The Canadian North possesses an unparalleled beauty. This isn’t simply because it’s largely uninhabited; there are large roadless areas of New England and upstate New York. The stark beauty of recently glaciated land, sharp tree lines, green tundra, rugged peaks, rolling hills, expansive alluvial fans, and crystal clear rivers creates a profound sense of splendor that simply doesn’t exist elsewhere. This area – the Peel River watershed – is exceptionally striking, and as the Wind River meanders down its huge glacial valley, each bend provides a new landscape and visual delights.
This trip was (supposed to be) a 12-day river trip, beginning on McClusky Lake, ending on the Peel River, for a total of about 200+ miles. The trip was run by Nahanni River Adventures, with whom I’ve traveled with extensively (see below).
We set off on August 6, 2008 with a 5-hour van trip from Whitehorse to Mayo, Yukon, the home of Blacksheep Aviation, one the area’s better-known floatplane charter firms. With a Cessna and two single Otters, they seem to be everyone’s choice for trips to the Peel River watershed area. On the outbound flight, I had a chance to fly in the Cessna, which seemed to fly MUCH closer to the ground – and the mountains at our wingtips – than the Otter.
We landed in a light drizzle at McClusky Lake in the mid afternoon, a small lake beside McClusky Creek. Although we were planning on a short evening paddle, we decided to hunker down and enjoy a relaxed evening next to a small shack adjacent to the lake. The next morning, we broke camp, portaged to the creek, and began our journey.
There were 8 people on our trip: our chief guide, Joel, who was deeply knowledgeable about the river and had the best river-reading skills of anyone I’ve ever met. His assistant was Dan. Chloe was a semi-guide, and the guests Muriel, Jim, Bob, and Jota, who was my paddling partner for the trip.
Jota’s skills closely matched mine, and she was a delightful conversationalist. We paddled well together. Dan was hardworking, impressively strong, and quiet, always maintaining his composure. Chloe was the fashionista in the group, wearing multicolored striped longjohns and shirts, hot pink fleece, and orange rain pants. She was always in good cheer. I had traveled with Bob some years back on the Burnside River; he was the person who taught me many neat camping tricks and was one of the most mechanically competent people I’ve ever met. He could probably build a nuclear-powered sub out of bailing wire and duct tape. Jim, was affable and witty, and Muriel, an English-born Canadian.
The first day on the river was cold, cloudy, and damp, which was a theme for a good portion of our trip. The river was tricky, starting off in class 2 water with a few easy class 3 must-moves. We scouted each bend, chose our lines and executed each pretty well. There were some sweepers and strainers. At each bend, we got out of the boats to scout the river. But these breaks, in the cold drizzle, were taking their toll. After a full day of this routine, we were cold, wet, hungry, and tired – a tough combination on a class 2+ river.
On one long stretch, we lost our angle on a forward ferry and hit a sweeper; Jota was knocked out of the boat. She was wet and shaken, but miraculously unhurt. I somehow kept the boat upright and eddied out 100 yards downstream. My face was scratched, but I was otherwise fine. We spent the rest of the day processing our mistakes, each taking the blame, and then practiced forward ferries until we could perform them flawlessly.
Each day, Jota and I switched bow and stern. We completed the class 2 section on day 3 – and the river started to widen, braid, and slow. There were fewer sweepers and strainers, no obstacles; basically, the river became a bit monotonous. That eventually changed as we hit the halfway point on the trip. As we proceeded downriver and were joined by more tributaries.
When deciding to vacation in the outdoors, there is always the possibility of bad weather. After my experience on the Snake River (Yukon), I came better prepared. We had more than our fair share of rain, but none of the downpours that I had experienced before. The rain was well behaved, usually came at night, and our layover (hiking) days were warm, clear, and sunny. I was always able to keep my clothes dry, my tent never leaked, and we were treated to countless rainbows, some of them double and triple! And as an added bonus, due to the chill and the fact that we were traveling in August, there were almost no mosquitoes.
The Wind is noted for its shallows and ever-present gravel bars. With all the rain, the river was high and fast. We rarely had to get out and push the boats off gravel bars. We were able to eddy out by forward ferrying, without worrying about sharp eddy lines or rocks. After the halfway point, the current was moving at 8 to 12mph.
At each designated campsite, we unloaded the boats. Our boat was always used as the campsite table, so we had to completely empty ours. Our campsites were mostly on gravel bars (with potato-sized rocks). With 2 sleeping pads, this wasn’t painful, as long as paid attention to “landscaping” (removing the larger rocks) before pitching the tent. In each place, the vista was fantastic. At some of the campsites, we could see Dall Sheep on the nearby mountains.
We were frequently treated to sightings of wildlife: caribou, grizzly bear, bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, moose, Dall Sheep, ground squirrels, porcupine, fox, gulls, osprey, as well as zillions of bank swallows and LBJs. At one campsite, near the confluence of the Peel River, Jota was setting up her tent about 20 feet past mine – the furthest out from the kitchen area – when she spotted a small grizzly bear at 50 yards and beginning to move towards her. She called me – and as I moved towards her, she turned to me and began to almost run. The bear growled at her and began to run towards her. She stopped, I stood beside her and called for Joel, who came running with his bear (pepper) spray and bear banger (which shoots firecrackers at the bear). Jota’s and my waving and noisemaking scared the grizzly away, but we moved our tents much closer to the center – and Joel set his up on the perimeter.
Towards the end of the Wind, we were approaching the last tricky spot on the river: a canyon where the water would be high and fast. I’m not claustrophobic, nor do I think I have an irrational fear of canyons. My nervousness about canyons is a healthy survival skill; and blasting into a canyon that I haven’t scouted makes me really nervous. Despite this, with my in the stern and Jota at the bow, we plowed into “Ohmygodwe’reallgonnadie Canyon”. The waves were massive – more than big enough to swallow a canoe whole. The current was forcing us into a cliff face, and a monster whirlpool was strategically located at the very nose of the cliff. We were in the third position as we entered the standing and oscillating waves. Jim and Dan were behind us, but at some point, they hit a current that grabbed their boat and spit it out at lightening speed – yet upright. We were choosing lines on the fly, staying at each wave’s midpoint, skipping past every danger point, and avoiding the whirlpool at the end. This wave train was a solid class 4, and past our abilities, but we went thru it unscathed, without taking on an ounce of water. The other three boats also came thru it perfectly, although Dan and Jim took on a bit of water.
Just after the canyon, we came across a 4-boat group that decided to portage OVER the mountain instead of paddling through the canyon. What took us about 45 seconds was taking them 2 days. It seemed that they had decided beforehand to follow the least skilled paddler’s level, which is much smarter than pressuring someone to do something above their skill level. When I quietly asked one of them why they didn’t portage or run one empty boat as a safety and run the others thru loaded, the person shook his head in frustration and resignation and shrugged.
We soon reached the confluence of the Peel River and shortly after, the takeout. We made camp for the night. We were on a narrow gravel bar with woods directly behind us. An incongruous sign marked Blacksheep’s pickup spot. The portagers arrived soon thereafter.
The next day, we were ready at “Taco Bar,” the designated pickup spot, at 9am. The Cessna arrived a few moments after 9, and Jota and Muriel left soon thereafter. The pilot told us that the Otter was about an hour behind him. Even though it was drizzling, the ceiling was high and it looked like the Otter would get thru. After waiting most of the day, we contacted Blacksheep on the satphone and found that the Otter could not get through the mountain pass due to bad weather – and that there would be no pickup that day. I spoke with Susan on the satphone and she cancelled my flights and hotel.
There was no pickup the next day either. Nor the day after. Other groups had arrived, and we were able to trade with them for chocolate. Each day, we spoke with Blacksheep, each day we were told that the pilot had tried, but failed to get through. Oddly, we were in excellent spirits. We knew that we would get out someday, and we had enough food for many more days. Between us and the other groups, I imagine that there was no danger of running low on food or fuel, although we didn’t have the gear to get thru a winter (like Amundsen did). We also knew that we were 2 days paddle from Fort Simpson, where there were hotels, restaurants, and roads.
Late that night – at about 3am – I awoke to the sound of the river. It seemed like it was closer and louder than it had been when I went to sleep. When I looked outside, I saw that the river had risen and about half the ‘beach’ was gone – waves were lapping at my tent’s rain fly, our gear, and all the other tents, and had entirely swamped our fire pit. I sounded the alarm and we all quickly relocated our campsite.
We were picked up at about 8:30am the next day – 3 days late. Everyone from the other groups help load the plane, knowing that the faster we got off the ground, the sooner that the plane would return to pick them up.
Susan had to purchase a one-way last minute ticket from Whitehorse to Boston, as our friends at Air Canada were not interested in assisting me, despite their promise to do so when I originally booked. Susan also made a last minute change in my routing due to a missed connection. In all, while Air Canada had some of the nicest staff, their rigid anti-consumer rules have convinced me that in the future, I should choose ANY other carrier.
Despite the departure delay and the frequent drizzle, the trip exceeded my expectations and I had a spectacular time. My gear was perfect for the weather, my back held out with no problem.
On the trip, I was asked which northern river was my favorite. Each one offered something different, and each was spectacular in its own way.
Nahanni River Adventures, the outfitter/guides, were the same folks who guided my trips on the Horton, Tatshensheni, Burnside, and Snake (Yukon) Rivers. As usual, they were perfect in every way. In fact, they went well beyond perfect. Words cannot express how the staff (specifically Christine) at Nahanni River Adventures put themselves out at the end of the trip, when were faced with the 3-day wait. Christine called Susan regularly to give her updates, booked a hotel for me in Whitehorse, and helped Susan make the return travel arrangements.
In Whitehorse, I stayed at the Yukon Inn. It was quiet, well-located for the meetingplace, and only a 15 minute walk from downtown.
The float planes were chartered from Blacksheep Aviation.
I flew on Air Canada. Avoid them if you can.