"Well, my daddy left home when I was three
And he didn't leave much to ma and me
Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze
Now, I don't blame him cause he run and hid
But the meanest thing that he ever did
Was before he left, he went and named me Sue"
I’ve had the Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue in my head all expedition. I’ve sung it out loud so many times on the journey that my girls now know the words off by heart. It’s odd how certain songs percolate to the surface but this Cash classic won’t leave me for some reason. Fred Penner’s children’s classic Sandwiches is also bopping around my head but that’s my wife’s fault, She’s been singing it non stop for weeks. It’s the musical cross she’s had to bear this journey.
We leave Tsiigehtchic at 2:30pm under perfect conditions. The weather forecast is for three days of sun so we’re hopeful our journey into Inuvik will be a straight forward one. It proves straight forward enough for the first four hours but a wall of cloud that appeared on the horizon an hour ago has caught us and has brought a terrible wind. We pull off for our break with frustration.
“How can a weather report be so wrong,” I say as I set up our JetBoil to boil some water, “We’re going to be tested to the end I think.”
But I’m wrong. By the end of our 1-1/2 hour dinner break the wind has died and the clouds have broken. Beams of sunlight illuminate patches of shore just ahead of us. One spot in particular that glows in the light is Separation Point. This is the location where the Mackenzie River breaks into three distinct channels and where the Mackenzie Delta begins. It’s also the point that Sir John Franklin left resupplies for his 1826 expedition to chart the shores of the Arctic in his quest to find the Northwest Passage.
We round the iconic spot and look up the coast for the location where we will enter the smaller east channel that will take us to Inuvik. I nearly miss the turn when we reach it.
“Is that where we go?” asks Nicky, “It looks like a channel”
“I don’t think we’re there quite yet,” I reply, “I’ll check my Canada Map on my phone to be sure.”
“We are there.” I say, “We’re flying, this is the turn!”
The channel can only be a 100 meters wide, much smaller than the main channel we’re on which is likely 4 kilometers in breadth. When Alexander Mackenzie reached this point his guide wanted to take the smaller channel but Mackenzie insisted they remain on the larger one. The guide knew the smaller one led to the Arctic Ocean but couldn’t convince Mackenzie. They remained on the larger one but we’ll follow the smaller.
The water in the narrow east channel is glass smooth and the current significantly more sluggish than the main channel.
“We’re going to have to work to finish this one.” I say out loud.
Loons make their haunting calls as we approach and I drift off with my own tune in my head.
"Well, he must o' thought that is quite a joke
And it got a lot of laughs from a' lots of folk
It seems I had to fight my whole life through
Some gal would giggle and I'd get red
And some guy'd laugh and I'd bust his head,
I tell ya, life ain't easy for a boy named Sue"
It’s nearly 11:00pm and the sky is radiant orange. The burgeoning of real night has begun but we’re still a week or so away from an inky blackness. The glow of the setting sun is reflected so perfectly on the water that it appears like we’re paddling through it. We realize the expedition is coming to a close and want to enjoy the evening as much as we can.
“Maybe we could paddle through the night,” I throw out to everyone, “What a cool way to spend the final evening!”
“I’d be happy with it,” says Arianna from the front of my boat.
“Sure Dad, I’m OK with that,” says Caitlin.
“We could do that,” says Nicky with some reluctance in her voice. She’s not as convinced as the rest of us.
“Let’s see how we feel anyhow,” I say, “It might be a cool way to finish this off.”
It feels like a delta now. The river is no longer straight but rather meanders forward, weaving and winding its way through the marsh that it feeds. The bank has changed too and is much lower in height than before. A mucky edge quickly steps up to broken forest that is interrupted every so often by a finger of meadow that extends inwards. The mosquitos are back as well. They’ve essentially been nonexistent in the cold and wind of the last couple weeks but not here. Even out in the middle of the channel they swarm us forcing us to cover up completely and break out the Deet repellent again.
“These mosquitos make the idea of going all night easier,” says Nicky.
But motivation wanes for all of us as the hours tick by. The evening is dark and a fog builds on the water. It becomes difficult to see.
“I’ll check out that small meadow,” I say to Nicky at 2:15am looking for a place to camp, “We can set up the tent quickly and get a few hours of sleep.”
I step on shore to discover it covered in fresh paw prints. A pack of wolves was here and judging by the freshness of the prints, they were here recently.
“Wolf tracks,” I say, “Lots of them. Let’s go a little further.”
The tracks are so fresh that I keep an eye to shore as we drift downstream. I see movement.
“Nick, look. A wolf,” I say, “Holy crap, it’s a pack...look!!”
“There’s eight of them daddy,” says Arianna, excitement tinging her voice, “No nine of them, there’s another one back there.” She points at the shore.
All the wolves are black except for one big white one. The black ones are moving about but the white one remains motionless staring right at us.
“Those three are puppies I think,” says Caitlin with equal enthusiasm, “They’re smaller than the others.”
“That white ones the alpha for sure,” says Nicky, “It’s staring right at us. It hasn’t moved an inch.”
It all happens so quickly. Within moments we have drifted down river and the wolves have drifted out of site.
“I can’t believe we just saw a pack of wolves,” I say quietly to myself. Arianna hears me. “I know daddy. It’s so cool!!”
We paddle for an hour and settle on a flat piece of ground on the outer elbow of a river bend to pitch our tent. We slip into the little space we know so well and quickly drift off to sleep. There’s always something out there to keep you alert - tonight it’s the wolves - but once in the tent concerns always seem to slip away.
How I feel in the tent has made me think about those small churches in the communities and what they represented for the people that built them. Looking beyond the obvious religious aspect of the place of worship, I can’t help but believe that these buildings represented something else to the people, something more basic, something that touched them on a more primal level.
The people who used these buildings traveled great distances into an environment that was wildly unforgiving and raw. They did this in the 1800‘s when there were no cars, or roads, or planes to get in or out. They got there just like we did, by this river, on a boat. When they chose to live in a place like Fort Good Hope or Tsiigehtchic it meant choosing to live a life in a place that was on the fringe of what’s humanely possible. This is the Arctic after all. Winters are long, dark and incomprehensibly ferocious. For most of these people the Arctic environment would have been a completely new experience as well.
I believe now that these buildings represented far more than just places of worship for the people that built them and used them. I believe on a more primordial level they represented a connection to home, to a place that was comforting and familiar, to a place that provided reassurance and security.
To some degree our little tent does this for us too. We fall asleep quickly in our place of security surrounded by an environment not fully under our control.
Being the appointed task master on this journey I have everyone up again within 5 hours to keep moving. We still have a big day ahead and to have any hope of making it to Inuvik today we need to move early.
It may sound like I’m pushing everyone unnecessarily hard but my experience of traveling in the Arctic tells me otherwise. We’re in the second week of August and we’re traveling north of the Arctic Circle. The weather could change at any moment and become very challenging or even dangerous. Early mornings and a little lack of sleep is one thing, freezing temperatures, high winds and even snow are another. We’ll choose the discomfort of being tired on a good day rather than being well rested on a bad one. We skip breakfast and are moving by 8:00am. The bugs are too bad here to stay and eat. We’ll move down the river and find a better spot.
"And he said, "Son, this world is rough
And if a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough
And I knew I wouldn't be there to help ya along
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
I knew you'd have to get tough or die
And it's the name that helped to make you strong"
Within the hour we round a bend and see Corey and Ella’s tent on shore. They didn’t spend the night in Tsiigehtchic as we did but rather elected to keep moving. They were close to a day ahead of us when we left yesterday and I thought they’d be in Inuvik by now. I paddle towards them and when I’m a short distance out Corey emerges from the tent.
“Hey stranger,” I yell out, “Everything OK with you guys?”
“Yes, all good,” says Corey, “We had a really rough day yesterday.”
“Buddy, I know how you feel,” I reply, “We’ll see you guys in Inuvik. Beers will be on me.”
We paddle to the opposite shore, travel for another kilometer and stop for breakfast. The wind has picked up and keep the mosquitos at bay. By the time we’re ready to leave Corey and Ella pass by on the opposite shore and we give them a wave. They’re moving fast and their body language shouts they mean business. There’s little doubt they’ll be reaching Inuvik today. We push off shortly as well.
Knowing we only have two shifts left seems incomprehensible to us. We’re tired, so very tired, and desperately want to be done but we have mixed emotions because it’s our last day and we’d like to make the most of it.
We undertook this expedition to unplug our kids and get them outside. We did it to connect them with nature and understand there’s so much more to our country than they’ve experienced at home. We’ve done what we’ve set out to do but reflecting on it now I believe we’ve accomplished a lot more.
We quickly discovered that traveling in the north is not like traveling anywhere else. The sense of community up here is tremendously strong, there’s an understanding among its people that you look out for one another - if you have something, you share it, if someone needs your time, you give it. None of this is seen as a chore or an obligation but rather something that you simply do. People look out for one another. My daughters have seen this now. They’ve experienced it first hand. They’ve been at the receiving end of this generosity. Its had an effect on them.
Heading into this expedition we needed to put trust in our kids because not everything would be under our control. They knew this and understood this. We put faith in them and in so doing empowered them. They knew the expedition was going to be hard and that they’d need to work through some very tough times. We warned them before hand and when it happened they were ready for it. Caitlin and Arianna’s composure under duress, under real duress, amazes me. They experienced big waves, stormy winds, aggressive mosquitos, lightning storms, forest fires, curious bears, long hours, late nights, rainy days, boring food and grumpy parents. I even had to discharge my shotgun to scare off an angry wolf. Through it all the girls held up. They did more than hold up, they thrived.
"He said, 'Now you just fought one hell of a fight
And I know you hate me, and you got the right
To kill me now, and I wouldn't blame you if you do
But ya ought to thank me, before I die
For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye
'Cause I'm the son-of-a-bitch that named you Sue'"
Our kids are capable of far more than we realize. We wanted to unplug our kids this summer and take them into the wilderness. We did that and in so doing opened them up to a new world of experience. I know this trip will stay with them the rest of their lives and will shape the character of the women they become.
The humour in Johnny Cash's song hid its meaning from me. The reason it was swimming around my head, the poignancy of its message, is obvious to me now. We need to challenge our kids to make them strong.
We slide into Inuvik under a setting sun, exhausted and elated. We pull our boats up on the beach, have a group hug and take a photo.
“We did it!!, I say, exhaustion and emotion in my voice.
“Now for the next adventure Dad,” says Arianna, “We don’t have a car to get home.”