In case you missed it: I started recapping our Woods Explorer adventures in the Northwest Territories here. Check it out to find out how various strangers saved the day at the start of our trip down (part of) the Mackenzie River, better known as the Dehcho.
We woke up at our campsite on the outskirts of a little town called Fort Providence, hoping that the weather today would be a little more cooperative than it had been the day before. It did look a bit better – less stormy, though still pretty windy. We decided to give ourselves a few hours before making the call of whether or not to officially start the journey.
We really, really wanted to get going. For one, Fort Providence was cool, but it was tiny. We didn’t have a car to get us out of the campsite, and we were getting a little bored. Plus, the canoe rental company folks were going to pick us up down the river in Fort Simpson in 8 days time. Delaying our trip any more meant we’d really have to hustle to get there in time.
Around lunch time, we made the executive decision to start paddling. Conditions weren’t perfect, but they were better than they’d been the day before and we were itching to start. The lady working at the campsite gave us a lift back to the boat lunch. Mercifully, our canoe was still there.
In theory, paddling the Dehcho sounded pretty easy. Any time you’re paddling down a river, you’ve got the current giving you a little help, right? WRONG! Not the Dehcho – at least, not this part of it. The wind was blowing very strong. If we lifted our paddles out of the water, the wind would push us backwards – it was much stronger than any current.
We aimed to camp on a little island the first night, which meant straying from the safety of the shore. This made me nervous. I was sitting in the bow and the canoe was doing some serious bobbing. Sometimes, the boat would rock in such a way that the nose pointed down and the water would splash up and over – I was sure that we’d tip. Thankfully, we didn’t, and after an afternoon of tough paddling, we made it to our island, set up camp, ate some food, and hoped for nicer weather the following day.
I was so, so, so, so relieved to wake up to blue skies. Let me tell you – the weather did NOT cooperate with us on this trip, and this was the only full day of sunshine we had. But it was the most important day, weather-wise, because at this point, the river widened into Mills Lake, which is notoriously tough to paddle in bad weather. We’d been advised to paddle along the opposite shore, so we made our way over. It was shallow – very shallow. The tips of our paddles grazed the muddy bottom with every stroke. There was thick grass on either side of us and we’d been told not to try to go towards the middle of the lake, or else we’d get stuck. So we paddled forward – and it got shallower and shallower.
I was starting to get nervous. (Are you noticing a pattern yet? I was OFTEN nervous on this leg of the trip). There were points where the canoe itself was touching the mud below and we used our paddles to propel us forward, rather than making actual strokes. I pictured ourselves getting stuck, having to turn around, and having to retrace our steps entirely. And they said paddling the Mackenzie would be “easy”!
I was extremely relieved to make it past Mills Lake.
The days blur together after Mills Lake. The landscape was pretty, but very monotonous – it didn’t change one bit for many, many days. It felt raw and wild in a way I’d never experienced before. It wasn’t at all like the wilderness of BC or the Rockies. It was wide, flat, muddy, and heavily treed. The trees on either side of the massive river were so dense that it was difficult to imagine anything beyond them other than more trees.
Since it was late August, we escaped most of the bugs that plague the area earlier in the summer. It was cold – I wore a toque and gloves almost all the time. The gloves helped keep my hands functioning. They were so, so dry, and I constantly squished a finger between the boat and my paddle or bumped on something that would make my knuckles bleed.
The paddling was, in a word, relentless. For several days, we continued to battle the stronger-than-the-current wind. The scenery never changed, and what looked like a short little section on the map actually took hours to paddle. Since the landscape looked the same, it was very difficult to tell where we were on the map. We often thought we were further along than we really were – only to take a closer look once we were at camp and realize that no, we were still waaaay back here on the map.
Speaking of camping, there were no actual campsites. For hours, we’d pass sections of the shore that were far too narrow for setting up camp. Eventually, we’d pull over after we were took exhausted to continue, seeking anything that looked flat-ish and wide enough for us to safely separate our cooking and fire area from our sleeping area.
The distance between the two areas was necessarily to prevent wildlife encounters. We were extremely careful about keeping our cooking areas clean, sealing all food and smelly stuff into our barrel, and tucking the barrel underneath the canoe, which we kept far away from our tent. The reality was that we were very exposed to wilderness – and it was out there. We saw wolf tracks everywhere in the sand/mud at our various camping spots. Sometimes, we’d even wake up to see various tracks (not wolves, thankfully) that hadn’t been there when we’d gone to bed the night before. I was strangely at peace with the wild animal aspect. I figured that we were definitely the intruders in this scenario, and if one really wanted to kill me and have me for dinner, then that was a fate I was willing to accept. “Here lies Magee, who was mauled by a pack of wolves on the shores of the Mackenzie River” – I mean, that’s a pretty epic way to go.
The wildlife didn’t wear me down – but the weather did. Aside from the sunny day crossing Mills Lake, every day was cloudy, windy, cold, and sometimes rainy. Everything – and I mean EVERYTHING – was caked with mud. I would scrape out the bottom of the canoe with my paddle, scooping out thick and heavy mud without making a dent on the mass of mud covering the boat. Everything was damp all the time.
Talk about character building.
It was hard – but it was also amazing. By now, Cedric and I worked as a perfect unit. When one of us was feeling demoralized, the other would boost him/her up. He didn’t complain when I needed to pull the boat over to pee. I didn’t complain when he stopped padding to take photos. We knew our roles at camp – we’d pull in, Cedric would start working of fire/boiling water/making food, while I set up the tent and our sleeping stuff. We functioned like a well-oiled machine – it was a real partnership.
We ate alright, too. The first few days were pretty luxurious – we even got to enjoy eggs for breakfast. We had the luxury of carrying a great big barrel of food with us since there were no portages to tackle. I’d picked up most of our food back in Hay River, and even though it was August, they already had Halloween candy on display. We ate a lot of chocolate. At 10 o’clock every morning, we’d devour our Clif bars (almond fudge for Cedric, chocolate mint for me). I’d watch my little purple wristwatch like a hawk, counting down the minutes ’til Clif time. I’m not sure if I was actually hungry or just very, very bored.
This sums up day to day life on our Mackenzie trip, but I’m approaching 1,400 words, so let’s stretch the NWT adventures into a third post for another time…