Paddling Nunavut's Coppermine River


Lynda and I were drawn to the Coppermine River by the written accounts of early explorers like Samuel Hearne of the Hudson's Bay Company and Sir John Franklin of the British Navy. Hearne's famous overland 1771 journey to Bloody Falls with the Chipewyan leader Matonabbee, and Franklin's somewhat naove and ill-fated 1821 journey down the Coppermine's length with Hood, Back, Richardson, and Hepburn, guided by the Yellowknife chief Akaitcho, fascinated us.

Following Franklin's journey, the preferred route from Coronation Gulf to the arctic coast became through Dease Arm on Great Bear Lake and then down the Dease River to the lower reaches of the Coppermine; in fact, this is the route that Franklin had initially planned to follow.

Fort Franklin (or Bear Lake Post as it was known in the early 1800s) located at the extreme western end of Great Bear Lake, and later Fort Confidence established in 1837 at the head of the Dease River on the extreme eastern end of the lake, became logical way points for northern travelers.

The area around Great Bear Lake saw an active fur trade and continued exploration by men like Sir John Franklin, Dr. John Richardson, Thomas Simpson, Peter Dease, and John Rae until about the mid 1800s. Not until about 1890 did many more Europeans venture into this area of the north, when a new breed of gentlemen adventurers suddenly appeared. With no clear goal in mind other than to explore this remote area and to meet the indigenous residents, these adventurers left some fascinating accounts of their travels and meetings with the Inuit and the Athapaskan Dogrib, Slavey, Yellowknife, and Chipewyan Indians.

Men like the British big-game hunter Cosmo Melville, David Hanbury, who wandered the Barrens for two years and then disappeared as suddenly as he arrived, the Canadian Douglas brothers, who traveled widely through the area, the Belgian Oblate Father's Rouviire and Leroux, who were murdered by the Copper Inuit, all drifted through the stories Lynda and I read.

From Frank Russell's account of his journey in 1894 with the Dogribs to hunt for muskoxen, to John Hornby's fascination when he visited among the nomadic Copper Inuit in 1912 on Coronation Gulf, to the accounts of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who wintered near the area of the Dease River during the winter of 1910, the thread that seemed to hold it all together was a thin blue line of ink on our map — the Coppermine River.

Although the written history of this river is largely about white explorers and adventurers, one thing is certain, none of these Europeans would have completed their trips without the help of the Athapaskan Indians and Inuit.

Franklin's chance meeting, with a North West Company Metis interpreter while he was overwintering in Fort Chipewyan, shows the dependence these Europeans had on the knowledge of the indigenous residents. This interpreter, Beaulieu, advised Franklin to speak to the Yellowknife Indians about the Coppermine River, as they sometimes traveled its length to the sea. As he sketched a rough map of the river on the floor, an old Chipewyan named Black Meat walked in and recognized the map. He quickly took a piece of charcoal and drew in a route he had used to return from a war excursion that his tribe had made against the Inuit.

Black Meat then accurately described two other rivers to Franklin — the Back and the Burnside. No sooner had he finished his story than another old man walked in and commented on the map indicating that he, as well, had traveled widely through the Barrens with his people. This Chipewyan, named The Rabbit's Head, was no less than Matonabbee's stepson and had traveled with him when he guided Hearne's journey. Although the Yellowknife Indians, or Copper Indians as many Europeans knew them, were defeated by the Dogribs, their vast knowledge of the Barrens is still incorporated in the oral history of the Chipewyans, with whom their remaining people amalgamated.

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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