Story by Tony Way
Photos by Tony Way, John Drover, Hilary Spriggs, Andrew Lederman
Sometime just before the Covid pot began to bubble, I got a notice from Wanapitei Canoe of an exploratory trip on the upper Pelly River. Since I had paddled the Yukon in 1961 from Whitehorse, passing Little Salmon, stopping at Carmacks for fresh bread, on past the Pelly River to Dawson and eventually Circle, and since I had never done a mountain river, I signed on. Immediately, I got a call from Shawn Hodgins: “Are you kidding?” Together, we had canoed the Lunan-Quoich and skied in the Temagami area so he knew that I was almost 80. I said if he could pair me with some muscle, I would go. But, just after plunking down my money, the Covid pot boiled over. Alarms went up, barriers came down and the trip was off “until next year.” That was not to be either. Finally, after two years, we got used to our pandemic, the Yukon opened and the trip was on for 2022!
Having started white-water with Keewaydin in 1955 (Dumoine) and ’56 (Harricana), I had been paddling northern rivers off and on for almost 70 years (Yukon, Noatak, Clarke-Thelon, Bailey, North Knife, Eau Claire, L-Q) so I was used to being ready to go. But now, aging was becoming exponential and the difference between 80 and 82 seemed more than 2 years. My wife, Barbara, being a better far-see-er than I, suggested this might be my last trip so I tried hard to get ready by walking, paddling and carrying. Nevertheless, I set out with some trepidation, but a 20-minute baggage hike through YVR and a 6 km uphill hike to the Whitehorse Beringia Exhibit suggested that I was ready for everything. But everything is not anything
My memory of Whitehorse is thin, but it still has the SS Klondike II, the Skyscraper Log Cabin, and the Old Log Church. Our ‘61 put-in campsite has been built over. Whitehorse bustles now; it even has streetlights! Snowfall was extra heavy last winter, so I was surprised by snowbanks on the hills.
In Whitehorse, the returning canoe haulers reported threatening forest fire just after Ross River (they skirted the road-closed sign), so we took the longer road through Watson Lake and its Sign Post Forest (look it up!), also driving around the “road closed to fire” sign. The flight from Finlayson showed us the tundra tops of the Selwyn Mountains before dropping down into Summit Lake. This water is squeezed between high, spruced ridges. We enjoyed graylings the first night as well as a Trumpeter Swan family, a pair of Pine Grosbeaks, and some calling wolves.
Day two was for rest but some of us saw that a high ridge would overlook our Summit Creek outlet. The steep 230-meter climb through the trees and brush took over 20 exhausting minutes with many needed breathing breaks along the way. The crest offered another overlook further on, but tired we turned back down. On my first down step, my right knee went side-ways and down. “What the Hell!” It did it again whenever I stepped down. This was a problem since down was where I needed to be. As images of travois and stretchers skittered through my mind, the steep slope offered the alternative of a butt-scoot. Thus, between hobbling and skidding, the hiking party led me back to our canoes. As two of the doctors, John Drover and I “diagnosed” a kneecap dislocation since I could walk flat or uphill, just not downhill. At dinner, I announced the obvious: while I could hobble along with paddles as canes, I could not carry other than my day pack. Everyone said “Okay,” perhaps because that was better than having to carry me. In other words, I had become walking baggage.
The run down Summit Lake Creek started clear with some nice class 1 and 2 rapids. Shawn had said that there wouldn’t be many portages, and there weren’t, just endless beaver dams, windfalls and log jams. As Shawn’s bowman, I tried to help at the first pull-over, but quickly realized that my job was to get out of the way. So, with 2 paddles as canes, I hobbled through the brush. Working on the principle to make omelets when the eggs are broken, I became the action photographer of the crew’s huffing and puffing. This was appreciated later when they saw that they were too busy and tired to film. Despite the rigors, cheer remained, especially that night with John’s single malt whiskey.
After 2 days, and only 2 unnecessary dumps (nothing lost other than pride), our 2-canoe-length-wide creek merged with another to become 3 canoe lengths wide. No more rapids, just runs through glacial till and cut moraines. Even the pull-overs abated some. With the wider view, we now saw Bald Eagles and the beavers themselves. After an impending thunderstorm, Richard offered us his 4 types of home-made port wine. I savored the Traditional and brought out some dark chocolate to complement it.
On day 6, we finally emptied into the Upper Pelly. Even the logjams were gone now, just good running water. Shawn “borrowed” me to Pete, our guide, so he could better assess the top of Wolf Canyon (so named by our bush pilots). Pete and I found that we had known many of the same girls on Lake Temagami from many decades ago. While he took special care of me, I soon learned that he was a solo paddler, and I was not to use my paddle until commanded.
The map showed an almost 4 km curving canyon with a dozen hashes dropping down 20 m. Shawn had anticipated a sequence of let-downs, so we loaded and headed off through the brush, looking to descend past the first rapid. It was a long way down to no shore and not far from another cataract. So off we trudged to the next overlook. This looked no better. By the third overlook, we lost all hope and aimed through the woods to the canyon end. With my 2 paddles for canes, I mostly kept up. But, after an hour’s slog we realized that a mid-portage camp was inevitable, especially since we had lost track of our 2 canoe carriers.
We settled on a nice semi-open forest site served with a sufficient trickle of water. I planted myself in our communal circus tent while Hilary slowly fetched water for filtering. The rest, led by Andrew’s GPS, bushwhacked back to retrieve more gear and our 2 errant canoe carriers. By late afternoon, half our stuff, including all our crew, were lugged 1.4 km to camp. My thoughts of sleeping rough evaporated with the arrival of my pack. More important than my tent was the second tranche of dark chocolate to brighten the moods of our exhausted portageurs. That night we celebrated our hellacious carry with my Collin Street fruitcake and rum. Maybe, if I couldn’t carry a load, I could at least lift spirits. Shawn, by this time, was bushed. He had had Covid in the spring, and amongst the other 2 doctors, we considered Long-Covid likely.
The next day was another carry day. A scouting party, again with Andrew’s GPS, located our put-in 0.6 km further on. Then, all but Shawn and I went for the last load, including the canoes. I was told that this was not fun as the way was riddled with dense brush and swamp.
Our last carry day wasn’t too bad. It was a little tricky for me as the end was downhill which was what I could not do. A bottom slide through the brush was not possible, so I just turned around and walked backwards as that was just the reverse of walking uphill which I could do. I laid out the last of my dark chocolate at the end for the carriers, and we decided to call it a day sitting at the debouche of Wolf Canyon.
Day 9 began with wet tents as the rain finally began. I resumed Shawn’s bow. He felt better now. The river was fast and smooth, so we just talked, often more than we paddled. We were exiting the Selwyn Mountains. At one point, we rounded a mountain that looked like the blown-out side of Mt. St. Helens, just smaller (yes, there were volcanoes here, compliments of the West Coast sliding north). Then we turned right at the fault-line and into the Tintina Trench (think San Francisco Bay trench). Now we were north of the late Cordilleran Glacier (remember, Beringia was ice-free!). The Pelly here carved into the glacial outwash which was covered with meters of yellow loess, the rock flour blown by the cold down-wash from the southern ice cap (kind of inverts your mind, doesn’t it?). Also gone were the camping gravel bars, just high cut banks. Finally, we found a beautiful plateau, only 10 m above our heads. That lift cratered Shawn. I talked with our guide Pete, our assistant Kim, and Richard, and so big Richard became Shawn’s bow muscle and I went with Kim, Shawn’s niece.
The next three days ran fast and wet, but not unpleasant. The rains began in the mornings but usually cleared by about lunch so our wet-packed tents were dry for sleeping. Once we noon-napped on a warm gravel bar. One night, I shared some photos of the Yukon from 1961 and passed around salty smoked Swedish licorice (seconds were had!). Another night, the ladies broke the air with a series of songs. I contributed Thais: One Time in Alexandria.
On the last full day, the rain began after launch and never quit until after dinner. We did find a wet sandy gravel bar for our last stay but putting up my tent in the rain boded a wet bed. Finally, I deemed the circus tent large enough to erect my mini tent inside. With Don’s help, we planted the tent in wet sand with a dry interior. Don even rushed my inflated dry mattress through the rain and slipped it into my abode. A good night’s rest was now assured. To signal our imminent passing from the Yukon, I told the foretelling Cremation of Sam McGee (there was some appreciation). Less appreciated was my announcement that this was to be my Last Trip as I was breaking parts faster than I could repair. At 82, I no longer had the strength, agility, or even balance for wilderness trips. “Oh no, you can keep going” was the de rigueur reply from the younger ones (everyone else). “Shawn”, I said, “have you ever had anyone over 85 on your trips?” “No,” said he. If you are lucky, aging is inevitable.
Our last travel day went fast and dry. We exited the river just as the Hoole rapids joined the Pelly rapids. This offered some excitement as a miss in the current meant a pick up way below. While waiting for our rides, I suggested to Shawn that he get a medical check before starting his next two trips. Our bush pilots came for us as chauffeurs. We passed alongside Little Salmon Lake and River and stopped for lunch in Carmacks where I found that my memory said the Yukon ran the other way. So much for relying on ancient recall! After four hours we were back in Whitehorse, in time for a final dinner.
Shortly after arriving home, Shawn emailed that he was dropping out of his next 2 trips. “Smart move!”, I wrote. Next, I learned that my kneecap had not dislocated but my anterior cruciate ligament had separated and needed to be replaced. Then Shawn emailed that he did not have Long-Covid, he had widespread pancreatic cancer and his wife Liz was taking him home. Shortly after my surgery, Shawn, at 61 years, was no more. Over the decades, Shawn had re-connected me with my Keewaydin 1955 and 1956 trips on the Dumoine* (1 mo.) and the Harricana* (2 mo.). Then he fulfilled my Ungava dream*. He took me back over the Temagami ice and we found together the Quoich inuksuit cluster. And now he returned me to the Yukon. How strange that this was to be the Last Trip for both of us.
My memorial for Shawn is adapted from that for Captain Eudemos of Olympos:
The canoe was paddled into the last camp and beached there to leave no moreas there was no longer any hope from weather or daylight.After the light of dawn had left Shawn,there was buried the trip of a lifeas short as a day, like a broken wave.
Keewaydin Camp You Tube Channel Video: Midseason & Dumoine, Keewaydin Temagami Section B 1955
Nastawgan Summer 2021 Vol. 48 No. 2 pp. 21-23: On the Way to the Bay, Things Happened
Keewaydin Camp You Tube Channel Video: Harricanaw & James Bay, Keewaydin Temagami Section A 1956
Nastawgan Fall 2021 Vol. 48 No. 3 pp 14-17: There Has To Be A Reason: Riviere Eau Claire