Canoeing Coppermine River & Pikes Portage

Yellowknife to Arctic Ocean

Northern Paddling Adventure #8

39 days, 960 miles, Jul-Aug 2005

Ray & Jenny Jardine

2005-07-06 page 1 of 40

This story contains 350 photos!

View our Campsites along our Coppermine route. (click this link and open with Google Earth)


This year's canoe trip was 960 miles in length, and took us 39 days across an amazingly vast wilderness area, in fact one of the largest and most remote and pristine natural regions left on the planet. Starting in Yellowknife, capital of Canada's Northwest Territories, we paddled along the shore of the Great Slave Lake, then carried our outfit over Pike's Portage, worked up to Clinton-Colden and Aylmer lakes, then paddled down the Coppermine River, and finished at the native village of Kugluktuk on the coast of the Arctic Ocean.

710 mi of lakes and up rivers, with 44 portages totaling 15 miles, then 250 miles down the Coppermine.

During the planning stages we asked ourselves: "How much adventure can we pack into a mere six weeks of free time?" We are both extremely pleased with the results. It was an unforgettable experience and one of our very best trips yet.

The "Barrenlands," as this magnificent expanse of wilderness is known, contains tens of thousands of lakes and rivers. So the best mode of travel is usually by boat. The waterways along our chosen route are not continuous, so altogether we portaged 44 times, the longest being about 3.5 miles. The entire trip was uphill, until reaching the Coppermine river for its final 250 mile run. This river is well known for its technical and sometimes unavoidable rapids. So in all, the trip required a fairly nimble boat; and once again for its practicality we chose a canoe rather than a kayak.

This was our eighth paddling adventure in the far north, and this time we resolved to be more self-sufficient, with no float plane fly-in to the start, or food drops or resupplies along the way. Instead we carried all our food and gear for the entire six weeks.

July 5, 2005

We arrived at the Portland Airport at 3-1/2 hours before the scheduled departure time of our flight to Seattle. Turns out we needed the extra time to straighten out a glitch: The airlines had no record of our payment for our leg to Edmonton. That took an hour to sort out. Then, the line to get through security seemed to take another hour.

It was a relief to finally arrive in Edmonton, with it's large but very quiet airport. The Custom's officer didn't like the barrel length on our shotgun. It was half an inch too long. The limit was 18-1/2 inches, he said. He eventually let it slide, but charged us a $25 firearm registration fee.

Our departure to Yellowknife was a six hour wait, so we found a comfortable, half-sunny, half-shady picnic table outside the terminal and rested, sometimes falling asleep.

Flying across Alberta and into the Great Slave Lake area, the sky was totally cloudy. In Yellowknife however, the sun was shining. Melissa, a rental car representative, greeted us in the terminal and drove us to their office. After taking care of the rental car paperwork, we drove to the Fred Henne Territorial Park Campground across the street from the airport. Somehow we got assigned to a site in the lowlands near the lake, where the mosquitoes were swarming. We quickly pitched the tent right on our gravel driveway and collapsed inside. The sun was still up when we fell asleep at 11:00 pm. We were warm and comfortable and slept well.

Day 1 - Yellowknife

July 6, 2005

We awoke several times in the wee hours of the morning; Jenny had picked up a cold in Portland so she was feeling a bit raspy. Then we finally got up about 7:00 am. It was a beautiful day, some overcast, not cold, not too buggy. We hiked a ways off over the bedrock and through the stunted black spruce forest. The spruce are about 20 feet tall, maximum, with lots of birch, alder and wild rose.

We broke camp and drove into town to scout out a launch spot. Nothing ideal anywhere (we need a grassy space to spread out, private next to the lake, with trash can and drinking water available) but we found only a few possibilities near the float plane base. We drove back through town, found the new Canadian Tire store (out past the WalMart) and bought one gallon of white gas cook-stove fuel, a fishing lure, and some bug repellent.

Then we went to Co-Op for groceries. We must have set a new two-person canoe record for the grocery bill: Can $491.75. Mostly snacks, some cheese, fruit, cereal, dry fruit, candies, cookies, crackers, bread, peanut butter, jam, salami, etc. A six week's supply. From there we drove back into town to a sports store and bought a camping stove and fuel bottle. At a gas station we bought fishing licenses. We had to buy the the white gas cook-stove fuel, and the camping stove here because they are not permitted on the airlines.

At the float-plane dock in Yellowknife, fresh from the grocery store.

From there we drove on through town, over the bridge to our chosen launch site: the old float plane dock on Back Bay where we had camped and flown out during our 1997 Thelon River trip. A fellow was working at the dock filling fuel drums, and we asked him for permission to work - off in one corner. No problem, he said, in a friendly tone.

We pulled the canoe gear from our luggage bags and while I poured the gallon of fuel into our smaller one-quart plastic soda bottles, Jenny sorted the food bags.

We loaded our sacks of trash into the car along with our travel bags and clothing. Then while I assembled the canoe, Jenny drove the car to pick up the rental emergency satellite phone, where the owner had kindly offered to store our luggage at his shop. Then she stopped for a quick visit with Eva and Eric, good friends from previous trips. Eric gave her a few extra-large bricks of Belgian chocolate.

Jenny made one last run through the grocery store, then filled the car's gas tank and returned the rental car. The fellow who rented the car had agreed to transport Jenny back to the boat dock.

Canoe is together and ready to load.

Meanwhile, while the boat had gone together nicely inside our house, where it was cool and out of the sun, here in the intense Yellowknife sun it wouldn't go together. The skin had shrunk, so the two top longeron bulwarks (one on each side) seemed too long. I had to struggle with it for 45 minutes. The sky was clouding over, the wind was picking up, and the guy working at the dock said there was a storm coming. This would not be a good place to camp, so I wanted to paddle out of here. The canoe was not together 100 percent properly, but it was good enough. So by the time Jenny returned, I had the boat in the water and was just starting to load it.

Note Jenny's PLB on her life jacket.

At home, the boat had seemed much too large; but here, all our gear and six-weeks of food barely fit. We were in such a hurry to leave (we didn't want to caught in the channel or out in the bay with a storm coming), we just threw the gear bags in and took off - this at 3:40 pm. We paddled under the bridge and were just pulling out into the main channel when we had to make a hard left to get out of the way of a float plane approaching for a landing.

Out into Yellowknife Bay - the North Arm of the Great Slave lake.

We paddled around the north of Jolliffe Island and then southeast across Yellowknife Bay to the eastern shore. The sky was partly clouded over. Out on the water we had up to 10 knots of headwind and some small whitecaps. This was enough wind to keep the mosquitoes at bay. We enjoyed the paddling. It was very nice to get going and very nice to be on the water again. We had some reservations about how well the canoe would hold together and how well it would perform, but at least it floated, and it paddled easily enough, even fully loaded.

On the water we saw loon and ducks, seagulls and terns, some very large ravens and several huge bald eagles. The sloping bedrock shoreline was beautiful with lots of good camping sites. In a couple miles we went past the village of Detah. Some of the houses looked pretty nice. On a small, adjacent rocky islet, someone had deposited their barking sled dogs.

Then we made a run a couple miles south across Akaitcho Bay. The conditions were uncertain and the wind was picking up. With the sky darkening, we landed on the westernmost point of Horseshoe Island at 5:55 pm. We had paddled just under 2.5 hours and had gone 7 miles.

Camp #1

7 miles, 2.5 hours. Camp #1: UTM 12W 639522 6920330 Map 85J


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