Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Following Verlen and Valerie XIII - To Fort McMurray and the Clearwater River

In the Newsletters neither Verlen nor Valerie describe their journey upstream of Fort Smith. In effect, they skip over the rivers, towns and lakes they traveled all the way to Fort McMurray, Alberta, where Verlen decided he could paddle again.
To fill in the gap I turned to the accounts in One Incredible Journey and The Ultimate Canoe Challenge and worked backwards on the descriptions of the trips FROM Fort McMurray TO Fort Smith. Then I invoked the Googled virtual helicopter and Wikipedia to follow the Krugers' undescribed route.
Verlen has characterized the upper Slave River as the most uninteresting river he has ever paddled; no scenery, mud banks all the way and no good campsites. The name is Indian, having nothing to do with human slavery.
The Slave originates in the Peace-Athabasca Delta, a highly unusual fresh-water delta at the forks of the Peace River and Riviere Des Roches, the drain of Lake Athabaska, which in turn is fed by the Athabaska River. The delta is in the very southwest end of Lake Athabaska where the Peace River comes in from the west, having originated in a Rocky Mountain Glacier.
The Krugers would have navigated their motorized tandem Sea Wind rig through the maze of streams in the Delta (probably marked by buoys) and turned east up the winding Riviere Des Roches into Lake Athabaska, 176 miles long and 31 miles at its widest.
Fort Chipewyan, located at the western tip of Lake Athabaska, is one of the oldest settlements in Alberta, having been set up as a trading post in 1788. I am sure the Krugers would have stopped there for mail and re-provisioning and gasoline for their outboard.
They would not have explored Lake Athabaska because the Athabaska River enters the lake at it extreme southwest end in the delta, having flowed in from the south. They motored on upstream to Fort McMurray. I mounted my virtual helicopter and followed along.
The trend of the Athabaska is almost straight south to north with many islands but little wandering.
Fort McMurray is a town at the confluence of the Athabaska and Clearwater Rivers. It is the center of activity for the development of the Athabaska Oil Sands, an enormous reserve of heavy oil-saturated sand that is mined and retorted to make transportable and refinable crude oil.
The Clearwater flows in from the east. At Fort McMurray it is affectionately known as The Chant. I don't know why. Going upstream on the Clearwater will lead to the Methye Portage at the divide between waters flowing to the Arctic and the waters flowing to Hudson Bay.
When they arrive at Fort McMurray Verlen decides that he has healed enough to paddle again so they happily dismantle the tandem rig, sell the outboard motor, and head up the Clearwater in their liberated Sea Winds solo.
The Clearwater was the first really wild river the Krugers encountered on the Two Continent Expedition. The Mackenzie, Slave and Athabaska all had occasional towns, were used for barging and usually had roads parallel or crossing. The landscape around Fort McMurray is scarred by oil sands mining. The very falls and rapids that forced them into portaging kept that river wild.
Valerie: "The Clearwater was the prettiest river we had seen so far and the rapids and waterfalls we encountered were easy to identify. We paddled tight to shore and we could see white foaming water far in advance as we searched for the portage trail.
For those readers who don't know what a portage is, I have a simple definition: A portage is a carrying place where the paddler must leave the water and transport canoe and gear overland to bypass a dangerous rapid or to reach an alternate waterway...No definition can ever adequately explain what portaging means. I never understood until I had carried my own canoe on my back and food bag, sleeping pad, tent, clothes...extra shoes, water jugs, rain gear, spare paddle...and other stuff miles through the woods.
On our first few portages we were very disorganized. By the time I packed all the gear from my canoe into manageable bundles it was clear each of us had three trip-loads of stuff to carry over the distances ahead ahead of us. Counting forward and back, a one mile portage turned into a 5-mile trip!"
As I think back, I believe these would have been her first actual experiences with
portaging. There were no portages on the Baja trip and probably none on the race down the Mississippi.
I reviewed the accounts of Verlen's two previous trips on the Clearwater, both downstream from the Methye Portage, one in 1971 and the other in 1981. He had no trouble with either, apparently running all the rapids. Going upstream was different since they had to paddle or pole or line up or portage every one, and there are many. Unfortunately Verlen doesn't describe any and everything Valerie has written is summarized above.
To try to get a feel for this river I used the Google virtual helicopter approach but was frustrated by very poor satellite imagery on the upper part. I had better luck with Digital-Topo-Maps.com. This web site gave me very detailed black and white topography with contour lines, a medium I'm somewhat of an expert on going back to the Colorado School of Mines in the 40's and the US Army Engineers during World War II. I enjoyed myself. A "topologist's" holiday, so to speak.
Every rapids, falls and portage is shown in detail, the contour lines give you a sense of 3D that is missing from satellite or aerial photo coverage and most lakes and streams are named.
Next: The Methye Portage and the Churchill River

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