A mari usque ad mare
By Winchell Delano, Steve Keaveny, Matt Harren and Pete Marshall
“He shall have dominion from sea to sea and from the river unto the ends of the earth.”
The Paddler ezine: http://joom.ag/8l8X/p10
Our four-man team above left to right: Steve Keaveny, Matt Harren, Winchell Delano and myself, Pete Marshall, all had extensive wilderness canoe experience. We had paddled rivers in the Arctic, across Labrador, and to the Hudson Bay. Together we had thousands of miles of combined experience. But when we got off the ferry at Skagway Alaska, we knew that nothing we had gone through would be like the next few months.
Two mountain ranges, three heights of land, and 2600 miles of some of the most remote and wild country left in the world lay before us. On paper, it was an ambitious route. Most people who knew better told me so. I knew it was ambitious, and to be honest, I had serious doubts about crossing the Rocky Mountains in a canoe and reaching the end of the trip before the winter storms began. In many ways, I knew better than to set out on this expedition. But when you have big dreams and big goals, willful ignorance is a powerful thing.
Rain on the Ross River. In the mountains, it was snowing.
The expedition was conceived with imagination and from there took form. An afternoon spent with maps and trip reports led to a drunken conversation at the bar that was followed by a hung over phone call that then resulted in a plan that involved many more phone calls, coordinating resupply points along the route, raising money, booking tickets on a ferry, and ultimately to the point where we were now at.
The beginning of the expedition
The first part of the trip didn’t even involve canoeing. It was a hike through the Coastal Mountains of Alaska, via the famous Chilkoot Pass. We had our canoes and paddling gear picked up by an outfitter on the other side of the Pass, on the headwaters of the Yukon River, where we would pick them after hiking through the pass.
Cliffs, Lake LaBerge.
By our second day, we learned that winter had not begun to leave the mountains. This was a risk we had to chance form the outset. There only had a brief window, between ice-out and freeze up, in which we could do the trip. It was better to start too early, rather than too late. It was early May and the thirty-feet of snow and fifty-mile per-hour wind that blew on us for three days was a clear indication that spring was a long way off. We hiked over avalanche paths, passed snowed in shelters, wowed by the beauty, and when we reached out canoes, we were eager to begin paddling.
However, the lakes we hoped to paddle were choked with rotting ice. They were impossible to walk on and impossible to paddle through.
We were able to travel, but only because we were equipped with Kokatat Expedition Drysuits. These fully waterproof and fully enclosed bodysuits kept us safe from hypothermia and the freezing water.
We broke leads and pushed the canoes over unstable ice. It was slow work. We fell in many times, and like a seal crawling out of a breathing hole, had to pull ourselves out of the ice. Rather than being a life-threatening incident, with the drysuits on, we laughed, took photographs, and continued with the day.
John Lake, Ross River.
This went on for a week until after 40-miles of breaking through and pushing across Lake LaBerge, we came to the open waters of the Yukon River. For three days we enjoyed the ice free current, happy for the rest, for the sunshine and the easy paddling down stream. The river was low. The snow that covered the surrounding mountains had not began to melt. This would happen in the coming weeks. And when it did melt, the river would swell, the current would double, but we would not enjoy these benefits. We would be going the opposite direction, against the flooded current.
Pelly and Ross Rivers
We turned our bows east and began to ascend the Pelly and Ross Rivers, on route to the Continental Divide. This was the major challenge of the trip, in many ways, its defining feature. I had little knowledge of what lay ahead, mostly because everyone who had paddled these rivers told me that going up them would be next to impossible. The last person to ascend the Pelly was a prospector almost one-hundred years ago, and he had made the trip in autumn, during low water. We would have to see the river for ourselves. None of us had any idea how difficult it would be.
At first it was interesting, even fun. We walked and pulled the canoes, paddle hard and made little distance. But we experienced something of a minor thrill as we threw ourselves into this challenge. By the third day, that novelty had worn off. The snow that made the mountains so beautiful in the distance was melting. Each day the river rose and swelled. The shoreline disappeared. We traveled beside submerged trees, entire forests looked like they were growing out of the flooded river.
We ferried back and forth across the rive, chasing the small stretch of slack water on the inside bend. Everyday we woke and hoped for a bit of relief, for a point in the river that the current would slow and give us a break. But the Pelly flowed like a continual, and exahsting treadmill.
Pulling through ice and snow.
We came to a well earned break when we reached our first resupply point, 41 days into the journey. This was the first of three resupply points we had set up along the route, every 35 to 40 days of travel. For 36 hours we rested and didn’t paddle, but like all vacations, it came to an end too soon. With a packs full of replenished food food and equipment, we left the hospitality of our host, the kind couple who held our packages, and returned to the river.
In three days we left the Pelly River and turned north onto the Ross River. The Ross was a smaller tributary of the Pelly. We had unrealistic hopes that less water would mean easier travel. But as the Ross ascended deeper into the mountains, things only became more difficult. The river was more violent. Mile after mile of steep drops. We walked more than we paddled. Most days were spent plunged waist deep in water that 20 hours before was part of a glacier or a snowfield.
As travel became more difficult, the weather deteriorated. We woke to rain and went to sleep in rain. Snow fell on the surrounding peaks and moral slackened.
Negotiating the flood.
This was the point that we all began to question the trip. How is it that we thought this trip was possible? There was no answer. We kept moving and continued the desperate struggle. The further we went the thinner the river became. The mountains were closer. And while moving against continual stretches of almost 20-feet per mile drops, we came closer to the point where we would finally be able to go down stream. It was a prospect and a reward that was hard to imagine.
And then it happened. On a cold and rainy afternoon, 64 days after we began our journey, we were portaging through a series of ragged moose trails that would bring us over the Continental Divide. The reward for our effort was before us: the justly famous, South Nahanni River.