In Search of Excitement, Adventure on the Isortoq River by Craig Oliver

The Isortoq is one of the most forbidding and isolated spots in Canada, an area rarely traveled even by the Inuit, where the northern tip of Baffin Island curls round to the Gulf of Boothia, about 1300 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.

The river never takes a rest as it crashes straight downhill from the central mountains into the sea at Foxe Basin. In one 40 kilometre stretch, it drops more than 90 metres, boiling through steep canyons so violently that nothing afloat can emerge intact.

Tim and Craig before disaster

This is the river a group of us hoped to conquer by canoe making the first descent in history. During our attempt, two of my companions had a close brush with death, while my long-time canoe partner Tim Kotcheff and I lost a lifetime of wilderness equipment and a lot of pride.

So in early July, six men, three canoes and a ton of equipment found themselves flying across ice-covered Steensby Inlet, over the fjords and canyons, and up into the mountains capped with ice, last survivors of the glaciers that once covered the continent.

Below us, the river was stunning in its size and power. The ice had broken up later than usual, and bungalow-sized chunks were racing downstream. Heavy rains had also added to the water levels, completely changing the river’s personality.

Isortoq from above

As the plane circled our intended landing spot, it was clear neither a kayak nor even a submarine could travel through what we saw. Instead, we landed 65 kilometres downstream, hoping that the roughest part of the river had been negotiated safely from the air.

Our maps were no help. The non-stop Niagara we had just seen was shown as a simple rapid. Long stretches of canyons and dangerous drops later on were unmarked.

The first night the temperature dropped to just above freezing, and we skipped dinner except for the nightly happy hour of overproof rum. The next day brought more of the same, with hard winds. We stayed in our tents. Day three was bitterly cold and overcast, but off we went anyway.

Dangerous rapids

There were large, scary rapids almost within an hour of setting off. The drop got steeper and the waves became larger, curling at the top and falling back over themselves. There were also large hidden rocks. It was clearly risking one’s life to head out into the middle and charge downstream.

We were in a quandary. Going back against the powerful current was impossible. Ahead, our scouting party could see whitewater that looked large even at a great distance through binoculars. We decided to paddle where we could and line the difficult sections.

We picked our way down at a snail’s pace. The shore was slippery, with wet rocks, so we were constantly falling and twisting our ankles. In places there were steep, granite canyons, and the job became rock climbing, trying to find footholds and handholds while still guiding the canoe in the river far below.

It was taking three hours to go a mile. It soon became obvious that at this rate, we could not make our rendezvous with the plane that had dropped us off. It was also difficult to sleep at night, not because of the constant daylight, but because the roar of water kept fears alive about what lay ahead next morning.

David and John – into the waves

The decision about what to do was made for us. First, two of the group became exasperated by the slow pace and decided to steal a few yards by paddling out into the river. They were quickly swamped by waves that could sink a pocket battleship and only luck and skill enabled them to make it to shore in a canoe filling with water.

Not long after that, Tim and I lost control of our canoe while lining past a series of powerful ledges. As it slipped sideways and caught the full power of the current, we were unable to hang on to the ropes and it took off like an Exocet rocket. I watched with a mixture of fascination and horror as the canoe, still afloat, disappeared first gently, then with terrifying force, into a wall of white foam stretching across the river. Everything we had – tents, sleeping bags, clothing, cooking equipment, packs, eye glasses, cameras, fishing gear, even wallets and airline tickets – was gone.

In that 30 seconds, while a lifetime of collected wilderness gear headed into oblivion, I felt a sense of relief, akin perhaps to the feelings of a soldier who has been wounded and for whom the battle, if not the war, is honourably ended. We ran miles down the river in chase, but it was as if our canoe and its contents had disappeared into a black hole.

Losing everything we had was a wrenching experience. Soaked to the skin from rain and sweat, we sat down on some rocks to decide what to do. We both knew a chapter in our lives had ended. We had been released from a self-imposed burden.

Ted Johnson – SOS

The trip was over. There was, as always, no word of recrimination from our companions though they were not happy about having to share tents and sleeping bags. Down to cold rations and with no cooking equipment, we could only use our emergency radio and get out. We found a table-top mountain of sand a few miles away, and radioed for a Twin Otter to come and get us, a week ahead of schedule.

It is curious how attached one becomes to bits and pieces of old clothing and equipment collected over a lifetime. But I felt in the loss a warning of my own mortality.

Our annual canoe reunion will still be the boisterous highlight of my social season. Annual canoe reunion, yes, annual canoe trip, no. I have had my last.

Craig Oliver

Webmaster’s note: The Isortoq was not Craig’s last canoe trip. He completed seven more rivers before hanging up the paddle.

The Isortoq River Team – 1987

Group Isortoq

L-R: Peter Stollery, David Silcox, Tim Kotcheff, Craig Oliver, John Macfarlane, Ted Johnson. 

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