Paddling the Dubawnt and the Kazan - 2004 Canoe Expedition

Day 5, Monday July 12, 2004


I could have slept forever but the sun hit the tent and I was soon dreaming of African deserts. So up at 8:00. Yes, yes. I know that's late, but it took that long for my body and my mind to agree to work with each other again. The latter finally agreed to loll about camp for the morning so that the former could rest. They both seem happy with this arrangement. I fear the consequence of the coffee with a package of cappucino mixed in. If my mind gets carried away with false bravado, I think my body will rebel and we could easily have a Bosnia Herzogovinia rebellion.

Tyrell was the first white to see the portage and it was the Dene on Slewyn Lake - they called it Big lake - who showed him the route. They also told his Metis guides that the river they were going on was treacherous and that they would meet Eskimos who would no doubt kill and eat them.


That must have got the guides really anxious to charge across the portage! NOT. Some of the notes that Tyrell made are amazing. The Dene he met had an encyclopedic knowledge of the country up to the barrens. They told him of routes to Ennadai and south to the Cochrane and Brochet, of routes to The Thelon from Grease River (near present day Fond du Lac). Ethingo Campbell, whose relatives would now live in Patuanak, drew a map that I could easily use to go from the Churchill River to Cree Lake, thence to Black Lake, past where we sit now, and as far as the north end of Wholdaia Lake. He noted that this lake fed the Dubawnt and continued to the ocean where they would meet Eskimos. He had done the trip himself. Amazing. All by memory. And people wonder why the Dene are a little choked up about the fact they have no sovereignty or legal rights to large parts of the NWT and Nunavut.

In fact, the southern reaches of Nunavut never really were Inuit land but for a very short period of time. When Hearne did his famous walk with Mattonnabe in the 1770s, he met no Inuit, yet nearly weekly, he ran into groups of Dene. When Tyrell did his 1893 Dubawnt trip, he met no Dene past Selwyn but in 1893 when he did the Kazan he encountered hundreds of Inuit. By the mid 1940s these Inuit were starving and being pulled off the land and moved into coastal villages like Arviat. These are the people first made famous by Farley Mowat's People of the Deer.

The point here is simple. In the late 1700s there were no Inland Inuit but thousands of Dene, in the late 1800's the Inuit had settled the Kazan. But by 1940 they were gone. The Inuit's time in the inland barrens was less than a 150 years and the Dene's stretches back a thousand and more. So they are mad. Go figure.

Last night as we paddled to camp we passed a huge lone lichen-encrusted rock dropped into the lake by the glaciers. It was covered in nesting terns and in the low soft light of evening it was a gorgeous sight. My body didn't care about it, but my mind insisted we take a few slides. Just past it we found a huge island of boulders scraped up by the ice. Not a square inch of flat ground anywhere .. nothing but boulders ... and yet splendid birch trees flourishing in every nook and cranny. Yesterday at lunch we saw a small group of aspen (polar). They are just hanging on for dear life this far north. I am sure they would love the idea of global warming.

Is it just me or wouldn't the threat to the boreal forest from global warming just push the whole boreal forest further north? I listened to a lady last year talk about the demise of the forest due to global warming and this point seemed never to have crossed her mind. She also said acid rain was a threat. In fact when there was significant acid rain - it is all but gone now in North Aamerica - the forests loved it. It is fertiliser, after all. The lakes weren't crazy about it though. Anyway, some one needs to start a campaign to save the tundra. WIth the threat of encroaching scraggly wizen boreal forest into the northern reaches where we are paddling it is real shitty camping. You have to paddle for hours to find a spot and often when you do you have to slay a few trees just to get to shore. And then a few more are murdered too allow for your tent to go up.

"Save the Tundra" is my new mantra. Boy are we going to be glad to get to our first good tundra campspot.

We had spectacular weather today if a tad too hot. I really suffer from the heat. It leaves me lethargic and irritable. Not Lynda. She loves it and is getting a great tan. We made about 18 miles today and got to sail a fair bit. We took the long route into Wholdaia from Flett which misses the muskeg portage. We both agreed we didn't want another portage today. The passage from Flett to Wholdaia is a narrow rock-strewn channel filled with islands. Simply gorgeous with all the mid-lake car-sized boulders resplendent with lichen in hues of orange, green and red. There is an esker along the north shore and it is on the edge of it that we are camped. It is still real tight gnarled black spruce bush in this area. Little bits of tundra are starting to appear but it will be at least two nights until we find a perfect tundra campspot.

I forgot to mention that at lunch yesterday a boat of toursts stopped. The guide was Jon Yooya from Black Lake. I tried the "Tom Sawyer" routine on them and tried to convince them they should help us portage. The two tourists laughed. John said, "I would." And wouldn't I have liked to have him help. He is the size of a bear and when I shook his hand it felt like a T-Bone steak with pudgy little fingers. I bet we could have loaded our whole outfit on John and he could have carried it

Supper and bed beckons. So what are all you poor trapped-in-the city people doing tonight? My bet is you are not half as happy but then not half as tired and dirty as we are.


Day 6, Tuesday July 13, 2004
    I forget his exact words. Something like.

"It was one of those rare days in the north. There was a haze in the air and you could see forever. It was warm and there was a slight breeze. And I thought at that moment 'Well I suppose I shall never be so happy ever again' ."

Whatever it was that P G Downes said, I know the feeling so well I can almost taste it. And today was one of those days. Hot as hell but with a light cooling breeze. At noon we found the perfect sandy tabletop for lunch. It was at the old village directly across from Erelkal's mountain, and you knew that the ghosts of all the Dene that lived at this village were as happy today as we were.


Lonely, perhaps, as the sounds of their grandchildren aren't heard here. Lonely, as few men and women come to visit save for hunting trips. But they have their memories and their friends the etthen - the caribou - that pass through each winter. And, there are the odd visits from paddlers like us who know their history and who know their relatives and feel the same anguish as they do, that they no longer live in such a fine spot, where meat is always nearby in the winter, where fat whitefish and trout swim near to shore, where they can see the mountain where their relative the shaman Erelkal flew to safety, foiling his Cree pursuers.

It was such a day as I will remember in my dreams for years to come.

The details of the day seem, somehow, to pale by comparison. We covered near 23 miles in 6 hours and a bit. We are now cooking under the kitchen tarp and the sun is roasting us. Our tent is perched mere feet from the lake. From where I sit I can see the vibrant green of the new growth of birch contrasting with the silver of the standing dead spruce killed in a fire some 10 years ago. Our kitchen is pitched on a bed of newly growing grasses, bearberry and caribou moss. We can hear the trill of a multitude of song birds that revel in their brief northern summer.

Pizza dough is rising and Poppy Seed Amaretto cake is baking.

As P G said, " I shall never be so happy again." I would add, "Except for the many more days I hope to see in the Dene's Land of Little Sticks."

There is some magic up here and I long ago quit trying to take it home with me. It only frustrates me when I try to take the pleasure I find here back to the city. I can't find it in town. It has to stay here. But it waits patiently for me to come back. And today I found it again.

Would that the Dene of Saskatchewan's north could come back here. It is where they should be.




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