The Journal of Canadian

Wilderness Canoeing

  SPRING 2003











In this issue

Front Page


Spring Packet


From the Editor

Canoelit I

Canoelit II

National Archives

Back page





Five Northern Rivers


Part  1  2   3


Being flushed out the end of the Coppermine River's famed Rocky Defile — a wild ride.       MICHAEL PEAKE

Ed. Note: The following is an excerpt from the new book Best Canoe Routes of Canada, which is reviewed in Canoelit I. Bert Horwood was a professor in outdoor education at Queens University until 1992 when he retired. He’s also a lifelong paddler.


I break the spirit’s cloudy bands,

A wanderer in enchanted lands...

 — Archibald Lampman

Consecutive trips on the same river can be entirely different. In the accounts that follow, I do not mean to characterize the rivers, because they are much too changeable, but I do characterize my inner response to them as the trips I was on unfolded. It is also true that each person on a trip will have different responses, at different times. And the various sections of a river will affect us differently. But in these trips, I responded most to one dominant characteristic.

My response to five rivers, one trip on each, is best expressed in five words: picturesque, raw, tumultuous, tranquil and sublime. The rivers are the Coppermine, Nanook, Horton, Ellice and Kuujjuak. This is the story of how those rivers revealed themselves.

Picturesque Coppermine

The Coppermine rises in eastern Northwest Territories and flows north across the Arctic Circle and enters Coronation Gulf at the village of Coppermine. From the start, at Rocknest Lake, I was awed by grand vistas on every bend. It is no wonder that, in the absence of the storied rich deposits of copper, outfitters have found other forms of revenue on this river. My capacity to see its stunning outlooks was enhanced by my decision to carry a small watercolor kit instead of a camera. I was an untutored and inexperienced painter. The challenges of capturing the scope of the scenes that unfolded sharpened my vision, even if the resulting pictures were mere daubs. Although I painted on only four or five occasions, I found myself recognizing paintable scenes and impossible colors around every bend.

My journal is full of visual descriptions and sketches. Low light angles emphasize the contours, I noted, “shadows give shape and color to the land.” The scene could shift from harsh to soft. The high bald hills, parabolic clay banks and rolling distant hills, clouded in misty rain, contrasted with sharp cliff edges, grotesque chimneys and hoodoos, and stark silhouettes of the last tough sentinel spruces guarding the treeline.

The colors were particularly intriguing. The walls of Rocky Defile seemed to glow with memory of the fires from which they emerged. In sharp contrast, the black rocks near Muskox Rapids, with minute flecks of copper, seemed cold and chill. Flat white at midday, the clay banks could become a rosy ocher, even muted violet when the sun was skimming the horizon, contrasting with the brilliant layers of rock sweeping across the distant September Mountains.

Colors and contours combined to give the land shape and feeling. The Copper Mountains and then the September Mountains loomed, their captivating striations like a many-layered cake that had been tilted for too long and had begun to slip. There were long periods when we lived in broad sweeping vistas of the river valley, marked by riverside terraces rising to higher terraced hills. Then there would be a sharp interruption in the landscape, like the jagged entry to Rocky Defile or the cliffs at Escape Rapids. The downstream vistas made me feel the river ran forever between endless lines of shrinking hills leading, wandering, down to the invisible sea.

It is easy to focus on the large scene, the grand vista, the sweeping view; but there was also beauty in more modest scale. Occasional little waterfalls graced cliff sides, tumbling down from a wash at the top to be lost at the cliff base. One such waterfall I blame for a close call at Escape Rapids. My partner and I had shot previous rapids successfully, though not without very heavy breathing and elevated blood pressures.

Escape Rapids looked entirely manageable on scouting, and indeed every other canoe in our party negotiated it as planned. But I was intrigued with a little splash of white waterfall, a delicate tracing that graced the cliff at that place. I watched it when I should have been watching the river. We lost our line and completed the run by taking the path, which, if the accounts can be believed, must have been the same one taken by Franklin’s party, who gave these rapids their name. It is a tribute to my partner’s skill, my good luck and a well-fitted spray skirt that we emerged upright and dry.

The Coppermine impressed me with its capacity to inspire optical illusions. We experienced mirages of such reality that we could see waves dancing above the horizon and paddlers in the sky. On a memorable morning we actually experienced being in a kind of mirage. Every canoe tripper has surely paddled on one of those special mornings when the water is still enough to make nearly perfect reflections. One morning, we were able to paddle water so perfectly still, so free of flotsam, that the reflections were absolutely perfect. So perfect that, as I stared at the water, I experienced the illusion of being suspended between sky and earth - and having no idea which was the real and which the virtual image. Archibald Lampman noted the same experience on the Lievre in the Laurentians:

Softly as a cloud we go

Sky above and sky below . . .

There is a photograph of three canoes moving in company that day. Held one way, the canoes appear doubled but normal, trailing a wake that curves away behind each craft, and runs into its neighbor. Held the other way around, each canoe, complete with mirror image, appears to be moving across the crest of a huge rounded swell. It is an exciting view, where illusion is almost complete.

Raw Nanook

The Nanook River rises in the centre of Victoria Island in Nunavut and runs north into Hadley Bay. There were some warm days, so say my journal records, but I’m hard pressed to remember them. A frequent cold wind tearing at us created an atmospheric rawness and kept us tent-bound on several occasions - long enough to start bedsores. The upper river was mean-spirited, narrow, and alternately offering rocky shoals and deep pools scarcely longer than the canoe. I broke my well-loved paddle trying to maneuvre in this section. The sudden changes, from impossible shallows to 6.5-feet-deep (2 m) holes, guaranteed wet feet. Progress was won at the cost of considerable frustration. In other sections of the river, apparently stable rocks, when stepped on, would sink into the soft clay below, leaving me floundering, muddy and swearing. Near the end of the river, we were glad of a rocky side-channel, as it had just enough water to allow us to drag, lift and float the canoes around impassable whitewater. Even a shallow passage is better than portaging.

The river dropped daily; it became a ritual for one of us to build a pebble cairn at the water’s edge each evening to check the loss of water overnight. It seemed as though the river was little more than a drainage ditch, and the lakes, extended shallow ponds. In places, the land was almost flat and featureless, making navigation difficult. Early one fine morning, breakfastless to catch the calmest water, we crossed the mouth of a wide bay, in which it would be tempting to get far downwind into the bay. The wind began to blow, driving us deeper into the blind end, but it was almost impossible to find a landmark by which to determine the correct upwind course. Several difficult hours later, we stopped to cook breakfast. Hot food and liquids were badly needed, but we were able to see that our labor had successfully kept us from a potentially nasty trap.





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