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The Climbing Club • View topic - Arctic Canoeing: Thelon River

The Climbing Club

at the University of Washington
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PostPosted: Wed Sep 08, 2010 3:14 pm 
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Frodo
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Location: The Shire
“Everybody has to go down the river sometime. What river? Well, some river. Some kind of river. Huck Finn said that, and if he didn’t he should have said it. If he didn’t I will.
Edward Abbey

The Thelon River is an incredible expanse of water that flows about 900 kilometers through the Northwest Territories and Nunavut before emptying into Baker Lake. I, along with five other women, paddled this river through an organization that allows groups to plan their own trips, which includes food and route among other things. We chose the Thelon for several reasons, one being that it houses the largest and most remote wildlife sanctuary in all of Canada (though we saw few animals during this section of the trip). The river was also recently home to the Hanningajurmiut, Ahiarmiut/Ihalmiut, & Utkuhiksalingmiut Inuit peoples, and because the Thelon was one of the last rivers to be explored by the British, Inuit artifacts are abundant. This also played a role in our decision.
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There are many potential beginnings to this trip report, and for the sake of length and appropriate information, I’m going to jump around a bit. I’m looking forward to seeing those who are still around and filling in some blanks in the inevitable story exchanges. For now though, let's just say it begins July 1, 2010 when I shaved my head. Correction, five of the six of us did. We figured that going fifty days without showering would be best with half an inch of hair. And you know, all that renaissance renewal symbolic good stuff.

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Before. During. Two weeks later

The next day we began the drive North. We left from Grand Marais, MN and made it to Points North, Saskatchewan three days later. There, the road literally comes to an end at Wollaston Lake where we waited for several hours before our float plane returned from its prior trip.
Excited?
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On the plane
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After an hour and a half of flying, we landed somewhere in the middle portion of Dammant (duh-MONT) Lake, Northwest Territories. It was incredible, with the ground covered in soft grass--tussocks. Due to the year-round layer of permafrost and the long winters, the ground is covered in vegetation. It's also springy, like walking on a trampoline. I kid you not: you literally spring when you step.

TUNDRA
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From there, our trip was divided into five sections: the Elk River, the Upper, Lower, and Middle Thelon, and Baker Lake. I will give a few highlights from each.

Elk River
From Dammant Lake, we paddled into the Elk River, which is a tributary to the Thelon. It was on the Elk where we encountered the majority of our whitewater. Most of it was technical, requiring knowledge in back/forward ferrying as well as other typical whitewater strokes, but the consequences of messing up in it weren't too bad. So we were pretty relaxed.
One particularly cool set:
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One misconception people have about the Arctic is that it is very cold year-round. Not necessarily true, though groups should definitely plan for it. We had talked to people who had traveled this area before, recounting stories of being icebound and writing journal entries that began "I'm wearing seven layers, and I'm still cold." Not the case for us. It was hot. Terribly hot and not just due to overall warming. Average temperatures during this time of year range from 35 to 75 degrees, but, like most, we expected cold. Before sleeping, we would layer-up, get in our tents (rated to 15 degrees) and proceed to bake under the midnight sun (that shines for twenty hours a day at this time of year), waking dehydrated and disoriented. One trick we figured out was to not sleep on sleeping pads and lie directly on the ground, which, due to the permafrost, is cold no matter what.
Arctic "Nights"
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After our Elk section, we did a portage around granite falls of about 3/4 of a mile, which took us onto the Thelon River.
Upper Thelon

To say the Arctic is eye-opening wouldn't be enough. Anyone who's been that far north will say the same. Take the idea of distance, for example. When hiking or canoeing in temperate biomes, one can look at a ridge and make a pretty accurate estimation of arrival time. Not up there. A distant shore could take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour and a half. It partially has to do with the lack of trees, something that our eyes normally use in gauging size and distance.

Also, mirages of land appearing in the middle of the water happen quite frequently.
And the animals! Frequent sightings of muskoxen and caribou began on the Upper Thelon.

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On the Upper Thelon, the current picked up. When we stopped for lunch, we would often sit in our boats and drift a couple miles in the right direction.
The upper has great topography, and the shore varies between sand and amalgamated sandstone cliffs. Not much to note about this section except we developed our sleep/wake schedule: going to bed at midnight, when the sun dipped below the horizon, and waking up at noon. We did this section in five days.

Then. We did Junction portage:

Junction is a four mile portage around along a cliff between the Upper and Middle Thelon Rivers. Now four miles ain’t so bad, all you hikers might say, and usually I would agree. But. Canoeing is a little different. For one thing, the packs one uses have no hip straps, so everything rests on the back. Also, people usually have to do these portages several times to get everything across, not to mention the 75 pound canoes that one solos across. At this point in our trip, we had 400 pounds of food alone and were forced to triple back, so we ended up walking twelve miles;
the entirety of the portage took 10 hours.
The heat wave hadn't yet gone away, and on that day, it was especially bad. There was absolutely zero breeze, which means the bugs were at their worst
…and everything you have heard about Arctic flies is absolutely true.

I’m sharing this picture to convince anyone who is thinking about purchasing an REI Mombasa Bugsuit to think otherwise. Get a bugshirt:
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The difference
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Despite all that. It was a BEAUTIFUL portage. And if one of my eyes hadn’t been bitten/swollen shut, I would have said so during the thing itself. One girl on my trip took pictures:

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Middle Thelon
On the middle Thelon we went through the “Thelon Oasis,” which contains the wildlife sanctuary where we didn’t see much wildlife. In all honesty, this was my least favorite portion of the trip as it went through taiga, and the terrain was incredibly boggy. Bog=poor tent pads/and way too many bugs.

The most noteworthy thing that occurred during this section was our attempt at a century day. We decided that this would be the place to do 100 miles, due to the fact that we would not encounter any rapids. To put this in perspective, an average and even long day on the river is about 30 miles.

What actually occurred was a 20 hour paddle, through a “sunset” and sunrise, and decided to call it quits, due to exhaustion. It was pointed out to us, however, that we did do a century day of sorts—in kilometers. 125.
So it was worth it in the end

Some pictures from this:

Sunset and moon rise
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Sunrise the next day
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The Lower Thelon
Beverley. Aberdeen. Shultz. Three very beautiful lakes. And they are HUGE. It was on this portion that we were windbound a couple times.

On our second night on Beverly (by this point it had gotten dark at night AND cold…finally), we got caught in a windstorm, that broke one of our tent poles. The three of us who were in the tent when it collapsed, moved our stuff into the other tent, and proceeded to find as many rocks as we could to weigh down the other tent/guy lines. We spent the next thirty hours taking turns holding up the collapsing side of the second tent/waiting for the storm to pass.

The wind “dying down.” Collapsed tent in background
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The lakes themselves are gorgeous. And not just the lakes, but the sky. Man, was it pretty.
More eloquently:
“Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth is the floor of the sky.”
-Willa Cather
Presumably talking about the prairie, but it works for the Arctic too.

Noting the surrounding storms:
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…and the sunsets
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And a full rainbow!
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After finishing the three lakes, we portage/lined around Alecsectoc rapids, where we entered the “Thelon Waterslide.” We could have done this sixty mile stretch in a day. Instead, we camped and did an easy thirty miles before lunch the following day. Need I say more?

The last night before we paddled into Baker Lake, we saw Northern Lights and shooting stars.

Baker Lake
The Thelon empties into Baker Lake, which is big, but not quite the size of those on the Lower Thelon. On this lake is an Inuit settlement, an airport, and a campground. We stayed at a campground with several other parties (the Kazan River also flows into Baker Lake) and spent the next couple days exploring the town. We had quite a few Inuit visitors at the campground, and while walking down the street, we were often swarmed by little kids. The people there are very friendly, and we enjoyed spending time with them. I was, however, more than ready to leave after two days of this/very overwhelmed by all that occurred during this period. More on that later.
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Last edited by Erin Slomski-Pritz on Sun Sep 19, 2010 12:13 pm, edited 5 times in total.

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 08, 2010 3:14 pm 
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Frodo
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Joined: Wed Oct 07, 2009 9:49 pm
Posts: 125
Location: The Shire
...just for fun:

Admirable rescuers
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Celebrating Christmas
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Celebrating “Birthdays”
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Optimists
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Vestibules in Love
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okay, so it was kind of an arranged marriage…

Typical Windbound Day
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Fishing pole broke day five-ish.
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…weapon of choice: driftwood, parachute chord, and fishing line.

Gifts from friends: “Open in the Arctic”
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Growing Sprouts in a Nalgene
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Tricking the Caribou
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The End
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Last edited by Erin Slomski-Pritz on Wed Sep 08, 2010 4:40 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 08, 2010 3:49 pm 
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Alpine Slogger
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Joined: Thu Sep 20, 2007 9:01 am
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Location: Too far from a summit
Awesome! Can't wait for more stories!


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PostPosted: Wed Sep 08, 2010 5:28 pm 
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Duchess of Bearington
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Location: closer to josh, kris, and mel than craig
Erin - despite the bugs, this looks like a fantastic way to spend the summer. I'm in accordance with Doehle - can't wait to hear more!


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PostPosted: Wed Sep 08, 2010 7:51 pm 
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Frodo
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PostPosted: Wed Sep 08, 2010 8:42 pm 
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One Armed Wonder
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Wickid (except for the bug bites... you have me trumped on that one :no: ) Looks like an adventure to remember! Look forward to you being back!

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Life can deal you an amazing hand. Do you play it steady, bluff like crazy, or go all in? - Joe Simpson


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PostPosted: Wed Sep 08, 2010 9:30 pm 
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UW Climber

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 09, 2010 11:13 am 
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UW Climber

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Location: Anchorage, Alaska
Erin, This is Amazing! Thanks for sharing and I can't wait to hear more about it! You look great with such short hair too, probably wise to cut it off for a 50-day odyssey. :) I think its so cool you saw muskoxen and were on such a long adventure. WOW!


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PostPosted: Thu Sep 09, 2010 11:50 am 
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Mountain Rhombus
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Looks like fun!

Were you far enough from the ocean that you weren't really worried about polar bears?

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 09, 2010 12:54 pm 
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experienced hiker of the climbing club
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Very cool, Erin. You should do a slide show for the club when you're back in town!


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 10, 2010 1:57 am 
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Cap'n Wingspan
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Erin, congratulations on such a fine adventure. I truly enjoyed reading it.


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 10, 2010 12:13 pm 
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The Shepherd
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Erin, you are taking on quite the adventures these days! What a wonderful read, and I'm excited to hear more firsthand. Although cutting the hair probably made it easier, there is something pretty fun about creating interesting hair styles after a week of not showering (Yosemite). We'll have to get together and trade stories/photos.

:rock:


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 10, 2010 1:59 pm 
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Frodo
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PostPosted: Fri Sep 17, 2010 6:22 pm 
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Burly Skinner
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Erin,

You won't be seeing my face anytime soon, but I enjoyed the photos!


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PostPosted: Sat Sep 18, 2010 8:21 pm 
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receiving spoon
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Good stuff Erin, looks like the trip of a lifetime! I'm excited to start seeing you around soon!


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