Gear for wilderness canoeing is very much a matter of personal choice. We tried to travel as lightly as possible but at the same time have a few items that made life easier. We used tents that were somewhat larger than necessary, a four person tent while south of the tree line in 2013 and a three person alpine tent once we were on the tundra. The ability to get all your gear inside, spread ypurself out and if necessary cook in the tent is well worth it. We also took two very small folding chairs which we used daily. We also didn’t skimp on coffee or stove fuel. When tent bound by wind or weather we could indulge!
Our choice of canoe was based on three simple criteria: weight, durability and load carrying capacity. We went with a Nova Craft 17 foot Prospector in Royalex Lite. Royalex sadly, is no longer available for canoe manufacture. It is a composite material, comprising an outer layer of vinyl (which also gives the canoe its colour) and hard acrylonitrile butadiene styrene plastic (ABS) and an inner layer of ABS foam. Royalex canoes were renowned for their ability to withstand impacts with minimal damage. As a bonus, a Royalex canoe was sufficiently buoyant that no floatation cells were necessary. All of the hull space was usable. Our canoe weighed about 26kg empty and with spare paddles (permanently strapped into the back) plus spray cover, portage weight was about 30kg. On a long portage (like the 5km Chipman) we would typically carry it in 1km stages.
The 17 foot hull is seemingly the best compromise between load carrying capacity and weight. Our two Black Diamond 60 litre ‘Huey’ gear packs fit easily between the front seat and the portaging yoke with two 60 litre food drums between the yoke and rear thwart. An additional 30 litre food drum was strapped on top of the spray cover along with the day pack.
The Nova Craft Prospector series are symmetrical hulls with moderate rocker and no keel. Therefore they are quite manoeuvrable in white water but of course this comes at a price. In a quartering crosswind on open lakes, maintaining heading can be a real challenge! Our canoe came with fibreglass skid plates or ‘keel shoes’ fore and aft. We strongly recommend these for wilderness canoeing. Time and time again what felt like serious impacts with unseen boulders resulted in minimal damage. The skid plates take the brunt of the impact and protect the canoe.
A good spray cover is absolutely essential. Don’t even contemplate venturing into wilderness areas without one. Ours was custom made by North Water in Vancouver. We had additional material added to the centre section to allow the cover to sit over our gear packs and still provide a good seal over the gunwales. While essential safety gear in white water, spray covers are equally useful when paddling in the rain and on open lakes. While transiting Carey Lake in 2014 we encountered sudden squally violent winds which whipped the lake into mountainous waves in a matter of minutes. Waves were breaking over the canoe. Without a spray cover we would have been swamped, in very cold water over 1km from shore. We both agreed later that Carey Lake was the scariest episode of the whole two year trip.
On a lengthy canoe trip with the inevitable days stuck in the tent due to weather, you really can’t have too much room! On the 2013 La Ronge to Black Lake leg we were well south of the tree line and were able to use our large four person dome tent. All our gear fit in the annex with a huge amount of space inside to sleep and cook if necessary. The 2014 Black Lake to Baker Lake leg was largely on the barrens. We needed a tent which could be put up in gale force winds. We also wanted something which had an annex large enough to hold our gear packs and allow us to cook when the weather, wind or bugs were bad. After a lot of research we settled on the Hilleberg Nammatj 3GT. It’s a three person tent. Let’s be honest, ‘three person’ from any tent manufacturer means ‘three in a squeeze’ so it is more then comfortable for two. The annex is large, 1.85m long and it included a screened inner door so plenty of ventilation when cooking but without the bugs. More importantly it’s a breeze to put up in a strong wind! We use a double groundsheet under the tent. Not only does it provide protection from sharp stones and twigs but in the event that the tent was severely damaged it could be fashioned into a useable emergency shelter.
All our gear packs into two Black Diamond 60 litre ‘Huey’ equipment bags. Tent, chairs and other gear in one, bedding, sleeping mats, clothes in the second. Kitchen gear is split between the two. These packs have flat bottoms and rounded tops. We load them in the canoe on their sides which conform to the canoe hull profile.
A good day pack is essential. We tried to absolutely minimise the amount of ‘loose crap’ sitting in the canoe. As far as possible everything needed during the day was kept in the day pack. This included rain gear, lunch, fishing gear, sunscreen, water shoes etc. The only loose gear were two map cases, two bailing sponges, two cameras two water bottles and the two 5 litre stove fuel containers. At a portage all (apart from the fuel) are easily stuffed in the day pack so there is absolutely no loose articles to carry.
Clothing is a very personal thing. Our mantra was light, quick dry and only the essentials. A full clothing list is included on the downloadable spreadsheet.
There are however a couple of items we would recommend. Absolutely essential once you get onto the barrens are Canadian bug shirts. Kate would say they are absolutely essential anywhere in the Canadian bush! They feature prominently in many of the photos. Kate virtually lived in hers!
Probably the single biggest risk canoeing in the arctic is a capsize in frigid water. Accounts vary as regards how long Art Moffitt was in the water when they capsized on the Dubawnt in 1955 (see references). Hypothermia very quickly reduces your ability to act or think clearly. We both used Sharkskin shorts and short sleeved tops. These effectively act as thin wetsuits. In a capsize they would hopefully help retain sufficient body core heat to allow you to get yourself out of trouble.
Another really handy item is quick dry underwear. You can rinse them out as you paddle, spread them out on the spray deck and they’re dry in no time!
We have always made up our own first aid kit as most commercial ones don’t meet our requirements. Again we have aimed at compact and light weight whilst covering the many possible needs we might have. Along with the usual adhesive band aids in a variety of sizes we include compression bandages, burns dressings, sterile pads, steri-strips and knee and wrist supports. We carry two silver space blankets, tweezers and scissors. We have sufficient of our regular prescription drugs (the joys of mature age), antiseptics such as tea tree, Betadine and sterile water, analgesics such as Panadol, ibuprofen and codeine forte plus hydrolyte powder, oil of cloves for tooth ache, and Ural. We also have water sterilisation tablets however have not always had need of these
Personal and Miscellaneous
We took few luxuries. Kate had numerous books on her Kindle along with a copy of Tyrrell’s 1893 Journal. We also had a shortwave radio. Next trip will include an iPod. We really appreciated having two small folding chairs. In most places there literally is nowhere to sit except on the ground. Being able to sit while you eat or cook counts as a luxury!
Kitchen and Cooking
When we started canoeing in Saskatchewan we cooked almost exclusively on an open fire with a small lightweight steel grill. This trip we used a liquid fuel stove. We still carried the grill but it was never used. Kate loved the convenience, time saving and lack of pot black! There is seemingly an endless variety of camping stoves. We wanted something that was simple, had a large fuel reservoir, gave good heat and used cheap fuel. The Coleman Sportster II dual fuel ticked all the boxes. On the 2013 leg we kept meticulous records of fuel usage. We didn’t skimp on using the stove. On lay days it was fired up to make as many extra cups of coffee as we wanted.
We calculated fuel usage at 0.165 litres/day. On the 2014 leg we carried two 5 litre petrol containers. Each carried just over 5.5 litres plus about 1 litre in a standard aluminium fuel bottle. We calculated that 12 litres would be good for 72 days. We used standard unleaded automobile petrol as fuel, far cheaper than designated ‘stove fuel’ or ‘naphtha’ and as far as we could see, just as clean.
Being chief caterer Kate was concerned with our ability to carry sufficient food for the possible 60 days we were allowing in our planing for the trip. Although we were taking an extra 30 litre water tight food drum, it meant we had to eliminate some of the heavy items we had carried on previous trips, these were foods containing fluid, things like tomato sauce, mustard, tuna in foil and Indian curry bases or bulky luxuries such as cookies. However, it wasn’t just the difficulty in carrying sufficient food that was a problem. Over the past few trips we noticed that many of our staples were getting harder to find and this year we would not pass any First Nation Communities. On previous trips community stores had provided an opportunity to restock or augment our supplies.
We decided that although we had not fished on our previous trips, this trip we must plan on catching fish for at least a third or 20 of our main meals. John was to take on the fisher role and so again turned to the web to check out what type of fish we could expect, how to clean and fillet them (Northern Pike or ‘Jacks’ have a double ‘Y’ backbone and are tricky to fillet well) and what we would need in the way of gear. Meanwhile Kate experimented with cooking methods and different crumbed fish coatings. After checking the Canadian Custom’s regulations we decided to take a lot more food from Australia, to this end Kate dehydrated a range of fruit and vegetables and made up powdered soup bases, couscous meals etc. I then vacuum sealed all of these together with bags of instant coffee and a selection of flat bread “wraps” as these keep well but are not always available where we shop in Canada.
In planning meals Kate was conscious that the foods we carry should not be bulky and as light weight as possible, furthermore they must be able to be prepared and eaten with a minimum of equipment. Kate aimed at a hot cereal breakfast , hot soup and a protein such as cheese and /or dried meat at lunch and in the evening a hot meal with pasta, rice, couscous or chick peas as a base augmented by dehydrated vegetables and fresh fish. She also planned for morning and afternoon snacks that could be eaten whilst paddling, these are made up of dried fruit, nuts, muesli bars and confectionery such as jelly beans and jujubes. We drink instant coffee or hot chocolate morning and evening and water throughout the day. An exception to the weight rule are one litre plastic jars of peanut butter. It is about the only calorie dense fat we get and can be essential at times of exhaustion. A list of all the food taken is on the downloadable spreadsheet.