Buffalo Narrows (SK) to Fort Chipewyan (AB) / July 21 - August 17, 2016
Thursday, July 21 to Wednesday, August 17, 2016
On Tuesday, July 26th we left Buffalo Narrows. Pierre was able to complete the construction of two terraces with the help of DJ, at Krows Nest Inn, even though rain often slowed the work and limited working hours. Before we left Buffalo Narrows unfortunately we did not get a chance to say goodbye to Doug. He was not back from his unexpected trip to Saskatoon (due to a death in his family). Susan, Doug, Kim and DJ: You have made our stay in Buffalo Narrows great and comfortable. Thank you for everything!!! Doug, all our thoughts are directed to you, your daughter, her children and your family.
Under a mix of sun and cloud, we dipped our paddles into Peter Pond Lake. Peter Pond (1739 - 1807) was an explorer, mapmaker and fur trader. He was one of the founders of the North West Company and the Beaver Club. We had a rather difficult start with a strong cross wind and waves of about 6 feet coming from the port side. Fortunately, after we passed the immense white sandy beach, 10 km long, the waves calmed down. That night we slept on another beautiful sandy beach. In the evening we enjoyed, in the distance, storms that dumped a huge amount of rain.
The next day we finished our journey on Peter Pond Lake and entered into the mouth of the La Loche River (where we slept). Thursday, July 28 was one of the most physical day we have had since our departure. The La Loche River gave us many surprises! The river is very shallow. Over the first 10 km, there were lots of weeds that prevented us from making strong, efficient paddle strokes. The canoe was not making much progress and we were fighting against the current. We encountered countless small and medium size rapids. There were rocks everywhere! We crossed beaver dams and even had to dismantle one to succeed in hoisting the canoe across. We walked a lot in this river. After the rapids, beaver dams and piles of rocks, there was a long section of curves. We felt we were progressing very slowly. Sometimes we went north, then east, then south, east, north, west, south, west, north-east ...! In this part of the river, south of the bridge of road 956, we dodged thunderstorm cells. The thunder and lightning were all around us, until one of the depressions decided that we had been a little bit too lucky and it came to unload it's fury on us! We made an emergency stop on the edge of the water, but the soil would not support our weight. We had both feet in the water and we were trying to keep them on small clumps of grass. We took out our Hilleberg tarp and hid underneath it. The rain fell hard and it was hailing at one point. The storm lasted about 15 minutes. Then the calm returned. Around 8:00 p.m. we stopped on the other side of the 956 route bridge (where we had come with our friends, Jean-Robert and Odette, the previous week). We set up camp in the grass and it was not long before we were asleep.
On 29 July, after three more hours to get out the La Loche River we finally made our entrance into Lake La Loche. The end of the La Loche River was not easy. We had to walk often. We even had to move rocks and dismantle another beaver dam. We felt a great sense of accomplishment by the time we arrived on the calm waters of the lake. For us, it was another stepping stone successfully accomplished! We made a brief stop in La Loche, but then kept on paddling before stopping for the night.
Under a rainy July 30, we took off towards the famous Methye Portage. Oddly, before arriving at the entrance to the river leading to the portage, a perfume smell spread in the area. It was as if the voyageurs had prepared, put on their best clothes and sprayed perfume before going to the meeting point at Lake Rendezvous. It was likely a plant that spread this particular odour. We took a picture of the plaque explaining the origins of the portage. We progressed further into the river before making a portage to the trail of the Methye Portage (19 km in length). The path was flooded, so we walked in the water with the canoe, refilled again with equipment before returning to the mainland. Already it was getting late, so we set up our camp for the night. The next and last day of July, we left. We made only 4 km out of the 12 km to get to the Lake Rendezvous. Mud, beaver dams, trees lying in the path, rocks, black flies, mosquitoes ... This first section has been very hard, even brutal. We were wet, dirty, bitten and hungry in the late afternoon. At the place where we set up camp, we did enjoy nature's treats. There were blueberries everywhere! We ate tons of them! We had to remain another night at the same place because of the heavy rain and strong winds (it was dangerous due to dead, falling trees). This allowed us to get more berries and collect water. We also prepared another treat that was sent to us by our partners and friends Happy Yak. Freeze dried strawberry yogurt! A true succulent success !!! This is a must to have in all adventures!
On August 2, we walked the remaining 8 km separating us from Lake Rendezvous. In this section, we passed through a part of the forest that had burned 10 days before. A strong smell of burned wood and ash permeated the area. Every step stirred up ash. We were covered with soot from head to foot! The sound echoed far in this devastated forest. We were really on another planet! We were very happy to reach the lake, where we set up our camp near the sand dunes.
Lake Rendezvous is located 12 km north of Lac La Loche and 7 km south of the Clearwater River. It was the place where people from the north and the south met and conducted trades in goods during the fur trade. Northerners brought furs and those from the south, goods to trade. The canoes were not transported to the lake, only the material. In 1862, Father Emile Petitot stated that there were 400 people at the portage. There were people from French Canada, Scotland, Orkney, England, Norway and people of the First Nations: Cree (Woodland & Swampy), Chippewa, Chipewyan, and more. This passage was used by indigenous people long before it was presented to Peter Pond in 1778. In 1793, it was Sir Alexander Mackenzie who walked it during his expedition to the West, which led him to the Pacific Ocean. Methye Portage was used extensively until 1883. After the steamers were able to travel the Athabasca River to get to the train further south, the business activities on the Methye Portage ended. The Methye Portage and the Grand Portage, located at Grand Portage on the border of Minnesota and Ontario, are the two most important and most difficult portages that were used during the fur trade era.
On August 3, we began the last section of the portage. Walking was difficult in the sand located along the lake. Finally we were on higher ground and kept on going up. Our pulses ran high! The path was uneven and flooded in some places. Then Pierre came face to face with a bear! The bear was frightened and ran away quickly. I did not even have the chance to see it. Jasmine, meanwhile, had done her job and started to bark. After reaching a plateau, the highest point of the trail, we began to descend. The descent was long, rugged, steep and tiring. In addition, we had to make round trips to transport all of the equipment. The descent is about 590 feet.m Pierre had to cut several downed trees to clear the path. The soles of our feet hurt so much, because of the pressure of going downhill. Through the trees, we had our first glimpse of the Clearwater River valley. Once on flat ground, the vegetation changed drastically. We entered a majestic forest of aspens. Larger shrubs taller than us blocked the way. We had to move or cut more trees lying across the path. The flies were insane! Jasmine was going crazy! 100 feet from the Clearwater River, there was one last tree that gave us a hard time. 30 minutes later, the path was finally cleared. We were rewarded for our efforts when we saw the beauty of the river valley. Finally, mountains and hills, and the valley was green. We setup our camp. Happy!
In bright sunshine, we raised our bodies still tired from the last day efforts. Then we began the descent of the Clearwater River. I said descent, because this time we were going in the same direction as the current flows. At every turn, we exclaimed loudly our appreciation of the beautiful scenery. From left to right, front and back ... everything was beautiful! Before long, we had covered the distance separating us from Whitemud Falls and it's portage. We also left Saskatchewan and entered into Alberta. After emptying the canoe, we took a walk to observe the state of the portage (which is very good), but also to see from above the rapids and fall. We literally fell in love with the place! On the highest promontory overlooking the rapids and falls, we set up camp. A pleasant smell of pine mixed with the mist of the river embellished the beautiful view. We enjoyed it so much we decided to spend a second night. We took advantage of the day off to explore further and to take beautiful shots from different angles of the river. We were not alone at camp. A very curious and not shy bear came a few times near our camp. The bear banger sound and the barking of Jasmine finally overcame his curiosity.
When we left on Saturday, August 6th, we started portaging the Whitemud Falls. We stopped before the first set of rapids to discuss our options. It was to be the first time I have gone down rapids in a canoe. We have always gone upstream. I was apprehensive about the exercise and wondered if I would be up to the challenge, plus our canoe is not meant to go down rapids. I have to admit that I had a blast! We made all the rapids even the 3+ category! We only walked one rapid at the end of the day. Fortunately we where able to paddle them, because the more we went west, the more the forest was burned. Portages were no longer visible. There were only blackened trees having trouble and a hard time standing (because the roots were burned) and ashes. We could still felt the hot spots underground. Walking in these conditions was dangerous. This forest was burned along with the Fort McMurray fire (May 2016).
In the afternoon, we met our first group of Albertans. With their jetboats, they went up the rapids and the river from Fort McMurray. They were on a sandbar in the river when they saw us and invited us to come over. We talked a while and then they gave us two beers to celebrate at the end of the day and the end of the rapids. They invited us to stop where they were camping.
After leaving the group, we passed another set of rapids. But this time, we had to get out of the canoe in the middle of the river. Clearwater is shallow. Its bed consists of a mixture of sand and limestone. There was a step in front of us. After analyzing the situation, we jumped back into the canoe and paddled hard. But the river definitely lacked water in some places and the two tips of the canoe struck hard on the rocks, one after the other. This resulted in two big piece of gelcoat missing. We decided to be cautious going through the last rapid before reaching the campsite. We walked the canoe through the rapid!
Our jetboat friends returned to camp later, but the men left to return back upstream to rescue a stranded boat. Pierre went with them. They returned about two hours later with stories that made us laugh. During this time, I got to know Michelle, Jennifer, Don and Sidney. Pierre got to know Darcy, Dan, Parker and his son Nick, and all the other musketeers of the group. Darcy and Dan are brothers, sons of Don. Michelle is married to Darcy; Jennifer to Dan and their daughter is Sidney. The other group members are longtime friends.
Darcy and Michelle lost everything in the devastating fire that spread to Fort McMurray last May. This fire was nicknamed "the beast". They lost everything except Michelle’s truck and their boat. Everything else went up in smoke. Fort McMurray underwent a hard tragedy. The stories Darcy, Michelle and Don told us are incredible and hard to imagine. We have a lot of compassion for all those people who were affected by the fire. Can you imagine that some people left their homes by the front door while the fire was literally at the back door of the house? Darcy and Michelle can not rebuild their houses on their former land. The land is considered in a flood zone. The city will give them another piece of land, but they do not yet know how this will work, when it will happen and if they will have a choice.
After a good supper in excellent company, we ended the evening around the campfire. We had so many laughs. Parker has so many stories to tell of things that had happened to him. All crazy and funny stories. Jim and Beatrice arrived, longtime friends of the family. They shared stories and laughs with the whole group. It was around 2:00 a.m. the next morning that we went to bed. We got up with a hangover! I think we were not alone. ;-)
Our friends left in the late morning toward Fort McMurray. We slowly packed up and started paddling. We stopped at Jim's (74 years) and Beatrice's camp and talked for an hour with them before continuing our descent. This wonderful couple take care of the park and the northern section of the river. They maintain portages and trails in addition to the areas designated for camping. Their work is great and important. We would like to thank them for their work and what they do to preserve the natural beauty of the area for its users.
Some 40 km further, we stopped for the night at a place that Jim and Beatrice mentioned. We had met them again on the river about 1 km from our destination. They continued their route afterwards to Fort McMurray (Fort Mac).
The next day we paddled the last 51 km separating us from the city. We observed the immensity of the devastation cause by the fire. The forest has burned over a large area. Although herbs made a new green carpet covering the ground, charred trees dominate. We saw bears and surprised them on the edge of the river, including a mother and her two small cubs (unfortunately I was not fast enough to take a picture). The more we advanced to Fort Mac the less vegetation there was. A few kilometres from downtown, we saw remnants of burnt homes, one of which only the brick chimney remained standing.
Near the downtown area of the city, we found a place to get out of the water and transport our equipment over the river bank. We put the wheels under the canoe and walked to the motel. Then Pierre took the empty canoe to Don's and Darcy's company located about 1 km away. Darcy had proposed to put the canoe in his shop during our stay in Fort Mac and offered us a place to repair the canoe. Everything was done quickly. By late afternoon, Pierre had already applied a first layer of fibreglass. The next day we were busy. Once wecompleted all our tasks, Darcy picked us up to spend the evening with him, Michelle, Don and Amanda (a friend and avid canoer). We spent a wonderful evening! What a beautiful and happy coincidence that we had the chance to meet with them a few days earlier on the river. We know that a beautiful friendship was created and will remain for a long time. Thank you to you all again for everything.
On August 10, it was time for us to leave. At 11:00 Darcy picked us up at the motel. Then he led us to his company to get the canoe. Don, founder and owner, works with Darcy at Formula Sports & Marine located on Fraser Street. They specialize in the repair of boat engines of all kinds. With their hospitality and generosity, we were able to patch up our canoe and have a great stay in Fort Mac. Darcy drove us to the beach, we said goodbye and then resumed our normal routine. We filled the canoe and went back on Clearwater River and made our entry into the Athabasca River.
The first part of the Athabasca River is wide and sandy. It is on this river that we saw tar sand. On the shoreline and near the water line, the sand is black in some places and often agglomerated together to form pebbles that resemble asphalt. Then we saw the infrastructure of Suncor industry. Their facility can be seen from the water and is located on both sides of the shore. It is huge! The tar sand is controversial. This industry, however, employs many people. This tar is used in our everyday goods. While paddling, we thought about the environment, the climate change and our society. We are consumers and our goods are often made with petroleum based products. Even toothbrushes contain a certain degree of oil in the plastic. Our paddles and our canoe contain it too, as do our boots and some clothes. Our food supplies sent by mail also requires the use of fuel. When we stopped and thought about it, we quickly realized that we are dependent on the oil industry and therefore the tar sands. We are dependent yet at the same time, this industry has definitely a negative impact on the environment. We were surprised not to see birds on the river and very little wildlife. Only at one place did we saw traces of a bear.
On August 12,13 we finally left the tar sand industrial area. We continued our descent and discoveries on the Athabasca River. On the way we saw beautiful cliffs of sand. We took the time to stop and climb them. The view from the top was spectacular!
Sunday, August 14, we arrived at Fort Chipewyan, by way of Fletcher Channel, Canoe Portage (which is a river) and Embarras River. On Embarras, there was less current than on the Fletcher channel. As we made our entrance into Lake Athabasca, the wind was blowing from the northeast that afternoon. The waves were well formed and moving fast, but the crossing toward the north bank went well. The colour of the water was different. It was more greenish, but still silty. The landscapes are magnificent! After going through the last kilometres in the delta where only grasses and small shrubs grow, we saw the emergence of granite hills stained with lichens and moss. Orange, green, black, pink, white ... colours shone under the sun! Pine trees dominate the vegetation and rocky headlands made us realize that we really are into the north; north of the 58th parallel! We are only 144 km, as the crow flies, from the Northwest Territory.
We were greeted by Alice, a friend of Darcy, in Fort Chipewyan. What a fantastic lady! Passionate, cultured, generous and determined. We had some fascinating discussions with her about the First Nations, Treaty 8, humans and life in general. She has a lot of experience and she is not intimidated by anything. She works for the cause of First Nations and participates in the establishment of the reconciliation. Her ideas are full of common sense and her approach is neutral and unifying. Congratulations Alice! It was a privilege to meet you.
Alice opened her home to us despite the fact she had to leave the day after our arrival. She left us the keys to her house, and her truck, so that we would have access to what we needed. Alice had also lost everything in the fire of Fort Mac, and it is only been a week since she moved here.
The next day we met Derek, Alice's son. Derek is also a long time friend of Darcy. By late afternoon, we had dinner with Derek before going for a boat ride. We had a fantastic evening! Derek took us to an island in Lake Athabasca, where there is a huge sandy beach. Under a beautiful sunset, we returned to Fort Chip. Another spectacular evening spent in good company. Derek has allowed us to explore fully Fort Chipewyan.
As of August 17 we are still waiting to receiving our parcels at the post office. We have taken the opportunity to do some more research about the Peace River. The biggest challenge and the most difficult part of our journey is just ahead. Many have said it was impossible to paddle upstream on the Peace River. Many have tried and not succeeded. A group of 4 men from England did it about ten years ago, but it took them three seasons to complete the entire length of the river! We are not superheroes, but the challenge is calling us. We'll see what we can manage to do. The most difficult section is the one located between Fort Chipewyan and Fort Vermilion. Wish us good luck, because we will need it!