The Helen Back Trail
I huddled into the shade of a spindly birch tree and sipped just enough water to wet my lips. My companions pulled themselves through sludge to get out of the small, disgusting lake in front of us that they’d foolishly dove into. It was a hike we’d wanted to do for years and here we were, at its terminus, and there was nothing but a dead, undrinkable lake. And we were almost out of water.
It didn’t help that we started the day hungover. We were camped out at Hidden Lake, a few portages off the Ingraham Trail highway out of Yellowknife, in a little channel that connects the small, overused portion of the lake with the under-used majority. After a day of fishing, swimming and lazing about in the sun we woke up and eight of us got in three canoes to paddle to the big section of the lake and into its northern bay. There were whitecaps but we aimed into the waves and stuck close to the shore, bucking about and practising our corrective strokes as we were occasionally broadsided. In the bay the waves turned to ripples. A seagull
divebombed the first canoe in the armada. We made it to shore. Here, somewhere along the narrow gravel beach, was supposed to be a trailhead to an old abandoned gold mine.
We patrolled the area where the map showed the path and saw nothing but scorched trunks, fallen trees and dense brush. The wind that earlier cursed our crossing had now died, leaving the sky cloudless and us running from bit of shade to bit of shade in the intense midday heat. Deerflies and horseflies met us in the shade, pecking at our arms and faces. I sprayed DEET directly onto my skin with resignation. So did the others.
As we prepared to head back to our canoes an hour later, one of our party yelled from the bushes that he’d found the trail. There was one voiced, sarcastic “yay,” as we left the shade to push through shrubs and standing deadfall to find an old, overgrown dirt road. When the Thompson-Lundmark mine was in operation back in the '40s, this had been a winter road, fortified with ice; now, long abandoned and out of season, it was two deep ridges in the dirt with unmarked passes over bedrock and stretches of pure bog. We trod slowly and rhythmically along the uneven path under the beating sun. No wind to assail the carnivorous, inch-long flies. We made it halfway down the trail before half the group turned back. It had only been 25 minutes of hiking.
I remained, with our friend who found the trail and my girlfriend. (She kept saying we could drink and swim at the lake and I kept saying it’s a small lake where a mine operated in the ‘40s, when there were practically zero environmental guidelines. I was brushed off as a worry-wart.) We were almost there. Heat. Shade. Bugs. Heat. After another half hour, the three of us realized we had about 15 ounces of water left, collectively, in our bottles. At this point I stopped talking and was sure I felt the onset of heatstroke. A tree stabbed me in the ear. I tried to laugh along with the other two, who were trying to keep spirits up with attempts at jokes. It was all half-hearted.
The blue waters of salvation glinted through the trees and we ran toward it until we were close enough to see what looked like a quicksand beach. I found shade and the other two jumped in to find the muck that ringed the lake also made up its floor (containing who knows what), and they cried out and flopped around and eventually made it back. Where was the mine? We saw no signs of it but the old winter road that led there. Another coat of sunscreen and we made an almost wordless return trek, rationing the last few sips of water.
We got back and ran frenzied into the cool, clear water of Hidden Lake—floating in it, drinking from it like Caligula in a gilded pool of wine. We came back to camp, chests inflated and talking tough. It had only been a two-hour long hike, but it had been a five-hour journey, made arduous and heroic through our own lack of planning. But to us, we’d been “through hell and back.”