FIRTH RIVER PART THREE: Sheep Creek Rapids

This will be a quick post as I am about to leave for Mexico and Costa Rica. The Firth has many rapids but none as wild as those at Sheep Creek. On my first trip, all guests rode the rafts, but policy has changed. On the second and third trips, we hiked up to a viewpoint while the guides took the rafts through one at a time. What follows in a mix from two trips.

First challenge.

Yes, there's a raft in there.

Yes, there’s a raft in there.

There it is.

There it is.

Second obstacle.

Sideways works as well as straight on.

Sideways works as well as straight on.

A bit of a splash.

A bit of a splash.

Safely through.

Safely through.

Third obstacle.

Let's get lined up right.

Let’s get lined up right.

Paddle hard!

Paddle hard!

Harder!

Harder!

Almost have it.

Almost have it.

Easy does it.

Easy does it.

Made it.

Made it.

There’s lots more to show about the Canyon Reach, but that’s for a later post (probably not for a few weeks).

FIRTH RIVER PART TWO The Mountain Reach

The Firth River Valley

The Firth River Valley

An ancient, gentle landscape, untouched by the overpowering forces of glaciation. Since the British Mountains arose in the Tertiary Period, only erosion has shaped the rounded summits and smooth slopes, broad flood plains, and fluvial and bedrock terraces.

Parks describes the Firth in terms of four regions. The first, which we did not visit, is the Aufeis Reach which provides much of the flow in the river in summer. Aufeis is water that trickles up from the ground and freezes in layers. We would see a lot of it further downstream, but we landed in the Mountain Reach where it had all melted.

First camp near Margaret Lake, and a first taste of Firth weather

First camp near Margaret Lake, and an introduction to Firth weather

Northern light

Northern light

The terrain throughout the Firth makes for easy hiking, but because the river changes course from year to year, it may not be possible to repeat a hike you did on an earlier trip.

My favourite hike.

My favourite hike. Note the flood plain and the winding course of the river.

An easy trek into the unknown.

An easy trek into the unknown.

The landscape is perhaps more dramatic in its history than visually. Over the millennia, rain, wind, freeze-thaw, and gravity have weathered the slopes, exposing the bedrock and moving bits of it downhill to form bedrock terraces, just as the river, in cutting through the earth, has left behind fluvial terraces.

Winding river

Erosion at work

Compare a typical scene from the Canadian Rockies.

View from Deception Pass, Skoki Valley trail.

View from Deception Pass, Skoki Valley trail.

The Rockies are much older than the British Mountains, but because of recent glaciation, erosion has had little time to wear down the rock. Note also the hanging valleys, some of which still hold glaciers.

Another feature which one does not see in glaciated mountains is tors, which are rocky outcroppings on lower slopes and ridges.

Approaching Wolf Tors campsite

Approaching Wolf Tors campsite. Yes, there are rapids on the Firth! These are mild.

Life on the river can be lazy and comfortable or absolutely miserable, depending on what the weather gods dictate.

Short break for fishing.

Short break for fishing.

Campsites are wherever you want to put in and are generally welcoming and scenic.

Home for the night.

Home for the night.

Gravel, but it's flat and makes a good tent site.

Gravel, but it’s flat and makes good tent sites.

Puerto Vallarta North

Puerto Vallarta North

Every party camps at Wolf Tors and on each of my trips we have spent two nights there.

Camp at Wolf Tors. There are multiple levels to choose from, depending on how far you want to carry your gear.

Camp at Wolf Tors. There are multiple terraces to choose from, depending on how far you want to carry your gear.

Tors at Wolf Tors

Detail of tors at Wolf Tors. This was on my first trip and the weather was sunny.

Of course, the Firth has moods. On my third trip we were less fortunate.

Snow at Wolf Tors camp

Snow and my tent at Wolf Tors camp

One day, I may do a post on the travels of my little Hilleberg Jannu tent. It’s been through a lot and has never failed me.

After Wolf Tors, we entered the Canyon Reach and some exciting rapids. That’s for the next post.

FIRTH RIVER, YUKON: PART ONE

Treeless mountains, a winding course, fierce whitewater.

Treeless mountains, a winding course, fierce whitewater, coastal plain, a quiet end.

Eleven days. Ivvavik Nation Park in the Yukon. Ten thousand square km of wilderness north of the Arctic Circle. No roads, no inhabitants. A unique river that escaped the glaciers that scoured and scraped across Canada over the past two million years. Just us. Three rafts carrying people who love being the only humans in a place that has remained virtually unchanged since our species first appeared on the continent.

The only way to get here.

The only way to get here.

It begins with a bush plane that drops us off in a pleasant meadow. It ends on a lonely spit of land by the Beaufort Sea.

Sunset on Nunaluk Spit

Sunset on Nunaluk Spit

I’ve rafted the Firth three times with Nahanni River Adventures. I’d like to do it again before I die. It’s that magical.

I’ll have several posts about the river, using photos from two of my trips (my computer ate everything from my second journey). Below is a sampling.

First camp near Mary Lake

First camp near Margaret Lake. The Arctic was being kind to us.

Gravel beaches, grey skies.

Gravel beaches, grey skies.

Lunch in the cold with good companions.

Lunch in the cold with good companions.

Lots of time to explore.

Lots of time to explore.

Beautiful places to camp.

Beautiful places to camp.

Fascinating, ancient, multi-coloured rock

Fascinating, ancient, multi-coloured rock

Exciting rapids. The guides made us walk around this one.

Exciting rapids. The guides made us walk around this one.

A curious muskox.

A curious muskox.

The river ends in a peaceful and very shallow lagoon.

The river ends in a peaceful and very shallow lagoon.

Nunaluk Spit and the Beaufort sea. A barren, windswept place of haunting beauty.

Nunaluk Spit and the Beaufort sea. A barren, windswept place of haunting beauty.

Land's end at 2 a;m.

Land’s end at 2 a;m.

INTERLUDE IN YELLOWKNIFE

Welcome to Yellowknife, Dene Ndilo First Nations

Welcome to Yellowknife, Dene Ndilo First Nations

I don’t like cities, although I live in one and appreciate the amenities it offers. I don’t pretend to know Yellowknife, but I like it. It’s the capital of the Northwest Territories and its only city.

Four days between rafting trips gave me time to do laundry, plan a couple of hikes (mosquitoes quickly suggested a different itinerary) and visit the old town, which was a pleasant 30 minute walk from my hotel. First Nations, ravens, bedrock, quirky buildings, and Great Slave Lake: those are the images I remember. But even more, I remember how everyone I met while walking smiled and said “Hello.” That doesn’t happen in my city, where people seem afraid to look you in the eye.

From my hotel, I could see the lake in the distance, a generous swatch of the huge northern sky, and one of the brightly coloured buildings that are plentiful in places like Yellowknife, Whitehorse and Inuvik, but sadly lacking in Canadian cities farther to the south. When snow covers the ground for much of the year, what’s wrong with some blue, red, green, purple and yellow to break the monotony?

View from my hotel room.

View from my hotel room.

The historic old part of the city is especially colourful, with new beauty every few steps.

Art works abound.

Art works abound.

Add some flowers.

Add some flowers.

Or just paint your house blue.

Or just paint your house blue.

Quirky houses are everywhere.

One of my favourites.

One of my favourites.

Then I began to get quirky.

Then I began to get quirky.

And then there's the problem of building on solid bedrock.

And then there’s the problem of building on solid bedrock.  No basements here.

You do what you have to do, and if the rock isn't level, neither is your house.

You do what you have to do, and if the rock isn’t level, neither is your house.

But the real beauty of Yellowknife is the lake.

Boats and float planes

Boats and float planes

As the snow swirls around my window, I like to imagine that I am sitting in one of those chairs.

As December snow swirls around my window, I like to imagine that I’m sitting in one of those chairs.

I never did the hikes I planned. Just walking around the city, chatting with the friendly locals, including some who were down on their luck but no less friendly, was enough for this visit.

Will I be back? Of course. The North is a magnet that keeps reeling me in. And this trip, which began on the Nahanni, was not at an end. From Yellowknife I flew to Inuvik and a rafting trip on the Firth. That’s for future posts.

Nahanni Odds and Ends

Makenzie Orchid

Mackenzie Orchid

Most of the flowers I saw were old friends from the Rockies: death camas, potentilla, lousewort, asters, bog rosemary, and reindeer lichen. Lady slippers occur there as well, but the beautiful Mackenzie orchid (a version of Cypripedum guttatum) thrives only in the mist of Virginia Falls. At least I recognized it sufficiently to call it a lady slipper.

The following pretty bloom was a real puzzler.

Boschnialia rossica

Boschniakia rossica

I spent a long time searching the internet in vain for this one. Fortunately, one of our guides was a trained botanist and came to my rescue a few days ago. Its common name is northern groundcone, and it’s a parasite.

The final plant oddity isn’t really unusual; I just had not encountered it before. Plus, it wasn’t fully in bloom. This time, Ben Gadd’s  wonderful Handbook of the Canadian Rockies provided the answer, as it usually does for anything in the Boreal forest.

Striped Coral Root Corallorhiza striata

Striped Coral Root.  Corallorhiza striata

It’s another orchid. No leaves. It feeds on dead plant matter with a little help from fungal friends.

We didn’t see a lot of wildlife, but it was there.

Caribou tracks on a beach

Caribou tracks on a beach

A couple more sky pictures. The clouds were endlessly fascinating.

A sunny day with promise of showers later

A sunny day with promise of showers later

 

Cloud mountains

Cloud mountains

And finally, here is what the Nahanni would look like today if the mountains had not risen up around it. It still has its curves and oxbows, but they are far less obvious as they flow through deep canyons.

Flat-land river

Flat-land river

That’s all from the Nahanni. The next posts will deal with the rest of my summer holiday: Yellowknife and the Firth River.

Canyons of the Nahanni: First Canyon

Nahanni sky

Nahanni sky

Headless corpses? A man by his fire, match in hand, frozen solid? A woman who wanders off cliffs and over rivers before her track disappears? A mysterious tribe called the Naha who wear armour, swoop down from the mountains, and behead their victims?  Ah yes. Nahanni is a dangerous river, and on some days it seems to live up to its legends.

Behind the walls of the cliff pictured below lies a complex cave system known as the Grotte Valerie. Early visitors found a frozen waterfall with a large chamber at the bottom which they christened “Gallery of Dead Sheep” because of the hundreds of skeletons within. Over the centuries, sheep wandered into the cave, slid down the waterfall and were unable to get out. The Grotte is now closed to visitors to protect its delicate formations.

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Grotte Valerie. Main entrance is behind trees at extreme upper left.

First Canyon is a rugged landscape.

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Beach in First Canyon

One can only imagine how this canyon must have appeared to R.M.Patterson. A young Englishman with no experience in the north or with a canoe, and stoked by warnings that people went up the river but never came back, he found himself dwarfed by walls that rose 1000 metres above him. Today, we may laugh at his fears, but would any of us attempt his journey or survive it?

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At play in inflatable kayak. We know where we are camping tonight and we have experienced guides in rafts behind us.

Gradually we leave the high walls and canyons behind.

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End of the canyons.

Time for a frolic in Klaus Hot Springs.

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Klaus Hot Springs

We carry on toward Nahanni Butte under a spectacular sky.

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Storm over Nahanni Butte

Rain doesn’t bother us, but lightning forces us to put to shore several times and wait.

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A scene that is more beautiful than it felt at the time.

We camped in the rain, woke to mist and a fair day. A motor boat came to take us to Nahanni Butte.

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Last camp.

This was my second time down the Nahanni. It will not be my last; the river works it way into your soul and beckons you back.

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CANYONS OF THE NAHANNI: SECOND CANYON

Morning at The Gate

Morning at The Gate

We prepare to enter Second Canyon under a clear sky. A group of canoeists had shared our site. They had a blue raft to carry baggage.

Second Canyon is sheer rock cliffs that dwarf our rafts, but there are gentler areas as well.

Cliffs of Second Canyon

Cliffs of Second Canyon

 

Time to lean back and let the beauty take over.

Time to lean back and let the beauty take over.

We stop for lunch at Painted Rocks Canyon. Time for a short hike. Or not.

There are many ways to enjoy the river.

There are many ways to enjoy the river.

On past Headless Creek (ah, those wonderful Nahanni legends), Meilleur River, and Sheaf Creek, where R.M.Patterson built his cabin and spent the winter of 1929. If you haven’t read his book The Dangerous River, you’ve missed the best of Canadian nature writing.

We camped at Prairie Creek, a broad delta, flat and open, with nice tent sites. Next morning, I rose early, put the camera to work, and then sat down to describe the scene.

Early morning at Prairie Creek

Early morning at Prairie Creek

Across the river, a dense lodgepole pine forest rises to rounded hills and behind them, the reddish brown mass of Tlogotcho Plateau. The wind and the river are quiet, the only sounds the chirping of birds, the soft talk of the guides preparing breakfast, and the ever-present whine of mosquitoes.

Prairie Creek camp

Prairie Creek camp

Shrubs, reeds or grass, shallow pools of still water, hard-packed damp sand, and beyond, a range of mountains.. Wispy clouds seem to promise a fair day, but on this river, sun and storm play hide and seek.

Sheltered tent site

Sheltered tent site

To my right, a tent nestles among spindly poplars. It’s a perfect day for a nature hike, and we go in search of a wolf den. No luck with the wolves, but we see our first dall sheep. They’re too far away to photograph clearly, even with my 800mm digital lens. Predictably, storm clouds chase us back to camp.

The night was too warm for a good sleep, so I listened to the sprinkle of rain on the tent, one the most soothing sounds of camping. Mosquitoes bad in the morning. We load up and splash through George’s Riffle and into First Canyon.

George's Riffle.

George’s Riffle.

George Sibbeston was a trapper who capsized here. Our rafts scoffed at the tiny waves.

Bad weather came in quickly. What did First Canyon have in store for us?

Storm clouds

Storm clouds

 

Next post: First Canyon and the end of our journey.