I went on a canoe trip on the Mackenzie river for the first time in 1976. 40 years later (in the Summer of 2016), I decided to go one more time. As I am now retired and not longer in a hurry, I decided to go solo. I am a canoe man but, for this trip, I opted to paddle a kayak instead because a kayak is easier to handle than a canoe in a good breeze. I knew how big the river was and that is can be quite exposed to the wind. Unfortunately, the wind is not always at your back as much as you would like. After some research on Internet, I contacted Doug Swallow at Canoe North. After a few exchanges on the phone and email, I booked a kayak for the following summer.
In early June, I flew from Ottawa to Yellowknife, and from there, I took a bus (Frontier Coachlines) to Hay River. It was a nice drive, very relaxed. Without my asking, the bus driver dropped me at my hotel door, which was greatly appreciated. (I had a bike and all the gear for the river trip as well as for the ride back home).
The people at Canoe North were very friendly and more than helpful. They picked me up at my hotel, wrapped my bike on a palette and drove me to Northern Transport Company (NTCL) to have the bike shipped to Inuvik on a barge. They really made things easy for me. Not only do they rent canoes and kayaks, I found that they have a very nice little store. If you find you have forgotten something, don't worry: though they may not exactly have what you left behind, they have everything you’ll need for your expedition.
My kayak was in very good condition, clean and well equipped. The Boreal Inuksuk kayak is roomy and very stable. While it is not the fastest one on the water (I owned one) it is not sluggish ether. It can withstand some abuse (there are many shallow and rocky areas on the Mackenzie). The cargo space is very limited in a kayak when compared to a canoe, so this limits the amount of food you can take at any given time. This was a great concern for me, but Doug Swallow reassured me that I woundn’t have any problem renewing my supply in the communities along the river. He was right. Fort Providence, Fort Simpson, Tulita, Normans Well, Fort Good Hope and Inuvik, all have good grocery stores. Of course none compare to the giant grocery store of the south, but I had no problem getting the food I needed to keep me going. Yes it is more expensive, like everything else in the North, but not exorbitant. I wouldn’t bother sending food halfway.
I cannot agree more with Michelle N Swallow when she comments about the cost of food in her book "The Mackenzie River Guide, A Paddler's Guide to Canada's Longest River": "Though you may have to pay more... consider it toll for paddling in their backyard. If we as paddlers want to continue to have wild open river like the Mackenzie, then we ought to be making tourism a real benefit". She’s right: we cannot take everything and leave nothing. It is also a great opportunity to meet locals and spend some time in their communities. Speaking of "The Mackenzie River Guide", it is one of the best reference book you can take for the trip. Even if you are not sure if you want to paddle the river, the book can help you in your decision. And if you decide against it, you will have an idea about what you are missing. It is very well written and documented. In 1976, I had a bundle of over 20 topographic maps 1:250 000. This time, all I used was "The Mackenzie River Guidebook" in a map case. All the maps are 1:50 000 for the whole river; a must. Get two and leave one at home so your family and friends can follow you as you go and have a better idea of the country you are going through.
I had a wonderful trip, never bored. The horizon never too far, even if sometimes I could not see the land ahead of me. The landscape is always changing, sometime more subtly, others drastically. I paddled up on short distance some nice tributary river along the way. I stayed in every community and always met friendly people. It is not a cliché that the people of the North are very welcoming and helpful. It was true from the beginning in Hay River to Inuvik. I remember one evening walking on the riverbank near the Nahanni North River when a man, a sahtu, came to see me. After a good chat, he told me where I could find a better spot to pitch my tent and then he added: “if you don't mind to paddle down the river for an other two km or so, you will see a camp. On top of the bank. Its mine, the door is not locked, you are welcome to stay in for the night.”
The day I arrived in Tsiigehtchich, as I was walking in the town, a pick up truck stopped and a lady asked if I needed any help. I mentioned that I was just looking for a public shower. The public shower is closed on Sunday. She pointed me her house and suggested I get my things. “You are welcome home to have your hot shower.” After the shower, she said that I had no choice but to stay for supper, Gwich'in hospitality. She served me a good plate of delicious fish eggs and fish intestine. Who said we can not have gourmet cuisine in the Artic? Then I learned that her sister sewed good mukluks, and so I ordered a pair. I told her that they don't have to be fancy as I will use them only for snowshoeing. She said, I will make you the mukluks you want, but the finishing is my signature. A true artist who can be proud of her work.
You can expect to spot wildlife all along the river especially if you travel early morning or late evening. If you are a birdwatcher like me, you will be thrilled. Waterfowl abound: ducks, geese, swan, crane and white pelican... especially in the upper river. Bald eagle have accompanied me all the way, many perigrin falcons have their nest on the cliffs of the river (along the middle and lower Mackenzie). I have spotted a few black bears, their cubs and a grizzly who showed up one afternoon as I was eating my lunch. I also saw a few muskox between Norman Wells and Tsiigehtchic.
I also had an encounter with a wolverine at the tip of my kayak. I was paddling up a small river to get some fresh water, and as I turned around a sharp bend I saw a dead moose carcass on the shore and a wolverine atop it. Instead of running away, he came down towards me. We were both caught by surprise and froze in our tracks. I didn't want to drop my paddle to get my camera as the kayak was about to touch the shore. We were both staring at each other, paralyzed. Finally the wolverine retreated slowly and walked away in the alders. I filled my bottles and left.
Wolves are very common. In the upper river I could see tracks all along the shore but couldn't see any. Farther down I started to see some in early morning and evening. You have to look carefully and stay relatively close to the shore as they conceal easily with the environment. Most of the time, I spotted lone wolves. Once, however, I saw a female with her five pups. And one night, a wolf came at my camp site and pulled on the kayak skirt that I kept over the cockpit in case of rain. As it flew away, the paddle that was on top fell on the rocks and the noise woke me up. As I looked outside, I saw the wolf beside the kayak. He also saw me in the tent and walked in my direction. I made some noise, talked, yelled, whistled but he wasn't impressed by me. So I got out the tent to confront him. He stopped at around 15 feet from me. I tried to make myself big, waving my arms over my head and I walked towards him. I was expecting him to run away but instead he moved sideways and stayed close to me. Each time I walked in his direction he moved sideways, never back. I looked around me, than saw that there was another wolf sitting and watching the show at about 50 feet behind me. I was naked, standing somewhere between my tent and my kayak, waving my arms and talking to a "friendly" wolf while being observed by its companion. I wasn’t sure what to do next. The wolf eventually decided to join his friend, who both walked away slowly. I went back in my tent and had a sound sleep till morning. I have seen more wolves after that night but all were timid.
The mosquitoes, black flyes, deer fly--you name it—were all around, as it to be expected anywhere in the Canadian back country. They can be annoying sometimes, but don't let them discourage against the trip. In my opinion, the best strategy with bugs is to take it easy, not panic, move slowly, don't harass them and it doesn't take long you forget about them. The nice thing about bugs, like the portages, they keep the crowds away: a small price to pay for the beauty and solitude.
If it was to start over again, I would do the same all over again. Without hesitation, I would go solo. But solo or tamdem, for the peace of mind, I would start my journey with Canoe North.