Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Northern Adventure

Summer has come to a sudden chilly end with a cold drenching rain. I even put a fire on last night to banish the chill from the air. But what a glorious summer it has been. Endless days of hot, lazy, sun, one for the memory banks.  And I got to do what I love best, roaming the Great Canadian Outdoors.

 I spent three weeks with my husband north of sixty in the Northwest Territories, a week and a half of that paddling through the Barrens on one of the great northern rivers, the Thelon. A memorable experience shared with eight other paddlers, including our guide, Alex Hall, a man who has spent more than thirty-five years paddling the Barrens intricate waterways.

It was our first time in this vast empty world of big sky, tundra, rock, sand and water with only the occasional fringe of stunted trees and we were in awe. Rising hills of golden sandy eskers shone in the sun. Arctic terns cavorted around us. Flocks of geese fled at our sight. A lone caribou watched transfixed as we silently sliced through the water towards it. Paddling through crystal clear water, over shimmering green water grasses wavering in the river’s strong current, like the tresses of some mythical mermaid.

We often came across the tracks and spore of animals that had tread before us;  wolves, caribou, moose, muskoxen, fox and geese. We even found the occasional set of bleached caribou antlers. But only twice did we see evidence that man had once roamed this barren land and these were old, very old; an ancient stone caribou fence more than a thousand years old, a prehistoric stone arrow and tent poles at least a couple of hundred years old. This is not a land where man can easily survive and in years past the few that tried often starved to death. But today no one lives in the thousands of square kilometers that make up the Barrens.

It takes a long time for wood to decay in the sub-arctic, the same way that it takes a very long time for plants to grown. In the harsh climate, where winter reigns 8 months of the year, a hundred year old tree is less than 10 feet tall with its trunk only 4 inches thick and plants are only a few inches high. But they sure can produce fabulous berries. We snacked on bearberries, cloudberries, bill berries, crowberries and cranberries. It was a veritable feast.

Sadly we saw only a handful of animals. Ten years ago these lands overflowed with the 200,000 strong Beverly herd of caribou. Today it is estimated less than 2,000 survive and no one knows why. They only know that few young are being born or are surviving to adulthood. And with the decline of the caribou comes the decline of the arctic wolf.  We’d also hoped to see the mythical muskoxen that have made these Barren lands their home since prehistoric times, but again we saw none.  But we don’t know whether it was because their numbers are down too or they were just being shy.

We’d come prepared for chilly arctic weather and were warmed by hot southern temperatures instead. It was rather nice, except it did bring out the bugs. And if there was one aspect of the trip I didn’t like it was the bugs, relentless, ravenous, flesh eating blackflies that forced us to flee to our tent or encase ourselves in bug juice and bug jackets. They crawled over everything and flew into every orifice and cranny. They were awful. Only on the open water were we really free of them.

But the white nights were magical. At 9:00 at night, the sun was still high in the sky. By 10:30 it was setting only to return at around 3:30 a.m. It never really got dark, just a greyish twilight. Needless to say we made little use of the headlamps we’d brought.

I have loads of photos and when I finally manage to upload them to an album I will do a link. Until then enjoy one of my favourites taken at around 3:30 a.m. of a setting full moon in the pink sky of the rising sun.

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