Far North

Well, if you run a blog, I guess it’s on you to keep it current, which I haven’t been doing lately. It’s not that nothing has happened since spring, it’s just that I haven’t gotten around to posting about it. My fault, but hey, it’s my blog.

I’m just back from a two-week river expedition in the Northwest Territories of Canada on the Elk River, a tributary of the Thelon in the central barrenlands. It was a return to that evocative landscape so reminiscent of our early trips on the Kazan and Dubawnt drainages, that rolling, endless tundra terrain full of whispers of native peoples, wildlife, and horizon after horizon of people-less landscape. It is not as panoramic or stunning as the western Arctic, but there is something stirring and compelling about it that I can’t fully explain.

First, some take-aways:

  • it was my first return to the barrens since 2004, when we pulled off an epic family expedition in honor of Eli’s coming-of-age transition on the Kazan River;
  • it was my first all-male journey in a long time (mostly I’ve gone with family, or just Marypat, or with a group of couples). This trip there were six of us from Colorado, Montana, Wisconsin and Minnesota, ranging from 40-something to 70, some with long histories together, others who had never met;
  • the trip was yet another saga of travel snafus – canceled flights, road closures due to forest fires, epic drives;
  • timing was everything – we were lucky to arrive on time because of road closures on the single highway into Yellowknife. Then, after the trip, we made a hasty escape on that same highway, with flames on the side of the road. The other trip members had to contend with another canceled flight, rescheduled itinerary, lost baggage. Then, just days after our escape, the entire city of Yellowknife was under an evacuation order and several communities we had just driven through were burnt to the ground;
  • we indulged a chill pace on the journey – 14 days for an itinerary you could pretty easily paddle in 7. Consequently we enjoyed multiple layover days with lovely hiking along glacial esker ridges, time for contemplation, card games and no hard-and-fast schedule. It was a sweet contrast to earlier trips with a more unbending timeline and the stress of falling behind.

Rather than try to recount a blow-by-blow trip narrative, I’m going to let a few of my journal excerpts speak for the journey. (I’ll try to insert a few photos later, when I get that organized).

Aug. 4 – Day 5: We are in a singularly beautiful spot. A crescent of sand beach, open park-like tundra on a bench above, punctuated with scraggly stands of spruce. The water is mirror calm, the sky faintly cloudy, like gauze. Loons yodel in the distance. I’m inside the tundra tarp unaffected by bugs. Washed out a pair of underwear and a tee shirt. Enjoying another cup of coffee . . .

Had a nice late morning stroll up behind camp on a broad esker plateau. Sweeping views back up river, the lake, other more distant esker systems. On top the glacial litter of boulders and gravel, old musk ox tracks and scat, a few desiccated trees. A whaleback of land from which to glass a vast quadrant of tundra, marsh, lakes, willow. Nothing moving. A quiet tapestry of land under the pale summer northern sky.

Aug. 7 – Day 8: It’s late evening. The setting sun sends its lambent glow across the tundra, under the clouds, flaming this austere scene. Full of quiet water, calling loons, ancient boulders. We put in a solid day of paddling into a light head and cross-wind. Stopped to look for wolf dens without finding any. Stopped again to fish for grayling in a riffle. Spent a long afternoon slogging across wide, lakey miles. Our hoped-for destination turned out to ba a rocky shoreline, but we found an alternative tundra site that has grown on everyone. Reminiscent of many tundra camps along the Kazan and other rivers.

I cooked dinner tonight – African stew with appetizers and a dessert. We listened to the final life story, from Mark. Each one unique and vivid and ultimately personal, shared with emotion and heart, humor and tears. We now have a foundation of meaningful personal history to build from.

Loons flying overhead in the late day sky, a harrier, some willow ptarmigan. Still looking for big mammals – a musk ox, a caribou, a wolf, a bear, some life in the empty space.

Aug. 9 – Day 10: We are officially in base camp mode. We have four days before pick up, and about three miles to paddle. Today is on our own to walk and explore, do chores, take baths, cook bannack, relax. It’s a unique feeling for me, contrasting with so many past trips where we had to keep up a daily mileage average and where weather or wind delays were cause for concern, fretful interludes waiting for a break. These days are more in my friend Lee’s style, taking a month to do a river that you could easily paddle in two weeks. Where you settle into a landscape, let it enfold you, sit and observe it, be fucking quiet for once.

Not that we are necessarily quiet, at least as a group. We also have pretty vociferous discussions and a general hubbub of conversation. That is part of the scene here as a group, and a good part. The morning two-cups-of-coffee debates over climate and population and economy and social ills. The raucous evening rounds of card games. The giving-each-other-shit banter that is a fairly constant undertone, good-natured stuff with a whiff of an edge that comes with personal history, inside jokes, and general comfort with each other. That part is valuable too, and also often absent on a more driven journey, on which everyone is watching to see if they’re lagging on packing up for the day or getting a meal done, or staying up with the other boats.

It is a relief not to feel that daily push. Perhaps a mark of age too, because there is a youthful energy and allure attached to the more goal-oriented style, the heroic days, the epic stories. Call it the retirement pace, or the Lee pace, but I must say that it’s growing on me. It makes me feel more available to northern trips to come in this style. . . .

Something about stripping down naked along the river, washing a few clothes, soaping up armpits and crotch, washing hair while the arctic terns cry in the distance, a sandpiper peeps up the shore, the constant hum of insects becomes a kind of white noise. Then sitting there, pale and clean in the sun, drying out, a slight breeze against the skin. The slowly inching river slides by on its way to the Thelon, over Granite Falls, picking up the pace, an inexorable coalescing of molecules jostling toward the sea. Water molecules our boats have been borne along by, through the miles and storms and winds, corners and pools and riffles and falls – stillness and noise. This symphony of place where time stalls out in the vast ebb and flow that encompasses the coming and going of glaciers, the slow erosion of landscape, the movements of life, including us, all choreographed by chance and fate and change. Here before us, here after we are gone, when we are rendered just another sedimentary layer, remarkable only for its strangeness.

Aug. 11 – Day 12: A passing cumulus dropping rain glanced our camp with gusts of wind. I had to hang on to the tundra tarp for probably twenty minutes as the cloud slowly passed. It lathered up the lake with whitecaps, buffeted the tents, blew my chair around. I guyed out things, put rocks on tent corners, zipped doors shut. Probably would have been okay had I been gone, but maybe not.

These trips as I age have a nostalgic flavor to them. Partly it has to do with the memories sparked as I go, past trips, the energy of youth, former partners, camps and currents and landscapes that I am reminded of. The shards of personal history evoked by whatever.

Also, the question, each journey, of whether it might be my last one to the Far North. I remember paddling the final miles of the Kazan in my fifties, with the boys in the canoe, that river so potent with power and momentum, and thinking with a surge of real grief that it would, in all likelihood, be my last trip there. How I felt so buoyed and exhilarated, and also so stricken, in that last urgent flush of current.

In a quieter way, it is the same here in this rustling camp with the lake sparkling and the clouds in slow parade and the land spreading away so vast. That this might be it. Anything could happen. Cancer. Civil war. Financial ruin. The creep of age finally closing the door. This could be it, today, the final chapter in the minor personal saga that is my dabble in adventure.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.