Friday, January 4

Day 5, Crash landing!

Early start on perfectly smooth water. They crossed to right bank and almost immediately back to left bank shortcutting long river bends.

After much discussion Dick and April settled on a new regime: When the winds come up in early afternoon and paddling is difficult, they plan to stop for a long, big meal
their dinner. Snack lunch in the canoe during the calm mornings, and eat another snack lunch (usually granola, jerky, cheese, dried fruit and nuts). in the afternoon after the winds die. They will make camp late (Dick argued for 2200, April for 2100 to get sleep for an early start) by simply pitching the tent and crawling in. So, at day's end, when they are tired, they can establish camp quickly and easily. This new way, their big meal will occur in the middle of the day when they are hungry. Before, Dick was too tired to eat at day's end.

The fireplace Dick built.

Acting upon their new plan, they stopped for 'dinner,' at 1220, when the winds came up. Dick built a windshield fireplace against a boulder, then a brisk fire, which heated the coffee pot (set in the fire) in less than ten minutes. While the pot came to a boil, April bathed in the river, and washed clothes. Felt wonderful; no bugs. They drank three or four cups of tea, then ate dinner. The stop was leisurely, with winds up most of the time. They were back on the river at 1600, when the winds were down. Dick could not get a GPS reading because of thick, black, low clouds.

Jean Marie village.

They paddled past a scattering of similar one-story dwellings along the left bank — Jean Marie River village — where about a hundred Indians live. The Dene Indians call their village "Tthets'ehk'edeli," meaning "water running over clay." The tiny town nestles beside the dark-brown Jean Marie River, where it empties into the blue-gray Mackenzie. In 1935, Dene families had moved there, starting the town to regain the old way of life. The men fish, hunt moose and trap to make a living.

Afternoon thunderstorms crowded the skies, so Dick and April hugged the shoreline. A motorboat headed out of Jean Marie, passed them, and puttered downstream. April waved. A man with his navy cap pulled down low against the sun’s rays waved back. He was the first sign of humans the pair had seen since they had launched on their great adventure, five days ago.

They saw an Arctic loon paddle by, and heard the rising wail of another loon. An eerie sound.

Without their GPS noon sighting, they were somewhat lost. Worst, when the Mackenzie turned north, another large river entered the Mackenzie. The river was not on their map! Also, they encountered three large islands
not on the map. That did it; they lost faith in the map, but needed to pick one of the two large rivers. Which one was the Mackenzie? They quit paddling, and let the river decide. The stronger Mackenzie current swept them down the Mackenzie.

The current picked up. Steep banks. The wind behind them.

"Man, we’re moving!" April shouted, momentarily forgetting fatigue in the joy of speed.

They spotted a (barely) feasible campsite and figured they better grab it, because steep banks don't offer many choices. This was their first landing in swift water.

The plan was for April to turn the canoe neatly upstream to slow the craft, then they paddle sideways to shore with a few deft strokes, Dick jump out and tie the canoe to a rock. But the current was too fast for them.

"What happened?" Yelled April, after the first failed attempt.

"Not sure," Dick said.

They made the next landing by nosing directly into shore, as they were used to doing. Dick, shoeless, hopped out. The rocks were large, slippery, and torture on bare feet. Hanging onto the bow rope, Dick flailed, teetering on big rocks, trying to get his legs to function again after so many hours sitting in a canoe.

April, still in the canoe, could see herself careening alone down the Mackenzie. And Dick marooned without supplies --- even boots! "Don’t let go of the rope!" April wildly sunk a paddle down. she wedged it among some rocks, and held on for dear life.

Recovering his balance and moving at top speed, Dick wrapped the bow rope around a shore-side rock. They and the canoe were safe.

Miles traveled: 25 (40 km)
Position at end of day: N 61-24-32, W 120-09-53 (determined the next morning)

Friday, December 28

Day 4: Crossing the Mackenzie

Up at 6, launched by 0745. "Better, but needs improving," Dick said as they moved out, first down the small stream to the Bouvier River, then down the Bouvier to the Mackenzie River. Then they paddled clear across the Mackenzie, carrying an unwelcome troupe of stream-side mosquitoes. The river is about 1.5 miles (2 km) wide where they first crossed the Mackenzie River, which may like sound much but it is, considering weather changes. In the hour or so for a crossing, the weather can change from calm to violent thunderstorms.

The Mackenzie was perfectly smooth, reflecting clouds, blue sky, a low-flying flock of Canadian geese and brown bluffs. They had a world to themselves. Two motor boats on Day 1 and no one since then. Work pressures dropped away; now sun, wind and river rhythms shaped their lives. A snatch of poetry occurred:
The mind lets go of its moorings, one by one, and begins to lose you.
The two stopped for lunch about 11:15, but neither cared to sit down during the 40 minutes. The paddling life is hard on rear ends.

The wind picked up; big, dark clouds formed overhead, but still the sun shone. Their laundry, spread out on the canoe, was largely dry.

An Arctic Loon paddled by.

They recrossed the river, because Dick read the map wrong and thought they were close to Fort Simpson. (Actually, they had miles to go.) Luckily, they crossed with almost no wind, although the sky was full of threatening clouds.

A large river, the Red Knife, poured its spring runoff into the Mackenzie, and threatened to push the canoe far into the Mackenzie. So they crabbed their way across the Red Knife, turning the bow into the Red Knife to maintain course.

"I think that's an eagle sitting on the bank," April said, looking two hundred yards ahead.

"No, it's just a rock," Dick said about the time the bald eagle took off.

About 2100 they started looking for a dry camp spot amongst the muskeg. Their tent needed a dry area about 5 feet by 9 feet (1.5 x 2.7 m). Not much, but hard to come by. They stopped three times to measure likely spots before they found one — up Skull Creek. Dick cleared the area of "six million logs."

Their campsite by Skull Creek.

There was no safe place in the dense forest to build a fire, so they ate a cold meal in the tent — a bad practice in bear country, but the best they could do. The tent was a sweltering 85 degrees F (29 C) when they first pitched it. But by the time their mosquito coil had done its job, and they could take off hot bug jackets, the temperature had dropped to 78 F (26 C). They finished recording-in-journal chores, map reading and locating position. Then rested on their sleeping bags, and looked up at the forest canopy through the four tent windows.

They had paddled ten and a half hours that day. Dick was bone tired. April was pretty tuckered out, too, although she had not paddled nearly as much. As they started to drift off to sleep about 2300, a woodpecker moved to a tree just over the tent, and started drilling. A beaver smacked his tail like gunfire beside their canoe. Neither animal kept the pair awake long.

Miles traveled: 20 (32 km)

Position at end of day:
N 61-12-35, W 119-27-35

Thursday, December 20

Day 3, Beavers and bears

They were off at 8:30. "Definitely an improvement," Dick said looking at his watch. "It only took 2 hours and 20 minutes to break camp."

"Hurrah! We have a current again. The last of Mills Lake!" April swung her paddle into action.

Even past Mills Lake, the swampy muskeg continued along both shores of the river leaving no place to camp. The reeds, though, came in handy around 12:50 when winds kicked up high waves — even white caps — on the river. Dick and April retreated into a reed thicket that the waves could not penetrate. Dick fished. Big ones flashed among the reeds, but none bit.

Finally, about 4:30 in the afternoon, when it looked like the reeds would continue forever.

"We may have to sleep in a fully loaded canoe, tonight," groaned Dick, "if something doesn't turn up soon."

"Looks like a river ahead," April shouted back to Dick over the Mackenzie's roar.

Dick checked the map. "It's the Bouvier. Head in!"

American beaver near Calgary, Alberta. Photo by Chuck Szmurlo.

They ducked up the Bouvier, then one of its tributaries to find a small grassy field with pink wild roses. A beaver's dam blocked the stream.

"The perfect slip," Dick said. April turned the green canoe into a natural slip cut into the bank that firmly held two-thirds the length of the canoe.

"Bear sign all over," Dick reported to April, after a short hike around.

Dick and April caught up on laundry. April even took a bath in the river. A delight cut short by an influx of black flies swarming on her legs.

Around 2200, mosquitoes moved into the campsite en masse. Dick tossed a bug jacket to April and quickly donned his, including head nets. That worked, barely. About 2300 the tent helped even more, when they called it a ''day.' They battled literally hundreds of mosquitoes, flies and gnats for another 30 minutes. Smoke from two mosquito coils smoldered slowly, taking a deadly toll.

"Everything I've ever heard about mosquitoes in the north country is true," moaned April. She eventually fell asleep.

A loud snort right outside the tent jerked her awake. She sat up, looked out the tent's window and could see only the tent's rain fly, which totally obscured the view. April's gun, a Winchester 30-30 was loaded, none in the chamber, and handy by the tent's door. Dick's gun, a 12-gage shotgun, unloaded, was also by the tent's door. Dick had four special dum-dum bear ammo in his vest pocket ready to slap in. But no bear entered the tent. Dick, weary to the core, did not awaken.

The resident beaver didn't exactly visit. He stayed, and slapped his tail, like gunshot, all day and all night.

Miles traveled: 16 (26 km)

Position at day's end: N 61-14-03, W118-54-16

Tuesday, December 18

Day 2, An infinity of Mills Lake

Dawn broke early, about 3:30, and already the winds were too high to launch. Dick, with stiff muscles and sore back, crawled out of the tent to greet the dawn.

Dick's day started well enough with his new electronic toy, the Global Positioning System (GPS). He turned it on, and the GPS receiver began to find signals from various satellites stationed overhead in geosynchronous orbit about Earth. A smile lit his face as the signals ‘came in’, one by one. Soon, Dick had information from enough satellites to fix their location along the river: N 61° latitude and W 118° longitude. Feeling like an early explorer, he plotted their position on the wildly flapping map. He cursed quietly as his pen slipped, and went inside the tent to finish the job.

His day then began to deteriorate. Napping some, but restless, he kept waking to check on the winds. Is it going to blow the whole day? Finally about 7:30, the winds dropped and he rousted April about 8.

It took an appalling three hours to break camp that first morning. “We have to get an earlier start." Dick stared hard at April, who began planning a different procedure. Brush teeth and comb hair in the canoe...

But, heck, that's not the big problem, she thought. “We could cut our time in half by leaving half our junk — the stuff we don’t need — with the canoes.”

"Good idea; we'll reorganize," Dick nodded."Also, let's eat snack stuff for breakfast in the canoe. That'll save time, too."

They launched into a sunny day. The rain from last night a mere memory. Mosquitoes lit on their gear, hitching a ride. "The dirty freeloaders," April growled.

And now they were on, not actually a river, but a lake that seemed big enough to be an ocean. They could not see the opposite shore; it was lost in the horizon. Swamp crowded the immediate lake shore so they couldn’t put in for a much-needed break. Wading through reeds for unknown miles to dry land was out of the question.

They paddled for four and a half hours — straight muscle power, with no boost from a current that had died out when the river broadened into the huge lake. Squalls threatened to the south. Towering black clouds gathered overhead, darkening the river. Lightning flashed, thunder cracked and wind swept across the lake, whipping up huge waves.

April headed the canoe into the reeds where the waves died totally, dampened out by the reeds. Then they pushed out of the reeds as the wind lessened. On they went.

"Look. Some kind of weird river signs," Dick pointed to a series of huge navigational markers, a white triangle, cut off at the top, with an orange stripe down the middle, the first near enough to the river to reflect off the water. The second, some distance into the forest, looked like the first, except inverted. Later, they learned the signs marked the deep channel in the river for freighters.

They paddled over, and landed at a small clearing in the forest around the first sign, probably the only solid land in miles. "This’ll give us a marginal campsite if things don’t improve," he said.

Dick wandered around. "Moose tracks!"

April's eyes lighted up. "I can hardly wait to see one."

The two settled down next to the canoe, and watched the rain drift across the river. Just before it hit, April pulled a small tarp from a canoe, draped it over Dick and ducked in, too. They sat, feeling peaceful — and watched the rain come down on the river, listened to it patter patter on the tarp and looked out at the world. About five o’clock, when the rain finally let up, they pushed off to find a better campsite.

Thunderclouds were again building for more rain that ‘night’ when they came to a rocky point. "Here's a good place to camp," April said, and turned the bow. "Look!" she cried, pointing to a cavorting river otter along the shore.

Miles traveled: 12 (19 km)
Position of campsite: N 61-19-32, W118-26-29

Sunday, December 16

Day 1, Launch

3 June 1994.

The wind picked up. It moaned across the world’s deepest lake — Great Slave Lake — gouged out by glaciers 10,000 years ago — a huge pool of water that feeds the Mackenzie River. Even in early June, although much of the lake was free, ice still crowded the shore. Break-up had come late this year, leaving ice floes the size of football fields that groaned as the wind pushed and heaved at the ice. One floe jammed the shore and blocked water moving into the Mackenzie. Eddies formed around the solid ice structure. Floating ice approached the jam, and then swirled around it. Even mammoth bergs hit, bounced and flowed around, like leaves eddying in a stream.

The Mackenzie clogged with tennis-court size ice floes. Looking north across the river to Fort Providence.

From their motel window in Fort Providence a few miles downstream, Dick Holladay watched the conveyor belt of ice flowing down the river, frustrated but determined. At home in Albuquerque, planning the expedition, he had carefully researched when the lake and river ice would break up and had checked with the Mounties here in Ft. Providence that break up had indeed come. All was ready. Now this — wind pushing floes, and clogging a river that was essentially ice free downstream.

His wife, April, rose from bed to join him. At 1:30 in the morning and three hours after the sun had set, it was still light enough to see. He looked at her — light brown hair disheveled, blue eyes questioning.

"It’s still clogged with ice," he said. "But we’ve got to go, or give up the trip. Freeze up will get us in a couple of months, if we don’t move out. We don’t know how long it’s going to take to canoe the river — it might be a couple of months, if things go wrong," he said, as he ran his hand through his coarse, close-cut brown hair.

"True, but even the waitress yesterday said it was too early yet — the floes could crush us." April shivered in the early morning chill.

"We’ve waited for seven days, and it’s the same thing each day. No more waiting. It’s either launch or go home."

"I just don’t know." April looked dubious and maybe a touch frightened, as she watched the huge floes. She tightened her blue fleece bathrobe.

Dick stopped pacing, hit by a thought. "Why wouldn’t we just float along with the ice?" He nodded. "We’ll be okay. Our canoes will move with the same speed as the floes do. They won’t crush us. We’ll float... with the ice... downstream."

April still wasn't sure, but it did seem reasonable, the more she thought about it. "Well, let’s get some sleep first." She checked her watch. "It’s still 2 in the morning."

Later that morning, they drove the 4Runner to the launch site. Dick unloaded the canoe and supplies. He
inflated and lashed the white, nylon float bags in place deep in the bow and stern of the green Old Town ‘Camper’ canoe.

LL Bean billed the canoe as "great boats for family paddling trips, with wide hull and flat bottom for reassuring stability." Dick and April had outfitted theirs for comfort, with 2-inch cushioned seats and back supports. The canoe, made of laminated ABS plastic and foam — one of the toughest canoe materials, could take the blows of moderate whitewater. What’s more, Kevlar (the stuff bullet-proof vests are made of) reinforced the gunwales. Measuring 16 feet long and 3 feet wide, the canoe had space, barely, for the necessary gear and two paddlers — one in the stern and one in the bow.

Even so, the canoe could only contain half the food needed for the estimated 45-day trip. The week before, Dick had shipped the remainder of the food aboard the Vic Ingraham, a Northern Transportation Company freighter that plies the river, for pick up later in Norman Wells, an oil town about halfway down the river. The Mackenzie River was still the backbone of water transportation in the western Northwest Territories. Freighters hauled general merchandise, construction materials, steel containers, highway trailers and drilling rigs.

Dick drove the 4Runner to an airplane hanger for storage, while April readied the canoe. He had met Ted Maleski, the bush pilot and owner, about a week earlier; Ted had agreed to store the 4Runner for $20 a month. Then Dick left word with the Mounties they were leaving and gave his estimated next check-in date. With an optimism he hadn't felt all week, he started hiking the mile and a half back to the launch site.

April stowed the final items and covered the canoe. The custom-made brown cover sealed the top of the open canoe around each paddler. Now, the canoe would shed rain and waves, and with the float bags in place, would be almost impossible to swamp — even if tipped over.

Dick strolled down the road, returning. He looked at April busily tying a long cord through each item. "You finished yet?"

"Just tying everything together to lash to the canoe. So, in case of upset, it will stay with the canoe," she explained unnecessarily since they had been planning the trip for the better part of a year.

Dick grunted, unimpressed, said nothing, but had hoped the canoe would be loaded by now. They worked on.

Finally, about 10 that morning, they were ready. Dick waded into cold water and put the green canoe in the water.

"My so-called ‘dry’ socks leak," he said disgustedly.

April climbed into the bow, while Dick held it steady. Dick clambered in, pushed off and they headed out of the little cove.

"We’re off," April cried as they entered the current of the Mackenzie. The canoe was pretty much stationary with respect to the floes. "All we have to do is steer around them!" said April, chuckling with relief.

But it wasn’t as safe as Dick had hoped. Some floes moved in little eddies, against the current, and made a loud grinding noise as they hit each other or into the shore.

"What was that sound?" April looked at Dick.

"Those floes collided." Dick nodded toward two large ones, and then dipped his paddle hard, turning their canoe away.

With a few paddle strokes, they left the village and were soon deep in remote reaches of Canada. Spruce trees crowded islands and lined the banks. Occasional rocky outcrops interrupted the dense line of trees. Flat swamp and muskeg stretched back along inlets. The couple had stepped back centuries in time, it seemed, to before civilization and its hordes of people overran North America — back to the days of the Old West, intrepid explorers… and outlaws.

They paddled across the Mackenzie, picking their way carefully through the floes, to the far south shore, which was ice-free. En route, April snapped pictures of small floes sparkling in the sun like fantastic glass palaces

"That’s better." April said, upon reaching floe-free safety. Back on the north shore, the ice extended for 20 miles, to Mills Lake, the first major waypoint of their voyage.

As the day wore on, the pair navigated around many islands. Occasionally confused, they stopped paddling while Dick consulted the topo map to find their way. As the canoe neared one island, flocks of ducks and Canadian geese rose off the water. One goose squawked loudly, almost like a bawling calf. Small white wading birds looked up from the shore. They looked like killdeer Dick and April had seen along the Rio Grande in New Mexico.

Shortly afterwards, as they nosed their canoes past an island, a beaver slammed his tail, vastly irritated by their intrusion. A black loon paddled by. An otter, swimming beside them, suddenly turned tail, dived and splashed a geyser of water up.

The 20-mile paddle on Day 1: from Fort Providence to Mills Lake.

About midday, a strong wind sprang up, making for hard paddling. It seemed to last forever, but finally died late afternoon, which was good because then they had to leave the south shore, and cross the wide mouth of the Syne River at the start of Mills Lake.

Paddling in perfect calm, they eventually reached Mills Lake, but had to leave shore again, as long rocky fingers jutting out from shore forced them to deeper water. Fortunately, the calm lasted. On and on they paddled into the evening. April was more than ready to quit, but the south shore had become extremely marshy. Mosquitoes rose in clouds. Worse, the river’s current essentially died inside Mills Lake. They had to rely on muscle power alone.

April’s right shoulder and elbow ached with each stroke. The months of exercise preparing for this adventure helped, but right now it didn't seem enough.

About 8:30 in the bright evening, they found a campsite, and stopped for the ‘night’ — not that night ever comes this time of year in the high arctic. The sun barely dips below the horizon and twilight lingers. They made camp on a sandy point.

April picked up a duffle bag, and started to unload the canoe.

Dick hauled a huge pile of driftwood, small logs and branches, to the campsite, and then big rocks to build a windbreak for the fireplace. Every one of his limbs felt stiff and heavy, and the night air seemed too cold for summer. He glanced up at gray clouds building. "Looks like rain."

April, her head aching from the day’s paddle and eyes stinging from mosquito repellent, hurried to setup the tents. She stuffed their gear in the tents, while Dick got the fire going. Each had an assigned task, carefully planned, and pretty much botched. Fatigue took its toll. The blazing sticks almost refused to diminish into cooking coals, but finally the coffee pot’s river water boiled.

Soon their dinner was ready. They ripped open the freeze-dried packages and demolished steaks like wolves.

Their bellies full, April finished cleanup chores for the evening. Dick lit a mosquito coil in their tent. Colin (the bush pilot who had rented space for their 4Runner) had told Dick about mosquito coils. "You can’t live without ‘em in the bush."

So Dick had picked up a huge supply. Now, the smoke drifted up from the coil and slowly wafted through the tent, killing mosquitoes by the droves.

"Listen," April said. The crazy laughter of a loon bubbled across the lake.

Dick hauled out an 5 x 8 inch yellow legal pad, and started to enter the events of the day in his journal. Then he read a snatch he had copied from Alexander Mackenzie’s journal:

In late June of 1789, Mackenzie was lost on Great Slave Lake. He had asked local Indians, but “They know nothing even of the [Mackenzie] River… Our guides [are] quite at a loss. They do not know what course to take.” Finally, his party stumbled upon a passage to the river.

Trader Mackenzie discovered a river, nowhere less than a half mile wide, and, near the Great Slave Lake, often three and four miles wide. He explored its length, a thousand miles to the Arctic Ocean, in flimsy birchbark canoes, taking only 14 days. On 29 June, Mackenzie and his party of four voyagers, a young German, a Chipewyan Indian, sundry wives and hunters made camp, somewhere downstream from where Fort Providence is now.

"Perhaps at the very spot we are now," Dick said.

"I wonder..." April smiled.

The sun started to set about midnight; a pleasant twilight descended, marred by the ever-present mosquitoes.

Miles traveled: 20 (32 km)
Position at day's end: N 61-25-21, W 118-12-11.