We are not trying to impress anyone with our northern trips, or set any kind of examples. Rather, we are undertaking them for our own personal enjoyment. And as you can see from these photos, they are lots of fun!
The preceding story was taken from our daily journals. We wrote every night, in the tent. Of prime importance to us was where we went, and under what weather conditions. For example, we lined such and such rapids on the right; and so forth. We wrote like this for ourselves, in case we want to do the trip again, and also for other people who might be interested in researching such a trip of their own.
Our story might warrant this disclaimer, which probably goes without saying - but just in case anyone gets the idea of repeating our summer's trip, please be advised that unless you are an experienced Class III whitewater canoeist, you might enjoy something a little easier. Actually, much easier - such as the Thelon river; and be sure to go with a guide your first time. Before our trip, only one other party (that we knew of) had completed the route, at least in modern times, and they took about twice as long. Plenty of people were flying to the headwaters of the Coppermine river each year, but the only ones to finish even that are very skilled with white-water canoeing.
Since we published this Coppermine story on the internet, in it's basic form in 2005, a number of people have paddled and portaged essentially the same route. Our route map at the bottom of this page became something of a blue-print for other paddlers with similar ambitions. And that's good. The route is a real gem.
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Heavy Pack Loads
A few people have expressed amazement at the size of our backpacking loads, during this trip. At least we did not have to carry those loads far - 15 miles total, spread out over 44 portages. But the reactions bring up a good point: that the lightweight approach to backpacking can become almost like a religion, and anything different might seem sacrilege. In our eight journeys to the far north, we have reduced our loads to about half or a third of what most hearty folks up there carry. We have not yet figured out how to reduce them to what we would consider reasonable size. But does that stop us from undertaking these journeys? Would a refusal to carry huge loads be worth sacrificing such a mind-boggling incredible adventure? Not in our estimation.
For our subsequent Journey's Flow class, the students averaged 8 to 10 lbs of gear, not including food and water, and the clothing and shoes they will wear. This was quite good for a week in the wilds, and a late-season week at that. The late season requires a few extra clothes and a thicker quilt. But contrast, the packs shown in this story weighed from about 75 to 100 lbs.
The bear gun I was carrying (modified extensively to reduce its weight) loaded with seven rifled slugs weighs 6.1 lbs, including the home-made neoprene case. We did not need that at the Journey's Flow. Nor did we need the six weeks of provisions that felt like they weighed a ton, or the expedition grade tent with its home-made 11 mm poles for the howling frigid gales blowing off the polar ice pack, or the inflatable pads for sleeping on permafrost and the ubiquitous heat-sapping bare rock of the Canadian Shield. At Journey's Flow, we did not wallow in frigid swamps or incessantly along the shores of the lakes and rivers, we didn't need our special, home-made waders that weigh about 5 lbs each. Nor did we need the two bags each of warm clothing, including insulated parkas and insulated, waterproof paddling mittens. We didn't need the stove and gallon of fuel, necessary in the subarctic often because of a lack of firewood and occasionally the howling gales that can keep a party stormbound for days at a time. We didn't need three layers of bug clothing head to toes (not worn all at the same time). We didn't need the large pile of maps, nor the gps, emergency telephone (not used) or the PLB w/ gps which I sewed to Jenny's life jacket. We didn't need the life jackets, or the fishing pole, reel, line and lures, and the fish knife for chopping the fish into pot size chunks. We didn't need the pair of 50' lines and one spare, used to line the canoe along the shores on occasion. We didn't need the heavy-grade, waterproof bags to keep all these items in. We didn't need the two paddles and the spare paddle. And of course at the Journey's Flow we didn't need the canoe.
This does not imply that the Journey's Flow outdoor class, and in fact all hiking and backpacking in the "lower 48" and elsewhere, is not a great deal of fun. It certainly is. And it can be quite challenging, for some people more than others depending on experience and conditions. I enjoy these trips immensely, but once again I also like a little variety thrown into the mix for good measure. And our trips to the far north are variety with a capital "V".
To help facilitate a journey of this magnitude we conditioned ourselves ahead of time with months of strenuous exercise and optimum diet. In the final few weeks we worked late into the nights, sewing special gear and clothing, researching the route and studying maps.
During the trip we tended to eat only one cooked meal per day, and of course this was usually corn spaghetti seasoned with Jenny's garden-grown tomato leather. Never did this fail to satisfy our huge appetites and enormous energy requirements. On occasion, however, we dined on succulent, pink-fleshed lake trout twenty-five to thirty inches in length and caught on the first cast almost every time. A few mornings we indulged in a breakfast of thick-porridge of corn grits.
On the portages we carried backpacks that began in the 100 pound category, and with less food near trip's end were down to about half that. Each of us also hand-carried one end of the canoe. This arrangement enabled us to traverse the portages in one go, without having to return for a second or even third load as most canoeists do.
The Barrens tundra tends to be fairly rugged, and we spent a lot of time sloshing through swamps and marshes, trudging over muskeg and stumbling across unending hummocks. We crossed innumerable fields of rain-soaked, slippery and loose rocks, and often thrashed through dense willow or alder. Laboring up, over, or down the steep, muddy, slippery slopes while hanging onto the canoe with one hand, we sometimes had to clutch the willow branches with the other for stability. And of course the mosquitoes and black flies swarmed seemingly in their millions, while our sweat streamed down our faces inside the bug nets.
On some of the trip we traveled up large and powerful rivers, and where paddling was not possible we lined the canoe along shore. Otherwise, we spent most of our wakeful hours paddling, often 11 or 12 hours a day and hundreds of hours altogether across about 710 miles of lakes. Often this was in frigid headwinds often laced with rain, and large waves common to such immense lakes. On the Coppermine River it was often rapids, up to class III. All along the way the water was pristine, crystal clear, and perfectly suitable for drinking.
The trip was thirty-nine days of elbow room. For a full month and more, we saw very few people. But we did enjoy daily encounters with the abundant wildlife, which included dozens of moose and muskox altogether, half a dozen wolves and about that number of wolverine, quite a few caribou, a few grizzly and a couple of siksik. The birds were constantly around us, and these included bald and golden eagle, peregrine falcon, ducks and geese innumerable, large and beautiful tundra swans, loons, grebes, and gulls.
Due to the remoteness, we were far beyond assistance from the outside world. Here one's fortunes might depend on one's skills, abilities, and inner resources. Survival can sometime hang on a thread, for example in a river so wide that the shores are essentially inaccessible and each section of rapids threatens a long and frigid swim all the way to the next stretch of rapids.
The Barrens are an intense, raw land. They are a mind-boggling expanse of unspoiled wilderness that would sooner chew a person up and spit them out. Only by sheer grit and good luck does one forge through. But persistence reaps rewards: the Barrens are also the beauty of nature at her very finest. At every bend in the rivers, beyond each headland, and in every cove on each lake, always there is something interesting to see and new to discover.
The Barrens are an untainted land, vast, unforgiving, merciless. A land that trims the ragged edges of the soul and pulls you deeper into its vastness as you push on, day by glorious day. With every breath of cold, raw air, you give thanks for the gift of life, and for the purity that brings you back in touch with the forgotten self that is your real self.
The Barrens are one of the last remaining expanses of wilderness. And as such, they are of inestimable value in their natural and pristine condition, not only to a few hardies who explore its wonders, but to humankind and all life on earth.
Our lack of understanding of its value does not diminish that value. Here is balance in a world that elsewhere we have thrown off-kilter. And in that balance could be vital information yet to be realized by science, information that may hold the key to the survival of humankind and all other life forms. If we breach the land, contaminate it, destroy it, like we have nearly everywhere else, its secrets may never be unlocked and could be lost, to our peril. For we may need to know more about that balance in the coming decades, as our unbridled technologies continue to turn the world inside-out.
With all the fishing we had done, we had lost only one lure. Casting from shore it had snagged on the bottom. Our ideal lures are the 2-segmented minnow, the red and white spoon, and the blue moon. Next time we will two of each of these, so we have spares. We also used snap swivels, a large folding knife, one pole and reel, and one extra spool of line.
The red and white spoon we used for casting from shore to catch Grayling. It was the only lure with barbs. The 2-segmented minnow, and the blue moon we used to catch Lake Trout, and these lures did not have barbs. These are all beat up because we have used them on many trips.
In order to render barbs useless, a person squeezes each one down with a pair of pliers. Barbless hooks are more fun to fish with, because they take more skill, and also they enable a fish to be released without much damage.
A little rant, if I may: I hate to see people catching monster fish and not releasing them. The Monster fish (Lake Trout and Northern Pike) found in these BarrenLands waters are essentially irreplaceable. This is because of their slow growth rate, caused by the cold, dark, and long winters. So when you catch one, handle it gently while taking your photos, then release it back to the water ASAP. And with the slightly smaller fish, I would encourage not keeping any more than you and your party can eat. Beyond fishing for dinner, catch and release is the best plan.
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|Great Slave Lake - Coppermine River 2005|
|Date||Day Number||Lake Miles||Name of Lake or River||River Miles||Portage||Portage Miles||Portage Time|
|15-Jul-05||10||30||reach end of Great Slave||1|| 1/8||15 min.
|16-Jul-05||11||Pike's Portage, Day 11:||3||13.5 hour day|
|Portage 3 miles to Harry Lake||3 |
|3||Paddle on Harry Lake |
|Portage 1/4 miles to French Lake|| 1/4|
|4||Paddle on French Lake|
|Short portage to Acres Lake|| 1/8|
|4||Paddle 4 miles on Acres Lake. Made camp.|
|17-Jul-05||12||Pike's Portage, Day 12:||8||11 hrs, 20 min. of portaging, |
|Portage 1/4 mile to Kipling Lake|| 1/4|
|3||Paddle on Kipling Lake |
|3 portages to get to Burr Lake||2 |
|1||Paddle on Burr Lake|
|Portage to Toura Lake||1 |
|1||Paddle on Toura Lake.|
|Portage to unnamed lake||1 1/2|
|1||Paddle on unnamed lake.|
|Portage to small lake|
|Paddle on small lake||Portage to Artillery Lake||
|18-Jul-05||13||26||Artillery, near Cyystal Is.|
|22-Jul-05||17||?||ArtilleryLk & Lockhart R.||? Upriver|
|23-Jul-05||18||29||Lockhart R. & Ptarmigan Lk.||1|| 1/8|
|24-Jul-05||19||29||Clinton Colden Lk.|
|25-Jul-05||20||21||Clinton Colden Lk.|
|26-Jul-05||21||33||Aylmer Lk. & Thonkied R.||1|| 1/2|
|27-Jul-05||22||Thonkied R.||17 upriver||many||1 1/2|
|28-Jul-05||23||25||Thonkied R, Afridi Lk, Thonkied Lk||many|
|29-Jul-05||24||25||portage to Lac de Gras||6 hrs for the portage|
|1st portage 1/2 mile|
|1st lake 1 mile|
|5||2nd portage 2/3 mile|
|2nd lake 1-1/4 mile|
|3rd portage 1/2 mile|
|3rd lake 1/2 mile|
|4th portage 1/2 mile|
|30-Jul-05||25||31||Lac de Gras|
|31-Jul-05||26||28||Lac de Gras, Desteffany Lk||many|
|2-Aug-05||28||26||Lake Providence & Point Lk|
|4-Aug-05||30||37||Point, Redrock, Rocknest Lks|
|8-Aug-05||34||50||1|| 1/3||Rocky Defile|
|11-Aug-05||37||52||3||2 ||Muskox & Sandstone Rapids|
|12-Aug-05||38||31||2||2 ||Escape Rapids and Bloody Falls|
Pike's Portage is about half trail and half lakes. This was early in our trip, and sometimes we double carried - one trip with the canoe and a second trip with the gear. But usually we single carried as shown here. Either way, that next lake was invariably the most beautiful sight imaginable.