I’m writing this on June 29th, 2019, on the eve of setting out on a 1000 mile journey by canoe, alone across the northern boreal forest and Canadian tundra. More information about my plans here: grapplearts.com/1000-miles-by-canoe.
This page is (hopefully) going to serve as a repository of updates from the field, assuming that I can keep all my electronic devices charged and connecting to highly spotty satellite coverage.
With any luck I put my boat in the water on the morning of July 1st. Check back here every couple of days for updates!
Pictures and Updates
June 29, 2019
And I’m off! 20 years ago I went down a map rabbit hole and started fantasizing about a river in Nunavut called the Thlewiaza. Flowing mostly through the tundra, crossed by herds of caribou, rarely visited and generally untrammeled by modern man it caught my imagination and never let go. It has take some two decades to get myself into a position to get up into that country and explore it for myself, but that journey starts today. First a flight from Vancouver to Saskatoon, then a puddle jumper to La Ronge, and then an hour’s drive to the hamlet of Missinipe. From there I travel downriver along the old voyageur route on the Churchill River, then hang a left and go upriver on the Reindeer River. Then I cross gigantic Reindeer Lake, head upriver (again) on the Cochrane, and cross over the height of land to the Thlewiaza where the journey to the barrenlands begins. I’m bringing a small satellite dish so if the satellites align and the sun shines to charge everything then I’ll continue posting the occasional pic from the trip. If we don’t stay in touch that way then have a good summer everyone! And finally, don’t “follow your dreams”… instead force your dreams to happen with sheer willpower and every tool you have available.
June 30, 2019
With Ric Dreidiger of Churchill River Canoe Outfitters. Even when you are going solo you are not doing it on your own. You are reliant on other people to give you an idea about what’s ahead of you. There’s nothing that beats local knowledge when it comes to staying safe and traveling efficiently. Ric is the Godfather of paddling in Northern Saskatchewan; he’s been guiding trips and assisting paddlers up here for decades and you won’t find a more knowledgeable source of information (or a better human being) anywhere. I spent an amazing evening tonight with him and his family in Missinipe talking canoe routes, campsites, gear and stories. I guided for Ric in the 90’s and within 10 minutes it felt like I had never left. Tonight I need to repack my gear and make sure it all fits in the boat. If not, well, I can always get rid of my camp chair and all but one set of underwear. Lord willing and the creek don’t rise I head off tomorrow downriver in the first leg of this journey.
July 1, 2019
Well, this is one very heavily laden boat. Thankfully most of the heavy stuff is low against the bottom of the boat which makes it more stable, but I’m definitely going to have to spend some time reorganizing this stuff and, more importantly, eating my way down into the food supplies so that everything fits! Hitting the water now at 6:30 AM local.
A couple of thoughts about my boat selection: the sea one is a fast sexy modern boat, but with 250 lbs of gear and 215 lbs of paddler Iʼm definitely at, or slightly over, its practical carrying capacity. Itʼs still fast when itʼs loaded, but it ride low in the water and turns like a pig. Iʼm definitely going to be very, very careful with the whitewater until I eat up 50 or 100 pounds of food. Secondly, since it is shaped more like a sea kayak then a regular canoe it makes the standard canoeing practice of having a few large bags for all your gear impossible. One ends up stuffing gear into smaller bags and those bags into every nook and cranny of the boat. This works fine when youʼre on the water but makes portages much more challenging logistically. I already had to turn around once to go back to a portage to collect a missing item, so I really need to develop a rock solid packing and unpacking routine so that everything makes it back into the boat.
Today, as Dr. Seuss might say, was a cold cold wet day. On day one of the #1000milesolo I got up at 4:30 in the morning to pack and say my goodbyes, and was on the water by 6:30 AM. In part this up before Jocko schedule is to acclimatize myself to traveling in the early hours when the bugs arenʼt as bad, but in truth it was also because I was so excited I couldnʼt sleep. The rain started falling soon after and the west wind turned into a bitter cold north wind. This, combined with a few wet foot portages, meant I was pretty much soaked to the bone from mid-morning. Truly the most important piece of clothing for traveling to the north is bombproof rain gear; youʼre definitely going to get wet, but youʼre not going to get cold as fast as you would wearing city gear. One of the portages today took me past Twin Falls Lodge which is a fishing cap nestled in the forest. I had had plans to punch on through, but when I was offered a cup of one tea I had to accept–it wouldʼve been rude to refuse, right? Well tea turned into a warm lunch and the full stomach made it easier to venture back into the weather. I finally made camp at 4 PM which is a little early but the point is to not become completely hypothermic. Do you want to stop, warm-up, and eat some food before you can no longer use your fingers or make good decisions.
OK, time to do a few chores around camp, fix a few things, and dry out some waterlogged items. And then to bed… Somehow I donʼt think Iʼll have any difficulty falling asleep!
July 2, 2019
Completely windbound this morning so the first order of business was to dry out the maps. These maps were in a (supposedly) waterproof case and had been treated by a (supposed) sealant to make them water resistant, but the first rule of northern travel is to assume that any waterproof container will leak unexpectedly and probably at the worst time. So when I opened the map case I found that ALL the maps were soaked, stuck together, and incredibly delicate. Separating them was like brain surgery and more than a few got shredded. I got them quite a bit drier by leaving them in the open, weighed down by branches and rocks to prevent them from flying away. If any are destroyed beyond repair then I still have the option of navigating using my Garmin tethered to my phone, but I like it not: two is one and one is none, plus the electronic option would require very careful electricity management and regular access to direct sunshine which, so far at least, is in very scarce supply.
In the afternoon the wind shifted enough to get off my island where I had been windbound, but it was still tough going. Really tough going. The wind was cold and horizontal and so was the abundant rain. Just when I pulled ashore ready to make camp in a horrifically wet spruce and sphagnum swamp the wind subsided enough to push on through to Stanley Mission…
And finally, here’s something you don’t see everyday in the wilderness. This Anglican. church was built on the shores of the Churchill River in 1854 and is still used for special occasions by the local natives. It’s right across from the hamlet of Stanley Mission, which is one of 4 small native communities I’ll be passing on this trip. I might get to village number 2 (Southend) on about day 10, village number 3 (Brochet) maybe on day 20, and the last village (Lac Brochet) maybe on day 25. All of those times are very approximate because if this terrible weather keeps up then the going will be a lot slower than I would like.
July 3, 2019
I was up shortly after five and on the water by 6:30 AM. My goal was to cross a large lake before the wind came up. Itʼs amazing how much the wind determines things… a headwind can stop youʼre dead in your tracks, but a tailwind can be very dangerous too, especially if youʼre on a large lake where the wind speed and wave size tend to pick up the further down the lake you go. I do have a 1.4 square meter sail, and Iʼm quickly coming to some safety rules for it.
First of all, only use it in the light wind to augment your speed or maybe in a light to medium wind if everything else is perfectly optimal. Gusty conditions are very dangerous. Only sail where, if you wipe out, you will be blown to shore in a few hundred meters. Avoid at all costs sailing in an offshore wind because if your boat flips youʼre going for a very long swim. That being said, under the right conditions itʼs a very nice way to take some of the strain off your body and rest a little bit while still making forward progress (paying 110% attention).
July 4, 2019
When people go into the wilderness they expect to see animals everywhere. The truth is that large animals are rare, and seeing one is a big deal. So far I have seen pelicans, loons, mergansers, mallards, red squirrels, bald eagles, ospreys, and frogs. I guess I should also mention that at my map drying stop mid day there were thousands upon thousands of newly hatching dragonflies everywhere. It was so neat to see the larvae crawl from the water, split in half, and watch a green dragonfly slowly emerge. I like dragonflies: they are beautiful but just as importantly they eat blackflies and mosquitoes!
Today was an insanely busy day. From about 5:15 AM to 8:30 at night I was working continuously. Breaking down camp, packing the canoe, eating a quick cold breakfast, paddling, portaging paddling, portaging, paddling, a quick stop at a sunny spot to dry out my topo maps that got soaked on day 1, then more paddling through a very boggy and swampy area and finally finding a spine of rock emerging from a wetland that was wide enough to pitch a tent on. This is my first fire of the trip, in part because it was the first day that wasnʼt mostly a torrential downpour, and secondly because it was the first day with significant blackflies. The smoke really helps keep the bugs away. Overall there is almost no downtime, and the amount of time it takes to get stuff done if magnified by my boat choice. It is a covered canoe (the Clipper Sea-One) that looks a lot like a sea kayak, so it is very fast and isnʼt affected by the wind as much as a regular canoe. However packing it with gear, especially when you have 50 days worth of gear, is an ordeal that takes at least 30 minutes. With a regular canoe you just lift all your gear out and throw it back in; very quick and easy. With this boat Iʼm trying to wiggle giant packs into tiny little spaces and then tie everything down so that if I flip I donʼt lose all of it. This portion of the trip is on the Churchhill River, but really the river is mostly a series of large lakes connected by small, intense pieces of whitewater that I am mostly portaging because Iʼm not in a whitewater boat goofing around with friends ready to rescue me.
July 5, 2019
I believe your prediction of getting some is beginning to come true. Today was my 50th birthday and I spent it paddling into stiff headwinds, traversing large lakes, dealing with bears, paddling or lining my canoe down rapids, and bush crashing around those rapids too large to run or line. It is from a particularly memorable stretch at the bottom of Grand Rapids where I had to drag my boat through the brush, in the rain, soaked to the skin, and feeding blackflies and mosquitos where this picture was taken. I am very grateful to everyone who has facilitated this trip and Iʼm thrilled that my post kidney transplant body with 5 decades of wear and tear hasnʼt fallen apart yet!
Bear!! This evening I was approaching a good campsite, which in some spots can be quite rare. It was on a small 700 m long Island with one suitable spot to pitch a tent. From a distance though I could see a suspicious dark spot moving around on the beach. A short while later it was confirmed: a two or three-year-old black bear. He then plunged into the water to swim to a smaller island nearby which is where I got this picture. There was no way I was going to camp on an island, especially a small island, with a bear poking around. So despite being quite tired and ready to call it a day I continued on for another 6 km into a cold, stiff, north headwind to the next campsite. I hadnʼt been planning to continue another 90 minutes, but on the other hand thatʼs 6 km (or about 0.4% of the whole trip) less that Iʼll have to do in the days to come.
July 6, 2019
Not much to say here except that moss and reindeer lichen make for a very soft bed. And yes, sporadically I am taking time to smell the flowers.
Red ochre rock paintings on the eastern shore of Uskik Lake, a reminder of the heritage of this area. Quite a few people asked me why I was doing this particular route, and the answer is that although it is not traveled much nowadays it was the old way north for thousands of years. The Cree and the Dene used it for trade, hunting and migration, and it remained important later when the natives travelled north to sell their their wares to the Hudson Bay company and other traders. These rivers were once the highways of the land and by traveling them now I feel like I am a little bit closer to those ancient peoples. After a long day of fighting headwinds tonight I reached Ourom Lake which is where I leave the Churchill and start heading up the Reindeer river towards Reindeer Lake. The river is a little bit more sheltered than the Churchhill which will make it easier with regards to wind, but heading up against the current is always challenging. A whole new bag of paddling tricks will be required…
This carbon fiber bent shaft paddle was a joy to hold. It felt like you were paddling with air, and it was easy to maintain the high cadence that modern canoeing requires. Sadly as I was pulling out into the current beneath Kettle Falls it snapped in half with no warning. I didnʼt hit a rock and I donʼt think it had been previously damaged but I guess I gave it more of a power stroke when it was designed for. Fortunately I have spare paddles, including a heavy whitewater paddle that would make me want to shoot myself if I had to use it exclusively for the remainder of the trip. I hope my field repair allows me to continue using it (gently and lightly) to cross the many large lakes that are still on the route ahead of me.
July 7, 2019
The best campsite so far: high on a rocky ledge overlooking a still lake while the loons sing a concerto. On my previous long trips I had adopted a pattern where every six or seven days I take a half-day off. This is for rest and recuperation, as well as for repair of the inevitably broken items. I had been planning to make today such a half-day, but today I got incredibly lucky with a persistent tail wind and so I had to keep going and turn good weather into miles. My body is getting quite sore, my lats in particular, but Iʼll rest it on a day when I have a cold rain and a headwind!
My repair activity for the day was to assess the damage and attempt repairs on the last of the water damaged maps. This was totally my fault because I took untested, unproven map cases and untested, unproved waterproofing, and then trusted one of my most important assets to them. All mission critical items should be tested and re-tested before the trip and not subjected to not trial by fire (or water rather) on the trip itself. I am all of a sudden very glad that I brought both 1&250,000 AND 1&50,000 maps. Between the duplication in the maps and occasional use on my Garmin I should be able to figure out the route most of the time!
Steephill Portage… Hah! I have had a lot of hard portages in my time and this one was right up there. First of all it was long. Second of all it was very steep in places. And third of all it didnʼt exist. Whatever route existed back in 1985 when my map was created long since been reabsorbed into the forest. I found an area where it might have gone – the trees were slightly smaller – but basically the whole thing was one long giant bush crash. Took five trips, three hours, I had to drag the canoe through the dense trees most of the way, and I felt drunk with fatigue at the end. It just goes to show you that maps are a starting place and that just because something is shown you canʼt rely on it being there, and just because something isnʼt shown doesnʼt mean itʼs not there.
July 8, 2019
Finally setting up my Hilleberg Keron 3 on a small island in Royal Lake. These days are very long: I woke at 6:20, was on the water by eight, and have just finished dinner and clean up at 9:30 pm. In between there was zero discretionary time: I was either packing, unpacking, carrying gear, cooking, setting up a tent, repairing equipment, etc. This route is very ambitious in the time available, and the truth is that I may not finish it if there are unexpected delays. Even if there are no delays but Iʼll have to push as hard as I can every day that I can travel. Days that I am windbound will be my rest days. If Iʼm too tired to paddle and thereʼs a tailwind or downstream then I should just sit in my boat and float. Of course that was a little bit harder to do today, given that there was a headwind and that I was going up river. Really my only optional indulgence is doing my nightly Instagram posting, which I enjoy and I hope you do too!
July 9, 2019
Isometric bodylock practice on one of my two heavy food bags. The stretch of river between Steephill lake and here, just below Devil Rapids, is flat and unremarkable. It runs through flat terrain and is either channelized between willow-lined banks or passes through large lakes lined with spruce, alder and poplar. There arenʼt very many good campsites on this stretch, so I was thrilled to find this one outcrop of rock at about 6 pm rather than try to make muddy camp in amongst the bushes and reeds (you should be able to see exactly where Iʼm camped by going to the top post at grapplearts.com/ articles and looking at the embedded map).
Suffering hard during the day is made much more bearable if you know youʼre going to have a dry camp and a decent rest at the end of the day. The small pleasures of life… Although somewhat monotonous, the day was still quite challenging. There was a continuous headwind, sometimes combined with an oncoming river current. Either of them on their own would drive me back at about 1 to 2 km an hour, so there were times I had to put in 4 km an hour of effort just to stay in the same place. Oh, and it was drizzling and cold for most of the morning. 10 hours of pushing uphill against water Iʼm happy with my effort Iʼm not thrilled about the distance I covered today. Still, itʼs all part of the game, and tomorrow is another day.
On a sidenote, on past solos I have paddled in silence and never used music or audio. This trip I am experimenting with it though, using headphones about half the time on the water. That still leaves lots of time for thinking but also provides some distraction from the repetition. To date I have made it almost all the way through Mike Duncanʼs amazing history of the French Revolution on the Revolutions Podcast (history nerds check it out). And yes, there are some tunes involved as well. Today when I was starting to get very tired I was listening to Eric Clapton unplugged album and one of the thousands of Grateful Dead bootleg albums. They had the right rhythm for putting in stroke after stroke, mile after mile.
Hauling my canoe across the lake… Today was another long day of battling headwinds, so I thought I would be clever and go through a shallow area of the lake to at least avoid the choppy waves. Unfortunately that part of the lake was REALLY shallow and I had to get out and drag the boat across the mud flats.
The upside of the long drag was that I found a really unique bird’s nest. Constructed mainly of hollow horsetail stems it floated on the water and had two elongate yellow eggs in it. Anyone know what species of bird that is? I’m not able to check comments right now but I definitely will check in August when I get home.
It must seem like I go on about the wind every day, but it really is critically important. I’m guessing that the level of headwind I’ve faced on at least six days of the first nine days of the trip adds up to an additional 60 to 100 km of distance I could have made. Obviously I knew what I was getting into, and this is one of those categories where I need to deploy serenity and accept something I cannot change.
But the big test is coming up… Tomorrow morning I will arrive in Southend Saskatchewan at the bottom of Reindeer Lake. This is an absolutely gigantic lake, 250 km long and 30 to 40 km wide in places. If I run into bad wind conditions there you could set my timeline back so badly that I would need to consider modifying the destination of the trip. If things go well on the giant lake then a major hurdle will have been overcome and I will be much more confident about finishing the trip.
Portaging around Whitesand Dam at the bottom Marchand Lake, a short distance as the duck flies from Reindeer Lake. Because of the covered canoe I have to pack in many small bags instead of a few large bags. So man, does it look like a lot of stuff…
Tonight I am camped about 2 km south of the town of Southend. I would have no issue with heading into town tonight – I’m not that puritanical when it comes to the wilderness – but the only accommodation would be a 5 km walk up the road at a fishing lodge, so that isn’t going to happen. And I don’t want to camp any closer because these villages always have tons of dogs roaming around, so I’m better off here for the night.
The last time I was in Southend was more than 20 years ago. I have been brought into teach a canoeing course to the youth, ages 8-14 if I recall correctly. Instead of all the different age and gender groups coming down one at a time as had been the plan, all 40 kids showed up at once. So it was me, a Cree elder, two totally apathetic local teenage “helpers” and 40 kids. It was total chaos and a ton of fun. If I see someone there in the right age range I will ask if they remember that crazy day.
July 10, 2019
A quick stop in the native town of Southend to pick up some supplies, mail off my broken paddle, eat an ice cream sandwich, and now paddle of onto a giant (currently mirror smooth) lake fueled by pretty good Okanagan cherries.
July 11, 2019
An unexpected evening of socializing on Reindeer Lake!
Iʼve been on other large lakes but none have been so complicated, involuted and be speckled with islands as Reindeer Lake. There are bays you can go downfor 60 km if you make the wrong turn, so knowing where you are at all times is absolutely critical.
The advantage of all these bays and islands is that you have options. You can use them to shield you from the wind and waves as well as have them in your back pocket as potential bail out points on the longer crossings.
Since leaving Southend yesterday at about 11 am I spent the day taking advantage of the placid conditions and the light tailwind while sneaking up channels and hugging islands in case the weather changed (which it didnʼt).
A few fishermen and natives traveling to Kinasoo and back were also on the lake, speeding along far away with their outboard powered Lund boats. So In the evening while approaching McFarlane Island I was quite surprised to hear music. Was there another camper or cabin owner with a ghetto blaster cranked up all the way perhaps?
After a quick search the source of the music became evident: there was a huge celebration going on with at least 250 people. It was the 20th annual Family Camp of the Peter Ballentyne Cree Nation.
I wasnʼt angling to attend but I quickly got invited up for a cup of tea by Victor and that soon turned into a delicious dinner, socializing and even a place to stay for the night!
At the Peter Ballentyne Cree Nation Family Day I met former Southend band councilor Hector Morin. He had been raised on Reindeer Lake by his father who had fished commercially here in the 50ʼs and 60ʼs. Hector took the time to go over my route and make some suggestions for navigating this large, beautiful and potentially dangerous lake.
Later as I was preparing to leave he offered the use of a mostly finished cabin at his nearby camp on the same island. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity to spend more time with someone as locally knowledgeable as this man I eagerly accepted as soon as soon as it became evident that it was an honest expression of northern hospitality.
So last night I got to be nice and dry while listening to the rain drum on the roof of a mostly finished but absolutely waterproof and bugproof cabin!
1000 thanks to Hector for putting me up and sharing his deep knowledge of the area. He guides for Lawrence Bay Outfitters so if you want to know where all the giant lake trout and pike live in this lake make sure to ask for him!
July 12, 2019
Today was spent crossing from the west to the east side of Raindeer Lake. Conditions were ideal: very still, almost plastered. Even so, aware that the weather could change at any time, I orienteered from shelter to shelter, skirting MacFarlane Island, Preistly Island, Mooney Island, Milton Island, Shaw Island and am now camped on Upistukik Island.
My Garminʼs very rudimentary weather days that there could be lots of wind tomorrow afternoon. Even though I am planning on a sheltered route up the Eastern shore this could be problematic. Accordingly I am going to bed very early tonight and getting up at 5 AM so that I can make the most of the morning, that time of day usually having less wind about normally.
Because the waves can get very large on this lake the shoreline can be blasted at times, which makes for a very picturesque journey. Some islands are sand heaps, most are jumbles of cobbles on bedrock, and some are smooth half domes of granitic rock just barely coated with mosses, lichens and spruce trees. The fact that this area was still under ice in the last glaciation 8 to 10,000 years ago is evident everywhere.
On a worrying note I am having problems charging the satellite dish I am carrying that allows me to make these one way updates from the field. Fixing that is tonightʼs priority (after eating of course). If I get it fixed then great, business is normal. Lots of updates from the field. If I canʼt get it fixed then these updates will become more rare. Maybe a single photo every three days or so. I apologize for this, and Iʼm also sad for myself, because a record on Instagram means that if my camera sinks to the bottom of the lake then lʼll still have at least these pictures! Two is one and one is none, always!
Well, if you have to be windbound you could pick worse places to wait! Thus nameless granite slab of an island, covered with spruce, moss and lichen, is very pretty!
Itʼs day 12 of the #1000milesolo and Iʼve been putting in 10 to 12 hours of continuous work every day, straining against the current, wind and kilometers by paddling, portaging and lining along this route.
But today I only paddled for a couple hours before being driven to shore by a rising wind and some larger upcoming crossings. Too use the time Iʼve bathed, napped, done laundry, and repaired equipment. The hope is to of get back on the water later this evening and click off some more seconds and minutes of latitude as I drag myself north.
Until today I hadnʼt taken a single rest day because I knew that on a body of water as large as Reindeer Lake rest days arenʼt optional; you get them whether you want them or not. The wind can really blow on this lake and since it can work on the water for such long distances the whitecaps build up very quickly making it no place to be for a small canoe. Look up Reindeer Lake in Google Maps if you like to see how big it is but the long story short is that if the wind is blowing I ainʼt going!
A day of mostly rest will do my body good. Iʼve been pleasantly surprised by how it has adapted to the strains of this trip, and especially by how it seems to have been the perfect physiotherapy for a few pre-existing injuries; my shoulder and elbow injuries are feeling better, not worse, after all this paddling. Itʼs amazing what 20-30,000 paddle strokes a day will fix!
For the last few days, however,there has been a growing sense of systemic fatigue which I attribute to overtraining and underresting. Thanks to Mother Nature for making me stay put today and giving the body time to rest up!
Storm inbound on day 12. The wind abated somewhat at about 6 pm presenting the opportunity to break camp, pack the boat, and bolt across the a few bays to a less exposed location. Plus knock off 6 more km of the journey. Paddling during magic hour was amazing; the evening sun brought out the full colors of the trees and rocks.
I made it to a stellar new campsite at the north end of the Malcom Peninsula from which I should be able to head northeast and duck in behind Malcom Island, getting to the so-called ‘inside passageʼ. Thatʼll provide protection from all but the most severe winds for at least a day.
As I was paddling I noticed the cumulonimbus clouds building up in the West, and by the time I made camp it was clear that there would be some heavy weather soon. The Hilleberg tent was pitched in record time with extra guy lines fixed to trees, logs and rocks. The canoe was tied down and filled with rocks to stop it from blowing away. Dinner was a hasty protein shake and a nut bar. Then quickly into the dry tent to have raindrops the size of grapes explode on the roof with the roll of thunder in the background .
July 13, 2019
Slogging on day 13. Most of the day was overcast, it was usually raining, but the headwinds were relatively light and the water was smooth so it was time to motor.
I started paddling at 7:20 am and except for a few very short breaks didnʼt stop until 6:40 pm. So 11 1/2 hours to travel by Bjornson, Leblanc and Kroeker islands, then up Jackpinr Narrows (where I met two Wisconsin fishermen and Walter, their Cree guide), then past Kinoosao Bay (no time to visit that hamlet), past Moose and Walsh Islands until I found a great campsite high above the water with a view of the giant expanse of water that is Reindeer Lake. Itʼs wide enough at this point that weʼre dealing with curvature of the earth issues because I canʼt see the far shore. Fortunately the sun came out for the last couple hours of the day.
Dinner was quick: a US army MRE. All Iʼve got to say is ‘blech!!!ʼ – I feel sorry for the soldiers subsisting on these things and Iʼll take my dried food anytime!
For the entire day I wore light nylon shirt and pants with heavy duty Arcteryx rain gear (Grapplearts edition), my yuppie-but-oh- so-useful Tilley hat, leather gloves and calf high neoprene booties. This mostly kept me warm enough except in the late afternoon when the rain really started coming down, but then the answer was just to completely zip everything up and paddle harder.
Iʼve been thinking about some of the tricks I use to stay motivated during big projects, be they 1000milesolo paddles, getting my BJJ black belt, getting an MSc, building a business, etc. There are definitely some commonalities.
I need to clean this up when Iʼm not so tired, but here they go… 1) Use the power of momentum.
2) Break the task into small pieces.
3) Use small rewards to mark the completion of those shorter legs of the journey.
4) Donʼt worry about everything; prioritize on the one thing that you have to get done today.
5) Continuous course correction. No matter how good your plan is you will continuously have to adapt it.
6) Use social pressure – announce your big audacious goal publicly and it will make it harder for you to pull the pin when times get tough.
7) Recognize that self doubt is normal.
July 14, 2019
Perfect conditions on day 14! Today alternated between still conditions and a light wind that was mostly at my back. It felt so good to paddle and not fight a headwind, and even better when I got a 1 to 2 km an hour assist using the sail in the wind.
At 6:20 PM I pulled over to a nice campsite, but before I got out of the boat I asked myself, “Have I really done everything I safely can?”. The answer was no, so back into the boat I went for another hour and a half, putting in 11 1/2 hours today. My GPS tells me I am 38.6 km from my last camp, but that is in a straight line. Once you factor in all the detours around islands, up channels, and avoiding large open bays itʼs probably well over 45 km, which isnʼt bad for one person in a boat that still has 35 days of supplies in it!
One huge relief is the successful rounding of Porcupine Point. This bit of land is very exposed to wind and has a HUGE expanse of unprotected water all around it. I had been worried that I would have to do it at night to do it safely, but the conditions today were optimal for that crux move.
Have I mentioned before that I absolutely love the sound of loons calling? So absolutely iconic in this landscape, not to mention beautiful and totally unique. Once I hear that it takes me back to every other trip Iʼve done up north.
And hey!! I just crossed into the province of Manitoba about 500 meters ago! Next border: Nunavut!
July 15, 2009
Windbound for most of day 15. Despite being only about 30 km from the Brochet reservation and the Cochrane river at the start of the day progress on Reindeer Lake was stymied this morning by a strong north wind that had whipped up whitecaps. Instead of struggling in the waves, always a dangerous proposition on a lake this size, I laid low. A few naps to repair the body, a bit of tape and glue to repair gear, and lists written out to organize my time in Brochet when I get there.
Often these strong winds start to decline in the early evening so I ate a large dinner at 2 pm in preparation for a possible night paddle. The waters started to smooth out by 5 pm, so I paddled from 6 to 9:45 pm, covering 18 km as the bird flies but more like 24 as the fish swims.
Being windbound occasionally is just what you sign up for when you’re doing trips that involve large lakes. You just need to be ready to seize opportunities when they arise.
Camped tonight on a small nondescript beach with suspicious 1-2 day old tracks in the sand, almost certainly bear. I set up my bear alarm system for the first time tonight – the only downside is that if the alarm goes off it’ll scare me just as much as the bear!
July 16, 2019
Got up at 530 am, on the water by 630, and with the help of a favorable tailwind completed the last 32 km to the native town of Brochet in record time. It’s a small, dusty, friendly town and yes, they have ice cream sandwiches at the Northern Store. Also sent back about 15 lbs of excess gear – tomorrow I start upriver on the Cochrane River and will feel every extra pound paddling against the current and lining/dragging through the rapids. Next civilization stop: Lac Brochet!
Day 16 continues! Today started early and ended late but man, was it ever worth it. Had fantastic weather conditions and tailwinds are more important than sleep.
Made it from the last campsite on Reindeer Lake to Brochet in about 7 hours (630 am to 130 pm) and then spent about 1.5 hours in town. I ate an ice cream sandwich, bought a bunch of calorically dense food (ahem, cookies and brownies), mailed back a bunch of unneeded items, and called home. It was good to talk to people not constrained by the limitations of a sat phone.
Then took off from Brochet and crossed several bays to the mouth of the Cochrane River. Much to my delight the tailwind has become very strong – too strong to use out on the lake but perfect for getting blown upstream with a paddle assist. The river is very high right now so it was great to sail up the riffles rather than flailing through the willows while working tracking lines. With the help of the wind I made it 10 km up the river by 7 pm and only had to wade the boat upstream once.
Then I reached the mighty Kamechayt rapids which were impassable. On the east side of the rapids was the best portage trail ever – a broad and easy to find trail through a dry lichen-filled forest along the remnants of an old boat skidding track. Here were also the worst black flies Iʼve had on this trip by far. I vaguely remember that black fly larvae need moving water and if thatʼs true then these rapids certainly provide an optimal habitat for the insane amount of bugs. Safely in my tent I can hear the drizzle falling, except itʼs not drizzle itʼs thousands of black flies hitting the nylon.
This section of the trip is going to be quite difficult. Upstream is never easy and itʼs harder at higher water. But there is nothing to do other than press forward. Push as hard as I can every day without getting injured or losing my boat and all the gear to the river.
July 17, 2019
Today was 12 1/2 hours on and in the water. Thatʼs a super long day but it was worth it because Iʼm now in esker country! Eskers are these giant hills of sand that ribbon their way across the landscape and make for great camping!
The river is very high right now – the rapids extend into the willows at either side of the river often – and that makes upstream travel difficult. Wading or tracking your boat requires you to claw your way up over slippery rocks in moving water while clawing your way through branches extending from shore whoʼs sole goal in life is to push you deep into the current where you and your boat will be washed away.
Today began at the Kamechayt rapids which had a beautiful mandatory portage path on the eastern side of the river (although it would be difficult to spot the top end of that portage if you were coming downstream).
2 km north of those was another unnamed rapid, unrunnable at this water level and definitely requiring a portage. Fortunately there was an easy trail on the rocks just to the west side of these wraps. The problem with portaging is not necessarily carrying the gear – that sucks of course – but the real problem is loading and unloading your boat. With my specialized dart of a boat even a 10 foot portage takes an hour.
The Waputonisk Portage was neither findable nor necessary. I tracked, dragged, and waded the boat up the western side.
The Kasakweeseeskak Rapids were horrendous. Definitely the hardest wading I have ever done. I went up the western side but it was a massive struggle because bushes here extended about 5 feet out over the river. Many times I had to go ahead and break branches to clear a path to drag the boat up through the rapids. I was going about 10 feet a minute and it was a LONG ascent.
The Kamacheechawasik rapids werenʼt too bad. The high water had created a new stream through the forest on the bottom west side so I simply tracked my boat through the bushes and trees. I definitely left some fiberglass, resin, and paint on those rocks but the other options were unthinkable.
July 18, 2019
Iʼm at a fantastic campsite. Beautiful, open, not too many bugs, and a beach. Itʼs made even sweeter by the fact that I havenʼt seen very many campsites between the one I was at last night and here on the river.
The only problem is that there is a lot of bear sign. Tracks, scat, and logs torn open. Now I certainly donʼt carry a gun every time that I going to the wilderness, but for going this far north, especially to Polar Bear country near Hudson Bay, you probably should carry something. So Iʼm quite glad to have my folding stock 12 gauge Winchester marine with me tonight. That and a really cool device I have called a “Pak Alarm” which is a well designed and reliable tripwire based bear alarm you string around your tent. I try to design something like this once, and trust me, the Pak Alarm is everything I wanted to make except better.
Today I travelled from Kapuskaypachik Lake up to Cann Lake against a mild current and headwind the whole day. Thatʼs 26 km as the bird flies, 30-32 as the fish swims, gaining 4 meters of elevation in the process. When it comes to upriver travel itʼs not just the kilometers, itʼs definitely the elevation change as well.
Anyone else doing the #cochraneriver should know that there really arenʼt many campsites on the river section between these two lakes at high water. Just endless winding river with thick willow and spruce on the shores. The campsites that do exist are all associated with the eskers and drumlins. That being said, Cann Lake has many fabulous campsites, likely each with their own set of black bear tracks for excitement!
Now here is an example of something you come up with to entertain yourself when you are alone in a boat.
I present to you my grand unified theory of upriver travel in embryonic form; it works for a few rivers I have slogged up.
If youʼre a solo paddler in a loaded boat and the kilometers travelled plus 0.66 meters of elevation gain is greater than the number 40 youʼre doing well.
This assumes no portages and no head winds. Headwinds can be classified as 1, 2, or 3 km headwinds; this is not the speed of the wind but rather the speed at which your boat would be blown downwind if you didnʼt paddle. You then have to modify the wind variable by how effectively you can hide from it. So if you have a 1 km/h headwind but you can hide from it half the day then you can add another 5 km to your number above.
These numbers are preliminary and could be refined. Please share your experiences, opinions, and numbers so we can make this better.
One thing that could be working a lot better is sleep. Iʼm often tossing and turning in full on insomnia mode for hours before sleep takes me. I donʼt know if itʼs something biochemical from working so hard for so long each day or if itʼs because it never really gets fully dark up here this time of year. Itʼs not the first northern expedition where Iʼve experience this so Iʼve brought both a sleep masks and 10 mg melatonin tablets – neither seem to help much.
July 19, 2019
Fighting headwinds re- listening to my friend @daniele_bolelli tell the story of the Spanish conquest of Mexico on his amazing “History on Fire” podcast.
Today was only 10 1/2 hours on and in the water, but it was an exhausting 10 1/2 hours. The winds were very, very high today and it was almost not safe to travel. In order to still make progress I took the long way around every lake, dodging into every bay, hiding behind every headland, and then paddling like mad into the wind. At one point shortly before this picture was taken it took me an exhausting 30 minutes to gain a single kilometer for a critical crossing of Thoycholeeni Lake. But the alternative would have been losing a day of travel.
After that there were several swifts to claw my way up, mostly by tracking and wading while climbing through alder and willow branches waist deep in the moving water at the riverʼs edge.
There was an established portage around Chipewyan Falls though which made for a nice opportunity to stretch the legs. You can see the boat slide the Dene have built to haul their Lunds and Alucrafts around the falls. I have used these boat slides earlier on the trip but this one was very steep and I couldnʼt figure out how to do it safely by myself so I just carried everything.
Between 5 and 730 pm I finally got a useable tailwind, but the sailing had to be interrupted for several more underwater willow wrestling sessions to get up some more rapids.
For the last two days I have seen the signs of a giant forest fire that happened sometime in the last five years. The south and west sides of Wapanisk, Peacey, Thuycholeeni, Cann, and Kapuskaypachik Lakes are all burned, in some places down to the bedrock. It makes for a desolate and beautiful landscape, similar in some ways to the barren lands into which I will hopefully be getting soon.
This landscape has had regular fires for thousands of years, and as such is quite well adapted to it. There is fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) everywhere with its bright purple flowers, and the jack pine has started to shoot up as well. It would have been amazing, and quite deadly, to have been here for the giant fire and seen the mountains the flame in every direction.
By six in the evening I was getting worried. There were hardly any camping spots and it was looking more and more like I would have to stop down some shrubs in the muskeg to make a flattish spot for the tent. I have done this sort of improvised boreal forest camping in the past, and it always sucked.
Just as I was getting ready to do something like this I came around the corner and spotted a sand bank. These are rare in this part of the Cochrane but are great indicators that there may be a flat and dry area up above the bank.
It turns out that other people have thought the same thing. This is a native camp that is obviously been used many times. I have a great spot for the Hilleberg tent and Iʼm using the drying rack to dry out some river soaked clothing.
Tomorrow with any luck I make the last native village on this route – Lac Brochet. The only problem is that I am told by satellite that there will be a very, very, very strong northwesterly wind tomorrow and the lake the town is on is very large.
So even though I am probably only three hours paddle away I may have to sit tight and except being windbound tomorrow. We shall see…
July 20, 2019
This morning started out still, silent and beautiful. I was up at 5:30 am and was treated to a stellar sunrise as the mist slowly started to burn off the river.
Camp was broken down, I was fed and the boat was stuffed by 7:20 am, and I set out upriver. In theory I was only about 14 km from Lac Brochet which should be an easy 3 hours, but it fact it ended up taking more like 7 hours of hard time.
The first obstacle was a kilometer long set of rapids that I climbed on the river left side. The first half was the standard underwater willow bank climbing exercise that has now become so painfully familiar.
But then halfway up the bank became so steep that I could no longer wade without getting swept away. Many, many bad words later I had all my stuff up on the bank where I bushcrashed though the dense riparian forest with uneven footing with one load, and then said f*** it and just dragged the partially loaded boat through the undergrowth. Back to the river a few hundred yards later for some more wading and tracking along the overgrown bank to get to the top.
By this point I had been underway for 3 hours and made the mistake of looking at my GPS. Apparently I was still only one kilometer from the camp where I had started. At that rate this 1000 mile trip would take 400 days assuming I put in a full 12 hours every day and took no rest days ever. Now in truth the river was bent like a question mark at this point so I had actually travelled about 3 km as the river runs, but still, mucking about in the water, mud and brush for 2 1/2 hours had certainly slowed me down.
The next set of rapids, the final real set before the lake, were easier. The river left (northern) bank at least had lots of riffles and exposed boulders which made wading and tracking much easier. It was less sketchy than the previous set but I was still very happy to be at the top.
The next obstacle was the lake itself. The town of Lac Brochet lay to the northwest and thatʼs exactly where the wind was roaring in from. It took hours of persistent paddling, resting occasionally in the lee of some islands, to get to the town.
July 21, 2019
Lac Brochet is a lot bigger than I remember it from more than 20 years ago (my last big solo trip from Jasper Alberta to Churchill Manitoba also came through this section of the Cochrane River, albeit downstream instead of upstream).
The first stop was at the Northern store which was closing soon to get some food supplies although I also gave in and got some extra bug dope (up until this point Iʼve mostly been relying on clothing for protection from the black flies and mosquitoes.
This store had a really good selection for being in such an isolated community, so my afternoon nutrition consisted of a pint of Ben and Jerryʼs Cherry Garcia ice cream and a pound of fresh Okanagan Cherries. This is the last town, hamlet or reservation Iʼll be passing until the end of the trip so it was time to splurge!
There was a small resupply shipment (including a replacement paddle) sent to the RCMP depot here but when I find the town Constable he says he hasnʼt received anything. The post office is closed until Monday so unless Iʼm windbound tomorrow I will paddle on and have that stuff returned to sender.
Currently camped on a very small island which is basically just a pile of boulders with a few trees and bushes growing in the cracks. I did manage to find one flat area on the island, a small meadow-like thing covered with bunchberry flowers just barely big enough for the tent. Iʼll rest here tonight and deal with tomorrowʼs problems tomorrow.
July 22, 2019
Day 21: up at 5:30 and on the water by 6:20 to beat the wind on Lac Brochet. Nice idea, but even though it was early I got hit by the worst headwinds of the day. After 4 hours of paddling directly into the wind I was dismayed to see I had only gone 8 km (thatʼs half walking speed). The paddling and wading would continue for 13 hours in total, a new record for the trip, gaining 38 km as the fish swims. I am completely, utterly done for the day!
The wind diminished a bit and I hit it hard. After 12 hours on the water I was exhausted and was taking short one to two minute breathers (ok, I was lying straight back on my gear like Iʼd been shot) every 10 to 15
But now there was Whitespruce rapids. Both sides of the rapid had nice bouldery sections where tracking and wading was a joy, and those dreaded overhanging willow sections. Always with the willows on this trip!
I went up the western side of the river and found several new ways to make progress through the willows. First I would tie up the boat and then go ahead to clear out some of the worst sections. To make it around one bush/ log jam took about 10 minutes before all the wood had been detangled, branches broken, and thrown in the river, but it made that section much easier to do. The second innovation was going ahead sometimes and rigging a line to float back down in the water. The final discovery was that in addition to pushing the branches up and ducking my head down to water level to get past the bushes I could also pull all the branches down into the water and then pin them there with bow of the canoe. Then I would get on top of the branches, scramble ahead, and repeat the process. Fun times.
Interestingly enough I am camped at the exact same place where I was on July 3rd, 1993 (or 9,514 days ago!). On that trip I was coming down the Cochrane, towards the headwaters of the Seal River. Iʼm pleased to note that I covered the same distance today at age 50 that I did back then at age 23. Of course it took me 13 hours of intense labor whereas back then I was probably taking it easy, but whatever. 23-year-old Stephan: suck it!
The campsite tonight is clearly quite heavily used by natives and/or fly in fisherman. I know from experience the bears often like to visit the sites because some people get sloppy and leave food or fish guts behind. I definitely set up the bear alarm tonight!
There has been a vast haze on the western horizon all day, and at sunset it turned the sun Halloween pumpkin orange. The faint smell of smoke is everywhere. Iʼm wondering if there are big fires in British Columbia or in Alberta that are now thought to be the new normal in the warming climates of those provinces.
Iʼve been on the trip now for 21 days. The vast majority of those days have been spent plodding across large lakes and climbing upstream. Iʼm totally ready for a change of scenery. Fortunately in maybe 2 days, weather permitting, Iʼll get to the esker complex which divides the Cochrane River watershed from the headwaters of the Thlewiaza River. Iʼm guessing itʼll then take another couple of days of portaging and mucking around until that river gets large enough to paddle but then I start getting some downstream action at long last!!
July 23, 2019
Fire… The smell of smoke is thick in the air, visibility is down to a single kilometer, and I am using map, compass and GPS to navigate across even small lakes to pick the right direction into the haze.
Thereʼs a big fire ahead of me somewhere to the northwest, possibly less than 10 km away. Iʼm heading directly towards it because by tonight my route hooks hard 90 degrees to the northeast and I should be able to get off the X.
So itʼs a race for the hook point, trying to get there before the fire does. Will update…
Lots and lots of upriver and upwind travel today. Had to do a lot of this: dragging a boat upriver when the current was too swift to paddle. No problem, but worrying when youʼre in a race against time.
At least the shrubbery today was Myrica Gale (sweetgale?) which has a delicious scent when youʼre in the middle of it and, more importantly, doesnʼt protrude out into the river as far as willows. So the wading was a lot easier than previous today, though copious.
Speaking of waiting, I found a beautiful high water sneak route joining Belfie and Misty Lakes. About 1 km west of the rapids connecting the two lakes there is a deep inlet that almost cuts the isthmus in two on the map. When the water is high it actually does cut it in two, and wading up that saved me 2 km of paddling and a likely hard session upriver in the rapids.
At the “hook”, finally! As I talked about in a previous post, I was racing for this point, hoping to get here before the wildfires did.
The route today zigzaged east and west as it went generally north. Every time I went further east the smoke got less and every time I went further west the smoke got worse, my eyes started burning, and a wall of gray rose up in front of me.
Also the smoke got worse when the wind came from the northwest instead of the north.
The hook is the western most part of the Cochrane River route that I will be doing. As such it is closest to the fire, and I had to get here before I could start going away from the fire. So I was very glad to get here before the fire did, which is probably only a matter of a day or so unless there is a ton of rain.
At the hook it looked like Sauron was trying to turn this land of blue blue skies and green green trees into Mordor. Smoke and darkness everywhere. By this point I had been on the water and in the water working hard for 12 hours, but I couldnʼt stay here. I had to get further away from the likely intersection of the river and the fire, so on I went. The only bad thing now is that the northwest wind but had been in my face all day completely dropped off to nothing, just when I couldʼve used it as a tailwind.
Itʼs getting close to sunset time but this is still way too close to the fire. Onward, onward…
A stunning lichen-covered campsite far away from the fire and on the safe side of the river. 13 1/2 hours on and in the water, paddling against an incessant headwind and wading up long stretches of river too swift to paddle. Something like 38 km covered today. I am done!