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Paddling the Mackenzie River

I left Hay River on friday with much excitement and optimism. I had picked up a paddling buddy- my friend Jenn - who had managed to get time off work and was with me for the first 4 days of my trip.

Our double kayak was loaded up with supplies and gear and we were off. I was so pumped to be finally going after all the talk and hassle getting the trip organized!

We had awesome weather and managed to find great campsites for each night despite being in a huge swamp. Midnight paddling and beautiful calm waters were themes of the weekend and setting up the tent in the twilight while getting hammered by mosquitoes the size of a 20 cent peice.

We had a bear visit during dinner on the first night which meant that we moved from our camp in the swamp and found an island that proved to be excellent. After putting up tent  on Beaver Lake for the second time that day, we were surrounded by flying insects (for once ones that didn't bite) and as the sun set I had a swim. MAGIC!

The second night proved true to the theme - no solid ground after a big day of paddling. The decision was made to cross the lake in search of a campsite. 10pm, no wind, over 15km of open water to cross, sun setting, tired bodies, no food since lunch, the scene was set for an epic!

Questions were the name of the game for the first part of this evening as we occupied ourselves and got to know each other better but fatigue slowly took hold and we were tested both physically and mentally. Singing soon became the past time of choice to lift the spirits and take our minds off the task at hand.

On reaching the chosen area to look for a campsite we had to paddle up a fast flowing stream and just above the trees in the dusk was an old trapper's cabin on the only high ground in kilometres. The moment could only be described as spiritual. So a great site was found
(with plenty of mosquitoes, just for a change) and by 12:30am our tent was up. As soon as we got under shelter the clouds came to life and we just escaped the biggest rain shower of the summer. Definetly a thunder and lightening show that no amount of money could buy. An hour earlier and it could have been very ugly for us!

The rest of the trip went smoothly and we reached our destination on time. It was incredible to see the flow of the river change as the lake became a river and at one stage we got upto 17km/h.

Jenn got picked up in Fort Providence and my single kayak arrived for me to continue the rest of the trip with. After a sad farewell i put my tent up on the lawn in town and wondered why i was surrounded by cow patts...

I woke the next morning to discover the culprit about 40m from my tent casually munching on the grass. It was the biggest animal i have ever seen - an adult male bison! WIKID!!!

Its difficult to convert 49 days of paddling experiences in to words, so much is lost in the translation and there were a lot of “you had to be there” moments but here goes…

The stats:

  • Distance covered: 1500+ km
  • Change in elevation: 175m
  • Lacation: Northwest Territories, Canada
  • Route: north from Great Slave Lake (the town of Hay River) through Fort Providence, Jean Marie, Fort Simpson, Wrigley, Tulita, Norman Wells, Fort Good Hope, Tsigachic, Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Coast. This included a side trip to Delane on the Great Bear Lake, via the Great Bear River.
  • Cultural regions passed through: Dehcho (in the south), Slavey, Sahtu, Gwitchen and Inuvialuit (in the north).
  • Geographic areas passed through: flat Canadian Shield, the Northern Rocky Mountains and Arctic Tundra. The Boreal and Taiga forests of the south gradually turned into the barren lands of the Arctic Tundra.
  • Number of close bear encounters: 3
  • Number of soap related encounters: 4
  • Longest gap between towns: 6 days.

After Jenn departed I finally realized that my trip had indeed begun and that the Hay River holiday was over. "Yeh I'm here to paddle the Mackenzie River"

The scenery slowly changed as i moved from the Canadian Shield into the northern Rocky Mountians into "I've got a long way to go"

I faced many challenges along the way, some of them physical, but most of them mental. Now I'm no stranger to expedition kayaking, but being totally self reliant, isolated and alone was definitely a unique experience. The biggest challenge was answering the many doubting questions burning in my head. “What if this happens? "Am I capable of doing that?". Well I dealt with it and yes I am.

For the most part the flow of the river was good and it was easy to cover a lot of distance each day. What made this difficult however was the fact that I couldn't seem to motivate myself to get out of my tent before 10am as it was light till about 11:30pm. I was generally on the water by about 12pm and paddled till around 9-10pm each night.

The biggest days I did were about 80km while on others I only covered about 40km. either way this equaled around 6-8hrs of paddling each day. That's a lot of sitting down and I took every chance I got to stand up and walk around. It was interesting to see that with the lack of movement my legs became visibly smaller (which meant that my calves almost became proportional to the rest of my body).

Food became increasingly important and I started to eat more and more, but never seemed to be totally full. Meals typically consisted of rice/pasta, veggies and either sauces or spices to keep it interesting. It got to the stage that a 900g bag of rice or pasta would only last 3 meals. A five meal rotation seemed to be enough variety as I got to a town about every 3-4 days and in most cases was able to get some much needed meat and junk food (chips and Dr pepper became the snack of choice). However at times it looked like I might get into town a day or so late, so I tried to ration my food accordingly. At these times ANYTHING that got dropped was eaten and every crumb was important.

One day I came across a flock of Ptarmigan (a quail type bird the size of a small chicken) which are known to be a bit dumb. At first I was intrigued by their social framework, feeding habits and apparent lack of fear. I could get to within 3-4m of them before they felt "threatened"and casually walked to another bush to continue feeding. I knew they were edible, so it didn't take long for one thing to lead to another and soon I was trying to catch some dinner. The plan was to hit one with a rock - I'm a cricketer, this should be easy, right?

As my throws missed and the sand exploded around the birds, they would casually look in every direction but mine and continue their scratching as though nothing had happened. At first this was amusing but it soon became serious when it appeared I was unable to hit a stationary object from 5m away - what would the cricket boys say if they saw this effort all I finished the day with was a sore arms

Meat was the big one I missed the most, more from a nutritional point of view than anything. I practically became a vegetarian for about 2½ months. "But didn't you get lots of fish to eat on the river?" often asked. The single biggest factor preventing me from eating fish was bears. To eat fish I had to handle, clean and store them (unless I caught them right before dinner) and out there smelling like fish - or food of any kind - was to advertise the fact that I was edible. It really gave a new meaning to the saying "don't feed the bears!"

The food I carried with me was
a) sealed in snap-lock bags,
b) put in an airtight bag, then
c) sealed in the hatch of my kayak at all times.
When I cooked I took what I needed then quickly sealed it all up again and I would never sleep at the same place I cooked dinner.

I would be constantly making noise - talking, singing, blowing my whistle, whatever, just to let any bears in the area know that I was there. This helped to avoid the situation of a bear coming around a bush and being caught by surprise. The last thing I wanted was to suddenly find myself within the comfort zone of a frightened bear. Fear is a 2-way street. It towns I was given the impression that bears were vicious creatures that hunted at will and would inflict mortal injury at every chance.

I had one experiences while cooking, when the bear came to with in 10m of me before it realized I was human and quickly disappeared in the other direction. My two other encounters (from about 50m) were a result of me being in the path of travel the bear was taking. In both instances I saw he creatures before they saw me and when they did smell/see me they casually moved off and continued on their way. How many bears knew of my presence without me even knowing? Id imagine quite a few. Now I'm no expert and I understand everyones experiences are different, but looking back on these encounters I never felf threatened by bears.

That said, should I have carried a gun? Maybe. Did I need it this time? No.

I turned bear awareness into a game by pretending I was in a war behind enemy lines. They were everywhere, trying to ambush me at every opportunity. This meant I had to be aware of my surroundings at all times - ALL TIMES. Fresh tracks on the bank, high dense bush close to the water and old camp sites were indications that I shouldn't hang around. I occasionally got a bad "vibe" from a place which was good enough reason to move on and find another spot to rest.

The fishing was awesome but a bit hit and miss at times. I would either catch a lot of fish or none at all which was frustrating at times but when it was on IT WAS ON! I was lucky to tick all my boxes and catch Grayling (arctic equivalent of trout), Lake Trout (average 5-10kg with 15-20kg fish being regularly caught), Northern Pike (one Jenn hooked pulled our double kayak along) and Cony (a large sea-run river fish).

Catching these fish was as much about the places they were caught as the fish themselves. Trout were found in the deep cold waters of the Bear Lake, Greyling represented the fast flowing clear water of the Bear River, Cony loved the dirty Mackenzie eddies caused by the river bank and Pike patrolled the clear side streams eating anything that moved.

Fly-fishing was a new exciting activity for me. Only one thing compares to the experience of watching a large fish break away from the cover of a submerged log to attack a feathered hook cast next to its home - that’s watching the same fish jump out of the water as it tries to spit the hook its just bitten, as line screams off the spool with each beat of the fish's tail.

The bird life along the way was spectacular too. To start with I passed through swamp and marsh that was filled with water birds such as ducks, loons, terns and gulls. However as the marsh became forest, blackbirds, crows and eagles were more common.

It was as though the eagles were watching over me, guiding me even. They would sit in the tree tops until I was within photograph range; they fly off and wait for me to catch up again. This game seemingly happened all day at times. In a few instances both Bald and Golden Eagles flew over me so that if I wanted to I could have reached up and touched them.

This wasn't a threatening gesture, but meant that I had become part of the scenery and was beginning to fit in to the surroundings. You know your really part of the river ecosystem when insects hatch on your kayak and tent, leaving their fragile shell as a perfect representation of their former life. These were very powerful moments.

Ravens too seemed to play a role in my adventures although I'm not entirely sure how or why. Among certain First Nation groups, the raven is considered a joker and shape shifter with powerful influence. At first I didn't think much about it, but as time went by they seemed to grow on me. I miss their calls and cheeky looks as they fly overhead.

By far the most memorable bird experiences would be the ghostly sound of Loons calling at sunset and the Sandhill Cranes, which are the Canadian equivalent to the Australian Brolga. I had the privilege of witnessing a pair of cranes performing a courtship dance on the open sand banks. How many hundreds of generations had done the same dance in years gone by and how much longer will this ageless ritual be remembered? Words can not describe these great birds in flight or the magical sound of their call in the twilight.

Other cool bird experiences were being swooped by Pacific Gulls and Peregrine Falcons and watching Birds aside I didn't see as much wildlife as expected, but what I did see was still pretty impressive. All in all I saw a bison, around 5 moose (including a mother and calf up close as I paddled past), 2 wolf (crossing the river), 20 bears (including 3 mothers with 3 cubs each), a river otter which was as curious about me as I was about it, and a beaver in the arctic ocean - go figure. No woodlands caribou though, but I saw countless caribou tracks and even fresh droppings. I woke one morning to see my tent surrounded by fresh tracks where the night before there had been none. I had a porcupine crawl into the vestibule of my tent one night and countless fox visits.

My claim to fame for the trip is to have the northernmost "recorded" sighting of the boreal chorus frog - 60km south of Wrigley. According to some biologists I met in Norman Wells the whole area has countless species that are yet to be "officially" documented.

As part of this adventure I had planned a side trip to the Great Bear Lake where the fishing was said to be legendary. Every photo I saw of this place featured a sun burnt, overweight international visitor with bad glasses holding a fish that would have made Rex Hunt look like an amateur.

This lake is unique in that it is the 7th largest in the world, the only community on it has a population of about 1000, it has never had a commercial fishing industry and it's located on the northern edge of the tree line which makes for striking scenery. Did I mention its in the middle of NOWARE and is only accessible by plane or boat - except in the winter when they make a road on the ice.

To make it happen I needed to organize a ride in a boat up a fast flowing river and had been earlier informed that this venture would cost me $200-300. The local lads however can smell a tourist a mile away and the first quote I received was $800! Nice try boys. By the next morning the price had come down so we loaded up with food, my kayak was tied on the boat and we were off. "Lake Trout" are the fish of choice in this area and after asking around I soon got the impression that I would need to catch a 50lb fish to raise eyebrows. With no luck fishing from my kayak (the locals were seriously worried I would be dragged out into the lake if I actually did hook one) I took the much less glorious option of fishing from the local dock.

This however proved to be an amazing experience as the water was crystal clear and you could see the fish swimming around. The one trout I managed to catch was over 2 feet long which proved to be a bit of a handful and I saw others in the water that were much bigger. Unfortunately my camera battery died and I wasn’t able to get a shot of it before I threw it back.

The paddle back down to my starting point proved to be just as exciting. The clear water was full of a fish known as Arctic Greyling and I was able to give my new fly rod a good work out. Other highlights of this section were about 1km of grade 1 rapids, stunning ice / rock formations on the river bank, seeing a female moose and its calf in the water and an awesome camp site on a sand bank in the middle of the river!

While the scenery and wildlife were definitely highlights, the generosity of the people I met along the way was something I will always remember. Whenever I was in a town, the locals were always very friendly and I received a number of offers for meals, accommodation or the use of their shower / washing machine / computer. On more than one occasion I was even told “here is my address, its unlocked so just go in and help yourself to what ever you want.” Mind you I did start to worry when I was (from a distance and amid smirks) repeatedly offered showers.

Now I think about it there were a few times when I arrived in town in pretty rough shape - unshaven for the duration of the trip, with filthy clothes, hands and face black from charcoal, smelling like BO and smoke. It’s funny how your gauge of what's clean and what isn't changes when you’ve been camping by yourself for a while. Having just washed my clothes in my large cooking pot I sat back and came to the conclusion that if I were back home, my newly "clean" clothes would be considered too dirty to wear, even for working at the orchard.

Being an Aussie seemed to be a bit of a draw card and everyone wanted to hear "Good day mate". Mind you there were lots of times when I may as well have been speaking Chinese and I received lots of blank looks when asking questions. My personal favorites were the "smile and nodders" You could get away with saying almost anything and always get the same response.

When people could understand me the conversation generally went along the lines of:

"So where are you from, England?"

Close, I'm actually from Australia!

"Oh, sorry about that maaate!"

"Crikey, a dingo stole my baby! Ha ha ha ha" more often than not teenagers were
coming out with this one - that's the Simpsons for you!

"Do you know Crocodile Dundee?That's not a knife" or

"Australia eh? Id better get you a beer then."

I didn't pay for a single beer at any of the towns I visited and wasn't allowed to buy a round either, thanks lads! Even when kayaking people would pull up in their motor boats and offer me cold cans of soft-drink (pop as its called here) or as soon as they worked out I was Aussie they would pull out a beer.

Some of the communities didn't have bottle shops and in others alcohol was prohibited altogether. Neither of these circumstances produced a totally dry town and I was told that if you had the money, drinks could always be found on the black market. The going price for a 700ml bourbon was apparently between $80-120.

Before the trip I had joined the Wilderness Travelers Program which meant that I needed to check in with the police at each town that had a station. This ended up providing me with some adventures in its self as I was invited back to the copper's places for drinks, given ration packs of food, rides in the police cars and tours of the cells (not necessarily in that order). Somehow I'm not sure you'd get that kind of service back home; thanx guys.

While the entire trip was a challenge and provided me with the opportunity to visit some amazing places, it definitely stepped up a notch over for the last ¼ of the distance. This was when I crossed the Arctic Circle (an imaginary line, being the furthest south that the sun will shine for 24 hours during the summer solstice). It almost seemed like as soon as that line was crossed it became colder and the landscape began to change.

Trees were smaller the further north I went due to permafrost (permanent layers of ice in the soil or frozen soil) and the season was literally changing before my eyes. Trees started to have hints of yellow and quickly changed to red and orange. My constant feeling of being cold was finally explained when I visited a fishing camp and saw that at 1pm in the afternoon, the thermometer hanging up outside read 5.5deg.

Another notable feature of this land was the random huts and fishing camps made of canvas tents. These were seemingly in the middle of no ware and at times hundreds of river km from towns (being a population of about 1000 or less) and could only be reached in boats. There-in lies the attraction no doubt;

As the river neared the ocean it started to slow down and turned into a large delta. This meant that navigation became more complicated that simply point the kayak down river and go with the flow. My maps were pretty good so finding a passage through wasn't too difficult. I was not keen to cook that night as I was nearing a town (Inuvik) so getting lost was not high on my list of things to do.

I did meet a guy in a motor boat who relied solely on his GPS to find the town and got lost. He then proceeded to run out of fuel and needed to ring the local boys in blue to come get him. They then also got lost on the way back;

Inuvik was my second-to-last stop and only 4 days from my final destination so I was quite excited to be there. While in town I caught up with some other paddlers who I had met before and we all shared stories and checked out the town.

There was a bit of randomness to my stay in that I met a woman who lived 15min from home in Australia, made fireballs by throwing petrol on a bonfire, watched the Australian movie The Castle with some Americans who didn't get a single joke, was invited to a wedding in a large greenhouse and visited the worlds loudest library - it was full of kids using the internet and running amuck.

There were also a number of community events running which provided all you can eat food which was a welcome change to cooking camp food. There was goose, fish and caribou (North American "reindeer". I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.

Also up there was a guy who had just finished 3 months of bike riding. He simultaneously crossed Canada from East to West and South to North, not a bad summer. In doing so he rode through the some pretty rugged terrain, including the Rocky Mountains and averaged over 100km a day.

Just when you think you've seen it all, I then met a guy who had ridden for 4 years from the bottom of South America to the top of North America. While in Argentina he was robbed at gun point and had everything stolen except the clothes he was wearing;

Other highlights of the delta and the final 4 days of this trip were the barren lands of the arctic tundra. The tree line pretty much cuts out after Inuvik and its dead flat. The whole area was covered in low blue berry and cranberry bushes (yum) all of which were changing colour as autumn was starting to set in.

Another unique feature of this area was a land form known as a pingo - basically a large mound of ice covered in soil and plants which can be up to 10m high. These landmarks of the north were stunning in contrast to their surroundings. The one I climbed was right on the edge of the Arctic Ocean and the views from on top were amazing. Gold, yellow, orange, red and everything in between for as far as you could see to the south and the sea to the north. Fotos don't even do it justice.

This last stage of the trip proved to be the coldest and most mentally challenging. After waiting out one storm and with another one approaching (and snow forecast), I decided to make a dash for it. What was the ocean going to be like? Would it snow? Would there be big waves? Did I bring enough water to last me until the next town? I knew there was a lot of open water and if the weather turned bad it would be very cold and things would be ugly.

I left Inuvik in sunshine and was visited by a river otter that night which was pretty cool. The next day however, I could see a large bank of cloud on the horizon. Within 1 hour it had moved overhead and totally covered the sky, bringing with it snow and wind. It's quite an experience to paddle in snow. The next day brought snow too but not enough to hand around. Mornings were cold and anything left outside the tent was stiff with ice. My map was like cardboard. The 4th day was sunny again and proved to be a fantastic finish to the trip with no waves or wind. Onreaching town I did my last sign in with the police and my paddle was officially over.

This last town was Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk) and like all others, it proved to be quite unique. On doing this trip I passed through 3 main cultural regions, being Slavey, G'witchen and finally Inuvialuit. While there were some similarities, each area had different languages and traditions which became evident the further north I went. The Inuvialuit (formally called Eskimos) are known for their stone, horn and bone carving. One guy I met had 2 whole Muskox (sort of an arctic bison) heads out the front of his house which was pretty cool to see and had done some amazingly detailed work using walrus tusk.

His 2 teenage daughters, some backpackers and I had a feast and bonfire on the beach that night and stayed up until 3am watching the northern lights and swapping stories. The girls left huddled together for the dark walk home after trying to scare us with local ghost stories and becoming scared themselves - funny stuff.

Other notes on Tuk are that in the winter they have Polar Bears around, its dark for 3 months and
its not cold until it gets below -40 deg C (not including wind chill). They don't even bother saying "minus" when describing the temperature. Tuk is also home to Beluga whales which I was looking forward to seeing but I was about 1 month too late. And the local food of choice? Muktuk, whale meat and blubber, what else? Unfortunately I couldn't get my hands on any which was quite disappointing.

I have lots more I would like to share but I'm staring to ramble so I'll leave it there. admin's note here is a link to his blog Read David Andrew Magarey's story, he did the trip.

posted by: David Andrew Magarey - Australia: October 24 2009