A Quiet Crisis

Posted Apr 23, 2005
Last Updated Jun 21, 2012
river wolves
The following is an account of my October 2002 wilderness expedition on the Harricana River in northern Quebec. It is one of a series of wilderness art expeditions leading to a Smithsonian Exhibit of Boreal Forest Art. In 2005 I ran a recon trip on the George River on the Ungava Penninsula with a crew of seven in preparation for a major expedition with twelve artists, photographers, journalists, adventurers and scientists in Sept. 2006. In 2002, however, it was just me.

A Quiet Crisis: Psychological hazards of going alone by Rob Mullen

"Flowing North" Harricana River 5"x 10" acrylic study Rob Mullen

Many dangers of solo wilderness travel are obvious; you are alone after all and even a normally minor accident can lead to disaster. Most outdoor experts offer reasoned pronouncements against solo wilderness travel. The focus, however, has generally been only on the physical hazards. Somewhat neglected are the stealthy mental stow-aways, sleeper cells that, unlike physical perils, you bring along with you. I was educated about these on northern Quebec's Harricana River. I did not suffer any dramatic mental meltdown (though I talked to myself a good deal), but rather an insidious assault on my ability to make rational decisions. The crisis was fueled by ambition and, to a lesser extent, a personal trauma preceding the trip. It neared critical mass when these combined under stress with my resident psychic flaws.

The ambition was to combine two passions; my art career and wilderness canoeing. In September 2001 I had painted along the 300-mile Missinaibi River. During that trip the idea to include other artists and an international museum tour of paintings to promote boreal wilderness river conservation took shape. Consequently, I've now been joined by internationally known artists (including some of the best in the world) and the leading curator of wildlife art in North America. The Smithsonian Institution is now involved, I've been sponsored by Mad River Canoe Co. since 2001 and now Voyageur Inc. Makivik Corporation, the Canadian Boreal Initiative and the Worldwide Nature Artists' Group. However, in the winter of 2001/02 the idea was still new, with few supporters and I felt it needed momentum.

To build on the success of my 2001 Missinaibi adventure, I planned a trip to James Bay via the Harricana River. As the year progressed I became totally convinced that the trip was necessary to preserve the project, and glossed over any problems. Two notable ones appeared in late summer. The first was an unavoidable delay until October 4th due to my final divorce hearing. The second (partly due to the first; the lateness of the date put several potential crewmates off) was the lack of any crew other than myself. However, September had been unusually warm, I'd canoed long solo trips before and after the stress of the long delayed hearing I needed some wilderness time. Besides, to top it all off, I had a satellite phone which made me feel much safer.

I had some qualms upon reaching the river 120 miles north of Amos, Quebec. It looked ominously high, but the outfitter said nothing of it, and I used that unchallenged omission to help convince myself that it would be fine. In hindsight, not going wasn't an option I was willing to consider, and I was ignoring anything that suggested otherwise.

The stiff headwind, high chop, rain and snow squalls did little to dampen the excitement of finally being afloat, paddling for the Bay and about to see what the points on the maps actually looked like. Ever so faintly though, a small voice inside noted that the conditions were pretty rough. Later, vainly looking for a place to camp, I found the river was up into the alder choked banks, making just getting to shore dangerous work in the current. Finally, as the snow thickened, I had to bull my way up a beaver trail to find a spot for my tent. Seeping through the veneer of excitement was a growing sense of disquiet.

I was up early and the river was up too, nearly a foot. A northern three-toed woodpecker hammering a nearby snag while I packed, brightened the morning (a life bird for me) and I was away before the snow could start melting, but I was increasingly ill at ease. Traveling alone can be strange, and for company I sometimes anthropomorphize my surroundings. On other solo trips I'd generally sensed an indifference from rivers (which combined with the vast quiet of wild places, can spark deep philosophical notions). Something about the Harricana, however, seemed unfriendly, like it was in a bad mood -- and had noticed me. I found myself trying to be very quiet. For a brief while, as the sun warmed my back, all that faded and it was a perfect day on the water, until I reached Tematagama Rapid.

Purportedly an RII (rapids are graded RI - RVI), Tematagama was feeling emboldened by the high water. There was an RII route, but there were areas of the rapid where the hydraulics looked threatening. Aside from some eerie whirlpools that I had to time my way past in an upwelling eddy (they came in clusters), and losing my fishing pole, it was an easy run; non-the-less my sense of the river had grown to an overt feeling of foreboding.

The next rapid was unnamed and, according to the trip account I had, also an RII, but the topo map showed it funneling down to a narrow slot, which with this water volume was worrying.

As I approached I could see a sheer rock wall on the right. On the left there was a ledge protruding into the current with a shoreside eddy from a smaller ledge upstream of it and more sheer rock wall below. I headed for the safety of the eddy to look things over. As I neared the boundary between the eddy's backwater and the main current, I could see flashes of wave tops over the lip of the drop; not a good sign. I redoubled my efforts to reach the eddy, realizing as I did so how fast the current had become -- on the broad river it was hard to tell, but it was narrowing quickly and accelerating as it did. Focused as I was on the maelstrom being rapidly revealed downstream, I misjudged the strength of the eddyline as I tried to cross it to safety. With a shock, I was forcibly bounced back broadside into the funneling flow. For an intense, surreally slow-motion moment I considered squaring up and running it, but the sight below cured me of that notion. Adrenalin is wonderful stuff. I powered straight back for the eddyline and crossed as it weakened downstream just above the maw of the rapid. Shaken, I set into shore and the relative safety of dry land. I had survived one of the physical risks of solo travel, now my equally dangerous mental test began.

Round One was during the first hour. There was no question of running. The current speed was truly scary, my best guess was 20+mph. There were no stable standing waves, just a wild melee of two to four footers tearing themselves apart, immense boils, souseholes, and a rapid running upstream out of the recovery pool, creating a twenty foot whirlpool at the bottom that could have spun a swamped solo canoeist around for days. There were no obstructions, but the hydraulic insanity and that whirlpool, had to graduate the no-name RII to an RIV+. I have little experience with such violence, but it was academic, I would never dream of running such a thing alone ... or so I thought. There was no portage trail. As I worked one out, I began to consider, "what lay ahead?". There were more and larger rapids downstream with few portage trails, canoeists usually just using shoreline rocks. At this river height, would the rocks be safe or even above water? The river was showing its hand and I felt outclassed, especially alone. Despite intense frustration, my common sense won the first round and I set up camp to wait for lower water and fell asleep to the howling of wolves.

The next morning was more depressing. It had rained hard during the night, and the water had risen close to another foot, coming uncomfortably near to my canoe. I secured the boat higher up and tried to settle myself down. A powerful upwelling of emotion accompanied the thought that the trip might have to be abandoned, so I focused on being patient and taking advantage of the situation. The gorge was quite picturesque, so I kept busy photographing and sketching. I looked at the rapid now and then, idly speculating on possible routes, but not considering them seriously. However, that night my heart sank anew as I listened to the rain drum down on the tarps over my tent and fire. Concentrate on the good stuff -- I was warm, dry and alive, not orbiting around in the spin cycle at the bottom of the rapid.

The crisis hit on day three. Looking back it doesn't seem to have taken very long, which is a bit embarrassing. As the day wore on, my mind broke into competing component parts, though despite the intensity of the struggle, an observer probably wouldn't have thought anything of note was going on in my head whatsoever. Ironically, despite the seeming quiet, it was a dangerous day.

The river that morning had again risen higher, despite my best complicated efforts to deny it. I was deeply anxious about making the Bay. The powerful admixture of ambition and escapism attached to the trip started exerting pressure on weak points in my psyche. This is when I started watching the rapid seriously. Without the stability of a second or third opinion anywhere about, a disturbingly powerful, sly and bold side of my mind arose. I watched for extended periods that started innocently enough as sketching sessions. I'd "harmlessly" imagine how one would run IF you had support and it was warm. Then it escalated, appealing to my ambition and prying at insecurities in my self-image; "You're being timid, you can run the rapid and save the trip". My rational mind belatedly realized that this harebrained idea was gaining credence and the debate began. "The Bay" : "I could get in trouble" : "You've got too much riding on this to turn back a failure" : "I could get hurt" : "You're being a weenie" : "I could get Killed!" : "Look! There's a safe route through the rapid!". Fortunately, as my "Damn the torpedos" side would gain the upper hand, some variety of aqueous nightmare would inevitably erupt in the imagined safe route, but then the debate would just start over again.

Food resolved the conflict. The delay was eating up my reserves and without my fishing rod I'd risk going hungry -- especially dangerous in cold conditions. Neither side wanted to starve. When my daring self's gambit of using the satellite phone for possible resupply failed (the cursed useless lump didn't work, and only strengthened the argument for turning around), my rational side put its foot down and forced a solemn vow not to run until the water had dropped to a safe level; to accept that the trip might end there and to treat the gorge as a destination resort. With the truce in place I felt better, but literally was not out of the woods yet. Returning would be a tough paddle upriver, past Tematagama, and then a very long walk out. Difficult, but not so dangerous.

The third morning it was strangely dark and the usual drum of rain on the tarps was absent. Hopefully I looked out, only to discover a blanket of snow even under the forest canopy, and it was still coming down heavily. That was the last straw and the decision was final. Leaving my camera safely in the tent, I went down to the rock pools near the top of the rapid to fill my canteens for breakfast. As I knelt meditatively watching the snow fall peacefully over the raging rapid, a lynx silently materialized out of the forest on the opposite side of the gorge and stood looking over the cataract. He looked briefly toward me, and then back out over the river for a few seconds before turning and going back the way he had come. As I cursed not having the camera, it struck me with quiet force that this was truly a good place to be, worth having gotten to, and that turning back was OK. The next morning after getting some reference of the sunrise in the gorge, I packed and headed back upstream. By staying in the slower water near shore, I managed it. Caching my boat and heavy gear, I packed five days food, sleeping bag and tarp, vainly tried the satellite phone one last time, and started walking. By a stroke of sheer luck, one hour into my trek, I was picked up by "sawyeurs" (French-Canadian woodcutters) on their way home after a two week stint in the bush, and was in Amos, Quebec for lunch.

Disasters are often not the result of one mistake, but a series of escalating ones. Had this been a disaster, my decision to head alone into the northern wilderness in October, would have undoubtedly been judged a critical initial error. Emotional issues had been clouding my judgment even on the drive up. On the river they pushed me perilously close to making a possibly fatal follow up mistake -- a sobering experience. I had glimpsed the specter of a slow motion mental take over by an aspect of my mind unconcerned with safety, powered by over-hyped emotional investment in a goal that was slipping away. As it was, I won my inner struggle and have some exciting paintings as a result. So was heading north so late not a mistake? I'm uncomfortable with hindsight judgments, yet this presents an interesting paradox. What I can say is that it was a risk (possibly foolish), and one I won't take again. It also was a visceral reminder that emotional challenges, especially alone in wilderness, can be as dangerous as physical ones when they erode your judgment.

There are currently two paintings from this trip; "Flowing North" and "Chorus Line". Due to the rigors of the trip and the unrelenting cold, I did only a little pleine-aire painting.


Only the following HTML Tags are permitted: <em><i><strong><b><u>