Saturday, 31 December 2011

MID-LIFE CANOE CLUB-Table of Contents

A journey up to the Hudson Bay

Table of Contents
Click next to the canoe at the bottom of each page to return to the Table of Contents

Click on each link to go to each page. 
The Journey
Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6
Day 7
Day 8
Day 9
Day 10
The North Knife Song

©2011 Eric Pettigrew All Rights Reserved
(images are taken by John Moses)


Winnipeg Airport
16th August 1999

Men don’t ask directions, but having more than a vague idea of where you are going is always a good idea when heading into the wilderness. Thus the first stop in Winnipeg is to the Manitoba Natural Resources and Mapping Center to buy two 1:250,000 (2cm = 5km) scale maps of the North Knife River, our destination. I found out which maps to buy (where else?) on the internet, having been thwarted by just looking at an atlas, where the North Knife was nowhere to be found. 

Each province on these Department of Energy, Mines and Resources survey maps is divided into quadrants of 2 degrees longitude by 1 degree latitude. And each of these scale quadrants is redivided into sixteen1:50,000 (2cm = 1km) quadrants. The larger size quadrants are assigned a number and letter for reference. Our maps are 64I (entitled Shetenei Lake) and 54L (Churchill). The level of detail at this size is adequate for our purpose, showing contours, spot elevations, and a host of geographical and geological features (some of which, like rapids, I clearly understand and some like eskers, strand lines, moraines, screes, palsa bogs, and pingos are as yet unknown to me). The symbols for all these are helpfully spelt out in both french and english on the back side of each map, most useful in the event we happen upon Pepe Le Pew. 

There are also terms for man-made landmarks on the back, but a quick perusal of Map 1 shows this to be completely unnecessary. There are none. Going through the entire gamut of possibilities in the glossary draws a blank. There are no roads--hard, loose, stabilised surface, or all weather (two lane or four lane), no cart tracks, no railways (single or multiple track), no bridges, tunnels, ferries, towns, villages, settlements, towers, chimneys or similar objects, no campsites, no mines, quarries, levees or dykes. Nothing whatsoever to suggest that anyone has stopped on their way by for any purpose other than to have a look. I can only draw one conclusion from my quick study of this map. There in black and white (and green and brown, to be pedantic) is an inescapable fact. We are heading into the wilderness. Ten days of canoeing down the North Knife River in northern Manitoba in North America, the common denominator being the word north. We are going to head up to the Hudson Bay, finishing our trip near the 59th parallel, a thousand miles north of Winnipeg. To put this north thing into perspective, think north of Scotland (the Orkneys). Think Oslo, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Magadan (that’s Kamchatka). Think Maine, and add another ten degrees of latitude up thataway. (If you think Alaska, however, you’ve gone too far. The main part of Alaska starts at 60 degrees.)

Still, we are heading into the northern wilderness, and the map just confirms this in numbers and symbols translated from satellite photos taken in 1987. 3600 square miles of wilderness per quadrant, and we will be in two of them.

I wonder what that means.....

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Paddling the North Knife
A journal of 
The Mid Life Canoe Club
August 1999

Or how we decided to go...and who we are...
The MidLIfe Canoe Club at Lynn Lake  

Assembling the masses

Up until this moment, this trip has been an abstract thing, like watching a headlight off in the distance on a straight road, not really connecting it with the physical reality of a car until it whooshes past. This trip is not my brainchild, nor have I participated in the real physical preparation other than to send a cheque. I have suggested a name for the venture, The Mid Life Canoe Club, but it doesn’t seem to have taken with our group, though of that I cannot really be sure since I have received no comment by email from the members. 

And who are we? We are a group of six, four of us going back 30 years to junior high school, and the other two friends of our organiser and author of the idea, Randy Case. Aside from our leader, we are all in the throes of what is commonly referred to as mid-life. Thus the name.

We are a representative group, though representative of what I don't quite know.


I am Eric Pettigrew, father of 14 year old son Toby who towers over me at 6’3" and husband of Christina, who saw me off yesterday in Charleston, S.C. and flew back to London, England, where we have lived for the past 12 years. I am at a crossroads in my life, the infamous place to which Dante alluded ("Midway through our life’s journey we found ourselves in a dark wood, having lost the path.") The company I headed until four months ago, a subsidiary of a Japanese bank, is no more. The company which I have begun is still in the petri dish, and will not propagate until after I return from this trip. This confluence of events conveniently happened at the onset of summer, and our northern trek presented itself as a once in a lifetime opportunity to mimic the metaphor. I will be in a dark wood, literally. What I find there, and where I will go afterward, is anybody’s guess.

In this group, I have been designated (or rather have suggested myself) as the scribe.


Randy Case is the organiser and inspiration behind the trip. He was a camper at Kooch-I-Ching and dreamt of completing a trip to the North Knife for years and years. Randy is a professor at Boston College, husband to Shelley and father of Andrew and Emily. He is my erstwhile doubles partner as a youth, my college roommate (though he eventually transferred from Duke, where both John Moses and I went) and my lifelong friend. If I had to characterise Randy, I would describe him as someone who fears nothing, who is able to pull off brave (and sometimes foolhardy) feats. He is also a Southerner through and through, with a voice that would carry two miles over water and makes him impossible to ignore. He also has a heart the size of a lion.



To return to the members of our group. Our leader is Dexter Davison, He is 67 years old, and has been canoeing for 52 years in the north woods. As counsellor and camp organiser of Camp Kooch-I-Ching in Minnesota, he has done more than 100 trips on various rivers, including two two-month expeditions to the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories. He is providing most of the expertise and equipment for this venture. Dexter is by profession a math teacher, and taught Randy Case, John Moses, and I about quadratic equations, functions, and series in a galaxy far far away in Spartanburg S.C. during the late sixties. Dexter is a man of few words, I will come to find out, but one whose actions never stop talking. In writing these words after the event, I have come to think of him as a hero in the classic sense of the word. 


John Moses is a doctor (pediatrician), author, photographer, and renaissance man. During college he took time off and hiked the entire Appalachian Trail at 20 years old. He works at the Duke Medical Center, and has published books on teenage pregnancy and has done many photographic exhibitions. His subjects are studies of real people, and are living proof of Mose’ ability to connect with others. I have heard him described by a patient as a true gentleman. He is modest, discreet, sometimes quiet, and a genuinely good person.


Pete Vanacore is a friend of Randy’s. An animated New Yorker, Pete runs a Christian organisation helping disadvantaged youths ages 8-18 who have been in trouble with the law. He is married to Diane with three children. He has a New Yorker’s garrulous wit, and at around 5’10" is the shortest of any of us, a fact which belies his overall athleticism and determination. Pete is an avid skier, rock climber, and hiker and has a raft of stories and relevant experiences. He also has a good voice and knows the words to practically any song ever written.

Gary Schofield, another of Randy’s friends, is a big bear of a man who was a former professional hockey player drafted by the Maple Leafs. Gary is retired at the early age of 46, having sold his successful tree cutting business. He now devotes his life to scuba diving, car racing, and other adventurous pastimes. Married with a son, he comes from a large family of twelve, three of whom are professional hockey players. As the oldest son, he has the quiet air of competence about him, and is someone you know immediately will carry a big weight (literally and figuratively) on his massive shoulders.

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Day 1 
Getting there
17th August 1999

We meet at 11PM at Winnipeg airport the day the evening of the 16th. Dexter is already there when I arrive after having spent the day piddling around Winnipeg. In addition to the map purchase, I saw an IMAX film called Island of the Sharks, shot off a reef at the Cocos Island in the Pacific. Watching the sharks and various other predators devour each other in the frenzy of daily life, I am reminded by a quote from Jacques Cousteau: "Dans la mer, il n'y a pas du cruauté, seulement l'angoisse de survivre."- In the sea there is no cruelty, only the terror of survival."). This film, and this quote, strike a chord within me as I wait for the others and contemplate what we are about to do.

Dexter and I talk a little about old times and catch up on what we have been doing since I last saw him over 25 years ago. He looks little different than what I remember, save for grey hair which he admits he dyed until recently. He has the same distinctive gait when he walks, a stride more than a step that sways from side to side. He allows that details on the trip from Randy are a bit vague, but that as far as the arrangements he is responsible for (canoes, food, travel including float planes, trains, and a rental van) everything is ready to go.

The others arrive en masse, though we have to wait for Gary. He arrives with a WWI vintage .3006 rifle, which we have prevailed upon him to bring to ward off polar bears, and is hassled by customs. They obviously disapprove of his cavalier and vague attitude. When asked to provide an itinerary, he replies "We have none." Strictly speaking, this is not true. It is just that none of us (other than Dexter) know what it is. The custom officers think he is some weekend lad off to shoot off a rifle for fun. Eventually they relent, and he joins us all.

We do have an itinerary however, and it begins with a long drive which will last all night until mid-afternoon the next day. The first leg is 765km to Thompson. When asked directions (we will share driving in two hour shifts), Dexter responds to go to the first stop sign and hang a right. He is not kidding of course (Dexter does not kid really). The scale of the truth here in Canada is revealed when we find the aforementioned stop sign 500km later in Pon Ton. We stop for gas there (Rule one in these parts, when you see a gas station you fill up, regardless). In the café, the menu for the day is Denver and Soup. When I ask what this means, the cook says ham and eggs and beef barley, but allows that neither of them are ready as it is 6:00 AM. After seven hours in a well-seasoned van (156,000 on the clock and lacking only the ceiling mirror to make it a veritable pleasure palace on wheels), we still have over 500km to go, including our flight.

The Route: From Lynn Lake to the Hudson Bay

We continue on up through Thompson, where we pick up Jack Crowley, a friend of Dexter's who will drive the van back to Thompson from Lynn Lake, our next destination. He tells us in great detail about river trips (the Seal and the Caribou are his two favorites) and throws in a few bear stories for good measure.

Finally at 3:00PM after lunch, a flat tire, and numerous bumps on the highway due to frost heaves, we arrive in Lynn Lake. The town, suffering the throes of withdrawal of the gold mine which was its raison d'etre, has a dilapidated look. We add to the local economy by buying fish lures at the general store, and I almost buy a mousetrap which has been turned into a cutesy souvenir (Complaints Department, it says. Press this button to make a complaint.)

The local indian youth have taken to wearing LA gang colours. I see only one house with the lawn mowed. It is a depressing sendoff to the wilderness.

We catch our floatplane here from LaRonge Air, a DeHavilland Twin Otter circa 1967 which easily carries three canoes and all our gear inside the plane. After an hour and a half, and low level circling of North Knife Lake to find a suitable beach, we are deposited next to one halfway up the lake, and our journey begins as the Otter takes off in the distance. We immediately pitch camp, getting in practice on the as yet unfamiliar tents.
First Camp: Prepare for Anything

Weather: Unbelievable. 75 degrees and not a cloud. A swim in the lake is refreshing, not nearly as cold as I had been expecting.

Wildlife:  Moose and wolfprints on the beach.No sightings however.

Dinner:  Beef and noodles and green beans.

Topography: Forget the dark woods. Instead imagine aspen and spruce sparsely placed, countless lakes, a flattish terrain stretching on forever, marred only by the scars of forest fires which are allowed to burn unchecked, proof that it is not only man which is destructive, as they have all been started by lightning.

The road we have come on to Lynn Lake, now almost 150 miles away, must have cost tens if not hundreds of millions, yet serves only 15,000 people in this vast wilderness.

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Day 2 
18th August 1999

Define contentment. Is it that pleasantly tired feeling at the end of the day, the first 25 miles (or perhaps more) safely under your belt? Is it sitting on an impossibly soft bed of lichen under a spruce by the side of a benign river and even more benign skies? 

Is it the sound of nothing but the pen writing and the wind wandering aimlessly through the trees?

North Knife Lake: The Idyll

The only thing missing is not being here with my wife and son, who I am sure would love the end result, if not exactly the paddling part.

That part was hard work, especially up the lake to the mouth of the river (15 miles). Once on the river we moved quickly. The river was very high (contrary to what Jack had told us in Thompson), which paradoxically made the first set of rapids quite easy. Tomorrow might be different.

Randy caught four fish, all Northern Pike, and we cooked two for lunch and released the others.

Dinner: Risotto with shitake mushrooms (courtesy of Mose), air dried tomatoes (Dexter) and freeze dried peas followed by Ghiradelli bittersweet chocolate  (Mose) and Southern Comfort (Mose again). Babaloo!

Wildlife:  Five bald eagles, two osprey, pike, mosquitoes like Stuka dive bombers.

Campsite:  A moss and lichen covered hillock with spruce.

Weather: Superb.78 degrees. Some high cirrus clouds say 2-3 days more of nice weather.

Partner: Pete. We talk of our lives, our reason for being there, of Christianity and Taoism, of our families. This is on the lake, as we are way behind the others (a pattern that for me in any case was to repeat itself). At this stage we have the time and energy to chat.


Day 3 
19th August 1999

Whoa baby. Forget the contentment rap of the previous day. This was the business. Reality set in very early as Dexter and I capsized in the first rapids after less than a minute of paddling, hung up on a rock. Good safety tip: do not lean upstream. Lean downstream and you may pivot off the rock. Lean upstream and your boat fills with water. Bye Bye.

There was quickly more to come. After we had righted ourselves and bailed the boat, on the second rapids, all three of our canoes went over a big ledge, busted a hydraulic and promptly capsized. A hydraulic is the washing machine-in-reverse effect of water rushing over a flat rock, causing a backwash of immense power. This time, Dexter was carried on ahead by the current, chasing after John's sleeping bag in a clear drybag which had not been properly secured, and eventually disappearing around an island.  I stayed with the canoe, clutching my paddle, and watching as my hat which had been knocked off in the hydraulic came floating past me like a dog returning to its master. And a good thing too, as we lost two out of three bailers (not a good move). I righted the canoe on the side, a bit chilly and with good sense belatedly knocked into me.
John in front of a Hydraulic

The others were well downstream, and so after hefting the bags back into the canoe (John's bag by Patagonia, if indeed advertised as a drybag, was anything but, and weighed a ton), I ran down a brief rapids on my own. Eight in the morning, and the adrenaline already pumping full throttle. Live and learn.

We would never again go down rapids without casing them first.

Later in the day we handwalked down one, and at the end of the day came to a real doozy, three shelves which went around a blind corner and then went down either a Class Five cliff or a Class Four series of shelves. In spite of Randy's insistence that he could do them, we chose door number Three: portaging. We set up camp next to the rapids, and then after dinner we dragged the canoes up through the woods over fallen trees. This was my first glimpse of the steady and indefatiguable Dexter. No fuss. No discussion. No time to second guess. This is what we have to do. Do it. And do it today, not tomorrow. Give yourself a flying start at the beginning of each day.

Dexter also portages everything on his own: canoes, food boxes, whatever. 100 pounds or more, and awkward shapes. Very impressive for 67 or indeed any age.
Dexter demonstrates

Distance: Only 18 miles due to capsizing and portaging.

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Day 4 
20th August 1999

Big day, in every respect. Rapids aplenty. Two major waterfalls. Strategies are now carefully considered before attacking rapids, falling into four categories:

  • The Randy Kamikaze Approach
  • The least water approach
  • The hand held walking-the-dog approach
  • Portaging (the Last Resort) 
All have consequences for now and later and debated, sometimes hotly. Randy has balls the size of Detroit, and went down two decent size rapids with Pete and only swamped once. The second was the worst technical effort, floating straight down the pipe sideways into massive haystacks, yet somehow they managed to get through. 
Randy and Pete brave the rapids

The canoes we are using (Old Town fiberglass!!) are built for distance, not speed, and tend to plough through the waves, taking on water with each successive wave. Swamping is surprisingly easy.

The least water is the preferred approach. The first few capsizings were a result of ignoring this at our peril. Basically this involves picking a line with the least flow and the lowest haystacks, and casing out the whole river. Early on we convince Randy that were he to capsize and we were to lose a canoe (plausible given how high the river is running) the rest of the trip would be compromised, and riding three to a canoe would necessitate portaging just about every ripple. So we pick the least water and go. As the trip wears on (or the day) we get more adventurous, at least while the weather is good.

   Fishing under some falls
The walking-the-dog method or letting the canoe down the rapids by holding onto the bow and stern lines, works when the drop is not too great  (four feet is about max) and when there is room to walk along the side.

Portaging is the last resort. The canoes are heavy, though Dexter, Gary, Randy and even John manage them on their own. Pete and I do not. We also portage once with full canoes, with all six of us lifting at once.
   Portaging through the Woods

Today we get to use all methods save a full portage. We portage empty over the two big falls. On the first one, a spectacular twenty five foot drop, we decided to run the rapids on the downstream leg.  This involved avoiding a large submerged rock on the left and a huge rock outcropping in the middle right where Dexter had sacrificed a canoe on a previous trip (bowman thought left, sternman right, the canoe hit the outcropping sideways at full tilt, crushing the canoe). Telling us this story tended to concentrate our minds. John and I managed to get our line okay, missing both obstacles, but we wandered too far in mid-channel once past them, caught a couple of haystacks, and slowly but surely swamped. We were able to guide the canoe to shore without capsizing, no mean feat when they are fully loaded and very unstable. In this weather, swamping is acceptable, but as the temperature drops (which it does each day) it will be no fun whatsoever.

 The First Major Falls 

We decided to camp under some falls which were marked as rapids on the map. Everyone was beat. Portaging takes a lot out of you.

The campsite was on a cliff overlooking the rapids which John and I shot successfully where Dexter handwalked.

I was 100% whipped, retired at 9:00PM, said two words to Pete, and slept the sleep of the dead. Randy and John stayed up late talking and watching the northern lights.

Dinner: Dexter cooked some amazing spaghetti which never tasted better. We all wolfed it down without speaking, always a good sign for the cook.

Weather: Rained for the first time as a cold front moved in. Temperature 40-45 degrees at night, day 60-65.

Distance: 20 miles.

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Day 5 
Rock classics

21st August 1999

Started off with a portage where we all six carried the canoe. We then paddled like hell for two hours, stopping eventually where two small rivers joined the North Knife. Randy landed a big fish (3-4 pounds), then Dexter another and we had fish in foil, grilled salami, and peanut butter and jelly. Forget fine cuisine, we need protein and carbos as we burn everything off.

Our objective for the day was to get off the first map, which we did quite easily just after lunchtime. We then continued going east for four or five hours and covered a lot of mileage.

I was paddling with Gary which meant that since we were stern heavy (he weights about 260, or 100 pounds more than me and the see saw principle applies), our prow rode through the haystacks easily and we rarely took on water. We handwalked most of the bad rapids though Gary convinced me to shoot the last ones before camp, which we did although we shipped in some water.
Camp was on a high bluff overlooking the river with little flat ground (it was chosen by Randy who gave it a cursory and hopeful approval since we were all ready to stop). Extensive bush clearing and road scraping was necessary to get the tents down.

The campsite was also just off Animal Interstate 101 going down to the water, but we didn't see or hear any in spite of the abundance of footprints and evidence of constant use.

It rained quite hard. We stayed up until 10 singing one rock classic after another. Pete has a good voice and knows the word to every song (as does Randy, whose voice does not match his enthusiasm. This prompted Pete to relate the quote of the week: "The desire to perform is not an indicator of talent."). We did harmony on Find the Cost of Freedom by Crosby Stills and Nash. Dare I say it, it sounded pretty good.

Dinner: Fish stew with potatoes and onions with the northern pike we continued to pull from the river. Delicious!

Fish stories:  I hooked a monster. No really. It was about twice the size of most of the ones we saw (say 6-7 pounds) and bit through the 30lb test line when we tried to land it in the shallows in a net which was about a third its size. Dommage, but if truth be known, I am not much of a fisherman and was really only practising my throw. Randy and Dexter are the serious anglers.

Weather: Cold wind from the east as the stratus clouds move in

Mileage: 30-32 miles

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Day 6 
Pain, Bannock Bread, & Red Currant Jam
22nd August 1999

By far the hardest day yet though there were no rapids to speak of. The weather turned colder with a brisk 10-15 knot wind directly in our faces. Our objective was Teepee Falls, about 20 miles away. We should have done it easily, but a late start and a constant headwind made it hard work every stroke of the way. I was with Randy. We started out in high spirits, following on the previous night's singing. We began to pen a song, tentatively called The North Knife. Mainly about wanting to head home. For the first time, I really felt a longing to see Christina and Toby. Of course I think of them often, but this was a physical longing which started deep in my throat and drove me on with every stroke.


We paddled five and a half hours with few breaks. After four hours and a rapid, Dexter, whose ability, persistence, and strength is phenomenal told us that the falls were "just around the corner on the left." One hour and a half later, we were still not there and every stroke was a dull ache.

Eventually we arrived at one o'clock, exhausted and ill-tempered. There is an interesting interplay between Dexter and Randy. When Randy's blood sugar runs low, he gets wobbly, and yet when we arrived, portaged our stuff to the bottom (literally staggering along the rocks down the falls) he went off fishing with Dexter instead of eating immediately.

I cooked some chicken barley soup which I had in my pack which the rest of us demolished. Dexter caught ten fish and said we would have fish for lunch. When I indiscreetly suggested the salami/cheese I had been dreaming about on the paddle, he showed displeasure as only a taciturn fellow would, dumping all the salami, cheese, crackers, mustard etc. in a pile at my feet and saying "I guess I alone am thinking if we have enough food at the end."

Of course he was right. I quickly repacked all the fixings, and after a spell we had delicious fried fish (northern pike…supposedly you can catch trout but we haven't seen any.)

We all then retreated for a long nap, in my case two hours, Randy for three, and Gary for four.

On portaging down I happened upon some red currant bushes, drumming up the courage to have a taste (you can never be sure out here and there are no ingredients on the package), and then decided to make some red currant jam. I got some brown sugar and a tin can and began boiling away. Dexter(no hard feelings about the salami, I am sure) cooked some delicious bread in a Dutch oven--one pan inside another--and after our chicken, peas and rice, we had bannock bread and jam for dessert. Aside from the pips, not bad and the first time apparently he had ever had them on a trip.
Bannock Bread and RedCurrant Jam

Physical: My body is being abused by a factor of ten from what I normally put it through. Wearing shorts on the first day was a huge mistake. My legs were beaten up by the rapids, bushes etc. but more to the point they are a mogul field of mosquito and black fly bites which itch like crazy at night, waking me up and forcing me to rummage around for some antihistamine. Let me be crystal clear here. I hate the f******, and no death can be painful enough for them. I kill them with glee at every occasion, flicking them off the tent walls in my no-fly zone. And the black flies (tiny miniatures) suck your blood like no one's business, leaving little tracks that look like smallpox.

Despite my huge inventory of repellents, they have done little good whatsoever against the onslaught of the little buggers. How they figure out that I am such fresh meat I'll never know, but they do.

Paddling: The experience of paddling five and a half hours made me think of the slave galleys. You rely on many different strategies to get your mind off the pain: mindlessness, concentration, closing your eyes and feeling the stroke, chit chat, singing, complaining and grousing, dousing your neighbour, water breaks. After a certain point without the rapids to break the monotony, the stroking becomes a bodily function like breathing or blinking, just another programmable task added to your body's list. The only difference is, your body wasn't designed for this and it hurts, a numbing constant pain.

The word I would use to describe it, as indeed any experience here in the wilderness, is relentless. To get out you must not stop, and all tasks--paddling, portaging, getting firewood, setting up tents, cooking, cleaning, repacking--must become second nature and done without complaining to yourself or anyone else, or indeed without even noticing that you have done them.

Sleeping:  An assortment of sounds greet us in the night. Dexter's snoring is truly world class.  Randy talks in his sleep, his quotes worth recounting. "The question is: do we work or do we play?", and "Someone born later is part of this change in society."  Whaa?

Weather:  Nice but getting progressively colder. 40-50 degrees.

Mileage: Just the 20 to the falls.


Day 7 
The Sinking of the Bismarck
23rd August 1999

 Before: A Giant Sucking Sound

The beginning to the day would have been laughable had it not been cold and rainy. We had left the canoes on a ramp-like rock at the bottom of the falls. My partner was Pete, and our canoe was placed the furthest right from the others on the rock, literally two feet where the falls ended in a monster hydraulic. The others took off. Knowing that we would quickly fall way behind, without thinking I jumped in the bow like an idiot (let me repeat this, like an idiot) and Pete also jumped in. As we slid down the rock the hydraulic slowly but surely began sucking our canoe sideways. In a few seconds (that felt as though we were in slow motion), it swamped us, flipping us out and driving us both to the bottom in spite of our life vests. It spit the canoe out over (or in my case on) our heads. We surfaced sputtering, in shock, ashamed at our stupidity, and very cold. We swam to the side while the others looked on from down the river, mouths agape at our sheer ineptitude.

When it is 45 degrees, no amount of good natured ribbing can alleviate the gravity of such a mindless mistake. ("Jeez,Eric, what catalogue now?" they said as I removed some goretex gear I had held in reserve, my provisioning a constant source of amusement especially when compared to Dexter, who wore the same cotton shirt, tee shirt, trousers and boots (no socks) for the entire trip.)
After: The Sinking of the Bismarck

Pete and I restarted paddling in serious energy deficit as our bodies were fighting the cold and the wet, and more to the point, our morale at rock bottom (no pun intended).

The rest of the morning was a hard miserable slog, forcing ourselves to try and keep up with the others while fighting fatigue, cold and an unpleasant drizzle which quickly permeated the new layer.

By eleven I blew my whistle for a break, and after catching up with the others found they too were suffering in the rain which had begun to fall steadily. Then almost miraculously we happened upon a cabin whose owner, though having nailed everything shut, graciously left a hammer lying around to ease entry. The cabin was not on my map (near Nowell Lake). We started a fire, ate, and dried out before heading out again.
Oh yes. On the way we saw our first polar bear. From behind Pete and I saw Mose's paddle indicating right river, which usually meant that we should head right to avoid some obstacle. I looked right, and not 100 yards away from us was a decent size bear, his white coat muddied by the water. He looked at us briefly before quickly turning and bounding through the bushes. The strange thing about the timing of this momentous event was that even though it was something we had anticipated, discussed, prepared for, and perhaps even dreaded, when it happened for Pete and I in any case it was an irrelevant sideshow to the wet and the cold which was driving us on. "Hey! A polar bear. Yeah, great, let's get the hell out of here. Stroke Stroke etc."

After the cabin we continued on in the rain. The warming up effect of the fire and the drying out was only temporary, and quite soon we began to get cold and wet again in the steady drizzle as we pushed on.

Any stop meant that the heat generated by the effort of paddling would quickly dissipate, yet paddling meant burning up more of your internal reserves.

The sweat, if allowed to cool in the wind, would quickly overshoot its intended purpose to regulate body temperature and instead would turn into a super coolant, the last thing you need in that weather. Ditto for sipping cold water. A critical mistake, wearing a cotton tee shirt under my polartec, meant that I had cold and wet against my skin.
The Tundra

At one point Dexter stopped us and we walked up the steep bank to look at the changing landscape which had turned into tundra. On this flat treeless plain the wind whips across and exaggerates any temperature change. On this day we were reluctant tourists, and stopped only briefly before returning, teeth chattering to our canoes.

A few moments later we had reached the bend in the river where the North Knife heads towards the Hudson Bay, and Dexter quickly chose a place to stop, one of the last campable places on this stretch of river.

It took a while to build a fire in the drizzle which had abated somewhat. Dexter cooked some beef stroganoff (not enough water really so the freeze dried beef was still crunchy but given the conditions no one cared). We tried as best we could to rebuild our internal fires, jamming down as much food as possible (including chocolate pudding) and standing around the fire to return our clothes to an acceptable level of dampness from their sorry state.

We then repaired to our tents and the only warm place, the sleeping bag.

My carefully constructed strategy of dry clothes in the dry bag, returning my gear each day to a suitable condition to start the next day was in shambles due to the mindless dunking we subjected ourselves to at the beginning of what was a tough day. It today were a fish, I'd throw it back.

Lessons learned:
1.       Pay attention to the task at hand. Don't think about paddling when you haven't even  started correctly, and consider the consequences of each action, no matter how insignificant it may seem.
2.       Cotton is verboten. Get rid of it. It is a liability and could indeed make a dicey situation out of a merely uncomfortable one. Polyester is king.

In normal life mistakes are usually forgiven. You miss the train, so what? Another one will be along. In the wilderness, nature quickly exacts a price for stupidity, and deals with you most severely.

Weather: 40-50 degrees. Wet and windy. Miserable.

Distance: 18 miles


Day 8 
The Bay and Dymond Lake Lodge
24th August 1999

On the map our objectives each day for the most part were rather ill-defined. Basically, we would go until we were tired, had found an acceptable campsite by late afternoon, or were forced to stop by either an obstacle (falls) or by the weather. Today, however, was different. Our target was clear, the Hudson Bay, about 16 miles away through the delta.

We arose to more of the same, a steady cold drizzle. We quickly decided to eat a cold breakfast and press on as a fire would have taken too long and we were going to get wet anyway. Within one hour we were quickly back to the same situation as the previous day, cold wet and miserable. I was with Dexter and we eventually came upon another cabin which belonged to a Cree Indian who had absconded with government funds intended for his tribe. His cabin, in any case a complete dump, provided brief shelter before we decided en masse to go on. We ate some more of the cold beef stroganoff and some apricots and honey and headed for the delta.

At this point I was wearing my last long sleeve shirt (cotton again) which I decided to jettison in favour of the polartec vest and pullover under a goretex shell. Duh! I should have done it long ago. Suddenly I was warm and having stuffed the remnants of the honey pot into my pocket felt infinitely better.

Two miles later we were dodging rocks in the shallows of the delta. Dexter and I had a vague idea of which way to go having consulted the map in the cabin, but practically speaking , once in the delta we just followed the main flow of the water and hoped for the best. With the river as high as it was, it made no difference in any case and we could paddle almost out to the bay. On a previous trip, Dexter had been forced to portage a considerable distance, but as I told him on this occasion, it is better to be lucky than smart.
The Hudson Bay

The Hudson Bay! Few bodies of water are so well known relative to the number of people who have actually been there. From the perspective of the North Knife at low tide, it looked a mirage, a flat glassy pond with rocks dotted as far as the eye could see. They looked to me like nuts on peanut brittle, lumps jutting out of the surface and scattered haphazardly across the horizon.

The weather, as if on cue, suddenly changed. The clouds broke up and from the north rows upon rows of cumulus clouds marched passed us like ranks of soldiers on parade. We emerged from the river next to another cabin perched right on the edge of the bay one hundred yards inland.

This cabin was a rude reintroduction to society, filled with beer bottles, the carcasses of gun cartridges shot off for no purpose, and idiotic grafitti from morons who no doubt motored there from Churchill, whose grain elevators stood as our first real beacon of civilisation 15 miles across the bay to the east.
We Made It!

The tide prevented us from paddling south to Dymond Lake, where we were due to be picked up by Doug Webber, the bush pilot, hotelier, and entrepreneur in these parts (he even has a website) who was going to ferry us and our gear back to Churchill in his floatplane. We had a four hour wait until high tide, and spent it drying our clothes in the sun, looking at what we thought to be a polar bear way off in the distance on the bay. (We later agreed it was probably a rock).

We used our satellite phone for the first time to call Doug, getting his daughter who elliptically told us we would be picked up that evening from Dymond Lake. I climbed onto the roof of the cabin and off in the distance (seven miles away) saw a row of cabins lined up perpendicular to the shoreline about half a mile inland from the bay.

What happened in the next three hours I can only describe as magic, fully realising that this was a result of my perspective, of the rigours of the trip, of my state of mind, and of my reason for being there in the first place.
The Bay on the way home

The sun shone brightly and the wind died down completely. We paddled first north out into the Bay, away from our destination, and then rounded a point and headed south towards Dymond Lake.

I was with Dexter in the lead (a rare place for me) and as we rounded the corner off in the distance were the cabins, seven miles away.

The human psyche is strange. These tiny points of reference in front of me, the period at the end of our trip's sentence, represented a goal, and the goal transfixed me. Of course I was in better shape than I was seven days previously, but suddenly I felt a surge of power, a peace, and a rhythm unlike any of the previous days.

I would pick a rock as an interim way point, and calculate how many strokes it would take me to get there, and then count them off in my mind, a silent cadence of paired numbers that coincided with my strokes: 1,2…3,4…5,6…7,8…9,10…. The rhythm was an elixir. I was no longer tired or cold or unsure. My mind didn't wander. My muscles weren't complaining. The surface of the water was glassy, as if this were some pond, not a sea.

I removed the top layer leaving only the vest, and felt that perfect temperature on the cusp of hot and cold. Each rock shot by as a new target replaced it in the distance. I explained the game to Dexter who took to it with enthusiasm. We became more proficient, hitting two rocks 200 strokes away nearly on the money. We paddled for 75 minutes non-stop on the same side, stopping only when the next rock was actually the shoreline. The cabins got larger and larger as they came into focus, but even at the edge they were still out of reach a half mile away.

I am sure that objectively this was the same sort of work rate of previous days, the same foot pounds of pressure of muscles and paddle against water, the same boat speed, but it felt different.

It was the end of the trip, and I did not want it to end. There was still a half mile to portage, but this seemed a reward, not more work. No longer had we stopped than the wind picked up again, the tide continued to rush in with frightening speed, and the clouds reappeared.  As we lugged our gear and canoes towards the cabin, me bringing up the rear with the unwieldy food box, I smelled the fresh salt air and belted out the newly formed words to the North Knife song to an audience of no one, and felt profoundly, profoundly satisfied. It was a moment I shall remember as long as I live.
Instruction from the Master
Even though the paddling was over, the magic continued. The cabins which I had seen from afar were not some derelict cabins abused by drunkards and dopeheads but a thriving hunting lodge run by Doug Webber and his wife. We happened upon dinnertime, and when we found out by radiophone that he could not pick us up that evening as promised, he invited us to stay in a cabin and were also invited to have dinner. It was a delicious meal of goose boobs (we thought they said goose poops, but at that stage we would have eaten practically anything) stuffed with jalapenos, wild rice casserole, and Jeff's (the 21 year old cook) Chunky Mean Ass chili, fresh bread, iced tea, lemonade, apple crumble, and delicious, delicious coffee, followed by steaming hot showers, a game of poker, the writing of the rest of the song, the remnants of the Southern Comfort, and firm dry beds. NEED I SAY MORE!

This was a graph of the day.

State of Mind (from Despair to Ectasy)

                                               Cold         Dump1     Dump2     HudsonBay      DymondLake