The Journal of Canadian

Wilderness Canoeing

  SPRING 2003

PAGE 3

OUTFIT 112
 

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In this issue

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Expeditions

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Canoesworthy

From the Editor

Canoelit I

Canoelit II

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   Expeditions

Part  1  2  3

Five Northern Rivers

                        

This part of Victoria Island has large tracts of dry tundra. Hiking one day, I crossed a huge hill where the lack of features made me unable to tell for sure whether the land was rising or falling. The plant life was sparse, not many more than two or three plants in a square yard. This apparent rawness and barrenness matched the frequent appearance of small, noisy helicopters carrying diamond prospectors from place to place. The yellow and black choppers snarled and buzzed along the horizon like angry mechanical bumblebees.

The harshness of these experiences gave a special lift and grace to the presence of animals along the river. For several days, a buck caribou shadowed us as we paddled. He would appear and disappear as a silhouette limned against the west bank of the river. When we felt convinced he had lost interest, there he would be, trotting downstream with us, almost companionably, to my imagination. Wind camps were sometimes made interesting by the appearance of muskox — a cause for the exposure of much film by the photographers. I marveled at how well these animals make this severe place their home.

But it was strong winds from the north that dominate my impressions. A companion described the occasional calms as the land inhaling before delivering another prolonged blast. The wind, of course, confined the bugs to the lee of our tents and boats, eagerly awaiting those lulls in order to dine. One memorable camp was made, in fine weather, beside a short gorge where there was evidence of an Inuit fish camp. Within a few hours the wind had resumed and I awoke to a most alarming sight. The high arching poles of my normally aerodynamic tent were being forced down almost into my face. I could press them up while lying flat on my back, but it was tiring and for how many hours could I continue that? At length, my partner and I struggled outside into the tearing wind and rotated the tent so that its teardrop curve faced into the wind. That brief discomfort was a wise investment. For we were there for another twenty-four hours, long enough for me to get well acquainted with Peter Mathiessen’s Snow Lion — eminently suitable reading for such conditions.

In another wind camp, we were so tent-bound that it became easy to convince ourselves the wind had dropped and we could travel safely close to shore to the next bit of lee. We broke camp and set out. Fifteen minutes later, we had turned tail and were reversing the process for another long stretch with the Snow Lion. A strange kind of inertia comes with long periods in the tent. Despite being thoroughly fed up, we found it hard to summon the energy and will to move.

The rawness of the Nanook River persisted to the bitter end, to our arrival on Hadley Bay, where our pickup was arranged. At the airstrip we sat out two days of rain, wet snow and bone-chilling winds. The dark gray, sometimes almost brown, overcast made the ice floes glow all the more whitely. Long hours in our sleeping bags had wet the stuffing sufficiently to reduce insulation and it was easier to feel the cold. We eagerly anticipated the arrival of our plane, and had stripped down one canoe to accept a second nested inside. The rising tide gave cause for concern that we might lose the canoes, so we moved them well away from the water. Luckily, someone noticed the tide was even higher than our wildest expectations, lapping up to the beach airstrip itself - the canoes were gently drifting among the ice floes and seals downwind. Everyone was well warmed up by the time we recovered the boats and secured them from further misadventure.

Late the next day, the last day for our scheduled return, sitting glumly around a smoky fire of driftwood, behind a shelter of empty fuel drums, we felt convinced that no aircraft could safely manage the low ceiling. At that point, without the warning of engine sound, Twin Otter dropped out of the clouds and swooped down to land and park almost at our feet. It was one of the few times, once loaded and on board with the heaters on full, that I felt glad to leave a river.

Tranquil Horton

The Horton rises north of Great Bear Lake, north of the Arctic Circle, in the Northwest Territories. It flows northwest to Amundsen Gulf. The river seemed gentle and nurturing. This impression was supported by the presence of trees along the river valley, there even though well beyond the official treeline. It’s easy to feel nurtured when the weather is fine and the river flows swiftly through interesting terrain. When there was rain, it tended to fall as a fine, soft mist. My journal notes, “We’ve had series of fine days, then Scotch mist, then fine again. On the former, I’m glad to be alive, on the latter, I know I’m alive.” Campsites were frequent, roomy, dry and flat. There was a ready supply of lake trout and grayling, better than any delicatessen. Near the end of the trip, we were surrounded by thousands of caribou and watched belugas in the ocean. A hospitable river.

The river itself is supplied by numerous side valleys, not often with streams, but soggy swales draining small ice masses in valleys hanging high above the river itself. Sometimes the hills were softly contoured. In other sections, there were statuesque rock columns and cliffs whose soft ruggedness gave an air of age and gentility. One great rounded hill split, like gaping jaws, into a small welcoming gorge. We easily negotiated almost all whitewater by paddling or lining. I recorded only two short portages. It was truly a river well suited to my lazier impulses.

The most northerly section of the Horton traverses the Burning Hills, where a coal-like mineral spontaneously ignites to produce clouds of reeking smoke and a fine multicolor ash that washes into the river. This is a remarkable process to witness. In a certain way, it is a kind of earth-building that is going on: the materials locked into the rocks are being freed to join the soil being eroded from the banks to form deposits which, who knows when, will be lifted up as soil. There is a grand, long-term aspect to the nurturing face of this place.

The river is marked by numerous gravel shoals, which provide challenging choices. If the wrong route was chosen, we would find ourselves in a shallow cul-de-sac with no option but to wade, lift and drag to deeper water, all the while watching with envy our comrades who had made other choices and were floating freely downstream and ahead. The only satisfaction was knowing that soon, the positions would be reversed, because it was impossible to see far enough ahead to be guaranteed the ideal route selection.

We chose to paddle early one morning in a mist that grew thicker each minute. The sun was still low, dropping behind hills and reemerging, giving us repeated sunsets and sunrises. The light made the mist glow with opalescent colors, making it feel as though we were paddling inside a pearl. Here, the river was very shoaly and the mist severely limited visibility to a few yards at best. My partner and I decided to follow the bubbles of foam on the surface of the river. This proved a more effective way of finding deep water than trying to look far ahead. It gave a powerful meaning to the expression “go with the flow.” For me, that characterizes my experience with this river.

Tumultuous Ellice

The Ellice, the first major river valley east of Bathurst Inlet, Nunavut, flows almost due north to Queen Maude Gulf. It did not start out tumultuous, for the upper sections of the river were smooth, shallow and swift, marked by sunny hot days as we wound our way through sand dunes. Conditions were perfect for those with a need to unwind and hospitable to abundant biting insects. It was like an easy summer trip in southern Shield country, complete with excellent swimming on hard sand beaches. My journal notes sourly, “Had I wanted a trip in a hot desert, I’d have gone to Arizona.”

Cont'd

 

 

 

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