Against the current

Birch-bark canoeing had been one of Robert Twigger's dreams. But he woke up fast, halfway across the Canadian north, when a group of bears charged...

If you write adventurous travel books, as I do, there is a requirement that at least a little adventure is encountered on each trip. Naturally I don't want to imperil myself or do something really stupid, but even a cursory examination of true adventure books shows that the "adventure" is usually a successful escape from some elementary blunder. Ranulph Fiennes is much braver than I, but many of his adventures occur because of some mistake he, or one of his team, has made. This is the dilemma: good stories seem to demand bad judgement. One way around it is to make yourself sound more frightened than you really are, so that the event seems more dangerous. The other, less satisfactory, technique is to describe what could happen (tigers, tiger sharks, cannibals, you name it) but fortunately doesn't. I didn't want to do either of these. I wanted a bona fide adventure.

If you write adventurous travel books, as I do, there is a requirement that at least a little adventure is encountered on each trip. Naturally I don't want to imperil myself or do something really stupid, but even a cursory examination of true adventure books shows that the "adventure" is usually a successful escape from some elementary blunder. Ranulph Fiennes is much braver than I, but many of his adventures occur because of some mistake he, or one of his team, has made. This is the dilemma: good stories seem to demand bad judgement. One way around it is to make yourself sound more frightened than you really are, so that the event seems more dangerous. The other, less satisfactory, technique is to describe what could happen (tigers, tiger sharks, cannibals, you name it) but fortunately doesn't. I didn't want to do either of these. I wanted a bona fide adventure.

No one sets out to make mistakes, but one can increase their likelihood. On a short trip one can plan ahead, foresee disaster and carry more kit. Short trips are usually nearer to civilisation. Short trips are safer and adventures are less likely to happen. This was why I'd chosen a long trip. On a long enough trip in a wild enough place, adventures (ie mistakes) were bound to happen, however cautious and sensible I was - bound to, by some law of averages favouring travel writers.

I had always wanted to make a journey by birch-bark canoe. I longed for the magic of going into the woods, collecting the wood, bark and spruce roots for free, building the boat and just setting off. English bark is too thin, so I would have to do it in the home of the birch-bark canoe: Canada. I saw myself on one of those lakes that reflect the hillside of pine trees so perfectly you can't tell the real from the reflection. It seemed as if I was carrying this dream around for years before I finally decided to do something about it.

Of course, the canoe wasn't free, though I did help build it, stitching together the sheets of bark with split lengths of spruce root and then sealing the join with a mixture of bear fat and pine resin. It was 21ft long and could carry a ton of fur. I was ready.

For an alibi I chose to follow in the wake of the great Scottish explorer Alexander Mackenzie, the first white man to cross the North American continent, in 1793, a decade before transcontinental pioneers Lewis and Clark, a fact most Canadians are proud to repeat to bumptious Americans. He used a birch-barker, as I had started calling them, though his was a little longer, 25ft, with six men paddling, short barrel-chested French Canadians, voyageurs, who paddled 55 minutes every hour, smoked a pipe for the five remaining minutes and continued, one paddle stroke a second, 60 a minute, 10 hours a day, rain or fine, with or against the current until the rivers froze.

Against the current... if I was to repeat Mackenzie's epic voyage from Lake Athabasca in the middle of Canada to the Pacific Ocean I would, for 1,000 miles, be going against the current. No one in their right mind does this any more. Recreational canoeists only go downstream. Going against the current is like running up the down escalator - a laugh for a bit, but tiring and ultimately pointless. But in Mackenzie's day there was no other way. Because I wanted to stick faithfully to his route, I, too, would be going against the current.

I needed a team. I didn't know any French Canadians, and advertising involved the additional problem of interviewing and testing applicants. It was a real headache. In the end I was clutching at straws. I even asked an old college friend I hadn't spoken to for 10 years who was fully employed, overweight, married, with three small children and living happily in Australia. To his credit he replied, "I'm interested but could you give me more than 10 days' notice next time."

By the second summer of the trip (we could travel only when the rivers were ice free) I had a tight-knit team of unemployed 25-year-olds, all casual acquaintances or friends of friends. Paranoid Dave, Lucky Joe and Barney the ex-Bath rugby player, the only one with any real muscle. We got on pretty well, using a circulating stock of paperbacks as a substitute for argument, everyone reading and only Paranoid Dave ranting against the system, the loggers and the manufacturers of his tent (which was now leaking). At night, after a swig or two of rum, we'd forget our differences and sit around an enormous fire of driftwood and talk until the small hours. Every night the northern lights, like a green and white diffuse laser show, made the sky miraculous. We lay on our backs on the sand (we always tried to camp on mid-river sand islands) and watched the mechanical dart of satellites for hours.

The first summer involved building the boat and paddling to the remote start at Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca. The next summer we paddled the Peace River. This year, in May, we have the last leg: over the Rocky Mountains, down the Fraser - with the current at last - and then across to Bella Coola on the Pacific Coast. For the last 50 miles we will travel by dugout canoe, just as Mackenzie did. He wrote his name in red paint on a big rock looking out over the Pacific Ocean, and then turned around and went back the way he'd come. He was able to return in three weeks along the river we took three months paddling against this summer (he'd taken two with his bigger boat and crew).

Joe Vermillion, an Indian ex-trapper we made friends with (they are all ex-trappers now, post-Greenpeace) told us the secret of paddling against the current: "You have to use the short cuts, the inside curves, the back channels. You have to be sly with the river." He also rescued our dog, a half husky/half collie we lost for five days in the forest 100 miles from any habitation. Somehow Joe knew just where to find us, and when he did the dog didn't want to leave his boat to climb back into ours.

It was Joe who told us about the great fishing to be had at Jackfish river. But he did not mention the bears. That was our second adventure. Our first had been crossing the Boyer rapids, all of us out of the boat and hanging on to the sides as the current swept us along, until the we hit shallow ground and were able to escape. My notebook, monocular and camera were all ruined. (I had forgotten the first rule of river travel: everything gets wet.) The mistakes were piling up, and so were the adventures.

But back to the bears. The previous summer we had seen a bear a day, sometimes two. These were black bears, smaller than grizzlies, but still weighing 300lbs or more. Black bears are supposedly more aggressive, more inquisitive, more likely to charge than grizzlies, but also more likely to be scared off if you make a stand. That's the theory. I'd gone into the bush armed with theories before and it doesn't feel good. In all my extensive reading on the subject I'd gleaned that bear researchers carried aerosol air-horns as used on pleasure boats. A blast from such a horn - the bear horn, we called it - was said to be enough to put bruin to flight. I wasn't against carrying a gun, and one backwoodsman we met was so concerned for our safety that he offered to lend me his 12-bore loaded with rifled slugs (illegal in the UK for very good reason: a rifled 12-bore slug makes a .357 Magnum look like a kid's toy). We practised shooting the gun behind his cabin, but when Barney accidently discharged the thing into the woodsman's dog kennel (leaving a huge embarrassing hole but missing the dog) I decided we'd be more in danger from ourselves than from bears.

There are numerous bear sprays, like souped up anti-mugger pepper sprays, on the market, but they are very much a last-ditch resort. I took a measure of comfort from the statistic that there are no known bear attacks on groups of five or more. There were four of us. Barney was big, but he wasn't twice as big as one man, and he didn't have two heads, so the margin of danger remained. Barney, who hadn't been with me in the first summer, complained that he really wanted to see a bear, "just so that I could say that I had seen a bear". I was quite happy for him to be disappointed.

In the middle of a nine-day stretch without seeing anyone we camped at Jackfish river. The campsite was not great: the beach was the kind of mud that looks dry but after a while water starts to seep up where you are standing. By morning the fire and campsite area looked like a First World War battlefield. I was up early with Paranoid Dave, who the previous night had lost his mess tin while washing up in the river. Two days earlier he'd left his sandals behind and was now bravely going barefoot. He was explaining at length that it was the gradient of the bank rather than incompetence that had caused the loss of the mess tin when he stopped speaking and pointed in horror to Barney's tent. A huge bear was trying to get under the fly-sheet. Where was the bear horn? In the tent! Where was Barney? In the tent! While I dithered, Dave shouted. The bear looked round and then lumbered off into the willows that bordered the beach.

I ran to the tent and got the bear horn. Barney was still deeply asleep. Back at the fireplace Dave was video-filming the opposite bank of the river. Another bear was calmly munching on poplar leaves. I fired off the horn and the bear looked around and carried on munching. Without speaking, Dave pointed up our bank and yet another bear was eating leaves perhaps 150 yards away. What was this? The teddy bears' picnic? Then a huge crashing sound came from the willows directly behind us. We were being charged. I fired off the bear horn repeatedly but the crashing sound just got louder.

"Aren't you scared?" I said to Dave.

"Not while I'm filming you," he replied.

I reached into the fire and pulled out a big flaming stick. Thinking I looked pretty resolute, I waited for the bear to break cover. Cave men used burning sticks to protect themselves. From an evolutionary point of view it must have worked.

The crashing sound was highly unpleasant. It was so close now that I could see the tops of the willow trees shaking violently as the bear charged towards us. I fired off the bear horn just for good measure. Then I kept my finger down and gave it one long blast. The bear crashed to the edge of the willows, less than 10 yards from us, and then stopped. What now? I pressed the bear-horn, but it only gave a feeble poop. I'd squandered all my air. I raised the flaming stick, except now the flames had gone out. There was a shuffling sound, then the bear abruptly turned and ran away.

On the video I didn't look resolute. I looked like someone poking a fire to find his lost baked potato. When Barney woke up, he was sad he hadn't seen a bear, except of course in the way he had seen bears before: on television. We packed up camp in nine minutes - a record we were never able to match later. We paddled up river and camped on a sand island with nothing for bears to hide behind. We'd had enough of an adventure for one day.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The main gateway to the trickier parts of north-west Canada is Calgary, served by Air Canada from Heathrow and, in summer, from Gatwick by charters and other low-cost carriers.

STAYING THERE

Northern Saskatchewan is largely uninhabited. However, you can find reasonable accommodation in the town of Fort Chipewyan, on the shore of Lake Athabasca in Alberta. There is space for camping in the Wood Buffalo National Park such as at Pine Lake Campground (001 867 872 7960, www.pc.gc.ca), which costs C$13 (£5) per pitch per night. For comfort, the Fort Chipewyan Lodge (001 780 697 3679, www.fortchipewyanlodge.com) has rooms overlooking Lake Athabasca. Double rooms start at C$126 (£50) per night with a C$10 (£4) supplement for each additional person, room only.

EATING & DRINKING

Lake Athabasca is home to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations people, so try some Native Indian foods, such as venison and buffalo meat. Fish is also an obvious choice, such as Arctic char.

GETTING AROUND

Feeling adventurous? Athabasca Fishing Lodges (001 306 653 5490, www.virtualnorth.net/athabasca) rents canoes, paddles, life jackets and ropes for use on the Lake for around C$200 (£80) per week.

If you are not quite as brave, The Great Canadian Adventure Company (001 780 414 1676, www.adventures.ca) offers custom-made guided canoe trips around the Lake Athabasca area from May-September, starting in Saskatoon. From there you will be transported by plane to Stony Rapids, on the eastern side of Lake Athabasca where you stay in a lodge overnight. The canoe trip takes in the Williams River, the Athabasca Sand Dunes and Lake Athabasca.

RESOURCES

Tourism Saskatchewan (001 877 237 2273, www.sasktourism.com) Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management (001 306 787 2700, www.se.gov.sk.ca)

Parks Canada (001 888 773 8888, www.pc.gc.ca)

INDEPENDENT INDEX

Price of a stamp for a postcard home: C$1.40 (£0.55)

Price of a cup of coffee: C$1.50 (£0.60)

Sophie Lam

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