Arriving on that spot on a sunny, cool July day, it was encouraging to see braided caribou trails leading in more or less the direction we wanted to travel. After a moment or two of consultation with my partner, we decided she’d do a first load with an ugly food pack and my first load should be the canoe, a big green 17-foot Old Town Tripper, with our blanket pack on my back for ballast. About five steps into the carry, the wind over the open tundra came up. It blew away the bugs, which was a blessing, but it also caught the canoe, as if it were a sail.
Walking that day, my knees crunching from the counter-rotational force required to offset the wind turning the boat on my shoulders, I had a strong sense that I’d crossed the distance the map said was required to complete this watershed-to-watershed portage. But still there was no river, no stream, no body of flowing water that looked in any way deep enough to float our canoes. It turned out, in the fulness of time, not to be an optical illusion but the absolute truth. The Back River, flowing out of Sussex Lake was astonishingly unwet. There was water barely sufficient to float a merganser or even a skinny goose let alone a canoe loaded with seven weeks of food and supplies. So the portage continued.
By the end of that day’s ridiculous toil, we camped several kilometres downstream from the place where the original portage was supposed to end. And by the end of the next day, totally exhausted and fed up with portaging, we camped again at a place where we could look upstream and actually see where we’d camped the previous night. If that’s not a character-building moment, I’m not sure what is.
Happily, after another half day of portaging we reached a widening of the river and got back on the water. Somehow the sweeping grandeur of the treeless landscape and the visual poetry of an esker snaking along beside these early meanderings of this much-storied barrenland river were easier to absorb and appreciate from the comfort of the canoe than from cantankerous head-down attitude of a two-legged pack animal beset by mosquitoes and black flies.
This recollection is from a trip in 1980, described more fulsomely in my book, Summer North of Sixty, but it is as clear now in my mind’s eye as it was back then. Although in preparing that trip we had done our research and talked to people who had been on the Back in previous years — it was a fairly popular route back in those days — it was something of a surprise that the water levels that year would be anomalously low and provide us with a few days of unexpected pain and suffering.
And yet, on each of those nights on the upper Back River, after the intensity of the portaging had ebbed into a sense of quiet accomplishment, we would scratch our bug bites, share an after-dinner tipple, maybe sing a song, count our blessings, and look back at our campsite from the night before, remembering with a chuckle that the many sufferings of a barrenland canoe trip are, in the first instance, self-imposed.
Looking back through more than half a century of paddling tundra rivers, there’s no question that beyond the necessary suffering, a barrenland canoe trip is an indelible encounter with self, other and the natural world that is probably available nowhere else on the planet. And yet fewer and fewer paddlers seem to be seeking out long tundra rivers in favour of shorter, steeper, and perhaps more easily accessible, rivers in the Western Arctic. For posterity, if nothing more, here’s a reflection on why that might be the case.
Broadly speaking, moving north from the border of the western provinces and Canada’s three territories — the 60th parallel — there are two categories of tundra rivers: those more southerly watercourses that cross the treeline and move out onto the tundra, draining mostly into Hudson Bay; and those that rise above the treeline and cross the Arctic Circle on their way to outflows in the Arctic Ocean.
As the longest of the tundra rivers, the Back River drains a vast area of the barrens and, although it begins in the manner of a child peeing at the outflow of Sussex Lake, it has an average discharge into the Arctic Ocean of 3,000 cubic metres per second. This pales, by comparison, to the 4,241-kilometre Mackenzie, Canada’s longest river, and the St. Lawrence River, Canada’s largest river by volume, with its discharge of 16,800 cubic metres per second.
What sets the tundra rivers apart from all others in the country is space — unfettered, wild space that nurtures all of the creatures for whom the barrenlands are home. Both the treeline tundra rivers and the Arctic Circle tundra rivers have their own unique character that sets out reasons to explore them, or not.
The joy of working your way north from Manitoba or Saskatchewan has to do with the straight-up work of paddling and dragging your loaded canoe upstream, getting wet and cold, earning the height of land. Day by day, you watch the boreal forest transition to taiga and eventually tundra. Slowly, the lands of the Canadian Shield open before you with endless skies reflected in lakes and rivers that seem set upon the landscape as opposed to flowing through it or within it. That’s what the high ground feels like before you start downstream.
Because these more southerly tundra rivers cross the treeline, they will always have a generous smattering of driftwood for cooking. And as the water drops three hundred metres or so over length of these rivers, it cuts into and through the ancient landscape, creating a deepening valley and current of increasing speed, often punctuated by sharp drops and precipitous rapids to keep paddlers’ hearts beating. I think of Kazan Falls, Dubawnt Gates, Thelon Canyon, Sinclair Falls on the Back, Wilberforce Falls on the Hood, Rocky Defile and Bloody Falls on the Coppermine. I think of joyous campfires at campsites on the downstream side of these river challenges.
The joy of crossing the Arctic Circle on one of the more northerly tundra rivers has to do with knowing you are officially in the land of the midnight sun and all of the history, mythology and mystique that this kind of latitudinal transition brings with it. These rivers, like the treeline tundra rivers, are dotted with lakes that often stay frozen long after the river itself has broken up in the spring, so getting into them with a float plane early in the season can be… interesting. Firewood is more scarce on the northern rivers, but with a pair of garden secateurs you can easily harvest fuel wood from the hardy ground-hugging shrubs, like Lapland rhododendron, dwarf birch or Arctic willow that works as well as any hand-split billet of spruce or tamarack.
Like any backcountry trip, tundra canoe trips necessarily involve time, sharp tools, specialized skills, cold water, unpredictable weather, reliance on equipment, good social cohesion and failsafe logistics. The difference with the tundra rivers, however, is their remoteness. Margins for error are slim to none. The risks that one might encounter closer to home are essentially doubled and often redoubled by the fact that help is so far away, which, as any dyed-in-the-wool tundra paddler will tell you, is at once both a reason to go (if you have what you need) and a very compelling reason to stay home (if you do not).
These days, with satellite navigation and communication technology, it’s not that one can’t get help. It’s that help, in whatever form, might be a long time in arriving and often comes at considerable, possibly astronomical personal, financial and environmental cost. Learning about the positive (and yes, there are many) and negative aspects of backcountry risk is something that a prospective tundra paddler should do close to home or in the cordon of one of the many outfitters who mount remote canoe trips for a living. Tundra rivers are not a place to learn-as-you-go the rudiments of paddling and remote travel. Even little missteps can be tragically consequential.
But once you are there, in the magic middle of a multi-week journey on a tundra river, there is no human experience on Earth like it. Time becomes irrelevant. Eat when you are hungry. Sleep when you are tired. Caribou, wolves, bears, wolverines, muskox, birds, all of them with a story about then, and now, and what’s going to happen in the future. Watching the sun swoop low across the northern horizon. Being windbound for days.
A long canoe trip seems to emphasize that everything you own, all your supplies, are with you in your canoe. Just that and any ingenuity, luck, or cunning you can add to the mix. Curse the bugs. Curse your silly mistakes. Knowing help is miles away focusses care and attention on the little things that can lead to big disasters. The rhythm of the paddle. The satisfaction of self-reliance. Wayfinding. Decision-making. Watching polar jets scribe the blue sky en route from Bejing to wherever. Daydreaming. Breathing deeply, day after day after day, knowing that this nourishment for body, mind and soul is drawn from one of the last wild places.
The sovereignly unique feature of tundra rivers is that while they all flow through the traditional lands of the Dene and Inuit, and are each steeped in their own natural and cultural history, there are no communities, Indigenous or otherwise, anywhere along them , and the chance of having an extended, unmediated experience with a pristine landscape is virtually certain for the duration of even the longest, most-ambitious barrenland canoe trip. Of course, the joy of meeting community members fishing, hunting or relaxing on the river as you approach salt water is also the chance to learn and to share appreciation with the people for whom these breath-giving, breathtaking lands and waters are home.
Back in the 1970s, it seemed there was a steady flow of hardy paddlers, clumped up in private groups, who outfitted for themselves, and had the resources of time, skill and money to paddle all of these tundra rivers. One needn’t have gone terribly far to find somebody who had tackled a river who could lend you their maps or trip log to guide your planning.
Now, however, check Ottertooth, MyCCR, the annual Wilderness & Canoe Symposium in Toronto, or any of the other bulletin boards, chat sites or apps where paddlers meet virtually to share information on recent adventures. Tundra names like Dubawnt, Kazan, Back, Burnside or Hood pop up more as the exception than the rule. The RCMP used to be happy to register wilderness canoe trips to keep track of who was where in the event of an emergency. Recently, I learned that all that data was never collated — or, if it was, it is now buried — and the registry service has not been offered for years.
With the increase in costs of charter flights, it makes sense to choose a less expensive summer canoe trip, perhaps one that can begin or end at a community with road access or scheduled flights. The time on the tundra for these thousand-kilometre trips — often four to six weeks — does not necessarily involve exorbitant expenditures on food and equipment, but as Boomers age and gravitate to less ambitious summer travel plans, it would appear that Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Zs don’t or won’t commit that kind of time to a single vacation experience. Apart from their parents and grandparents, they have different interests, different skill sets, different priorities and a host of different options, especially when it comes to canoes and canoeing. And while Boomers might have learned their canoeing skills from a limited suite of after-school and summer recreation programs, the options for the generations that followed were much more varied, resulting in recreational habits, preferences and choices that don’t so much turn away from remote canoe tripping as they have turned toward other options — sometimes involving canoes, but more often involving cycling, hiking, parasailing, boating, camping, or what-have-you — that can easily and affordably be included in busy lives and pressing work schedules.
Indicative of this demographic shift is the steady rise, since the 1970s, of the number and variety of outfitters offering northern canoe experiences. Canadian River Expeditions and Black Feather Wilderness Adventures came into the marketplace in 1972 and, since then, a host of other outfitters have arrived. Not all have survived, but the result today is that a person interested in a northern canoe trip, even a tundra canoe trip, has many attractive offerings that allow participants to skip the challenges of getting canoes, flights, food, trip information, logistics and a risk-management plan organized in favour of writing a cheque and simply showing up on the dock in Yellowknife, or wherever, with paddle in hand.
Although a couple of the more adventuresome outfitters offer bespoke trip planning and delivery for, presumably, any tundra river — provided a client has deep pockets — all of the main departures for the upcoming season on offer by these outfitters are in the two-week range and focus almost exclusively on the shorter, steeper rivers of the Western Arctic.
To be sure, most of these products still offer excellent value. There’s the splash of whitewater in your face, the joy of friendships kindled through shared adventure, unmediated encounters with the natural world, the intensity of the bugs, the ferocity of the wind, the sense of wellbeing that comes from breathing fresh air in a pristine place. The trips are expensive (sometimes $1,000 a day), especially when you add in the extra costs of specialized personal equipment that might be required and airfare to get to the jumping-off point. But what you’re getting is, without doubt, still a once-in-a-lifetime, possibly life-changing, recreational experience.
It's not so much that the Dubawnt, Kazan and Back Rivers, with their paddleable tributaries, have been forgotten. They are still very much present in the legends and lore of wilderness paddling.
The easiest way to enter the tundra river paddling experience these days is vicariously, through the rich and diverse canon of books that take you there, from Samuel Hearne’s Journey from Prince of Wales Fort in Hudson’s Bay to The Northern Ocean in the Years 1769, 1770, 1771, and 1772, and Lawrence Jeffery’s epic play Who Look in Stove, to J. B. Tyrrell’s An Expedition though the Barren Lands of Northern Canada, Ernest Thompson Seton’s An Arctic Prairie and George Whalley’s The Legend of John Hornby or George Grinnell’s and/or Skip Pessl’s gripping accounts of how their leader Art Moffatt died of exposure on the Dubawnt River in 1955. To these historic takes on tundra rivers, a keen reader might add and enjoy more recent accounts, such as Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air or Alex Hall’s Discovering Eden.
Added to these books are the accounts of contemporary paddlers, few though they are. Even if there are really no commercial trips happening on these rivers now, with far fewer private trips happening than there were a couple of decades ago, there are still online trippers — with social media handles like @expeditionakor, @danic373, @jonasoutside, @stephaniesdish, @adam_shoalts and @menogyn.magic — reporting in every year on their tundra river explorations. In their real-time personal rediscovery of these routes, these paddlers, via their social media feeds, remind us that these wild places still exist but also bring with them a message. Who knew it would be YouTube that would tell the world that, as remote as they are, these storied river valleys speak of humankind’s many appetites, not least climate change? As such, tundra rivers, and the Northerners for whom these lands are home, still have much to teach us about who we are and how the world works.
Much has changed in the world, and in me, since those excruciating memorable days portaging down the dry bed of the Back River back in 1980. I am one of the few fortunates who have dabbled in all of the main tundra rivers, in summer, for sure, and a few in winter as well. The Bathurst Caribou herd that we saw in its hundreds of thousands in headwaters of the Coppermine River back in the 1970s has all but disappeared, for complex reasons that include the fact that people doing everything from paddling to blasting have been increasingly active in their range. The treeline is moving north. The permafrost is melting. And while I still keep a canoe in Yellowknife, so it will be handy when the spirit moves for a quick jaunt, I more often visit these river valleys now with the people who live there, by motorboat, dogsled, or snowmachine.
How fortunate we are to live in a nation of rivers and in a river of nations that stretches from east to west and north to the Arctic Ocean. And how important it is that the people of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut are now, more than ever, full participant in decisions regarding the lands through which these river roads flow.
But it still seems like something of a minor miracle today to think — to know — that there remain wild spaces where one can venture for weeks on end, experiencing a roadless world where the forces and wonders of nature prevail. These tundra rivers will continue to draw a few folk ready to try their luck in exchange for the lessons they might have in store. But the more I ponder the experiences I have had over the years in these hallowed places, the more I wonder if we should remember the tundra rivers and the communities they nourish first by just knowing they are there, doing what they have been doing since time immemorial, flowing unfettered to the sea.
And as I think about the good work that conscientious outfitters are doing on the rivers of the western Arctic and occasionally on the Coppermine, Hood, Burnside, and Thelon, maybe the best we can hope for is to leave the rest of the tundra rivers just to be. Keep paddling, because there’s no better way to get connected to a landscape than by canoe. But maybe there are some places we should chose to appreciate from a distance.
Pondering this geographic and conservation conundrum, I went back to one of my favourite river authors, Robert Perkins, and his classic book, Into the Great Solitude, about a 10-week solo trip on the Back River back in 1987. Coming to the end of his journey, Perkins wrote a reflection that is perhaps more prescient now than it was 35 years ago: