2019 NWT Paddling Trip Recap

This summer we traveled into one of Canada’s newest national parks, Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve. It is a wilderness not accessible by road and because of this some have questioned its value as a national park due to its lack of accessibility.

It’s true. It’s a tough place to reach. Not many will see this place or travel in it but it is a remarkable wild place, home to muskoxen, moose, black and grizzly bear, wolf, wolverine and so many birds.

It deserves protection regardless of whether it is accessible to people or not.

Our 12-week paddling trip was shortened to just six weeks due to several factors, mostly thanks to lupus kicking my ass and the lakes on the Barrens still being frozen in mid-July, both of which are very effective in stalling the forward momentum of a canoe.

The fatigue that accompanies lupus and the persistent ache of joints made this trip, already challenging enough, only tougher. Exhaustion trailed me all summer. It is a frustrating, maddening symptom of lupus. This is not your normal, just paddled 12 hours and now I’m tired kind of exhaustion. This is a tiredness indescribable. When it hits, there is not enough coffee or energy drink to combat it. When it overwhelms I tend to simply plop over and pass out, wherever I happen to be.

Not wanting to push on and risk a full-on flare, which can take months to settle down again, we cut our trip short.

Despite the challenges, oh, what an adventure we had. We spoke only with a half dozen people in six weeks but had the constant company of arctic terns. We wandered among herds of muskoxen, shared beaches with black and grizzly bears, found shorebird nests and lived and traveled across a remote landscape for six wild weeks.

The Grizzly On The Big Salmon River

The experts say never to run from a bear, running provokes a chase instinct in bears.

This is true, which we discovered along the Big Salmon River, a small winding tributary of the Yukon River. It is a fun, swift and narrow river with a few sweepers but little else to really worry about.

This hard fast rule for bear encounters, don’t run, is fine when on foot but what are paddlers to do on a swift river? We paddled around a corner to meet a young grizzly just hauling himself out of the river. The river pushed us past him, nearly under his now and instantly the bear took off along the bank, running after us.

We feel confident in traveling bear country. We’ve read the literature on bear safety. In twenty years we have met many grizzlies. In some summers we have met more than a dozen girzzlies in the backcountry. Usually they run from us, some watch us, others ignore us. A few have bluffed charged. This was the first to chase us. And it was at this moment we discovered we didn’t know what the protocol was to stop a charge. Is it the same as a bluff charge, hold your ground? John and I were both hesitant to stop paddling, a grizzly at our heels.

So we kept on paddling.

And the grizzly kept on following.

Three times the grizzly entered the water, began swimming towards us. We yelled at him, slapped paddles on the water. Each time the grizzly returned to shore and continued his pursuit on land. We paddled on until losing sight of the grizzly.

And we kept on paddling.

At the time of our meeting, we had been scanning the shore for a place to camp. Now we had no intention of camping any time soon. When we finally did camp, three hours later, we were hesitant, jumpy. A three-hour paddle for us is no distance for a grizzly to travel.

We did not sleep well that evening.

Aside from this one exciting moment, the Big Salmon River was a beautiful and peaceful trip, with quiet lakes, sandy beaches and forests filled with cloudberries.

In Between The Rains We Played In Atlin

Heat waves and periods of intense rain sums up the month of July. Having the summer off means we can decide when and where to go, depending on where the nicest weather lies. We had plans to spend a couple of weeks exploring Mount Edziza but wildfires in Northern BC forced us to look elsewhere.

At the beginning of the month we returned to Atlin Lake, spending a week paddling and hiking a provincial park does not get enough attention considering how beautiful it is and how fun the paddling is – if you remember to choose your weather. Wolves, grizzlies and mountain goats can be spotted, islands with baby gulls and arctic terns and protective adults occupy all the rocky islands. And of course there are mountains like Cathedral and Llewellyn Glacier to admire. Even though we spent nearly two weeks last summer paddling here we were just as enthralled and enchanted with this place this time around. We explored new bays, new inlets, met a black wolf, camped beside a bee’s nest.

Paddling Muscles, How Quickly They Wither

We set off each morning with the intention of paddling long days but in truth we end up spending a lot of time floating on the water, watching birds: a mallard hiding in the weeds with her brood of eleven, yellowlegs “pweer”ing at us. A pair of red-tailed hawks made the ring-necked ducks nervous. An American kestrel harassed a family of gray jays. There was so much commotion, how could we just paddle by. Numerous beaver dams along the river slowed our progress and tested our resolve and minuscule wood frogs beneath our feet made traveling between ponds a challenge.

Agay Mene Territorial Park, just one hundred kilometres south of Whitehorse will soon become the Yukon’s newest territorial park, preserving subalpine forests, wetlands, mountain ranges, several pristine lakes, all of which is critical habitat for wolves, caribou, bear and moose. Scanning a topo map of this new park reveals a labyrinth chain of lakes and towering mountains, an intriguing outdoor playground to explore, Tarfu and Snafu lakes being the two most popular.

But the park isn’t just about paddling. Mount White is an impressive limestone mountain towering over the boreal forest and Little Atlin Lake. Once in the alpine, the summit rolls on and on, beckoning hikers further along the ambling ridgeline.

From Yellowknife To The Barrens

We paddled from Yellowknife, NWT across Great Slave Lake, up Pike’s Portage, Artillery Lake, Lockhart River and Ptarmigan Lake, then down the Hanbury and Thelon Rivers.

It was just the two of us for 59 days, not another human soul seen but plenty of bears, muskoxen, wolverine, fish and birds.

A story about our trip can be found here.

 

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