The Canadian Arctic, with its delicate balance of tundra, boreal forest, coastal wetlands, and mountains, contains some of the greatest wilderness in the world.
But it’s extremely fragile and easily impacted by human activities. Our motto was always – ‘leave nothing behind, not even your footsteps’.
Our canoe team observed a certain standard of behaviour when travelling in the Arctic not only to preserve its ecosystem, but help ensure our personal safety.
It’s easy to disappear in this vast land unless you follow some simple rules. For starters, we always leave a copy of our map with the airline service taking us in. The map indicates the pick-up point and date of return. A detailed itinerary is left with members of our family. A portable radio, an LST and signalling mirrors are mandatory. Don’t keep them in the same canoe. Once Craig Oliver and I lost a canoe on a remote Baffin Island river and without a radio, we’d probably still be there (Isortoq River). Some important tips re equipment and food supplies can be found in Gearing Up, but the only point I want to make here is that weather conditions can affect plane schedules so it’s smart to pack extra food supplies.
In addition to my role as cook and equipment manager, I also served as the camp doctor. I packed a pretty comprehensive waterproof medical kit along with my trusty book ‘Being Your Own Wilderness Doctor’. Items include: serious pain killers, disinfectant, bandages, sutures, scissors and thermometer among other things. In 30 years of wilderness travel, I found that cuts are the most frequent occurring problems. On one trip, the Kongakut, John Macfarlane cut his thumb to the bone on the first day – not a pretty sight. That thumb needed tender loving care for the rest of the trip. The most hazardous activity involves lining canoes on treacherous shoreline rocks so be prepared to deal with a broken limb. For some members of our team, though, I threatened to perform a frontal lobotomy but never actually carried it out.
Campsites and Trails
Trails can form quickly in the arctic, scarring the land. Healing, if it occurs at all, can take years. Walk around in fan patterns whenever possible to limit trail formation and never mark your route.
Campsite selection is the most critical part of minimizing your impact. Gravel bars make excellent campsites. They are durable, well-drained, and often have fewer mosquitoes than upland sites. High water in the spring will also erase signs of your presence. Remember that high water can occur at any time, so locate your camp well above current water levels. On the Noatak, we camped too close to the shoreline. At 3:00 in the morning, rising water levels forced us to move camp quickly to higher ground. Fortunately we were able to salvage all our equipment.
If you must choose a vegetated site, select a location with hardy vegetation such as moss or heath plants, rather than fragile lichens. Soft-soled shoes will help minimize impacts. You don’t need trenching around your tent. Make every effort to return the campsite to its natural appearance.
Dishes, debris, and doodoo
We always discharge our dishwater away from the river and only use biodegradable soaps. On this next point, there will never be a consensus but campers should be encouraged to urinate and bury human feces at least 150 feet from all water sources. On the tundra, you can remove a handful of vegetation and scoop out a small depression. Mosses, leaves, and snow are natural toilet papers, but if you do use paper, burn it. Replace the turf. Also burn or pack out all paper products.
We always carry out garbage we can’t burn – bottles, tin cans, and especially silver paper. Cans should be flattened before packing. The worst thing is to bury your garbage because it will resurface due to frost action or curious animals.
On departure, we always make sure our campsite looks like it did when we arrived. There’s nothing worse than thinking you may be the first human to set foot on a beautiful site and then stumble across some man-made garbage. It can ruin the experience for you and others.
Since trees grow slowly in the Arctic, we only use a coleman stove for cooking. If you need an open fire because of an emergency, build it on exposed, inorganic soil to avoid creating long-term scars. Burn only dead wood.
We erase all traces of our fireplace before leaving, removing foil, wire, and other unburned materials from the ashes, and pack them out. You can deposit ashes and charcoal in the main current of a river, if possible. Return rocks to their original locations.
Historical Sites and Artifacts
Prehistoric or historic sites usually hold great significance for the local Native people. Respect their heritage and leave sites undisturbed. It’s illegal to remove artifacts from their original location.
One of the most rewarding aspects of our trips is observing not disturbing wildlife in its natural habitat. So to protect wildlife we find it good practice to:
- Cook and cache food away from sleeping areas.
- Wash up to eliminate odours after handling fish or strong foods.
- Select campsites away from game trails and fresh bear signs. If a bear shows unusual interest in a campsite, move to another area.
- Avoid bears with cubs and moose with calves.
- Make noise and stay alert in bear country.
- The Arctic produces fewer fish than other areas. Take only what you will eat; practice catch and release.
- Use binoculars or spotting scopes for watching and photographing wildlife.
- Keep away from nests and dens.
Wilderness areas belong to everyone. By using them wisely and gently, we can preserve their remote, pristine nature for both ourselves and future generations. Have a great trip!