Canoeing in the Barrenlands of Arctic CanadaRay Jardine
The Back River
536 miles down the Back River
137 miles up the Meadowbank River
Over the Continental Divide (portage)
23 miles down to the Thelon River
and 40 miles to the village of Baker Lake
736 miles in 40 days
Flying into Yellowknife at the completion of our canoe journey, Jenny and I were greeted at the airport by our friend Eric Henderson. "Thank God for your phone call yesterday," he said, "I've been worried about you for the last month. I had horrible visions of Ray on one side of the river and Jenny on the other side, and the canoe floating down the river upside down."
"Actually Eric," I admitted sheepishly, "that happened."
Map showing Back River
From the book "Canoeing Canada's Northwest Territories" (McCreadie 1995): "The Back River flows swiftly from its headwaters at Sussex Lake into Chantrey Inlet on the Arctic coast. It is the longest river in Canada situated entirely within the Barrenlands. During its course, the Back drops over numerous falls and more than 80 sets of rapids. In addition to this, there are enormous lakes to be navigated and several long portages. Because of the length and isolation of the river, and the amount of demanding whitewater, some of it unmarked on maps, many experienced paddlers consider the Back to be the most challenging river in the NWT. Length: 673 miles."
Floatplane on Sussex Lake, headwaters of the Back River - the start of our paddling journey.
Nearly six weeks previous to that conversation with Eric, July 16, 1999, Jenny and I waved goodbye to the pilot of the small floatplane that had carried us to Sussex Lake, 250 miles NW from Yellowknife. This pilot was the last person we would see until we reached the Inuit village of Baker Lake, at journey's end. Such is the utter remoteness of the region.
Sussex Lake is the headwater of the Back River. We were starting the trip a bit late in the season, due to delays with the printing company handling our latest book. Our timing meant that the outflow of the lake was minimal. Normally one might think of wading a canoe in the shallows, but in the Barrenlands this is rarely possible. Here, the creek bottoms are composed of rocks, in most cases table-sized rocks with deep holes between them. And the rocks are coated in slippery algae. If a creek is too shallow to paddle, it must be portaged.
Carrying gear, always to the next piece of open water
Of course the beginning of such a trip is not the most favorable time to portage, because of the load of food - six weeks worth in our case. This was mostly corn pasta, with grains, beans, bags of dried fruit, jerky, nuts and seeds. But what made the food bags heavy were the initial supplies of fresh goods: potatoes, carrots, cabbage, apples and cheese. And of course the four liters of fuel for cooking. The strong winds discourage one from cooking on open fires here, and the acute lack of firewood just about forbids it. Most days we saw no wood whatsoever, and what few sticks of dried willow we did see we were reluctant to burn. In most cases it was ancient; a largely irreplaceable part of the landscape.
In waving goodbye to the floatplane pilot, we were committing ourselves to the wilderness. We had no radio to call him back, or to call for help in the coming weeks if needed. Basically, our fastest and easiest route out to civilization was the Back River lying before us. On a trip like this the word commitment takes on a whole new meaning, almost to the extent of: "Do or die trying."
Two legged canoe
By the end of the first day we felt like we were almost dying from portaging the heavy canoe and loads of food and gear. Fortunately small lakes along the way offered respite from the load hauling, but at the end of each lake was another portage.
The canoe we had chosen for the journey was a Coleman 17 footer, fresh from the Wal-Mart store in Yellowknife. Most experienced canoeists would scorn such a choice, but for us it was a matter of convenience and economics. Buying the boat in Yellowknife saved us shipping costs to the NWT. And selling the boat at Baker Lake would save us the costs of freighting it back home. For most serious paddlers the equipment is almost more important than the journey. For us the gear only assists.
Finishing a 1.5 mile portage around rapids
In the next few days we began toughening to the task, and the portages began giving way to larger lakes and navigable streams. Streams that would waft a canoe easily along were not the wind trying to wrench it forcefully in the wrong direction. A bit of stormy weather, we thought, soon to give way to blue skies and flat water. In a few days the strong south wind gave way, alright - to equally strong northwest wind. Remarkably this northwest wind blew almost continuously for the next three weeks, and the lack of trees and relatively flat landscape did little to protect us from it.
Wide sections of the Back River are more like lakes
The first third of the Back River is not so much a river as a series of lakes, or at least sections that are so wide and slow moving that they might as well be lakes. The second third of the river is genuine lakes, big ones that throw up a vicious chop when the wind is howling. Normally one would remain in camp on the windy days, because the paddling is too dangerous. Had we done that we would still be there, waiting favorable weather. Instead, we paddled lots of big water, festooned with gnarly whitecaps - water so rough that one would think it was beyond the capabilities of an open canoe. After one particularly challenging crossing I said to Jenny: "Boy that was really something, I haven't paddled water that rough since my Baja days. That was really fantastic." I was so proud of her for handling it so well.
The best place to fish was at the base of the rapids
Mid-journey we broke out the fishing pole. This was after we had eaten much of our heavier food, lightening our portaging loads to more manageable proportions. I assembled the pole, attached our best lure, and handed the outfit to Jenny. One cast into the base of one of the rapids and the line went zinging out to the end of the reel. And with a snap the fish was gone. Jenny is not one to exaggerate, far from it, and she said the fish was about eight inches wide and maybe five feet long. Something like a trout she thought. It turns out that this was no fish story, in the coming weeks we saw three more fish in this category. As we reeled in a 24 inch fish, these huge "gooberfish" would sometimes chase it to shore, snapping at it as though it was a minnow.
During the second half of the trip we ate trout nearly every day. To cook them we simply boiled them in water, and added salt and maybe some instant potatos or dried beans.
Subsequent fishing efforts were more successful. We ate delicious trout for dinner most evenings and for lunch the next day. We did not want to catch one of the whoppers, first because we could not possibly eat it all, but mainly because these huge fish are up to 100 years old so they are largely irreplaceable. Like the few small bits of firewood laying around, hundreds of years old and another irreplaceable part of the landscape. How incredibly harsh the Arctic is, yet how fragile!
Prior to the Back intersecting the Meadowbank River, the McCreadie book has this to say: "The river continues to grow in size and power. Escape Rapids, Sandhill Rapids and Wolf Rapids all present obstacles to the paddler and must be portaged, either in part or completely." After the junction with the Meadowbank, the book says: "There is little whitewater now ... to the Arctic coast." We left the Back River at this junction, and proceeded to paddle, line, wade and portage 130 miles up the Meadowbank River to its source. We knew nothing about this river, and imagined that very few had traveled it. We "discovered" the route while studying the topo maps, and decided on it as a way of reaching an airport, in this case the one at the Inuit village of Baker Lake.
Completing a short portage on the Meadowbank
The Meadowbank was of course much smaller than the Back, and it proved to be a magnificent waterway. It offered many large lakes, and since it coursed generally south, the NW wind helped us along. The river also held a considerable number of rapids, but most of which we managed to warp.
One morning we were warping up one particular rapid, pulling the loaded canoe with a bow and stern line, when our luck ran out. The current caught the boat sideways and tried to swamp it. This brought a huge strain on the lines, at which point I found myself being drug head-first over the rocks along shore. Then the current swamped the boat and rolled it upside down, and ripped the lines from my grasp.
Wading this rapid we pulled the canoe about 4 feet uphill. Altogether the Meadowbank descends about 300 feet in elevation, which meant lots of rapids like this one.
This was bad news, since our survival depended on that boat, mainly for the equipment it contained. As a contingency we had planned to walk out in the event of losing all our gear to the rapids, but what a long and rugged walk that would have been. Especially with no maps and camping gear. And because many more rapids lurked immediately downstream, I could not simply let the canoe go without a fight. I doubt whether it would have made it through the half a mile of rapids immediately downstream, but about all we could do at the moment was run as fast as possible trying to keep up with the boat caught in the swift current.
Then boat entered a section of fairly slow river leading to the rapids downstream. This gave us the time we needed to do something. Right away Jenny started asking me to let her swim out to the boat, and swim it ashore. I was very reluctant, but figured her chances were better than mine since she was wearing her life jacket - much too small to fit me. I had left mine in the boat, since it made me sweat too much wearing it while warping upstream as I had been doing.
Jenny leapt into the river and swam towards the boat, mid river. But very quickly she changed her mind and turned around. And while swimming back she started calling for help. She was a pretty good swimmer, but she had exhausted herself running along the shore. So had I, but at least I had a few moments to recuperate. Yet I knew that if I jumped in to save Jenny, then I would not have the strength to swim back out and save the canoe also.
I called to Jenny to keep swimming for shore, that she was doing fine - which indeed she was. Within minutes she crawled onto dry land. The instant I saw that she was safe I leapt into the water myself, fully clothed including boots, and swam out to the upturned canoe. (The boots were extremely light weight, chosen for such an emergency.) By the time I reached the canoe I, too, was quite exhausted, but one look downstream at the rapids quickly revitalized me, and I started swimming with the boat for the opposite shore, since the wind was blowing the boat and me in that direction. Every now and then I reached down with a leg to see whether I could touch bottom yet. Then before long I was standing safely waist deep. It really could have been a Hollywood movie, the rapids were that close.
We always kept everything lashed into the canoe, so we lost very little gear, only what was not tied in. A pair of socks each that we had been drying, a boat sponge for mopping the bilge, and my rain parka. The camera came out of its "waterproof" bag sopping wet, I even poured water out of the film canister. But after a day of drying, the camera started working again, thanks no doubt to the purity of the Meadowbank's water and its apparent lack of conductivity.
Losing a rain parka is not a favorable situation in persistently windy and rainy weather. But since Jenny and I make most of our expedition clothing it was an easy matter for us to make a make-shift rain parka from a Sportsman's blanket that we sometimes used as a ground sheet beneath the tent. This we did during the next major storm that kept us tentbound for a day.
At the height of land
Reaching river's end, eight days after we had started it, we portaged the boat over the Continental Divide - which here is merely a minor height of land between lakes. While studying the maps I had chosen this site carefully, so the portage was about 1/4 mile, with very little gain in elevation. Now, where the water had been flowing toward the Arctic Ocean, here it flowed toward Hudson Bay.
Sled-dogging across the tundra
Then began a long series of lakes separated by portages long and short, and that went on and on. But here we made an important discovery, and one that no doubt those who regularly canoe the far north had discovered previously. If we carried all our gear on our pack frames we could drag the empty canoe over the tundra. So like sled dogs in their traces we hiked across the landscape. This enabled us to portage almost as fast as we could paddle, which was a favorable situation because the final section of our route entailed several miles of portaging altogether.
At long last we reached the Thelon River, and there we put the boat in the water and paddled 5 miles to a large island in the middle of the river. There we made what we thought would be our final camp.
Sunrise over the Thelon river
Sunrise the next morning found us on top of the island, maybe 100 feet above the river. This was a sacred site embellished with a few ancient inukshuks, a focal point of the landscape for hundreds of miles in all directions. Here we gave for this incredible adventure. For the tens of thousands of caribou we had seen, the dozens of musk ox - including the one standing outside our tent's doorway one morning when we awoke. For the many beautiful wolf, especially the one that we nearly ran over as it was swimming across the river. It returned to shore then followed us downstream for 15 minutes, in a friendly sort of way like an enormous white dog.
Wolf swimming across the river in front of us
We gave thanks for our wonderful time in the Barrenlands. In their harshness they have so far managed to rebuff civilization's intrusion, along with its associated development and ecological mayhem. Why we love the Barrenlands so, because of the profound solitude and purity of nature. A small place on this big planet that mankind has not yet despoiled. And we were thankful for the connection with this land engendered on this trip, through toil, danger, and privation. And for the utter joy of being alive in what seemed like the highest possible sense.
The remaining 40 miles down the Thelon was not without more struggle, due to very strong headwinds. Along the way we met a few friendly native people, coming upriver with their powerful outboard motors. One helmsman steered straight for us and cut his engine, and soon we found ourselves gunnel to gunnel with three native fellows who had nothing to say. "Where're you going?" I asked. "Up the river, hunting caribou. We need meat." My thoughts turned to the three caribou we had seen not far back, browsing the tundra nearly at the water's edge. These animals had only watched as we paddled past - easy targets for these hunters. I hoped they moved away before they were shot. At the same time I wished these friendly hunters good luck as we parted company.
A mere three miles from the airport and the conclusion of our journey, the storm intensified to such a degree that we could no longer press ahead. There was nothing for it but to make camp and wait for the storm to abate. Another lesson in patience. We were not all that hungry, thanks to the wonderfully satisfying fish. Mainly we looked forward to showers, our last had been in Yellowknife, 40 days ago.
The next morning we paddled through the weakening shreds of the storm and reached the airport. There we arranged a flight out. As a bonus the flight reservation clerk bought our canoe and paddles. The flight home? It was a good opportunity to plan our next paddling trip in the Barrenlands.
Wading the canoe down a small rapid.
Caribou are ubiquitous along the Back River, we saw them nearly every day. This herd alone contained thousands of animals.
Muskox grazing the tundra behind camp. We counted 31 in this group. We enjoyed watching the young ones chasing each other around.
A rare day of nice weather and calm water.
Between the rocks in this pile were a number of human bones. In ancient times the dead were buried beneath such piles of rocks, since the permafrost prevents digging into the soil.
Another of the Back River's canoe-munching rapids. We were able to wade or line most of them along the shore where the water was not so rough.
During the trip we used no repellant. Rather, we wore bug-proof clothing whenever the wind was not blowing. This clothing included shell jacket and pants, shell mitts, thick wool socks, and headnets.
At the head of Sinclair Falls. Shown here is only a fraction of this magnificent feature.
Pitching the tent in strong wind.
A small set of rapids on the Meadowbank
Jenny wading the canoe up a shallow section.
A beautiful day on an unnamed lake of the Meadowbank.
Warping upriver. I am pulling two lines, one leading to the canoe's bow and the other to the stern. By pulling more on one or the other I can steer the boat, helping to keep it away from the rocks.
A typical campsite along the Meadowbank, with more elbow room than you could shake a stick at, were there any.
We fished to eat, never for sport. Which is not to suggest that it wasn't fun. But catching a fish meant that we were finished fishing for the day. Unfortunately we almost always caught the day's fish on the first or second cast, bringing the day's fishing fun to an all-too sudden end.
We often paddled far into the night, taking advantage of the calmer conditions, at the expense of body warmth.