Road to Ram III: Facing reality

The Road to Ram did not turn out as expected, nor did it end up being as long as expected. The days I spent in the Northwest Territories, however, were certainly not uneventful. It started with a snorting sound behind my back, as I was fixing my pack and waiting for a ride across the South Nahanni River.Click on the photos for a better experience.

By Jörgen Johansson

The snorting came from a sizable brown bear that climbed onto the shore some 30-40 meters away from me, shook the water from out of his fur, and ambled away.

I was taken across the river and a bit downstream, where it becomes the Liard River, by an old member of the Dene tribe. When he heard of what I wanted to do, he took me to the start of an old winter trail that I could use in the beginning of my trek. He was also a bit worried, did not want me to get into trouble and I thanked him for his concern, but also told him that everyhing was OK and that I had my permits from Parks Canada.

By now it was evening, even if daylight lingers this far north. In Fort Simpson I had discovered that they did not have gas canisters for my stove left, a considerable setback. So I had no choice but to use fire for cooking and an alcohol burner (that my hosts at Jarod Guest House gave me) in the National Park, where 'uncontained fire' was not permitted. In front of the locked cabin there was an iron stove waiting to be installed and I used that as 'container' for my cook fire that evening.

Balancing the pot on some rocks was not a great hit. In fact, the pot toppled and I had to start over again. Some inventiveness was needed. I found a nail on the ground and used that to punch some holes around the rim of my pot. I always bring a short length of soft wire in my repair kit. It came in useful now.

Not so elegant, but something I would be able to hold/hang above the fire instead of balancing it.

I heard some considerable noise in the bush, after feasting on my traditional noodles, but the visitor turned out to be pretty small. It was my first view of a porcupine, a bit strange considering the amount of time I have spent in areas where they can be found.

When he realised that I was not particularly interesting, and maybe dangerous, he trampled off into the bush, showing his impressive weapon, the tail, with its huge numbers of sharp quills  ready to penetrate the skin of anyone stupid enough to get too close.

The following day dawned with a strange lemon sky, probably due to forest fire smoke drifting in from afar. There were luckily no fires in the immediate vicinity. I shouldered my pack, with food for 15 days weighing around 20 kilos, and started to walk.

Parts of the trail were pretty nice. Being a winter trail in flat country it had been cut ruler straight in dryer areas, where there were trees.

Winter trails, however, try to make use of wet areas that are easy to travel in winter and where no trees have to be cut. On this little lake was a beaver lodge and lots of signs of the beavers cutting down trees.

The plan was to follow the Franklin Mountains north (to the right) to Grainger Pass, which was the second notch in the ridgeline I would come to, the first being Bluefish Lake.

Parts of the trail were wet, some considerably so. For terrain like this my mesh shoes were ideal, since not even high rubber boots would have stayed dry for long, considering how deep you sometimes sank. So it was much easier to get my feet wet immediately and then tramp on. The day was warm and so was the water.

By lunchtime I had reached the jumping off point, where the trail made a turn, continuing along the Liard and not leading me in the right direction any longer. From there on I would bushwhack towards Grainger Pass. Making lunch on a dry piece of ground among some spruce worked fine with my new construction.

For the first couple of hours after lunch the going was allright, inspite of dense stands of trees. This is what I had expected and was prepared for, since my bushwhack not far from here, backpacking into the headwaters of the Nahanni in 2011.

As the afternoon wore on the travelling got progressively worse and the undergrowth reached proportions I had never encountered before. The last two hours travelled that day were decidedly ardous, Still, I had hiked some 10 kilometers this day. Less than my daily goal of 15, but not disastrous.

I needed water, and my GPS was extremely important in order to find these little trickles in the dense forest. I found a space big enough to pitch my tent near one of them.

My shins and legs had taken quite a beating the day before, so the following morning I put some reinforcement to my thin nylon socks, using some medical tape. It worked reasonably well, but this is the kind of country were a pair of rugged gaiters would have been very useful.

This photo shows my legs after the second, truly horrible day of hiking. I had worked exremely hard for about six hours and travelled only about 3 kilometers. This was of course disastrous if I wanted to reach the Ram Plateau before Christmas. My shins had taken a beating from boughs and fallen trees. The wild roses growing are responsible for the red rashes, worst on the kneecaps but also putting numerous red spots on the front of my thighs. Thicker pants would of course been nice, however it is impressive that the thin 100 gram Patagonia running pants used were completely undamaged. The rose thorns penetrated the fabric, hurting my legs considerably, but did not rip it.

The trickle by this camp that night would not have been found without a GPS. I fact I had crossed the little brook without seeing it. This would be my home for the night, in spite of it being only mid-afternoon. The 200 meters across this moor, leading up to camp, was a marvel to walk compared to what had preceeded it. I put up the tent, crawled in, stripped all clothing in the heat and spent almost an hour horisontally before beginning to function again. By now I had decided that this was not something I could or wanted to do. I would go to Bluefish Lake the following day (if possible) and use my satellite phone to call for a float plane to pick me up.

The following days walk to Bluefish Lake was reasonable. Some areas were almost impregnable, some were just hard work. I was truly happy when I reached the beautiful lake, nestled in a notch in the mountain range after 2-3 hours.

No pickup by plane could be arranged before the following evening, so I spent the next 30 hours or so in this camp. Unfortunately there was no nice spot with a view of the lake that was dry enough to camp on, so I was tucked into the dense brush some 40 meters from the lake itself.

Mostly I spent this time reading, blessing my Kindle that allowed an entire library to be brought. There were also some repairs to be done. Both my hiking poles had taken a beating in the brush, but one was dangerously bent. However, there being no kink in the aluminum I think I managed to save it. I carefully straightened the bent portion to reasonable straightness by wedging it between some trees and putting my weight on it.

Rolling out of my sleeping bag the following morning, I walked down through the brush to where I could see the lake and the swirling morning mists.

Like it does in a movie or a book, from the right enters a moose, trudging through the boggy area closest to the lake.

What is going on? After a while she detected me and my clicking camera and snuck away in among the trees.

When evening came, so did legendary bush pilot Ted Grant, owner of Simpson Air.

When Ted heard about my failed attempt to reach Ram Plateau, he took me on an extra tour in that direction. Looking at the terrain before getting there I was pretty glad that I had aborted my hike. If it was doable, it was not by me. A likely explaination was that the area I had hiked through in 2011 was drier. Thus the underfoliage was less dense over there.

The canyons of Ram Plateau offered a stunning scenery.

The size of the area, the depth of the canyons where much more impressive than I wold have thought. Maybe one should fly in and spend some weeks just exploring?

A couple of hours later I could enjoy the twilight over the Liard river, right before it joins the Mackenzie, from my room. One backpackingtrip that did not turn out the way I had expected was behind me. But I would not want to be without the experience.