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Fort Chipewyan and Up The Athabasca River

This segment of the expedition covers from the time of my arrival in Fort Chipewyan on the shores of Lake Athabasca and continues on as I switched to upriver paddling along the Embarrass River, the Fletcher Channel and up the Athabasca River to the confluence of the Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers in Fort MacMurray Alberta, roughly 300 kilometers.

Originally I was not sure if I would even stop off in Fort Chipewyan or if I would just continue on across the lake and through the Athabasca Delta, beginning the long upriver portion of the trip. In the end, I did paddle into Fort Chipewyan, my only regret is that I did not stay longer!

In Fort Chipewyan, after pulling in at the small dock next to the fish processing plant, the first person I met, Richard if I remember his name correctly, took me around in his truck, giving me the tour of the town and showing me where I can find everything that I may need….groceries, internet, a nice café for lunch…things like that. Fort Chip is a very isolated town with the only road in being a winter road along the frozen Athabasca River. This time of year, this community of about 1300 people, can only be reached by either boat or airplane. It is situated on the northwest corner of beautiful Lake Athabasca, nestled on top of some beautiful Canadian Shield rock, a very rugged, rocky location and very scenic. Pretty much the entire north sure of the lake is rugged shield country with huge outcrops of granite. The south shore is almost entirely made up of amazing sand beaches that stretch on for miles upon miles. The lake itself is over 300 kilometers long!

After picking up a few supplies and spending some time on the internet and making a couple of quick phone calls, it was time to paddle off. I’d planned to only spend a couple hours here but ended up being in town from 10:30 AM or so until almost 6:00 PM. I camped just a few kilometers away on a beautiful little island, setting up my tent of the granite bedrock. Dinner tonight consisted of fresh Walleye fish, caught earlier that day and given to me by the local fishermen. Now this was the BEST fish I’ve ever tasted! I was told it goes for over $100 a fillet in New York City! I’d be given a bag of about a half dozen fillets, all on ice. It was more than enough for my dinner as well as a good part of the next day’s breakfast.

The next day, I was reluctant to leave, I liked it here so much….I really wanted to just paddle the lake for the next couple weeks…unfortunately though, there would be no time for this…..this year! After a relaxing breakfast and a couple cups of coffee, I paddled off, heading for the huge Athabasca Delta and the entrance to the Embarrass River which is the most direct channel for heading upriver and onto the Athabasca River itself. It is a very, very low landscape along here, low banks, mostly overgrown with alders and willows….meaning very few campsites! Further up the river, I met John, heading downriver on his powerboat from his cabin along the Fletcher Channel, roughly 50 kilometers from Fort Chipewyan. He told me how to find his place and said I was welcome to set up camp on his lawn. After many hours of slow paddling, I finally found the cabin and was happy to get off the water and have a level clearing upon which to pitch the tent for the night. An hour or so later, John returned along with his Dene wife Alice. I helped them unload there gear and joined them in the cabin for the evening and they filled me in on a wealth of local history. It was good to have the company and I enjoyed the conversation, staying up until past 2:00 AM the next morning as we talked away. I was so tired but it was a good way to end the day. I slept like a rock when I finally climbed inside my tent that night after shooing away the hordes of pesky mosquitoes that were waiting outside to devour every inch of exposed flesh!

I slept until almost 8:30 AM the next morning before heading inside where Alice prepared a delicious breakfast of bacon, eggs and pan fries along with toast from homemade bread….oh….and several cups of fine coffee! Well fed and feeling great(but tired) I finally paddled off sometime around noon, heading out the last couple of kilometers along the Fletcher Channel and onto the Athabasca River. Like the Peace, the Athabasca is a very silty river with low, muddy banks along much of its lower portion where I was now paddling.
As tired as I was, I knew that it was going to be a short day. I only paddled a few hours in all, setting up camp on a muddy island less than 20 kilometers upriver. Along the way however, I met Abi and Duncan from Scotland who were well into the second year of their 2 year canoe trip from Montreal to Vancouver. We exchanged stories and route information for a half hour or so before we each moved on. Last year they made it to La Ronge Sask. Where they ended up staying and spending the entire winter in this small town of about 5000 people in northern Saskatchewan.

The next day I had much more energy and did a 38 kilometer paddle against the current and set up camp on a really nice, sandy beach that Abi and Duncan had told me about yesterday, it was a welcome change from last nights visit at the “Mudflats Hotel” where I camped last night. Finished the evening off by seeing a nice sunset then watching the moon rise over the water, nearly two thirds on the way to a full moon. This with a nice campfire right in front of me as I sipped on a mug of steaming hot chocolate. Yeah, life is pretty good out here!

Back on the water the following morning I had a lot of headwinds throughout the day but still managed a well earned 36 kilometers, slowly but surely working my way up the river. When I got up the next day I decided to just do a half day paddle and set up camp early if I were to find a nice spot. Time to catch up on my rest and do a bit of relaxing. I found a nice sandy island after about 17 kilometers and made camp here for the night, enjoying the rest of the day by sitting around reading, going for quick, refreshing dips in the river and even had a short nap! In the evening I did some writing, trying to get a start on the manuscript for the book I want to write on my travels this year. It was a short day for making progress but it was a very relaxing day as well. Time well spent I’d say.

The next several days I paddled anywhere from 25 to a little over 30 kilometers a day as I made my way up to the mouth of the Clearwater River at the city of Fort MacMurray. I had good weather on most days with the exception of one afternoon of very torrential rain and HEAVY winds…and yes…it was a headwind at that! The river was higher than I’d expected it to be and I ended up taking 10 days to reach the Clearwater instead of the 8 or 9 I’d planned on.

The Athabasca River started at down at its mouth with very low, willow-lined banks and few campsites. The further upriver I traveled though, the more rugged it gradually became as it entered a rougher and rockier landscape. The section closer to Fort MacMurray was particularly nice with impressive limestone shelves along the water, much, much higher banks and better scenery. I’d love to do another trip on this river, beginning upriver in Jasper National Park and following the river along its full length, all the way back down to Lake Athabasca….so many trips, so little time!

One thing I do know though…I’m carrying far too much un-needed gear with me and the extra weight is slowing me down far too much! The portages coming up on the next portion of the trip along the Clearwater River would soon drive that point home in a dramatic fashion. That however is a story for the next update which will cover my 140 kilometer trip paddling up the Clearwater river to the start of the grueling 19 kilometer Methy Portage. Stay tuned for more!

Cheers…Joe O’