Portage after portage
- 4 in all - all the same. Treacherous landings with rock-studded shallows.
What should take minutes takes forever. Lift the canoe over 1 foot at
a time. Stuck on sharp knife-edged rocks over and over. Forced to unload
and carry outfit to shore over moss-covered slippery boulders. Each foot
step threatens to throw you into the frigid water.
Tundra portages are hard walking. Dance from rock to rock - slog through
soft peat - scramble through clumps of tundra birch. Eyes down, searching
ahead for each footstep. Then reload at the far end.
Wade through sevearal narrows that the map promises are channels with
water. More slippery walking.. The canoe crys out as we rake it over the
wet to the waist all day. Freezing, biting, north wind is unrelenting.
Makes the canoe near imposible to carry.
Lunch is wonderful. Great spot behind a huge boulder out of the wind.
In the wind we are frozen. Behind the rock we are fine. We have learned
how to revel in the shortest of good fortune here. The sun comes out for
5 minutes and we have to strip clothes. Then it hides and we freeze.
A primal landscape. Next to no trees for shelter. A circle of weather
enfolds us. We see storms rage through everwhere we look when we are in
the sun. Then we are pelted with ice pellets as we watch the sun brighten
the tundra close to us.
Tempers are short. We quarrel. But we move on. 8 1/2 hours yields only
7 miles. Fully a kilometer of that a carrying. Each portage with the damned
unloading and loading. 3 trips each across.
A mile of the same carrying starts our day tomorrow. But for now we are
warm and are full of chicken and dumplings.
Tomorrow will bring what it will bring.
We will yet again get
days where the river speeds us along. Where the wind is behind us. Where
we see muskox. Where we find old Inuit camps.
Neither of us would
trade this for anything right now. Really.
16, Friday July 23, 2004
The end of the day
first - if only because the start was so hard.
We are now on a tiny tundra island less than a mile from where the river
flows out of Big Rocky Lake. The sun is out and the wind is finally going
to sleep. The island is a dome of peat covered in a carpet of caribou
moss, labrador tea, and cloud berries. Some tiny cranberries are thrown
into the mix. There are open sores of red oozing peat moss scattered here
and there that the carpet will quickly cover over. A few lone scattered
rocks litter the top on the dome. Tiny spruce, birch and willow occupy
perhaps a third of the shoreline. Walking on the peat feels like you are
on a huge sponge.
After 6 1/2 hours of "work" we made a hard-fought 10 miles.
And the odd thing is that the first mile took 4 hours and 5 miles of walking.
The portage was good, by tundra standards. But you still had to keep your
eyes to the ground and pick the places for your feet. And the wind was
20 gusting to 30 mph. At least it was behind us as we carried our 3 loads
Some comfort for 2 of my loads, but the canoe was a nightmare to carry.
I rigged a rope with a toggle on the end and tied it to the front canoe
seat on the windward side. This helped me wrestle the canoe onto a bearing
that came close to the way I was trying to walk. But I was forced to stop
repeatedly and wait for gust after gust to subside. Several times I was
spun right around in a complete circle. Then I would watch as I got spun
past my line of travel another 90 degrees. Some fancy footwork there,
I can tell you. I suspect I looked like an evolutionary experiment gone
sadly wrong."Better to get a few more sets of legs under this tundra
crab we're trying to make. The wind is playing hell with its carapace,"
I can hear the genetic scientist say. "Yes, and perhaps lower its
center of gravity while we're at it?" the other replies. A few times
the canoe felt like it was going to fly away as I struggled to keep it
from levitating. My good gawd, what a mile that was! In any case we got
it done. And the next 9 miles flew by with a tail wind assisting us.
Lynda is exhausted. She has been waking up about once an hour every night
- too hot then too cold by turns. It's wearing her down. She also has
this real phobia about slippery moss-covered rocks, and we have had our
far share the last few days. Tonight's soft bed of spongy peat might help
her finally get some much needed sleep. I hope so, as tomorrow we have
many rapids. I suspect tough lining and/or portages will be the order
of the day.
In any case it finally looks like this batch of "shit" weather
has blown itself out. Soon enough - perhaps tomorrow night - we will be
on Kamilukuak and get a few days of plain old paddling where we can get
a few miles without killing ourselves.
We saw our first pair of Arctic loons today. Also saw an otter sunning
on a rock and another swimming in front of us, oblivious to our presence.
As I type this, I can see the brilliant white of the labrador tea floating
over a field of caribou moss and cloud berries. Tundra birds are flitting
in and out of the 3-foot-high clump of spruce on the shore. I can hear
the water lapping the rocks along the shore.
There is a magic here. We both have fallen under its spell again. The
pain of the day is forgotten and we are happy.