July 7 – 8 – 9: Toronto to Yellowknife: Fly in Departure

To keep things simple, we charter the flight and rent two canoes from Arctic Excursions (Boyd Warrener). One canoe will nest inside the other once the thwarts, seats and deck plates have been removed . Tied on the pontoon of the single engine otter turbo, we can get in and out in a single plane trip thus saving costs. Food and equipment has been carefully packed into 4 barrels and 2 canoe bags, a separate duffle bag for the tundra tunnel, 3 life jackets, 5 paddles, 3 day bags. At 10am we are at the Yellowknife plane dock, boats tied on outside. It’s a tin can on the inside, loud, vibrating and sinks of fuel. Glad I don’t get plane sick during the 3 hour flight.

Under partly sunny skies, a light wind, we take off…for the first hour, the waters of Great Slave Lake shine to the south, cumulous clouds with dark flat bottoms gather around, suggesting a bumpy ride ahead. Below, the land looks like classic Canadian shield with dark rocks, trees, and many small lakes – an hour latter and more water below but this time ice covered. Rotten leads break the shore from the ice – today is July 9th -  isn’t the ice supposed to be gone by now?

The landscape gradually changes to more scrub, open country: I see sandy eskers wiggling like giant golden worms among clumps of trees which I imagine to be grass. Suddenly the Thelon (or is it the Hanbury?) appears below, a momentary glimpse of Helen Falls, a slight bump, we touch down, the plane skimming along the river.

Quickly the boats are untied and unceremoniously dumped on the rocky shore. I waste no time in donning my bug jacket as the black flies have wasted no time in finding me! Taxing the plane into the wind, with a roar and waggle of the wings, Boyd is gone, leaving us to ourselves.

We form a plan. First, reassemble the canoes. Second, paddle to the north side of the river and make our way upstream as far as possible. Then, make camp and walk to Helen Falls. Alfred and I will paddle in the green canoe and Ron will solo in the red 16 footer.

The current is swift as the Thelon joins the Hanbury about 2 km upstream and we struggle to ferry across. With crystal clear water, it looks like rocks on the bottom will brush the canoe. Wrong! Its plenty deep. I dip my hand to feel the wetness: surprisingly warm. A few fat drops of rain brush my cheeks, unchecked by lack of wind.

Eventually, we run out of river – it’s too shallow to paddle and perhaps easier to line. Alfred hops out of the canoe with both painters in hand and like a puppeteer, maneuvers the canoe upstream, dodging snow drifts, soft sand and the occasional washed down tree. Ron stubbornly stays in the canoe, and makes better progress than us. He keeps away from shore in the deeper water. This pattern will be repeated a several more times!

Pans of ice have been pushed up by the spring flood or are remnants of winter drifts. Dirty and sand coated, they are islands of cool under a warm sun. We locate a campsite about 6pm and set up, tired from the excitement of first day, lack of lunch, heat, and short sleep last night. Dinner is hastily assembled, we toast the river and our arrival with boxed red wine, happy to be here at last.

Outside, the drone of mosquitoes builds – they hit the taunt nylon of the tundra tunnel, like kamikaze pilots. It sounds like rain, there are so many of them! It’s dead calm outside and 25C inside the tundra tunnel. I lit a mosquito coil to tranquilize those bugs which have come indoors, delighting in their demise.