Paddling Nunavut's Coppermine River
Escape Rapids is the last major runnable rapid on the Coppermine. This rapid is through a steep-walled canyon and turns to the left.
Escape breaks the general rule, and the left limit that is the inside of the corner is a jumble of huge five-foot waves forcing you to enter along the right margin. Just as the river turns to the left you are presented with a series of holes and huge waves along the right side of the canyon forcing you to ferry across to river left. McCreadie's* rates this rapid as a solid Class III or IV, depending on water level, and calls it the most difficult rapid of the river. I felt it was no harder than Sandstone but another paddler we paddled through with called it a solid Class IV.
In any case the important thing to remember is that water levels make all the difference on this river, so don't rely on past river notes as much as on your own gut instincts. The technique to use for Escape is exactly as I described for Sandstone Rapids; paddle slowly along the right margin and turn your canoe into a full front ferry well above your planned ferry line. Let the canoe slide backward with the bow aimed into the current and start your ferry as high as you think possible, keeping one eye on the eddy you are aiming for.
If you are sliding downstream too quickly, lessen your ferry angle and put some muscle into the paddle and don't worry about looking downstream worry about where you are trying to get to. Also remember that you are scouting many of these rapids from high up on the edge of the canyons they run through; the waves are much bigger than you think.
The last major obstacle on the Coppermine is Hearne's famous Bloody Falls, where Matonabbee and Dene massacred a group of Copper Inuit. This is a mandatory portage on the river left shore.
As I held Lynda close in my arms on the top of a cliff overlooking Bloody Falls, we reflected on how we had paddled all but this stretch, Rocky Defile, and two other short sections of the river. Our feeling of success at having paddled through miles of huge technical rapids, often with our hearts in our throats, was tempered by the knowledge that the Yellowknife Indians had made the same trip in frail uncovered birch-bark canoes.
Our trip was all we expected and more. Even though the weather was cold and wet, and we were windbound for six days, we were more than rewarded by Nunavut's bounty. We saw many lone male caribou awaiting the return of the herds from their calving grounds near Bathurst Inlet. A group of 12 muskoxen appeared on a faraway hill near Melville Creek and we watched these shaggy creatures through our binoculars. Peregrine falcons wheeled high above us as we paddled Escape Rapids, and shortly after we saw a pair of golden eagles soaring close to the river's edge. Bald eagles seemed to be everywhere we looked the last few days. Scores of lake trout graced our kitchen, and at Melville Creek, I caught and landed a 20-pound arctic char whose red flesh we feasted on for days. Hearne's"grizzled bear" tracks seemed to be everywhere we camped, but much to my disappointment, and Lynda's pleasure, we didn't see one.
And as always, there were days on the river when I swore I would never return to the mean-spirited, windswept, mosquito- and black fly-infested landscape that is the Barrens. And yet, as I now sit in my home in La Ronge in northern Saskatchewan, I know that next summer will find me back on another river. After all, there is still the Thelon and the Back and the Dubawnt and many other of Nunavut's daughters to see.
*McCreadie, Mary (Editor) (1995). Canoeing Canada's Northwest Territories: A Paddler's Guide, Hyde Park, Ontario: Canadian Recreational Canoeing Association
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication