But it was not long before we eased into the rhythm 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, caked 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 repaid with exorbitant interest.
Soon the once manageable current grew strong, and 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 permanently 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 hot supper. After supper we would head into the tents and be lulled asleep by that dreadful patter. We were living between a cold, mountain-sourced river and the damp air that at times just hovered above freezing. Water seeped in through our most watertight seals. Our world became a damp and bitterly cold world.
On such a day 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. And 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.
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 accomplishments of my life. As 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 dreams had indeed became reality.
Now comes the challenge. What can I say about 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 will of course fall short. Photographs are two-dimensional. 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. Not against gravity.
Water levels were 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, more like, too much adrenaline over an eight hour period, tired.
And we were going downstream, which made us giddy like kids on the night before Christmas.
A big part of our journey has passed. 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.