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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

The Herculean task of portaging boats around large ice dams

Part 4
Cowboy Up

As we floated into the confluence with the Back River, our 25 mile-a-day pace changed abruptly. We were beginning phase two of our trip, 50 miles of upstream and overland travel to the Ellice River. We all knew portaging would be a large part of this next section, but we highly preferred paddling—we hoped not to have to hike the entire 50 miles to the Ellice.

A mixture of paddling and tracking (maneuvering a canoe upstream using the bow and stern lines) took us six miles to a confluence. We portaged along the steeper creek that flowed in from the North, taking a full day to shuffle our gear to the first in a series of lakes. It was a hard slog but well worth the effort, for travel on and between the lakes proved relatively easy.

The author shows off his catch after his successful attempt to wrestle a lake trout to shore.

While maneuvering our canoes up a braided stream, I noticed the spine of a large fish breaching just out of the water.  “I wonder if I can catch it by hand,” I thought out loud, evaluating the depth of the stream. Half way across the stream I slipped, submerging up to my chin in the knee-deep brook. Now soaked, I was committed. I slowly crept up behind the fish as he waited in an eddy. Bigger than I originally realized, my plan of grabbing him with only my hands had to be abandoned. I went for the full body bear hug pounce. He slipped through my arms like a greased pig at a state fair. After 15 minutes of complete and utter floundering, all I had accomplished was giving my five teammates a hearty laugh.

I was able to sneak up on him one last time and, much to everyone’s surprise, I scooped the three and a half foot lake trout out of the stream and onto shore.  Staggered by its actual size, we took turns viewing the digital photo for the next few weeks—just to see if it was really as big as our collective storytelling minds had made it out to be.

The Ellice River

We reached the Ellice River in just six days, mostly on the water. Moonscapes, sandy deserts, deep canyons, and vast open plains all abound on this northern river. Changing daily, the diversity of terrain was unprecedented in my canoeing experience. We rode the wave of the spring melt, paddling up to 30-mile days with ease, at times wishing the water would slow down and at other times wanting to paddle all night under the circling sun, eager for what new and different landscapes lay ahead.

At one point we were running miles of continuous class II rapids while the sky and tundra opened up into wide-open plains. A dreamy river protected simply by the distance and effort it takes to get there, the Ellice is one not to be missed by any arctic enthusiast.

On July 13, days ahead of schedule, we pulled up to our pickup point, marked by a deserted fish camp. With time to spare, we hiked five miles out to the Arctic Ocean, to get a glimpse at how far north we had really come. While gazing out at the beautiful sea, I thought about the elusive words we had come in search of out here: adventure, challenge, wilderness, play. Had we each found those things? As I stood thinking about our struggles through the ice—the abundant wildlife sightings and that glowing green river—I reached for the digital camera. I wanted just one more look at the size of that fish.

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