We watched in silence as the plane disappeared. There is nothing quite as magical as the feeling of being left on the arctic tundra, truly alone.
“I don’t see our maps,” declared Mark Hamlin, breaking the silence. Hamlin weighs about 140 pounds soaking wet, can carry what seems like twice his weight, and is extremely organized. If he didn’t see the maps, then we had a problem.
Quickly, the six of us searched through our pile of gear—definitely no maps. We were all a bit concerned, and rightfully so. We were smack in the middle of the Arctic barren lands, 300 miles to the closest native village, if we had maps to show us what direction that was. Mark soon clarified that we were only missing the backup set. I thought of Louis Pasteur’s adage, “Luck favors the prepared mind” and hoped we hadn’t forgotten our paddles.
So there we were: six paddlers, three 16-foot canoes, and 1600 pounds of equipment and food that would help us navigate over 500 miles to the Arctic Ocean. Two years of planning and thousands of miles of travel led up to this trip. Mark, the organizer and designated trip leader for the expedition, was also the glue. Most of us had just met a few days ago in Edmonton, but everyone knew Mark. John Meriweather and Matt Troskey were his buddies from Northland College, while Jonathan “Shaggy” McLaughlin, Brian “Duck” Murphy and I knew Mark as fellow NOLS Instructors.
In the planning phase of this expedition, we had broken the trip into three distinct sections: the Baillie River drainage, a 50-mile “overland” route, and the Ellice River. Based on mileage and an estimated rate of travel, we came up with a five-week timetable.
The only information we had on the route came from our maps, a couple of magazine articles about canoeing in Nunavut, Canada, and two gentlemen who had paddled this route before. Bill Stirling, an outdoor retail storeowner in Yellowknife, said our timeframe was “ambitious.” Jim “Doc” Adams, a barren lands canoe veteran who had linked these two rivers back in the ’70s, gave us this encouragement: “No one in their right mind would go that way, so if you do see anyone, at least you’ll know you’re in right company!”
We somehow loaded all of our equipment—boats, tents, stoves, fuel—into the float plane. As we boarded, our pilot handed us earplugs and said,… (continue…)