Paddling Nunavut's Coppermine River

Obstruction Rapids
  |  Gorp.com

The next rapid is Franklin's now famous Obstruction Rapids. These are the rapids that he and his men encountered on their overland walk from Bathurst Inlet back to Fort Enterprise during the fall and early winter of 1821.

During this ill-fated journey 8 of Franklin's 17 hired Canadian voyageurs died; largely from overwork and starvation. Due to the almost superhuman efforts of these hired voyageurs, all of Franklin's naval men survived, with the exception of Hood who was murdered by Michel. How these exhausted and starving men got across the river just upstream of this rapid is hard to comprehend.

With freezing cold temperatures and snow on the ground they somehow fashioned a canoe out of scraps of canvas and willows and made their way across the river; this after trying for several days to make a raft out of bundles of willows and nearly drowning Richardson, who tried to swim across with a rope tied to his waist.

While we were flying to Lac de Gras from Yellowknife, Tundra Tom told us that he had heard that the water levels were high this year. We found out later that the river was running about five feet above normal and was in fact at its second-highest level in the roughly 35 years that records had been kept.

Looking at Obstruction Rapids we were in awe; a drop of probably 30 feet in about two thirds of a mile through a series of wild S-turns. With the river running up so high there were places where I could see three-foot-high willow bushes with their tops a good foot under the water. As is typical of S-turns, the river was easily paddled on the inside of the turns, but as soon as you got to the next corner you found yourself forced to the big water piled up on the outside of the curve.

Since the river was so high and the mainstream current was filled with four- and five- foot waves and holes, there was no safe way to ferry over to the inside of the next turn, so we were forced to line. This was the trickiest lining I have ever done. I crawled from huge boulder to huge boulder or worked my way through fast waist-deep water, all the while huge four-foot waves threatening to pull the canoe away from me.

Often, as I tracked the canoe past one of the huge boulders, I would have to let the nose of the canoe follow the current dangerously close to the very edge of these holes before I could reel it back in after it cleared the boulder. I was so concerned that I took the Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) off of my life jacket and gave it to Lynda, telling her that if I lost the boat to the current I was going to swim with it and hope to get out at the bottom of the river. My thinking was that at least Lynda would have the PLB and could get help.

We made it just fine but it was a very tense two hours before we saw the calm water of Point Lake. As I fell asleep that night I was comforted by the knowledge that for the next several days we would be on a lake.

The Coppermine is a river whose difficulty depends on water levels. Many of the trip notes we had with us from other paddlers were of little use, since the river was so much higher than normal. Shorelines where you might comfortably line your canoe in lower water were now far up into the willows, and often we had no choice but to run the chaotic whitewater. In fact, at Rocknest Lake, where Franklin speaks of"descending a succession of strong rapids for three miles," we met a group of eight seasoned paddlers camped beside the first rapid.

They had clawed their way back upstream from the second rapid and told us that it was "way out of control and running into the trees," and that they had radioed for a Twin Otter aircraft to take them back to Yellowknife. Knowing what we had just paddled through and wondering what was still to come, I was tempted to turn around and head home with these people. Even paddling a nearly indestructible Western Canoeing 17-foot covered prospector canoe, and with the added benefit of ten years of whitewater kayak experience under my belt, I was still nervous as Lynda and I set off in a single boat into the unknown.


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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