Going Against The Flow

  • Start/Finish: Lindberg Landing to Lindberg Landing, South Nahanni and Liard Rivers
  • Length: 10 days 
  • Distance: 200 km 

DAY 1 - 7:10 PM - SEPTEMBER 6, 2008:

After years of waiting - I pushed off from Lindberg Landing and pointed my canoe Going Against the Flow up the big Liard River. The sun was making colours through an anvil shaped cumulous cloud over the Nahanni Range. I was elated to be under way although I was setting out later than originally planned. The end of season cleanup of my rafting/canoeing business always takes longer than I expect it will.

Equipment repairs and cleaning was now done, and time reflecting with the river guides on how the season went was over, and a few odd jobs were done for Edwin and Sue. All reasonable delays I told myself as I poled along the muddy south bank of the Liard River. 8:15PM - I stopped in at Blackstone Territorial Park to say so long to summer managers Burton and Pauline, a young couple who were originally from Nahanni Butte. Their season was over and they were loading a boat for a few days alone at the family's Swan Point cabins. The Blackstone River was just ahead - I poled through its dark waters, then taking my paddle I ferried out to a mid-river sand bar for the night. I was hunting for firewood as the sun slid beneath the clouds next to the bell shaped Nahanni Butte.

DAY 2 - SEPTEMBER 7, 2008:

8:15AM A fog bank drifted on the river as I was cooking breakfast and packing up camp. The drone of the Blackstone Park's diesel generator hummed in the back ground as some ducks quacked their way past my island.

AM - I am still in the learning stages with poling. It is fascinating how effective it can be against a modest flow. I worked all morning along this line of exposed sand in the middle of the river. While eating my first of many bagels packed for the trip I watch a wood bison drop out of the shady forest and swim out into the river. Without losing ground in the current he made his way to the tip of my island from where I watched.

I pushed Flow out into the water with plans to give the bison more space on this tiny tip of sand. It was all I could do to snap a few pictures as the bison galloped past me with water spraying off his shaggy head and main. He stopped when the distance between us reached his comfort zone. Such a regal beast I thought to myself. Turning to the canoe, I realized Flow had been caught by the current and breeze and was already well off shore and out of reach. It was hat off, glasses off and camera down on top, in the water and swimming in a front crawl, I prayed the wind would stop long enough for me to reach the trailing painter.

The one worry I told Wendy, my wife, with going solo was having the canoe get away from me. I hope I have learned a lesson.

The one worry I told Wendy, my wife, with going solo was having the canoe get away from me. I hope I have learned a lesson.

PM - I cooked supper in the dark after a long day on the river. It was a good day in Poling Class 101.

Flow, my hand picked Clipper Tripper with wood trim, made her virgin cruise during the last 2 weeks of August. I paddled solo in her on this 375 km canoe trip from the top of the park. Flow's fast lines enabled me to stay ahead of the group on most days. After just the first full day on this adventure I knew I had an exceptional craft for going against the flow as well.

The topographic map shows a distance of 15 km ? my goal, Swan Point is still a few kilometers around the next bend. Karen, one of my river guides, left her stuffed bear with me when she flew back to Ontario for a few weeks. Somehow the bear found his way into my canoe barrel. We are not on talking terms yet but I have decided to put him to work. While I sleep Mr. Canada Bear is on duty with a headlamp for touring the site, a pen flare and bear spray in his hand. Lights out 10:30PM.

DAY 3 - SEPTEMBER 8, 2008:

7:00AM A cool rain is coming out of the east and the barometer is on the decline. I packed up in the tent while the stove was brewing a hot drink. I ate left over cold spaghetti for breakfast, and afterwards wrestled into my one piece dry suit and popped out of the tent looking like a mango.

AM - A firm clay river bottom made for great poling up the long cut bank at Swan Point. I crossed to the sandy point as a double kayak came into view. These people had come from Moose Ponds in record time. Sue Lindberg mentioned I might run into them. We drifted together for a few minutes as they shared stories about their trip. As we moved apart I mused to myself about the dry cabin and roaring fire they would soon be enjoying at Lindberg's. It would be a while before I knew such a pleasure.

PM The wind intensified in the afternoon. There were times, while standing as a mango spinnaker, I was moving up river without poling. The clouds raced past to the north. The lower flank of the craggy Nahanni Butte is all I could make out as I entered the mouth of the Nahanni River. A profound moment I thought to myself. I was on the path of R.M. Patterson and Albert Faille and many other unsung upriver travelers going up the river with a beautiful name. I went from the Liard River's milky brown to the blue-green water of the autumn flow of the Nahanni River.

The village of Nahanni Butte was silent as I poled past, feeling a bit lonely. Its streetlights seemed out of place and did little to warm my path after a long day. Camp was set up on a sand bar at the north end of town and dinner cooked in the vestibule. I was glad for the shelter after a day in the elements. A satellite phone call to my home in Canmore and the welcome voices of Wendy and Luke, my son, was a cheerful end to the day.

DAY 4 - SEPTEMBER 9, 2008:

AM - I gave my outfit a thorough cleaning while cooking and eating a breakfast of eggs and bacon. Once things were ready I walked into town and found Jim Lancaster directing some activities with one of his hunting guides. I came to offer my condolences at a time of sadness for those at Nahanni Butte Outfitters. Jim's uncle and partner, Cam Lancaster had been killed in an airplane crash the week before. I wished him well and walked uptown to knock on the door of my friend and long ago guiding partner Bobby Vital. Bobby was home and proudly showed me his new Honda quad. Upon leaving the village I was fortunate to cross paths with the community health worker and pick up a months supply of anti-inflammatory pills. Old injuries in a foot, wrist and elbow had begun to talking to me.

PM - Pushing off from Nahanni Butte in the afternoon I worked my way up through the meanders which dominate the Nahanni River's lower 20 km. Wolf tracks could be seen from time to time in the mud. Friends from the Butte came by in their jet boat and poked fun at this old looking white guy with a mop of grey hair poling up river. We had a few laughs before they sped away. It's clearing up and I am removing clothing layers. Nahanni Butte Mountain is dressed in a coat of golden aspen with a mixture of white birch and spruce greenery. I feel like I am living in a post card. Eighty years ago, R.M. Paterson would have called this evening, "one of those golden days of fall...a sweet, clear stillness, soft sunshine, wild fruit, & the golden leaves glowing over the clear green of the rivers."

I had made good time today but my late start kept me from reaching my goal of Last Camp. Before dark I spied a patch of small dry stones that looked like they would work well for the tent, so I landed and went looking for firewood.

DAY 5 - SEPTEMBER 10, 2008:

Ducks landing on the water next to the tent woke me early. The sky was clear when I started a fire however fog soon drifted over the Splits. The NBO's helicopter flew over me and then circled back looking for clear flying to the west. I imagined a hunter and his guide waiting for the heli-bird to arrive. This morning I went for a full breakfast of oatmeal and pancakes. Within an hour of starting I came to the cobble beach known amongst the river guides as Last Camp. Ahead would be over 30 km of broken islands with fallen trees and channels of fast flowing water.

The day warmed up as the clouds burned off and I found myself wading through places that were too fast for poling.

PM - Camp that night was on a huge gravel flat. The weather looked unpredictable, so I set up the tarp over the tent. My wet clothes were hung out to dry on the tarp lines.

DAY 6 - SEPTEMBER 11, 2008:

A stiff breeze sent the tarp flapping over the tent before dawn. I took this as my wake up call and rolled out of the tent into a Chinook wind that soon had the tent flying like a low level kite. Under an array of pink and grey clouds I took down the tent and tarp and packed up.

On the water my routine was a combination of poling, lining and tracking which allowed me to maintain my upriver direction with a minimal of slowdowns. By the afternoon I had worked my way into the islands on the west side of the Splits.

Hoping for slower water and less wind I found both but the channels I entered were unfamiliar to me. I knew as long as I had current on my bow I was climbing upstream. The day passed and I went looking for a campsite in the open. When I found a good spot I checked the beach for bear sign and set up the tent. Twisted Mountain's west ridge was still ahead of me.

DAY 7 - SEPTEMBER 12, 2008:

The sun rose over the south ridge on Twisted Mountain as I took the tent down this morning.

I cleaned Flow from end to end, ate breakfast, and pushed off up a small riffle to start the day. An hour of work brought me back to a main channel of the river next to Twisted Mountain. I was devising a plan when a curious vessel approached from upriver. A group of six from France had put in at Moose Ponds and made the hike into the Cirque of the Unclimbables. Two in the group had successfully climbed the Lotus Flower Tower. They had their three inflatable Grabner canoes lashed together. Their gear was stacked in the middle with three paddlers on each side. It looked like it was working fine. After enjoying some conversation I pushed off upriver as they prepared to go downriver.

PM - The day warmed up nicely and I poled through shallow backwaters east of the main channel. Again from R.M. Paterson's Journal, ...we shall travel as the Lord intended men to travel in the north west - by pole, trackline & paddle & such strength as we have ...". The French group had informed me that a raft with three park staff was following behind them. I kept an eye out for the raft throughout the day as I hoped to send some mail out. Shelter that night was on an island below a high bank.

DAY 8 - SEPTEMBER 13, 2008:

The wind blew hard all night and sounded like a freight train as gusts dropped down off the Yohin Ridge to the west and pressed down hard on the trees along the high bank. It was another warm day, so I dressed in long underwear and poled along the west shoreline in the sunshine. The land was ablaze with colour. I persisted against the flow pushing off the bottom with the spruce pole. Slowly I was making ground towards the North Elbow of the river. The spruce pole had been working so well all the trip until I flexed it against the gunwale. A resounding crack could only mean one thing - a break. A crack opened up from a small knot along the middle of the pole for about 16 inches. Fortunately I had a second pole along made of ash. I quickly stowed the spruce pole and replaced it with the ash one and kept going. I'd look at making repairs at camp. I reached the North Elbow along a familiar island and crossed to the north shoreline for lunch.

PM - A cooler wind blew in my face in the afternoon. Passing between the gap in the Yohin Range I was glad to have made it to this landmark. With the Splits behind me Kraus' Hot Spring was just 15 km away. Forcing my way up the north shore I came upon a hunting camp built by some local people. The site had not yet been occupied this fall. I took some pictures of the tent frame, meat drying rack and other articles. I even enjoyed a few tries with a slingshot I found hanging in a tree.

The day was getting on as I continued lining the canoe. When the lining rope fell from my hand and into the water I reached for it with my left leg outstretched and suddenly felt a sharp pain in my mid foot. I had been having trouble with this foot all summer, but I could not pin down the cause. Something happened to my foot on this last move and it was enough to hold me up for awhile, however, the cool water soon dampened the pain and I was back at work. When it was getting time to camp I poled up the north bank and came right into the camp set up there by the national park staff.

Marcel, Scott and Sue, the park staffers, had rafted from Rabbitkettle Lake checking the condition of the most used campsites. They welcomed me to their fire and offered a place for me to spend the night. I appreciated their offer and carried my gear in shore and set up my tent.

Sue had earned the reputation as the firebug in her group. I warmed up next to one of her creations while we ate supper. After heating my cold feet I tried to walk around camp only to find that I could not bear weight on my left foot. The injury was not easily explained to my new camp mates as they watched me hop around. Using my paddle as a crutch I found my tent in the dark and hoped things would be better in the morning.

DAY 9 - SEPTEMBER 14, 2008:

The foot was no better in the morning. There was hardly any swelling and no pain until I put weight on it. Independently I broke down my camp and had deep thoughts about the future of my solo expedition. I worked through my options and the truth of the matter soon came to me.

I had to be able to walk to keep going upriver. There was something serious going on inside this foot of mine. Wisdom said I was better off playing it safe and paddling out with the park staff. Staying put or going on by paddle and pole would soon make me the last person in the park for the year and over 60 km from Nahanni Butte.

It was just a little frustrating to let my canoe swing away from the flow and drift so easily down current following the park staff's raft. I kept some distance from them and had the morning to reflect. Going the other way, downriver, I became focused on getting off the river and being home. The rafters had a river taxi coming to pick them up in the morning. If there was room for Flow and my outfit I could be at Lindberg's the following day.

DAY 10 - SEPTEMBER 15, 2008:

The Park staff and I enjoyed the night together around another fire built by Sue. I shared the last of my rum and listened to Marcel's stories about his family traveling and living off the land throughout the Nahanni not so many generations earlier.

The river taxi took everything. At Nahanni Butte, Marlene Konisenta, who had given me an anti-inflammatory pill, kindly provided me with a set of crutches.

I managed a few pictures of Mr. Canada Bear leaning over Flow's gunwale from where she was lashed in the river taxi. It brought a smile to my face when I found how I could position the camera to take in my CB and just part of my trip slogan. Going Against the Flow became, Going Again.

NOVEMBER 20, 2008:

I have been back in Canmore for 8 weeks. Upon arriving I had my foot x-rayed and was relieved that the radiologist could not find a fracture. I am mountain biking and ski touring to stay in shape but my physiotherapist says it will be a while before I can start running again. I am currently reading R.M. Paterson's "Nahanni Journals" from his 2 trips up the Nahanni in 1927-1929. His story has me right back there, "Going Against the Flow".

Even after close to 60 trips down river I share his passion for the freedom of a solo trip, exploring up river. I pray everything will work out and by September 2009, I will be "Going Again"

NOTES ON EQUIPMENT:

Flow - A Clipper Tripper was built to order by Western Canoeing Inc. in Abbotsford, B.C. Her construction is a Kevlar lay-up with ash gunwales, thwarts and cherry decks. A wonderful canoe at 55lbs

Paddles - My paddles were made by Grey Owl Paddles. A Touring 12 degree bent shaft 54", a Hammerhead 56" and an older curve blade Hammerhead 57".

Tent - Mountain Hardware Trango 3.1

Poles - I had 2 11' long poles, a one piece Spruce and an Ash. Both cut and shaped from my father, Bill Hibbard's bush on St. Joseph's Island, on Lake Huron. The pole ends were iron with a bronze tip. These were purchased from Don Merchant at Pole and Paddle Canoe in Limerick ME.

Canoe Barrels (60 liter) for food and personal gear.

 

David Hibbard
Outfitter/Guide


Nahanni Wilderness Adventures
969A Lawrence Grassi Ridge
Canmore, AB
T1W 3C3
1-888-897-5223
Fax: 403/609-2042

info@nahanniwild.com