A 600-Mile Canoe Trip Through the Canadian Wilderness

by Vern Evans

THE SIX OF US are experienced canoeists, but I began to wonder if Mark and Eck had taken the time to make sure their life vests were adjusted properly before they rammed into the first set of rapids on our trip. The cold river water can collapse a man’s lungs as it sucks the heat from his body. I fought to dismiss such thoughts and concentrate on helping my partner control our own canoe. Suddenly Mark and Eck were in serious trouble. They had been setting up their approach to the rapids when they hit a rock. The canoe turned sideways, shipped water, and swamped. Rich Thompson and I watched in horror from the second canoe as our companions were swept downstream until they disappeared in the roaring water. 

A man couldn’t last more than a few minutes in that cold fast current. This close to the Arctic Circle, the Coppermine River doesn’t get much warmer than 40°, even in midsummer. We were deep in the Northwest Territories, and if anything serious happened, the only help we could expect would be when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police came looking for us if we didn’t reach the village of Coppermine by August 2, nearly two weeks away. 

There was nothing Rich and I could do to help, so we took the rapids on the side opposite where our friends had swamped. It wasn’t a hard shoot from the left, and we went through easily. Another, smaller rapids lay ahead, and from my post in the stern I could see no sign of Mark, Eck, or their canoe. Somewhere behind us was our third canoe with Dick Tupper and David Simmons. 

It wasn’t until we got through the second rapids that we spotted our friends ashore. They’d beached their canoe in an eddy more than a mile downstream from where they’d swamped. Both men were dancing out of their clothes and trying to check their canoe’s cargo at the same time. 

Rich and I cut into shore, followed closely by the third canoe. 

“We’re all right,” said Mark, shivering. “Help us check this stuff.”

We began emptying soggy bundles: one food bag, two Duluth packs, and an army-surplus ammunition box that contained two of our cameras. Rich moaned. “Two of the cameras are soaked. There’s a thousand bucks shot to hell. At least you guys are okay. We still have Dave’s camera to take pictures of the rest of the trip.” 

We set up camp on the spot and built a fire so Mark and Eck could dry out. Later, accompanied by swarms of insects, we went fishing at the foot of the rapids. 

Mark had made only a few casts when his rod snapped into a curve and the tip jabbed at the water. As I watched, I forgot my hunger, the soreness from the day’s 21 miles of kneeling and paddling, and the blackflies that clung to my headnet and crawled up my pantlegs. 

“Laker!” Mark yelled, beaching his catch. “It’ll go twenty-five pounds easy.”

Suddenly the weeks of hardship we’d endured seemed worthwhile again; after all, we were one day closer to Coppermine, where the river empties into Coronation Gulf on the Arctic Ocean. But then I looked upstream from Mark and his fish, and I shuddered to think how close he and Eck had come to disaster. Judging by what I’d read and heard, some of the rapids we still had to run would make the one we’d just come through seem tame. 

WE WERE SITTING in front of our tents eating steaks from Mark’s trout in the sunshine of an arctic summer night when—as it had for the past 25 days—the talk turned to our food supply and how many miles we might be able to cover the next day. Ever since we’d left the community of Yellowknife at the north end of Great Slave Lake, we’d been measuring our rations against the distance that remained between us and Coppermine. 

The idea for the month-long trip had begun at Kooch-I-Ching, a youth camp at Rainy Lake in Quetico-Superior canoe country on the Minnesota-Ontario border, where the six of us had canoed together since we were boys. Now it was 1974 and we were all 21 except for Rich Thompson, 22. I’m from New Canaan, Connecticut; Rich is from International Falls, Minnesota; Mark Smith is from Cleveland, Ohio; Dick Tupper, Ann Arbor, Michigan; Mike (Eck) Ecker, Cincinnati, Ohio; and Dave Simmons, St. Louis, Missouri. 

We’d wanted to take one really tough trip together before we finished college and took on the responsibilities of careers, and—for Rich at least—marriage. 

For us, the finest tradition of wilderness canoeing and survival exists in the unspoiled arctic; that’s why we chose the Northwest Territories. Selecting a route became a problem, however, as the Territories cover 1,300,000 square miles that stretch across the roof of the continent from the islands of Hudson Bay to the McKenzie River delta and the Yukon, 2,000 miles away. Over this vast area, retreating glaciers have gouged the channels of a web of rivers that wind through high mountains, lowland plains, tundra, and the treeless rocks of the exposed Canadian Shield. A stream that’s fast and narrow in one place often fans out in another to form a confusing series of broad, seemingly currentless lakes. 

At first we wanted to test ourselves on a stream that has never been canoed, but the Yellowknife-to-Coppermine route was a compromise, and it had the advantage of regularly scheduled airline service for our return. To our knowledge, no group had ever shot all the rapids of the Coppermine, and that alone would be challenge enough. To some extent we would be able to live off the land, and there would be the added fun of catching pike, grayling, and char that had never seen a fisherman. 

Rich’s cousin is a minister in Yellowknife, and David’s older brother had canoed the Hood River in the Territories in 1966. Eck began writing to Eric Morris, a wilderness adventurer who’d canoed the Coppermine River from Point Lake to Coppermine with Canada’s Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau. 

On blue-speckled maps we traced a route through a maze of waterways and portages. From Yellowknife we’d follow the river of the same name upstream for 320 miles to Point Lake. From Point we’d run the Coppermine River downstream for 250 miles to its mouth at the tiny settlement of Coppermine on Coronation Gulf. 

In a few days we built a crude trailer to haul our secondhand 18-foot aluminum canoes the 1,700 miles from Rich’s home in International Falls to Yellowknife. 

We compressed a mountain of gear and food into bundles that we portioned among the three canoe crews. Rich and I would take one canoe, Mark and Eck another, and David and Dick the third. There’d be no trip captain: major decisions would be made by voice vote. 

After we reached Yellowknife on June 21, we checked in with the Mounted Police, gave them our itinerary and next of kin, and then checked on return air fares for us and our canoes from Coppermine. 

Yellowknife, like the harsh land around it, blazes with life during the long days of the brief summer. We saw many young people, some lured by the prospects of jobs in oil exploration or businesses that serve it. We were told that Coppermine would shrink back to its normal population of 6,000 by winter. 

On June 24 we said goodbye to Rich’s cousin, the Rev. Gary Sartain. He had agreed to take care of Dave Simmons’s car and said he’d fly over us once or twice to see how we were doing. We pushed off into Prosperous Lake, about 16 miles from town. 

OUR HIGH SPIRITS didn’t last long that first day. We hadn’t done any special physical conditioning, and we were all more out of shape than we’d realized. I had blisters on my hands within an hour, and my knees were sore despite the shirt I’d rolled up for a kneeling pad. We soon hit the first portage, a half-mile trail around some rapids at Prosperous Lake. 

“I’ve got to sit down a minute,” panted Dick as he dumped a load of gear at the end of the portage. “I’m too young to be a heart-attack victim.” Nobody argued. 

We used the trip-and-a-half method of portaging from Prosperous to Bluefish Lake, then from Bluefish to Quyta: three of us would carry the canoes all the way across. The other three would pack part of the duffel halfway, then go back for the rest of it. Meantime the first group would return to retrieve the first load of gear. We were traveling upstream, so each portage was uphill, usually along a boulder-strewn course parallel to the Yellowknife. A slip could easily have meant a broken leg. 

Pushed by a strong tailwind, we coasted up most of Bluefish with paddles in the air, but the respite wasn’t enough to ease our disappointment at our physical condition. We unlimbered our spincasting outfits at Quyta, and our sagging spirits rose when Dave coaxed a seven-pound pike into hitting a red-and-white spoon. 

“It’s only the second fish I ever caught,” he said. 

Rich and Eck caught a couple of smaller pike on spinners, and our first shore dinner consisted of fried fish, rice, soup, and bannock bread we had premixed before the trip. 

By the fourth day we had traveled nearly 50 miles, and our ankles were sore from the boulder-hopping portages. For a couple of days we crossed a burned-over area, where portaging meant tripping over charred limbs and kicking up clouds of ashes with each step. Wherever the portage route was obliterated by the burn or we had to go too far from the river, we used the “caravan” method, in which we stayed together and made two trips, Indian-file. Often the portage marked on the map didn’t agree with what we found and we had to pick our own way over virgin territory. 

Our lips were dry and cracked, and our skin was windburned. Despite the use of headnets, our faces were puffed and swollen with welts raised by the clouds of blackflies, mosquitoes, horseflies, and moose flies. At night the flies sounded like rain on our two nylon tents. During the day I found myself praying for a headwind so the damned things would at least stay out of our faces and crawl around to the backs of our heads. 

Pulling our canoes up the Yellowknife’s rapids became a grim routine that was especially hard on our leg muscles. Waist-deep in the cold water, we fought for footing on the slippery rocks, trying to manipulate the lines so the canoes pointed upstream as we dragged them against the current. Sometimes the bow would swing out too far and the upstream gunwale would begin to catch water as the man on the stern painter tried to drag the craft to shore before it swamped. 

AFTER FOUR DAYS of grueling travel we sighted two men—one about 20, the other about 50 or so—cooking lunch in front of their bright yellow tent. The two Canadians told us they’d left Yellowknife four weeks earlier and that they were retracing the steps of John Franklin, an English explorer who’d led an expedition from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean in 1820. 

Franklin mapped the Yellowknife and Coppermine rivers and part of the coast along Coronation Gulf. In 1845 he returned to the Arctic Ocean by sea in search of the Northwest Passage. Franklin was never seen again, and it wasn’t until 14 years later that the bones of some members of his party were found, along with documents showing that Franklin’s ship had become icebound. 

In Franklin’s day the village of Coppermine was only a camping area for Eskimos on hunting and fishing forays. The site and the river had been named in 1771 by another Englishman, Samuel Hearne, who came to the area in search of copper and other minerals.

The two Canadians told us that they weren’t optimistic about being able to follow Franklin’s overland route much longer. Later I read in Sports Illustrated magazine that another party of six canoeists had tried to retrace Franklin’s trail the previous year (1973) but were forced to give up far short of their goal. One member of that party conceded that ghosts make poor traveling companions. 

When we got under way again I said to Rich: “We must be doing this right. It’s taken us only four days to travel as far as those two guys did in four weeks.” 

Early in the trip we all began to suffer from what Mark called “expedition choler”—irritability and sudden moods of depression. Often you couldn’t put your finger on why you felt so down. 

I remember one evening, for example, shortly after we’d taken Icy Portage, a detour away from a particularly troublesome part of the Yellowknife, through a series of nine lakes. We had carried our gear over a half-mile of boulders and then through muskeg swamps. Once, we misread the compass and had to turn around and go back part of the way. The next night I was thinking about Icy Portage and the hundreds of miles of water and tricky rapids that lay ahead of us. Rich was wolfing down his meal of fried grayling and rice. The fish was one I’d caught with a gaudy salmon fly and a combination fly-and-spinning rod.

Rich just ate my fish, I thought, and he took entirely too much rice. Rich began licking his plate to get the salt, as we all did to satisfy our constant craving for seasoning. I stalked away from the fire and sat by myself until the senseless, dark mood passed. All of us had similar moods, the worst being when we had to sit out an entire day windbound, listening to rain and sleet slap at our tents. It seldom came to words, however, for we soon learned to recognize these moods in ourselves and in each other. Our safety depended too much on teamwork for any differences to spring up among us. Once we entered the Coppermine’s rapids, there would be no time for petty arguments. 

Rich’s boots gave out in early July. First one sole came off, and he hopped over the portages wearing one canvas sneaker and one boot. Soon the other boot came apart, and the rest of us began to appreciate the fact that we’d selected high-quality cowhide boots with sewn-on rather than glued soles. 

As our supply of mixed nuts and other treats ran out, our main diet became oatmeal, rice, potatoes, and fish. We were never completely full, and Eck and I, who were the heaviest members of the party, began to lose weight noticeably. We figured we’d each shaved 25 pounds from an original 200. The others each looked to be 10 to 15 pounds lighter. Our jaws ached for lack of something tough to chew (some gum might have helped). 

We often talked and daydreamed about rich food, and our constant hunger and fatigue may have contributed to the tricks our eyes played on us. Sometimes each stump and rock looked like a bear or moose. 

I thought I was seeing things when we met our first moose, a young bull cavorting in the shallows of Clam Lake. When he saw us he ran across a rocky point and swam to the far shore. 

We saw some more moose and scattered flocks of ducks and swans, but not much wildlife after that—a beaver splashing off a rocky bar, an arctic fox, some eagles (mostly goldens), a lone grizzly bear and two cubs, and one caribou. We also spotted what appeared to be a sled dog, probably left by Eskimos.

Rich’s cousin, the Reverend Sartain, flew over us once as he’d promised, waggling his plane’s wings a couple of times, and flew on. Another plane came by later, circling low to make sure everything was okay with us. 

Though Dick had a bout with a sore throat, by July 1 we were all in pretty good physical shape. Our meals were far from satisfying. We caught a few lake trout and grayling, but we were beyond the normal range of pike. Trees, along with firewood, became scarce. We did have a butane camp stove, but it took too long to cook anything, and gathering firewood became a nightmarish job, often involving long side trips with the canoes in search of dead branches from the few stunted alders. 

Ever since our mixup in direction at Icy Portage, we all became fanatic about knowing exactly where we were on the maps, which we kept sealed in plastic and tied to the gunwales of one canoe (the backup set was stowed in a pack). Rich became the official mapreader. 

ON JULY 13 we faced the roughest decision of the trip. According to the map we were only a little more than four miles from Point Lake. From then on we would be through with the upstream haul and could concentrate on the downstream portion of the trip and the famed rapids of the Coppermine River. 

But between us and Point lay a long stretch of small potholes. We could either portage-and-paddle our way through, or we could take the longest portage of our canoeing careers—more than four miles through country we’d never seen before. 

“I say we make it all in one long walk,” Eck said, looking up from the map. “Any way you slice it, we’d have at least a two-mile portage and probably a lot more. Why not go big and do something we’ll always remember? I think it would be a great way to end the past three weeks of portaging. From then on, we can stop breaking our backs and enjoy the trip.” 

Mark wasn’t so sure. 

“Look,” he said, “why should we walk right past potholes where we could ride? I can’t see it.” 

The long walk won out when it came to a vote. 

We were up at 4:30 the next morning, and at 6:30 we heaved our gear onto our backs instead of into the canoes. We split up into two parties: Eck, Dave, and I carried the canoes, and the others shouldered the first load of packs. After 20 minutes of walking, Dick, Mark, and Rich dropped their bundles. Meantime, Eck, Dave, and I walked 10 minutes, then put the canoes down and returned for the remaining packs as our partners came for the canoes. Then the whole process was repeated. 

The terrain was fairly level, and we found only a couple of marshy spots. But as the hours passed, I felt as though my load was hammering me into the ground. 

For the first time in nearly a month, we were away from the river and the countless lakes. Between the potholes that we skirted, the nearest big water was a blue wash in a panoramic view of ridges and plains. Here and there were sparse clumps of trees. Off in the distance a storm was building, and I felt very small and insignificant. 

After five shifts of trip-and-a-half portaging, we finally reached Point Lake. We stripped and jumped into the chilly water for our first baths in two days. 

Lunch was a celebration of sorts, and we sat around congratulating each other. 

“Look at it this way, Mark,” Dick said. “Whenever someone tells you about a hairy trip, you can say: ‘If you think that’s bad, you should’ve been on our four-mile portage in the Northwest Territories.’” 

POINT WAS 50 MILES LONG, and we wanted to cover as much of it as we could while the weather was still good, so we pushed off as soon as we’d rested a bit. We tried to rig sails with canvas and paddles, but the wind was against us, so we went back to paddling. At midnight the arctic sunset was spectacular, reflected in the rippled water. There were no bugs. At last we’d outrun the northward spread of the hatch! At 1:30 a.m. we pulled in, set up camp, and dragged our aching bones into our tents. In all we’d covered 24 miles—a good day’s work. 

Dick spotted a cabin on the afternoon of our second day on Point Lake. Through the binoculars we could see that it was a tin-roofed cabin with an outhouse and a beach. 

“Maybe it’s the one Dave’s brother mentioned,” I said. “He must have crossed this way when he canoed the Hood River in sixty-six.” 

“George said we’d be welcome to stop,” Dave said. “How about it?” 

There were no arguments. 

The cabin turned out to be wellstocked with pancake mix, stale crackers, and jam, so we helped ourselves. 

“Here’s George’s name!” Dave said, thumbing a guest book he’d found. “Can you imagine? George stopped here when he came through.” 

After a pancake supper, we played bridge and cribbage at a real table. We’d been getting on each other’s nerves, and some old magazines and the sports pages from two-year-old newspapers gave us something fresh to talk about. 

After the first night’s rest we’d had under a roof in weeks, we again stoked up on pancakes. We left $12 and a note of thanks for the cabin owner, cleaned up the place, and left. 

We’d paddled about 12 miles and were in Redrock Lake when we spotted some big splashes of color about 1½ miles off our course. 

“Looks like big tents,” Dick said, pulling out the binoculars. “They look like circus tents—the Big Top has come to the Northwest Territories.” 

We took a vote on whether to go out of our way and stop. Time was running out; it was July 17, and we’d told the Mounties that we’d be in Yellowknife by August 2. We had more than 250 miles to go. But we all craved contact with other people, and the pancake binge at the cabin had only whetted our desire for a more varied diet. The side trip won hands down. 

The colorful tents proved to be a fly-in fishing camp for Ward Airlines. At the camp were three men our own age: the airline owner’s son Kim Ward, Rick Newcombe, and Blair Wood, all from Edmonton, Alberta. 

“Welcome to the Redrock Hilton,” Kim said after we’d introduced ourselves. “We’re the only ones here. Getting ready for a party of thirty that’s due to arrive in a few days. You’re welcome to stay the night if you want, and there’s plenty of food.” 

For the next three hours we ate. Friendships ripen quickly so far North, and the six of us pitched in and helped the three Canadians dig garbage pits and prepare the camp. We all took hot showers, washed clothes, and wrote some letters that our hosts offered to mail for us. A supper of chili and lake trout stretched our stomachs.

THE NEXT MORNING, after a gigantic breakfast of ham, fresh eggs, toast, and peanut butter, we paddled off. When we hit the first marked rapids of the Coppermine, we didn’t take time to properly look things over before we started the shoot that swamped Mark and Eck and ruined two of our cameras. From then on we were more cautious. We probably would have been even more careful had we known that another party of experienced canoeists had suffered a tragedy in these same waters, farther downstream. 

As we moved along, the Coppermine began to spread out between low marshy shores. In one low spot we saw a young bull moose. Dick and Dave paddled over and got within a canoe length of it, and the animal showed absolutely no fear. 

“Obviously attracted by essence of goat,” shouted Eck, sniffing his own grimy sleeve. 

A howling, chill wind forced us to take a layover on July 25. We had plenty of food but were down to our last spare tent pole, and our clothes were nearly shot. We figured we had about five days of canoeing ahead of us, but the wind didn’t even begin to let up until the second day. 

On the 26th we went fishing to break the monotony. 

To our surprise, a hefty arctic char slammed Mark’s spinner. I saw the fish stalk the lure among the rocks. It jumped a couple of times and then ran until the tension of the straining rod and the drag of the reel wore it down. It was a beautiful six-pounder with a blue-green back and pink, orange, and cream markings. 

Rich brought in a 10-pound lake trout, and Dick added a one-pounder. We didn’t get under way again until the morning of the 27th. There was ice on the tents when we took them down, and we wore our raingear as windbreakers under our life vests. Some rough going lay ahead. 

Now steep gorges squeezed the river into 20 miles of fast water. There we saw a grizzly sow and two cubs, and a lone caribou in an icefield. 

We beached at the head of Rocky Defile rapids, one of the river’s most infamous, to look it over from a high cliff. For two hours we studied the water, trying to pick out landmarks we’d be able to recognize from the water and to memorize the pattern of V’s that indicated submerged rocks. 

Rich and I were to go through first while the others remained on the cliff to watch. The water was ice-cold, and if we swamped we probably wouldn’t live five minutes. Rich knelt well back from the bow so it would ride high. The standing waves at the top were the biggest I’d ever encountered, and the water whipped around huge rock “haystacks.” We kept to the left around the first big stack, then slowly worked our way toward the right shore. We shot through the rapids before we had time to think about it. The others made it without serious incident. 

The rapids were closer together now, and we shot them all: Musk Ox, Sandstone, Escape, and several others not marked on the map. No one else has ever done them all, as far as we know. 

However, we had to draw the line at Bloody Falls, where the river disappears into a gorge. It’s a huge set of rapids and a near-impossible shoot, though an old trapper supposedly made it once in a freighter canoe. We chose to portage around Bloody.

Below the falls the Coppermine becomes a broad sandy delta with a sluggish current. Cabins began to show up along the bank as we approached town. At 4:45 on July 29—36 days and 77 portages out of Yellowknife—we beached at Coppermine. 

Coppermine is a sleepy little village with a Hudson’s Bay store, a government-run nursing station, a Mounted Police office, some small houses, and many Eskimo children. The kids looked over our shoulders as we unloaded the canoes and followed us as we walked over to meet Max Hyde, the local Mountie. 

Later, after we’d pitched our tents in the yard next to Max’s office, the Mountie in his very precise accent told a story that raised the hackles on my neck. 

“Don’t suppose you know, but a fellow died back there at Rocky Defile rapids about a week before you came through,” he said. “Seems a party of four from Minneapolis tried the run. They were all supposed to be expert whitewater canoeists. Their boat swamped, and one of them was carried off. Drowned. He wasn’t wearing his life preserver at the time. Two of them stayed there, and the fourth fellow made it, all alone, here to Coppermine for help. The body hasn’t shown up yet.” 

I turned away. I’m not especially religious, but I was beginning to think that despite our preparations and precautions we may have had some extra help on the 600-mile trip.

This story is republished as it originally appeared in the August 1975 issue under the title “Six Against the River.”

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