Mackenzie River, Hay River to Inuvik

CanadaNorthwest TerritoriesMackenzie
Submitter & Author Information
Route submitted by: 
Allan Jacobs
Trip Date : 
Route Author: 
Freda Mellenthin
Additional Route Information
Distance: 
1627 km
Duration: 
28 days
Loop Trip: 
No
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
0
Total Portage Distance: 
0 m
Longest Portage: 
0 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Intermediate
Lake Travel: 
Not applicable
Portaging: 
Not applicable
Remoteness: 
Intermediate
Background Trip Info
Water Levels: 
Unknown
Route Description
Technical Guide: 

From Hay River to Inuvik on the Mackenzie River

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

Editor’s notes:
Few parties can equal the pace of the Mellenthins.

Title: In the Wake of the Big Barges

Route: Mackenzie River; Hay River to Inuvik

Year travelled: 2004

Distance, duration: 1627 km, 28 days

Author: Freda Mellenthin

Saturday, July 10

We are sitting on the beach of Great Slave Lake. It is 11:00 p.m. and a nice campfire is keeping the mosquitoes at bay. The sky is grey, but there is still enough sunlight to read or write. We still have great memories of the two days we spent here last summer after our Coppermine trip, and now we are back again, healthy and happy, ready for a new adventure.
By sheer luck our canoe trip is starting at least four days earlier than anticipated. It took us three days to drive the two thousand km from Mission to Hay River. Our intention was to leave the canoe and all the gear here in Hay River, drive the camper along the Alaska and the Dempster highways to Inuvik, leave the truck there and return to Hay River via air. But driving aimlessly through Hay River, we came upon a trailer carrying several canoes, parked in front of a church. The man mowing the church lawn turned out to be the owner and outfitter of CANOE NORTH, Doug Swallow. He suggested to have our truck put on a barge and shipped to Inuvik. He offered to drive the vehicle for us to the barge and do the formalities involved on Monday, so that we could already start paddling today, and all this without any charge! We followed him to his house where he offered us a beer and suggested that we launch the canoe from his property into the Hay River, down a steep embankment. Doug even provided us with the RCMP forms which he would take down to their office on Monday. It is unbelievable what kind of nice people you meet up north!
Once afloat, we paddled for two hours down the river and out into the Great Slave Lake, passing many locals frolicking in the warm water and on the sandy beaches. When we had passed the last sign of civilization, safely distant from any unwanted night visits, we set camp on the beach. After a year we had almost forgotten how to put the tent together. Sorting out the gear was accompanied by the usual first-day anxieties: Where is the tent fly? Do we have all dishes? Did we pack the stove? etc. While we were frantically hustling and bustling, the mosquitoes had a hey day. But it is great to be out here again! Ed. note:
distance?

Sunday, July 11

We did not get going until after ten. I had been awake off and on because of a big lump under the tent. The sky was grey and drab. We had to paddle far out into the lake because the water was too shallow close to shore. Around noon a head wind came up, quickly forming white crested waves. The water seeped in through the loops of the canoe cover and soaked us thoroughly. Paddling was hard, and I was tired on this first day. For hours a tall object beckoned to us. It turned out to be a beacon on the peninsula of Rocky Point where we landed at 8 pm and set camp on the west side. From the top of the beacon a seagull watched motionless while we made a fire and burned some debris and garbage that the winter storms must have pushed up the shore. We did forty km today, which is pretty good for a first paddling day on flat water and against a head wind. 40 km

Monday, July 12

Today was a perfect day, sunny and no wind. Until the middle of the afternoon we paddled across one bay after another, from point to point, doing six km per hour. I was a bit low in energy, since I had developed a mild diarhhoea yesterday and therefore had put myself on a meagre diet. After lunch we spotted a cabin on a small island, and Ted, very curious by nature, wanted to investigate it. It was one of the small plywood hunting shelters the natives build for themselves here and there in the taiga. It was locked and clean inside, as we could see through the window. On the way back to our canoe, myriads of blackflies followed us, and we had a hard time fighting them off.
Paddling was easier now, since a light current had developed. Although the outlet of the Mackenzie River is still seventy km away, the underwater plants pointed west already and small feathers and the fluff from the alders were floating westwards. Ted had set his mind to paddle to the mouth of the Kakisa River today, because fishing is always best at a river mouth. The trouble is that bears know that too. When he says it's only an hour away, I have learned by now that I have to at least double that time. After paddling for eight and a half hours I was tired. Luckily, we came to a tiny island that looked like a perfect camping spot. It only had a ten meter diameter and was framed by high trees that protected us against the bright sun. Others had camped here too, and it took us quite some time to gather the garbage and burn it. The island was surrounded by high standing black dotted swamp grass, but as soon as you walked through it, the black dots revealed themselves as resting blackflies that persecuted us mercilessly. We had a cool bath and Ted caught a big pike. 50 km

Tuesday, July 13

This morning we first had our regular porridge, cooked by Ted as usual, and then I cooked the pike which we ate with a tossed green salad I had picked from my garden the morning we left. When we left at 10:30, it was already hot on the water, another windless but insect-filled day. We were now in a section of the Great Slave Lake called Beaver Lake, which is very shallow. At one point we had to get out and walk beside the canoe. We paddled across fields of underwater plants, all pointing westwards. From time to time we startled a pike who quickly wiggled past us to disappear again in his underwater forest. We paddled hour after hour through dead-calm water while the sun beat down on us. Around 8:00 p.m. we were ready to look for a campsite. Just then a motorboat coming from the opposite shore passed us, aiming towards a narrow path in the bush. It was an old native couple, Daniel and Emily, who invited us to camp on the property where they have a cabin. They only dropped off some food and then left again for Fort Providence. Emily gave us two pieces of bannock and even offered us to use the cabin. They also told us that a bear is lingering around the area. He had ripped the mosquito screen in the door and had taken off with a cooler full of meat while they were trying to put it inside. We put our tent up and made a small fire. I hope we'll have an undisturbed, so to speak "bearless" night. 40 km

Wednesday, July 14

This morning it took us an hour to cross a bay to Burnt Point from where we could see the ferry crossing the Mackenzie River. The current had picked up dramatically, and we had to paddle across many boils and whirlpools. The sky was grey and hazy like yesterday. We found out that the haziness was caused by several northern forest fires around Fort Liard. We crossed the river, approximately 400 m wide, to the north shore and followed it until we reached the Big River Gas Station where we had stopped by car many times before. In the distance we could see the white church of Fort Providence which seemed to be suspended above the water. We had a hamburger and fries at the station.
The luxury of this trip is that we are going to pass eight mostly native communities and will be able to either buy some food or even visit a restaurant. In Fort Providence we stopped at the RCMP as directed by Doug Swallow. A fax had arrived for us from him. The price of barging our truck to Inuvik was much higher than he had quoted us, and he wished to know if we still wanted to ship it or keep it in his yard until we returned. It cost almost 0.20 cents a pound which added up to $1300. We decided to go for it anyway. Then I phoned Hella and found out that we had two new calves, what a thrill!
When we left Fort Providence it was hot and we paddled bare-breasted, i.e. Ted did, while I wore only my sport bra. While we paddled in total solitude for several hours, many aggressive horseflies accompanied us. We passed very low countryside, covered with poplar and birch. Nineteen km past Fort Providence, the river widens into Mills Lake, a large shallow body of water. Our spot for the night was a huge sand dune on an island. I immediately stripped and jumped into the water, how delicious! For supper Ted caught two pike that we ate with the last lettuce from our garden. For "happy hour" we had wild mint tea we had picked on the way, and "gorp", a mixture of nuts, smarties and raisins, what a paradisial life! 50 km

Thursday, July 15

Another hot and hazy day. The sun is hiding behind a layer of smoke clouds. We paddled all day on the south shore of Mills Lake. It is a shallow lake and we had to avoid rocks and even had to pull the canoe through low water. From time to time we passed an orange electronic sign put up in the bush close to the shore to direct the barges on the river. For hours some tenacious horseflies accompanied us, flying frantically back and forth over our heads and trying to make a landing on our exposed bodies to sting. Once we had reached the west end of Mills Lake the current picked up and we crossed bay after bay until 6:30 p.m. At night the mosquitos behind us in the grassy swamp had joined together to hum us a lullaby. 45 km

Friday, July 16

Another hazy morning due to the forest fires. The morning was fresh with wind from behind, and we felt very energetic. At the mouths of two tributary rivers we saw wolf, deer and fox tracks, but no animals . There are only birds, loons, ducks, terns, eagles and seagulls, however not as many as in the central Arctic. In the afternoon we crossed over to the north shore and then back to the south hoping to make a shortcut where the river twists and turns. Finally we had left the haze behind us and enjoyed a blue sky for a while, not for long though, for a distant rumble and a muggy atmosphere made us move closer to shore in case we needed sudden shelter. We are not yet taking full advantage of the current which is fastest in the middle of the river, but the Mackenzie is so intimidating that we have not been bold enough to travel far from the shores. As a result we are working very hard, and although we made excellent progress today, Ted is already worried that we are not going to make it to Inuvik. We camped at the mouth of the Trout River among big boulders and yellow flowers. I found a fossil, a petrified sea urchin. Tonight the first barge assembly passed us. Several huge barges are pushed by the "tugboat" at the end. 60 km

Saturday, July 17

It's already a week since we started paddling. This morning we crossed the Trout River and saw two cabins high on its shore. The second one was surrounded by several buildings and even by some flower beds. Ted caught a pike and filleted it, so we can eat it at lunch. We paddled against a head wind over choppy waves. At lunch we found a sheltered spot to eat, but the sun was merciless hot. Ted caught a second pike for supper. Around 5 p.m. we reached the village of Jean Marie which has a population of fifty people. A young white man tending a child greeted us and introduced himself as a missionary of the Evangelical Church sent here on a summer mission. The store is closed and in receivership. There were no children playing outside and I was told that they are all inside watching TV. An old woman was outside tanning a caribou hide the traditional way by soaking it in a solution made of the animal's brain. One of her sons was lingering in the summer kitchen and Ted underhandedly managed to be invited for tea. Other young men joined us - after all, nobody is working and they have time on their hands. They all spoke the Slavey language with the old woman. After an hour's visit we continued our trip until we found a suitable campsite. Now we are perched above the river on a lush meadow of flowering arnica and clover. 60 km

Sunday, July 18

We left at 7 a.m. paddling into a slightly breezy morning. The current was very fast and we moved with ease. Before lunch we left the main stream and followed a narrow channel around a big and steep island hoping to spot some wildlife. But we had to content ourselves with the absolute stillness of this secluded little paradise. After lunch we descended into the main body of water over a small rapid.
At 3:00 p.m. we reached the shore of Fort Simpson and tied our canoe close to a spot where we had camped a year ago. Our first stop was the local corner store to buy ice cream and then to the laundromat and to the public telephone. It was very hot, and the locals were recovering from a party in the shade of their homes. Fort Simpson is a "real" little town with hotel and motel, two stores and a hospital. The main businesses are the private airlines that fly people into the remote areas of the Mackenzie mountains, including the Nahanni. The town is full of natives, but the native ambiance is not there any more. We had supper in the Chinese restaurant and then headed back to the dock. It was time to leave, for the local youth was bathing and horse-playing among the boats, pushing and shoving. If we camped here, we would only have peace during the brief darkness in the northern sky. One local advised us to paddle to the mouth of the Marten River where we'll find a cabin. With Ted's mind set on that cabin, we paddled frantically through the quickly fading sunlight, although we had already surpassed our sixty-km average for today. I would have liked to find something sooner, but kept my mouth shut. In the end the cabin was useless, perched on a high plateau and with difficult access. I did not want to carry our camping gear up, and we had to look for a suitable spot among the rocks on the beach. 78 km

Monday, July19

During the night we woke up from heavy rain, but felt dry and cosy in our tent. In the morning it had cleared up somewhat, but dark clouds accompanied us until they finally released half an hour of rain. I was tired and almost paddled sleeping. Once we passed a cabin high on a hill, where only a porcupine greeted us.
Around 5 p.m. we had reached the ferry crossing to Wrigley. The settlement itself is still one-hundred-fifty km away. That's where the Mackenzie highway ends, and the villages further northwest can only be reached by plane or boat or on a winter road. The ferry does not transport more than an average of five vehicles a day. We found a campsite around 7 p.m., and Ted made a nice fire in front of our tent. A barge passed by, the second one in eight days. It is very invigorating to be out here with nothing but water, trees and sky around us. This is the "true north strong and free", yet not quite as extreme and demanding as our trips to the central Arctic. The water is warmer, the climate is a bit milder, the winds are not as long lasting and severe and the mosquitoes are not as fierce and numerous. The Mackenzie is pretty worry-free - only two rapids - and as usual Ted and I are enjoying each other's company. 65 km

Tuesday, July 20

Around four this morning it was raining. When we got up at eight the sky was grey and dismal, but in the east a promising pale-blue ring spread across the horizon. In the first few hours a head wind made us work, as we ploughed through the choppy water. The river here is flanked by rolling, wooded plains interrupted by areas of muskeg. We had lunch on a sandy beach of an island, sheltered from the wind. In the afternoon we crossed the mouth of the North Nahanni. Five km downstream we paddled through a sharp turn in the river. In the west the contour of the Mackenzie Mountains provided a dramatic backdrop. The Mackenzie is three to five km wide here and quite intimidating. Luckily the wind had died down and later the sun appeared in all its glory. It was a magnificent golden evening and we paddled till 7 p.m. Ted is very sweet and mellow and always concerned about me - he is just so happy out here. 72 km

Wednesday, July 21

The day looked bright and promising when we left at 8:45. It was easy paddling with a tiny bit of head wind. The river breaks into several smaller channels here. An animal swam across the water before us trying to hide by diving. It was a mammal with pointed ears and a poor diver, probably a wolverine. There are several cabins along this stretch of the river, some of them still used by local trappers. Around noon we spotted a wide green area with several buildings on the high right shore. While directing our canoe towards them, two men came out and watched us. It was an old man Tony, and a young man, Keith. In the middle of the lawn was a large picnic table, and Keith invited us for tea. His step-mother, Rosie, a very shy woman, joined us after some coaxing, and we shared our lunch with them. Rosie spoke very little English, looked quite undernourished and had no front teeth. This spot, close to the Willowlake River, had been a hamlet at one time, but now only five people lived here. Keith listened very politely to Ted's stories and when I had a chance, I tried to find out more about their life here. The Mackenzie highway is only two km from this place, and they drive to Fort Simpson at least twice a month to buy gasoline for their boat and the generator. The Express Vu dish on Keith's house works on the generator which in turn is not used in the summer.
Back on the river, we saw more cabins. One of them had a sign on the door: “please don't break in out of respect for the late Jimmy", so break-ins must be a problem! Paddling on, we had to run a tiny rapid between an island and the mainland. On the other side of the rapid there were huge eddies covered with white foam. Here Ted caught two fish, a Goldeye and a monstrous pike, an old hungry fellow, probably desperate for food. He will serve us for at least two meals. For the night we settled beside a small waterfall where we filled up our big water container. We have to rely on small tributaries for drinking water, for the Mackenzie is too muddy, although the native people drink from it. We ate pike with mashed potatoes for supper. Later the gurgling of the waterfall lulled us into our sleep. 65 km

Thursday, July 22

We left shortly before eight. After two hours of paddling we spotted a blue tent on an island and saw a man walking on the beach. It was an elderly native, tall and skinny, and his dog. He had seen us from far away using his binoculars. We landed, and he offered us tea out of his black kettle and we contributed a bag of cookies which he appreciated very much. George had shot a moose and was in the process of drying pieces of meat on a rack over a smoky fire. Many small fish were lying on the rocks to dry. In his broken English he told us that the many black bears are staying in the hinterland right now and won't come out until next month.
Around noon we saw a motorboat and five canoes on the beach on river-right. Could that already be the community of Wrigley? A gravel road led up a steep escarpment, but we could not see any buildings from below. We decided to check it out and climbed up a trail which led us right to the main street of the village. A medical summer student from Edmonton greeted us and volunteered all the information about Wrigley. It is a small Slavey settlement of two hundred souls and growing since the Mackenzie highway was extended up to here. There is a new school with adjacent recreation center, a health unit, a freshly painted church, a native store (the public phone was broken), and a gas station. On the bluff, looking down on the mighty Mackenzie, new housing complexes are built for the elders who still live scattered in their cabins in the bush. Once they are ready to leave the harsh conditions of a northern winter, they'll move into these new houses. In the rec center we met Louis, a white man who works here as a coordinator of the wellness program for the native people which is supposed to boost the morale of the young people. Louis gave us two cups with native spiritual emblems. He himself is a believer in Bahaism.
We were hoping to "go out" for lunch in the hotel. However, the portable, sporting a big sign WRIGLEY HOTEL and advertising a beef sandwich for $17, was closed - was it ever open? - Strolling down the main drag, we met the ten canoeists from the five canoes below. They were young people from the YMCA in Calgary who were planning to take forty-four days to do the Mackenzie trip.
This evening we passed them when they were already camped. We slipped by unseen on the other side of the wide river. It was hot, the water was very calm and the current was strong. It was a pleasure to paddle through the quiet evening, only interrupted by the rhythmic noise of the two paddles. Ted wanted to reach the Johnston River; his dream is to camp at the mouth of a river with crystal-clear water where the trout are just waiting to be caught. So far the tributaries we passed consisted of shallow deltas with many small channels or almost dried out river beds. All afternoon we had passed fire-devastated areas, revealing bare hills where once slender, boreal spruce had grown. The Johnston River was disappointing and it was hard to find an acceptable, level spot to call our home for the night. When we finally did camp, we were very tired - no wonder, we had paddled eighty-two km. 82 km

Friday, July 23

This morning we had a fairly strong head wind, yet manageable with enough muscle power. We were still paddling along a fire-devastated left shore. Dead trees with white, naked stems stood high among patches of fireweed, the first vegetation after a fire. We had lunch at the mouth of the Blackwater River. Although its water was clear and deep this time, the fish did not bite. The rest of the day, wind and sun, rough and calm water interchanged for hours. Around six p.m. we passed the mouth of the Redstone River, a huge tributary with a vast, rocky delta. It was unsuitable for camping and we had to paddle another half hour to find a sandy beach. Ted and I had a bath, as we have done for several days in the evening. It feels so good on the strained muscles. The sky looked suspicious, and around nine o'clock strong winds swept down the river, followed by thunder and showers, but we were cosy and dry in the tent. The last days had been so hot that our neoprene boots became uncomfortable. Ted had paddled in house slippers and I barefoot. 80 km

Saturday, July 24

It was very windy for most of the day, and paddling was hard. Shortly after we passed the mouth of the Keele River, we saw some heavy equipment and portable houses on the left shore. Ted, with his inquisitive mind, had to investigate the matter. There were two trucks, one bulldozer and seven portables, but no people. It was a newly erected oil exploration camp, ready to fly in workers. Ted couldn't help "organizing" two bottles of drinking water for us. After this short episode we paddled past huge islands with sand bars that stretched far into the middle of the river. The sky looked gloomy - would it hold off for a few more hours?- In the afternoon the wind slowly relented, but the sky in its forboding dark blue colour looked as if it was ready to engulf us any minute. When we fetched water from a small creek, Ted caught a nice pike. It was 6 o'clock when we found a campsite on a side channel. We had just secured the sleeping bag and mattress in the tent, when thunder and lightning was upon us. Then it started pouring heavily. We cooked in the vestibule of our tent and felt snug and cosy while the elements raged outside. 60 km

Sunday, July 25

Ted woke me up at 6 a.m. and we were on the water at 7:30. The storm had passed and there was only a faint head wind. Paddling was quite easy. Again we paddled along some huge islands and around long stretches of sand bars. Then, coming around a bend, we could see a steep ridge in the distance. It was the 450 m high Bear Rock where according to a legend, a hungry giant hung three enormous beaver pelts. The settlement of Fort Norman, now called Tulita is located high on a ridge formed by the Mackenzie River and the crystal clear waters of the Great Bear River. We were still far away, and it seemed to take hours to approach the village. Finally, after 5 1/2 hours of paddling, we arrived at the foot of the escarpment from where we could see two solid white buildings, the old Hudson Bay trading posts. It was hot when we walked up the steep road to the village. It looked its Sunday-best, clean and peaceful. We asked a woman walking her dog, if there was a coffee shop here. No, there was only a bed & breakfast place and the Northern Store was closed. This conversation was overheard by another woman sitting on her front porch with her baby. "Come on in, I'll make you a coffee", she said. We gladly accepted and enjoyed a coffee break with MJ, a native nurse with beautiful long hair, and her baby Shayla. MJ's husband, of German descent, was working in Norman Wells and would come home by motorboat in the evening. Then MJ suggested we go sightseeing in the village and come back later for supper. There were three churches: the Anglican church, built in 1860, is the oldest building in the valley, but only serves as a monument these days; then there is the Catholic and the Pentecostal church, each with their own cemetery, so that the deceased can feel comfortable in their own denomination. There were so many neat houses, often made of logs. We came back for supper, sweet and sour spareribs, very yummy! MJ gave us two farewell gifts, a cup of Tulita and a pearl-embroidered leather
brooch, made by her in metis style.
When we walked back to our canoes, the sky was overcasr. We barely crossed the mouth of the Bear River, when the rain storm was upon us. Quickly we pulled ashore, attached a tarp over some driftwood and crawled under it. We were dry and comfortable while the rain pelted down on our make-shift roof; we even had a little snooze. An hour later it was bright and sunny again. As we paddled on, we passed a barge "parked" on the shore. To our great joy we spotted our camper among other cars; so it will be in Inuvik before us, yippy!
What a great Sunday it was today! 60 km

Monday, July 26

Are we going to make it to Norman Wells in one day? The weather looked already good at 7:30 a.m. There was no wind and the sun was very hot all morning. After lunch on an island we crossed over to river-right on a diagonal line. In the far north-east a bundle of black lines on the horizon indicated a rainstorm in that area. Will it come our way, or could we outpaddle it? A low, rising breeze tried to scare us and we paddled very hard to reach the other side before any disaster descended upon us. However, the wind died down again and the singeing sun made us sweaty and wore us out. I persuaded Ted to stop on a sandbar and skinnydip. The pilots flying from and to Norman Wells had their fun too - we had nowhere to hide and the water was crystal clear. With new strength we tackled our goal again. The river was over five km wide here, full of islands and often very shallow. In the distance we could see some structures on the water, but still so far away. Finally the first houses appeared on the high embankment, some of them very colourful and attractive. The town is located on a high plain at the base of the Norman Range. It is the site of the only oil refinery in the NorthWest Territories. Huge tanks, oil rigs and pumps and three artificial oil-drilling islands came into sight - an oil industry in the middle of the wilderness. The center of town is a big square surrounded with portable buildings - a hotel, two stores, a bank, a clinic, all quickly erected to accommodate a temporary crowd of workers. We bought two hamburgers from a fast-food stand in front of the hotel and retreated into the shade of the Northern Store, for the sun was still merciless at eight p.m. - I could not take it any more! When it had cooled down a bit, we walked through the residential part of the town and found an open Legion, where we had a beer. Later we climbed down to the river, put up our tent on the town beach and fell into our sleeping bag and into a dreamless, comatose sleep - (at least I did). 60 km

Tuesday, July 27

This morning we went up into town again to have breakfast in one of the hotels, a real shady joint. Then we visited the Norman Wells museum, a very recommended place. It offers good information on the history of the area. We saw a film on the construction of the Canol Road, which was built beside the Canol Pipeline during World War Two under extremely harsh climatic conditions. As a last luxury we ate lunch in the more up-scale town inn.
At 2:30 we were back in the canoe, paddling with a strong backwind, surfing over the waves. Once we had left the noise of the artificial drilling islands behind us, the pristine wilderness engulfed us immediately. It was very windy now, and in the distance columns of sand rose above the sandbars. Here the Mackenzie is flowing between steep, sloping clay and gravel banks, interrupted by limestone cliffs. We paddled till 8 p.m. and set up our camp on the right shore, overlooking the wide Mackenzie plain on the other side. 47 km

Wednesday, July 28

When we had breakfast at 7 o'clock, we saw a wolf standing at the tip of our peninsula. At 7:30 a.m. we were on the water. It was cloudy and there was no wind at all. As the morning progressed, it became warm enough to wear shorts. In the afternoon it was quite muggy which diminished our energy somewhat. Knowing that today we would have to paddle over a major rapid made me a bit nervous. I knew from a report that we had to be on river left to avoid the big ledge of the Sans Sault Rapid, and I was anxious to cross over well in advance. Once on the left side, we made a detour around an island to find the mouth of the Carcajou River, for Ted was dreaming of an ideal fishing spot again. However, it was rather shallow and muddy, and not a gurgling fresh and clear stream conducive to trout fishing. Not far from the mouth of the Mountain River we spotted some cabins in the bush and walked up to them, while the clouds became more menacing and some bad weather was fast approaching. The cabins were not in good shape, ransacked by either people or bears. The mosquitoes tried to get one last bite before the rain would put an end to their antics. Past the mouth of the Mountain River, the Mackenzie constricts to about one km in width, and the big ledge that creates the Sans Sault Rapid has to be passed at the extreme left. There paddling is easy, and only the roaring noise from the right reminds the canoeist of the danger close by. It began to rain heavily, and when the water started seeping in through our rain gear after an hour of steadily increasing precipitation, we pulled in on a flat gravel bar and built our tent against a huge log. We cooked supper in the vestibule of the tent and snuggled up against each other while listening to the rain and wind outside. 70 km

Thursday, July 29

Up to this point we had paddled one thousand km in seventeen days with no break or rest except the ten hour visit in Norman Wells. We had also used summer clothes exclusively. Will this weather disturbance change all that? Heavy rains continued all day and strong winds rattled our tent. But in our soft down double-sleeping bag it was cosy and warm. We had several snoozes during the day. In the afternoon we heard a distant motor noise. Who would use a motorboat in this weather? The noise was steady, but did not come closer and there was no boat on the river. Were we hearing ghosts? Finally we solved the mystery: it was Ted's electric shaver that had started to work deep down in his green bag. Ha, ha. - Once, when I stepped out, I saw a wolf in the distance, standing on the tip of a gravel bar. Outside it was cold and miserable. Will the sun ever shine warm again? 0 km

Friday, July 30

We both woke up at 5 a.m. and were on the water at 6:30. The rain and wind had subsided, but the sky was still dark grey. It was so cold, that we could have used gloves, but who wants to stop to dig them out from the depth of a clothes bag? The menacing dark ring on the sky slowly dissolved into smaller clouds, and some patches of blue appeared. The day became more and more agreeable as it progressed. Downstream from the Sans Sault Rapids, the river is wide and dotted with islands and sandbars. Across the water we saw a moose standing on the shore. The animals are very cautious on the Mackenzie due to hunting in all seasons by the locals. An old-timer log cabin above a small river spurred our curiosity, and we climbed up through the bush. The stove pipes and tools were scattered outside, but inside there was still a bag full of wool and a knitting project. Did the owner give up the cabin, and another party ransack it? Which life story was behind it all?
In the afternoon, under a mild sunny sky, we approached the Ramparts Rapids, where the river drops over a ledge which can only be bypassed on river-right. This rapid marks the entrance to the Ramparts Canyon, a twelve-kilometer-long stretch past high limestone walls that rise up to eighty m out of the water and display bizarre shapes, such as castles, caves, grottoes and giant heads, according to one's imagination. Although the current is very fast here, we took our time, just floating and admiring this spectacular sight. At the exit of the canyon, Fort Good Hope came: into view in the distance, a Slavey community of about five hundred residents. The white church of Our Lady of Good Hope beckoned to us, as we slowly approached the settlement.
An hour later we pulled our canoe up on the beach below and were greeted by a Japanese paddler who was paddling the Mackenzie in a double Feathercraft folding kayak, a fellow with a very poor command of English, but lots of time. After climbing up the steep embankment, we found ourselves in the center of the village, a green sports field with an unfinished shelter on one side. The "old" town around it was somewhat depressing, old houses, houseware scattered about, and an odd smell in the air. Our first concern was to find the Northern Store before six o'clock and to buy some ice cream. The local hotel is really nothing but a portable where only government employees find food and lodging. However, we were lucky here: a man who had passed us in a motorboat in the canyon and had photographed us there, called us in to invite us to a green salad. He and his colleague were working in public relations for the new pipeline, interviewing locals for a possible job.
We returned to our canoe for more food and then went for an evening stroll through the village. There were new subdivisions on the outskirts, including new government offices. Some houses were still under construction, others were individually designed log houses where plywood often replaced the broken glass as it did in the "downtown" area. Hopefully the new houses will last a bit longer. Most young and able men and women are unemployed and have nothing to do, unless they have the means to go into the wilderness by motorboat or ATV to retrieve some of the life style of their ancestors. They don't have the strength or the stamina of their forefathers to penetrate the wilderness on foot these days. We returned to our tent dead-tired. 80 km

Saturday, July 31

Around six o'clock a.m. there was a heavy shower pelting down on our tent roof for about five minutes, then it was over and quiet again. All day the sky looked very dramatic and forboding. Black rain clouds were looming in the distance like long curtains, and gusts of wind whipped the water into irregular waves intermittent with sunny periods. Dust clouds curled up over distant sandbars. But despite this spectacle of the elements, only mild trickles of rain reached us. We crossed the Arctic Circle today and it is evident that fall weather is reaching down from the north.
At lunch time while I washed a pair of pants in the river, Ted found what looks like a gold nugget in a small creek bed. In the afternoon we saw a blue tent in the distance and a motorboat on shore. Two natives were smoking the meat of a freshly killed moose in a teepee. Their three toddlers were playing on the water's edge while their mothers had gone berry picking. Up on the hill a plywood cabin gave these two families shelter during their stay here. The men told us that the moose will be shared with the whole community of Fort Good Hope tomorrow. It will be barbecued on the sports field in the center of town. In the evening Ted wanted to reach the mouth of the Tieder River which flows into the Mackenzie behind an island. We wanted to pass the isle on the east side, but we had to turn around because the Tieder River had created a sandbar over the years which had made circumnavigation impossible. The maps often do not show the changed topography. When we finally arrived at the mouth of the river, we decided to camp on the gravel bar very close to the crystal clear water of the Tieder, very much exposed to the elements, hoping for calm and dry weather during the night. When we had just settled, a small motorboat with six natives arrived at our gravel bar. They had watched us through binoculars from their cabin across the Mackenzie and had come over to bring us a big whitefish. We were thrilled and amazed again about the great, northern hospitality. When
we had finally settled down in our sleeping bag, sandhill cranes gobbled loudly behind us. 57 km

Sunday, August 1

The night had been eventless, but in the morning a sundog, a short rainbow, indicated to us that rain was still looming in the vicinity. After paddling for two hours, we spotted two tepees on the shore and a log cabin on the hill above. A native by the name of Wilfred - compliment to his German grandfather - came to greet us. He was smoking fish which was suspended in large chunks in the tepee. A modern freezer, connected to a generator, was standing on the beach, what a bizarre anachronism! He invited us to come up to the cabin, where his wife Judy offered us tea and bannock with butter and jam. This was the first cabin that was very clean and very tidy inside. While we were eating, we heard noises from upstairs where three teenage grandchildren were just waking up.
When we left after an hour, the weather conditions had worsened. The sky displayed the much feared dark blue rings all the way around the horizon, which indicates an upcoming storm. And sure enough it did not take long, until a strong headwind and intermittent showers tormented us. However, we continued, because we wanted to find an old settlement called Anderson's Point. From the water we could see nothing but taiga, but our GPS led us up the embankment into the fire-devastated bush. Here we found traces of a home, kitchen utensils, pipes and pieces of drywall, a rather depressing sight.
Our next goal was a cabin, belonging to Wilfred, which he had offered to us. It would be nice to have a solid roof over our heads in case the storm lasted for several days. When we could not find the cabin, we decided to paddle as far as the mouth of the Ontaratue River. We braved the wind and waves and paddled over sandbars and shoals until we reached the mouth of the river. It was on1y five o’clock when we gave up our battle and settled on the high shore of the Ontaratue River among large willow bushes, protected against the vicious elements. Ted put a tarp over our tent and made a fire. I fried the rest of the fish from last night and made mashed potatoes to go with it. We were comfortable and well protected here while a storm raged down below on the water. 40 km

Monday, August2

This morning the wind had subsided and the sky looked a lot more promising than yesterday. It was cloudy and still cold at eight a.m. when we left. It seems that autumn has set in. The air is really chilly when the sun is not shining. Most flowers have faded, and the rosehips are ripening.
The river was widening as we approached a point called Grand View, named for its open vista. Here a couple, the Sorenson’s, used to live. The natives had told us that everybody passing by this lonely place was welcome here for a coffee or a meal. Even Victoria Jason described their hospitality in her book Kabluna in the Yellow Kayak. We landed to walk up to their deserted homestead. Everything was still in perfect order: the Sorenson’s house whose intimate atmosphere we could admire through a window and the two guest houses with unlocked doors. Mrs. Sorenson's hobby must have been to collect rustic, antique furniture to decorate this wilderness homestead. Mr. Sorenson operated a sawmill, and all the equipment was gathered beside a big pile of sawdust. The couple had a greenhouse, solar panels, electric appliances and two satellite dishes. While we walked through their property, we unexpectedly came across their graves surrounded by a white picket fence. They passed away three years apart, she in 1998 and he in 2001. Visiting these people's home and getting a glimpse of their life, and then seeing their graves, was quite an emotional experience for us, especially for Ted whose feelings are impulsive and not easily concealed.
When we continued, some rain clouds had accumulated, releasing some light drizzle and shrouding the mountain range in the east. In the afternoon we crossed over to the right shore, because we wanted to look for the remains of a place known as Little Chicago. There used to be a winter residence for prospectors travelling to the Klondike gold rush in the 1890's. It continued as a native community until a forest fire destroyed it. We could not exactly pinpoint where Little Chicago had been; there were no ruins left or visible in the thick underbrush. But Ted's curiosity was satisfied, he would never have forgiven himself, if he had not investigated. Crossing the river again, always on a diagonal angle, a head wind blew for a while, but then the sun came out again and the black clouds disappeared, a typical fall day with a bit of everything. 67 km

Tuesday, August 3

Ted woke me up at 6 a.m. with a great urgency: "Wind from behind, hurry up, get going, I want to be on the water at seven". Cooking, eating and packing all had to be accomplished in one hour. He frowned upon any of my routine performances, combing hair, brushing teeth, even visiting the loo. He stuffed our sleeping bag with a mad vengeance and he did not want us to eat before the tent was stowed away, - the tea and porridge was cold by then. His company was not very pleasant. I know already that Ted is stricken by a panic from time to time, driven by fear that we are not going to make it on time if the weather turns against us. His panic is always unfounded; on this trip we had paddled already 1316 km in twenty-two days, on the whole an adequate achievement. Ted accomplished what he had aimed at: We were on the water after an hour, at 7a.m., but it came with a price: he had spoiled the morning and had created a sour atmosphere between us. We had come here to enjoy ourselves and each other's company! It did not take long until he regained his senses and started to make up for his behaviour, turning into the thoughtful and tender person I love and appreciate.
We had a good time the rest of the day. The wind continued to be friendly, blowing from behind or ceasing completely, and paddling was great. There were many sand bars in the river, often continuing underwater. One either has to take the deep channel marked for the barges, often running in a zig-zag fashion, or take the shortcuts between the many islands risking to get stuck on a shoal.
After lunch we stopped at the Travaillant River to go fishing and caught a nice pike. Here there used to be a trading post where trappers, travelling up and down the Mackenzie, traded in their furs. We found some old foundations on the high shore, hidden under low growth. Close to it someone is building a nice, big cabin. The frame with a roof is already standing, and a white hunter's tent is erected under it. Inside the tent a wood stove and a bed is providing some comfort already.
During the last two hours of paddling the sun played hide and seek, sending very hot rays down whenever it managed to slip out of the dark clouds. When we had settled down in the tent after all the chores were done, it started raining. 80 km

Wednesday, August 4

Today Ted treated me with breakfast in bed, what a great surprise! When we left at 9 a.m. it was raining, and the dark grey sky made the world look dismal and gloomy. The rain slowly tapered off, but all day the sky displayed cloud patterns of grey waves. Sometimes an easy headwind teased us, but the water remained relatively calm. All morning we followed the route of the barges, indicated by red and green buoys, in order to take advantage of the fast current. On shore orange and white big signs give indications of upcoming buoys that are still far away. Close to lunch we stopped at a small creek. The muddy shore was full of bear and wolf tracks which is a good indication of a rich fish habitat. Ted caught a nice-sized pike for lunch. In the afternoon a shimmer of sun light lit up between the grey rows of clouds. The air remained cold - hard to believe that four days ago I could still walk barefoot on the beach!
At 6 p.m. we camped at the edge of a field of flowering willow bushes full of bumble bees. Over the low mountains in the north a dim light formed a narrow band like a promise of a brighter day tomorrow. 72 km

Thursday, August 5

Ted spoiled me with another breakfast in bed. We were on the water at eight, paddling into a promising day. The water was calm, and the sky rippled with white clouds and patches of blue. After two hours we reached the Lower Ramparts, a thirteen-kilometer long stretch of shale cliffs before the Mackenzie flows into the delta. Leaving the Lower Ramparts behind, we could already see the ferry that takes motorists across the Arctic Red River and the Mackenzie. It is part of the Dempster highway that starts north of Dawson City and leads through seven hundred km of tundra to Inuvik. Soon a big white church came into view, and as we proceeded, more and more of the village of Arctic Red River, now called Tsiigichic, appeared. Then another vessel, the Coast Guard, came around the bend and honked its horn when they saw us. To top it off, the Norvita, a small Mackenzie cruise ship pulled out of the mouth of the Arctic Red River.
We left our canoe on the beach and walked up to the village band store past a mosquito-infested small lake which apparently retains the bones of many Eskimo and Indian people who fought bitter wars against each other in previous centuries. There was a coffee shop, but without service, on a help-yourself basis, where we sat down and chatted with some lingering friendly natives. Among them were also a temporarily hired accountant from Ottawa and an English carpenter who has made Tsiigichic his home and is very busy building new houses. The village has two hundred permanent residents and is a "dry" community. We walked around and admired the small school and some very nice, new log houses among other basic homes.
When we continued paddling around four p.m., the weather was sunny and warm, more invigorating than the extreme heat we had experienced last week. The evening was beautiful. The sun was still warm at ten o'clock and we took a bath. In the shimmering sunlight, the waters of the mighty Mackenzie lay before us, dotted with islands that mark the beginning of a giant maze of channels. In the distance a barge passed by and disappeared soon in one of the many waterways to the Arctic Ocean. While we were admiring the serenity before us, a motorboat came around the bend veering its course towards us as soon as the driver saw us. It was a native, Freddy, in a home-made motorboat on his way from Inuvik to Fort McPherson. We offered him a tea, and he gave us some bannock from his snack bag before he continued his trip. He told us that it is the time of the year when the bears and their cubs are coming out from the bush to play on the beach, which means easy hunting for the natives. We felt that this sunny evening on the Mackenzie was a last gift to us before we were 1eaving the mighty river that had been home for us during the last four weeks. 57 km

Friday, August 6

Today we had to say farewell to the main stream of the Mackenzie and find the east channel to Inuvik. The delta is huge, approx. 100 square kilometers of river arms, lakes, bog and bush, a fascinating place full of wildlife in which it is easy to get lost. The beginning of the Delta is called the Point of Separation, and it is easy to miss the East Channel, because it is hidden by an island. There are no more buoys here, because the barges take a wider channel to Tuktoyaktuk. We almost bypassed the east channel and had to consult our GPS. This channel looks like a small, dreamy river with shallow water and little current. Like any other river, one side gets washed out, causing trees to topple; the other side consists of low lying bog or high, bright green soggy meadows. We needed drinking water and stopped below a green patch of horsetail around a tiny creek bed. The creek was empty, but when we climbed up through the willow brush, we found a small lake on top.
In the evening we saw two cabins on shore, the first hunting cabins for people from Inuvik. The second one was not just a cabin, but a two-level, well-built house with a nice patio and a large, wild meadow behind it. The door was unlocked and we went inside to admire the comfortable interior with many modern gadgets, even a pool-table upstairs. Since the weather was nice, we preferred to put up our tent on the shore where the tracks of an ATV were wide enough to camp. Just when we thought that there aren't any special events to report today, a helicopter flew low above our tent area, circled twice above us and then landed not far from our tent. A female RCMP officer emerged and questioned us about a sixty-three year old canoeist who had been missing since July 15. Then, when we had finished eating, a slick motorboat arrived with the owners of the nice house behind us. They introduced themselves as Larry and Edna, a white man and a very pretty metis woman. They invited us into their house, offering us beer and snacks. We had a very pleasant evening together and went to bed after midnight, while the sun was still shining brightly. 55 km

Saturday, August 7

All day a cool wind was blowing from behind. The sun was out, and we couldn't have wished for better weather. Nevertheless, a sentimental mood hovered over us, for this was the last day of our trip. The East Channel winds back and forth through the flat land, sometimes in semi-circles, and once almost in a full circle. The bright green, densely growing horsetail along the shores makes a wonderful contrast against the dark spruce trees. The sky was pale blue with a few white patches that looked like torn pieces of veil. From time to time we passed a summer cabin. Most of them were quite primitive, often unpainted plywood walls, sometimes half finished and doomed to waste away. Once we stopped on an island to visit a cabin at the end of a short trail. The door was open, and inside a snoring man was tossing and turning on a sloppy bed. We left in a hurry. Another cabin high on the embankment was empty, but the house ware was scattered outside on the ground or crammed on a dysfunctional truck. However, there was also the odd simple, tidy cabin, still used for hunting, fishing and trapping. All day the wind played with the leaves of the low willows, exposing the silver grey underside and making it look like blossoms on a shrub. The current was not very fast, and it seemed endless to paddle the last fifty-two kilometers to Inuvik.
At 6:30 p.m., after nine hours of paddling, we saw the first signs of civilization in the distance: the white diesel storage tanks that provide the energy for the town. Next we passed a discarded Coast Guard vessel, and then a large empty building space with housing under construction. Inuvik was established in 1955 by the government to replace the town of Aklavik on the west side of the delta which was apparently sinking into the river. The town of Inuvik is an expanding boom town of about 3500 residents with all modern services. The most outstanding buildings are the igloo church and the community greenhouse. Otherwise it has not yet developed a special character of its own.
As we landed below the town park, conflicting feelings crept into our hearts. We had paddled 1627 km in twenty-eight days and had reached our final destination. But beside a sense of accomplishment, we also felt a bit sad and empty. During our trip we had experienced a gamut of emotions, from excitement to anxieties to anticipation, and now it was over! It took a while until we regained our balance, and a feeling of thankfulness filled our hearts. God had allowed Ted and me to experience another summer adventure together! However, we did not nurse such sad feelings too long, since an exciting return trip still lay ahead of us. 52 km

On Monday morning we claimed our camper truck from the transport authorities and started a new adventure, driving over the Dempster Highway across the treeless tundra in its first autumn colours.

 

Maps Required
Topo Maps (1:250,000): 
85B, 85C, 85E, 85F, 95H, 95I, 95J, 95O, 95N, 96C, 96D, 96E, 106H, 106I, 106J, 106M, 106N, 106N, 107B
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Editor’s Comments:
This trip was undertaken by Ted & Freda Mellenthin & the report, originally a personal account, was written & typed (by typewriter) by Freda Mellenthin & was not prepared specifically for posting at CCR; it was then scanned, digitized & submitted by Allan Jacobs in January 2008; as a result, some information is not easily available & some errors were introduced by the scanning process.

Many thanks to the Mellenthins & Allan Jacobs for their efforts!