Up a river without a paddle

19:44, Nov 18 2013

Giardia, injury, and lost paddles weren't enough to deter a couple of Kiwis from completing a two-month adventure of a lifetime canoeing through the Arctic Circle with their Canadian mates.

They filmed their 1500-kilometre journey and are making it into a documentary. 

Simon Lucas and Scott Sinton, both 25 and based in Auckland, spent two years planning the trip, Paddle for the North, with Canadian team leader Gabriel Rivest, who they befriended when he came to New Zealand for his final year of high school.

The trip took 63 days. The six friends camped at 50 different sites in three time zones.

The group wanted not only to complete the massive journey – they also wanted to raise awareness of the environmental issues facing the north "but without ramming a conservation message down everyone's throat", Sinton said.

"We want to show the world that untouched wild places still exist and they are there to be enjoyed.


"We all naturally want to see that environment protected, but we aren't going to preach about it – we just want to say 'check out how beautiful this is, and make your own call on what you think the future should be'."

They set off in July with a tonne of gear, including eight cameras, to document their journey under the direction of photographer and videographer Sinton.

He has never made a movie before, but now has hundreds of hours of breathtaking footage to turn into a documentary.

"We figured 'well, we're going to do this crazy trip, so let's film it and try do some good with it'."

As well as being Sinton's film-making debut, the trip was also his first experience in the great outdoors.

"Before this, driving to the beach and picking up some supplies from the dairy was about the extent of my survival experience.

"But I was super keen and super ambitious with it and just jumped in head-on ... it was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be."

The group booked two planes to fly them to their starting point, and then they were on their own for the next two months.

"People usually do one or two [rivers] at a time, and go for a couple of weeks, so two months is pretty unusual, it's a bit of a big one."

While the Paddle for the North team rave about their experience, it was not all smooth sailing.

They paddled through some of the most remote wilderness in Canada, and faced major challenges including rapids on the Peel River and a brutal portage through Aberdeen Canyon, where they had to carry their 5.5-metre canoes and all their gear over multiple trips.

"It was just the worst 5km imaginable – it was raining so our bug spray washed right off, and we were dealing with the mosquitoes and going through this swamp that you can't even describe – it was mentally and physically really tough on everyone.

"We were all on the same level with how tough it was, and we got there together.

"That was the benchmark, everything from that point was compared to the canyon, and nothing was as tough as that."

But they still had 150km uphill on the Rat River to do, beginning with 27km one night in the hardest rain they had ever seen.

"If you stop paddling you go backwards, so we paddled for nine hours straight, stopping for 30 seconds a couple of times, and by the time we found camp it was about 3am."

Exhausted, and the coldest they had ever been, the group tied up their boats and pitched camp.

Four hours later when Lucas woke up, the river had risen 2m, and taken five of their paddles with it.

"We were always so careful with our paddles but I don't think anyone was thinking properly. We had just been so cold and exhausted, we just gave them a toss.

"A few of them had got stuck in the mud so they were just sitting there hanging on by a hair, so Simon grabbed those, and that was all we had left.

"We were in disbelief, we didn't know what we were going to do, and at that point we thought the trip might be over," Sinton said.

Luckily, they reached the local police station via satellite phone, and the Canadian police made two separate trips to deliver the group much-needed replacement paddles.

"They came out about 50km out and couldn't reach us because there was so much debris from the flood, so they had to turn back, and then they came back again the next day which was just amazing."

Sinton then injured his hip and was unable to walk for five days, so limped along the riverbed while the rest of the team pushed the boats in the water, and occasionally had to stretcher him across the boats to navigate trickier parts of the river.

"It was like having lead shoes on, I couldn't move against the flow. It was an awesome team effort; the boys really got me through that.

"We got to the top [of the Rat River] and that was just the best feeling ever, we'd gone up against the river for 11 days. It had been quite soul-destroying and much worse, for me, than the canyon.

"It was probably the best view I've seen in my life, for more than one reason, and everything got better from that point."

But they hadn't seen the last of their bad luck – three of the group contracted giardia with about a week and a half of the trip left to go.

"There were small towns we were downstream of; some of their waste unfortunately goes into the river.

"We knew we had to be careful, and we were, but obviously not careful enough, so it was just one of those things, and that was pretty horrible – I was ready for the trip to be over at that point.

"But you have those moments that pull you back and remind you why you're there and what you're doing – you've got to slap yourself sometimes and remind yourself how amazing it is, and that most people will never get to do something like it," Sinton said.

The trip would not have been complete without man's best friend accompanying them – the group had not one, but two, dogs on board.

"It was great having them along, they just sat on top of the boat, or ran alongside us in the bush – they just loved it.

"Security-wise it was really good – I was gearing up for a grizzly [bear] encounter on the side of the river, which, thankfully, never came, and I think we have the dogs to thank for that.

"We saw some bears, lots of moose, otters right up close, a whole bunch of different birdlife, and caribou. It was pretty amazing." The Paddle for the North team have more than 25,000 photos and hundreds of hours of video footage which Sinton and Lucas will use to compile the documentary, which is due out in mid-2014.

Sinton has compiled a teaser video of their journey, and is putting together a cinematic trailer and full feature-length documentary.

"Hopefully, people will agree with us and look to preserve these areas they way they are.

"We just want them to come on the adventure with us – we're just giving them a seat on a trip that most people will never get to do."

Fairfax Media