Holy Grail: The First SUP Descent of the Mountain River
Holy Grail: The First SUP Descent of the Mountain River
SEPTEMBER 10, 2020
Todd Lawson Todd Lawson & Jimmy Martinello
It was the first stand-up paddleboard descent of the iconic Mountain River—but that was hardly the point of experiencing one of the continent’s last great wildernesses.
It’s July 1st, the start of our two-week voyage down the famed Mountain River in the Northwest Territories. We’re eating bacon and pancakes drenched in maple syrup, listening to The Tragically Hip, and it’s the country’s 150th birthday to boot. It doesn’t get more Canadian than this.
Flett and Martinello slog their boards and gear through Push Me Pull Me Creek.
We lash the gear onto our boards and pull into the river’s frigid current. A minute later, a moose casually strolls along the riverbank, takes one look at us and vanishes into the bush like a boreal magic trick. We take the sighting as a good omen; up here it’s as remote as it gets, and we’re the first ones on the river this season.
In his book Song of the Paddle, Canadian adventure canoeist and author Bill Mason describes the Mountain River as North America’s “holy grail of whitewater wilderness trips.” Though we aren’t looking to achieve eternal youth with a sip from a magical chalice, we do want to taste its northern waters from our own cupped hands. Further acclaim from experienced canoeists—“Virtually nonstop moving whitewater;” “Six dramatic canyons;” “Utterly remote and full of wildlife”—has convinced us that this will be the trip of a lifetime, and definitely the biggest paddling adventure any of us has undertaken.
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Our Home and Native Land
We’re not running the river to collect scientific samples or to study wildlife or to discern whether climate change has affected the size of its rapids. Though we’ll be the first-ever stand-up paddlers to run it, we likewise have little interest in claiming a ‘first SUP descent.’ We’re simply here to experience the river on a different craft. Hundreds of brave canoeists have paddled the river’s turbid waters before us. Before them, generations of Dene First Nations navigated the Mackenzie River watershed in moosehide boats, using the waterways for both travel and hunting. Peter Pond, an explorer with the North West Company, discovered the watershed in the 1780s, launching an era of trade with the Dene. The nearby Mackenzie (Canada’s longest river and end-point of our voyage) landed on European maps in 1789 after Pond’s replacement, Scottish trader Alexander Mackenzie, explored it to its end, enshrining it as a vital part of the fur trade and a communication link between northern and southern trading posts.
Although commercial river-running here became viable in the mid-1980s, it’s still rare for more than 50 people a year to descend the Mountain River in whitewater expedition canoes. To put this in perspective, the Nahanni, another of Canada’s northern heritage rivers, sees as many as 1,200 paddlers each season; though even that is far from crowded, the Mountain River and its surrounding landscape offer a different echelon of isolation.
“This is one of the world’s last great intact wildernesses,” says Al Pace, who, with wife Lyn, has operated Canoe North Adventures since 1987. “It’s scary-exciting to be on the rivers up here, and people often speak about wilderness out-of-body experiences during our trips. When people battle these rivers for two and three weeks straight they get a real appreciation for true wilderness. There are many rivers up here, but for hour-by-hour excitement, the Mountain blows everything else away.”
Jon Burak penning a page for a whitewater SUP textbook.
Indeed, experiencing what an untouched landscape like this can do to one’s outlook is our intangible goal. The four of us (with trip-given nicknames)—‘Jetboil’ Jonny Burak, Dennis ‘Freeride’ Flett, Jimmy ‘Captain Honey Jack’ Martinello, and myself, ‘Trenchcoat’ Todd Lawson—are friends, husbands and fathers with various levels of water travel experience, from raft-guiding to canoe-tripping to long-distance surf and sea-kayak missions. It has taken five solid years enrolled in self-taught whitewater SUP school to graduate to where we are now. The heavy flows of British Columbia’s Coast Mountains have taught us the hidden nuances of many a river’s strength and character. We cut our teeth on classic gems in our Sea to Sky backyard, hitting them during every season of the year, falling and swimming in the fast, icy waters, learning to anticipate the current and pick smart lines rather than fight the flow. Hurt and humbled, whatever pain we experienced was no match for the gain—the pull of the river took hold.
It’s enlightening to glide through a landscape 100 per cent unaltered by man: no roads, no railroad, no power lines, no light pollution, no dilapidated cabins, no crops, no planes overhead. Not even the charred rocks of an old fire pit…
Now we’re SUP river junkies, full stop. Where we once donned heavy packs and climbing racks to get our summer-sport fix, we now plunge paddles into the Elaho, Cheakamus and Green Rivers to study eddies and wave trains and board-swallowing holes. For most kayakers, our runs are a walk-in-the-park, but when you’re standing on a board a whole new set of rules levels the playing field; being vulnerable to a swim at any moment, you learn to respect the river at all times. With river diplomas in hand, we’re as prepared as we can be for a journey into one of the most remote regions of the world.
The True North Strong and Free
On the plane from Vancouver to Yellowknife, I read a quote from former Edmonton Eskimos Head Coach Darrell Royal that moves me to write it down: Chance favours those in motion. Knowing we won’t stop for 300-plus kilometres of river, we hope both Lady Luck and Mother Nature remain on our side. Heavy rainfall might swell the river to scary levels, and nasty, cold weather could change a paddling trip into a survival epic. We’ve packed enough food into drybags to last 15 days, each of us has camera gear sealed inside a Pelican case, and with weight and space at an ultra-premium, we’ve carefully scrutinized clothing and camping gear. Our love of fresh-cooked food over freeze-dried is the only thing that tips up our weight, but will be one of the keys to our happiness. Eating well after long days on the river keeps us in good spirits: steak and pasta the first night, grilled chicken breasts the next, pork chops and mashed potatoes another. And one bulky red cabbage to keep the Dutch oven going at night.
After a float-plane drop on Willow Handle Lake to officially start the journey, we portage our gear to the aptly named Push Me Pull Me Creek. Walking heavily loaded boards through occasionally chest-deep water as clear as the tequila in Martinello’s flask, we reach the confluence of Black Feather Creek after several hours. Here, anticipation for what this wilderness has in store becomes palpable. Impressive peaks line both sides of the valley, the air swells with the chirps and clicks of Arctic terns, and the ground is blanketed in wildflowers.
Big landscape, little humans.
Strewn with boulders, tight corners and imposing cliffs, Black Feather Creek has ended more than a few canoe trips before they started. One outfitter has even stashed a spare boat for when—not if—a capsize occurs and a canoe gets pinned against the rocks. Paddling inflatable SUPs lends us a major advantage—there’s no such thing as capsizing. A metre-and-a-half shorter than expedition canoes, our boards don’t carry as much gear but are far nimbler. If you fall off, you get back on—no dangerously long swims, no bailing to stay afloat. And they’re incredibly versatile at camp, making for great dinner tables, couches, beds, and wind-blocks.
Paddling this technical section allows us to get used to maneuvering loaded boards in tight places. We keep close and navigate carefully within the dark canyon, finally reaching the Mountain River after a monumental day. It’s 1:30 a.m. by the time we hit the hay, but still light out.
It’s clear that for the next two weeks we won’t have to race the clock. With 24 hours of daylight we can sleep, eat and paddle whenever we want without the worry of descending darkness. It’s a novel idea, and one we put to immediate use. Behind camp stands a beautiful broad peak with a long ridgeline and dinosaur-back spines running down its face, and next day we head off for an alpine jaunt.
The cruisy terrain is unlike a typical West Coast bushwhack through slash alder and devil’s club. Instead, we hike briskly through sparse forest and spongy meadows, and over sharp, loose rock to the summit. The immensity of the landscape spread out in front of us is overwhelming. Save for fluctuations in depth and width, the Mountain River is virtually the same as when it was discovered 150 years ago—flowing freely along the base of the Mackenzie Mountains into the Mackenzie River, which spills into the Arctic Ocean. Back then, likely no human had ever run its entire course. But that would change after World War II when the north’s wild, untrammeled vastness piqued the interest of whitewater aficionados sniffing out the biggest, baddest, remotest adventures. To be physically present in a timeless landscape of such staggering scale is true freedom we can touch, feel, smell and taste.
We Stand on Guard for Thee
“The waters of the Northwest Territories will remain clean, abundant and productive for all time,” reads the mandate of the NWT Water Stewardship Strategy. In 2015, Alberta and the Northwest Territories signed an innovative agreement to share and protect the vast Mackenzie River watershed, a legally binding deal that scientists say sets a new standard for environmental management.
“With this… agreement, we’ll have the comfort of knowing what’s in the water,” N.W.T. Premier Bob McLeod told the Calgary Herald at the time. In the same article, former Alberta Premier Jim Prentice noted how it was crucial for governments to work together on water issues. “We need to view the protection and management of water overall as a Canadian issue,” he said, noting that how we collectively care for water resources affect how it takes care of us.
The Mackenzie watershed is one of the world’s largest, covering 20 per cent of Canada’s landmass. Exerting powerful influence on the extent and type of Arctic sea ice—which some scientists link to southern weather patterns—the watershed’s biodiversity is also comparable to Africa’s Serengeti plains, with numerous large mammals and over 400 nesting bird species. In addition, the basin is home to almost every community in the N.W.T., an important part of Aboriginal culture, and a source of both physical and cultural sustenance for all.
Safe arrival on the banks of the mighty Mackenzie.
Through the first few days, the river doesn’t deliver much excitement; Class II whitewater keeps us moving along but we crave real rapids—the kind that cause butterflies to flap in your belly. When the noise of the water grows louder, the waves get higher, and the flow picks up, that’s when focus takes over, and nothing exists beyond the river. Our wishes come true on Day 5, when the morning starts with a rowdy, sustained 15-kilometre section of pure adrenaline. Our heavy boards help by punching through two-metre standing waves, improving our balance, and minimizing lateral swing from deflection.
It’s tough to paddle into the wind or away from danger quickly, so we rely on short, quick strokes as our modus operandi to navigate the tight canyons and bends. Our principal concern is flipping our boards. With 55 kilos of essential survival gear lashed on deck, righting a SUP in a fast-moving wave-train is no easy feat. The leash tethering us to the boards is our lifeline. If that snaps, shit will hit the fan; walking out isn’t an option.
With Glowing Hearts, We See thee Rise
We’ve found a good balance between water and mountains and we’re flowing with the go, one day to the next. With our circadian rhythms now fully set to the northern clock, a few solid days of whitewater behind us and zero clouds in the sky for the fourth day in a row, we eye up a second summit attempt. At yet another sandy campsite, Burak traces his finger along the summits and ridgelines of a group of 2,100-metre peaks while Flett commentates the proposed route.
“It actually won’t be that bad. We could go up here to start, then along that ridge to the next summit, then see what else is behind there,” he says, following Burak’s finger. “We don’t have to bushwhack and it won’t get dark. It’ll be like the everlasting adventure day.”
The first summit is a beauty, one of the hundreds of unclimbed peaks in the Mackenzie Range poking cobalt sky in every direction. Throughout the day every mountain surface imaginable passes underfoot—thick moss, alpine ‘cauliflower,’ lichen-covered rock, loose talus, corn snow, scree and thin, dinner-plate rocks so fragile they make a tinkling sound with each step. Thirteen parched hours later we paddle back into camp with a six-summit enchainment under our belts. We take a few well-earned swigs from our flasks and toast this great country while watching our first ‘sunset,’ in which the glowing orb dips toward the horizon but doesn’t disappear.
That same sun steams us out of our tents mid-morning, and we take our time with a hearty breakfast washed down with coffee. Poring over our river map, we see we’re close to another confluence. After running a thrilling section of Class III-plus wave-trains, the Stone Knife River joins us and we stop at a gravel bar to fill our hydration bladders with ice-cold, gin-clear, filtered-by-nature water.
It’s enlightening to glide through a landscape 100 per cent unaltered by man: no roads, no railroad, no power lines, no light pollution, no dilapidated cabins, no crops, no planes overhead. Not even the charred rocks of an old fire pit, thanks to the über-ethical, leave-no-trace practices of river outfitters who carry their own firepans. But surprisingly little wildlife. Aside from our good-omen moose, we’ve only seen porcupines, deer, a couple bald eagles and some kind of ground squirrel. Absent are the caribou herds and grizzlies we read about. Even the reportedly ravenous mosquitoes haven’t been bad.
Keep Our Land, Glorious and Free
It’s Day 8 and we’ve clicked into a good cadence, all paddling strongly, taking turns in pairs to ensure we’re getting enough photos and footage of the turbulent action.
At the end of the day the river grows rock-concert loud and we encounter our first series of haystacks—defined in riverspeak as vertical standing waves in turbulent waters. They can vary in length, power and size, and are often inconsistent, surging and breaking in many different directions. These ones toss us around like ragdolls, but with deep water and ample opportunity to eddy-out safely, consequences are low. We pull out, relieve our planks of their loads, and run the rapid a couple more times, attempting to surf one of the cleaner curls with varying degrees of success. If only for a few fleeting seconds, we each feel the sublime sensation of gliding on a wave in the middle of nowhere.
The Mackenzie Mountains pause to reflect.
As the long, unusually hot days continue, we relax into them, seduced by the non-stop light and vastness of the terrain. After passing through three more impressive canyons, camping at a stunning place we label ‘Half Moon Bay,’ and paddling into a headwind so strong it whips mini-tornadoes of sand along the shoreline, the trip’s closing looms. The whitewater playground is behind us and the mountains fade into the smoky haze of a forest fire.
On our final morning, we spot another moose walking up the riverbank, moving slowly towards us through a sheet of cold rain. It’s too far to photograph so we take in the moment with our eyes. Though a crazy thought, it’s entirely possible this moose is the same one that came by to say hi on Day 1. Either way, it’s another good omen and indelible memory to bookend our trip. Watching the animal gracefully ford the river and clamber up the steep embankment on the other side makes us fully understand why people spend thousands of dollars to witness such a thing. There’s a majesty to it, much like the river itself. —ML