Three months later, we were all thinking the opposite. Maybe we should have began 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. 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 worse, we traveled with over forty-five days of food that just barely fit into four packs which weighed in at around one-hundred pounds a piece. 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.
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, somewhat lucky. 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 waist was a reminder 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.
The landscape was rapidly melting into an array of autumn colors. Willows and shrubs fanned out splotches of red, of 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.
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 rocks 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.
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. 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.