Mountain River in Northwest Territories
Trip OverviewThe Mountain River starts as a small creek high in the western Mackenzie Range of the Northwest Territories and flows down the mountains to the Mackenzie River above Sans Sioux Rapids, about 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Depending on the snow and ice melt, the Mountain River in high summer can be anything from demanding and challenging to heart stopping and spine chilling. In July of '98 it was a little of everything and never lacked for excitement.
I started preparing for the trip in the fall of '97, pouring over topo maps, contacting a bush pilot in Norman Wells, NWT to arrange a drop off in the mountains, a river pilot for pick up on the Mackenzie 15 days after drop off and the RCMP to let them know where I was and when I expected to return.
Food was packed in bear proof barrels and on July 1st. Murphy and I left Edenton, NC for Yellow Knife, NWT on the Great Slave Lake. Let me introduce Murphy, my English Springer Spaniel -- I never take a canoe trip without her. My canoe, a Wenonah Rendezvous fitted with spray deck was ready for pick up at the float plane dock in Norman Wells and on July 5th, with the canoe stowed in the twin engine Otter and the gear stowed behind my seat, Joe (the pilot), the "Murph" and I took off across Lake Kelly. We started slowly at first, gaining speed across the choppy lake we lifted off and went roaring and vibrating into the sky and into the Mackenzie Mountains. Joe followed the path of the Mountain River through the mountains to its beginning, twisting and turning through steep sided canyons, skimming up and down 200 feet above the mountainous contour ... it was probably beautiful but, head in "sick sack" I sadly missed most of the three hour spectacle and lost my breakfast to boot. Murph didn't seem to mind a bit .. she's used to it. We landed on a liquid postage stamp, with wind whipping the surface of the water into a frenzy as the Otter bounced itself to a stop at the far end of the lake. Joe helped me unload the canoe and carry my gear to shore where we shared some tea before he took off, leaving me there in the Mackenzie Mountains by the Mountain River - me and the Murph, alone but for my thoughts, full of excitement for the adventure, surrounded by thousands of miles of solitude and totally at peace.
It was a long day and pitching camp sounded good to me. With 24-hour daylight, one tends to keep long hours and sleep comes surprisingly easy despite the lack of night. I cooked supper and after stowing gear, got into my tent to read and listen to the drone of a million mosquitoes. July 6th, a sunny and crisp morning with pancakes for breakfast and the beginning of 3 and a half miles of portaging from the lake to "Push Me-Pull You" Creek across muskeg, marsh and waist high brush. It required 5 trips and 6 hours to haul the canoe and gear to the headwaters of the Mountain. Push Me-Pull You is an aptly named creek, barely wide enough to fit a canoe in and not quite deep enough to float one either. Thus you push and pull the loaded boat for several miles as the creek imperceptibly deepens and widens until at last you can actually get in and float; Not for long though as sand bars are waiting at every turn which require more pushing and pulling.
By late afternoon I finally reached the Blackfeather River, still narrow and twisting but definitely gathering strength, and camped on a gravel bar in the middle of the river to catch the downriver breeze and minimize the army of mosquitoes ready for battle. Freeze dried turkey tetrazinni, applesauce and lentil soup close by a campfire of driftwood with the sun reaching toward the mountains but never quite getting there. Heaven. Late evening with the sun still making its way across the sky and my first grizzly; a large solitary male checking me out from about 70 yards, seemingly a bit nervous and not anxious to come in for a visit which truth be told, is fine with me and the Murph. After 10 minutes of him keeping an eye on me and a little "huffing" on hind legs, he plunged into the water about 100 yards downriver, swam across and dashed up the long slope to the east disappearing in the brush beyond. I'd be lying if I told you that I drifted off to peaceful sleep with only the breeze and my dreams for company. The truth is that I lay there in my sleeping bag inside my tent listening for the snapped twig and every rustling leaf which would signal the return of Ursus Horribilus. As is usually the case, he never came and I didn't sleep much and so ended day one on the Mountain River, Northwest Territories.
July 7. After breaking camp Murph and I pushed off downriver and were carried along on a gathering current still turning tightly and with rapids building steadily with each inflowing creek and stream. By midday, strainers and sweepers began to appear on the outside bend of almost every turn requiring careful maneuvering and not a little planning ahead. You definitely don't want to get caught in one of those twisted piles of deadfall, up here in the mountains a few hundred miles from nowhere. A large black-gray wolf appears on river left as I round a bend, standing there with massive body on seemingly too long legs, he simply watches me drift by, neither of us moving and too soon I'm around the bend and he's gone. It happened so quickly I had to ask myself several times -- "did I just see a wolf" ? That was a wolf I just saw right? Wow!
The river at this point is becoming cloudy with silt and I can hear the sound it makes as it scrapes along beneath the hull. Rapids are building steadily and every so often some reasonably serious stuff appears river right or left, avoidable now but not for long. The strength of the current now dictates that any moves to alter course be made long before the need. Constant vigilance to nuances in current and anticipation of where you want to be in the river before you actually need to be there requires concentration. Missed moves now only result in ending up on a gravel bar you hadn't planned on or perhaps missing a pull out point but the river will get much less forgiving in the days to come. It's hard to relax so every so often I pull off to let some tension go. The weather has been wonderful so far, sunny and fleece. I've tried fishing a few times but the water's too silty. Tonight I'm going to camp at the junction of a major clear inflowing river and have trout for supper. End of another great day, lots of bird life including hawks and eagles and a terrific camp spot on a gravel covered alluvial fan. Dinner of freeze dried chili, soup, biscuits and a few nips from the 'Southern Comfort' stash. O.K, I said there'd be trout for dinner and there probably was, --- somewhere --- just not here for my dinner. Lot's of fishing days remaining, so worry not. In the tent reading till around 2 a.m, still daylight, it takes getting used to and I am.
July 8 breaks with big storm clouds out of the south and I know I'm in for a change in the weather. Within a few hours it's raining like hell but the river waits and I've got a fairly strict schedule to keep. I've built in some days off but am not about to waste one on this kind of a day. I'd tell you that paddling in a storm with the wind and cold rain beating down on you is fine, fun even with the rapids drumming on the Royalex and the standing waves breaking over the bow sending water cascading across your chest and dripping down your neck; But you know better! It's draining. It's cold and gray and bleak and it's no fun at all, really but I've got 40 miles to cover today so I paddle on. Murph is tucked down underneath the spraydeck ... she's pretty dry and cozy. It blows all day which is unusual for way up here, where storms are huge but quickly spent and I don't get the opportunity I was hoping for to spend the evening by a campfire warming my bones. No matter, the tent is dry and my sleeping bag warm and cozy and tomorrow's another day. Murph and I curl up in my sleeping bag .. she's dozing .. i'm reading. Life is good. A flock of mergansers pays a visit to camp and spends half an hour nervously discussing me before they head back into the current and are swept away. Finished another book and start on an Elmore Leonard, one of my favorite reads.
July 9. Another beautiful day off to a great start with several cups of coffee, eggs, bacon, fruit, some gorp and I'm on the Mountain again by early morning. The river continues to build and today there's a need to pull off more than a few times and scout what's ahead. The din of the furious rapids around several bends in the river certainly gets the adrenaline going and aren't something I want to blunder into without getting a look first. I portaged around one nasty looking bit of hydrology which took an hour and a half but it's way too early in the trip to go swimming in the 45 degree water and chase my gear down river after that. Today I see 14 Dahl sheep on the western slopes near the river, several grizzly fishing riverside, two bald eagles, six caribou and numerous ducks that I can't identify -- must remember to look them up when I get home. A good day, I covered lots of river and earned a really great campsite on a large gravel bar at a clear inflow. Tonight its trout for sure! There's a nice breeze keeping the bugs at bay this evening and trout in the pan over biscuits by the fire is frosting on the cake. Murph loves trout ... long as I remove the bones for her ... picky, picky. It just doesn't get any better.
July 10. Off to an early start, I have a lot of river to cover today and based on my maps I'm anticipating some hairy water through two narrow canyons with 90 degree bends and one major river coming in just above the second one. Within a few hours I'm at canyon 1 and pull out to look it over. It's worse than I expected due to water level and portaging is not possible unless I want to haul canoe and gear up and over the 800 foot canyon walls. Options are line the boat through the first difficult part and try to haul out in an eddy at river left before attacking the second part of the torrent, or go for the whole enchilada sticking as close to the steep right wall as I can manage, avoiding the large undercut at river level and then making a dash across to river left for the next big stuff. I figure the odds of lining to the eddy are small -- difficult footing and risky at best. A few big glugs on the water bottle and we're off down the right side riding the haystacks and making for the wall. There's just no way to make the eddy at river left so almost immediately I crossbow draw hard keeping the boat off the wall and away from the undercut. The power of the water is immense, pushing me at the wall and it takes all the strength I can muster to stay away, missing it by a few feet and then powering across river to take on the left hand canyon wall with 5 foot haystacks and some serious boils and other hydrodynamics. It's over in a few minutes and the roar of the water rushing through the canyon dims behind me. Yes!! My heart is pounding, my hands are shaking, my lips are dry and I feel absolutely wonderful. The Murph seems unphased. Go figgya. Next stop canyon 2, but first lunch.
Gorp, dried fruit, left over biscuits from breakfast and a few liters of water will hold me till supper and then I'm away. Paddling is unnecessary as the power of the Mountain pulls me down river, my input limited to steering for several miles. I can hear the canyon looming in the distance though the map tells me there's still 3 miles to go. This one's going to be a real rush! I pull out to look things over and find it's pretty straightforward. Just a lot of big water being squeezed through an hour glass with not much fanfare but for the monster standing waves and the sweeping left bend. Just stay off the right wall, keep the scratched side down and ride the train. The canoe handles well in the big stuff .. with 200 pounds of gear plus me and the Murph for ballast she's a freight train to be reckoned with. Turning her is another story altogether but there's no turning here, just plowing through the waves and it's over. Camp is a small gravel bar under a steep wall. I've seen abundant Grizzly sign and judging by the number of prints, a pack of about 12 wolves is hunting along the river today; They'll all have to swim to me in the frigid water if they're interested.
It is a shorts and T-shirt kind of a day and just too good a day to paddle. I want to hike up in the mountains so I paddle downriver about 10 miles and find a terrific spot to layover with a clear river running into the Mountain through a narrow canyon worth exploring. I set up camp, eat breakfast, pack lunch and a day pack and head up the side canyon hoping to reach the headwaters of the river. Six hours later and though my topo says I ought to be there, I find no sign of a beginning and the river just keeps going on and on. I come upon a fresh caribou kill - the meat is still warm - and signs of a wolf pack which probably heard me and scattered silently into the forest. I'm sure they're watching me .. I can 'feel' their eyes on me ... Murph is lightly "wuffing" with ears perked ... and figure it's best to exit the lunchroom before they're hunger overtakes their fear of me. I head back to camp and that night I hear them howling for several minutes at a time at intervals of a few hours. Beautiful wilderness sounds.
This might be a good opportunity to describe how I handle bear and wolf in such wilderness as this. My approach is as a visitor in someone else's home and I go out of my way to leave no trace of my passing. I carry no weapons but do have "bear bangers" - small trigger activated 'cherry bombs' which give a rather loud "bang" when deployed and carry about 50 yards arriving with another loud "bang". I also carry hand held mace for the hopefully never occurring close encounter of a bear kind. I've never had to use the mace but have on a few occasions had to deploy the bangers and found the grizzly's ran like hell when they exploded. I keep a scrupulously clean camp burning all food residue and toilet waste and then packing it all out. Charred wood is scattered in the river and disappears ... ashes to ashes. No blackened scar or charred remains of my dinner on the landscape when I'm gone. All food, cookware and odiferous toiletries such as toothpaste are packed in Blackfeather Barrels with locking lids, as are clothes and all gear in case of accidental immersion. When hiking in the mountains, I announce my coming with song and an occasional shout not wanting to surprise bear or wolf, particularly near rivers where the churning water might mask my footstep or when hiking against the wind when the smell of me will not arrive before I do. This manner of wilderness living has served me well throughout my life and I trust has done at least as much for man or beast after I've gone.
July 11 and I'm back on the river, rushing toward the Mackenzie on a roller coaster. More caribou today and Dahl sheep and Mountain Goat and a hot springs at mid afternoon for a terrific albeit smelly soak. The ZFW's (zones of funny water) are increasing in number .. where boils and cross currents suck at the boat from all directions and require that I punch through them smartly to avoid a sudden swim.
July 12. The Stoneknife River entered the Mountain today and the intensity of the combination is simply awesome. Standing waves and haystacks of 6 feet are not uncommon and avoiding them is getting harder. The boat handles everything I ask her to and we're a real team as we punch through waves that are over my head.
July 13. Had to portage three sections today -- just too much water to safely run alone. Didn't cover much river. Tired.
July 14. Had to portage 4 sections today. I was tempted to run one of them to avoid the tough haul up and over a 100-foot wall of granite but discretion is always the better part of valor up here with no possibility of rescue and so trudge I did. Very tough day and to top it off the mosquitoes were really bad. Had to wear my bug jacket most of the day.
July 15. The Mountain continues to roar downhill, getting wider now and older. The power of the water is something to behold and the bugs are getting worse. Baring one's bottom for the requisite visit to the "facility" is a horrendous experience; Though I liberally apply DEET to the appropriate areas, the bugs find every spot I manage to miss and make me pay the price.
July 16. Today I paddle less than half the day and find a very nice camp on a sandy beach with a brisk wind keeping the bugs away, gravel for a tent spot, deadfall for the fire, a clear stream for water and an enticing barrenland scape to the west that beckons a hike. Bear and wolf prints everywhere plus caribou and ducks. Tons of bird life here including ptarmigan and grouse and a lot of small upland game. Weasel, Colombia Ground Squirrel, Pica and Marmot are everywhere as well as sign of Grizzly digging at the Marmot holes in search of dinner. Trout for dinner today.
July 17. The river is getting older and becomes wide and braided and slower. I have to paddle more to move along now but also manage to just float for hours lazily watching the passing landscape and looking for animals. Next year I have to teach the Murph to paddle. Two grizzly on river left watch my passing with a bit too much interest -- one stands to 'woof' at me and then they both run into the bush. The mountains are receding behind me now and the Mackenzie is just days away.
July 18,19. Two days of paddling almost continuously brings me to the mighty Mackenzie by early evening. It's impressive as it slowly makes its way north to the Beaufort Sea and I paddle upriver for about an hour and find a place to camp on the right bank. No breeze, the bugs are a force to be reckoned with and I'm not in the mood. I spend the rest of the day and night in the tent and can barely see out the screening, which is almost completely blackened with winged, blood sucking little bastards. I eat in the tent and use a water bottle I no longer need for other "necessities".
July 20. Today Frank Pope is supposed to pick me up. I'm packed and ready to go, listening for the sound of his motor and ready to shoot off a flare to signal my location. The hours pass and I'm beginning to think that perhaps tomorrow may be the day and then I hear him; There's no mistaking the sound of a motorboat coming downriver. He's right on schedule, I can see him now in the distance and shoot off the flare and he heads for me on the shore of the mighty Mackenzie. It takes awhile to load everything up and we share some hot chocolate he's brought me in a thermos and some chocolate chip cookies his wife baked for me. We talk about my trip and he tells me about some of his when he was younger and how he lives now in a cabin on a lake in the wilderness, trapping and fishing, running a pick-up service and loving his life. Who wouldn't? It takes 7 hours to make the up river trip back to Norman Wells. Frank knows the river like he's got a map in his mind and moves the boat this way and that to avoid hidden sand bars and mud flats and log jams. We ride silently; there's no talking above the din of the engine and the roar of the wind. The landscape moves by and I'm looking forward to a long hot bath in the Mackenzie Valley Hotel in Norman Wells. Well, hotel is a bit of poetic license. The MVH, two trailers attached at each end, is operated by Monica and her husband, two Irish transplants who love the rugged and solitary life of Norman Wells. There is no summer road into the Wells from the south and no road leading north out of town. You can get there by plane or boat when the Mackenzie isn't frozen or by snow mobile from Fort Simpson when it is. A bunch of bananas at the Great northern Store in town will cost you 9 dollars Canadian and you can order a pizza from the restaurant at the Mackenzie Valley for $23.00. The hot bath came with the room and took an hour.
July 21. Today I began the journey back to North Carolina and home. As the plane lifted off the runway at Norman Wells and lurched in the turbulent air, and as the Mountains and the River receded in the distance, I quietly reached for the bag tucked into the seat in front of me and "hurled" my breakfast. Murph looked at me and yawned. Ah, good to be back!
- Trip Duration: Extended Trip
- Sport/Activity: Canoeing
- Skill Level: Advanced
- Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)