Nunavut - Land of Adventure
Peruse a map of the Canadian Arctic and you will see a land that evokes adventure through the centuries. Known for the northern lights and the midnight sun. For dog sleds and polar bears. For wild rivers and icy seas.
As of 1999, a new name graces this area. Nunavut. Carved out of Canada's Northwest Territories as the Canadian Arctic is split in two, Nunavut is the eastern portion, the homeland of the Inuit. This new territory is one of the last great wildernesses of the world. A wilderness of bird colonies, free-ranging wildlife and the unforgettable beauty of the Arctic tundra.
For the adventurous traveler, Nunavut offers outdoor experiences unrivaled by many lands in the modern world. The summer brings the chance to run the finest tundra rivers around the globe, to hike surrounded by majestic mountains, to kayak beneath towering icebergs. The snow season brings freedomfreedom to travel over the land and across frozen rivers and lakes.
Some Nunavut rivers meander casually through marshy tundra to the coast of Hudson Bay, offering breathtaking vistas and an unhampered view of some of the greatest wildlife spectacles imaginable. You may round a bend to encounter a herd of caribou stretching from bank to bank, their antlers literally forming a barrier as they cross the river. Or, you may come upon a wolf family feeding on a caribou kill in the shallows. Hundreds of thousands of snow geese may be nesting in the surrounding habitat.
Other rivers, like the wild runs of Baffin Island, cascade out of glaciers and icecaps to froth their way to the fiords. And there are those that are a paddler's dream, a mixture of smooth current and enough whitewater to give that adrenaline rush so beloved of whitewater canoeists. They flow through rolling hills grazed by muskox and caribou, past cliffs where peregrines and gyrfalcons peer from their lofty eyries.
Baffin Island Rivers
Most popular is the Soper Rive, in the south of Baffin Island. It flows through rolling tundra on the Meta Incognita Peninsula south to Kimmirut. It is part of the Katannilik Territorial Park Reserve, and offers scenic beauty and good whitewater without being dangerous. Caribou sightings are common, and the variety of wildflowers is amazing. Outfitters in Iqaluit offer guided canoe and raft trips, or will rent canoes and expedite a trip. Dogteam, snowmobile, and cross-country skiing trips are available in the springtime.
The Sylvia Grinnel River flows south through hilly tundra from Sylvia Grinnel Lake into Frobisher Bay near Iqaluit. It is short, but beautiful, and offers good one to five day trips with plenty of whitewater and wildlife.
Many Baffin Island rivers require expert canoe skills, wetsuits, helmets, and river rescue gear. Go prepared!
Arctic Islands Rivers
Two rivers on Victoria Island are canoed occasionally; however, access costs are high.
The Nanook River begins south of the Shaler Mountains and flows northeast to Hadley Bay. The Nanook is not difficult; however, it flows through several large lakes, which may be frozen until late in the summer. If there is ice, a long and difficult portage is necessary. The last eight kilometers are very difficult with many rapids not marked on the maps. Wildlife includes Peary caribou, muskox, and arctic foxes. Hadley Bay is an important polar bear area, so caution is advised.
The Kuujjua River flows about 350 kilometers from the Shaler Mountains into Minto Inlet. It requires about three weeks to canoe, and is navigable only in July, due to ice and water levels. It is difficult, and maps are very unreliable. It should be attempted only by canoeists with arctic experience. The scenery is lovely, and wildlife is plentiful. Peary caribou, muskox, wolves, arctic foxes, snowy owls, peregrines, sandhill cranes, and more are seen, and fishing is good for arctic char and lake trout.
These two rivers can be accessed from Cambridge Bay or from Inuvik. For information on air charters from Inuvik, call 1-800-661-0788.
Arctic Coast Rivers
A number of excellent canoeing, kayaking and rafting rivers flow from the interior barrenlands north to the arctic coast. These are rivers suited to the recreational paddler. The water is cold, however, so they need to be taken seriously.
The Coppermine River is probably the most popular canoeing/rafting river. It flows from Lac de Gras, following the treeline, northwest through historic lakes named by the Franklin expedition in 1819. Length is 670 kilometers (419 miles) requiring about 25 days. The Coppermine enters the Coronation Gulf at Kugluktuk, where scheduled air transport is available. Scenery includes a variety of landforms and habitats, from open tundra to dense stunted spruce forests. Flatwater combines with whitewater to produce a well-balanced trip. This river is best canoed beginning in July, as ice on the lakes can delay progress.
Wildlife is abundant, with good chances of seeing moose, caribou, wolves, and grizzly, tundra swans, golden and bald eagles, and peregrine and gyrfalcons. The fishing is goodfor lake trout, pike, and grayling in the upper reaches, and for arctic char below Bloody Falls. Archaeological sites are common. Several operators offer canoe and raft trips of varying lengths on the Coppermine.
The Hood River provided a route inland for the Franklin expedition on their desperate trek across the barrenlands in 1821. This is a remote tundra river with extensive whitewater. It starts near Napaktulik Lake and flows over Wilberforce Falls and down to Arctic Sound. A three- to four-kilometer (two miles) portage is required at Wilberforce Falls, the highest waterfall north of the Arctic Circle.
The Hood passes rolling tundra hills, eskers, and high rocky ridges, and parallels part of the migration route of the Bathurst caribou herd, so sightings are common in early July. Muskox are also common; wolves, wolverine, and grizzlies can be seen, and raptors nest on the sheer cliffs. Guided and packaged trips are available, or groups can arrange for drop-off and pick up.
The Burnside/Mara River system offers a mixture of whitewater and smooth-flowing current. From Contwoyto Lake, the Burnside runs through tundra to Bathurst Inlet. The Mara begins at Nose Lake, and flows through a spectacular u-shaped valley rich in wildlife, to join the Burnside. Deep gorges and waterfalls in the lower Burnside require a four-kilometer (two mile) portage. The rivers parallel or cross the route of the Bathurst caribou herd, and run through superb muskox and wolf country. Grizzlies and wolverine are often seen, and peregrine and gyrfalcons, golden eagles and rough-legged hawks nest on the cliffs. Hiking is excellent, and archaeological sites abound.
The Back River flows from Aylmer Lake northeast through Garry Lakes and Franklin Lake to the Arctic Ocean at Chantrey Inlet. It is a long river, 1077 kilometers (673 miles), very remote, and expensive to access. Anyone attempting this river should be an expert whitewater paddler, and well-versed in remote wilderness camping.
The Back flows through low rolling tundra. Muskox are commonly seen, as are caribou, wolves, fox, and wolverine. Raptors and waterfowl are easily seen, and the fishing is good, especially below rapids.
Pickup on the Back from Yellowknife or Gjoa Haven can be hazardous and delayed by high winds or ice.
Hudson Bay Watershed Rivers
Two large river systems, the Hanbury/Thelon and Dubawnt, and the Kazan drain a large portion of the interior barrenlands to the south of Baker Lake, flowing into Chesterfield Inlet, and thence to Hudson Bay.
Best known of these rivers is the Hanbury/Thelon River system. It extends some 916 kilometers (573 miles) from Lynx Lake or Sifton Lake to its outlet at Baker Lake and is ideal for less-experienced paddlers, as there is only one stretch of whitewater.
The river flows through the Thelon Game Sanctuary (formed in 1927 to preserve the muskox) past eskers, rolling tundra, and thin spruce forest. Muskox, caribou, wolves, sandhill cranes, geese, and a variety of raptors are seen. Chipewyan and Inuit campsites and game drive systems are common. Hearne, Hanbury, the Tyrell brothers, and Hornby, among others, spent time in the area. Hornby and two companions starved to death in a cabin on the Thelon in 1928.
The lower Thelon flows through a series of lakes to Baker Lake. It is easy to become windbound, so many groups arrange for a pick up at the west end of Beverly Lake.
The Dubawnt River flows north from the treeline through the huge Dubawnt Lake system to join the Thelon at Beverly Lake.
The Kazan River flows north from Kasba Lake through the barrenlands to the southeast end of Baker Lake. It is richly endowed with rapids and huge lakes. It is not a river for beginners. The country is hilly, rounded, rolling Canadian Shield. Eskers provide good hiking. This river has a rich human history; both Inuit and Chipewyan traveled and hunted along its length. You can paddle the Kazan's entire 540 mile length. And the fishing along the Kazan is hard to beat.
From Kasba, the river runs 854 kilometers (534 miles) to Baker Lake. Shorter trips are available. Canoeists can be picked up from Baker Lake at a nice territorial park at the river mouth, can paddle across the lake to the community (with care, wind can be bad), or can continue down Chesterfield Inlet to the community of Chesterfield Inlet.
More Summer Adventures
The open tundra of Nunavut provides the backdrop to the ultimate hiking experience. You can see across the land, to observe wildlife. "Trails" are often only routes marked on the map and identified on the land by rock cairns (inukshuk in Inuktitut), as established trails damage the delicate tundra vegetation.
Hikes are available in the High Arctic oasis on Ellesmere Island, and from most communities. A walk at North Ellesmere National Park Reserve brings walkers amidst the wildlife that inhabits the tundra. Auyuittuq National Park offers mountain trails, and hikers at Katannilik Park follow paths through willow forest. The Kugluktuk (Coppermine) to Bloody Falls route takes trekkers to the site of the Inuit massacre witnessed by Samuel Hearne.
Hiking adventures are available as packages (with transportation and group gear supplied), or as do-it-yourself options.
Sea-kayaking is a superb way to explore the arctic seas, especially amidst the icebergs in the fiords of Baffin Island. You can travel right up close to all the sea mammals, seals, perhaps a whale, or a raft of ducks feasting on shrimp and krill.
You can cruise along Franklin's route through the ice of the Northwest Passage in an icebreaker equipped with zodiacs or even a helicopter for shore excursions. Or, you can take a boat trip from many arctic communities, for marine mammal or bird-watching, for fishing or to visit many of the traditional camps along the shores.
Snow Season Adventures
Springtime is the favorite time of the Inuit. The snow season began in October, and it is far from over when the days begin to lengthen. But as the winter darkness turns to crystalline light, and temperatures moderate, the Inuit know it is a time for traveling. The snow-cover may extend to May or June, enabling a snowmobile, dogteam, or skis to carry them faster and farther than they can go in summer. And it is a time for celebrating the community, for visiting and enjoying the long days of the arctic spring.
Visitors can share the excitement as the season warms. A dogteam trip can teach you how to "mush" dogs and care for the team, or simply carry you on a thrilling ride on a qomatiq across the sea ice. You can pass the afternoon building an igloo, learning how to choose the right snow and to fashion the structureor simply idle away in a warm tent jigging for cod through a hole dug down through four feet of ice.
Open water attracts wildlife year round. A snowmobile or qomatiq trip over the sea ice brings you to the floe edge, where whales, seals, and seabirds feed the rich arctic waters. And where the Inuit welcome you into their camp, and you can pass the night in a comfortable tent at the floe edge.
Spring is also a wonderful time to ski in the Arctic. Cross-country ski in parks where caribou browse and arctic hares bound across the tracks. The warm sun and long days provide memorable trips in pristine wilderness.
A community festival welcomes visitors for a weekend of fun, dancing, and feasting. Spring is the time for residents to get out and about. Families gather on the sea ice for a two- or three-day festival of Inuit games, and snowmobile and dogteam races, followed by a community feast. Visitors sample muktuk, winter-catch Arctic Char fresh from a lake, muskox, and caribou, all washed down with hearty tea. When the food is gone, the Inuit may demonstrate drumming and singing, and a fashion show might display traditional clothing.
Then the band warms up, and it's time for jigs and reelsa northern variety of square dancing, plus some serious disco and line dancing.
Nunavut outfitters offer all these experiences of the snow season. Most will supply suitable, warm parkas, boots, and mitts for your adventure. You may find yourself clad in traditional caribou skin clothing or in state-of-the-art expeditionary gear. All you will need are some winter-weight pants, shirts and sweaters, warm socks, suntan oil, and your sunglasses. Bundled like a child, mug of tea in hand, you'll wonder why you never tried snowtime in the Arctic before!
For more information on Nunavut, call Nunavut Tourism at 800-491-7910.
Story adapted from The Arctic Traveller with permission of Nunavut Tourism and the GNWT.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication