Therapy for Restless Souls


On either side of a long, snaking spine that extends for a dizzying distance into the horizon are ponds of similar size. The ridge is a sandy esker, the remnants of a glacial river in the sub-arctic tundra of southern Nunavut, Canada. Exhaustion runs down from the tump line at the bridge of my head. I’m leaning forward against our kitchen box, and my wife, Leah, is ahead of me carrying her load. From this vantage above the sprawling landscape, it’s as if she’s walking along a portage in the sky toward a distant waterway we need to follow.

Without much warning, Leah stops. She turns and through an ear-cutting grin hollers over the minor gale about just how beautiful this whole scene is. Breaking my concentration on which pond seems closest to our ultimate destination—the left one I had decided. I look past her and study what has struck her. The esker is undulating, rolling between small rocks, lichens, sand and a few stunted, dwarf spruce trees.

In the distance I see what she’s already noticed, the eyes of a lake blinking blue under the brooding skies. Before she says it, I understand what she has felt. After months of reading the intricate chapters of this journey, reading the land, reading the water, wondering which chapter would be the last, that lake’s water will actually take us to the ocean. From here, it’s all downhill to Hudson Bay.

There are eskers back home where we live, though you don’t notice them under the trees. More likely, the bedrock canyons, sheer cliff walls, turquoise water and the varying shores of Lake Superior will capture your imagination. That is our home, on the north shore of the world’s largest lake by volume. We chose our little town for its access to go anywhere, by canoe at least, with some creativity.

At the beginning of June, we were acting on this idea, a dream to see if we could forgo cars, not board a plane, and still reach the barren tundra over a thousand crow-flying miles to the north.

We planned to leave home by canoe, paddle to the train line, take it as far as north as rails go, and continue on a canoe trip that would take us to the Sub-Arctic before descending to Hudson Bay. If it all worked, we’d regain the train line in Churchill, Manitoba, and repeat the trip’s beginning to paddle home from the rails.

From our backyard we made our first portage, a short one, and soon were fighting current for the first time of the trip going up a large, dammed river, heading north. We found snow in the shadows of islands, trees were only just blushing in their summer green, and we tightened our life jackets to insulate our cores against the late spring chill in northern Ontario. The upstream portages were straightforward, if a little bitter, as they followed well-made trails, though more often we walked the side of a road maintained by the dam staff. Where we were going, there would be no trails and no dams. In fact, these would be the only roads we would encounter for three months while paddling.

At the head of the river a giant lake sprawled in front of us, one we had to traverse from south to north. The local First Nations referred to it as the ‘the mother,’ as it’s the largest tributary of all the great lakes. We had to be careful not to get caught up in her lessons, after all, we had a train to catch. Knowing better than to question a mother’s love, we moved fast and feverishly during four days of calm. We were suspended somewhere between lake and sky, only a small, fading ‘V’ off the stern of our canoe breaking the illusion. For dinner, we ate trout. One morning, safely tucked in the lake’s far north end, I made coffee while two endangered woodland caribou swam by.

We could have driven to the train, but the ten days of paddling were a nice warm-up, and our encounters with nature were the reason we chose to travel by canoe. We needed the world to be big, mysterious, and wild again. More than anything, we needed to live slowly.

With all our gear and our yellow canoe named Fawn, we stood beside the railway line at a remote whistle stop in the woods. When the tracks began to vibrate, we sighed in relief that we had made it on time. The conductor blew his horn, and we waved him down. We spent a few days on the rails, changing trains occasionally, watching the world roll slowly from boreal to prairie before turning back into a smaller version of the forests we knew from back home.

We finally boarded a privately operated train from The Pas, Manitoba. It would take us to the remote Cree community of Pukutawagan on the banks of the Churchill River. I loaded our canoe into the freight hatch and then, as I helped carry onboard the casket of a young man, I realized that though these rails patched together our dream trip, they were the lifeline to the outside world for the remote First Nation.

When we jumped off the train onto a little island, a place locals call Pawistik, Cree for waterfall, the trip got real, fast.

Traveling a varied and wide landscape by canoe is a hard joy to understand for non-paddlers, though my paddling friends often find it odd, too. I used to be the paddler who traveled the world, kayaking hard whitewater, going to faraway destinations for certain rivers, boarding planes, driving through the night, in search of a feeling more than a state of mind. But times have changed. Leah and I only seek to travel through the land for which canoes were designed.

When we disembarked the train, we began a long and grueling journey climbing steadily up and out into the tundra. For a month we moved through a benevolent land, dealing with a multitude of unforeseen problems. Rivers we sometimes needed to go up would read more like a creek, and would eventually run dry. The current of other rivers would grab us and quickly become too steep or log-jammed to safely run. So, we would wade, cut, and claw our way forward. Some days we paddled beside islands on fire, suffocating in their smoke at night as we camped nearby. In some twisted and winding creek, a bull moose waded toward us inquisitively, filling us with wonder.

One rainy afternoon while cutting a portage through a burned and overgrown country, feeling uncertain about the months to come, Leah shot down the doubts I was leaning on. We’re here to be travelers, she reminded me, to roam, and for that, we had to keep going forward. We weren’t giving up.

Before the trip, it was obvious that we couldn’t carry 90 days of food and still enjoy ourselves. We planned a rendezvous point to refuel the supplies we needed to reach the ocean. 35 days’ worth of food awaited us at Kasba Lake Lodge. When we broke through the tree line, we didn’t anticipate being wind-bound for three nights on their airstrip, spending our evenings sipping beer brewed for the lodge, listening to the world-class fishing guides’ stories.

If we felt anxious to move, we tucked it in our smiles and let the long trail, tanned cheeks, and strong backs relax for what was to come. With our resupply packed, as the winds finally let off in the long glow of twilight at higher latitudes, we snuck back to our world of paddle strokes, the barren lands luring us on.

It seemed so right to be finally scouting big rapids from a high bank. We wouldn’t stay on this river’s course for long, and yet that didn’t matter, what mattered was buckling up our helmets, tightening down the canoe spray deck, and dissecting the first big whitewater of our trip. That evening we sat on an island void of trees cooking arctic grayling on a little fire of willow twigs we had slowly gathered from the ground. A caribou rack was tangled in one of the bushes and in all the currents we could see more fish buzzing around, occasionally a big hunting lake trout would scatter the schools in a flurry of water.

Farther down we would stop in eddies and hike up giant eskers, occasionally spying a white wolf, other times caribou would disappear over the ridge. When it was time to leave this river for the next, we fought up and down sad creeks, through wonderful tundra, and across beautifully clear lakes with schools of trout circling under our hull. Caribou roamed the shores. In camp, ptarmigan chicks would run around in confused chaos. When a lone Muskox grazed along the bank, we knew that all our dreams surrounded us.

A few weeks later, we stop mid-portage along an esker ridge and catch each other’s eye. I know what Leah is thinking.

It seems like a lifetime ago when the idea for this trip began. We don’t like to talk about that day often, yet it was our catalyst for slowing down. Eight months earlier we had been caught in a whiteout on a northern highway coming back from a big journey. We tried to get off the road but there was nowhere to go, and then the road became a jam of transport trucks. Our vehicle was crushed between two of them. It was there, in a frigid, frozen ditch, dumbfounded to be alive, that we knew something had changed irreparably in us. We would look for new ways to live out our adventures, we would become more creative in our need for the land.

We are finally going only downstream; our talk veers toward continuous big rapids, the ocean, and polar bears. The landscape once again reminded us to slow down. The first lake we had spied from our esker portage begins to outflow not as the river we imagined, but rather under a field of boulders.

We battle for three days before we meet the river whose early stages we toiled upon, and then we experience her power. 200 miles inland from the coast, seals appear in the eddies of rapids, sometimes charging upstream beside us as we holler down a big wave train. Our nights have returned, bringing the aurora to keep us company on white bear shift work. When their giant necks begin to appear in rapids and on shorelines, we have to stave off fear and remember how lucky we are to be in their territory, in the world of Wapusk, tiptoeing around the world’s greatest hunter.

At last, we huddle in a small hunting shack staring out toward a tumultuous ocean. We’re waiting for a boat ride to Churchill, Manitoba, where we will reboard the train and repeat our humble beginnings from three months prior. But for now, we stand speechless in a shaking cabin with polar bears pushing at the walls.


Guest Contributor David Jackson is an assignment photographer, writer, and filmmaker hailing from a small town on the north shore of Lake Superior. His work drifts between land and people and how the two invariably intertwine.  Follow along on his adventures on Instagram.