Arctic char sizzles in the frying pan on top of our small tin can stove. We turn a blind eye to the group of children having a small fire with the wood we gathered at Bloody Falls, the final major rapid on the Coppermine River, and the last place where wood was abundant. Instead, we collect tiny twigs to burn as fuel in our stove. This is good practice anyway, since we’ll rely on it throughout our upcoming hike. We’re resting at the end of our two-month paddle north from Behchokò˛, NWT to Kugluktuk, Nunavut and about to set out on a 400-kilometre trek west along the Arctic coast to Paulatuk, NWT.
Kugluktuk is a record-breaking 30C on this early August day. It’s actually the hot spot in Canada. We laze in the sun and feast on char. We’d been to the weigh-in at the town’s annual fishing derby and asked for a fish head, which would have sufficed as a good meal for my partner Leanne and I. But the lady weighing fish gave us two heads and a whole char.
We retire to our tent, but this town doesn’t sleep in the summer. In the middle of the night, an ATV and voices wake us up. We drag ourselves outside where a man we had met the previous day is there with a hearty helping of Kugluktuk hospitality: a container of caribou stew, another of fried caribou, and another of macaroni salad. We thank him profusely and feast again. It’s three in the morning.
By now it seems the whole town knows of us and our travel plans. The water truck drivers stop to fill our water bottles. A youth on an ATV offers recommendations for fishing tackle and gives us a ride to the store. The lady at the local hotel refuses to charge us to do our laundry. The RCMP allow us to use their phone. Another man—the father of one of my past roommates in Yellowknife—offers to store our canoe until the barge arrives to bring it back south.
Soon, we have arranged a boat ride to our starting point at the mouth of the Rae River, just west of town. We do a final weight check of our backpacks at a local airline cargo office, since we’ll be carrying all of our gear and food with us on the three-week hike. Too heavy. We get rid of a slingshot, a book, a small pot, a light towel, and a few other items. That’s about all we can spare. My pack is 80 pounds; Leanne’s is 60. About half of that weight is from food.
Our dream had initially been to paddle to the Arctic Ocean, beginning from our home in Yellowknife. Then former Inuvik mayor Peter Clarkson told us he had once hiked from Kugluktuk to Paulatuk and we were inspired to do the same. Now the reality is upon us and I can already see the blisters forming on my feet just thinking about hiking 400 kilometres.
We take an inland route for the first half of the trip, cutting off a large peninsula. The land is mostly lumpy grass-covered tundra. From a distance it reminds me of the prairies of southern Canada, but when I walk on it I know I am somewhere vastly different. The prairies are flat, down to the scale of one’s foot. This tundra looks flat, but it’s a roller coaster, providing perfect ankle-twisting holes and angles.
There are few landmarks early on and the sun becomes our reference point. We change the time on our watches so the sun is directly south at noon. It moves across the sky at 15 degrees per hour, so it’s directly east at 6 a.m. and directly west at 6 p.m. This keeps us on our northwestern track and constantly aware of our direction of travel. We hike in tank tops, choosing to swat regularly at the black flies rather than sweat in long sleeves.
For the first few days, we go slowly. Our packs are heavy and, after the two-month canoe trip, our feet are soft and our legs are lazy. On day three we reach a long, winding esker, and quickly learn why these ridges are the migration routes of the North. The walking is easier and, being higher up, we get great views, a nice breeze and even fewer bugs. We put away the compass. There are usually a couple caribou in sight, trotting or running, probably due to the black flies. A few spot us and circle downwind in our direction, approaching as close as 50 metres. Confident we’re not caribou, they turn heels.
On day four we rest to let our blisters heal and our bodies recover. We sleep most of the day and eat very little. Leanne finds two puffball mushrooms, which we fry and devour. The next day we are still exhausted and our feet still hurt. We both know we can turn around, but we won’t be defeated so easily. We pass lakes that are too shallow to fish from shore, but we find a place where the esker drops into a lake, providing a steeper bank and deep water at its edge. We’re rewarded with two fat trout. The sun and a gentle wind combine to create a small bug-free zone. After inhaling the fish, we nap on the side of the esker.
A week in, our bodies have adjusted and we cover more distance. Now making good time, we savour small luxuries: one day we catch another beautiful trout before lunch and spend most of the afternoon eating it. We fry the fillets, then grill the fins and backbone, and make soup with the head. In the evening, we begin walking again as the temperature drops and the sun disappears behind a bank of fog. With our visibility reduced to perhaps 50 metres, we use small landmarks—rocks usually and sometimes only clumps of grass—to keep us travelling in a straight line between frequent checks of the compass. We’ve been keeping meticulous notes on our hiking speed, so we know the precise time that we should reach the valley of the Hoppner River, to the northwest.
The next morning is cold and wet—the weather has returned to normal. The bugs mostly disappear, and we don our long underwear. We follow the Hoppner River for a day, and then trade it for the Inman River, which flows closer to our desired destination. We soon reach a canyon that echoes with the constant cries of falcons. The screams come from everywhere at once along this busy freeway, making it difficult to identify any single bird’s cry.
We follow the coast for a few days and enjoy abundant driftwood for campfires. Though we are far above the treeline, there’s enough wood in some places that we could build a log cabin. Interspersed amongst the logs are rusted old fuel barrels, which are almost certainly leftovers of the military DEW Line sites. Then we leave the coast behind to head west and climb into the Melville Hills and follow our intended path through Tuktut Nogait National Park, which sometimes registers zero visitors in an entire year.
We’re near the park boundary when a blizzard hits. The wind and snow howls from the west, cutting through our gloves. We put Ziploc bags over our hands and fasten them with elastic bands. For lunch we find a sheltered ravine and eat pre-cooked spaghetti and two days’ rations of dark chocolate while huddled under our tent fly in a snowdrift. We stay put while the storm rages, and erect our tent in the same ravine. We pack snow around it to block the wind. Just as we’re ready to dive in, a break in the clouds gives us a moment of sunshine. We pause and marvel at the beauty and contrast of the bright sunshine on the snowy landscape.
After a cozy sleep in the snowdrift—the snow we packed around the tent entirely cut out the wind—we wake up to sun and head north. The blizzard persuades us to change our route—we will now follow the coast where the lower altitudes and stabilizing effect of the ocean will mean warmer weather. Large gaggles of snow geese honk overhead. They seem to be gathering together for the migration south. We only have one tiny overview map now for this stretch, having left our intended route. We keep the ocean close enough to see it to the north a few times a day, but we also keep our distance to avoid unexpected bays and peninsulas. We follow our compass and the land features as directly west as possible, and descend to the coast every night to make camp with a driftwood fire.
Our new coastal route adds about 80 kilometres to the hike. Our packs are getting lighter every day and our legs and feet are in good shape after two weeks of hiking, so we take a rigid, military approach. We are slaves to the clock. We have breakfast and then hike for four hours before lunch, with only one 15-minute break. Snow-covered Mount Hooker looms in the distance to the south. By taking a compass bearing on the mountain each day, we make a rough estimate of our progress. After a few days, we reach a point of high ground and spot the ocean in the distance—not to the north, but to the west. We hoot and holler in delight, as this means we’ve reached Halcro Point and we can turn south towards our final destination, Paulatuk.
We relax and slow our pace, confident we can reach Paulatuk before our rations are depleted. We spend two nights at the edge of the Hornaday River, about 15 kilometres from town. We have a few scraps of food left, and we enjoy the campfire, the changing colours of autumn, and the peace and solitude, the reflection and rest.
But on the morning of the hike into Paulatuk, the wind is screaming. It takes the two of us to pack the tent so it doesn’t blow away. Within a half hour, we’re in the middle of another blizzard. The wind is blowing wet sleet straight into our faces. We put on sunglasses and again fasten Ziploc bags over our gloves. By the time we reach Paulatuk—on a Sunday—we’re cold and shivering and out of food. No buildings are open: not the hotel, not the Northern Store, not the church, not the police station. But we remain calm. There are plenty of houses and surely someone will answer their door.
We find an unlocked sea container beside the Northern Store and squeeze in beside bags of trash to escape the wind and change into warm, dry layers. Then we go knocking on doors. At the third house, three men invite us in. They are surprised by the two visitors who have walked into town, but nonetheless happy to host. They had just been out to net char, and were preparing to distribute roughly 200 fish around town. They call the hotel manager, and warm us up with coffee and treat us to some smoked Arctic char. We chat for nearly an hour before saying goodbye.
We stay in the hotel for one night to do laundry, to shower, and to binge on coffee and movies. We see ourselves in the mirror and are startled by how skinny we are. We camp the next night then fly to Inuvik where a whole new hike begins: this time, by thumb down the Dempster Highway to Whitehorse.