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 with Rob Miskosky

Up The River Without a...

The Athabasca River is the longest river in Alberta. It runs for 1,538 kilometres through the mountains, prairies and boreal forest, ending high in the northern part of our province. It begins its decent in the Columbia Icefield before emptying its belly in the Canadian Shield at Lake Athabasca. It can be a foreboding river, often swelled to several hundred yards wide and carrying with it the flotsam and jetsam of many miles of different landscapes. It isn’t a river that should be toyed with, at least not during the spring run-off. But with the proper boat and motor, safety equipment and the savvy to point the nose of your boat upstream, it can be safely navigated with only the seldom-submerged log offering a sudden jolt to the boat’s inhabitants.

Claudio Ongaro navigates the Athabasca.
My favourite Alberta river, the Athabasca offers tremendous hunting and fishing opportunities for those who would prefer the challenge it offers. Not knowing what’s around the next corner makes traversing the river a truly exciting adventure. And so it was with much excitement that Claudio Ongaro and I stood on the bank of the swift moving Athabasca River near the small hamlet of Smith, Alberta, preparing to launch my boat into the flotsam and jetsam that was quickly moving downstream.

My boat is a Gator Trax boat, built in Louisiana for hunting the swamps. Its design is rugged in nature and made for exactly what we were about to do—a bear hunt on a fast moving, swollen river. The motor is made in Utah and is called a Mud Buddy, but really is nothing more than a belt-driven 31hp Briggs & Stratton engine with a unique prop system designed to be lifted from the water when needed. The engine is air-cooled and doesn’t need to be in water to be started and can be safely run in mere inches of water without problem.

Prior to our trip I had ordered a new belt for the motor. The previous belt had worn out in just 25 hours of engine time. Believing the belt had loosened, thus ending its lifespan, I also ordered a belt tensioning kit to ensure the new belt would be tensioned properly. And so, with new belt and belt-tensioner kit in hand, Ben Nagy, owner of Baptise Lake Resort and I, refurbished the motor with a new belt, properly tensioned. Confident my problems were solved; Claudio and I launched the very next day.

We began our journey around 10 a.m. on a warm spring day, perfect for bear hunting. Our intention was to head up as far as we could into the Chisholm fire burn area along the river. On previous trips into the burn we had encountered several bears and numerous other wildlife including several different species of birds. It is a beautiful area with luscious growth, perfect for bears.

Flotsam and jetsam on the Athabasca.
About three hours into our journey we stopped on a small island and prepared a feast of Claudio’s home made duck and deer smokies over a small fire. When we were finished eating we doused our fire with river water and checked our GPS. The GPS showed we had come about 36 miles upstream, averaging 12 miles per hour. Suggesting we head upstream for another hour or so before preparing for our drift and hunt back, I started the motor and we were off, once again enjoying the warm spring day.

I’m not sure how far we were from our island when a sudden bang from the boat’s engine brought us both to attention. Lifting the prop from the water we suddenly realized the prop was no longer turning yet the motor was purring like a kitten. My heart sank as I instantly knew the problem, once again, lay with the belt. Only this time we weren’t close to home, in fact, we were a long way from home—up a river without a belt, so to speak.

After trying to MacGyver a belt with whatever we thought useable on the boat, only to face failure each time we re-started the engine, we sat back and weighed our options.

Claudio trying to MacGyver a belt.
The GPS showed we were moving 1 1/2 miles per hour and gave us an estimated time of arrival some 32 hours distant. We knew the river moved a heck of a lot faster in many places but we also knew it was slow where it was wide and straight. Best case scenario would put us back at our take-out point before midnight. It was now 3:00 in the afternoon. Paddling a 1200-pound boat would not be fun, but what else could we do short of simply drift? We knew we could both easily handle the predicament we were in, but what concerned us was the fact that where our take-out point was the Slave River met the Athabasca and it was going extremely fast. Without an engine, we could blow right by our intended target, leaving us with a long journey to the town of Athabasca some 66 river miles away. A journey neither of us wanted to make.

Already drifting downstream, we kept the boat straight using our paddles and hoped for a big bruin to greet us from shore. I’m not sure either of us wanted a bear at that stage, but we were hunting so we kept our eyes peeled. It wasn’t long before a bear did indeed greet us, jumping into the river some 400-yards downstream of our boat. We watched the bear swim across the river, slowly losing us in the current. Unable to get closer, we watched the bear reach the other side of the river and disappear into the brush.

Our journey slowly stretched on as we drifted by several deer grazing along shore and we watched numerous ducks and geese with their young squawk madly at us whenever we got too close. We were averaging 4 mph and were starting to get closer to our destination. It was now starting to get dark, further compounding the task ahead of us. We had to make a plan for our landing. We knew we had to control the boat in what was now a much faster moving river. We wanted to stay as tight to shore as possible; “branches in our teeth tight,” Claudio said.

Soon the Smith Bridge was visible and our excitement began to mount. We were hugging the shore as best we could but the river wanted to pull us farther out. Our paddles worked the river feverishly as we searched desperately in the darkness for the spot. And then it was suddenly there, hidden by over-hanging branches that would usually be well back from the water.

The Mud Buddy in a soupy Athabasca.
“Paddle!” Claudio shouted as loud as he could. And we put everything we had into getting the boat to our take-out point—we were faced with 66 miles to the town of Athabasca or a long night and walk the next day if we didn’t get the boat in. Realizing we were going to hit shore past our intended target, I quickly leapt to solid ground holding the boat’s rope while Claudio looked for branches to grab onto. Once on shore, I began yarding in rope as fast as I could. Claudio and the boat were getting away! Suddenly the rope pulled tight in my hands and the boat pulled sideways toward shore, 20-feet downstream of me. I held on as hard as I could while Claudio grabbed onto whatever branches he could find.

We had done it! We were back on land.

The next day we once again examined the belt housing of the engine. Closer inspection revealed that two bolts holding the housing to the engine were in fact too long. The belt would occasionally catch on the bolts, slowly destroying it. There is an old saying that goes something like, “if it’s mechanical, it will fail.” And how true that is. But what a time and place! ■

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