Paddling Nunavut's Coppermine River

Essentials
  |  Gorp.com

When we arrived in Kugluktuk, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) told us about a group of six paddlers who had arrived in town in a most dispirited fashion a few days earlier. They had lost one canoe in a bad capsize and seriously damaged another. This group had to leave much of their gear behind and limped into Kugluktuk cold, wet, and tired. The officer we spoke to told us that with the increased interest in paddling remote northern rivers, more and more ill-equipped canoeists are arriving in Kugluktuk each year. He told us of a group who had arrived last year quite upset because their brand new digital cellular phone didn't work — they hadn't bothered to check if there was any coverage along the Coppermine.

The Barrens, although beautiful beyond words, is a landscape that does not suffer fools gladly. A capsize in the ice-cold waters of the Coppermine could easily be fatal, and in the fast current there is a good chance that you will lose your canoe and gear. This river has a lot of Class II+ rapids, and several technical Class III rapids (McCreadie rates Escape as a Class IV at certain water levels) that require excellent ferry skills. As well, you should have strong "slower-than-current" paddling skills and be able to confidently read rapids from your boat, since it is impossible to scout the miles of continuous whitewater from Rocknest Lake to Fairy Lake River and from Muskox Rapids to Bloody Falls.

In addition to the regular first aid and survival gear necessary for any canoe trip, Lynda and I carry a VHF radio that we can use to talk to aircraft. This radio is about twice the size of a cellular phone and with the number of scheduled aircraft between Kugluktuk and Yellowknife you can communicate any emergency situation on a nearly daily basis.

If you buy or rent one of these units for your northern trips, familiarize yourself with the local air schedules, the frequencies that the planes use, and general radio protocol. I also carry a Personal Locator Beacon that is strapped to the back of my life jacket in case we capsize and lose our gear. This unit, when activated, sends a signal by satellite to the Mission Control Centre at Canadian Forces Base Trenton. Upon receiving a signal, the most appropriate rescue plan is initiated based on your location. Information on this unit manufactured by Northern AirborneTechnology can be found at http://www.nat-inc.com or by contacting jbourgeois@nat-inc.com. As well, make sure you register and de-register your trip with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Yellowknife and Kugluktuk.

And on the topic of gear, if you are looking for a great camera take a look at the Pentax point-and-shoot EWSPIO 105WR. Pentax recommends cleaning it under the kitchen tap; what a bonus on a canoe trip! The 38-105 lense lets you get good pictures if you are lucky enough to get close to any wildlife.

One other company that is well worth checking out is Northwest River Supplies in Moscow, Idaho. Although they are primarily a rafting company they have a ton of stuff from paddles to dry bags that are equally at home on a canoe trip. Take a look at their NRS workboots — these are the best all around boots I have found for hiking, wading, lining, and paddling. Their website URL is http://www.nrsweb.com/

One final barren land hint: When you camp at night store your canoe right side up and put a half dozen rocks into it so it won't blow away if a sudden arctic storm hits. For those who think this is a waste of time ask a friend of mine who just came back from this fall from the Kazan River. He got caught in a violent storm near the Three Cascades and before he woke up and got down to the river his canoe, that he had put to bed upside down, had turned into a 17-foot, 80-pound kite and was gone down the river.

All the information you need to start and end your trip on the Coppermine is included in McCreadie's book and also can be obtained by phoning the Northwest Territories Arctic Tourism Office. Air Thelon, owned and operated by one "Tundra" Tom Faess is a great one stop shopping center to get you out onto the Coppermine River.

He and Diana bent over backward for us last year, and all we wanted was a plane charter. In my experience this kind of courtesy isn't usually forthcoming from a regular air-charter company any more than it would be from, say, a trucking company. Bathurst Arctic Services in Yellowknife also offers canoe rentals and full trip logistics planning. Yellowknife is the capital of the Northwest Territories and is a full service town of 17,000. A complete range of services including several excellent hotels, restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and campgrounds are available. There is daily jet-air service or you can drive two days north from Edmonton, Alberta.

Kugluktuk has two hotels and a campground. In every northern village, there is always someone who knows how to get everything done, and in Kugluktuk it is Al Harvey at Triple A Taxi. He was of great help to us when we arrived in Kugluktuk and can assist with all logistical organization at trip's end. If you choose to use your own canoe, it can be flown to Yellowknife on a space-available basis, or it can be barged back to Hay River by Northern Transportation Company Limited. Air service from Kugluktuk to Yellowknife with First Air is daily except Sundays.

Good general information about Nunavut and the Northwest Territories can be obtained from both Above and Beyond magazine and Up Here magazine. As well, Nunavut Tourism can provide you with their Arctic Planner tourist guide that has much valuable information.

Hazards

The possiblity of extreme arctic wind and cold weather, Class II to Class III rapids that fluctuate in severity with water levels (some Class IV rapids possible), possibility of ice on large lakes even in mid July, freezing cold water makes any capsize very serious.

Length of Trip

Variable due to multiple possible starting points. For example: 420 miles from Lac de Gras, 350 miles from Point Lake, 240 miles from Rocknest Lake. Count on an easy 20 miles per day BUT add a few days for weather. Add more days for weather if you plan any large lake crossings and be ready to paddle at night as the wind often goes down.

General Cautions

As is true of any arctic river, you will be alone for the entire trip. Don't count on any help and plan in what I call a "double-redundant" fashion. In other words, have backup plans for the eventuality that your backup plan doesn't work. As an example, I carry a VHF radio to talk to airplanes, I have an extra battery for it, and if it fails I have a Personal Locator Beacon.

Time to Travel

The best time is as soon after breakup as possible (about the first week of July) but phone to ensure that you aren't going to find solid ice. Try to be off the river by mid August as this is the beginning of fall and the weather can become a problem.

Permits and Regulations

No river permits are needed. You will need a fishing licence for the NWT and for Nunavut. Be sure to register and deregister your trip with the local RCMP.


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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