Straight Lining Wilberforce Falls by John Gow
Bob Duemling, my bowman on the Hood River, had paddled moving water only once before. Other attributes, though, more than made up for his inexperience. Specifically, Bob had been in the US Navy and knew how to follow instructions, and to the letter! He would immediately repeat each order verbatim, as in “draw right”, and then carry it out with precision. He was a quick study, keeping us dry on a very challenging river. He was also a fine companion and a good man around camp.
Bob’s newfound expertise as a bowman was put to the test during the day leading to Wilberforce Falls. In that 30 kilometre stretch the river drops some 90 metres, creating a boulder filled set of class II rapids around every corner. I lost count but I seem to recall paddling some 25 sets, without time or opportunity to scout any of them.
Wilberforce Falls, one of the few major waterfalls in the world north of the Arctic Circle, is a wonder of the Canadian north. The river plunges down a narrow defile over two vertical falls. The portage is seven km long. It skirts dry canyons, tops a small hill and follows a long stretch of easy ground to the put-in. Our camp was about two kilometres into the portage, perched on the rim of the canyon, looking across to the lower falls.
With 4 kilometres to cover in two trips per team, we would each hike 12 kilometres. First thing in the morning each team took their canoe and heaviest pack and struck out. Bob and I last in line.The other three pairs marched resolutely over the hill and all the way down to the put in. I had a different thought.
At height of land I said, “Let’s leave the canoe and pack here, and head back to camp for the rest.” I got a quizzical look from Bob but no objections.
Once all was assembled, a pack stayed on each of our backs, while the heaviest sat in the stern of the canoe. Attaching the bow line with a clove hitch around the middle of a paddle shaft made a perfect draw bar. With one to a side, away we went.
The plastic canoe slid over the tundra with almost no resistance. It did compress the plants slightly, but no different than pitching a tent overnight. The plants would spring back in a few days. We marched that four kilometres at full speed, with time to make camp, swim, and take a nap before the others showed up, having walked their twelve kms to our five.
Back in Yellowknife we bumped into the well known journalist, Charles Lynch, just returned from a trip to Bathurst Inlet Lodge with Governor General Ed Schreyer. On the day after our portage they made a sightseeing flight over the falls. They marvelled at the beauty, but were puzzled by one strange, inexplicable phenomena. Across the tundra was etched a dead straight line parallel to the river.