Friday, July 8, 2011

Signing Off

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
~ Henry David Thoreau

This will be the final entry in this journal. I am en route to Vancouver and have made it back to Hay River, the little town on the shore of Great Slave Lake where my explorations of the North began in the summer of 2009. Tomorrow I head South, back to a world of noise and rush and crowds. I feel like I have been living in a world outside time, and I know the adjustment will be very difficult.

I started writing this as a means of keeping my friends and family up to date with my adventures, but the wonders of Google tracking shows how it has grown far beyond that. Well over 18,000 unique hits from 57 (!) countries, with regular readers in locations as diverse as Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Argentina. I have enjoyed showcasing this remarkable corner of the world, and offer my heartfelt thanks for all the messages of support and encouragement I have recieved.

I hope that this journal has inspired some of you to experience the Nahanni for yourself. For Canadians in particular the North should be celebrated and explored, not pushed to the margins. It is a place of unique opportunity, and no matter where the future takes me I know my heart will remain in this incredible Territory.

As for Nahanni Butte itself...

Things change. I know this. Others will come to the village, and go, and make their own set of memories. Their stories will play out in the shadow of Tthenaago, just as mine has. But for these two years, the defining experience of my life, I made my mark.

Thanks for joining me.

9AM Flight

Leaving the village proved even more difficult than I expected. I tried to absorb it all: the smells, the sounds, the feel of the wind on my face. As the plane approached I was deeply touched to see some of the elders driving out to the airstrip to see me off. They thanked me for my work and wished me all the best - and told me that I always had a home waiting for me in Nahanni Butte.

All too soon my bags were loaded and there was nothing left to say. I climbed aboard and we took off, the world dropping away and revealing features as familiar as the face of an old friend. The details flared and merged together as the forest steamed in the morning heat -- there, the snye where we hunted moose on those distant autumn evenings -- there, the trapline where I laboured on my snowshoes at -45C, hauling my sledge through the darkness -- there, the hunting camp that was filled with so much laughter and learning and joy -- there, the creek that nearly claimed my life.

The plane rattled on, and I looked out at the horizon. Endless rows of trees and valleys and nameless mountains, stretching on forever. I felt the tears prick my eyes. I would never - could never - know them all, not in a thousand seasons. We cruised over Bluefish Lake, over the little log cabin huddled on its shore, and the light sparkled and shimmered on its waters. Things were receding with each passing moment, and I couldn't bear to look -- but I looked anyway: back along the ridge, past the waterfalls and the cliffs, past the stone towers and the forest, back and back and back until finally there it was: Tthenaago, the last mountain, shining in the sun.

But only for a moment. We dipped our wing, the plane curved away, and it was gone.


It's time to go. The bags are packed, the plane is on its way.

I spent the morning of my last day wandering around town, taking a final look at the streets that have become so familiar. A few buffalo were ambling about, and the wind kept the bugs down. I stopped often along the way, saying my goodbyes. Lena and Celine, my regular students when I ran adult education classes for Aurora College, gave me some lovely Dene beadwork stitched to freshly smoked moose hide.

The hardest was the kids. It has been so wonderful working with them and watching them grow up over these two years. There has been a lot of laughter, and even on the hardest days I always looked forward to going to work because I knew they would do something to make me smile.

I opened the recreation centre, and a bunch of us spent hours just hanging out and playing Xbox. I told them how proud of them I was, and how much I had enjoyed my time in the school - they don't know how special they are to be such good kids in a place with as many challenges as Nahanni Butte. Maybe I'll see some of them again in future, when I visit, and I hope with all my heart that they will be happy and healthy and doing good things with their lives. I don't think I could bear it if they fell off the rails.

Two years is a long time. I have seen and done so many incredible things, things most people can scarcely imagine. I came here thinking I knew all there was to know about myself, but I was wrong. I leave feeling that I have become the man I want to be. Living in this village has inspired me, toughened me, and fulfilled me in ways I never thought possible. For the first time in my life I have felt truly content, and I hope that I can carry that with me into the future, no matter where I go.

Mahsi cho, Nahanni Butte.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


My inspiration. Eight times I tried to climb you, in all seasons, and eight times you turned me back. Fog. Mudslides. Thunderstorms. Windchill of -50C. A grizzly.

But I thank you. Your beauty and stillness filled my heart and will stay with me always. I will see you again, one day.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Clean Up, Close Down

Today I made one last attempt to climb Tthenaago, but once again the river denied me. I paddled part way across, but the current was so strong I began getting sucked down the far channel before I had even made it halfway. I was able to turn back and get to shore, but did so with a heavy heart. It's wasn't even about the mountain, really -- I knew that this attempt, whether I made it or not, would be my final bush trip in Nahanni Butte. I will be spending my last three days cleaning, packing, and saying goodbye to the village that has changed my life so profoundly, and that leaves no more time for hiking.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


Over these past two years I have tried to climb Tthenaago seven times, and seven times I have failed. Now, with less than a week left in the village, I am running out of time.

The weather was bright and sunny this morning, so I set out to make another attempt. I wasn't feeling especially optimistic, though: the South Nahanni is currently in flood and water levels are running very high. I suspected that most of the landing areas would be submerged, and combined with the powerful current I was doubtful that I'd be able to find a place to safely beach my raft. Sure enough, once I got down to the put-in I could see that the entire far shore was washed out, leaving only sheer rock faces five or six feet high dropping straight into the river. It may have been possible to find a landing spot on the other side of the point, but to do so would have meant paddling through the whirlpool at its base -- and I was in no hurry to do that.

So that was that. I packed up my raft and headed home.

But to be honest... even if the water levels were lower, I don't think I would have gone out today. From the moment I woke up this morning I've been filled with a deep unease. I can't put my finger on why, but my gut is telling me that this is not a good day to go climbing. One thing I have learned in my time here is to always trust your instincts when you're in the bush, and that caution must trump audacity in virtually every case. One of the elders has told me I must have strong medicine power to have survived that trip to Bluefish Lake alone, and perhaps that's true -- but in that case, all the more reason not to go. When the land speaks, I listen.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Canada Day

Happy Birthday, Canada!

To celebrate we held a series of games and activities for the kids at the gym, and later there was a cookout and Bingo. We bobbed for apples, had a tug-of-war, and of course...ran a three-legged race!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Bluefish River

I've returned from a 7-day trip into the mountains north of Nahanni Butte, completing a 78km circuit that took me through areas only a handful of people have ever seen. I knew it would be a tough trip, but it proved to be one of the most challenging and frightening experience of my life. I've thought a lot about what happened, and how I should relate it to others: should I laugh it off as just a grand ol' adventure? In writing this journal I've aimed to give a true account of my life in the Nahanni country, so with this entry I've decided to try and give an honest description of what I went through this week - not out of a sense of chest-beating triumph, but as a reminder and illustration of the very real dangers of wilderness travel. Sorry, Mum.

My route was fairly straightforward. From the village I would paddle my packraft down to the rockslide before hiking up alongside the eastern side of the Nahanni Range. Eventually I would get to Bluefish Lake, a narrow body of water squeezed between two imposing peaks. I had been out there before in winter via a different route for some fur trapping, so I planned to spend a day or two relaxing on its shore before heading home via the namesake river that drains the lake. It would carry me through the Valley of the Silent Hills before spitting me out upriver of the village.

Navigating the river was a bit of a roll of the dice. I had flown over it a few times and from what I could tell it seemed do-able, but the upper portion remained a mystery. But even if some sections were unnavigable I felt confident that I could still find my way - one of the glorious advantages of a packraft is its portability. In any case, there was only one way to find out...

Day 1:

I left Nahanni Butte early on the morning of June 20. It was sunny but very humid, and the mosquitos were out with a vengence. I did a final gear check before loading up my raft and pushing off from the landing.

The paddle down to the rockslide was pleasant, with the water very calm and free of debris. Once we merged with the Liard River I accelerated considerably, and could see the mixing of the deep bottle green of the South Nahanni with the rich brown of the Liard. One of the interesting things about using a packraft compared to a hard-hull is that you get a better 'feel' for the water - literally. I could feel the churning of the currents beneath me, and the very clear separation between the cold mountain-fed water of the Nahanni and the warmer flow of the Liard.

Once I got to the rockslide I packed up my raft and rebalanced the weight as best I could. I had tried to pack light, but a week-long trip is still a week-long trip. On top of that I had to haul all my water, seeing as it was entirely possible that I wouldn't find any while hiking along the range.

It was very slow going as I made my way up to the mountains. As always I was frustrated by the sense of scale -- judging distance is tough in such a tumbled landscape, and features that looked to be only a hundred meters away often turned out to be twice or three times further away. I was compensated, though, by the beautiful views of the infinite taiga plains below me.

The day wore on and I rolled up and over countless hillocks, occasionally encountering fingers of forest extending up from the plains. I came to hate these sections, as they were extremely dense and brutal to push through. They tended to appear whenever runoff channels from the mountains had carved out steep-sided gullies, and often I had to practically rappel off the vegetaion. Above me, meanwhile, the ridge became progressivly more rugged. Thunder grumbled in the distance, and the clouds closed in overhead.

I was beginning to worry about my water situation - the hike was proving very strenuous and I was quickly going through my stores. I lucked out, however; in the early afternoon the wind dropped for a moment and over the drone of the mosquitos I could hear a sound that every wilderness traveler loves: fast running water. I scanned the ridgeline and eventually spied the tell-tale shine of a small waterfall tumbling over the top of the cliffs.

I topped up my water bottles and rested for a while. The clouds finally broke and a large storm descended on the mountains, filling the air with furious crashes of lightning and heavy rain. In the distance I could see a cluster of rocky pillars, which in my mind I dubbed 'castle rocks', so I decided to make my way over to them and camp for the night.

Up close the pillars were ornate and striped with veins of colour, but I didn't have time to properly explore them as the storm was growing more intense with each passing moment.

I quickly set up my tent and hunkered down, while outside the wind and rain lashed the mountainside. The wind whistled eerily when it channeled through the castle rocks, and I spent a bit of a spooky night trying to get some sleep.

Day 2:

The storm eventually passed and the morning broke clear and sunny.

While breakfast was cooking I went and scouted ahead to see what the day would have in store for me. The good news was that in the distance I could see a large hill that I knew was only a few kilometers from the lake. The bad news was that in order to get there I would have some heavy hiking, as well as having to climb up two saddles.

The heat was intense as I clambered over the talus and pushed through the forest. I was sweating under my layers but the bugs were as thick as I've ever seen them, so there was no relief.

Along the way I passed more castle rocks, and was lucky enough to find another waterfall from which to top up my dwindling supply.

It was just as well that I found more water, because I had been on the go for about eight hours and was just about to climb the first of the two saddles. Legs burning, I hauled myself up and up until I got to the top...and then my heart sank. From the crest I could see the next saddle, but in between was a small valley much deeper than I had hoped. Worse, the saddle looked very steep and treacherous. I couldn't just hike straight across to get to it either, as the slant of the cliff face going down meant I would have to hike down and around before making my way back up and then climbing the saddle itself. Easily six hours work.

But what else could I do? Down I went, stumbling over the undergrowth and slipping on the rain-slick soil. Eventually I made it to the bottom and began to head back to the saddle. Much as I had hoped to climb it that day, I knew that I'd have to make camp soon. What settled things was sensing yet another thunderstorm on the way, as well as finding a little creek flowing down a flood channel. I pitched my tent and made a quick meal.

Just in time, too. Within 20 minutes the sky had darkened and the rumblings of thunder grown more insistant. The wind picked up and I looked around for rocks to help anchor my tent. I got everything squared away and crawled inside.

Not a moment too soon. I had literally just zipped up my vestibule when the skies opened up and the rain poured down. I don't think I have ever experienced such an intense deluge, and it went on for hours. The wind roared and the thunder shook the ground, but I was snug and warm inside my tent. I tried to sleep, but sleep didn't come. I gradually became aware of a new noise: roaring and churning water. I stuck my head outside and saw that the little creek had become a raging torrent. I knew my campsite was safely out of the way, but even still it was a little unnerving to hear the water grow steadily louder as the rain continued. For the rest of the night I checked on things every hour or so, and every time I did I was greeted with a prehistoric sight: jet black clouds racing across the sky while lightning flashed and reflected off the faces of the mountains. Everywhere was water -- at least a half-dozen major waterfalls streamed down from the summits around me, as well as countless smaller ones pouring off the ledges and rock faces. It was both beautiful and unsettling. I had a very strong sense that this was not a place meant for people.

In the tent my mind drifted, and I thought about tomorrow and what it would bring. Ever since I glimpsed the second saddle I had been filled with unease -- it would be a tough climb on the best of days, but with all this rain the slope would be very slippery and rough. There was no alternative, though. I'd just have to give it a shot, and hope for the best.

Day 3:

I woke to find the storm had passed, although the clouds remained. They had descended until they covered the mountain tops, including much of the saddle. I broke camp and started to pick my way up the flood channel.

Once I got to the saddle the thick bush actually worked to my advantage, for once, as I was able to use it to pull myself up the slope.

In certain sections, though, the forest fell away and there was only loose rock and short grass. It was unnerving to be inching on all fours up such a slope, unable to see anything below you through the cloud or anything above, but eventually the ground leveled out and I realised I had made it to the top.

With the cloud so thick visibility was perhaps 25m in any direction, so I started to descend on the far side and hoped that it might clear a little.

Eventually out of the gloom another flood channel emerged, leading down and out of sight. I sat for a while, considering my options. I knew I was close enough to the lake that I could probably get away with heading down, but at the same time I was loath to give up my hard-won altitude. I rested for about half an hour, hoping the clouds might lift so that I could get my bearings. They didn't, though, so in the end I decided to chance descending. After all, if it took me dramatically off course I could always hike back up it. I made a small cairn to mark my start point and began to work my way downwards.

I made good time, and before long I had dropped out of the clouds and could finally see where I was going. I couldn't help but grin: the ground had opened up to a wide grassy chute, and down below I could see the cluster of the Marker Lakes. I was close! Bluefish Lake was just around the corner, perhaps two kilometers away.

Knowing that I was on the home stretch put some spring in my step, and I felt confident that I'd make it there within an hour or two.

The mountains, however, had other ideas. As I cut towards the lake I began to encounter stands of alder. It was horribly deceptive -- from a distance they would look level, but as you moved into them they would change character dramatically. At first they were only knee- or waist-deep, but I was gradually sucked down into a grove where they were deeper than I was tall. Every step was a battle, and I stumbled constantly. Branches looped around my ankles and pulled me down again and again, making my legs cramp up and cutting my pace to a crawl. Finally I fell and the brush was so thick that I didn't even hit the ground - I was suspended by a net of branches, feeling like I was trapped in the web of some giant spider. It took all my strength to pull myself to my feet. I was trapped, and the only way out was to get to higher ground where the brush might be a little thinner. There was a hillock about 50m from me, but it took more than an hour to get there. I climbed to the top and collapsed, utterly spent. But on the plus side -- I could finally see the lake, peeking around the corner.

After a while I picked myself up and pushed on. Even though the lake was now below me, I stayed as high as I could until I could find a path that wouldn't entail fighting through the alder groves. I eventually located an overgrown flood channel that looked passable, and I was finally able to make it down to the water.

I unpacked my raft and paddled down the lake, looking for an old trapping cabin that the Band built a number of years ago. Eventually I found it, and it was a relief to suddenly have a chance to warm up, dry out and have a break from the rough country.

Day 4:

During my first day at the lake I barely left the cabin. The rain was continuous, and it was just a pleasure to stay in bed and feel my strength return. When I did venture outside I often just sat on the doorstep, listening to the birds singing and the wind rushing in the trees.

Later in the evening the weather did improve and I was able to have supper outside at the little table.

Day 5:

I woke to find the weather much improved. I had designated this my scouting day, where I would head down to the end of the lake and have a look at the outflow that would be my route home. But I wasn't in any rush, and instead spent much of the dayoutside enjoying the sunshine. The air was filled with dragonflies, the helicopter gunships of the insect world, and I have to admit it was a pleasure to watch them pounce on the few mosquitos that had survived the deluge of recent days.

In the afternoon I inflated my raft and headed out. Not a breath of wind disturbed the water, and I cruised along the shoreline listening to the trickle of streams tumbling down from the surrounding mountains.

After an hour or two I headed down to the western edge and searched for the start of the creek. I couldn't see it until I was almost on top of it - the entire lake drained out of an opening that was perhaps 2 meters wide at most.

I went ashore and had a look. The outflow was wide enough for a packraft, but the water was flowing very fast and there were plenty of fallen trees in the way. Seems I'd be portaging the first part after all.

I returned to my raft and paddled back to the cabin. Time to pack and start mentally preparing for the journey home.

Day 6-7:

I rose early. I was up at 5 but I didn't get out the door until well past 7. I found that I was strangely reluctant to begin, and I busied myself checking and rechecking my gear. I think part of it was that much as I might tell myself otherwise, I was likely in for a rough day. My glimpse of the outflow was worrying in that I knew there was no guarentee it would become navigable for quite some distance. If that were the case I would be in for a very long hike indeed, and through the dense bush at the bottom of the valley no less. I knew that at some point it would widen, likely after it merged with another creek coming from up the valley, but that was a considerable distance away.

I prepared as best I could, lightening my load by burning off the last of my gas and eating most of my remaining food. Part of it was psychological - I was going to make it back to Nahanni Butte that night, one way or another. Eventually I couldn't delay any further, so I secured the cabin and loaded up my raft before paddling down to the end of the lake.

It was a lovely morning, with sunlight streaming down through the scattered clouds and a flotilla of loons accompanying me across the water. I landed and got ready for the hike - one last look at the lake before turning and entering the forest.

Once I was out of the sun the temperature dropped immediately. It was damp and cool among the trees, feeling more like the temperate forests in my home province of British Columbia. To my right the creek bubbled and splashed over rocks and fallen trees, and I made my way through deep moss under overhanging branches. Before long I entered something of a ravine, with the ground dropping away and the water tumbling over a series of ledges before roaring over a pretty little waterfall about 10 meters high.

I picked my way down a steep slope until emerging at its base, and sat for a moment enjoying the feel of the mist on my skin. I carried on alongside the creek, and the walls of the ravine began to close in.

Before long the route had narrowed so much that I had to hop into the creek itself. I hoisted my pack over my head and waded through water about chest-deep. Even after the ravine widened again it remained flooded right to a sheer bank. The culprit, I could soon see, was a large beaver dam. There was no way around it, so I waded up to it and scrambled up on top before walking across to a marshy patch on the far side. The dam was very sturdy, and about 50m across. It stank but was built so solidly that it felt like I was walking on pavement. I moved quickly, hoping to avoid disturbing the residents too much.

This set the tone for the next few hours. I hiked alongside the creek where I could and waded where I could not, encountering several more beaver dams along the way. Eventually I arrived where the creek merged with another and became considerably wider and more powerful. The heavy rain of the previous week had clearly been at work and the water level was very high. To my dismay, however, paddling on my raft still seemed out of the question - there were many shallow patches and gravel bars, and far too many large boulders and other obstacles for my liking. I decided to push on and see if the conditions improved.

It was slow going, but I gradually moved down the valley. In time I came to a section where the river seemed reasonable, so I unpacked my raft and tried to float.

I managed to raft for all of ten minutes before I spotted an ugly looking rock garden thick with log jams, and had to make for shore. It was better than nothing, though, and saved me about an hour of walking. I packed up and started hiking again, taking advantage of a wide open beach.

Later I was able to make another attempt, and it was the same story: I'd scout my line, then put in for a short float followed by a race to shore after spotting another dangerous obstacle. My third try, though, was a disaster.

It started off well enough - I launched into the main channel and cruised along for about 15 minutes. I almost started to relax, because if this kept up I might make it back to Nahanni Butte within six hours or so. Suddenly, though, the bottom rose up out of nowhere and I was skidding over rocks. My raft squealed in protest before its nose buried itself in a gap between two large boulders. This raised my stern and allowed the whole raft to get caught by the current and spun out to the side. I was sucked into the current alongside the bank, a nasty stretch filled with big waves and many low-hanging branches. I fought for control, managing to pull my raft on to a better line as I searched frantically for a place to land. As I approached a sharp turn I caught another rock, pulling me off course and turning me about. To my horror, midway through the corner was a large, jagged boulder sitting right in my path -- and I was about to hit it broadside.

The water slammed me into it and for the life of me I don't know why I didn't roll then and there. Instead I teetered for a moment, pinned and actually sitting on part of the rock, before I mananaged to get my paddle in the water and pull my nose back down into the current. I slid off, and was able to get to shore. I pulled myself out of the cockpit and collapsed, trying to figure out how I didn't rupture the tubes. I took a look at the hull and the damn thing didn't even have a scratch. Incredible. It's pilot, meanwhile, was nursing more than a few bumps and bruises - not to mention a split toenail on my left big toe that I had to pull out with the clamps on my multitool.

So that was that. No more paddling until I reached safer water. I knew that there were some slower meanders closer to the village, but that was at the other end of the valley. Looks like I'd be walking out after all.

I gave myself fifteen minutes to recover from my scare, and then it was time to go to work. No more photographs, no more delays. The situation was now serious: I had at least 25km to cover through extremely dense bush and it had to be done in one push. If I stopped for any length of time I knew that I likely wouldn't be able to continue: my legs would cramp up and my feet would be in ruins. Any delay in getting back to Nahanni Butte would only make things worse, and possibly prevent me from being able to get back at all. 

So I walked. Ten hours later I was still walking. The terrain was some of the worst I have ever encountered - sharp rocks alongside the creekside, thickets of undergrowth that were almost impenetrable, knee-deep moss that sucked away your energy. It was maddening to be right next to a waterway and be unable to use it. Portions of it would have been fine for paddling, and several times I was tempted to make another try, but inevitably I would round a corner and see something that was unnavigable.

Eventually, though, I entered a new part of the valley and sensed a change in the water. The current was still swift but it had noticably slowed. More importantly, the rocks seemed to have ended and all that remained was smooth surface. Could it be that I had finally made it to the meanders? I wasn't going to risk a repeat of earlier, so I wanted to continue on until I was sure.

At midnight I stopped for a 20 minute break. I had decided to try rafting again, mostly out of necessity. The bush was getting too thick to move through, and in my exhausted state it seemed I was stumbling over branches with every step.  Judging by the maps I had reached the easiest and safest portion of the river, so if I was going to raft now was the time.

Even still, as I inflated my boat for what I hoped was the last time, I was filled with foreboding. Even if there were no rocks, the water was still moving very fast and in the narrow meanders I'd have to contend with a new set of obstacles: fallen trees and submerged logs. And to top things off, it was dark. Even in the land of the midnight sun thick clouds can bring some semblance of darkness, and on this night it was raining heavily.

I loaded up my raft and headed out. My fingers were so swollen from mosquito bites that I could barely close them around my paddle shaft, but I was able to maneuver well enough. At first the waterway was fine, but all at once I made a catestrophic error.  Lulled into complacency by fatigue my attention lapsed for a few critical moments as I rounded a blind corner.  Rather than stopping to scout my line I continued to drift, only to suddenly realise with a sickening jolt I had become fully committed.  Out of nowhere the banks had risen up on either side of me, slick and muddy, effectively forming a box canyon with sheer walls ten or twelve feet high.  Not deep, but deep enough to prevent any escape.  Channeled into the narrow passage, the water increased in speed and flung me into a series of sharp turns.  Even if I wanted to I was now unable to get off the river, and now I had to paddle for my life.

In all honesty, my memory of the next few hours is mostly a blur. Colours dominate: black, grey, dark green. The waters roaring in the confines of the canyon. It was cold. My breath was fogging and my hands were numb, and I was finding it difficult to keep my shivering under control. It started to snow. I was so tired but had to stay constantly vigilent. The meanders were extremely short, which meant that no sooner would I clear a corner I'd have to prepare for the next one. My sight lines were limited to maybe 50m at most, and when obstacles did appear my reaction time was numbered in seconds. It was immensely frightening, made worse by the knowledge that there was absolutely no escape.

The worst were the fallen trees and logjams. As anyone who has paddled on a narrow waterway knows, coming up against these obstacles on swift water means you're in serious trouble.  They sit like a sieve on the water, and if you come up againt them at best you will likely be pinned, but it is also entirely possible you will get sucked under, with the current holding you down and drowning you. In the first two hours I came across a half-dozen of them, and each time I had to resort to a desparate maneuver.  Against every rule in the book I paddled hard and rammed my raft into the logjam, desperately trying to secure a platform that would prevent me from being sucked under. I'd crawl out and actually climb on to the logjam and haul my raft up over top before getting back in and carrying on. A single slip would be fatal, but there were absolutely no alternatives.

I had been on the water for about three hours when my luck finally ran out. I rounded a corner and right in front of me was another fallen spruce and another logjam. There was no time to react, no time to get out of the way. I hit the trunk and felt my clothes snag on branches -- my raft slopped to the side, took on some water, and then somehow, somehow, I was through to the other side. Thinking back I'm still not sure how that happened, but the current actually pushed my raft through the dense branches without rolling. I started laughing my head off about the absurdity of what had just happened. There was just no way I should have been able to get through that.
The river flowed on, and the cold began to take its toll.  I knew I was out of options, and I had to push on.  Even if I could stop and make camp I knew I likely wouldn't survive the night.  Exposure and fatigue were working against me, and the perpetual soaking of my gear rendered the prospect of starting a fire impossible.  With an awful clarity I began to realise that it was quite possible I would not make it off this river alive.

The spectre of death is a strange thing.  It forces you to make a profound choice: how do you want to meet your end?  For me the choice was simple.  Either I could wait in a soaking wet bivi for death to come to me, or I could meet it head-on, fighting until I couldn't fight any more.  So I did.  I knew with each moment I was closer to the end, and I willed myself to keep dipping my paddle, keep pulling for home. The forest was a solid wall of black spruce, while above me, always, loomed the dark pyramid of Tthenaago.

Eventually the high banks receeded, and the roaring of the water diminshed as I entered more sedate meanders.  A fine mist began to rise from the water, and as dawn strengthened I cruised through a ghostly and silent world.  Beavers floated alongside me from time to time, eyeing this strange visitor with suspicion before vanishing with the slap of a tail. Finally I was there. I rounded one last corner and ahead of me was the slate-grey flow of the South Nahanni. The week of thunderstorms had rendered the it a much different beast from the one I had paddled a week earlier: swollen by rain it had risen by maybe 6 feet and was it choked with floating trees and other debris.

As I left the Bluefish and merged into the Nahnni I don't think I celebrated, but there was sort of a numb feeling of acknowledgement that I had made it. What does stick in my mind, though, is the sight that welcomed me back to the world: Tthenaago, perfectly silhouetted against the vast blood-red glow of dawn in rain-soaked skies.  I have never seen anything like it in my life.

I pulled into town without any fanfare. It was just before 630am, Sunday June 26. I had been on the move for more than 22 hours: seventeen hours of hiking, and five hours of paddling. I was exhausted, soaked, and probably mildly hypothermic.  My deteriorating mental state made me start cleaning my gear rather than going indoors and warming up, but thankfully I came to my senses and staggered inside.


I'll be thinking about this trip for a long time. I also know that I will be asked: why do you do it? I don't go out there to prove anything, or in search of 'adventure' per se - I go because being in the bush is what I love. I had some close calls this time, sure, but I went out there with the fitness, skills, and experience necessary for a trip of this nature.

In examining this trip, I am struck by the chain of circumstances that led me to the box canyon in the final reaches.  Looking back, I think I made the right decision at every juncture given the information at hand.  I don't fault myself for that.  What is humbling is how easily little decisions can build and build and build until you are suddenly in a situation whose gravity far outweighs the sum of the individual actions.  I made the right call to put in my raft for the final time.  I couldn't continue on foot, and everything I knew suggested that the river would be straightforward from that point on.  Were I in the same situation again, I would have made the same decision.  In this case, though, it was wrong -- and I nearly paid the price.  Perhaps I should have.  Ultimately, it was blind luck that saved me from the logjams, and there is no getting away from that.

We live in a world that is sanitized of anything resembling discomfort or danger, and I think in the process we forget what it is like to take true responsibility for ourselves. So much of our reality depends on relentlessly confirming and promoting our existence -- Facebook, Twitter, even this blog -- and it is refreshing to be in an environment where none of that matters. Part of what draws me to the wilderness is that it is utterly indifferent it is to whether we live or die, whether we're happy or miserable. The sun will keep on shining and the birds will keep on singing regardless. It helps put things in perspective, and reminds you we really are just a small part of a vast world.

But enough of that. My thoughts on the wilderness could go on for pages, and perhaps I'll share them at some later date. For now I think it is enough to rest and reflect -- and try to figure out what comes next.