Beyond the Barren Lands: A Descent of the James River


I stood on the rock slab next to the river and watched my husband walk downstream along the cobbled riverbank. He was hard to see through the bug net covering my face and the low Arctic light that filtered through the brown smoky haze filling the river valley. I was so tired of being hot I didn’t want to move. Hot from scouting in a drysuit, hot from portaging in a bug jacket, hot from sleeping in a zero-degree sleeping bag and four-season tent in perpetual daylight, and hot from the suffocating forest fire smoke carried north by the south winds.

I looked down at the small turbulent eddy, exhaled to prepare for the onslaught of bugs, stripped, and stepped in. The water was warm enough to be pleasant, so I stayed, trying to cool my skin and temper. This was nothing like my last trip to the Barren Lands, and in the swirling current, I almost forgot where I was. Gazing downriver, a grizzly bear weaved through the willows and tundra. Despite what my river dip would suggest, I was in the vast wilderness of the Canadian Arctic, close to the Arctic Ocean, on the first modern recorded descent of the James River.

We first learned about the James River in 2018 during a trip on the Hood River in the Kitikmeot Region, Nunavut Territory, Canada. The James is a sizable tributary that joins the Hood just before Bathurst Inlet. Looking upstream from the confluence, a descent of the James quickly became a goal. This was our second attempt; in 2019, we tried to complete the James but failed.

We started that trip on the Tree River, a drainage to the west, planning to portage from the Tree into the headwaters of the James and paddle to the ocean. That year, spring came late, and we were stymied by ice on the lakes, high water, big rapids and portages that took days. This year, our singular goal was to complete the James. Then, if we had extra time, we would paddle the ocean to the old Bathurst Inlet settlement on the mouth of the Burnside River.

We left Yellowknife by float plane on July 10, 2023. It was an unusually dry year in the far north, and large wildfires were visible in the boreal forest and up on the tundra. We unloaded and counted our neatly labeled dry bags, listening until the engine noise disappeared into the winds ripping across the lake. Then we loaded our boats, fixed our exterior bags to our bow and stern and started paddling.

The interior landscape is characterized by a great expanse of barren-ground tundra, rugged uplands, large areas of exposed metamorphic rock, and giant eskers that appear to slither across the tundra-like snakes made of sand. The river at its headwaters takes a deranged course, where it is primarily lakes connected by short stretches of river. We saw small herds of muskox, lone caribou, huge bull moose and arctic ground squirrels, always on the lookout for arctic wolves and grizzly bears.

We had been on this upper section in 2019, and it was familiar territory until the canyon following the last lake. The difference from our previous trip, however, was striking. It was hot and buggy, the water low and unusually warm. Often, we had to paddle with our bug jackets on. But, five long days and two portages later, we dropped from the upper James into new territory.

As we descended, canyons became more frequent, with bigger and longer rapids. Still weighed down with food and gear, we preferred to portage our external bow and stern bags around larger rapids and run the boats. However, the rapids were so long and abundant that this method proved inefficient. So, we either paddled with all our gear or we portaged.

The whitewater reached a crescendo as we approached the largest canyon. We knew this canyon held several waterfalls, so we camped well above the entrance and climbed a hill to scout. In the canyon, there were four huge drops. The first three were in a walled-in gorge. We found a route on river left, hiking two kilometers up and over the canyon rim and then down the other side to the fourth waterfall, roughly 50 feet tall with a death crack in the rock slab on the river right.

We ferried across above the falls to find an amazing camp right at the lip. This section had been the crux, but there was one more waterfall to portage before the river mellowed to flat water until the Hood confluence. We camped early, deciding to finish the portage the next day. Having completed our descent of the James River in just ten days, we would reach the ocean with enough food to paddle to Bathurst Inlet. We reveled in victory for about five minutes before pressing down the Hood toward the ocean in the golden light of evening.

We had never been on a sea kayaking trip before and anticipated challenges such as wind, current and finding fresh water. However, a larger danger lingered that we never expected. The first inkling arrived camping near the mouth of the Hood.

We were falling asleep when we heard footsteps. A giant, hulking shape appeared on the tent wall, followed by the snort and growl of a grizzly bear. We immediately kicked out of our sleeping bags, yelling and reaching for bear spray. Too terrified to stay put, I grabbed a canister and went on patrol. The bear seemed to have accidentally wandered into our tent, spooked and run off. Back in bed, I tried my best to sleep; we would attempt our longest open water crossing the next day.

Toward the coast, the geology changes from the Canadian Shield to the massive rift valley forming Bathurst Inlet. Sheer cliffs and expansive rocky areas form an impressively beautiful coastline. On day eleven, we left the rivers and crossed the Arctic Sound. We made the five-kilometer jump just in time for the winds to pick up, setting up camp by a small freshwater stream to wait for calmer seas.

From there, it took two days to round the peninsula into Bathurst Inlet proper. We could see islands to the north toward Coronation Gulf and the rugged cliffs of Bathurst Inlet to the south. As we turned the corner south, ringed and bearded seals became abundant, heads bobbing alongside our kayaks. On land, the historical caribou migration routes traverse the islands and shores of Bathurst Inlet. Grizzly footprints decorated the beaches, and countless digs scarred the tundra.

We were on the beach the morning of day 16 when Scott spotted a large animal swimming towards our camp. A look through the binoculars quickly confirmed my worst nightmare: a grizzly was swimming toward the beach, undeterred by our presence. We scared it away without too much trouble but couldn’t help wondering about the predatory nature of the grizzlies we’d encountered. Barren-ground grizzly bears are omnivores but rely heavily on caribou as a food source and actively hunt them from spring to autumn. They seemed to be hunting us, too.

Our flatwater slog to the mouth of the Burnside River continued for three more days. The weather was still hot and sunny, the winds calm. We camped at a point with a large inukshuk, a stone landmark made by Inuit, close enough to see the white buildings and red roofs of the defunct Bathurst Lodge. Paddling out to fetch drinking water, I watched an Inuit motorboat speed back to the cluster of houses.

The next day, we navigated the sandbars spilling from the river mouth to reach Bathurst Inlet. After ten days of ocean paddling, we had done it, but couldn’t celebrate yet. We were eating lunch when our pilot messaged. They could not fly out of Yellowknife due to wildfire smoke; we should expect at least a two to three-day delay. With only one extra day of food, we immediately started rationing, deciding to continue to the settlement and then up toward an inland bay with a freshwater creek.

When we arrived at the Bathurst Inlet townsite, we were greeted by a family from Kugluktuk and Cambridge Bay who invited us in for tea. George, Karen, and Uncle Pete shared hot tea and Bannock while children of all ages and young adults did dishes, chatted, and played on their phones. Not wanting to impose further, we thanked them and continued up to make camp.

The first night was uneventful. The wildfire smoke from the south again moved north, and it was overcast and rainy. We tried fishing but failed, settling for a half ration of dinner. We spent most of the next day relaxing in the tent. When the rain finally stopped, Scott decided to try fishing again. He was getting his gear ready when he returned to the tent with bad news: A grizzly was on the hill above our camp.

The bear was still over half a kilometer away, so I started assembling a bear banger (a firecracker-like explosive you can shoot from a pen launcher). I was putting my pants on when I heard Scott say, “Hey bear,” followed very quickly with, “OH F#%&, she has cubs and she’s charging us!!!” I hopped out of the tent barefoot, bear banger in hand, to see three grizzlies barreling toward us at a full charge.

“Cub” is a misnomer. Grizzly cubs stay with their mother for two to three years. Rather than cute and cuddly, they can easily weigh over 200 pounds by the fall of their second year.

The bear banger exploded with a loud boom and flash of light. The grizzlies paused but kept charging. I quickly loaded another and fired. This time, they stopped, finally realizing that we might not be worth pursuing. With a sniff to catch our scent, they dropped down to all fours and ran away. Our guess was that the sow saw movement and hunted us the way she would caribou. Regardless, I had had enough. We packed up camp and paddled back to the Inuit.

Karen and George showed us a grassy area near the old Bathurst Lodge. We fell asleep to laughter as people swam in the estuary. Over the next few days, we shared many cups of tea. George’s family had lived in Bathurst Inlet when the lodge was still running and there were permanent residents. He had a long history with the area and rich stories of fishing, hunting and snowmobiling.

As we spent more time in the cottage, the children’s shyness eased, revealing kind, interesting, curious and loving people with a strong sense of humor. On day 23, our plane landed on the ocean in front of the old lodge. Everyone, even the small children, helped load and refuel the plane. We taxied beyond the sandbars and took off heading south.

From the air, we could see several tundra fires. Approaching Yellowknife, the smoke became thicker. The pilot found an opening between plumes and landed in the bay near old town. The news of the fires was dire. Behchoko and Enterprise, two nearby towns, had already burned. Soon, Yellowknife would be evacuated.

It had been a stressful trip. We paddled hard for 21 days, descended unknown canyons on the James River, survived the bears, and navigated the Arctic Ocean, but this was nothing compared to losing your home. Our encounters with the grizzlies left me deeply rattled, but they pushed us beyond the wilderness into the homes of its people. Barren, by definition, means bleak and lifeless. Whether the tundra is on fire or frozen, the Barren Lands is anything but. Every time I return, I am further humbled, reminded that the far north is full of surprises, beautiful landscapes, harsh conditions, unforgiving weather, and kind, resilient people.