The Journal of Canadian

Wilderness Canoeing

  SUMMER 2003

PAGE 11

OUTFIT 113
 

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Canoesworthy

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Canoelit I

Canoelit II

Discovering Eden

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DISCOVERING EDEN

In the Garden of Alex

by Alex Hall

Part  1  2

A caribou along a river edge keeps paddlers company north of the Hanbury River.  

MICHAEL PEAKE

The Storm

Summers may be short in the Barren Lands, but they become longer, warmer and drier as you move inland away from the coasts. To someone like me, who grew up in the rather damp climate of eastern Canada, those dry, sunny summers are very appealing. With a climate as dry as Arizona’s, the Barren Lands receive just four inches of rain per summer, yet few places on earth have as much water. This apparent paradox is a result of the brief arctic summer, which limits evaporation, as well as permafrost and the Canadian Shield, which greatly inhibit drainage.

Although big rainstorms can come along any time in the summer, they are more frequent in August, when summer changes to fall. Storms that appear quickly can be violent, but they never last long. Conversely, storms that move in slowly on big winds usually last much longer. In the Barren Lands, big rainstorms never end until the wind rotates counter-clockwise into the north and the temperature drops substantially.

Over the years, I’ve become more skilled at predicting when storms are imminent by observing cloud patterns as well as wind directions and velocities. Blackflies and loons also become much more active before a storm. The best indicator of all, however, is a barometer. I’m indebted to my good friend Kevin Antoniak, who made me a gift of one almost twenty years ago. Now, this little piece of technology is as important to me as my tent or sleeping bag. I wouldn’t be caught without it.

When a storm is brewing, the important thing is to avoid getting pinned down in an exposed location. I always take my group to cover in a clump of trees or, if none are present, behind a hill or an esker. In August, when the insects are gone, I make a habit of camping every night in a location where we will be protected from the north and the east.

As in all other aspects of conducting my canoe trips, I live by my three cardinal rules in anticipation of bad weather: (1) be prepared; (2) never take chances; and (3) remember that Mother Nature is always in charge, and her power on the wide open tundra can be an awesome thing. You have to learn to bend like the willow before the wind. You have to know when to hide.

The big storm that roared in over much of western and northern Canada in late June of 1999 caught meteorologists by surprise, I’m told. I don’t know why that would be so, because I was pretty sure something big and bad was coming days beforehand. My clients and I were canoeing in the southern Barrens. Five days before the storm struck, the weather became hot, muggy and dead calm. The barometric pressure fell into the basement and stayed there. With calm, clear weather and temperatures in the 80s and 90s Fahrenheit, I couldn’t hole up, even though I was certain a storm was on its way. I had no other option but to keep travelling, keep an eye on the sky and try to camp in a protected place each night. On the second-last night of our canoe trip I wrote in my diary that I hoped we’d get out of there before the hammer fell. We didn’t. The hammer fell the next morning.

The mood of the Barren Lands is like that of the little girl “with the curl in the middle of her forehead.” When she’s good she’s very good, but when she’s bad she’s horrid. We were about to find out how horrid she could get. By noon the next day we were experiencing heavy rain and gale-force winds. Although the land around us was flat, open tundra with little to break the wind, our tents were pitched adjacent to a small clump of black spruce growing eight or ten feet in height. This little spruce grove provided a welcome place to get out of the storm. I cooked our meals in there with a canoe braced up on its side as an added windbreak for our stove. All was well when we crawled into our sleeping bags that night.

All night long the wind and heavy rain pounded our tents. By the time I arose the next morning some of the things inside my tent were starting to get wet. When I peeked out of the door I was shocked to see two of our six tents flat on the ground. My own tent was secure, but I had reset the pegs before I had gone to bed. I made my way over to one of the flattened tents, which was squarely in the middle of a big puddle of water. Much to my surprise, Tom and Barb were still inside and apparently all right.

While Tom and Barb got dressed, I returned to my tent to call the air charter company in Fort Smith. The planes were supposed to arrive by ten that morning, but visibility was down to less than half a mile. There was no way an airplane could fly in this stuff. I got on my satellite telephone, gave our pilots the news and told them I’d keep them posted. The weather wasn’t much better in Fort Smith.

The next order of the day was to re-erect the two flattened tents. Our tents were four-season geodesic domes with vestibules, only four feet high and anchored down with twenty-seven pegs apiece. They could stand up to one hell of a wind. I’d been using this model of nylon tent for quite a few years, and I’d never seen one flattened before.

Our location on the lee shore of a small lake was the best campsite around for miles. Although the topography was gently rolling with little shelter, we were on a well-drained bench of sand nicely covered with tundra vegetation. Normally, such tent sites would see us through the worst of times, but this was shaping up to be something a little beyond that.

The real problem was the continuing, heavy rain. The ground was completely saturated, and that, combined with the high winds, meant the pegs could no longer hold on to the tents very effectively. Once the pegs on the windward guy lines gave way, the tents could be blown flat on the ground. If we could have replaced those pegs with rocks, the problem would have been solved. However, we were camped in one of those unusual places where no rocks were handy.

Tom and Barb’s tent, though undamaged, was so wet that we just stuffed it into a pack and moved them into two other tents. Most of the tents held two occupants, but could sleep four in a pinch, so there was easily enough room to add another person to each. The spare tent I always carry was no help because the wind and rain were driving so hard that there wasn’t any chance of getting it up successfully.

So much rain had fallen by the second morning of the storm that the tundra was turning into a giant swamp. Caribou trails had become creeks. There were streams capable of floating loaded canoes where only dry ground had been before. Pools of water lay everywhere. In fact, a lot of those pools were ponds. Our protective grove of spruce was now flooded out, part of a newborn stream that roared across the beach and into the lake we were camped on. The lake itself was rising steadily.

I was able to cook breakfast that morning, thanks to the thicket of black spruce that still sheltered what was left of a strand of sand beach along the lake. However, the beach was disappearing rapidly. Our tents were getting wet from underneath, so we dug trenches around each one to carry the water away. This was the first time in my life I had ever trenched a tent.

That afternoon, the wind shifted into the north and the rain changed to snow. The wind continued at gale-force velocities and the snow began to accumulate. Late that afternoon, I cleared over a foot of snow off the windward sides of the tents. Somehow, I managed to cook supper again that night. I always carry three extra days of food, so there was plenty to eat. Although no one was very dry or comfortable, we all got through the night reasonably well and without any complaints.

Everyone’s travel schedule was now in jeopardy. Our chartered aircraft couldn’t even leave Fort Smith that day, let alone reach us in the Barrens. This was the first time in my guiding career that we had failed to return to Fort Smith on our predesignated date. But then, this storm was producing a lot of firsts. All of my clients were ticketed to fly out of Fort Smith to Edmonton at one o’clock the next afternoon, but it was pretty clear now that they would miss their flight. On my satellite telephone that night I learned the weather was improving in Fort Smith, and I was reasonably confident the weather would get better where we were the next day as well.

By seven the next morning, the storm had eased considerably. The wind was down and the snow had changed back to rain. When I telephoned our air charter company, Doug Williamson told me he thought he could reach us later that morning. At noon, just as the last of the rain fell, the float planes swooped in from Fort Smith. We sure were glad to see them. In the previous forty-eight hours somewhere between three and six inches of rain and snow had fallen. Water lay everywhere. Our lake had risen four feet and was still rising. In my thirty summers in the Barren Lands I’ve seen some bad storms, and certainly some that have lasted much longer, but this was the worst of them all. 

 

Portaging north of the Hanbury heading into Alexville.        MICHAEL PEAKE

 Summer 2003         Outfit 113 

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