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.

Mexican Interlude

Courtyard, Rancho las Cascadas

Courtyard, Rancho las Cascadas

I don’t spend all of my time in the Arctic; Mexico is high on my list of favourite countries. But don’t expect to find me lazing on a beach, quaffing margaritas.Take me to a remote area in the mountains north of Mexico City, put me on a horse, and let a week of bliss unfold.

Rancho las Cascadas has it all: horses for every kind of rider, luxurious accommodations, pleasant scenery and wonderful staff, most of whom are monolingual Spanish speakers, but we manage to communicate well. And it’s also close enough to the World Heritage city of San Miguel de Allende to allow a day visit.

Here are some highlights from the week.

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Cactus and waterfalls

Cascada, of course, is Spanish for waterfall, and there are several that one can visit on horseback, as well as this one just below the main  lodge.

I love the way small spaces are turned into beautiful places that invite you to pause, relax, and reflect on the pleasures of life.

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Lunch in the shade

The main ranch house is large, but the spaces carved out in it are small and intimate, like the covered porch below. At one end, this cozy seating area, at the other, tables where we ate breakfast.

Cozy corner at the ranch house

Cozy corner at the ranch house

 

Another courtyard, this time in San Miguel de Allende.

Another courtyard, this time in San Miguel de Allende.

The welcoming sign in San Miguel says that the city is Mexico’s gift to the world. With steep, narrow cobblestone streets and colonial architecture at every turn, this is a place to savour slowly.

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Colonial architecture in San Miguel de Allende

But I came for the riding. No nose-to tail horse parades here. The horses love to run, and in hot months, one can also take them swimming.

The countryside is open, sparsely populated except for small villages where one can stop for a beer. A full-day ride will take you into the mountains, but I prefer to ride two or three hours in the morning, return to the ranch for lunch, and then ride again in the afternoon.

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Riding

The wranglers are local men who know the country and take excellent care of the horses.

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Excellent wranglers

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And beautiful horses.

Well, mostly…

Versace

Versace

What a misnomer! Versace is a scrawny, scruffy horse that loves to run like the wind but is also happy to walk all day with eyes at half mast. He was the perfect mount for a woman whose idea of haute couture is a tee shirt and jeans, and who has reached an age where galloping is decidedly unwise.

AN AWESOME TRIP: Rafting Chilco Lake to Yale, BC Part Two

Shane

Shane

When I think back on our trip down the Fraser, one image stands out: Shane. With his long white hair and piercing gaze, he looks like a larger-than-life, stereotypical river guide. After we set off in the powered rafts the first morning, he talked non-stop for 30 minutes, and I wondered  if he was going to talk all the way to Yale. Later, when I mentioned this to Sue, owner of Fraser River Raft Expeditions, she laughed and said, “And he did, didn’t he?” Yes, Shane talked a lot, because he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the river and its history. It’s worth taking the trip just to learn from him, especially about the mining operations that seemingly transformed almost the entire river valley.

Our new rafts were loaded with an unbelievable amount of gear (loading them each morning was like trying to assemble a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle), but they still provided plenty of room to spread out in comfort and enjoy the view.

At ease in the sun.

At ease in the sun. Shane at the helm.

Most of the time, we floated with the current, reserving the surprisingly quiet motor for rapids or when we needed to make up time. Some of the guides who were with us on the first part of the trip continued with us for a while, enjoying a break from rowing. Lisa was the working guide on the second raft; she’s at left below, eating an apple.

All play and no work?

All play and no work? Lazy day on the river, or a river guide’s dream job.

The big rafts easily rode waves that would have tossed our smaller crafts about. Not that we didn’t get wet; the Fraser has big, big rapids in keeping with its size, and we soon got to experience them. Unfortunately for my blog, big, big rapids require hanging on to the raft with both hands, and since I couldn’t work my little Lumix with my teeth, I didn’t get any photos of them. There probably is a GoPro in my future.

Sailing through troubled waters.

Sailing through troubled waters.  NH

The Fraser does not disappoint in scenery, which is as majestic and beautiful as the river.

Wondrous rock formations.

Wondrous rock formations. White lines show earlier water levels. Water was low when we went through.

 

Terraces, showing earlier river beds.

Terraces, showing earlier river beds.

 

Sand, sage brush, rock and a bit of greenery.

Sand, sage brush, rock and a bit of greenery.

 

Shane shows us some petroglyphs.

Shane shows us some petroglyphs.  NH

 

Dwarfed.

Dwarfed.

 

Well, this is supposed to be a holiday, isn't it? NH

Just resting my eyes. Well, this is supposed to be a holiday, isn’t it? NH

We always went ashore for lunch, and the Fraser offered no shortage of scenic, sandy beaches.

Coming ashore.

Coming ashore.  NH

Sue, Shane, and Lisa, as well as the guides who were on holiday, all saw to our comforts, even at the lunch stops. On some days, the sun was so hot that protective tarps and umbrellas had to be set up. From the lunch spot below, we could see hoodoos and the strangely flat ridge tops that revealed former river beds. Coming from the Rocky Mountains, I am more used to rounded hilltops like those in the background. Our rivers cut through rock and leave a different footprint on the landscape.

Lunch on a sandy beach.

Lunch on a sandy beach.  NH

The haunting beauty of sand, water and rock remains one of my most precious memories of the trip.

Beautiful shoreline.

Beautiful shoreline.

Most of our campsites were on sand, which was wonderfully comfortable when dry, miserable after it rained.

Torch light at supper? I never expected that. NH

Torch light at supper? I never expected that. NH

On a clear night, the sky provided all the entertainment we could ask for.

Starlight and campfire. NH

Starlight and campfire. NH

We didn’t have time for a lot of hiking on this trip, but on one layover day, several people walked up to a place called the Cathedral, an impressive rock formation that also provided a fine view.

The Cathedral. NH

The Cathedral. NH

 

A fine view. NH

A fine view. NH

Have I mentioned the food? Locally supplied fruit and vegetables were better than anything one can buy in a supermarket. And Sue and Lisa should open a restaurant.

Sue (right) and Lisa and some of their handiwork.

Sue (right) and Lisa and some of their handiwork.

 

Breakfast.

Breakfast. Or why you should not expect to lose weight on this trip.

Most of the wildlife we saw was of the avian variety, but the occasional black bear put in an appearance and we also saw some sheep.

Sheep. NH

Sheep. NH

Ferries, abandoned mining buildings, roads and railroads tell a story of human imprint on the land, an imprint that is missing from the northern rivers I have travelled. I find no beauty in them, but Shane made them fascinating.

Remnants of gold mining.

Remnants of gold mining. The rocks on the bottom were purposely washed down the canyon in the search for gold.

 

Ferry. The lands on either side of the river are sparsely populated.

Ferry. The lands on both sides of the river are sparsely populated, so a ferry makes more sense than a bridge.

In places, the roads had to be buttressed by retaining walls of stone. I can only marvel at the intense labour involved.

Support structure.

Support structure.

The river became ever more impressive and the rapids fiercer. At one point, we had to walk while the guides took the rafts through a dangerous passage.

With waves towering over his head, Shane holds to his course.

With waves towering over his head, Shane holds to his course.

The final days were quite different. We enjoyed a community dinner put on by the First Nations people of one town, took a group of elders down the river, slept in teepees our final night, joined a very scholarly group on the last day, and (at last!) rafted through Hell’s Gate.

The vacationing guides had left us, and a group of elders filled the second raft.

The vacationing guides had left us, and a group of elders filled the second raft.

 

Teepee lodging. Slept on the grass. By now, I was tired of my tent.

Teepee lodging. Slept on the grass. By now, I was tired of my tent.

 

Last day on the river. Joined by a group taking a very educational tour.

Last day on the river. Joined by a group taking a very educational tour. When there’s no baggage, the rafts hold quite a few people.

Hell’s Gate wasn’t the most exciting rapid we experienced, as it lasted only a few seconds, but it was certainly the most famous. With a bridge, cable car and restaurant above the rapid, we were sure to have an audience, and we circled around in quiet water for a few minutes, hoping that someone would notice. A few people came onto the bridge, probably thinking that we were crazy.

Shane preparing to run a rapid.

Shane preparing to run a rapid.

 

Without a GoPro or similar camera, this is about all you can photograph at Hell's Gate.

Without a GoPro or similar camera, this is about all you can photograph at Hell’s Gate. You can see the bridge and the cable car, and the narrow passage that gives the rapid its name.

To quote from the FRRE brochure, “The grand finale is the roller-coaster action of Sailors Bar rapids, a chain of huge standing waves that we rerun several times.” I think it was in these rapids that I almost went flying out of the raft. We ran them three times, and I doubt that I could have held on for a fourth. But they were indeed, a grand finale.

My heartfelt thanks to Neil, Tyler and Sue for making this trip possible. For someone who is addicted to Canada’s north, it was an eye-opening experience and one of the best trips I taken in the course of a long life.

End of the line. Do Neil and Ester look happy?

End of the line. Do Neil and Ester look happy?

The Polar Bears of Churchill: A Pilgrimage

The world's largest land predator.

The world’s largest land predator.

Travelling to Churchill, Manitoba to see the polar bears is hardly a unique undertaking; thousands of people have made the trip and taken stunning photographs. But it was a uniquely personal experience for me. Having spent much of my life hiking and climbing in the Canadian Rockies, I treasure every encounter I have had with the grizzly and black bears of that wilderness. The black bears are doing well, but the grizzlies are in trouble, although they are still abundant enough to be seen regularly and still have a chance for survival. Unfortunately, the polar bears of Churchill are probably doomed by the ever-increasing loss of ice in Hudson Bay, ice that they need in order to catch the seals that are their main source of food.

Perhaps I should admit to “ambulance tourism,” a sort of see-the-animal-before-it’s-gone-forever mindset. I’ve done a fair amount of that: cheetahs, rhinos, wild dogs and elephants in Africa; grey whales in Mexico; Argali sheep and Przewalski’s horses in Mongolia. But no animal arouses more emotion in me than bears, and no bear is more magnificent than the polar bear. This is the story of my journey.

Because I believe that Natural Habitat, in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, does an excellent job of minimizing the ecological impact of its tours while maximizing the benefit to wildlife, I signed up with them for a photo tour based out of Churchill, Manitoba.  The tour included three full days on the tundra in a Polar Rover plus short bus tours the afternoon of our arrival and the morning of our departure. When you want to see wildlife, you need as much time and opportunity as possible because the wildlife cares nothing for your desires or schedule. Somehow we hit the jackpot, with bear sightings on all five days.

The shore of Hudson Bay around Churchill is pretty desolate, looking more like the Arctic than its southerly location would suggest. This inukshuk greeted us. Note that the water in the bay has not yet frozen over, so the bears cannot leave for their winter hunt and are still gathered around Churchill.

Inukshuk in Churchill.

Inukshuk in Churchill.

We had barely settled into our seats on the bus taking us from the airport to our hotel when the driver pointed to our first bear. We had to look hard because to our inexperienced eyes, the bear was almost indistinguishable from the background. It wasn’t long, however, before we were able to pick out a white bear in a white landscape with ease.

Our first bear, dimly seen through the mist and snow.

Our first bear, dimly seen through the mist and snow.

During lunch, we learned that some bears were to be airlifted from the bear jail that afternoon, and we almost ran over our photographer leader as we leapt from the table and headed for the bus.  Now I’m just a duffer when it comes to photography, but we had some pros in our little group, and they were an avid bunch. They came prepared with multiple cameras, gigantic lenses and, of course, warm clothing.

Setting up to see the bears get flown out.

Setting up to see the bears get flown out.

We weren’t disappointed. Three bears began their journey north by helicopter.

Hopefully these bears will find ice and not return to Churchill.

Hopefully these bears will find ice and not return to Churchill.

Polar bears by themselves are cute, cuddly and wonderful subjects for the camera (if you have a long lens and the protection of a sturdy vehicle). They almost seem to enjoy posing.

What a handsome fellow I am!

What a handsome fellow I am!

I think my foot is pretty impressive.

I think my foot is pretty impressive.

I would rather be hunting seals.

I would rather be hunting seals.

They are also very curious, coming right up to the vehicles.

A mother and cub inspect a Polar Rover.

A mother and cub inspect a Polar Rover.

And you may be just inches from two beady eyes and a snout.

Hmmm. What's this?

Hmmm. What’s this?

Hi there!

Hi there!

Or even closer!

There's a boot one inch from my nose.

There’s a boot one inch from my nose and paws.

Churchill is a zoo where the people are in cages. It’s not like Africa, where the safari vehicles often are open, and the protection they offer comes solely from the animals’ inability to recognize that a good meal is only a few feet away. I’m pretty certain that if the polar bears could get onto the open platforms of the Polar Rovers, they would consider the people there a decent substitute for seals.

As we drove around the tundra and shore of the bay, we found haunting scenes of wild beauty.

A very old tree.

A very old tree.

Sunset

Sunset

Twilight

Twilight

A frigid hour to enjoy the aurora borealis. I had no tripod and didn’t know what I was doing, but help from our intrepid leader allowed me to get one decent shot.

On a clear night you can see....

On a clear night you can see….

And on one day, sunshine.

Note how ice is forming in the bay.

Note how ice is forming in the bay.

Without the heated Polar Rover, we would have been hard pressed to take many photographs. No one could stand out on the rear platform for more than a few minutes. Most of the time, we shot through the open windows of the rover.

Dressed for the conditions.

Dressed for the conditions.

If one bear alone is cute, two together are a star act. When two males meet, they often engage in play fighting that only occasionally becomes nasty.

Meet and greet.

Meet and greet.

Let's dance.

Let’s dance.

I'm pretty fierce.

I’m pretty fierce.

Do we need a referee?

Do we need a referee?

Peace!

Peace!

But it is mothers and cubs that provide the best entertainment.

Mother with older cub coming to inspect our vehicle.

Mother with older cub coming to inspect our vehicle.

Mother with young cub and a goal in mind.

Mother with young cub and a goal in mind.

Oops!

Oops!

What's the hurry?

Hey, what’s the hurry?

Whee!

Whee!

Mother and cub heading for downtown Churchill.

Mother and cub heading for Churchill.

The end of our visit coincided with the freeze-up of Hudson Bay, and we were treated to the sight of bear butts heading out across the ice, not to return until next summer. I have no idea how many bears we saw, as we lost count on our first full day on the tundra. Tours that came before us probably saw fewer, while the two or three that came later would have seen only stragglers. It was no stroke of genius on my part to choose these particular dates; sometimes you’re lucky with wildlife, sometimes not.

Our last bear.

Our last bear.

As a bear experience, this trip left me with mixed feelings. Yes, I took photographs that I could never get in the Canadian Rockies, where I go on foot and usually solo. I do my best to avoid close encounters, but in fifty years of wilderness hiking, I’ve had a few. When I was 60 feet from a full-grown male grizzly that was standing on its hind legs trying to figure out what I was, taking a photo was the last thing on my mind. And yet, that encounter, which ended with the bear leaving the scene, has never been matched for the awe and shear joy that it inspired (after I stopped shaking, of course).

Such an experience is just not possible with polar bears, any more than it is with lions, leopards and the like. The closest I have come to meeting a polar bear in the wild was a night on Baffin Island, when I was in a tent with two other women, far from the security of our base camp, and with no gun to protect us. No bear came, but even though it’s a night I would rather forget, it remains almost as vivid in my memory as the grizzly encounter.

The Churchill tour goes alongside the tour of Botswana (also with Natural Habitat) that I took earlier in the year. It was a wonderful trip that I will revisit and cherish through my photos, but there is a profound difference between observing nature and being a part of it. If advancing age makes organized tours a reasonable and enjoyable alternative to prancing around the mountains with a heavy pack on my back, it will not deter me from seeking experiences that can be gained in no other way. At least, not so long as I have two good feet.

Copyright Notice: All photographs in this blog are the property of Jo Ann Creore. All rights reserved.

Botswana Photo Safari: Twelve Best

Copyright Notice: All photos on this blog post are copyrighted by the owner, Jo Ann Creore.  All rights reserved.

 

I’ve taken a long hiatus from blogging but not because I have been inactive. Wonderful trips to a Mexican ranch for horseback riding and to Baja to touch and kiss grey whales, plus a return to my favourite winter backcountry retreat have made for a busy year. Normally I would hasten to write about these trips, but a new passion has taken over my life: writing mysteries. It took a photo safari with Natural Habitat in Botswana to jolt me back onto the blogging path.  In subsequent posts, I’ll share images of various animals, but I want to start with my favourites: the twelve best.

The first six were easy. Here they are, in random order. Click on photos for full-screen view.

 

1. Heron. This bird seemed to be posing for a Rembrandt painting.Heron

 

 

2. Female Leopard. Grace and confidence.

Female Leopard

 

 

3. The light was right, and the lady performed.

Female Leopard

 

 

4. A magic moment, when the impala posed against the light.

Impala

 

 

5.  I have no idea what he was laughing about.

Lion laughing

 

 

6.  Four cubs wondering who we are.

Four cubs dining

 

 

The next six won out over stiff competition.

 

7.  The most beautiful bird in Africa in all its glory: Lilac-breasted Roller.

Lilac-breated Roller

 

 

8.  Killer expression.

Roller

 

 

9.  Vultures are beautiful only when they fly.

Vultures

 

 

10.  I didn’t see the baby in the middle until I started working on the photo.

Elephant family

 

 

11. I didn’t take a lot of landscapes, but I love the peace and calm of this scene.

African calm

 

 

12.  Majestic baobab trees.

Baobabs

A Horse Trek in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia 2013

 

Dosjan

GETTING THERE

Here I am, doing one of the things I hate most: flying.  Why?  Well, if I could get to Mongolia in a rowboat, I would.  Instead, on June 7, I fly from Edmonton to Vancouver, spend a highly overpriced night in the airport hotel, board Air Canada for ten sleepless hours, change to KAL in Seoul and arrive in Ulaan Baatar late in the evening of June 9.  Or so I think; the international dateline has my mind as well as my body confused.  I’m getting too old for this nonsense.

It’s all Eddie Frank’s fault.  He runs Tusker Trail.  I’m a big fan of Tusker Trail.  In 2009 I climbed Kilimanjaro with them and was so impressed with the company that I signed up for their Mongolia horse trek in 2011, even though I didn’t have a clue at the time how to ride a horse.  That trip was so exhilarating and inspiring that I knew I had to repeat it.  I have conveniently forgotten the discomfort associated with getting to the actual starting point of the trek.

Mongolia doesn’t have paved roads linking the capital to any major town, and the Altai Mountains lie in the westernmost part of the country.  It’s a big country.  So you can drive for days on dirt tracks or fly.  At 0330 on June 11, eight jet-lagged trekkers plus Amy Micks, Eddie Frank’s wife and co-leader, stagger from our beds and head to the airport for the flight to Ulgii.

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Aero Mongolia seems to fly only if the weather is good, a policy that gives us lots of time to get to know each other as our flight is delayed for hours.  Eventually we board for the three-hour trip.  Mongolia teaches patience.

Ulgii

Ulgii

Ulgii is a decent sized town inhabited mostly by Kazakhs, who have their own language and traditions.  They are nominally Muslim, while most Mongolians are nominally Buddhist.  Religion of any kind was brutally suppressed by Stalin, so it seems to play a minor part in everyday life.

Dosjan, our local guide, meets us and we drive to a tourist ger (yurt) camp, which is only just being set up for the season.

Most tourist ger camps are both beautiful and comfortable.  This one isn't.

Most tourist ger camps are well appointed, well staffed and comfortable. This one isn’t.

Located beside the Khovd River, the camp is picturesque, but the gers are still sparsely furnished, with little carpeting or decoration.  The caretaker is a squirrelly little man whose vocabulary seems to consist entirely of “Hooh!” and whose understanding of the needs of his guests approaches zero.  Still, we appreciate the beauty of the place.

Khovd River.  The water is very high.

Khovd River. The water is very high.

Iris growing beside the river.

Iris growing beside the river.

We drop our gear, then go into town to visit the museum, do some shopping and dine at a no-alcohol Turkish restaurant, which serves good food and fresh salads (food safety is not generally a problem in Mongolian restaurants).  Bedtime is early, as tomorrow will be a long day.  At 2130 I am awakened from a sound sleep by two women who burst into the ger.  They chatter loudly and incomprehensibly in Kazakh, but finally convey that they are the cooks.   “Go find Amy!” I snarl.  The women descend on the men in the next ger and eventually find Amy, who deals with them and returns to bed.  A few minutes later the women throw open her door, cross the floor, turn on the lights, and depart as inexplicably as they arrived.

Our “cooks” manage to produce hot water for breakfast, along with stale bread and over-done fried eggs.

Getting to Ulgii is only part of the fun.  Now we take to Land Cruisers for the overland adventure called “driving to Khotan Nur” (nur = lake).  Six hours of shake, rattle and roll as the vehicles bounce from one crater to the next, plough through water, tilt alarmingly sideways, then race at full speed whenever the dirt track lacks major obstacles.

However rough, the drive gives us our first chance to appreciate the scenic beauty of the Altai.  It is a landscape of muted earth tones and pastoral images.

Sheep and goats graze peacefully against a backdrop of purple mountains.

Sheep and goats graze peacefully against a backdrop of purple mountains.

A palette of greens, greys, browns.....

A palette of greens, greys, browns…..

Picnic lunch beside the Khotan River, with yet another colour scheme.

Picnic lunch beside the Khotan River, with yet another colour scheme.

We stop briefly in Tsengel, a village where the modern world mixes incongruously with the past.

Tsengel.  Note the solar powered street lights and satellite dishes.

Tsengel. Note the solar powered street lights and satellite dishes.

No thing of beauty!

No thing of beauty!

Construction techniques

Construction techniques

Each doorway leads to a shop, but there are no signs to tell you what is within.

Each doorway leads to a shop, but there are no signs to tell you what is within.

A horse waits patiently beside a picture of horses.

A horse waits patiently beside a picture of horses, while its modern competition lurks to the right.

After long hours in the vehicles, we arrive like James Bond martinis: definitely “shaken, not stirred.”  But oh how beautiful the sight of the golden Tusker tents by the lake shore!  Eddie greets us with big hugs.  Alex, our Tanzanian cook, (Eddie brings him over from his Kilimanjaro operation) sets out hot water and beverages.  After days of travel we are here.  Let the trek begin!

Tusker camp at Khotan Nur

Tusker camp at Khotan Nur

Burnside River: Part One (Northern Rivers Series)

PROLOGUE

The river trips in this series were taken in the years following the death of my husband in 2006.  I decided to write about them after reading a brilliant set of blogs on WordPress by Loz Koleszko, which he called Loz K Goes to the End of the World.  Mr Koleszko’s experience of the North, from Alaska to Tuktoyaktut, could hardly be more different from my own.  Through his eyes I saw a land that he, as an outsider, found to be vast and impressive but mostly unforgiving, unwelcoming and often ugly.  And he is right, of course.  The land is indifferent; it is only our perception that counts, and his is as valid as mine.  Still, I cannot let his views go unanswered.

Over many years I had considered the North, especially the Arctic, as home even though I was but an occasional visitor.  From Mts McKinley and Logan to the glaciers and granite spires of Baffin Island, I had withstood the planet’s worst weather, rejoiced in its wild, stark beauty and fallen hopelessly in love with it all.  But until I took the trips with Nahanni River Adventures, I had never seen what lay beneath the snow and ice.  I had never seen the tundra and wasn’t sure how I would like the northern summer.  Rafting the Burnside River was a voyage of discovery.

Note:  I am indebted to Don Taves, a fellow participant who generously sent a copy of his Burnside photos to the rest of our group.

Day 1:  Yellowknife, NorthWest Territories

From my hotel window my gaze sweeps across the huge northern sky and a flat land, dotted with lakes, stretching to the horizon.  Yellowknife is a small modern city built on bedrock which precludes basements and leads to innovative, stair-step architecture on its hills.  Float planes take off and land constantly, and tomorrow we will board one, leaving behind all modern conveniences and roads as we wend our way northeast to …. somewhere.

Yellowknife, a city of sky, lakes and bedrock

I’m here to start building a new life without my late husband, Mike.  It’s fitting that I should choose the Arctic as a first venture, for there is no place that Mike loved more, a love forged in the windswept valleys and on the glaciers beneath Mt Asgaard on Baffin Island.  I doubt that I will ever return to Asgaard, so I have brought some of his ashes to scatter once our rafts have crossed the Arctic Circle.

Day 2: Camp #1

I have never seen anything like the land we flew over today.  Only the ocean could be as flat and endless, yet the terrain changed with the miles. After our float plane took off we crossed bare rock split by countless small ponds and streams; only the most indominatable shrubs could put down roots.  Gradually the land produced thin soil for conifers, which we skimmed so low that we could almost have grabbed a branch had the windows been open.  Trees yielded to tundra and ice-covered water; where would the pilots land?  Lake Kathawachaga is huge, with plenty of open water.  On the shore below we saw three rafts, some bags and a couple of people plunked about as close to the middle of nowhere as one could get.

Welcome to Camp #1   (Photo by Don Taves)

Our first task is to unload the plane and set up camp.

Unloading the plane

One of the rafts is tilted on it side to provide a windbreak for the kitchen.

Our first dinner on the tundra  (Photo by Don Taves)

So here we are on the watery tundra, the temperature near freezing, snow falling and the “barren lands” all around.  Yet the land is not barren at all.  Birds abound and some of us have already seen caribou.  The guides and group are good people, more than ready for the rough conditions. We should have an excellent, if frosty, trip.

In the middle of nowhere

Day 3: Camp #1

We didn’t move today.  Spring is three weeks late and the river ice has not broken sufficiently for us to pass.  It snowed overnight and prospects are dim for a quick melt.

Morning on the tundra (Photo by Don Taves)

June 19 on Kathawachaga Lake  (Photo by Don Taves)

We spend most of the day walking.  Stu, our head guide, wants to survey the ice on the river, and what he sees is not encouraging.

No place for a raft (Photo by Don Taves)

The tundra is alive with fauna (bugs and flowers are nowhere to be found).  Amidst the tufts, willows, rocks, mat-forming plants and watery patches where our boots sink down to the permafrost, we find Lapland longspurs (a beautiful little bird with a bubbly song), willow ptarmigan in full mating display, golden plovers, savanna and tree sparrows, redpolls and a short-eared owl.  Courtship rules the day –  love on the tundra.

Male Willow Ptarmigan in mating plumage (Photo by Don Taves)

Mammals include lemmings, wolf tracks, and a few caribou across the river.

Lemming (Photo by Don Taves)

High above we spot arctic terns, herring gulls and a bald eagle.  Quite a list for a place that is called (and looks!) barren.

Arctic terns (Photo by Don Taves)

Evening brings a welcome dose of sun and warmth to our camp. With luck we will move tomorrow.