In the month of July, 2010our website uncommonseminars.com had over 500 hits on our real time Google map of Peter Lenmark and my 760-mile canoe expedition across the arctic divide in the far north of Canada. I want to thank those of you that checked on our progress and followed our expedition on our website. It was a challenging trip and knowing people were checking in on us gave us strength. I appreciated your interest and your support.
The most remarkable aspect of the expedition was the wildness of the Taltson River. Although we found rock cubbies where ancient hunters waited for caribou to ford the river we did not encounter many signs of modern man. To travel for weeks for mile after mile without seeing another person, an airplane or even a pop can was astonishing. Feelings of independence, self- reliance, and freedom eclipsed any fears we had from being so far from home.
The best moment? It came on July 25, the twentieth day of our expedition at our twentieth campsite. But to understand that moment you need 24 hours of background.
The morning before that perfect moment began at 5:30 am with a brisk east wind. We were able to cook oatmeal in the open, as the bugs were only bothersome if you faced away from the wind. By 7:00 we were on the river fighting the waves and wind on wide expanses of the river and making slow but steady progress. Early on this trip we had wondered whether the predominate wind would be from the West or the East? It's East. This endless wind made navigation simpler: when in doubt we just put our nose into the wind. The sail stayed stuffed in a sack. On this day, the wind died just as the Thelon River funneled tighter and the current quickened.
We ran 5.5 miles of rapids that were unmarked on the map. Rapids are not so much a thrill as an obstacle on a remote river. The consequences of a capsize, the possible loss of your canoe and all your gear, keeps you focused and cautious, no whooping and hollering. Still, going downstream was so immeasurably more pleasant than battling upstream on the Taltson River for the first twelve days that we reveled in our good fortune to be moving with the aid of gravity. The sky was hazy, blackened by forest fires far to the south and the air was sultry. We decided to eat lunch in the canoe and this had increasingly become standard procedure. Even on a calm day the current creates enough motion that the bugs are not a big problem especially if you stay in the middle of the river. For lunch we ate crackers or bannock, peanut butter, 5 prunes and a piece of hard candy washed down with river water from our Nalgene bottles. We never went to shore without good reason and by this stage of the trip the Nalgene bottle was used for two purposes. The first time I washed it with soap but Pete convinced me that urine was a sterile solution. So by now we just swished it out.
I can write this next line only because Pete had humbled me earlier on some of the most challenging portages imaginable. He is a pack mule and it is no wonder that when his friends shoot an elk in the Montana backcountry, they call Pete to help pack it out. But on this day, in the rapids, Pete made a bonehead move, a crossbow draw when I asked for a draw and we stuck on a rock, spinned and pinned. We struggled to keep the upstream gunwale above the water but failed and water poured in aft and bow of the center section of our spray cover. The Royalex hull made a sickening groan; it dimpled and started to bend around the rock. We jumped out of the boat and with the force of will freed the canoe from the rock and swam with it through a lively rock garden. I was downstream of the boat and had to work around it before the canoe could make a pancake out of me. Pete was okay and swimming free trying to push off from rocks with his front facing feet. We both kept an iron grip on our paddles. I pulled myself up on the overturned boat and we rode the rapids for 300 yards until we could ease the canoe into an eddy. I am embarrassed to admit that our packing had become a bit complacent and more than one of our "waterproofed" packs took on water. But our gear was lashed in and everything was accounted for except for our sponge. We cautiously paddled downriver to a rocky island where we spent a couple hours drying stuff and letting the hazy sun restore the canoe to its proper shape. We'd be eating bannock from now on, as all our Rye-Crisp crackers had become mush. I was dismayed to discover that the factory cellophane wrapping is not watertight.
It was even more disconcerting to discover that the island where we were repacking straddled the maw of the Thelon canyon. Getting over to the left bank and the recommended portage route would require a strong ferry. If we failed to hold the ferry angle we would be swept downriver over a breathtaking drop. I had read of people lining the Thelon Canyon, but 2010 was a wet summer and the river was running high, canyon wall to canyon wall. I couldn't imagine an attempt at lining. It was portage time.
To get the boat out of the canyon we tied the stern line to the bow line and hoisted the canoe up the cliff face. It is a 3-mile portage to the end of the canyon but unlike the two weeks before on the Taltson, the Thelon is one of the most commonly paddled rivers in the far north and there are actually a faint portage trails. Still three miles is three miles and we decided, as it was already past suppertime, to carry our personal gear packs, some food and our tent to the end of the portage, camp there, and return in the morning for a second load. Two miles in, we met our first fellow travelers on the Thelon. We had seen no one on the Taltson and one party of four on the Elk. This was a Saskatchewan couple, both professional guides, and she was the first female we had seen in a long time. They were breaking the rules and eating in their tent and we talked as we stood in front of their tent.
It is a happy shock to meet new people and to hear two new voices waft through the mosquito netting. A female voice was especially soothing. We would replay the dialog for the next several days as we paddled and I am sure they did too. It's a different world when you go weeks between visitors. I could have talked for an hour but Pete was anxious. Somehow the blackflies had severely compromised his headnet and clothing. As you would expect there was a swarm around his head trying to get in. There was also a swarm inside his headnet. His pants had also been penetrated. I think the bugs had found entry though mesh pocket liners. Earlier he had wondered why his pockets were puffed out. Reaching in he shoveled out a handful of blackflies. Pete had taken to slathering his scrotum with DEET; there are some places you just donŐt want to get bit. But even when they are not biting, black flies, under your clothes, just crawling all over you, will give you the heebie-jeebies. So I had to say goodbye, but not before they told us that some canoeists run the river from this point and avoid the last mile of portaging. They had scouted it earlier and decided the rapids were too high to run and they were going to portage tomorrow.
Pete and I decided to check it out. It was the only argument I had with Pete on the entire expedition. He wanted us to carry our packs when we scouted the rapids so that if we decided to portage we would at least have one load over the portage. I wanted to leave our packs near the Saskatchewan tent because I wasn't walking all the way down there to decide whether or not to run this rapid, my only question was how to run it. If someone had done it before, we could do it. Pete made all the land decisions and I made all the water decisions. In that this was both a water and land decision it created an impasse, but in the end, he caved.
I think he was feeling bad about us dumping in rapids earlier but he shouldnŐt have. He saved my bacon a few days before when he volunteered to carry the canoe over the arctic divide. The first half-mile of that 3-mile portage was through an untracked tamarack swamp. It was a super-human effort by Pete to get a canoe through that swamp. A few days before that he blazed a one-mile portage over cobble and muskeg that left me pale and exhausted. And again he took the canoe, (l carried the 88-pound food pack).
It was raining in the canyon as we pitched the tent but not hard enough to knock down the black flies. When we finally crawled into the tent at least a thousand black flies came in with us. This is no exaggeration. We lit two insecticide coils and listened with glee as they fell like tiny hailstones. When we pulled off our clothes, hundreds more black flies tumbled out. I didnŐt check out Pete's scrotum (there are certain things you just don't do) but my belly button looked like a gunshot wound. We broke the rules and ate in the tent. Any grizzly bear would have too much sense to be anywhere near that bug infested canyon.
It was bedtime. My inflatable pad had punctured on day 3, so I no longer bothered with it. I just rolled out my sleeping bag and crawled in. Somehow bugs from the previous night were still active in the bag so I spent a few minutes smearing them. Almost midnight, it was twilight in the canyon. The Thelon River is south of the Arctic Circle so although it never gets dark in July, it does get dim, especially with rain and smoke in the air. Lying on my back, just nylon between the ground and me, wet, bug eaten and tired. I stretched out my right leg. This triggered the most excruciating cramp of my life. It went from my toes to my thigh like a bolt of lightening that wouldn't quit. I can hardly bear it. I reach down with both hands to massage my hamstring and wham my left leg cramps up. A double cramp, both legs in total spasm. I am in paralyzing pain. I should have drunk more water during dinner but I had already peed in the Nalgene water bottle so that was not a viable option. I was wondering how long cramps can last and then I start shivering, uncontrollable shivering. I am bouncing around the tent. Should I rouse sleeping Pete? Instead, I just pass out.
I wake up, it's 5:30 and the sun is high and I feel pretty good. And from 5:30 to 5:31 is the best moment of my trip. I am alive and I am traversing one of the largest and most magical wilderness landscapes in the world, it doesn't get any better than that.
But as good as that moment was there were sobering aspects of the trip. We traveled through the winter range of the Beverly caribou herd - a herd that was estimated at over 400,000 in number when I was a teacher during the 1970's in Fort Resolution. This summer we saw only three caribou and the Northwest Territories Wildlife service estimates the population of the herd today to be under 40,000. The cause in not fully explained but likely it is the result of global not local circumstances. Our route traversed the winter range of the Beverly herd. The range is characterized by meadows of caribou moss interspersed with groves of spruce and jackpine. Caribou moss (lichen actually) is the winter forage for the barrenland caribou. Unfortunately, along almost our entire route the landscape had been burned over by wildfires, which occurred over the last thirty years. Although, wildfire is a natural part of the forest ecosystem the extent of these fires virtually wiped out the forage on which the caribou depended. Partial burning of the winter range would have just caused the caribou to slightly alter their migration routes, but the almost total destruction of the range left the caribou without an abundant food supply. In this wilderness, the Canadian Government was slow to recognize the decline of the herd and slow to search for causes. One study did show the fecundity of the herd was alarmingly low. Most of the cow caribou were not carrying calves during the spring migration. It was surmised that the caribou were malnourished and had reabsorbed their calves. After a decade of limited recruitment and continued predation from wolves and aboriginal hunters the decline was inevitable. What makes this a global issue is the nature of the fires. Since 1980 the lakes of the central arctic have become ice-free increasingly earlier every spring and freeze-up has come later. These longer summers have resulted in drier forest making them more susceptible to wildfire. Further to north the Bathhurst caribou is also experiencing a decline mirroring what has happened to the Beverly herd almost like falling dominoes. In their place musk ox and moose have populated the area but they will never replace the massive herds of caribou. Many other species of animals will also disappear if the caribou vanish. Predators and scavengers such as Tundra wolves, fox, ravens will lose an irreplaceable food source and even herbivores like hares that depend on caribou to break trail and reveal browse will be hurt. Summer migrants such as bald eagles depend on wolf-killed caribou for sustenance in the beginning of the spring. There is evidence of caribou die-offs before. It is tempting to believe that nature is static and that vegetation and the variety and populations of animals remains similar year after year, decade after decade, century after century. This simply is not true and sometimes humans complicate these processes of natural change by trying to create stability in a system that is inherently dynamic. Historical data and talk of the oral history of the aboriginal seem to suggest that caribou herds go through roughly fifty-year cycles where populations ebb and flood. But the scope of these recent fires may also be the result of human induced longer, hotter summers resulting in thawing permafrost and a drying of the landscape that is unprecedented. Climate changes that come so fast, whether natural or unnatural, can create dramatic shifts in ecosystems. The fact that the southernmost caribou herds seem to be experiencing the most extreme caribou declines suggest that increasing warmth, one way or the other, could be the major determining factor and one that will unlikely reverse in the near future. Loss of caribou will have a far-reaching impact that will diminish much of the magic of the Arctic and although aboriginal people can reduce their harvest, real recovery of the herd may depend more on global action.
Nevertheless, in the summer of 2011 the Arctic remains a magical place and I feel responsible and excited to share some of that magic in upcoming Uncommon Seminars. Thanks again for your support.
As always, Rob leads arctic expeditions on a shoestring and makes as little impact on the Land as possible. Companies and individuals that have helped make this expedition possible are listed below. If you would like to join this effort and support forther uncommon expeditions, please contact Rob.
Bending Branches Canoe Paddles
Cooke Custom Sewing
Capital Sports and Western Wear
Adventure Egg Anywhere Scrambles
Carter Air Service
Boundary Waters Journal
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