Much of Canada was explored and navigated thanks to the canoe. Beyond the Native American use for hunting and trade, the canoe entered a new chapter with the fur trade. The trappers, extraordinary individuals, who would disappear into the wilds, the unexplored interior of Canada, and return sometimes a year later with the gunnels of their boats over flowing with animal furs for the monied gentry of Eastern North America and Europe. With modern eyes we would, of course, see this trade in a different light. Certainly it didn't do some of the rarer species of animal any good in some parts. I can't help admiring their spirit though. Heading out with little more than a canoe made from birch bark, paddle, knife, rifle, twine & wire and maybe a cooking pot. It is hard to fully imagine just how unknown the landscape would have been then. Without maps they had to rely on their understanding of nature and good links with the Native American populations to get their information. You can't rely, when journeying across a massive country such as Canada, on all the rivers to flow the way you want to go. Particularly when you need to get back! They developed and adapted Native American techniques to enable them to travel upstream, connecting them to lakes, and other water courses. Sometimes they would face rapids that were a high risk to person and cargo. To avoid having to portage (see previous installment) their heavy loads all the time they also created methods to make it safer to go downstream whilst keeping the boat and cargo in the water. We now call all these methods "traditional canoe skills" or fondly "trad skills".
|Fur Trapper in Alaska - Photo credit - http://digitaldocsinabox.org|
A lot of canoeists hate them! Well maybe not hate, but certainly tolerate their existence to complete a canoe course, such as the British Canoe Union Star Awards, then never use them again until the next assessment. For me they are at the heart of what makes canoeing special. It takes it from being a bog standard car to being the 4x4 Landrover of the river! Realistically you could paddle a canoe for a lifetime somewhere like Britain without using these skills. Our first section of the McClusky Creek though would be very dangerous without them. Some people even turn them into a discipline in their own right. Poling, where you stand in the canoe and push down to the river bed with a pole to move the canoe upstream is quite the spectator sport with competitions such as this one:
McClusky Creek is fast, narrow, and shallow. Perhaps good fun in a short playful kayak but potentially deadly in a heavily laden 17 foot canoe. If a canoe hits a rock side-on in the middle of the boat it can become "pinned". Held fast against the rock by the flow of water. If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself in this situation you have 10-15 seconds, before the water pressure is overwhelming, to try and shift your weight and angle to free the boat. After this the canoe may well start to fold around the rock. To be between the rock and canoe is not a happy place to be, crushing pressure and drowning competing to finish you off! A few inches of water with enough speed and things it hit such as rocks and trees is enough to get into trouble so we were taking this first stretch super seriously. In addition to those really bad consequences there was also the simple but very real risk of losing equipment. Everything we needed to survive was contained within the one boat. To reduce this risk we carried on our person, at all times; a knife, method of making fire (gas lighter and LMF Firesteel) and bear spray. In addition I also had a "grab bag" in the front that I would hope to snatch out of the boat in escape. This contained a further method of fire ignition, spare warm layer, GPS unit, map, compass, snare wire and the inReach satellite communicator.
|Exploring the Riverbed of McClusky Creek|
The Yukon is incredibly wild and hostile to the unequipped. Our canoe loaded with equipment was, I suppose, a little like a space capsule. So long as we had it, and looked after it, we could live comfortably. Without it we would immediately be in a survival situation. Bearing that in mind you can probably imagine how sharp my focus was as I pushed the boat into the flow of the river, connected only by a 25metre length of 10mm floatline. By "lining" we were able to float the boat with kit down the shallow rapids whilst controlling the descent by pulling on the rope attached to the back. Hopping from rock to rock and ducking under branches we made our way downriver. A trip, a misjudged chosen line or even a sneeze at the wrong moment could have easily left us standing on a gravel bank watching our metaphorical space capsule drift off into space. Despite the risks lining this section was still far preferable to trying to paddle it. Both sides were dense with fallen spruce trees dangling into the river. We call these "strainers". Yet another unhappy place to be as the flow will suck you under and through, not necessarily out the other side. At times like these you can not afford to to dwell on the hazards. Simply absorb the important information, mitigate the risk as much as you can, then act. To be honest I was loving it! The intensity was all absorbing. Dashing forward, playing the line to bring the canoe across the current, then allowing it to pendulum back into the shore by hastily wrapping the rope around a handy tree root. The scenery was truly stunning. A wide valley lined by spruce edged with jagged peaks.
|Downstream on McClusky Creek|
The sun beat down and on a long section of very shallow water we caved and stripped ourselves of the buoyancy aids (Personal Floatation Devices, a bit like lifejackets). Chasing the canoe as it built momentum I was in a pair of shorts, check shirt and knife on my belt - I was free! Rounding the corner the banks dropped off and before my internal alarm could be sounded I felt the acceleration and force through the rope straining in my hands. Shouting instructions to Niall, without being able to see, I knew he would be making for the bank river left as by then he would see I was in deep water. You don't need much water to sweep you off your feet and here the river was over my knees and moving at 15km per hour or more. Perversely I could actually only hold my balance by pulling back on the line using the boat as a counterbalance. Within a moment the boat and I where safely in the eddy beneath the problem spot. My awareness had been slapped in the face and after some strong words with myself I resolved to take more care and not to cut corners.
|Lunch Spot Having Moved to Channels River Left|
We decided to change our allegiance to river left. It involved emptying the boat and performing a 100m portage to a different braided channel. After lunch this proved to be a good decision as the progress was steady and looking back up at our original channel it would have been strainer central. It had taken us half a day to travel 2km! A bit unnerving when you have 500km to go. We were in one piece though and the boat unharmed. Having spent the entire day out of the boat in order to reach our camp the other side of the Wind River we jumped in to paddle the final 50 metres to the shore.
|Niall Making the Moost of it|
Something in the transition between being camped at McClusky, with the possibilities of aerial rescue, and where we were now felt wonderfully committing. The best way out was now along our route down the Wind. Enjoying the view we tucked into steak and turned our minds to the next bit. We were 2 days in (5 days since leaving the UK) and tomorrow would be our first proper paddling day. We settled into our tents, sun still up at 11:30 at night and tried to make the incredibly noisy river next to us sound less formidable!
|Dinner with a View - Camp One|
|Steak Dinner - Glamping in the Yukon|