Saturday, 18 October 2008

Up the creek...with a paddle

After a few weeks on the east coast of the States we headed north to Canada to visit family and experience life in the wilderness. Our destination was Mackenzie, 14 hours by road north of Vancouver, which we reached by overnight Greyhound bus 16 hours, 2 breakdowns and 3 buses later, to find a town that I could never have imagined. So far north and in existence for the logging trade and saw mills, it is a small, quiet town with so little crime that no one locks their doors or their cars. It was amazing to be in a place like that.

We were there to visit Mike's aunty Maureen and uncle Ralph, and his cousin Wayne & family (wife Kim, kids Scott & Hannah) - a family reunion as Mike had not seen Maureen, Ralph or Wayne for years, and had never met his second cousins Scott & Hannah. Upon arriving Maureen took us on a drive around the town to see the lake and the wonderful pine forests that stretch as far as the eye can see, up the mountains and beyond. It looked like the perfect place to do a spot of hiking whilst there, and I was disapointed to find out that there were no trails. With hindsight it all makes sense - no one "in the know" wants to go walking in the woods where Grissly & Black Bears are roaming.

We were treated like royalty by Ralph and Maureen who had arranged a camping trip with Wayne, Kim and the kids and their friends Tina, Marlin and kids. We were to head even further north for a few days of camping, boating and exploring. We were on the road early on Saturday morning and despite 4 pairs of eyes watching for any sign of wildlife (i.e. bears) by the side of the road , we were the only ones in the convoy of 3 cars and a boat not to see a bear and her cub standing on the verge as we left town - doh! (When I say cars I really mean trucks, of the monster variety, so massive I've never seen anything like them!).

After a few hours of driving through stunning scenery we arrived at Willaston Lake and launched Wayne's jet boat. 12 of us, plus lunch, piled in and we set off - 4 on the front and the rest huddled in the back.

Wayne opened the jet to full speed and we were off, searching for the "hole in the wall'. Up the lake we went, bouncing across the waves, then back down, until we found the place where the bank opened into an inlet and we headed in. The goal was to get to the far end to see a waterfall and have lunch, but as we rounded the final corner we found the pool at the base of the falls blocked with hundreds of logs, pushed in by the current. This, however, was no deterrent for Wayne who simply aimed the boat for the logs and pushed his way through. We got to the other side easily and moored the boat to the cliff with a lovely view of the waterfall.

When it came time to leave and we got back onto the lake we found that wind had got up quite considerably and so the trip back across the lake was even more bone shatteringly bumpy - but good fun at high speed!

Back at the boat launch everyone got out except Mike & I and Wayne took us for a 'burn' in the boat, performing high speed turns and gernerally getting us wet! Great fun!

A town called Tumbler Ridge was our destination for that evening to camp and to see dinosaur footprints! After dark we headed to our meeting point with the guides and a short walk by lamplight to the riverbank revealed 3 sets of dinosaur footprints fossilised in the rock. They were very shallow, like the impressions our feet make in wet sand, but you could definitely see they were dinoasaur footprints (3 pointy, claw like toes) without a doubt. They were a lot smaller than I expected, but I suppose not all dinosaurs were of T-Rex proportions. The best print was the one partially covered by the next layer of rock, which showed that there were probably lots more prints hidden beneath the cliff we were standing beside. It was fascinating.

The following day we packed up camp and set off up river to find the Monkman Falls - spectacular falls about 2 hours up river that have more water flowing over them than Niagra Falls. The trip up river was quite nerve wracking as the river was very shallow in places, and the river bed was pebbles which could easily be sucked up into the jet boat's propeller.

Wayne did a great job negotiating the shallows and we rounded the final corner to be confronted with the Falls. I think it is safe to say we were all astounded. The size of the Falls and the volume of water coming over the top, together with the spray generated was just immense. We moored and spent a few hours exploring, mesmersied by the waterfall.

With full bellies we got back on board for the return trip down the river, at high speed, and here the fun really began!

10 mins into the journey we were going well, really fast, and Wayne was handling the shallows with expert precision, when suddenly the engine cut and Wayne started yelling at everyone to get down. No one moved as none of us had any idea what he was talking about or why he'd cut the engine. He hadn't, as it turned out, we'd run out of fuel, and thus lost steering, and we were headed, at full speed, for the bank and a fallen tree over hanging the water.

Those on the front managed to either make a dash for the back of the boat or lie flat, and those at the back started hugging the floor. We came to a thundering stop underneath the overhanging tree to find Kim hanging over the side of the boat, holding onto the tree for dear life. There were no major casualties - Ashley bumped her head and Mike had cut his forehead, eyelid and hand as the tree had gone overhead - and I think we were all a bit shaken but we freed ourselves from underneath the tree and moored on the bank whilst we figured out what to do. We could hear a boat coming and waited for a while, but the sound didn't get any closer. Wayne decided that we should try to paddle down stream until we got to a bridge, then at least he could hitch a lift back to town to get fuel; if a boat hadn't passed us by then.

Well, this paddling down stream was not as easy as I thought it would be! We still had to negotiate the shallows so we didn't get stuck; so with Wayne & paddle on the front and Mike & Scott with paddles at the back we set off.

A short way down, after successfully negotiating several corners, we were grounded and we all had to bail out to help shift the boat back into deeper water. Now that water was cold, and I'm not being a wimp about it (!) and the pebbles on bare feet were hard and slippery. The main worry was that once we had the boat back into deeper water, the water was moving so quickly that if anyone let go of the boat they might not catch up to it again. We all successfully clambered back on board though, and we were off again.

We negotiated several rapids (small ones mind but in a floating speed boat with no steering, scary none the less) and a log jam, and Mike fell in not once, but twice, whilst paddling at the back of the boat. My nerves were well and truly frayed, which was made worse when we all had to get out of the boat again to move us off a pebble bank, but we made it to the bridge after about an hour. Our paddlers did a magnificent job of negotiating the water flow and getting us to the bank where we moored and found that we had missed people by just a few minutes as a camp fire was still burning.

We managed to flag down a passing boat who kindly took Wayne back to the boat launch and we estimated that we had about 3 hours to kill before he would make it back so we got the camp fire going and cooked hotdogs. The reason for the fire was 2 fold - 1. to cook dinner, 2. to keep bears away. A scary propect when you are quite literally stranded in the wilderness.

All's well that ends well though, Wayne made it back in record time in the truck with gas for the boat and we made our way back to the boat launch. The rest of our trip in Mackenzie passed less eventfully, but still with lots of excitement as we took the mountain bikes to the top of Morphy Mountain and rode back down. Proper mountain biking and a bit scary, but it was good fun. If a little hard on the wrists, legs, bum...

On our last day Maureen and Ralph took us on a bear hunt (sans guns I hasten to add) as we hadn't been lucky enough to see one. We took the truck up onto the logging trails deep into the forest, but had no luck. We were going for several hours but there were no bears to be seen and we gave up looking. Ralph gave Mike a go at driving the truck back along the trails and across some quite tricky bits where the road had been washed out (real 4WD!) and whilst we were all concentrating on Mike's driving we rounded a corner and there was a bear!

He took fright at the truck and hurtled headlong into the bushes. Ralph, fearless (!), got out of the truck and found the bear again a little further down the road so Mike & I got out of the truck to have a look. He was only a small bear, maybe 2 or 3 years old, which is why we were so brave. We stood by the side of the road and watched him eating berries for about 10 mins. Bears have very bad eyesight and he didn't see us. It was amazing! He loped off into the bushes and we lost sight of him so we headed back to the truck. As we carried on down the road the bear crossed right in front of us, took fright at the truck again and ran down the road in front of us. A real lolloping run that was great to see!

A wonderful end to a wonderful trip!

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