The ache in my knee was excruciating. That exquisite type of pain you find when some unanticipated force is brought to bare on an exposed portion of your body. As I straightened my aching joint the muscles from my ankle to shoulders tensed and sliding out of my canoe onto my backside into the shallow water was my only option. The cold, grey-green waters of the Mountain River left me thankful for my drysuit and the sun's warm rays.
We were five days into a two week expedition through the Mackenzie mountains. With canoes as our means of transportation we had found ourselves in a most inaccessible portion of the watershed. Steep valley walls and an unrelenting current meant the only option for an evacuation would be a long helicopter ride to Norman Wells, a community on the Banks of the Mackenzie. The only reasonable way out was to continue paddling if my body would allow it.
Crossing some of the most northerly ranges in the Mackenzie mountains doesn’t come easy. The significant white water makes taking a cautious approach in a canoe a requirement. Thirty minutes earlier two paddlers in our group found themselves capsized after straying too near a cavernous, foam-filled hole. Whether it was the confused currents or the hole itself that capsized them mattered little, a rescue was on!
The Mountain moves quickly and by the time we had the canoe and paddlers to shore we had covered close to 500 meters and were right up against steep riverbank. Moving between canoes was a dance along slick, rounded, granite boulders as we put all the pieces back together. With the paddlers and canoe safe I turned to my boat and without paying proper attention to my footing my feet came out from under me. The granite was polished by exposure to the force of millennia of glaciers and water. Combined with a wet coating of silt I shouldn’t have been surprised. Bouncing my knee off the rock I was now in the same river I had just executed a rescue in. The wilderness will keep you humble. With a low curse I splashed into the river.
Pulling on the wolf willows I hauled myself on shore and as I straightened my leg the first wave of pain washed over me. What had I done? Had my lack of respect for my surroundings done me in? Would I be able to finish the trip, was my group’s experience jeopardized?
The Mackenzie Valley was first explored by settler Europeans in 1789 and the area was noted for its smoking cliffs. Towering above the river, these bluffs have burned for hundreds of years as a lightning struck fire slowly consumes a coal seam. Coal was not the only fossil fuel present and the onset of World War II brought new investment as this northern oil deposit was viewed as a strategic asset. An ill fated pipeline project brought still more people into the region who faced monumental construction hardships in the 1940’s. Cold so intense diesel fuel turned into gel and motor oil froze matched with equally dire conditions when the ice would melt and workers were confronted with bog like conditions capable of swallowing 20 tonne bulldozers.
Eighty years later this region still stands as a little known wilderness gem. While industry has encroached on almost every significant watershed to the south, the Mountain remains as wild as when it melted out of the last ice-age. Its challenging waters draw a small numbers of adventurers each summer to experience true wilderness. Those that brave its waters pass through six canyons and valleys full of multi-hued mountains all watched over by herds of Arctic big-horn known as Dall’s sheep. This 310 km journey is bordered by an ancient black spruce forest abundant in deep moss and lichen that support a healthy mountain caribou herd and accompanying wolf packs. Along the shoreline wander moose and in the easily accessed alpine grizzly bears den. These animals are so unused to humans that they turn and run simply upon the sight of our boats.
As I sat at the edge of the water my group pulled up behind me. The all smiled and asked how I was doing. Jokingly they said they should leave me to the wolves and enjoy an extra ration of wine for the remaining days of the trip. With a wry grin I could only crack the Advil bottle and say I was looking forward to that night’s dinner too much to give up just yet. Re-assembling the first aid kit into its pelican case something unusual caught my eye. Almost perfectly camouflaged against the dun of the stone riverbank was a caribou on its side.
What was it doing here? What had happened to it? With a snap, I closed up the kit and with the support of a paddle hobbled over to investigate. The group soon followed and theories abounded. It had to have been recently deceased as a pool of blood had not absorbed into the ground. Had our passage startled the beast as it traversed the steep slope above? What had put it into a such treacherous terrain in the first place? Comprised of quickly eroding glacial till above a 50 meter cliff I couldn’t imagine this bull having chosen to head across the slope. Was it being chased? Heads swivelled about as we put the pieces together. Who knew what hid in the willows…
I felt a wave of relief flow through my leg as the ibuprofen began working its magic. Pulling the group together I suggested it was time for us to head downstream. As we loaded into the canoes I marvelled at how a decision to move too quickly across rough ground had brought down such an incredible animal, so perfectly adapted to this unforgiving land. Similarly my small mistake of only an hour ago could just as easily have ended my trip. I gave thanks that I was working with an amazing team of guides who were more than capable of taking care of things and that I hadn’t ended up more seriously injured.
As we pushed off the energy of the land was real. The air fresh with the scent of the forest and with the afternoon sun warm on our backs we set of in search of camp. After all, fresh baked brownies were on the menu for dessert.
Written by Joel Hibbard, March 2018
Cover photo: Joseph Homsy