By Joel Britz
On the fourth morning of a canoe trip in mid-August 2018, the nasty headwinds suggested we hike up onto the tundra and wait for less painful paddling conditions. In this photo, you are overlooking the “treeline”, actually a broad “transition zone” between the boreal forest and the tundra, a zone that follows the Horton River for over half its journey to the Arctic Ocean.
For hundreds of kilometers in every direction there are no villages, no roads, no dams or mines – just vast wilderness. For two weeks we saw no one; or even a trace of anyone. We never saw fire pits and our guides even reminded us to scatter rocks we had used to help guy down our tents. It’s easy to find wilderness in Canada; but, on the Horton, the most northerly river on Canada’s mainland, the remoteness is palpable! Our take-out at Whaleman River was slightly north of where Erebus sank, 400 kilometers to the east.
Even on this overcast day, the crisp, uncontaminated air – whisked clean by the wind – made it feel as if you could see forever. Below, our campsite sits comfortably next to the steady flow of the purest water anywhere!
If you pivoted right, to the east, you would be looking out over the tundra. There was a scattering of twisted, stunted spruce that are probably hundreds of years old. Beyond that, all the vegetation was underfoot as the tundra stretched to infinity. Your eyes are drawn to the horizon; but, when you look down, you begin to appreciate that, between the ancient rocks, you are in danger of trampling on the canopy of a miniature forest.
The tundra should be experienced by everyone!
On that morning and every day of the trip, individual or small numbers of caribou stared at us as if we were strangers from outer space. Or they passed by as if on autopilot. Birds of every variety were always in sight. Three-meter-high eagles’ nests, built up over scores of years, clung to lofty cliffs. We passed a herd of muskox who simply ignored us. Likewise, a grizzly and her cubs were more focused on the profusion of berries.
When the river braided, our guides chose the easiest way through. The water level was lowering, and they set the right line as we ran a surprising number of delightfully easy rapids. Each campsite they picked surpassed the previous as muted fall colours took over the landscape. Al, Pate and Kia kept us safe, well-fed and on-task.
But, with rare exception, “less painful paddling conditions” didn’t materialize. We paddled early, we paddled late. We lost two scheduled layover days. The wind, rain, sleet and snow turned exposed skin rosy. We layered up with all the clothes we had brought. Despite a decent current, we often faced whitecaps and spindrift blowing … upstream! On most days we paddled until we were exhausted and each evening, we gathered cheerfully under a tarp anchored to a canoe filled with rocks.
It was a great trip!
Has anyone ever studied the strange correlation between adversity and memorable canoe trips?