We rounded the last bend in the river and I could finally see our campsite. The sun had broken through the clouds and a bald eagle flew overhead, not more than 30 feet away. I looked at Sarah. Relief was in her eyes.
Today had been rough.
After 13 hours of paddling and 75 kilometers, it had been more than a full day.With a final burst of energy, the six of us powered our canoes to shore and collapsed on the beach, triumphant.
It was July 1999. I was a member of the Yukon Backpacking and River course: a 45-day adventure in the remote Canadian wilderness. We were traveling down the Macmillan River, and after six weeks in this backcountry, we were honed, sharp, and skilled.
In the first half of the course, we backpacked for 25 days through the Itsi Range of the Selwyn Mountains. We didn’t see another soul. We bushwhacked to get above tree line, and sometimes followed caribou paths. Our feet sank into the soft brown sphagnum moss and crunched over stiff white lichen.
One day we trekked to “snow school.” Our instructors held our feet as we lay back, head first and upside down, on the snow-covered slope of a mountain. They let go and we careened down, ready to flip over, jab the ice axe into the snow, and self-arrest.
On the river, we shot countless rapids. We came across numerous logjams, ferrying through some and portaging around others. We learned to avoid holes and tried to surf waves. We became experts at eddying out at just the right moment, and perfected the crossbow draw.
But you can’t be prepared for everything. On the river and in the wilderness, you just never know what lies around the next bend, and nature was constantly teaching us new lessons.
This particular day on the Macmillan proved to be one I will always remember.
A few days earlier, our instructors began to prepare us for our independent travel days. Lawrence and I were the elected leaders, and I was psyched that my fellow students felt confident in me that I could lead this expedition independent of our instructors.
We divided up our gear and marked the final “X”—our rendezvous site—on the map. It was at the convergence of the Pelly and Macmillan Rivers, 150 kilometers away. We had three days to get there.
Our group decided to make the first day the hardest so we would have time for leisure later. The plan was to cover 75 kilometers. We’d take advantage of the long daylight hours in the “Land of the Midnight Sun,” starting at 9 a.m. and paddling into the night.
Night after night, we had watched sunsets that lingered for hours. And then, at last, around 2:00 a.m., the blaze sank beneath the mountain ridges. A few hours later, it rose to circle the sky once again.
As the day wore on, clouds covered the warmth of the sun. The wind picked up and began to sting. By early afternoon, it was raining and we were piling on more layers. But we had experienced weather like this before. We talked and played games. We sang songs and just kept on going. The conditions were only a minor inconvenience.
We were pumped with adrenaline and determination, absorbed in the sights around us. We paddled through wild mountains and thick boreal forest. Summer was in full bloom. The land was a brilliant green, flecked with wildflowers in every color of the rainbow. There were purple lupines and blue asters, white lilies and pink fireweed.
The trees were so thick we could never see more than a few feet into the timber. Occasionally, we caught a glimpse of a dark shadow moving nearby. A swaying branch here and a snap of twigs there. Possibly it was a moose. Maybe even a grizzly.
By early afternoon, we could no longer ignore the weather. The rain blocked our view of the shoreline. It was difficult to tell if we were making progress at all. Strong as we were after 40 days of hard-core tripping, we certainly weren’t stronger than the wind. Still, we kept going for a few more hours, confident that the weather would let up.
Eventually there was a break in the rain and we stopped to make dinner. Two hours later, we were back in high spirits and determined to go on. But as we were loading the boats to get back on the river, a hailstorm began. We looked at each other and, in some odd combination of humor and frustration, burst out laughing. It seemed that after conquering every challenge, a new one arose.
We tightened the cam straps, securing all of our gear. Tentatively, we headed into the choppy water. Soon the waves were actually coming over the bow of the canoe, even though we were heading downstream. Talking to each other now took too much effort. Every paddle stroke was full of power and precision.
“Three forward strokes. Now a hard back pry. Keep the boat steady. Watch that hole and avoid the sweeper up ahead,” I kept repeating to myself.
I was thankful that Sarah and I had paddled together so many times before. Words were no longer necessary to communicate. We understood each other in the movement of the canoe.
Our three canoes began to drift far apart. Matt and Adam S. were leading the way. Their strength far surpassed mine and Sarah’s. Right behind us were Adam B. and Heidi, who had begun to feel ill. Though she insisted she was well enough to go on, it was impossible to sail along at the pace we had hoped for before we set out.
Adding to my worries was the noise created by the storm. If something did go wrong, if a canoe tipped from the force of the waves, it would be hard to shout over the wind. In addition, our progress was so slow that a quick rescue would be difficult at best.
We pulled over again and discussed the merits and hazards of continuing. On one hand, we had to complete these 75 kilometers at some point. If we didn’t finish it now, we’d have to add these last few to our journey tomorrow. Besides, there was no way to know if conditions would be any better the next morning.
Everyone stated their opinions and then turned to me to make the final call. It was a personal milestone. I knew they were depending on me. I saw the trust in their eyes and realized we might end up experiencing one of our greatest celebrations yet. Our fate was in my hands.
At that moment I truly believed it was possible to reach our goal. It was important to our overall success as a group. The decision was easy; we had to go on.
So we set off again, pulling our pogies back over our freezing hands, bodies hunched over to block the icy chill. Much to our relief, the wind and the river soon calmed down. We finally made it into camp, and we did indeed have a fantastic celebration.
We made a quick round of hot chocolate and popcorn before happily sinking into our heavenly sleeping bags for the night, ready to face the surprises awaiting us tomorrow.
The next few days made it all worth the work. There was plenty of time for campfires and storytelling, fly fishing and reading. We slept in, lingering inside the tents late into the morning and savoring the warmth of our cozy nylon bubbles.
On the third day, the sun finally broke through, lifting the heavy cloud cover and our spirits as well. We spread our sleeping bags across the rocky beach and basked in the warmth of the Arctic light.
Two days later the course ended and I was reluctant to leave. But I knew that I could never really leave the Yukon or NOLS behind.
Editor’s note: Essay adapted from the Winter 2000 edition of The Leader, NOLS’ Alumni Magazine, and reprinted in A Worthy Expedition: The History of NOLS.