Katannilik Journal, II

 

I had about two days to make up my mind whether to go or not. The trip needed one more person to make an even number, ten, and I had inquired by chance where Bruce, the camp owner, was going this year. When he told me, I said "That sounds interesting." It was his son's trip that needed one more person. The trip had actually been formed by request. A former tripper asked Shawn if he would run a trip for him and his family--ie. his wife, two children, and their spouses. Another person, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, had signed on. Adding me meant that there would be two people in each canoe; no one would have to solo.

This was like a meeting of a learned society; of the ten of us, six had PhD's. Ned, the father, just retired, taught Political Science. I discovered at the end of the trip he was also the author of a major book on white-water canoeing. He and his wife, Daphne, live in Kingston, Ont. Their son, Peter has a degree in Biology, and his specialty is Oceanography, specifically the study of Plankton. His wife, Sharon, has a degree in Geology, and her specialty is also Oceanography, specifically the study of the ocean's hot vents. They live in Santa Barbara, Calif. Peter's sister, Caroline, has a degree in Philosophy of Religion. She is now a Research Analyst, university long-range planner, in Saskatoon. Her husband, Gary, has a degree in Physics, specializing in Astrophysics, specifically, studying the atmospheres of the planets. I made the sixth PhD in English Literature, with a specialty in Poetry in the Seventeenth Century. Our compatriot from Halifax, Andrew, is an insurance executive. Liz, Shawn's wife, is a practicing speech therapist. Shawn is in year-round charge of Camp Wanapitei's many programs. It was a wonderful and amazing group of people to spend time with. While we were on the river we were the only humans there. We saw no one but our little band.

At 4:30 in the afternoon of day one (July 22), we boarded a Twin Otter bush plane, with all our gear, at the Iqaluit airport. The plane is a turbo-prop with extra large wheels and tires--big, low pressure, balloon tires for landing on the rough, rocky tundra. The plane has an amazingly short take-off and landing run; it almost seems to jump off the ground and into the air. About half an hour later, after flying across Frobisher Bay, and part of the peninsula on the other side, we swept in to the landing strip, almost brushing, it seemed, the sides of Mt. Joy as we maneuvered for the landing. We bumped along the rough landing strip and came to an abrupt stop about six feet from where the strip ended and the land fell off to a stream. Our canoes had preceded us, so they were waiting by the edge of the strip.

The river valley is terraced with different levels representing different stages of the river in time. There is the first flood-plain a few feet above the river's sand or gravel beach, then a rise of about twenty feet to another flat table-like land, and then further back the land rises to the hills. The hills, barren rock rounded and smoothed by the glaciers, rise about a thousand feet above the river valley and then roll on in endless procession across the peninsula, getting lower as they approach the southern shore. The first flood-plain, next to the river, is the richest in vegetation, while the second terrace is usually more gravely and rocky. This is where the plane lands. We carried our supplies and gear down off the terraced table-land to the side of the river and set up camp. It was then and a little later in the evening that we saw the caribou checking us out from the terrace above us about fifty feet away. Meanwhile, Ned had almost immediately spotted and identified the Boletus edulis mushrooms growing in the richer parts of the flood plain. These mushrooms are a gourmet's delicacy around the world. For the next several nights, at various campsites, he selected and prepared these mushrooms which we all enjoyed with the evening meal.

We spent the next day at the same site, exploring the area around us, taking photographs, and hiking up to two waterfalls that looked closer than they really were. It was on this day that I picked up the Caribou vertebra. I also found an ancient tent ring--a ring of rocks where Inuit had pitched their tent some time in the not-very-recent past. The stones were sunk somewhat into the ground and were over-grown with lichens and small plants--something that takes a long time to happen in the arctic.  Here is what Al Purdy wrote about them.

                    Stones in a circle...
                    Placed there long ago
                    to hold down the skirts
                    of caribou skin tents
                    All over the Arctic
                    these tent rings
                    going back thousands of years
                    in the land where nothing changes
                            *    *    *
                    weathered granite boulders
                    from the Precambrian
                    before there was life at all
                    arranged here fifty years ago
                    or several thousand
                    In some sense I think of them
                    as still here in the circle
                    the small brown men
                    they lived so strongly
                    with such a gift of laughter
                    the morning sun touches
                    and glances off
                    their sparkling ghosts
                                  (Alfred Purdy, "Tent Rings," North of Summer: Poems from Baffin Island, Toronto, 1967.)

We ran across such archeological sites about half a dozen times during the trip. The government has given strict instructions that such places are not to be disturbed in any way. We looked, wondered, and moved on. At another campsite further downstream and several days later, Daphne, after the fact, realized that she had seen an Inuit fish weir. The stones had been arranged in the river in such a way that fish, arctic char, would swim in and become trapped; from there they could easily be lifted out of the water. It was on this day, day two, that I became aware of the lack of shade from the relentless sun, and was glad to see it finally set behind Mt. Joy. A tent is no help on such a day--it becomes as hot as a bake oven or a sauna. It seems strangely ironic, but there is nowhere to escape from the heat of the sun.

Day three began with some instruction, for those who needed it, in the basic canoe strokes and maneuvers. I would paddle with Andrew. Since he was the taller we agreed that he would start in the stern. He had also had more experience with class II and III rapids than I had. We loaded our canoes, donned our life-vests, and were off. A few of the rapids were either too shallow or too dangerous to run and had to be lined, but we ran most of them, often after a stop to read the water and plan the moves. Where the river narrowed some of the rapids cut through deep gorges with steep cliffs on the sides. Many of the rapids required "technical" maneuvers, back-ferrying, catching eddies, and so on, to move across the current to a favorable position from which to continue downward without slamming into a rock, wrapping around a boulder, or getting hung up. I knew the theory, but had never really run rapids like this before, so I was glad to have Andrew in the stern. We were the last in line of the five canoes, to be in a position to help if anyone needed it. Shawn and Liz went first to show the way. Ned and Daphne were in the middle. We and Shawn had a rope bag, to be thrown if someone were in need of rescue.

Near the end of the day Andrew and I began a set of rapids--the others had gone through and were waiting in the back eddy by the shore--and as we went around a bend and reached the bottom we were confronted with a series of cresting haystacks. The canoe was heavily loaded and didn't have much freeboard. A wave came over the bow, into my lap. Another. Another. We sure were taking on water! I figured we would make it if we didn't have to take any more of those haystacks coming in over the bow. We took another one. Then another. The canoe slowly descended beneath us. The watchers, none of whom (unfortunately) had a camera out, said it looked quite comical, as though the canoe just disappeared, and there we were, paddling; our luggage floating above the submarining canoe. I found myself in the water, the current carrying me along as I tried to find footing and couldn't quite. I still had my paddle in my hand, and I used it to paddle myself to shallower water where I could get a foothold against the swift current. The others went after the canoe and our packs, which were floating downstream. All was rescued. We had everything tied together, so nothing was lost. This trip was the first time I had ever consistently worn a life-jacket, we all did, and I sure was glad I had one on that time. My hat never got wet.

After that little episode, which we all agreed should have been video-taped, there was some shifting around of gear, and Andrew and I got a larger canoe and a little lighter load. That made all the difference in the world. We had more freeboard, and we also took such waves a little slower, slowing the canoe by dragging the paddles and easing over the haystacks. It was sunny, and I dried reasonably fast. We were back on the water again, headed for the next campsite. There I assessed the water damage to the contents of my pack. Some of what had been wrapped in plastic garbage bags and tightly tied was fine, like my sleeping bag, thank goodness. That was the most important thing to keep dry. Other things were just damp. My "cheap" camera, which I had in a belt-pack, had water running out of it. I removed the batteries and set it aside to begin drying out. I was glad I didn't have my good camera with me. I certainly would have lost it. My binoculars were also soaked. It wasn't till the end of the trip that I was able to get things pretty well dried out. I got the camera dried well enough that it rewound the film so I could remove it. Water ran out of the film cartridge as I took it out of the camera. I am still drying the camera. If it works, Fuji will get a very complimentary letter from me. Anyway, that night I went to sleep dreaming of the Beatles' song "We all live in a yellow submarine, yellow submarine, yellow submarine...."   (When I got home and dried the camera some more in the sun, it did work, and still does!)

On day four we paddled from Cascade Creek to the confluence of the Livingston river with the Soper. On the way we stopped at Willow River to hike over and see the willow grove. In a treeless land, these bushes seemed to have a unique importance, but to the casual southern visitor, they just seemed like a few bushes in a ravine. But then, maybe I was just a little jaded by my previous day's experience at that point. At the Livingston we saw more old tent rings, one which suggested a complex of three rooms. The following day was a "rest day." We hiked up the Livingston river to the falls, a hundred-foot-wide falls with about a ten-foot drop, and a lot of water coming over.

We woke up the next morning to a gray day, with blowing drizzle and fog. Cold and wet. With great reluctance I (probably we) got up, ate breakfast with a cold wind blowing upstream. We turned our backs to the wind and the drizzle and ate in silence. The coffee and tea didn't do much to lift our spirits. We knew we needed the energy and heat from the oatmeal to get us through the morning. The tops of the hills were in cloud. We didn't know whether the weather would worsen, stay the same, or improve, but we had to move along anyway. We took down our tents, wet as they were, and stowed them with our gear. Quietly I slipped the caribou vertebra out of my pocket and placed it back on the ground where it belonged. May its spirit now rest in peace, I thought. Wearing rainsuits (I with my poncho and rain pants) we paddled into the rainy headwind. Everything that kept out the wind was prized that day, and we discovered how much heat value those life vests had--quite a lot. Looking back on that day, cold and miserable as it was, it was in many ways a typical arctic day. We were lucky we had only one such day to contend with. Later in the summer and in the fall such a day is the norm.

On the following day we hiked across the frozen/swampy/rough meadow-like tundra with tussocks created by frost heaves to find the lapis lazuli deposit. The bright blue stone in its matrix of white crystallized limestone is quite striking. We were not to take any of the stone because it was the property of the Inuit, but we did pick up some small chips that we found lying about. We then marched on to the deposits of mica that were nearby. This was quite a sight. We could see the glittering from a distance as we approached. When we got there we found slabs and chunks of mica scattered all around on the little mound. It had been mined at various times around the turn of the century and again in the '30's. Mixed in was also fool's gold and graphite. The graphite looked like lead, was malleable, and left marks if you "wrote" with it.

The hills that rose above the river valley when they were lit by the sun had a wonderful variety of rock colors, from almost black, to shades of brown, to almost-white. There was one hill on the right (river-right, as one is going downstream) which particularly struck me. It had what looked like a large round "eye" in it, or perhaps it could have been the opening to a cave or tunnel or mine shaft. The bedding of the rock on the hill was generally horizontal, but at this spot the rock changed color to black and the "grain" of the rock was vertical. It looked like a great misplaced bubble of intrusive material formed when these rocks were hot. I asked the Inuit in Kimmirut about it, but no one seemed to know anything. I was sure it must have a story. But then, as they told me, most of their traveling up the valley was in winter, when the snow would present a different vista. If I were to mythologize it, it probably would be the gates to the underworld.

In the late afternoon or evening the hills to the west (river-right) become silhouettes against the sky. It is then that one particularly notices the occasional large boulder perched on the top, left by a glacier. Some of these are landmarks, like the one called Arnanquaq, "woman looking out," or further downstream, the old man. In other places the Inuit make their own stone markers, shaped like people, called Inukshuk, meaning, variously, "I was here," or "person keeping watch." These large boulders or the Inukshuk are clearly necessary in a land with so few landmarks. In the winter those on the hilltops would be blown clear of snow and would retain their visibility.

At the end of day seven we arrived at the bottom of the river (maybe I should say "the lower end" of the river). (Pace, Ned.) We camped next to the falls where the river drops into Soper Lake. The next day, day eight, we would portage to the lake, paddle across it, get trucked into the town of Kimmirut, and meet our hosts. More to come.

Mother and Child, soapstone carving


On to Part III