Part 2 – Great Harbour Deep Trip
By Rob Clarke
(If you missed Part 1 of Rob’s Great Harbour Deep article – See it here): Part 1 – Great Harbour Deep
Boy am I glad I chose to take a backup guide. As we crossed the Cat Arm reservoir and made our way following the natural contours of the terrain I became more aware of the worsening conditions. The winds had picked up to at least 80 kmph and with the blowing snow the visibility was diminishing ever so quickly. Trying to keep an eye on the terrain ahead and Mackenzie behind me was becoming quite the chore. We would cover about a kilometer at a time then wait for everyone to group up before proceeding. This is where having Dike bringing up the rear sure adds a great deal of ease. Without Dike as a backup guide I would have turned around at the Dam. We discussed the conditions and since it was still blue skies above we decided to continue.
Snowy Gulch proved to be the worse section with near zero visibility, being on the ridge and not able to see the difference between a 40’ drop or level snow our speed came to a crawl. This way I could keep an eye on my direction and the group behind me. The trail was hard packed with no visible signs of anyone had ever crossed here before, everything erased from the blowing snow. A few times I had to hold up the group until I could see Dike in the distance, It was becoming harder and harder to keep the group tight as our visibility was only a few feet. Too late to turn back we decided it was closer to continue and head down onto Little Harbor deep river into the trees for shelter.
We managed to cross Snowy Gulch without incident and make our way down into the trees and protection from the winds and blowing snow. We found a patch of trees and decided to have lunch here. While having lunch we heard a group of snowmobilers heading away from GHD. They didn’t stop as we were hidden in the trees and could only see a glimpse of them as they went by. After lunch we continued our way following the River then out across the country and across many ponds before we made it to the cut line leading to GHD. This cut line is a welcome sight as you get to ride on a more recognizable section of trail. By recognizable I mean it actually looks like a trail. Although it crosses many ponds, and on most ponds the trail leaves at 90 degrees from where it enters so you really must either follow the GPS or keep an eye on the shore line for a cut line.
After over 170 kms we finally started our decent into GHD. A tightly woven single-track trail leading down a steep grade into the valley sure brings to light just how high the terrain is surrounding the community. As we came to the edge of the frozen ice on the North-West bottom of Pigeonniere Arm, Bob owner of Danny Corcoran Lodge came out of the woods behind us. He heard us coming down the trail as he was collecting fire wood for the lodge. Bob took us to the Lodge and showed us our rooms. He then offered to fuel the sleds so we wouldn’t have to do it in the morning. We unloaded our gear and put it in our rooms. Then went outside to fuel the sleds as Linda, Bob’s wife got supper ready. With all the sleds fueled and parked for the night we went back into the lodge, changed out of our snowmobile suits and slipped into our lounging attire.
Let me tell you the hospitality you receive at Danny Corcoran lodge from Bob, Linda and their staff is second to none. Clean comfortable rooms, spacious dining area and room to house a large crowd in the living room. Supper was roast chicken with all the veggies and absolutely delicious, with seconds to anyone who wanted it. Then came desert with 2 choices, cake or pie. After everyone eating their fill we all got up from supper and give Linda our thanks and praise over such an awesome meal. Now it was time to relax, we almost lost everyone to a nap then but we knew if we closed our eyes that would be it for the night. So we decided to sit around with Bob and Linda and have them tell us stories of Great Harbor Deep the way it was before resettlement. Let me tell you, if you ever get a chance to sit a talk to Bob and Linda about the days gone by your in for a treat. They are so full of history, as Bob grew up in GHD and worked here all his life. He owns a freighter boat and still works with the fishermen during the season and runs the Lodge in the winter months.
Later that night while we were all deep into Bob and Linda’s stories the sat phone rang. It was Search and Rescue asking Bob if he was missing a group. To our disbelief he was missing 2 groups. Without direct contact and an on again off again sat phone when groups don’t show up Bob simple figures they decided to cancel. Without knowing if they left or not how was he supposed to figure otherwise. But in this case one group of 5 leaving Jackson’s Arm set off their Emergency distress beacon sometime after dark. Search and Rescue (S&R) were calling to see if Bob heard from them. The other group they were expecting was a couple from Hawkes Bay who he figured simply turned back due to the poor conditions on the open country.
All pretty worried, our discussion turned from a history lesson to the dangers of navigating the Long Range Mountains in poor conditions. Bob is all too familiar with these areas and the hazards of poor weather on the open country. Dike and myself were ready to head out to help the search should S&R require a ground search. We sat around chatting about the dangers of living in such a remote location even when the town was in full swing. Only way in or out fast was by Helicopter or Float plane. That’s it. By boat it was at best a few hours to Jackson’s Arm or across the open ocean to Fleur de Lys on the tip of the Baie Verte peninsula. Finally, the phone rang again, S&R had located the group now 5 people riding 3 sleds. Seems the group lost one of their sleds in a ravine or tree well and not sure what happened to the other. S&R said they will monitor them until they reach town. What a relief, everyone was so glad they were ok. No, we didn’t know the group, but snowmobilers are a different breed. We take care of each other especially in time of need. Were all out here to have fun and no one wants to see anyone get hurt. After the long day and the excitement of the night we all decided it was time to turn in. We had another long day ahead of us and hopefully the weather improved.
The next morning we woke to the smell of coffee brewing, and the sun shining in across the harbour. There was still a bit of wind but nothing like the day before. The sleds didn’t have a flake of snow on them so we figured we had an easy ride ahead of us. We sat down to enjoy a full course breakfast and hot coffee and give thanks to the safe return of the group last night. Still fresh on everyone’s minds. After breakfast we packed up our gear and loaded up the sleds. Linda had sandwiches made for our return trip so we found room to pack them and we were ready to go. We thanked Bob, Linda and staff for their hospitality and we made our way to the trail at the end of the bay.
The climb out of the valley was a little trickier than the ride in as it was all up hill. If we had a dump of snow the night before it would have been a pure battle to get everyone up to the top. Luckily, no snow fell and it was good traction all the way up. When we reached the top and hit powder horn pond one of the sleds was having trouble. The ring gear was jammed on the starter. The sled was seized solid. We tried a few different approaches to free the ring gear with no success. It was only 100kms from her to the nearest road! That was going to be one heck of a tow. Especially with the terrain we had to cover, needless to say I was not looking forward to it. I decided to give it one last go, with an encouraging blow from the back of my axe. A busted ring gear was the least of our worries. One hard smack and the ring gear was free, I can tell you that was one major relief when the starter cog snapped back. It was discussed best not to use the electric start anymore until we get home. We were on our way again.
We started to encounter a dusting of snow as we climbed out of the valley. The closer we got to Little Harbor Deep river the deeper the snow got. When we finally hit the river there was about 2+ feet of pure powder everywhere. I was in the lead and couldn’t sit at all as the snow was coming up over the windshield and into my face. Breaking the trail in 2 feet of powder was a blast and with the winds calmed to a nice brisk breeze it was a remarkable trek back through the river. For this trip I choose to take my wide track snowmobile which I was glad of on the way down, but boondocking on a 4-stroke wide track isn’t much fun. I really missed my mountain sled in all this powder. Everyone was having a blast carving through the powder and busting a few drifts. When we found a nice drifted area we all stopped to play for a while. Give everyone a chance to stretch their legs and experience what backcountry riding is all about. Exploring, finding the play zones and tearing them up!
After we got stuck a few times we were all beat as the drifts were over 10 feet of powder and when someone got stuck, they were really stuck. In fact, we were getting stuck on the main route just trying to follow my GPS track. The snow was that deep. A couple times I had to turn around to look for everyone. Only minutes before they were behind me then when I looked again they were gone. So, as I preach, I waited. I waited a few minutes and I couldn’t hear any sleds running. I decided to turn around and follow my tracks back. I only got about 100 feet around the last turn in the river and there everyone was. Of the 6 of them 3 were stuck in a couple drift banks, the other 3 helping free them. With all the fresh powder on the ground and trees I couldn’t hear a snowmobile engine revving only 100 feet away. The powder snow soaks up all the sound making it almost impossible to hear anything even only 100 feet away. With all the sleds free we continued our trek to Cat Arm reservoir. Snowy Gulch really did live up to its name. Drifts over 30 feet high and a sheer drop makes us glad were on the bottom looking up and not riding over the edge as could have easily happened the day before in zero visibility. We stopped for a photo op and continued on our way.
Visibility was better than the day before but on the open country the winds were still blowing hard and at times reducing visibility to near zero again. With all this fresh powder on the ground a good gust would really stir up a cloud of snow. At one point we went off track a way and had to turn up out of the river valley and head to high lands and ride the ridge. This proved to be easier said than done. As we started to climb out of the river valley it was relevant just how much snow had fallen. 6 of the 7 were stuck on a long gradual slope, 2 wide tracks, 2 crossover sleds and 2 mountain sleds. The one mountain sled made the run after he realized everyone ahead of him was getting stuck he pinned it and made it to the top. The only one of 7 I might add.
I don’t mind getting stuck, I’ll usually be the first one to help dig someone out. But I was as you remember riding my 4 STROKE WIDE TRACK tank! And yes, I was the first one stuck. With such a gradual slope I didn’t realize I was spinning until it was too late. Time to break out the shovel, which I normally only get for really bad stucks or steep hill stucks, the ones you will otherwise roll if you don’t make a landing pad first. But I must admit I was stuck and bad. After an hour of digging and ski pulling we finally got everyone out and up on top of the ridge. Our journey continues.
Following my GPS track and the contours of the terrain we finally made our way to the Cat Arm Reservoir and stopped here for a lunch. This being the beginning of the road and only sign of life for the last 50kms we figured it was safe to stop here and relax for a while. We chose a place protected from the wind and laughed over the fun we had busting the drifts. From here on out it was a comfortable pace trail ride for the next 110 kms or so. Until next time.