Howling wolves, frigid temperatures, bears, blowing winds and whitewater rapids: just some of the trials faced by a Canadian adventurer who recently paddled across the North.
A few months ago, Alex Mcewen, 30, was in Calgary, working in finance. This week, he arrived in Inuvik, a settlement in the Northwest Territories on Canada’s northern coast, after kayaking 1,480 kilometres down the country’s longest river: the Mackenzie. The trip can usually take more than a month. Mcewen did it in 19 days. Alone.
He set out from Fort Providence near Alberta’s northern border, on Aug. 10. But the journey began a few years ago, when Mcewen travelled to the North for a conference. It was wild and lonely, and it generated a fascination with the region.
The Mackenzie river snakes its way northwest across almost the entire Northwest Territory, from Great Slave Lake to the Beaufort Sea. It’s named after Alexander Mackenzie, an 18th-century explorer who travelled its length, venturing into then-uncharted territory, seeking the wilderness at the edge of the map. He found it.
The landscape is wild: Rolling tundra changes to mountain valleys, to marshy wetlands. It’s cold, and summer doesn’t last long. There are some settlements along the river’s banks, but they’re few and far between. Some are oil-industry based. Others are First Nations settlements that were here long before Mackenzie’s name was given to the river. The perfect place to disconnect.
Mcewen recently left his job working in private equities. He’s considering starting his own business, but he wanted to take some time to himself: gather his thoughts; reflect.
So he went north.
As a child growing up near Toronto he had a sense of adventure and a love of the outdoors. He took it with him into adulthood. He’s travelled the world and his last adventure was a motorcycle journey from Calgary to Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay in May of 2017.
But operating a motorcycle doesn’t require the same fitness as a kayak. He had some experience paddling in high school and more recently on southern Alberta’s rivers. But he had never been in a sea kayak – the long vessel he would need for this journey. Mcewen did not train specifically for his trip. He was in shape, he thought, from working out at the gym in Calgary six times a week, and he was determined.
Manoeuvring the long boat was a challenge at first and the days were long. He paddled constantly with the current and his body grew accustomed to the work. The boat became familiar and he was able to guide it through increasingly rough conditions.
In some sections, the Mackenzie is flat and wide. There’s plenty of room for a strong wind to grow. He often paddled into the breeze: powering through whitecaps for as long as he could before taking a break on the side of the river. Conditions were calmer in the morning, so he would wake before dawn to get an early start.
In other sections, the river is fast and wild. The rapids there are tricky to navigate under usual circumstances, even more difficult in a sea kayak weighed down with camping gear and food.
At one point, the river was almost too much.
“I’m paddling and then all of a sudden, there’s a four-foot ledge ahead of me. ... Not something you should go off in a 17-foot sea kayak,” he said. He saw the bow of his boat poke over the edge and submerge into the water. If he lost his balance, it could have been catastrophic.
“The water’s cold,” he thought to himself. “It’s cold outside. Everything I need to stay warm and alive is on this boat."
But he kept paddling and made it through.
Any mishap could have ended in disaster. Mcewen was alone most of the time, except when he met kind locals who shared food with him, or when he stopped in at one of the settlements along the river.
The wildlife was beautiful, he said, but he was worried about the potential danger of bears. He saw muskox, otters, coyotes, fox, heard wolves at night and saw black bears. He never saw a grizzly – which maybe was a good thing. While he was on the river, a man was dragged out of his tent downriver and killed by a grizzly. Such attacks are extremely uncommon but Mcewen had bear spray and a shotgun, just in case.
Wildlife attacks are rare. Hypothermia is not. Temperatures frequently dipped below freezing, and he was always wet. He started and ended each day by making a fire out of the plentiful driftwood that line the river’s banks, his hands often numb as he nursed the flames to life.
But the wilderness, and the challenges it brought, changed him. The solitude cleared his mind, he said. Life was wilder on the river. More raw. There were times when he had to depend on his wits to make it through.
Mcewen said he plans to open his own business in a few months. That life won’t compare to life on the river, he said. But he’ll always have the memories of dazzling northern sunsets and solitary days powering up the lonely stretch of the Mackenzie.
“It’s very real,” he said. “This [trip] was kind of a wake-up call to keep this adventurous side of yourself open I guess and keep pursuing those challenges.”