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Peace River Alberta to Fort Chipewyan

Once the time came to leave the town of Peace River, after a fun-filled and enjoyable time thanks to Herb and Ray, I was once again back on the water, heading down the Peace River, one of the longest in all of Canada.

I was running late by the time we got back down to the boat launch where I’d arrived yesterday afternoon and it was already 2:00 PM by the time I got underway so I knew it was going to be a short day, particularly with dark clouds rolling in and the sound of thunder not far off. Shortly after paddling away I encountered some rain showers but they did not amount to much at all and 30 kilometres later, the sun was even shining again as I pulled ashore to check out what looked like a good campsite on the riverbank. Sure enough, there was campsite set up here complete with picnic table and a fire pit, compliments of a group called the “Peace River Rats”, a group of mostly sport fishermen running small outboard motor boats and jet-boats. The site was just too nice to pass up, especially with the mostly muddy and overgrown banks along much of this section of the river. Also, the banks are not quite so high now as they were earlier along the river. Initially, the banks of the river would go up several hundred feet, a smaller bank at the waters edge, the river valley rising high above the river valley. It looked like you were flanked by impressive hills on both sides but in reality, once you reach the top, you wind up looking out over the vast Canadian Prairies.

The following morning I was not so lucky. It had begun raining last night shortly after going inside the tent for the night and it rained nearly non-stop all night and most of the next day, at times very hard. Making things even better were the persistently strong headwinds! I made the best of it however and headed off, determined to put in some decent distance today as recent “events” have put me somewhat behind schedule form where I wanted to be by now. Just when I was starting to think about pulling over some place for lunch I ran into some good fortune, spying a cabin up on the bank on river left. I had to make my way up through a muddy riverbank, the first 20 feet or being the worst, sinking about 8 inches with every step. The cabin was unlocked and had a note attached next to the door, urging people to feel free to use the cabin when passing by, just to keep it clean and look after it when you are there. Perfect! I had a hot meal, followed by a cup of coffee afterwards. Feeling warm and with a full stomach, I was ready to continue on. Unfortunately the rain and headwinds were still with me as well! The rain did eventually end however, about an hour and a half before I pulled ashore for the night just before 10:00 PM, setting up camp on a weedy, overgrown, muddy little beach…not much to choose from along this stretch for good campsites I’m afraid! Despite the rain and headwinds, I still managed to knock off 100 kilometres today.

The next day, Saturday, the weather was better but I still had a persistent headwind from the time I hit the river until about a half hour before setting up camp. The wind could have at least kept howling a bit longer, long enough to keep the bugs away while setting up camp and having a late meal! “The mosquitoes tonight were terrible, the worst I’ve seen yet on this trip. I’m sure they will get far worse however before the trip is over. Guess I’ll just have to make the best of it. Good thing I brought plenty of bug repellent and a good bug shirt! My distance today was down from yesterday but I still knocked off another 80 kilometers. The winds combined with the mosquitoes and lack of good campsites had my spirits quite low by the end of the day. Hopefully tomorrow will be better, today was not one of the best days of the trip by far.

Sunday was indeed a better day, mentally in particular. The headwinds were still there but everything else went great today. I was only planning to paddle about 70 kilometers down the river today. My map shows a ferry crossing and picnic site, surely this will yield an improvement over last night’s campsite. Partway through the day I had a great break beside a small stream, pouring fresh, clear water into the Peace. The water from the Peace River, though drinkable once filtered or treated, is very silty, the color of a strong cup of tea. I took advantage of this crystal clear stream water, filling my water containers before heading off again after lunch and a bit of relaxation while reading a good book, sitting in the sun beside the river. I even had free entertainment, watching a beaver swimming repeatedly up and down in front of me, now and then diving under, splashing his tail on his way creating a loud splashing sound each time.

Back on the river and a couple hours of paddling later, I heard voices and then saw some folks over on the far bank, next to a small motorboat. I paddled over to say hello and they invited me up on the bank with them for some lunch…fresh meats, a hamburger, a couple of different salads, cheese….a very welcome treat I must say! Fifteen kilometers later I pulled ashore at the ferry crossing and set up camp in a great little picnic park with fire pits and picnic tables. Even the mosquitoes were not so bad tonight. I spent the next couple of hours just relaxing in front of a campfire, reading, having a bite to eat and enjoying 2 cans of beer that I was given earlier today by the people I met along the river who shared their lunch with me. A definite improvement over yesterday all in all!

A couple of days later I arrived at the tiny town of Fort Vermillion, the last chance to pick up supplies for the next 400 plus kilometers. There was not much I really needed, just a few odds and ends…hot chocolate, a few snickers bars, a loaf of bread, bagels, that sort of thing. I spent an hour on the internet at the public library and later, made a few phone calls before packing up to head back out again. Heading back out I went through a wide range of emotions for some reason. A bit sad I guess, missing my friends back in Kamloops, missing my friends and family back in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and thinking to myself…I still have over 4 and a half months to go! I was not regretting the decision to do this trip, just a little down over some of the things that you must temporarily give up in order to take on an expedition such as this. On a positive note though, tonight I found a great little sandy beach, just big enough for myself, my canoe and my gear. It was nice having a sandy campsite for a change, I found it a nice change from what I’ve had the last several nights. This is itself was enough to cheer me up again and put a smile on my face. Sitting in the sand, barefoot, a cool breeze blowing in off the water and some great scenery. Yeah, all in all…life is pretty good right now!

On Wednesday, my plan was to put in about 55-65 kilometers and set up camp just above the Vermillion Chutes, the only major piece of white-water on all of the Peace River. I found a nice sandy beach after about 60 kilometers and set up camp here, still about 7 or 8 kilometers away from the rapids. When the wind died down for the day though early in the evening, you could certainly hear the rapids. You could not yet see them but oh, what a noise! From what I knew about what lay ahead, there is a rapid that goes from one bank to the other, over a kilometre wide. A short ways downriver from this is the Chutes themselves where the entire river cascades down over a limestone shelf, 10 feet high! No, I’ll not be running that! Years back when the steamboats used to ply these waters, there was a portage trail several kilometers long over which all goods had to be shuttled up the river, around the Chutes and rapids. I’m hoping that it will not be too bad and I’ll be able to run the bulk of it, portaging and lining what I’m not comfortable with running solo.

The next morning I woke up, anxious to be off. I’d slept last night without the fly on the tent, hoping to stargaze as I drifted off to sleep. Being this far north however, and only days form the summer solstice, it does not actually get dark! I woke up briefly around 2:15 AM and it was light enough still to easily walk around camp without a light…or to go paddling for that matter! Once I was back on the water for the day, around 9:00 AM, I headed downstream, listening as the sound of the rapids got louder and louder.

Once I arrived at the first rapid I pulled ashore on river right, tethered the canoe securely and went for a little walk, a bit of a scouting mission! It did not look too bad actually, what I ended up doing was lining around a couple of logjams close to shore, hauling over another, paddling in between and then I was in open water. Soon though I heard the roar of the second portion of the rapids, the bigger of the two by far! This one was only bad right at the end, the actual drop over the ledge itself. Everything else was pretty straightforward, again staying all the way on river right. I lined a little bit and then portaged about 2 or 3 hundred feet around the drop, reloaded the canoe at the base of a rapid and pushed off, carefully paddling the last section of turbulent waters, along a section of river veering to the left, all lined with undercut rocks. Less than a minute later and I had nothing but open water ahead of me. Not bad at all, I was thinking it might be much worse than it was. I did happen to see a lost PFD tangled up in one of the log jams though, not a good sign when you see something like that!

A short while later I pulled out along the bank near the tiny native community of Little Red River at a spot that I later learned was a native run ferry landing. I had some supper here and was likely going to spend the night here, camped out on the sandy beach, this even though it was only 5:00 PM when I’d arrived. Two and a half hours later however, shortly after finishing my meal, I decided that maybe I’d be better off to paddle a bit further! I’d been debating whether or not to include this in my updates or not, in the end I decided to at least touch on it. I WAS going to camp here. That is until the only encounter I’ve had thus far on the entire expedition that gave me a bad feeling. The native ferry pulled ashore with four guys aboard, 2 of whom departed on a 4-wheeler they had with them. One guy stayed aboard and the fourth, the operator, came over and talked briefly. It was the 2 guys who got off and left on the 4-wheeler though that gave me the bad feeling. One of them, carrying a rifle the entire time, just stared at me when I said hello, looking at me but not acknowledging me at all. The old saying “If looks could kill”…well…that look said it all! The guy who came over and talked to me, he seemed okay although his first question was “Are you just leaving?” Nothing was said or done but just the overall feeling from this encounter was not sitting well with me so I decided to just pack up and head downriver a little further rather than risk a potentially bad incident later on.

Back on the river at 8:00 PM, I paddled until 11:15 before finally finding a place to set up a quick camp. It was not ideal but it was somewhat sandy and was about a foot and a half above the river. I set up the tent, had a hot chocolate and went into the tent, fending off hordes of mosquitoes all the while. The canoe securely tether to some bushes AND to the tent itself, it was not long before I was fast asleep, ready to drift off into dreamland for a few hours before arising to hit the water once more and see what adventures the river holds for me tomorrow.

The following morning, awaking to hungry hordes of blood thirsty mosquitoes, I was packed and back on the water in near record time, hoping to get away from the pesky insects out on the open water. Soon I was entering into Wood Buffalo National Park, the scenery remaining very flat, the riverbanks being low and not much in the way for good looking campsites. I ended up camped on a muddy sandbar, more mud than sand really but it did the job. The quick dip in the river after setting up camp certainly made up for the below average campsite though…talk about refreshing after a long days paddle!

Over the next few days the bugs continued to get worse and worse, the headwinds persisted…one day in particular was really bad, bad enough to force me to call it quits early. When paddling with a decent current and you get blown back UPRIVER by the wind when you briefly stop paddling, you know it is getting bad! One day when having a less than ideal time……hungry, tired, frustrated….that sort of thing….I was on the riverbank for lunch and was reading in Explore Magazine about a cycling expedition to Peru where a lot of things kept going wrong….in spite of all the setbacks though they still ended up having a great trip and doing some really incredible mountain biking (biking is one of my other passions). Their trip turned out great and it made me put my own adventure back in perspective. Time to remember why I am doing this trip and how long I’ve wanted to do it. When thinking about it, the trip has been awesome so far. It has had its moments for sure but that is to be expected on any big trip and I knew that. Reading this article by David Leach just reminded me of that and put everything back in perspective. When I got back on the water after lunch, I felt much better and ended up having a great time the rest of the day. I’ll have to send David at Explore an email later on and tell him this! His article was great by the way and it got me thinking about a cycling expedition I have in mind myself sometime in the next couple years. More on that another time though.

On my second last day on the Peace River, paddling along a channel between an island and the main riverbank I noticed the front half a green canoe partially up on the riverbank…makes me wonder what happened to the rest of it…and to the paddlers! That reminds me, when coming down the Vermillion Chutes rapids the other day I saw an old PFD caught up on a logjam. That combined with the broken canoe today makes a bad combination. I wonder if the two items, the canoe and that particular PFD were part of the same trip. Scary stuff!

Later in the day I saw 3 buffalo on the right riverbank, we watched each other for a minute or two and then they bolted off into the woods, crashing their way through the dense underbrush along the waters edge on their way. Unfortunately I was too slow on the draw with the camera! This also happened to be the night of the summer solstice. At no point tonight was it too dark to sit outside and read, I’m sure of it! From here on though the days start getting shorter. I’d better start upping the distance pretty soon in the coming weeks.

On my last day on the Peace, another hot and sunny day, I was happy to be finally off this river, headwinds and all. It was late in the afternoon when I turned right, leaving the Peace and heading upriver now on the Quattre Fourches (Four Forks), which is the best channel for heading up to Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca. The current was fairly slow, even with the river at its peak level according to a local I met along the river the next day. My campsite for tonight though was on the first outcrop of Canadian Shield rock I’ve seen on this trip, it was nice to set up camp on this ancient granite, alongside the river. For the most part, the river banks along here are still all muddy and overgrown with willows and alders. The rocky campsite was a nice change of pace.

Many years ago, before the dam went in at Hudson’s Hope, this river would actually reverse its flow in the spring when the Peace would be in its spring flood stage. This greatly helped in maintaining the immense Athabasca Delta. After the dam however, the flow rates changed and the Quatrre Fourches never again reversed its flow. This has been bad for the Delta according to the local people I met later on. A good example of why hydro power is not as “Clean” as many people think. The added flow from the Peace, coming up the Quattre Fourches, would help rejuvenate the Delta, keeping it healthy. Many people’s livelihoods and way of life was adversely affected upon completion of the dam. I” elaborate more on this in my book upon completion of the expedition.

Waking up the next day, camped on the granite bedrock of the Shield, I looked out over a light fog covering the river, watched a beaver serenely swim by and listened to the chirping of birds all at once. Not a bad way to start off the day! I paddled most of the way to Fort Chipewyan today, camping out on a low riverbank just before dusk, only about 8 kilometers away from the town. It was an easy and quick paddle in the next morning to this historic town of about 1200 people, a town with only a winter road. The rest of the year it is accessible only by boat or by air. I’ll talk more about Fort Chipewyan in my next report but for now, let’s just say that I was so impressed with the town and with Lake Athabasca that I am already contemplating another paddling expedition which would see me paddle from Jasper National Park, all the way down the Athabasca River to Lake Athabasca, circumnavigate the lake…this is a HUGE lake…and then paddle back UP the Athabasca to Fort MacMurray. More on that later though!

Cheers…Joe O’Blenis