Four men, two canoes and a river: Friends spend 27 days on Mackenzie River following historic quest


Rodika Tollefson, KP News

In July 1789, famed Canadian explorer Alexander Mackenzie discovered the Arctic Ocean by following a river that now bears his name — the longest river in Canada.

In June 2006, four American men set off on an adventure to follow the explorer’s route. That was 902 miles, 25 days of paddling, 27 days on the river, and 450,000 paddle strokes (or 385,000 strokes, depending on who was counting).

Mackenzie didn’t think much of his trip: His goal was to discover the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. So he called the river Disappointment River, and barely mentioned the trip in his journal.

For the four adventurous spirits who tried to recreate the journey — Vaughn residents Phil Bauer and Don Hornbeck with John Richardson of Burley and Dan Linnell of Mount Vernon — the trip was much more exciting. “We had a good time,” Hornbeck says. “We laughed all the way.”

Bauer, Richardson and Linnell got the idea of the trip after doing a similar one on the Yukon River in 2001. The three friends had been on other excursions together as well. When Bauer first approached Hornbeck, he didn’t exactly convince him.

“I said it was a goofy idea,” Hornbeck says. “I read the Mackenzie account and said, ‘That sounds awful.’”

The four men loaded their two canoes, enough food to last 30 days, clothes and camping gear into a truck, and drove 1,600 miles to Hay River (a tributary), where the truck left on a barge for the rendezvous point at Inuvik.

“On the second day, the river was high and we couldn’t find a camp. We paddled 14 hours a day,” Bauer says. “We realized there was nothing we could do because our truck had already passed us (on the barge). We had no choice but to keep going.”

Lucky for them, that day was an exception. On average, they paddled about seven hours a day in about three increments. Instant oatmeal and bannock (fried bread) were daily food staples, along with the twice a day ritual of setting up/breaking down camp. “It was a spartan existence,” Bauer says. “I pitched that tent 39 days in a row.”

The river proved monotonous for the majority of the route, except for about half a mile, where it narrowed and had beautiful scenery. “The river was pretty repetitious… the same type of foliage and banks,” Bauer says.

Despite the proximity to the Arctic Circle, the temperature was in the 70s and 80s on most days, and unlike other travelers who described the route as “gray,” Bauer noticed beautiful colors of the river, the skies, and the tundra. The sun never set, and a few days brought cold rain.

The paddling proved much more arduous than they expected (the river was slow), but overall the group had a great time. Although it was not unusual to see no sign of civilization for three or four days in a row, they encountered many friendly local residents in the sparsely populated villages and the few towns along the way.

“The most interesting and enjoyable part was (meeting) the people, the aboriginals and white Canadians,” Hornbeck says.

The trip was as much a test of endurance as it was a cultural experience. As part of the preparations, they read Mackenzie’s journals and books by others who traveled the river. During the journey, they were surprised to learn that summer is the slow season on Mackenzie, with locals trapping lynx, beaver, mink and other animals in the winter using sleds pulled by dogs.

Richardson, who kept a detailed account and plans to write a book, describes one encounter with a couple that included listening to trapping journeys, being served bannock and coffee in the “best china” inside a tepee as it started raining, and leaving behind for the hosts some venison jerky and sausage from Linnell’s hunting.

“We counted ourselves fortunate that circumstances of wind and water brought us to these wonderful people,” Richardson wrote in his journal.

The group’s journey ended in Inuvik — a bit short of the actual Mackenzie route. Reunited with their truck, they drove back 2,700 miles, first to Dawson on the Dempster Highway, then on the Alaska Highway to Seattle.

“It was an incredibly interesting experience,” Bauer says. “We will do it again.”

The next route? Probably a shorter river. The fun part is doing the research and the reading to make the decision. “(The river) has to be interesting on its own merits, and almost every river is,” Hornbeck says.

Sounds like this adventurous group has more than just one quest to add to their future map.