Solo-paddling to the Arctic Circle and beyond
Allen Macartney isn’t a stranger to the Yukon wild. This summer, having just turned 60, Macartney attempted something beyond the scope of any adventure he’s experienced.
SILENCE AND SOLITUDE – Ottawa resident Allen Macartney recently returned home after paddling more than 1,300-km from Whitehorse to Fort Yukon, Alaska. Photo courtesy of ALLEN MACARTNEY
Allen Macartney isn’t a stranger to the Yukon wild.
Twice he has led 750-kilometre canoe expeditions into the North, paddling from Whitehorse to Dawson City.
This summer, having just turned 60, Macartney attempted something beyond the scope of any adventure he’s experienced.
On June 30, he carried his 17-foot Nova Craft Prospector canoe down to the banks of the
Yukon River in Whitehorse and embarked on a journey that would take him more than 1,300-km into the North.
He would be on the water for more than four weeks, paddling through rushing water at startlingly high levels. Whirlpools, snags and sweepers would be a constant threat. He would face the wind and the rain and the sleet, the threat of bears and the danger that accompanies remoteness and he would do it alone.
The reason for the journey was two-fold.
History, Macartney re-traced the Klondike gold rush trail, and health.
At 60-years-old, Macartney wanted to prove the truth behind the adage that ‘age is just a number.’
When he pulled off the river on July 30, having paddled beyond the Arctic Circle, he’d proven even more than that.
Macartney arrived in the Yukon at the beginning of June, where his adrenaline and optimism were met with a wave of doubt.
“Everyone was telling me the Yukon River was in full flood and it was very dangerous,” he said in an interview from his home in Ottawa.
“I had so many people tell me that, it was just amazing.”
In 2011 the Yukon experienced 40 per cent more precipitation than normal and that trend has continued this summer with water levels around the territory spiking in the wake of rainfall.
Still, Macartney remained undeterred.
His inspiration for the adventure came from a book he read seven years ago, a detailed narrative of a man who solo-paddled across Canada.
He told his wife, Denise, who joined him on his two expeditions to Dawson City in the ‘80s, that he wanted to do something even better.
“I told her that was a great story but it would be far nicer to go down the Yukon River because it’s so beautiful with the mountains and the landscapes,” he said.
He asked Denise if she would join him again.
She responded that she would, but would pull out at Dawson City.
Knowing he wanted to paddle at least 1,300-km and that the temptation to call it quits would be too strong if Denise left at Dawson, the decision was made that Allen would go alone.
He spent the next seven years preparing his body and his mind.
Each year, he built up his routine.
In addition to regularly going to the gym and cross country skiing and snow shoeing in the winter, he made sure to climb at least 5,000 flights of stairs and cycle at least 500-km each year.
He also tuned out.
He spent time paddling through the Algonquin on his own, embracing the solitude and the silence.
“I recognized the physical preparation for a trip like this,” he said. “But the emotional and psychological preparation, in my view, was just as important.”
With the confidence that accompanies seven years of preparation, Macartney wasn’t going to let a little rain get in his way.
That first day, Macartney admits he was a bit on edge and a bit apprehensive.
The rain continued, the temperatures fell quickly throughout the day and into the night, the wind picked up, his tarpaulin leaked and he lost his watch.
“It was great,” he said.
“It was the start of an adventure.”
He kept a travel log of his trip for the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, who helped sponsor his trip along with Canadian outfitting company, Eureka.
On July 4, five days after starting his trip, his enthusiasm shone through in his first entry from the river.
“Adventure can either defeat us or make us fully alive to life’s possibilities,” he wrote.
“It can make us brim over with complaints and bitterness. Or it can transform us into a puppy sitting on the back seat of a car, its head stuck out the window and its tongue flapping in the wind — absolutely delighted with life.
“So when you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, ask yourself, ‘Is this an adventure?’ Sometimes we just have to seize the day — carpe diem!
“Remember… your hiking boots are only 48 hours away from being anywhere, ANYWHERE in the world! But you have to take that first step. Choose your adventure wisely, then go for it.”
Macartney soon discovered that he would be forced to re-think his plans.
The gravel bars he had planned to camp on, were buried underneath the rushing water.
After one particularly long stretch in which he paddled over 90-km just looking for a place to stop, he called Denise from his satellite phone.
“I think I’m going to have to tie the canoe up on a slew and sleep in the boat,” he told her.
“I can’t find anywhere to stop.”
Eventually, after paddling another five kilometers, he found shelter for the night.
Part of the reason Macartney embarked on his adventure was to embrace the beauty that accompanies seclusion.
“I wanted to step out of the 21st century,” he said.
“Step out of the rush and the bustle and all of that stuff and just eat chocolate and think about the beautiful scenery.
“The Yukon has such fabulous scenery. I tell people, you haven’t traveled in Canada until you’ve been to the Yukon.”
But the surging water, intimidating with its power, also derailed his ability to completely let go and relax.
“I had to be alert all the time,” he said.
With the river at full force, whirlpools, sweepers and snags were a certainty.
The snags, rushed his boat like torpedoes in the water, forcing him to dance the canoe around the danger.
He found relief on dry land. Pulling out of the river, sometimes for days, when the rain picked up and also enjoying a stop over in Dawson City where he swapped his paddle for a shovel.
He spent a day digging with Grant Zazula, a Yukon paleontologist, where he uncovered a 30,000 year old bison horn.
The time away from the boat, as refreshing as it was, didn’t change the reality of his circumstance.
When he returned to the water the powerful currents remained and the sense of remoteness deepened. It was a sobering reminder of the danger he faced.
Macartney, a seasoned adventurer who has spent years writing about outdoor pursuits, knew he had to keep his focus.
“Often the people who die in the wilderness are not necessarily the kids but the professional outfitter guides, “ he said.
“A number of times, when I was in my canoe and feeling comfortable and feeling pretty happy, I can remember telling myself, ‘nature doesn’t care if I live or die out here. It’s totally ambivalent. So I better be aware of what’s going on around me.’”
After several weeks on the water, Macartney wrote one of his most telling blog entries,
“Aching loneliness. That’s what I feel right now after several weeks alone on the Yukon River paddling North…
“It’s as if my bones are made out of spongy material and a sickly, oozing liquid loneliness is slowly creeping through every fibre…
“I know it’s just a phase that I’ll push through. Still, it’s reality right now. And its awful gnawing power is relentless. I miss my family so much.”
On July 30, a month after launching into the river, Macartney reached his final destination, Fort Yukon, Alaska.
Thirteen kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, Fort Yukon sits between the Yukon and Porcupine Rivers in the middle of the Yukon Flats.
A stranger, whooping his way down the river and spinning his paddle over his head in celebration, greeted the town of about 500 residents.
Upon his arrival, Macartney said he felt excitement, a sense of accomplishment and an urge to keep going.
“I just felt like this is my dream,” he said. “I’ve paddled over 1,300-km and I could keep on going.”
His journey was complete, he’d been in the Yukon wild for more than six weeks, he’d retraced the Klondike gold rush route and he’d proven that—at 60-years-old— he was still capable of throwing himself into adventure and emerging a better man because of it.
The days off had allowed his body to recover and by the time he reached Fort Yukon his aches and pains were barely noticeable.
During his preparation, he believed that he would eventually end up needing physiotherapy on his shoulders for the rest of his life.
It was a risk he was willing to take.
“I didn’t care,” he said of that possibility. “I thought this was an adventure just too good to pass up.
“But my shoulders are fine and I’m not aching at all.”
Three days after returning home, Macartney was back in his canoe, paddling around Meech Lake in Gatineau Park.
The trip having solidified the thoughts running through his head when he first pushed his canoe into the water.
“I really enjoy spending time alone and I like spending time with people. I like a balance but I think in the 21st century we don’t have a balance. I think we’re pushed way too fast.
We’ve got so many things in our schedules. It’s just really crazy hectic.
“The alone time was really great and it helped me to really do a lot of thinking that most people never get a chance to do.
“One person just before I left said, ‘well, I hope you find what you’re looking for’ and I thought I’ve already found what I’m looking for. I’m not doing this because there is an emptiness inside of me. My purpose was I love adventure and I’ve always loved adventure all my life. I’ve always been seeking it. My wife is very much encouraging me to go on Huck Finn adventures like this and find the little boy in me. And I think the 21st century just squeezes that out of most guys and by the time you’re 18, you’re expected to be thinking about university, to be practical and all of this reality stuff, when I was a kid I was thinking about tree forts and adventures and I think we can have that balance still, even as adults.
“Getting that jolt of adventure was a big part of this trip and I got it.
“It was a fabulous adventure.”