FORT SIMPSON, NWT—By the end, the Mackenzie is a dirty river. But it doesn’t start that way. It starts clear, green in depth, clean enough to draw drinking water and cook and bathe.
By Brian Castner | MOTHERBOARD
In late June, after my first week of paddling, I was greased with dust and sweat but not yet accustomed to it; I still had a New York standard for maximum grime allowed. So I found an island with a sandy head, and rinsed and did laundry and emerged just as pink and scrubbed as I might from any spa.
Such a bath would not be possible only a few days later.
Two-hundred crisp miles below Great Slave Lake, the Liard River comes in from the west, flush with silt from the melting glaciers of northern British Columbia. When the two great rivers meet, at the small town of Fort Simpson, the Mackenzie becomes bipolar: clean and green on the eastern shore, brown and dirty on the western. Not toxic, not contaminated, not diseased, but dirty. Literally full of dirt. Stick your hand in the river up to the wrist, and you lose sight of your fingers.
For hundreds of miles, the waters of the Liard and Mackenzie remain remarkably separate. The left bank is piled high with the detritus of the Rockies, driftwood hulks of massive pine trees and dark silt that suctioned my feet with each step. The right bank stays comparatively clean, with packed and pale dried mud, but it’s a losing battle. After the Liard, another dozen major mountain rivers will soon join up.
The Mackenzie’s dual personality persists over weeks of paddling, but eventually the silt wins. By the end, where the delta meets the Arctic Ocean, the water is not a shocking polar blue, like you imagine from the movies. It’s dull, the color of a worn-out coffee mug, all the way to the northern horizon.