It’s not often that an adult gets to feel like a camper, and when I agreed to a canoe expedition, paddling 138-miles on the remote Beaver River in the Yukon, I realized that it was a lot like a two-week camp session. Most of my post-camp vacations involve a large beach umbrella, sunscreen, and a good book. This year’s vacation included Watershed dry bags, mosquito net jackets, a fly rod, a Gore-TEX raincoat, muck boots, and freeze-dried food.
A year ago, our friend Mike invited us to join him in the Yukon territory where he leads climbing and paddling expeditions a few times each year. This largely Class II river was to be one of his most remote trips requiring a 150-mile trip in a 1955 deHavilland Beaver float plane and then a ten mile hop in a sleek yellow Jet Ranger helicopter. Thankfully I had canoed as a camper in the ‘70’s so I was stable in the boat and could employ a mean draw, catch an eddy and do some ferrying, but it was hard to imagine being off the grid for 12 days. I surprised myself when our group of 11 met the morning before our expedition to get to know each other and to share our goals and trepidation…mine was the quiet of the vast wilderness, and I choked up when I expressed that out loud.
So as we took off, I did realize that many of my feelings were like those of a camper…. our “cabin” group was made up of old and new friends…most evenings, we gathered around a campfire sharing our “pows and wows” or “highs and lows.” Everyone else had been Outward Bound instructors or the like at some point in their lives. I couldn’t even tie a bowline! (the best knot for securing boats) How would I fit in? Would our group get along? Would Mike and others be patient camp counselors? Would we be safe? Would I like the activities? Could I be a “camper” and not a “camp director”?
Our mission was to paddle from the upper Beaver River (near Toobally Lakes) to its confluence with the Liard River. Mike had a map passed on to him from a hunting guide who had led 6 trips down the Beaver – the last was ten years ago. We didn’t have reports about what to expect around each bend though, so each day we stepped into the unknown. The paddling was the easy part…. setting up and breaking down camp each day was somewhat more challenging; I calculated that 4 to 5 hours of each day was dedicated to the set up or the pack up of the campsite. I learned a lot and got more efficient as the trip went on.
We camped on rocky gravel bars and needed to clear the tent sites and move the boats well up away from the river to tie them in securely; we drank water from the pristine river purifying it with Steri-pens almost as an afterthought. We cooked lots of orzo, rice, angel hair pasta for dinners and ate oatmeal every morning. Washing dishes meant boiling water, and I quickly learned the virtue of cooking and eating out of the same pot. One of our new friends had overpacked coffee and thankfully shared with us from his French press; some things aren’t luxuries after all. We also baked brownies in a “fry-bake” over the fire for one friend’s birthday. We caught giant bull trout that we wrapped in foil and cooked over the fire (after cleaning them across river to keep any bear enticing smells away from our campsite) – it was by far our best dinner!
We paddled by a grizzly pair eating leaves off the trees along the bank, and one evening a mama bear and her two cubs jumped in the river up from our cook site and swam across quickly to get away from us. We saw moose, beavers, bison, eagle, swans, and a wolf during the trip, and each campsite was covered with animal tracks upon our arrival. We spent a beautiful afternoon in a 99-degree warm spring that flowed through a fern meadow, and then another afternoon was “CrossFit Beaver River,” as we portaged our seven boats and group gear over two sets of log jams that blocked our passage. My scariest experience was “lining” (roping) the gear-laden boats down a Class IV rapid along slick sharp rocks. We all took tumbles off the slick rocks into the water during the two-hour process and thankfully only added bruises as souvenirs.
Evenings were magical with clear skies and a full moon that rose over the canyon walls. On three different nights, we witnessed the Aurora Borealis- bright green Northern Lights that danced overhead like spirits. Our last campsite at the mouth of the Liard River was under a dome shaped sky with an Indian fishing camp across river. After some humbling experiences and initial apprehension, I found myself talking with the group about “our next trip…set for 2019.” I wonder how many campers start out like I did- full of doubts, uncertain about what they have bitten off, but greeted by surprise and a powerful experience beyond their imaginations? I hope so! I also know that you are never too old to feel like a camper.