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The challenge: from the bow seat of a canoe in the NWT's Mackenzie watershed, Alternatives editor-in-chief Nicola Ross explores the relationship between knowing a landscape and protecting it.

Have you gazed on naked grandeur where there's nothing else to gaze on,

Set pieces and drop-curtain scenes galore,

Big mountains heaved to heaven, which the blinding sunsets blazon,

Black canyons where the rapids rip and roar?

Have you swept the visioned valley with the green stream streaking through it,

Searched the Vastness for a something you have lost?

Have you strung your soul to silence? Then for God's sake go and do it;

Hear the challenge, learn the lesson, pay the cost.

-- Robert Service, The Call of the Wild

ONE COOL, overcast morning last August, I climbed into the bow of a spray-skirted red canoe near the source of the Mountain River, high in the Northwest Territories' Mackenzie Mountains. It was quickly becoming clear that I might just be in over my head - figuratively speaking, I hoped. Frigid, caramel-coloured water roared past me down the 15-metre-wide, boulder-strewn channel. It pulled at our still-beached canoes urging us to get going. Our guide Al Pace guessed the water temperature was five degrees; I gave it three. Clad in neoprene gloves and socks, a cap and a paddling jacket that was the top of four layers of clothing, I did not want; to take an unexpected dip.

I had heard Robert Service's challenge. Was 1 to pay the cost?

My introduction to major white-water paddling was about to be a 12-day, 320-kilometre expedition down a tributary to the Mackenzie - the fast-moving, rapid-ridden Mountain River. If you are unfamiliar with this waterway, you are not alone. Only those who live in the NWT, ardent canoeists or anyone who has leafed through Bill Mason's famous book Song of the Paddle, likely know it.

Not only was the Mountain River new to me, but despite its name, it wasn't until our North Wright Airways' Turbo Porter float plane left Norman Wells and was soaring up over the steeply folded landscape en route to our launch site that it occurred to me that the NWT is mountainous. Snow-capped peaks were another hint. Our adventure would begin high in the Mackenzie Mountains (sometimes considered part of the Rockies) and end at the Mountain River's confluence with the mighty Mackenzie, which - I also learned - is Canada's longest river.

Beginning at Great Slave Lake, the Mackenzie wends its way northwest for 1738 kilometres until it reaches the Arctic Ocean. Along the way, some 41 rivers, including the Mountain, the Peel, the North Nahanni, the Keele, Great and Little Bear, flow into it. At Norman Wells, it is a mighty, murky, brewing super water-highway so renowned that "the Mackenzie" is reserved for the river, not for the mountains or the institute in Toronto.

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Called the Deh Cho by Aboriginals who ply its waters and make up almost half of Norman Wells' approximately 850 residents, 1 pondered the Mackenzie's history, presuming it had been named after one of our nation's explorers. But what exactly had this man done to deserve this honour? Why had this particular river been named after him? And, more simply, what was his first name?

Such a basic lack of historical knowledge is not uncommon in Canada. As a nation, we rarely celebrate our past. We view it as boring, somehow inferior to that of our southerly neighbour, which we perceive to be full of intrigue and stories, famous names and characters. In Grade 13, 1 elected to study American history, not Canadian, because I mistakenly thought it was more exciting (and the teacher was cool).

As our group of 12 (in six canoes) charged down the Mountain River, 1 spied "big mountains heaved to heaven" and "black canyons where the rapids rip and roar." Travelling at about 10 kilometres per hour and spending nights in a tent, I took in the rapidly changing landscape. Stunted trees near the high headwaters gave way to feisty white spruce and hardy jacks and, eventually, to aspen that trembled in the lightest breeze. I saw dozens of majestic woodland caribou which, unlike their cousins from the barrens, travel in small groups of two or four or eight, and live mostly in the forest. I picked wild cranberries, concocted blueberry pancakes with fruit we picked ourselves. 1 tried wintergreen berries and discovered soapberries that explorers, including Mackenzie in all likelihood, used for their ablutions. 1 discovered Labrador tea and experienced a near-midnight sun. An immature bald eagle swept past my bow seat so close that I could see the glint in its eye.

I also learned that his name was Alexander, that he was a Scottish explorer and not Canada's second prime minister, and that it wasn't a desire to reach the Arctic Ocean that brought him to the Mackenzie; it was the allure of the Pacific that spurred him on.

As we paddled ever downward toward the Mackenzie, the Mountain River grew in stature. Dropping 1200 metres over its 370-kilometre length, it picks up flow from a handful of tributaries that add volume until its thick caramel-coloured water turns clear green and then blue. Where we began our journey, the Mountain was a frolicking creek by comparison to the pounding waterway some 200 kilometres downstream. It swept us along, sucking unwitting paddlers into fast-flowing chutes that featured four-, five-and six-foot standing waves. We careened down 100-and 200-metre-long sets of rapids avoiding truck-sized boulders and, for the most part, the standing waves. The roaring river became my lullaby at night and my wakeup call in the morning.

Like the Mountain's flow, the days Hew by and I became adept at a bow draw that required me to lean two-thirds of my body out of the canoe over the pounding water in order to use my paddle to pull the canoe away from some hazard, be it a boulder or a cliff wall. I experienced the denseness of the water as it boiled up in kilometre-long canyons hemmed in by 50-mctre-high cliffs. It churned with the pent-up energy of a caged animal, slamming into the canyon walls as if it were seeking release. As we escaped each of six turning, twisting canyons, the river would bubble up full of oxygen as it cascaded down yet another set of rapids - free and able to breathe once again. I understood why explorers such as Mackenzie relied on Aboriginal guides to steer them around blind curves and through powerful rapids.

In 1789, Alexander Mackenzie set off down what would become the Mackenzie River, hoping to emerge at Cook Inlet in Alaska where he could hook into a route to the much sought-after Northwest Passage. He did eventually find the Pacific, though not, of course, at the mouth of the Mackenzie. Indeed, he was the first white person to cross the North American continent north of Mexico. Mackenzie didn't name the river after himself. As the story goes, he named it Disappointment River for obvious reasons.

To expose their clients to such interesting historical tidbits is part of what drives Al Pace, his wife Lin Ward and their company Canoe North Adventures. Al explains, "Our object is to bring ordinary people to Canada's northern rivers where they will have extraordinary experiences." The duo has invested their lives and. much of their savings so that people can be wowed by the immensity of the northern landscape; the serenity of its silence; and the power of its rivers, wildlife and unforgiving weather. The canoe, Canada's quintessential mode of transportation, allows them to travel through regions only seen by a handful of people each year. Caribou, grizzlies and wolves, not humans, dominate the Mountain River valley. Al explains, "I hope that our clients will pick up some of Canada's rich cultural and natural history as we travel along these mighty northern rivers." That we will come to know who Alexander Mackenzie is and what he did. That we'll forever after recognize the names of the Hood River, the Snake, the Keele, the Bonnet Plume, the Mountain and more. "For the people who go there," says Lin, "the experience is profound."

We "swept the visioned valley with the green stream streaking through it," until white water and narrow canyons gave way to a quiet flat wide river full of oxbows and intersecting braids. Here, sheer cliffs composed entirely of fine silt limited the river's gracious curves. The only "structure" holding these banks together was permafrost. Even though the air temperature was cool, however, they were melting. Streams, in some cases rivers, of mud had carved deep channels and were flowing unimpeded into the Mountain River, filling it with sediment and eroding the shoreline. I wondered if a warming climate was speeding up this process, and what effect it was having on the river and its resident wildlife. Global warming wasn't the only challenge to this remote landscape. For several days, helicopters interrupted our silence. We were told that exploration for more diamonds was underway in the Mountain River's remote valleys. Moreover, the woodland caribou, which were such an integral part of our journey, are listed as threatened under Canada's Species at Risk Act and at risk of extirpation.

Al and Lin accomplished one of their goals by giving me, an ordinary person, an extraordinary experience in the NWT. They achieved others too. They brought the area's cultural and natural history to life. Do you know who the Mackenzie is named after? I now ask my friends. What is the longest river in Canada? I quiz them. I saw several dozen caribou, I boast. There is power in learning one's history and tying it to the living landscape. We protect what we can relate to, what we know.

So it is the draw of new experiences, unknown adventures and landscapes I've yet to explore that has led me to take leave of Alternatives, if only temporarily. I will be travelling to some distant places and spending more time on the French River, another of Canada's grand waterways. I'll come to know its nooks and crannies, be able to name the voyageurs who plied it in Montreal canoes loaded to the gunwales with beaver pelts, enjoy recognizing its resident fish and animals, birds and plant-life. I'll quiz my friends: Did you know that the French River joins Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay?

The wild, as Robert Service says, is calling.

They have cradled you in custom, they have primed you with their preaching,

They have soaked you in convention through and through; They have put you in a showcase; you're a credit to their teaching -

But can't you hear the Wild? - it's calling you.

Let us probe the silent places, let us seek what luck betide us; Let us journey to a lonely land I know.

There's a whisper on the night-wind, there's a star agleam to guide us;

And the Wild is calling, calling ... let us go.

It swept us along, sucking unwitting paddlers into fast-flowing chutes that featured four-, five- and six-foot standing waves.

Nicola Ross, Alternatives editor-in-chief, is on a year's leave. She travelled courtesy of CanoeNorthAdventures.com.
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Title Annotation:Northwest Territories
Author:Ross, Nicola
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2012
Words:1837
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