When we paddled onto the big muddy waters of the Mackenzie, there was a dread we all felt, for once again we had returned to the battle field of upstream travel. But the Mackenzie proved to be a gentle river with a slow current and almost lake like conditions that made this upstream experience completely different than the challenges we faced battling our way up the Ross and Pelly Rivers. And though the landscape was not as spectacular as what we had seen, it was as though the earth we experienced in the Yukon and on the Nahanni lent its spectacle of snowy peaks and valleys to heaven. Almost every afternoon we would see clouds amass and form mountain ranges of enormous thunderheads that dwarfed us and our surroundings. Thunder, and then bursts of lightning, were a late afternoon norm. Somewhere on the muddy banks, with our boats tucks in the reeds, we would huddle in the brush as rain and lightning ripped across the river.
Then we reached the Great Slave Lake. The tenth largest body of freshwater in the world. One of the major challenges of the expedition, paddling this lake would expose us to hundreds of miles of wind and water that went unchecked by any land barrier. Somedays we were lucky and had calm conditions and made over forty miles; on other days ocean-sized swells forced us to shore and into the patience game.
Our daily schedule changed from a fixed wake up time to paddling whenever it was calm. Several times we paddled over fourteen hours. If conditions are right, the paddling is just too good to sleep through, miles must be made. After all, we knew that the inevitable wind would pick up, force us to shore00 and allow us ample opportunity to catch up on sleep.
Just east of where the Slave River enters the Great Slave Lake, something magical happens. The quiet and humble shore, (let’s be honest, it’s a boring shoreline) transitions to the spectacular rock formations of the Canadian Shield. This is the East Arm of Great Slave Lake, and in many ways it is a completely different lake than the western portions. Seven years ago I paddled this area with my brother. At the time I was struck by the raw beauty of the endless maze of rocky islands and deep cold water. I told many people that it was my favorite place I had ever canoed. And indeed, returning to the area only confirmed these feelings.
The trip changed when we entered the East Arm. The three weeks of summer, of warm weather we were finally able to enjoy on the Mackenzie and western part of Great Slave Lake turned cold. Wind from the northeast became a constant, pausing every now and then for a few hours when we would hurry to our boats and make a precious few miles. We now see sunsets and sunrises. It gets dark, which after months of twenty-plus hours of sunlight, seems to be a novelty.
As I write this blog we are staying in a small Dene community, Lutsel K’e. Again, northern hospitality proves to be unsurpassed and we can only hope that the weather will be as hospitable to us as the people are here. This is our final resupply point for the trip, and it’s an odd feeling to think that the trip is almost over and we have at least thirty-five days left on trail. We are paddling into winter, into bone-cold wind, and into the sleet and snow that everyone all but guarantees we will encounter as we paddle towards Hudson Bay. Our trip began at the end of winter, hiking through mountain passes buried in snow, and it will most likely end at the very beginning of winter. Whatever reservations and anxieties we have about the weather, our biggest consolation is that, as a crew, we are moving as one mind. Our eyes are fixed on our goal and we are moving quickly and with every opportunity negotiating our way around the weather. After one-hundred-and-one days together, it is amazing to be feeling more solidarity than ever before.
Whatever happens with the weather, we are surrounded immense beauty and wonder. The Canadian Shield, whether in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, central Manitoba, or where we currently are and will be, is my favorite place to paddle and to simply be. More and more we have been paddling into camp with an intense feeling of gratitude for the day, and indeed every day renews this sense of wonder and joy.
Day 100 Beard Montage