Running the Ruggles by Bill Fox

Bill Fox

Bill Fox

On the first leg of the flight north, we were in celebrity company. Timothy Dalton, a British actor who played James Bond in a single film post Sean Connery, was heading to Iqualuit on a shoot. I remember thinking this flight is going to take Mr. Dalton about as far north as he is ever likely to travel in his life – and Iqualuit is about half the distance to where we are going.

As for the suggested itinerary, the mere recitation of the route can cause an adrenalin spike to this day.

Run the Ruggles to Chandler and Conybeare fjords, skirt Lady Franklin Bay, into the Arctic Ocean. Say it fast enough and the idea of canoes on the Arctic Ocean doesn’t seem quite so crazy. Then paddle north for a few days to Fort Conger, the base camp for sprints to the North Pole. To see for yourself the stuff Peary and his crew left behind.

I was a novice canoeist and had spent the early summer dutifully practicing my J-stroke on the dock at the cottage. I was reassured when told I would be in a canoe with Ted Johnson, whose many skills include the ability to read a river as if driving a freeway with overhead signs. My job, as the person in the bow, was dead simple – power on demand. In theory I was to shout warnings to Ted if rapids or rocks seemed threatening, but I quickly decided that was a call best left to the master in the stern.

Bill Fox and Ted Johnson

Draught horses Bill Fox & Ted Johnson

Had I known what was waiting for us on arrival, I would have supplemented my dry land training with more roadwork. I had been invited to paddle. I ended up a draught horse.

Our “summer” arrival notwithstanding, the lake was largely frozen over. In fact, it was worse than that. The ice had melted at water’s edge, but was solid a few feet from shore. The challenge was to get the canoe loaded with gear, get in ourselves without an Arctic bath, and get enough forward momentum to drive the canoe up onto the ice on the other side with enough momentum to get out without getting wet. The strategy was compelling in its simplicity, the execution however posed a bit of a challenge.

Portaging Lake Hazen

‘Portaging’ Lake Hazen

Then there was the ice. When most of us think of ice on a lake, we think of a skating surface, clear, clean, The “ice’ on Lake Hazen was neither. Undulating, granular, pocked with water pockets; the ice made for tough sledding. And sledding – not paddling – is how we crossed the lake.

Once we reached the river, things took a decided turn for the better. We set up camp at the mouth of the Ruggles after our exhausting ‘portage’ across the lake.

As a novice, I was designated for kitchen duty, slicing, dicing, and chopping in support of Master Chef Tim Kotcheff. I discovered the wonder of the wanigan, that dried food was never on the menu, that Peter Stollery knew something about just about anything.

We had been warned by the National Park ranger that there’d be “ice bridges” and “deep holes” down river. The ocean, he reported, was solid pack ice. The winds would be heavy, and as Craig recalls, the ranger asked if we had “ice screws” to anchor our tents and equipment. Ice screws! Nuff said.

Ice Walls

Ruggles ice walls

The ice walls along the river bank were an early signal that the plan Teddy Johnson had laid out with such care over two years might be subject to change. The chunks of ice floating by met the journalistic test of a “second source.”

A Park ranger passing overhead in a helicopter dropped in and took Ted up to reconnoiter. They came back with a firm warning that the river and fjord ahead were treacherous

Given such dire warnings, a debate was held late into the night. The dilemma posed by the ice bridges and other obstacles was fairly straight forward, do we go forward, or head back across the lake. Five to three voted in favour to proceed.

Looking back at McGill Mountain

McGill Mountain

In the hours spent working our way downriver, I was struck by the majesty of the snow capped peaks, had time to wonder how the canoe pairings had been worked out over the years, fully appreciated the camaraderie and the conversation, and followed instincts honed in sports locker rooms that rookies should listen more than speak.

As for the river itself, the Ruggles had its share of rapids, but was relatively shallow which allayed most of our worst fears. We’d paddled long days, because there was no night. Morning departures unfolded at a more leisurely pace as a result.

But suddenly we ran out of water. We reached a point where the river was frozen solid – at least on top – and no longer canoeable. We set up camp. No doubt about the agenda – should we continue or call it quits.

Big Mama - Blowin' In The Wind

Big Mama – Blowin’ In The Wind

During dinner preparations and as we were debating the issue, we were being buffeted by high winds and a hellacious sand storm. The debate dragged on as the winds howled. Lobbying for both options was intense. At the risk of appearing indecisive, my position was fairly straight forward – I was happy to keep going, I was happy to turn back, what I wasn’t prepared to do was spend any more time sitting in camp.

In the end, we opted to radio for an airlift ending a debate that had dragged on as long as you’d expect in a group made up of journalists and political operatives.

But even then we had to wait. The winds were too high for a rescue helicopter to attempt a landing. The winds howled. The heavy grain sand stung exposed flesh like sleet. As a school boy you read that the Arctic is like a desert, but the depictions of the polar ice cap and snow seem to put the lie to the assertion. The Ruggles riverbank became the proof point.

River Pickup – End of the line.

We hunkered down, wedged against tent walls, the better to keep the tent from blowing away.

But once the winds subsided, help arrived. Men, equipment and canoes were flown back to the ranger base camp. But the twin otter that met us there for the ride home had one more stop before heading south – a quick trip to what was to be our original destination – the Peary base camp at Fort Conger. It was one of the absolute highlights of the trip.

Bottom line? The experience of a lifetime; a truly wonderful adventure with an exceptional group of people that I had known, but grew to greatly admire. Bill Fox

A couple of additional recollections:

At one point, when sitting around waiting for the airlift got to be a bit much, Craig and I decided an exploratory walk was in order. With Craig in the lead, we climbed a long traverse out of the river canyon and walked south for several hours.

When the cold developed a bit of a bite, we decided to head back to camp. Like drivers on an unfamiliar freeway, we missed the off ramp.

Craig had a map, but no compass, which was more determinant because by then we were disoriented. Craig was convinced we had walked too far, and that we should retrace our steps and see if we could find the takeout point.

I was feeling sheepish. Having spent many hours wandering in the “bush” on the outskirts of the Northern Ontario mining town where I grew up, I somehow came to believe my sense of direction borders on the infallible.

Craig had walked lead the whole way, picking the way through the rocks and other obstacles, making certain each step was secure. A twisted ankle wouldn’t have been a welcome development at any point in our walkabout, never mind after we’d been out for several hours.

With Craig devoting all of his attention to the detail of the trail, it was to me to make certain my eyes were fixed on the reference points the terrain offered so we’d know we were moving in the right direction. Given Craig’s limited vision, this division of labour made sense. He did his job, I didn’t do mine. I got so caught up in seeing everything there was to see, that I didn’t take enough time to make certain visuals registered to in effect mark the trail.

We were lost. And determined not to acknowledge the fact. As Craig noted night was settling in, we had to decide on a course of action. When Craig suggested we double back, I didn’t have a better idea.

And to our great good fortune, some time later, I did spot one of our companions in the far distance, standing on the ridge, heading back down into the canyon and the camp site.

Craig said later we were saved by a matter of minutes. Had our companion started down into the canyon a few minutes earlier, we might not have seen anything.

With the vivid imagination that was a hallmark of much of his journalism, Craig said later he was wondering how the news of our demise might be conveyed. A headline “Lost in the Arctic” came to mind, he said. And of course being in television, Craig wondered who would get top billing in the sub head, me, the one-time reporter turned political staffer, or Craig, TV star.

For my part, I had a different headline in mind. “Wolves Eat Scribes.” Because Craig missed part of the story.

At one point in our odyssey, Craig was charging ahead eyes focused on the path immediately in front of him – heading directly into a herd of musk ox. I wasn’t particularly concerned. By then I had come to understand musk ox are a less significant presence than their profile suggests. All hair really; more goat than bull or moose.

Then I realized I wasn’t the only one eyeing the musk ox. Some arctic wolves were on the other side of the herd. And Craig was heading straight toward them. A shouted warning died in my throat. I didn’t want to startle the wolves. Or the musk ox Or Craig. I knew Craig was packing a pistol, but knew as well pistols are effective at short range only.

A noise or commotion of any kind struck me as the only wrong answer in terms of next steps.

So like a scene in a movie, I thought if we just keep moving, and they just keep moving, and we keep a respectful distance between us all, we can all get where we are going.

Craig’s purposeful stride caused the musk ox to shift direction, a banana bend to our left. The wolves followed the musk ox. We kept moving. As did they.

And we all got where we were going.

A final anecdote.

After the airlift, we found ourselves at a camp site in the national park. The ranger was an Inuk who regaled us with tales of his summer vacation – which in his case involved taking a sled and his dog team across to Greenland. He told me he was from Griese Fjord, and I mentioned I had been there before. He said he was planning to move because it was getting too crowded!

The ranger asked when we were thinking of heading back south. I told him we were still talking it through, then asked when he was leaving. Tomorrow, he said, at which point I looked at Eddie Goldenberg and said, Eddie, the Inuk have been up here about 10,000 years. If the ranger is leaving tomorrow, what do you think he knows that we should?


South Shore, Lake Hazen, Ellesmere Island – August 1992


L-R: Ross Howard, John Godfrey, Eddie Goldenberg, Peter Stollery, Tim Kotcheff, Bill Fox, Craig Oliver, Ted Johnson.

(Return to Ruggles River)