Having canoe tripped in near-North Ontario wilderness every summer, we were looking forward to a river trip–no portages and the current running our way north from our put-in at Carmacks to Dawson City. A 400+ km trip by water with great intentions of purposeful drifting much of the time. We’d read up on the river, talked with outfitters and took river training before going in. With our dehydrated dinners and water pump, we prepared to take photos and watch the wild world go by, sterning efficiently and following the Klondyke gold rush trail.
We made it through the Five Finger Rapids then Rinks Rapids then hit the relentless wind.
By Saturday we’d only reached a third of the way and decided to leave the river. Wind was twisting and turning our canoe around and we were increasingly terrified of tipping into the freezing water. The longer the wind battled us, the more this became a real possibility. We wore wet suits and had about 10 minutes to get to shore and light an emergency fire to stave off hypothermia. But it’s a big river with high walls of cliffs, hoodoos, and overgrown banks thick with bush.
Karen realized much sooner than I that our emergency plan was not executable. She knew that, although our gear was tied off to float, if we tipped, we’d lose our canoe and gear to the strong current and fierce wind. And with the high water levels, there were few offerings of a safe and unimpeded landing. Bald eagles kept passing over us which I took as a sign to push on and Karen read as a protective warning. She was afraid and I was afraid of her fear. At one point, we found a calm eddy to rest in and eat and think out our options. A single eagle feather floated by me and I lifted it with awe and gratitude into the canoe.
We couldn’t find a place to camp and paddled against the wind and in the long light until 10 pm Friday. We found a small sand-gravel island not much larger than our canoe and tent. Geese and ducks talked through the night entering my dreams like voices of all kinds of people I know and have known. Karen couldn’t sleep. When I woke she told me that her heart was pounding and rested her head on my chest. The wind was shaking the tent walls. As I held her, the eagle feather came into my mind and I realized she was right — we needed to get to safety.