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1998: first-rate trip of last resort

A first-rate trip of last resort

Setbacks turn out serendipitous for ambitious LaPine kayakersBy Keith Ridler, The Bend Bulletin - Feb 18, 1998

The Jardines used an off-the-rack canoe, instead of their custom kayak, for a trip in Canada's Northwest Territories

Plan B's happen when things go wrong. Plan C's happen when things go worse.

That's the kind of adventure - the plan C variety - a La Pine couple had last summer in the Arctic Ocean and unforgiving Northwest Territories of Canada.

Arctic pack ice forced Ray and Jenny Jardine to abandon their original plan of kayaking a portion of the Northwest Passage, legs of which they have been completing each summer.

"When we couldn't get through I was so disappointed," said Jenny. "I just love the coastline up there."

They had also put a lot of work and preparation into the trip, including building a lightweight two-person kayak from aerospace composites that Ray, who has a degree in aerospace engineering, designed on his computer.

The kayak worked well on the first part of the trip, a 975-mile, 18-day flat down the Mackenzie River from Fort Providence to the coastal town of Inuvik, where they arrived July 1.

On July 3 they flew to Nunalik (the farthest point east they had reached in the summer of 1996 before being forced back by the onset of winter weather) and traveled east another 200 miles - only a fraction of the original goal - along the coast in the Beaufort Sea to Tuktoyaktuk.

Though the region was sparsely populated, the Jardines did run into some native people.

"(They're) really rugged and wild," said Ray. "They're really living on the edge up there."

So were the Jardines, and pack ice forced them to turn around on July 14. Kayaks don't work well on ice, and the

entire Northwest Passage was solid with it.

"We decided to switch to plan B and paddle one of the rivers," Ray said.

The couple retreated to Inuvik, where they hopped a plane southeast to Yellowknife, a less-remote town located in the heart of the Northwest Territory, and made arrangements for their gear and kayak to be flown separately.

Once in Yellowknife, the Jardines went to the library to look at maps and decided to float 573 miles down the wild and isolated Thelon River, which has its source at Lynx Lake and runs generally east to the village of Baker Lake on Chesterfield Inlet. Then the Jardines anxiously awaited the arrival of their kayak and gear.

And waited, and waited, and waited.

The fly-by-night air-freight company never did deliver the gear and kayak, leaving the Jardines up a creek in Yellowknife.

"'This is a major bummer. Can't get our kayak,'" Ray recalled thinking. "We didn't have anything hardly."

But the Jardines aren't easily deterred, as shown by their spending three years cruising the world in a sailboat they refurbished.

Ray is particularly enamored with plan B's and C's. He scrapped a lucrative job with Martin Marietta at age 25 to spend 11 years rock climbing at Yosemite National Park while living out of his car.

He became and remains something of a legend in the rock climbing world, having successfully completed the most difficult climb ever done at that time (a 5.13 route called the Phoenix) and invented safety devices called "Friends" that today are used by rock climbers the world over.

Sales of Friends and hiking books the Jardines have written, particularly "The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker's Handbook," have helped finance their adventures.

So, with that background, and finding themselves apparently stalemated in Yellowknife, there was only one thing to do:

Commence plan C.

"We went into the Wal-Mart store in Yellowknife and bought a Coleman canoe," said Ray, noting other purchases including $10 paddles, $15 life jackets and plastic bins to keep food in. "Things you would never think of taking on a trip of this magnitude."

"It was ludicrous," said Jenny. "At first I was skeptical. But then I realized this is what we had to deal with."

They hired a floatplane to fly them to the remote headwaters of the Thelon River, with the pilot flying about 100 feet off the ground the entire way because of fierce head winds. The bulky canoe catching wind on the underside of the plane didn't help.

"Those guys who fly up there are hard-core," observed Ray, noting that the airsickness bags went unused despite some close calls.

After the pilot landed and said goodbye while shaking his head at the Jardines, who at this point had the appearance of weekend adventurers, Ray and Jenny began the float.

The most difficult part was getting used to maneuvering the 90-pound Coleman instead of their sleek 45-pound two-person kayak.

"Big Red" is what they began calling the canoe.

"We had various names for it," Jenny recalled.

But the float turned into one of those pleasant surprises that sometimes happen with plan C's. The Jardines saw a vast caribou herd grazing near the river, and on another day they paddled toward shore to observe a lone musk ox - only to be surprised by a dozen more snorting from the brush. They also spotted a grizzly bear and saw massive wolf tracks along the bank.

"As big as your hand - a wolf (track)," said Ray. "It's just amazing."

The river featured long stretches of rapids, and Ray and Jenny pulled the canoe by rope along the bank of the river and portaged Big Red when they had to.

"It was heavy as heck," said Ray.

In one stretch they faced a rapids-filled canyon and, after scouting for miles downstream without finding a place to get back to the river, lowered Big Red over the side of an 80-foot cliff.

The river contained fish three feet long. But the Jardines didn't do any fishing as the smell might have attracted bears and all their bear protection was with the kayak.

Finally, on Aug. 18, Ray and Jenny reached the end of their extemporaneous float by arriving in Baker Lake. There they discovered that the cost of shipping Big Red to La Pine would be more than it was worth, so they sold it to a local townsman.

"We had really gotten attached to that canoe," Jenny said.

Plan C followers know better than to expect anything more than the unexpected. But sometimes, plan C's do save the day.

"This was the most amazing trip I've ever been on in my life," Ray said.

The story has 26 pages. This is page 20.
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