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We Paddled the Blackstone River and Lived
After paddling the mighty Yukon from Whitehorse, YT, we dropped our kayaks near the mouth of the Klondike River in Dawson City. It was 1962, the centenary of the discovery of gold and the Klondike gold rush. Dawson City has brought back the historical atmosphere of past glory and luxury and we took a few days to enjoy and capture some interesting places.
My wife Renate, our friend Konrad and I were determined to paddle our river route north to the Arctic Ocean. We followed the bliss and desire for adventure that also drives the cranes to fly north again. According to the regulations, we registered our planned trip at the government office and gave the estimated time of arrival. The officer slowly shook his head as he read our form.
“So you want to paddle the Blackstone, Peel and Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean?” he asked. He then told us that the only dirt road ended at the headwaters of the Blackstone, that the area was uninhabited for more than 600 miles, and that there was no air patrol.
“No one has ever tried this route and there is no seaplane landing place before the Peel River,” he added and wished us luck. We shook hands and I noticed a sad expression on his face.
In the afternoon we bought detailed maps of all three rivers, plenty of food, mosquito spray and three pairs of Klondike boots. We also organized a seventy mile trip by taxi and were happy to set off the next morning.
After loading our disassembled kayaks and all the gear into the truck, we enjoyed a bumpy ride on the winding dirt road. A few hours later we could see the bridge crossing the river. This was the end of the road. The driver helped us unload the truck near the flat and grassy river bank, and we couldn’t wait to set up camp and assemble the kayaks. The river was calm and small enough to throw a stone across. Two days later we were ready and pushed our kayaks onto the Blackstone River. It was hard to believe that we were the first to ever paddle this river because it was so quiet and gentle. It was Friday, June 13, 1962. Needless to say, we were not superstitious.
We had only paddled about half a mile when the river took a sharp left turn and the landscape changed like in a movie: The river split into a thousand small streams that criss-crossed the ancient glacier bed more than a mile wide. The left bank was covered with a rough remnant of ice, about twelve feet thick, and our kayaks were stuck between the boulders. I was grateful for our new Klondike boots and pants made of impregnated cotton, which kept the water out but also kept it warm. We were equipped with “low tech” hot water insulation and we needed to find out its functionality.
Our next step was to enter the icy water and pull the kayaks by the lines behind us. We call this “treideling”. This can be fun when there are connected streams at least three inches deep, but we used our determination to reach our goal. There was no other choice. This new kind of adventure stayed with us for four days, as we tramped ten to twelve hours a day, to cover a total of sixteen miles. When the Blackstone finally left the flat rock lake, it formed a beautiful river, but not without some “mine-traps.” It was like a minefield of big round rocks, two or three meters high, sometimes combined with shallow water, but we were happy to be paddling again.
Then Renate hit one of the rocks and fell over. Fortunately, the water was deep enough to prevent injury. She walked to the shore while I guarded her kayak. It’s time to set up camp, dry our clothes on the fire and celebrate the successful crossing of the glacier. Instead of champagne, we settled for brown rice, a can of salmon and a chocolate bar for dessert. Renate is a good rower, but the cross current coming from the gravel bank on the left tricked her and made her drift onto a rock. There were plenty of mosquitoes, but we were well equipped with mosquito nets and used to eating with our eyes closed while our faces were covered in fire smoke. There were no insects above one river.
From now on, the Blackstone River is upgraded to a paddler’s paradise with green trees and the Ogilvy Mountains in the background. This was a great reward for all our pioneering experiences. The next two days I caught enough trout and grayling to turn dinner into a feast.
The river grew larger and often split around small islands or gravel banks. I led the way, looking for the channels with the fastest flow. When I noticed the water flowing to the right, I followed the current past a bushy island. It was fun shooting the sharp left turn, but suddenly I was faced with a fallen fir that blocked most of this passage.
I yelled “Go right and straight through the vortex!” and stuck in greens. A strong current rocked my kayak sideways and overturned it. I was forced deep into the branches, head over heels, and used all my strength to pull myself out to keep my head above water. I desperately held on to the sticks that swallowed me and fought against the force of the river.
Suddenly I heard Renate on the trunk above me. She called my name while clearing branches from the road. I answered anxiously and felt a new hope and stamina to endure. Then she swung her machete hard and furiously and cut through the branches that were holding me. I pushed my feet against the kayak and dived deep. Before surfacing, I grabbed the rope and swam to safety. Together we pulled in the rope and pulled my kayak out of the trap.
“But where’s your tripod?” she asked.
“I need a tripod!” I insisted and jumped back into the icy water. Something bright caught my attention, but it looked very dim. It must have been at least fifteen feet deep. I finally got close enough to recognize my tripod and grabbed it. We were both happy and relieved when I returned it and my wife gave me a big hug.
After we transferred the kayaks from the other side of the tree, we continued sailing and looked for our friend Konrad. We found it on a gravel bank a mile downstream. He was draining water from his kayak and explained that he had tried to get around the sweeper but got pinned.
A few moments later we were paddling the Blackstone again and headed for the Peel River, a river deep enough and trouble free, so we were told.
In the evening we hung our clothes on a rope by the fire; it has become common practice by now. My thoughts were still occupied with the events that had saved my life, and I said:
“Thank you, Renate, for following my instruction to head for the whirlpool by the fallen tree, but how did the machete end up in your kayak?”
“It must have happened this morning when we were packing,” she said. “I know he was supposed to be in your kayak and I’m confused myself.”
“That was definitely the biggest mistake we could have made,” I said. “At the beginning of the journey, I could not yet believe in Spiritual Guidance, but I feel that I am learning very quickly.” –
Now we were all laughing because it sounded so funny. Then I took the guitar and played while we sang the song When the Cranes Fly Again to the North. There is a romance that we only recognize in the sweetness, hidden in hard times, and we found it on roads that no one has walked before.
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