A Tale of the Yellowknife River
Updated: Jan 20, 2019
It hangs over my desk via staple and cork board which was originally intended to display a checklist of up coming homework, but remained empty for months so I figured I’d put it to better use. I utilize this image as a tool that allows me to escape the artificial constraints and anxieties I face due to the modern day expectations of society.
Blissfully still, just as I remember it, calm, yet brought to life by seemingly unnatural hues of pinks and oranges, wild. A scene perfectly reflected by alarmingly still waters, wrongfully suggesting it’s segregation from mankind. I remain seated as I procrastinate dish duty. The near freezing waters below, serve as our sink for the week. I think to myself, "that shit can wait."
In this moment I am overwhelmed by an unknown mix of feelings of serenity and apprehension. A feeling enhanced by the idea of solitude, stomach full from sucker whose home waters, although distant, can be seen from camp. Nothing matters here, society no longer cares for us and we no longer care for society. It’s a moment like any other, but it sure as hell doesn't feel that way. My buddy speaks up in necessity to address the beauty of what we’re experiencing, no one says a word after that.
Five 16 year olds heading out to the distant wilderness of Canada’s Northwest Territories, 5,000 km from home, mark it up as a bad idea. The original thought was to paddle a couple canoes down the Yellowknife river for a week, surviving on fish lurking in the near freezing waters, making camp on crown land which inundated either side of the river as far as the eye can see. Public land served as a dream come true for a group of offbeat teenagers whose unorthodox excitement for freedom and the outdoors is what fuelled the trip in the first place. Against the recommendation and concern of everyone with the slightest glimpse of common sense, we embarked on a desperate pursuit to live out the constructs of our imaginations.
Aboard the plane from Edmonton to Yellowknife, my buddy John sat next to a gentleman who made his living as a fishing guide on the Yellowknife river. As John eagerly explained our plans, with a slight cockiness in his voice as we relished any moment to show off our heroic bravery to pursue such an idea, the conversation came to an abrupt end. The man warned us of the possibility that the river may still be frozen. This is a perfect demonstration of our preparedness for the trip.
It’s a frightening, yet rewarding reflection. I now acknowledge that the trip may serve as the epitome of bad decisions. We learned our lessons; an eight kilometre walk is a hell of a lot longer than it seems on google maps, especially while trekking 60lb packs. Throwing your thumb up on the side of the road is a piss poor way to get places, but if hitchhiking does prove fruitful, it’s pretty badass to ride the bed of a pickup truck. Four packs of hot dogs is nowhere near enough to feed a weeks worth of growing teenagers. Decapitating your catch as a demonstration of dominance and pride is highly unnecessary and leads to avoidable complications during the cooking process. Half cooked fish, with consistency of pulverized squash tastes just as bad as it sounds. And, oh yeah, our expectations of seeing the northern lights were demolished during the first night when we found out it never gets dark up there in the summer months. But we wouldn’t have known that of course.
The final leg of the trip was the agonizing paddle back to society, the energy and sense of achievement, well worn off. We trudged down the river in silence, pausing every hour or so to link up canoes for naps as we let the river’s current fuel our return for 15 minutes or so.
The feeling of departure is a difficult one to accurately portray through words. Camp offered a love-hate relationship. We loved the heroic feelings of being isolated in the woods, yet the wild comes with a generous serving of difficulties and discomforts. Society on the other hand was the last thing we were looking for, but society had food, and we were hungry.
We eventually came across the same bridge we passed on the way in. A marker of proximity to our destination. However, the north side of the bridge, which we were now exposed to as a result of paddling down river, advertised greater meaning than a simple landmark. In an ambiguous mix of blue and yellow spray paint a message read ‘BAD DECISIONS = GOOD STORIES’.
The meaningful message somehow served as justification for the destructive nature of graffiti. It's as though the culprit of the crime knew that anyone who came across the message would be returning from the unknown wild of the up river, committing to the bad decision, yet rewarded upon return by good stories. A shitty piece of art work at best, but in our case, a cherished experience which succeeded in summarizing the trip better than anyone could’ve written up. I thought it was damn cool.
But for now I return to 11:16 pm, peering over the cliffs edge against a retiring sun, and what I considered at the time to be the most incredible moment of my young, yet self proclaimed ‘adventure filled’ lifetime. We were all slowly coming down from the threatening commotion of an echoed bang which seemingly rang out to the horizon. The noise, coupled with the empty Remington 12 gauge shotgun shells we found earlier in the week (which currently sit on my night table as a memento of the trip), led to a foolish assumption that our lives were undoubtedly in danger. We contemplated how no one would know if or how we had died if it’d come down to it. I guess if your going to run with the locals, you’re bound to fall with them as well. Society doesn't acknowledge the death of an anonymous animal, why should they for us. I didn’t hate it.
A sudden appearance of ripples were a preview of the dreaded killer. Destructive solely in that it managed to disrupt the harmony of the impossibly still waters. The culprit revealed itself to be a beaver, idling along in the water, acting in simple accordance with its instinct. Assessing the situation, we concluded that the beaver's tail smacking against the water was the weapon. It posed no potential harm against us so we settled down and stared on.
As I indulged in the beauty, I began a mental investigation as to why these moments are such a distant, unfamiliar experience to all of us. The sheer beauty and physical appeal of the landscape plays an obvious role, but there's more to it than superficial elegance. A deeper ensemble of emotions that alters the course of our soul, independent of what the eye sees.
Truth is these moments of leisure and enjoyment are few and far between out here, if you're lucky enough to experience one per trip, you count yourself a winner. The natural world has a funny way of beating you down, only to bring you up again when it's needed most. Civilization doesn't do that, instead it progresses through a set of permanent tracks of societal comforts, utterly disregarding any request of excitement or change.
I must note that the majority of this trip was overwhelmingly miserable; downpours, mosquito infestations, hours on end of paddling, hunger. As Steven Rinella of MeatEater once noted, this kind of thing is "high quality fun". The type of fun which is absolutely miserable when you’re in it, but provides enthralling memories too one day reminisce on. On the contrary, "low quality fun" is the fun you enjoy while your in it, but ceases to exist and seemingly falls off into oblivion once its over. You never look back and say, “remember how fun that roller-coaster was”.
I wondered if the rest of my buddies were engaged in as deep a thought as I was, or were instead simply marinating in amazement. Around midnight the calm waters became all too intriguing so we decided to pack the canoes with our fishing tackle and try our luck at some northern pike. I saw the biggest fish of my life that night, a northern which I assumed to be tipping the scales at 30 inches. It got unhooked just as we beached it and somehow managed to flop it’s way back to the water. In a mix of excitement and arrogance, I chased after our dinner into the near freezing waters. These actions had me grounded by the fire until all of my gear dried. Big fish, lost fish, hunger, wet clothes, all over before I had time to curse away my frustration. I remind myself the dishes were waiting when I got back. I become oblivious to the beauty of this moment.
Written by Mike Fiorini