February 7-18, 2009
Long-Range SAR operations field training exercise
9-day, 84-km, Moose River-Ice Expedition, James Bay, Arctic Ocean, Ontario, Canada


Drive Day 1:

Team MiBSAR—Dave Mansfield and I—met in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. After arranging long-term parking for his vehicle, we crossed the border without incident and drove to Chapleau, where a snowstorm to the north prevented further travel.

Drive Day 2:

Drove from Chapleau to Cochrane. Finished fabricating combination ice spud/thumper in hotel room: embedded 10-inch-long chisel in end of 6-foot-long piece of 1.5-inch-diameter stump-dried sapling, anchoring with four hose clamps. Chisel (spud) end would be used to check thickness of ice; blunt, thumper end would be used to sound-out ice to make sure it was supported by water (solid sound), not air (a deadly hollow sound). After our last, home-cooked meal, returned to room to make final equipment checks.

Day 1:

Drove to Ontario Northland Railroad station in Cochrane, Ontario and boarded Polar Bear Express train at 9:00 a.m. for 237-km ride to the insertion point for 12-day expedition: Moose River Crossing on the Moose River. Five hours later, had conductor stop train and drop us off at the trestle over the mighty Moose River at mile 143. Standing on the tracks, we were about 140 feet above the surface of the Arctic Ocean, which was situated 77-klicks (km) away. The Moose River's expansive ice sheet lay 40 feet below us.

After checking to make sure our ice-rescue picks and bowies were easily accessible for the next 12 days of travelling and bivouacking on unpredictable river ice, we rigged swami belts around our waists and--after looking quickly each way for any rail traffic--looped an 80-foot chunk of rope around the downstream rail and proceeded to belay our 120-pound-plus, gear-laden sledges (containing 42 pounds of rations and 10 pounds of fuel each) to a plateau 20 feet below us.

With all the gear moved off the tracks, we did a light rappel through nearly waist-deep snow down to our gear. After moving the sledges over to the steeply-cut bank of the river, we looped the rope around a huge, white, Cree Cross supporting a dream catcher and belayed and rappelled the final drop to the surface of the Moose River.

After getting up close and personal with the ice, we harnessed up and began sledging downstream. Checked out some very old literal gypsum caves and conglomerate rock bank formations. As darkness set in, we unrolled our bedrolls on the ice surface, using a huge boulder for protection from a northwest wind. It clouded up around 3 a.m., after the rise of a full moon. During the night it snowed several inches. Elevation: 90 feet above sea level. Temperature: plus 14 degrees Fahrenheit.

Day 2:

When we arose, we found our bivouac sacks covered with several inches of fresh snow. As the weather gurus had predicted, a warm front moved in and we were treated to the unusual experience of a February sleet and rainstorm. Cold wind out of the southeast was inescapable on the river. Soaking wet, we avoided stops to prevent hypothermia, and to keep our life-saving insulting layers inside our sledges, where they would stay dry for the coming deep-freeze.

Bivouacked up against the downstream end of a wind-swept island, about 500 meters upstream of Wabosh Rapids. To better protect ourselves from the foul weather, we fashioned snowwalls on the river and rigged our tarps over them. Elevation: 75 feet above sea level. Temperature: plus 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

Day 3:

Rain turned to snow by noon. Very cold wind coming directly up the river from James Bay challenged us all day. Bivouacked atop riverbank, 1.7 km upstream of Big Asp Island. Used pulley haul rig to rope our sledges up near-vertical bank. Winds were unrelenting until middle of night, but view was very nice. Elevation: 75 feet above sea level. Temperature: minus 1 degrees Fahrenheit.

Day 4:

Very windy and cold today. After lowering gear to ice, we sledged downstream to the head of Big Asp Island. Went around the backside of Big Asp Island, where I came close to breaking through (the ice collapsed under the front third of my snowshoe), and bushwhacked over to the Otakwahegan River, hoping to recon it for a future expedition.

Once at the Otak proper, we sledged upstream a few klicks (km) and established a bivouac high atop its west bank. Along the way, we avoided a small section of open water. Night sky was awesome. Elevation: 68 feet above sea level. Temperature: minus 12 degrees Fahrenheit.

Day 5:

Sledged down Otakwahegan River to Moose River. In bright sun, we worked our way down center of Moose River, bivouacking in the lee of a small island upstream of Wikikanishi Island. Unlike the first few days, wolf tracks seemed to be everywhere. Elevation: 40 feet above sea level. Temperature: minus 16 degrees Fahrenheit.

Day 6:

Awoke to heavy ground fog, so thick we needed our compasses to navigate at first. The wind-driven fog created thick hoarfrost on the windward side of our equipment. We sledged along the east bank of Moose until we reached its confluence with the big Abitibi River.

After lunch at the mouth of the Abitibi, we decided to recon it upstream for several kilometers to see if it would be suitable for a future expedition. Our maps showed the rivermouth consisted of four main channels, each separated by rather significant islands. Since we would face dangerous ice conditions--even open water--if we tried to cross in front of the rivermouth channels, we elected to work our way up the southernmost channel.

As we neared Allen Rapids, we faced a long stretch of precarious ice and open, fast-moving water, which challenged our upstream progress. After roping up--attaching an 80-foot-long piece of one-half-inch rope between the swami belts we wore around our waist every day so we could easily rescue each other--we carefully worked our way up the rapids, chipping and sounding the ice as we moved.

For a ways, we found ourselves atop a narrowing ice shelf, sandwiched between the open, swirling current and the cut bank. Eventually, we passed by the hazard, cleared Allen Rapids, and reached safer ice. As the sun set, we established our bivouac along the opposite side of the river, in the protective lee of Allen Island. We followed lots of wolf tracks during the day. Elevation: 45 feet above sea level. Temperature: minus 24 degrees Fahrenheit.

Day 7:

When we awoke in the morning, we found the river ice had cracked, and opened a bit, right through both our bivouac spots. After clearing Allen Island, we followed the eastern edge of the fourth channel down to the Moose River.

As we worked our way across the Moose--which was at least 1,300 meters wide at this point--we paused mid-river to take in the expansive view. Bright and sunny, we decided to shoot a 360-degree panoramic video clip of the scene for Chris Ozminski, our partner who could not make the expedition at the last minute due to a work commitment.

Sledging down the western edge of the river, we ended up bivouacking at the mouth of the Chimahagan River. Elevation: 25 feet above sea level. Temperature: minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit.

Day 8:

Awoke to a beautiful sunrise. Shortly after departing, we arrived at the head of Kwetabohigan Rapids, a 3-km-long set of roller coaster rapids. These rapids also marked our arrival at the upstream limit of the James Bay tidal flats. The violent turmoil of the Moose River's current against the ebb and flow of the Arctic Ocean's tidal waters was all too evident.

For as far as the eye could see, upended ice--including 20-foot-plus high piles of almost vehicle-size ice slabs--was everywhere. Partway down the massive field of ice slabs and shards, we passed the mouth of Kwetabohigan River, which further added to the mix. After a few hours of picking our way through the field of massive ice chucks, we arrived at flatter ice. We bivouacked in a narrow river channel, in the lee of Arrow Island. Elevation: sea level. Temperature: not recorded.

Day 9:

After a hearty breakfast and a couple mugs of hot drinks, we sledged downstream. Eventually, we decided to see if we could make Moosonee--where the river swelled to over 5 kms in width--before the southbound Polar Bear Express departed. As we neared the upstream limits of Moosonee, one by one, groups of tethered sled dogs and free-roaming mongrels announced our arrival.

In a narrow side channel behind Maidmans Island, we stopped at Bushland Airways, Ltd., to inspect two of their ski-equipped bush planes parked on the river ice.

In showing our gear-laden sledges to the pilots of a single-engine Cessna 206, they agreed the six-seat, Super Skywagon would only be able to haul two of us at a time, considering the amount of gear we had. We learned they were also open to try and insert us 50 miles up the North French River in 2010.

However, they were a bit concerned about landing on a remote, unknown section of river ice since the landing could be tricky, and any slush or overflow hidden under the snow might freeze them in for the winter. They thought it might be safer to drop us on a nearby lake....we'll be checking with a local helo pilot too as lakes are far and few between on the Hudson Bay lowlands.

Delayed by our visit with the pilots, we hustled over to the train station, arriving with just 45 minutes to spare. Once at the station, we received a warm welcome from several locals as well as the Ontario Northland Railway personnel on the Polar Bear Express.

Apparently, word had spread throughout the area about what we were doing. The pilots even joked the talk about town was they would have to fly out and rescue us, as they had ill-fated expeditions in past years. While we had trained hard and assembled first-rate outfits, we were indeed lucky that Mother Nature gave us a pass this time around.

After a 6-hour ride, dinner, and lots of questions about our expedition aboard the Polar Bear Express--and a few stops to deliver cases upon cases of beer and barrels upon barrels of petrol to a couple of wilderness types living deep in the bush--we arrived in Cochrane.

Thanks to reasonable driving conditions, we were both back in Michigan the following day, albeit very late at night.
The planning and training for the February 13-28, 2010, 84-km Abitibi River Expedition, with an insert at Blacksmith Rapids, is underway...