My Arctic Odyssey by Tim Kotcheff

The year was 1973. Craig Oliver and I were friends and colleagues working together in television news. A chance co-coincidence occurred that would change our lives in a very surprising way.

I recall screening a short National Film Board documentary entitled ‘Nahanni’ about the legend of a lost gold mine and the obsession of aging prospector Albert Faille to find it. It was this film that provided the inspiration to see the river for myself.

By coincidence, Craig had picked up a book by R.M. Patterson called ‘The Dangerous River’ written in 1954. Patterson had explored the Nahanni River Valley by canoe in 1927 where he met Faille. We discussed all of this over a drink one night and Craig mentioned the Nahanni and the challenge it held.

After matching notes about the film and the book I blurted out, “Why don’t we do it?” Since my early childhood, I’ve always had a passion for the wilderness and especially the Canadian north so the decision to explore the Nahanni was in many ways an easy one.

From that moment neither of us wavered in our resolve to canoe this iconic river – one of the most beautiful in the world. For canoeists, it’s also one of the most challenging. It was irony (or perhaps foolishness) that we chose the ‘Dangerous River’ for our début. First though, we needed to learn how to canoe.

We signed up with the Voyageur Canoe Co. in Millbrook. Our training program would take place on a section of the French River and include overnight camping.

The exercise was invaluable. Mastering the critical paddle strokes to move, turn and stop a canoe. Maintaining canoe balance. Running rapids in a controlled setting. Adopting steering techniques that would help us avoid fatal collisions with rocks and outcroppings. We even practised capsizing to experience the shock of hitting cold water fully clothed and bobbing helplessly through standing waves and fast water.

We canoed part of the French and later paddled the Magnetawan river under supervision. We felt confident enough after this workout to begin preparations for the big one next year – The Nahanni.

Our planning over the next many months was meticulous – procuring the best down sleeping bags and jackets for the cold, a strong rain and wind resistant tent, spare paddles etc. We studied every outdoor manual and canoe guide we could get our hands on to ensure we were well equipped and prepared for any eventuality.

I wrote the NWT travel bureau to inquire about the river and received a rather ominous reply warning us of the hazards of the Nahanni which is “dangerous and impractical for most canoeists. You should be aware that the price of inexperience and carelessness can result in tragedy in our cold waters.” We were not fazed. The planning continued.

We had already settled into our roles – Craig would be stern. I would be bow. My eyesight was impeccable and would serve us in good stead in the rough times ahead. Craig’s great strength was steering. In difficult rapids it’s the job of the bowman to find the safest line. The stern has to respond to movements left or right instinctively. Stern and Bow have to be closely synchronized to avoid hitting rocks and ledges. Teamwork was essential. In the years to come, that would be our strength.

After all the training, all the talk and all the planning – on June 23, 1974 a small float plane dropped us and our gear on a lake close to the Nahanni River where we spent our first night. The next day we pushed our canoe into the Nahanni and so began my Arctic odyssey.

Spanning 3 decades, my canoe adventures included some 25 rivers stretching from the east – the remote Koroc River at the tip of Labrador, Québec, to the west – the Noatak in Alaska that terminates in the Bering Straight, and to the North – one of the greatest adventures of all, the Ruggles River on the upper reaches of Ellesmere Island. The Ruggles, at 81° 42’ North, is the northernmost canoeable river in the world. If there’s another navigable river that far north, I’d love to hear about it.

Craig and I shared our love of the north. Together we have explored the northern extremities of Canada where the scenery can only be described as spectacular, even haunting. For us, the wilderness was a refuge from the nerve-wracking news business and the pressure cooker we worked in on a daily basis. Paddling a wild river always helped us regain our perspective.

Someone once said the Arctic is a lonely place, but the absence of human traces makes you feel like you understand it and can take your place in it. It’s also where you learn the real meaning of solitude – the kind you can only find in the lonely confines of the Canadian north.

Alone in the vastness of the tundra – you can reflect on life, its meaning and purpose comes very naturally. Every day is a challenge. Every day is a challenge met. What a grand sense of achievement and a feeling of physical and mental renewal that produces.

Yes, there are dangers, but that’s the price you need to pay to see some of the great wonders of our northern frontier.

After we canoed the Pelly and Missinaibi Rivers, it was Craig’s feeling that we should expand the group. He craved company – that’s his nature – and we debated the whole issue of solitude. For me, more people on a trip would turn the eco-experience into a noisy party – a desecration of the very isolation we fought so hard to find and now had experienced. But, in the end, I reluctantly agreed.

What is truly remarkable is that over the years, I discovered there were so many others with the same passion for the north and, like me, had the money and the time to indulge it. In the process, I’ve met so many new friends and shared so many exciting and memorable adventures. It was the right decision.

I hope you’ll enjoy the stories and the photographs on this site. Most of all, I trust that some day, you too will find yourself paddling a remote Arctic river or standing in the vast Canadian tundra wondering why you didn’t get there sooner for the experience of a lifetime.

Tim Kotcheff