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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.