Inuit Ku: The River of Men

A Month-long Canoe Trip Down Nunavut's Kazan River
Kazan River
The author on a hill above the Kazan River.

The Kazan River is one of the major river of Canada's newly-created Nunavut Province, homeland of the indigenous Inuit people. Bill Layman and his paddling partner Lynda Holland spent almost a month canoeing its entire 540 mile length. Here is his absorbing account, beginning with his first whitewater rapid of the year. . .

The river started to pick up speed. I watched as the small black spruce and willows along the shore rushed by in a blur.

My pulse quickened as I called out loudly, over the roar of the rapids, for Lynda to backpaddle and draw, and as I did the same, the stern of our heavily loaded prospector canoe slowly angled to the left bank of the river. Loaded with all our gear and thirty-five days of food, our canoe was heavy and awkward; it was hard work to get it to respond to our paddle strokes. I fixed my eyes on a large rock on the shore so that I could make sure we weren't slipping downstream too quickly. A few more quick draws, and then I felt it. The angle of the hull was right, and the canoe started to surf toward the left bank, and as I looked downstream, I could see that we were going to make it to shore easily before we got to the blind left-hand corner around which the river disappeared. The boat slowed as we hit the shallow water near the shore. I let it slowly drift, tail in, around the corner. The front of the canoe cleared the rocky point, narrowly missing some large waves, as Lynda backpaddled with deep powerful strokes, and I kept the stern tight to the bank.

"It's clear, we can run it to the bottom on the left past that hole", she yelled over the sound of the rushing water.

As the stern of the canoe cleared the corner, I could see the line along the left shore that Lynda had spotted, and I called for her to paddle ahead as I did a couple of quick hard pries to straighten out the boat. The rest of the run to the bottom was through two foot waves, and was just"plain old fun". We raced to the bottom, and I called out for a cross bow draw as we peeled into a large calm eddy.

A perfect run through our first rapid of the year. My heart felt light with the easy confidence of success, and as I looked at the rapid through which we had just manoevured, I saw an osprey hovering, then quickly folding its wings, and plummeting like a rocket into the water. It soon reappeared with a fish in its talons. I pointed it out to Lynda and we watched as the bird slowly circled in slow spirals to the top of a dead spruce tree. It slowly spread its wings and let out a high pitched screech. . . as if to announce its prowess to all the world.

"A good omen", I thought as we carved out of the eddy, and back into the fast current of the Kazan River.

Last summer Lynda Holland, my paddling partner, and I paddled our canoe the 540 mile length of the Kazan River in Nunavut, starting at Kasba Lake and ending at Baker Lake. We travelled through this subarctic landscape of limitless skies and cold clear lakes for 26 days. We paddled miles of raging wild rapids, and across lakes as smooth as mirrors late into the unending subarctic daylight. On Ennadai Lake, we crossed the treeline, and watched as small lone clumps of ancient black spruce, looking like tiny ornamental shrubs, gave way to a treeless landscape of rock, and wet tundra plains. We walked for miles to the tops of rock-strewn hills, and as the rich, sweet odour of the tundra peat fields wafted over us, we stood like giants silhouetted against the infinite horizon.

We were totally alone for our entire trip. Alone, that is, except for the new friends we made along the way, the ghosts of the Inuit who were first able to live, and thrive year round in this rugged landscape, and who so gladly welcomed us into their long abandoned homes. The Kazan River was known to them then, and still is today, as Inuit Ku, The River of Men.

Inuit Ku lies in a rugged harsh landscape that is utterly unforgiving. A quick glance at the notes at the cairn at Kazan Falls shows that everything about this river is big and extreme. The price of admission to this land is huge storm-tossed lakes, big dangerous rapids and falls, unrelenting wind, no shade or firewood, clouds of blackflies and mosquitoes, cold rains, and snow and ice in July. This high-spirited river will test your skills to the extreme, and there will be days you swear you hate her, and will never return.

And just as you decide to leave forever, she will reward you with herds of caribou and muskox, wolves, arctic foxes and wolverines, flocks of migratory birds, huge red-fleshed lake trout and delicate white-fleshed grayling, absolute solitude, and skies that seem to go forever.

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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