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Fall 2005 Issue
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Jumping Off the Arctic Circle
Canoeing the Canadian Barren Lands

By Matt Ackley
Photography by Jonathan "Shaggy" McLaughlin

Nothing but earth and sky on the way to the Arctic Ocean.

Part 2
Unloading Hot

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, “You’re the first ones in this year!”  We gazed down on mile after mile of completely frozen lakes and streams, not so sure being the “first ones in” was such a good thing.

The pilot swung over Healy Lake, our hopeful destination, which looked more like a hockey rink than a lake. About thirty miles downstream, he discovered a narrow break in the ice and decided to go for it. The copilot looked over his shoulder at us, smiled, and then proceeded to pull his seatbelt as tight as it would go. The gesture was not lost on any of us: We all quickly followed suit.

“I didn’t think we were going to get you boys in today,” the pilot said. “We’re going to have to unload hot!” This meant he had to keep the propellers going as we unloaded into our canoes mid-river.

“If the plane starts to move, grab onto something!” the copilot yelled to Duck, who stood out on a float as we passed him our bags.

With the boats loaded, we were all eager to get some miles of paddling in under the warm afternoon sun. But within a half mile the river was completely frozen solid. It appeared we had landed on the only patch of open water in all of northern Canada. Once again we questioned the bragging rights of being the “first ones in.”


On the second day of the trip I awoke to temperatures in the thirties, high winds and intermittent sleet. We were officially weathered in. We knew travel on a day like this was unwise as we each hunkered in our sleeping bags, but if the weather persisted for another day we would choose the cold over the torture of sitting.

As I unzipped the fly on the morning of the third day, I was relieved to be staring at a frozen river with clear skies. Tentatively, we eased onto the ice for the first time. The ice creaked, but it held and before we knew it we were dragging our fully loaded canoes for miles along the frozen river corridor. 

We discovered that dragging the boats using the bow-lines as a two-person harness, similar to sled dogs, may look Herculean, but in fact is quite easy. Once you get the boat sliding on the ice it takes little effort to keep it moving.

Ice travel marked the first week of the expedition, which included a combination of paddling, dragging, and portaging around ice dams, large accumulations of icebergs.  Whereas dragging on flat frozen ice was très facile, our encounters with ice dams proved to be arduous at best. Lifting, pulling, pushing and grunting our boats over these choppy hummocks of ice allowed us the opportunity to earn those few tiny chest hairs we had dreamed about while sipping lattes back home.

After a particularly hard day of struggling against the ice, we made camp at the beginning of a mile-long ice dam, deciding to scout it out that evening and tackle it the following morning. Suddenly, an enormous BOOM! silenced our discussion. The water, having built up behind the dam with all the pressure of thousands of gallons of water, had unleashed in one fell swoop.

We watched, stunned, as giant icebergs unraveled and moved downstream at an amazing clip. In a matter of minutes, tomorrow’s rigorous obstacle course had drained away, leaving hundreds of SUV-sized ice chunks lining the shore.

The following morning, a mere mile downstream from the now cleared ice dam, we encountered something none of us had ever seen in our combined 64 years of paddling.

The water, flowing over a continuous layer of thick white ice, glowed bright green as if the river was weaving through the emerald city of Oz. The six of us marveled at its beauty while picking our lines past crystal spires, swirling green eddies and translucent pancakes of ice.

After a few kilometers of paddling this emerald river, it ended as mysteriously as it had begun. We returned to where rivers are made of water flowing over rocks, and after another two days we reached the Baillie River, marking the end of our icy travels.

Serengeti of the North

The Baillie River forms the western boundary of the Thelon Game Sanctuary, the largest wildlife reserve in… (continue…)

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