"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Canoeing the vanishing Arctic

By on January 27, 2020 in Outdoor Fun with 0 Comments
A sandbar just upstream of the Arctic Sound was a nice place for the canoe travelers to pitch their final camp.

Story and photos

By Andy Dappen

Which wilderness river will we paddle next? 

Every few years when our small group of local canoeists comes together to plan a multi-week paddling adventure, this is always the thorniest question.

Over the years, a trip that has consistently made the A-list but would eventually fall out of the running was the 400-kilometer-long watercourse of the Hood River, a system of lakes and rivers flowing northeasterly through the Canadian territory of Nunavut into the Arctic Sound. 

In the late-1840s, the Hood was the drainage where several members of the doomed Franklin Expedition met their end as they attempted to travel overland from their icebound ship in the Arctic Ocean to the settlement of Yellowknife, Canada. 

Gordon Congdon looks over the canyon carved by Wilberforce Falls.

In modern times, the Hood’s abundant wildlife, challenging rapids, scenic canyons, spectacular waterfalls, and Arctic landscape have all made it one of the premier northern rivers to canoe. 

Yet, despite its appeal, its remoteness, rigors, and the cost of accessing it mean only a few groups visit the river each year.

These very issues had us passing on the Hood River trip after trip. At our meeting in January 2019, however, our group, whose middling age was now over 65, came to a sobering conclusion: If we kept delaying we would soon be too feeble to handle the river’s runnable whitewater or portage its many Class V and Class VI cascades. If we were going to do the Hood in this lifetime, we needed to get on it. 

In summer of 2019, Gordon Congdon, Paul Hessburg, Gary Womeldorff and I flew to Yellowknife, Canada with two Pakboats (folding canoes), camping gear, and 26 days of dried food. Here we chartered a flight to land us on one of the headwater lakes of the watershed. 

Canoeists portaged around many rapids that were too rough to run. The longest portage was the 2.25-mile carry (one way) around the impressive 200-foot-drop of Wilberforce Falls.

Despite the early July date, these lakes were just beginning to thaw. Ice covering the very highest lake in the system meant our plane disgorged us on one of the lower lakes feeding the river. Even then, our first few days of paddling were obstructed frequently by ice impasses that had us hauling canoes and gear overland before we re-encountered ice-free water.

After a week, we were beyond the headwater lakes, beyond the ice, and on the free-flowing river. 

Here we settled into a rhythm of contending with the basics of life. We dealt primarily with the simple lifestyle of making miles, staying warm and dry, scouting rapids, shooting manageable whitewater, portaging unrunnable cascades, pitching camp, escaping bugs, fishing for food, hiking surrounding peaks, viewing wildlife, and keeping that wildlife away from our food. 

The basics of river travel and keeping ourselves warm in this cool, exposed, and windy environment preoccupied mind and body to the extent that there was little time to think about the past, the future, or the world we came from. 

Such a switch of gears is cleansing, fortifying, and even a little addicting.

The first camp was close to a fox den where campers could watch two pups (kits). The adults were usually out hunting but occasionally on view when returning to the den as well.

 On such trips there are also unique experiences and encounters that etch themselves to memory. We watched a grizzly sow with her two cubs cover a mile’s distance — uphill and away from us — in minutes when she caught wind of our rancid smell. 

Twice on hikes we watched and heard wolves working to lure us away from their dens (and their cubs) with yips and howls. 

We all felt the frigid slap of whitewater to the face as waves and holes tried to swallow our canoes.

 We all knew the unpleasant pricks of mosquitoes and biting flies gnawing on bare skin during our morning rush to vacate bowels before putting on the water. And occasionally we could detect the musky odor of caribou feeding near water’s edge as our canoes floated silently past.

The barren-ground caribou were actually another draw of this river. 

In the mid-1980s, the Bathurst herd, composed of over 470,000 caribou, would migrate north through this watershed each summer to feed on the nutrient-rich foliage and lichens near the Arctic Sound. In late summer, the herd moved through the watershed again as it returned to the more sheltered wintering grounds of the boreal forest to the south. 

Drop off point for the trip was several hour’s flight north and east of Yellowknife on Lake 373, a lake feeding the Hood River. From left are Andy Dappen, Gordon Congdon, Gary Womeldorff and Paul Hessburg.

A variety of environmental challenges connected to climate change has seen the herd crash. In 2018, the herd had diminished to about 8,000 animals. 

When a keystone species like the caribou crashes, everything dependent on it — mosquitoes in need of a blood meal, birds dependent mosquitoes, wolves predating on old or weak animals, bears dependent on carrion, dung beetles dependent on scat, soil dependent on dung beetles, vegetation that thrives when pruned by browsing animals — implodes with it. 

The Arctic we experienced was really not the Arctic of old.

After 23 days on the river, hundreds of miles paddled, five ice portages, 13 river portages, five wolf spottings, five grizzly bear sitings, dozens of caribou and muskox spottings, the Hood River entered the Arctic Sound. 

On a sand beach near the river’s delta we deconstructed our foldable canoes and waited for the float plane that would retrieve us.

On most levels our trip had been a huge success. 

Nonetheless the four of us who made this journey also felt a profound sadness. 

The Arctic — its flora and fauna, permafrost, surface ice, weather patterns — are all changing so fast that what we experienced was really only a romanticized concept of the Arctic. 

The region is transforming into something new at an alarming rate and, quite probably, with alarming losses and yet-to-be-understood consequences. 

Two presentations about this trip will be given this spring by the trip participants. 

Through discussion, the images of Gordon Congdon, and the ballad poetry of Paul Hessburg, the presentation captures the essence of the adventure while describing the scope, scale, and importance of what’s being lost in the vanishing Arctic. 

The presentation will be given at the Wenatchee River Institute in Leavenworth (Feb. 12, 7 p.m.) and at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center (March 24, 7 p.m.).

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