The Rowley River by Ted Johnson

The Rowley rises in the mountains that form the jagged backbone of northeastern Baffin Island. It winds to the south-west for over a hundred and fifty kilometres through a yellow sandstone and gravel-strewn valley, gathers strength from tributaries fed by mountain glaciers, rages over a hundred-foot waterfall carved through an enormous bedrock ridge, and finally drops through a series of challenging but very entertaining rock-garden rapids to mingle with the salt water of the Foxe Basin.

Rowley Cascade

One winter evening in the early nineties, Bill Williams and I visited Graham Rowley and his gracious wife Diana at their Rockliffe home. He showed us the map he had made on his 1937 dog-sled trip using a hand-held compass, a pencil, and stationery from the Hudson Bay Company post at Repulse Bay. It lined up remarkably well with a modern map produced from aerial surveys. The story Graham told of his adventure inspired us to attempt the first (we believe) canoe descent of the Rowley River. In the spring of 1995, Peter Stollery, George Falconer and I spent a trip-planning day with Graham in the National Air Photo Library.

Landing strip

“I can’t see through all ziss sheet!” our pilot, Karl Zberg, shouted back to us some weeks later, waving his hand at the low cloud and drizzle shrouding the river at a hundred metres as we flew further and further upstream in a vain search for enough flat tundra to land on. We turned back to his base at Hall Beach to await an improvement. On the second try, we found a perilously short patch of tundra grass and gravel about 100 kilometres upstream from the sea. We ground to a stop with full reverse prop, a few metres from a precipice. As the first four of us unloaded, Karl marked the threshold of the landing area with a pink rag. On his return, bringing in the rest of the group, his left tire touched down exactly on the rag, leaving a deep tread mark. I kept the rag!

Lining the Rowley

An abundance of caution prevailed once we were on the river. We lined several grade III Rapids, and portaged whenever there was doubt. The ritual happy hour was fuelled by democratically distributed (in Craig’s absence!) rum, and the meals served up by Tim Kotcheff and John Macfarlane were up to the usual Michelin standard. At about the point where Graham and his two sledge companions had been on the verge of boiling their mukluks for dinner in 1937 because of an absence of game, we found ourselves enjoying a two-inch-thick steak accompanied by Macfarlane’s excellent Bordeaux. At length we came to Heart-Shaped Lake.

John Macfarlane prepares dinner

A monstrous bedrock ridge stood at its southern end. As we paddled toward it, we were struck by the sight of inukshuks on the high banks along both shores. Clearly this had been an ancient caribou killing ground; a herd would be driven down the ice-covered lake, spooked by the inukshuks, toward a series of large flagstones turned up on edge. Behind them, Inuit hunters would have hidden until the slaughter with spears and arrows began.

As we entered Heart-Shaped Lake, Graham Rowley and his daughter Susan were conducting an archaeological dig outside Igloolik, about a hundred and thirty miles south-west of us. During the trip planning phase, we had arranged to charter a single-engine helicopter to bring Graham and Susan to visit us at our camp at the foot of the lake. This would allow them to view the nearby major waterfall that he was never able to see on his extraordinary sled-trip, and not unimportantly, the helicopter could sling our canoes and heavier packs over the wretched seven-hundred foot ridge blocking our route around the waterfall, thereby saving us from the worst of that pig of a portage.

We were camped as planned, and in touch through our trusty Spilsbury SBX-11 radio with the helicopter at Igloolik and with the Polar Continental Shelf (PCS) radio base at Resolute, call-sign ‘Two-Six Resolute.’ We had moved our gear and canoes partway up the ridge, to a flat spot suitable for a helicopter landing. Sweating under our loads, we were entertained by a heated dialogue between John Gow, the energetic pack-horse and outdoor purist who thought it unsporting to use a helicopter, and Peter Stollery who would enrage him with the loud assertion, “Internal combustion’s going to get me over this portage,” whenever the two were within earshot of each other. All the while a gray overcast hung a few hundred feet above the barren rock hills surrounding Heart-Shaped Lake.

Radio Contact

The chopper pilot was a young woman from Cornwall, Ontario; pregnant at the time, as we later learned. We talked to her briefly as she lifted off with Graham and Susan, expecting to reach us in an hour. Thirty minutes later the pilot radioed to say she was putting down to wait out a fog that had settled on Steensby Inlet, a bay on the Baffin Coast cutting right across her flight-path. An hour passed. Then a call asking us for a weather update. Another half hour of silence, then our spirits sank as she advised us that the fog bank showed no sign of lifting, and she didn’t want to chance a flight across open water covered by fog. They would return to Igloolik and try again the next day.

About ten minutes later we heard a clipped radio call in a woman’s voice. “Two-six Resolute from MHI, I’ve had an engine-out.” Then silence. I called Resolute to make sure they’d heard the pilot’s call. They had. We stayed tuned. Fifteen minutes later we heard, “Two-six Resolute, this is MHI.” In a remarkably cool voice, the pilot reported that everyone was OK, although a bit shaken up by a hard landing. The aircraft was un-flyable. She had reached an altitude of about 150 feet and had been transitioning into forward flight when the engine died. She had tried to glide to a tundra pond but had hit the rocky ground nose-high, to keep the fuel-laden machine from nosing over, short of the pond. The tail boom had been bent. The tip of the rotor had shattered, sending shrapnel through the plexiglass windows but missing the occupants.

We were all deeply concerned, particularly for Graham. He was eighty-two, stranded on the tundra, with who knew what undetected injuries and minimal shelter. Fortunately Susan and this uber-competent pilot were there with him. But the Trenton Search and Rescue Centre was 3,500 km away to the south.

Then we heard the operator in Resolute work his magic on the PCS radio network, which serves the Arctic like a party-line telephone.


Within half an hour, he had tracked down a TwinRanger operating out of Pond Inlet on the other side of Baffin Island. It would refuel and be on its way to the crash site shortly. A few days later, when we were reunited, Graham told us in his soft unflappable Cambridge tone, “We were back in the Science Centre in Igloolik having soup and sandwiches by 9 o’clock in the evening.” “Rowley River Canoe Party from two-six Resolute. Where does this leave you?” came the call from PCS Resolute at seven that evening.


The Beastly Portage

Reluctantly, we accepted the fact that we’d have to hump our gear over the beastly portage unaided, but we’d be OK. Indeed, it took two horrible days to cover that five km portage. Gow was in his element. Stollery philosophical. And the tundra may by now have recovered from the scars left by our canoes where we dragged them heavily laden.

We finished the trip a couple of days later after paddling a series of engaging grade I and grade II boulder-gardens. Eventually, as the Foxe Basin hove into sight, glistening turquoise in the brilliant afternoon sun, the erudite George Falconer held up his paddle and shouted “Thalassa!” (a Greek sea goddess) – echoing the cries of Xenophone’s 10,000 as they finally fought their way to, and first beheld, the sea and sanctuary.

The Magnificent Rowley

By coincidence the Rowleys, Graham and Susan, were on the scheduled flight from Igloolik to Iqualuit when it stopped to pick us up in Hall Beach. They were in great shape, joined us for a photo, recounted their adventure and were keen to hear about his eponymous river. A year later, Graham’s memoir “Cold Comfort” was published by McGill – Queen’s University Press, and includes much rich detail about his explorations. When I asked him to sign my copy, he wrote with typical modesty and generosity, “The river was easier in winter.”

Oh yes – and the pilot gave birth some six months later to a healthy baby. Ted Johnson

The Rowley Team with Graham Rowley at Hall Beach

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 Kotcheff, Ted Johnson, John Macfarlane, Peter Stollery, Graham Rowley, George Falconer, Eddie Goldenberg, Tim Mason, John Gow.

Back to Rowley River page