For 18 days, Alex McEwan woke up most mornings with freezing hands.
On a solo kayak journey down the Mackenzie River, he had a small window of time before his hands stopped working. He acted quick, gathering the dried wood set aside the night before with newspaper to set a spark.
“That’s adventure,” he said. “If I don’t get this (fire) started now, my hands will stop working.”
The daring-do of a lone journey had a simple inspiration: McEwan wanted time to think. Setting out from Fort Providence on August 10, he needed a moment to reflect after leaving a job in private equity.
An adventure seeker who had previously ridden a motorcycle alone from Calgary to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, McEwan had long been fascinated with the region. In particular, early accounts of Alexander Mackenzie’s voyage north caught his attention. Journeying up the river alone, McEwan could retrace his steps and, with a month-long gap in August, he finally had the time.
The bush was like nothing McEwan had experienced. Rock formations gave way to mud flats inundated with river water, which led into long sections of forest.
“It’s kind of like the interstate freeway of the North,” McEwan said. “You get this huge cross section of the north that you’re traveling through.”
Having dinner and watching the sunset each night, he would fall asleep to the howl of wolves and the calls of elk. The silence was striking, too. He forgot how accustomed he was to the buzz of traffic and overhead planes.
Some moments were dicey.
One came as he approached the ramparts to the south of Fort Good Hope. The ramparts get their name from the large rock cliffs sprouting on either side of the river as it narrows to about a kilometre across. The low water levels made for rough conditions, he said. With the kayak almost at max capacity, he paddled to the side, hoping to avoid the worst of the whitewater.
Paddling in, he saw a ledge emerge from the rapid that was a few feet high. That was concerning. McEwan’s kayak was 17 feet long, and almost at max capacity. He pushed forward, kept paddling and thought, “hopefully the thing doesn’t flip,” which would have made collecting the boat’s contents extremely difficult. McEwan admits whitewater paddling isn’t his strong suit, as well.
On approach and leaning forward, he watched the kayak’s bow disappear under the water. McEwan remembers “surprisingly” making it through safely and with the boat upright soon after.
Another time, on the fourth day of the journey, he said he saw a dark cloud crawling toward him across the horizon, which a guide book warned him would lead to heavy winds. He consequently went ashore and set up camp to avoid poor conditions.
Tying his boat down by his campsite, he turned around to watch the wind rip his tent pegs out of the ground. He watched his gear – sleeping bag, pillow, and rifle included – tumble away.
“If you had shingles on your home, you’d be missing a few shingles. It was that windy,” he said.
He eventually caught up with the tent, grabbed it and climbed inside, trying to sleep the night while holding the tent pole all night. In the morning the fabric was marked with holes.
“There were moments where things slow down, and you go, I wanted an adventure,” he said. For McEwan, that included those difficult conditions and daily challenges of the environment and trials of paddling alone.
Which isn’t to mention the physical toll of the journey.
“Skin starts to dry out, you start getting burns. Your hands callused … and cracks all over (them) and your feet. Big cracks. Mud’s getting in there. But that’s part of the adventure,” he said.
Coming ashore the evening of August 28, McEwan rested in Inuvik and reflected on the the roughly 1480 km of the last 18 days. After a graduate degree and demanding jobs, “it’s probably one of the more challenging things I’ve done in life,” he said.