Our 2018 canoe trip was supposed to be from Yellowknife to Gjoa Haven via Great Slave Lake, Pikes Route to Artillery Lake and then via Clinton- Colden and Aylmer Lakes to the Back River. We planned to portage into the Back River just below Sussex Lake. It was an ambitious plan which relied on getting out of Yellowknife as early as possible after break up and not being overly delayed by ice or wind on any of the large lakes which formed the first part of the route.
There was also the unknown factor regarding how well we would manage given that we were both 71. Our last big trip was down the Dubawnt River in 2014. We knew that by the time we had got through Pikes to Artillery Lake we would have a pretty good idea whether or not our plans were too ambitious. Unlike previous trips we had a viable Plan B. In the event that we were overly delayed and/or felt it prudent not to proceed to the Back River we would take Hanbury portage out of Ptarmigan Lake and proceed to Baker Lake via the Hanbury and Thelon Rivers.
Detailed planning for the Back River trip is contained here.
Wind delays on Great Slave Lake and a long delay at Taltheilei Narrows waiting for the ice to clear off The East Arm were disappointing. By the time we had traversed Pikes Route and reached Artillery Lake we realised that the prudent thing to do was implement Plan B and head for Baker Lake via the Hanbury River. In one sense it was a disappointment, particularly after literally years of planning. In hindsight it was a fantastic trip through extremely varied country.
Philosophy of Paddling at 71
The Hanbury was also in some ways a bitter-sweet experience. We both realised that quite likely it would be our last barren lands canoe adventure. Some people quite likely thought we were totally nuts! In the 1996 winter edition of Nastawgan (the quarterly journal of the Wilderness Canoe Association) George Luste wrote about another of his epic trips (Canoeing Great Slave Lake in June). And among his reflections (at just age 56):
So today I am more apprehensive about getting myself into dangerous and extreme situations. As I age I have become more conservative, more careful, in what I commit myself to. I no longer possess the physical resources of a younger me, and I try to use my experience, and ‘an ounce of prevention’ instead of relying on quick reflexes and pure strength as a ‘pound of cure’.
I am still a good ‘plodder’, however. I can put one foot in front of the other on a long steady grind on a good portage trail – but I no longer have the agility to skip across wet rocks while carrying a canoe. I no longer want to test my survival ability by running an intimidating rapid. I no longer care to be as casual in expending my energies in futile efforts. And so today I am more inclined to paddle long hours on a calm day or evening and not paddle at all if the weather looks unstable and threatening. I’m more inclined to stop early at the end of a normal day if faced with a rapid, or the possibility of a dump, or even the need to make a marginal decision late in the day. I have convinced myself that plodding is alright when tired. Dealing with risk is not.
Thus I have come to embrace a varied and flexible paddling schedule on my long trips. There are advantages to doing so. One expends less energy for the same distance and I think it makes for a safer overall trip. But it also means that one is faced with more decisions and uncertainty about when to stop and start than a rigid nine-to-five routine implies. Perhaps if the conditions are stable, then a schedule makes sense. If the conditions vary considerably, then a varied schedule is preferred.
We think this very much sums up us and why partaking in such adventures at our age isn’t silly. In many ways you are far less likely to get into trouble. Only difference is that the trip will take a bit longer!
Typing this journal months after returning home has been a strange and not always comfortable experience for me. Re-reading what I wrote then has caused me to re live much of the experience and I have found myself dreaming of it at night or lapsing into day dreams about the different places and happenings. As I noted at the close of my 2014 journal the reaction to such a demanding journey is complex. There is the elation of accomplishing something not many people would even attempt, the special feeling of having done it together and the awe of the places and things we have been privileged to see but these are tempered by sheer exhaustion and toll it takes on your body. In reading what I wrote in my summation of the 2014 trip it is very up beat almost ecstatic and in so many ways what I wrote then could also be said of this trip but… there is always a but.
Much as I had great satisfaction and yes even joy on this trip it was harder than expected. It was not just the physical act of carrying heavy loads, paddling long distances, sleeping on cobbles and being constantly cold and wet, these you expect, it was also the emotional and psychological demands. I think the disappointment of having to change from the much anticipate Back River trip, to Baker Lake via the Hanbury, after all the months of planning, preparation and work was more profound than we appreciated at the time, especially for John. In addition to the disappointment there was always that nagging sense that we hadn’t done our usual research and didn’t know where the portages were or what we should expect from the river, terrain etc. I suspect, for me, turning 70 before we set out gave an added sense of vulnerability, it was the first birthday ever that I felt like I no longer had forever. In fact age was a factor, we both came to realise that our fitness and strength was all very well on a daily basis but what we now lacked was the stamina to bounce back day after day.
However, hardest of all was watching John under pressure. The constant cold, small meals, his weight loss and need to make miles but keep us safe weighed heavily on him. As is his nature he felt responsible to make every facet of the trip go well and when things, like the wind or catching a fish for dinner didn’t go to plan, he just tried harder and harder, consequently he quickly became exhausted and struggled both physically and emotionally. This was one of the few times that the person I have always depended on for a practical solution to most situations just couldn’t. On each of the five previous canoe trips I have taken great pleasure from seeing John relax and bloom in his ‘spiritual home’, Canada’s north, this time it didn’t happen after Great Slave Lake. The trip for me was a lesson in our vulnerability and a heightened awareness our mortality.
Having said all that am I glad we did it? Yes, yes and yes. It was amazing, exhilarating, awe inspiring and a privilege to experience wilderness in such an in your face way. Would I do it again? NO.