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DRIFTING
By Trapper Ken

 My Grandson William and I were planning on going up the Liard River to the bottom of Devils Canyon in the first week in August. However his mother had some plans for the family starting the 12th of August so we decided to go in July, even if I wasn't quite ready. I had just built a new river boat and the paint was hardly dry. Some of the steel reinforcing hadn't been put on the bottom, however I did have two angle iron keels running down the bottom about six inches apart. My outboard jet motor was in need of some servicing, which should have been done before we embarked on a 120-mile river trip, however with the date quickly coming we decided to leave on August the 20th instead.

 On our way to Ft.Nelson we spent our first night at the old runway beside the Alaska Highway at Beaton River. This was a little break-in experience for William, myself and Zoi our golden lab dog to make sure we had most of our supplies. Anything that was missing we planned on getting in Ft. Nelson. Next morning we were up early with the excitement of our trip keeping us from sleeping. As we passed the Sikanni Chief River, we noticed that the water was very high from recent rain, all this water would be running into the Nelson River, bringing with it sand and logs from upstream.

 When we arrived in Ft. Nelson we decided to do a little visiting before going to the boat launch site. This took the best part of the morning. We also went down behind the airport to check the condition of the Nelson River. Lucky the high water from all the rains further south hadn't arrived here yet; everything was go for our trip. After having a lunch at a Sub Sandwich shop in town we headed to the Husky Bulk Station to fill all our fuel pails with gas, and then to the Overwaite Grocery Store for some last minute supplies. Now we were ready to drive the 50 or so miles to the world' s longest Bailey Bridge on the Nelson River where we would launch our boat.

 After an hours drive, first west on the Alaska Highway to the junction north to Ft. Liard in the Northwest Territories, then 35 miles north to the Bailey bridge across the Nelson River, we had to cross the Nelson river and go a further 3 miles before turning back on a side road. This is the location where an ice bridge is used in the winter for hauling logs and was where we would launch our boat.

 While William set up our tent and got ready for our evening meal, I put the outboard jet motor on our boat and undid all the tie downs. Next I backed the trailer into the river and floated the boat off. After securely tying the boat up and covering it in case we had a rain during the night we had a good dinner and went to bed, eager to start our boat trip in the morning.

 Next morning after breakfast we loaded our camping gear, and made sure we had ten gallons of gas mixed for our motor we were away. Going downstream in the Nelson river was very easy with the high water which was starting to arrive from the rains they where having further south. At 10 AM we decided to stop for a drink of juice and mix oil in another pail of gas.

 As we were sitting on the beach in the warm sun our friend Jim Hart passed over in his piper aircraft as he checked for the location of radio-collared fish. Jim has a contract with the B.C. Government to keep track of radio collared fish and wildlife. He keeps track of wolves and elk, monitoring the actions of the wolves in relation to the elk herd. They are also trying to find out how the native fish move around in the Nelson, Liard water shed.

 Once we had our juice finished and our gas mixed, we were off. Next stop was Nelson Forks. Nelson Forks is no longer there. It was a trading town at the mouth of the Nelson River, used by the fur trader one hundred and fifty years ago. As we made our way down stream on the Nelson River we passed a cow moose with calves standing knee deep in water watching us in wonder, also a black bear was busy turning over logs, and stones looking for breakfast. Wild animals in this area are not used to people and they just watch with curiosity as our boat goes by. The shores of the river are scarred by ice flows. As the spring thaw moves those large pieces of ice down stream they are forced onto the shore cutting the trees and gouging deep scares into the riverbanks.

 By lunch time we had passed the junction of the Nelson and Liard River. We entered the much cleaner water of the Liard River but from now on we had to go upstream, which slowed us down considerably. Our forward speed was noticeably slower as we battled the oncoming current. By now we had used all our mixed gas and it was time to stop for lunch and mix some more gas. Stopping on a large sand bar we spent an hour exploring the beach, having lunch and getting our fuel ready for the next leg of our journey.

 The Liard at this point was spreading out into several channels, some of them navigatable and others too shallow or plugged with logs. In this area a person has to be very careful to pick the right channel, usually the channel with the biggest current is also the deepest. As we changed fuel tanks we were passing the mouth of the Beaver River. This is a very turbulent area of the Liard, with many whirlpools and scary looking currents. The Beaver River flows into the Liard from the north and brings water from a large area of the Yukon. I have a trapper friend who has been living up the Beaver in the Yukon for the last fifteen years or so, spending most of the year on his trap line.

 As we approached the mouth of the Scatter River our last fuel tank was getting low, so it was time again to explore the beach, while mixing gas and having our afternoon lunch. Again we saw signs of both Black and Grizzly Bear, along with many Elk signs. At this point we are starting to get into the Liard Canyon. This is an area where both Elk and Buffalo have been reintroduced to the wilds and it is quite possible to see them wandering along the riverbanks.

 As we travel upstream on the Liard the banks are getting much higher and the river is starting to run straighter with only one channel. As the current speeds up we slow down and looking over the back of the boat I notice water squirting out of the grease relief fitting on the jet. This indicates to me that the seal has gone below the bearing. Nothing I can do now but pump more grease into it and hope it lasts.

 As we approached the mouth of the Toad River, which enters from the south we had to change fuel tanks and pump more grease into the leg, which is now blowing the grease out as fast as I can pump it in. We are only one and a half miles from our cabin and I'm hoping the water will lubricate the bearing until we get to the cabin where I have some tools and a new seal for the leg.

 Suddenly the motor slows down then speeds up, before completely dieing. Now instead of going up stream at ten miles per hour we are going down stream the same speed. Quickly I grab the rewind rope and give a pull to no avail. The engine is seized and will not budge. Lucky for us it is downstream to where we can get help.


 Now we have to change our approach on what we do. We have to plan as far ahead as possible, making sure we don't go down a blocked channel or get grounded in a channel that doesn't have enough water to float our heavy boat. Once the current washes us into a channel there is no way we can retrace our coarse to try another channel as the boat is too heavy to paddle against the current.

 The first hour or so seemed the worse as we where so alert to changing river conditions and not used to the length of time it would take to change our course. Some times we walked along the shore trying to see around the next bend, so as to get a idea what lay ahead, some times we where merrily floating down the center of the river. After three hours of floating and as it was getting dark we made camp on a sand bar. This had been a long day and we where both tired. Zoi, who had been sleeping all day was happy to check the beach for strange smells before going to bed. She preferred to sleep on her cushion between us.

 Next morning we were up early and after breakfast we were on the river by 5am. As there were threatening clouds in the sky and the wind was blowing, we made sure our rain jacks where handy. By 6am it started to rain and as we floated past the mouth of the Nelson River it was raining so hard I could barely see mile. Now the boat was filling up with rainwater and getting heavier than it had already been. The current was rushing us along in the swollen waters from the rains south of here, which had entered the Liard by way of the Nelson River. The big trick was trying to keep the boat facing the right way as the wind and current kept trying to turn us sideways. If the current ever pushed us up onto a grounded log in a sideway position it would break our boat in half.

 In the heavy rain another jet boat came out of the Nelson River and headed upstream on the Liard behind us. We waved to no avail, he never saw us. An hour later a helicopter flew directly over our heads in the heavy rain and he never saw us waving our paddle either. Sometime before lunch the rain stopped and the sun came out. We stopped and bailed some water out of the boat before making lunch. Lucky the front of the boat was covered over and we had put all our groceries and camping gear under there.  During that day storms were coming and going all day, and at 6pm we could see a big thunder storm coming so decided to make camp before it hit. I set up the tent and covered the boat while William made supper. The storms hit just as he had finish making supper, so we sat in the tent and ate. After supper with nothing to do and poring rain we decided we might as well go to bed. Later we both woke up to bright daylight and thought we had slept in, couldn't believe it! The storm had passed and it was still daylight at 11:30pm.

 Next morning I was awake at 3am and we were on the river at 4am. Around 6am it started to get foggy and within hour we couldn't see fifty feet. We kept paddling towards what we thought was the direction of the shore and after hour we could see the bank and some trees through the fog. As soon as we could get a hold of some over hanging branches we tied the boat up and decided to stay there until the fog lifted.

 As we sat there in the fog I noticed a beaver coming upstream towards us. William and I were both watching this animal as it battled the current, when suddenly it dove under the boat. William was watching over the edge of the boat when it came up about two feet from his face and seeing him, it immediately slapped its tail on the water and dove. This caused quite a commotion in the boat, as it nearly scared William to death. As the fog was lifting I noticed a wolf hunting for breakfast on the far side of the river, it had no idea we were sitting there watching it.

 When we had tied up on the shore in the fog we didn't know we were on an outside bend in the river with many dangerous snags protruding out from the bank. When we untied our boat we had to paddle as hard as we could to get away from the shore in order to clear any snags that we may get hooked on. After gaining the mainstream current we drifted around the next bent and there was a cow Elk looking at us in amazement. As we passed this gorgeous animal it followed along the shore trying to get a better idea what we where.

 We next came to a long slow current in which we lazily drifted down stream. It was a great place for William to make lunch. Spam sandwiches passed back to me on a paddle. We were hungry and they tasted great. Even Zoi agreed. As we finished our lunch the current increased and we where washed into a back channel where there was very little movement of water and we had to paddle our way out. At this time another riverboat came off a side channel and turned towards Fort Liard, again not seeing us.

 By now we had pretty much exhausted our energy for that day so we spent the rest of the day exploring the shoreline and preparing our camp for the evening. After a good evening meal we retired to our beds hoping we would make it to Fort Liard the next day.

 On our third day of floating we knew we were getting closer to Fort Liard, as we were seeing a few airplanes coming and going. We had decided to try and notify somebody that we were drifting as the river was getting bigger and it was very difficult to maneuver our boat by paddling it. We were scared we may arrive at Fort Liard and find ourselves on the wrong side of the river, if nobody noticed us drifting we could float right past and not be noticed. We both had a large whistle and I had told William to blow as hard as he could if it looked like we where going to float right past without being noticed.

 About that time an Islander aircraft came over us at about two thousand feet and both of us stood up and waved the face of our paddles. The plane immediately banked its wings and started to descend. It made two trips past us progressively getting lower and on the last trip past I pointed at our crippled motor and gave the signal it was dead by drawing my flattened hand across my throat, after which time the plane continued on its trip. Being a pilot myself I knew the pilot of that Islander would be advising the radio operator at Fort Liard airport of our predicament.

 At lunch time we rounded a bend to be confronted by a tugboat pushing a barge. It was the Shell Canada barge used to cross the river for the gas exploration, which is very active in that area of the NWT. After talking with the captain we decided rather than be picked up by him we would continue down stream as he told us we were only about ten miles or about an hour from Fort Liard.

 When we were about a mile from town a boat came out to meet us. They assured us we would be picked up as we floated passed and they gave us fresh drinking water and some chicken burgers which they had been carrying in their boat for their own use. They said the Islander pilot had advised the Air Radio people who had in turn advised the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who had advised some local people, who where working down by the river to keep a eye out for two people and a dog drifting on the Liard.

 As we where passing the town a boat came out and towed us into shore where we were treated royally. They showed us where to tie up and set up our camp, gave us five gallons of drinking water, and showed William where the best place was to catch fish.

 In the meantime I had to hitchhike south to get my truck and trailer, which took me six hours. I just made it back before nightfall. William had our camp all set up and supper ready and waiting. Needless to say I won't travel on that river without a spare motor now.

 Words can't express our gratitude to the people who helped us in Fort Liard. If you are ever in the area be sure and say hello to Charley Hope and his sons who met us on the river. I would also like to thank the unknown pilot who saw our signal from his plane. We highly recommend visiting the Gift Shop in Fort Liard, they have some marvelous hand crafted native art on sale there. TrapperKen

 If you would like to spend some time on a real working trapline, summer or winter, send Trapper Ken an e-mail at Info@TrapperKen.com or visit his web site at WWW.TRAPPERKEN.COM for more information. He is available most times of the year for Trapline Adventures. Visit the world renowned Liard Hot Springs or photograph the Northern Lights from the best place on earth.

 Be sure and visit our, Trapline Store and purchase a lovely Natural Birch Wood Round c/w an acrylic painting of either a bird or wild flower. These beautiful wall plaques are hand painted by Beverly Moore and suitable for gifts of all occasions. These items are available only from TrapperKen.com.

 Visit our store often, as we will be adding new items as the fall goes by. If you are interested in purchasing tanned furs please advice us soon, as they should be ordered before the trapping season, to ensure next spring delivery. We will have available the following hides in limited quantities. Wolf, Wolverine, Beaver and Martin. E-mail us at Info@TrapperKen.com for information.


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