La Penúltima

To put it simply, the week that followed our departure from Buffalo Narrows felt like a month. Or, more accurately, like a year spent toiling down deep in the mines on our bodies. The resupply might have spoiled us as well, made us soft, even though it was the only one thus far to include an afternoon spent paddling our canoes from where we had left them on that windy Fourth of July day. But we were packed and ready to leave the morning of July 7th, prepared not to see the Delanos again until Yellowknife, NWT sometime in early August. We had a drop prepared for Fort McMurray, Alberta as well, some 180 miles away in order to make the looming Methye Portage more manageable. Manageable indeed (meant to be heard dripping with sarcasm). From there, the rest of the way to Yellowknife would be by way of the Clearwater, Athabasca, and Slave rivers (downstream!), then 160 miles north across Great Slave Lake, hopefully all within a three-week time-frame. 

Our exit from Buffalo Narrows was very brief. As we rounded the last part of the Narrows, we got our first look at the large and shallow Peter Pond Lake, and also our first taste of what even a slight breeze could do to the water. After battling a side-wind for an hour, we decided to make camp at the last available spot of rock and wait out the weather. That lasted the rest of that day, all of the next, and through the morning of July 9th. By noon, the waves that had continued to keep us from paddling were nearly gone, and we took advantage of the seldom calm by completing all but three miles of the lake that spanned all of forty as the paddler paddles. We reached Hay Point by 10:00pm, well past the newly discovered witching hour for mosquitoes, and were bombarded unlike anytime before until we were safe inside our tents. No matter how dry of a year it has been, the bugs will find a way. They always do.

The La Loche River (according to our 250,000 scale, Harlem-dashed maps measured-out by Winchell) flows 27 miles between Peter Pond Lake and Lac La Loche, the latter our final destination of upstream travel before the Methye Portage. A quick Google search puts the length of the river closer to 35-40 miles, which could be a significant oversight when one travels around 2-3 miles per hour. So when we woke-up at 8:00am thinking we could complete the section by 8:00pm, turns out we would be paddling through an uncampable, meandering marsh around 10:00pm, walking up bony rapids in the dark through midnight, and camping after an hour of paddling Lac La Loche in the hazy twilight of nearby forest fires. But we did see our first Northern Lights of the trip, those ephemeral displays of light just enough to lift the spirits despite the circumstances. We were also rewarded the next day with a sailing wind for the final 20 miles of Lac La Loche, even sailing as a giant catamaran for a floating lunch, three Wind Paddles wide! Nick Wiltz would be so proud.  

And there it was. In Wallis Bay. The massive cairn dedicated to Peter Pond and his exploits, marking the beginning of the Methye Portage. By most accounts, the trail runs 12 miles between the waterways of the Athabasca and Winnipeg regions, historically connecting flourishing trade routes in centuries past. For our purposes, it was just the easiest way to get six bums and their stuff from one end to the other.

The plan was to get everything onto our backs and eliminate the costly time spent double-portaging. That worked well for the first six miles until our luncheon conversation slowly revealed, one by one, how miserable it had been, but no one had wanted to admit it first. Imagine that! There were a lot more smiles after commiserating the experience and planning the remainder of the double-portage likely to span into the next day, but be much more comfortable. And by much more comfortable, just simply bearable. We were seasoned paddlers at that point, not necessarily seasoned portagers. And the trail, by our account, seemed closer to 14-15 miles as the rediscoverer rediscovers than 11-12, FYI, for you potential future users out there. 

But the trail was nice, and as far as trails go, a pleasure to walk. Rendezvous Lake is no slouch either. We were expecting a green, algae-filled marsh to mark the two-thirds point, but found a crystal clear beauty instead. Had it not been for our ever-diminishing food supply and the drive to see the end (and the Clearwater River with it), we'd have camped for sure. So instead, by 9:00pm, we had all of our packs at the small cabin along the Clearwater River, our canoes back at Rendezvous Lake the only remaining task before downstream travel. Despite everyone walking with their own distinct limp the next day, the boats were reunited with the packs by 4:00pm, outfitted and ready to hit the upcoming whitewater. The whitewater was a bit of a disappointment, as was the overall pace of the Clearwater River. The scenery, however, was not, nor was the novelty of paddling downstream. Yes, downstream!  

Fort McMurray was about 80 river miles to the west from where we camped immediately after the portage, and only 50 miles from where we finished our single day of whitewater on July 14th. That night, we ate our last packaged dinner, the next afternoon our last packaged lunch, and casually arrived in Fort McMurray, empty of all provisions and too late to pick-up our next set, yet serendipitously three hours before bar close and six blocks from the Wood Bison Brewing Company. Our new-found host and guide Graham Whatmough met us at the Snye, and the night went on from there. In fact, the next couple days went on from there. The town was too much fun to leave, and the folks over at the Podollan Inn were kind enough to host us Thursday night (July 16th), albeit making our departure the next day more difficult - and painful.

We were told that the Athabasca River after its confluence with the Clearwater River would wipe away any bad memories of lethargic current. And boy, oh boy, did it ever. The wind on July 17th had been building all morning as we slept-in and lazily packed-up to go. By noon, it was a 15-20 mph headwind out of the north. We still managed to cover some 35 miles in six hours of paddling before breaking our first camp on the new and greatly improved Athabasca River.     

The most noteworthy part of the Athabasca River was not something, but instead someone (or some persons to be exact). We were lucky enough to be floating at the end of the day near where Krazy George Clark was working on his cabin with Atilio Crotta, and they welcomed us warmly onto the homestead. It was a late night and a lot of laughs. Good enough. Good enough.

By July 21st, we had made it to Fort Chipewyan, and were still about 300 miles short of Great Slave Lake. It was here that we heard a sentiment echoed from some paddlers back in Fort McMurray - that the rapids coming up near Fort Smith were certain death traps, and under no circumstances could they be paddled. It seemed strange that the mellow Slave River we knew and loved could transform into something so violent, but we couldn't just ignore the overwhelmingly strong message from so many locals. So when we arrived at the Fitzgerald boat launch on July 23rd, it seemed appropriate to pack everything up and avoid the upcoming rapids.

Man, were we wrong.

And without Genevieve Cote and John Blyth, we probably would have skipped the most beautiful section of water thus far on the trip. Our gear and boats were safely on the downstream side of the rapids, but that didn't stop us from spending a layover day PADDLING, yes, paddling (kinda like going back into work on your day off), only we did it from a raft. And shot rapid after rapid (sometimes even portaging the raft back upstream to run certain sections again) before enjoying an evening eating BBQ ribs with Jason Panter and family back in Fort Smith. We were a week early for PaddleFest (which hopefully, but probably, went off without a hitch and was a hoot), but couldn't afford the time to stay and enjoy it. The Grand lac des Esclaves was calling our names.        

The remaining 200 miles of the Slave River passed without issue. Before long, we were just five miles short of the mouth, ready to face the endless expanse once more. The wind on July 30th, however, had other plans. We had barely paddled into the delta before shallow seas and a wind out of the east cut the paddling short. Fortunately, we were able to find some elevated ground with enough of a clearing to put up our tents and wait out the weather. Brad Delano handled the resulting SAT phone call like a champ, and passed-on a cheery forecast. The weather window for which we hoped was coming, but it was going to require paddling at night.

And what a night it was. The section of the lake we were about to paddle was mostly shoreline before heading north into an archipelago-like series of islands. We had to make a five-mile crossing in order to get there, and there was a moment, in the midst of it, when there was (1) sunset, (2) full moon, (3) northern lights, and (4) a thunderstorm in the distance, with intermittent lightning bolts. If ever there was a  surreal moment, this was it.

After paddling from 8:00pm to 4:00am, we decided to get some rest before continuing-on, well-assured that it would take some serious weather to keep us off the water now settled so nicely into the tight island circuit. Our good luck still intact, the wind was not forecasted to rise above 7 mph for the next 48 hours, and we took advantage of it. Around 8:00pm on August 2nd, we paddled a meager tailwind (a tailwind nonetheless) into the bay near Old Town in Yellowknife. Patti and Steve Delano, an incredible resupply duo whose list of exploits and accomplishments thus far could occupy an entire post itself, were waiting for us with locals Ross and Dawn-Marie Ashlie, who transported our gear to the Fred Henne campground. Best of all, the Explorer Hotel has been gracious enough to put us up for a couple days for our time in Yellowknife.

So, the question is now, to revel or tremble? Probably both.