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PostPosted: October 12th, 2017, 10:44 pm 
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This is one of those bucket list trips, a trip of a life time, one of the best white water rivers in North America, guide’s choice, a complete gem! Available only to the exclusive few with the finances, courage and expert skill required to brave such a remote northern river. Um, well no, maybe not that last bit.

Four of us undertook a self-guided trip down the Mountain River in the summer of 2017. Door to door I was gone for seventeen days. Only thirteen of that was on the river. We also had hotel and lodge stays in Yellowknife and Norman Wells. Restaurant and booze tabs. My complete out of pocket expenses were less than a two week all inclusive trip to the Caribbean. I’m not saying it was cheap. But there are tens of thousands of people who manage to find money to go to Jamaica each year, but precious few who manage to paddle a world renowned northern river. We were told 30 people did it in 2017.

As far as courage and expert skill are concerned. Meh, we went mid-summer. Water was very low, so were the bugs. The weather was really good for working on your tan. The current does race for three hundred kilometres. It’s like the downhill ski run of the canoe world. Ninety five percent of the rapids we faced could have been run by anyone with confidence and good moving water skills. For the other five percent, you have to know what you are doing. Or, be able to recognize and avoid the hairy stuff. Dumping in this river equates to a long frigid swim.

Note a high water trip would be an entirely different experience!!! That would require a great deal of experience and a solid group dynamic. In flood this river would be downright scary.

My trip started with an Air North Flight from Ottawa to Yellowknife. Air North flies direct from Ottawa, the airport is nice, food is good and the flight is cheap. This is the way to go! We stayed at the Explorer Hotel in Yellowknife. Not cheap but nice. The vagaries of air schedules mean you typically have to spend at least one night in Yellowknife. I really enjoyed my time there!

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Yellowknife baggage claim

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View of Old Town and Back Bay

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Dinner at Bullocks Bistro in Old Town (Some say the best fish and chips in the world)

Next leg of the flight was from Yellowknife to Norman Wells. For us via Canadian North. At the airport we were picked up by a shuttle arranged through North Wright Air. North Wright Air is the charter plane operator that flew us in to the mountains. North Wright is great to deal with! After paying for our charter flight, (big pill to swallow) North Wright took us to Canoe North Adventures Lodge on DOT lake. Which happens to be directly next to the North Wright floatplane base. Easy peasy and all very convenient.

At DOT lake (Department of Transportation Lake) we were introduced to the awesome team at Canoe North Adventures and some of the pilots and crew from North Wright Air. I can’t say enough about Lin Ward, Al Pace, Max McEachern and the rest of the team at Canoe North. They were awesome. The lodge, gear and advice were all first rate. I highly recommend them!

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Canoe North Adventures Lodge

Not to be outdone North Wright Air is also particularly awesome. You have to go there. To the airbase at DOT Lake in Norman Wells. Put it on your list! It is surreal. The folks up there have been collecting “stuff” for a long time. You know planes, parts, buildings, machinery, vehicles.. stuff! They have turned the area into an indoor outdoor museum. Grab a can of beer, enjoy the midnight sun and take a walk around.

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Original truck and office for Nahanni Air

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Inside one of half a dozen old buildings

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Fleet of vehicles dating back fifty plus years

OK, now to the canoe trip!

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We flew from DOT Lake to Dusty Lake near the headwaters of the Mountain River in the Back Bone Range of the Mackenzie Mountains. We were flown in by a turboprop Pilatus Porter. This flight takes about an hour. Our pilot was Warren Wright the owner of North Wright Air. He flew four of us and all of our gear with two seventeen foot T-Formex Esquif Prospecteurs strapped to the floats. The Porter is an awesome bush plane. It has an incredibly short take-off and landing capability that allows it to land on postage stamp lakes like Dusty.

The flight in was incredible! We had a perfect blue bird day for flying. We skimmed low over the mountains and through valleys. At one point we banked tight around a peak to get a good look at a Dahl Sheep standing on a ridge. Warren also banked low over a spectacular waterfall upstream of Dusty Lake just before the final decent to land on what was little more than a pond.


Video of Pilatus Porter taking off from Dusty Lake

From Dusty Lake to the Mountain River there is 600m carry through willow and a few stunted trees. There are a multitude of game/human trails criss-crossing the area. We triple carried our gear over to the river and I don’t think we used the same trail twice. The last bit before the river is a very steep fifty foot embankment. I don’t remember if we used ropes to lower the boats but if it were wet I’m almost certain you would want to.

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Willow wacking

We didn’t load up right away. Instead we willow wacked 800m upstream to a very impressive waterfall. We found it astounding that this was the only obstacle to progress on the entire Mountain River. From here it flows three hundred kilometres to the Mackenzie River with nothing getting in the way.

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Waterfall upstream of Dusty Lake

First paddle strokes on the river were a bit anticlimactic. The swift flowing river was low and brown like chocolate milk with zero visibility. We ground to a halt on a cobble bed in the first two hundred metres. This repeated itself throughout the morning. In fact, the first few days included quite a bit of this grounding out where river braids expose the shallow river bed. We slowly got the hang of picking the best channel to paddle in spite of zero water visibility.

Our surroundings were immediately and truly astounding. The scenery is spectacular from the minute you land in the mountains. It continued to surpass its own staggering beauty with each day that passed.

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Our first day was short one. Ten kilometres to our first camp on a cobble bar beside a feeder stream. There are countless camping options on the Mountain River. While there are many obvious places where you could set up camp based on scenery and geography, we saw very little evidence of other travelers. No fire pits, only a few foot prints and no garbage. The key to a good campsite is the view and access to clear water. You can’t easily filter the water in the Mountain River because of silt. But there are countless crystal clear feeder streams where you can collect water.

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Feeder stream

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First camp

It was on the second day that we encountered the first of six canyons that are noted along the river. Actually, it turned out the first ‘Canyon’ we came across wasn’t one of the listed canyons. We will call it the ‘Mini Canyon’. It was small but beautiful. It presented the first real white water manoeuvre of the river as fast water forced us into a wall on the outside bend of the river. After this corner, the river bends again to the right before meandering through a low canyon with abrupt walls climbing up from a very narrow river. The Official 1st Canyon follows shortly after. It is a bigger version of the same thing.

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Entering a one of the small upper canyons

Up to this point the rapids had been Class 1 at most. At our low water levels the Mountain River is very easy to navigate. Three hundred kilometres of non stop fast water, Class 1 and Class 2 rapids. Most of the difficulty is in managing big waves, pushy water, boils and reflecting waves. Maybe two percent of the river included Class 3+ rapids. Most of the six canyons present a ‘moment of truth’. One spot that requires a lot of attention and some skill. Having a spray deck is an absolute must. Having a wet or dry suit is highly recommended as the water is frigid even in August.

Shortly after first canyon, Black Feather Creek enters the Mountain River. The creek comes from the direction of Willow Handle Lake which is a popular put in point for paddlers on the river. Black Feather Creek is a more difficult approach with its own mini canyon with challenging C3 rapids.

We set up our Second camp shortly after Black Feather Creek empties in to the river at a huge plain known as Grizzly Meadows. It was such a nice spot we decided to spend two nights there. This turned out to be a highlight of the trip and my favourite campsite. This might be my favourite campsite ever.

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Unloading the canoes

We set up in the shelter of some Spruce trees on the west side of the plain. The meadow is about two square kilometres and is surrounded by a 360 degree panorama of mountains. At the north side of the meadow is a cabin, horse stalls and rough landing strip used by a local hunting outfitter. We spent the following day hiking up one of the Mountains. It was a long rough route that traversed rolling spruce covered hills, climbed a giant ice and boulder filled ravine and finished with a long vertical accent on loose talus. I stopped short of the summit. My knees and lungs had had enough. It was still a spectacular view. Only Laurelea made it to the top. We christened it Mount LL Cool D. Vertical from meadow to summit was nearly three thousand feet.

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Grizzly Meadows. The 3rd peak at centre right is Mt. LL Cool D

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Looking back on Grizzly Meadows and our campsite

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Looking back on Grizzly Meadows and our campsite from much higher up!

Describing the next days in detail would be repetitive. Beautiful hot sunny days, awesome campsites, spectacular scenery, easy white water. Each day we paddled about six hours and traveled somewhere between thirty and fourty kilometres. We were lucky and saw a fair bit of wildlife. The final tally was three bears, one caribou, four moose, four dahl sheep. A plethora of porcupines, foxes, beavers, ground squirrels, ptarmigan, eagles, falcons and countless sandpipers. Other highlights we experienced along the upper part of the river included the ‘Moonscape’ and Cache Creek Junction.

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Back Bone Range crowding the Mountain River

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Staying cool in the northern heat

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Caribou at the Moonscape

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Tuffa Spring at Cache Creek Junction

After Cache Creek Junction the true canyons start. Second canyon is immediately after the confluence with Cache Creek and has the most dramatic and intimidating entrance. I like to think of it as the Gates of Morder. A narrow strip of river abruptly plows through hundred foot high vertical walls. It feels other worldly. About a Kilometre into this canyon is one of those ‘moments of truth’ where the river does a sharp turn to the right and you face forceful reflecting waves and a small ledge followed immediately by big boils.

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Mountains boats and River

After the second canyon the river starts to build. The water gets bigger and pushier. 24 kilometres further downstream a huge prominent rock marks the entrance to the third canyon. Dubbed ‘Battleship Rock’ it is an iconic place to camp. It has been immortalized by the late Bill Mason in his book Song of the Paddle and is certainly one of the most recognized and photographed spots on the river.

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Camping in the shadow of Battleship Rock

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Reviewing the maps and escaping the sun

The third canyon is shorter than the second canyon and includes a couple of decent rapids where the river s-bends through the rock walls. After the third canyon the blue green Stone Knife River joins up to the silty brown Mountain and nearly doubles its volume. There are lots of big bouncy rapids for the next twenty kilometres. The sort of waves that occasionally engulf the bow paddler. With the spray decks and dry suits this is all good fun.

By this point we had been on the river for a week. We were comfortable in our boats and with our daily routine. We would stop periodically at cobble bars. Stretch our legs, have some lunch and play games. Games usually involved setting up some kind of obstacle and then trying to knock it over. David was pretty much the king of river games. But, I gave him a run for his money. We would invariably finish our pit stops with some sort of toast to the river and knock back a couple of shots of Sortilege (Maple Whisky).

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Snow break

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Cruising

Our next camp was at the junction of an unnamed creek that feeds into the Mountain River. The campsite was excellent and the views were again spectacular. It was another great spot for a layover day. About 1/2km from our camp the feeder stream exits a slot canyon. We decided to spend the next afternoon exploring this canyon. David and Benjamin hiked along the south ridge while Laurelea and I decided to explore inside the canyon and do some fishing. This day trip was amazing. Yet another unexpected highlight of the trip. We walked through the twisting canyon for a couple of kilometres. Sometimes hopping from rock to rock along the bank. Other times wading through wider slower moving sections of the stream.

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We fished occasionally in little holes below fast current. Catching and releasing a couple of small Grayling. Then at one hole, no more than 4 feet deep I unexpectedly hooked into a monster Dolly Varden (or maybe it was a Bull Trout, I can’t tell the difference). It might have been 5 or 6 pounds. Caught on a No. 1 Spinner with a single hook and pinched barb. The fish snapped my cheap telescoping fishing rod in half but somehow I managed to haul it to shore. It was an awesome catch! David and Ben went back into the canyon later that day with my broken fishing rod and caught 3 more Grayling and another Dolly Varden. We ate well that night!

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The next day we traveled through the fourth canyon to the fifth canyon. Guess what? This was another highlight of the trip. Fourth Canyon is spectacular! It also offers the biggest white water along the river. In high water the entrance is a mandatory portage with standing waves up to 14 feet high. In low water it is not nearly as imposing. Instead, it is a lot of fun! We ran the whole thing and had a blast. Again as the bow paddler I got a good soaking.

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Benjamin and Laurelea before 4th Canyon

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Martin and David before 4th Canyon

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Looking back after a successful run in fourth canyon

The water between fourth and fifth canyon holds some big waves. You definitely need to stay on your toes. But the real meat of the white water on the trip was now over. Fifth canyon while visually spectacular is a lot tamer. A few sharp eddy lines and boils but little else to worry about.

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Entrance to fifth canyon

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Camped for the night inside the canyon

The fifth canyon also marks the end of the Mountains. After you leave this canyon the terrain flattens out and the river spreads out into a multitude of braids as you enter the Mackenzie River Valley. It can get tricky if you chose the wrong braid and end up running out of water.

We travelled this section in an all-day rain. We kept our heads down and paddled 47km all the way to the sixth and final canyon. In spite of the cold drizzle and fog or maybe because of it the sixth canyon was spectacular. The mist gave it a dramatic Land Before Time feel. I expected to see Pterodactyls circling above the cliffs.

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Sixth canyon

At the end of the sixth canyon on River Left is a hot spring (Um, warm spring). We were all chilled from the day and wanted make the most of the opportunity even though it was still raining. So we soaked in the warm water while still completely sealed in our dry suits. It was awesome!

We set up camp shortly after the last canyon at the foot of a huge wall just across from confluence with the Gayna River. On and off rain continued all the next day so we decided to stay put. Hard to get motivated to paddle when it’s raining. Markers that we placed in the river showed the water levels raise 6 inches in 24 hours.

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Sixth canyon camp

The following day we decided to paddle all the way to the Mackenzie River. It was a gorgeous sunny day. Sixty kilometres of fast current took us to our destination by late afternoon. We set up our last camp of the trip on the low island right at the confluence of the Mountain and Mackenzie. The actual charter plane pick up point is about one kilometre south of this confluence.

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Last camp on the Mackenzie River

When the plane came to pick us up the next day we were very surprised to see a Twin Otter Arrive. Uh oh, I’m pretty sure we didn’t order a Twin Otter for 4 people. Twin Otters have 2 pilots and cargo space for 3 canoes and 6 people. This can be a costly flight. Thankfully we were not charged any extra. It turns out that Warren and his son had flown to Whitehorse that morning to pick up a new plane. They took the Pilatus Porter so they sent the Twin Otter to get us. What a treat!

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Laurelea approves

Turns out there was quite a commotion going on when we returned to Canoe North Adventures. They were getting prepared for the largest trip they had ever run. A special Keele River expedition for dozens of Canadian veterans. The place was a bee hive of activity. In spite of how busy everyone was, Al Pace had made sure to pick us up a case of beer for our last night in the Sahtu. How considerate! Another treat on our last night was watching Warren Wright bring home his new baby. A plane Warren had been working on for 4 years. A 1929 Bellanca CH-300. One of 3 in the world and the only one operating on floats.

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Good Night from Canoe North, the Dehco and the Spectacular Sahtu region of the North West Territories!

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Map: https://caltopo.com/m/3C1S


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PostPosted: October 13th, 2017, 12:36 am 
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Wow! Great reports and beautiful pictures. Amazing trip. Thanks.


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PostPosted: October 13th, 2017, 5:38 am 
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Thanks for sharing. Great TR. Beautiful scenery,

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PostPosted: October 13th, 2017, 7:31 am 
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What a great trip report and pictures.
Brings back memories of a awesome trip we had too.


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PostPosted: October 13th, 2017, 1:47 pm 
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A great report. Nice mix of text and complementary photos.

First I’ve heard of Air North. Sounds interesting.

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PostPosted: October 13th, 2017, 3:17 pm 
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Great report, great pictures, great river! I went down about 13 or 14 years ago. Which northern river are you doing next?

rab


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PostPosted: October 13th, 2017, 3:52 pm 
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Thanks. I'm glad you like the trip report! Rab, I wasn't even done this trip and was thinking of the next one. LOL! Probably somewhere barren.


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PostPosted: October 13th, 2017, 4:32 pm 
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Wow! stunning vistas! I don't have a bucket list yet but I think I'm gonna get one - so I can put this trip on it!

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PostPosted: December 15th, 2017, 1:55 pm 
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My paddling partner David is busy putting together videos for our Mountain River Canoe trip this past summer. In fact, he has a Youtube channel with all kinds of great paddling content. The teaser for the Mountain looks awesome! Definitely worth checking out.



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PostPosted: December 18th, 2017, 10:57 am 
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Looks like a fun trip. Judging from the pictures, not sure why anybody would want to go there. The scenery isn't particularly stunning and I am sure you could have found something around Ottawa for much cheaper.

I am glad you went and posted a trip report however so thanks! Not trying to be negative or mean, just what I felt when looking at the pictures.


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PostPosted: December 18th, 2017, 1:40 pm 
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There are some nice area's "around" Ottawa, and maybe some superficial similarities as Ottawa does touch on the Canadian Shield. On the other hand, cold as you may think it gets in Ottawa, it is nowhere near being in the Arctic.

Similarly while there are still rapids on the Ottawa, it's a very domesticated river today. In contrast the Mountain is a wild, free flowing river. The canyons alone would be worth the trip and from what I hear the whitewater is a perfect blend of fun and relaxation.

I can understand that the arctic isn't for everyone any more than the prairies are for everyone. (On the other hand, having spent years growing up near real mountains, I've never understood why anything in Ontario gets referred to as a "mountain"??) Yet, I still feel that you don't really start to experience Canada until you get north of the 49th parallel (Ottawa is only 45.4215° N) and if you haven't picked blueberries at the Arctic Circle (66.33° N) you probably haven't realized how much further there still is to explore. :D

A clean, wild river. Incredible fishing. Unforgettable wildlife. 12 days of paddling with NO portages. Only accessible by bush plane - an innovation almost as important to Canada's history as the fur trade.

I know exactly why I would want to go there. :thumbup:

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PostPosted: December 19th, 2017, 7:41 am 
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newbman wrote:
not sure why anybody would want to go there. The scenery isn't particularly stunning and I am sure you could have found something around Ottawa for much cheaper.


:lol: I can only assume this is sarcasm. Otherwise I would dearly like to know what canoe trip, if any, passes as stunning.


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PostPosted: December 19th, 2017, 8:44 pm 
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Thanks, newbman, for sharing! A second look at the pix and the fantaastic video prompted me to visit the Black Feather website to see if the river was one of the ones it goes to. I found this -

https://blackfeather.com/canoe/mountain-river

The write-up starts with The Mountain River is our "Guides' Choice" as the best wilderness canoeing river in Canada. Awesome alpine scenery bathed in constantly-changing colours, dramatic canyons, exciting Class 1 to 3 whitewater, and non-stop current - all in a pristine wilderness setting - make this trip a "must" for experienced paddlers.

Mind you, they also offer trips down the Petawawa and the Dumoine and they are closer to Ottawa - and they would be much cheaper!

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PostPosted: December 21st, 2017, 9:04 am 
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Wow! That looks amazing. Thanks for sharing.

Sarcasm or jealousy. hahaha. Paddling around the neighborhood storm retention pond certainly would be the cheapest trip for me. The vistas would beat the Ottawa river too because on a good day I can see the Rockies in the distance (about 100km away) if I peer between houses . I guess I've been doing this paddling thing all wrong hahaha. Good one newbman - lol

I'm extremely envious...


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PostPosted: January 2nd, 2018, 1:54 pm 
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Great trip report. It's been on my list for awhile now and one of these years I'll get there. Your trip report moved it up the ranking a bit.


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