The Great Northern Catastrophe

Day 1
So it’s day 1, the travel day. It’s an interesting thing. I have been excited about this trip for a long time and I tell everyone I can about it. I think because I am proud of what I am trying to do, and it think that’s good right?
And I will also say that the support that I have been receiving from everyone in my family and friends has been unwavering. I’m grateful to each and everyone of you has helped me get this far.
I say that day one is interesting for a couple reasons. The first being that I am leaving on a greyhound bound for Whitehorse, though I’ll depart just outside of Liard river at Muncho lake, at midnight from Edmonton. And it’s 20 hours of busing along as well.  But it’s also interesting for every kilometer this bus drives is a kilometer that I have to walk back. And then some. And on top of that I get to Muncho lake at 8 pm. So it will be the whole damn day! It’s also interesting because I keep wavering from excited and ready for this adventure to moments of fear and “what the f*ck is wrong with me?”. But I am excited. I’m excited to push myself and test my own limits. The solitude and the distance and just the weight of that will be a test on its own.
But now it begins, and I’m committed at least to the fact that I’m sitting on a bus going one way and there is no escape. This is it, this is the start of it all. Wish me luck.
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Oh and for those who haven’t taken a greyhound in a little while, a word to caution;  there are lots inserting people…..so ya. My trip will start with no sleep as the lady in the seat adjacent me talks overly loudly on her phone and explains to here chatmate that she’s really awake now.  Lovely.
Thank God for technology, an ipod and some earphones to drowned her out.
I will also say that this does add to my looking foreword to being alone, camping with some silence and away from any and all people and craziness!!

Lastly, if someone wants to meet with me during my expedition, please email or text me before I get to the town prior to the area you want to meet, then I can get ahold of you in the town, and via sat phone if nescassary to coordinate the meet up!
Ryanmshields@hotmail.com
780-910-1810

The day ended with the bus pulling up to the strawberryfield Campground… I think. I think that’s what it was called. anywyas, it was full. And the bus has already pulled away, not that I wanted to go any further north! So I poached a site at the far end of the Campground on some advice from an already camper.
Tomorrow….. it starts.

Day 2

Lasts night sleep was unsteady, I woke numerous times both filled with excitement and nervousness, as well as once at 2:30 am to the bright light of the day. Oh ya. I forgot that this far north the sun barely drops below the horizon. It’s dark-ish for maybe 2 or 3 hours up here this time of year and gets a lot of its darkness simply from the mountains surrounding!

I pack up camp with an ease about it, taking my time and stopping half way through packing my bag to sit on a log facing the lake and finish my hot cup of coffee.

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I’ll hike down the entire lake of Muncho, all the way to were the highway bends east towards toad river. From there I’ll decide if I have the energy to push on. And that I did, I think partially just the excitement that I’m literally doing this one step at a time. I hit the bend in the highway, follow it east maybe a km and turn south down a quad trail. Down and across the bridge, then back west to the valley that toad river follows.

I’m 25 ish km in and a storm starts to come in, and worse, the river has washed out the trail. I remember someone on the bus up talking about how a bunch of the towns in the area have flooded and even some roads have been washed out. I was hoping this wouldn’t affect me though I know the area I’m hiking is the same as the flooding.

As the rain turns to hail then to an absolute downpour I’m searching desperately for cover from the storm. That’s when I see below the trail to my right this odd wooden structure sticking out from the ground…. interesting. Could be cover from the rain, could be a hermits hut waiting with a shotgun. I yell ‘I’m a hiker looking for cover from the rain, I’m coming down’
I get to the bottom of the hill, and no one’s there. Thankfully I think. It’s an old tunnel, possibly for quads to travel under the trillion above but it’s been burnt, or at least someone tried to burn it down…
I hunker down in the abandoned tunnel and decide this a good time for lunch since it’s now 2pm and I haven’t eaten for nearly 6 hours. Good thing as by the time I’m done eating the storm passed and the sun is out blasting it’s heat down again and my gear is almost instantly dry.
I decide I’m making a push for moose lake, another 10 km or so, this would make a 35 km day….. I don’t make it. Maybe 30 and my legs are done, they’re spent. Tonight I camp here. I’m feeling good though, confident.

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Day 3

The day starts with a trek passed moose lake, no moose for me to see though. I feel yesterday but I feel good, I head for the gataga river crossing, thinking I can crush the 30-40 km day no problem.

The heat though is wayning with the coming clouds, and it’s very welcome…. or was. With the clouds came rain. First light in the morning, actually very welcomed and refreshing,  like a light shower while I walk. Then it started to rain harder. Then harder. Then my jacket started to soak through and my rain gear became a water holder instead of a water shed. I guess three months in the mountains on an already 4 or 5 year old jacket will wear the waterproof agent out.

I did not make the Gataga river. Ha. Ha. No. I barely make the cull between two peaks just north of the Gataga river and the uphill for the last two hours pushes me over. My knees are aching and my feet burning and my quads are stressed and my calfs pumped. Here I’ll camp, nice spot and hopefully safe. Tomorrow I’ll push for gataga.

Then a storm, right near where I want to camp, the lightning didn’t seem so threatening and guess wind was fairly low. But the thunder. Light shotgun blasts so loud it hurt my ears. Maybe 10 second count from the flash so I know I’m safe but so loud in the tent…. tonight I sleep damp. Very very damp.

Day 4.
Gataga river…. 100 km or so  from the start and maybe 100-150 km to Fort ware after the river crossing. I made short work of getting here, but there’s a problem. The river is high and really really fast moving. I don’t know what to do. It’s not that I ignored the guy on the bus talking about the flooding and high waters recently, or the fact that the spring runoff would have the rivers high, but this is extreme. I can tell it’s higher than usual as game trails are submerged and trees are floating down the water almost constantly, meaning they’re being pulled in where they normally wouldn’t be.

I’ll camp here tonight and decide what to do in the morning, as far as I can see just
In each direction is the same. Do I go 20 km east or west?  What if there is still no crossing. Waste a day? I have 4 days good left and I have to be smart.

Day 4.5 and 5.

So last night I settled into my Campground,  set up and ate dinner, organized my gear. I even built a small fire atop a pile of rocks and sat in front of that for a while. Then I decided it was bed time around 9 ish, crawled into the tent but was feeling restless so I put dumb and dumber to on my ipod and doze-ly watched the film before falling asleep around 10 pm.

Then something happened I can’t get out of my head. Something that shook me to my  core. I woke to a moaning growl type sound.  At first I was half asleep, half didn’t think I heard it and half did. Then I heard it again. This time loud and clear….. and fucking close. Really close. I sat up and in seconds had my pants and shirt on and started to get my shoes on. While doing so I started to make my own low tone sounds. It sounds silly but I in my deepest voice and as calmly as I could muster I slowly said go away. Go away go away. Then I opened my tent fly and crawled out with bear spray and machete in hands. It was as dark as it gets up here and I couldn’t see them anymore. I could still hear them growling so I started to yell. I say them because of the higher tone, smaller sounding growl moan accompanying the deeper one. I saw the Grizzly in my camp when it ran into the trees but I could not see the second one. A cub? a smaller bear? All I knew was they were not leaving, but I had to.

And then I walked toward my bear hang and there off in the distance was a grizzly bear. My heart literally was going three thousand miles an hour. I was shaking. I started yelling loudly but as calmly as I could. I wanted to startle them but not scare them too much to trigger a response.  The bear retreated slightly into the darkness of the tress but I could still hear them both. I went back to my tent and stated packing as furiously as I could. I had everything except my bear hang in my backpack within 10 minutes. The entire time yelling and scanning the dark trees nervously. Then I grabbed my bear hang and threw my food into my backpack. And silence. I couldn’t hear them anymore. The odd branch snap or flutter of  birds wings and I would spin about instantly bear spray up and machete in hand.

I started to walk at 1.20 am. Back. I can’t go south, the river 1km away is the overflowing Gataga river. The way back is the bears and my trail out. I walk fast checking over my shoulder every thirty seconds. Maybe 20 minutes go by and nothing… I finally start to lower my guard a little. I’m walking fast, then I hear another growl. Another fucking bear in the trees to my right, I almost stumble and fall. My hands go up, hiking pole and bear spray and I stumbled my way through the brush trying to give this third bear a very wide girth. It doesn’t move, but I do, walking sort of sideways as I stumble through the thick brush back to the game trail. Then power walk on. Again checking over my shoulder over and over. As I walk I start to think, okay how far do I go? How far is safe? It’s too far to hike out so I’ll have to camp again…. fuck.

Maybe another hour goes by and I’m still walking, yelling out every few minutes to let any animals know I’m coming. And as I’m hiking I hear another growl. A black bear. Jesus. Another damn bear. And I’m so tired, my knees ache and my back is killing me. And then it growls loud and aggressive and the bear starts to move towards me. And out of sheer reaction, as if I’m giving my dog shit I yell as loud and as harshly and as demanding as I can ‘that’s enough’.
Then silence. The bear was moving at me, and I yelled that’s enough with enough ferocity that the bear froze and went silent. Nothing moved. Not me, not the bear, maybe 50 feet to my side.

I started to slowly walk backwards, then sideways and onto the next trail, and away again. And he didn’t move or make a sound. And I kept walking. Four bears in one night, what the hell.

I walked another couple hours until about 4 am. I walked until I was so tired, my body so burnt that I had to stop in a rocky clearing. A large clearing I could see maybe 200′ In each direction.  I put my bag down and fell asleep laying on the ground for maybe 45 minutes in the rock and dirt. I woke up freezing, and put my bag back and on walked further. And then further.

And then when I finally felt safe again I walked a little bit further. I set up my tent, sent up camp once more, by now it’s nearly 6 am. And crawled into the tent. I didn’t sleep a damn wink over an hour.

I got out of the tent about 7 am and make breakfast and had a coffee. I think in a little  bit of shock. Then I hiked more.  My God that day I was tired. It took everything to keep moving my feet. I hiked, between yesterday and last night nearly 45 km. I still have two more nights minimum camping if I can make it 30 km today.

That’s it. Just pain and fear. I am too far back to try going forward again with the food I have, and to far in to walk back in one day and try a new route.

Day 6

Hiked nearly out. Didn’t sleep much either last night, maybe 3 hours. Doesn’t matter. If I make the highway tomorrow I’ll be safer. Safe enough to sleep….

I don’t know, I’ve hiked a long time and in the mountains for years, including solo hikes and never have I bumped into 4 bears, let alone in the middle of the night, let alone having two in my camp, least of all a damn cub.

My bear hang was 200 ft away and so was my kitchen. Why in my camp?? Maybe, maybe the young bear was curious? And why four of them? Maybe the high rivers are keeping them from moving as much too?

I don’t know, but reluctantly….. I’m headed out. I can’t make fort ware. I don’t have the food or energy level… or even the guts to try again. Not along the toad river. Not alone….

It’s tough. I feel like I’m letting everyone who has been so supporting down. Like I’ve failed so miserably. I don’t want to give up, but there’s no way to do it now. Another weeks food and for what? A gamble on flying the racing river into a valley I haven’t been too? What if the river is still too high? Then what. Give up my dream I guess…. if I can’t get to Fort ware I can’t get to Mackenzie. If I can’t get to Mackenzie there’s no point in going to tumbler ridge. So now what. I don’t know. I’ll think… tonight I’ll try to sleep and think.

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Day 7.

I hike to the highway. Takes me most of the morning. Then I hit the road, finally. But now I have another 22 km to walk to the nearest camp ground, then I can hopefully sleep easy and see if I can hitch a ride to Toad river campground or Fort nelson.

While walking along the wide ditch of the highway I get to thinking. God dammit Ryan. You knew there were bears but four all in the middle of the damn night?? And now what? Go back to everyone who’s expecting you to accomplish something awesome? Damn me for being so stubborn…

I think; you know what gets you into trouble all the time Ryan?  Being so damn stubborn. But I also have done some cool shit too right? That’s perseverance. That’s it. That’s the difference. My friend Chad calls me six gear Ryan. Because I’m always going so fast or so hard I guess. And that plays in my mind.
Walking the highway sucks by the way but it gives you lots of time to think. And I think, perseverance is your good quality, stubbornness is not. Stubbornness gets me in trouble. Over and over. But perseverance gets me farther in life. And it’s a thin line I think. Persevering to do this hike got me here. Being stubborn enough to push so hard got me in trouble….stupid.

I walk. And walk. And walk. My body is sore. I pray that some kind north western Canadian will pick me up and lift me to the camp, a 10 minutes drive for some kind soul is nothing but saves me  6-7 hours of walking in the extreme heat.

3 hours go by and I’m still walking. Nothing. Maybe 200 cars fly by and nothing. What the hell Canada? I put sign on my backpack 2.5 hours ago with the name of the Campground and a ‘will pay’ disclaimer on it. Stick my thumb out at every car. And oh ya, in the bear altercation the other day I broke one of my hiking poles. So at least my hitching thumb is free. Doesn’t help my knees.

And finally as I’m about to give up on hitch hiking and commit to another night camping along the highway a car pulls over. And what do you know it’s a couple of Americans from Denver Colorado. Not Canadians. For shame Canadians.

Anyways, not only are they super nice and put up with my smelly ass they get such a kick out of my story they offer to drive me to Fort nelson. We chat the whole way about my summer and their kid who just moved to Anchorage Alaska from the beaches of Florida (I know right!?). They drove up and are driving back and lifted me all the way back. If I can catch a bus I’ll head back to Edmonton to re-plan.