We paddle downriver for an hour then pull off for breakfast.
“The bear should be a long way from here,” says Nicky, “I hope so anyway”
We make a large fire from drift wood on the beach and warm up. We all feel energized as the sun rises ever higher. Nicky and I sip coffee by the fire as the girls play on the gravel beach. It’s a temporary moment of respite but it’s a glorious one.
The day is windy but is at our back and pushes us for a tremendous 40k in 4 hours after breakfast. Our routine now is to paddle solidly for 4 hours, take a break for 1-1/2 hours and then put in another 4 hour shift and another break. Depending on the time, the weather and how we feel we occasionally throw in a third shift of varying length. We’re getting fitter now and we’re able to sustain our efforts surprisingly well.
Our appetites have become huge too and our diet has begun to change. We’re vegetarians at home but have elected to eat small amounts of meat out here to help with muscle repair. Beef jerky has been the meat of choice. Our freeze-dried and dehydrated meals which were too large for us in the beginning have now become lacking in size. The delicious healthy snacks Nicky painstakingly prepared for weeks prior to departure have been gradually replaced by Northern store fair. Arianna pointed this it out the other day on the boat as I was riffling for a Pop Tart.
“Daddy, we started with lots of healthy snacks but now all we eat is Wonderbread, sliced cheese, licorice nibs, lollipops, Pringles, Baby Ruths and Pop Tarts. What’s happened?”
“I know sweetie,” I reply, “I’m not sure what to say except ... be quiet and eat your candy.”
Our buoyed spirits after our speedy 40k quickly sink as the wind builds. We can only make another 10k before we’re forced to camp, this time on shore. It’s a steep cut bank with a flat meadow on top. There are no bear prints at the base of the bank and we like the feel of the location but in reality we have little choice, we can’t get to an island in this wind.
The wind dies by morning but the temperature has dropped markedly. To me it feels similar to the morning of Wrigley where it was 1C. The Arctic is beginning to feel like the Arctic and I’m concerned the season has started to shift.
The weather remains stable through the day and we attempt three full shifts to get kilometers in. We started fairly late and are well rested so push late into the night. The evenings are getting much darker now and it’s at its gloomiest when we get caught. It’s just after 2:00am and the wind and rain begin in earnest. We couldn’t see the weather system approaching in the low light and now it’s upon us. We need to camp ... and fast!. We were aiming for an island down river but we won’t make it now. We investigate a steep beach only to discover fresh mud slide debris all over it. I’m fairly resigned to the location but Nicky having a better geological sensitivity (she works at the Geological Survey of Canada) makes her thoughts heard.
“We’re not camping on this damn beach no matter what!!!”
We find a camp on a muddy sandbar a short distance away. We sink to our knees in soupy sand at the waters edge and are encased in muck when we build the tent. We’re all in a foul mood and exhausted. The kids are quiet and cold.
‘I’m certain this spot was under water just a few days back”, I say as I push sticks into the ground to act as tent pegs. “I don’t think there’s any bottom to this bloody mush.”
“At least we have no fear of animals,” I continue, “They’ll drown in the F&#%ing quicksand.”
Once in the tent our world settles down and we become content in our little area of refuge. We have become so comfortable and accustomed to our tent that each time we recreate the space we feel a sense of relaxation in its familiarity. It doesn’t matter whether we’re on a meadow, on the edge of a cliff or on a muddy bog, once inside our tent we feel protected from the outside world and relax. Sleep comes easy and we all sleep in late.
Morning is cold and windy and the rain is steady and hard. The rain eases near noon but it remains cold and cloudy out. The sky has a dark softness that hints that the rain will return soon.
“Guys, I think we should get moving.” I say with an insistence in my voice that makes it more an order than a question. I've stepped outside to see a man about a dog and now stick my head through the zippered door of the tent. “Let’s try to get a little further before the rain starts again. We can find a better camp than this anyhow.”
It’s moments like this that are the most testing on an expedition. The last thing on earth we feel like doing at this point is heading out from the comfort of the tent into the cold and wet but we know we have to in order to get to Inuvik. I knew we’d have tough moments like this on the expedition and I knew as adults Nicky and I could begrudgingly deal with it but I wasn’t sure how our girls would react.
The girls fold their Thermarests, pack their clothes and dress warmly as instructed. They’re not happy - either are we - but they remain quiet and focused. In many ways they remain more composed than Nicky and I who have a tendency to bicker in moments like this. They prove themselves far more resilient than I’d ever thought they’d be. I’m franklt amazed out how ell they are dealing with hardships on this trip and am a very proud poppa.
We’re chased by a wall of rain throughout the morning but it never catches us. We make it through one 4 hour session and slog through 3 hours of another one before the wind builds too high to paddle and we set up camp. There’s a large mound of bear scat close by but, like with the previous site, we have little choice. The wind is too intense to search out anything else. The scat appears old and there are no fresh prints to be seen. The temperature remains very cold and we’re forced to make a fire. There is a band of blue in the northern sky and it might be coming our way. We fall asleep with hopes that the sun is on its way.
It is. The morning shines bright and blue with only a light wind to ruffle the water. We jump at our chance and realize we’ll make Tsiigehtchic today if the weather holds.
Daniel in Fort Good Hope told us that the river entrance to Tsiigehtchic is very similar to The Ramparts “with large cliffs bordering the river on both sides” We spot them in the distance and race towards them with the laser precision of a missile.
I soon realize from the map that the cliffs form the edge of a large arc in the river that stretches some 15 kilometers in length with the village of Tsiigehtchic at its end. There’s a small bay at the start of the arc called Cony Bay. Historical accounts suggest it’s where Alexander Mackenzie first met the Gwich’in people on his voyage north and for us is the perfect location for a break and some food.
“Did you bang my boat,” I ask Nicky as we enter the bay. She is paddling behind me and often rides my wake for easire paddling. She routinely taps my stern with her bow and it always throws me off. I feel another bang this time under the boat. “Hey, there it is again. It's coming from the water.”
Cony are fish and are similar to a broad whitefish but bigger. They can grow up to 18kgs in size and if my suspicions are correct the waters here are teaming with them. We are hit multiple times before we hit shore. Cony Bay must be a fisherman's paradise.
We spend a leisurely two hours sipping hot drinks and eating Raman noodles in our little oasis. We set off on our final leg of the day to Tsiigehtchic and notice a boat traveling on the far shore. It’s moving slowly. As we paddle into the channel the boat becomes clearer.
“It’s Ella and Corey,” says Caitlin, her boat beside mine, “Let’s catch them.”
After 15 minutes of effort we realize they’re moving faster than us. They won’t be caught unless they want to be caught.
"They’re motoring,” says Nicky, “We can’t go that pace.”
And the reality is we can’t. The girls are active participants in this expedition but don’t paddle much. Nicky and I are paddling fully loaded double kayaks essentially by ourselves. Arianna doesn’t paddle in my boat while Caitlin only puts her muscle into it when she needs to - specifically when she wants to go faster than me and Arianna. Caitlin is always with Nicky and Arianna always with me. There’s a reassurance for Nicky knowing she can always engage the ‘Catie Turbo Charge’, as we’ve come to call her added bursts, if she needs it. We don’t mind that the girls aren’t paddling. The objective for us is to get them outside into the wilderness not to flog them mercilessly.
Corey and Ella stop paddling, they must have spotted us. Before long we’re beside their boat swapping war stories of the previous week.
“We’ve had all our clothing on for days,” says Ella, “We’ve been freezing.”
“We were wondering how your girls were doing,” says Corey, “How were they staying warm?”
“They stayed warm OK,” says Nicky, “Though Arianna was wearing both of Kevin’s jackets at one point and looked like an alien.”
There’s an enthusiasm and energy in our conversation that is unique to moments of shared hard experience. Tsiigehtchic appears off the west bank - a small church high on a bluff, a scattering of homes about a hillside, one of the most pleasing images I’ve seen in a while. We’ve made it!