A Summer in the Arctic: Canoeing the Back River


ErinErin Clancey reports on the challenges and rewards of canoeing 518 miles down the Back River through the harsh and spectacular northern Canadian tundra.


It’s day seventeen of our trip down the Back River in the Canadian Arctic. We’ve just crossed from Garry Lake into Buliard Lake. It’s “hot”—64 degrees Fahrenheit—and calm. The bugs have really stepped it up. Even the animals can’t stand them. Wolves blink, pace and shake. Caribou run in frenzied circles.  We paddle in bug jackets and face nets. It’s always harsh up here. It’s either cold or windy or buggy.

We’ve been canoeing the big lakes for six days. They just seem to go on forever with no sign of our destination or the opposite shore. And we are hungry! I can see Scott’s ribs.

How did I end up devoting my summer to canoeing down this deranged river—a river that hasn’t even cut its own channel, but that wanders instead from lake to lake through endless miles of Arctic wilderness?

Taking a break on Lower MacDougall Lake
Taking a break on Lower MacDougall Lake.

All I heard last winter from Scott, my boyfriend, was, “I want to do the Back River! I want to do the Back River!” The Back is long and remote, flowing 673 miles through Barren Land topography from its source, Sussex Lake, to its terminus at Chantrey Inlet on the Arctic Coast. Scott has always been interested in Arctic canoe expeditions, and once he gets an idea in his head, he has to go through with it. He had done a shorter Arctic trip previously with his friend John, but wanted to try a longer, more challenging mission. I don’t necessarily share Scott’s passion for long Arctic canoe trips, but I’m usually up for an adventure (and I was promised that I could bring whiskey), so I conceded. John and his friend Dan would round out our group. Together, we started the long process of researching and planning logistics for the trip.

On July 12 we flew from Yellowknife into Beechey Lake, about 130 miles from the river’s source, with two 17-foot Expedition Pak canoes plus gear and food for 40 days. Our goal was the Hayes River confluence near Chantrey Inlet, 518 miles downstream.

Portaging aorund Beechey Cascades
Portaging around Beechey Cascades.

Even at the put-in the river was sizeable, forming impressive rapids and surf waves that left me drooling, longing for my playboat. But my enthusiasm for the rapids quickly waned, because big rapids generally meant portaging. I had to remind myself, this is more than a river trip, it’s an adventure! We ran many smaller rapids, but made most of our miles on flatwater, including several large lake crossings. Canoeing the lakes was either boring or exciting, but never in-between. They were tedious and challenging to navigate due to numerous islands and huge bays, but when the wind and waves kicked up, they could quickly get the adrenaline flowing.

Camp on the upper section of the Back River.
Camp on the upper section of the Back River.

The weather in the Arctic is so volatile. One morning we left camp in calm, clear weather. Then, all of a sudden, the wind direction changed to come out of the north. Within minutes the wind was howling and the temperature was dropping. By late afternoon it was raining sideways.

Wind was the main peril we faced on those long lake crossings and was our biggest hurdle to making miles. But in its own fickle way, wind could also be a blessing. It kept the bugs away, and sailing with a tailwind was a joy.

John and Dan with the caribou herd
John and Dan with a caribou herd.

The Back River provides plentiful fish and caribou, but it still amazes me that humans could survive in that harsh environment for thousands of years. (The river was originally called the Great Fish River, but was renamed after George Back, who descended it in 1834.) Even with our best efforts in modern trip planning, Scott and I failed to bring enough calories per day, so we were forced to supplement with fish, or John would bail us out with bannock, or we would ration our food and waste away. It was a strange and interesting experience to be truly hungry for an extended period of time.

Scott with two lake trout
Scott with two lake trout.

As we drew close to Pelly Lake, the first of the big lakes, we began to see signs of previous human occupation. Old Inuit tent rings adorned the lakeshores, and Inuksuks—stone landmarks that marked ancient travel and hunting routes—lined many of the rocky hills. The Back River region was historically inhabited by two groups of Inuit, the Caribou and the Netsilik. The Barren Lands were much more populous before the 1950s, when the Canadian government relocated the Inuit. Now humans are almost entirely absent from the landscape. We went 34 days without seeing other humans, or even any sign of human activity. Finally, on day 34, we encountered four very friendly Inuit men from Gjoa Haven who had motored up Franklin Lake to clean up the remains of an old fishing lodge.

Along with the solitude, one of my favorite things about the trip was experiencing the change of seasons. We began our trip in the height of summer; the sun was bright and warm, and it never got dark. But by August 1st, signs of fall had arrived. The big herds of caribou started heading south, the blueberries were ripe, the tundra was turning colors, and it was cold. I’d started getting chilblains on my hands—tissue damage resulting from paddling in wet gloves in the wind. As we traveled northward toward the Arctic Ocean we saw herds of muskox and watched the sun sink lower and lower in the sky.

Muscox on the tundra
Muskox on the tundra.

We arrived at our predetermined pickup spot at the Hayes River on August 14 after 35 days on the river. We were five days ahead of schedule and hoped to have time to hike out to Cockburn Bay on the Arctic coast and return in time to meet the plane. Instead we spent our last two days tent bound with temperatures hovering around 33 degrees F, high winds, rain and sleet. Finally, on day 39, the weather cleared and word came in on our satellite phone that our pilot hoped to take advantage of a weather window that afternoon to come get us. Despite a miscommunication about our actual coordinates, resulting in a stressful near-miss, our plane landed on the huge sand beach at the mouth of the Hayes. We left the wind, the tundra and the mud and sand flats behind us and started our transition back to civilization with our first stop in the Inuit village of Baker Lake.

Scott and I with Victoria Headlands in the background-001
Scott and Erin with Victoria Headlands in the background.


Streets of Baker Lake on a rainy day foundations are built above ground due to permafrost
Walking the streets of Baker Lake.

Baker Lake is only a tiny village, but the bustle of human activity and ATV traffic up and down the gravel streets was a shock after so much time spent in silent wilderness. It was strange to be inside a building again after being away from society and out on our own for so long. I immediately missed the tundra and the simple goal of making miles down a river.

Even though the trip had its challenges—days spent tired and hungry, black flies biting your eyelids as you tried to concentrate on filleting a fish—I would definitely go to the Arctic again. The rewards, like the challenges, came in the form of little things that added up over time—a beautiful sunset, a tail wind, the sign of an arctic fox, days when it was warm enough to dunk in the icy river, the bounty of having two fish for dinner. During those 39 days, we saw and experienced so many wonderful things on the tundra that the challenges became their own rewards. I think this is how you get hooked on the Arctic. And once you do, you have to keep going back.