Gearing Up – Prepare For The Worst by Tim Kotcheff

Sledding over Lake Hazen

In the words of Robert Burns, ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley’ or as the less erudite might say – shit happens. On our first trip down the Isortoq, we lost a fully loaded canoe on a Baffin Island river which cut the trip short because all the cooking gear was in it. And in the far north of Ellesmere Island, Lake Hazen, over which we intended to paddle to reach our first river camp site, was frozen solid. We recovered nicely after 14 hours of canoe sledding. But after reaching our destination across the lake exhausted, there was fevered talk of aborting this trip (the vote to proceed was close).

Canoes were wrapped around rocks on two other trips. Happily, the one on the Bonnet Plume was repaired and we were able to continue more-or-less as before the mishap. On the Koroc, the loss was unrecoverable and we were three in a canoe for the rest of the way.

The point of these stories is to illustrate the need to prepare for the unexpected and calculate all the risks because there’s very little room for serious error in the Arctic. It’s easy to disappear in the vast north without a trace unless you follow some simple rules.

Accordingly, in support of our rather keen sense of self-preservation, we managed to develop, over time, a pretty sound approach to the planning of our expeditions.

For starters, we always left a copy of our map with the airline service taking us in. The map indicated the pick-up point and date of return. A detailed itinerary is left with members of our families.

Ted Johnson on portable radio

A portable radio, a good Personal Locator Beacon and signalling mirrors are mandatory in remote areas to request emergency assistance if someone is badly injured. Don’t keep them in the same canoe. On the first Isortoq attempt, we used our emergency radio to contact Hall Beach requesting an airlift after we were forced to abort the trip. (without the radio we’d probably still be there.

Weather conditions impact plane schedules so it’s smart to pack extra food supplies and make provision for the ‘what-ifs’ – temperatures fall below the freezing point, continued poor weather and heavy winds, lost or damaged food and gear, damaged canoes, and most importantly, serious injury to one of the team.

Tim Kotcheff & Peter Stollery checking repair

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Split up the food, gear and all the essential elements of your trip among all the canoes. Spare paddles and stoves are mandatory. On the Isortoq, Peter Stollery actually brought an extra sleeping back that was put to emergency use. On the Bonnet Plume River, both gunwales were snapped when a canoe wrapped around a rock. A spare paddle, rope, lots of duct tape, a small saw, and an awl were all used to get the canoe back in the water and sturdy enough to complete the trip through rapids and rough water.

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’. This manual was always with me in case someone needed medical treatment. The kit included: serious pain killers, disinfectant, bandages, sutures, scissors and a thermometer among other things.

In 30 years of wilderness travel, I found that cuts are the most frequent occurring problems. I recall on the first day we landed on the Kongakut in Alaska, John Macfarlane cut his thumb to the bone opening one of the equipment boxes – not a pretty sight. Blood ran freely and we moved quickly to staunch the flow.

Repairs were made using standard ointments and heavy duty bandages, but needles and sutures were available had they been required. But 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

Knowing what to take and what to leave behind when you go to the Arctic

After years of humping back packs, wanigans and other paraphernalia in and out of canoes, through tundra swamp, and over rocky hills, I’ve learned a simple lesson – travel light. At the end of every canoe trip I check my equipment list to review what wasn’t used to serve as a reference guide for the next trip. My motto – if in doubt, throw it out. Below is my finely honed list of personal items broken into two columns showing Personal Equipment, Clothing, and Optional items based on a 10-12 day trip in temperatures of 5 degree Celsius and upwards. Maximum weight should be around 45 lbs. (click here for equipment and medical lists).

Lawn Chairs – a final suggestion.

In 1990 when we tackled the Ajaqutalik River on the Melville Peninsula, we packed aluminum lawn chairs for the very first time.

Craig Oliver rest break

This innovation was the brain child of the one and only Senator Peter Stollery. On an earlier trip he had showed up with a mosquito jacket, which we all thought was ridiculous. Before long, however, we noticed that we were taking turns standing next to him to bask in the bug-free zone that surrounded him like an aura.

And now, here we were again facing yet another Stollery eccentricity – Lawn Chairs! And on a wilderness canoe trip! This time, he went too far.

After we stopped laughing and teasing Peter, we deigned to try them out. Not only ‘not so bad’, but really quite comfortable. You can’t imagine how wonderful these chairs can be after a hard day’s paddle. A little bulky, perhaps, but extremely light to carry.

Group confab

And what a way to enjoy a Greek salad, barbecued ribs, and a glass or two of a fine, vintage wine. Compared with sitting on a lumpy, hard rock, or a slimy, wet log or, worse still, squatting awkwardly in a patch of muddy damp tundra, these babies were luxury itself.

As an added bonus, lawn chairs on the bottom of a canoe keep bags dry if water accidentally gets into your canoe when you’re running a set of rapids.

Hard core wilderness enthusiasts will undoubtedly scoff at this idea, but they should try them out first before passing judgement. So take the advice of us seasoned connoisseurs and canoeists – never leave home without one.

The last word

With care and common sense, your Arctic trip should go smoothly but the smart northern canoeist always hopes for the best, but plans for the worst.

Tim Kotcheff