The Mighty Back by Ted Johnson
By the mid nineteen nineties, we felt (perhaps a bit arrogantly) that we had done pretty well all the significant rivers of the barren lands. All, that is, but the might Back River. The Back is significantly different from the others; longer, more isolated, more powerful, tougher. By some accounts of parties that suffered fatalities, more deadly. Maybe we had intentionally avoided taking it on.
Known to the Slave Indians as Thlew-ee-cho Deseth or ‘Great Fish River”, it was named by British cartographers after Capt. George Back, previously of Franklin’s Coppermine expedition fame, who descended and mapped it in 1835.
Its headwaters lie north of Great Slave Lake, and from there it trends generally north-east for over 800 kilometres, paralleling the Hanbury and Thelon (our 1979 trip) almost to Hudson’s Bay, before it swings north to reach the coast of the Arctic Ocean at Chantry Inlet.
Gordon Lightfoot, who canoed it with pals in the ’70’s, told me that it takes a good six weeks to canoe the full length. We had twelve days. So we chose to start where the Meadowbank River meets the Back, about 200 km upstream from Chantry Inlet. Craig organized to rental of canoes from a Mr. Henry Ford in Baker Lake, and it was from there, at the geographical Centre of Canada that we flew out at the end of July in a Ptarmigan Airways Twin Otter on tundra tires.
Swarming Black Flies
We had never, ever, seen swarms of black flies as thick as the ones that greeted us as we emerged from the plane on a flat esker above the river where it is joined by the Meadowbank River on that late July, dead-calm sunlit Arctic evening. Bug jackets, unused for perhaps a decade, were hastily tugged from packs. We might otherwise have choked on the buggers. Later still that evening, after setting camp and dining, we wandered up the Meadowbank and discovered with great fascination an Inuit fish trap – an arrangement of rocks designed to draw migrating Arctic Char into a sort of shallow enclosure where they could be speared. A stone-age invention, still in use.
The Back at that point was wide – several hundred metres – and powerful. The occasional rapids were treated with caution once we set out, and we lined or portaged when there was any doubt, although Craig had a remarkable knack for sniffing out a safe route down the edge of some very intimidating stuff. We didn’t catch any char, but lake trout responded to the lure and the odd fly. Evenings in camp were jovial, with Big Mama providing shelter from the wind, the increasing cold, and the rain showers coming off the Arctic coast and Hudson Bay that began a couple of days into the paddling.
One of the more dramatic stretches of the Back is Franklin Lake, (named by Back after the leader of two earlier overland expeditions in which Back had participated some fifteen years earlier. Ironically, it became a destination on the death march of the retreating Franklin Northwest Passage Expedition in 1848.) We entered the lake through a series of rock pillars and low cliffs. Staining and scars on the rocks suggested that the river had been perhaps 3 to 5 metres higher during the spring runoff – possibly due to ice jams.
One evening as we were setting camp on Franklin Lake, a Twin Otter flew in low and slow over our camp to drop a message. Once again this occasioned much unease; some wondered who had died; someone else suggested that the Chrétien government might have fallen and that Allan Rock, Eddie and Craig were needed back in Ottawa; still others speculated on the outbreak of nuclear war. In fact, the message was a map showing the precise location of a long-abandoned gravel runway beside Chantry Inlet where our pilots planned to pick us up. We were impressed that they had been so successful in finding us.
A day or two later, we were ‘winded in’- forced to hunker down for a couple of days by a relentless north wind kicking up big rollers down the long reach of Franklin Lake. We regretted the delay, but this turned out to be a heaven-sent opportunity to explore Inuit artifacts, possibly centuries old, which seemed to be everywhere: old tent rings, stone kayak racks and the weird magic of pointed broken rocks which seemed to be aligned in some sort of mysterious pattern. We were careful not to disturb anything, but spent a fascinating day trying to piece together what it all might have meant.
The following day dawned crystal clear; not a cloud, not a breath of wind. Perfect paddling. We paused at a small island for a snack, and then declared a brief moratorium on noise. No one moved, no talk, no wind in our ears, no sound of internal combustion. For a few minutes we enjoyed a rare privilege – the luxury of silence. Then the spell was broken, and we continued up the lake and into the final stretch of river.
Offsetting the power and speed of the Back was the glacial pace at which the Senator chose to complete his morning toilet and pack his gear. No amount of cajoling, denunciation or shaming had any impact. On one memorably exasperating day, although everyone else was ready by 11:00 we didn’t hit the river until 1:00 pm.
Cassoulet on the Arctic Circle
Perhaps that was the day on which we paddled against cold wind and wet snow ’till about 8 pm. We set up camp almost precisely on the Arctic Circle, in failing light under menacing steel-gray low cloud while John Macfarlane and David hunkered down to work in the makeshift kitchen. “Tonight’s highlight will be a cassoulet.” John announced, stirring spoon in hand, to the scattered crew who were all still struggling against the rain and wind to erect tents on whatever flat ground they could find. All, that is, except Peter, who wandered into the cooking area to peer over the exhausted cooks’ shoulders. “If you’re planning to serve a cassoulet, you’d better get a move on.” he suggested helpfully. There was a loud crash of cutlery and pots as John threw down his stirring spoon, strode to the edge of the cooking area and dragged his heel to carve a shallow trench in the soil. “Peter, see this? It’s a line in the sand. Do not cross it. Not ever.”
We dined enthusiastically on a superb cassoulet, accompanied by a fine French Burgundy. At 10 p.m. discussion turned to our slow progress on the river, and we agreed that we were unlikely to make it to our planned pickup point on Chantry Inlet. This made it vital for us to contact our pilot to change the plan. The ante was upped a bit further when Allan Rock (then Federal Health Minister) took me aside in the gloomy scotch mist to say “Ted, it’s Thursday. I am scheduled to chair a Federal-Provincial conference on health care on Monday morning. Do you think you can get us out of here?”
Now if you’re ever out on the Barren Lands and a cabinet minister needs you to contact your bush air service, it’s best if you have with you a Spilsbury SBX-11 two-way single-sideband radio with one hundred foot heavy copper wire antenna and optional tuning crystals for the Ptarmigan Airways and Inuit Hunters’ and Trappers Association (IHTA) frequencies. We did. Getting no answer on the Ptarmigan channel, we tried the IHTA frequency (the Arctic “party-line telephone”) where we broke in on a cacophony of Inuktitut. A caribou hunter at his camp a hundred miles away on the Thelon River relayed our message to his wife at home in Baker Lake who phoned Ptarmigan’s base manager, Boris, who then radioed us. All done in half an hour!
Preparing the Landing Strip
The next day, we found a landing spot for the plane. In this land of rough barren hills and shattered rock we stumbled upon the only flat spot we’d seen in a week; a dry sandbar, about 25 kilometres from the Arctic Ocean coast, long enough for a bush plane but bisected by a small creek. Using our paddles as shovels, we filled in the creek and redirected its flow. The following morning we radioed Boris with our latitude and longitude and rejoiced three hours later as we heard the distant but unmistakable hum of a Twin Otter approaching from the south. Ted Johnson