Seals, Moose, wind and WE MADE IT!!! (Entry by Scott)
(Aug 23rd, 2005) Entry by Scott, with some thoughts from both of us at the end.
Note: We posted this journal entry immediately after posting another one, so be sure to check both of them out! (reading the other one first will maintain chronological integrity!)
8/18: We woke up at White Mud Falls to a beautiful day. After setting our canoe in the water knowing no more rapids would come our way we began paddling to make some good time. The Hayes flows very swiftly towards the next obvious ‘waypoint’; where the Fox River comes in. The Fox was part of a Voyageur route known as ‘the Middle Track’; the Hayes route we took was known as ‘the mainline’. We had about 50 miles to get to the Fox. We busted out the Global Positioning System to see how fast we were going—we were cruising at 8 miles an hour! We wanted to set our speed record for the trip and managed to get up to just past 10 miles an hour. Pretty amazing considering our average flatwater speed was more like 3 or 4 miles an hour (and going upstream on the Minnesota River it had been much less than that).
It was fun flying down the river on a warm, sunny day watching the high, spruce-covered, pointy, glacier carved hills glide past us. The hills stretched about 100 feet high on either side of us, and the spruce started gradually giving more and more way to barren, vertical areas that exposed the underlying sandy soil and some areas continued to look all fried over from past forest fires.
We got to the ‘Crane’s Breast Cliff’, or Wakapakitaw Cliff at the confluence with the Fox and marveled at the river’s doubling to perhaps 75 yards wide. The dramatic spruce hills and cliffs gave way to lower, less sloped inclines topped by shorter, scrubbier spruce and scrubby bush. It looked like we were in the far north now, and our relaxation and happiness at having slid through the rapids now turned back to an underlying feeling of fear in our stomachs at the thought of entering polar bear country. On and on we pressed. Matt saw a log moving across the current that morphed into a caribou climbing out on the south bank. It looked like a darker version of a deer and showed its rear to us for a few seconds before disappearing into the bush. It didn’t seem too big, probably a juvenile. Nonetheless we were happy to have seen our first big mammal. Bill Bryson, in his book ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, which I read earlier in the expedition, comments on human’s incredible ability to cause other large mammals to go extinct. And indeed woodland caribou used to exist as far south as northern Minnesota. Seeing a ‘large mammal’ was something I looked forward to and hoped for; the mystique of seeing a wild creature bigger than us moving majestically through the forest is just somehow entrancing.
But it only got better a little later as the head of an otter poked out a bit in front of our boat. I told Matt. We both looked for it to show itself again. It did, but it wasn’t an otter—our first seal!!! Now we knew we were getting close to the sea. Wow—a seal! It’s big be-whiskered head came up again to check us out. Soon it was showing us its whole pudgy banana shaped body as it came within 20 feet off our starboard side. The seal was working it’s way along the shoreline eddies up the river as we slipped along the current next to them. Soon he was behind us, still popping up and staring at us, as we sat, mesmerized, turned to look at him or her.
We found a campsite on a fairly, flat clay and grass island shoreline. The sky had clouded over. Matt quickly found a caribou or Moose hoofprint and we both were happy not to find any bear prints. We slept well and realized that we were just 2 days from York Factory; ahead of schedule!
The sky was still cloudy in the morning, and the current since the Fox confluence seemed slower, but we remained optimistic. We set off towards the next major checkpoint, the confluence with the mighty Gods River. We were anxious to see the river that Sevareid and Port had been forced to take because of the water levels in 1930, and see the Hayes again double in size. We had about 125 kilometers (about 75 miles) to go, and were aiming for a campsite 45 kilometers from York Factory. It was to be a long day.
By the time we got to the confluence we were bucking a fierce headwind and the cold rain had been on us for 2 hours. Matt was tired and starting to feel a little ‘broken’ as we call it, so we opted for an early lunch at the confluence. I put on my ‘help take care of Matt’ hat as we exited the boat. Instead, I immediately started shaking all over. Matt realized he had to put on his ‘take care of Scott hat’—maybe it was the chattering teeth. He unloaded the boat and we stood shivering in the rain, cramming peanut butter and crackers into our mouths. I kept insisting I was going to be fine, but then I took off my neoprene gloves and both of us gawked at my ghostly pale blue hands. I suggested we do a little warm-up dance like we teach the Scouts at North Wind, the winter camp we work at. As we started to jump up and down my ankle gave way. This was getting a little extreme.
Matt set the tent up while I retreated to another mental universe. I came back long enough to crawl into my sleeping bag. Without a word I slipped into a deep sleep. Matt, I later found out, took this opportunity to wonder if I was passed out and sleeping, or unconscious, and worried deeply whether I was OK or not. He didn’t want to have to call in a rescue when we were so close to our destination.
An hour or so later I woke up feeling very well rested and happy. I started talking happily and normally to bug-eyed Matt; he was much relieved. We peaked outside the tent and saw the wind was harder than ever and the rain still incessant. We wondered if perhaps this was simply the way it was going to be as we neared the bay, as we’d read about how the bay produces it’s own weather systems that commonly include the thickest of fogs, harsh east winds (which we were currently experiencing), and rain and snow. We knew we were licked for the day so out came the cards. Lutz must have taken advantage of my infirm state as that is the only explanation I have for my repeated losses. By evening we were feeling rested enough to decide on an ambitious 3 am wake up time.
We got up at 3. Or maybe it was 3:30…er maybe closer to 3:50 but early that’s for sure! The weather was much, much better we told ourselves, noting that the wind was easily 4 or 5 miles an hour less than it had been (perhaps 25 instead of 30) and the rain but a thick mist. Sadly the let-up proved to be only on our side of the bend, for as soon as we rounded it the rain converted itself to liquid daggers trying to breach the skin of our faces. Our only relief came from the entertainment of seal #2 saying hello and getting even closer to us than the first one.
The wind bucked up the river so ferociously against the current that the waves in the center of the river reminded us of Lake Winnipeg. We submitted again to the Hayes, finding a place to pitch our tent but an hour after starting, this time on a not so flat mucky bankside. Again we spent the day playing cribbage, and Lutz’s continued abuse of me I can only attribute to some kind of evil subterfuge on his part. We peaked out the tent now and then to see the weather unrelenting. Again that evening we set our clocks for 3 am.
This time we really did get up at 3, and our luck seemed to have turned. It was very calm, though very cold and very foggy. We couldn’t see the opposite bank, but comforted ourselves with the realization that the fog would also prevent us from seeing any polar bears until we were mostly eaten, thereby sparing us from feeling the overwhelming fear that the initial part of the encounter would otherwise involve.
We ate our oatmeal, drank our cocoa, loaded the boat and set off along the north bank. It was just light enough outside to let us see to the limits the fog would allow, perhaps 50 feet in front and behind us. We slipped quickly along the bank and watched ghostly trees and banks come and go. Gradually the fog began to lift until all that was left were wispy spirits haunting the center of the river. The sky was clear with the color of polar ice. To the east, the first light of dawn broke across the crisp air with pastel colors of peach and salmon, illuminating short, fog enrobed lines of spruce across lines of sandy cliffs to the west. When the sun finally showed it’s full self we gingerly removed some of our outermost layers and put some of our clothes back into our packs. It was proving to be a perfectly beautiful day—and York Factory was just 45 miles away.
Another seal came and played with us and then, as we glided quietly along, we saw perhaps the largest bull moose the world has ever known, standing in some low scrub on the bank in front of us. Quietly I pulled us closer and soon we were within 30 feet of the majestic beast. His shoulders were wide and muscular, the better to support his thick neck, the better to support his massive rack of antlers that stretched out like giant’s hands above his head. Then we saw a lady Moose a little further off shore. They both saw us and she moved off into the bush, but the big bull remained and we stared at each other for a few minutes until we continued on our way.
We didn’t think our wildlife encounters could get any better, but in fact 3 more seals swam by us that great day. As we neared the bay we saw a place on shore where the grasses had been trampled down and a disheveled, dead, heap of hairy animal lay in the center of it. I will admit to my own very incorrect thoughts at the time; “Strange that that animal would knock down the grass and then die right there!”. But then perhaps this was preferable to the terrifying truth that Mr. Lutz deduced but only later shared—that was a seal that a polar bear had munched on.
As we neared York Factory, we hoped very much that we would not be further delayed by an incoming tide. We had a 50/50 chance. The truth is that the last part of the trip had been the most beautiful and there was much to enjoy, but at the same time both of us were eager to be done, as we were mentally and physically exhausted. We came to the tidewater mark and the current remained strong. Happily we paddled on but soon our pace slowed. Judging from the banks we were coming in just at high tide, which meant no current against us, but also none helping us. We kept expecting the huge main ‘Depot’ of York Factory to appear on the bank, but instead the bank just kept stretching on, with much evidence of summer-long mudslides and patches filled with wildflowers to look at. Matt started to think we’d past it, but I knew he was just suffering from low blood sugar and exhaustion at having been up since 3 and paddling for 7 straight hours. We had thought perhaps the last few days of the expedition would be less adventure filled and more relaxing, but instead we’d used ‘Extreme’ to describe the paddling conditions more than ever.
Finally we spotted it—a Union Jack flapping in the breeze high on the bank, a dock…York Factory!!!!! There was a float plane and a helicopter landing and a boat pulling up as well. After not seeing anyone for more than a week, we were suddenly overwhelmed by all the commotion. Soon enough Floyd and Blaine, the guys who man the Fort, came bustling down to say ‘hi’ and apologize that ‘everything was happening all at once, as usual’. Actually their language may have been a bit more colorful than that, but uh, this is a family-friendly journal.
York Factory was a site to behold. Perched on the end of a long peninsula of scrubby, water-laden land between the mouths of the Nelson and Hayes Rivers, today it comprises of a main stilt-supported lodge, a couple of outbuildings, and the very well-kept, very large, and very impressive ‘Depot’; the main building at the Fort since it was built in the early 19th century. York Factory was for 200 years the most important port of the Hudson Bay Company, from about 1650 to 1850. Tons and tons of goods were imported into the country through the Post and lots were actually manufactured there, too. Being exported were millions of furs back to Europe. Settlements along the Red River were built and stocked with supplies that came through York Factory. For 200 years much of Canada was involved in the fur trade, and money was basically an unimportant thing. Only as agriculture developed into the dominant force did the fur trade begin to disappear.
We bumbled around inside the Depot for a while, taking in table after table laden with catalogued artifacts from the past 300 years at the fort. We saw cannonballs, ship parts, door hinges, silverware, machine parts, tools, etc. It was all pretty cool. In the bell tower four stories up we marveled at the hundreds of names etched in the wood—some 200 years old. We may or may not have added ours…
We sat around in the lounge area for a while, staring off into space in a daze. Fortunately Floyd was there to snap us out of it by offering us steaming bowls of fresh moose stew; Floyd himself had shot the Moose just the week before. It was delicious.
And then came the moment we’d traveled 2,000 miles and almost four months in anticipation of; the branding of the paddles. York Factory was closed only finally in 1958; in the sixties it became a historic site operated by the government. It’s accessible only by canoe and by bush plane. It receives few visitors, but it does receive some, most by plane. In fact the pilot who would fly us out had just brought a plane full of elderly folks out for a tour. Though it seemed incongruous to us that they should even exist, we knew that their experience wasn’t nearly as rich as ours as we’d worked so hard for it, and come through the same wild and incredible land as the Voyageurs. And also, we were the only ones who would be leaving with the instruments that had brought us that far, our paddles, branded with the distinctive York Factory logo, the initials YF combined into one symbol. Floyd fired up the blowtorch, heated up the brand and weighted down each of our five wooden beauties between his feet as he sunk the glowing metal deep onto each blade. Now we knew it, our journey was complete.
Graham, our pilot, returned in the evening sun to get us. We piled our things in the small Cessna 185, watched as he and Floyd strapped our canoe to the pontoon, and then climbed into the wee cockpit. Seconds later we were in the air and looking down on the water and land we’d paddled through. We veered over to the huge Nelson River and Graham showed us a few shipwrecks along the bank and an abandoned, never-used, fort and bridge that had been built called ‘Port Nelson’; a hugely expensive project started perhaps a century ago and never finished.
Then we turned up the Nelson to follow it to the small town of Gillam, where Todd will pick us up tonight. Along the way we flew over 3 huge hydroelectric dams that shackled the mighty river and, I believe, help contribute to it’s green color (the undammed Hayes, in contrast, is a deep, clear blue). It was sad to see the wild river tamed and its tall banks above the dams flooded and eroded. It was sad to see the stark, unnaturally linear lines of the isolated buildings built near the dams contrasting with the otherwise pristine land. It was sad to see the huge power lines set across the taiga carrying the megawatts to Winnipeg (and even, eventually, Minnesota). At the same time it was awesome to see the ingenuity of humans, our ability to pour millions of dollars and millions of hours and resources into a project that so obviously achieved it’s goals. It was awesome to think of the power harnessed and put to use to help fuel so much of what we take for granted, all the things we use everyday that require electricity.
Matt, Todd and I will be updating with another journal in the next few days with reflections on the trip now that we are done; this will include more pictures too.