Paddling the Arctic’s Victoria Island

    Canadian Arcti Victoria Island Far North Nanook River

    Seeking adventure in the far north
    By Jim Gallagher and Brian Johnston

    The Nanook and the Kuujjua Rivers are among the most northerly navigable rivers in North America. They are located on Victoria Island, which lies north of the continent in the Amundsen Gulf. Victoria Island is Canada’s second largest island and is one of over 36,000 islands known as the Arctic Archipelago. The Nanook and Kuujjua rivers flow through a landscape defined as the High Arctic — entirely tundra. This treeless region is also called the barrenlands, but it is hardly barren. Life occurs at a different scale than more southerly latitudes.

    Last summer we canoed the Nanook and Kuujjua in a 17 ft. folding canoe. We came to the idea of completing these rivers through a collective daydreaming with maps in front of us, email exchanges, and reading accounts of others who had completed the rivers before. Looking at maps and envisioning possible trip routes is a great way to pass the winter, waiting for rivers and lakes to thaw. It’s also an essential part of the planning process. We saw a way to paddle the Nanook, arrange a shuttle flight over to the Kuujjua, and then paddle out to the coastal community of Ulukhaktok and a commercial flight home. Completing both rivers in a single summer season would be a ‘first’ as far as we could determine.

    Veterans of 26 far north canoe expeditions combined, we had travelled together on other rivers in past years. We were familiar with each other’s skills and personalities. Like many teams, the whole of our team was greater than the sum of the individuals. Our combination of perky optimism and cranky realism balanced the yin and yang of personality traits to get through the challenges of thirty days together in the Arctic wilderness in the same canoe and the same tent. We made good decisions without much deliberation and adapted to the challenges of quickly changing conditions.

    We faced the challenge of a short summer season. Ice and shallow water can plague river travellers at this latitude. We needed to start as early as possible to take advantage of the limited ice-free season, but some ice on the lakes along the route would be likely. We would try to time our departure to follow the pulse of the snowmelt water downstream. Our trip would coincide with higher water levels of the first week of July and hopefully not run out of water as the trip progressed into August.

    We had to overcome some logistical challenges preparing for the trip. It all came together when the boxes of gear, food, and a folding canoe shipped ahead of time arrived safely in Cambridge Bay. The floatplane that would carry us to headwaters of the Nanook River arrived from the south the day after we did. The floatplane’s arrival signalled open water and the start of the short summer season on Victoria Island.

    The Nanook – a river of ice and snow
    From Cambridge Bay we flew north to the headwaters of the Nanook River.

    On the Arctic plains of the frigid Nanook we dragged our canoes across frozen lakes and lowered our hats for protection from the driving snow.

    Near the end of the Nanook, we sought out a rustic outpost cabin that we knew was maintained in the area. We were wind-bound in an Arctic gale and our satellite phone had failed us. Luckily, the charter pilot had been following our satellite locator check-in messages. He was experiencing the same poor weather that we were and had not been able to fly. With the date of shuttle flight at hand, we made a white-knuckled paddle through the night and across a lake bouncing with whitecaps to reach the cabin and the flight to the Kuujjua. We arrived cold, wet, and tired, but in a place with good floatplane access.

    The Kuujjua River – an Arctic gem
    On the Kuujjua, we waded and portaged down the shallow headwaters struggling to avoid sinking in the silty river bottom. A veneer of stones covered the soft bottom, giving the appearance of firmness. Had we arrived earlier in the summer perhaps we would have been able to float more and walk less.

    Further downstream, the Kuujjua River’s canyons, vistas, and white water were the highlight of our summer. The rapids and ledges challenged our paddling skills. Our glissade down the river was propelled by crystalline water. The graceful dance of two experienced paddlers moved the canoe through the hazards of class IV rapids. All was good in the end. No one swam in a rapid and, save one broken canoe rib, the canoe carried us well down the river.

    The Amundsen Gulf – coastal challenges and rare light
    Beyond the flow of the freshwater rivers, we adjusted to the rhythmic swells of the undulating saltwater of the Amundsen Gulf. We bathed in the warm midnight sun where a little more than a century before wooden sailing ships plied the waters in search of the Northwest Passage.

    Our paddle on the Amundsen Gulf was our longest ocean trek ever in an open canoe. One night we paddled through blue light on flat calm seas, eventually camping in the morning next to a gorgeous waterfall on a small river. Coastal winds also flexed their muscles and we were wind bound for several days. Steep coastal shorelines kept us in the canoe for long stretches at a time. Low-angled light, horizon lines blending into the water, and fog conspired to create mirages and to disorient us. One gets the uncanny feeling that supernatural powers are showing off and entertaining us with the light show.

    High Arctic isolation and resilience
    We met no one else along our route. We were the only people within many miles in any direction. People who might be out on the land would be travellers just like us, returning to their homes in the hamlets along the coast. The signs of those who came before us could be seen — stone tent rings or a discarded snowmobile part may lay side-by-side; the ancient and the modern.

    We encountered weather that was an exercise in contrasts.
    Temperatures ranged from below freezing to desert-like heat blowing up from the mainland to the south. At one point we paddled on the Amundsen Gulf in T-shirts under the midnight sun.

    As a small consolation to the cold weather and cold water, we found no black flies on Victoria Island. In fact, compared to southern river trips, this was a welcome reality.

    Simple comforts took the edge off the sometimes harsh conditions. Afternoon hot tea and coffee replaced lost liquids and restored some heat to our chilled bodies. Our daily grog ration, topped off with hot lemonade and lime juice softened the day.

    The ‘barren’ land sometimes abounded with life. The prairie-like vegetation of the Victoria Island plains was a kaleidoscope of spring flowers.

    We encountered numerous herds of muskoxen along the rivers we travelled. On a particularly hot afternoon we saw one old bull actually lay down in the water. With their long shaggy coats, they usually avoid the water.

    We saw a few individuals of the diminutive Peary caribou that inhabit the Arctic islands. A single white wolf howled in alarm or curiosity as we plodded along the shallows of the upper Kuujjua. An Arctic fox, not quite shed of his white winter pelage, checked out our camp along the Nanook.

    The rivers yielded char and lake trout. Once on salt water we saw ringed seals, and found the bleached bones of a whale, all under the constant watch of a collection of gulls overhead.

    In the end we made it to Ulukhaktok on time, but not without a struggle against wind, waves, and our own worst fears.

    Ulukhaktok proved to be a friendly and welcoming hamlet. This picturesque community is named for the place where slate and copper for ulu knives was once mined by the ancestors of the Inuit people who currently inhabit the area.

    An older couple, Ulukhaktok community elders, invited us to dinner at their house and to use their shower facilities — a relief for us after 30 days on the land. Like many Arctic communities, we saw the old ways of living mixed with a modern lifestyle. Arctic char are still caught and smoked, but the smoker might be constructed of old plywood sheets and the fire fuelled with hickory chips from southern forests. Snowmobiles have replaced dog sleds to pull qamutiit (sleds). Ulukhaktok boasts the furthest north golf course in North America. Just down the road from the golf course, a herd of muskox might be hunted.

    Our trek back home was a blur of flights, airports, and hotel rooms. Out the aircraft windows, untracked wilderness of the North gave way to surveyed squares of land and platted towns of the south. We had completed what we had set out to do — to descend two far northern rivers and to paddle a portion of the Amundsen Gulf in our little canoe. For another year, we were reminded how overwhelmingly vast the Arctic is and why we continue to seek new adventures in the far North.

    Jim Gallagher (Bemidji, MN) is a retired wildlife biologist and Brian Johnston (Beaconia, MB) is an adult education teacher administrator. Jim and Brian are conspiring to complete further canoeing adventures in coming years.