Saturday, December 15, 2007

Canoeing the Thelon in Canada - June 2007

The Thelon NWT Canada June 2007

This is a brief account of our 11-day trip taken on two rivers within the Thelon Sanctuary in the North West Territories.
Where is the Thelon Sanctuary?
In the far north of Canada sits The Barren Lands, an area of half a million square miles of tundra (about the same size as Europe) with a population of just a few thousand. It is the most sparsely populated area of land north of Antarctica. It became a protected area in the 1920's
The Barrens form the largest single wilderness remaining in North America and one of only a few fully intact wild ecosystems on the planet. There are no roads and many of the rivers here have never seen a canoeist. Many of the major rivers are over 500 miles in length and most don't even have a name.
Getting there
The Thelon is remote even by Canadian standards. There are no roads or railways. There are a couple of small airfields but these are hundreds of miles outside the sanctuary. We flew from Fort Smith, some four hundred miles to the southwest. The only planes that can make the trip are of course floatplanes and due to the distance this sometimes means another float plane has to travel with you to take extra fuel for return flight. If you come here it'll be the most expensive plane trip you'll ever make!!

A refueling stop
The Trip to the Thelon Sanctuary
There were ten of us in total. Two South Africans living in Canada (one, luckily, was a surgeon whose skills were desperately required on this trip), five Canadians, an American, myself, Trish my partner (both English) and our guide Alex Hall.
Fort Smith (pop 2500) 'airport' which is where we departed from is functional! Old aircraft rotting on the sides, cannibalised for parts, corrugated steel buildings. etc and a surprising laid back feel, "Do I need ID to get on the plane?” I asked. "As long as you pay we'll take you. We don't care who you are" was the reply. The boarding card was just a bit of paper sandwiched between two bits of plastic. Clearly terrorism was something alien up here and rightly so. "Everyone knows who's who up here". On the grounds of economy the 'boarding card' was taken back when we went out to load the planes with our equipment!! No baggage handlers up here.
Our journey had begun.

We flew for a couple of hours over gradually thinning forest before this gave way to a landscape of lakes. Thousands of lakes sometimes stretched from horizon to horizon. Sometimes huge un-named rivers that wound themselves across the landscape dissected these lakes. Groves of spruce took shelter on the slopes of small hills, big banks of snow showed that winter had only just gone. Alarmingly many lakes were still iced over - and this was the middle of June. And during all this not one sign of any human habitation or man made objects. Just wilderness.

We landed and refueled on a small lake, the pilot did an initial sweep over it first to ensure there were no obstacles such as ice or rocks to hole the plane before a smooth landing. We helped manoeuvre the aircraft into position for fuelling and also removed a couple of oil drums of fuel for the smaller beaver plane to use on his return. It was cold and snow lay in big drifts along the lee shore. We hoped we had brought the right gear. We wanted no epics this far from home. 20 minutes later we were off again and we gazed out of the window to this vast wilderness which stretched unbroken for hundreds and hundreds of miles. Surprisingly, amongst the lakes and small hills were huge stretches of sand dunes, incongruous amongst the drifts of snow. A little later we looked for our landing spot on the river. To my alarm and initial dismay it was still frozen. Perhaps we'd have to turn back! However another few miles downstream the ice had melted and we landed. In a few minutes the planes would leave us alone, the only human beings in this vast landscape. I made a thorough check of the plane to ensure that nothing was left behind. There was no going back and no help.
The RiverWe had landed on a tributary of the Thelon. Our guide Alex Hall was the first European to paddle it and that was in 1985! I'll not reveal the name out of respect for his wishes to keep it a 'secret' river. Alex told us that less people had paddled down this river than had been in outer space. Indeed it is highly likely that my partner Trish was the first European woman to have travelled either river.

Musk ox watch over us (left)
I gazed in awe at the scenery around us. It looked quite like the bare, bleak rolling moorland of northern England or Scotland in winter, except for the small stands of spruce. We were now standing in one of the most remote places on our planet. Our canoes and equipment took on a new dimension. These were our homes, our life our safety.The water looked decidedly cold. We put our tents up and got an excellent view of a bald eagle as it soared along the other side of our lake.
We went for a short walk and soon came to our first signs of wildlife. Wolf prints in the sand along with tracks of smaller animals.

Wolf prints in the sand
That night the temperature dropped below freezing and ice covered everything by the morning but soon the temperature rose to more comfortable levels. A quick breakfast and we were off. For the next ten days we would be paddling on anything between grade I & II and as such would not be too technical. However Canadian grade I/II on rivers of this scale take on a new meaning. Often simple rapids had large standing waves present which needed constant avoidance to prevent being joined by gallons of ice cold water. Rapids, and there were hundreds, were often on undercut bends. These are big volume rivers and your attention could not wander. No water authority had ever removed fallen trees here. We soon encountered our first obstacle, something which I did not expect.

Hauling over the ice
Across the width of the first lake was a sheet of ice and no way through for canoes. This required a careful pull-over, something which made me very, very nervous at the thought of our fully laden canoe breaking the narrow strip of ice we were dragging the loaded canoe over. None of us wanted an early bath in water this cold.
Four days later we saw our first Musk Oxen watching us from the bank and that evening ten Caribou crossed the hill on the opposite bank,forded the river and made their way across the tundra close to our camp.

Lining canoes
Mostly the river provided plenty of water. Here and there the odd ledge crossing the river which meant that lining was the safer option. We could not afford to loose equipment here and a swim was......well, unthinkable

Tom (wearing bug hat) some days after the accident .
The Accident It was whilst lining a canoe that Tom took a tumble. Not serious except he happened to cut his shin to the bone in two places on the rocks. I got to him quickly and already his trousers were soaked in blood. My confidence in first aid rapidly diminishing as I could see muscle, bone and a blood vessel pumping blood. One look at the injury told me we were going to have problems and I quickly had thoughts of having a very, very expensive rescue. Alex quickly pointed out that there was no place a plane could land anyway as we were in a small canyon, the nearest place a plane could land was a few days paddling down the river. In any case we could get no signal on our hi-tech sat-phone. We were on our own. John our surgeon was going to have a busman's holiday! The bleeding was quickly stopped by the simple expedient of putting an index finger on the hole!!. No one carried big enough wound closures or big enough sutures to close the wound so it had to be constantly dressed and this drained everyone's 1st aid kits. John resorted to washing the dressings in the river each evening. Luckily the wound did not become infected and Tom carried on with the trip, sometimes in great pain. He would face plastic surgery to repair the wound on return south.
"I don't think my wife will be letting me go on another trip" Tom added after telling us that this was his tenth trip to the area without incident.
The Confluence
Where rivers join

Here our river joined the Thelon River proper. The river was supposed to be only grade I/II!! However careful inspection revealed a 'chicken' run down the near bank. There was no room for error. A couple of feet on one side and you would be swept into the cliffs, a couple of feet the other side and you'd be into roller coasters you'd soon dump. There was nowhere to portage, and to take a dip would have meant an horrendous swim of hundreds of yards before any chance of rescue. No one had to be told to put life jackets on. I thought my best plan of action would be to go last and watch the others and learn from what they did. Unfortunately within seconds each canoe quickly disappeared behind a large fallen rock. We were on our own. Trish & I set off hugging the cliff. It turned out to be an anticlimax, easier than expected but pretty scary none the less.

The Hornby partyIn the 1927's three Englishmen thought they could survive out here. They came, built a cabin and starved to death in their first winter, their story recorded in a journal one of them kept throughout the ordeal. Their graves and remains of the cabin lay beside the river. a reminder that this is a land of extremes.

Although we initially had temperatures of below freezing at night and cool days the weather soon warmed up and we had temperatures of 70 or 80 degrees. A reminder of just how far north we were the sun only just dipped below the horizon at midnight. Bugs, mainly mosquitoes, soon became a constant companion during camp following the warmer temperatures. Accordingly we looked for campsites which were exposed and swept by wind. It was not long before we discovered that this is what the original occupants of this country had done. At one camp we discovered the quartzite remains of stone tool manufacturing some hundreds of years before. Thousands of discarded chips lay about, many broken tools and superb examples of discarded axes, spear and arrow heads. In a few minutes I had a collection any museum would be proud of. (They were left on-site).

I thought about the many people who camped here making tools whilst they waited for the Caribou to cross the river before killing them for their winter stock pile. No supermarkets here. Indeed only a few hundred miles north from here Indians and Inuit died as late as the 1950's from starvation when herds did not turn up. Apart from the flints we also came across ancient circles of stones which once held down tents of Chipewyan Indians. We saw Moose and the signs of many other animals such as Wolf, Grizzly, Wolverine and so on. Bald eagles circled above us along with other birds of prey. This land may be called 'The Barrens' but it is rich in wildlife. Indeed this is a wildlife paradise where vast herds of Caribou still migrate across this land and age-old conflicts between prey and predator are enacted. But this is a big land. A herd of half a million Caribou can be swallowed up without trace. We investigated about 8 or 10 wolf dens and saw not one wolf. Indeed one of the dens had been recently torn apart by a grizzly, thick spruce roots ripped to shreds and boulders I could only just move had been thrown aside by a bear that fancied a snack of wolf pups. For the first time in my life I realised I was not at the top of the food chain. I suddenly felt quite vulnerable. Unfortunately it was the only time Alex has ever paddled up here and not seen a wolf.

(Dwarfed in the wilderness - canoes bottom right)
One afternoon I took off alone across the tundra to a small hill a couple of miles away. Just far enough off the river to guess no one had ever been there before. An hour later and I was standing on the rocky summit of a small hill, surrounded by mile after mile of rocky scree, tundra, the odd patch of pine or spruce, a sand dune here and a few snowdrifts melting in the now hot sun. There was not a sign of any man made object anywhere. A sudden desire to leave my mark had me building a small cairn. Pleased with my creation I turned to leave and stopped. It would have been sacrilegious to have left this wilderness any different from when I arrived. I tore it down and returned the rocks carefully to their original position, this being clearly obvious as there was no lichen in the spots where I had taken them. Unlike most of the rivers in the Europe there is absolutely no sign of any recent paddlers. No litter, no campfire scars, no bits of plastic. Nothing.
Along with Doug who lives in Fort Smith I had packed a small telescopic rod and one afternoon I decided to test my fishing skills.
The rivers run clear and contain huge numbers of fish which have never ever seen a hook. Indeed it took only my second cast to pull out the biggest trout I've ever caught of over several pounds. Had I caught this at home I'd have made the newspapers. Doug pulled me gently back to earth.

"Hey Dave in these rivers 25lb Lake Trout are common". Ah well, it was big enough for me and I caught a few more.

Where the river passed under cliffs we were treated to an almost constant stream of Peregrine, & Gyr falcons flying off their nests along with Rough legged Buzzards. Cliff Swallows often nested close to their predators. Peregrines sometimes didn't have to travel far for food!.

The End
Eleven days of paddling and 165 miles later we pulled up on a muddy beach. This is where our trip ended and our return to civilisation began. Like all trips to remote areas, the trip to and from these places is often a part of the pleasure and experience. Indeed if you were only interested in the paddling you would deny yourself some unique and interesting experiences. So it was that morning. We all prepared our equipment for the prearranged 10am departure. Nothing comes. An hour later the air company is called and were told the pilots left at 7am and that the smaller one, the beaver has put down to avoid low cloud. Another ETA is given for 12.30pm. This too arrives and departs. We have lunch. Nothing is known of the whereabouts of the other larger floatplane, the caravan without which we cannot leave. I wonder how a modern aircraft can set off and not be heard from since? They are, after all, equipped with the VHF & Satellite telephones. I begin to fear for the worse. I subsequently learn from Alex that that is what he fears too. Eventually the smaller beaver arrives but with no knowledge of his colleague in the caravan. The pilot explains that he flew into low cloud and landed to wait until it lifted. He has not heard from his fellow pilot. We load the beaver up. We cannot stay here without any equipment so the pilot retrieves his rod from the cockpit and starts fishing. A short while later and we spot the Caravan and he lands without drama. He explains he too was held up by weather and the smoke from a forest fire which he could not safely travel through, although taking off twice he had to land both times and wait. He was too far from anywhere for his VHF radio to be of any use and could not get a signal on his satellite phone. We take off 20 minutes later for Fort Smith. On our return trip we gaze over the landscape we feel privileged to have experienced at first hand and to have known a little of its character. A further reminder of the untouched nature of this land is a huge forest fire burning across a front of several miles. Started by lightening this fire will burn for another few months unabated before the first of the winter snows smother it. There is no one else on earth to see this fire and no one there to put it out.

Searching the wilderness

Alex Hall - our guide
lex is 67 and has lived up here for over 25 years. He is an author and wildlife biologist. He's also travelled more rivers up here than any other man alive. He’s spent months at a time paddling these remote waters, sometimes alone, including one trip of 11 weeks and 1,200 miles of paddling. He probably knows these lands better than anyone else alive.
I once asked Alex what he took for food in those days when he did long trips. "Flour, sugar, a rifle and plenty of bullets", he replied. if you want more on his trips.

This, like our last trip to the Missainabi river in Northern Ontario was meant to be the achievement of a life-time ambition. I think it has just wet our appetite for more. We will go back.

NoteIn spite of its protected status the big mining companies have been exploring this wild land. Rare minerals including diamonds have been discovered in the Barren lands. Now the likes of De Beirs and the other big players want to open, open-cast mines in the area anxious that their shareholders get their return on investment and we get the opportunity to buy more jewelled trinklets. If you want to do something to preserve some of our last wilderness go to

I recently came across this delightful video made on the same stretch of the river. To view click this link

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