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                  The Caribou River, 1994
Paul and I had talked about canoeing in the Arctic for many
years and in 1994 finally made the commitment and set out to go North. We met Doug Weber at the Sportsmans Show. Doug had fish and hunting camps and airplanes in the Churchill area and suggested that we paddle the Caribou River. He was not a canoeist but he was familiar with the river as he had a couple of hunting operations on it. We agreed to meet him in Churchill later that summer and paddle the Caribou from it's headwaters at Commonwealth Lake to the Hudson Bay. It sounded fun. We both thought of ourselves as experienced out door travelers and felt comfortable with the project. We were wrong. We were not really ready for the sub-arctic river and it's environment but we adapted. We had the wrong clothes and the wrong gear but we fumbled and bumbled our way down the river and found our ride out. We started planning our next "big" trip soon after we were dropped off.

                                           

                                                  1994 ARCTIC PADDLE

 

THE JOURNAL

DAY 0: We left Anoka County Airport in Paulís Cessna 182 after loading it with all our gear and provisions for a three week wilderness canoe trip. There was a little fog on the ground, clear and calm above. We left the Twin Cities and headed North for Ft. Francis were we went through customs, gassed up and flew to Red Lake. I stared at the ground for two hours as we plodded along at 110 knots. I haven't looked at the ground that much in ten years. Iím used to flying at 14,000 feet and going 160 to 180 knots in my plane. I never look out of the window. Paulís plane carries a huge load but it sure doesnít go very fast. Three hours to Thompson, a big mining town in Canada. The rivers and lakes are brown/gray from the Inco Nickel mines and smelter. The sludge and waste water from the mining and smelting operation are dumped into the nearby lakes and rivers, killing them and all the vegetation around them. We gassed up and headed to Churchill, two hours away. We flew along the Churchill River, very pretty and big. The trees thinned and the bare bones and basement rocks of North America showed through the sparse vegetation as we went north. Heading to Churchill, we flew through dense smoke from huge forest fires which were burning just north of our route. Seventy miles from the bay, the trees gave way to tundra. The last fifty miles were treeless and desolate opening up to large tidal flats and the Churchill River delta.

We landed at the old military base, shrouded in smoke, old and worn looking with a single control tower operator to handle us and the few other flights of the day, no Tracon or ground controller. It was very quiet at the field. SAC was gone, the Canadian Navy and Army were gone, and the old buildings were falling down and blowing in the wind. It was a lonely place.

We stayed overnight in Churchill, a very ragged and dusty affair. This is a very worn looking town of 1200 people, about half Indian and half European. We watched the Balugas in the river, listened to them sound and blow. We ate dinner at the aptly named Tundra Cafť which was across the street from our "motel", the Tundra Motel. Our waitress, a very nice young girl from Churchill, asked us where we were from. When we told her, she stepped back and exclaimed, "You got all our dirt!". And so we do. Large amounts of our soil came from this region. When the glaciers ground their way south, they scoured the far North clean, scraping off all of the top soil, leaving this part of the world almost devoid of cover. The Precambrian basement rocks of the early Earth are exposed almost everywhere here, covered only with the small amounts of organic debris and sand that has been generated since the last glacier disappeared. After dinner it was back to the Tundra Motel and finally sleep in a very stuffy, funky hotel room after a very long day.

DAY ONE

Up early, coffee, no breakfast. Dwayne, Doug Weberís assistant, called on us at the Tundra Motel, hauled us to Paulís plane to pick up our gear, then to Dougís office to pay the balance for the ride. I suppose they want to make sure that they get their money in case they canít find us later in the month. Thatís a morbid thought.

Doug Weber was our contact in Churchill and our pilot. He was the Mayor of Churchill and his wife was the president of the Chamber of Commerce. They had a five star fishing lodge on Knife Lake, which was about one hundred miles south and west of Churchill and they had bird blinds and shooting galleries all over the area. They brought city guys like us up to the far north and helped them shoot and kill stuff.

Off to his yellow and orange Beaver parked at the seaplane base near the airport. We loaded our gear and took off into the smoke of the burning tundra.

We headed northwest and after about and hour crossed the Seal River and then the Caribou River, our river. The ground was covered with a maze of Caribou trails crisscrossing and weaving a random pattern from hundreds, thousands, of years of migrations in the treeless tundra. West to Caribou Lake to pick up the "canoe". We landed on the lake and Doug and his helper beached the Beaver on a sand beach, jumped out and after rooting around in the bushes for a few minutes, dragged a very old, worn out aluminum canoe to the plane and started to tie it on the floats. It was the most clapped out Grumman I'd ever seen. The bottom was caved up and the sides were caved in and there was no yoke. Paul asked me twice if it was OK. What could I say? It was ours. There were no canoe stores nearby.

We tied it onto the floats, took off and headed west over the River or what used to be the River. There was very little water and a lot of rocks. This was going to be rough.

LATER THAT DAY

Paul just hailed me down to where he was fishing. Our first "arctic Char", no, itís a grayling. We caught four in a few minutes where the river ran through a little chute into a large pool. Nice fish, a lot of fight and aerobatics, one to two pounds.

BACK TO THE STORY

We continued northwest, sometimes crossing the river, and sometimes flying over the tundra. When we flew near the river, we could see that there was very little water in it. It didnít look like it was going to be a floater to the Bay.

We finally got to Commonwealth Lake and landed, taxied across the lake and beached the airplane on a small island. Doug had a hunting shack on the island for the fall when the city guys come up to shoot geese. After looking at what little remained of the river for the last two hours and seeing mostly rocks and shallows, I started going through our gear, discarding anything and everything that we might not need and tossing it back in the plane. I didnít want to carry anything that I didnít have to, and it looked like we were going to have to do a lot of carrying. The boys helped us unload our gear, checked their hunting shack, took a picture of us and flew away. It got very quiet. The lake was large and treeless and quite beautiful.

We repacked our gear and headed to the River which was across the lake. As soon we were off the big lake we ran out of water. Where the river ran out of the lake, we found a trickle of water and gravel and rocks. There wasnít enough water to wash your socks. Forty five minutes into the trip we made our first portage. We dragged our stuff one half mile to our next little paddle, emphasis on little. Two hundred yards of pond and we portaged across tundra for another half mile. We walked more than we paddled. No water in the river. Exhausted, we made camp.

We caught grayling in the rapids after we made camp. Later that evening, a big thunder storm came, with thunder storms all around us and a lot of wind and lighting until almost midnight. It never truly got dark. A few mosquitoes and swarms of black flies. That was a big half day.

 

DAY TWO

Huge wet hump. We paddle and walk the canoe, paddle and walk the canoe, mostly walking along side of the canoe and dragging it over the rocks. We were in the river all day, eight hours. Maybe five miles-tough-cold-rainy. The tundra is almost treeless. There are scattered clumps of poor, little, dwarf trees in hollows and protected places, but by and large, only the endless, flat, tundra. At this pace we will be lucky to get to Caribou Lake. POOPED.

 

DAY THREE

Up at eight, nice day. Paddled and walked a long time. Beautiful day, warm. We got to the boulder field we had seen from plane. Couldnít see the end. Portaged around it. I was SWARMED! MISERABLE! Black flies up my nose, in my ears, in my mouth, in and under all my clothes. This will keep the tourists away! Made camp, more black flies, up your nose, in your ears, BAD! Barely ate and into the tent to get some relief from the bugs. Our legs were bleeding around our socks where the black flies had been chewing on us. They crawled under our clothing and chewed on our bellies and the inside of our wrists and everywhere else that our skin was soft and tender. We were bloody all over. We may not be dressed properly. Berry red sun, lots of smoke from tundra fires. We can smell it all the time.

 

DAY FOUR

Up early-still swarms of black flies. It never cooled off last night-very warm. We need some cold weather to get rid of these bugs. Coffee only, packed and got on the water to try to get away from the black flies. Long beautiful day on the water. The sun was a red disk from smoke--eerie. A lot of open water today. Many shallow rapids. Late in the day we roped part way down a big rapid and portaged the rest. Caught big two to three pound graylings in pools. Got to Hell's boulder field and stopped. Very buggy. In tent the flies sound like rain and hail on the tent as they bomb the shell trying to get at us. Hard bodied little devils, hard to kill. Getting in the tent is a real challenge with each of us owning our personal swarm. The flies covered our clothes and flew around us .Once in the tent the clean up began .Luckily they are attracted to the tent walls once inside where we dispatched them by the thousands, covering the floor with their black little bodies. My legs and arms are a mass of bites .The key to surviving is bringing a piss pot in the tent. Going out to piss is sure death. Once in, weíre in for the night. Ten o'clock and you can read in the tent with out a light. It doesnít get too dark to read until after eleven thirty.

 

DAY FIVE

Woke up to a beautiful morning and the boulder field from hell. It stayed warm all night-only cooled down a little bit, slept in my shorts on top of the bag. Only a few bugs in the morning-maybe it was the wind, maybe the temperature. Camp looks like new place without them. We tented on a tundra field and cooked in the rocks in the river bed, making a little stick fire to save our cooking fuel. We made little stick fires whenever we could to stretch our stove fuel. Packed up and made "le Portage from hell". About a mile scramble through a giant boulder field. Then a very short hundred yard paddle and the "canoe walk from hell", another short, deep, boulder filled channel . Fifteen minute paddle to spectacular Round Sand Lake and weíre stuck, winded out. There are thunder-storms all around us and the wind is up, forty plus knots with much higher gusts.

The shore of the lake is treeless with large sand beaches. The little inlet we are hiding in has high sand banks with dunes formed away from the water. There are dunes all along the south side of the lake, making it look like a Caribbean Beach, but only a few short yards from the dunes the tundra starts and reminds you where you are. The lake is very big, maybe five miles across and very shallow, a combination that makes very big waves without a lot of wind, and this place has a lot of wind. The wind comes from the north and rips across the tundra with nothing to slow it down and with nowhere to hide. Weíre going to sit it out for a while and see if the lake clams down a little before we try to cross it. Sitting in the dunes reading and writing. This is a very big, rough, country. We will not get to the coast at this rate. We must get to some place Doug can land. Weíll figure it out.

Later in the day the wind abated a bit and we started across the lake. It was kind of spooky. We were paddling in moderate waves and three to four feet of water and then we would run aground in the middle of the lake. The lake was nothing more than a wide spot in the river. Whatever sand the river carried, it dumped here. We paddled and dragged the canoe, and then paddled and dragged the canoe towards what we thought was the outlet when we noticed a huge storm bearing down on us from the southwest. To avoid being caught out there in a big blow, we made for the nearest shore. We ground to a halt about two hundred yards from the dunes on the south side of the lake. The wind was starting to blow and we dragged the canoe twenty to thirty yards from the water and carried our gear another 150 yards to the dunes and set the tent up behind a dune and out of the wind. Once settled, we made a hasty meal and went to the tent for shelter from the storm, and eventually slept.

 

 

DAY SIX

We woke up to the darkest night we had yet encountered here and heard the canoe rolling along the beach. The tent was flattened around us with the first gusts of a huge blow at two thirty a.m. I sat up to hold the tent up. It was blowing hurricane force from the north west. It was a good thing we didnít put up the tent in open on the beach as I suggested. We would have been blown away. We're behind a dune and getting some protection. We struggled with the tent for a few hours and moved it to a better spot when it got light enough. This is an unbelievable wind storm. Itís raining and blowing so hard that we canít go out in it. If we walk around the dune and lose itís protection, weíre nearly blown over. The wind has a thousand mile fetch. Thereís nothing here to slow it down, no hills, no trees, no nothing. Weíre completely unprotected.

After relocating the tent we went to look for the canoe. It had been blown almost a quarter mile down the lake. It was just luck that it was an onshore wind and not an offshore wind, because if the wind had been coming from the southwest instead of the northwest, the canoe would have been blown out onto the lake and I donít know if we would have found it. That would have made for a long walk back. We dragged the canoe back to camp and tucked it up next to a big sand dune, face down in what we thought was secure location.

We read and napped all day. Gray, low and rainy and extremely windy most of day. The rain stopped late in the afternoon and we went for a lovely walk across tundra. Lots of moose tracks. We came back to camp to see the canoe take off from were we thought it was secure and fly over us end over end one hundred and fifty feet and land in the dunes. I thought it was dead and killed. The wind caught it and it flew like a bird right over the dune and it landed in some scrub brush, which is probably what saved itís life and ours. We dragged the poor Queen behind a dune and tied it down in the stunted trees which grew behind the dunes which surrounded the whole lake. Napped again, ate a great dinner-coffee and smokes-bed. Weíre going to try to leave here tomorrow. The wind hasnít let up at all, sixty plus and the lake is still a horror.

 

DAY SEVEN

Weíre leaving flying Canoe Camp in a somewhat lessening wind, maybe twenty five to thirty knots, blue skies and cool sun. The scene is indescribable. The Lake retreated overnight. It had come up the shore about 150 yards from the wind induced tidal effect, and now that the wind was down, the lake was returning to itís previous level on this shore. We have a long hike to the water. I just discovered I've been shooting 100 ASA film at 200. Damn my old eyes. Humped our gear about half a mile to the point and tried to carry the canoe-couldnít. Way too windy. Had to carry the poor old thing between us out of the wind. Quite a haul. At the point, we dragged the conoe about two hundred yards into the water to get it to barely float. Loaded it and pushed and dragged it about a quarter mile through the barest of channels. We floated and dragged it another three quarters of a mile until we finally left Sand Lake. Big tail wind. Roared downriver with the wind at our back and saw several immature eagles. Went through the lakes, only two feet deep and stopped at Mountains Of The Moon camp site at end of Lake Gagnon. Splendid high camp site. Climbed the ridge and saw the whole area. I could see where we where three days ago. The river now runs south. It looks low and swampy. Thirty miles of bad road coming up. We made fifteen miles yesterday, one of our best traveling days. Itís thirty miles to Caribou Lake. Swarmed at night.

 

 

DAY EIGHT

Woke up worried to blue skies. Hard-half mile paddle and then a 100 yard walk through a short rapids followed by a quarter mile paddle, two hundred yard walk through the rapids, and over again all day long. Weíre getting nowhere fast. We'll never get to the Bay and our pickup. We won't even get to a lake big enough to land the Beaver on. Weíre trying hard to make some miles. Weíre starting to shoot rapids. Thought we were getting good. Got into a big one-got sideways on a rock. Paul was jammed between the rock and the canoe. The canoe started to fill-she was going to break in half. I jumped into the rapids and grabbed the canoe, chest deep, strong current, and turned and lifted the canoe out of the current. Just in time, she would of been gone. That was the last rapid we paddled, we walked all the rest. Couldnít afford to break the conoe. A good lesson learned. We were scouting every ripple after that. Made about five miles and camped at a big rapids. Grayling chowder. It stayed very warm. Black flies swarmed again. Black flies rule.

 

DAY NINE

Woke up to heat and smoke. It never cooled off much. Smoke blocked the sun all day. Big hump around falls to start the day. Ten Big, long rapids. We were in the water as much as we were on it. Most of the time we jumped in and walked the rocky bottom. Water feels good-knee to waist deep, once in a while we'd step in hole. Lined down some rapids. Wind came up in afternoon. Camped at "the falls". Low bug zone till tent time. No fish. Almost dumped canoe. We're seeing seals fishing in the ponds. HARD DAY. Three and a half to four miles.

 

DAY TEN

Lost in the arctic. Up to nice warm day, overcast skies. Packed and left. Open water, long paddles. Everything OK to M&M break Went up river? Current wrong way. Turned around. Weíre in a maze of small channels overgrown with willows and scrub brush. We canít see and the current is so sluggish we canít tell which way is down river. It looks like the place that Bogart hauled the African Queen through the reeds to get to the big lake. We donít quite know where we are. Itís confusing. We came out of the maze onto a big body of water, but itís very hazy from the smoke and we canít see the outline of the shore. Itís very hard to figure out what this place looks like. The visibility is only a quarter to half a mile. Itís dead flat calm and very eerie and quiet on the lake. We paddled across a sandy bay to Elk Camp slaughter point.

This was obviously a very old Indian hunting camp. There were bones everywhere, and the remains of many hundreds of years of hunting, butchering, and camping all over the point. The point was located at a rapids, where the lake narrowed, making a natural crossing place for the caribou, which made a natural hunting place for the Indians. It was very obvious, but we still donít know where we are. Everything confusing. We're on huge big lakes not on map. Map totally useless? Can't figure out where we are. Paddled down very long lead to a dead end. Hiked to the top of a high esker to get bearings. Backtracked and paddled to end of another lead, dead end. Water flows in but not out? Paddled back to rapids near Elk Camp. Threw tent up and ate potatoes in tent at 10:30 PM. Long confusing day. On water twelve hours and got nowhere.

DAY ELEVEN

 

Cool and overcast. This will be decision day weather we go for Caribou or not. We have to be on water Doug can land on. If weíre in the River when Doug comes, weíre stuck-he can't land. The river is too narrow and shallow. We have to be somewhere where the plane can get in. Paul dreamed about the installation of Prince Charles. The Queen and Charles didnít do it.!? What does this all mean?

We're found! We were here all the time. We got up early and paddled the remaining large bay looking for the outlet. The smoke is gone and we can see. We paddled two very long leads and remained perplexed. Then we went across the bay, climbing every little hill trying to figure out where we were. Then into another dead end bay, and we found a hunting camp on a beautiful ridge. This was a white mans camp. You could tell by the trash, it was different than Indian trash. Paul walked to the north end with his field glasses, looked across the bay at the continuing ridge and saw the Cross on the grave. We were at Caribou all the time. We had traveled about twenty five miles further than we thought we gone yesterday. In that part of the river there are almost no landmarks, but big Caribou Lake still should have been a dead giveaway. We never even considered being that far down the river. That's why we were confused. We got locked in a bad mind set. Another lesson learned.

We paddled back to the Slaughter Camp after photographing the Indian cemetery. At the rapids we fished and caught grayling and three to four pound Brook Trout. I didnít know brookies grew that big. The sun doesnít rise and set. It encircles you with it's warm red/orange glow. It's been particularly orange the last few days from the smoke. Sometimes we can't even see it through the smoke. Some days it seems overcast all day, but it's only the smoke. We can smell it all the time.

 

DAY TWELVE

Woke up to bugs and smoke. The tundra is on fire. A heavy pall of smoke hung over camp and the lake. Weather warm and dry. Packed up and hauled gear to end of rapids. Pulled the "Queen" out of the bushes and headed up the lake to the abandoned Hudson Bay Station. The station sat in a Beautiful high clearing over looking the lake. A large square-sterned cedar/canvass cargo canoe lay in the tundra, returning to the earth. Only one rather handsome building remained of the outpost, the rest were rotting and collapsing on their stone foundations. The whole clearing was a garbage dump of bones, broken equipment and abandoned fishing and hunting gear. It was now being used as a winter hunting camp by the Indians. The station was about twenty by twenty with a steep cedar shake roof, painted a faded red and a porch like appendage on the front to enter through. Shit all over hell. Dismantled snowmobiles, the ubiquitous fifty five gallon oil drums, winter sledge and sleds, and bones everywhere.

Inside was dirty and messy. Two wood bunks, a wood stove and a drying rack made of cedar branches hung over the stove. There was stuff everywhere, some of it was obviously put away, and some of it was just dropped. A Skidoo engine was partially disassembled and lying on the floor, the carburetor hung from the drying rack. Traps, lures, books, a Cree Bible, a little food, magazines, fishing gear, and on and on. Way too much too catalogue, but a tremendous collection of stuff. This place is regularly used by the Indians. Notes and names and dates with little stories were everywhere on the walls which where covered with heavy brown paper for insulation. Mary somebody and her friends where "going to Churchill, waiting for the snow to freeze, maybe leave tomorrow, having lots of fun!"

We went back to the rapids and picked up our gear and left Caribou Lake. Long downwind leg, long upwind leg, and two slimy rapids in the smoke. We saw a seal hauled out on a rock in the middle of a wide place in the river. We were on shore snacking when we spotted him. I dropped my wide angle lens in the lake as I was changing lenses to photograph him. Iíve dropped everything in the lake on this trip. Paul wonít give me anything to hold that we want to keep because Iíll drop it. My hands are a mess, all dried and cracked and bloody. I wake up at night sometimes from the throbbing and the pain. Paulís hands are fine. He has worn gloves since we left Churchill. It makes all the difference.

The rapids downstream from Caribou Lake where deep and rocky. The rocks where covered with a very slimy, slippery growth making our passage a real trial. We fished along the way and caught a bunch of grayling.

The smoke cleared and we made camp on high ground overlooking a big bend in the river. We called the place "Ground Zero" because at the top of the rise the meadow was completely cleared of rocks in a perfect circle with a ring of boulders surrounding the clearing. The clearing was about two hundred yards across. It was quite remarkable in appearance. It looked like an "A" bomb had been detonated here. I left Harris a good-bye note in the center. You could see many miles of the river from the blast area.

It cooled off , the bugs where almost tolerable. The camp was known as the Blast Zone.

DAY THIRTEEN

We woke to a cool and clear morning, no smoke. The Blast Zone was a large arctic meadow of incredible beauty overlooking the point protruding into the lake. It was punctuated by a rock free circular area of about four hundred yards diameter with the clearing located exactly at the highest point. It was surrounded by the typical arctic boulder field. I left Harris a letter under a very small cairn in the center of the clearing.

We left the site to high clouds and wind, first downwind in high waves, stopping at a rock pile in the middle of a lake for a snack and life jackets. I dropped my compass in the rocks and couldnít reach it. Another sacrificed artifact to the north. The lake was up big making our departure from our lunch spot exiting. First upwind to the protection of two rocky reefs and then the "paddle for life", downwind in quartering seas, occasionally washing over the "Queens" port side. The lake was really up. We paddled hard and surfed down the fronts and pulled up the backs of the waves. Finally, into the channel and out of the wind, exhausted. We stopped to observe the Mayan Ruin, then paddled up the lake into a heavy wind, crossed the channel and made a beautiful camp high on a boulder field overlooking the entire lake and river. This place is like a dream, every corner and turn reveals another stunning view. Nothing the same, no repeats. This will be our last camp. Doug can't land on anything we could get to tomorrow.

 

DAY FOURTEEN

LAYOVER DAY OR PADDLE FOR LIFE

Woke to the same warm weather, clear, no bugs. Ate breakfast, packed a frying pan and fishing gear and headed down the lake to the rapids to fish. Once we got around the point, we encountered very high winds which increased in intensity as we proceeded up the long lake. The wind was northerly quartering across the lake. To keep from swamping, we quartered into it, which got us farther and farther from shore. The lake was really up and we couldnít turn towards shore without broaching in the now well developed two to three foot waves. We couldnít stop and we couldnít turn back. A turn downwind would have swamped us for sure. The only thing left was to paddle to the end of the lake without changing course. This would get us in the lee of the far shore and safety, now about a mile and a half away. I was double stroking to made headway. Paul just sat up front, made like a sprayshield and pulled hard. We couldnít stop and we couldnít change sides. Truly, it was paddle or swamp. We made the shore with reserves, but not much.

We rested on a little hillock and watched four caribou wander along the edge of a little creek. Once the adrenaline wore off we paddled back down the shore to the rapids and fished the "honey hole". Grayling without end and one and a half to two and a half pound brook trout. We cleaned and ate two brookies and two grayling. Fished and waited for the wind to go down. The wind never went down. We had a wild ride back to camp with a bunch of fish. I made a great fish boil. The food on the trip has been really good. Lots of fish and pasta.

It was a spectacular day. Huge plumes of smoke were visible all day. Paul and I climbed a very high hill about a half a mile from camp to see were the fires where. They seemed to be about thirty miles away and to the west southwest.

DAY FIFTEEN

Up to another warm clear day. A bull caribou walked right into camp. Ate breakfast and paddled back to the rapids to fish the "honey hole" while we wait for our ride back. Actually got tired of fishing after catching an endless amount of grayling and big brook trout.

I'm sitting on rock, waiting for Doug and the plane. It's 4:00 o'clock and we're speculating whether heíll come today or not. We're making plans for another night on the tundra. Time will tell. We decided that he wasnít coming, it was six o'clock so we fished for dinner and caught a really nice brookie and three grayling. Just as we were about to clean the fish, the old yellow beaver came lumbering up the river. Paul hailed him on the hand held radio. He never saw us. He flew right over us without seeing us. If it hadnít been for the hand held radio he would have gone right by. We loaded our gear in the canoe, paddled across the lake to where he had landed, loaded our stuff in the plane and left the wilderness. Back to the Tundra Motel and dinner and a beer.

 

THE ADVENTURE CONTINUES

Up early and we loaded Paulís plane. Very smoky, sky obscured with one mile visibility and a cold wind blowing off of the Bay. We got off Churchill IFR in smoke. Thompson was better. The NASA crew from Moffet AFB complained to me that they'd been there a week and couldnít fly due to the smoke. They were flying a C-130. Poor weather report. Scattered thunderstorms with some in progress. We headed down to Red Lake hoping to be able to pick our way through. About halfway to Red Lake we altered our course and diverted east to avoid the storms. We were soon about half way to Lake Winnipeg. We picked our way around, turning left and turning right trying this and then trying that, hoping to find a way through the storms until finally the whole screen of the stormscope was lit up. Time to quit. We turned east and landed at Berrens River, a cute little fishing town on the shore of Lake Winnipeg, populated mostly with Indian people. A part 135 charter operator in a Navajo just came up from Winnipeg and assured us, no problem to get down to Winnipeg, just one big cell to go around, no sweat. We started down, got about halfway, cells popping up everywhere, one minute it's clear and the next minute the space is filled with another boomer. All of them were very black and threatening looking with lots of lightning. Just when it looked like it couldnít get much worse, two cloud to ground strikes four to five miles in front of us , and we turned back north. Back tracking wasnít any picnic either, as by now most of our route back was filled with growing black cells. We bobbed and weaved our way back up the lake shore and landed at Bloodvien River, another small Indian fishing village. Nothing there except a couple of guys polishing a Harley. I don't know where they ride. There arenít any roads there to speak of. The airport guys told us to cross the channel to Matheson Island for food and gas. We jumped in the plane to race a big cell which was approaching the island from the southwest. We were going to William Mowat's private landing strip.

Crossing the channel we found ourselves flying a thousand feet above William himself in a beautiful red and white Beaver. His wife Mary met us just as William drove up from his seaplane base. He gassed us up and they drove us to their four week old trailer house restaurant for dinner. The island population is about 150, mostly their relatives. Great dinner. We got the island tour from William, full inspection of his immaculate Beaver and 185 and back to the airport were we set up our living quarters for the night. We went to an exquisite beach on the west side of the island and watched the sunset, then walked back to the plane and our tent which we had set up under the wing right in the middle of the runway.

It was a very nice night, warm with a little rain. We got up early, loaded the plane and left in smoke, haze, and fog with towering cumulus to our south.

We dodged through the early morning clouds, and went through customs at International Falls. Gassed up and it was only a short hop down to Anoka County and the end of a great trip.

RECAP

We brought back sixteen pounds of food. We started with sixty pounds.

We started with ninety five oz. of fuel and came back with thirty t thirty five oz.

STARTING FOOD

COFFEE 32 OZ

OATMEAL 42 OZ

BISQUIK 4 LBS 22 CUPS

INSTANT POTAPOES 18 CUPS/30-40 OZ

MINUTE RICE 12OZ

CHOC PUDDING 10-16 OZ

DRIED TOMATOES 6 OZ

DRIED MUSHROOMS 10 OZ

SWISS MIST 20 PKGS

JELLY 2 TUBES

PEANUT BUTTER 2 TUBES

INSTANT SOUP 8 PKGS

DRIED MIXED FRUIT 2 PKHS

BROWN SUGAR 20 OZ

SALAMI 2 LBS

CHEDDAR CHEESE 2 CHEESES

HERSHEY 2 7OZ BARS

M&M'S 20 PKG

TORTILLAS 2 PKG

WALNUTS 2 LBS

CASHEWS 2 LBS

RAISINS 2 LBS

INSTANT ONIONS 2 PKGS

LINTELS

BEANS

CUSCUS

DRIED BEEF

 

 

The food was good. We didnít use the cracked wheat or the dried peas. The small pastas were good to have. Cup of soup's good for seasoning. Didnít bring margarine and didn't need it. We ate all the nuts. The best were the cashews, we could have brought more. We ate all the raisins and oat meal in ten days. Brought extra clothes. Didn't use the wool pants or the wool shirts, the pile pants were exceptional in the river, warm, dry, cool. Wore the wind pants around camp. It was warm. Took too much fishing stuff. Only needed a handful of lures and lightweight rod and reels. Ate all the chocolate. The big Dove Bars were a treat. Bugs kept us from doing a lot of cooking. Tent was OK, bug resistant and semi windproof and more of less dry. It was good because it was cool, two big doors. MSR stove cooked well and is fuel efficient, but requires orifice cleaning with almost every use, which is awkward. we ate almost five pounds of cheese, and the salami went bad.

Looking back, the trip was immensely satisfying. It was much harder than I expected, but much more interesting also. Although the terrain had a certain sameness, it was beautifully compelling and rich in it's local diversity. Far from being fragile, it exuded a sense of toughness and a hardy ruggedness. The open, treeless expanses were hypnotic, usually broken only by plumes of smoke from the numerous fires.

The terrain and fauna were almost identical to that which I am used to seeing in the mountains above the tree line, except it was displayed in a very horizontal format. We have traded altitude for latitude.

After leaving Doug's hunting shack on Commonwealth Lake, it became obvious that few come this way, and it would be unlikely to run into a couple of canoes full of Boy Scouts singing SKI U MA, as Paul was so found of reminding me. We saw almost no artifacts on the whole trip, another indication of how seldom this particular area is traversed today. We spotted a metal stove lodged in some bushes along the river about twelve to fifteen feet above the current water level, attesting to the huge spring flood conditions and that we werenít the only ones to come by this way.

In many areas where there were trees growing along the riverbank, the bark was badly bruised, skinned and torn. Another sign of the ice dams and floods of spring, Large piles of broken and smashed trees lined much of the narrower channels as we got closer to Caribou Lake.

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 © 2009 Jim Rutzick