Paddling in Caribou Country
Following the historic fur trade route on the Porcupine River

Paddling in Caribou Country:
Following the historic fur trade route on the Porcupine River
(Part I) 
by Karin Herrero

Suddenly, our kayak picks up speed once more. Around the next bend we hear the now familiar noise: the rushing of water. “Oh, no,” I sigh. “When will these rapids be over?” I push the rudder pedal to initiate a turn, but our heavily loaded folding kayak responds too slowly, and we don’t manage to catch the main channel. With a crunching noise the boat runs aground in swift, shallow water, while Kurt’s kayak has already disappeared from view. I look at Karin, hoping that she, with one previous white water experience, can offer guidance to me, the ocean- and lake paddler. But her nerves are as frayed as mine from the previous rapids we had to run on the otherwise slow-moving Little Bell River. Twenty-two years ago, Kurt and Karin had paddled the same river. When they described the trip to me in early 2003, they didn’t mention rapids.

High water and tight corners made for challenging paddling on the Little Bell River.

Karin gets out of the kayak. Barely managing to keep her balance in the fast current, she tries to drag the boat off the gravel bar. The sound of rocks grinding along the rubberized hull is sickening. I just hope we don’t end up with a leak. The boat moves a little, but not in the desired direction. Now we are broad side to the current – a dangerous position. Our efforts to turn the boat around are futile. Another jolt from the current now turns the stern downstream. It looks as if I and the boat could get swept away any minute, leaving Karin behind. “Get in!” I shout. She jumps in and the Little Bell takes us. With ever-increasing speed we are swept down backwards, along the right side of the river, bucking through the rapids, bumping over rocks and crashing into overhanging willow branches.

The roller coaster ride takes only minutes. At the bottom of the rapids, the current slows and the river spits us into an eddy. We manage to turn the kayak around, and make the next bend without further mishap. Relief! We are still afloat and I don’t see any water inside the boat. A few more corners, then the green shoreline recedes, and we glide into the wider Bell River, where Kurt and the two kids in their double kayak are waiting in an eddy. Panic and fear drip from me like droplets from a paddle. Relieved, but exhausted, we paddle a bit further until we find a steep mud bank. Cold and shaken, we climb through shoe-sucking mud to level ground and revive ourselves with a warm fire and hot soup. These were the first, and hardest, four hours of our 20-day paddling trip on the Bell and Porcupine Rivers.

Kurt and I first crossed paths in 1984, when he helped me and my sister survive a chilly swim in Alaska’s McKinley River. After that, we had stayed in loose contact over the years. In early 2003, Kurt and his wife Karin invited me to join them on their family adventure, paddling the old Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) Route from Summit Lake in the Richardson Mountains at the Yukon/ NWT border, to Fort Yukon, Alaska. On this 800+ km long river journey, above the Arctic Circle, we would follow the Little Bell River to the Bell River, then enter the Porcupine River and paddle it all the way to Fort Yukon, at the confluence of the Yukon River. We would travel across the width of the Yukon Territory, passing only one settlement, Old Crow, about half-way through the trip.

The Little Bell River from the air.

Paddling the Porcupine seems to be popular among Europeans. Before the trip, I read the online story of a German guy who paddled the route solo a few years ago; and a former work colleague told me of some Swiss friends of his who had also done the trip. I was almost expecting to run into several parties on the river, but that wasn’t the case. Later we were told that usually one or two parties per year make the entire trip from Summit Lake to Fort Yukon.

On August 1, we met in Whitehorse, Yukon’s capital, from where we flew via scheduled flight to Inuvik, NWT. During a stopover in Old Crow we got a glimpse of the area where we would travel through in a few weeks, but the view wasn’t encouraging: low-lying clouds, intermittent showers, and a brown, rain-swollen Porcupine River. I was amazed at its size.

In Inuvik we stayed just long enough to get our charter flight organized and to buy food supplies. The same evening we flew into Summit Lake in two trips, since there wasn’t a larger float plane available to carry all five of us and our gear. Karin, Tarim (age 8) and I arrived at 10:30 pm at Summit Lake, where Kurt and Teja (age 6) were already waiting in front of their tent. As soon as we stepped onto the spongy tundra, the plane ferried away and took off. It was a cool, calm and overcast evening and we quickly got into our tents to catch some sleep.


Arrival at Summit Lake.

First evening in the wilderness: our
camp at Summit Lake.

Packing the gear for the portage to the Little Bell River.

Assembling the folding kayaks
in the tundra.

Morning: Gray and purple mountains, their lower flanks draped in willow bushes, surround us. Fog patches clear from the summits. A slight breeze ripples the lake surface. The silence is palpable. The nearest road is the Dempster Highway, nearly 100 km to the southeast, across mountains, rivers, and tundra.

The kids run off to explore and excitedly tell us they’d spotted a beaver along the lakeshore. Surrounded by piles of gear and food supplies, we have a leisurely breakfast. But the peace is destroyed as soon as the sun pokes through the clouds. Mosquitoes and black flies arrive in droves! Our 1 km portage from the lake to the Little Bell River turns into misery. Staggering through the muskeg with our heavy loads, enveloped in a cloud of bugs, and sweating in the heat, I experience first-hand what the voyageurs must have felt like when they travelled this route in the mid 1800s.

Voyagers [sic] in the Yukon Territory regularly paddled freight up the Rat River to a 9-mile portage over the Richardson Mountains [McDougall Pass] then down the Bell River to the headwaters of the Porcupine. Thirty-foot long “Yukon boats” carried trading goods downriver past Gwich’in villages to Fort Yukon, where beads, cloth, metal tools and trinkets were traded to the Gwich’in for furs. It then took three and a half years for the furs to reach London via the river and lake route to Canada’s Hudson Bay.
(The Alaska River Guide, Karen Jettmar, Alaska Northwest Books 1993)

When we reach the Little Bell River, my heart sinks. There is no shore from where we can easily launch the kayaks, only steep, overgrown mud banks, with the dark, still waters of the river below. “How do we get the boats down there?” I ask Kurt. He reassures me we’ll find a solution. In the warm and muggy afternoon, swarmed by mosquitoes, we assemble the boats. Although we are keen to get the Little Bell River behind us as quickly as possible, we are so exhausted from the portage that we decide to stay another night and get an early start on the river tomorrow. In the twilight of the arctic night, I wake several times to hear rain and to marvel at a double rainbow arching over lake and mountains. A good omen?

In the morning, after a quick breakfast of bread and tea, we finish packing the boats. Kurt rigs up a rope system. While he holds the stern, I take the bowline and, one by one, we guide the boats down the steep embankment. Luckily there are no rocks, so the keel slides easily on wet mud and over slippery willow branches. From a foot-wide ledge at the water’s edge, we climb into the boats and set off. The day is damp, overcast and cool, but luckily there is no rain. Following the tight bends of the river, we paddle steadily until we encounter the first set of rapids.

After our scary ride on the Little Bell River, Karin and I are glad to be on the wider Bell River, where the kayak glides effortlessly through the dark green water. But camping along the river turns out to be a challenge. The banks are steep and overgrown, and if there are any gravel bars, most of them are submerged because of high water. As the afternoon wears on, it starts drizzling. We scan the banks for possible landing spots. One bank turns out to be treacherous muck, where we can barely extract ourselves from, so we continue paddling. Finally we find a tiny gravel bar, barely the length of a kayak, next to a small creek. We pull out the boats as best we can, haul our gear through the bush and set up camp higher on the moss and lichen-carpeted slope among stunted black spruce. Kurt manages to coax a smoky fire from damp dead wood, but we are so tired that we cancel our elaborate dinner plans. As another rain shower descends, we sit in the family tent, sharing jokes and songs, and a pot of boiled sweet potatoes.

First camp on the Bell River: a tiny gravel bar beside a small creek.

The first comfortable campsite on the
Bell River.

Kurt and the kids on a pleasant
morning on the Bell River.

The mountains recede into the distance. Now we are hemmed in on both sides by bush: a wet, impenetrable green. In the afternoon we reach a broad, level gravel bar, where Kurt and Karin had camped 22 years ago. It’s the first comfortable campsite we have found on this river so far and we’re elated. A light breeze keeps the mosquitoes in check, and there is sufficient fire wood. Even the sun decides to appear and we all take a quick dip in the river. “This is how wilderness camping should be,” we tell each other, hoping that from now on we have done with the terrible three: MOSQUITOES, MUD, and RAIN. Tarim is happy to have found his private gym on a large patch of sand and he’s doing cartwheels and headstands. We hang our damp clothes to dry, and I inspect the hull of my kayak. Although the reinforcement strips are torn, the Hypalon material isn’t ruptured. Kurt puts seam grip on the tears, and then we pack the boats to be ready for an early start in the morning. I revel in the thought of packing up a dry tent in the morning. But a rain shower in the night vanquishes my hope.

After hours of paddling, we must be close to Lapierre House (a former HBC post), but except for a clearing in the bush above the river, we don’t see anything. Then the first rain drops hit, and soon the rain comes pouring down, followed by a strong, cold headwind. Despite gloves, my hands are cold, and my feet, in neoprene socks and sandals, feel like ice cubes. Frantically, we scan the shore for a level spot where we can get out of the water. The kids, both in Kurt’s kayak, are hidden underneath their yellow rain ponchos. They hardly complain. I am amazed at their toughness. Tall Kurt can’t use the spray cover because his knees are above the gunwale. He is drenched.

Near Sinclair Rock, at a sharp bend in the river, we find a gravel bar, dotted with willow bushes, and fight against the current to reach it. In a flash, Kurt has set up the tent and ushers the kids inside. We haul the boats out of the water and escape from the rain. Hours pass. Nobody wants to get outside and start dinner. When I finally poke my head out, I notice that the rain has turned to sleet. Then I hear Kurt cursing as he braves the elements, searching for a cooking pot and some food among the upturned boats. Later, we all meet in the family tent and share a pot of mushroom soup. By 9 pm the rain and wind have abated somewhat, but the temperature plummets. Despite wearing a fleece sweater and polypro long johns, I spend the night shivering in my light-weight down sleeping bag.

Temporary shelter: the wet and cold camp near Sinclair Rock.

Kurt calls me around 5 am. “You better pack up. Your tent will be flooded within the hour!” I stick my head outside. The water is only a few feet from my tent, and it’s still raining, although only lightly. Kurt checks our water level markers – twigs we stuck into the ground at the water’s edge. “The water’s been rising about 8 to 10 cm per hour,” he reports. I stuff my soaking tent and then dive into the family tent, a few metres farther back from the river. By 7 am we start packing up since the water is still rising. No time for breakfast. After one uncooked tortilla each, we launch the boats. The air is cold and damp, with the temperature hovering around 1 or 2 °C. Compared to yesterday’s paddle in the noisy wind and driving rain, today feels peaceful, as we push off into the grey drizzle. After a few hours of paddling, we find a small gravel bar and stop to build a fire. Luckily, we find some dry wood, and with the help of some white gas, we soon have a big fire going. Warmth seeps through my body. Feeling returns to my toes. In this cold and wet wilderness, the fire keeps our bodies and spirits intact.

Building a fire on a cold morning
on the Bell River.

Warming up: (from left) Tarim, Teja, and the author.

Reaching the Porcupine River.

After several mugs of hot soup, we take off once more. Within half an hour we pass the largest gravel bar yet – the best camping spot imaginable, but we don’t want to stop so soon again, especially since the weather seems to be improving. Upon reaching the confluence of the Eagle River, Karin and I keep chatting and paddling, until we hear Kurt’s emergency whistle in the distance. Worried, that something might have happened to them, we turn around until we’re within shouting range. Kurt is bending over with laughing. “You’re going in the wrong direction,” he chuckles, “you’re following the Eagle River.” Chagrined, we turn around and follow his kayak.

If Karin and I had continued paddling upstream on the Eagle River, we would have come to the spot where Albert Johnson, the “Mad Trapper of Rat River” was killed on February 17, 1932, during a shoot-out. Police had tracked him through the frozen wilderness for weeks. Albert Johnson (as he called himself) had appeared in Fort McPherson on the Peel River the year before. He had moved into the Rat River district to trap, but started interfering with the trap lines of the Indians there. A complaint brought the police to his door. Refusing to talk, and without any warning, he shot one of the police officers through the door. A search warrant was issued and a posse, consisting of several officers and trappers, was sent out to arrest him. In sub-zero temperatures, Johnson led them on a mad chase through the wilderness, often wearing his snowshoes backwards to confuse his pursuers. During several encounters with them, Johnson gravely wounded two other men, and then fled over the Richardson Mountains during a blizzard, crossing a mountain pass said to be impenetrable in the winter. This arctic man-hunt, and the final shoot-out on the Eagle River, fuelled the imagination of the media in the years during the Depression. But despite numerous further investigations, the mystery surrounding Albert Johnson’s identity was never resolved.

The rain has left its legacy: the bush is dripping wet, and rivulets run from every river bank. But the weather is looking up. The sky is revealing patches of blue, fringed by white puffy clouds. Yesterdays’ storm is spent.

We have now settled into our river routine: Kurt is first up in the morning, getting the fire and breakfast going, while Karin and I pack up the tents. During the day, we stop about every two hours for a quick break, averaging 5 to 6 hours of paddling per day. In the evenings, Kurt builds a fire and we take turns making dinner.

Mist rises from the river and evaporates into a blue sky – the first real sunny morning since we started the trip. But the river is still rising: our gravel bar is under water. Luckily we had put the tents higher up onto a grassy ledge. Within two hours’ of paddling, we reach the Porcupine River.
What a mighty river! The shoreline is hundreds of metres away in both directions. Now, crossing from one side to the other to catch a faster current or to hide from the wind, will require lots of paddling. At the confluence, among birch and spruce trees (the first birches we’ve seen on this trip) we spot a cabin on the river bank – the first signs of human presence since we left Summit Lake, but no one answers our calls. With some tail wind, Karin and I manage to do a bit of sailing with our large golf umbrella – a welcome respite from paddling, especially since I got hit by a nasty cold that has me in coughing fits throughout many sleepless nights. But, it feels good to have reached the Porcupine River, our main objective on this trip. From now on, finding a good camping spot isn’t a challenge anymore – gravel bars are numerous, and they get bigger as the river increases in size.

A clear morning! A vast, cloudless sky arches over bush and river. We’re on the water by 8 am, gliding through the still waters, only occasionally rippled by a breath of wind. This is a day when I fully appreciate being here. Before the trip, I had envisioned how it would be, following the river, living along its shore, and tuning in to nature’s rhythm. But so far, the trip has felt more like being on the run from bad weather and bugs. Mornings like this put everything back into perspective.

Near the confluence of the Driftwood River, we spot the first caribou.

The mighty Porcupine River is no obstacle to the caribou.

Drifting in our kayak, we can observe
the caribou at close range.

Suddenly we glimpse several moving objects on the right shore. Paddling closer, we realize they are caribou – four adults and one baby, the forerunners of the mighty Porcupine Caribou herd, moving south from the Arctic coast. The next day, past the confluence of the Driftwood River, we see groups of up to 30 animals, feeding along the shore. Then they plunge into the river and swim across, with only their heads and tails sticking out of the water. Kurt tries to get closer, but he isn’t prepared for the speed these animals are traveling at. When he reaches the middle of the river, they are already across, standing on a mud bank, shaking the water out of their hides.

The Porcupine Caribou herd, named for the river on which we paddled, has been moving across the arctic lands of Alaska, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories for more than 20,000 years. Twice a year, the herd migrates more than 700 miles to and from its traditional calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), on the arctic coastal plain of Alaska. In the winter, the caribou move to the southern portion of their home range, where they are an important resource for the Gwitchin people.

Whereas some areas within the Refuge have been protected from human development, the calving grounds are unprotected. Now, strong pro-development forces within the US government want to open oil and gas exploration in and adjacent to the calving grounds, threatening the survival of the Porcupine caribou herd, the ecological integrity of the Refuge, and the life-ways of the local people.

Click PART II to continue the story

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