The Ajaqutalik River by Bill Williams
‘Writing something down is asking permission to forget (Indigenous Elder Proverb)’
If my memories are somewhat porous concerning a canoe adventure down a little known Arctic river more than twenty years ago, then I ask forgiveness. The Ajaqutalik river has likely never been previously paddled by tender footed southerners.
Our canoe party was to assemble in the departure lounge of Trudeau airport in preparation for the scheduled flight north to Hall Beach on the west side of Foxe Basin. This is where first impressions of fellow paddlers were formed. They were not good. Here was assembled a motley crew of middle aged guys posing as post modern-day voyageurs. Strewn among them was the usual camping gear augmented by items of dubious use; folding aluminum lawn chairs, cases of Grand Cru Bordeaux, an insulated wanigan containing dry ice to keep fresh the cherries jubilee for day ten. One member of the group had not yet consolidated his packing and had personal effects strewn all over the departure area. Following check in, a mournful plea was heard from a pretty flight attendant, “Sir, you have forgotten your pants.” My initial impression was, “Just what in hell have I gotten myself into?” My fears were mollified by the knowledge that these guys had tackled and survived a number of canoe trips in the high Arctic. Hopefully, this would be one more for the record. Besides, it was too late to back out.
Like so many Arctic rivers, the Ajaqutalik is remote and difficult to access …meaning expensive. The river meanders through the Melville Peninsula, a land mass that buttresses the northwest shore of Hudson Bay. The final approach to the river is by chartered Twin Otter out of Hall Beach. There was no prepared landing strip at our destination, which taxed the consummate skill of our bush pilot. After an extensive search for a suitable landing spot he was heard to observe, “It’s all shattered rock here.” Finally, a flat esker suitable for a short field landing was spotted about a mile from the river. As the old saw goes, “Getting there is half the fun.”
The river runs and rollicks for about three hundred kilometres sweeping its gin-clear water northeast towards Hall Beach. It remains wild and unspoiled, characterized by a swift current punctuated by relatively benign class II and III rapids. Best of all, it imposed no brutal portages. It was well chosen by our planning committee.
Our point of departure for the river was via a frozen lake that required a prolonged canoe drag over the ice till open water was available.
Once on moving water, most rapids were safely runnable. When paddling in the north, far from outside help, one judges fast moving frigid water much more conservatively. Past mishaps have happened to this group imposing enormous inconvenience as well as existential danger. Consequently, a class II rapid is treated like a class III, especially in open canoes.
The surrounding rolling midsummer landscape, ablaze with wild flowers, never ceased to captivate and interest. Surviving remnants of ancient Thule Inuit encampments are frequently encountered. Old stone tent rings, no more than five feet in diameter, attested to the efficient compact physical stature of these sturdy former inhabitants. Food cashes, stone kayak racks and the ubiquitous inukshuk often embellish these favoured campsites. The life span of the pre-contact Inuit was short and brutish at about thirty-five years due to trauma, exposure, and starvation.
The Ajaqutalik river, like many northern rivers, remains pristine and renders the impression of what the landscape must have been like for millennia. The river produces a bounty of Arctic char. Our group encountered a small stream that tumbled over a series of little ledges. Below each ledge a pool was roiling with char on their way up river. A staple diet of the trip was fresh char. One evening, Tim Kotcheff, our esteemed cook, announced that the dinner menu called for fresh char on a bed of Arctic sage so, :Go get it boys!” Within thirty minutes, enough fish was provided for the evening meal. On another occasion, Tim himself hauled in a twenty five pound char, a record for the trip.
While some mention of the potential hazards of the river has been made, the greatest fear was lacerating trauma from terminal tongue lash. My fellow paddlers were bright, well informed and highly opinionated on just about any subject. This was particularly evident when well lubricated at the pre-dinner ‘happy hour.’ Fortified by spirits, this occasion often witnessed heated debates from which no prisoners emerged unscathed.
The treeless undulating landscape invited extended hikes over the tundra. These were abetted by the prolonged summer daylight that motivated many postprandial rambles. Caribou, Arctic fox, and hares often made cameo appearances. Bird life along the Ajaqutalik is abundant. Shorebirds work the banks of the river and shores of lakes, even before the ice is out. Their eerie calls pierce the quiet of the evening as the sun dips for its brief excursion below the horizon. Once, as we descended a long grade II rapid, we passed the nest of a peregrine falcon, disturbing the mother who dove screaming toward us while two wide-eyed, down-covered chicks looked on in terror from their cliff ledge refuge.
Signs of human activity were infrequently encountered. On one occasion, though, we came upon an isolated, forlorn looking, unoccupied Inuit hunters cabin. The surrounding area was a litter of detritus of the modern world, mostly non-biodegradable plastic. Inside the walls were covered with graffiti to which we added “Solomon Gursky Was Here” in dubious homage to Mordecai Richler.
Upon reaching the sea we camped on a broad gravel beach to await our pre-arranged Twin Otter pick-up. As the pilots emerged from their cockpit, Commander Oliver, parroting the words of Francis Drake when he dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbour after three years at sea, asked “Gentlemen, is the Queen well?” The answer to Craig was, “Yes, but Sadam Hussein has invaded Kuwait.” During the ten days that we had been blissfully isolated on the Ajaqutalik without news, events had been set in motion that would fundamentally change the world as we knew it.
In the years that have followed this and other trips, the core of these hearty northern paddlers have often gotten together for a canoe reunion replete with good food, fine spirits and joyful camaraderie. These lively occasions are leavened by multiscreen slide shows, self-deprecating humour, and the shameless recounting of copious lies. Needless to say, travelling in close quarters with this crew was the vaut le voyage of the trip.
On the Ajaqutalik River – August 1990
August 1 – August 13, 1990 (notes by Tim Kotcheff)
Departure was from Hall Beach. The put in point was just above Souter Lake on the Mellville Peninsula and finished at Roche Bay. Bradley Air Service chartered us in and out. Trailhead shipped canoes via First Air from Ottawa to Hall Beach.
There was a hard landing on a high shore above the river after a couple of test runs – some scary moments. While we unloaded the Twin Otter, we were swarmed by black flies and mesquitoes. It was murder. This was Bill Williams first trip with us.
Bill’s note to me requesting personal expenses on behalf of the group.
There is no charge for this record of your multi-faceted wilderness survival skills. As the trip greenhorn, my out-of-pocket expenses were modest, but I expect a further reckoning as the wine bill comes due. The trip was a wonderful experience for me and it will remain a great memory.
And this from Craig:
Good price for such a remote trip. A wonderful adventure this year. I wish I had more time to sit and think about it all. Will send details later.
John Macfarlane provided much of the fresh food supplies and cooking including the many bottles of vintage wines. Ted Johnson was beaten badly at Gin Rummy during the trip and threatened legal action upon our return to civilization.
Eddie sent me photos of the trip and said he brought back some memories of a terrific holiday.