The Bonnet Plume by Bob Fowler
In the Spring of 1984, Pierre Trudeau had just completed his walk in the snow, and thus I presumed (incorrectly, as it turned out) that I was about to conclude a four-year stint as the Prime Minister’s Foreign Policy Advisor.
The future, particularly my future, seemed at best uncertain – a good time, then, to accept an utterly unanticipated and very welcome invitation to join a group of ‘media dinks’ and ‘political wonks’ in a mid-summer Arctic canoeing adventure.
Ted Johnson, Mr. Trudeau’s Executive Assistant, and I had arrived at our respective posts at about the same time, shortly after the Prime Minister had welcomed us all to the 80s, and, working closely together during that exciting period, we had become fast friends. Over the years I had met most of the other members of the crew with whom I would be paddling, but knew none of them well.
As a neophyte Foreign Service Officer, the “Cross Canada Tour” (subsequently sacrificed to austerity) had, 15 years previously, taken me to Whitehorse and Old Crow in the Yukon, and Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories, but this time I’d be travelling very literally in unchartered waters. In addition, I knew almost nothing about whitewater canoeing, but it seemed a wonderful opportunity, and, after all, some of these guys had been doing this kind of thing for over a decade. What could go wrong?
Long before the Internet, it was more challenging to research a northern river, but I learned that the Bonnet Plume rose in an eponymous lake, a kilometre above sea level, nestled in the Mackenzie Mountains in the northern Yukon, hard by the border with the Northwest Territories. It flows 300 kilometres north-northwest to meet the eastward flowing Peel. After about 40 km, the Peel changes direction northwards and, 200 km later, empties into the Mackenzie just past Fort McPherson, at the head of the Mackenzie Delta. In 1998 the Bonnet Plume was designated a Canadian Heritage River.
Long Trip to the Bonnet Plume
With much helpful advice I spent a fortune at outfitting stores in Ottawa and set off for our rendezvous in Whitehorse; the same hotel where in 1969 my hand had stuck to the entrance doorknob; not because it was 40 below, but rather because it was covered in blood.
Whitehorse to the Bonnet Plume
The next day we drove seven hours north to tiny Mayo, nestled two shorter canoes into two longer ones, and flew, in two shifts, onto the stunningly beautiful Bonnet Plume Lake. There we hiked and fished in paradise for two days.
A Surprise Visitor
Thinking we were pretty far from civilization, we were more than a little surprised on the second evening to hear a strange voice from outside the ring of light and warmth cast by our campfire, asking if he might join us. Entered a thirtyish American fellow who was walking, yes, walking, from Fairbanks, Alaska to Galveston, Texas, thus having to cross countless rivers of imposing size, and covering 6,700 km, while carrying but a modest pack, a rifle and fishing equipment. He was an odd but pleasant enough guy, who some dubbed “The Walker” – others, “Charles Manson,” (we slept that night with one eye open) – but I don’t think a single one of us considered he had much of a chance of completing his trip, while everyone believed it was a miracle he had made it thus far. He’d completed perhaps 15 or 20% of his journey, and winter would be coming on fast.
On day three we launched on the river, which, at that point, was but a small creek. In that stream, and in very short order, I was taught to canoe whitewater. Soon enough, though, I would be tested, but I’ve already told you about that. Towards the end of that first day on an ever more exuberant river, flowing at something like ten kilometres per hour, we came to a vast rock fall where a hundred or a hundred thousand years ago an enormous slide had filled the valley with rubble and forced the stream to cut a new and seemingly erratic course, resulting in sharp curves and steep, ugly banks of crushed stone and boulders.
Some of the latter were too large to be nudged aside by the river and, instead, created obstacles, many barely visible, around which we had to navigate.
After some moderately exciting and fairly continuous rapids, we pulled out on a shallow rubble-bar in the middle-left of the river to take stock, and to allow the photographers among us to shoot our colleagues as they rounded a sharp corner and threaded among a few boulders before joining us on that bar. Time for some vanity pictures – but it didn’t turn out quite as we had anticipated as you’ll see if you turn to the story I call the Great Disastrophy.
The country through which we paddled was stunningly beautiful; sharp, stark thrusting mountain ranges and soft green valleys bathed in constantly changing light. After a few wet days, the weather was mostly fine. Our progress was facilitated by the fact that the turbid, silty, cement coloured stream, which made fishing unproductive, flowed fast through its upper reaches.
Into the Unknown
Camp sites were generally pleasant, some, as at Kohse Creek, stunning, but as we approached the Peel the mood became more somber with ever more talk of the long and dark Peel Canyon which lay ahead with its sheer 100 to 150 metre walls, treacherous currents, massive whirlpool and the sobering realization that any mishap would likely result in death by hypothermia long before a place could be found to claw ashore.
When we finally shot out of the Bonnet Plume into the massive current of the Peel coming in on our beam from the left, it was at the end of a chilly overcast day. We soon camped on another miserable gravel bar as the forbidding dark walls of the narrow canyon loomed before us. The mood picked up over steak with Bernaise sauce for dinner, but the Häagen-Dazs ice cream, despite ten days on the river, was too hard to eat.
I well remember that damned whirlpool which seemed to occupy at least half the width of the canyon on the inside of a sharp bend. It was something out of a Hollywood horror movie, but Ted steered us deftly around the outside without risking the turbulence of the confused water along the outside wall of the bend. I can still see it.
After we emerged from the dismal canyon, the Peel widened and slowed as we crossed the Arctic Circle. The scenery became less spectacular and, really for the first time, we had to work. And work we did.
All that tooling around the paradise of Bonnet Plume Lake and the delays caused by the Great Disastrophy, meant that we were two full days behind schedule on this the longest trip, by 150 kilometres, these guys had attempted. If we did not make our prearranged rendez-vous with Neil Collin at the mouth of the Trail River, where the Peel goes completely slack, we’d have to paddle another 100 km on flat water to reach Fort McPherson. So, we did those 150 km at 38 strokes a minute for 17 and-a-half hours to try and make the meet – with time out, to be sure, for a final drifting happy hour and yet more readings from R.W. Service. We arrived exhausted and late, but Neil had waited. He loaded the canoes and our kit onto a barge powered by twin outboards, and whisked us up to Fort McPherson.
On the way to Fort McPherson
We then travelled 200 km on the Dempster Highway by truck to Inuvik, and from there to various points south. Most of us did that journey dozing fitfully in the double cab, but before long Stollery and Oliver were snoring loudly in the truck bed, knocked out by the ample remains of Captain Oliver’s stash of over-proof rum that had been denied the rest of us over the previous twelve days.