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. 


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.


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."