Eight Men Out by John Godfrey


John Godfrey

So what was James, good old 007 himself, doing on our plane from Montreal to Resolute? There we were, eight middle-aged crocks, just getting nicely settled into a collective anxiety attack as we contemplated the perils that lay ahead in canoeing the most northerly navigable river in the world, and there he was, British sexpot Timothy Dalton, spoiling it all by getting the attention and admiration from the other passengers that were rightfully ours. Nor did it help that there were also 16 members of a Butterfield & Robinson tour, led by the Butterfields themselves, out to hike the Resolute area.

Terror and anticlimax together create the emotional roller coaster known as the Arctic canoe trip. The terror begins well before the trip, and our expedition last August to the Ruggles River in the northeast corner of Ellesmere Island, a five-hour flight from civilization, was rich in anticipated fear.

Anybody minding the canoes?

Anybody minding the canoes?

Fear and Anxiety

Of ice bridges, for instance. In all our years of canoeing Canada’s Arctic, we had fretted variously about grizzly bears, polar bears, whirlpools and running out of rum, but we had never even heard of ice bridges. They were zealously described to us as thick, low roofs of ice that can cover a river for miles, and that often begin with a solid, deadly wall. Long before the trip began, the threat of rounding a bend on the Ruggles and running smack into a three-metre wall of ice had seized our troubled minds. In the early summer, ominous rumours swept over the group that the last 20 km of the Ruggles were completely covered with an ice bridge. This was bad for two reasons. First, the Ruggles is only 24 km long. Second, one false move, and whoosh! you’re gone, kit, canoe and caboodle, for an uninterrupted 20-km joy ride through an inescapable tube of ice.

OK Canoe ready for action,

Tim Kotcheff & Craig Oliver

Affirmative-action Canoe

The grandiloquent name for this creaky crowd of middle-aged men in bifocals is the Arctic and Rideau Canal Canoe Club. We’ve been heading out on these increasingly outlandish adventures for 20 years. The club’s founders, Craig Oliver and Tim Kotcheff, typify both the spirit and general physical condition of the group. Craig, CTV’s Ottawa bureau chief, is 53 and sees about as well as Mr. Magoo. In the bow of his canoe is Tim, 55, CBC TV’s vice-president of news and current affairs. He hears about as well as the average post. Paddling together, Tim spots the dangers ahead and yells back to Craig in the stern. Somehow, their affirmative-action canoe survives the most extraordinary mishaps.

Usually. A few years ago, on a trip to Baffin Island, Craig and Tim were leading their canoe with ropes from the shore down a treacherous bit of river when the canoe got away from them and disappeared forever with all their gear. After a frantic search in terrible country, the group called it quits. Fortunately, Ted Johnson, who was on that trip as well as this, is a licenced pilot who always packs a short-wave radio. He was able to signal the plane to come and get them.

After that misadventure, Craig swore off canoeing. He even wrote a long piece about it for The Financial Post (Isortoq1). He settled down, got married and had a child. But gradually the old gang, led by ringleader Peter Stollery, senator and world traveller, and abetted by Tim, got to Craig. And so, after a couple of relatively uneventful trips, here we were again.

McGill Mountain

McGill Mountain

Into the Unknown

As I settled into my seat for the six-hour flight north (Montreal is as far from Resolute as it is from Vancouver), I wondered if this trip would be our last. Some of us had been doing these Arctic adventures for 20 years; they’d taken us to, among other places, the Noatak River in Alaska and the Thomsen River on Banks Island in the Beaufort Sea, which, until this trip, was the most northerly canoeing expedition ever attempted. In recent years, a curious law of inverse proportion had been operating within the group. The older and more infirm we got, the farther north we went. No wonder we were scared.

Meanwhile, family and job obligations conspired to make each trip more difficult to swindle time for. I was about to turn 50. And yet, I wasn’t that old. Heck, 12 years before, Pierre Trudeau had come with us, and he’d been 60. Besides, there was something special about both the group and the trips. For two weeks a year, we were taken away from our ordinary lives and became adventurers. During the rest of the year a special bond seemed to unite past and present members of the group and their families. Every winter we got together for a weekend reunion with our spouses and partners to show slides, tell lies and laugh a lot. I like those reunions. Sometimes I think I like them better than the trips.

But without the trips, we’d just be a bunch of aging geezers trading increasingly stale war stories. Only the annual canoe trip proves we haven’t yet given in to a life of comfort.

That’s not to say we adhered to the freeze-dried nonsense of earnest Outward Bound types. On the contrary: We have always made it our rule to paddle gourmet, a fact reflected by the presence of three chefs in our party of eight, and provisions including rum daiquiris for the evening happy hour, and wine for every meal. We even portage cans of beer and, at the insistence of Peter, at 56 our most senior member, an elegant sufficiency of lawn chairs.

Whose Idea Was This Anyway

As we flew north, stopping once in Iqaluit, on the shores of ice-strewn Frobisher Bay, I tried to imagine what the newest recruits to our group must be thinking. Bill Fox had never been on a canoe trip in his life. A former journalist who had been Brian Mulroney’s press secretary before becoming a political commentator and policy consultant, Bill had been assiduously working out before the trip. Now, he was becoming pensive as the veterans on the plane pored over the maps. Ross Howard from The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau was an experienced canoeist and outdoorsman, but he’d never been to the Arctic. Even before the trip began, he’d been conducting his own private research on weather conditions on the Ruggles. I noticed him conferring with Eddie Goldenberg, who works as principal secretary to Jean Chretien. Goldenberg is a survivor of several of these trips and brings his accustomed political acumen to a group that at times can seem as divided as any of Canada’s major political parties.

As the others roamed over the plane, catching up on each other’s news, I closed my eyes, trying to remember how it was we had decided to do this river in the first place. Whose idea was this anyway?

Now what?

John and Peter beside Lake Hazen

Peter Stollery’s, that’s whose. Last year Peter decided we should do the Big One. The Ruggles is 950 km from the North Pole. It is 140 km south of Cape Columbia, the end of land in North America. A few years ago, the perverse eye of Peter spotted the Ruggles as the most northerly canoeable river in the world. Canoeable, that is, if it was thawed enough to dip a paddle into.

With visions of The Guinness Book of Records dancing in his head, Peter had begun logistical operations two years before. He wasn’t being overzealous: Planning an Arctic canoe trip is like organizing a military operation. In comparison, the conquest of the river itself takes almost no time or effort at all. Landing four canoes that close to the Pole, for instance, is no easy task. We had stored them at Hall Beach in the eastern Arctic, survivors of three previous trips to the Baffin Island region. It took nearly two years of transportation by jet, barge and Twin Otter to transfer the canoes to Lake Hazen, the jumpoff point for the Ruggles.

Canoeing a Frozen Lake?

As for getting ourselves there, the plan called for a commercial flight from Montreal to Resolute, then a chartered Twin Otter for the five-hour, 970-km flight north over ice floes and utterly barren land to Lake Hazen. Two weeks after that, we would have crossed the lake, gone down the Ruggles, paddled out into Chandler Fiord, for a total of 48 km of lake and river travel, then hugged the sea coast for 95 km of ocean paddling to Fort Conger, where the Twin Otter would pick us up and take us back to Resolute for the flight home.

So the theory went. Often, Chandler Fiord is ice-free by midsummer, and there is an open lead of water along the coast to Fort Conger. But not last summer. Thanks to Mount Pinatubo, El Nino, Fate, or whatever, as our trip drew nigh, reports from the area were gloomily consistent: Lake, river, fiord and sea coast were all still solid ice. So how do you canoe a frozen lake?

The troops, at that point still snug in their homes, were getting nervous. Peter kept morale up (sort of) by sending us tense bulletins: “10 a.m.—June 16,1992. Four canoes at Hazen Camp. Temperature 0°C. Summer one month late.”

By July 22, with the trip scheduled to begin a week later, Peter reported, “One of our scouts flew over Lake Hazen last Sunday afternoon. They have had the same difficult summer in the high Arctic that we have had in the south, but you will be happy to learn that there is water around most of the edges of the lake and that the first five km of the Ruggles River is in good condition. The sea ice is flat.”

Portaging Lake Hazen

Portaging Lake Hazen

Several members of the group were not in the least reassured to learn about the first five km of the Ruggles. What about the rest of it? Nor did the prospect of “flat sea ice” cheer them. In fact, they weren’t very big on the concept of pulling canoes across sea ice, however flat, at all. Fretful members of the group secretly began using their own sources of information to learn more about the condition of the river. Conspiracies, leadership reviews and power struggles are a big part of our canoe trips. What else would you expect from a bunch of politicians and journalists?

Peter remained magnificently scornful of the plotters and pushed relentlessly on. And thus the eight of us found ourselves on the plane for Resolute on July 31 with James Bond, twitchy but all accounted for.

Having Second Thoughts

James Bond got off in Resolute to make a wildlife documentary (apparently involving animals this time). The temperature was a gratifyingly foreboding 0°C as the eight of us boarded our chartered Twin Otter for the trip north. Through the clouds, we could see snow-covered hills, glaciers that looked like grey wedges of lava pouring down through the valley, and broken sea ice. Until now, the terror had all been imagined, but these glimpses of reality had a chilling effect. We all had second thoughts about the wisdom of this enterprise. Wasn’t this an awfully long and expensive journey just to be extremely uncomfortable, maybe terminally?

Just when we had worked ourselves up into a high state of panic, wham! we were mugged by the low comedy of life. We landed at the supposedly abandoned Hazen Camp only to find a large welcoming party of geriatric hikers from as far away as Scotland and New York. There were tents everywhere. There was a his and hers privy. We were even greeted by two national park wardens. There were more people here than at some KOA campground. Heck, next time why didn’t we just camp at Dorval?

One of the sweetest moments of melancholy on a high north canoe trip is watching the plane leave, knowing you won’t see another human being in this Arctic wilderness for two weeks. Not this time. Now the problem was finding space for our tents and fending off the retired Scottish doctor who kept dropping by to tell us about the candle ice on the lake. Candle ice – vertically packed shards, like bundled candles, of breakaway ice – usurped ice bridges as the terror du jour, since we had to cross this particular horror first. After a late beef stew, we retired grumpily to our sleeping bags.

Peter and Craig in Big Mama

Peter and Craig in Big Mama

Crossing the Lake

The next day was devoted to hiking, fretting and debating. As we set out the smoked salmon provided thoughtfully by Eddie Goldenberg and settled into our evening happy hour, the temperature was -2°C and there was a stiff breeze. We took our lawn chairs inside Peter’s Mother of All Tents, Big Mama – large enough to fit in six chairs comfortably, with a stove by the door – to eat our steaks in relative comfort. We were joined by one of the park wardens, who gave us the good news (no snow) and the bad (ice bridges on two-thirds of the Ruggles).

Ted Johnson, normally a vice-president with Power Corp. but now vice-president in charge of worrying, got on the radio with the chief warden back at Tanquary Fiord, who suggested we would have to travel along the banks of the river, dragging our canoes while using “ice screws.” A major debate erupted in Big Mama. Bill Fox offered the view that summer was over, autumn had begun, and winter storms were brewing.

Tim – “On to Fort Conger.”
Craig – “I came here to canoe.”
Peter – “Let’s go to the Ruggles and look.”

Eddie was worried, as was Ross Howard, who pointed out how tall the cliffs were along the fiord if we got stuck on sea ice. It soon became clear that we were collectively spooking ourselves. The only decision made after all this was to spend another day in camp and go hiking again.

On the house John.

On the house John.

The next day was sunnier and warmer and the terrors of the previous night seemed to subside. By dinner, as we were munching Bills chocolates from Holt Renfrew, the tide of public opinion was turning perceptibly towards boldness. We decided to cross the lake next morning. Peter’s strategy of drawing us on, step by step, was working.

The day we chose to strike out across the lake was warm and sunny. We were seen off by the hikers and the wardens, who watched us paddle a couple of hundred metres out to the ice, then gingerly step onto it. The ice did indeed resemble upended bunches of candles that broke off unnervingly near the water’s edge, giving several of us wet feet. But since the average thickness of the ice on the lake was two metres, we soon had solid footing.

Once on the ice, the canoes became sleds. Each team used ropes and paddles to yoke itself to the front of its canoe, and away we went. In some spots, currents had created open stretches of water. This necessitated delicate manoeuvres with the canoes and more wet feet, but we took lots of breaks, sitting in our lawn chairs in the sun in the middle of a frozen lake as if in an arena, surrounded by brown hills and glaciers rising to the left and right, with ice fields glittering in the distance.

In the middle of nowhere

In the middle of nowhere

Reaching the Ruggles

It took us seven leisurely hours to drag our canoes across 10 km of lake ice. When we reached a narrow band of open water on the far shore of the lake, we paddled 14 km over soundless, still water in the endless, gentle light of an Arctic evening, reaching the Ruggles River about 11 o’clock at night, exhausted and exhilarated. As we ate our chili at midnight, we counted 88 mountain peaks in the distance. The sun seemed to be circling the lake. A few metres from our campsite was an archeological site of Inuit houses and tent rings dating to the 13th century. We were on top of the world.

Peter checking the ice walls.

Peter checking the ice walls.

The next day was spent walking along the hills lining the river, scouting ahead for the famous ice bridges. There was plenty of ice but no bridges. By dinner, the debating society was back in full force. Over the vodka penne we argued the eternal question: to go on or not to go on? Park authorities refused to allow Twin Otters to land between Hazen Camp, where we had started out, and Fort Conger, which would still be almost 100 km away over sea ice even if we finished the river. There were more conversations on the radio between Ted and the wardens.

By the time the debate was over, there were at least four options, some of dazzling complexity, on the table. The politics were becoming complicated. The clock killers, led by Craig, but ably assisted by Eddie and Bill, wanted to drag out our time in this camp to reduce the likelihood of the forward option. Tim talked about leaving. The combination of rum daiquiris at happy hour, wine, vodka penne and Eddie’s contribution of brandy and Benedictine had not led to the reign of reason over passion. As usual, no decision was taken.

John Godfrey Raises Canadian Flag on Lake Hazen

John raises the flag on Lake Hazen

Into the Rapids

We awoke to a windless, sunny day. A young silver Arctic fox trotted into our camp while we were having breakfast. It seemed a good sign. By now, everyone had relaxed into the slower rhythm of a canoe trip. Storytelling and gossip were the favourite diversions. We were gradually returning to the oral tradition, with bravado tales from previous trips being trotted out on request. There were endless and detailed discussions of bowel movements.

Good weather had given everyone heart. Through some osmotic, chemical, consensual process, the decision to go down the river had been made. This was the point of no return. Once we left the lake, we couldn’t come back. It was Fort Conger or bust.

More Ice Walls

Ice Walls

At noon we set out. At last we were into rapids, which, though not life-threatening, were at least thought-provoking. The Godfrey-Stollery canoe swamped after our customary failure to agree on which side to go around a rock. Fortunately, the water was shallow and order was restored. Gradually we worked our way down the river to the point the ice cliffs began. We took our time to stop and scout ahead, ever mindful of the deadly ice bridges. It was unsettling enough to paddle between eight-metre cliffs of solid ice. We camped without further incident on a gravel- and slate-strewn beach from where we could see the walls of Chandler Fiord some kilometres down river, swathed in snow clouds.

By the next day, the river began picking up force, and we found ourselves paddling through a 30-metre-wide boulder garden with metre-high standing waves. Just as we were beginning to get seriously worried about the cliffs of the fiord looming ahead, civilization clattered into our lives again. A helicopter flew in and landed beside us on the gravel bar. Out popped a park warden, the editor of Equinox magazine, and Arctic photographer and explorer Mike Beedell. Never had we been so far north and never had we had so many people drop in.

Trouble Ahead

Abandoning all principle, we decided to let Ted go ahead with the pilot for a little aerial scouting. He was soon back to report conditions were difficult on the fiord, with uneven ice full of cracks, pools of water and generally disagreeable conditions for canoes. The helicopter flew away and we continued down the river to the last stretch of rocky beach before solid ice.

Austere Campsite

Austere Campsite

Now what? We pitched our tents on the desolate, sandy plain at the bottom of a steep hill and pondered our next move. Meanwhile, the wind was picking up and by 4 a.m. some of our tents were airborne. This being a polar desert, wind storms meant sand storms. After 24 hours of unrelenting wind, Big Momma, into which we had moved our kitchen, was showing considerable signs of stress from the continuous banging and flapping. The sand was getting into everything. Personal hygiene was reaching an all-time low.

Back to Hazen

To hell with it. We’ve done the lake, we’ve done the river. Let’s get out of here. With rare unanimity, the group agreed to negotiate with the helicopter, which was still in the area, to get us back to Lake Hazen. The canoes could wait.

Last night in Ranger hut

Last night in Ranger Quonset hut

We arrived at Lake Hazen to find the hikers gone and the wardens leaving. The camp had been closed for the season, and even though August was not half over, it was getting cold. The wardens gave us permission to camp in their Quonset hut. We decompressed and went for walks. There was a feeling of regret about not completing the trip to Fort Conger, but also of relief at surviving another trip to tell the tale, show the slides and brag to our loved ones. We told ourselves this was the last trip, and yet…

A few days later, as we stopped off at park headquarters at Tanquary Fiord to refuel on our way to Resolute, we learned that had we waited a few days, we could have met the 52 passengers arriving on board the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov on a voyage organized by Sam Blyth of Blyth & Co. Next time, we said to each other, we’re going to Algonquin Park.