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





Part  1  2 

Five Northern Rivers



But after these few idyllic days, the river revealed its tumultuous character. Gradually we moved into long series of rapids, many very rocky and almost always guarded at the end by a ridge of heaped boulders, niggardly with useful openings. Sometimes we were able to paddle long stretches of whitewater, picking our way as we went. More often, we shot part, lined part, and lifted the loaded canoes over or around the terminal ridge. Lining gave me problems, as early on I slipped and fell sufficiently to fill one boot. In a few minutes, a second fall filled the other boot. Before the day was done, I’d slipped into a hole up to my armpits. Luckily the water was not cold. The ease with which I lost my footing gave me concern and I consoled myself that it was due, not to simple ineptness, but to the reduction in equilibrium that goes with aging. It was only small comfort that others fell, too. Whatever the cause, the endless strings of rocky jumbled rapids generated a kind of internal turbulence to match that of the water.

There were huge falls that made the land shake and took my breath away as I gazed, entranced, at this extraordinary evidence of gravitational power. Our camps were often placed strategically at such places so that camping and portaging were efficiently parlayed into one set of moves. At one place, orange-red granite slabs, galleon-shaped, rose out of slick black water sliding down into a torrent below. Staring at them gave the illusion they were bravely breasting the current and forging upstream to safety. Sleeping in sight and sound of roaring water night after night reinforced the feeling of living in a state of perpetual turbulence.

The hard carving effect of this river was evident in rampart piles of boulders lined like windrows along the shore. The tangled channels among between islands hinted at the ravages of a mighty stream in millennia past. The islands posed a dangerous trap - one that a wise navigator among us warned us of. There were temptingly easy whitewater sections as far as we could see down along an island. At first, seeking to avoid the harder way, I hoped to cross the river and use the inviting route. It made sense. But suppose the water was not negotiable below the island, then what? How long did I plan to spend stuck there, I was asked. And I saw the point. Several miles downstream on the harder path, I observed that had I followed my path, we might have been trapped for a long time indeed.

Away from the river, the land was gentler. Wolves, muskox and caribou appeared. We had signed on with the Canadian Wildlife Service to contribute to the Northwest Territories breeding bird survey and devoted some time each day, when the pressing demands of the river permitted, to recording all bird sightings. One embarrassing day the absence of usual standards for judging size led us to count geese, silhouetted on the high skyline, as caribou. After supper, I would often walk out to see the world over the lip of the Ellice Valley. One evening I came to the end of a high ridge and looked down into a lush swale of wetland where a pair of muskox cows idly stood, fetlock deep, entirely at peace, scarcely within sound of the roaring river. Beyond them, a pair of sandhill cranes, humped and unlovely, stalked along. I felt a surge of familiar wild. This must be much like the scene my hunter ancestors looked on 10,000 years ago.

The wildness of the Ellice, once started, continued to the end. At Queen Maude Gulf, we were met by the customary bitter cold north wind, quicksand and a navigation dilemma. According to the map, and more to the point, according to the land, we were at the strip of hard beach where our plane could land. The pilot had said we couldn’t miss numerous tracks his wheels had left over the years of fetching canoeists from the river. Everything looked right, except there were no tracks to be seen. There was no evidence, bar a couple of ubiquitous fuel drums, that aircraft had ever landed here.

Tumultuous to the end, the Ellice was not about to let us go without a couple of wild days and nights in the tents. We would emerge only to take on food and to dump its remnants. The cold wind probed gleefully into every gap in my clothing, hot tea nearly congealed between the time it was scooped into the mug and conveyed to my mouth. While walking to shake out the kinks in my back and to confirm for myself there was no better place along that ravished coast where a plane might land, I flushed a tern off her nest, on the gravel near the top of the tide. There it sat, eggs intact, open to the tearing wind, serenely domestic, home, despite my impressions of the harshness of this river.

Sublime Kuujjua

The Kuujjua rises in north-central Victoria Island and flows south and west to Minto Sound on the Northwest Territories side of Victoria Island. There I experienced what Thoreau and Emerson must have meant when they used the word sublime. All along that river there was a grandeur and power whose spirit seeped into my soul. The river rises in the Shaler Mountains, which gird the north-central part of the island. Here the shallow swift stream carried us smoothly from the low hills in transparent water over rainbow-hued gravel. The first day, my expectations were shattered by the appearance of sandhill cranes, which all my books say are never found this far north. But there they are, beyond any possibility of a mistake.

Grandeur was found in other animals, too. We met our first muskox at camp after supper on the second day. On the hike for a closer look, rare Peary caribou intercepted us, two elegant adults who cautiously kept their distance and two calves who acted as interested in us as we were in them. With such charming distractions, it was hard to remember we were stalking muskox. We soon learned muskox would be a daily event and realized their passive defensive circle cannot always be relied on. Much later, there would be arctic char in the thousands, enough to feast on, to fill the take-home limit and surplus to offer a helpful Inuk for his family.

As the Kuujjua gains water and power from its tributaries, the surrounding land also changes. The river drops more steeply, and rapids and falls appear. There are black rounded hills, breast-shaped, that seemed to me icons of the generous Earth Mother. Back from the river, tall cliffs, their towers and turrets resembling giant castles and palaces, march along the length of the valley. I found it easy to understand why my Nordic ancestors imagined trolls and goblins, for their profiles were to be seen, frozen into rocky immobility by the circling sun, on every bend. One bank of rock resembled nothing so much as a cluster of troll children naked and mooning us as we passed. The images of the gods building their noble halls reaching into the clouds became a near reality here. I was enthralled.

Grandeur goes with risks. Our flirtations with muskox resulted in a close call with a solitary bull who was none too happy to be approached. The powerful river was a challenge along many long miles of unremitting whitewater. As my partner said, when calling for camp to be made, “I’ve had enough terror for one day.” The river rose suddenly after heavy rain over the watershed, all but carrying our canoes away overnight. I found the portages between huge boulders especially challenging. There was no right solution to the dilemma of whether to hop from rock to rock, the over-the-top method, or to snake my way blindly on the sand below, the follow-the-swearing method. But either way was better than lining down rapids hopping and hugging spray-damp ledges on a cliff just too high for the length of the lining ropes.

When our descent of the Kuujjua ended among the gleaming ice floes of Minto Sound, and we had reveled in an exuberant excess of char, I felt strongly reluctant to leave this sublime enchantment. And now, years later, when I idly stroke my canoe across the narrow waters of Desert Lake, here in Eastern Ontario, I realize the enchanted lands are infectious. Their power filtered into me through the sights of majestic vistas, eye contact with muskox, the vision of delicate louseworts. The magic crept in through my ears in the thunder of mighty waters, the whine of mosquitoes, the high, thin cries of fishing ospreys. With each breath, I absorbed the essence of the place, musty animal smells, high-flung river spray, itchy willow pollen. My body, shaking with cold, aching with labor, or stiff from long storm-bound hours, soaked up the spirit of all these rivers. The lessons of balance and oneness in the land last for life. It feels good and right to be so captivated.




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