Explore Magazine, 2006
The six of us waited on a rickety float plane dock in Mayo, Yukon.
The last time we gathered had been as gangly youth, sprouting peach fuzz and spouting bravado. Somehow a decade and a half had passed since that screaming, drunken crescendo of engineering school; a time when beer for breakfast didn’t raise eyebrows; long before jobs, stress, heartache, coffee, booze, and time had left their inescapable brands. We carried that history with us now; spare tires, baggy eyes, and oh god, it was true, even gray hair.
Far off, across hundreds of kilometers of stunted spruce, poplar, rolling bog and lonely mountains laid the goal that had brought us together again: the Hess River, dotted for its entire length with challenging rapids, lauded by legendary paddler Ken Madsen as ‘the Rolls Royce of Yukon Rivers’ (who should know, having explored just about every last trickle, torrent, and puddle in the Territory.) The whitewater on this remote run is generally regarded as the upper limit of what a fully-loaded expedition canoe can handle. Madsen, in a typically understated manner, describes the Hess as ‘a suitable challenge for experienced wilderness paddlers.’ Funnily enough, he doesn’t mention anything about university reunions, an opportunity to hone long-forgotten paddling skills, or mid-life crises.
We were six men, standing together on a rickety dock, in six completely different worlds.
Big Al was fretting. Seriously fretting. He’d been gutted when he laid eyes on the horrendous pile of gear and food I’d packed. Now the quiet miner appeared to be mentally loading our three canoes with different combinations of boxes, bags and coolers, always coming to the same conclusion: it couldn’t possibly all fit.
Booger on the other hand, the one responsible for us being there, was well into his fifth beer and had long since ceased giving a shit about anything. Ditto for his younger brother, who in recent years had moved to Yukon, thrown himself headlong into a homesteading lifestyle, and in the process developed an eerie resemblance to Charlie Manson.
The Rocket Scientist (I’m dead serious) was still somewhat shaken after leaving his wife and two boys behind for the first time in eleven years. Apparently he’d left his appetite in Toronto too, and had done little more than pick at food since arriving the day before.
But he was nothing compared to Nurm. Nurm, the man to talk to if you ever need industrial safety gear in Sudbury, was plain and simple shitting his pants.
And the Germans weren’t helping things. The six of them held their foreheads and gasped as we began unloading a massive pile of crap from the pick up (much of it brand new, still bearing MEC price tags). With big knives and a few tiny bags, they were waiting to fly into the nearby Snake River, having apparently packed only Speedos and a handful of rice.
‘Ohhh, da Hess?’ they nodded solemnly upon learning of our plans. ‘Tough man river. For experts only, jah.’ Then they looked us over again, and laughed.
The planning for any major wilderness journey passes through three distinct phases.
First comes the brief, but terribly exciting, moment of commitment. Despite a million promises to the contrary, you’ve let the routine of life weave its heavy, mundane arms around you again. Then comes a spark, an unexpected glimmer of hope, an idea that surfaces between friends, over beers, in a change room after hockey, while walking the kids or dogs, it doesn’t really matter where. The point is, without much consideration, sensing only the potential for excitement and adventure, you say YES.
Next, one settles into an extended period of over-planning, over-analysis, and worry. You begin acting like a chipmunk, heading out to sporting good stores, building a nest of new gear in the corner of your living room. Lists grow like weeds. Spreadsheets are created, comparing things like the weight and battery life of headlamps. This can be especially bad amongst six engineers. Worse yet if one is a rocket scientist.
What follows is a random – and I think worthy of note: single day’s – sample of our group’s endless correspondence:
Rocket Scientist: Just finished a weekend whitewater refresher. Now I’m ready! J What are we doing for food? Anyone able to find pics of the Hess on the net? [see enclosed: packing-list.xls]
Nurm: What?! Why three water bottles? You can only drink from one at a time. A day pack? Do we really have time for hiking? And what the f@#$ are the gay clogs for?
Charlie Manson: Let's screw the food altogether and just bring a gun each.
Me (after Googling “Class V whitewater carnage” and renaming all retrieved files “Hess”): Buddy of mine ran the Hess last year. Sent me these pics. [see attached: Hess1.jpg. etc …]
Rocket Scientist: This freaks me out. Really freaks me out. If the trip is too big, I will pull the plug. Seriously. I don’t want to be a liability.
Big Al: For gods sake, the pics are a joke. And stop writing emails every day you schmucks. The trip is still five months away.
The third and final phase is thankfully quick. For our group it began as we stood shoulder to shoulder on that rickety float plane dock, watching the Turbo Otter coast towards us. Phase Three represents the dawning of a simple yet powerful awareness: the very, very last chance to bail out is now at hand.
Rising in the Selwyn Mountains, only kilometers from the NWT border, the headwaters of the Hess lie a stones throw (well, perhaps a howitzer shot) from the origins of a far more well-known trio of rivers: the Wind, Snake, and Bonnet Plume. While these three fingers twist northwards, stretching towards the great Peel River Basin, the Hess alone cuts south, into the heart of the high peaks, and the unknown.
Given the exploding popularity of northern paddling, you’d expect to find this gem crawling with boaters. Surprisingly, the opposite is true. Few have heard of the river, fewer still paddle it.
Each and every summer, hundreds of paddlers depart from that same rickety float plane dock, destined for the Wind, Snake, or Bonnet Plume, but years will pass without a single party attempting a descent of the Hess.
When I began searching for beta, several experienced Yukon paddlers were stumped. ‘What? Where is that?’
Worse yet, a few grimly shook their heads. ‘No way. Not for me.’
Endless Google searches yielded just a single trip report (funnily enough, in German), and a handful of faded snapshots. I suppose that’s what whispers of kick-ass whitewater will do for a river hidden in the middle of nowhere. Build a mystery.
Booger woke me in a panic that first night. It was bright outside our tent, although only 4 a.m., and clearly he had been up for some time, tearing through the gear.
“Have you seen the white bag?’ he hissed through the fly.
After the float plane disgorged us on the edge of (aptly named) Porter Puddle, we began to portage the gear and canoes towards a distant dent in the alpine tundra, where presumably the first dribbles of the Hess gathered and began gurgling downhill. Quickly lost in head-high willows, we ran out of energy near midnight and flopped down where we stood. Amidst that horror of swearing, sweat, and torn shins, I had no recollection of seeing a white bag.
Booger had forgotten all our hard liquor in the trunk of his car. We now faced a fourteen day wilderness trip with just three bag-in-a-box wines.
Poor Boog. Shame and ridicule were inevitable, but he would suffer the loss worse than most. After a tough day, there is absolutely nothing Booger loves more than pouring a round of stiff drinks for everyone in sight.
As he resumed his furious (but ultimately ill-fated) search, I lay awake, wondering if the lapse might actually be fortuitous. Apart from being spared inevitable hangovers, our load had just become lighter. And as noted, we were carrying a farcical burden of food. That was entirely my fault.
Months earlier I offered to organize the food for our group. As a guide on northern raft trips for more than a decade, I do it all the time. No big deal. Everyone happily agreed. So without thinking, I grabbed my standard packing lists – designed for an opulent rafting spread – and headed to the Northern Store. Eight shopping carts later I had the makings of steaks, salmon, eggs benny, cinnamon buns, waldorf salad, roasted hams and a whole lot more.
Did I mention I had only been on one canoe trip previously? And that was almost a decade ago.
The first sign of trouble came when I bumped into an old friend and mentor in the parking lot. The twenty-two year veteran of northern canoe trips, now director of Outdoor Education at Augustana College, looked at the pile of grub in horror. A summary of our encouraging conversation might read like this:
You’re taking a full commercial menu? What! I wouldn’t pack all that crap for a flatwater canoe trip. You’ll never fit it all in. (Translation: Get ready to flip on the first wave.)
How difficult are the rapids? Class III/IV?!! Well… that’s beyond my league. (Question he wanted to ask: Can you swim?)
Explain to me again why you are paddling in the front of your canoe? You weigh two hundred pounds for goodness sake. Oh, I see. Your paddling partner doesn’t know how to. Can you teach him? (My friend’s face was now expressionless, and white as a sheet.)
With much cramming and jamming, I managed to stuff the food into four plastic wannigans, two barrels, two dry bags, and a large steel-belted cooler. At the dock, Big Al, raised in true Algonquin-esque light weight tradition, was deeply troubled. The Rocket Scientist too. Nurm was silent, his thoughts elsewhere. The Germans were giddy. But to the point, what could we do now? Leave behind one of the containers? All the meat? All the deserts?
‘Bring everything,’ Booger hollered from where he was watering the bushes. ‘Anything that doesn’t fit in, we’ll eat or burn.’
Charlie Manson, who loves hunting only marginally more than eating, whole-heartedly agreed.
We launched the canoes in an ankle deep trickle, barely ten feet across. For three days the youthful Hess meandered south through the wide Selwyn valley, trickling over beaver dams and splashing down tiny riffles. At points the banks pressed so close that it was a challenge to pass. There was a sense of satisfaction, of completeness, in knowing we were traveling the river from its very origins all the way to the end, until it disgorged into the larger Stewart. So often a river journey is a snapshot, a glimpse between put-in and take-out, a fraction of the whole.
Apart from the constant getting in and out to drag the boats through shallows and over rocks, those first days were easy and sunny. The majority of our discussion focused on which canoe carried the most weight. Everyone thought they’d been shafted. It became ridiculous. Six grown men arguing over who would carry the toilet paper.
‘You take it.’
‘No, you take it. We can’t fit another thing. Look at our freeboard (amount of gunwale showing above water). We’ll sink.’
Eventually someone stuffed the bag behind Big Al’s seat, when he wasn’t looking.
In our tipsy green canoe, Booger and I were struggling. We’d known each other forever, or so it seemed, and had paddled whitewater for almost as long, although never before in the same boat. Always in kayaks or rafts. Always the captain of our own destiny.
The challenge and beauty of tandem canoeing is that two – working as a team – can create magic, the big boat gracefully dancing through waves. But two working at cross purposes equals upside down.
And as we were discovering, Booger and I paddle whitewater in a fundamentally different manner.
My background as a commercial guide has led me to be cautious and conservative. Stick to the safest line. Booger, on the other hand, delights in heading straight for the biggest wave he can spot. His skills are unquestionable. He is at home on Class V water. For years I’d watched him in shock and awe, occasionally escaping mishap by the skin of his teeth, always roaring with laughter.
‘Easy line on the left,’ I announced as we drifted towards a gurgling section, and drew the nose over.
‘Screw that.’ Booger barked, prying the other way, directing us straight into a jumble of rocks. We missed a half submerged sweeper – shaking like a jackhammer – by inches. He was having a blast.
These little rapids were nothing to worry about, but in the big stuff ahead, our actions would have to be perfectly coordinated. So in spirit of preparation, I suggested we practice back ferrying around a benign corner. Next thing I knew the canoe crashed into the bank, took water aboard, and very nearly flipped.
Booger and I both grabbed the gunwales and stared at each other with shock.
‘Kirkby, I know this might sound crazy,’ he leaned forward and whispered, ‘but you are gonna have to explain what a back ferry is. I’ve never done one before.’
This from a man who had spent fifteen years paddling some of the hardest rivers in the world! Bill Mason – the granddaddy of all back ferries, bless his soul – must have rolled in his grave.
Soon enough the easy days ended. The Hess pressed against the towering glacial bulk of Keele Peak – the highest Yukon peak outside Kluane – and swung westward. Creek after creek came crashing down willowy hillsides, adding their load of cold, silty water to a quickly swelling river. The descent from the highlands had begun.
Breakfast on Day 4 was a quiet, subdued affair. Nurm stared at a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel for half an hour before throwing it in the embers. ‘Still can’t eat,’ he muttered, sucking on his daily ration of a half cigarette. ‘And I haven’t taken a crap for 4 days.’
Stale neoprene and choking drytops were dragged on; spray decks secured, spare paddles checked, and helmets retrieved. Ahead, according to Madsen’s book, lay a continuous twelve-kilometer long boulder garden ahead, with stretches approaching class IV. Our first serious challenge. Also worth noting: “A screw up in these non-stop rapids could be serious”
Feeling our way cautiously downstream, hopping from eddy to eddy, we stopped to scout as soon as the first frothing waves appeared on the horizon. The drop looked straightforward. Charlie Manson and the Rocket Scientist won a game of rock-paper-scissors, and ran first.
‘Watch and learn you geezers,’ Mr. Manson yelled as they pushed off. The rest of us followed closely behind. Directly round the next corner lay another rapid. Then another. Stop. Scout. Run. Pull over quickly. The routine became automatic.
With each passing kilometer the pace and power of the river steadily built. Concentration became consuming. Time blurred. Under layers of neoprene, sweat and toil went unnoticed.
Dark clouds were spilling over the western horizon when we reached the first really ugly section. Too ugly to run. The mess of boulders and foam and exploding waves stretched downstream for as far as the eye could see. The group consensus was we’d have to “line” it; stand on the shore and use ropes to carefully guide the unmanned canoes through the waves.
Booger looked distinctly disappointed. Upon returning to the boat, his eyes lit up suddenly, and telegraphed his thoughts to me: Any chance you wanna run it?
I telegraphed straight back: No Way.
Hopping between flood-smoothed boulders, we struggled to keep the ropes taut, the boats under control. Hours passed, and we inched onwards, occasionally jumping in to ferry to the opposite shore, or paddle a short section.
Finally we stood before a drop that was so big and nasty, the water so fast and violent, that the question was: Could we actually line it? Or should we unload the canoes and portage everything around.
Big Al had no doubt. He wanted to line. Nurm, his bowman, wasn’t so sure. After a brief discussion, Nurm was headed downstream with the stern rope in hand, looking decidedly white. The rest of us gathered along the shore to lend a hand if required.
Big Al eased the laden boat from shore and slowly let the bow line play from his hands. The red canoe balanced momentarily on the brink, then eased over the lip and slid calmly through the waves below. Instructions were screamed back and forth, but no one could hear a thing over the roar of the water. The boat had almost reached the safely of calmer waters when it happened.
The nose got away from Al.
It only edged out six inches, but in the thundering current, that was all it took. The rope was instantly torn from his hands. Praise Nurm. With closed eyes and bent back he managed to hold on to the stern line while being dragged across a mess of rocks. The canoe whipped around in a viscous pendulum, and slammed ashore, safe and thankfully sound.
Amazingly, Big Al suggested lining the other two canoes. More amazingly, in a low-blood sugar stupor, no one argued.
Charlie Manson’s canoe went next. Gently over the lip, through the worst of the turmoil, and then BOOM. Same thing. Nose got away. The Rocket Scientist let out one heck of a whoop. Both lines were torn free. The canoe instantly capsized and began bobbing away, only a few inches of the green hull showing above the water. A short distance away was another ugly, rocky drop, eagerly waiting to dash the boat, and everything aboard, to smithereens.
Busily taking photographs downstream, I was the only one between the escaping boat and certain destruction.
Several things flashed through my mind as I threw down the camera and sprinted towards the river. Clearly the trip was done. The boat was finished. We would probably survive, but the five hundred kilometer hike out in river boots and gay clogs would not be pleasant. I certainly hoped the dessert barrel wasn’t on that canoe.
Splashing into the icy water – up to my knees, my nuts, and finally my shoulders – I was instantly swept away. The canoe was tantalizingly close, but thoughts of rescuing it were quickly abandoned. I was getting swept towards the rapids! So I turned and began flailing back towards shore.
For some miraculous reason, the boat followed. If you were watching from a distance, you might have thought I was pulling it with a rope. But I wasn’t. As I crawled ashore, coughing and dejected, the heavy hull crunched into my calf from behind. Startled, I reached down and emerged from the water with the stern line in my hand.
‘Holy shit, you saved our asses brother,’ Booger whooped as he raced towards me. I almost spoke up, tried to explain, but why shatter the perfection of the moment.
After portaging the final boat we set our tents right there, on the river banks, squeezed between massive boulders. Nurm smoked an emergency cigarette. The Rocket Scientist brought out wallet-sized pictures of his boys. Manson practiced throwing his knife into a stump.
That night the rains set in, and we woke with water lapping against our sleeping bags. The river, up several feet, was now a swollen, muddy mess.
Margaret Atwood writes that we measure everything by its size in relation to our bodies. By that test, the wilderness surrounding the Hess defies comprehension. In our fourteen day, five hundred kilometer journey, we would see no other soul. We would pass no roads, no cuts, no sign of man at all. And far beyond the ridgelines and mountaintops that bordered our small world, untouched tracks of northern boreal forest stretched in all directions. The sense of isolation was immense. So was the sense of vulnerability.
Downstream of our flooding camp lay cataract after cataract capable of shredding a canoe to matchsticks. These also felt decidedly intimidating when measured in relation to our bodies. So intimidating that when the word “portage” arose around the breakfast fire, there was little complaint or discussion. No cries, in faux-German, of ‘What’s dah problem girly man, scared of a little water jah? Instead, we silently began humping the coolers and boxes and canoes up into the forest.
Booger stepped on a ground wasp nest, and a sting on his eye left it swollen shut, beaten like a prize fighter. Nurm’s spirits immediately picked up. ‘What an improvement. That’s what you look like after a night of drinking.’ We pulled on bug nets and continued.
We needed something to sink out teeth into. Some small victory to build on. Something we could paddle with reasonable hope of success. Following moose trails over a boggy headland, we found just that a kilometer downstream. The rapids eased. Just a bit. They were still tough and meaty, but manageable.
So we took a deep breath and put in. Charlie Manson and the Rocket Scientist ran first again, riding the central wave train like a bucking bronco, slicing into an eddy below. Whoops echoed upstream. A paddle held straight up signaled: All’s good, follow us.’
And down we went. Six tense men. Rapid after rapid. Cold waves crashed over the decks. Boats, half full of water, steered like tankers until bailed. Feet grew numb from wading through cold shoreline puddles to scout.
A low sun glinted off the water, making rocks and drops hard to spot. Booger and I talked perpetually. See that? Rock on river left. Got it! Go hard now. Sometimes he saw obstructions before me, and without pausing to look I would pull for all I was worth in whatever direction he yelled. Other times, I had to make quick calls from the bow, and behind me, I could feel Booger reacting instantly. The canoe felt light and fast. Paddling with two suddenly felt like double the fun.
We covered only twelve kilometers that afternoon, none of them easy. By the time the tents were up and dinner cooking, something in the group had changed. We drifted to sleep with anticipation, not worry. The river had ceased being an adversary.
‘The key to finding jade on a beach,’ Big Al explained, ‘is to not focus. Relax your eyes and just try to sense green in your peripheral vision. Like this big rock here for example. It won’t be jade, it’s too big, but lets look anyways.’
Big Al heaved the boulder overhead, and flung it down onto the stony beach with a thump. A few fragments flew off.
We gathered around in silence. The soccer ball sized lump – mottled and brown outside – was pure, deep green within.
‘What’s that worth?’ whispered Booger, the eternal businessman.
‘No idea.’ Al was deep in thought. ‘But I bet I can carve a wedding present for my brother from this.’
Just like the discovery of the forgotten booze, this moment radically altered Booger’s trip. From that day on, whenever and wherever we pulled off the river – for snacks, lunch, camp – he paced the shores, head down in concentration, always returning with a handful of dice-sized treasure like a gleeful twelve year old. As the designated canoe-packer, I noticed his pack growing steadily heavier.
The stormy weather passed, and proud of newfound muscles, we drifted flat sections shirtless, dozing in the sun. At the entrance to Emerald Canyon the canoes whisked silently past a lone white wolf. Later, a group of four peregrine falcons attacked a shrieking gray owl before our eyes. Woodland caribou pranced along the shores, loped away upon sensing us. Paddles held overhead to imitate antlers could usually stir their curiosity, and turn them around.
As memories of the painful portages faded, so did the food controversy. Nurm photographed the fresh baked cinnamon buns. The Rocket Scientist added a dutch oven to his Christmas wish list. Even Big Al grudgingly admitted he might pack a bit differently in the future.
More from Madsen: “Unlike the MacMillan to the south, the rapids on the Hess don’t end after the river leaves the Selwyn Mountains. Instead the whitewater comes in sets, like Pacific swells rolling in from Hawaii.”
And we wanted more. With our newfound confidence – all stubbly and sunburned, and Booger with a backferry, and the Rocket Scientist with an appetite – well, we wanted more whitewater!
Canyons rose before us with pleasing regularity, sheer walls pressing in and confining the river’s turquoise waters, the boats rushing towards the unknown. There were horizon lines and waves and lots of splashes, but despite all the grim warnings, it wasn’t too bad. We boat-scouted nearly everything. Read and run. Pure fun. It couldn’t last.
The single most significant rapid on the river – a final kiss from the Hess before it disgorges in to the sanguine Stewart – happened to lie directly on the border between two topographic maps, and was marked on neither. But there was no mistaking the roar as we approached.
The rapid was of a different flavour than anything we’d seen before: high volume, big waves, pushy water. Best suited for rafts. For hours we wandered the shores, speculating on how a canoe might navigate the challenge. It was a complicated maze of obstacles, and there was no easy way. In the end, two boats were portaged around, but Booger and I wanted to run.
‘You up for this brother?’ he asked, looking in my eye.
We walked silently back upstream to our canoe, securing our gear without a word. Then we stood shoulder to shoulder on the rocky shore, with eyes closed, and talked our way down the rapid. Start high and left. Run the tongue. Aim for the curling wave. Ready with a brace. Angle the boat right. Wait, wait for the calmer water. Go hard now. Remember to lean hard as we eddy out. Regroup. Bail if needed. Peel out… all the way from top to bottom. I could see it perfectly. Finally we shook hands, hugged so hard I almost lost my breath, and jumped in.
We dumped of course. Ran the tongue perfectly, hit the eddy, peeled out, didn’t lean enough, and flipped. Mysteriously, the boat followed me into an eddy again. Booger took a pounding in the lower wave train, disappeared underwater for an uncomfortably long time, and was spat out far below. After Big Al ferried him across the river, he ran up the shore to join me. There was still half a rapid waiting. I’d bailed the boat, and with hardly a pause we jumped in and pushed off.
Again our plans went south. Our strokes felt useless against the powerful water. The canoe was tossed to and fro, slammed into a rockwall and flipped. ‘Not again,’ my brain managed to register before everything was silence and bubbles. The cold water felt surprisingly good. A throw bag arched through the air. On shore, Nurm hooted and danced, signaling touchdown like a CFL official. Turns out it was his third throw, the first two missing miserably. Moments later Booger and I were crawled from the river, humbled, shocked, laughing.
That night, around the fire, the others ridiculed us mercilessly. ‘Arctic graying brothers! Gunwale grabbers! What did you seen on the river bottom?’
Warm again, and watching a passing storm throw rainbows across the distant mountains, I couldn’t remember feeling any happier on the trip.
‘It could go either way,’ Nurm thought aloud as we floated on the Stewart, three canoes rafted together, a tarp held up as makeshift sail. ‘Honestly, I haven’t felt healthier for years. Maybe you guys have changed me? Maybe it’ll be gym memberships and organic food when I get home. But you know how things go. Work gets busy. Sudbury is dark in winter. And in no time it’ll be back to the smoke and booze.’
‘Come on Nurm,’ The Rocket Scientist moaned, ballcap over his face, almost asleep. ‘This vacation was a clean break. Don’t go back to that shit.’
Nurm didn’t look convinced.
Big Al wanted to know what was next. ‘What about the Charlottes’ A sea kayak journey on the exposed west coast? Or what about a Labrador river? Is everyone is in for next summer?’
‘Of course,’ we all promised, knowing it might not be true.
We paddled all the way back to that rickety float plane dock in Mayo. The Turbo Otter was gone. So were the crowds waiting to fly into Snake, Wind, and Bonnet Plume. The German’s rusty Westfalia had disappeared. Yellow leaves shimmered on shoreline cottonwoods, and atop the high peaks, kinnikinnick was beginning to flame orange and red.
The sound of CNN and war in Israel leaked from a nearby house. Charlie Manson loaded his pickup in a rush, already late for the moose hunt. Booger found the white booze bag in his truck, and poured everyone a Big-Gulp sized drink, to make up for fourteen lost days.