Fire in the sky. Never been a huge fan of Deep Purple, but simply cannot find a more fitting musical title.
We left Jimmy and Mary Anne's Wilderness Camp bright and early the morning of June 15th. Fresh off an extended and restful stay in Flin Flon and boosted by the kindness of locals Neal and Jan Dimick, who baked and delivered several rations of rhubarb crisp para llevar, getting back into the swing of things came pretty easily. Al and Agnes Mills chipped-in as well, as did Hillary and Jay Cooper, who hosted us at their cabin for an evening around the grill and dessert pastries until it was difficult to breathe.
The stretch upon which we were about to embark was highly anticipated for several reasons which included, but was not limited to, better angling prospects, clearer water, prettier scenery, nicer camping, and the gradual process of moss and rock displacing sand and mud. Cartographically speaking, we had the remainder of the Sturgeon-Weir River to finish before Frog Portage and onto the Churchill River, which would be our final stretch of upstream travel before the long portage over the divide. Our plan was to meet Patti and Steve Delano in Buffalo Narrows some 15-17 days later, near the beginning of July; hopefully in time to celebrate our country's birthday.
The Sturgeon-Weir River after Amisk Lake did not disappoint. While some marshy sections appeared here and there, the river and the lakes through which it ran came as advertised, and made camp life much more enjoyable (it's a much less grim prospect to bathe when the walk back doesn't leave you dirtier than when you started). Rapids continued to pop up, but the weather for most days was warm enough where getting out of the boat and into the water was a relief from the heat. Besides a couple windy days, we made quick progress up the Sturgeon-Weir until we reached Wood Lake, the last big body of water before the river hardly resembles itself as a deep meandering stream; lily pads, reeds, and algae strewn about instead of the invariable rock decor of the previous week. However, this was not Wood Lake's only significance. It was also the first place we really experienced the most pervasive feature of this stretch of the trip - the effects of fire.
Smoke from the flames created surreal traveling conditions and lighting
Not only bad to look at, the burn areas were especially difficult for camping
While Wood Lake was probably the most benign example of what we would experience, it was the first time we considered how large of an impact fire would have on travel. As the days progressed and we traveled north/west courtesy of the Churchill River, we would have entire days with visibility limited to 100 meters, soft, deep red sun barely able to poke through the plumes of smoke and entirely unable to warm the landscape. Then there were the days that the fires would be clearly visible (altogether too visible at times for comfort), but, when enjoyed from a safe distance floating upon its arch nemesis, it could also be quite mesmerizing, the beautiful destruction.
But the fires were only a backdrop to a scene that required no aesthetic improvement. Frog Portage connects the watersheds of Lake Winnipeg and Lake Athabasca by a 700 meter rail cart (quite a bit of fun to use) and we made quick work of it on June 19th to begin our last upstream leg before Great Slave Lake. The volume of the new river impressed us immediately. Grand Rapids was fewer than 20 miles upstream, and we reached the series of three rapids late in the evening and decided to camp instead of lining them due to how much work it would be to get through. A couple hours spent catching mudbugs earlier in the day (as diminutive as they might be in Canada) may have cost us the chance to get through Grand Rapids in the same day, but Tomy, Becky, and Cory would be proud. The walking and lining the next morning was slow and careful, yet progress was not near as slow as we imagined. The payoff of these drastic elevation drops became evident as well. The Churchill River drops extensively from lake to lake, but very little current is sustained much longer than a mile above or below rapids and falls. It calls for more time out of the boats, either portaging or lining, but still a pretty efficient pace overall.
Then it was time for a big surprise. On June 22nd around 8:40 am, we paddled just short of the route 102 bridge and were interupted in the scouting process by far-off shouting. Winchell returned from surveying the rapids and said, "You guys hear that bird? Kinda sounded like a dude shouting." Adam replied, "I think it's the people on the bridge. And that looks a lot like Stevie D." Turns out, Adam was spot on. The Delanos called a bit of an audible. Without getting into too much detail, obviously we were not the only ones whose schedule was impacted by the fires raging across northern Canada. Patti and Steve hoped to intercept us and change the resupply schedule in order to postpone the next meeting. They were not at the bridge longer than ten minutes before we showed-up, and barely caught us, but the layover was on!
Milt and Carol Burns, the newest addition to the Rediscover North America team, accompanied Steve and Patti to Missinipe as guides, and helped host the festivities back in La Ronge, as it was much easier to transport bodies rather than the whole camper set-up over the "well traveled" roads. A couple relaxing days later, the crew was back in Missinipe, ready to push past Buffalo Narrows and arrive at La Loche instead...We'll come back to that later. From Missinipe, the Churchill River runs its most remote stretch. It should be noted that remote for the Churchill River is "well-traveled" portage trails as opposed to "well-constructed" timber ramps. Honestly, pretty hard to complain about life on the Churchill.
The remaining rapids were enough of a reality check, however. As easy as boat ramps are, the lack thereof is equally depressing because of the void it leaves. As most boats going upstream have motors, and those going downstream don't require trails, the average upstream canoeist gets the rub. But, as like before, remarkably warm days greeted this stretch of the trip, and walking the boats upstream, albeit adrenaline-filled at times, made the days feel less monotonous. And the haze! The fires were no less persistent west of Missinipe. Entire days without much sun were not uncommon, nor were long minutes spent trying to navigate lakes without a single point of land due to the low visibility.
The stretch from Missinipe to Buffalo Narrows did not take much more than ten days. WAIT! Buffalo Narrows, not La Loche?!? Yup. Yet another logistical audible due to fire conditions across northern Saskatchewan and Alberta. A few days after we left, the fires finally caught La Ronge, as well as La Loche, both of which became mandatory evacuations. Buffalo Narrows became the new goal, and our last option for a resupply.
Such were the conditions that ended the month of June. We continued to battle rapids and the haze during the day, sweat fire patterns at night (but sleep a little better because of colder temperatures), but still move at our best pace since the Atchafalya River last January so long ago; from Missinipe to the mouth of the Churchill River at Buffalo Narrows, we did not fail to paddle less than eight hours a day for well over a week. An exhausting feat, to be sure. In fact, the first day we paddled less was on July 3rd, and that by only half an hour. The repercussions were relatively harsh given the offense, as the next day, we were unable to paddle much after lunch, and were a depressing seven miles short of a paddle-up RV park with camping, electricity, wash rooms, the whole nine yards.
The Delanos teamed-up with the Pedersens to make everything all right. The road near the shoreline we crashed into was, well...reliable up front, but really let you down later. It took some pretty painful satellite phone calls, spotty texting, and curious minutes before we realized the Delano RAM 3500 truck was going to be a couple miles short. Enter the Pedersen trail truck. That RAM 2500 was made to take the abuse, and they were kind enough to shuttle us far enough to meet the Delanos and make it the rest of the way to Buffalo Narrows, where we sit now.
The biggest takeaway here: we're safe, ahead of schedule, and can hardly wipe the smiles off of our faces. No news is good news, and we'll be in touch again from our LAST resupply in Yellowknife sometime late July.