It was a grey and miserable morning in Whitehorse. Having got up unnecessarily early, fuelled on nerves, our stomachs knotted with the pancakes we had hoped to relish as our last good meal for a while. We must have looked a sight, sitting in the otherwise respectable hotel foyer, expedition kit littered at our feet. After the events of previous few days our egos had been suitably chastised and we weren't taking any chances in missing our ride up to Mayo.
How confident we had been in Vancouver airport 37 hours before. Watching our bags loaded onto the plane and casually commenting to each other that it was surprising we hadn't been called to board yet. Top tip for anyone catching an internal flight out of Vancouver - they don't call you to board, the information boards seem to be there for fun as no information will appear on them, the "Gate C" sign doesn't actually mean you are at Gate C, only that you are getting warmer, and oh yes, the announcer to page missing passengers only can be heard the other side of security. It still makes me feel a little bit sick to think of it now, but sure enough we arrived just in time to see the plane door closed. So having arrived at the airport 3.5 hours early we still missed the flight! Parting with a transfer fee and having to pay the luggage overage fees all over again hurt the budget sheet but not as badly as dented pride. We had 10 hours to contemplate our stupidity waiting for the next flight, half of which was spent staring at a conveyor belt, waiting for our bags to come back.
All in all our arrival in Whitehorse wasn't all that we imagined and we would have been just glad to hit the hay and sleep off a bad day. There was one last surprise for us though. In our haste to create a third bag to avoid additional charges I had accidentally packed the 1kg of plaster of Paris loose. We had had grand plans of using it to cast bear tracks. It had plans of it's own though including covering all our waterproofs and footwear. Our heads just about exploded at this point. How on Earth did we think we could carry off an ambitious wilderness journey if we couldn't even pack properly or get on a plane!? It was raining. Mixing plaster and rain would be bad. We decided to deal with it in the morning!
So you see, having spent a lot of the previous day trying to recover the kit and generally feeling pretty stupid, we were not the excited bunnies we should have been waiting for the outfitters to pick us up. Fortunately the pace was about to pick up. Out of the gloom appeared the van complete with bright red canoe on top and we were off.
Coming from the densely populated diddy British Isles the space and distance in North America is consistently extraordinary. When we were planning the trip the distance between Whitehorse and Mayo didn't look like much - a short hop. Six and a half hours later we pulled up at the jetty belonging to Black Sheep Aviation.
Everything about this scene shouted at us that we were finally living the expedition we had dreamed about for so long. Beaver aircraft looking resplendent on the placid water framed by spruce covered hillsides. Before we knew it the boat was lashed to the undercarriage and we shoehorned ourselves in.
This was the first time either us had been up in a float plane and I found it amazing how short the take off was. Soaring through turbulent skies we snapped away at the incredible scenics between slightly unnerving drops in altitude caused by the turbulence over the mountains.
Sometimes ignorance is bliss, and it may have been a co-incidence, but I did get a little nervous when Harry, the pilot, reached for the Spot Tracker (beams out GPS position in event of a crash) on the dash to make sure it was working after a particular bumpy bit!
Our first glimpse of the Wind River was really special. Sunlight glinting off its braided channels it appeared like liquid silver draining through the wild landscape. As my heart began to float to poetical places so it plummeted as Harry banked hard to bring us in over Lake McClusky. Trying to stay professional and keep the cameras rolling I couldn't help but glance over at our able pilot to make sure he had meant to throttle back to pretty much the point of stall. This was a man who knew his business. Despite the cross winds, and the lake being the size a postage stamp, he executed the most perfect landing I've ever experienced. The really show off part of it though was, having switched the engines off on landing, the plane just smoothly floated under momentum to stop perfectly by the dilapidated jetty.
Out of the bush came Etrem. We hadn't expected to see anyone so this came as a surprise! Etrem had had a really bad time of it. Having landed there several days before he had attempted to solo paddle the river. Unfortunately his canoe had an argument with a tree not much more than a kilometre down. Fortunately he was unhurt and the canoe still in one piece but it transpired that he had lost half his kit including his satellite phone. So he had dragged his canoe back up to McClusky and had been waiting there in the hope that another plane would come in and he could get a lift back out. A salutary reminder of how unforgiving this wilderness can be and that even the smallest of mishaps can have disastrous consequences. It doesn't even bare thinking about how bad this could have been if it was further down the river away from the Lake where a plane can land. We really felt for him and it certainly put our stupid plaster crisis into perspective. It didn't do much for our nerves though!!
We said our goodbyes and lugged our kit to the old trappers hut. The drone of the Beaver's engines quickly faded leaving us in deafening silence. Fighting to acclimatise to the enormity of the wild space we were now in we almost autonomously went about setting up our tents. What made the difference though was lighting that first fire. The comforting flames somehow brought us closer to the place and gave us a glow of confidence in the venture ahead.
It felt exceptionally good getting into my sleeping bag that night despite the -2deg C temperatures. After 2 years of planning we were finally here. Yes we were pooping ourselves that at any moment a bear would rip through the tents, or tomorrow our boat, body and possessions would be dashed against the rocks, but we were here and the adventure had at last begun!
Some of the best white water sections of the Dart Loop
On one of the coldest weekends of the year the team met on Dartmoor to tackle their first training trip together on white water.
I drove down on the Friday evening and the moor was covered in snow but the rain was pounding down washing most of it out. Sitting in the comfort of the rented holiday cottage with a nice glass of red, the tension my dad and I were sharing (but also trying the suppress) was palpable!
The next morning with faithful Wilma (the canoe) lashed to the top of the Land Rover we headed down to New Bridge, the get-in for the "Dart Loop" a grade 3 stretch on the River Dart. I had a look at the get-in with the intention of getting an idea of the water levels to do the easier Lower Dart. For some reason we made the rather rash decision to gamble it all and just go for it.
Before we knew it we were heading down snow melt, high level grade 3. Exciting to say the least in a tandem Canadian Canoe! Not the recommended way to learn river paddling (Niall hadn't been in a boat on rapids since 1968) but what an adventure!! Fortunately the GoPro survived the trip so we've put some clips together to share the carnage :)
A Crash Course in River Paddling
An expedition like this requires dedication from a great team so although it will be just Niall & Chris on the main expedition here you will find contributions from not only them but the whole support crew back home as well