Summertime makes me fall in love with the North all over again. A quick drive outside Yellowknife’s city limits and you have access to the most beautiful landscapes and lakes ideal for camping, kayaking, fishing and hiking. And there are outdoor adventures for everyone, from those who prefer a relaxing glamping weekend to the most hardened outdoors-people.
I like to think I fall somewhere in the middle. Spending a weekend paddling to an island to pitch a tent and eat by a fire is my idea of paradise. But drop me in the middle of the wilderness with nothing but a hatchet—like the kid in that book by Gary Paulsen—and I don’t think I would survive.
Two summers ago, a friend and I decided to tackle Hidden Lake, an easy enough portage-and-paddle for two gals with kayaks. While many people camp overnight, we opted to make it a one-day trip—I didn’t think I could fit my camping gear in my small kayak.
Heading out, it was perfect weather and smooth paddling as we took in the scenery and saw wildlife along the way. As much as I begrudged having to carry my kayak, the three portages were manageable. We even spotted some wild blueberries. We spent the sunny afternoon relaxing on an island taking photos, eating snacks and laughing. Life was good.
But when it was time to start for home, the trouble began.
Although I’m comfortable in a canoe, I have yet to master the art of getting in and out of a kayak. Case in point: when we left the island, I wound up in the drink—and drenched from head to toe. And though I was little bit cranky and embarrassed, at least I gave my friend a good laugh. After wringing out my jeans and sweater, we started the soggy paddle back.
It wasn’t long before we were making the first portage, our kayaks over our heads. That’s when I heard a sickening snap and a scream behind me. My heart stopped. I turned to see my friend balled up on the ground in pain.
Through tears, she told me her foot had got caught in a tree root and she thought her ankle was broken. (We later learned she had pulled her ankle’s ligaments, an even worse diagnosis.)
I pulled out my first-aid kit and gave her an ice pack and a compression bandage wrap. Panic began to set in. We were on the furthest of three portages, far from the road and any prospect of help. My Girl Guide training on how to turn a tin can into a makeshift stove hadn’t prepared me for this.
I had visions of getting airlifted by a helicopter. I could already see the headlines: “Two idiots rescued from Hidden Lake.”
My friend told me to call her partner—he’s trained in wilderness rescue and had a cabin not too far away. I grabbed her phone, holding it in the air, desperately trying to get a signal. It wasn’t until I reached the very end of the island, my feet teetering on the water’s edge, that I managed to get a single bar. I called, only to get his voicemail.
Stressing out and with few alternatives, I decided to call the RCMP to ask about a rescue. Through several dropped calls, the operator, who didn’t seem to quite understand where we were, explained that search and rescue would have to take a canoe, which would be slow going.
As I debated next steps, my friend, like the hero in a movie, appeared at the crest of the hill. If I could drag the kayaks, she shouted, she could crawl along the portages and gut out the paddles home.
If it was me with the ballooning ankle, I would have just laid down and died, I couldn’t help but think. But I knew she was made of stronger stuff than me, so I agreed and let the operator know.
We were a sorry sight: me soaked and struggling with two kayaks, and her crawling along the dirty, foot-path with the help of a paddle. Swarms of mosquitoes bit at every piece of our exposed skin, as we raced against the setting sun.
Every step of the way, I was sure we wouldn’t make it. But we did, with some dwindling daylight to spare. When I called back the RCMP to let them know, even the operator seemed surprised.
I haven’t been back to Hidden Lake. Any mention of a weekend camping trip there gives me a shudder. But if you ever do make the journey, watch out for tree roots.