July 14 – day 6 – Wardens Grove and Grassy Island
Everyone is eager to do some paddling after days of forced waiting. When the morning suns warms the tents, everyone hustles to break camp. At 7am it’s Wardens Grove or bust!
Almost instantly, we spy a moose browsing bushes by waters edge. Turning to motion Ron, I catch a glimpse of a white wolf. Ears alert and cocked forward, peering through the willow bushes, at us or the moose, I’m not sure. Excitement! After days of seeing little more than winged pests, seeing two large game animals in 30 seconds is a thrill. This is what we came to see.
Just before Warden’s Grove, we stop on river right to look for an archeological dig site. It’s there, wood stakes grid the ground, some excavation pits now partially drifted in. The wind has scoured the tundra, creating extensive sand blowouts. A pond surrounded by tree stumps and old axe scars has us speculating on the age of the timber harvesting. Ron follows fresh caribou tracks over the hill but sees no caribou.
Back into canoes and crossing to the north side of the river, we scan the shoreline for a cabin. There it is! Nestled amongst trees, up a slight slope. It’s set farther back from the shore than expected. Leaving the canoes on a broad sandy strip and crossing a hummocky field, we push up to a second tier of spruce. In fact, there are two buildings (plus an outhouse).
One building is a storehouse, the other the cabin. Built by Billy Hoare and Jack Knox the site served as their winter quarters in 1928-1929. Rusting saws, metal scraps, bits and pieces of bone litter the site. More recent plastic garbage can be found in the nearby bush. The low roof especially challenges my vertical requirement. The cabin higher up the hill is in better shape with stone floor, wood bear bars on the windows and roof in decent repair.
A group of six men wintered here in 1977 (see the book: ‘In the North of Our Lives by Christopher Norment, 1989) – I wonder how they managed, cooped inside these wood walls. Perhaps on some storm bound night while sitting around the wood stove, it was they who carved the wood sign. (“This tree of Waden’s Grove…..)
Somehow, I’m uncomfortable at this site. Eyes boar into the back of my head, there is an unnatural stillness and sense of waiting. When Alfred suggests we return to the canoes for lunch, I’m more than happy to return to the openness along the water’s edge. On the other side of the river, we spy four bright tents. Instead of paddling over to say ‘hi’, we leave them to their own pursuits and point the canoes towards the Gap.
Scanning downstream, movement catches my eye. It’s a pale coloured grizzly bear, feeding along the river. The current take us forward, quietly drifting towards the bear, cameras ready. He suddenly disappears from sight. A shallow dip in the shoreline and he’s belly down in cool gravel!
As our canoes come along side him, he abruptly stands up and turns to face us – his long shaggy coat shedding winter fur. We ogle him speechless, eyes round as saucers, arms frozen, paddles ready to take flight. He sniffs, black nose wrinkles. A final ‘whoof’ and he saunters off into the bushes. I start to breath again, heart pounding.
Moments later, we beach the boats. We chatter excitedly about the bear. ‘how old was that bear?’ ‘didn’t he look magestic’ ‘did you see muscles rippling under fur!’ Comments skip back and forth. The beauty of a fine powder beach coupled with endless downstream horizon seep slowly in.
It’s paddle heaven. Crystal clear water, light tail wind, my heart sings. Even the bugs have left this stretch of shore. Around us clouds thicken, rain curtains veil the southern horizon. Rain pants go on, just as a precaution.
The lure of the path less traveled beckons: instead of taking the wider, deeper and obvious southern branch to the south around Grassy Island, we unanimously decide to take the north arm. Not only was it difficult to locate the entrance channel but the shallow waters inhibited paddling…we push and pole off the firm sand bottom. Ron stands to admiring patterns on river bottom.
Actually, I had hoped to see some muskox along this northern branch, but nothing. The banks were largely bushy and a muskox could have easily been hiding. The channel narrowed, the water dimishing to a trickle, becoming jungle like with overgrown vegetation and hushed wind. Guess what came out in great numbers...rubber rain pants and bug jacket, a sweaty combination!
After about 1 hour, water depth starts to increases as the Grassy island channel rejoins the Thelon. Paddling becomes full blade. Here, the Thelon is wide and slow moving, meandering back and forth between gentle banks. A group of Canada geese hurriedly swim downstream, avoiding us – how unlike city geese, pestering for bread handouts. The shadow of a huge bird passes overhead: a golden eagle, hunting unwary fish.
Camp site potential lures us up the high bluffs of a mid river island. But terns have claimed the sand point beyond as theirs. Resting, more tolerant of our passing than the geese and I don’t want to disturb their peace.
On the south shore, an inviting vacant stretch of sand beach glows in late afternoon sun. With bow buried on the sand, Alfred leaps out of the canoe, quickly scouting for tent sites. Lots of potential places! Canoes are unloaded, camp set up and with no wind, we are glad for the shady refuge inside the tundra tunnel. It’s been a hot day exciting with little wind and I’m drained.
Hydrating ourselves with red wine and snacks, the gorgeous light sucks us back outside. The sandy beach is a Mecca for different tracks including many three toed tracks from unknown birds. The calmness is astounding and again, sounds from the tundra carry across the still air.
It feels like we are the only people around for hundreds of kilometers yet I know a group is just upstream. What a complete change from last nights blustery wet weather! Knowing it can swing without warning back to miserable wet, we linger and savour the light, stillness and luxury of freedom to wander at will.
The long stillness lingers into late night. It’s the end of our first full paddling day - the dramatic sunset a fitting conclusion to a fantastic day where everything has gone well.