"He who paddles two canoes, sinks."
- Bemba proverb
We were on a river so remote it doesn't exist on most maps, the Blackfeather, a tributary of the Mountain River, deep in the Mackenzie Mountains of Canada's Northwest Territories about 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle. These are wilderness waterways in the truest sense: The courses have no impoundments, no diversion projects, no bridges, no roads, no homes, no people, no pollution.
The Mountain Dene people once hunted and trapped here, but they long ago moved to villages on the Mackenzie, and now the only remnant is a void. These rivers flow, as they have since time immemorial, in balance with themselves. The Blackfeather and Mountain, and every rill that feeds then, are in unmodified natural states. If they belong to anyone, they belong to the wildlife, superbly adapted to this inimical region: moose, wolf, wolverine, Dall sheep, mountain caribou, beaver and grizzly bear. My canoe mate was my friend Erik, the former C.E.O. of Expedia. The other in our party was our part-time-male-model guide Bart, who was making his first descent. Our plan was to catch up with Erik's dad, John, and our master guide, Tim, a veteran of many northern river trips, who had launched the day before us.
To get to our river we first flew commercially to the oil pipeline community of Norman Wells on the Mackenzie River. From there we boarded a Swiss-made Pilatus PC-6 Porter, a STOL (short take-off and landing) floatplane, often called the "Jeep of the air."
The high-winged, angular black and yellow Porter took us farther north and east into an intermontane basin in the Mackenzie Range, over a spot of water that looked like a human eye brooding. It seemed to mirror the soul of the landscape. We splashed down on Willowhandle Lake, at about 4,000 feet. The air is usually the first sign that you are someplace different, but here, as we stepped off the pontoons, it was the light--soft, diffuse, and intense all at once.
The air, too, made its point. It was autumn cold, and I looked to the south for a piece of last warmth before the sun made its last horseshoe pass around the margins of the sky.
Because of schedule conflicts, the rest of the party had launched the previous day. Erik and I climbed into one canoe, Bart in the other, and together we took off sliding across the glasslike lake, all silent except for the periodic calls of loons echoing across the canyon, and the swish of water as it broke across the hull. At the far end we hoisted the canoes and kits on our heads and backs and began a kilometer portage along a faint track littered with fresh Grizzly tracks. We made camp at a creek called Push-Me-Pull-You.
As we turned our canoe over to become a makeshift dinner table, I saw the bottom scored with a matrix of scratches and dents, the scars from a season in tough waters.
The next day we loaded the boats and proceeded to push and pull them down a water passage not much bigger than a garden hose. It was back-breaking work in stinging cold water, which lasted all morning. Eventually the trickle conflued with the Blackfeather, and there was a last the thrill of a live vessel beneath us riding high over brawling water--until the boat began to crankle as though drunk, and our misadventures began.
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