Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 19, 2017
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I prescribe a trip to... the Northwest Territories

A radiologist and his son tackle one of the North’s toughest paddles — the Mountain River

What would posses someone to leave the comfort and security of his urban home and travel thousands of kilometres to spend time in the wilderness, braving inclement weather, bugs and hypothermia just to canoe a northern river? In my case, it was turning 50. I wanted to do something memorable to mark the occasion. A two-week canoe trip in the wild seemed like just the jolt I needed to dissipate the fog from the daily grind.

Perhaps the most important and exciting reason to take the trip was to share the experience with my teenage son, Alec. We have been canoeing together since he was five years old, when he was just a hood ornament at the front of the canoe. He cut his teeth on lake trips in Southern Ontario and local rivers, but a whitewater trip to the Northwest Territories was in a different league.

Now, we didn’t just show up on the Mountain River, paddle in hand. A whitewater canoe trip in a remote location presents real risks. It is physically strenuous, psychologically demanding and requires advanced canoe-handling skill. But it is a grail worth pursuing, because a backcountry trip is living life large and the slow-release memories of contentment linger long after the event.

To gain the necessary skills we would need, Alec and I took classes at Palmer Rapids on the Madawaska River, south of Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. Over several years, we would return for refresher classes, practising eddy turns and ferries; transforming our initially clumsy efforts into elegant manoeuvres executed in perfect harmony. And as the years passed, the little bobble head who was once mere ballast in the canoe grew into a confident, self-reliant young man who was a true partner on various wilderness journeys.

Alec and I chose the Mountain River because of the combination of scenic beauty and challenging whitewater paddling. It is one of the most remote rivers in Canada, finding its headwaters in the Mackenzie Mountains and flowing northeast to empty into the Mackenzie River at 65° latitude.

We would cover 360 kilometres and drop 1100 metres in elevation on a swift and lively current over many stretches of Class II and III rapids. We would pass through five breathtaking canyons and encounter many species of wildlife.

Black Feather (tel: 888-849-7668; www.blackfeather.com), the wilderness adventure company that organized our trip boasts that the Mountain River is their guides’ favourite river trip. And the late Bill Mason, the great Canadian canoeing magus claimed that it was his favourite river run. Well, with that kind of buildup, how could we go wrong?

Our trip began in Norman Wells, a small oil town on the Mackenzie River. We arrived in early August and spent the first day organizing our gear and getting acquainted. Our group consisted of six seasoned paddlers and two guides. Sarah, the chief guide, had over 10 years’ experience and was a veteran of many northern trips. Garnet, our assistant guide, was a 19-year-old youth on his second guiding trip. Though young, he possessed a quiet self confidence and unflappable manner that put our minds at ease.

Wild Blue Yonder

The next morning, we loaded two floatplanes with our canoes and two weeks’ worth of supplies in preparation for a spectacular 45-minute flight over the Mackenzie Mountains. The weather was ideal; the azure sky gleamed and diffused the brilliant morning sunlight over the river valley as our two small planes climbed high to evade the approaching peaks.

The weather in the Northwest Territories is capricious and we were blissfully unaware how lucky we were to have such a perfect send-off. Looking around at the transfixed faces of my son and the other passengers, I couldn’t help feeling that I was in a dream. A trip like this requires so much planning, preparation and practice as well as a leap of faith that everything will work out, that when it finally arrives, it doesn’t seem real.

The planes touched down on a small alpine lake and, after quickly paddling to the other shore, we organized ourselves for our one and only portage: a one-kilometre trek over animal trails that would lead us to a small creek called Push-Me-Pull-You. It was aptly named since it was barely wide enough to accommodate our canoes and too shallow to paddle.

It tested our patience over the next day and a half, forcing us to drag our loads over the ragged gravel beds until finally arriving at a wider section called Black Feather Creek that would eventually spill into the Mountain River. This part of the trip was like putting up with the opening act at a show while impatiently waiting for the featured artist.

Black Feather Creek was a nice precursor to the Mountain River. It had crystal clear water and a moderate current, allowing us to warm up and practise our strokes before facing the challenges ahead. We hit a few rocks early on, one forcefully enough in a head-on collision to break the yoke of the canoe. One tricky section downstream featured a mini canyon with a dogleg turn that required pinpoint maneuvering.

Alec and I weren’t quite in synch yet at this early stage. We came in wide on the turn and got swept up in the current, broadsiding our canoe into the canyon wall and lurching badly to one side. Somehow, we managed to stay upright and got through, but it was a sobering reminder of the power of moving water.

Unlike paddling on a lake, the swift moving water of a river, especially one as powerful as the Mountain, can be a juggernaut that tosses you around like a matchstick. A wise paddler will learn to anticipate the current and pick a line that harnesses the energy of the water rather than fighting the flow, which only leads to exhaustion or worse, an upset and potentially a long swim in frigid water.

Direct Current

We finally arrived at the confluence of the Mountain River on the third day and traded the limpid aquamarine water of Black Feather Creek for the silty, turbid water of the Mountain. We immediately felt the power of the surging current pull us downstream as our canoes bobbed up and down on the swollen water. The rest of the day was spent negotiating the many turns of the upper section with occasional sightings of Dall’s sheep and caribou. It wasn’t technically too difficult but we had to stay alert to avoid sweepers (fallen trees along the shores) and gravel bars.

We ended the day on a sandbar where we set up camp amid the driftwood and scattered rocks. Our guides always left markers at the water’s edge to gage the water depth — there’s always the danger that sudden changes in water levels will flood your camp.

The next day was the only layover of the 12-day trip and we climbed up to a high alpine meadow to take in the magnificent views of the peaks and river valley below. On our descent, three of us were separated from the main group and became disoriented when we reached the river’s edge and didn’t see our camp.

We realized that we were around a bend but weren’t sure where we were. Fortunately, I had my GPS and a topographic map with our camp position marked on it, so we were able to quickly find our way. When we arrived back, I was half expecting to be greeted by cheers of joy and relief from the other group members, but no one had even noticed our absence — they were too busy chasing a porcupine that had waddled into camp.

Over the next few days, we pushed on at a steady pace like nomads leaving ephemeral traces of our passage. The days were long, with daylight until well past midnight. However, the weather was at times foul, rain was a frequent companion and the temperature in the upper reaches of the Mountain River dipped into the single digits at night. Fortunately, the group members had considerable outdoors experience; most had been to the North before, so the vicissitudes of weather were an accepted part of the equation.

Canyon Fever

Anticipation ran high as we approached the first canyon midway through our trip. The canyons are the most dramatic and technically challenging sections of the river. We all got through the first part without a problem, but Garnet’s canoe capsized in the second section while negotiating a tricky turn. The steep canyon walls made it impossible to pull the canoe to shore so he had to swim downstream to find a suitable shoreline.

Meanwhile, his canoe partner clambered part way up the canyon wall to await rescue. It was a pointed reminder of how quickly things can turn sour on a trip like this. Alec and I were tense as we approached the same section but made it through without mishap, to our great relief.

The second canyon came and went without incident but everyone was apprehensive about the third: it was the most technically challenging, and the river was swollen from all the rain, ensuring a wild ride. The approach into the entrance of the canyon was quite narrow, squeezing the water between a vertical rock wall and a sharp bend. The river gushed and churned, with two-metre waves tossing us around like rubber ducks. Amazingly, the entire group made it through and continued on to the end of the canyon, riding a continuous wave while dodging boulders.

We set up camp on a sandbar at the bottom of the canyon just in time to avoid a torrential downpour. But the heavy rain couldn’t dampen our spirits and the group was giddy with a mixture of elation, exhaustion and relief. The rain abated briefly and we were treated to a sublime display of double rainbows and ethereal cloud formations. This magnificent day would prove to be the emotional high point and paddling climax of the trip.

During the last few days, the river changed as it emerged from the Mackenzie Mountains into the flat Mackenzie River plain. The current held and we were still moving swiftly but the scenery was less dramatic and the river began to lose some of its vigour.

We spent our last night on the shore of the Mackenzie River before being picked up by barge for the five-hour trip upstream to Norman Wells.

Over supper and cold beers that evening, we celebrated the accomplishments of the previous two weeks. The trip had been a raw, white-knuckle ride. We had seen a vestige of the wild frontier and emerged with a sense of wonder at the scale and ineffable beauty of this land.

Dr Michael Steirman is a radiologist at the Markham-Stouffville Hospital in Markham, Ontario, where he spent five years as chief of diagnostic imaging. He started canoeing at camp when he was a youngster and has been at it ever since. This was his first trip to the North. He plans to go hiking this summer with his family in the Gaspé region of Quebec. His son Alec has plans for a three-week canoe trip.

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