The Cessna carved a wide arch, ascending slowly above the east end of the lake. Levelling its wings on a westward bearing. The whirring props soon out of sight and the humming engine soon cleared of mind. Leaving only silence. A powerful silence found only in isolation that is absolute. A silence that itself holds no emptiness at all.
The four of us sat apart. For each, their own moment. The perfect reflection of the mountains shimmering on the lakes. The rolling alpine hills that climbed into distant snow capped ridges. The rushing river valleys mixed about. A gentle wind washing over all.
The interruptive crack of a bear banger snapped these wandering thoughts. It allowed for a flood of excitement to rush in, carrying with it the anticipation of the weeks ahead.
What lay ahead was 35 kilometers - as the crow flies - of alpine hiking. And from the end of the hike, a canoe journey of more than 500 kilometers down the Snake River and into the Arctic.
For two days we hiked from Misfortune Lakes in the Northwest Territories to Duo Lakes in the Yukon. Scrambling up shale mountain faces, contouring around steeply graded ridges, pushing through dense drainages, and crossing the humble beginnings of what would become some of the Yukon’s largest rivers - the Snake, the Arctic Red, the Bonnet Plume, the Peel, and the Mackenzie. All the while we were escorted along our northwesterly bearing by curious cariboo.
At Duo Lakes we were reunited with the gear we had previously dropped off via float plane - three weeks worth of whitewater canoe equipment and supplies. After an arduous, swampy portage, we reached the sandy banks of the Snake River. The combination of the grueling haul of the portage and the hike had our bodies calling for a rest. A rest that our inspired minds would not allow for. As soon as we had arrived, we re-packed the gear, tied down the spray skirts and pushed off the banks and into the water. From this point on we would paddle north to the Peel River, the Arctic, and our final destination of Fort McPherson.
For weeks we bounced our way over the marbled river bottom of the Snake River. Fighting over cobblestone rock gardens, lining the canoes across shallow rock bars, and shooting through class three canyon rapids, we pushed our way through the Wernecke Mountains of the Mackenzie Range. The river guided us past creeks of crystal clear blue waters. Much to the contrary, the aptly titled Milk Creek stained the river with clouds of white glacial flow. We passed splitting rock formations that gave way to cascading waterfalls and wide, fluvial landscapes that meandered through spruce, willow, and alder. We consider ourselves fortunate to have encountered grizzly, cariboo, moose, dall sheep and porcupine.
Midway through the paddle we ventured up and away from the river for a two day excursion into the Valhalla-esque world of the Mount MacDonald foothills. Not only did this give us a chance to leave the boats and valley bottom behind, but unbenounced to us, it shepherded us into a grey, formidable, spiritual world. We stood next to glaciers, beneath snow capped peaks and amongst soaring rock wall amphitheatres, and found ourselves consumed by what felt like an ancient crypt that held secrets of the humbling, foreboding presence of natural world. Amongst the waterworld, we felt so far away from everything else, in time and place.
Back on the water, and with two weeks of paddling behind us, the river flooded into the arctic plateau, leaving the mountains behind. The paddling that had previously required intense focus, detailed maneuvering, and whitewater navigation, soon gave way to long days of drifting. The small trickle of a river that we had stepped over on our hike was now an incredible force that carved its way into the north. At the confluence of the Snake and Peel rivers the waters widened, the depth of the river increased, and the current carried us downriver 10 km/h without the need for a paddle stroke. We lashed the boats together, playing card games and singing songs as we floated well into the nights that never saw darkness. The journey along the plateau guided us past earnestly territorial beavers, Gwich’in settlements, and hoards of unrelenting mosquitos.
After more than 500 kilometers, and with less than ten remaining, we turned a corner of river only to be slammed head on by an Arctic headwind that pushed our boats backwards, pelted us with rain, and forced us off the water. One final night. A less than ideal campsite. Of rain and of wind and of muck. All consuming. A fitting last reminder that the North is no easy place. But yet, an assurance that it is a world well worth the hardship, with the reward of experiencing its splendour.
If you're interested in learning more about this trip and the Wild Coast Collective, check out the full blog on their website: https://wildcoastcollective.ca/paddling-the-snake-river/
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