Watching your floatplane take off and fly away leaving you in the silence and vast openness of the tundra is truly a unique experience. If you like wilderness and long river trips, the Arctic is an amazing place with beautiful lakes and waterfalls, wildlife, and 24-hour daylight in the summer. Northern Alaska and Arctic Canada are covered in rivers that flow for miles before they reach the Arctic Ocean, and the possibilities for exploring these waterways are endless.
Planning an expedition can be a fun challenge, but only if you’re successful. It’s hard to know what to expect and what gear you will need when you explore new rivers in new environments. Suffering is part of the fun, sure, but you don’t want to suffer because you simply forgot an item that you could have easily brought with you.
I’ve paddled (and portaged) three different rivers in Arctic Canada that all finished on the Arctic Ocean—the Back River for six weeks, the Horton River for four weeks, and the Hood River for three weeks. Each trip had a different set of challenges, and even on my third trip I still forgot essential pieces of gear—(sh)it happens. Here are some tips from what I have learned along the way.
Picking your River, Watercraft and Transport
Picking a river will depend on your interests, timeframe, willingness to portage, and budget. The Barren Lands region of Arctic Canada is not for everyone. Some people may be more interested in doing a river that flows from the Brooks Range in Alaska or a river flowing from the Mackenzie Mountains in the Yukon. Some first-timer may prefer tackling a well-established route that has existing trip reports and obvious pick-up locations. Others might find connecting a series of lakes or portaging between drainages and establishing their own route more interesting.
For the most part, the more established routes are going to have simpler logistics. Simpler logistics typically result in a more budget-friendly trip. In general, rivers in Alaska and the Yukon are going to have more gradient, making them more amenable to rafting, while rivers farther east into the Barren Lands tend to require a substantial amount of lake crossings and portaging and are better suited for a canoe or kayak.
Once you figure out where you want to go and what kind of boat you want to take, you need to figure out how to get you and your boats there or what rentals are available. Air charter flights in a bush plane are the most efficient way to access most rivers. If you’re planning on renting a boat (canoe or raft) or you have a packable canoe or kayak, you can always fly commercially to your northern destination and then hop on your charter flight.
We’ve flown with our Pak Canoe to Inuvik and Yellowknife, both in the Northern Territories, and then jumped in a floatplane. Last summer, we did the Hood in hard-shell Pyranha Fusion kayaks. I drove to Yellowknife and then we squeezed into the Ahmic Air’s charter beaver. The Canadian regulations allow hard-shell canoes to be tied on the outside of the plane to one of the floats. Because air charter is expensive, you need to make the most of your flight. This generally means you’ll want to fill the planes with people and gear, while still meeting the weight and space limit.
You won’t be able to just go buy a map or boater’s guide to a remote river, you will have to print your own maps and/or use a GPS. With GPS technology readily available, we use both. Topographical maps for Canada can be downloaded for free from Natural Resources Canada. It’s also really helpful to use Google Earth to identify key landmarks and rapids on your route. As a general rule, if you can see the rapid from satellite imagery, it’s worth getting out to scout. Adding mileage markers to your map is also helpful so you can keep track of how far you go each day.
Once you print your maps you will need to waterproof them. We have waterproofed our paper maps a few different ways. Simply taping each sheet with packing tape is a little time consuming but cheap and easy. Or, you can have them printed and laminated from a professional print station. Some of the more popular rivers have trip reports available online. For example, you can get trip reports from Canadian Canoe Routes. Using a trip report or not is a matter of preference. We never use them because we might have a difference in opinion about what rapids are runnable, where to portage, or where to scout. Besides, discovering things on your own is fun!
You want to have your system dialed before you go. If you’re bringing your own boat, do at least one trial run of packing your bags before you leave your house. If you’re renting on-site, pack everything in your boat before your bush flight. Not only does all your gear have to fit in your canoe or kayak (a raft should always have enough space), everything you bring also has to fit inside your plane and meet the weight restrictions. Be sure to consider portages and pack in a way that also allows you to carry everything. Unless you’re doing a very well known route, you should always prepare for portaging as a swim or losing gear could be life-threatening.
Arranging your packing regime will take some thought and the weight will add up quickly, especially if you’re packing enough food and fuel for a month or more. Within our Pak Canoe, we fit all of our food into two Harmony Gear waterproof 60-liter barrels and attached a Paragon Pack to each barrel so we could easily carry them. Then we packed the rest of our gear in two 110-liter NRS Bill’s Bags. We each had a day backpack and dry bag under our seat for lunch and layers needed during the day.
Packing a canoe and preparing for portaging is fairly straightforward since an expedition canoe is made to hold a lot of gear. Using kayaks can make packing a little bit trickier considering the limited space and need for efficiency when portaging. We used two large Pyranha Fusion kayaks for our three-week trip down the Hood River. The Fusions have a hatch so the rear of the kayak is easily accessible and dry. To pack the rear of the boats, we used MightyLight Dry Sacks of varying sizes to fit in the nooks and crannies of the stern. In the bow, we shoved two HydroLock Kayak Stow Float Bags full of food as far forward as possible and then used the 65-liter Bill’s Bag half filled with soft items like clothes and sleeping bags as a bulkhead, directly pushing on the bag with our feet.
Swimming with a setup like this is not an option, but it does allow you to fit more gear in your boat and bring a Bill’s Bag. Half filling the Bill’s Bag to store in the boat, allowed us to use the extra space during the portages. All of the loose MightyLights and float bags could fill out the Bill’s Bag. Anything remaining could be portaged in the kayak itself on a second trip, either by carrying the kayak or dragging the boat across the tundra. We also had auxiliary dry bags mounted on the bow and stern of each kayak that held the first week’s food. Later we either stowed the empty bags or used them for garbage. (Pro tip: Attach your garbage bags outside of your kayak to prevent smelling like a rubbish bin for the rest of the trip.)
The biggest mistake we have ever made with food planning was on our six-week trip on the Back River. We didn’t pack enough calories per day, and it was the only time in my life that I’ve gone hungry for an extended period of time. Make sure you count calories, especially for your dinners. Having a big dinner will save you. On all of our trips we have done a mix of pre-packaged, freeze-dried meals, which are nice, light and easy to clean up, and dried food meals such as pasta, couscous, and dried black beans (which we vowed never to bring again).
We begin our expedition mornings with instant coffee flavored with powdered milk and either granola or oatmeal. To keep everything organized, we vacuum seal each individual meal in its own pouch. This way when you’re digging through your food bag or barrel you don’t have to find independent items. For lunch, we mostly have calorie-rich snacks, such as cheese and nuts and then add in a few bars. Fish is also a great supplement for lunch or dinner, so bringing a fishing rod and pan to cook in is a great idea.
Cooking fish is by far the smelliest meal, and the only time I really worry about attracting a bear into camp. We’ve never had problems with grizzly bears on any of our trips, but they are around. If you’re doing a trip on the tundra, you won’t have any trees to hang your food. We pretty much separate our tent area from the cooking area and then scatter our food bags in different directions out on the tundra.
Expect to Suffer—This is Type B Fun By the Way
The three big hardships in the Arctic are bugs, wind, and cold weather. If it’s not one, it’s the other, but being mentally prepared and having the right gear will help. To deal with the bugs you need to have long sleeves and pants that they can’t bite through and a bug jacket with a face net. Just expect to wear these on shore at all times. Spraying a bandana with DEET will also help keep the bugs away from your face. Mosquitoes are easy to deal with because they don’t crawl inside your clothes and, eventually, you will get used to them. Black flies, on the other hand, are insidious and will infiltrate any crack in your clothing. DEET and a Zen-like state of being are the only two things—combined together—that can combat black flies.
When storms blow in and the wind picks up, the bugs will hunker down in the tundra, but then you have to deal with wind and cold while paddling and camping. Be sure to schedule weather days into your itinerary. A really windy day would be a bad time to make a big lake crossing, and running rapids in a snowstorm can be dangerous. On these days, it’s more efficient to just rest or go for a hike, but you need to make sure you have warm gear and a good tent to be comfortable when it’s a howling blizzard.
Gear for Camp, Gear for the Water
You will need basic camping gear, such as a tent, stove, sleeping bag and pad, river gear and warm clothes, but stouter versions of all those are necessary for the harsh conditions on the tundra. You need a strong four-season tent that can withstand wind and snow. I’ve seen a northerly wind flatten a tent. Consider buying one designed for mountaineering with a good rainfly, full inner walls, strong guy lines, and a vestibule. Sleeping bag weight is dependent on your preference and natural body heat. I use a zero degree bag, which seems to keep me warm enough. Sleeping pads not only even out the lumpiness of the tundra, they also offer an added layer of insulation.
Every trip we’ve managed to squeeze in a bug tent, which also doubles as a rain/wind shelter. It’s really nice to be able to cook with some reprieve from the bugs and elements, and it will cut down on fuel use.
When it comes to cookware, don’t depend solely on wood-fire. Depending on how north you travel above the tree line, you might not find any firewood to cook on. I recommend packing a primary stove to use on an open fire and an MSR Reactor Stove or gas-stove alternative that can boil water in windy conditions. Take the time to calculate your estimated fuel usage. Gas canisters are heavy and take up space, so although you don’t want to run out, you also don’t want to over pack.
If you’re doing a whitewater-focused trip, rafting or kayaking, you will, of course, need to wear a drysuit. However, if you’re canoeing or doing a hybrid type trip where you have long lake crossings, a drysuit is probably too much for the “hot” days. On our last trip, we used a dry top-dry pant combo with the NRS Orion Jackets and Free Fall Dry Pants. Having a paddle top with a hood and a neoprene neck gasket is really nice for long days in foul weather, and it’s great to be able to paddle in a sun shirt or fleece base layer on warmer days. Kayaking we wear helmets, which also keep you warm and the rain off of your head. Canoeing, I wear a warm hat and then use my hood to keep my head dry.
I know I’ve said it before but, space is limited. When it comes to camp clothes, the most important things to consider are warmth and mosquito coverage. You can pretty much wear the same pants and shirt for the entire trip, but it’s nice to have an extra if one fails. Technical apparel—think wicking and quick drying—is essential. I take two pairs of light hiking pants and two light shirts, which double as light base layers on hot days on the water. For cold days, I have a set of H2Core Expedition base layers for paddling and then I have extra base layers, and a fleece for camp that I keep in a dry bag. I bring a big down jacket, one designed for mountaineering, and a Gortex raincoat.
One thing I always blow it on is taking care of my hands. It’s windy, wet, and cold, your hands will take a beating paddling all day. Bring the heaviest, windproof gloves that you have and hand lotion. From now on, I will always bring Toaster Mitts for canoeing or pogies for kayaking, a second pair for camp, and lotion to relieve the chapped skin.
The Essential Extras & The (Mostly) Essential Extras
Repair and rescue equipment in case of an emergency are obvious essentials. We’ve started using a Garmin In-Reach to communicate with the pilots and for SOS. I also keep a SPOT beacon in my PFD, in case I get separated from my boat, and a flare gun. On the Back River, our pilot had the incorrect coordinates for our pickup location. As the weather closed in, he said he would have missed us if I hadn’t shot off the flares.
We carry a full medical kit, including prescription medications, and then repair materials for all of our equipment (from boats and skirts to stoves and tents). Another essential: extra canoe paddles or a breakdown kayak paddle.
Although a bowline is always used with a raft or canoe, it’s actually really handy for kayaks too. A fully loaded kayak is too heavy to bring all the way on shore in most places and since losing your boat isn’t an option, use a bowline to tie it up. It also works great for dragging your boat on portages. A fishing rod in the arctic is actually an essential piece of gear. There are plenty of very large lake trout in the river and if anything happens to your food supply, it’s at the very least a reliable plan B.
Headlamps. Remember that 24-hour sun? These definitely fall into the ‘could-be essential,’ but it depends on latitude and season. If you go in July above the Arctic Circle, it never gets dark. By the end of August on our Back River trip, it was getting very dusky in the middle of the night. Of our three trips in the Arctic, we’ve left the headlamps at home.
On the other hand, a good book (or two), a journal and a deck of cards teeter between ‘essential’ and ‘mostly essential.’ There’s a good chance you’ll spend a few days lying in the tent—literally lying, all day—due to bad weather. It’s really nice to have a book to read and a deck of cards. The journal’s job is two-fold. While it can entertain you during a storm, jotting down notes from your current trip will be an invaluable tool—or light-hearted stress reliever—as you plan your next adventure. Once while packing, I found a note in my journal saying, “Scott stinks, I really hope he changes his socks today.” I don’t think he ever changed his socks.
The Arctic is a harsh place, but if you’re prepared, you will have an amazing adventure. Trust us, third time is NOT the charm in the tundra. We love it so much we keep planning trips to go back!