Wet and bumpy - down the Hayes River
August 12, 1998 - August 29, 1998
It turned out the tent was too small for me, even in the diagonal. Condensation found the spot where the bottom of my sleeping bag was pressed to the tent the ideal place to collect. Have I really been looking forward to this: waking up in the middle of the night, wet feet, back hurting pretty bad, and no way to comfortably lie down.
It was my first night in a tent after more than ten years. And fourteen more or so to come. It wasnt a shock, but a revelation: beds are a very nice invention.
So, the outlook for the next two weeks wasnt very good. I really wasnt used to the outdoors anymore. I had one other night to get back in shape. To enjoy the adventure of canoeing down a wild river.
We had started out the previous day from Winnipeg. A nine hour drive northward on highway 6 had brought us to Thompson. Along the way, the once blue sky above Winnipeg had clouded over. Not from inclement weather, though. In August 1998, there was a huge forest fire raging near Flin Flon, around 250 km away. The wind had spread the smoke over half of Manitoba and it blocked the sun completely. Upon arrival in Thompson, the largest city in northern Manitoba, we had had a last dinner in a restaurant. Not only the place's (???) quality but also thoughts of the looming hardships of the days ahead had made it an excellent last meal. After that, we had been all pretty wrung out and happy to setup our tents.
The following morning, we flew into Oxford House, where our river trip was to begin. Right when we started to load our stuff into the canoes, it started to rain. A bad sign?
The first two hours or so, we were on Lake Oxford where we finally learned our paddling strokes. Of our group, only the three Canadian guides Bruno, Marc, and Rob of Wilderness Spirit knew about it. The rest, Bruno's sister Lily, their cousin René and his two friends Holger and Shorty, all from Germany, and myself had only marginal, if any, experience.
Luckily, the first stretch of the river presented no difficulties except some fast moving water. All we had to do was to line up the canoes correctly and let them shoot trough the rapids. The current took care of the rest.
Even so, my stomach felt a bit uneasy. I was pretty nervous. I sat behind René in the back of the canoe and, therefore, was responsible for its course. I felt relief when we put ashore for the night.
The weather seemed to have an eye out for us. It had stopped raining shortly after we left Oxford House behind us. As if on cue, it started again when we were setting up the tents, only to stop right afterwards for a nice sunset over the river.
In the meantime, our guides prepared dinner. They spoiled us right there and then. Nobody had expected a freshly baked, heavenly tasting chocolate cake for dessert. Their cooking remained excellent, surprising and varied throughout the whole trip.
The next day, we rearranged the teams. I paddled behind Shorty. The day remained uneventful, as we soon reached Knee Lake. Except, of course, for our first class 2 rapid which held a surprise in store for Shorty. I have to admit, it was mostly because of me, though. While setting up for the shoot, I misdirected the boat. We ended up locked sideways to a rock just on top of the fall. While we found both sides of the rock navigable, because of the way the canoe was pressed against the rock our only real option was to go backwards through the fall. Nothing I felt very good about, I can assure you, as we had to steer around a few rocks at the bottom. However, it was the only way out and we just had to do it.
Using our paddles we pushed the boat from the rock back into the main channel and started to go down. Backwards. At that moment, I had an idea about the eddy below the rock. Without telling my back/front man - it just happened too fast - I pulled my end into the eddy and let the current swing Shorty's side around. Quite a scary experience, going sideways between all the rocks. Especially, if you have no idea about what's going on and can't do anything about it. We were quite high on adrenaline when we finally came out between the last rocks. We had survived our first real challenge. And in style, too.
Knee Lake, which we reached after about 50 clicks, was our first pièce de resistance. More than 80 km of flat, open water and no current to help you propel the canoe along. A good technique is essential to sustain a good speed without tiring. Luckily, we had some very knowledgeable guides and made about 5 km per hour. This was fast enough to get the lake behind us and back on the river within two days. And yet, slow enough to fully take in the magnificent scenery.
The first half of Knee Lake was certainly one of the most beautiful stretches of our trip. Here, the wilderness began to assert itself and we submerged in it, became part of it. At least, that's how I felt. On this second day on the river, I finally began to unwind, let go of any goals, and really start to enjoy nature's splendour. With no rapids to navigate, we had ample time for it. What impressed me specifically was the profound silence. Not for the absence of any noises - wind, waves and birds provided plenty of that - but for the lack of civilization's thrumming, screeching, honking, hammering. At times, the only sound we heard was the low shshsh of our canoes gliding through the water.
In the afternoon we passed Knee Lake Lodge, the last inhabited place until York Factory. Mostly rich Americans spend their vacation at this beautifully situated resort. They come here for the fishing. We were told that within 15 minutes you have a guaranteed catch. You'd hand it to one of the employees waiting nearby and enjoy it for dinner the same night. I still wonder what you'd do the rest of day. Obviously, you can eat only so much fish.
To us, the lodge was a welcome opportunity to stock up on beer. Oxford House being a "dry" resort it's strictly forbidden to bring any alcoholic beverages with you. In fact, we had been thoroughly searched at the airport. All was well now, though, and we would be able to enjoy a cool beer after a hard days labour... If we only knew how soon leisure time was going to end and we were forced to put in some serious paddling.
Luckily, the nice weather still held that day. Our chosen campsite was a small peninsula facing eastward. It sported a few good places to erect the tents and granted easy access to the water to wash, shave, clean hairs and teeth. We only had to watch out for some of the very sharp underwater rocks.
Due to the camp's orientation we missed out on sunset that evening. On the other hand, being up very early the next morning, I enjoyed a marvelous sunrise. It was absolutely windless and the mosquitoes had not yet awoken. The lake lie like molten silver. The early morning glow illuminated our tents and canoes. The ideal light to take pictures.
That morning continued in the same style. Blue and cloudless sky, quiet water with almost no waves, like a mirror. The lake was riddled with islands which seemed to float on it. It was so beautiful and had me completely spellbound. Marc and I dove straight into it, picking our way between the islands, discovering one great view after another. The only downside to this almost surreal experience was my aching right shoulder. I obviously had it overworked the previous day. Luckily enough, it loosened up after about half an hour.
After lunch, the weather changed substantially. A strong westerly wind blew directly in our faces and made paddling an exertion. It was the best training for correct paddle strokes. If I tried to pull forwards using only my upper-arm muscles, it killed me almost instantly. Ok granted, I'm not the most physical guy and my arms are not that strong. I found the most economical way was to put the paddle in the water and use my stomach muscles to turn my upper body and pull the canoe along. It was still pretty exhausting. In addition, the temperature dropped noticeably. About every third or fourth wave broke over our canoe's bow. And when we finally arrived at a sandbank suitable for camping, I was completely drenched.
The following day, Saint Peter was in an even worse mood. A strong headwind with big waves made us stay in the same place. It was a nice spot. We were protected from the relentlessly blowing wind by a small dune crowned with some thick bush. We spent the day collecting fire wood, drinking coffee and tea, reading, and playing cards.
During the night, the wind died and the next morning was completely different: a beautiful blue sky overhead and some fog at the sides, over the water. The sun kept shining for the rest of the day, warming us, drying the wet towels. It still took us another five hours to reach the outflow of Lake Knee. It was, in fact, so big, that at first we didn't see the end of it. When, after some time, we saw a few tree tops rise over the horizon, our enthusiasm was quickly quenched by Rob who told us these were only islands.
Back on Hayes river, it was again my turn to get thoroughly wet. As if I didn't wash myself enough. The first rapid was a not too difficult class 2 with easy manoeuvring and a few big waves after the fall. I was in the bow, Rob in the stern. Usually, you shoot such a fall by picking up enough speed on top of it and then letting it carry you over the waves. It will splash and the frontman gets wet pretty often but it is nothing serious. What we forgot to take into account, though, was the difference in weight between Rob and me. Instead of shooting throught the top of the waves, we cleaned number one nicely but then dipped straight down in the next valley. We drove through the second wave nearly at the bottom and completely filled our canoe. We barely made it past wave three and then had to reach the shore. We didn't. We didn't overturn either. After a very dry summer, the water level was so shallow that we could savely stand in waist deep water and bail out the canoe.
We camped at the same place. It was a nice place. Except maybe for Holger who met a black bear when he went to fetch something from his tent when all the others were busy cooking on the river bank. The bear must have been equally shocked and run away. We didn't find any trace of it.
On Swampy Lake, the last big lake the Hayes flows through, I learned the probably most exciting way to travel with a canoe: we sailed. Using two long ropes, we tied the four canoes together at bow and stern. Two paddles, a tarp and two lines provided the rigging to hoist a spinnaker-like sail. Obviously, the wind has to come more or less directly from aft. As long as it did so, we had a very nice and relaxing ride. At times, the wind was so strong we travelled at about 5 knots.
And then, finally, we were on the Hayes river for good. Before us lay a stretch of some fine rapids, mostly class 2 but also some class 3 ones. This was fun. A lot. If you don't like bumpy rides, getting wet, nor high levels of adrenaline, then take my advice and don't go down a white water river. It is contagious. Even though I was apprehensive at first, too, I particularly enjoyed this part of the river.
It started out pretty wet. Mostly from above. A weather front from Hudson Bay brought cold air and lots of rain. The sky was grey. Ugly. Later on, it cleared up and became another beautiful day, albeit a bit on the cold side as the wind didn't kept on blowing.
Due to low water level, the rapids weren't too serious. They required a lot of concentration, though. If you didn't pay enough attention, the river extracted its payment otherwise. Something which Holger and Shorty had to learn the wet way. They came down the wrong side of a diagonal wave. A diagonal is formed when two almost equally strong water channels meet after a fall. The resulting flow is very similar to a cork screw. If you're too slow or too far on the wrong side, the current flips your canoe in a split second. In the end, we had to push the overturned canoe to the riverbank with our boats while two soaked guys hang on it. The current was too strong for them to push the canoe to safety while swimming. Not to be subdued, Holger seemed to get infected right there and like overturning so much that he did it almost daily from then on. He certainly made the most use of helmet and life jacket.
We spent three days on this section of the river. We almost lost a life rope and a paddle due to overturning boats, found scenic camping spots, and lay in warm sunshine to dry us after a dump. Throughout the whole trip, our pace was leisurely enough to enjoy life on the river. There was always ample time to
The very last rapid of the Hayes is Whitemud Falls. It is a big fall, class 3+. In late August 1998, even with a low water level, it still presented a challenge. After carefully studying the situation from shore, our three guides decided on the course to take: go down on the left side of the tongue and then surf along the spinning side of a huge diagonal. We were unable to pass it on its crest because a large rock blocked the exit of that line. Next, we were to dive into a valley and immediately climb over an impressively big wave. The rest then was considered to be easy: just a few smaller waves and some manoeuvring between rocks hidden in the water. Have a look:
Marc and I went first. I didn't want to miss that chance. While walking upstreams to a little eddy where we had secured our canoe, Marc instructed me on how we were going to run this fall: "I will set up the boat, direct it for the first tongue. On my command you paddle hard forward, give it all you have. We will need all the speed we can gather to get us savely through this. Still, we will get VERY wet and almost certainly we will turn over." Nice perspective (???), isn't it. Especially as I had taken a bath that morning.
The plans were well made. It turned out completely different, though. Maybe I blocked Marc's view or it was really as difficult to recognize the tongue from upstreams as I thought. Whatever, we entered it way too far to the right. Our bow descended into the first wave, got lifted up by the current, and we shot out of it into the following valley. All of a sudden, there were only two small waves left. We rode over them and were through the fall with only a neglectable amount of water in the canoe. Nice ride on a perfect line.
"What did you do? This was not the line we agreed on", were the comments our friends greeted us with. "Hmm, let them do it better", we thought. They tried. Lily and Bruno succeeded pretty nicely, Rob and Shorty as well. However, on their second run, Rob and Marc with Holger and René, respectively, filled their canoes with water and had to swim to safety. Luckily, nobody got hurt and we didn't loose anything, so it was just a lot of fun. And after a short break, we continued our trip towards York Factory.
Almost immediately after Whitemud Falls the landscape changed substantially. Steep cliffs framed the river, increased the impression of a very secluded area. On long stretches, the trees on the top were without leaves. Just stark white fingers pointing to the sky. This was the result of many bush fires which seemed to have ravaged this area only one or two years ago.
The river presented no more challenges after Whitemud Falls. It just got wider and wider, to more than 500 meters. Taking advantage of a relatively strong current, we paddled long hours and took just four days for the 180 km to York Factory. There were not many noteworthy events during this time. One morning, when trying to throw a stone over the river, I slipped and hurt my knee. Thanks to Bruno's professional help it didn't develop into anything more serious than a day's throbbing and hurting. It remained the only injury throughout the whole trip.
On the afternoon of August 25 we finally arrived in York Factory. Completely exhausted. The last two kilometers had proven to be the worst of the entire journey. In the knowledge of arriving shortly at our goal, we had taken a prolonged break in the morning. This was a big mistake as we were about two hours late and had to fight against the incoming tide. Instead of travelling at about 6-8 km an hour, it took more than an hour of very hard, strenuous paddling for the last two kilometers. Everbody was glad, after it was over. And, understandably, proud of his achievements.
York Factory, established in 1684, acted as the Hudson Bay Company's operational center for 200 years after its establishment and is now a National Historic Site. It served as starting or ending point for the early European explorers and the fur traders. It played a very important role in Canada's exploration and development.
We spent almost two days at this important site, visiting the well-kept museum, talking to the friendly wardens Betty and Jim, reading, sunbathing, waiting for the airplane.
Reminiscing about our trip, it was a revelation to see a boat used by the trappers and explorers in the heydays of transport on the Hayes river. Almost unbelievable is the fact that the record for travel from Winnipeg to York Factory in one of these so-called York boats still stands at eight days.
(This picture of a York boat was not taken at York Factory but at Lower Fort Garry near Winnipeg. It features exhibits about the inception and early days of Hudsan Bay Company.)
While at York Factory, one of the most impressive moments came when we had the opportunity to see one of the famous polar bears. As the world's largest concentration of polar bear denning sites is located on the coast to the north of York Factory, you always have to take bear encounters into account and prepare accordingly. We had the great luck to be able to see him from a safe distance from a motor boat.
Then it was time to leave the Hayes river. Over the course of two weeks, we had had a lot of fun discovering one of the many beautiful corners of Canada. The team was great. From left to right: René, Shorty, Holger, Bruno, Marc, and Lily. Not in this picture are Rob and myself. If you ever want to do something similar, get in contact with Wilderness Spirit.