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Bugs, fish and ... a grizzly

Locals travel on northern Canada’s Thelon River

January 28, 2012
By MIKE LYNCH - Outdoors Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

The Thelon River is a 560-mile Canadian waterway flowing from the Northwest Territories and Nunavut into the western shore of Hudson Bay. It flows through land that is home to wolves, caribou and grizzly bears.

Though people do paddle the Thelon, it is a relatively rare occurrence. The land is too remote for most to want to visit. The nearest communities are hundreds of miles away. And the bugs are relentless.

But for those who love adventure and have the desire to leave modern-day society behind, it can be a great destination.

Article Photos

Doug Fitzgerald, Mark Wagstaff, Jack Drury, Earl Davis, Karen Hixson and Ed Hixson on the shore of the Thelon River during their expedition to the Northwest Territories in the summer of 2010.
(Photo provided)

That was the case for Karen and Ed Hixson, Doug Fitzgerald and Jack Drury. The four Saranac Lake area residents joined two friends from North Carolina, Mark Wagstaff and Earl Davis, on a two-week trip there in the summer of 2010.

Ed Hixson said the lure of the Thelon River is its location.

"It's probably the most rural place you can get in North America," said Ed Hixson, who has climbed Mount Everest three times. "You're north of (the 60th parallel); you're south of the Arctic Circle. You are above the northern limit of trees, and when you start on the river, you are 450 kilometers from the nearest civilization, which is a community the size of Bloomingdale."

Fact Box

To learn more

You can join Fitzgerald and Drury at 7 p.m on Thursday, Feb. 2 at the Paul Smith's College VIC for the premiere showing of their multi-media presentation, "Arctic Barren Lands Paddling: The Thelon River of Far Northern Canada."

The presentation, the third of the VIC's Armchair Traveler lecture series, is free to VIC season pass holders, Paul Smith's College students and children 15 years and under, and $5 for all others. For more information, call the VIC at 518-327-6241.

The idea for the trip to the Thelon River arose in 2002. Back then, the paddlers - minus Jones and Wagstaff - and their families started taking serious paddling trips together in the summer. The Drurys and the Fitzgeralds, in 1998, went to a section of the Buffalo River in Arkansas, kicking off a tradition of going on paddling trips every other summer. The 2002 trip to the Rio Grande River was the first all three families went on together.

Since then, the group has gone to the San Juan River in Utah, Green River in Utah, Temagami wilderness in Ontario, Canada and Upper Missouri River in Montana.

Because of the remoteness of the Thelon River trip and the bug factor - they can be hellacious - a few family members decided to stay behind.

July and August are generally the only two months the river can be paddled. Ice-out on some of the lakes the Thelon goes through doesn't occur until early July and new ice begins forming in early September. It can snow any month of the year.

To get to the Thelon River, the paddlers took a floatplane from the Great Slave Lake in Yellowknife on July 23. They flew 486 land miles to the junction of the Hanbury and Thelon rivers. From there, they paddled 180 miles downstream to Beverly Lake, where they flew 362 miles back to Yellowknife on Aug. 5.

The floatplane carried the six paddlers, their three canoes and all their gear. The group used three tandem Royalex canoes: an Old Town Tripper, a 17-foot Old Town Penobscot and a 16-foot Penobscot that fit into the 17-footer.

The river paddling was relatively easy. Ed Hixson classified it as a Class I, which means there's some downstream current but no obstacles. There were no portages.

"The gradient to the the river is 2 feet per mile," he said.

Because the trip went through a real wilderness area, there were no designated campsites. Generally, they pulled over after paddling for a number of hours and camped along the shoreline. For the most part, they chose campsites where it was windy to fend off the bugs.

Probably the most exciting part of the trip happened around noon on one of the last days of the trip. The crew was relaxing in camp when Wagstaff shouted out that he saw a grizzly bear making his way up the river.

That drew the others out of their tents and they gathered near the river to take a closer look. Each was armed with a can of bear spray (a large can of pepper spray) and a camera. Wagstaff also had a popper, a noise-making device to scare off the animals.

The bear eventually left without incident, but Fitzgerald estimated that it came within 65 feet of the group. It was within sight for about an hour.

"You could see the hair on the back of his neck standing right up like a mad dog," Ed Hixson said. "You could see the claws - 3-inch claws. ... You were close enough to count them. You could count the toes on his feet.

"If he wanted to maul us, he could have killed all of us with no sweat."

Luckily, Hixson said, none of the group members panicked and ran. They stayed together, perhaps appearing as a formidable foe for the 500-pound bear.

After that incident, the group members were more conscious of carrying their bear spray with them when they left camp for any reason. In general, though, the trip went on as planned.

"(That night) I slept like a baby," Drury said. "It never crossed my mind that I had to worry about that bear coming back and mauling us."

That was the only grizzly the paddlers saw, but they found bear and wolf tracks nearly every day. They also saw caribou, loons, Canada geese, Arctic swans, Arctic terns, bald eagles, peregrine falcons and a white wolf.

What the group saw a lot of was fish: lake trout, grayling and northern pike.

"You'd look in the water and it was all black with fish, and they are all around 5- to 8-pound lake trout," Drury said.

"Its like being at the hatchery and looking in the tank," Fitzgerald said.

Wagstaff caught the largest fish of the group: a 42-inch northern pike that weighed in the 20 pound range. The anglers caught three fish that approached that size.

"They were like eating swordfish," Fitzgerald said about the pike. "The meat was so dense on them. It was like having a swordfish steak."

Drury enjoyed the lake trout, which he doesn't normally.

"Usually I'm not a big lake trout eater, but it was a golden flesh," Drury said. "It wasn't pink. It wasn't white. It was golden yellow."

One precaution the anglers took after catching the fish was to be careful where they cleaned them. Generally, they gutted the fish right away off the side of the canoe, on a surface such as a paddle. They made sure not to clean the fish inside the canoe because that could attract grizzlies to camp and lead to a boat getting destroyed.

"These grizzlies haven't seen humans, and if they have, they certainly haven't seen very many." said Drury, noting about 100 people go down this stretch of river annually. "So it's not like they are looking to us for food. Certainly if you leave your fish guts around, there's a bigger chance of it."

When they weren't fishing, enjoying seeing the wildlife or just relaxing, the paddlers spent time exploring the human history of the region. Nomads have been hunting the region for thousands of years. Trappers, explorers and game wardens have spent time there in more recent years.

The group visited the cabin of a guy named John Hornby, who spent time there living off the land until he starved to death in the winter of 1927.

On the paddlers' last night, they camped near the remnants of an old encampment once used by Dene Indians when they hunted caribou.

"I remember sitting there just thinking, 'Here I'm sitting here and here 8,000 years ago some guy sat here with his stone spear, and the view is the same,'" Ed Hixson said. "It hasn't changed one bit."



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