Paddle the Mackenzie River to Inuvik

July 23/14 to Aug 14/14Hudson Hope to Hay River
Aug 15/14 to Sept 20/14Paddle Hay River to Inuvik
Oct 18/14 to Oct 31/14Hike Castlegar to Pincher Creek, Alberta
June 21/16 to July 8/16Paddle Whitehorse to Dawson City

From Hay River on Great Slave Lake and then down the Mackenzie to Inuvik is about 1000 miles.  That journey took me about a month including days spent windbound.  The river has good flow and no rapids of concern (or so I thought!).  I likely averaged about 60 kilometres a day.

Alexander Mackenzie made his amazing journey (down the Dehcho as it was known to the native inhabitants) and back to Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca in 102 days.  I say amazing because he was only 26 years of age and he had no idea where the river would lead or anything of its nature.  He hoped he was heading for the Pacific, but when the river eventually made a significant turn north, and he realized he was Arctic bound, he carried on regardless.  His troupe consisted of four canoes and twenty people of which only two were fellow Europeans.  The mission was of his choosing, he had not been specifically instructed by his partners in the North West Fur Company to go exploring, although opening new country to the fur trade was part of his mandate as a partner in the company.    He was a man of tenacity and daring. From reading his journals it is evident that he led, not by brute force but with an iron will and a convincing manner that his men respected.  At one point of the journey, the local natives told his equally superstitious natives, that should they proceed there were demons further down river that could kill with their eyes.  His tact and resolve were such that he was able to convince his people to continue despite their fears.

Sir Alexander Mackenzie.  He died in 1820 at the age of 56.  In 1793, at the age of 29, and three years after his journey to the Arctic, he followed the Peace, Parsnip and Fraser Rivers to the aboriginal ‘grease trail’ overland route that followed along the Blackwater River and led him to the Pacific Ocean at Bella Coola.  Thus becoming the first to make a crossing of the continent north of Mexico.  Compared to the challenges of navigating and portaging the rapids and waterfalls on both the Peace and Parsnip rivers, I’d say his journey down the Mackenzie was a comparative cake-walk.

A smoky sunrise on Great Slave Lake.  Here, I am only a few kilometres west of Hay River.  The previous afternoon I tried paddling, but the wind from the north was too strong.  I can’t control the bow in a strong crosswind, and except for wading and pulling the canoe along the shoreline, I would not have been able to proceed.  The waters of Great Slave Lake are very shallow all along its coastline to the start of the river.  Despite the strong winds, shoals further out, diminished the waves,  and that made pulling the canoe possible.  I eventually stopped to chat with a family who had road access to the beach.  Good choice! They filled me up with some delicious whitefish they were barbecuing!

Paddling west on Great Slave Lake.  I had a decent tailwind and luckily again, the shoals kept the waves subdued.  The problem though was the shallow silty water.  The wind stirred silt obscured the bottom and although I was a couple hundred metres offshore I scraped on rocks at least a dozen times during the day.  That sounds awful when it’s happening and I expected I was doing some serious damage to the hull but that wasn’t the case.  Where the lake finally discharges into the river there are multiple channels evident and I was glad to be done with the lake.  My shallow water concerns weren’t over yet though.  By chance, I picked a too shallow channel.  Here the water was clear but the flow was fast.  I never did hit bottom but it was unnerving in the fast flow to see the bottom racing by not knowing when there might be a too shallow shoal.

My first night camped at the beginnings of the river.  This rates as the worst camp spot I have ever had to use.  It’s a wet marsh of swamp grass.  I’m camped in a few inches of water.  There was no other choice.  I cut grass and piled it to elevate me some and then used my bigger tent and tarp underneath this small tent to keep me above water.  That plus a long, wet footslog, to where I had to leave the canoe.  This, after an hour earlier trying the door of a riverside cabin in the hope that it might be unlocked. Unlocked hunter’s cabins, further down the river, did serve me well many times, but not on this night.

The Dehcho Bridge is just above Fort Providence, the first of about twelve communities along the river.  The bridge was constructed in 2012 and is the only bridge spanning the river.  Prior to its construction, summer ferries and winter ice bridges were needed to access Yellowknife on the north side of Great Slave Lake.

At Fort Providence is the Mackenzie’s first rapid.  Indeed the water travelled at a rapid rate, 17 kph as measured by my GPS, but I didn’t consider it a true rapid.

Sunset on Mills Lake, a widening of the upper reaches of the Mackenzie.  Note the rocks sticking up out from shore.  Easily visible here, but in rougher water, it took constant vigilance to pick out their locations amidst the waves.  Only by good fortune did I manage to miss any just below the surface.  Also in this area, on a warm pleasant day with no wind, I was converged upon by a horde of may-fly-type insects.  They didn’t bite but they were everywhere, on me and the boat, and it had me wondering if this was to be a daily occurrence in calm weather, fortunately,  that wasn’t the case.

The summer of 2014 was the worst in three decades for forest fires in the North West Territories.  In total, 3.4 million hectares were burned.  Many fires, like this one near Fort Simpson, were just left to burn themselves out.  The hot spot generating this cloud of moisture and smoke is only a very small part of the total area burned.  I followed that fire’s river edge perimetre for more than fifty kilometres. I was fortunate that although the sky was full of smoke, the winds kept the smoke off the river. This picture is taken from the confluence of the Mackenzie and the Liard.

The Liard River enters the Mackenzie at Fort Simpson and brings with it a great deal of silt.  Above the Liard, the beaches were rocky and finding good camp spots took some looking.  However, downstream from the confluence, sand abounded both onshore and in huge island sandbars.  The dry spell that caused the fires had the Mackenzie at record low levels and further downstream it was possible, in some areas, to get into a too shallow channel and have to wade and drag the canoe to deeper water.

One night I was looking downstream, with my binoculars, trying to decide if there was any advantage to either of the two sandbar islands for a camping spot.  As I watched, a black bear emerged from the bushes on one island and swam to the other.  Easy decision that.  I only saw one other bear on my entire journey downstream.  Before camping, I would check the sand for bear sign but never saw any.

Once again ‘paddling on glass’ although in this case, I am rowing.  I can only row when conditions are good, as the rowing seat is situated near gunnel level and lower in the canoe is where you want to be when conditions worsen. I was able to row more days than not.  Usually, though I would switch back to paddling, at some point in the day, even if conditions were good, just for the change.

Tugs with long strings of barges regularly ply the river.  For hundreds of miles, there is no road access to many of the communities except by using winter roads.  During the summer, the river is the only way to ship goods.  Over some sections of the river, the barge string is broken up and the barges are brought down to more manageable water one or two barges at a time.   I was staying at a cabin upstream from where these barges were dropped off so I walked downstream for a closer look.  These barges were attached to a permanent large cable that ran up the bank and into the bush.  Curious as to what they were using, as an anchor point to ensure such valuable cargo didn’t break free, I followed the cable into the bush.  I expected to find the cable securely anchored to something well-engineered.  Instead, it was shackled only to a single, one foot in diameter, black spruce tree that had since been pulled over and was only secure because it had wedged crossways against other similar trees.  Pardon the lack of a picture, guess I was too stunned to take one, thinking of the consequences if everything started to uproot. It was weeks before I was able to phone the barge company and suggest they have somebody inspect their anchor point.

One evening I noticed a tug with a string of barges, on the far side of the river, that had tied up for the night. I should have taken the opportunity to call them on my marine radio and ask for a weather report. I think in hindsight that is the reason they had stopped.  Sometime in the night, I woke up from a very groggy sleep with my brain telling me to hang onto the tent pole.  There had been no wind when I fell asleep but now it was blowing a gale and then some.  My tepee-style tent has no floor, I use a cheap tarp for that purpose.  But no floor means that my weight, and the weight of the gear inside the tent, do nothing to help secure the tent to the ground.  It is held down by eleven tent pegs around its perimeter.  In addition, when camped on the sand bars, I would always take my plastic shovel and bury the bottom perimeter with six inches or so of sand, to prevent mosquitoes from coming under.  The tent would become very much one big parachute if it were ever dislodged by the wind.  I held fast to the pole with one hand, while with the other I stuffed all my gear back into their bags. If the tent were to become dislodged, it and all my gear would have been blown into the river, never to be seen again.  I hadn’t zipped the front flap completely down, so occasionally I could see the canoe and it hadn’t moved.  It was pulled completely out of the water but with no place to tie it to, it wasn’t tied at all.   I had to somehow get the tent pole down without putting any extra strain on the tent pegs. While still holding the pole as best I could, I was able to reach out through the door and reposition a few of the pegs on the downwind side, one at a time.  This gave me enough slack to bring the pole and the top of the tent into the wind and onto the ground.  What a relief when I accomplished that.  It wasn’t raining and the sand was blowing and as I lay there with the collapsed tent on top of me I could feel the sand piling up against my shoulders.  No problem with that, anything that secured the tent to the ground was a very good thing.  Now my concern was for the canoe but there was nothing I could do to secure it.  The wind was still howling, but as it hadn’t moved prior, I figured it was secure enough and I eventually fell back asleep.  I awoke about four, it was still dark but now dead calm.  I emerged from the tent and took the above picture before erecting the pole again.

The morning after the big blow.  The wind must have blown even stronger after I fell asleep because the canoe did not stay put.  The spot, where it was before the blow, is marked with the bit of gear.  It had somehow been moved sideways down the beach at least twenty feet.  I was so fortunate to have not lost anything from this tempest.  I very easily could have lost everything! The canoe was never left untied again.  I would search out suitable driftwood and either bury it in the sand as a deadman or with another piece drive it into the sand to make a tie stake.

This was very unexpected. I am a considerable distance from shore and suddenly I am approaching this shoal of very large boulders.  There were too many boulders sticking out of the water to attempt to navigate between them safely.  I quickly hopped out of the canoe so I could have control of where the current was taking me.  The boulders were too large, and the current too fast, for me to simply hold the stern rope and pull the canoe along.  There were thigh-deep holes between some of the rocks.  I had to hold the gunnels with both hands and proceed by using the canoe for support.  I soon learned that it was better to do this walking backwards, as I could more easily test the depth of the holes with a backward step than a forward one.  It took more than half an hour before I was finally able to see a clear enough path through the remaining boulders to allow me to hop back in and resume paddling.  As I paddled on though I gave some thought to a ‘what if’.  What if I had at some point somehow stumbled, and in the process let go of the canoe.  I was wearing my life jacket and it is equipped with a whistle in the pocket.  Great lot of good that would do a fellow standing a mile offshore and many miles from any community.  I do have a Spot satellite communicator that includes an SOS device but I kept it in the canoe.  After this lesson though it was in the life jacket pocket permanently.

Bear Rock at the junction of the Great Bear River and the Mackenzie.  My guidebook mentioned a hiking trail to the top and I was considering doing that until I saw how rugged it looked.  Not wise to undertake such a hike solo.  The clear water in the foreground is the Great Bear.

This is not a forest fire – it’s ‘The Smokes’!  It is an underground coal seam that Sir Alex noticed on his return back up the river.  That means we know it has been burning for at least 230 years – and possibly for millennia??  How is it though that something could burn underground for so long and not cause a great collapse?  You would think there would have to be a huge cavern somewhere underground.  I landed but I certainly was walking about on tiptoe.  The intensity of the smoke varies greatly from day to day, and at times it is not visible at all.  I was seven kilometres upriver when I first noticed it, and to see it from that far it must have been emitting like one very big chimney.  When I arrived I could hardly notice any smoke.  Google doesn’t offer any insight into what is going on underground here.  It is said, if you see the smokes, you will live a long life.  Wonder what they based that on?  It didn’t work for Alex – he died at 56.

Without the help of a rainbow the landscape along most of the river didn’t offer much for eye appeal

This is looking a little better.

A look at what some of the scrub looks like.  Here I was lending a hand searching for berries.

I was about to get set up for the night when some hunters I’d met further up the river told me that I’d be welcome at this place, and they were intending to spend the night there.  Danny, the owner, catches whitefish in set nets, smokes them in the building on the right, and sells them at a good price down the river in Tsiigehtchic (sig-a-chic, also known as Arctic Red River).  As well as Danny, and his sister, there was a young man from Ontario staying there for the winter.  Dillon had met Danny in Dawson City and was intending to spend the winter with Danny in the hopes of learning to trap and glean other bush lore from the experience.  I was there two nights and when I had the chance I talked to Dillon advising him that he should be sure he was comfortable there before winter set in, because otherwise he would be pretty much trapped by the winter conditions until spring.  I later learned that Danny and Dillon had a rather serious disagreement and while Danny was sleeping Dillon ‘borrowed’ the canoe and paddled the 100 km or so downriver to Tsiigehtchic.  A tragic footnote to all this though.  The following year Danny disappeared and his canoe was found floating downriver.  To my knowledge, his body and that of another volunteer, like Dillon, were never found.  It’s likely they were out in the canoe to inspect the set nets and somehow capsized.

The view from one of my convex paddling mirrors.  They work well to keep me on course for long-distance navigation but are pretty much useless for seeing anything close up.  More than once I have run aground or narrowly missed running aground on sandbars.

One of hundreds of navigation buoys along the Mackenzie River.  They are more than twice the size of 45-gallon drums and to me, they were a constant danger, when I was rowing, due to my inability to see things ahead with the convex mirrors.  Hitting one, with the oarlocks, would surely have caused the boat to flip.  They are all removed by the Coast Guard every winter as otherwise, the ice break-up in the spring would accomplish the same permanently.

I am approaching the Ramparts.  Here the river narrows from 4 kilometres across to a few hundred metres.  From about 4 kilometres above this point, I could hear the roar of rapids.  Rapids?  What rapids?  The guidebook makes no mention of rapids here.  What I must be hearing is the water rushing through the narrow Ramparts.  The book did mention staying right through the increased flow in the Ramparts.  But wow to hear it from so far away it must be some very strong flow!  Hindsight has me asking how I could be so dumb to accept that as the reason for the roar.  What sounds like rapids has to be rapids, but with the otherwise dependable guidebook making no mention of anything but faster flow I accepted that what I was hearing was somehow being generated by increased flow only.  All the same, I did stop upstream to put on my dry suit and check that everything was secure.   Resuming downstream it wasn’t too long before I could see the reason for the noise. The record low water levels had resulted in the entire width of the river dropping down a steep gradient about a kilometre before the Ramparts.  With normal higher water, there were no rapids here, but unexpectedly I was about to experience my first run through what were intense Grade 3 rapids.   With the lesser rapids I’ve run, there has always been a visible route where the waves are less, offering the safest way through if you can follow it.  That wasn’t the case this time.  All I could see were rows of four foot high standing waves facing me.  I lined up the canoe to hit the first of them as straight on as I could.  But then the next rows were positioned at different angles.  I became both paddler and coach, hollering out loud to myself ‘hard left, hard left, hard left, then hard right, hard right, hard right!  It didn’t take long until I was through them and feeling very relieved.  As I relaxed and drifted towards the opening to the Ramparts I noticed a motorboat approaching.  My first thought was that his timing was perfect, had I swamped and needed help.  He slowed and came over and I hung onto his gunnels while we chatted. “Did you come through the rapids!” he exclaimed.  I told him I had and that it was quite a ride.  “You made it through the rapids in that!! People have dumped their powerboats trying to get through there!  I can’t believe you made it through the rapids!”

A look back upriver at the rapids.  Too far away to show their intensity.  The thought of taking a picture never came to mind as I took stock of how close a call that was once I was through.

Scenic cliffs through the Ramparts.

Late in the day, I was rowing when a boat approached and stopped his engine to chat.  “You look cold!” he stated emphatically.  “When you get to my cabin I’m going to have fish, potatoes and macaroni ready for you.”  This was my first meeting with Willie, and the start of a friendship that occasional phone calls still keep up.  He was on his way upriver, to a tributary to fetch cleaner drinking water.  He soon passed me again on his way down, and besides the much appreciated hot meal, he offered me his cabin for the night.  He had to return to Inuvik, about 50 km downriver, but he gave me his number and said he would come with his boat trailer once I made it to town. In this picture, Willie is checking his set net for whitefish.  He has husky dogs and they are fed fish throughout the winter.  I stayed with him for more than a week and wore out a pair of leather gloves with all the digging I helped him with.  One such task was digging a five-foot-deep pit in the river sand to store the netted fish until the weather cooled enough to allow them to freeze.

My mission accomplished smile. It’s September 20th, 2014 and that’s Inuvik in the background. I have arrived! Thoughts of all the eyes that I imagined were rolling in the previous year when I was still in southern B.C. and people would ask ‘ where you heading?’ and I’d reply ‘Inuvik!’ It doesn’t matter how fast you’re moving, keep plugging along and you’ll eventually reach your goal.

Willie and Kim. Kim had special status over his other dogs and was allowed to come along on excursions.

Gardening in Inuvik. Even twenty-four-hour daylight hasn’t helped these cabbages grow beyond baseball size. Digging reveals that the permafrost is only a foot beneath the surface. I helped Willie haul several truckloads of good soil that the municipality was offering at no cost, and his following year’s garden fared better.

An unexpected treat. Willie had a bush pilot friend who had a cabin across the Mackenzie delta. I was asked if I would like to join them on a floatplane trip to do some work on the cabin. Glad I didn’t have a goal of paddling to the Arctic Ocean. Even with GPS, the last hundred miles would be quite a navigational challenge – and at the time the only way back would have been to paddle.

John’s cabin. We installed six strands of electric fencing powered by a solar panel to keep grizzlies from attempting to enter the cabin. The environment ministry provided the fencing as kits free of charge to any cabin owners who wanted them.

A view from the Dempster Highway. I shipped the canoe by commercial transport to Whitehorse and then hitchhiked to get myself there. Willie gave me a ride to Fort McPherson and a bed at a friend’s place. The next day I hitched a short distance south to the Peel River ferry. I told the ferry crew my destination and they welcomed me to stay aboard until a ride was offered. A few trips back and forth across the river and I soon enough had a ride to get me the 1000 kilometres to Whitehorse. I would have liked more opportunities to take pictures but the sixteen hour drive allowed for few stops.