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.

Dogsledding in the Tombstones Part Three

Our dog teams wait impatiently as sleds are taken one at a time into our camping site in the Tombstones.

The personalities of these dogs are as individual as their looks.  My wheel dogs (nearest the sled) are brothers, Whiskey and Mac, who are totally devoted to each other and are very calm, serious pullers.  My swing dogs (behind the leaders) are Ali and Hudson.  Ali is the mother of many of the dogs on our trip – sort of a queen bee, she goes about her business without fuss and doesn’t tolerate any nonsense.  Hudson is a goof ball, always barking and looking around, not the brightest bulb in the sky but good natured and hard working.  The two lead dogs are responsible for obeying my commands and getting the other dogs to follow them.  Blue, unfortunately, is a space cadet; gazing around, wandering off trail, she shows only occasional interest in working, leaving Strider very much on his own.

Since we will spend 3 nights here, we have to dig good tent pads.  My back is too sore to shovel snow, so Paul generously takes over the job.

This is a magical camp site, surrounded by mountains and animal tracks.

Friday

Whoa!  Where did that cold snap come from?  When we woke up this morning the thermometer registered -28 C.  I had begged Susan before we went to sleep to wake me if she was cold.  She didn’t and consequently shivered all night while I was comfy in my bag (rated to –30).  I remember thinking at one point that the night seemed unusually cold, but I just snugged up the bag around my nose and went back to sleep.  By morning my 3 fellow campers were thoroughly traumatized.

Today the dogs have to rest, so we get up late and do little. For breakfast, Chris cooks hash browns with bacon, cheese and salsa, and we drink coffee for a couple of hours.

Paul takes the lads snowshoeing, an outing which seems to exhaust them.  They are now talking mostly about multiple hot showers and flush toilets.

Susan and I walk along the trail for a while looking for tracks, laughing a bit about the New York city guys.

The afternoon is spend reading…

and sleeping.

When we go to bed I give Susan my down parka to wear in her bag.  Not wanting to have to breathe through a tiny opening to keep warm, I put on extra clothing.  Of course, the night is not very cold, and I wake up in a sweat at midnight.

Saturday is a halcyon day: sun, blue sky, a firm trail and the joy of driving 6 happy dogs through paradise.  Well, 6 happy dogs eventually.  Blue the day dreamer has been traded to another sled for Esker, a young but very competent animal, well able to take over a lead role.  Unfortunately Strider doesn’t like her, snapping and snarling at every stop, and finally just lying down in the snow and refusing to move.  So he is demoted to swing and goofy Hudson gets to partner with Esker.  Surprisingly he does quite well; at last I have 6 dogs working together!

We run for 11 miles, turn around with some confusion and stuck sleds, have a long stop for lunch and return to camp in a state of bliss.  There are few pleasures to rival this historic form of transportation when conditions are good and the feeling of wilderness is profound.  I know that I have left a part of myself in this valley.

We have daiquiris and snacks before dinner.   Chris asks us what we have missed most on the trip.  The 3 Americans speak of soft beds, hot showers and flush toilets.  I say simply, “my dog”.  I belong in this wilderness – the others are visitors.