According to Daniel who standing at the boat launch when we arrive “The first explorers called it Fort Good Hope when they made it through The Ramparts and saw this spot. They knew they had found something good!”
The town of Fort Good Hope sits high on the bank of the Mackenzie River at a spot where the intimidating limestone cliffs of The Ramparts have disappeared. A small river feeds into the Mackenzie at the spot as well. The location is prominent and inviting and is perfect for a community.
The Church of Our Lady of Good Hope is the most distinct building in town and sits high atop the bluff facing out to the Mackenzie. It’s the first thing we saw from The Ramparts. It’s a simple one storey wood structure with a steep gabled roof and slender spire but is beautiful in proportion and design. It was built in 1865 and is an exemplary example of the northwest style of the time. It’s on the register as a National Historic site of Canada.
We set up camp in an open field across from the church atop the 100 foot bank with a commanding view of the river. The Ramparts are still visible to the south but the view to the north, the view to what unknown awaits us, is less obvious. In its place is a bruise of broiling black clouds that’s quickly coming our way.
The storm soon hits and we weather it in our tent chatting and playing cards. We make our way to the Northern as per ritual once the weather clears and we’re kindly offered a drive back by a man donning a black ball cap and a Harley Davidson leather jacket.
“You guys the family paddlers?” asks the man.
“We are,” I reply.
“Would you like a drive to the boat launch? I see you have a lot of stuff!”
“We’d love a lift. Thank you!” I reply.
“My name is Douglas. I’m the wildlife officer in town.”
Douglas has an easy going way about him and I sense it would be hard to ruffle his feathers.
“I need to drop by my house first if that’s OK?” he says, “Friends are coming over for pizza and I need to unlock the door for them.”
I’m holding a framed image of Cam Neely and Bobby Orr that was on the passenger seat when I entered his truck. I say nothing until I notice a Boston Bruins logo over Douglas’s garage when we arrive at his house.
“Bruins fan I see,” I say.
“My team,” says Douglas. “Best team there is.”
“I’m from Montreal,” I say sheepishly. “I know Boston well.”
Boston and Montreal are notorious rivals of course.
“Habs fan, eh!,” he says incredulously as he opens the truck door to get out.
“I can walk to the boat launch from here if you’d like,” I say jokingly as he walks towards the house, “My kids are innocent though. Let them stay.”
Douglas returns to the truck and starts driving.
“My dad’s a Habs fan”, he says, “I’ll make an exception with you too”
He points to the street sign as we drive out. Cam Neely Road it reads.
“My house is in a new subdivision and I got to name the street. The other street is Boston Bruins.”
Douglas drives us to our tent and offers to take us for another drive if we stick around tomorrow. “We’d love to but we’re eager to get going.” I say, “We still have a huge section ahead."
Douglas passes me his phone. I read the screen.
Q: What do the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Titanic have in common?
A: They both look good until they hit the ice!
By morning the weather has improved and we ready ourselves to leave. I get the chance to speak with an elder named Joe who had driven down and was parked near our tent.
“We were worried about you coming though the rapids,” says Joe as he takes a deep draw on his cigarette. “We knew you were with children and we were keeping watch. We’re happy you made it in safe.”
We had no idea that word had come down the river about our trip. The sense of genuine concern displayed for us by people throughout this journey is humbling and uplifting.
“Is there anything I should lookout for on the upcoming section to Tsiigehtchic?’ I ask him.
“You’re done with the rapids,” he says, “Shoals and wind will be your problem now. Grizzlies too. Watch out for them after Little Chicago. When we travel we camp on the islands or on the west bank. Stay on the islands if you can.”
Little Chicago was the wintering residence for prospectors traveling to the Klondike gold rush in the 1890’s. It’s about 100 kilometers north of us here and is a place I’ll remember now.
We push off at 1:00pm and head straight across to the west bank and follow it closely for the rest of the day. A northeasterly headwind has built up and has taken all the push out of the current for us. We struggle to make mileage and when we stop paddling we're actually blown back upstream. The day is beautiful and the wind eventually dies. I navigate us to a small island in the channel about 50 kilometers from Fort Good Hope.
“What’s that daddy,” asks Arianna as we approach.
“Kinda looks like a tent to me,” I say. “I’m sure it’s just a rock being distorted in the light sweetie.”
As we get closer we see wood smoke and two figures. There’s a canoe on the sandbar as well.
“It’s the canoers,” I say to Arianna, “I didn’t think we’d catch them.”
In the communities along the way we’ve been told about a young couple canoeing ahead of us. We saw their canoe at the boat launch yesterday when we arrived in Fort Good Hope but they were gone before we had a chance to chat.
“I hope they don’t mind us sharing their spot,” I say to Arianna, “I’ll go and have a chat with them.”
We land on the sandy shoal of the small island. The sand of the beach gives the appearance of a tropical setting even though we’re only 10k shy of the Arctic Circle. I walk directly over to the couple before unloading.
“I hope you don’t mind us sharing your spot,” I say as I stride up to them, “I had this island on my radar for several hours.”
“No problem at all,” says the young woman, glasses on and her dark hair in a tussle. “There’s tons of room for all of us.”
“It’s nice to have the company too,” says the young man who looks as bedraggled as I feel, “You’re the first paddlers we’ve seen on the trip.”
I soon discover that Ella and Corey started their journey in Hay River five days before us. They’ve been experiencing much of the same conditions as ourselves and are tired.
“It’s a longer journey than I thought,” says Corey “We’ve never done anything this long before.”
“Yea, we’re tired too,” I say, “We’re keen to get this section done. It’s a biggie!”
We are on the water before Ella and Corey in the morning and give them a big wave when we push off.
“See you up the river,” I yell.
In under two hours we cross the Arctic Circle. We stop, take a group photo and feel like we’ve achieved a milestone. We have now paddled to the Arctic. The urge not to linger has become more pronounced in us and we don’t linger for long. The weather too is displaying a new urge - to deteriorate - and, true to form, does so shortly after. By lunch we’re off the water, battered by a strong northerly and are resigned to loosing another day. The wind lasts through the night only to calm by morning.
The new day is wind-free but we quickly find our new nemesis to be large sandbars that extend for kilometers into the river. The detours we are forced to make prove so big that on two occasions we risk taking the inside line around islands only to find them blocked and having to retrace our tracks upstream. We end the day camped on a tiny island right in the middle of the river.
The island proves the perfect security from grizzly bears but opens us up to exposure from wind. A quick check of the weather on my InReach device before bed indicates high winds by morning. I hear the wind build through the overnight hours but drop suddenly by morning. I look at my watch and it indicates 7:17am.
“Guys, this is our only window to get across,” I say out loud in the tent to wake everyone up. ”It’s nearly 7:30, the wind is going to build again. We can have breakfast on the far shore. Let’s go now. OK!? Go, go, go!!!”
I’m amazed at how well the girls take all this. Getting them up at home for school is next near to impossible but here there’s no complaining or resistance, just action. They understand the importance of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. I glance at my watch when we’re ready to push off and am shocked. My digital watch has lost its seal a week ago and there’s a mist covering the inside. I must have read it wrong in the tent earlier. It reads 3:58am. I read the 3 to be a 7. The light did seem a little dimmer than usual. I keep the error to myself because we still need to get to the other side but I’m getting frustrated by our circumstances.
As we make our crossing I find myself debating with myself about the necessity of only staying on islands from this point forward. “How many grizzly bears are really out here?” I think to myself. “We could have just camped on the beach that we’re aiming for now and there would be none of this jumping at calm weather windows in the middle of the night.”
As I play out my argument in my head I stare out at the beach we would have camped at last night and I see movement.
“Look Arianna,” I say to her as she sits in the front cockpit looking forward, “What’s that?”
“It’s a bear daddy. A big bear.” She replies.
The lope and pigeon toed stride of the beast is unmistakable: a grizzly bear.
We watch safely from water as the big bruin strides with dignity along shore, right where we would have camped.
“Sure is different looking than all the black bears we’ve seen, eh sweetie?”
No more debate, we’ll be looking for islands to camp on moving forward.