The Deer River – Manitoba, Canada
by Worth Donaldson
Planning the trip:
I do not remember when I first heard of the Deer River, a tributary of the Churchill River in Northern Manitoba. But I do remember being intrigue by the thoughts of paddling a sub-Arctic river from the edge of the Boreal Forrest to the Land of Little Sticks. Every winter while dreaming of places to paddle I would reacquaint myself with this river that few have paddled. I came to learn that this river, only accessible by train, is home to moose, black bear, caribou, wolves, and an incredible array of waterfowl and shorebirds. The Deer twists and turns through muskeg, taiga and tundra. And, around every bend is a small class I or II rapid. Upon entering the Churchill estuary 3,000 beluga whales are waiting to greet you, give birth or nurse their young. Not only does the Churchill have whales, but the town of Churchill is smack-dab in the migratory path of about 1,000 polar bears, “Polar Bear Capital of the World”. History abounds in Churchill. Remnants of the fur trade, Cold War and a rocket research range can easily be found and seen.
I continued to surf the internet searching for more information on the Deer River but find little that I am not already aware of. Thus fully armed and almost knowledgeable, I approach my wilderness white water mentor Jose Joven and ask if he wants to join me on the Deer this summer. Jose responds, “Too much time on the road and not enough time on the water for me”. I argue the merits of the trip and highlight its geography, wildlife, history and costs. With each new lead of information, I contact him and ask if he would like to join me on the Deer. “Too much time on the road and not enough time on the water for me” becomes his mantra. After one too many rejections I send Jim Shaw and Larry Alsop, past paddling partners on the Bloodvein, Pipestone and French Rivers, an email asking if they would like to accompany me on the Deer. Fearing that Jose is correct, only a fool would drive 3 days and ride a train for another 12 hours to paddle a river for six and a half days, I reluctantly contact Northern Soul Wilderness Adventures requesting information on their guided trip. Too my surprise, Jim calls me that evening all excited and tells me he has always wanted to visit Churchill, Manitoba. He and Larry are ready to go. Matter of fact, they know of another fool who wants to come along, 72 year old Don Layman.
I test their resolve and commitment with harsh words of discouragement. I tell them that several groups have had to abort their trips due to low water levels. One group even had to walk out. I share historical weather data that paints a cold, wet, bleak picture. I remind them that the wind usually comes out of the north off the Bay. We may have to battle high winds and strong 15 foot tides on a six and a half kilometer wide river in order to arrive in Churchill. And if we dally too much, we could become stranded on the mud flats, hundreds of yards from shore. I remind them that if the polar bears do not get us then the mosquitoes definitely will. My words of persuasion only strengthen their resolve and conviction. I am told, “We are going to Churchill even if we have to drag our canoes all the way”, and with those words of encouragement I begin to plan our trip.
Paddling, portaging and lining solo canoes requires us to be fully responsible for ourselves. Once in the wilderness, we live in a self-contained and isolated world where our primary senses are used to make decisions regarding our route, gear, meals, shelter, safety and contingencies. Good decisions are rewarded with an exhilarating ride down the rapids and a comfortable night. Bad ones are punished with a broken limb, hypothermia, or even death. The longer and more remote the trips are, the more challenging and greater the potential for something to go amiss. Thus, planning for a remote wilderness trip is a serious undertaking for me. Almost over shadowing but lurking beneath the excitement and anticipation of planning a trip is a little bit anxiety or apprehension. Maybe this uneasiness comes from the recognition that heading into wilderness leaves us exposed to the vagaries of Mother Nature and considerably more dependent upon ourselves in the event of disaster than, say, sitting at home watching the evening news or spending a Saturday morning shopping at the local mall. But if this recognition is the cause of my anxiety and apprehension then it is also a significant part of the extraordinary appeal of wilderness paddling.
My biggest concern was whether there would be a sufficient volume of water flowing down the Deer River to take us to the Churchill River. My second concern was polar bears. Black bears do not worry me. But polar bears, I hear they will patiently wait and stalk their prey for hours, only to seize their prey when least expected. They are on top of the food chain and do not fear man. They hunt man. With these two concerns I became, what one could say, a highly motivated student to discover what we would encounter.
I corresponded and spoke with Dave Pancoe, one of the owners of Northern Soul Wilderness Adventures, and also had the opportunity of dining with him and his brother Chris at Canoecopia this past spring. Dave told me which maps we would need to purchase. Our egress is McClintock. He warned me that the shrubs are too small to hang the food packs from and the mud flats can be quite extensive during low tide. You can walk them but you got to keep moving. If we are lucky, we may catch grayling and artic char; however, the fishing is poor. Do not plan on catching pike or pickerel. A few days prior to our departure he tells me that the Deer began flowing way before the snow melted and had also washed out the railroad tracks. We had one last discussion regarding the polar bears.
Net working through Canadian Canoe Routes and Paddle Manitoba and I was able to contact a few individuals familiar with the area. JKruger told me that if the winter is mild, the summer is hot and the ice melts early we should be prepared to handle a polar bear. Thus, I begin watching the weekly snow cover and sea ice reports along with the daily weather and water level reports.
Snow Cover Reports: http://www.socc.ca/snow/snow_current_e.cfm
Sea Ice Reports: http://ice-glaces.ec.gc.ca/App/WsvPageD ... 1&Lang=eng
Water levels: http://scitech.pyr.ec.gc.ca/waterweb/selectProvince.asp
I contact Jack Batsone and ask if he can pick us up on the Churchill River in the event that something goes amiss. He owns a charter boat service in Churchill and routinely picks up canoeists off the Caribou, Seal and Knife Rivers. He tells me the river is too shallow for his boat. Not knowing where we would encounter brackish water necessitating the need to stock up on fresh water I inquire about the tide. He tells me there is a weir that crosses the river about 13 kilometers from the mouth of the river that stops the tide. I am surprised. The weir is not on my map. I also learn that it is possible to pull out above the weir at a road that ends at the water pumping station. After our discussion, I zoomed in on satellite images from Google Maps and marked our maps accordingly. Before ending the phone call and knowing that Jack is also a seasonal warden for Parks Canada I seek his opinion regarding the polar bears.
Paddlenorth informed me that the small lakes that dot the landscape along the Deer River are mostly thaw ponds, or thermokarst ponds, created by localized melting of the permafrost. They are too shallow to support fish. Fishing on the Deer is probably poor because its discharge can get terribly low during the summer but the fishing on the Churchill might be good because the seals do go above the weir. However, the belugas probably have destroyed the sport fishing on the Churchill estuary.
Jerry R puts me in touch with Hydro Manitoba. Hydro Manitoba flies the power lines along the Deer River in the Spring and Fall looking for maintenance problems. As crazy as it sounds, I give them my departure date and ask for a report on water levels and bear sightings. After hanging up the phone I chuckle for I doubt my local electric company would take a request like this seriously. Matter of fact, they would probably hang the telephone up on me laughing hysterically. Hours before our departure I check my email and discover I have a response. Darryill reports, “We flew the air patrol yesterday to Churchill, the Deer River is the fullest it’s been in 10 years. You will have no trouble canoing the river. The rapids are barely visible. I have attached a couple of photos for you”. Those photographs showed washed out rapids and some snow on the river bank. Great news!
Over the course of speaking and corresponding with numerous individuals, studying polar bear behavior and safety, I quickly realized that the discussion of carrying a shotgun to protect oneself from the polar bears is very opinionated and highly emotional. Our group decides to leave the shotgun at home and instead; rely on air horns, bear bangers shot from a flare pen and bear spray. My last phone call is to Parks Canada. I had already spoken with them a couple of times but wanted to get one last report on polar bear sightings just in case I needed to exercise my veto power and bring a shotgun.
The Adventure Starts:
The drive northward was almost non-eventful. Stopping in Rockville, IL for the night, a scout master from a Georgian Boy Scout troop spies our top-heavy van loaded with four solo canoes and asks if we are going to Canada.
I tell him that we are going to the tundra and learn that they are going to Quetico. In the morning while eating breakfast we are joined by the scout masters. We learn that they have never been to Quetico. Jim and Don study their route and give them a few suggestions. Shortly thereafter, we are introduced to the troop. The young men treat us like celebrities when they hear of our exploits and our plan to paddle the Barren Lands.
Stopping for lunch in Eau Claire, WI we hear a horrible screeching, grinding sound coming from the rear end of the van. Searching for a brake shop, we stop at Good Year and the van is lifted on a rack for semi trucks so that we do not have to off load the canoes. We eventually learn that in a freak act of nature, the right rear brake pad has become detached and is riding around loose inside the brake drum. Five hours later we are back on the road.
The following afternoon, we arrive at Canadian customs in Pembina. The officer asks the usual questions, “Where are we going? Where are we from? How long will we be in Canada? Will we be leaving anything behind? Do we have any weapons in the van? Do we have tobacco? Alcohol? Switchblades? Beef”. Just when we thought we passed with flying colors and are about to gain entry into the country, the officer asks, “Do you have any bear spray”? Jim tells them we have one can but in reality I have two cans. The officer asks if it is readily retrievable. I tell her, “No, it is inside my pack”. She gives us a card and tells us to park beneath the canopy and present the card to an officer inside the building. Upon entering the building we give the card to an officer and take a seat. Others come in presenting cards and join us. Several officers come out donning rubber gloves and escort those who came in behind us to their vehicles and begin their search. In disbelief we watch a church bus full of youth being searched. We continue to patiently wait but start to become concern when they continue searching other vehicles that came in behind us. This causes us to start to fear that we are about to have another lengthy delay associated with some form of very special treatment reserved for canoeists. Eventually a male officer approaches us, stops and talks with a female officer and then points towards us. The female officer approaches and asks if we would please go outside and retrieve the can of bear spray. We unload the van searching for the lost can of spray I loaned Larry and retrieve the other can of spray from my pack. Entering the building I surrender both cans of spray. She tells us she just wants to read the label to make sure it says, “Not For Use on Humans. To Deter Bears From Attacking Humans”. Afterwards she thanks us for declaring the bear spray. At this time, Larry decides it is a good opportunity to tell her that we had contemplated bringing in a shotgun but decided not to. He asks if it would have been ok. She politely tells Larry how to declare a shotgun and what forms would be required. Now Larry likes to talk; thus, he begins to ask her questions about polar bears. She is unfamiliar with polar bears, grants us passage into her country and wishes us safe passage into the land of Little Sticks inhabited by polar bears.
Upon entering Canada we hastily exchange our currency and get back onto the road. It is still a long drive to Thompson, Manitoba where we need to catch tomorrow evening’s train. By late afternoon we arrived at the highway that will take us north into Thompson. It is semi- remote with only a handful of small First Nation communities along its route. What few gas stations we spy have small licensed restaurants. However, the majority of motels are boarded up or look like they have seen better days. It is 10:00 pm and not even dusk. Continuing onward we see small children playing outside and adults walking along the road. Jim begins hinting that maybe we need to pull over and pitch our tents beside the road. An hour later we arrive at a motel partially boarded up with trash strewn around an empty parking lot. Thinking it is closed; Don relieves himself in the parking lot. I find an unlock door and learn that the going rate is $125 a night. A few hundred yards down the road and off the highway are cabins going at $150 per night. It is more than what we want to pay. Canoeists have the reputation of being cheap and I am traveling with the stingiest. The proprietor mentions that there is a motel nearby. However, we would not save much money and it is not as nice or secure. Thompson is four hours away so we reluctantly decide to get a cabin.
We arrived in Thompson around noon the next day and find the railroad station closed until 4 pm. It is cold and wintry. I begin to second doubt my choice of clothing and purchase another layer of long johns for my legs. Driving around, we see a 10 story wolf mural on the side of a building and several howling wolf statues carved in stone throughout the city. We also see signs of poverty and addiction. After eating an excellent lunch at Grapes restaurant we go visit the Heritage North Museum. The museum consists of two log structures. On display in the main building are a variety of mounted animals native to the area, a Boreal Forest diorama which includes an authentic caribou hide tipi, a woolly mammoth tusk, fossils, and assorted Thompsonite artifacts. The second building is dedicated to Inco and mining related artifacts. Here we learn that nickel ore was found in the area in February 1956. During the winter of 1956 through 1957, 300,000 tons of supplies and equipment were hauled by 24 diesel powered tractor trains dubbed the “Snowball Express” to build this mining town named in honor of Inco’s chairman John F. Thompson. Unfortunately we do not have enough time to take advantage of the free walking surface tours at Inco. We need to get back to the railroad station to unload the van and give Jim enough time to drive the van to and get back from McCreedy Campground were we were advised to leave the van.
Our canoes and packs draw much attention while we wait for the train. Just like the Boy Scouts we met in Illinois, we are held in awe and treated like celebrities when they hear of our plans of disembarking from the train in the tundra and paddling the rest of the way to Churchill. It feels strange and yet welcoming to be amongst so many fellow adventurers who understand our passion for the wilderness. In the dining car Jim, Don and I eat dinner with Monte Taylor who is a professional wildlife photographer who has work for National Geographic and the National Audubon Society.
Between bites of pasta and chicken we share our love of the outdoors and talk of places that are both magical and special to us. We tell him of our desire to paddle with the belugas and become envious when we learn that he plans on swimming with the belugas while taking their picture.
While we eat, Larry introduces himself to a young Meti couple with an infant. Larry and the father talk about hunting, fishing, wildlife and who knows what else. Larry is a talker and is always asking questions about moose hunting and how to get a tribe number; thus, enabling him to hunt for moose and avoid the red tape. Eventually the conversation returns to the subject of polar bears, at which point the father offers to retrieve and loan us his shotgun.
Dave Pancoe warned me that the train ride was an adventure in itself. At the time I did not fully grasp nor understand what he was saying. I thought there was nothing between Thompson and Churchill; however, there are several small Meti communities only reachable by train along our route. Sometime during the evening we see the conductor running down the aisle yelling, “Smoke”. The train is slowing down and we are unsure what is happening. Is there a fire? Do we need to evacuate? Are we in danger? To our surprise and amusement we quickly learn that the train is stopping for a smoking break. Those who need to smoke disembark the train and stand along the tracks inhaling and swatting mosquitoes.
As we headed slowly northward the train moaned, groaned, creaked and rocked along. Reclining in our seats wrapped in our sleeping bags all warm and cozy we would sleep until a loud bang and a lurch would slightly awaken us. Looking through heavy eyelids, we would watch the brown, barren landscape almost void of trees pass by at the pace of a snail.
Occasionally one of us would rise and go to the restroom. The restroom sat directly above the train wheels and every lurch of the train was amplified 10-fold. Once inside it was liked riding a roller coaster, possibly more like a bucking bronco. Holding onto the railing, we attempted to hit the center of the toilet bowel and not the side of the wall, door or ourselves. Afterwards, grabbing hold of the swaying recliners trying not to wake anyone, we would slowly make our way back to our seats and watch the bleak landscape slide by every so slowly until we drifted back off to sleep. Sometime during the early morning hours the cold began to make its presence known. We have lost heat and Larry struggles all night long to stay warm without a sleeping bag or quilt. Throughout the night the conductor monitors and remedies the situation. It is a fitful sleep.
On the Deer River:
Day 1: Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Around 6:30 am we are informed that our whistle stop is coming up and we need to move to the baggage car. Once in the baggage car the railroad men slide open the door allowing the cold, damp morning air to rush in. We screech to a halt beside some empty barrels and pallets only yards away from the 100 yard long portage. Quickly we unload our canoes and packs and place them beside the tracks.
As the train pulls away we see familiar smiling faces and waving hands behind the glass windows bidding us farewell and bon voyage. We waste no time searching for our long johns, rain gear and mukluks once the train is gone. It is cold, drab and lightly misting, the type of morning where you see your breath and keep moving in order to stay warm. Jim hands us all a liquid breakfast drink mix and it is then, standing alone beside the railroad tracks, we realize just how crooked and unleveled the train rails are. If we had not experienced it, we would not have believed a train could travel down tracks such as these wrecked with so much damaged caused by the freeze and thaw process. Amazing!
Once on the river we find ourselves almost immediately in swifts with one huge obstacle. There is a metal wall, fence or dam that spans the river. The center section has collapsed and we can not quite tell if it is now a man made ledge or waterfall. The banks are steep and there is nowhere to easily pull out and take a look. Clinging to willow branches we carefully approach and assess the situation. Appearing runnable, we ferry up river and make our run from river center. Nearing the obstruction the river picks up speed and safely delivers us to the other side. It is an easy run.
Left to right: Jim, Don and Larry on the Deer River
Around 10:00 am we stop for coffee to warm up. The shore is cobbled with small rocks lying on top of soft gray clay. I find myself quickly sinking into the ooze and step onto a rock the size of a basketball only to find it rapidly sinking into the muck that wants to claim my mukluks. The shoreline is riddled with animal tracks. We see plenty of bird and crane prints. There are caribou tracks being followed by wolves. Don finds a set of moose tracks that are absolutely huge, bigger than his boot print.
Left to right: Don, Larry and Jim warming up
The mosquitoes are somewhat bad and come at us in waves throughout the day. We are surprised that we have to apply DEET to keep them away. It is 47 degrees, too cool to bring them out or so we thought.
We easily run several small rapids and numerous swifts. Around one bend in the river we spy a moose. Around another bend we see two adolescent bald eagles just getting their colors. As we paddle down the river we see plenty of arctic terns, plovers, canadian geese and several duck species we do not know. Around noon we begin to see large snow banks on the northwest banks of the river.
By mid-afternoon the sun is shining. The skies are blue and it is 62 degrees. The barometer is rising and the wind is gusting to 11.3 mph out of the north. Jim is tired and wants to quit for the day. Below the next set of rapids we stop to make camp on a rocky beach. While Jim slept, Don and I fished for dinner. Don catches three pike and I catch a large one.
Don cleaning fish
During dinner the wind begins to blow out of the southeast. It is getting colder and buggier. After dinner, Jim and Larry paddle over to the far side of the river for a brief hike. They see nothing but lichen and bog as far as the eye can see. They also see fresh foot prints. We are not alone; someone else is ahead of us. All of us go to bed early. It has been a long day. Distance paddled, 18 kilometers. Maximum speed, 5.9 kph.
Day 2: Wednesday, June 27, 2007
It was a short night. Sunset did not occur until 11:30 pm. Around 2:00 am I was awaken by the cold. It is 33.4 degrees. I put on my long johns and use my second light weight sleeping bag as a quilt. It is strange to see the night sky being so bright, more like dusk back home in Indiana. Sunrise wakens us at 5:15 am with bright blue skies. By 9:30 am it is 43 degrees with a light breeze and is beginning to cloud up with the typical low, gray clouds you routinely see in the far North.
Throughout the day we stop several times to hike the tundra. Walking quickly over the soft, gray clay we climb the steep banks pushing our way through the willows and alders. Nearing the summit we find groves of small white spruce and balsam fur. Behind the pine trees is nothing but lichen, reindeer moss, small knee high bushes and an occasional clump of stunted, wind blown black spruce. The black spruces are small and typically only have branches on one side, all pointing away from the prevailing winds. A few of the spruces are almost void of limbs except for a small tree top ball of green.
It is amazing how dry and crunchy the brown lichens and mosses are beneath our feet. One careless match or a lightening strike and it appears that it all could go up in smoke and flames. In some of the areas we hike, the landscape is also dotted with small ponds of brilliant blue water where the permafrost has melted. It is impossible to get close without sinking into the ground.
Larry and Jim
Larry and Don
Walking back to the canoes we are mugged by the mosquitoes hiding in the willows and alders. Occasionally there are black flies in the mix. It is easy to lose the black flies on the water but the mosquitoes are different. They give pursuit. If the wind is blowing hard we quickly lose them; however, when the air is calm and still we found ourselves sprinting down the river trying to lose them. After a quarter of a mile we are bug free or so we think. At this time we discover that many have taken refuge within our hulls or amongst the packs which always resulted in the waving of arms and hands, paddles or hats to shoo them away. We quickly learn to appreciate the wind.
On one particular hike Jim, Don and I return to our canoes leaving Larry behind. We climb into our canoes and paddle a few hundred yards down river to a huge snow bank. Don and Jim land first and begin lobbing snow balls at me. For several minutes we play in the snow throwing snow balls at each other or slide down the slippery snow bank. Eventually we fill our water bottles with snow for slushies and wait for Larry. It takes an eternity but Larry eventually arrives. Upon his arrival he tells us that he almost got lost out on the tundra. After we left he kept on walking. Hundreds of yards away from the river he realizes he does not have a compass and everything looks the same. Fortunately he remained calm and was able to follow his footsteps back to his canoe.
Don and Jim
The day consisted of running many small rapids. One particular rapid consisted of three sets where we had to dodge rocks and change sides of the river to make our run. This particular set might have been a CI-tech or possibly a C-II. In between running rapids, we would flush from the bushes Canadian geese with goslings. For hundreds of yards the hen would lead us down the river trying to draw attention to herself and not the goslings beside us that would dart in and out amongst the rocks or bushes lining the shore.
Left to right: Don, Jim and Larry
It begins to rain when we stop for lunch. After donning our rain jackets and pants the rain stops only to start again about the time someone removes their jacket or pants. Eventually we called this on and off phenomena “almost rain”. Late in the afternoon the rain officially stops and the wind begins blowing hard out of the west. With three and a quarter inches or rocker in the bow and three inches of rocker in the stern, I find my Swift Raven wanting to weather vane badly every time the river turns north. I find the paddling to be difficult and tiring. My paddling strokes become inefficient. Instead of propelling myself forward with each stroke of my blade, I find myself having to do a lot of correction strokes in order to stay on course. Running the rapids becomes more difficult and my reaction times begin to slow. By late afternoon the wind shifts out of the north creating waves that flow upriver with small breaking white caps. The paddling is still difficult and I find myself having to dig a little deeper and harder with each stroke of my blade.
After sharing a dinner of chili and corn bread we lash the four canoes together and flip them over in the knee high willows. The willows are not stout enough to keep a canoe or canoes from going airborne. Hopefully, by tying the canoes together in a daisy chain we will not lose any of them in the gusting winds that continue to build in strength.
Left to right: Don, Larry and Jim
Larry preparing to cook
We crawl into our tents at 8:00 pm. It is 69.9 degrees. Within 30 minutes it is 62 degrees. As I settle and get comfortable in my tent I notice the temperature continues to drop, the wind continues to build and the tent begins to shake. I grab my toque and pull out my second light weight sleeping bag rated for 55 degrees. I suspect it is going to be another cold night. Distance paddled; 25 kilometers almost half of it spent fighting the wind.
Day 3: Thursday, June 27, 2007
It is a cool 45 degree morning. The barometric pressure is still running high and continues to climb every so slowly.
I have been watching the barometric pressure for several days, now, and anticipate it to start dropping soon; bringing the cursed winds that keep one from paddling. I hope and pray it does not drop once we are on the Churchill River. The Churchill is a big, wide river that aligns itself with the cold prevailing winds coming off of Hudson Bay. We anticipate trouble and suspect we will have at least one lay over day on the Churchill. Hopefully, the barometer will guide us in choosing the right day for paddling below the weir where the river gets extremely wide and where we are the most expose to the winds and tides.
All morning long we battle the wind coming out of the north. The paddling is difficult and the gusts of wind throw you off course at the most inopportune time. The wind continues to build eventually muffling the sound of approaching rapids. Even in the midst of the rapids all you can hear is the howling wind. In one particular rapid, a gust of wind pushes Don’s bow and pivots him 180 degrees just as he is setting up for a run. Immediately his bow and stern are pinned against the rocks. He is sideways in the river and causes a massive canoe pileup for all of us behind him.
Today, there is a little bit more of rock bashing and scraping going on than usual.
Instead of fishing, we feel the call to visit and hike the tundra. It is so alien and different. Having nothing to draw from or compare it against, the experience is surreal. Today we find the tundra to be damp and spongy, not dry and crunchy. Although it is barren and almost void of trees, the mosses are alive and blooming. The ground is covered in a carpet of itsy, bitsy pink and white flowers.
Jim and Larry
Hiking back to our canoes we are greeted by hordes; no, legions of mosquitoes near the water’s edge. They are blood thirsty and determined to dine. Their attack is vicious and I can almost feel myself panicking for I am being pelted in the face. In their rush for blood, they are hitting me so hard that they bounce off of my face. It feels like someone is throwing sand in my face. Lacking my head net, all I want to do is close my eyes, wave my arms madly around and run like a crazed animal.
Life on the tundra is not controlled by the sun or moon. It is ruled by the wind. The wind determines everything, when to paddle, when the bugs come out, when skies are blue or when you feel warm. Your level of comfort depends solely upon the wind. And she is fickle, always changing her mind and where she is coming from.
Stopping for lunch we are all in need of something to warm us up. I hand Jim a bag of Alessi Pasta Fazool soup and ask him to bring it to a boil. It is exactly what we need and gives us the mental fortitude and energy needed to tackle the continuous 12 mph wind with her sporadic gusts.
In the afternoon, a horizontal object spanning a creek bed gets our attention. Upon closer inspection we spy hidden in the bushes something that looks like a bunker. It is constructed of concrete and has a flat roof. There is a huge opening that faces the river. We are confuse and unsure what we see. Are we looking at a bunker from a Distant Early Warning radar station the United States built to detect incoming Soviet missiles during the cold war? Is this part of the DEW Line? Beaching the canoes and slogging our way through the soft, gray clay we struggle to climb the near vertical bank. Standing beside the structure we see a pipe protruding from a wall that disappears far off into bushes. Two of the walls have collapsed. The walls are thick and there is a hatch on the roof. Inside is a partially submerge boiler. Coal litters the ground. It appears to be a pump house. The mystery is solved when we consult the maps. Half a kilometer away are the railroad tracks and a water tower.
Throughout the afternoon the wind slowly dies down. By the time we arrive in camp at 6:00 pm the sky is blue and the sun is shining bright. One could easily get sunburn. There is something strange about the tundra sun. Throughout the day the intensity of the light makes it look and feel like it is mid-morning all day long. Mornings warm up quickly and the hottest time of the day is during dinner. Come evening when the sun should be going down the temperature starts to drop and drops quickly. However; to the eye, nothing has changed. We also discover that it is much easier to get sunburn. We speculate that all of it has something to do with the angle of the sun and its affects on solar radiation.
Worth cooking his dinner
Larry and I are restless after dinner and decide to explore our surroundings. Our hike disturbs the arctic terns, plovers and sand pipers. When they become too agitated we carefully watch where we place out steps for we have discovered that the terns lay their camouflage colored eggs in nothing more than a depression of gravel. Once again we see plenty of signs of caribou, scat and the footprint of a lynx.
By 8:00 pm we are all in our tents and it is 64 degrees. Around 9:00 pm I hear the unmistakable sound of a helicopter. Eventually it becomes too loud to ignore and I stick my head outside my tent. I spy Jim, naked, sitting on a rock taking a sponge bath and coming directly at us 50 feet off the ground is the helicopter. As it passes directly overhead I wave and watch the helicopter rock back and forth in reply. Distanced paddled, 23 kilometers.
Picture taken at 8:00 pm
Picture taken at midnight
Picture taken at 2:00 am
Day 4: Friday, June 28, 2007
I am the first to arise at 6:30 am and begin to take down my tent. While taking down my tent, far off in the distance I see something move. It is a lone caribou coming down a steep embankment. It slowly makes it way to the river’s edge but does not linger longer. All too quickly it vanishes into its surroundings and is gone.
The river takes on a different character today and begins to meander back and forth every one hundred yards. With every twist and turn, we are greeted with a small rapid. Taking turns, everyone has the opportunity of leading the group down the rapids.
Although it is a comfortable overcast morning, no one wants to go for a swim; thus, there are a few rapids we decide to scout first. As the morning passes by I find my confidence and bravado slowly building to a crescendo. Eventually I become the one who runs the ledges first. The majority of the ledges are located in the middle of a horseshoe turn and run diagonally across the river with rock piles to avoid at the top and bottom. Rising on my knees I look for a line to run below the ledge and slowly work my way towards it. Upon reaching the precipice I occasionally find myself having to take evasive action with a quick draw or pry. Sometimes I just have to boof my way over the top. Catching an eddy, I spin a 180 degrees around and use my paddle to point the best way over the ledge for the group.
Late in the morning Larry is leading us through an S-turn rapid with Don following too closely behind him. Coming out of the rapid, Larry manages to avoid a big pillow rock but Don does not see it and finds himself perched on top of it. Trying to avoid Don, I boof a few rocks an eddy out to watch the drama unfold, ready to give a helping hand. Unfortunately, Don is unable to drop to his knees and stabilize his position. Instead he sits in his canoe, center of gravity high above the water, because he has not undergone surgery to replace both knee joints. Don had made the decision to postpone his surgery until after the trip and undergo rehabilitation during the winter in order to do the trip of a lifetime and visit Quetico one more time. Stuck fast and going nowhere, Don rocks his canoe sideways, forward and backward. He repeats the process until his stern breaks free. The current grabs hold of the stern and begins to spin him backwards and the gunnel begins to drop. It is too late to stop the roll and Don quickly finds himself standing in waist high water holding onto his canoe. Larry and I rush forward to retrieve his gear. Don eventually lets go of the canoe and walks toward shore.
Larry helping Don to shore
Everyone helps him empty his canoe of water and reload his gear. Don refuses to change his clothes. He is more concern about retrieving the pink, heart shape rock he found for his dear wife from the Deer River. Back on the river, I stay close to Don and watch for signs of hypothermia. It is beginning to cloud up and the wind is slowly building.
Not far around another corner we spy a large, lone caribou feeding near the shore. It looks up and pays little attention to us until we get too close and then moves further downstream. Carefully and slowly, staying on the opposite bank closing the distance we approach trying to get the perfect camera shot. This game goes on for a kilometer before the caribou decides to vanish into the willows.
Larry and Caribou
Eventually Jim snags a pillow rock and comes to brief stop. In another rapid, Larry takes on too much water and has to empty his canoe.
I too, eventually find a pillow rock and get myself stuck. Already on my knees and going nowhere, I mirror Don’s actions and rock my canoe sideways, forward and backwards. I feel the current grab hold of my stern and I begin to spin around. Sliding off the rock, I too, feel my gunnel drop and quickly shift my weight to pop it up to keep from going for a swim. It is a close call. Larry and Jim thought I was a goner. Don told me my gunnel touched the water.
Shortly thereafter, we stop for lunch, experience “almost rain” and fire up the stove for tea or coffee. A tactic I request Jim do to insure that Don stays warm after going for a swim because he still refuses to change his clothes. Supposedly, they are almost dry and he is warm. After lunch it stops raining and the sky turns a bright, vibrant blue. It rapidly warms up and becomes hot.
The afternoon is full of fun! We are running rapids about every 30 minutes, the type of rapids where you do not have to scout and can just blindly run them. The type of rapids where if you do get into trouble you do not need to worry about going for a swim, you just boof them and continue on. At the confluence of the Dog River we find the river to be extremely shallow and come close to having to drag our canoes. Beyond the confluence it becomes marshy and delta like. Here the Dog divides into multiple streams, distributaries, and gives little hint which may be active or inactive. We are in a maze of reeds and barely afloat. I check my GPS to confirm our location. Jim and I paddle into what appears to be potentially a deadened distributary choked full of reeds. The reeds close in on us until we are pushing more than paddling our way through a narrow channel with flowing water that barely accommodates our canoes single file. Eventually we see a wide expanse of water partially hidden by the reeds in front of us and know that we have arrived. Don and Larry join us and someone comments on how wide the Churchill is. The river is a kilometer wide.
Jim on the Churchill River
It is late afternoon and the group wants to travel a little further downriver. We paddle past a few potential campsites in search of perfection and begin to find every inch of the shoreline covered in willows. The river becomes shallow, forcing us to paddle out in the middle amongst the shoals studded with low growing shrubs. Early in the evening we find a narrow open shoreline that we can call home. Slogging and dragging our canoes through the soft gray clay we make it to shore and find the ground saturated with water. I pitch my tent on the highest spick of land only to find that I am several feet from a plover’s nest who is very upset at me. Larry helps me relocate my tent besides Jim’s. Water oozes out the ground around us and I hope my plastic outtie and innie keep me dry throughout the night.
Don and Larry
It is a stifling hot 86 degrees and there is no breeze. We have no shade and it is too muddy and shallow to go for a swim. The sweat runs down our backs and beads form on our foreheads during dinner. After dinner we walk back and forth along the narrow shoreline because it is too hot to crawl inside our tents. Walking along the shoreline we see wolf tracks following the caribou, gnawed caribou bones and small bear tracks. Distance paddled; 28 kilometers.
Arriving in Churchill:
Day 5: Saturday, June 29, 2007
During the night all of us at some time or another, exited our tents to relieve ourselves and saw the brightly glowing full moon above the brush tops and at the same time a vibrant reddish, orange sun barely visible above the horizon on the far side of the river that appeared as if it was on fire. In between the sun and moon was the Churchill River; calm, flat, shining like a mirror. It was a beautiful sight, worthy of a photograph but my camera laid 15 feet away in the canoe unreachable due to the mukluk, gray, sucking clay. Some events in life are meant to be cherished, stored away in one’s memory and this was one of them. Serenading us throughout the night were the calls of sandhill cranes.
Today was supposed to be a short paddle. The goal was to travel no more than 18 kilometers and find a nice campsite where we could lay over for 2 days of fishing or hiking the tundra. Instead, I find the crew paddling at a moderate pace and doing 10 kph out in the middle of the open river. Several times I tried to slow the pace down and get them to move towards shore or the shoals where the waterfowl are. Huge tundra swans are nesting along the Morrier Islands but the crew is content to share Jim’s binocular and watch them from a far.
Jim on the Churchill River
However, we did stop to investigate a few cabins sitting back off the river amongst the trees or bushes in hopes of finding a high and dry clearing to pitch our tents. Instead we find the cabins surrounded by brush or worse, ravaged by marauding black bears.
Jim standing in the entry the bear made
Left to right: Larry, Worth, Don and Jim
By noontime we have arrived at the pumping station immediately above the weir. While walking around the premises we decide here is where we will eat lunch and make camp. During lunch a SUV arrives with students from the University of Manitoba. They are studying flies and are looking for the introduction of new genus’s that may have migrated northward due to global warming. Several walk around with butterfly nets while one stands guard holding a 12 gauge pump action shotgun. Upon seeing the shotgun, Larry and Don begin asking the same questions I had asked long ago when planning and preparing for the trip. The conversation goes something like this, “Are there any polar bears in the area? We do not have a shotgun. Is it safe to camp here”? Jim chimes in and reminds us that we do not need to worry about polar bears as he pours the juice from a tuna can onto the ground. It is the wrong time of the year to see polar bears. A student corrects him and tells us that a large polar bear was seen at the end of the road yesterday. Don and Larry’s courage is slowly melting. Jim continues to downplay the risk; however, he is listening very intently. I stand back and say nothing. I already know the answers and realize that Jim’s disregard played a role in Don and Larry’s decision not to bring a shotgun. The two need to truthfully assess the risks and ask themselves how comfortable do they feel traveling in polar bear country unarmed with nothing more than bear deterrents. Eventually Don asks the magical question “Is there a safer place to stay than here”? The students are unfamiliar with the area and do not give us a satisfactory answer.
At this time two local Meti arrive to repair the motor on the fishing boat beside our beached canoes. Larry speaks with the one drinking a beer while the other repairs the motor and asks, “Are there any polar bears in the area? We do not have a shotgun. Is it safe to camp here? We have been told that polar bears have been seen nearby. Is there a safer place to stay than here”? The Meti tells us that there is a tower nearby where we can sleep in. The Meti consults with his friend and we are also told that there are two public cabins across the river for folks just like us without guns. Behind the cabins is a rock quarry where the water should be warm enough to bathe in. Don asks where can we find these cabins and the intoxicated Meti points his finger across the 2 kilometer wide river at a speck that only he can see. His friend warns us to stay away from the weir. One does not want to be sweep over it and drown. Don states that he would feel more comfortable sleeping in a cabin. Larry agrees. I noticed that the two Meti are unarmed. I do not feel the need to relocate because of bears. I feel the need to relocate because I do not want to sleep in an area that sees so much traffic. I speak with Jim and the two of us are skeptical. We have seen plenty of cabins throughout our travels and the majority were never inviting. Can we trust the information from two drunken Indians?
I lead the way across the river slightly ferrying upstream. Supposedly we are about a mile above the weir and from our experience, the river flows fast. It is my intent to stay far away from the weir. Half way across I spy shoals and change course to intercept them. The water should be shallow and slow flowing, much like the area we camped in last night. Nearing the other side we see a cabin sitting back off the river; however, we can not locate the second cabin. Paddling into a small channel Larry finds a trail leading us through the willows and into a large, open clearing where the cabin sits. A broken window shows signs of a black bear’s presence but the cabin is in excellent condition. Building supplies lie behind the cabin. Inside we find two beds, a stove, table, chairs, two shotguns, ammunition of a different gauge and the rack from a caribou. The cabin is cozy and clean. Don and Larry mull it over, whether or not to sleep in the cabin or out in the open. It is a scorching 85 degrees. I decide to sleep out in the open where I will have a slight southern breeze to keep me cool and netting to keep the mosquitoes at bay. In the process of setting up our tents in the ankle high willows, Jim and I discover the hiding places for hundreds of black flies. Fortunately, it is too windy for them to want to take flight.
Nearing dinner time the heat becomes almost intolerable. I remove my tee-shirt and put on my bug jacket to keep the few black flies at bay. Don removes his shirt and models his sheep skin hat he brought for the cold weather while Larry holds the caribou rack up against his head. This elicits much laughter and joking regarding our cold weather clothing and the lack of warm weather clothing.
Larry and Don
Don modeling his hat
Throughout the evening I drink plenty of fluids to ward off the cramps that come with dehydration before crawling into my tent. Unfortunately, numerous black flies accompany me inside my tent. I try to ignore them but find a few that would prefer to crawl around and bite. After several minutes of hand slapping and pounding I have killed the majority of them. Not soon thereafter, I need to relief myself and exit the tent. Standing in the grass barefooted I can feel the water oozing up and out of the ground. Returning to my tent I find a cloud of black flies swarming behind my tent in the lee which also happens to be were I left the door open. This time it takes many minutes of hand slapping and pounding to kill them all. Afterwards, I make a mental note to pitch the tent with the door facing into the wind the next time I am in the tundra. I eventually feel the need to exit the tent again. Instead I grab my piss bottle and relief myself in it. Throughout the night I can hear the black flies hitting the tent, making popping noises upon impact. Distance paddled; 25 kilometers.
Day 6: Sunday, June 30, 2007
I am up at 6:15am and find thousands of mosquitoes beneath my rainfly. Walking towards the cabin, I see that Don or Larry has boarded up the broken window to keep either the mosquitoes or the man eating polar bears out. Their food packs are strung about the porch and unburned trash from last night’s dinner is in the trash can beside the cabin. I seriously doubt they had that much of a safer sleep. High tide ends in a couple of hours and there is no rush to quickly break camp. Jim enters the cabin and begins to make pancakes. Our plan is to paddle the deep, narrow channel that looks more like a small Michigan river and stay off of the Churchill River. We suspect the channel will take us directly to the weir and should be easier and faster to paddle than traveling through the shoals. Upon arriving at the weir we plan to ride the out going tide, cross the 2 kilometer wide river before it quickly becomes a six and a half kilometer wide river and hopefully arrive in Churchill before the mighty Churchill can drop 2.81 meters leaving us stranded on the mud flats, hundreds of yards from shore.
An hour later we break camp, tidy up the cabin and leave it better than we found it. Once on the water we slowly paddle towards the weir. Another hour finds us near the weir and we can see that the weir has been breeched in several locations where the winter ice pushed aside and downstream the large rocks and riprap that make up the dam.
Beside the weir are two cabins. Both cabins have bars over the doors and windows and an observation deck on top. The first cabin is clean. Inside is a picnic table, bale of straw and a couple of unused shotgun slugs. The second cabin sits near the rock quarry and has a deck. Beside the cabin is a picnic table an outhouse.
Jim standing on top of cabin
Don, Larry and I decide to line the first breech in the weir above a small island until we are in a better position to run the pseudo-man made rapid. Jim believes he can run the third breech and paddles off. After lining the breech, the three of us drag our canoes across a slab of limestone and run the “S” shape channel that separates the weir from the island. It is an easy run that does require some quick maneuvering in the fast flowing water. Eddying out behind a large boulder near the third breech I grab my camera to take a photograph of Jim portaging his packs in a cloud of angry sea birds. Before I can click the shutter I hear Larry shout, “Behind you, look behind you”! Not far off my stern I see a seal checking me out. The three of us quickly become distracted by the numerous seals that surround us and watch them as they watch us. The current below the weir flows extremely fast and we find it difficult to watch the seals and dodge the many rocks at the same time. Eventually all three of us eddy out behind large boulders and wait for Jim’s arrival.
Crossing the river we begin to feel a light breeze blowing off Hudson Bay that slowly begins to build. The far side of the river is a long ways off and we can barely make out the grain bins of Churchill 12 kilometers away. Halfway cross the narrows I spy the white backs of the beluga whales. Turning around, we head back where we came in hopes of intercepting them. They appear to be avoiding us. All around us we can hear them clearing their blowholes. We sit in our canoes quietly, broadside to the waves, and try to predict where they might rise from the water.
Front, left to right: Larry, Don and Jim looking for belugas
We spin the canoes left, we spin them right, we twist our heads right, then left. It is maddening trying to take a picture. The wind continues to build and it is starting to feel uncomfortable riding in the troughs broadside. After half and hour or more, Don and Jim head for shore. Larry and I stay a little longer gambling for a perfect picture with the outgoing tide and building winds.
We eventually give up and begin paddling hard to catch up with Don and Jim. Unfortunately, the tides and current have taken us quite a ways downstream and the shoreline is much, much farther away than it previously was. Our paddling draws the attention of the belugas and they give chase. Rising close to the canoe, they clear their blowhole, take a breath and dive beneath the hull only to rise on the other side.
A few lie on their side and tilt their head towards us for a better view. It is a wonderful experience. Occasionally, I lie my paddle down and attempt to take a picture only to quickly pick up my paddle and brace in the building waves.
All too soon the belugas leave for deep water. By now it is blowing hard and we are in big, yet somewhat gentle swells. We fight to keep our bows pointed towards Churchill. The current is pushing us north and the wind is pushing us south causing our canoes to weathervane and turn broadside into the waves. Eventually, I stop fighting when I realize that the conditions are causing me to grossly ferry across the river. Far from shore, boulders emerge from the river and the canoes pass by broadside at an alarming pace. Eventually the boulders close in on us making it more difficult to dodge them. It soon becomes impossible to pivot the canoes around fast enough to pass through the narrow gaps that keep coming at us faster and faster. Calling it quits we head for deep waters and question whether the tide has won and we will be dragging our canoes and slogging our way across the mudflats. The grain bins are getting closer and the waves are beginning to break. The river’s personality is getting mean. Without the current we would be wind bound. Shortly before noon we arrive at the flats in Churchill. Waves are crashing onto shore and the wind is blowing fiercely. Several hundred yards away are shanties and further still are the buildings of Churchill. After taking a brief rest and studying our surroundings we decide to head further downriver to shorten our portage into town. Launching our canoes into the breaking surf we quarter the waves and slowly move away from shore. Spinning 180 degrees, our bows pointing towards shore and we float broadside into the waves as we race down the shore. When we get to close to shore we turn away and repeat the process over and over again, zigzagging our way down to the shanties.
We exit the river beside the shanties and carry our canoes and gear mere yards to the road.
Left to right: Jim, Larry and Don arriving at the flats