Day 13, August 21
Carcajou River (MP 25) to Mackenzie River (MP 5)
20 Miles, 8:50a to 11:00p
One problem with camping at the Carcajou was that I had all night to fret about the crossing. We hiked about ¼ mile upstream to cross where the river was more braided, again with arms linked. The first braid was about crotch deep on me and the current was deceptively strong. The next braid was much shallower and easy to cross, however we had to take a circuitous route to get to the third braid in order to avoid mud that could swallow a hiker whole. As with the first braid, it was difficult to know how deep the water was because there were no rapids to speak of and the water was quite muddy. A little over halfway across, the depth and current combined to start lifting me off my feet. I felt confident that if I concentrated on technique and the water didn't get much deeper, we could make it across. We took another couple steps and the river got just a little deeper, but enough that I started losing what little control I had, so I signaled retreat. Retreat? We hadn't practiced that! It wasn't like we could just turn around, so we carefully walked backward until we were back on the bank. How depressing! This part of the river wasn't any more braided upstream as far as we could tell, so we weren't sure that our second attempt a few hundred feet upstream would end any differently. It wasn't much shallower here, but just enough so that we made it past the deepest part of the heavy current. Right at the far bank, the bottom took a severe drop and we had to plunge to catch the bank's vegetation. I couldn't bring myself to celebrate since the river was a little confusing here and I wasn't sure we didn't have another channel to cross.
After drying off, we made our way along the riverbank to a hunters' camp. The frame was intended to remain year-round, and the ragged tent skin was removed before the snow flew. This was about where we figured we should start looking for the Canol again, so we turned to the task and nearly tripped over the roadbed. It was soon obvious that we had left the Carcajou behind and I was able to relax. It took us almost an hour and a half to make it across the Carcajou. In hindsight, this crossing would have been quicker, easier and less "thrilling" using a flotation device.
We filtered water at a small creek near the river and headed off to tackle the Mackenzie Plains. The guidebook describes this section as tedious, which is pretty accurate. For the most part, the day was spent hiking through a tunnel that afforded a nice view of the sky. Although, the terrain wasn't board-flat, as I had envisioned, it was pretty close. You would think that we would be able to cruise on this type of terrain, but we were still suffering from the effects of yesterday's hike through Dodo Canyon, so every step was an effort, plus my feet were suffering from two weeks of unabated beatings.
I had also envisioned the Mackenzie Plains as one big bog, with occasional dry spots, so I was happy to find out that the opposite was true. Only occasionally did we have to skirt around major wet spots and even then they were never too bad, just bad enough to keep our boots wet. There was, however, enough water so that the mosquitoes started getting more numerous. Sitting at each break with head nets on made us appreciate their previous absence.
The guidebook also says to drink plenty of water while crossing the Mackenzie Plains. I only filtered one quart of water after the Carcajou but should have gotten two. What little water was found along the way was so bad that I went thirsty in lieu of filtering it. Being thirsty tends to drag the day out too, so it seemed to take forever to get to Heart Lake. Heart Lake offered a solid breeze that not only cooled us down, but also eliminated all mosquitoes. This combined with the refreshing view made for a heavenly rest.
We weren't sure how far we were going to go today. The general plan was to make it to Camp Canol so that we could easily make our rendezvous the next morning, but we weren't ruling out blowing it all the way to the Mackenzie River. We really must not have been thinking very clearly because not only did we leave Heart Lake without getting some water, but we left Heart Lake…period. We vaguely considered camping there, but dismissed the idea because our slowest miles always seemed to be in the morning (yeah, that seemed weird to us too) and we rarely made seven miles before noon.
Some miles later, it hit me how monumentally dumb we had been to leave heaven so we could camp in, well not in heaven. It reminded me of a time many years ago when Lori and I had hiked into Stratton Pond, Vermont where she formed one of her defining impressions of through hikers. A couple AT hikers walked up to Stratton Pond and said, "this is the nicest spot on the whole trail so far" (about 1600 miles of hiking). They looked at it for a few minutes without taking their packs off and then headed north. She had a point in that through hikers often let the goal take priority over the process. Although I try to keep that perspective in mind, I am certainly guilty of letting forward progress be my master and this was a vivid example of that.
We dragged ourselves to a junction in the road and dropped our packs to go visit Camp Canol. Most of the camp had been burned in the late 70's and Mother Nature is reclaiming what is left. The buildings are in horrendous shape and it would take some mighty nasty weather to get me to spend the night in there. Even so, it was awe-inspiring to move through what was once the nerve center of the Canol Road and listen for the ghosts of so many years gone by.
Since there was no water at Camp Canol, we decided to continue toward the Mackenzie River. It was getting late so we tried to keep up a solid pace, but the mosquitoes were getting ferocious and I took to hiking with my head net for the first and only time on the entire trip. The light started fading so we decided to filter water and hike until we found a decent spot to camp. The water ended up coming out of a beaver pond, complete with a tail-slapping beaver. However, the decent place to camp never seemed to materialize.
As I was putting one leaden foot in front of the other, I looked to my left and saw a trailer. Immediately, visions of the first night of the trip came to mind when I saw Jamie Chamber's trailer at milepost 222. I took a bead on the building and almost floated to the door. I grasped the doorknob. I turned the doorknob. The door opened. Uh-oh, here come the uncontrolled giggles! We had stumbled upon a first aid station owned by Esso (the company extracting oil at Norman Wells). It was warm, it had no mosquitoes, it had a table with chairs and it had mattresses to sleep on. As I lounged in my sittin'-on-chair bliss, I thought back to those through hikers at Stratton Pond. I'll bet they met someone down the trail that invited them to stay at their home and soak in their Jacuzzi. I guess it ain't always so bad being a slave to miles.
The tent? Who cares!