Canoeing at the top of the world by Ted Johnson
The idea of canoeing at the top of the world took hold of us early in the nineteen nineties. After eliminating more exotic possibilities such as Svalbard in Norway and Russia’s Siberian coast, they being too far south, our self-appointed ‘planning committee’ turned its attention to Ellesmere, the massive island at the top of the map of Canada. A close inspection of available atlases revealed 74 km-long Lake Hazen and its outlet, the Ruggles River, flowing down to the Robeson Channel, the strait separating Canada from the northern tip of Greenland. From there, we would paddle up the coast to finish the trip at the long-abandoned Fort Conger. Although only about 40 km long, the Ruggles looked to be runnable; indeed, at 82ᴼ North, it appeared to be the most northerly canoeable river in the world. And no-one had ever been crazy enough to try canoeing it.
The logistic challenges in getting four canoes and eight paddlers to the shores of a lake at the north end of Ellesmere Island are formidable. We sent the canoes from Quebec City aboard the annual sealift to Resolute, the High Arctic transportation hub, two years before the trip. From Resolute they were carried on the annual sealift barge to Tanquary Fjord, well up the west coast of Ellesmere. There they waited through the long Arctic winter to be slung in spring to Lake Hazen, at huge expense to us, by a helicopter that was working in the area on a charter contract. Receiving assurances in the late spring of 1992 that they had arrived at the lake, we crossed our fingers.
As we stepped off the ‘sked’ from Montreal at Resolute’s modest dirt and gravel airport on a late July day, we were met by a blast of brisk High-Arctic air that sent us digging into packs for down jackets. Our Kenn Borek Air Twin Otter was quickly loaded, to take us a further four flying-hours north, mostly in cloud but with occasional glimpses of the Arctic desert-scape of Devon Island and the high glaciers of Ellesmere. We were completely enveloped in cloud for the last hour. When we finally broke out at about 500 feet above Lake Hazen we looked at each other in stunned silence. Our canoes were neatly stacked in place at the shore, but the entire lake was locked in thick multi-year ice!
In true Arctic and Rideau Canal Canoe Club style the wagons were immediately circled and we began to shoot inward. Well before landing, and over the whine of the turboprops, recriminations were hurled. Derision and blame were heaped on the organizing committee, one of whose members was heard to plead meekly, “Well, the lake was blue on all the maps.” (In a subsequent conversation with an Inuit from Grise Fjord we were advised helpfully “You guys shoulda talked ta us before you come up here. Last time Lake Hazen was open was 1963!”). But any thought of scrubbing the trip was soon abandoned. The ice turned out to be a good metre and a half thick, with a ten-metre shore-lead open around the entire perimeter of the lake. We set up camp immediately after landing, and with the enthusiasm of adventurers entering a new world we explored the nearby tundra. So fragile is the ecology, with the ground frozen eleven months of the year, that we found tracks in the soil left by a Canadian Army vehicle in 1953.
After a day of hiking in the mountains to the west, we paddled across the narrow shore-lead, hauled the fully loaded canoes up on the ice, and set out to drag them across the fifteen or so kilometres to the far shore of the lake like oxen before a plow. The ice was sufficiently smooth that we could make a steady two kilometers per hour. The High Arctic sun bathed us for the entire day as we hauled – indeed, it circled above us on through the night, never quite dipping to the horizon. And the wind was gentle from our backs. Partway across the lake in brilliant mid-day sun we paused for a group photo and to take in our surroundings. A dozen massive glaciers glistened off to our west like a cornucopia of diamonds pouring down to the ice-covered lake among scores of jagged peaks of the British Empire Range and, to the north, the United States Range.
The ice-travel was interrupted by open leads. Crossing these involved careful launching and boarding of the canoes or a precarious crawl along the gunnels, ever mindful that the lake at mid-point was over two hundred meters deep and barely above freezing. By evening we had reached the far shore and paddled five kilometres along the narrow shore-lead in softening light, passing astonished grazing giant Arctic hare, a couple of muskoxen, and panic-stricken shorebirds with their warning “kalleet-kalleet” piercing the silence, until at last we reached the head of the Ruggles and pitched our tents.
Much talked about at happy-hour was the question “What lies ahead?” Would we encounter a big ledge or waterfall? Would we be drawn into an ice-walled canyon? Worse, would aufeis (ice bridges – from the German “ice on top”), about which we had been warned, suck us into an ever-narrowing tunnel under the ice to be drowned in the dark?
As it turned out, the Ruggles was easily run. The descent took us two and a half days, only because we stopped to scout ahead at every bend, scanning for the much-feared aufeis. Enjoyable grade I and II rapids extended for kilometres, and the water depth was little more than a metre. While there were no ice tunnels, we did encounter some stretches with three-metre walls of ice on both banks and thus no escape except downstream.
As we reached a massive rotten ice pan at Conybeare Fjord, the inlet leading into the Robeson channel, a passing Parks Canada helicopter dropped in to visit us and took me up to reconnoitre our planned route. The ice conditions ahead were ugly, the wind was picking up, and our prospects of paddling to Fort Conger and getting there alive were deemed to be risky at best. So we set camp near the mouth of the river to await better weather. There could be no more canoeing. Hunkered down in Big Mama for a couple of days we endured howling winds, light rain and snow flurries. Our short-wave radio allowed us to organize a PCS helicopter to pick us up (again at our considerable expense) during a lull in the weather and fly us back, in two shifts, to our starting point at Lake Hazen. There we ‘camped’ in a Government Quonset hut until the weather improved.
When our chartered Twin Otter made it in to Hazen, to complete our adventure, we flew on to Fort Conger where we spent several hours exploring the ruins of the ill-considered home of the fated 1881 Greely Expedition (20 out of 25 did not survive), as well as the well-preserved shelter of the controversial Peary Expedition which claimed to have reached the North Pole in April, 1909. From Conger we could see to our southeast, far across the Robeson channel, the mountains of the north coast of Greenland. Returning to Hazen camp to pick up our gear and head home we noticed a thin skein of ice forming on the nearby shore-lead. A few snowflakes were carried on the light wind. A flock of about a dozen red-throated loons had gathered in preparation for their migration, a sure sign that winter was tuning up. It was August 9th.