From The Barrenlands Back Home
We woke up with the sun as it turned our tents into saunas, wandered 10 feet to a sandy peninsula and bathed in cool, still water. Jean-Daniel took a canoe out for a solo paddle and stared into the lake’s reflection of the sky until he felt vertigo. A series of idyllic, unnerving pad-foot tracks along the water indicated a bear had recently strolled this shore. And why not? It was paradise.
Two evenings before, a floatplane dropped the four of us and our canoes at Mesa Lake, on the edge of the Barrenlands. It was me, my partner, my roommate and an old acquaintance named Geoff whom we approached about the trip just a week before. He didn’t hesitate to wrangle the time off work and help us map and plan. We were about to take the Emile River, traditionally known as Hosii Deh—Barrenlands River. Tłįchǫ hunters would use it to travel north and hunt caribou. We were heading the other way, pretty much directly south to Behchokǫ̀, at the tip of the North Arm on Great Slave Lake.
Before arriving in paradise, we spent the previous day portaging into the treeline and thick forest. Two weeks and 300 kilometres lay between us and home. Numbers like that can be frightening to think about. We stepped around a laminated stack of maps as we made breakfast, but every time we did, our stepping feet got itchier. “I kind of feel like we don’t deserve this yet,” my partner Kiera told me. She was right. We had to get going. We all knew it. Wilderness travel means you have to work hard before you rest, or else you don’t get anywhere. It took only a few hours of relaxation to turn our reverie to anxiety.
The canoes were loaded up with food barrels, hiking backpacks, fishing rods. The clear, sunny day disappeared into storm clouds. I realized I’d forgotten my rain jacket. Jean-Daniel shot me a look of anguish as I punched my arms through the sides of a garbage bag. Two weeks and 300 kilometres to go. “I’ll be fine,” I said and smiled. It’s all in the mindset, right? The clouds whipped rain at us as if in anger. “I’m fine,” I told myself and grimaced and paddled.
The clouds darkened and pelted us with rain as the river drained into Rodrigues Lake. We stopped before entering the roiling little lake, 3.5 kilometres long with a big island in the middle. The water was rough, but the shores around us were all marsh leading to dense bush that looked awful for camping, so we cut through the waves toward the island. Kiera and I lagged behind the other canoe but made it close to the island when the other two did a strange maneuver—spinning around, then zipping around the corner of the island.
Kiera pointed her paddle to where the other canoe had just been, 20 metres away from us. The giant head of a cow moose poked out of the water and floated towards the island. It reached shelf and pulled itself up into the shallow water, standing tall in the rain under the dim sky. It looked too big for this world. We backpedalled a bit and watched as it shook the water from its hide in slow, strong movements, looked side to side, then galloped up onto a ridge. Every step was slowed down, powerful, as if its size slowed down time itself. It disappeared.
We followed Geoff and JD’s route around the corner of the island, and pulled up beside their canoe on the shore. I ducked through some bush and found them scouting for a campsite. “That was insane,” I said. JD nodded and Geoff commiserated about the size of the waves we faced. “Did you guys not see the moose?” Their faces dropped. It was the first big wildlife of the trip and they’d missed it, even though it’d been swimming right behind them. But when I told them it was on this island, Geoff kept his gun close and we were all fine to not see the powerful beast again.
The rain stopped, the bugs came out, the clouds drifted away, and the evening sun hung lazily above the horizon. We set up camp, then sat in a bug tent eating Spam sandwiches and playing cards, sure that we’d earned a bit of relaxation.
JD and Geoff were on land scouting a series of swifts. They were shallow. We’d have to line them. Kiera and I were sitting in our canoe watching an otter as it poked out of the water ahead of us, barking fervently. Then a dark shape stepped out onto the swift 10 feet in front of JD. Bear. We yell. “BEAR!” JD and Geoff visibly stiffened then gingerly hopped back along the shore to their canoe and it wasn’t until they were in the water that they saw the black bear themselves. The otter had disappeared.
We fired off a couple bear bangers and he (an assumption) looked back at us lazily and kept on his route to the opposite shore. We’d all been around bears before, and we all got a hostile vibe from this one’s nonchalance.
Geoff got his gun out and stood with Kiera on the rocks while JD and I lined the first canoe through. Then Kiera and I switched off and I stood with Geoff, spotting for the bear, as they lined the second. The bear was eating blueberries, but never ventured far from us. He stayed across from us, moving back and forth as we did. “He could eat berries anywhere,” Geoff muttered.
The dark sky was clear and the water reflected moonlight, so we could tell where the shore started but not much more detail than that. I started to see flashes from behind the silhouetted hills. “I think I’m hallucinating a bit,” I told Geoff.
We’d been told there would be a lot of easy paddling, going with the current as we were, but no one predicted a near-constant headwind. Whenever there was wind, and there often was, it was northbound and we were southbound. Geoff said it had something to do with strangeness in the jet stream.
But when the wind quieted down, it was magic. As we entered Brown Water Lake—a curious misnomer for a huge, clear, crescent-shaped water body—there wasn’t a ripple on the water but from our canoes. JD made a loon call. We didn’t know he could do that. It echoed. And it was met with a reply from far away. So he called again. There were more replies. Soon, we were enveloped in sound. JD’s calls went out and the replies from loons we could not see were almost frantic. Soon JD stopped and the music continued, urgent calls from far away, reverberating and echoing. We stayed still, hardly drifting in the water. And then it faded.
At roughly the midpoint in our maps were two large lakes, Mattberry and Basler. We were worried about high winds on big water, but by the time we got to Mattberry—after a 30-kilometre day—the water was glass. We found a nice point and set up camp. The next day, the water was choppy. Once loaded up and out on the lake, it started to whitecap. We had more than 20 kilometres to go on the lake, and we weren’t making any distance, so we found a nice little island and waited for the winds to die down.
I fixed my sandals, we washed our clothes and dried them in the sun, made bread and waited. We fished for a bit, and waited. There was an old cabin across from us on the mainland. We’d encountered an old wooden bow, an old wooden paddle, and some rusted out cans, but this was the first human structure we’d seen. Its doors were open, some obscure detritus was scattered outside. It looked like a bear had raided it. I stared at it and imagined a man running out, waving wildly, bushed out of his mind. I looked away and found something else to do.
It wasn’t until 8 p.m that we were able to set out. We’d switched boats to mix things up and now I sat with Geoff and Kiera with JD. The winds died down as the sun set and we got going at a good clip. The dark sky was clear and the water reflected moonlight, so we could tell where the shore started but not much more detail than that. I started to see flashes from behind the silhouetted hills. “I think I’m hallucinating a bit,” I told Geoff. “Me too,” he said. He had a GPS out and picked some spots we could camp, but we met with the other boat and JD wanted to power through. We found a rock the size of a dinner table sticking out of the water and took turns climbing out to put on more clothes and headlamps.
We kept going until the wind picked up again. And soon enough we began to see the odd whitecap in the moonlight. We met briefly with the other boat and set out toward a big island on Geoff’s GPS. Big strokes, paddling diagonally into the waves. I was in the stern and had to wrench the paddle off the boat at times to keep us on course. The northern lights began to dance above us, and I kept my tired eyes focused ahead on the approaching silhouette. No time for distractions. We pulled up to the island. It had beautiful pull-out spots and was mostly bedrock. In the middle, there was a line of trees surrounding a big, flat bed of lichen in a clearing. It was the best campsite we would have for the entire trip. I looked up at the lights in the sky: white ribbons drenched in pink at the bottom. I’ve lived in the North for almost all my life and had never seen anything like them.
After Mattberry and Basler lakes, we motored through the rest of the Emile, through old burn areas and against hard winds, to Marian River, where the winds died down but the signs of society began to appear and soured our moods. There was litter at every campsite. Tetrapacks, bottles, chip bags, cans, wrappers of all kinds, scattered everywhere and sometimes in piles. And socks. The amount of socks we saw was mystifying. Our mood took a hit and never truly recovered.
The next day we set out for Marian Lake, on whose banks sat the small community of Rae (or Behchokǫ̀), our final destination.
On the last day of the journey, we camped on a peninsula, maybe an hour away from Rae, and lazily packed up for the last time. We weren’t eager to go home, but we weren’t eager to stay on Marian Lake either. The lights from town were right there.
I found a nice spot on the other side of the peninsula, by the water, windy enough to keep the bugs at bay, and squatted down for a final wilderness constitution. I’d often scan my surroundings beforehand, but it felt like we were already home, and I was pondering our trip and looking straight ahead. I took a final look around when I was finished and a wolf stopped mid-trot about 10 feet away from me. There was nothing between us. The lean, mangy thing was looking right at me and had been coming right for me. I stood up and he turned around and I yelled, “Wolf!” and it took off. In camp, Kiera heard me yell and stopped packing up the tent to listen. The wolf ran out through the trees, right by her, and disappeared into the mainland. We finished packing and paddled to Rae.
Kiera’s brothers picked us up at the docks, strapped our canoes to their cars, and drove us back to Yellowknife. We were all thirsty for beer and hungry for fresh food. In 12 days, we’d gone through 300 kilometres dotted with 30 portages. We’d seen seven moose, six bears and a family of trumpeter swans. But it had only been 12 days. Another two weeks, or another month—then we’d really deserve the beer and food.