We Paddled Into The Jaws of Hell
We paddled into the jaws of hell. We had chosen the most treacherous
stretch of the 755-mile Liard River, abandoned by Hudson’s Bay fur
traders in 1870 because of its heavy toll of men and craft. My brother
Barry and I decided to reconquer it. It turned out to be an adventure
that could equal those of Jack London. We barely survived.
We chose to make the attempt in the late fall when the awesome
waters of the Liard should have lost a little of their mighty power.
This would be the first time since 1899 that man had dared pit his
wits and strength against the 40-mile stretch between Devil’s Portage
and Hell Gate.
In 1899, Charles Camsell, later to become federal deputy mines minister,
made the treacherous passage. As students of history and experienced canoeists
we took on that challenge. For us it was like climbing Mt Everest. We wanted
to discover for ourselves the ‘grotesque’ challenge of a river that had forced
Hudson’s Bay men to abandon it after 30 years in favour of a 150-
We drove to mile 497 on the Alaska Highway and launched our
canoe. We paddled about seven miles to our first portage.
Old maps charted a path around Devil’s Canyon where the waters
of the Liard are pushed violently through a 150-foot gap. Nothing can
survive in those waters. We later found the dead body of a moose that
had lost it’s life after getting caught in that surge.
It took us 10 days to make a trail. All the slash marks that could
have guided us had long since disappeared. We had to scout around
thick spruce thickets and make our way through cottonwood stands.
We used machetes, axes and swede hand saws. Each night we slept
under a golden canopy of deciduous trees. I felt like I was sleeping in
a cathedral. The very world was a church. Rays of sun at dawn and at
dusk made magical patterns on the fallen and falling leaves. We could
always hear the river echoing, surging, whistling and churning in whirlpools,
and cart-wheel boils, in ominous disturbances that bespoke and
warned of the difficulties that we were to face.
When the cutting of the portage was finished we made four round
trips, ascending and descending a rise of 1000 feet. This is one of the
highest and most difficult of portages in Canada. We carried all 600
pounds of gear and food plus the canoe a mountainous distance of six
miles. We each used the traditional north country tumpline, a sling for
carrying heavy loads on the back that has a strap that goes around the
forehead. We needed to make four physically exhausting return trips.
Having descended into an oval valley the waters suddenly fell silent
and wandered into a lagoon where they eddied in mellifluous meditation.
We camped there for several nights enthralled by a sense of peace
Beyond the lagoon we could see a world of violent surging water.
We swam in the lagoon, fished for Arctic grayling and enjoyed campfire
food. On the morning of our intended departure into the maelstrom
of waters ahead, a single Canada Goose made giant swirling spirals as
it descended from the clouds to rest on the lagoon. How strange? A
single bird, as if lost from the flock. Was it ill or was it an ill omen?
My brother decided to shoot it with his 22 caliber rifle. He said it
would make a fine supper. I said that killing it could bring us bad luck.
Did he not remember about the killing of the Albatross in ‘The Rime
Of The Ancient Mariner’ by Coleridge? Such a shooting of an innocent
bird could cause travail to us and require penance according to the
ballad.”To hell with that”, he said, and shot it. Feathers flailed,
as the first shot failed and a sound came from the
dying bird like a woeful wailing of the banshees and echoed in the
canyon. It made a broken winged but failed attempt to take off and
got washed away into the main current where it would most certainly
perish. We would soon follow it.
As we pushed into the river the next morning a rain squall struck
with variable gusts of wind. No sooner than we had been swept east
by the main current we got caught in a three foot wide hole, a swirling
vortex of a whirl pool that suck the canoe downward so that the canoe
swamped and drove us off course by 90 degrees. Our 18 foot canoe
jammed bow on against a steep shale avalanche that protruded from
the canyon wall.
Since I was in the bow I leapt onto the shale slope belly down toes,
fingers and face in the scree, bow line in hand and held fast instinctively-
no time to fear. Meanwhile Barry grabbed the attached sauce
pan and began to bail.
The bow was buckled and two ribs of the canoe were broken. With
much difficulty we drifted and paddled until we reached an island in
the widened river, Scotty Island, previously named ominously by fur
traders as – Ille de Gravois ( debris ). We spent six days on the island.
We dried out all our supplies and made emergency repairs.
We made little wooden wedges to reinforce the bow but there was
no way we could mend the bulge. Steering would be more difficult.
Ready to continue our journey, we were marooned on the island
for five more days by an adverse wind, which blew up the canyon as
though through a wind tunnel. Shaken by what had happened, we
could see violent rapids up river and down river, and became apprehensive
of the ones unseen.
After the sixth day of waiting we paddled through the Moule
Canyon without misadventure.
Ahead roared the Rapids of the Drowned. They gained their name
after one of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s large north canoes capsized
there with the loss of several men. We had done our research so we followed
McConnell’s advice for running the rapids and navigated them
successfully in our repaired canoe, and paddled into a back eddy and
then into quiet water.
We progressed without incident until we reached The Fangs Of
Nemesis, a menacing protrusion of three finger claws of rock that
closed the channel by seventy percent. The canoe was thrown violently
outwards by a cartwheel boil into more violent waters and overturned.
We both grabbed the emergency canvas straps made to lash
equipment in the boat. The upside down canoe bobbed violently,
and loomed over us ready to strike. After some time in the water our
moccasin rubbers and overshoes were completely ripped off by the
vicious current. We both feared for our lives because the current was
strongly pulling us outward and the swirling vortex of suck holes was
pulling us under. First one then the other was sucked downward by the
whirlpools. Each time I surfaced I could see no Barry as I gasped for air.
In the same way Barry could see no Wally on the opposite side of the
canoe. We began to imagine the worse. Finally, we saw each other as
the canoe fortunately got caught in a back eddy. With much difficulty
we righted the canoe. We spotted a narrow beach in a cleft of rock, a
sort of little bay, and determined to paddle the canoe ever closer to it.
Barry bailed as I strove to move the water logged canoe.
The canoe moved in huge circles with the force of the back eddy, at
one moment closer to the edge of the main current and next further
away from it towards the shore. Whenever possible to assist the canoe
to get closer to the shore I paddled with adrenaline induced strength
and power. The act of bailing the canoe lightened the load and after an
hour of going in circles we gradually got closer to our ‘Bay Of Salvation’.
Once ashore I built a camp fire from twigs and debris. Barry fetched
a bottle of rum from his back pack but his cold fingers still in a state of
semi-hypothermia let go the bottle which fell and shattered. Only a few
ounces remained mixed with shards. Barry used my felt stetson to filter
the remnants into hot water for a toast to our survival.
Our tent clung to this tiny spot of sand and rock at the base of steep
canyon walls. Firewood was very limited. The wind drove through the
canyon with a hum and a whine like a chorus of banshees. However,
we needed to stay there until we were dry enough and ready enough,
and the wind would subside. A damp mist settled on everything like a
clinging fog and reduced visibility.
In preparation we hiked along the high shore from where we could
overlook the next stage of our journey. Here the Liard River is confined
to a mile-long gorge about 125 feet wide. It has the fearful name,’Satan’s
Larynx’. In 1887, McConnell had not ventured through the high water
which rages in this passage, but we decided to take the risk rather than
break a trail over the long portage. We were already behind schedule.
Once embarked on the fast moving water there was no turning back
nor escape up the 444-foot high vertical walls. In September, the sun
did not penetrate into the canyon and it was gloomy and depressing.
At the end of the gorge the river divided on either side of a gravel
bar. Our map showed a series of rapids on one side and on the other
we could see waves cresting from seven to nine feet high. We paddled
to the gravel bar and camped to plan the next move. The noise of
the roaring water and the wailing of the wind chilled our nerves. We
took to nervously stoking and then smoking our pipes with ‘erinmore’
tobacco. Urinating more often we spoke of our nervous pees. The’
rapids of temptation’ lay ahead.
The next day we paddled close to shore, took advantage of a back
eddy to stop just above the first chute of whirling water, made a short
portage over a spur of rock, and repeated the manoeuvre around the
The meeting of the two currents from either side of the gravel bar
caused an unusual phenomena. The water would be comparatively
calm for two and a half minutes, then it would erupt so violently that
there was a one foot tidal rise along the shore.
With the ‘Rapids of Temptation’ behind us, we faced the unknown
dangers of The Grand Canyon of The Liard. We pulled in to shore where
Brimstone Creek entered the river and from there hiked down river to
survey the channel. Although there were rapids and whirlpools, it was
not as bad as we had feared and we ran through the rapids without
misadventure. The Grand Canyon is actually a series of extended
canyons with expanded basins in between them in which one might
find an island.
It was our intention to leave the Liard where its tributary, the
Toad River, entered it and return via the Toad upstream to the Alaska
Highway. We encountered no further problems in reaching its many
By this time, the turbulent water was a less disturbing factor than
the fact that we were running short of food and were more than a
week behind schedule.
The journey up the Toad would be tedious due to the shallow
water, and to the fact that the damaged ‘stern’ of the canoe was now
acting as a rudder and making steering difficult.
We still had an upstream journey of 59 miles in order to get to a
dry warm bed, restaurant food, steak and beer, and everything else that
the Toad River Lodge had to offer. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police
would be aware in two days that we were overdue in arrival.
It was now the 7th of October. We started the upstream trip.
The current against us was strong. It was necessary either to wade it
upstream, carry it over long jams, or to line it between the obstacles.
One of us would sit in the canoe and steer it while the other carrying
the long bow line clambered over sand, rocks and logs under the strain
of holding canoe, brother and supplies stable and progressing forward.
A polar vortex began to descend on the north. Each day we had to
stop at 4pm because of the cold. We both wore moose hide moccasins
inside rubber overshoes. The frost froze the moccasins each night and
delayed our morning departures as we needed to thaw them. Next
snow began to fall, and fall and fall. It seemed that further progress with
the canoe would now be impossible since one could no longer line the
canoe. The logs and stones were now ice glazed and snow covered, and
every attempt at progress was met by stumbles and falls. A sense of
doom and finality seeped into our frozen fingers, into our grazed and
bleeding knees, and clung to our minds like wet clothing. Was this our
‘penance’ because we had shot the Canada Goose?
We stopped at a log jam beside a long pebble bar and built a camp
site. We decided to enjoy the wood, warmth and remaining food and
hope for rescue. To make our camp site visible from the air we set the
log jam alight. It was twelve feet high and as big as a tennis court and
high and dry because of low water. It could burn for days producing
lots of smoke and flames.
On the second day of flaming combustion a beaver bush plane
sporting an RCMP crest circled overhead. After several circles to reconnoiter
the landing space on the pebble bar the plane landed quite
bouncily. Our rescuers asked us to help to prepare the take off strip.
We were asked to leave all our gear behind. There was only room in
the plane for people since the take off strip us so short. In the spring
breakup all of our belongings, tent, canoe, paddles, and sleeping bags
would be washed away in the current like the injured Canada goose my
brother had shot. The police seized my brother’s rifle. He had neither
proof of ownership nor license since both had been lost in the river.
We thanked pilot, Glen Gullackson, and to Constable Lloyd Wizniuk
for our rescue.