On the Hood River by Robert Duemling
As I was preparing to leave the American Embassy in Ottawa after four productive and pleasant years, I received an unusual invitation from a canoe group. Would I like to go on a white-water canoeing trip above the Arctic Circle? What better way to say goodbye to a circle of close Canadian friends.
These were serious canoeists. The objective was always to paddle white-water rivers in remote parts of the country. When one trip finished they began planning the next. First they selected a new location. Then they plotted the logistics. We would be away for two weeks, and everything had to be carried in by float plane: canoes strapped to the wings, and inside the waterproof metal lockers containing prepared foods layered according to a strict plan of daily menus. These men lived well. The rule was three-course meals (no repeats) preceded by a cocktail hour. To save space, cocktails were always the same: powdered daiquiri mix combined with 150-proof Jamaican rum diluted by the pure waters of Arctic snow-melt. And a birthday cake with candles for one of our number.
In 1980, the chosen destination was the Hood River, a few degrees above the Arctic Circle. First we flew to Yellowknife on Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. We had brought the food lockers, tents, canoes, paddles, and miscellaneous gear, and here we loaded it all on a float plane that could set us down on a small lake at the headwaters of the Hood. From there it was a two-week paddle to our destination, the mouth of the Hood on Bathurst Inlet of Coronation Gulf, where we would be picked up by float plane and returned to Yellowknife.
We were entering ground hallowed by history. In 1821-1822 Sir John Franklin had led a land expedition along the coast, discovering, charting and naming the Hood River for a member of his party who had died tragically. Franklin ascended the Hood until he reached a waterfall twice as high as Niagara which he named Wilberforce Falls in honour of a distinguished British politician of the time.
Arctic ice also determined our window of opportunity for venturing so far north. We had to wait until the river had completely thawed and then get in and out before it began to freeze over again. Also, we wished to avoid the late-June-early-July season of vicious black flies. That narrowed the window to late July through mid-August.
Over the years my friends had developed their own partnerships within the circle but some adjustment had to be made for me. I was assigned as bow man for the professional mountaineer and ski developer/manager, John Gow, rightfully regarded among his friends as primus inter pares. I soon learned what an extraordinary man he was.
Twelve years earlier, John and a pilot friend were scouting out new heliskiing terrain in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia. They flew into a side valley of the Columbia River, but the pilot quickly realized that the terrain climbed faster than his Cessna could. Hit by a downdraft, he tried a tight turn, stalled, and plummeted at high speed into a stand of 150-foot Douglas fir trees. The pilot was killed in the crash while John, thrown clear as the aircraft hit the timber, recovered consciousness a full day later, having spent a night unconscious and in deep snow. He considered his limited options, and decided to walk out. The deep snow made for slow travelling.
Just as he reached his target for the first day, John fainted while still walking; as a consequence his feet were packed in snow overnight. When he awoke again, he continued his trek and finally got to a ploughed road three days later; he was very badly frost bitten, but he was picked up and taken immediately to hospital. At the hospital, the doctors amputated both feet; one at the ankle and the other below the knee. To most it looked as if his skiing career was over, but he was back on skis four months later! John could hoist a large pack onto his back, a canoe over his head and set out for a long portage without pause. I saw him do it when we reached Wilberforce Falls.
Here was a magnificent torrent over 60 metres high. As we approached, we could hear the roar from miles away. Safely ashore, we scouted the path ahead, peering into the chasm far below.
The river disappeared within a narrow canyon and we realized our re-entry point would be a long way ahead. So we lowered the canoes from our shoulders and dragged them along with bowlines attached to paddles. We felt guilty crushing a path through vegetation only six inches high as that growth represented fifty years of a brief Arctic growing season.
Here was a world I had never seen before. Once down from the massif of the falls, vast spaces opened before us. The river curved slightly back and forth within a wide valley bounded by giant eskers, the kind of sand dunes that form beneath decaying glaciers. Sparse vegetation and very little wildlife: a few ducks, Arctic wolves, small herds of musk oxen, and some stray caribou (the migration had already passed). The open sky seemed limitless. In the warm sunny days we could paddle with our shirts off. Nights presented a dazzle of stars. And no other homo sapiens from start to finish.
But our purpose for being there was to run white-water rapids. Our charts could not really tell us what lay ahead. For example, we encountered a 20-metre waterfall that was not on the charts. The rapids were indicated by cross-hatching but that was just schematic. One day we paddled through twenty-eight separate stretches of frothing white water. Often I was best positioned on my knees in the bow of the canoe, a perfect posture for an occasional prayer for deliverance.
With no prior experience, I was fascinated to observe two distinctly different approaches to a stretch of rapids. If it looked especially challenging, we would land our canoes and one man would walk forward to determine the best “line” for passing through the rapids. That man and canoe would then lead the parade. We did not all set out at once. John preferred to hang back and watch the others, and that gave me a chance to observe the different styles.
One canoe seemed to be dancing on the froth, the paddlers allowing the current to carry the canoe forward while just using the paddles for slight changes of course in order to enter the V-shaped openings that indicated safe passage. That was not for John. He preferred a power play and opted for maximum speed. To his shouts of “dig.. .dig.. .dig” I put all I had into each thrust of the paddle. It was always a wild ride but we came through unscathed.
Every day was truly wonderful. The challenges of the rapids. The austere beauty of the Arctic landscape. The purity of the ice-cold water (death by hypothermia if you are immersed for more than five minutes). And the camaraderie of a fascinating group of men from varied backgrounds. Everyone highly educated and deeply engaged in chosen pursuits, which made for delightful conversations around the campfire. We did not stay up late; we were all too tired and must arise at dawn to set out on the next leg. Of course the final night was different. We had reached our pick-up point at the mouth of the Hood River.
Tomorrow the floatplane – the first sign of civilization in two weeks – would circle down onto a broad inlet of the Arctic Ocean and our adventure would come to an end. So that last night was a boisterous self-congratulatory revel, fuelled by several extra rations of rum that had been carefully preserved. At dawn all was quiet as we recovered and awaited the first sound of an aircraft engine in early afternoon.
When I got home I found that I had lost ten pounds, put an inch on my shoulders and taken two inches off my waist. I was 51 years old (the oldest member of the group) and never in better shape.
When he invited me to go along, Craig said it would be an experience I would never forget. He was so right.
Bob Duemling died of leukemia in July 2012 at the age of 83. The above story was excerpted from his book, “Sketches from Life,” published a few weeks before he died and appears here with the kind permission of Rowman and Littlefield.