La Ronge Saskatchewan to Baker Lake Nunavut 2013-2014
You can read about our two year journey in detail here. Brief summaries of each year’s journey (with overview maps) are available via links on menu to the right or here:
You can go directly to the journal entries and photos here:
La Ronge to Baker Lake 2013 – 2014
Duration 94 days
Distance 2081 km
Fast Water 45
Yellowknife to Chantrey Inlet via the Back River
Planning Update January 2018
This trip is planned for 2018. It will commence in Yellowknife NWT. We will paddle the north shore of Great Slave Lake approximately 300km east to McLeod Bay. There we will take Pike’s Portage out of the Mackenzie drainage and over the height of land. We will paddle to the headwaters of the Back River via Artillery, Clinton-Colden and Aylmer Lakes. The Back is a long and remote river which runs NE across Nunavut for over 1050km. In part, it forms the northern boundary of the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary. After crossing the Arctic Circle, it enters the Arctic Ocean at Chantrey Inlet about 100km south of the Inuit Settlement of Gjoa Haven on King William Island. There is nothing at Chantrey Inlet. Our return will involve either a pick up by boat to Gjoa Haven or chartered bush plane out to Baker Lake. Ookpik Aviation in Baker Lake have a tundra tire equipped turbo Otter which can land on the gravel bar at the confluence of the Hayes and Back Rivers (15km south of Chantrey Inlet). Our preferred method however will be via boat pickup out to Gjoa Haven.
History and Significance of the Route
The Back is one of the most remote rivers in Canada. Its headwaters are an unnamed lake a few kilometres NE of Aylmer Lake NWT from where it flows west into Sussex Lake (which will be our entry point). The river descends 382 metres to the Arctic Ocean via at least 80 discreet sets of rapids. The entire river lies north of the tree line.
Its first exploration by Europeans was led by George Back in 1834, as part of an expedition initially mounted to seek the fate of the 1829 expedition of Captain John Ross. Back learned of the river from local guides, and throughout his memoir of the expedition he referred to the river as the Thlew-ee-cho-dezeth, which he translated as Great Fish River. Upon reaching the Arctic Ocean on July 29 1834 Back was severely hindered by sea ice. He was able to explore a short distance NW along Chantrey Inlet, and saw King William Island to the north. With winter rapidly approaching he was forced to turn back on August 17 and retrace his route up the river. He reached Fort Reliance on 27th September 1834.
After abandoning their ships to the ice, the remaining members of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to map a North-West Passage set out for the Back River but did not survive. In search of them, Factor James Anderson and James Stewart of the Hudson’s Bay Company descended the river in 1855 reaching Chantrey Inlet on July 31. He too found it choked with wind driven floes of sea ice. C. S. Mackinnon provides a summary of just how close Anderson may have come to unlocking the mystery of Franklin’s disappearance.
There was no documented descent of the river again until 1962.
Duplicate sets of double sided, laminated maps have been compiled. Unlike previous trips where we used a combination of 1:50k, 1:100k, and 1:250k scales, these are almost exclusively at 1:50k scale. All were compiled using the Canmatrix Print Ready 1:50k TIFF files which can be downloaded free from Natural Resources Canada.
Once downloaded, individual TIFF files were manipulated in a drawing program (in our case an old version of Canvas 10 running on a Macintosh running System 10.5.8). Print area templates were used to select areas of each map which could then be printed to fully cover a metric A4 sheet. Each sheet includes the 1:50k map designation in the upper left corner. Maps were saved in PDF format. Almost all are legacy black and white with a few in colour around Yellowknife, East Arm-Artillery Lake and the Back – Baillie River area. Examples can be viewed here and here. At Rock Rapids a single detailed map at ~1:30k was produced to assist in negotiating this notoriously difficult section of the river. A section of the NTS Index Map was also compiled as two A4 sheets, Index East and Index West. These double as a convenient overview map of the route.
Between Artillery and Clinton-Colden Lakes we will transit Ptarmigan Lake and pass within a few kilometres of Hanbury Portage and the upper reaches of the Hanbury River. This provides a convenient ‘Plan B’. We have also compiled a full set of maps for the Hanbury and Thelon Rivers down to Baker Lake.
Trip information came from three sources:
Extensive email correspondence with Les Wilcox in Canada provided practical and recent data on departure dates and ice conditions on Great Slave Lake and the East Arm in June. Les also provided recent information pertaining to the Pike’s Portage section of the route. Older but still valuable information on Pike’s was gleaned from Henning Harmuth in his 1970 article (not published in Nastawgan until 1985).
Allan Jacobs at The Wilderness Canoe Association (WCA) was the source of a comprehensive compilation of notes on the Back River. Jacobs has integrated data on rapids, campsites and distances from seven groups of canoeists and kayakers and integrated them with relevant journal excerpts from Back and Anderson. His original documents are posted here on the WCA website.
We have given rapids (and in some cases sets of rapids) arbitrary ‘R’ designations. The Back River is reputed to have 83 discreet rapids from its source to Chantrey Inlet. In our numbering system R1 is just below the portage out of Sandhill Bay on Aylmer Lake and the final rapid R68 is 6km below Franklin Falls. At complex stretches of the river such as Rock Rapids which comprise the 10km of river from Lower MacDougall Lake to Sinclair Falls we used a single designation. Our complete trip notes are available in PDF format here. Rapids and metric map grid co-ordinates are in RED and excerpts from Back and Anderson are in BLUE.
Along the way we hope to visit a few sites of historic significance. First will be the ruins of old Fort Reliance, built as winter quarters by George Back in 1833. We will also paddle past the site of the famous Dene story about the Rat and the Beaver on Artillery Lake. Father Buliard’s abandoned cabin still stands on Mission Island in Upper Gary Lake. A synopsis of his life including the controversy surrounding his disappearance in 1956 while out checking his fishing nets is summarised here.
Back River Hydrology
The Back displays typical northern Canadian river hydrology. Flow volume peaks immediately after spring thaw and then diminishes rapidly to almost nil over winter. There are two gauging stations on the Back River. Station 10RA001 is located about 17km below Beechey Lake and 10RC001 is about 20km below Mt Meadowbank, a downstream distance of about 640km. Data for 2015 is plotted along with historic maximum and minimum flows. The plots (sourced from the link below) illustrate just how variable flow volumes are both seasonally and year to year. They also illustrate why canoeists must scout each and every rapid regardless of what previous travellers have said or done. A rapid which is safe to run at lower flow volumes may be totally unsafe at higher volumes.
Note that the timing of the seasonal peak is delayed as one moves downstream. Extensive historic and real time data is available online.
John visited Nova Craft in London Ontario during a trip to Canada in July 2017. Our canoe will most likely be a 17 foot Prospector Expedition constructed from TuffStuff. This is a composite fibre mat material comprising basalt (an igneous rock) and Innegra (principally polypropylene). It is reasonably light weight and very tough. Ours will be a ‘factory second’. These are canoes which have small manufacturing defects, often in the coloured outer gel coat or small moulding defects. Either way they attract significant price discounts. Our canoe will be bought through Bill Stirling at Overlander Sports in Yellowknife. That means it will be transported to Yellowknife along with his annual order and will be waiting when we arrive in June 2018. A complete set of new spray cover lashing patches has been ordered from North Water and will be installed before leaving Yellowknife.
Communications and Weather Info
We have purchased a second DeLorme InReach SE identical to the one we used in 2014. It is essentially backup for the original. We thought long and hard about what we would do if our InReach failed and we had no way of informing friends and family that we were OK. In 2014 we said that as long as we had not set off the emergency Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) it should be assumed we were in no danger. People quickly however become accustomed to receiving a satellite text message daily and if the messages suddenly stopped we knew friends and family would be worried. A second satellite communicator solves the problem. This trip Kate’s iPhone will also come along. Paired with the InReach via Bluetooth the phone’s virtual keyboard will make typing messages much easier and faster.
We’ve also bought a 10,000ma/hr USB power pack with integral solar charger. It’s a Chinese Cheapy, cost $40 and has no brand markings of any kind but appears to work well. It and our original Goal Zero solar panel and power pack should keep the satellite communicators charged up and happy.
In 2014 Steve our IT guru devised a weather bot allowing us to access the all important wind forecasts. Since then DeLorme have instituted a somewhat similar service however they have no weather data sources anywhere along or near the Back River, suggesting that forecasts along our route may not be terribly accurate. We may yet have Steve set up a similar system to 2014. Certainly there are sufficient automatic weather stations (AWS) in the area. View a map of AWS near our route here.
As per 2014 we will be carrying a small shortwave radio receiver. This time it will have the dual functions of keeping us informed about world events and hopefully accessing marine and inland waters weather forecasts. Sadly Radio Australia ceased all shortwave broadcasting in January 2017. As is often the case the Kiwis have had more common sense and Radio New Zealand continues to operate as of course does Radio China International.
During the summer shipping season marine weather forecasts are broadcast on short wave for the Arctic coast, Mackenzie River and Great Slave Lake. Our short wave receiver is capable of receiving single side band transmissions. Weather for forecasts for areas 120, 121 and 123 (Arctic Coast), 177 (Bathurst Inlet), 163 (Baker Lake) and 177 (Great Slave Lake) should be of use to us.
Setting a Departure Date
We want to depart Yellowknife as early in the season as possible. Ideally we want to be in Gjoa Haven by August 20th. Setting a date is difficult. We knew from both historic and contemporary accounts that the ice breaks up on the main body of Great Slave Lake well before East Arm. Artillery, Clinton-Colden and Aylmer Lakes break up even later. We also knew that for any given lake, break up can vary by many weeks year to year and that with global warming, break up everywhere in the Canadian Arctic is happening earlier.
We used the NASA World View satellite imagery website to compile break up data over the past decade. Even on this short time scale there has been a clear trend towards earlier break up. We looked at two criteria. When lakes were open around their edges (which generally allows canoeists to make progress) and when lakes were essentially ice free. Based on this research departure has been set for Friday June 15th 2018.
Pilot Biscuits manufactured by Purity in St John’s were once a staple in every northern community. Even in the short time we have been canoeing in northern Canada however they have become harder and harder to find. In southern Canada you simply can’t buy them (or so we thought). We bought the last lot from the band store in Wollaston Lake in 2013. The store manager said they just didn’t sell enough to warrant stocking them. At the end of a long, wet and windy day when we’re both exhausted sometimes it’s just easier to indulge in peanut butter on Pilot Biscuits than attempt catching a fish or cooking up what Kate would call a ‘proper meal’!
Traditional mariners ‘hard tack’ has been carried for centuries on long sea voyages and military campaigns. In Canada it was once a staple when trapping or dog sledding. Early Antarctic explorers depended on them where they were known as ‘sledging biscuits’. They are manufactured from flour, water and not much else. They keep indefinitely and the very hard varieties are virtually indestructible!
As luck would have it the distributor for Pilot Biscuits is Stoyles Wholesale in Cambridge Ontario. They are just a 20 minute drive from John’s sister’s house and have agreed to put some aside for us.
Just as in 2014 for our Dubawnt River trip, Kate will dehydrate both fruit and vegetables. The remainder will be bought in Guelph before we take the train out to Edmonton and bus up to Yellowknife.
This will be our longest trip. In 2014 on the Dubawnt we were out for 50 days. We anticipate that this trip could take 60 to 70 days. Volumetrically we will take exactly what we used in 2014, 2x 60 litre drums and 1x 30 litre drum. In 2014 we caught fish for about one third of our evening meals. In 2018 we anticipate this will increase to about half.
Back River References
Anderson, J. 1855: Journal of Chief Factor Anderson of the H. B. Co., of a journey from Fort Simpson, McKenzie River to the mouth of the Great Fish River, via Great Slave Lake etc. The Canadian Field Naturalist 1940, (54) Nos 5, 9, 10, 11 & 12 and ibid 1941, (55) Nos 1, 2 & 3.
Back, G. 1836: Narrative of the Arctic Land Expedition to the mouth of the Great Fish River and Along the Shores of the Arctic Ocean in the years 1833, 1834 and 1835. John Murray, London
Galaburri, R. W. 1991: The Rat Lodge Revisited. Arctic (44) 3, 257-258.
PDF copy here:
Hanbury, D. T. 1904: Sport and Travel in the Northland of Canada. Edward Arnold, London
Harmuth, H. F. 1985: Great Slave Lake to Baker Lake. Nastawgan (12) 4 pp 12-13
PDF copy here
Kingsley, J. 2012: Father Joseph Buliard – He Came and Dwelt Among Us. Up Here Magazine July/August
PDF copy here
Pike, W. 1917: The Barren Ground of Northern Canada. E. P. Dutton & Company, New York
Seton, E. T. 1911: The Arctic Prairies – A canoe-journey of 2000 miles in search of the caribou; being the account of a voyage to the region north of Aylmer Lake. William Briggs, Toronto