to ‘crab’ as it is being pulled, causing excessive tire wear. I have marks on the canoe side to help indicate if things are getting out of alignment and an adjustment is needed. Of more concern than tire wear, is the extra drag caused if the wheels aren’t perfectly parallel to the direction travelled. I bought new cart tires at a Home Hardware in Prince George but they were total garbage and needed replacing in two hundred kilometres. Finding tires in Peace River required a hike across the bridge followed by a half hour walk uphill to the mall location. A plug for the Bell brand tires found at Walmart – as a cheap cart tire with a tough tread. I only use Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires on the bike.
I thought I’d be seeing plenty of game along Williston and the Peace but that wasn’t the case. About six deer, a couple of elk, one moose and two bears. I saw more deer grazing on the lawn at the BC Hydro office at Bennett Dam than I did paddling Williston!
A thunderstorm downpour while afloat. This picture was taken on the Mackenzie River though. I experienced a similar downpour on the Peace but regretfully didn’t get a picture. But it wasn’t rain it was huge heavy hail! The spray skirt was covered with white and the splashes, when the hail struck the river, were easily three inches high. It was bizarre and incredible. This time I was wearing my poncho and stayed dry. Later that day I was invited to a barbecue by some boaters who had stopped to chat and to see how I’d faired in the hail onslaught. Their vehicles suffered extensive damage from the even larger hailstones that struck where they were parked.
Practicing ‘lining’. It’s an alternative to portaging to get around rapids. The shoreline is walked and the canoe is maneuvered with ropes. There is not a lot written about the technique. Going upstream is easy. With ropes attached to bow and stern, the canoe is given a slight ‘angle of attack’ to the current. That keeps the bow pulling away from the shore and the lines stay tight. That doesn’t work going downstream though, and there is no way to keep the boat from being pushed towards the shore. That had me trying this long pole. More testing in actual rapids required. One other note re attaching ropes when lining. They are not attached to the bow and stern at the height of the gunnels. They are rigged, with rope, so they pull on the bottom of the canoe. That prevents the canoe from being tipped over. Attached at water level, at the bottom of the canoe, the hull can be dragged sideways without the danger of tipping.
The numerous islands on the Peace didn’t offer much for good flat camp spots. The best place to find flat seemed to be the centre of the downstream point.
A saved dragonfly. Occasionally I’d see them in the water, no doubt doomed to either drown or become fish food. With the right timing, I could scoop them, with the flat of my paddle, onto the spray skirt where they would soon dry and take flight. Wasn’t sure about this one with his missing wings but he did eventually fly away. Dragonflies eat mosquitoes – big time. The mozzies would start getting bad at dusk and some nights there would be hundreds of dragonflies feeding on them resulting in a chorus of their clicking flight sound as I lay in my tent. Imagine being a tiny mosquito and being confronted by the monstrous hideous form of a dragonfly. No empathy for their plight here. Loved to hear them dragonfly squadrons in action! That would even bounce off the tent in their quest for mosquitoes wanting to get at my blood.
Fighting a gusty headwind for a too long time. The river followed a very meandering path though so perseverance eventually had headwinds becoming tailwinds – for a while at least. The haze is smoke from forest fires.
The only moose seen on my entire journey down the Peace. This one was only a yearling and seemed to be disoriented. I think that had to do with the smoke, as just before it appeared, the smoke thickened considerably, and became strong enough to smell. I thought I was approaching a small fire but it was only drift smoke from a distance.
Taking out at the boat launch at Fort Vermilion, Alberta. I intend to resume my paddle journey eastward from here in the future. For now, though it was back to wheels and pedals on the highway that would take me to Hay River NWT.
Leaving Alberta and crossing ‘north of 60’ into the NW Territories. Look ahead, up the road. What you see is what you get for the next hundred kilometres. Stunted black spruce and tamarack amidst muskeg swamps. Easy pedalling though, although flat ground means never being able to coast and shift your weight off the seat. Some gentle up and down is preferred.
Alexandra and Louise Falls on the Hay River. Best not to put in above these!
Back on the water below the falls. Whether after a long cycle or a long paddle I always like the change to my other means of locomotion. Here too the sky is dulled by the smoke of distant forest fires.
August is laughing across the sky Laughing while paddle canoe and I Drift drift where the hills uplift On either side of the current swift
E Pauline Johnson. The Song My Paddle Sings
On the shore of Great Slave Lake adjacent to the town of Hay River. The boxes are what I shipped by bus from Fort Vermilion to lighten my cycling load. That plus two boxes of my vacuum-packed, previously mentioned, ‘trail cake’ mix that I had my sister ship from B.C. From here it’s only a one or two day paddle to the outflow of the lake and the start of the Mackenzie River.