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.

The Last Mountain

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 river 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, two of 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. Thunderstorms. Windchill of -50C. A grizzly bear.

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 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!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Pete's Trail?

Today I headed out to explore a new part of Tthenaago. I had heard of "Pete's Trail", a route leading from the old abandoned airfield up to a knoll about halfway between the peak and the cliffs.

After a quick lunch I headed down to the water and loaded up my raft. I paddled out to the main channel and let the current take me. I wasn't entirely sure where the path to the airfield was, but had been told to keep an eye out for a clearing along the riverbank.

I stayed fairly close to shore as I searched for the clearing, but not too close - a wise choice, as it turned out, because as I floated I heard a crash behind me. Over my shoulder I saw a half-dozen trees tumble into the water as the bank crumbled away beneath them. Erosion is a constant factor alongside a river that rises and falls as much as the South Nahanni, and is definetly something to keep in mind when you paddle close to shore.

Before long I picked out the clearing and pulled in to a snug little cove. The airfield was about 50 meters back from the water, and really isn't much to look at. Years ago Parks Canada had a field office there, but after a major rockslide they decided that living in the shadow of an unstable mountain wasn't really a great idea. They packed up and moved to Fort Simpson instead.

Today the airfield is mostly overgrown, and the only thing of note out there was the network of trails made by the Wood Buffalo as they went about their business.

The next order of business was finding the path up to the knoll, but after about 20 minutes of scouring the forest's edge I found what seemed to be the trail. "Trail" is something of a generous term as it is intensely overgrown, but I was able to find my way well enough.

The day was hot, pushing 30C, and the humidity hinted at the storms forecast later in the week. The mosquitos were intense, but I also made my acquaintence with what the locals call 'Bulldogs" - large horseflies that seem to exist for no other reason than to torment anyone who wants to be outside. About the size of a nickel, they sound like a helicopter when they buzz past your ear and take noticable chunks from your arm every time they bite you. I finally caved and put on my bug net -- drowning in sweat was a small price to pay for some measure of protection from their attacks.

Things improved as I got moving. The forest was alive with birdsong, and every so often a breeze would briefly clear my insect entourage. The sunlight filtered down through the trees, and everywhere I looked was lush and green.

The trail took a rambling route up hillocks and down through gullies, but it was in bad shape and it often vanished in the undergrowth. I was usually able to figure out where it had gone, but after about two hours I crossed a little creek and couldn't find any trace of it. I searched and searched, but in every direction all I got was a face full of tree. I decided to call it a day -- I was packed light, and didn't want to spend the rest of the evening blundering around an unfamiliar piece of mountainside. Of course, now the challenge was finding my way back down...

Eventually I made it back to the river, and after a quick drink and a snack I pushed off and paddled for home. I wanted to avoid the main channel if possible, so I stuck to the small snyes and tried to zig-zag my way back to town. At one point I hit a patch of deadwater, so I just relaxed for a whilte and looked back at the mountain.

Nice as it was to float there, the clouds were getting darker by the minute. I made it to the final stretch, but rather than paddle the last 2km against the current I took advantage of the packraft's mobility and island hopped. I paddled up to a bank, hopped out, slung my raft over my shoulder and walked across to the far side before paddling over to the next island and doing it again.

Before long I was upstream of town, so I put in for the final time and floated down to the town dock. It's a shame I couldn't find the knoll, but oh well. A good day hike.

Addendum: there are apparently a couple of routes heading out from the airfield, and it seems I wasn't actually on Pete's trail. Maybe my path just lead to the creek after all?

Charles Yohin School

And just like that, we're finished. Today was the last day of school, and we spent it handing out report cards and presenting awards before saying our goodbyes.

It really is the end of an era. My incredible colleagues, Wayne and Cindy, are retiring after teaching in Nahanni Butte for 10 years. It is rare to find people willing to spend so long in a community as remote as this, and on top of that they are two of the most inspiring educators you could ever hope to meet. Also, the student population will drop significantly next year as the oldest kids head off to Fort Simpson for Grades 11 &12.

As for me -- even though I don't want to be a teacher as a long-term career, working with these children and watching them grow up has been one of the best experiences I've ever had. I feel privilaged to have played a small role in their lives, and hopefully I've made something of a positive impact on them. I know I am going to miss them very much.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Field Day

Today was Field Day in Nahanni Butte! We divided the kids into three teams and spent the morning doing activities in the gym. Most were familiar games, but there were also a few unusual ones like Feather Up (trying to keep a feather aloft for as long as possible by blowing air through a straw) and Marble Drop (moving as many marbles from the circle to a bowel using only your feet).

We took a break and had a BBQ lunch outside, and luckily the bugs weren't too bad. Later we set up the nets and played some soccer.

We ended the day with a tug-of-war. Boys against girls, kids against teachers, and finally everyone against a certain hapless volunteer.

The result was inevitable, but I contend that if I had better footware it might have been a different story...

We wrapped things up with some prizes, and then everyone went home early. Tomorrow we'll be handing out report cards, doing some final clean-up, and then shutting down the school for the summer.