Friday, October 14, 2016

No Road to Churchill: Bigstone River

Living on the Bigstone River on this leg has been the most accurate account of what I imagined this journey to be. 

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By the time we got to the Bigstone River, we were hungry for it.  No more lake travel; no more enormous bay crossings & ninja-like winds ready to flare up and overtake you at any moment. Let's get to the heart of the trip.  Here we're protected from rampant weather by rugged wilderness on either side; downstream currents, take us to Hudson Bay.

The Mistasinni River feeds the Bigstone.  To get there, we had to slide & carry over numerous beaver dams, cursing vindictive rodents, & dreaming of wide open rivers & trappers.


Reconnecting with the world reinvigorated us.  We were recharged, refueled & seasoned. The day before we hit our first whitewater experience, we'd purposely camped at the mouth of Bigstone River.  I was buzzing.  I was hungry to see what we could do, & to tackle this lesser travelled route.

The next 12 days were the heart of our journey.  Somehow, we'd figured it out.  When we would count the rapids throughout the days, they would only count if water comes over the bow.

We were taking the pulse of this epic overlooked river. We were encountering rapids several times a day; sometimes scraping the boat lining shallow sections or running deep sections. We'd stop and scout them, gradually working out the patterns of the river bottom without ever seeing them. The water flow was showing us where the rocks were, and watching for the V pattern that indicates safe passage.





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10 days in we were mentally exhausted from our relentless efforts to out-wit rocks & rapids, and isolation was taking its toll.

Beyond this river, our reward will be 2 days of upstream travel - beating against a current that has us wading at every other bend - and the longest portage of the trip.

Our first portage had been just a snakey dotted line on the map; our second portage was not marked on the map at all.

Everything indicated that there is a winter road at the closest point between the two lakes.  It was nice to have 12ft wide trail with snowmobile signs as assurance that we're on the right track.  The path was rough but at least it was clear & the shortest distance between 2 points.

I bit my tongue when Matt asks how long it is.  It's about 5 kilometers....but that's only 3 miles!  I promised that it was our longest portage; it promised to be awful.  Matt is optimistic, as always.


Tramping through the uneven terrain while trying to stay on higher ground meant zigzagging the whole distance.  Although I hate wet socks & often dance around from rock to rock to avoid such a hardship, I almost always end up resigning myself to a soggy fate.  We learned to tie our shoes tight so we could wade through a swamp intermittent in the trail without losing our shoes.  The ground water was surprisingly chilly.

After waking at the trailhead, we had spent an entire day trudging on.  Our feet got heavier as the day wore on; we had to keep from tripping over ourselves.  It was also the worst place on the whole trip for mosquitoes. Our trudging zigzag, accompanied by swatting, flailing & cursing, seemed much longer than 5kms - because we had to do it 5 times.


This was the heart of our journey.  This is where we were bold enough to think we might actually make it.
We are a determined bunch, destined to plough through till the end!

Until we hit a 3-way fork in the portage trail.
For fuck sakes.

We camped at the fork, adding to the misery of the portage-that-will-never-end. It was a miserable night, sore & tired, with no access to water for relief.

It was supposed to be straightforward, but it seemed the high water levels - our greatest environmental strength - were working against us. The only trail that made sense of the 3 had been turned into a floodplain, with just a vision of the lake in the distance.

The stickiness of our stubbornness wasn't making this easy to swallow. We loaded our canoe, took a deep breath, and started ploughing through the marsh.

Feet firmly planted in the sludge, we'd heave the canoe 10ft at a time. The grass was so thick, we'd have better progress pushing through a corn field. We'd groan, leaning into every attempt, trying to wring out the energy deep within our reserves. Sweating and slipping, the little progress we made could drive someone mad.

The lake still seemed absurdly far, but there was open water to our left - deep enough that we could float a ways. The lake came towards us quickly once we were paddling again. The last barrier between us & beloved lake travel was another frickin beaver dam.

Feet firmly planted, now we're heaving in relief. As we glide into the sweet water, Matt's exhale sounds a lot like:
"Too much adventure."

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Northern Air

Last night the Northern Lights danced in the sky, so I heard.
They were in my dreams.
Mine were a vision of sunset colours overlapping the dark night sky.
Leaping kilometers in a bound, as gracefully and purposefully as a fish swims.

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I used to play this game that, wherever I was, I would try to convince myself that 'I could be anywhere in the world.'  (Use your bed, or a strangers couch for full effect.)
New Zealand was a hamlet in the Rocky Mountains.
Mexico City was in a suburb in Florida.
The heat of Australia became familiar.
I've woken up in my bedroom, thinking I was in Uganda.
Whenever I woke up in my tent, I could be in Georgia, Newfoundland, or the Grand Canyon.
At the end of every car ride, I could have ended up in a place called home.

This is the kind of place that leaves an impression.


The job fell into my lap.  It was a perfect right-place-right-time Winnipeg fairy tale.  After a couple phone interviews, I had convinced myself the whole deal was too good to be true several times before I boarded the train to bring me to Churchill Manitoba.

Everything I've done until now seems to have prepared me for this, yet I had never done anything like this before.

I am guiding beluga whale tours in the province that I grew up in.
How is this even possible??



Summer in the tundra means my commute to work has wildflowers everywhere.  I cannot believe how much purple there is up here!  The summer blooming season is so short that every few days I see a new flower I haven't seen before.  It's hard to keep up.

This year's weather has been insane.  I had never thought Hudson Bay could ever be so calm as it was the first few weeks I was here.  Although we joke that "if we only ran tours in good weather, we'd only run 2 tours a year," we only cancelled one tour in July, & every day was better than the last.




I get a lot of questions about what to expect during the tours: Will we see whales?  Will we see bears?  How cold is the water? At least once a day someone tells me "You must love your job." 

Playing coy in these circumstances is tough.  I would try to say something about the ol' 9-to-5 grind, & how finding the whales or hauling kayaks isn't that easy.
But....

(an example of the 9-to-5 grind.  Running shuttles across the Churchill River.)


There hasn't been a single day I've been here that I haven't seen a whale.  I've seen feeding frenzies over a kilometer long.  I've seen 7 polar bears in the wild in one day.  I've seen polar bears eating a whale carcass, & I've even seen them mating!  (Seeing bears at all at this time of year isn't even an absolute!)


One of my favourite things in the world is paddling with the belugas.  They'll swim alongside you & race you, while you pretend you even have a chance.  They'll play with you & when you stop, they'll blow bubbles underneath you & nudge you, as if to say "why'd you stop?  Why aren't you swimming?"
I'd haul all the kayaks just to do it again tomorrow.



Not to mention:
- working outside all day
- the amazing cast of characters that make up the rest of our team
- tapping into wilderness lore on the water
- living next to a national heritage site & picking the brains of Parks Canada staff
- this community of oddballs that all seem to fit in
- how delicious is caribou!?!
- all the undiscovered places: trails, beaches, shipwrecks & beyond....

After 51 straight days of working, all I can do is give a big grin & say "It's not bad."
My reaction is becoming more genuine every day.

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For the past few years I've realized that I need solace.  I have taken about 2 months of 'alone time' a year to reassess myself & what's going on.

When I'm here, my to-do list is blank.
My job is to deliver lifelong dreams to people from all over the world.
Getting out of bed has never been so easy.

My time here counts - at least on my eternal hourglass, it does.


The North has a way of seeping in.  It touches the roots of the most primal emotions.
Experiencing these wonders gives people a joy they had forgotten they have.
The stark landscape gives people a reminder of the brutal reality in the strength of untouched nature & the beauty found in isolation.

Churchill demands presence.
It gives a sense of place.
It gives me peace.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Northbound Train


I have not been looking forward to this 46 hour train ride.  It sounds incredibly arduous...
Even though this will have been the fastest way I have gotten to Churchill.

Today is our second day.  We are freshly back on the tracks after a 5 hour layover in Thompson.  We still have 16 hours left, but it's just overnight at  this point.

Hanging out in Thompson wasn't as ridiculous as it seemed.  I'd rather get into Churchill at 9am than 4am anyway.

I chatted a bit with the people I've met on board.  Many of them are working up North, while others are just visiting.  I was skeptical about visiting at this time of year, but so long as the sea ice has broken up, there's a chance for both whales & bears.  Luckily it seems that there's little enough ice that they've seen the first few whales of the season, but enough ice yet that the bears are still up North hunting for seals.

Some hiking around town brought me to the Tourism Centre/Museum, which is interesting, but the woman who works there is immensely fascinating!  Tanna grew up right across the street; grew up eating caribou & moose meat, she says.  She was super supportive of sharing my photography & getting it onto Travel Manitoba's instagram, as well as sharing Alex's photos.  She says the best thing is to post as much as I can, & put little tidbits on the pictures.  We talked so much about travelling on the Nelson, about Pisew Falls & other features along hwy 6, about Churchill & Thompson, it really got me stoked about what is currently happening.

I'm on the road to Churchill to work for the summer.  This is happening.  I have been telling people on board about the cycles of polar bears, or other interesting facts around town.  There's a British couple up for the season to work at Lazy Bear Lodge (Emma & Mark).  I gave them a healthy fear of bears.  They'll work it out though.

After finishing everything in Winnipeg, I was finally excited to go.
As I pass through the Middle Track, heading towards the Land of the Little Sticks, I feel calm.
I understand the features of the land as I'm travelling through this country.
This is my home, and I know it well.

Stepping off the train to the earthy smell of mud, mixed with the smell of 10,000 pine trees gives the satisfying impression of when you arrive at the cabin.  It feels like a long trip to the lake.

I give longing looks to all the rivers I could ever paddle in a lifetime.
The Assiniboine River; that grows through the filtered silt of the Prairies, and the banks on which I grew up.
The Grass River; the lesser known river of the 'Middle Track', that feeds the 2 largest waterfalls in the province.

We are approaching the Nelson River now.  I am ill-at-ease as its presence looms.
The 4th largest river in Canada has a powerful and dangerous spirit.

There are not enough names in the world for all the bodies of water we pass.
A large lake is a drop in the ocean that is Manitoba.
The ground is soft, the effect of summer on permafrost.  The train is slowing...
The forest is dense here, and while the trees are shrinking, the beaver lodges are getting bigger...
The days are stretching, and not just because of the long train ride...
The train is slowing, dragonflies are passing us...
Won't turn around until we reach the ocean.
12 more hours...

Friday, April 15, 2016

No Road to Churchill: Headwinds


It's a windy day in Winnipeg.  Being at home means work; work means saving for adventures.  I am between a double shift today, laying beside the Red River.  I'd love to be paddling into a headwind today; just get me on the water.

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The winds changed more often on Lake Winnipeg than I could have imagined.  Crossing large bays was always a gamble; there was always the chance shifting winds would churn up white caps within an hour offshore.  The predominant westerly winds of the prairies have no influence here.  We were shackled to land for weary stretches when headwinds made progress impossible. 

Matt & I had travelled together remotely before, and although this had been our first overnight canoe trip, it took us 20 days to notice we were doing anything out of the ordinary.

I remember very well the day we made it to the Nelson River.
There was a tension in the air we couldn't quite articulate.
"Did we just do what I think we did?" was as close as it was gonna get, but neither of us would say it.

The implications of this were huge.  We had paddled across Lake Winnipeg - the 12th biggest lake in the world.  We actually did it.  We had already gone a lot further than many people thought we would.  (I had even chatted with a few experienced kayakers who thought we were reckless to do it in a canoe.)
We had just decided to do it, and here we are. 

The Nelson River: The largest artery in Manitoba.
Approaching it gave me chills.  It felt cavernous, despite coming off the immensity of The Lake.  My mind was numbed at the thought of being in it; ecstatic but on high alert.  Voyageurs famously did not trust the Nelson with their precious cargo, and they paddled for a living!  This, as well as avoiding a few of the biggest dams in the province, was reason enough to avoid the Nelson & take the scenic route to Gillam via the Bigstone River.

Of course, we had to take the Nelson to get to the beginning of the Bigstone River.

We cheered when we made it to the head of the Nelson, but I had a hard time describing the innate danger I knew the river could bring us, since I had no personal experience with the river myself.
I told Matt "Let's never underestimate this river."

When we pushed off on the Red River, I knew about the drownings that happen every year.  I grew up on the banks of the Assiniboine, which must take from its blood brother with tales of disappearances & an extraordinary undertow.  That day had a particularly strong current, and the local police had closed the boat launches.  I had made evacuation plans in case the current tipped us, and we had our lifejackets on at all times.

As we entered the mouth of the Nelson River, we could feel the current pushing us forward.  Its grandeur was all the more obvious when we missed our landing spot 3 times in a row.

It was a smooth day of exploring abandoned towns & photographing eagles.  We made it to the straight into Norway House, so long as we didn't second guess ourselves or the deceivingly accurate directions of "just keep heading that way & you can't miss it."

We had camped within a stone's throw of Norway House; our first checkpoint & restocking location.  Far enough away that we wouldn't be camping in the municipality or bothered by stray dogs.

The next morning had gale force headwinds.  We were so close to our first goal.  I spent the morning sewing up gear we'd worn ragged.  I'd had a dream that my boyfriend Brant was there to meet us.  Matt was eager to upload some master level photos he'd taken, and we were both anxious to get there.  With no time to be comfortable, & a long way to go, we packed up & headed out.

After a brutal 30 minutes, we opted for not hurting ourselves & surrendered by pulling into the closest dock to phone our hosts to let them know we were on our way.  The kind family, whose house we dropped in on, towed us the rest of the way to our location.

It didn't seem like anything as we were paddling, but once we'd arrived, we were tired.
Luckily, Brant's cheesy grin was waiting for us on shore.
I think it took a weight off knowing he was there to help.
Only 1100kms to go!

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Working in Winnipeg is just saving up for the next adventure.    I'm not progressing if I'm not scheming.  I can't wait to feel that sense of accomplishment again.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Kata Tjuta

For Christmas, I got a page-a-day calendar, where everyday has a different place in the world featured.  Life has been so good to me that I have been to 3 places on the calendar so far, even though it's only January 14th.

Well, not exactly 3.  I was thinking of this short story, so I figured it'd be nice to write it down.

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When Matt & I were hitchhiking across Australia, we took a detour from the main road to go to Uluru - one of Australia's most famous landmarks.  The rock formation is an anomaly in the center of the outback, where 3 deserts meet.  We walked the track around the behemoth.  From afar, it seems like the embodiment of a red heart, risen from the chest of the nation.  Up close, it carries weathered scars, reminding me of the inherent hardiness that endears me to my good Australian friends.

We were unfamiliar with Kata Tjuta, but as we approached the national park it shares with Uluru we became familiar with its own legends.  So we decided to give it a visit while we were in the area.  The man at the gate calmly told us, "I'm not sure if the road is open yet, because of the fires.  Let me check."

On the radio he asked:
"Is the road open yet?"
The response came back:
"FIRE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

The smoke from a local bushfire made the sky hazy for most of our visit, and had closed the roads to Kata Tjuta.  This is why, although we were within 20km & inside the park, we did not make it to see them.

During the night, while I was sleeping in the tent, Matt woke up to stare at the sky.  He said the flickering shades of fire on the clouds were mesmerizing.