The real paddling resumed on Saturday morning and I was hoping to put in some big days on the Peace River, taking advantage of the current on this 1200 kilometer (roughly) stretch of downriver paddling. This should bring up my daily distance average considerably and put me in a good position, timewise, for what still lies ahead of me on the rest of the expedition over the next several months.
My plan for today was to paddle to Clayhurst, near the Alberta/ BC border, 138 kilometers downriver. Being a Saturday however, on a dam controlled river, I awoke to find the river down considerably. The water flow is regulated by electrical demands and peak demand is normally Monday to Friday when business and industry are in full swing. This combined with very strong headwinds have slowed my progress and reduced my distance for the day to about 100 kilometers, down by nearly 40 kilometers from what I had planned for today!
Along the way though I did see numerous deer and a few elk plus one wolf…that was cool to see! I’d also seen numerous awesome looking campsites further upriver, some of these will be included in an upcoming article for www.trailpeak.com.
Falling well short of my goal for the day, I started looking for a place to camp and found that there was not much to choose from along this one particular stretch of river. I ended up making camp on river right atop the riverbank in a clearing overgrown with bushes and alders, not the best but it will have to do for tonight. Darkness was approaching and I was pretty much worn out from fighting the headwinds all day long. The next thing that occurred though was really cool…not more than 100 meters or so from my camp, I heard a pack of wolves start howling. More wolves on the opposite riverbank would answer back. This went on for about 20 minutes and did wonders in lifting my spirits. The scenery all along the upper section of the Peace River has been amazing, high, steep banks, several hundred meters high, a mixed forest, abundant wildlife, it is just a beautiful river. It is also a river trip that most any canoeist or kayaker can do, either solo, as a part of a group or a nice family outing. No big rapids, just a couple easy sections of standing waves but nothing technical or difficult at all. If you get a chance to paddle this river, you’ll be glad you did. Best place for starting your trip is right in the town of Hudson’s Hope, home to some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met!
The following day, also fighting strong and relentless headwinds, I managed another 100 kilometer paddle, setting up camp on a small gravel beach just before dark. Along the way today I saw 31 deer including 2 that I watched swim the width of the river, passing just meters in front of my canoe. 6 Elk (3 sets of mother and calf) also added to the wildlife sightings for the day. Out of the corner of my eye earlier in the day I noticed an old cabin off in the woods, along river left. I pulled up onto the riverbank, tethered the canoe and went up to have a quick look, surprising a small herd of 5 deer on my way. The cabin, nestled in a beautiful stand of hardwood trees, had certainly seen better days and was on the verge of literally falling apart. It appeared to be very old, possibly dating back to the early days of the fur trade, back when the Voyageurs would make their way up and down this great river, bringing with them European trade goods to barter for furs, furs that would then be eventually transported all the way to Europe, feeding a market hungry for Canadian beaver pelts. Just another small piece of history, one of many I’m likely to see throughout the course of this canoe trip across the continent.
During today’s paddle, I crossed into the second province of my route leaving British Columbia behind as I entered into the province of Alberta. I was now in the second time zone of the expedition as well and had to remind myself to set my watch ahead one hour before going calling it a night.
The following day, Monday, was the first day of what became a very interesting chain of events, a chain of events which very nearly brought the entire expedition to an end!
The day started off normal enough, my regular routine of getting up, breaking camp and having a quick breakfast before getting back on the water to start the days paddling. I was having a good day on the water, making respectable distance despite another day of strong headwinds. At Dunvegan, I stopped along the side of the river just below the museum and the remaining buildings from the old Hudson’s Bay post. I took a few photos and had a lunch before heading back onto the river. My plan now was to paddle for another hour or two and then find a place to camp for the night. Sounds simple enough right?
Well, just a couple of days ago I was thinking to myself, since I started this expedition just over one month ago, other than my friend Darryl who paddled with me for the first few days and then the group of marathon canoeists on Prince George who paddled with me the day I headed out from there, I’d not seen even one single canoe or kayak on the water for the entire trip so far. Amazing. I was thinking at that point that when I DO see another canoe or kayak on this river, it would not just be somebody out for a day paddle or even an overnighter, no I thought it would be somebody doing something big,an expedition of some sort. So now I’m paddling down the river, starting to look for a place to camp but in no great hurry just yet, when I notice a pair of tents on the bank across the river as well as a canoe on its side. I decided to just paddle over, say hello to whoever was there and I’d then continue on, looking for my own campsite for the night.
It turns out that I was right, that the first canoe I see would be somebody else doing another big trip! The canoe itself was a handmade birchbark Voyageur replica canoe, a 21 footer built in Quebec. The four paddlers, all from Britain, were Rob, Joe, Nigel and Steve. The expedition leader was Rob Swigger and they are on the third and final stage of a 3 year expedition, retracing Alexander MacKenzie’s 1793 route to Bella Coola British Columbia. Rob will have a book out this September, “Crossing the Rocky Mountains in a Birchbark Canoe”. You’ll be able to find it on Amazon.com when it comes out. These guys were paddling all the way UP the Peace River and then onto Williston Lake, a good part of my route but in reverse.
I ended up setting up camp alongside the British Expedition for the night and we exchanged paddling stories, route information etc., it was a great time talking to these guys about canoeing, expeditions, the publishing business etc.
Joe, Nigel and Steve were the first to call it a night while Rob and I sat around the campfire a little longer, talking well into the night before each heading off to our respective tents. Now here is where it gets interesting…and where my expedition nearly came to a very sudden end the next morning!
Now with 27 years of paddling experience, there are certain things that you just should not mess up on! Things like rookie mistakes such as not tethering your boat before climbing into your tent for the night! Did I screw up? Yes! In a very big way! I’d hauled the canoe up the bank last night before making camp with the British team of paddlers, hauling it up well above the current river level by about 3 or 4 feet in terms of elevation. I was so far downstream of the hydro dams up above Hudson’s Hope now that I was sure the river would not rise more than a few inches here, if at all. Yeah right, okay…Joe’s an idiot! HUGE mistake, one that could end my entire expedition and cost me thousands of dollars in lost gear. The British paddlers were up just before me and I heard them talking about how much the river came up….and “Oh, where’s Joe’s canoe?…”It’s gone”! comes the reply. At first I thought they were trying to pull one over on me, see how fast I come charging out of my tent. After a couple minutes though of listening to them talk IK thought I’d better check for myself. Out of the tent I go, I look down at the river and….Wow…the river is so much closer now….my canoe! It IS GONE!
Well, I cannot remember feeling so sick during a trip as I did right then. I thought….well, I’ll not use EXACT words here to describe what I thought! Basically though, I thought “The expedition is over!” We walked as far downriver as we could…we were on an island. We could see for a few kilometers downriver but no sign of my canoe, this was not good! Did I mention earlier that I’m an idiot??? Not tethering the canoe overnight! I have no excuse for that and nobody to blame but myself, this should NEVER have happened!
Luckily Nigel had a satellite phone with him back in camp he phoned Adelle, a contact of theirs down in the town of Peace River, about 100 kilometers downriver. Adelle was informed of the situation(it was now almost 7 AM) and she said she’d see what she could do. She proceeded to inform the local radio station, the ferry operating upriver from town and she phoned Herb Setz, a fellow in his 70’s who had also befriended the British paddlers. As it turns out, back in 1992 Herb won the World Championships in jetboating. Herb had then set off in his jetboat in search of my canoe, this I did not yet know though. My plan was to backtrack upriver to Dunvegan with the British expedition in their Voyageur canoe along with the rest of my gear. From Dunvegan, I would hitchhike down to the town of Peace River and try to coordinate a search from there. I’d let Adelle know my plans and said I’d phone her when I arrived.
After breakfast, we all packed up our gear, loaded everything into the birchbark canoe and headed off, 2 paddlers in the canoe, the other 2 team members going along the riverbank, one pulling a rope attached to the canoe, the other just walking. They would switch off every 30 minutes or so, all taking turns paddling or walking, lining the canoe. Along the way I took a turn paddling the stern of the big canoe, this was an experience in itself, one I’ll not soon forget, I was not expecting to join in with a team of British paddlers retracing Alexander MacKenzies route! Too bad it had not been under better circumstances though! Alomh the way I talked individually to each of the British guys, getting to know a little about each one, a very interesting group of guys. While all this was going on of course, I still felt sick about my own problems. I had a strong feeling though that, somehow, it would all work out in the end. Not sure why I felt so confident but I did and the feeling was a strong one.
Getting abck to Dunvegan took us about 5 hours of work and just as we were arriving, we heard a motorboat approaching from downriver. One of the guys said he thought it sounded like Herb’s boat. Sure enough, it was Herb and his son-in-law, Ray Roberts, originally from Moncton, NB where I lived for 8 years before my move to BC. Herb and Ray pulled up and right away they handed over a case of cold beer and a bucket of
Kentucky Fried Chicken. We all quickly dug into both the chicken and the beer. Herb wanted to have a bit of fun so started by pulling my leg a bit saying, “”No, we didn’t see your canoe….how much is it worth?”. All the time he was talking though, he was smiling far too much so I pretty much knew that they had found my canoe! Sure enough, a few minutes later Herb came clean and told me that they did find it, about 30 kilometers downriver and they had tied it up securely and would shuttle me back down to it whenever I was ready! Well, this made my day I’ll tell you!! The expedition does go on!
We all had one last beer and I shook hands with the guys as we wished each other well. Joe interviewed me on his video recorder, for the second time today, to get my reaction to getting my canoe back! He is making a documentary about their expedition and it looks like I’ll be a small part of that. Nice!
Soon Herb, Ray and I were in the jet boat and heading down the river where I would retrieve my missing canoe. At this point I was a pretty happy camper! As we were saying our goodbyes, they invited me to phone them when I arrive in Peace River and Herb wanted to put me up for the night. I agreed and promised to buy the beer for the occasion. Herb would not except any payment for his time or fuel so I figured the least I could do was buy him a few beer!
Back in my canoe once more, just happy that the trip will indeed continue on, I paddled off, heading down the river and thinking about how badly this COULD have ended! I was lucky to say the least. Lucky and stupid for letting it happen to begin with, talk about a humbling experience for a so-called “”experienced” paddler! I only paddled for a couple of hours today before setting up camp on another island, this time hauling the canoe high up on the banks of the island and tethering it with not one but 2 ropes…one tied to a tree, the other tied to my tent itself! No way I’d allow the canoe to get away from me again, I’d learned my lesson!
The following day I was up early, had a great breakfast, packed up the canoe and made the 50 kilometer paddle into Peace River, arriving at 2:00 PM at the boat launch downtown. A quick phone call to Herb and in no time at all he and Ray were on hand to help me load my gear onto Herb’s truck and away we went. The rest of the day went by quickly and I had a great time in Peace River. Many thanks to Ray and Herb for looking after me, not to mention for rescuing my canoe for me the day before as well!
In the end, everything did work out great, in fact, things worked out even better than if none of this had ever happened. I got to spend more time with these paddlers from Britain, even got to paddle the voyageur canoe for awhile. I made four new friends in Rob, Nigel, Steve and Joe and then two more friends on Ray and Herb. The events of the last couple of days alone will eventually fill an entire chapter in my book at the conclusion of this expedition.
The night I was camped with the 4 British paddlers, it was the first time I’d neglected to properly secure my canoe during this trip. It’ll not happen again! Did I mention the part of “Joe’s an idiot?” Forgetting to tether my canoe…spring flood season at that! Sheesh!!!
The next update will cover the rest of the trip down the Peace River and onto Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabsca.