July 24, 2006

What goes up must come down. (Hiking the Nahanni Butte.)

Every time I visited the settlement of Nahanni Butte, I wanted to climb Tthenaago, the mountain otherwise known as the Nahanni Butte. But as long as I lived in Fort Liard, I never really got the opportunity to do it.

This time, I made a point of going up to the top of the mountain. And I wanted to place a new geocache.

So, I did some work on Friday and after lunch I borrowed a canoe and paddled up the South Nahanni River, past the end of the Butte and across to where a natural spring trickles out of the rock.

The mosquitoes were numerous and biting, and I suffered as I filled my water bottles in the spring. Right off the bat, it was a steep, hard climb through juniper, currants and rose bushes. Relying on trees for balance was dangerous, since many of them collapsed at the slightest touch.

EVentually, I worked my way up to a clearing and noticed that the wind was picking up. I chose the timing of my trip on purpose. I had noticed UFO-shaped (disc-shaped) clouds in the sky. Steve, a local pilot, taught me that these clouds mean high winds are on the way. I was betting on the wind to keep the bugs off. The winds weren't quite there yet, though.

Up into the trees on a steady climb towards the top, I huffed and puffed under my bug net. It was a hot day and the bug net kept the warm air from my breath around my head, but being hot took less effort than it did to try keep the mosquitoes off. I was hesitant to stop for water, even though I needed it, because the mosquitoes would swarm into the net.

I reached the second clearing and noticed that there were already a lot of berries. I spied two fresh, tiny wild strawberries and figured that I could get them into my mouth without subjecting my head to a mosquito invasion.

***Warning - Some readers may find the following paragraph offensive.***

Until that moment, I had no idea that my tongue could have an orgasm. When the berries, perfectly juicy and flavoured made contact with my tongue, I could feel it twitching in pleasure. I let out an involuntary moan of delight. I am not kidding.

The higher I climbed, the more neat rocks I saw. The dull grey stone held ancient marine fossils and there were hunks of calcite and dazzling quartz sheets. Some of the rocks, with micro quartz crystals, shimmered like spring snow.

The treeline began to thin and I crested a hump where I found a nice rock to sit. The breeze was stiff and the mosquitoes were choosing to leave me alone, so I removed my bug netting and my sweat-soaked shirt. I drank half a litre of water and ate some trailmix as I stared in awe at the views.

The vantage from the ridgeline was phenomenal. I could see all along the Liard Range, the vast Liard Plateu, and the Liard River. I watched the wind blow giant clouds of dust from the cutbanks along the Liard River.

I could see an almost microscopic boat heading up the South Nahanni River towards the splits. I could see the sand blowouts on a mountain across the Nahanni River valley.

The settlement, below, looked tiny now. As beautiful as the mountain looks from the community, I would argue that the community looks more beautiful from the mountain. Even with the commanding view, Nahanni Butte is the only community that you can see. It's a real-life visual representation of low population density. What a difference from parts of Europe, where you can see the next community before you even get out of the one you're in.

I threw my pack back on and kept climbing. The going got steep and I began relying on my hands for balance as I picked my was around the shale-like stones. I made my way towards the ridge of the Butte and got a vertigo-inducing view of the cliffs and terrain below. Again, I rested, trying to cool down, before plodding away from the cliffs and ever upwards. "This is not a hike," I reflected, "for people who don't like heights."

Walking around to the south side of the mountain was a good move for two reasons. Firstly because it wasn't as steep and secondly because the wind was blowing from the south, meaning that I would't need to worry about the bugs anymore. I removed my bug net and savoured the feeling of the wind on my face.

I was now above the treeline and could see right up the South Nahanni River valley. I could see where the First Canyon started, with the Kraus Hotsprings right below.

Again, I walked towards the ridgeline, where the cliffs plummeted below. The wind was blowing hard now, and ravens were riding the waves of wind, just off the cliff edge. The wind was getting stronger and I started worrying that my hat would fly off my head.

I could see the fire tower now, but didn't feel compelled to head towards it. Instead, I explored the top of the mountain, circling around the building like a wolf around a campfire. The building seemed out of place, but at the same time, like it belonged. Eventually I made my way towards the building and ducked inside to get out of the wind.

The wind howled around the winding, whistling and shaking the counter inside. I sat up on the counter to give my legs a break, eat another snack, and to have a little bit of water. I tried to force myself to sit and relax a little longer, but it didn't work. I knew what I needed to do next - It was time to place the geocache.

I looked around before finding a good frost heave. I pulled some of the larger fossil-filled rocks aside and began tossing some of the smaller rocks below away, onto the alpine tundra. As I worked the cache site, I felt someone, or something, watching me. I stopped working. Someone had mentioned that there might be a grizzly on top of the mountain. Slowly, I turned around, prepared to grab the knife and bear spray from my pack. I was downwind of whatever it was, and the wind was strong, so I didn't have much hope that I would be able to use the bear spray even if I needed it.

Just upwind, two Dall sheep ewe's were grazing, and a ram was watching me with interest. I breathed a sigh of relief, but took another look around, just to be sure things were all clear. I try to be cautious when I hike, always looking around for fresh sign, but I had become so engrossed in placing the cache that I had stopped paying attention. I continued clearing out the cache site, keeping an eye on the sheep. The ram continued watching me, as though he were tyring to figure out what I was doing. Satisfied that I was nuts, he led the two ewes back the way they had come and they disappeared over the horizon.

Placing the rocks over the geocache, I took the coordinates, double-checked them, and rolled onto my back to savour the views. The tundra was comfortable and inviting. "I could spend every day for a hundred years up here and be totally content," I reflected. And then I thought, "Naw. There's still too many places to explore.

I had two choices now. I could either return the way I came or I could head northwards and take the longer route back down the saddle of the mountain. I elected to take the saddle, because I had heard some locals mention that there was an easier trail that way.

I know that I often glorify the fine art of meandering. But this was one instance where I probably should have taken the shorter, more direct route. I admit it; sometimes meandering just isn't a good idea.

Walking over the top of the Butte was wonderful. The sun was starting to get a little lower on the horizon, and my shadow was growing longer and longer across the tundra. I stopped at a small spring to fill my water bottles and continued down towards the saddle. I stepped over deep, seemingly bottomless fissures and stopped to examing some of that gray rock that bore the impression of water-rippled sand. I wondered if I could see a three-toed dinosaur footprint in the rock and if the rock was even new enough to have been around when the dinosaurs were.

The slope started getting steeper and the brush started to appear again. I was on a north-facing slope and the vegetation was thick and gnarled. On my backside now, I worked my way down the loose rock, down into the thick willows in the saddle. I figured that I could work my way across the saddle and pick up the trail.

The willows were like a wall. I couldn't see where my feet were going, and I trusted that there was ground beneath them. I plowed through the willows, which whipped back into my shins. I was relying on my sense of direction and the gradual decline into the saddle to lead me where I wanted to go. Plowing through the willows became tedious. My body went onto auto pilot, pushing the willows out of the way enough to butt my head and body through. I started composing unflattering poems to the willows in my head.

I worked my way down to a dried creek bed, which was slightly less-thick than the willows above it, but the action of the old run-off had created holes under the roots. The hidden ankle breaking traps were too dangerous, so I worked my way back up to the willows, in the general direction of the community.

And the mosquitoes were back.

I had donned my bug gear again, but the mosquitoes were savage. Even the willows weren't keeping them off now. It was dusky in the shadow of the mountain and the weren't letting anything stop them from getting the blood they needed to sire their young. I developed a rhythm of pushing through the willows and wiping my face, neck and shoulders. Every time the bug net snagged on a branch, hundreds more mosquitoes swarmed into the head net. They were biting the red of my eye and flying up my nose. I swore that I would never trim my nose hair ever again. Even if it got so long that I could braid it.

I was hot from my labours, but I couldn't stop to get a drink of water. I also couldn't breathe through my mouth because the mosquitoes would fly into my throat. I tried breathing through my teeth, but they managed to get in through a little gap that a dentist had once offered to close. At the time, I didn't see any point. Now I regretted not taking him up on his offer. At one point, a mosquito flew into my throat and I was so preoccupied with moving forward and wiping bugs off my face that I spat it out - right into my headnet.

I was getting exhausted as I worked my way uphill and downhill, hoping to find a clearing where I could have a few moments of relief from the bugs. I eventually found one, but it wasn't any better. I checked to make sure I was heading in the right direction, still attempting to pick up the trail that would lead me back to the community. The sun was well behind the mountain now and I didn't know if I would need to spend the night. In my head, I began to make emergency plans, glad that I had come will prepared. In my backpack I had a collection of things that would allow me to live quite comfortably for a while should some accident arise. As long as it cooled off, I had a back-up bug jacket and, as long as I wasn't moving, I could put on my hooded sweatshirt for added mosquito protection. And if things got really bad, I could always use the video function on my camera to record my last will and testament.

Plans made, I forced any thought of stopping out of my head and pushed on. Fortunately, a rockslide/creek combination gave me a break from the willows and, even though it lead slightly away from where my canoe was stashed, it would still take me closer to the river. I followed it, stumbling over stones and then, when other creeks joined it, wading through the water. I soaked my gloves and patted the back of my neck for some temporary relief from the mosquitoes and for a chance to cool down. The cold water on the back of my neck was refreshing and gave me renewed energy. I continued on.

When my feet got too cold from walking in the water, I left the creek bed to push through the willows and, when my feet were warm enough, I made my way back to the creek bed. I followed this routine, along with regular bug wiping until I made it to some aspen (poplar) parkland. The going got much easier and I walked through the grass and occasional rose bush under the white-sided trees.

And then a narrow foot path appeared under my feet. I had finally found the trail.

Judging by the prints, the only use the trail had seen recently was from the bison which had churned the path into a muddy road through the trees. I sped along the path until it met up with the old winter road, which was now nothing more than sopping muskeg. I waded through the muskeg until the trail dried again, making good time on the dried trail. It was starting to get a little darker and seeing through the bug net was begging to get difficult. The mosquitoes were now worse than ever, but my body was ignoring them.

The trail led to an old bushplane runway. I was getting closer to the community and I knew that the end of my trip was near. I was tired and began thinking about how wonderful the shower would feel. I walked through the grassy regrowth of the old runway and the humming from the mosquitoes became deafening. At the end of the runway, I started bushwacking again, picking up a trail once in a while, and losing it again to the erosion along the river bank.

I tried following the river bank for a while, but the steep mud banks were not easy to follow, with each step a potential foot sucker. At this stage, losing a shoe in the mud would have been suicide. I crawled up the bank and worked my way back into the trees.

I wasn't as close to the foot of the Butte, and my canoe, as I thought and I stumbled on, wondering if it would just be better to stop, find some way to guard against the bugs and to try wait out the night. There was still a hint of light in the sky, with the oddly-shaped clouds, like stacks of pancakes, reflecting reds and pinks in the sky. I pushed on, wading through ponds, slopping through mud and winding through brittle diamond willow.

I grimaced when I saw the fresh wolf tracks and checked to see of the bear spray was still there. I was on the lee side of the mountain and the air was calm, which meant that the mosquitoes weren't.

I knew that I was tired and I knew that with every step, I increased the chances of injuring myself or making a bad decision. Knowing this, I forced myself to be alert, reminding myself that I needed to be constantly aware.

I found a clearing on the river bank where a breeze coming down the river gave me a chance to gulp down the contents of my water bottle. I dropped my pack to the ground and saw thousands of mosquitoes attacking it. I pulled off my bug net and shook the mosquitoes out. I removed my gloves and wiped the back of my neck. My hand was black from dead mosquitoes. Wiping my hand clean, I ran my hand down the back of my neck and again, it was black from the mosquitoes. Without the bug net on, I reached down to my pack to get my other water bottle and a swarm of bugs lept from my bag and surrounded my head again. I thought that I had seen swarming by insects before. Maybe I had, but not like this.

I used the wind to get as free as possible, but when the wind died, I threw the bug net on again, loaded my pack onto my back and worked my way around the toe of the Butte. It was with great relief when I saw the canoe again. Ignoring the swarms, I filled my water bottles in the spring. I pushed the canoe through the mud and climbed in.

The breeze on the river was a relief and the bugs left me alone. Paddling back into the community, it took all my will to lift the small Grumman back to where it belonged. I was moments away from my shower.

I walked into the motel and slid off my muddy shoes and socks. I grabbed my towel and walked into the washroom and turned on the shower. Only to discover that there was no water.

The phone rang and I answered it. It was one of the community members checking to see that I was alright.

I was fine. I was exhaused. My neck and shoulders were numb from bits. I was covered in scratches and dirt. And I was fine. On the outside I looked rough. On the inside I felt great. Yeah, it was gruelling, but I'd probably do it all over again.


Anonymous said...

There are times I wonder about your sanity! This is one of those times.
Looking forward to seeing you - but not your hungry mosquitoes - soon.

Meandering Michael said...

Sanity is heriditary.

Speaka said...

Sounds like a tough but satisfying tramp.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that the most difficult journeys also bring forth the most magnificent memories. What I like most about the north is that if you work a little harder you are rewarded for it. I see you are traveling, can you give me a call at work or at home, I'd like to buy you lunch when you get back. Ciao.