Canoeing Coppermine River & Pikes Portage

Yellowknife to Arctic Ocean

Northern Paddling Adventure #8

39 days, 960 miles, Jul-Aug 2005

Ray & Jenny Jardine

2005-08-12 page 38 of 40

Day 38 - Bloody Falls

Nighttime brought a light drizzle, off and under a dark, cloudy sky. It was a peaceful, relatively warm night. I had very carefully constructed the bed, spending 15 minutes removing the more obtrusive stones, It was the most comfortable bed we've had in a long while because it was flat, unlike the tundra tussocks. Even this far north this time of year the sky did not get black-dark at night. Barely dark enough, possibly, to see a few of the brighter stars. We needed a flashlight to read and write.

We awoke first at 3 am, a little too dark for negotiating river rapids. We arose again at 4 am. Loading up was easy with the rock and gravel shore so close. We set off at 4:45 am in a light rain. At least there was no wind and the morning was not freezing cold.

The first paddling task was to cross the river through the lumpy chop, to reach the inside corner of the right bend. The next eight miles to Escape Rapids consisted of just enough bits of quiet water to catch our breaths between gnarly sections.

We checked the gps to confirm our proximity to Escape Rapids, and then as we were nearing the canyon we came to a cliff with a blind right turn. So we stopped and I scouted it, climbing the high bluff up the muddy steep slope, then walking along the edge for a third mile. On my way back, half way down the hill I saw Jenny coming up, looking for me, with the shotgun in hand. She said I had been gone nearly an hour. That was how long it had taken me to get to a place where I could see the next landing in the canyon.

From a high vantage, looking back up-river at Jenny and the canoe.

From the same high vantage, looking down-river at the falls.

We paddled the right shore, relatively easy water, but had to crank in to the indentation to the landing through a few waves with the main river rapids just beside us. Fifty yards below this landing is a spectacular waterfall that plunges into the river from the cliff top. Just before reaching the landing we passed by two young caribou standing together.

We started the portage by climbing straight up the steep hill. It had been raining all morning and still was, so the slope was slick with mud. Once we reached the tundra top, the portage became much easier, level, following caribou trails, slopping through bogs from all the rain in the last week. This portage is about 2 km. We noticed very fresh boot tracks on the portage trail.

During this portage we removed our rain jackets even thought there was a light rain because we were sweating so much. All I had on was my shell jacket and waders. At the end of the portage I put my sweat soaked brown polypropylene fleece shirt back on and it kept me surprisingly warm. This fabric is good and dries surprisingly fast.

The river is down on it's banks this year. I would look quite different in high water.

At the top of the falls.

Put-in at the bottom of Escape Rapids.

With Escape Rapids behind us, we figured that the river's rapids were behind us. But we found ourselves dealing with an endless succession of more rapids, mostly small by expert standards, but they certainly had us in high gear. We scouted them all from the boat, lined a few times, and this went on for mile after mile.

There were a lot of shallow, fast runs into large rocks which we were able to avoid, if only just. After what seemed like forever we reached the lake. The rain kept intensifying, without let-up. We were thoroughly soaked. Our exertions were keeping us marginally warm. It was only less than a couple of miles of lake paddling that brought us to the funneling at the head of Bloody Falls. Even in the gloomy rain the scenery was fantastic in the lake area.

The portage trail leading up the slope from the water's edge was clearly evident from the water. It was well-worn, steep and extremely slippery from the mud. We had to step on the tundra and willows alongside for safe footing. Again, very fresh boot tracks, just hours' old. Also fresh grizzly bear tracks, size GIANT.

For some reason we expected the portage to be easy, but it was actually one of the most intricate of the trip due to the rugged landscape. The Nunavut government had recently built a boardwalk over the bogs, a real treat, for as long as it lasted. On all the portage trails today, almost every step of the way was wet. The entire land was saturated, right down to the permafrost.

Once past the picnic area, with picnic tables, an outhouse, utility buildings and huts in the making, the route led down the pretty bedrock slabs to the water's edge. Bloody Falls is not a waterfall, but it is an incredibly impressive stretch of rapids which even the expert paddlers are said to avoid. Some of the waves looked 7 or 8 feet high.

Put-in at the bottom of Bloody Falls.

At the end of the portage, was a golden eagle perched on the rock, intently watching the water below. It didn't notice us right away. Who would have thought you would see a golden eagle on the Arctic Ocean coast.

We paddled a few fast and shallow places where the name of the game was Avoid The Rocks. Speaking of technique, when following the shore close in, in fast water we point the stern 30 degrees toward shore. Jenny back paddles on the side opposite shore, while I draw, pry or back paddle as necessary. If we need to move out away from shore we both draw. This works quite well.

While paddling rough water, crossing the river, we try not to look at the water because it is very disorienting. The large waves leap and throw us around dizzyingly. Instead, we focus on the far shore and try to ignore what the water is doing. In very rough water it is hard to ferry glide because there is not much for the paddle grab onto.

We reach the Arctic Ocean in a freezing gale.

Very soon we reached flat water although some current remained with us nearly all the way out, one or two knots at times. It was just pouring with rain the whole time. We had a light tailwind. We went outside some extensive sand bars and shoals, then rounded the final headland and suddenly there was Kugluktuk with dozens of outboard skiffs lining the shore. It was still raining. We kept going to the end of town. I noticed what looked like RCMP vehicles. Jenny noticed the First Air building and truck. So we landed at 4 pm and dragged the boat up onto a sand beach.

We grabbed our valuables and the sea bags containing dry clothing. We ourselves were soaked to the bone. We went to the First Air office building and bought tickets for tomorrow's flight to Yellowknife. In the restrooms we changed out of our wet shirts and into our dry insulated jackets. We put our wet rain jackets back on then went next door to the Coppermine Inn and asked about a room for the night. The price was USD200 per person per night, which was more than eight times the price of a room in the Lower 48. No thanks. Next we phoned the B&B, but they had no rooms available.

Back out into the rain, we walked across the street to the RCMP and notified them of our arrival and our trip's successful completion. From there we walked through town to the Co-Op store and bought a bunch of food and enjoyed the ineffable luxury of table and chairs, french fries and chicken wings.

It was wonderful to be among the native people, the Inuit. They have a distinctive look and manner because they are the descendants of the people who inhabited this land before the arrival of modern civilization.

Back at the waterfront, Jenny walked along the shore-front road while I paddled the canoe a few hundred yards west of where we had stopped, to the official campground. The ground everywhere is soaking wet, with puddles and streamlets. There are very few camping possibilities. But here at the campground are a few wooden platforms. These platforms are only about 30 feet from shore and a scant three feet above the Arctic Ocean. Not the best location in a northwest blow.

We pitched the tent in the rain, sponged off the bags that normally go inside the tent, tied out the vestibule with four modest-sized rocks, and climbed gratefully into the tent. It was a tremendous feeling to be out of the rain, even though we could see our breaths in the tent. However, the situation soon changed. The wind started blowing northwest and blew stronger and stronger.

Soon we both had to sit on the windward side of the tent to hold it down. The wind was 40 plus knots with higher gusts. We packed everything up again, preparing to abandon this site and relocate. Before Jenny could come out of the tent, I had to tie it down with a number of large rocks. Surprisingly, that did a good job, so the situation no longer seemed as dire as it had.

I scouted the area far and wide, looking for a better tent site and found a couple possibilities. One was behind a boat shed, but it was very close to the water. It was ironic to think that we completed out trip and reached Kugluktuk, but we were still in the elements.

I secured the tent with a ton of rocks. This tremendously stabilized the tent, thanks also to my home-made 11-mm tent poles. Jenny said it felt rock solid. It was quite a sight to see a tent ring on a tent platform. The old people might appreciate seeing this after we have departed.

31 miles, 12 hours. Camp #38: UTM 11W 0579581 7525017 Map 86O (86 Oh)

The story has 40 pages. This is page 38.
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