SOME THOUGHTS ON A CANADIAN WINTER

February on the Great Divide, temperature in the -20s C

Beautiful or bleak? Does it make you want to hunker down by a warm fire or put on your skis and go?

Winter in the city can be brutal. It was -30 in Edmonton this morning and barely struggled to -26 this afternoon. Enough wind to freeze your face if it was exposed. At least we’re not shovelling snow or sliding on ice, and our power hasn’t gone out. But wherever you live, Canada has produced a harsh winter, and we haven’t even reached January yet.

I love winter, even in the city. But its real beauty is in the wilderness. Here are some of my favourite memories, some recent, some decades old.

Can there be a more iconic form of transportation than a sled and a team of dogs eagerly pulling you across the land?

Dogsledding in the Tombstones, Yukon

Few animals are more powerful in their beauty than the polar bear. Will we still have them when ice no longer forms in the North?

Polar bear in Churchill

Winter is defined by climate, not the calendar. The photo below was taken in May, but we had temperatures in the -30s. Canada’s highest peak never disappoints in its scenery.

High on Mt Logan

Nor does Baffin Island disappoint. I was there twice. First in 1979 with the Alpine Club of Canada. We had enough light to ski 24 hours a day, and sometimes we stayed out that long.

Full moon over an unnamed peak, Ayr Lake, Baffin Island.

The second trip was a private expedition with my husband and a friend to Auyuittuq National Park. The granite walls and massive glaciers form a landscape worthy of the Norse gods for whom many of the mountains are named.

The land that time forgot.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games. We had the “help” of a snow machine to get to our first camp in Auyuittuq.

Who thought that this was a good idea?

But even bad weather isn’t necessarily bad.

Dais Glacier below Mt Waddington.

Of course, I spend most of the winter in the city, and what I have learned in the wilderness keeps me from hibernating. I’m happy at -40, but when I’m out walking, I understand why so many people hate the season. People who can afford serviceable clothing either don’t buy it, don’t wear it, or don’t use it correctly. Instead of spending an extra five minutes at home to protect themselves, they shiver for 15 to 30 minutes waiting for a bus or walking to the grocery.

The number one error? Not covering the head, neck and face. When I wrote my book on snow camping, I said that we lose 40% of our body heat from the head. That was common wisdom at the time (1993).

Now I saw an experiment a few years ago in which people were stripped naked, placed in a cold room or in cold water, and heat loss from various parts of the body was measured. Turns out, they didn’t lose more heat from the head than from any other place on the body.

I’m not sure what the scientists were trying to prove. When is the last time you saw someone wandering naked down the street in the middle of winter?  (I hope they were treated for hypothermia and frostbite before seeing a psychiatrist.) If you have clothing on all of you except for your head, where do you think you are going to lose heat? And you’ll lose a lot.

So don’t become a cave rat. Bundle up, put a smile on your face, and go for a walk. You’ll feel better and you’ll be able to pity the poor souls who haven’t got the message yet.

For me in winter, there’s really is no such thing as bad weather–only a bad choice of clothing. Now if someone could just tell me how to dress for “hot and humid.”

View from Mistaya Lodge, B.C.

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.

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.

Dogsledding in the Tombstones Part Four

Sunday morning could not have been more beautiful, with warm sun, no wind, a crystal blue sky.  Did we really have to leave?

Reluctantly we pack up and head for the highway.  This being a fine spring weekend, recreational snowmobilers have been all over the valley, making quite a mess of the track.  The sleds sink in soft muck and the dogs flounder, but we now have the skills to deal with difficult conditions.

Looking back on our track from a difficult corner.

Susan topping out on the difficult corner.

Susan looking like a pro.

Not the best mushing, but I’m sorry to see it end.  I don’t know if I will manage to get back here again – certainly not for 2 or 3 years, and by then I may really be too old.

We drive back to Dawson City where Chris has booked us into Bombay Peggy’s, an historic old building once used as a brothel, now lovingly restored and offering 9 guest rooms, each exquisitely decorated.

My room at Bombay Peggy’s

Yes, the hot shower felt good in the old-fashioned tub on 4 legs.  The toilet flushed and the firm bed faced a flat-screen TV.  Sherry and port were set out in the sitting room off the entrance.  Paintings by a pretty talented local artist hung on every wall.  I wished I was back in the Tombstones in my tent.

At 6:30 p.m. Chris led us to Jack London’s Bar and Grill.  Not much doing on a Sunday night in Dawson, with at least half the town closed for the season, but Chris had a “treat” planned: the “Sour Toe Cocktail”.    In a wooden chest the bar keeps a real, pickled human toe.

You gotta be kidding, right?

The thing is quite disgusting.  You order a drink, the toe is dropped into it, and the rules are read to you: the toe must touch your lips for it to count.  Our 3 guides take the challenge, Chris having done it several times before, while Melissa backed out the year before, and Paul is new to the crew but is game for just about anything.

Melissa, trying to work up her courage, and The Toe

None of the other guests are interested, but spurred on perhaps by a second glass of port at the hotel, I also take the challenge.  I don’t know which was worse – the toe or the damn vodka I had it in (vodka in preparation for Mongolia).  Anyway, I now have a certificate numbered 39,743.  The world is full of idiots.