Canoe North Adventures
March 23, 2012
Taylor Pace, Al Pace and Lin Ward of Hockley Valley operate Canoe North Adventures and have led 90 expeditions on 21 rivers in the NWT, Yukon and Nunavut.
There are a lot of reasons a couple might decide they are incompatible, but an interest in different sports pursuits isn’t usually high on the list. Nevertheless, horse riding enthusiast Lin Ward had some marital jitters over Al Pace’s infatuation with canoeing Canada’s north. She recalls, “During the early years, Al was going north to the Arctic as often as possible. I avoided those trips like the plague.”
It turns out Lin’s apprehensions reflect those of many who have since become great fans of Canoe North Adventures, the company the Hockley Valley couple started once Lin “got the northern bug.”
With the sort of deft persuasion that has become his trademark, Al convinced his wife to paddle the Yukon’s South MacMillan River. Though she agreed, Lin was terrified by the prospect. She didn’t believe the flatwater paddling she’d done was sufficient training.
“As I prepared to head north, the expedition rested on my mind like a black cloud. I imagined myself always behind the group, struggling to keep up and being asked to face things I was not sure I wanted to face: brutal portages, big bugs, and surly whitewater. Physical exertion to this level was not in my vocabulary! What kept me going was my trust in Al.”
I could relate. Last August, I had a week to ponder my decision to accept CNA’s offer of a trip down the Northwest Territories’ Mountain River. At the time, my familiarity with Canada’s northern rivers was limited to the famed Nahanni. The Mountain was the Nahanni’s little-known, but more challenging cousin. There would be at least some “surly” whitewater, as well as six tricky canyons.
Lin recalls that when she finally made it onto the South MacMillan, it was as if “a lifetime of responsibility fell off my shoulders. I could see my 16- self with all the feelings of youth, when life was simple, innocent and full of joyful freedom. I was hooked!”
That was 21 years ago. Over that time the couple has become well known locally for their Farmhouse Pottery studio on Hockley Road, where Al’s clay designs often feature northern motifs. But since then, this paddling duo has also logged a combined 40,000 kilometres on Canada’s northern rivers. In recent years, their son Taylor has become an integral part of the company too, including working as a lead guide with Al. In total, they’ve led 90 expeditions on 21 rivers in the NWT, Yukon and Nunavut, making their track record hard to match in canoeing circles.
With so much time in the bow (Lin) and stern (Al), you might think they would be winding down their operation, which runs from May until September each year, but nothing could be farther from the truth. CNA’s business took a big leap forward in July last year with the official opening of their brand new outfitting centre in Norman Wells, a small town in the NWT’s Sahtu region, not far from the Arctic Circle. Prince Andrew, a school friend of Al’s, cut the ribbon and spoke eloquently about Canada’s north.
With funding from the territorial government and an informal alliance with North-Wright Airways, Al andLin are helping put the Sahtu region on Canada’s tourism map. (Coincidently, North-Wright’s president, Warren Wright, grew up in Dundalk, Ontario.) They aren’t the only people from Headwaters involved in the campaign to balance out the NWT’s focus on resource extraction. Over the last three years, some nine people from Headwaters, including Al and his son Taylor, travelled to the land of the midnight sun to help build CNA’s outfitting centre, and the hangar, dock and aviation museum next door.
Laurie McGaw and her contractor husband Ross Phillips are among the most involved. Laurie, who lived near Shelburne for years, is an eminent Canadian portrait artist. With Lin’s recommendation, Laurie was commissioned to paint two murals that depicted the region’s aviation heroes for North-Wright Airways’ new facilities. Laurie was so enamoured with her experience that she plans to return to paint portraits of some of the Sahtu’s Dene elders. Ross, who helped North-Wright convert an old Alaska Highway building into the aviation museum, will do the finishing carpentry on the new home of Warren Wright’s son. The couple has caught Al and Lin’s northern bug,although, as Ross emphasizes, “not enough to want to live up there year round!”
Defined by the Mackenzie River, Canada’s longest, the Sahtu region encompasses Great Bear Lake as well as a range of the Mackenzie Mountains that rises up from the river to the Yukon border. It is the source for several paddling rivers, among them the Mountain, Keele and Natla. These rivers flow for hundreds of kilometres, gaining speed and girth as they tumble out of the mountain peaks and flow into the Mackenzie. With names that are unfamiliar to all but a few ardent paddlers, a handful of geographers and a growing number of mineral prospectors, these waterways are largely untracked. They receive a small fraction of the paddlers who navigate the Nahanni.
Although Lin and Al lead expeditions on a dozen or so different northern rivers, a number of which empty into the Arctic Ocean, it’s the Sahtu Region that is their passion when they are away from the Hockley Valley. Inhabited mostly by four different Dene people, the small town of Norman Wells (pop. 800) is their base, as well as a home to Imperial Oil since the company discovered oil there in 1919.
Oil remains a focus in Norman Wells, especially now that the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline is once again being considered, but it’s gold that has helicopters f lying up and down the Sahtu’s deep valleys and over its sharp peaks. And it’s minerals that threaten the Sahtu’s pristine wilderness.
As I made my way down the 340-kilometre Mountain River over 11 days, we came across ptarmigan, sandhill cranes, eagles and dozens of magnificent woodland caribou, their antlers so enormous they made my neck hurt. Though we never spied any, I could imagine that grizzlies and black bears watched our progress. We picked blueberries, identified soapberries and cranberries, made Labrador tea, and hiked high up into mountains.
Karl Schiefer, who spent 35 years as an environmental consultant, has accompanied CNA on five northern rivers. Karl recognizes that people who travel these rivers will also see what I spied in the lower reaches of the Mountain River. Here, sheer cliffs composed entirely of fine silt limit the river’s gracious curves. The only “structure” holding these banks together is permafrost. Even though the air temperature was cool, they were melting. Streams, in some cases rivers, of mud carved deep channels and flowed unimpeded into the river, filling it with sediment and eroding the shoreline. Karl confirmed my fear that a warming climate was speeding up this process. I wondered what effect it was having on the river and its resident wildlife.
Recognizing the need for tourism to balance out mining interests in the Sahtu, Karl is enthusiastic in his description of CNA’s expeditions: “I’ve been on lots of organized trips and Idon’t think you can give them too high a mark … Anyone who goes on one of Al and Lin’s trips will come away with a different view of wilderness.”
What sets CNA’s expeditions apart isn’t only the couple’s canoeing experience, it is also the care with which they craft each trip. When I answered their last-minute call for a journalist, Al was most interested in the fact that he knew me and felt I’d get along with the group he had already lined up. My writing credentials and limited paddling resumé took a back seat. The couple has made a career of getting the personal chemistry right for each trip. I came away from the Mountain River with some new, likely life long friends.
Getting the right people often puts Al’s gift of persuasion to the test. Take Cathy Macdonald who weekends near Mansfield, as an example. A trip to Florence or Paris was her idea of the perfect 50th birthday. Problem was, her husband Jamie, who doesn’t like cities much, ran into Al some months before Cathy’s big day. It wasn’t hard for Al to convince Jamie that Cathy’s 50th would be better spent on a CNA canoeing adventure. But it took some conniving to talk the birthday girl into it. “I didn’t know why Jamie wanted me to go visit Al,” Cathy explained. But the meeting worked. Al convinced Cathy to give the north a shot despite what she thought was her too little paddling experience.
Getting people to believe they can handle a big-water northern river is one of Al and Lin’s greatest challenges. Another is getting them to understand that the trips CNA operates are pretty comfortable. The food is great, the tents are roomy, the biffy generally has a great view, and happy hour is always entertaining.
Even though she’d agreed to paddle the Keele River, Cathy said, “I couldn’t sleep for a week before that trip.” As she looked back on that 2006 expedition, Cathy says it was the beginning of her more adventuresome holidays (she’s since paddled the Mountain River). “I proved to myself that even though I was 50, I was not about to be turned out to pasture.”
I had a similar experience on the Mountain River. I was so unnerved by what I’d signed up to do, I spent the better part of an afternoon a few days before I was to leave watching how to-paddle-whitewater videos. When I finally climbed into the bow of the canoe high up in the Mackenzie Mountains, I was filled with trepidation. But as we cascaded down that powerful river at a pace that seemed fitting for a downhill skier, I learned some of the tricks of the trade. By the end, I had developed a reasonable bow-draw stroke. It required me to brace my knees against the boat and lean my body far out of the canoe so that I could stab my short, fat whitewater paddle into the roaring river to gain the traction I needed to pull the canoe around and avoid “kissing” a looming sheer cliff face in one or another of the Mountain River’s canyons.
But as much as I loved the exhilaration of days spent flying down 100- and 200-metre-long white water ramps, it was my first sighting of caribou that will stay with me forever. It will be Al’s sheer joy at leading our group safely down the trickiest of the northern rivers. He took charge of our trip with the light touch of a benevolent dictator. His leadership went unchallenged as he sought out the best routes down immense rapids, through sheer-cliffed canyons, and among as many as five or six river braids. With his eagle eyes, he always spotted wildlife first, pointing them out with the glee of a young child.
John Wheelwright, who lives near Palgrave, has paddled three rivers with Al (two of them with his wife Isabel). He said, “I feel that anyone who enjoys the outdoors should make a real effort to visit Canada’s north by canoe. There is really no other way to enjoy the majesty of the northern rivers.”
It is also a tremendous way to push your limits as Lin and Cathy and I had done along with, no doubt, dozens of the 136 other Headwaters residents who have followed Lin and Al to the north. Like me, they took heart in CNA’s safety record: although there has been an occasional capsize over the years, none has resulted in injury or evacuation.
Thanks to Al, Lin and my stern paddler Taylor Pace, whose skills match those of his parents, wild excitement crowded out any fear I had during my trip down the river. More over, I vowed that one day I would return again to paddle Canada’s north, one of the world’s great wilderness landscapes. It can’t be for my 50th birthday and it won’t be as a young bride, but I can’t think of any adventure that would be as exhilaratingly romantic as undertaking this trip with my life partner. Guess I’ve caught the northern bug too.
Learn more about upcoming expeditions, read campfire stories and view more stunning photographs at: