The Isortoq River Misadventure by Ted Johnson
For several years, Peter had been promoting the idea of our canoeing a river in the Eastern Arctic. He and Tim searched the map and spotted the Isortoq. Craig climbed aboard and said it was sure to be a zoological garden. Thus, it was chosen.
A fascinating feature of the Isortoq River is that it drains the Barnes Ice Cap. This hundred-km-wide glacier at the centre of Baffin Island is the last major remnant of the Wisconsin Ice Sheet, which covered most of Canada a hundred thousand years ago. An intriguing feature of the Barnes Ice Cap is that it acts like a giant saucer, so that when there’s rain – as there can be in July on Baffin Island – it collects and pours it into the Isortoq, converting a quiet stream into a raging torrent.
As we flew in from the settlement of Hall Beach, scouting the river at a low altitude, it looked eminently canoeable. To our knowledge, no one had done it before us, so a sense of adventure prevailed as we set up camp about one hundred and fifty kilometres upstream from the sea. The overflight having revealed it to be a benign stream, we decided to take a day or two to rest up and visit the nearby western face of the Barnes Ice Cap.
The rock-strewn land below the face gave us an idea of what southern Canada must have looked like as the glaciers began to recede thousands of years ago. The terrain was bleak and covered with enormous boulders that should have made God blush. As they say about such forbidding topography in Newfoundland, God created it and then, when He looked down and saw what He had done, He threw huge stones at it.
Finally we set off. We covered about eighteen kilometres on the first day’s paddle. We covered about twelve on day two. A light rain caught us as we made camp late in the day beside a gravel beach. A flock of grey and white ducks flashed past our camp in the Scotch mist that evening. Stollery, quick with his binoculars, said they were rare King Eiders. A great sight, and again, a good omen.
On the morning of day three, Tim noticed that the river had risen several feet.
Then the trouble began. The rain continued, the river kept rising, and those gentle standing waves we’d seen from the air had become canoe-swallowing monsters. There was a constant roar, not unlike the sound of the Niagara Gorge as Craig trenchantly pointed out to us.
We did a lot of lining, some of it from rock ledges made slippery by the rain and spray, ten or twelve feet above the standing waves. Craig tried to cheer us up by saying that when mountaineering while portaging canoes was an Olympic sport, we’d be thought of as pioneers. My notes record that by day five we were lucky to make two miles in a day. There was no way out except down the river.
The most heart-stopping incident in my view was when we realized that the river would make a sharp turn ahead between steep narrowing hills, and we were on the wrong shore. Silcox and Macfarlane set out to paddle across to the right bank. They were immediately swept into huge waves – probably six feet high – and disappeared. A canoe must have momentum on a big wave, or it will slide backwards and broach. We were all deeply concerned that the two might dump, and were hugely relieved when they pulled out on the far shore. The rest of us lined further down the left bank, found a short, relatively flat stretch about two hundred fifty yards wide, and set out to cross. Paddling as fast as we safely could, with the current probably a good eight knots an hour, we made it across just above a line of ferocious standing waves.
We took a break to scout. David, John, Peter and I hiked hill for a better view of what lay ahead. We were near the top when David shouted “Look, there’s someone else paddling the river!” We turned to see a dark green canoe racing downstream, fully loaded but with no one aboard. It was one of our canoes. And standing by the river giving a WTF shrug was Craig.
There had been a lining ‘incident’, it was later explained. Tim and Craig had decided to line their canoe ahead, in the interest of time, while the rest of us scouted. Working their way around a rock, the powerful current pulled the stern out from shore and Tim quite properly released his line. Normally the boat would have weathercocked around and Craig at the bow would have held the bow in to shore with his line. But the river gods did not smile on him. He was at that very instant in the midst of putting on a glove, and was gripping the line between his arm and his chest. The canoe gave a tug. He grabbed for the line, caught it briefly, but fearing he’d be pulled into the water, he let it go. The two watched (with mixed emotions, we later learned) as it sped off into the raging foam.
We regrouped on the riverbank and took stock. Lost was almost all our cooking gear, food, stove and tragically, the wine. Not to mention Tim and Craig’s camping and personal gear. But by dinner time we had cobbled together enough kit to have a light meal accompanied by peach schnapps. The miscreants were given Peter’s spare sleeping bag to share, but as punishment were made to sleep on the hard ground outside our tents. Tim said they slept like a couple of rotisserie chickens on a spit. Insufficient gratitude, we thought, for Peter’s foresight and generosity. We wondered privately how odd it was that Stollery would have an extra sleeping bag. But then, this was the man who introduced us to mosquito jackets, lawn chairs and hipwaders!
Doubling up in the remaining canoes and continuing, as we had done on the Koroc in 1982 was out of the question. We needed to be lifted out, and probably soon. We were cold, wet, low on food and stranded beside a raging river. Someone said “The trip’s over.” And Peter responded “Well, if it’s over, I want to get down to the College Street Y for some steam.” There was no opposition.
We had a two-way radio. Lugging it to the hilltop above us in the light rain, we suspended the copper antenna between paddles, and began calling out. Nothing. Around midnight (in July it never gets dark) we heard a plane radioing Hall Beach two hundred miles to the south. Ted transmitted “First Air Hall Beach Flight, this is Isortoq River Canoe Party. Do you copy?” Nothing. Tried again. Nothing. A pause.
And then the river gods smiled on us. We heard a voice: “Is someone trying to reach me on this frequency?” The pilot turned out to be the one who had flown us in. Although our signal was week, we managed by a series of “affirmatives” and “negatives” to establish contact and arrange a rescue. We gave our latitude and longitude and, after some frustration and confusion when his base manager unhelpfully calculated we were about 80 kilometres east of our true location, he nailed our position. He would wait for better weather, he said. We then set up a radio schedule.
But where could he land? A Twin Otter needs at least 300 hundred metres of flat terrain, and we were surrounded by bedrock hills and jagged rock. Tim and Ted rolled some boulders around in a fruitless effort to prepare a rough makeshift runway, while the rest of the group portaged the canoes and gear.
In the event we waited three days for proper weather, cooking a dwindling stock of coal-oil-flavoured spaghetti in an empty fuel can and making regular brief radio calls. We worried about battery life. Finally the plane appeared, passing right over us at about 100 metres and continuing on up the river valley. He’d missed us. Hearts sank. A call out on the radio produced nothing. It was a good five minutes before he returned, spotted us, circled, and then – the river gods smiling again- landed on a dry river bank beside the Freshney River, a tributary of the Isortoq (which with all our focus on surviving, we had completely failed to spot) about a couple of kilometres southwest of us.
The trip was over.
Some months later we recounted our story to our friend and Inuit ethnologist Graham Rowley in Ottawa. Someone asked him what ‘Isortoq’ means. He said it means a glacier-fed river with chalky cloudy water. Some of us wondered whether, if we’d known that, we would have taken it on.