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November / December 2012
Text and Photos by Lee Narraway

Paddling the rapids of Katannilik Park

The day did not look promising. Frobisher Bay lay under a blanket of fog and rain and our early morning charter flight from Iqaluit into the wilderness of Katannilik Territorial Park had been cancelled due to poor visibility. I checked through my stuff again; sleeping bag, rain gear, a few extra clothes, wool hat, lots of warm socks and my oh-so-essential photography equipment, carefully packed in a waterproof case. I glanced over at my companions as they too attempted to reduce the size of their backpacks; Murray Ball from Iqaluit had organized this trip for his two sons, Misha and Bryn and his brother Max from Saskatchewan. I was tagging along as the photographer. We were making final preparations to paddle the Soper River in Southern Baffin Island for ten days with Wanapitei, an Ontario-based canoe company that had hired local Iqaluit guide Matty McNair. Her experience on this Canadian Heritage River spanned 21 years. The 60-kilometre route offered swift currents and Class 1 and Class 2 rapids, perfect for our group,most of whom had never even held a paddle. Because of our novice status, Matty switched from canoes to inflatable rafts to give us better stability. We would finish our trip in the predominantly Inuit community of Kimmirut.

We were excited and anxious to get underway. By late afternoon the distant mountains of the Meta Incognita Peninsula became visible. This was our signal to go. The Twin Otter was quickly loaded and 20 minutes after take-off we landed in the wilderness. As the plane departed, I whispered, “Let the adventures begin.”

We had arrived in paradise. Mount Joy stood at one end of the long valley, its rocky face scarred by ancient glaciers. In the distance, a waterfall slipped down the hillside. Vegetation was lush and abundant; much of it already turning brilliant orange and autumn reds and everywhere were ripe berries. We lugged our gear down to the river’s edge, scrambling through tangled thickets of knee-high dwarf birch to set up camp at the base of a low hill. When the wind rose we carried rocks up from the riverbed to mimic the traditional Inuit method of holding down tents with a circle of stones. When at last we finished, the dining tent provided a welcome respite from the wind and a cosy place to gather and share a hot dinner and warm conversations.

Being able to camp in the tranquil solitude of the Arctic is a“bucket list”priority formany adventurous travellers.

The wind woke me. It howled and moaned as it tore at the tents and set them flapping. Again and again the noise intensified in the distance, then roared down the river valley toward us like an approaching train.

Morning brought no relief. Our dining tent was flattened. We piled more rocks on the lower nylon walls, shortened the centre pole from standing to sitting height then crouched on the mossy ground beneath to eat breakfast while the tent flapped and tapped our heads with every gust of wind.

Rather than sit around camp all day, we decided to embrace the weather and head out on a quest. Our destination was the Panorama waterfall and our first challenge was to cross the runway. As we fought our way to the other side, we met a group of eight who had also arrived yesterday. A meeting like this is rare in Katannilik, which sees less than 20 paddlers annually. They were testing the power of the wind with a hand-held meter and it recorded the katabatic gusts at 90 km/hr.

We wandered into the shelter of the valley, wobbled from rock-to-rock across streams and boggy areas, laughing as we sat on the tundra to change into dry footwear then headed up onto the pebbled hillside where tiny scarlet cranberries thrived in small oases of emerald moss. Masses of blueberries and crowberries slowed down our progress as we grazed along. Drawing near to the falls, the wind caught rivulets of water from the smooth rock face and twirled them high into the air until they turned to mist. The Inuit had aptly named this area Katannilik, “the place of waterfalls.”

I lay on my stomach at the edge of the falls with my camera propped on a rock to hold it steady for a long exposure while I feasted on wild blueberries and occasionally dipped my cup into the cold delicious water.

Later that evening, heavy clouds rolled in and the wind increased even more. Repeated trips outside throughout the night were needed to tighten guy lines and prevent the tents from blowing apart. Next morning, the wind still raged but we agreed that it was another perfect day for a hike and this time we wandered parallel to the river along ancient caribou trails; these animals had travelled to and from calving grounds further north, their passage carving deep grooves into the tundra. We found only one set of fresh tracks but never spotted any animals. Lunch was shared high in the hills, surrounded by lichen-encrusted rocks that sheltered us from the wind.

It was still blowing on the third morning but the intensity had diminished. Spirits were high as we dismantled the camp at five am, inflated the rafts and carried everything down to the shore. Gear was carefully loaded and after some paddling tips, we were off. Matty had warned us that the first section of the river was shallow but we were surprised when the rafts beached on the rocky bottom after we paddled only three metres. We climbed out into the shallow water and for the next hour waded, slithered and slipped our way over rocks, lifting the raft to Matty’s rhythmic chant, “One, two, three, heave….One two three, heave…” It was exhausting. Finally we dragged the rafts to shore, carrying the gear another kilometre to the “drop-off,” a small but intimidating waterfall and the site of our first set of rapids.

Pouring down to create a foamy curtain of turquoise, Livingstone Falls roars through a Katannilik canyon.

I crouched on a rock, camera in hand only inches from the drop-off. The team was in a small cove above me waiting for my signal.The idea of going over any kind of waterfall after barely wetting a paddle was terrifying. But Matty, who qualified for the U.S. National Whitewater team at the age of 15, inspired confidence in everyone. I waved them forward and with a mighty yell they dug in their paddles.

Suddenly the powerful current grabbed the raft and propelled them towards me. Faces were intent and determined, focussed on the drop-off ahead. They hit the edge and were briefly airborne before crashing down into the rapids below, paddling hard… and suddenly it was over. Their triumphant cheers were accompanied by high-fives and
huge grins. I overheard the comment, “Only problem was it was over too soon.” To celebrate their newly acquired confidence, they told Matty she could sit out the next one and they hiked back upstream to bring the second raft down through the rapids alone.

The other campers had paddled as far as the drop-off to watch our first whitewater attempt. Their leaders decided to cancel their trip due to the weather and remain in camp until the plane could land again. Often during our expedition we thought about this and someone would comment, “Look what they have missed. Thank goodness we
have Matty!”

It was a fun and exhausting day. As the strong current carried us along, Matty explained how to read the river. Frequently we misjudged the direction of the flow and ended up stuck on big rocks in the middle of a rapid or chose to paddle down the wrong side of the river, ending up marooned in ankle-deep water. There was plenty of laughter, suggestions and encouragement shouted back and forth to whichever hapless team of rafters had to hop out into the shallow rushing water and give their raft a yank to get it moving again.

Our destination for the end of the first day on the river was a group shelter at the 12-kilometre mark, built and maintained by Mirnguiqsirviit (Nunavut Parks). The living area included a cooking and eating section, sleeping platforms and an oil heater. Though there were outdoor toilet facilities, the shelter felt near palatial in space and comfort. No one missed the howling wind as we fell asleep to the soft drips from clothing hung to dry above the stove.

The Soper River meanders through 1,200 square kilometres of wilderness and for the next week the sun shone daily. Some days we drifted over deep pools, the water so clear we could see the sun-dappled rocks on the bottom. When we were thirsty, freshwater was simply scooped from the river. At each set of rapids our style improved. We became
a team, stronger, more in sync paddling fearlessly around rocks and through the white water, whooping and hollering all the way. While the river lazily curled and looped through the valley, we often lay down our paddles letting the current do the work. No one spoke and this precious silence, so rare in our modern world, became part of our days.

We hiked to the Livingstone Falls where water rushed through a narrow canyon, spilling down in a turquoise curtain to tangle into the frothing maelstrom below. Murray remarked that the scenery was “like eating a chocolate bar with my eyes.”

The famous “willow grove” of Katannilik Park is the largest (and virtually only) “forest” on Baffin Island, hidden in a narrow fertile valley supported by a microclimate that had encouraged some of the trees to grow more than three metres in height.

Naturalist Joseph Dewey Soper, after whom the river is named, explored this valley in the 1930s. Astounded by the diversity and abundance of the flora, he catalogued and collected hundreds of specimens for the Canadian government. This past summer another group of botanists repeated his mission and they anticipate their record will help future scientists understand how the fluctuating climate affects plant life in the Arctic.

Katannilik is home to a rich variety of minerals like the marble and garnets we stumbled upon during lunch breaks. I even found a piece of graphite large enough to write with in my journal. We hiked to the site of an old mica mine. At first glance it seemed the ground was covered in broken glass. Sheets of mica reflected the sunlight, glowing bronze and gold. When held to the sun, thin pieces appeared nearly translucent. Nearby was lapis lazuli, a rare blue gemstone found in only a few locations in the world. It had also been mined until it was realized the stones were of poor quality and too soft to polish or shape.

One evening a few raindrops pattered on the dining tent. The sun was still shining so I grabbed my camera and raced outside. Sure enough, a double rainbow arced over our campsite. Later I watched the full moon rise over the hills and listened to the haunting call of the loons. At midnight, the aurora began to dance across the heavens and I spent two magical hours alone, blissfully photographing the phenomena.

We arrived at the Soper falls where the rapids rushed between high marbled cliffs. It wasn’t possible to paddle so most of our gear was portaged before we returned to camp at the park base, surrounded by an electrified bear fence. Polar bears are not common in the park but have been known to wander the valley.

It rained on our final day and we paddled nearly six hours against powerful headwinds amazed at our newfound strength and sense of achievement. Arriving in Kimmirut, we shared a home-cooked meal of caribou stew,Arctic char and bannock, hosted by a local Inuit family. What a perfect way to finish our journey. Flying back to Iqaluit the next day, Katannilik Park lay far beneath us covered in this season’s first snowfall. Winter had arrived.