Paddling Nunavut's Coppermine River

A River with a Rich Story

Often, as my paddling partner Lynda and I are paddling our canoe on one of the many rivers in Nunavut or the Northwest Territories, I wonder what the adage "home is where the heart is" would mean to a true nomad. To the Copper Inuit, as well as the Athapaskan Slavey, Chipewyan, and Dogrib Indians, whose homes moved with the seasons in their pursuit of the animals they subsisted on, and who still range far and wide throughout the area of the Coppermine River, surely it would have been a meaningless phrase.

These people lived as true nomads until only a few decades ago when they were moved into villages with names like Kugluktuk, Wha Ti, Deline, and Lutselk'e. Though these people now live in villages, it is clear that their hearts are still on the land. Ask a Dogrib, a Chipewyan, or a Slavey where the idthen (caribou) are, and an animated conversation is sure to result. The Inuit are no less tied to the land and its resources. When we paddled into Kugluktuk this summer, a young Inuit boy, within mere minutes of meeting Lynda, said to her, "Lynda I wish you could come here in the winter to see the icebergs and the bearded seals and the caribou!" Perhaps the adage these people listen to is "the land is where the heart is."

The Coppermine River starts in the barrens at Lac de Gras, then winds its way back into the treeline near Redrock Lake, finally leaving the trees again near Big Bend on its final plunge to the ocean. Our maps showed a river characterized by a steep gradient from Lac De Gras to Point Lake followed by about 100 miles of flat water ending at Rocknest Lake. From here would follow a few days of solid rapids to Fairy Lake River where the river suddenly spills out into a wide, flat, sandy flood plain. The last stretch from Big Bend to the ocean would be many days of solid rapids through steep-walled canyons. With rapids bearing names like Rocky Defile, Escape, and Bloody Falls, we knew we were in for some serious paddling.

We watched Tundra Tom's bright red De Havilland Beaver aircraft fly away from Lac de Gras. And within half an hour of Tom's final low farewell pass over us, Lynda and I were out of the canoe scouting the first rapid flowing out of Lac de Gras: a short, steep, narrow slot about 30 yards wide, draining the full force of the ice-covered lake we had just left.

Lining was impossible, since both shores were still covered with winter ice undercut by the raging current. The three- and four-foot waves and midstream rocks convinced us that a 175-yard portage along the right shore was the only choice. A short 300-yard paddle across a calm bay and we were out of the canoe again, scouting from the right shore of the river. Although long fast and technical, at least this rapid ended in a calm widening of the river; slight consolation if we had to swim with water temperatures hovering just above freezing.

We lined past two ledges along the river right at the top of this rapid and then carefully back-ferried into the main current, where we could get a good entry into the main channel. From here I could see that from midstream to the left shore the current was piling up into three-foot and bigger waves.

The only safe line for our canoe was tight along the inside of the turn that the rapid took to the right. Under normal water levels the right shore would have been a dry boulder field, which would have allowed for easy lining as you walked from rock to rock, but now it was flooded and was a treacherous rock-strewn rapid.

The only line to paddle was the narrow river right channel with the stern of the canoe tight to the edge of the rocks and the bow just cutting through the lip of the large midstream waves. We lined up our canoe and then with a few quick strokes we were committed to the rapid. In mere seconds we were sitting in the calm water at the bottom, almost unaware of how we had arrived. As we looked back at the rapid we had to crane our necks upwards to see our entry point and we both suddenly realized how much of a drop we had just paddled.

By day's end we had paddled three more mid to big but easy to run rapids and lined the river left past a long, rock-strewn ledge filled drop; all this on our first day in a heavily loaded canoe and in less than 5 hours and 12 miles! Our only comfort as we ate a freshly caught lake trout for supper was that at least much of tomorrow would see us on the flat waters of Desteffany Lake and Lake Providence.

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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