Wandering the Tundra

By Dwayne Wohlgemuth

The sun is just below the horizon and the sky is blue even though it’s the middle of the night. The bugs are thick but not at their worst. Leanne, Emile, and I each take our turns rushing out of the tent onto the toe-tickling  matt of cranberry and Arctic bearberry, but not to enjoy the view of the long arcing sand beach. We have all the signs and symptoms of giardia, and the diarrhea is further complicated by rain in the morning. We almost never carry a water filter, and the consequence is that we’ve all had giardia before. We know that Emile, at age 7, will be over it in a day or two. Aleksi, age 4, has somehow avoided it. As for ourselves, the tried and tested method for curing giardia is to fast for a minimum of 24 hours. With the malaise and rain we spend the early morning under the bug tent playing games, reading, and occasionally exiting to visit the woods. By 11 a.m. our intestines are empty, visits to the woods are less frequent, and the rain has stopped. It’s time to put the boat in the water. We began canoeing 8 days ago on a route from Behchoko, NWT, northeast to the treeline and beyond to spend a couple months on the tundra. Finding caribou, eating fresh fish and berries, visiting the Daring Lake Tundra Ecosystem Research Station, and enjoying fall colours on the tundra are a few of the priorities for the summer. 

Google Earth overview map

The first leg of our trip follows the traditional Tlicho route up the Snare River from Behchoko to Wekweeti, a journey of some 260 km. The route is more lakes than river. There is a 30-km mess of rapids and hydro dams only a few days from Behchoko, but the Northwest Territories Power Corporation staff gave us a ride around that on their service road. There’s no warning when they might choose to spill water and flood your campsite or make the rapids impossible to ascend. The Tlicho groups paddling this route nowadays also get rides around this section, and evidence suggests that portage trails may be nonexistent or overgrown.

We say goodbye to giardia beach and continue following the Snare River until we depart east through Wijinnedi, Daran, and Cotterill Lakes. We were told these portages might be in horrible shape due to a recent burn, but we are rewarded with completely clear trails. The Tlicho have a program called Trails of Our Ancestors that includes trips every year along their traditional paddling routes, and they’ve obviously cleared this route since the burn.

Emile and Aleksi paddle their own canoes

Aleksi is potty trained and we had eagerly looked forward to a trip without diaper washing. However, two weeks into the trip he pees his sleeping bag two nights in a row. Luckily, both days are sunny and we dry the sleeping bag in the sun and the breeze. Why is he peeing his bed now? We decide that we need to wake him in the night to pee from now on. Ouch. At least we brought the boys a potty for the tent. We might even use the potty ourselves on occasion when the bugs are thick.

After 17 days and 18 portages, we arrive at Wekweeti on Aboriginal Day – June 21st – just in time to join the community feast. We meet a few locals, eagerly listen to many stories, and learn that the few people we know in the community are away for a Hand Games tournament. We meet Nora, a sweet lady who works for Air Tindi and who has our food drop. She hadn’t recognized the names on the boxes shipped to Wekweeti, so she was planning to send the boxes back to Yellowknife! Next time, we’ll contact Nora in advance and put notes on the boxes to say that they’re for canoeists passing through! 

The team on an esker near Point Lake
An erratic near the Daring River

We take a day off in Wekweeti to organize our food drop, explore the town, and make sure all is well with our rental house in Yellowknife. Organizing life to be away from home for 3 months is a challenge, and our tenants announced that they had bought their own home just before we left. We had just enough time to advertise and find new tenants, but there were maintenance items that needed to be completed between tenants. Yellowknife is not the easiest place to find contractors, and so I chose to hire a couple friends to do the necessary inspection and maintenance items. Nowadays, with an InReach we can organize and check on things even while we’re on the land. One couple bought a house by InReach while they were on a trip with us a few years ago!

With our new food supply organized and packed in the barrels, we prepare to depart. We are eager for this less-traveled section and for the upcoming transition to the tundra. We had contemplated various routes and in the end chose to follow the Winter River upstream, cross to Big Lake and Starvation Lake, and follow the Starvation River down to Point Lake. I had seen the Starvation River when I crossed it and hiked alongside it for part of a day during my Thelon Esker hike in 2020, so I had a good idea of its size. From Point Lake we’ll travel up the Coppermine River past Obstruction Rapids to Lake Providence and up the unnamed river that drains Yamba and Daring Lakes. After Daring Lake, we’ll return to Point Lake with a primary objective of finding caribou. 

Aleksi gathers Arctic Cotton

The wind, the sun, and the bugs are kind to us as we paddle northeast from Wekweeti on Snare and Roundrock Lakes. We swim at the beaches, we heave our heavy barrels in and out of the canoe, and Emile revels in his ability to catch trout from shore. I begin reading Franklin’s journal as we pass the site of Fort Enterprise near the western end of Winter Lake. This is where Franklin’s first overland expedition overwintered in 1820/21 before departing for the coast, and where starvation forced a few remaining members to pound bones for soup and eat scraps of rawhide the following winter. Fort Enterprise was a site of starvation and death, and the locals from Wekweeti say they avoid the location. Reading these journals is only possible thanks to an e-reader, a technology that we had previously shunned but now treasure. 

A day after passing Fort Enterprise I lift our canoe out of Winter Lake and feel the transition to a new phase of the trip. We leave behind the Snare River and aim north to follow the Winter River. Dwarf Birch slowly replaces the black spruce and extends its tangled branches sideways to trip us and frustrate little Aleksi. The occasional interwoven and 3-meter-tall willow forest completely bars his path and requires us to carry him. Our campfires extend north beyond Last Fire Lake. These shrubs and trees must have been much shorter and less dense 200 years ago when Franklin and his team walked through this country. 

The put-ins and take-outs are often shallow and studded with sharp boulders. We balance on slippery rocks, one leg  knee-deep in water, to remove the still-heavy barrels. At one portage, we carry half our gear to the far end only to realize the entire shoreline is choked with willows and then studded with boulders for 20 meters out into the water. We carry our gear back, reload the canoe, and cross over to portage on the river’s opposite shore. We had become lazy, and we choose to be more diligent in the future, scouting the full portage before we shoulder our loads.

Aleksi enjoying the view of Yamba Lake

Aleksi walks the portages but not always without a fight. He’s building strength, character, and resilience but he’s slower than the rest of us. We carry short distances at a time, playing hopscotch with him, and he and his brother stick together and only walk the portages once while Leanne and I do two trips each. The hard rule is that he’s always in sight of us. We lift him through occasional dense mazes of willows and dwarf birch, and over the odd stream or patch of jumbled boulders. Our two trips are slower than the boys’ single trip, so they take breaks on top of tall rocks or in the middle of berry patches or wherever Aleksi taps out. 

Caribou south of Itchen Lake

We’ve been canoeing for nearly a month, long enough to appreciate a good meal, when the Winter River provides a stellar fishing hole. A deep, fast rapid at the south end of Little Marten Lake ends in a large pool with a strong eddy, and I quickly have 4 Arctic grayling in the bucket and decide that there must be trout here too. I switch to a spoon, and soon land a Lake Trout and a Pike. The 11-liter fish bucket is full to the brim with little effort. The wind is strong from the north so we clean the fish, portage the rapid, paddle a short distance to where we have to turn directly into the wind, and pull out for a fish feast. Leanne and the boys begin gathering twigs while I find a semi-sheltered location for our home-made twig stove and prepare flour, spices, and oil. Our dog Kulu eats steamed pike while we feast on fried trout. We cook the grayling and put it in a container for tomorrow’s lunch. By the time we finish our fish supper the wind has calmed, so we put the boys to bed in the canoe and proceed to paddle the 12-km length of Little Marten Lake. In the glare of a midnight sun, and without a watch, I’m forced to use the compass to make sure we’re going the right direction. Distances and shoreline features on the tundra are difficult enough to judge even in the best light conditions. 

The next day we scout routes north out of Little Marten Lake. We pull ashore and I hike to the top of a nearby hill. Our first choice based on maps and satellite images passes through a lake that I now see is shallow and studded with sharp boulders. It might be possible, but the canoe will have a few new scars and the paddle will be slow. Perhaps there’s a better way. I return to the canoe, and Leanne and I discuss other options. To the east, there’s a longer potential portage that skips that lake. We paddle over and all go ashore to once again hike a nearby hill. The route looks gentle, the shoreline of the next lake appears friendly, and we soon find a few .303 British shell casings on the ground. They were probably fired from an old Canadian Ranger Rifle, most likely by someone hunting caribou. That’s evidence that maybe we’re on the best path. We take a break halfway through the portage, pitch the bug tent, and enjoy a relaxing lunch. When we finally reach the next shore, we find an old plywood skiff. It was likely used by hunters traveling this way in the fall looking for caribou. We paddle across the lake to camp on a sandy beach at the foot of an esker complex with multiple ridges, ponds, and spectacular views.

Cloudberry jam
Crazy red trout of Point Lake

With a couple more days of intense portaging we reach Big Lake on a sunny, calm day. I drop a line to troll, and we are rewarded with a catch of 4 gorgeous trout. A huge fish catch requires lots of twigs for cooking, but there’s no mistaking that we’re on the tundra here. A small line of shrubs hugs the shoreline, but inland the ground is dominated by rocks, lichen, and peat moss. Supper becomes a long and delicious affair of gathering twigs, constantly feeding the stove, and eating trout straight out of the pan. Kulu also enjoys a large fillet, a treat reserved for times when the fish are easy and plentiful. When the fishing isn’t so easy, she eats only steamed heads and backbones. 

Emile and Aleksi hold antler

Under a burning sun and a suffocating heat we portage slowly over two days towards Starvation Lake. On the longest portage I feel the signs of heat exhaustion and lay down on the bedrock for an hour to cool. Leanne and the boys continue and carry a load for me. It seems even too hot for black flies, and their numbers are quite tolerable. Swims are mandatory a few times a day to stay cool.

Our muscles instantly relax as we step onto a small sandy beach at Starvation Lake. We will take a day off here to celebrate and enjoy this milestone. We quickly remove socks and enjoy the feel of the sand on our bare feet. In 2020 I hiked along the north side of this lake during my Thelon Esker hike and it’s a treat to revisit such a remote location on the tundra with my family this time. We paddle lazily, catch a few trout, and find a splendid arcing beach half a kilometer long. The late evening sun broils us with its reflection off the mirror-calm water.

Emile’s pike

We take a day off and swim every hour to stay cool. Avery, a fellow Canadian Ranger, sends a message saying that there’s a forest fire near our cabin north of Yellowknife. This worries us greatly, and we wonder if we should immediately book a plane to fly home and do what we can to protect our home. Avery can’t reach the Environment and Natural Resources office on the phone, so he drives to their office to obtain the latest news on the fire. By mid-afternoon, he confirms that the fire has already been put out. Hooray! We had passed a few stressful hours wondering if our trip might be over. Emile is still sad, lamenting that even if our cabin is okay, the land around will be scarred and black for many years. 

The smothering heat continues as we reset our brains from worrying about our cabin and prepare for an entirely new adventure down the Starvation River. We camp one night near the waterfall where the Starvation River leaves the Lake. The bugs certainly appear to be starving as they’re nearly the thickest I’ve ever seen. We wear bug jackets inside the bug tent. By the time the black flies dissipate in the late evening, the mosquitoes are out twice as thick. In the morning Aleksi has his first total and complete meltdown due to the bugs. We unanimously decide to travel quickly so we can reach Point Lake where the open water and the breeze will certainly mean fewer of these blood-sucking menaces. At least we wouldn’t starve here: a simple net could catch enough black flies or mosquitoes for a good meal.

Hiking an esker near Point Lake

As we paddle away from the river’s mouth we note the sudden transition from shrubby protected river valley to the windy and bare bedrock slopes of Deèzàatì. It’s like we’ve stepped north 100 kilometres. The water is cold, the lake is deep, and the shrubs are scattered and thin. We find an exposed peninsula with plenty of smooth bedrock and the camp deal is sealed when we encounter two rocks with perfectly flat surfaces at a nearly ideal countertop height. I am delighted to have a couple tables after more than a month in the wilderness. I pulled a muscle in my back less than a week before we departed on this trip. The bending and crouching on the trip included a lot of pain and a lot of aspirin, and though my back is slowly healing, the pain will be lessened by this table’s presence.

We stay 4 nights here with the bedrock tables, alternately sharing the site with the wind and pleasantly few black flies. The mosquitoes are gone. The weather is no longer dreadfully hot, but we still swim a couple times a day. Friends of ours, Jacob and Giselle who also have two children, fly from Yellowknife to join us here with the plan to paddle with us to Daring Lake. The day after they arrive, however, their oldest child falls and injures his wrist. He refuses to use that arm and requires painkillers for anyone in their tent to sleep. The next day, his parents decide the injury is serious enough that they’ll fly home again to have it checked. 

The Daring River

We portage on top of the Thelon Esker around the cascading waterfall, float over calm water in a small canyon, and gaze at dozens of graylings in the glassy water. We keep our eyes peeled for the odd shallow rock, startle a couple bull moose as we round the corners obscured by tall willow and dwarf birch, and make camp on rocky outcrops that provide a view of the river. We portage wherever seems most efficient and on high ground wherever possible to avoid the shrubs and have a view of what lies ahead. The Starvation River is small and narrow with a continuous mild gradient interrupted by the odd rocky rapid. Water levels are nice for canoeing, but the rapids are generally too shallow, and we portage nearly all of them. After two and half days and 8 portages we arrive with glee at Deèzàatì (Point Lake). The river was gorgeous but we’re happy to be out of the sheltered buggy valley. 

We have two other friends, Miriam and Myra (M&M), who will join us on Daring Lake and who plan to use Jacob and Giselle’s canoe. So now there’s a moment of logistical vomit, a natural consequence to be expected now and then from the complicated logistics that we normally avoid like the plague. M&M plan to share a flight from Yellowknife to Daring Lake and can’t bring a canoe on the plane. So after much conversation and coercion, we convince Jacob and Giselle’s pilot that he can be later – he’s already late – for his next scheduled flight and can make a short side trip and drop the canoe at Daring Lake. We have enjoyed every moment we can with Jacob and Giselle and their two children, and we say goodbye after their short and expensive picnic on the tundra with us. 

The Starvation River

Our sadness from losing our friends lingers as we paddle south towards the Coppermine River. Wonder and joy overtake those emotions as we portage around Obstruction Rapids and marvel at the mighty Coppermine, a river that nearly stopped Franklin’s team some 200 years ago during their hike back from the Arctic Ocean. In early October, they eventually succeeded in building a willow and canvas canoe and were able, one by one, to cross the river upstream of these rapids. They were already severely malnourished and often fasting or subsisting on nothing more than tripe de roche lichen. 

“…celebrate the rapid disappearance of the black flies…”

As we paddle southeast on Lake Providence we puzzle and celebrate the rapid disappearance of the black flies and mosquitoes. Under the intense sun of late July, and occasionally on glassy dead-calm water, our lunch breaks become lazy, near-naked, lounging affairs interrupted by swims and a few casts for fish. Without a breeze, we still can’t find a black fly. Somehow, we’ve chanced upon a rare and unseasonal disappearance of the black flies. This might become a once-in-a-lifetime bug-free August on the tundra.

We continue to read Franklin’s journal and are astounded by the quantity of names on the map in this area and on the Arctic coast that come from that single European expedition. How was this one European man who caused the death of so many, and eventually his own as well, able to impose his names on so much of the map? Thankfully, there are numerous efforts to restore aboriginal place names to official maps.

The unnamed river draining Yamba and Daring Lakes is our next adventure, which we refer to as the Daring River. I craft a crude doll for each of the boys from a 2×4 board we found, and they carry the dolls over all the portages. The willow and dwarf birch are occasionally tall and thick along this shallow, crystal clear, rocky, and relatively warm river. We’re approaching a waterfall where an esker crosses the river when Leanne spots an animal mostly hidden in the bushes. It’s a bull moose busy grazing on willows, often with only his antlers visible, so we quietly come ashore, pull up the canoe, and climb the esker, monocular in hand. While we are watching, the moose lays down for its afternoon nap, completely hidden in the willows only 75 meters away. Emile and I eventually decide to hike around downwind of the moose where we are graced with a close-up view an hour later when it finally rises, spots Leanne on the esker, and trots away. 

“This esker crossing is a gem of a spot…”

This esker crossing is a gem of a spot, one of those you might not tell anyone about. But alas it’s too remote to ever have many visitors. The river travels a loop, falling over several ledges and leaving a cool, misty bedrock peninsula inside the loop. We have extra time and spend four days here, hiking the esker in both directions, lounging on the rocky peninsula, and picking blueberries and raven-black Arctic Bearberries. The boys build a tiny series of dams in a trickle of water flowing over the peninsula, and just below the waterfall is a deep pool filled with hungry lake trout and even an occasional northern pike. Emile catches the biggest pike of the trip so far. With much persistence and persuasion from his father he finally overcomes his slime phobia and musters his strength to lift it long enough for a good photo. The camera is filled with grimaces and groans but when he’s older he’ll be glad he held the fish for that photo.     

We eventually break camp and continue to the Tundra Ecosystem Research Station where our friends M&M will join us and where our next food drop awaits us. We stay there a few days along with students who are part of a science camp, and Emile donates a few feathers from his collection to students who are building and experimenting with an Atlatl dart. We organize our food, welcome our friends, make new friends, and then say goodbye to return to Deèzàatì on a caribou-viewing mission.

The Team at Daring Lake

On August 20th we reach the northeastern tip of Deèzàatì, a location where we think we’re likely to spot caribou traveling south from Itchen Lake. On cue, we see more than a dozen caribou, including numerous calves, just after we arrive at the river that drains Itchen Lake. A cold wind is blowing from the north so we choose a campsite in the lee of an esker, and a few caribou wander by in the evening. We’ve miraculously arrived upon the migration of what remains of the Bluenose-East caribou herd, which has fallen from an estimated 120,000 animals to 23,000 now.

“We enjoy three days of hiking, watching caribou, picking berries…”

We enjoy three days of hiking, watching caribou, picking berries, and marveling at our luck. A bull moose, many dozens of caribou, and a couple wolves pass by our camp and swim the river. There are hordes of calves, which boosts our hope that maybe the caribou can recover. During our last evening here, I stay out late to tidy camp, to enjoy the silence, and to watch the fading light. The sun is down and the air is chilly. I’m putting a few last items in the barrels when I notice a group of caribou walking south past our camp. I tiptoe partway up the low esker just north of camp, sit down beside Kulu, and gaze through the monocular as the 10 caribou pass by about 100 meters from camp and then turn to swim across a calm stretch of the river. I whistle to catch Leanne’s attention; perhaps she’ll come out to see them. A couple seconds later the sound of the zipper alerts me to Leanne’s return from the bubble of our 4-season tent. I point to the river and we both watch them for a minute. As they reach the far shore they shake off the water and fade into the darkness of the dwarf birch. Leanne looks back at me and quickly puts her arms in the air like antlers, but I don’t understand the signal until too late. By the time I turn around, the animal has trotted away. Leanne tells me there was a cow and calf caribou 3 meters behind me on top of the esker, silhouetted against the still-blue sky.

We cherish another 10 days traveling on Deèzàatì. We stop to hike eskers, pick berries, and absorb all the bright fall tundra colours. The boys play in the small groves of spruce and run their toy wooden canoes down little streams. We arranged to return to Yellowknife on a shared charter flight so we have a precise location and date where we need to be. We arrive with plenty of time and head off hiking and swimming in a tiny lake nearby until the plane arrives. Suddenly, gunshots and a distant hum alert us that the plane is arriving early. We’re still swimming 1.5km away over some difficult terrain. We rush to dress, find our socks, and slip on our shoes. The plane is nearly here. I toss Aleksi on my shoulders and we all run as quickly as we can. We watch the plane land and people begin unloading it as we’re running and already out of breath. Aleksi is laughing while I’m completely winded, but we arrive just as the plane is fully unloaded and ready for us to load. We’ve seen plenty of caribou, eaten our fill of fish and berries, and enjoyed the fall colours. Neither Aleksi nor Emile are upset that we’re going home already, so the timing feels right. It’s September 2nd, 90 days since we left Behchoko.    

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