(Editor’s note: The Nature Conservancy’s lead scientist Sanjayan and Canada program director Dr. Richard Jeo are on an expedition through one of Canada’s most pristine areas with young members of the Dene First Nation. They will canoe along the Thelon River and end in North America’s largest and most remote wildlife refuge, the Thelon Game Sanctuary. Follow their journey.)
River travel worried me. Two hundred kilometers on a poorly charted arctic river, with no cavalry to come to the rescue, is not the place to practice canoeing. You either make it or you don’t.
Months ago, back in my home in Montana, I had devised a solution.
I had found Doug Ammons.
Doug is a legend amongst white water kayakers. When Outside Magazine named 10 people who have changed their sports forever (like Lance and cycling), they picked Doug for kayaking. He was doing first descents on rivers and waterfalls long before most kayakers knew what was even possible.
He also loves the water; to him the water itself rather than the conveyance above it, is what matters. He is also a poet, scientist, author, and concert-level classical guitarist. It gives him license to begin each of our lessons with a sermon. Sometimes it was philosophy, sometimes physics, rarely was it about canoeing. For example, he would explain to me Newton’s third law – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction – before teaching me a ferrying technique to cross the river.
We ran small rapids, pounded white-water, and on one stormy day skirted lightning. And Doug would say “canoeing is the active meditation on the beauty of fluid motion,” and I would nod sagely and just paddle harder.
Armed with his instructions I was confident as the stern-man on our 17-foot foldable canoe while Richard Jeo was on the bow providing power and early warning. Like this we progressed for about ten days, crossing lakes, cutting through headwinds, and running whitewater.
Then came the portage! Doug never told me about the portage.
Nothing prepared me for the blow of carrying the tools of our sustenance on our backs and the means of our conveyance on our heads across rocks, bogs, willows thickets, and muskeg.
We had reached a dangerous section of the river – with waterfalls. To get around it was to leave the gentle buoyancy of water and slog it on a lengthy land detour.
One thousand and eight hundred kilograms of load, divided amongst us unequally, over 4 km of hills and ponds.
We broke up the portage into four legs with the last one being the longest and the third one being the shortest. Psychologically that made sense, physically it hurt. Each leg would require three trips per person. The first to carry our personal gear (like tents and kit), the second to carry shared stuff like food and equipment, and the final push for the canoes. The wind that had lingered over from a storm kept the bugs down but also played havoc. On our heads the canoes acted like giant sails. Some, like Mike Palmer, an experienced canoeist in his own right, carried the canoe on his own balanced on a yoke between his shoulders. I preferred help.
The loon is a bird of the lake country and familiar to canoeists. On land, the placement of its webbed feet, far back rather than under it, prevents the loon for standing up; it can swim beautifully but on land loons flops.
That is how I felt.
It took all day, back and forth, like ants bowed under impossible loads, to ferry our stuff. Each step a stumble forward, each word we spoke a grunt, each minute a small agony. For days the water had buoyed us along. Now we were stranded on an alien medium – land! We longed for the slippery embrace of water, where each small stroke was rewarded by a surge forward.
We didn’t stop for long breaks. We knew that if we stopped we were finished and when we saw the river again I almost cried in relief. I don’t think I could have gone a step further.
We set up a rough camp and ate a bare supper. We went to bed early and dreamt of the beauty of fluid motion.
(Image: The portage. Image credit: ©Ami Vitale)