Three First Descents, Four Acts, 11,000+ KM
This post deals primarily with expedition context, perspective, and the remarkable history of the MacKenzie watershed.
I have become reasonably good at predicting seasonal ice break-up from a distance, but that is really only germane with respect to day #1 of an Arctic expedition. I left on the second leg of the MacKenzie expedition during the last week of May. Items of this nature do not have broad predictive application. Figures 4 and 5 show what break-up looks like on big water in the far north. (Recall that Figures 1, 2, and 3 are found in post #1.) Icebergs and layered ice rafts (which are formed by several layers of broken ice that refreezes) can be larger than two-story houses. When these formations collapse, they can create surfable rogue waves. These waves are completely unpredictable. They can come from any direction, and are a very serious threat to boaters. One must scan for them constantly. The collapse of ice formations during break-up sounds like artillery.
Moose kill more people in the North than bears do (by a sizable margin), and falling coconuts kill more people in the tropics than sharks do, but bears and sharks cannot be faulted for doing what they are wired to do any more than moose and coconuts can. Travelers in the North are responsible for their own safety. The most concise thing one can say about bears is: 1) they are hungry and unpredictable, and 2) the hungrier they get, the more unpredictable they are. There’s a link between the two issues — but it does not translate into Humanspeak. Expect to be confounded if you travel among these animals.
Three Bear Encounters
The region between the Arctic Circle and the Beaufort Sea in remote northern Canada is one of the relatively uncommon areas on earth where all three species of North American bears (black, grizzly, and polar) co-exist. I had three bear encounters on this expedition. Two of those encounters were what I would call drive-bys – curious, hungry bears with little or no human experience simply checking things out. They blew through camp at a dead run (which is pretty fast – bears can outrun Usain Bolt).
Source: Sahtu Wildlife/Foter/Creative Commons Attribution — Noncommerical 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) Figure 4. Ice break-up on the MacKenzie River near Ft. Simpson NWT (Canada)
Predatory Bear Encounter
One of the bear encounters was clearly predatory. A large boar black bear stalked me on day three of the expedition as I loaded my boat in the morning. I am mostly deaf nowadays, but I happened to catch sight of the bear out of the corner of my eye and was close enough to my boat that I was able to pound my paddle on the coaming like a drum. I screamed at the bear and it circled around to flank me along the waterfront. I took more of a chance than I would have liked, gathered the rest of my gear, tossed it in the cockpit of the boat, and launched. The bear tracked me along the shore for a while before heading back into the woods.
Source: Dr. Lance Lesack, Simon Fraser Uiversity Figure 5. Ice break-up on the lower MacKenzie River
I had not yet gotten into my dry suit, did not have a PFD on, and the water was barely above freezing – it was littered with icebergs as large as houses. Bears can both outrun and outswim humans, but I was almost forced to swim. At 34 degrees or so, the maximum amount of time a swimmer can expect to stay alive in Arctic water is about 5 or 6 minutes. I am a very good swimmer, but I knew this encounter would not end well if I was forced into the water.
Practical Bear Protection
While I carry bear spray, bear bangers (small explosive devices), an air horn, and (on this expedition) a shotgun, I had already packed my gun into its dry bag when the predatory incident mentioned above occurred. That lapse of judgment only happened once on the expedition — but that’s all it takes. I got lucky.
Healthy wolves (even hungry healthy wolves) almost never attack humans. They are smart, they know humans are a lethal threat to them, and they avoid contact. They will occasionally show themselves, but they are generally very stealthy.
Foxes are the primary vector for rabies in the north. They are quite common but (like all wild animals) should never be fed or approached.
Although fishing gear features in my emergency kit, I do not fish on these expeditions. Once you catch and clean a fish, you can never get the scent out of your boat or off of your equipment, which means you become a potential food item for carnivores. If you catch fish, you become fish. Expedition travel creates enough unique scents without adding fish skank to the mix.
Thankfully, navigation is still something of an art. If you travel in the north, carry with you at least one version of every navigational tool with which you are acquainted. Expect them all to malfunction — sometimes simultaneously. Uncertainty keeps you sharp.
Multiple Maps and Navigational Devices
Like everything else in the far north, navigation is challenging. Weather and unpredictable magnetic anomalies make compasses and GPS devices completely untrustworthy at times, and maps are frequently wildly out of whack. I use three printed versions of maps from different publishers in different scales in order to average out navigational kinks. Magnetic-compass and GPS-device functionality comes and goes without warning. (Batteries are always an issue, and the footpegs in my kayak and the metal in the brace I wear on my left arm also occasionally create problems.) There’s nobody to blame for this — stuff just happens. Electrical storms can make both electronics and magnetic compasses go haywire. Moreover, magnetite deposits seem to be reasonably common — but not predictably so. Being lost is not exactly an issue, but staying found can be challenging. Travelers who need to know exactly where they are every minute of every day are not well suited to this mode of travel.
Local Knowledge Focuses Upon Motorized Travel
Local residents frequently possess extraordinary local knowledge – but I encountered very few individuals who had detailed regional or super-regional geographical knowledge. The last of the true nomads in the North Country settled down in villages during the 1960s. The knowledge locals possess tends to be limited to what is of use to people traveling by motorized watercraft. Such knowledge keeps the locals alive when they are hunting and fishing but it is of limited value to a muscle-powered boater. The locals were generally surprised to hear about what I was doing (I do not generally broadcast my presence or intentions).
Local Advice Requires Reading between Lines
First Nations people are, by nature, highly circumspect. I found them to be outrageously honest if asked direct questions, but their collective cultural foundation seems to be firmly based upon minding their own business. Rather than say “do not do that,” they tend to say something like “my grandfather generally did it this way.” Moreover, once they learned about how far I had come, they offered quiet respect. Because they are well aware of the potential cost of bad advice and bad judgment in the Arctic, they generally do not dispense unsolicited advice. Generally speaking, however, while they clearly prefer not to interfere, they will not hesitate to warn fools about potentially self-destructive behavior. They also maintain an absolutely seamless radio-communications network and are acutely aware of everything happening on their turf. They appear to respect respect. We can all do with a bit more of that.
Logistics are difficult in the far north. Small villages exist, and many of them have subsistence-level grocery stores. I carry 20 days of food and a 4-day emergency ration that I do not consider an extension of my basic food supply. I consider using my emergency ration to be a sign of poor planning and execution, and I have not yet been forced to resort to it.
Overall weather is difficult to predict above the Arctic Circle. Anybody with a computer can Google Arctic weather and drill down several levels, but in my experience that information is nearly worthless. I actually stopped checking weather reports. We are currently in the midst of a Black Swan weather phenomenon. 2016 was certainly a Black Swan year. Sea ice hit an historic minimum and summer temperatures hit historic highs. This is not a place for people who value predictability. Moreover, big water makes its own weather.
Weather-related downtime on my Yukon descent averaged about 25% — meaning that I was pinned down by weather one out of every four days. That figure rose to 33% of the time on the upper MacKenzie watershed. On the lower MacKenzie, bad weather made travel unsafe 66% of the time. That kind of downtime creates resupply problems and increased bear risk. Solo travelers need to be mobile travelers in bear country — and particularly in polar bear country.
Equipment is a matter of preference and experience. My personal equipment – including everything related to self-supported travel: safety gear, tools, patching materials, spare footwear, 5 pairs of gloves, three hats, spare paddle, dry suit, etc, — weighs about 48 pounds. There is only so much bulkhead space in a Jura. On rare occasions — generally early in a trip, when I am still gauging overnight temperatures and might need an extra sleeping bag) — I will strap a dry bag to the rear deck of the boat. However, items like that make rolling difficult — and they tend to snag under water. Shipshape boats with minimal protrusions are safest.
I carry a small but fairly comprehensive medical kit with me on these expeditions. Feminine hygiene products serve as my trauma dressings. My wife was a bit nonplussed the first time she saw me packing these items.
The surprisingly few people I encounter have largely proven to be the most helpful, hospitable, entertaining people on this fine planet. That said, some kids stole minor (but difficult-to-replace) items like gloves in one small village — and someone stole my entire backpack (including everything I owned) when I was on my way back home from the 2016 expedition. That was a major set-back because my book notes and both of my cameras were in that backpack. I sincerely hope the responsible party spends a bit of time with Bushman for that indiscretion. I’ll sharpen the knives.
I am a seriously committed leave-no-trace boater. While I do build fires in the extreme north (and driftwood is available for quite some distance above the Arctic Circle), I only build them below the ice-scour line on the banks of rivers and oceans – so that the normal seasonal behavior of ice and water will erase the burns rapidly. In the southern 48 states, I generally scatter fire rings and bury ashes when I find fire rings — so that people will not be prompted to reuse the rings.
I am well-supported from home. My long-suffering wife understands what I am doing and trusts me to do it as safely as circumstances will allow. However, Emersonian self-reliance guides the expeditions I undertake. Close attention needs to be paid to every aspect of boat and equipage. Even the smallest, most inconsequential, action needs to be carefully choreographed in advance of execution. Traveling alone in the wilderness is not a simple matter of paddling one’s ass off every day. Because there is no recourse for lost or misplaced items, one cannot allow items to be lost or misplaced. There is no room for lapses of judgment. Hidden risk abounds.
Watershed Metrics and Import
The MacKenzie is still largely virgin wilderness. It is raw, unpredictable, sometimes a bit threatening, and always captivating. In many places it was clear that the animals I encountered had never seen a human.
MacKenzie Watershed Is Unique
Volumetrically, the MacKenzie watershed is: 1) the third largest watershed on earth (after the Nile and the Amazon), 2) the longest watershed in Canada (draining 20% of the country), 3) responsible for delivering 15% of the fresh water that feeds Arctic oceans, 4) the only watershed between Pt. Barrow and Tierra del Fuego that crosses a Continental Divide from west to east, and 5) the only watershed on earth that delivers Arctic fish west of the Rocky Mountains. Moreover, the MacKenzie delta harbors the most vital avian rookery remaining in the Arctic. It is therefore extremely important ecologically. That’s why I was there.
Site C Dam Is A Generational Mistake
The Site C dam on the Peace River portion of the watershed is, in my judgment, a generational environmental mistake — one I would like to help stop. Plans to dam the Finlay have been floating around for about a century. The Site C dam on the Peace River is a clear sign that attention is once again turning to regions that offer untapped resource potential — provided that the people of this fine planet are willing to allow some of the most remarkable treasures remaining on earth to be destroyed.
The MacKenzie watershed is historically significant in the same way that the Columbia watershed is historically significant — it was the primary highway for true transcontinental exploration at a critical time in western expansion in North America.
Defining the MacKenzie Watershed
Two tributaries (the Peace and the Athabasca) that meet in a unique delta near Ft. Chipewyan comprise the MacKenzie watershed. The Peace (the longest tributary) starts at Thutade (Too-toddy) Lake in the Canadian Rockies northwest of MacKenzie, BC. The longest arm of this watershed is comprised of Thutade Lake, the Finlay River, Williston Reservoir, the Peace River, the Slave River, Great Slave Lake, and the MacKenzie River proper — 3,700 km (give or take). The MacKenzie delta empties into the Beaufort Sea. The scant 350-meter elevation drop from the Peace region to the Beaufort Sea makes an immense sponge of the millions of kilometers of wetlands responsible for the health of Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lake – two of the most pristine lakes left on Planet Earth.
The Peace River was named for a First Nations treaty that followed a 1781 smallpox epidemic. Aboriginal explorers migrating south from the Bering Straits passed through the region 12 centuries earlier on their way to the American Southwest. Historical settlements related to fur trading in the valley date to the 1780s. Significant archaeological and historical sites stand to be lost forever to rising waters.
Alexander MacKenzie Crosses the Continent
In 1789, Alexander MacKenzie descended the MacKenzie River proper seeking Alaska’s Cook Inlet. The MacKenzie exits Great Slave Lake at the correct latitude for this goal — but it then veers north. Early explorers (and their trusted First Nations guides) were remarkably well acquainted with big-picture geography. In 1793, MacKenzie completed the first overland crossing of North America — a decade ahead of Lewis and Clark — by traveling up the Peace and Parsnip rivers before portaging the Continental Divide to present-day Bella Coola, BC. John Finlay accompanied MacKenzie on that effort. Finlay subsequently (1797) traveled up his namesake river to near present-day Tsay Keh Dene before deciding the new route failed to improve upon MacKenzie’s.
Samuel Black Defines MacKenzie Source
During 1824, trader Samuel Black labored upstream to Thutade Lake, where he rendezvoused with First Nations chief Methodiates. Methodiates and his small clan walked despite being able to build canoes in one day from spruce bark (the skin), spruce roots (cordage), willow withes (ribs and keel), and pitch (adhesive). Locals with two millennia of experience in the Thutade region chose to travel by foot — frequently away from the riverside. This speaks to the ruggedness of the Finlay region. After a short stay, the Black party paddled downstream, discarded their canoe (which required two dozen patches per day), and walked out through what is now Alaska before returning to the westernmost Canadian fur outposts. Each paddler portaged up to 90 kilos of freight in addition to personal possessions. Bales of fur commonly weighed 40 kilos. The Black expedition was a feat of exceptional courage and determination completed at a time when the extraordinary was commonplace in Canada.
Patterson Provides Modern Perspective
During 1948, R. M. Patterson traveled widely by canoe in the upper MacKenzie region. At one point, a bear dove into the eddy in which he was fishing to attack him, but luck allowed him to escape unharmed. Various people have since run portions of the watershed — mostly limited to commercial routes between established settlements. Steamboats served navigable portions of the watershed for several decades. Commercial barges now navigate the lower reaches seasonally. The heart of the upper watershed (the confluence of the Finlay and Parsnip rivers) was inundated in 1968 by the Bennett Dam.
I did not see a single other point-to-point paddler in the 3,700 km between Thutade Lake and the Beaufort Sea north of the Arctic Circle. In fact, in 11,000 km of paddling, I only met one paddler traveling more than 500 km.
The Big Picture
One of my most important big-picture goals is to use what has happened in the Colorado watershed and what is currently happening on the MacKenzie to focus long-term environmental attention upon the still-pristine Yukon watershed. The MacKenzie watershed is the canary in the mineshaft. It’s big canary in a huge mineshaft.
By vocation, Bryan Brown is a Wall Street Market Strategist. By avocation, he is an eco-explorer. In addition to the three first descents and 7,000-mile river portfolio mentioned above, Bryan has hiked the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail, completed a 3,000-mile solo, transcontinental bicycle ride, climbed widely, collected rare Oceanic art by dugout canoe on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, snorkeled with Minke and Humpback whales in Tonga, fed Komodo dragons on their home turf, shared an interesting open-ocean dive with two full-grown whale sharks and a Galapagos Shark, and rounded Cape Horn by sea. He and wife Sandy have traveled on six of the seven continents, share a passion for scuba diving, and have logged dives in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, New Guinea, the Maldives, the Galapagos, Tonga, Cocos Island, and throughout Central America and the Caribbean. He can be booked for fast-paced expedition, motivation, leadership, and environmental presentations at: firstname.lastname@example.org.