Point Lake – Northwest Territories by Tim Kotcheff
In 1991, it was a diverse family group that decided to canoe Point Lake, which is one of the largest lakes in the Coppermine River system in the Northwest Territories. The team included Ted Johnson, his niece Connie, Bob and Sally McLean Birnbaum with their daughters Leah and Alice, myself, Tim Kotcheff, and my son Jonathan.
The Canoe Team
When Ted suggested we should do this combined family canoe trip, I agreed without hesitation. I thought it was a great idea. Ted and I were between rivers so to speak – having just completed the Ajaqutalik on Melville Peninsula.
As trip planning got underway, I began having a few reservations. How would our inexperienced youngsters perform under adverse conditions. Well…Ted and I were seasoned hands. We would leave nothing to chance in order to protect our precious cargo. And having a doctor along was a major plus.
As it turned out, my concerns were completely unfounded. We bonded quickly and the group performed like a well-oiled machine – setting up camp, moving equipment and paddling a sometime blustery, wind-swept waterway.
Point Lake is about 120 km’s long and 3 km’s wide. Departing from Yellowknife, our plan was to land on the east end of the lake just below the Coppermine’s Obstruction Rapids (our first campsite).
We would spend a week or so paddling west and then slightly north edging around the spruce wooded shores of the lake and stopping to camp at our leisure. Our departure point – a large bay on the north shore of Point Lake shortly before it empties into the Coppermine.
Sudden winds on the lake can keep canoeists busy but usually subside in the evenings. Once we were forced to paddle at midnight to reach our destination but under the 24 hour midnight sun this did not pose any serious difficulty and added to the adventure.
The fishing was spectacular and one day we watched thousands of caribou herd cross the lake at a point where it narrows and on to high ground to graze. What follows are the recollections of team members that still endure some 27 years after the successful completion of a most enjoyable trip.
The feeling seeing the plane fly away the first day and leaving us ALL ALONE, Ted calling up the wolves, the caribou herd migration (the smell first, then the 60 minute parade), one mad caribou shaking its head probably because of a bug in its ear as it swam across, sitting out all day because of the wind and reading/reciting Robert Service and then paddling until 2 AM, fluorescent hats to find us on Point Lake, Ted catching a big trout and Leah asking why kill it because we still had lots of food, the plane having to come back for us the next day due to the wind, leaving a canoe behind, the kids taking the 4 person tent from the parents.
LEAH (16 at the time):
I still brag about that trip to people. Furthest north I’ve ever been. Walking for what felt like kilometres to get far enough away to take a dump without people seeing me since there were no trees to squat behind. Terrifying claustrophobia on the float plane after they filled the aisle with a CANOE after we’d taken our seats.
ALICE (then 18):
All of the above. Also Leah and I going to bathe in the frigid lake and encountering a caribou. Leah decided to make antlers with her arms so the caribou would not feel threatened and also not threaten us. Worked like a charm. That was when I learned that caribou hair is hollow. From the wolf kills we came across. Remember that?
What I remember most was the silence. Coming from the big city, you get used to the omnipresent background noise of daily life – the hum of a refrigerator, the buzz of traffic, the distant droning of an airplane. But up there, there’s nothing at all – an almost oppressive silence. I then understood what Robert Service meant when he talked about how the “mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear.” That line, of course, came from The Shooting of Dan McGrew, one of two poems I had memorized before the trip and later recited for my fellow canoeists one evening around the campfire. The other was The Law of the Yukon, which exhorted us to “send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane.” The week went by quickly and before long a familiar sound broke the northern silence: the roar of the twin otter returning to pick us up and take us back to noisy civilization.
My trip memory is of Tim’s brave reaction when notified that Leah was vegetarian. Who knew (except Tim!) that there were lamb chops packed in dry ice in the wanigan for the last night! And then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, Connie became an instant vegetarian while watching Ted clean a fabulous fish for dinner, and her family held it against us (her vegetarianism) for years! (Wonder if she eats meat now :-) Also Ted invoking the spirit of Franklin.
What a wonderful excuse to look back and to think about you all. I was so delighted at the time that we had the opportunity to be part of your remarkable northern journeys group. Should we do it all again?
I strongly remember the flight in, as we prepared to land by the rapids. The vastness of the landscape below us was overwhelming and unending. I remember feeling very small and a little terrified as the plane took off and left us behind. I was immediately taken with the super cool older girls on the trip, Leah and Alice, and wanted to do what ever they did. I was quickly converted to vegetarianism, a decision that I still get ribbed for by my family! I eventually just really wanted a burger, so my devotion to the cause quickly disappeared, to answer Sally’s question!
Watching the caribou migration is one of my strongest memories of the trip. The never ending chain of antlers stretching across the river was something to behold. I also recall seeing one disoriented caribou later on, way out in the middle of the river and thinking how sad it was that he was all alone and unlikely to survive.
The day we spent sailing with the tent fly was so much fun – no paddling… yay! Making bannock, cooking with Tim, opening care packages from Aunt Sharon and falling asleep with the sun still out are all memories that stand out for me. I especially remember how kind and friendly everyone was and how quickly our group felt like a little family.
On our last day, I remember how strongly the winds were blowing. After a great trip, I was ready to get on that plane and head for the comforts of home. The utter dismay in my 13 year old mind when I learned that we were going to have to wait it out!
I have worn this trip as a badge of honour ever since. It’s a pretty unique experience to canoe and camp in the far north at all, let alone at the tender age of 13! I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity.
What extraordinarily fine weather we had for the trip. Sunny days, clear nights – it never got completely dark. And we were even able to swim (by choice; not because we’d swamped a canoe).
Caribou were everywhere at the eastern end of the lake. Every valley, tundra-grass covered or mossy, was speckled with them, calmly grazing and occasionally lifting a head to keep an eye on us.
We began our first morning with a hike to Obstruction Rapids on the Coppermine River where we fished, lay in the warm July sun, picked blueberries for Bob’s excellent breakfast pancakes and paused to contemplate the very spot where Franklin and his desperate party hesitated then crossed the Coppermine in snowy late September of 1821 on their death-march back south to Winter Lake.
A couple of days later Bob was hunched over the campfire mixing blueberries into the breakfast pancake batter when Leah and Alice spotted caribou swimming toward us from the far side of the lake. To our amazement the leader came ashore on a point perhaps 300 hundred yards west of our tents, shook himself dry and trotted ahead a few yards to graze.
He was followed by a small gaggle. Then another bunch. And within a short time there was a seemingly endless line of them, nose to tail right across the lake.
As one would climb out of the water on our shore another would hesitate then plunge in on the opposite shore to join the procession, with thousands more working their way down the far hills toward the water to follow on. We joked that we could walk the half-mile or so across the lake on the backs of caribou.
These were members of the Bathurst Caribou Herd, then one of the largest in all of North America and Russia, on their migration back south from their spring calving grounds. In 1991, when we did the trip, the Bathurst herd numbered 420,000. Today it numbers 20,000. Some blame the collapse on climate change, others blame local hunting (one might say slaughter).
Others (above) have mentioned the day we were ‘winded in’. Couldn’t cross the wide mouth of a deep bay because of a howling westerly. But by eleven p.m. all was calm and we set off, the sun dipping below the horizon and the lake like glass in the twilight.
We sang paddling songs and paused near midnight to hear mournful howl of a lone wolf in the distant hills through the half-light off to the east. I think the young people realized that we were experiencing something very special. Our goal was to make ten miles a day to arrive at our planned pickup point.
What with pauses for a ‘peep’, long lunch breaks and lilly-dippers who seemed incapable of talking and paddling at the same time (step forward, Connie!), covering ten miles was often a challenge.
But one fine sunny day we had a following wind and had the presence of mind to lash the canoes together and tie a tent-fly to a couple of paddles, creating a big white sail. The heavy laden flotilla was hard to steer, but for several hours we made better time than we would have by paddling. And it was tremendous fun.
What a privilege it was to paddle such a special place with such a fine bunch of outdoors people, fuelled by such an excellent cuisine.
I’ve written these thoughts some twenty-seven years after the trip. The young people now have families of their own, and their offspring are approaching the age at which their parents did Point Lake. Yet the memories flood back and it all just seems like only yesterday.