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.

Oh, Wilderness were paradise enow!

The beauty and majesty of the Canadian Rockies

The beauty and majesty of the Canadian Rockies

Somewhere north of the Arctic Circle

Somewhere north of the Arctic Circle on the Firth River

It has been a strange few days. Friday evening, I landed in Edmonton after a month of river rafting in northern Canada. Monday, I drove the TransCanada Highway through Banff and Yoho National Parks. The contrast could not have  been more sobering.

For twelve days, in July, fifteen other people and I rafted the Firth River, north of the Arctic Circle in Ivvivik National Park. This park, which receives fewer than 100 visitors a year, hugs the Yukon/Alaska border and ends at the Beaufort Sea. Apart from a few structures erected by Parks Canada and some laughable landing strips for planes that can set down virtually anywhere, there are no traces of modern humans, although the area does have a number of archaeological sites. In the 10,000 sq km of the park, we were alone.

No dispute: Ivvivik is wilderness in its purest form, almost unique on our planet.

Camp at Wolf Tors on the Firth River

Camp at Wolf Tors on the Firth River

For four hours on Monday, I drove through two of the most popular mountain parks in Alberta and B.C. My very conservative estimate of the number of vehicles I saw travelling toward me in that time is 7500. Assuming that a similar number were going in my direction, that’s 15,000 cars, RVs and trucks in one afternoon, all speeding along, their occupants perhaps enjoying the scenery, but just as likely thinking of other things.

Is this wilderness? Is this what we are preserving, supposedly in a natural state, for future generations to enjoy? What I saw in Banff and Yoho looked more like an invasion, like ants swarming over a prize food source. Isn’t bumper-to-bumper traffic too much love? And what of the trails that lead off the highway? When you have to move over to let faster hikers pass, you are not alone with Nature.

Camp in a meadow of wildflowers

Camp in a meadow of wildflowers on the Firth River. No sounds but the river, the wind and the cries of birds.

The argument, of course, is that if people don’t see the beauty of our parks, they will have little interest in preserving them. And the mountain parks are spectacularly beautiful, even if you never get out of your car. To see the Firth, you need good organization, expert river guides, enough money to transport you and all your gear by air, and a willingness to camp in whatever weather the Arctic chooses to throw at you.

I came home today saddened because I don’t know the answer. Wilderness doesn’t survive when people arrive in large numbers. Do we have the wisdom and dedication to preserve it even if we cannot visit? But if we never visit, how can we know what wilderness is? I’m afraid that for many of the people I passed in Banff and Yoho yesterday, wilderness is good scenery with a road through it. But am I not a hypocrite? I wish that everyone could visit Ivvivik and see it as I have, but I don’t want them to.

Once more unto the North, dear friends, once more.

Virginia Falls, Nahanni River

Virginia Falls, Nahanni River

Enough Shakespeare! I won’t be fighting the French at Agincourt; I’ll be in the North fighting mosquitoes on the Nahanni and Firth rivers. It’s time for another trip to my second home (the Canadian Rockies are my primary retreat from urban life). Two weeks on each river will see me through half of our short Alberta summer. I won’t be home until the first of August, and since our northern wilderness is still blissfully free of cell phone and Internet coverage, there will be no more blog entries until then.

These will be “soft” trips, northern style: rafts to carry everything and everyone, guides to row them, do the cooking and generally look after us, and lots of wildlife, fortunately, not all of the six-legged kind. My aging joints like “soft” trips; there would be a palace revolt if I suggested climbing Denali again. (That’s a much younger me in the photo at the top of the page!)

Since rafting the Firth costs about the same as a luxury safari in Botswana, you have to be a little crazy to sign up for the privilege of putting up your own tent every night, let alone do so more than once (this will be my third time on the Firth, second on the Nahanni). Still, I would not trade my life of adventure for all the material objects I could have purchased over the years but didn’t.

Ciao!

A LONELY SHORE: NUNALIK SPIT (Arctic Post #2)

Nunalik Spit, 2015

Nunalik Spit, Yukon, 2015

In the northwest corner of the Yukon, where the Firth River Delta meets the Beaufort Sea, lies a narrow strip of land called Nunalik Spit. Scoured by winds so strong that driftwood shelters have been built to protect the tents of the few hardy souls who visit during the brief summer, this barren spit seems to offer little that would justify my love for it. It’s cold, wet and monochrome, with a view that stretches unbroken to the horizon. And yet…

I turn my eyes to the ground as I walk, and eventually am rewarded. An arctic bladder pod! Farther on, a patch of ground-hugging sandwort. How can anything so fragile live here? These tiny flowers survive unprotected while I draw my parka tighter around me and wait for the Twin Otter that will whisk me away to warmth and a soft bed.

To me, much of the lure of the Arctic is the challenge it presents to life, whether it be a flower that stubbornly thrusts its roots into a gravel beach, or a human who leaves comforts behind and steps into a world where nature wields a ruthless power. And yes, I also find haunting beauty in the scene above.