Follow Will: Facebook Twitter

A Yankee Notebook

August 8, 2011


RAE RIVER, NUNAVUT, approximately 68ºN, 118ºW – People on the right of the American political spectrum often refer to liberals as “bleeding hearts who’ve never been mugged.” Be that as it may, I was reminded of it the other day when my canoe partner, Al, and I were baptized in the cool waters of the Rae River. Total immersion, it was, too – none of your lily-dipping Anglican symbolism with a sterling silver ladle. So what’s this got to do with mugging?

There’s a never-ending discussion that goes on among members of the wilderness paddling community. It’s absolutely irrelevant to any other activity, and to most people would seem beneath their even noticing, let alone caring. To whit, it’s this: When running rapids with all your essential camping gear in your canoe, do you lash the gear in, so that it won’t float away in the event of an upset? Or do you want it to float free, to be picked up downstream after righting and emptying the canoe? The answer may seem obvious – tie it in, of course, even if it is time-consuming – but what if the canoe is stuck or wrapped around a rock far from shore, irretrievable, and all your gear is in it? This exact scenario was played out by an old friend of ours; while, on the other hand, we’ve several times picked up all our floating gear in quieter water afterward with very little harm done. Note that I said “floating gear”; there are some objects that lack buoyancy – like the big khaki canvas Duluth pack full of pots, pans, and utensils – that are routinely secured in the boat before setting out on any but the most placid waters.

It was Day 4 of the trip, and the six of us were working our way down through what since we’ve come to call “the upper canyon.” The river steepened in the canyon, and its bed was littered with boulders pried by ice action from the enclosing basalt cliffs. Some rocks stuck up above the water like large black teeth, while others lurked just at or beneath the surface: “Sleepers,” they’re called, and their subtlety makes them much more dangerous.

Al and I happened to be in the lead (almost the last time we took the lead for the rest of the trip, suggesting that the truism about mugging is accurate). We had just run one set of rips that I had thought, halfway through, to be above our heads, figuratively speaking. There was only one drop left, a narrow, roaring slot requiring a bit of deft maneuvering. But there was also a huge, light-brown, almost invisible, rounded sleeper just to the left of center.

We hit it. It turned us around, and we went down the drop backwards. “Paddle forward!” Al cried. “Slow it down!” Which we did, with gusto; but without the time or leisure to turn and look behind us, and without rearview mirrors, we couldn’t see what was coming next.

It turned out to be a large, black tablet of basalt that flipped us upside-down. Then we washed up against another flat rock, just above the surface. I felt beneath me for the bottom, and rose to the bubbly surface right under my hat. We both could stand about waist-deep beside the rock; so we grabbed the submerged gunwales and flipped the canoe up onto its side.

The first thing I saw was the Duluth pack slowly falling out of the canoe. “Holy Toledo!” I thought. “How’d that get into our boat?” But it was top priority. I grabbed the straps and somehow wrestled it up onto the rock. It was full of water, and weighed a ton. We got the wanigan next, a large, bright yellow plastic box containing stoves, cooking oil, and condiments. It’s supposed to be watertight because of a plastic foam seal around its rim, but I could tell by its weight that it wasn’t. Next came a waterproof lunch bag and our personal bags, a pretty impressive pile of gear on top of a rock providentially just large enough to hold it all.

We wrestled the canoe out of the current. The bailer and sponge were gone; so I opened my day pack, dug out my steel eating bowl, and began bailing with that. It worked pretty well. Soon we could tip the canoe and pour some water out. More bailing, another tip, and we were almost back in business. Alex and Eric, who’d carried a canoe over a rocky little portage as fast as they could, arrived to help. They stabilized our canoe while we piled the stuff in – not much missing: just the bailer, sponge, and my spinning rod, and nothing destroyed but Al’s digital camera and some of our self-confidence – embarked ourselves, and took off downstream to look for a campsite.

In subsequent days, as we approached each of dozens of boulder-strewn rapids, Al and I (with our gear now tied in), found ourselves politely deferring to the other two canoes for picking routes through the mazes – sort of an after-you-Aphonse routine that worked pretty well for us. We might not have bothered; none of us came to serious grief after that initial wakeup call. We were able to enjoy the wildlife along the river: caribou in the water trying to get relief from the awful flies; muskoxen grazing placidly, once a loose herd of 25 that looked, far off, like American bison. Gyrfalcons, peregrines, bald and golden eagles, tundra swans, and plovers. I called our friend Larry Whittaker in Kugluktuk, where we hope to spend our last night, and told him we had with us a gift for him and his wife, Helen: a very large block of Cabot’s Seriously Sharp Cheddar that wanted refrigeration. A few hours later they dropped in by float plane to say hello and pick it up.

It’s now the evening of Day 14. We’re camped on salt water about ten miles across Coronation Gulf from Kugluktuk. We can see it from the hill behind camp. The wanigan may not keep out water, but it holds it in just fine; so we’re using it as a fresh water reservoir for these last three days. If the weather gods continue friendly, we’ll be in town in two more days and, if I know us, already planning our next trip.

Photo by Willem Lange