Back River, Sussex Lake to Gjoa Haven

Submitter & Author Information
Route submitted by: 
Allan Jacobs
Trip Date : 
Additional Route Information
1220 km
42 days
Loop Trip: 
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
Total Portage Distance: 
6000 m
Longest Portage: 
3000 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Lake Travel: 
Background Trip Info
Water Levels: 
Route Description
Technical Guide: 

Back River, through Sussex, Muskox, Beechey, Pelly, Garry, Buliard, Meadowbank and Franklin Lakes to Chantrey Inlet and Gjoa Haven.

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

Editor’s notes:
It is an understatement to say that the Back is not recommended for a first barrenlands trip. It is hazardous and a trip on it is not to be undertaken lightly; at least two paddlers have died there and others have had to be evacuated. I am not the only paddler who would not return; the trip is not worth the risk.
Everyone portages Beechey Cascades; most portage all of it. Rock and Escape are the worst of the other rapids on the river, but the two died on another.
Even more hazardous than the rapids is the crossing to Gjoa Haven.
Ted Mellenthin is a highly experienced and capable white-water paddler; some of the rapids he and Freda ran on this trip should be portaged or lined by most recreational paddlers. And few parties will be able to match their pace.
Starting at Jim Magrum Lake will avoid a nasty stretch, parts of which are river in name only. Malley Rapid is incorrectly identified on the topo and so also in this report, as first pointed out by George Drought.
This report was originally a personal account in typewritten form; it was not prepared for posting at CCR and so some information is not easily available.
Some errors were introduced on scanning the original.

Title: Wind on the Back River

Route: Back River, Sussex Lake to Gjoa Haven

Distance, duration: 1220 km, 42 days

Year travelled: 2002

Author: Freda Mellenthin

We left Mission BC around noon on June 27, leaving behind our newly acquired country house and acreage where we had moved ten days ago. Our thoughts wandered back and forth between what we might have failed to arrange on our property and what we might have forgotten to pack. After all, we were going into the tundra, absolute no man's land, for at least six weeks. In Kamloops we had to pick up a legal document from Peter, and in Calgary a cart from Larry, meant for our portages up north. The first day we made it as far as Rogers Pass, the second day we camped not far from Edmonton, and the third day very close to Yellowknife. Behind Whitecourt in Alberta, the airbag on our Ford 150 busted, and riding the car with the camper on top became quite rough, particularly on the last 100 km before Yellowknife.

On July 1st we drove into the capital of the Northwest Territories in full sunshine, with a north wind blowing. A few errands had to be done such as visiting the RCMP, dropping in at Thelon Air and buying more mosquito protection lotion. At the RCMP, Ted explained our paddling route after which the officer looked me in the eye and asked: "Are you sure you are going on that trip too?" Of course I was going after having been "psyched up" for half a year! Then we visited Jessie Jasper and his family who offered to keep our car and camper on their property during our absence. Jessie told us that Warburton Bay on MacKay Lake where we wanted to start our trip was still under ice. We had a pleasant afternoon, the last one in civilization for a long time. The next day we got word from Tom Faess of Thelon Air that we would be flying around three p.m. in a turbo Twin Otter together with two young American fellows and their kayaks. We did some last minute shopping, neoprene socks for both of us, sunglasses for Ted, expensive enough that he will wear them, and some ammunition for our shotgun. Nobody asked for Ted's Gun Safety Certificate. We met Jessie for a last lunch in a nice restaurant before he dropped us off at the Thelon Air dock. At 2:30 pm we had lined up all our gear in front of the plane, but it took two hours of loading until everything and everybody was in the plane ready to take off. The two racing kayaks were stowed in the back of the plane, whereas our eighteen-foot canoe was fastened to one of the pontoons.
Finally we were air-borne. I was in the front seat. At last we were back in the tundra after two years! One hour later we had left the last trees behind us. Here and there some ice appeared on the countless lakes of all sizes. MacKay Lake was still under ice, and the Lockhart River, where I ran the first rapid or my life three years ago, was frozen solid. Outram Lake, our second landing option, was not ice-free either, and so the pilot by the nice German name of Gerry Honigman dropped us off on Sussex Lake, just beyond the height of the land and thirty miles farther than we had paid. It was also 300 km north of our original put-in, Warburton Bay. This meant that we did not have to portage over the height of the land as well, and thus were ten days ahead of our schedule.
It had been sunny all day and windy enough to keep the mosquitoes away. We put our tent up immediately and started to sort out our gear. The young Americans had left in their racing kayaks. We had watched them load their supplies and wondered if they had enough food for their long trip to Baker Lake. I cooked supper and then we went for a long walk over the esker. We saw many caribou tracks, so a herd must have passed through here already on its way south! It was great to be back in the tundra and inhale that special aroma. Here you can walk all evening without worrying that darkness could surprise you.

Wednesday, July 3

Our first tundra day! We got up at 5:30 into a bright sunny day. Packing the canoe for the first time was not easy. As usual we thought that we had too much gear. We left at 8:00 paddling across Sussex Lake, happy to be on the water, but not for long, since the lake exit was very bony. With great difficulty, we manoeuvered through the rocks, not knowing that this was only the beginning of our troubles. The start of the Back River flowing out of Sussex Lake consisted mainly of rocks and boulders with very shallow water winding its way through them. The terrain close to the river bed - if you could call it such - was very rough. So we decided to climb up the hill above the river with all our gear, but what a gruelling portage over rough land full of boulders, bog and low brush! We went twice with the gear, two large barrels, two small barrels, two huge portage bags, a sail mast, two tote bags and a shotgun. The third time we hauled the empty canoe on Larry's wheels, but the terrain was so rough that the spokes broke, which made the cart useless. We pushed and pulled the canoe and even carried it a stretch. It was sunny and windy, so the mosquitoes were kept at bay. This portage was so exhausting that we had a nap when all was done. Then we loaded the canoe and launched it in a small lake which was part of the still embryonic river. Our hopes of a smooth continuation faded quickly, as the exit of the lake was blocked by rock gardens. Unwilling - or unable - to do a second portage this day, we set camp at the lake's exit. There was still ice on the water, but nevertheless it was spring in the tundra. Small pink saxifrages were blooming on round cushions, bell heather was peeking through here and there, and a white berry blossom that will produce a raspberry-1ike fruit on a single stem was also in full bloom. The typical spicy tundra aroma was in the air. We saw some wolf and bear evidence, and Ted with his eagle eyes observed a huge wolf trying to find his supper on the other side of the lake. Ed. note: distance?

Thursday, July 4

After breakfast we started the portage to the next lake. With all our equipment we both had to go four times. Ted carried the canoe. Then we were back to paddling across the next lake. Was the portaging over now? Not yet. The exit of the lake was impassable and what was supposed to be a river was merely a trickle among huge rocks. Ted was so discouraged that he played with the thought to call in a plane. I had to cheer him up and dissuade him. So we portaged again, walking over some soft tundra, then over a stretch of large boulders, and then across 300 m of solid ice. We carried part of our equipment to the point where we wanted to put in, and the last portion only as far as the ice. Ted fetched the canoe and put it down on the ice as well. Now we could pull the canoe, loaded with the rest of the gear like a sleigh. Finally we were on the water again, paddling past enormous icebergs glittering in the sun. Alas, it was only a short pleasure! Huge boulders marked the end of the lake, but the current had picked up and was quite swift. We stayed in the canoe and manoeuvered it through the obstacles, often scraping a rock or getting hung up over one. Again and again we had to get out of the canoe and push it through the narrow channels, either wading or climbing on a rock and jumping from one to another. But we made it through this obstacle course and finally passed into a lake of fair size. The wind was strong and came from the right direction. Ted hoisted the sail and we flew across the water. We were very thirsty and I tried to hand the thermos over to Ted - a most difficult process in an eighteen-foot canoe - and the cup fell into the water. At least it was not the lid! The second bad news was that the exit of this large and beautiful lake was also blocked by boulders. We had to use the same manoeuvering tricks as before. Our knee-high paddling boots kept our feet warm, but not dry. After a lot of effort we entered another lake. Here we set camp at 6:30 pm. The wind had died down and the mosquitoes greeted us blood-hungry. We put our mosquito foyer on the tent entrance and had a much deserved rest.
A chorus of insects hummed around us and the air was full of music. Our thoughts went back to the struggles of the day. It was hard to believe that all these small boulder-strewn lakes were actually part of the mighty Back River. Ed. note: distance?

Friday, July 5

We slept until 9:30 and woke up to a sunny windy day. Ted seemed to have mellowed on this trip. He allowed us to sleep in and take our time on the portages, no hassle at all! He was always good. We left at noon to paddle across the lake, but at the other end we encountered the same mess as before, boulders and rocks with a strong current in between. With great difficulty we paddled through these obstacles, scraping the canoe many times. We saw red and green marks on some rocks which meant that two other canoes must have passed through here as well. Again we had to get out and line the canoe while we jumped from rock to rock over deep gaps. Of course that is much easier for a person with long legs! Finally we had made it through this five-hundred-meter long rock garden and were quite exhausted and hungry.
After a late lunch we paddled across a nice stretch of water, but not for long. Another blockage. We found a way to the shore, unloaded the canoe and portaged a hundred meters across swamp, balancing over boulders and jumping from rock to rock over some puddles. After all our gear was assembled again, it was 6:30 pm. Should we camp here? The large body of water before us beckoned to paddle, a beautiful lake free of encumbrances, or so we thought. We sailed into the evening, admiring the vastness of the tundra, green hills and an immense horizon. In the distance we saw a chain of rocks in the water, and when we were close, we realized the disaster: at least two km of impassable narrow channels. First we paddled for a while scraping through, but then we had to land and unload. Ted was so disgusted that he lined and portaged the empty canoe without saying a word. What should I do? The best was to search for a level spot big enough to put our tent down among the big boulders. And that's what I did while watching a red canoe seemingly moving through the air in the distance. Ted came back at 10:00 pm and I gave him tea and supper. He had carried the canoe halfway and put it on a high boulder, a red dot in the landscape. Tomorrow will be our longest portage. Ed. note: distance?

Saturday, July 6

At 9:00 am, right after breakfast, we started the long portage over difficult terrain. We had to walk over soft, mossy bumps, with water holes between some, boulder fields and mosquito-infested shrubs, first uphill and then downhill for two km. Ted and I went twice together, a big barrel on his back and some other heavy equipment in each hand, and I carrying a big portage bag on my back and gas cans or something else in my hands. Each way was an hour's walk and we had to rest three times with the heavy loads. On the third walk Ted went to where he had left the canoe last night, and I walked by myself with the last load. On our first trip we had built some cairns because it was easy to lose the direction. Ted did not carry the canoe, but paddled it expertly through the narrow channels; he even had some fun! He arrived before me, and I was relieved when I saw him coming up to meet me. It was 4:30 pm and I was quite beat. After all, I had walked twelve km, and half of it with heavy loads. The empty-handed walks back through the tundra had been very enjoyable. So many little flowers were in bloom, Arctic cotton, Labrador tea, bell heather, lupine and saxifrage. The air was full of fragrances. Butterflies circled around, and we also came upon a bird nest low in the ground.
At last we had the canoe loaded and saw a large body of water in front of us. This must really be the end of all portages, and this time it was. Our 250 000 maps do not show that the river is blocked in so many places and that you have to make five portages to get to Muskox Lake. We paddled for one and a half hours until we came to a sandy bay formed by an esker. On the high part of the esker we found remnants of a modern camp, among them two big buckets that came in very useful. I did some 1aundry to remove the portage sweat from our garments, and took a bath using the bucket in which I could add some warm water instead of the icy lake water. Ted had a bath in the lake under pitiful moans and groans. Our tent stood securely on the sand spit. It started to rain lightly and we retired into our canvas home to try out the satellite phone for the first time out here. Ed. note: distance?

Sunday, July 7

During the night a storm came up with heavy rain. We could hear the waves hitting the beach close to our tent on both sides. Ted went out once to check the canoe. Everything was OK. But in the morning we found that the wind had moved the canoe parallel to the shore, so that the waves had dumped water into it. The two small porridge barrels were afloat in the canoe. One of the lids was not screwed on tightly and the mixture of oatflakes, nuts and dried fruit resembled a cake dough. For the next three weeks I spread the porridge mixture on a small tarp whenever we had dry weather in the evening, for we needed to save it as long as possible. Since it was rainy and very windy, we stayed a second night in the same spot and passed the day resting and playing Checkers and the German game Muhle. As pawns we used our vitamin pills. We also gave Coco a phone call, but after some seconds the battery indicated "low". We only had two batteries and tried to be very careful from now on. 0 km

Monday, July 8

We got up at 4:20 am and started paddling at 5:30. The whole horizon was surrounded by a dark, gray ring that was particularly black and thick in the north. It was cold and windy, and at first a north-west wind made us sail fast. The water was choppy, and soon some whitecaps formed. Some waves swept over the bow and made me cold and wet. We sailed and paddled five straight hours across Muskox Lake, the last hour against a head wind. At 10:30 am we staggered out of the canoe to have lunch, which consisted of a pumpernickel sandwich with margarine and salami, a cookie, some nuts and dry fruit and a baby Gouda cheese. We also changed into dry clothes and had a nap.
Then we paddled three and a half km to the exit of the lake into the Muskox Rapids. These rapids are five km long, quite bony in places and full of big boulders and fast, narrow chutes that have to be run very tightly. The canoe often got caught up on rocks just below the surface. We had to get out of the canoe several times to push it off the rocks. I slipped and got soaked to the skin. I also learned that I am not yet good enough in reading the water to make my own judgement what route to pick through the obstacles. Once the canoe got hung up sideways and water started coming in. This was a dangerous situation and Ted jumped out quickly to push the canoe off. Our loaded canoe weighed 500 pounds and could tip and break easily in such a situation. Ted felt quite desperate and my nerves were completely on edge. Finally the rapid had spent itself and we entered Jim Magrum Lake. When Ted canoed the Back River solo eighteen years ago, the pilot flew him past the Muskox Rapids into Jim Magrum Lake to save him from the gruelling run down these rapids.
The sky had turned blue, the sun was out and the tundra looked hospitable again. We paddled across the calm water of Jim Magrum Lake and found a beautiful high spot for camping, overlooking the whole lake and the endless green hills beyond. Ted caught a big lake trout, our first fresh fish on this trip. All our clothes were laid out to dry - our porridge too - while blackflies danced in thick clouds above them. 28 km

Tuesday, July 9

It was a beautiful morning, and we took our time. This was my first trip where Ted did not urge us to leave earlier or pack faster. It is really a pleasure to work together like that! After an hour's paddle on Jim Magrum Lake we came to its exit, marked by a nasty rapid. First we had to unload the canoe and lift everything over two big boulders on river-left. That was the easy part. On the other side, these two boulders had produced two chutes that had formed a hole in the middle. Ted instructed me how we had to run with full power over the chutes and then immediately veer to the right. It looked pretty scary, but we did all right. We crossed over to the right side and climbed up the steep shore. The view was fantastic. From here we could also see that the rapid on river-right had fewer obstacles but was perhaps faster. On our walk we found some old tent rings and an ancient "road" sign, a big rock set at an angle with the support of a small rock, thus pointing in a certain direction. Our trip continued on the river, and we paddled through three more easy rapids.
In the afternoon a south wind came up, perfect for sailing. We sailed for four straight hours. Towards the end the wind became very strong, and I found the high waves on which we surfed a bit scary. The Back River became very wide here with very little flow. The shores displayed little round rock hills with higher, oblong hills in the far distance. The space between the small rock hills looked like grassy roads leading down to the river. We sailed past an old camp with drilling samples and boards lying around, but apart from that the shores became quite monotonous. I was a bit chilly sitting in the canoe motionless for hours. The wind became stronger and stronger, and it was time to camp. We pulled up on the right shore. The wind was so strong that it was hard to land without crashing against the rocks. We put our tent up in a low swamp area. Behind us a bear had dug out a huge hole to find sic-sics. The mosquitoes were swarming in clusters and you could not relieve yourself without being attacked in the most tender spots. It rained all night, but we were snug and dry. 40 km

Wednesday, July 10

During breakfast it was sunny and fresh, but soon after we were on the water, it clouded over and started raining again. We paddled through several light rapids and through two small, nameless lakes. The bent paddles from Northwood Canoes were great on flat water and we made good progress. Then we came to a more severe rapid that we scouted first to establish which obstacle course through boulders and chutes we were going to follow. I get very excited before every rapid and have to force myself to calm down. After lunch the wind was so strong that we did not have enough control of the canoe. We decided to put the tent up and have a nap. It was raining and the wind was tearing at the tent walls. We had a sponge bath, and Ted went fishing. He caught a small Arctic grayling which tasted delicious. Through our window we had a view of the opposite shore and the endless green tundra. Inside we were cosy and secure. 24 km

Thursday, July 11

We got up at 5:30 and left at 8:00 am. It was cold and gray. After a short while of paddling, Ted spotted some caribou on a hill, the first ones on this trip. They looked like light-coloured rocks in the moss. Most of them were still resting, but when they got up we realized that a very large herd was before us walking over the hills. We left the canoe and approached them gingerly. What a sight! We saw antlers of all sizes, and many new babies. They were moving slowly southwards on their ancient summer route.
As we travelled on, the weather became more friendly. We knew that we would soon come to the Malley Rapid and were a bit apprehensive. It turned out to be short and easy, especially since we had put on the canoe cover that I had made at home. It fitted the canoe perfectly; the hole for the sailing mast was in the right spot, and the cable loops were right above the respective buttons Ted had put on the canoe. In the evening I sewed two rings in front of Ted's cockpit, so that he can attach his map case. We passed green hills and many sand dunes called "eskers”, ancient river beds from rivers that had formed under the ice during the ice ages. The sky had turned blue with white flocks of clouds. As the hills became flatter and the river narrow, we knew that a rapid was ahead of us. It was a long stretch of rapids with high waves and wide channels between the boulders. It was fun to go through the waves now that the canoe cover prevented the boat from filling up, and the bow person from getting too wet. Ed. note: This is the Malley Rapid of Back.
We stopped for the night at 5:00pm. As we did various chores around the camp, Ted noticed a large group of caribou on the opposite shore, ready to swim across the river. More and more animals came over the hill, and one by one they jumped into the river, snorting and grunting. During the evening two more large groups of animals swam across the water and many passed within arm's length of our tent. We considered ourselves lucky to have camped here on this day. 36 km

Friday, July 12

We woke up very early from the sound of repeated grunts. Through our window we could see a small herd of caribou swimming across the river. They landed, shook themselves like dogs and staggered up the shore tired and exhausted. Then they passed our tent very closely on both sides and proceeded up the hill behind us. Soon after, a mother and baby followed suit, trying to catch up. It was raining and windy. We turned around in our sleeping bag, hoping the weather would improve later on. At 9:00 am it was still pouring and windy, a north wind. There was thunder in the distance. It rained and rained. The north wind rattled our tent walls and the rain pelted against the tent all afternoon. It is unusual to have that much rain in the Arctic. We played checkers and I even won twice. It is amazing how the time flies when it is warm and cosy in the sleeping bag. The zipper of one tent door was no longer working and we couldn't open it. Soon it was evening again and we had soup for supper. 0 km

Saturday, July 13

It rained and stormed all night, but in the morning the weather had calmed down enough for us to continue our trip. When I rolled up the thermarest mattress, I found a puddle under it. The soil under our tent had not absorbed the rainwater because of permafrost. We battled a headwind for a while, but as the day progressed, the weather improved. After two hours we paddled through the rapid into Beechey Lake. We stopped at a small tributary creek where Ted caught a nice lake trout. We passed a solitary caribou with huge antlers resting on a hill. Then we noticed a wolf swimming across the lake towards the caribou. Most likely he had intended it for a meal, but the caribou slipped into the water and swam off. The wolf watched us for a while from the hill while I fried the fish. For hours we continued paddling along Beechey Lake. Our map indicated an astrological Inuit mark and we got out of the canoe several times to look for it, but in vain. The weather was pleasant with no wind. We paddled with sole man power until 6:30 pm and camped on an island where Ted had left his kayak paddle eighteen years ago with an address on it. It was no longer there. We had a cold, cold Saturday night bath. 35 km

Sunday, July 14

This morning at six o'clock I had breakfast in bed, served by Ted. What a luxury! We left at 8:30 am. It was windy and choppy, and we battled a headwind all day. Paddling was strenuous and slow. Beechey Lake is very long and narrow. The surroundings of this lake gave me the creeps. The shores are desolate and austere. In the distance there are gray rock mountains, and close to the water the ice has pushed up rock walls and split many rocks into flat, edgy squares. Some of them have bizarre shapes and stick up in the air. There were very few flowers here; maybe the ice lasted longer on this lake. It was hard to land for a lunch break because of its very bony shores and steep rock embankments. After five hours of paddling we finally had a lunch break, and then we continued battling the wind until nine o'clock, which meant eleven hours of straight canoeing. Ted wanted to reach the end of Beechey Lake, because that's where the Cascades - a day's portaging - start. The wind might be too strong for paddling tomorrow, but not for portaging. During a fifteen-minute break we saw a wolverine running in the distance across the tundra. For the last half hour the current had become stronger and we could already hear the rumbling of the Cascades. First we wanted to cross over to the right shore where the portage would start tomorrow, but when entering the fast water, we were afraid to be drawn into the rapids by sheer lack of energy after a long day. Instead we turned and paddled back against the current to land on a sandbank that looked good for camping. We were quite beat when we landed, but still, the tent had to be put up and the cooking done. It would be unwise to neglect eating properly after a hard day. 35 km

Monday, July 15

It looked like a good day for portaging, windy enough so that the mosquitoes were hiding. First we went for a long walk on the left shore to scout. We decided that the upper part of the Cascades could be run. We ferried across to the right shore. Then we carried our first load a stretch of 500 meters. From there we could see past the high rock island in the river. The worst part, including high ledges, tumbling small waterfalls, enormous waves and keepers was more than five hundred meters down the river, and the whole portage was a lot longer than anticipated. How could we shorten the gruelling task of portaging three km, which meant nine km with heavy loads and three times three km walking back to fetch the remaining gear? We fetched the second and the third part of our equipment and carried it over the hill to the very end of the Cascades. After walking back to where we had left the first part of our gear, we paddled with this load through the middle part of the Cascades, first crossing over to the centre and then back to the right shore. This way we saved about 300 m of portaging, although it released a lot of adrenaline. We even went further down than planned. The most difficult part is always how to transport the canoe without hurting your back. Ted decided to line it. With a long rope tied to each end of the canoe, one for Ted and one for me, you could see two people in their sixties jump from boulder to boulder pulling the boat over rocks, through shallow waters, releasing or tightening the ropes, and always close to the cascading water. Over an hour we did these aerobics to the music of the roaring water, quite beat when the exercise was over. It was already ten o'clock pm when we had supper, potato soup with mushrooms we had picked on the portage and a lake trout Ted had caught at the end of the last rapid. By the time all the chores were done, it was 11:30 pm. It was very chilly and during the night we had frost. Ed. note: distance?

Tuesday, July 16

Ted was growling this morning because I wrote yesterday's diary instead of packing. Oh well, I have to risk that if I do not want to get behind! It was sunny and windy. We left at 9:15. The landscape was a lot more pleasant than on Beechey Lake. We passed green hills and eskers covered with fine light brown sand. Ted spotted a grizzly and her yearling on the shore. They took one good look at us and decided to run up the hill. Several times they stopped to look back at us, standing on their hind legs, but we were decidedly too scary for them to hang around. Ted dropped his new expensive sunglasses in the water.
At noon we arrived at a federal water-resource cabin. It had two solar panels on the roof and a cable leading into the river to monitor the current. It was locked and had spiked boards attached to the walls to deter the bears. After running two rapids we had lunch. Ted caught an Arctic grayling which went straight into my frying pan. Mm! I washed my hair, so it could dry in the warmer mid-day sun. In the afternoon we paddled a stretch of fast water with many easy rapids in it. On one of the eskers we saw a wolf standing, watching us closely. We set camp at 6:30, just in time before it started raining lightly. 50 km

Wednesday, July 17

In the morning it was cold and windy, but the wind came from behind, which meant good sailing. We sailed for over three hours. The river had widened, passing through beautiful eskers with light brown sand. There were a few patches of blue flowers, lupine. Ted shot a goose that had separated itself from the flock. I had to pick it from the water, and since it was still breathing lightly, I had to strangle it to deliver it from its agony. After lunch we had to paddle through four rapids. On the second one we had to come down over a one-meter ledge, and on the third one which we took on the extreme right, we had to pass over a huge tongue and very high waves. The fourth rapid, unmarked on the map, was very tricky. We ran it on river-right, passing over a ledge. However we did not see that there were big rocks below the ledge, and Ted's end of the canoe got hung up on them for a short while. A nasty wind came up shortly, but luckily the river soon changed its direction and we could sail. We sailed past huge sand dunes and lovely beaches, reminding us of southern landscapes except that the cold wind did not allow us to linger on southern summer dreams too long. But the north has sweet surprises as well: suddenly the whole air was laden with the fragrance of lupine growing on the hill. Ted skinned the goose and I cooked it. It was good although a bit tough. The weather had turned nice again and I washed Ted's shirts in the little creek beside our tent. 58 km

Thursday, July 18

First I got up at 4:00 am and saw a beautiful, sunny morning with pastel-coloured reflections in the water. I took a picture and went back to sleep till 6 o'clock. Ted made breakfast, porridge and tea, and then we were off at 7:20. It was partly cloudy, and a light wind gave us a boost. As the day progressed, there was more wind and we sailed really well. The scenery resembled a Mexican desert, light red-brown sand and low shrubs scattered about. From time to time the river bed widened and the water was so shallow that you could see the light brown sand on the bottom shimmer through the water. In the afternoon we saw our first muskox far away. We watched him through the binoculars as he was grazing among the lupines. We had soup with the remainder of the goose meat for supper. Then we walked up the only mountain near and far, a six-hundred meter hill, and had a fantastic view from the top. On the peak we found a cairn with a bottle of messages hidden in it. They were written between 1996 and 2002 by canoeists who had started their trip at various points, but only some wanted to cross the ocean to King William Island. 60 km

Friday, July 19

We got up before six and started paddling at 7:40 am. A strong head wind had come up and paddling was very hard. We tried to cope with wind and whitecaps, always hoping that the weather would improve. After two hours we pulled into shore and put the tent up because we did not want to waste too much energy. We slept for three hours, had lunch and slept for another two hours. Then we went for a walk through the sand dunes after which I did some laundry and supper. The wind had eased somewhat, so we packed up the tent and paddled into the evening, sometimes struggling against the wind. After two and a half hours we arrived at Hawk Rapids, a set of three rapids marked with ledges and high waves. They were tricky, but manageable.
It was already after 10 pm and the sun was still shining, although it was already quite low over the hills. The wind had finally quit and paddling was easy, down three more small rapids and through a canyon-like stretch of river. The sky in the north was still illuminated from the last rays of the sun while a pale three-quarter moon stood in a pink sky in the south. It was spectacular! At 11:30 we pulled up on a sand island and crept into our tent and into a warm and cosy sleeping bag. 40 km

Saturday, July 20

When we left, it was cloudy and the wind was in our back. We sailed most of the morning, except on one large, flat bay where we had to go straight north against a head wind. The river has dug itself a deep bed here, and the shores are rocky and very steep. In parts they form a real canyon, quite dark and sombre looking. After two hours we paddled into a widening river, really a lake, surrounded by eskers, sand dunes and sandy beaches. A strong wind blew clouds of sand from the beaches across the river and it was very cold. Our lunch break was very short because the wind covered everything quickly with sand. We had to put in hard hours of paddling against the wind, except on some stretches where the river turned in our favour. Leaving the eskers behind us, we paddled once more through a vast, green tundra with patches of blue lupine here and there. In the distance we could see the silhouette of a muskox - a prehistoric sight. 50 km

Sunday, July 21

This morning we wanted to outsmart the wind and got up at four am, ready to leave at 5:30. Already while we ate breakfast the wind started to pick up. We started paddling against a full-blast head wind, but only lasted for an hour on the water. At 6:40 am we pulled out and put up the tent. We slept till noon and woke up from a light rain pelting against the tent wall. The wind had subsided and our hopes were up. But it did not take long until a new wind picked up, this time a warm south wind that whipped the water into whitecaps in no time. It was vicious and you could hear the swooshing sound of sand sliding against our nylon walls. Peeking out of the window, we saw that the force of the wind had shifted the canoe, although it was fully loaded and secured by three big rocks. There was a film of fine sand inside the tent, on the sleeping bag and on our jackets and bags.
In spite of this storm it was nice outside. We decided to go for a long walk into the tundra, taking our satellite phone along, for you never know what could happen. On our way we saw evidence of wolf droppings and chewed caribou bones. The moss on the higher ranges was brown from frost. We also saw a sic-sic, an Arctic ground squirrel, and rabbit holes and turd. We made it to the mountain top and had a splendid view of the large, sandy bay below. Where are all the insects hiding in such weather? It was great to walk without being attacked. Back in the tent, I had to do some repair work on the tent zipper. It did not function anymore because of the fine sand. I had to detach pieces of velcro from my rain pants and from the tent fly and sew it over the zipper.
Around 7:00 pm, the wind had subsided and we decided to do a night paddle. It would be easy to slack off and stay for the night, but you never know what kind of tricks the weather will play on you the next day; you have to put in mileage when you can. It is beautiful to paddle into the night. Usually the wind is calmer and you can watch the drama of the sunset and sunrise close together. The sky does not get dark at all, and the sinking sun changes colours dramatically from hour to hour while the first signs of dawn appear already in the east. While the sky is glowing in glorious lights, the silhouette of the land is dark and forboding.
The wind was temperamental and changed directions a lot. Once we ran ground in a large bay and had to get out to push the canoe which is no fun at 1:00 am. At 1:30 am I had it and persuaded Ted to camp on a vaguely recognizable shore instead of aiming towards the next waypoint, five hundred meters away. We were cold and tired, and it took a long time until our feet were warm. 28km

Monday, July 22

We woke up at 9:30. The sky and the water were gray, but peaceful. Breakfast, which means our porridge, was not very good today, since the raisins and nuts had a slightly different taste. Are they already fermenting? We have been eating a wet oatflake-mix since July the 7th. I have tried to dry it from time to time in the evenings spread out on a piece of tarp. This morning we took it easy and only left at 12:30 pm. It was a beautiful tundra day with a light gray-blue sky and no clouds. There was an easy breeze that rippled the water slightly. After passing some islands, the river widened into a large, flat bay. The river sand was shimmering through the water. We got stuck again in the shallow water and had to get out and pull the canoe. But on a bright, breezy day without mosquitoes you don't mind it so much. The distant shores were lush and green, and the sandy beaches looked inviting. I dropped my sunglasses in the water and retraced my steps until I found them. At the entrance to Pelly Lake we had a late lunch. After that we paddled till 8:00 pm, crossing diagonally from the right to the left side of Pelly Lake avoiding the large boulders that were scattered in the water. We landed in the bay where John F. Pelly's memorial had been erected on a hill in honour of the Arctic exploration work he had promoted as a governor of the Hudson Bay Company. 33km

Tuesday, July 23

Another calm and beautiful tundra summer day! This morning we paddled to the end of Pelly Lake. For a while we moved in the wrong bay, too far south. We decided to have lunch before we found our way out, since you can think better after replenishing your body and brain. The only spot to land was a rock island inhabited by Arctic terns who flew frantically above Ted's head when he walked to the top to orientate himself in order to find the exit of the lake. Ted noticed a cabin far away on the left shore. Since it was on our way to the exit rapid, we landed to have a look. It was a hunting camp with two cabins; the whole place was in a bad state. The mosquitoes and blackflies seemed to be very bloodthirsty today, so that we left in a hurry. The exit rapid had high waves and a ledge on the left side. Leaving the rapid behind us, we entered Upper Garry Lake. Ted caught a nice trout for supper. The weather was still gorgeous. We saw a small herd of muskoxen in the distance. Navigating through the islands of Upper Garry Lake was not easy since it is hard to recognize whether you paddle into a channel or just into a narrow bay. We were heading for the island where a Catholic priest, Father Buliard, had lived as a missionary with the Inuit in the fifties. We navigated around the south tip of the island to reach the bay where the priest's cabin is overlooking the lake. We were too tired to walk to the buildings today. This evening we heard a loon cry like a baby. It sounded eerie. 35 km

Wednesday, July 24

Last night it was too warm in the tent, although many other nights it had been cold enough for us to use the little extra down sleeping bag as an additional blanket. I jumped into the lake before breakfast while a loon delivered its cackling laughter. We visited Father Buliard's cabin which is not intact any more after fifty years. His rusty bed frame stood upright against the wall, the windows were broken, and a chipped enamel bowl was lying on the floor together with other debris. He died a mysterious death and was never found. Some say that he has been killed by a shaman. When we left, it was hazy and the water was slightly rippled, the third mild day since we are in the tundra. What a treat! We had a hard time finding our way through some islands that obstruct the view of the passage into main Garry Lake. However, Ted is a good navigator, and even if we go off our route sometimes, he always finds his way back to the main course. After lunch we had to make a twelve-kilometer crossing to the other side of Garry Lake. It took us a bit over two hours with the help of some wind. Then we had to find our way through some more islands to reach the passage to Lower Garry Lake. Twice we saw a solitary caribou. At 7:00 pm we arrived at the foot of a mountain where Ted had camped eighteen years ago. We climbed to the top and had a great view of the many islands in the lake, also of the passage-like inlet where we had gone astray for a while. Ted caught a fish and we had soup, fish and hotcakes for supper. At night we heard the squawking sound of some sandhill cranes behind us. Just as I was drifting off to sleep, there were crunching steps in the sand beside the tent wall. It was a large animal, luckily only a caribou passing by! In the middle of the night Ted woke me up and said: "Look at the moon, it is bright red, take a picture". Yes, it was spectacular and unusual, so I peeled out of the sleeping bag grudgingly and took two shots. Ed. note: distance?

Thursday, July 25

In the morning we took it easy, only leaving at 10:00 am. It was the fourth day of good summer weather with a light breeze. We paddled for ten hours with a forty-five minute break, crossing Lower Garry Lake. It is very important to have fair weather in the Garry Lakes, because they are the largest bodies of water on the Back River trip. After a set of three easy rapids we entered Buliard Lake. The weather was not so friendly any more. A huge dark cloud had taken shape in the west, and in the south vertical stripes appeared on the horizon threatening us with rain or even a storm. Thank goodness, there were only a few drops of rain and a short, violent squall. But the tundra is unpredictable. Ted wanted to land on the island where he had been wind-bound last time, and where he had left a message in a cairn in his lonely desperation. The bottle with the message was no longer there and the cairn was dismantled. We left the island to look for a better campsite across the water below an esker. The humid atmosphere had made us somewhat groggy and hungry, and I was quite edgy. After supper we climbed up behind us. 47 km

Friday, July 26

When we got up, the weather looked friendly again. At 9:00 am we headed straight to the rapids at the exit of Buliard Lake. We could hear them from far away, and our tension rose. We had to paddle down four rapids of which the first and the last one were easy and straightforward. The second one had a three foot ledge on the right side where we had to come down and did without a problem. Rapid three should be run on the right side, but Ted saw a route through the fast water and obstacles on the left and followed it. We realized too late that we could not pass at the bottom, but had to cross over to river-right. We did not quite make it on time and bumped into the boulder ledge and hit the hole. We landed safely. I got completely wet since I had not closed the spray skirt of the canoe cover; in fact, we even didn't know that this rapid existed until we saw it coming up. Below the rapids the river was fast and full of boils. We had to navigate around some large islands and try to avoid “dead" bays. We did sail down one of them and came to a dead end. The sky did not look so promising any more, as a large black cloud hung over us and vertical stripes marked the horizon. We had sailed into the wrong direction for five kilometers and had to paddle back against an ever increasing head wind. We managed about two km before we got pushed into a rock close to shore .The canoe received a crack right under the gunwale and we had to land. Should we camp here? It was not a very friendly place. You could see how the ice had ravaged the land. It had displaced big boulders, and the indentation where they had sat before was fresh. We sat down behind one of the boulders away from the wind and had a snooze despite the cold wind. At 5:00 pm we pushed out again to get back to where we could continue. More than an hour we struggled against the wind and whitecaps, till we pulled into shore to build our camp. After supper we went for a walk and discovered a herd of muskoxen behind us on the flat peninsula. We fetched our cameras and sneaked up to them on hands and knees, closer and closer. After a while they noticed us and ran off except for the lead bull who stayed and took on an aggressive stance before he, too, stormed off. We did not paddle very far today. 25 km

Saturday, July 27

The whole day was gray and unfriendly, and a cold north wind was blowing steadily. When we left this morning, I knew that we would have to run the infamous Rock Rapids today, a set of rapids that our friend John called "very challenging". All day long I tried to psych myself up for this run. First we paddled on a stretch of fast river, then we entered Upper MacDougall Lake, crossing the ten kilometers against a head wind. After a short and easy rapid, Lower MacDougall Lake appeared before us in the south. Now the north wind was behind our backs and sailing was good. On the western shore a herd of thirteen muskoxen was grazing peacefully. In the evening we arrived at the exit of the lake marked by the Rock Rapids. There is a high rock island in the middle of the river, dividing it into two wild white-water channels. We landed on river-left, climbed up the shore and scouted it thoroughly. This was a savage class four rapid with several broad ledges, big chutes, high waves and keepers. John had run it through the middle with his canvas Klepper kayak. We should have landed on the right shore and therefore ferried across the river, passing above the ledges, and then turning left into the main stream of white water. For the ferrying we had to use our utmost strength and speed, as we got drawn more and more towards the big ledges. But we made it and turned left in the direction of a big boulder ledge with huge waves below it. I leaned into the five-foot waves, as they poured over me. The canoe filled up despite the cover. Finally we had passed the inferno and crossed over to the left shore to land and bail out the canoe. This was the most difficult rapid of the three. But we felt that we had enough for one day and camped right below the top one. It was 7:00 pm and it started raining. Ted caught two fish and we had a good supper. 40 km

Sunday, July 28

This morning we took it easy. I washed my hair, and we hiked up the steep, rocky shore behind us to have another good look at the second Rock Rapid. We also had good porridge from the second barrel today after throwing the other one out. We did not scout the rapid. It was easy if you kept to the extreme left. Ted misjudged the ledge and touched part of the hole it creates. We could have tipped, as the canoe leaned sideways, but with Ted's famous brace and me leaning far out on my side we made it, although the canoe took on a lot of water through my cockpit; I have to redesign the cover a bit. The third part of the Rock Rapid was half a mile long and consisted of three parts. The first part should be run tight right, and the second one more towards the middle on the left side of the huge waves. We barely missed a hole and took on some water. The third rapid which came as a surprise to us could be easily run from the right eddy where the other channel comes out. We were on river-left and saw the rapid too late. There was no time to come back to the right side. Thus we were drawn into a big ledge with huge waves and took on water again. Ted is convinced that the channel to the right side of the rock island is easier to paddle. After this ordeal we knew that Sinclair Falls would be coming up soon. The river was very fast. Ted tried to shoot a goose, but it got away again. Sinclair Falls is on the left side of the river, whereas some small channels trickle through the massive rocks on the right side. After climbing on the rocks and scouting, we paddled one of the small channels, winding our way through it. Twice we had to get out and line the canoe, jumping from rock to rock. At the end of the channel was a drop where we had to let the boat down. Right below the falls there is a rock island where we fried an Arctic char. The river below Sinclair Falls is fast and the shores look austere, rocky and brown without flowers. Maybe it never becomes spring here; there were still patches of snow and ice. On the left shore a tall inukshuk looked down on us, the first one on the Back River. We climbed up to it and found that it did not look very authentic. Shortly before seven we set camp on a beautiful sandy beach. Our sleeping bags needed to dry from the rapids; we have to put them into a more waterproof bag. 20 km

Monday, July 29

There was a light rain all day. The good thing is that there is no wind when it rains. We moved forward on a fast current most of the day except when the river widened to become a small lake. There were many geese on the shore. They always notice us early and take off. Their wings are only strong enough to fly close to the surface, touching the water while squawking noisily. They land and run away in a straight line. After twenty kilometers Escape Rapid was before us. We walked over a soggy meadow and up the embankment to scout the rapid. From the top we tried to memorize every detail, the ledges, the big waves and the boulders. Then we ran the first part of this two-km long rapid OK, although scraping a few rocks. Then we pulled into an eddy to scout the second part. However, when we ran it close to the shore past an immense keeper wave on the right, the pull to the left into the big waves was stronger than expected. Only with our utmost combined effort did we separate ourselves from the current into the calmer water. Some waves poured over me and into the canoe. The last section of the rapid led us to the right into some bony parts. Below the rapid we moved on a fast current up to ten kilometres per hour. It was still raining and windy. When we camped at 6:00 pm on a gravel bar close to the water, we were cold and tired. 40 km

Tuesday, July 30

It rained heavily all night, and the next day there were strong winds and showers. We decided to stay in the tent and rest, since we did not have a day off for over two weeks. It was very cosy in the tent, sitting in our double sleeping bag, the rain pounding against the tent walls and the occasional gusts of wind rattling the tent fly. We played some checkers and Muhle. Of course Ted always won, but at least I made him think hard. The camp stove was burning at our feet, giving us extra warmth. Suddenly I heard a burp outside, and looking out we saw a herd of caribou walking close by, grazing around the tent and up the hill behind us. Later Ted spotted two muskoxen on the same hill. We sneaked up to them to take a close-up shot. When they were suddenly confronted with Ted and me, the beasts took one good look at us and ran for their lives. I got a whiff of one; he smelled very bad. More and more caribou came our way, grazed a little and swam across the river. This was the third time that we encountered a caribou herd, fantastic! Ted caught a fish and we had some more games. When it was not raining too hard, we climbed up the hill where we met the two muskoxen again; I guess it was their home here. Ted started teasing them, shouting and jumping towards the animals. This time they did not run but stood their ground in an aggressive position, lowering their heads and rubbing it against their legs. We went to sleep hoping that the rainstorm will have passed tomorrow. 0 km

Wednesday, July 31

During the night the wind was so noisy that I woke up. The rain was pelting against the tent and the tent walls were flapping back and forth. Ted woke up later from the noises of another caribou herd walking close to us and swimming across the river. When we had breakfast, the weather was still hopeless. It was even too windy to go for a walk and so cold that our cooking oil turned solid and my blue shampoo turned white. We played some games and had a nap. I washed clothes, cooked a meal and played some more games with Ted. In the evening the wind howled around our campsite. 0 km

Thursday, August 1

We spent three nights at this campsite, only four days away from the river mouth. The third night was as bad as the second and I could not sleep because of the noisy wind. Luckily our tent fly was secured with rocks we had put on the extra foot of fabric I had sewed to the bottom; otherwise we would be in bad shape now. We were warm, dry and well-fed in our tent and had each other. It is surprising how little one needs to be content and happy. We took another walk up the hill to take photos of the two old tent rings we had seen. The wind was so strong that it almost took away my breath. How will tomorrow be? 0 km

Friday, August 2

In the morning it was still windy and gray, but not as bad as before. In the hope that the day will improve more, we packed everything and left at 9:00 am. We sailed a bit and ran two small unnamed rapids and then came to Sandhill Rapids. However, they were not a problem, but had to be run on the extreme left. The wind picked up again, as we crossed over to the right side of the river. It became increasingly more difficult to struggle against the now very strong head wind from the north. A dead caribou and her babies were lying in the rocks. At 11:30 we decided to quit once again and put up the tent. It was almost impossible to find a dry, level spot. We camped close to our canoe about one metre from the water. The pegs would not go into the ground because of the permafrost, and we had to put a big rock into all four corners inside the tent to secure it. When we stepped out of the tent, the ground wobbled and shifted. After the tent was up, we walked back to where we had seen the dead caribou. Ted cut some tender breast pieces with his fishing knife.
It was very fresh meat. The caribou, a mother and three babies, probably died two days ago when we saw the big herd swim across. I prepared it with some mushrooms we had picked earlier. Since we were camped close enough to Wolf Rapids, we walked along the shore to scout them. They seemed to be no major problem. On the walk we found old tent rings and a grave with an aluminum plate stuck between two rocks. In the evening we saw the sun for the first time in days. Our bed was not quite level and the wind kept me awake. Ed. note: distance ?

Saturday, August 3

Again we sat in the tent playing games and waiting for a break in the wind. We had a nap, and I cooked a soup with the rest of the caribou meat. After three we went for another walk. Looking over the river, it seemed as if the whitecaps were a bit smaller now. Ted could not stand the inertia any more and wanted to pack. At five thirty pm we were on the water paddling towards Wolf Rapid. It has to be run on the right where part of the current turns in this direction around an island. The current was so strong that it spun us around, so that we speeded down the channel with the stern down-river. Then we continued paddling into the night, sometimes against a head wind and sometimes sailing. The sun had turned the sky dark red and the evening was peaceful. At 9:00 pm we camped near a small creek, and I had a sponge bath. Finally we had moved on again! 21 km

Sunday, August 4

We got up at 4:00 am and left at 5:10 am in the hope that the winds don't blow that early. Breakfast would come later. Our wind theory did not work, for the wind joined us already before six o'clock. Refusing to be discouraged, we fought the battle and paddled against the wind, first on a stretch of river, and then on Upper Meadowbank Lake. The scenery was somewhat depressing as the shore lines on both sides were steep and consisted of black rock. At 8:30 we arrived at the end of the lake and landed below a cliff. Here Ted cooked breakfast high above the water, with a view of a rapid. While I sat around drying my socks and insoles of my boots, Ted caught two nice trout. After a two-hour rest, we ran three rapids. In the second one we got into a whirlpool and were spun around twice before we managed to assume a normal forward position again. We continued on Lower Meadowbank Lake, still with a manageable headwind. For hours we could see a mountain towering high above the tundra, Mount Meadowbank. The end of the lake lies below this lonely giant.
We landed, had a small snack and then climbed up the top from which we had a fantastic view of the tundra. On the way down, the sun and the mosquitoes came out. We picked some mushrooms, our only fresh vegetable out here. Paddling on, we saw two Inuit cabins, with two snowmobiles and an ATV. At the end of Lower Meadowbank Lake was a set of four rapids. The second one had a very big and strong eddy in which we got caught and were pushed upstream. We had to get out and line the canoe down through the eddy to reach the current again, since it was too risky to try a peeling-off manoeuvre into the very fast current.
Five kilometers further down, we landed at another government water-resource cabin. The door was open and we read the log book where other canoeists had recorded their trips on the Back River. Two Norwegians and a German couple had been here before us. They had started earlier and had to cope with walking long distances across frozen lakes. The place was very swampy and unsuitable for camping, and the cabin was too ugly to stay for the night. We continued to paddle and did not find a good campsite until 10:30 pm. Paddling through the evening, we witnessed a unique play of colours. From the rays of the sinking sun the whole tundra lay in a mauve light. 55 km

Monday, August 5

Since it was late last night, we slept a little longer and left at ten o'clock only. It was sailing weather all day, a west wind which is rare and most welcome if you have to travel north-east. It was also sunny and relatively warm. We ran two small rapids and then set out to find the old dory Ted had seen lying on the tundra on his previous trip. We landed too far away and had to walk about two kilometers up the tundra to find the site. On the way we picked a bag full of mushrooms. The hike led us through dry tundra and through bog where we had to jump from tuft to tuft to stay dry. The Inuit site was exactly as Ted remembered it. There were two graves, several tent rings, a collapsed food cache and a hunting corridor which consisted of two rows of rocks into which the caribou are coerced cleverly to be shot at the end. The old dory and the two home-made paddles were still there as well as a sturdy, wooden box with four handles. This is probably one of the sites where the Inuit lived and starved in the fifties, due to poor government policies. Back from the hike, we continued sailing, sometimes with an almost too strong wind. We passed beautiful eskers, sailed across several small lakes and then down stretches of fast river. We saw four muskoxen and one caribou. Our lunch stop was on a sand beach. We bare1y took enough time to fry a fish and make some sandwiches, the first time that I had not prepared them beforehand. Around six o'clock we were nearing a rapid unnamed on the map. Several natural warning signs indicated that it would be a heavy rapid and needed scouting: the current had become very strong and the river became narrow. The rapid itself was not yet visible behind the turn in the river. We climbed up the embankment and had a full view of the rapid: There were two enormous keepers, and if you did not stay tight right, right from the beginning, you would end up in there. We ran it all right, not taking in any water, however we had the surprise of descending a ledge with a chute hidden behind a black rock. Below the rapid we cooked supper, broccoli soup and a mushroom pancake. We paddled for two more hours and camped at ten o’clock on a small island. 60 km

Tuesday, August 6

This morning there was a perfect sailing wind which is rare on this stretch of the Back River. We sailed all day in various winds. Sometimes the wind was almost too strong for a safe crossing of a large bay, but we did it anyway. Our lunch spot was a sand bank. Since the sun was shining, I washed my hair and Ted shook his head about it: "women stuff, why do you have to wash your hair now"? In Whirlpool Rapids - not really a rapid, but the beginning of Franklin Lake - I dropped my paddle. It spun around from one boil to the other and we chased it until I could grab it again. We had already passed the prominent MacKay Peak where most paddlers spend a night. For hours we continued sailing and surfing along the right shore of Franklin Lake. At one point we crossed the Arctic Circle. At 4:30 pm we arrived at the outlet of the lake. Here the Back River runs wild for the last time before it flows into Chantrey Inlet, forcing the canoeist to descend a big vertical drop on the right. First we tried to cheat by going down a side channel, but we could not find the right passage. Bracing ourselves, we headed for the main rapids. After scouting, we decided to paddle down on the right as far as the big drop, turn left into the small pool and line the canoe around the rock platform. Then we jumped back in the canoe and paddled the rest. There were many small drops and hidden ledges we had to cross. On one of them we got turned sideways which can easily break your canoe in half, but thanks to Ted's excellent bracing and my humble attempt to do likewise, we made it down in one piece. The third rapid was more moderate, but very bony on the right side. Not risking a fracture at this point, we got out and lined the canoe for a few metres. Finally the Franklin Rapids were behind us and our nerves had a chance to recover. It was eight o'clock, a dark evening that gave me the creeps. Ted expected the old abandoned fishing lodge to be right around the corner, but it was not there. The sailing was still good and so we continued across a nameless lake, still puzzled about the fishing lodge. At 9:30 pm we pulled into camp to eat and rest. Ted straightened out his waypoints on the GPS and found out that we were only one hundred and sixty meters from the fishing lodge. When we were finally fed and settled at midnight, we could hear the roaring of the very last rapid that we would have to overcome tomorrow. 68 km

Wednesday, August 7

We had a refreshing and well deserved s1eep. When we woke up and dismantled the tent, we found that puddles had formed on the tent floor and under the tent from the thawed permafrost. The foot end of the sleeping bag was wet too. The day was mild and the insects were very active. At eleven o'clock we ran the very 1ast rapid on the Back River, and I uttered a sigh of relief. Officially the river has eighty-two rapids as described in the detailed government report however we only noticed about fifty-four that deserve that name. Although I have improved my canoeing skills, I need to practise in clement temperatures and closer to civilization. For Ted it is not so easy to paddle remote rivers in a harsh climate with an inexperienced white-water paddler. Nevertheless, he has learned to be more pedagogic and patient, and I never chickened out or refused to run something crazy.
We stopped to investigate the relinquished fishing camp which was built about twenty years ago by an Ontario businessman. The cabins are still solid, but the inside has been ransacked. Ted had caught a nice, big Arctic char after the last rapid, and while he filleted it, I climbed about on the granite boulders and hills to take photos. When we left at noon, the water was absolutely calm, and the blue sky reflected in the water of the big lake through which the Back River flows towards Chantrey Inlet on the Arctic Ocean. We passed three muskoxen on an island and then paddled past some more islands. In the north the sky had slowly changed colour and looked black and forboding. We donned our floater jackets just in time before a heavy shower came upon us. When it was over, we landed on an island to have a lunch break, our usual sandwich and the Arctic char. The rest of the afternoon was sunny again. We saw many geese, a variety that looked like a cross between a Canada goose and a snow goose; we even landed to sneak up on them during their afternoon nap. Some goose meat would have been nice, but Ted's gun did not want to fire, it simply remained silent. Around 4:30 pm a sudden light wind came up, increasing in strength over time, a typical, cold north wind, hard to fight. We camped at 8:00 pm on a nice gravel beach from which a flock of geese had retreated discreetly long before we were ready to land. The sky looked gloomy and the shoreline across the water dark and dismal. At ten o'clock the sun was one red blotch. 27 km

Thursday, August 8

We got up at 7:00 am. The weather was good despite yesterday's bad omen. We paddled into a sunny morning. All day we had either no wind or a light breeze. The Back River has formed a huge delta here, and we paddled past flat sand islands where sandpipers played in the puddles along the shore. In the distance we saw big black dots scattered in the landscape, and it was difficult to discern if they were large boulders or muskoxen.
At noon we arrived at the old nursing station on an island, where sick Inuit were cared for before they had been put into settlements. The small building was torn down and a lot of debris was lying about. It was bizarre to see an old scale standing here in a totally uninhabited area. Sometimes Inuit hunters from Gjoa Haven come here to hunt with their motorboats. After lunch we continued paddling through the sandy delta, sometimes afraid that the canoe might get stuck in the shallow water. Often there were only channels leading past the sand bars. Two seagulls circled frantically over our heads. Why were they so nervous? Soon we found out: close to the water's edge we discovered their nest sitting on the sand with two speckled eggs in it. Towards the evening when we approached the east coast of Chantry Inlet, having passed Cockburn Bay, we saw a large herd of muskoxen in the distance. We landed to camp at 6:30 pm beneath a waterfall, glad to have made it early today. The water out here tasted salty already, meaning that from now on we had to rely on creeks or land-bound ponds for our drinking water. Our campsite revealed some traces of human contact in the form of modern waste such as plastic and diapers. The Inuit from Gjoa Haven come into this inlet with their motorboats or snowmobiles to hunt or camp with their families. We settled in our tent while the herd of muskoxen settled in the bluffs just behind us, not noticing us until Ted stepped out of the tent. Immediately they stormed up the steep hill, the lead ox keeping guard behind his herd. We fell asleep to the music of the waterfall. 42 km

Friday, August 9

We left at 8:30 with a good sailing wind that lasted all morning. Two hours later we saw the first Inuit tent, a big white dot in the distance. It is the custom in the north that you pay a visit to a campsite in the wilderness. An old Inuit woman and a ten year old girl came out of the tent, later followed by a young man. The woman did not speak any English and had no teeth. The girl was speechless, and the young man invited us into the tent and offered us tea and bannock. As usually, three-quarters of the floor was covered with a mattress, their common bed, and the rest of the space was occupied with cooking utensils and food packages. The young man wanted to take his mother and sister on a fishing and hunting trip to the area of the old nursing station where the old woman was born. These were the first human faces we saw after thirty-eight days just among ourselves. After an hour we left again, paddling and sailing into an increasing wind. The coastline is quite rugged with long, pointed peninsulas jutting out into the sea. One of them was particularly long and high, and we had to paddle hard to avoid being pushed into the rocks by a nasty wind. On the other side, the water was very shallow because of the outgoing tide. Ahead of us on the low, sandy beach we saw some shacks and two men approaching us. One of them was Dave, the wildlife officer from Gjoa Haven, and the other one was his friend on a visit from Baffin Island. The shacks were summer cabins some unknown people had built for themselves. We had lunch in the company of these two young men. They told us that the two Norwegians had arrived in Gjoa Haven, and that one of them had a severe stomach flu caused by the poor drinking water from one of the coastal puddles. We had filled one of our porridge containers with good water from the waterfall and considered ourselves safe. Continuing our trip, we sailed for hours along the coast, going north from point to point, crossing bay after bay, the last hour in quite high waves. At 6:30 pm we landed on King Island from where we have to do a fourteen-kilometer crossing to reach Montreal Island. After supper we climbed up over the black rock ridges to see where to do the crossing tomorrow. 57 km

Saturday, August 10

I slept for ten hours without a break, I guess I needed it. It was too windy this morning to cross over to Montreal Island. We are three canoeing days away from Gjoa Haven and will try to get there on our own, although we could phone any time to be picked up by boat for a price. We still have enough food to wait for more opportune weather, and we like it out here. From our campsite we can see Montreal Island in the north-west. The west coast of Chantrey Inlet is too far away to see it from here. When we were at the mouth of the Back River two days ago, we had to decide whether to travel up the west or the east side of the inlet. The west coast has shorter crossings, but shallow water, and the many islands make navigation very difficult. So far we are pleased with our choice. I repaired our home-made canoe cover with dental floss. Then we had three games of Muhle which made us so tired that we had a nap. Around noon the wind had weakened. I quickly made a big pancake in addition to our usual sandwich. I had very little to drink, because a comfort stop is impossible during a crossing, at least for women. When we started the fourteen-kilometer cross-over at 1:30 pm, the waves were still quite high as soon as we had left the sheltered bay. There were whitecaps in some places, and for a while we had quite a roller coaster ride, being pushed high up on the crest of the waves and then tossed back into the troughs. Some waves curled over the canoe, but the cover protected it from filling up. Already close to the island, there was a particular bad stretch of water. After two hours and forty minutes we reached Montreal Island's eastern corner. From there we had to find a passage through islands, bays and peninsulas to the north side. The coast looked dismal and desolate this afternoon, not friendly enough to want to stay for the night. We only had a rest and a snack with some tea. Around six o'clock the wind had calmed down completely and we decided to do the second crossing of nine kilometers to reach the west coast of Chantrey Inlet. It was a beautiful evening, very peaceful. There was enough northern daylight to see the coasts painted in dark green colours. Arctic terns playfully accompanied us, as the canoe glided quietly across the green waters into the Arctic night. After one and a half hours we arrived at the sandy beach of the inlet's west coast where we stayed for the night. 28 km

Sunday, August 11

This morning, at 8:30 when we left, the water was very calm. However, it was cold and the air was so damp that our jackets and pants became as wet as if it was raining. We paddled along a very flat and sandy coast. At the northwest point of Chantrey Inlet, local travellers had erected a man-size inukshuk with a fur cap. As we continued westward along the north coast of these Arctic waters, the shoreline presented itself as kilometers of low sand dunes with very little vegetation. Around three in the afternoon we saw some Inuit tents in the distance. We approached them, passing a small, littered island. The Inuit had seen us from far away and two of them, Louis and his young son paddled towards us in a canoe. Two more youngsters met us on the shore, inviting us into their tent. There Louis' wife Josephine welcomed us with tea and cookies. They had come from Gjoa Haven yesterday to spend a two-week vacation "on the land", as they say, camping, fishing and hunting caribou. Their motor had broken down and they were waiting for his father to bring them some parts. As usual, the tent was wired to use a short-wave radio that connects them with their people at home and with those who are away on another camping trip. On this site were other tents, presently not in use, and belonging to other families. There was even an outhouse. Louis offered us to take along some drinking water, but Ted declined and I did not insist enough, although I knew that we were a bit short of it. We spoke on the radio with George K, who had picked up Ted from the river mouth by boat on his first trip.
After an hour's visit we continued our trip. A wind started to come up slowly, and it did not take long until it had whipped up the water into less than comfortable waves. Once we landed to take a picture of an enormous boulder sitting close to the water. Where had it come from and which force had deposited this single giant here on the sandbar? It was cold and wet. The GPS told us that we still had ten kilometers to go to reach Ogle Point from where we wanted to cross over to King William Island. We could not rely a hundred per cent on the compass, as we were closer to the magnetic pole than ever before. The instrument's arrow wavered and pointed in more than one direction. Ted was confused and came up with the idea that the last sand tip we had passed might have been already Ogle Point. It was almost six pm and we decided to quit for the day, pulling in through the rough surf.
After some corrections on a waypoint gone astray, Ted confirmed that we still have eleven kilometers to Ogle Point. Our hands and feet were cold and we were glad to retire into the comfort of the tent. We had soup and a sandwich, a luxury we did not dare to indulge in earlier on the trip for fear of not having enough later on. We had plenty of fuel left and had our cooking stove going all evening to give us extra warmth. We made some longer phone calls, but the battery went low quickly. Would there be enough power for an emergency call? 42 km

Monday, August 12

Ted woke me up at 6:00 am, anxious to paddle to Ogle Point. I wanted to find water first, since we only had enough for one day. There was more of a chance to get water here, since we could still see a bit of tundra a few kilometers behind us. We knew that Ogle Point was not more than a giant sand bar, partly below sea level. After breakfast we took one of the empty porridge containers and started walking towards the higher dunes. We hiked a few kilometers through terrain that looked like the Sahara desert. Finally we came to some small trickles of running water. We dug a hole in the sand, waited until enough water had collected and cleared up. Carefully we scooped it up with a lid. On our way back we had to make sure we walked in the direction of the tent and not get lost in the desert and arrive somewhere else. The weather had turned nasty, it was raining and windy. But with our new supply of water it did not matter how many days we would have to wait here. We had a really relaxing and lazy afternoon in the tent. Ted had a snooze while I repaired my night pants. Then we had some games and felt like having a snack. I made soup from our last "old" water, and a nice, crisp pancake. For the tea I had to use the water we fetched this morning. "Ah, tea is so invigorating", I thought when lifting my cup. Yack - how horrible it tasted! We tried the water from the container: it was very salty. How can the water flowing in little rivulets more than two kilometers away from the sea be so salty? What are we going to do now, five kilometers away from Ogle Point and another thirty-six from our final destination on King William Island? The main thing is not to panic! Ted collected rain water from the inside of the canoe that had come in through the cockpit. It was enough for the porridge in the morning and for tea in the thermos. 0 km

Tuesday, August 13

Ted woke me up at 3:00 am: "Freda, get up, the water is calm, let's go". We ate porridge with canoe-bottom flavour and were ready to paddle at 5:00 am. It was very foggy and we paddled the eleven kilometers to Ogle Point close to shore. The whole shore was one big, flat sandbar as far inland as the eye could see. Snow and ice must have levelled it off for centuries. Once we passed a stranded motor boat, half covered in sand. At 7:00 o'clock we arrived at Ogle Point. It was cold and the air was saturated with moisture that made everything wet. From here we had to do an eighteen-kilometer crossing on ocean water to a group of small islets called the Hovgaard Islands. There was a slight wind and the fog was very dense. Ted wanted to start the crossing immediately, reasoning that there is usually very little wind in a low pressure system. So we started out at 7:30 with some wind and the odd whitecap here and there. Will the wind increase or subside? The visibility was very poor and a feeling of utter helplessness overcame me, being totally exposed to the whim of the sky and the icy green ocean water. The only way to overcome this feeling was to paddle as hard as possible to get it over with. Ted checked the GPS and the compass every half hour to reassure us of the right direction. After two hours, a huge, dark shape emerged out of the fog. First Ted thought that we were on the wrong course, or could that already be one of the Hovgaard Islands? Yes, it was! Ted's navigation had been perfect and right to the point! After one more hour we landed on the isle, a truly desolate place, nothing but a huge pile of pebbles, pushed together by the force of ice. It was evident that others had sought refuge here. There were some more recent tent rings, some plastic containers and some shattered glass. It was too cold and wet to stay for more than an hour. We started the second crossing in even denser fog. The wind had died completely and it was raining now. Our spirits were up, for we knew that we were on the last seventeen kilometers of our summer odyssey and we had no doubt now that we will make it to Gjoa Haven. We paddled and paddled with aching shoulders, the sail flopped on the canoe. The GPS kept us informed about the steadily decreasing distance between us and Gjoa Haven.
But at three kilometers before our final goal we could not yet see the coast of King William Island. Far away we could hear the noise of a machine. First we thought it was the croaking motor of a boat, but the Inuit usually don't venture on the water in such bad weather conditions. Later we realized that it was a drill, maybe to find diamonds. Why was there no land? Did we go into the wrong direction? We had to trust the GPS, it does not lie. Fifteen minutes later and another kilometer further there was still nothing, just a fogged-up horizon and water. There suddenly, a dark shadow in the fog: that must be the shoreline of the bay of Gjoa Haven. What a relief! The first sign of civilization was the conglomeration of white tanks against a now blue sky. It was the community's diesel plant. Ed. note: distance?
At three o'clock we entered the harbour and were greeted by some folks who knew already about our coming. Unusual news travels fast in the north: Louis, whom we had met two days ago, had announced on the radio that two old kablunas were on the way to Gjoa Haven. Soon Ted's acquaintance George from eighteen years ago arrived at the beach with his ATV, welcomed us with a hug and offered to drive us to his house to warm up. There we met two of his eight children and his wife who offered us a bed in their modest and very warm home. George drove back to the beach and picked up our canoe which he put behind him. It was sticking out on both sides like a wide load on a highway. We had two wonderful days with these warm and ever so hospitable people of whom I could tell more fascinating details.

However, my account "Wind on the Back River" ends here. After thirty-seven days on the river and five days on Arctic Ocean water, Ted and I had reached our destination which had seemed out of reach so often during many of the forty-two days in the tundra. We had to cope with all kinds of winds, with rains, frost, ice and clusters of insects dancing on the few days when the sun ventured out of its hiding. An almighty, protective hand had shielded us in the rapids and on the lakes. We were one of the few who had the privilege to experience the mighty Back River with its very variable scenery and harsh beauty. We were granted unforgettable encounters with muskoxen and the big herds of the caribou. We felt included in the rhythm of the tundra in a northern world where spring and summer days are scarce and fall and winter are lingering everywhere. We also had the gift of each other sharing all responsibilities, frustrations and joys in a warm and comfortable closeness. What an incredible all-round trip!

Maps Required
Topo Maps (1:250,000): 
56L, 56M, 57B, 66E, 66F, 66G, 66H, 66I, 66J, 66P, 67A, 76B, 76C, 76G, 76H