Living History: The Rowley River by John Gow

In the summer of 1936 Graham Rowley, a young British archaeologist, joined a small expedition to the Canadian Arctic. At the time it was a largely unknown land with large blanks on the map, the coastlines often shown in dots where it was only presumed to be. Graham spent three northern winters, mostly in the small community of Igloolik, living with the Inuit and excavating sites of the pre-history Dorset people.

Winter of course shuts down any archaeological activity, so in February 1939 Graham decided to cross an unknown section of Baffin Island, filling in some large blanks on the map as he went. He and his two Innuit companions, Kutjek and Mino, travelled by “komatik” (dog sled), building igloos for shelter and hunting walrus, caribou, ptarmigan and Arctic hares to feed themselves and 30 dogs.

Beginning of Gorge

They crossed Foxe Basin, then ascended a frozen river flowing westward from, Graham hoped, the height of land above Baffin Bay. The lower portion of the river was known to his Innuit friends, but beyond that, terra incognito. After a few days of upriver travel, Graham and his companions crossed a large lake and at its far end found the river entering through a narrow, V shaped gorge, the bottom of which was a field of boulders.

The terrain was too rough to proceed with their dogs and heavy komatiks, so they backtracked, found a difficult and laborious route up through the hills, rejoining the river several kilometres upstream. Graham’s altimeter showed a 120 metre drop in the two kilometres of gorge, almost certainly indicating the presence of a large waterfall.

Gorge Cascade

Their 1500 kilometre journey reached the east coast of Baffin Island then looped northward to Pond Inlet, around the top of that very large and rugged island, then back to Igloolik.

Some months after his epic journey, Graham returned to the river with the intent of finding that waterfall. Leaving his dogs and komatik on the lake, he set off on foot up the gorge but was soon stopped by falling boulders. He retreated back to the lake without spotting the falls.

That previously unknown river, later named the “Rowley” in his honour, remained untouched and unravelled until our group selected it for the 1995 canoe trip. Our research suggested that it had never been paddled or visited since Graham and his companions crossed Baffin Island 56 years earlier. Indeed, there was no information available on the river until Ted Johnson, trip planner and researcher extraordinaire, found Graham Rowley alive, fit and active in Ottawa, having retired from a long career with the Government of Canada. He was a treasure trove of information.

Camp site above Gorge

On our trip down the Rowley we camped at the top of the gorge and before portaging, hiked the short distance downstream to see the spectacular cascade. Our portage then pretty well followed the route of Graham’s original detour.

Graham was still working on archaeological digs in the Arctic, and to our good fortune was spending part of that summer at Igloolik on a dig with his archaeologist daughter. He kindly arranged to meet us at Hall Beach once we were off the river, and then travel south with the group.

The Gorge

He believed that nobody had travelled the Rowley River, winter or summer, in the intervening six decades as all movement in the region had been by aircraft. The waterfall and gorge that created our seven-kilometre portage had, in his opinion, never been seen “terrestrially” before. Where else other than the Canadian Arctic could that be possible?

John Gow

Rowley River Canoe Team – August 1995

L-R Back: John Gow, Peter Stollery, Craig Oliver, Jean Pelletier, John Godfrey. L-R front: David Silcox, Tim Kotcheff, Pierre Trudeau

L-R: Tim Mason, Ted Johnson, Eddie Goldenberg, Peter Stollery, Tim Kotcheff, John Macfarlane, George Falconer, John Gow.

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