Paddle Plans: Your Next Big Summer Adventure

From the April/May issue of EDGEYK: Dan Wong gives some expert advice on how to execute an epic, do-it-yourself wilderness canoe trip down the Coppermine River

Last year I embarked on a voyage down the historic Coppermine River, and returned with a lot of experience that I’d like to pass on to anyone interested in trying the trip for themselves. The information below will get you started with some useful advice and ideas.

(Note: “left” and “right” are used as if you are looking downstream.)

Where and when do I start?

The Coppermine River is 845 km long with headwaters near Lac de Gras. While the river receives 10-12 trips each summer season, many of the two-week guided expeditions begin south of the “Big Bend,” about 225 km from Kugluktuk and the Arctic coast. We decided to start 475 km upstream at Point Lake near Peterson’s Lake Lodge. If you start here, I’d recommend you give yourself three weeks sometime in the month of August. The fall season relieves you from bugs, and delivers berries, arctic char, a caribou migration and the spectacular colours of the tundra.  

The advantages to starting at Point Lake:

  • You can take in a few days of trout fishing and exploration on Point, Red Rock and Rock Nest Lakes
  • You’ll avoid almost 375 km of lake paddling from Lac de Gras, but at marginal extra cost in charter fees  
  • Check out Peterson’s Point Lake Lodge to get your expedition off to the right start. Their facilities make for a comfortable stay and ideal basecamp to get your bearings

If you do decide to start at Point Lake, watch out for a Class III rapid about three km downstream of the confluence with Napaktolik River (65°42’08.91”N 114°09’42.68”).

It’s a staircase-like cascade littered with big boulders, three- to four-foot ledges, and must-make moves. It’s a short carry, best portaged on the right.

Whitewater skill: how much do I need?

Not as much as you probably think. You don’t need to be an advanced paddler in moving water. There are challenging rapids with serious consequences, but remember that the Coppermine River is a river-system. It’s a network of flat-water lakes and sections of river, much of which runs slowly with relaxing current. You should have experience in overnight, self-propelled wilderness travel, be able to control your boat in current and in high winds, and be proficient in both self and assisted rescues.

Because accidents can happen to the best of us, consider enrolling in a local swift-water rescue or wilderness first aid course. Jack Pine Paddle launched this spring to provide high-quality safety training for paddlers in Yellowknife, with Paddle Canada certified instructors.  

 

Cliffs in the Rocky Defile Rapid Canyon

What can you tell me about the rapids?

The most challenging whitewater days will come at the very end of your trip, offering ample time to hone your skills in the upper sections. With loads of Class I and II features to keep you excited, there are two rapids that merit special mention:

Rocky Defile

Rocky Defile (67°02’07.77”N, 116°12’11.86W) is one of the spiciest rapids you’ll encounter. Granite cliffs funnel the river down a one-km canyon, with some nasty features you’ll want to avoid. As you enter the canyon with a decked boat, stay just to the left of the large waves coming off the steep wall to right. Keep to the middle and as the canyon veers right, set your angle and start moving to the far right, staying away from the strong eddies and ledges on the left and an SUV-sized boulder in the middle of the river. There is plenty of space and time to make your moves.

You’d also be wise to scout the line in advance, as rapids can change over time and with fluctuating water levels. If you don’t like what you see, the portage trail is on the right shore.

Kugluk (Bloody Falls)

Approximately 17 km before you reach Kugluktuk, you’ll arrive at Kugluk Territorial Park. Here, the Coppermine River rips down a narrow Class VI gorge. This is a traditional fishing and gathering place, with an old campsite located below the whitewater called “Onoagahiovik,” meaning the “place where you stay all night” (because the fishing is that good). As you approach Kugluk (Bloody Falls) don’t believe your NTS 1:50,000 maps, since the portage is located on the left, not on the right as marked.

Kugluk (Bloody Falls)

How much will flights cost?

Your flights will cost a small fortune and will be your largest expense of the trip.

The charter flight from Yellowknife will be $900 - $2,000 per person, depending on your group size, the type of float plane you are chartering, and the distance you need to fly to your starting point. For groups of three or less, I’d recommend Steve Jeffery at Ahmic Air. Steve and his pilots operate a DHC-2 Beaver aircraft with enlarged windows for greater visibility. This makes for a memorable float-plane flight that will be remembered as a highlight of your adventure. It’s also worth checking with Chuk at Plummer’s Lake Lodge at Great Bear Lake if there is space available on one of their weekly flights when the lodge is operating. Once at the lodge, you may be able to charter the lodge-owned Single Otter a short distance to the Coppermine River.

For larger groups of four or more, you may need to charter a Caravan/Twin Otter from Air Tindi. Keep in mind that if you’re planning on taking multiple canoes with you, they will likely need to nest together when strapped to the outside of a floatplane. Nested canoes need to be able to fit completely inside one another, with the yoke, seats and thwarts removed and reassembled on site. Consider pack canoes to increase your charter flight options and trim your bill significantly.

If you have six weeks or more it’s possible to sidestep the charter cost completely by paddling to the Coppermine River from Yellowknife.

Once in Kugluktuk, you can expect to pay around $800 to return to Yellowknife on a direct, scheduled, First Air flight (every weekday). Big discounts are available for members of the Union of Northern Workers but you’ll need to show your union card upon boarding. First Air will also securely store your canoe in Kugluktuk and fly it back to Yellowknife on a cargo plane for approximately $160.

What should I bring?

Consider a few key items:

Binoculars: the Coppermine River valley is teeming with animals. A good pair of binos will give you the best chance to get close to Bathurst caribou, muskoxen, moose, tundra swans, wolves, barren-land grizzly bears and wolverines. You stand an excellent chance at spotting nesting raptors, including gyrfalcons, peregrine falcons, rough-legged hawks, and golden/bald eagles.

DSLR camera with a good zoom lens: if you’re going to be surrounded by stunning wilderness and rare wildlife, you might as well bring back some jaw-dropping photographs to share with friends and family.

A strong, bomb-proof tent: your campsites can be exposed, windy as heck, and subject to rain, hail and snow. Bring a tent that you trust with adequate tie-down points.

Rubber boots: if it’s cold, windy and wet, you’ll want to keep those feet dry. Rubber boots are a guide’s secret for comfortable work around the water’s edge (loading and unloading canoes, doing dishes, and fishing).

A glass of scotch for the moment you cross the Arctic Circle (66°33′46.4″ N): come on and live a little, you’ll have earned it.

The author with an Arctic Grayling

Can you eat local?

Absolutely. If on the river in mid-late August, you’ll likely be able to supplement your oatmeal, desserts and snacks with ample supplies of blueberries, crowberries, cranberries and alpine bearberries, common throughout the Coppermine River system. Then there's the char. Considered by many chefs to be superior to salmon or trout, the richly flavoured flesh of the Arctic char is unmistakable. We had good results on silver spoons, which are effective flashers in the bright light and clear waters of the lower Coppermine River. If you are into fly-fishing, Arctic char will eagerly rise to a variety of flies from streamers/wet flies to dry flies and/or nymphs.

When you catch your first Arctic char, consider a simple recipe from Luluz Market Executive Chef Jason Kirby:

Arctic Char With Lime Beurre Noisette Sauce

  1. Add a little bit of vegetable oil to a pan and heat until it starts to smoke
  2. Place your arctic char fillet skin-down on the pan until skin is golden brown
  3. Add 50g of butter to the pan and flip the filet until it is cooked, then remove from pan and set aside
  4. Continue to heat butter until it starts to brown, squeeze a fresh lime or lemon into the pan, and pour over the arctic char
  5. Add salt and pepper to taste, garnish with parsley or wild greens, and serve immediately

Any final tips?

  • Secure your canoe to something solid every single night. There are few things worse than waking up the morning after a windy night to a camp with no canoe

  • There is a stunning, must-camp campsite on a rocky ledge to the right just after Escape Rapids (67°337’21.52”N 115°28’41.79”W). Firewood is scarce but your best bet is to  scavenge in the willows nearby

  • If overnighting in Kugluktuk at the end of your journey, free camping is available at the northwest end of town. Also – don’t miss the new Visitor and Heritage Centre

  • Tread lightly on the land and endeavor to pack out everything (and more) than you bring in