Friday, July 8, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: An Arctic Adventure

My nephew Steven, my then-teenagers, Eric and Minetta,
and I in our bug-protective gear preparing to load our canoes.
Dr. Lanice Jones is a Canadian family physician, world traveler, and adventurer in every sense of the word. This week, she shares another one of her many adventures with us.

“What about the Thelon, Mom?” my fifteen year-old daughter and sixteen year-old son questioned. It was mid-May 2006, and we’d been studying maps and reading books about Canada’s Arctic for months. We’d signed up for canoe lessons, bought life jackets and paddles, dry bags, and a new tent in anticipation of a family canoe trip, when suddenly my husband of thirty years ran off with another woman.

“We’re going, kids. I don’t know how, but we’re going to do it together,” I encouraged. “Dad isn’t the only one who can have adventures!”

Caribou crossing the Thelon River. 
I’d fallen in love with the Arctic at seventeen, when I’d worked my first job at a fishing camp in Canada’s North-West Territories. Ever since, I’d dreamed of exploring the Thelon River, Nunavut’s longest river, home to muskox and caribou, barren-ground grizzly and wolves, and I wasn’t going to give up that dream. We’d find a way!

I called my nephew Steve, begging him to be our fourth paddler. Meanwhile, I spent two months drying food, packing dry bags, and a food barrel. The work was therapeutic as I triple-checked meals and gear, too focused to dwell on the great rift in my heart. There would be time for grieving during the weeks on the water, where we’d be entirely alone for weeks at a time.

Our float plane taking off after leaving us
alone in the Arctic wilderness....
We were dropped off by float plane, just east of Warden’s Grove. Black flies and mosquitoes swarmed against our bug shirts, protecting us from being eaten alive as we pushed our way through thick bush to pay homage to the place where John Hornby and his young nephew died of starvation “overwintering” on the Thelon in 1927.

Our time on the water was idyllic as we paddled with the current, searching for a glimpse of muskox or caribou, or trailing a fishing line to supplement our dried food. But land was another matter. I’d spent five summers of my youth in the Arctic, and while I didn’t like the bugs, I viewed them as a necessary evil.

My vegetarian daughter caught
the biggest jackfish!
However, Steve and my kids hated the constant swarm. We’d prepare to land by tugging on our gloves, tightening down our pant legs, and zipping up our bug shirts. We’d have races to see who could get their tents up quickest, then two would prepare the dinner while two would make a cook fire. When dinner was ready, three would enter the dining tent and undertake “the kill,” swiping as many bugs as possible with a handkerchief while the last person would pass through the food and dash inside.

By early August, the wind was kicking up, blowing away the swarm but making paddling difficult. As we approached our pick-up spot, where the Thelon entered Beverly Lake, thunder clouds piled up from the North, and a howling wind tore at the canoes. My son, Eric, and I hugged the lee shore, digging in our paddles, to pull forward a few feet while the wind clawed us backward. We could see where we needed to be, but it took us an hour to paddle a few hundred feet. Meanwhile, Steven and my daughter, Minetta, had taken a different tack and ended up on the windward side of the river, fighting against breaking whitecaps as they strove to close the gap between us. I prayed silently for Steven’s strength to hold as he dug his paddle deeply against the savage water that threatened to drive him and Minetta back to the far shore. It seemed to take forever for them to cross the river, and Eric and I waded into the water to help beach their canoe against the wind.

Eric and I use a tent fly to set a sail on a downwind day.
We were holed up by the wind for four days. We explored empty wolf dens dug into the eskers, long low hills of sand left behind by the retreating glaciers. We scrambled up a pingo, a hill of frost pushed up out of the muskeg and covered with vegetation, gaining a view of the endless tundra stretching in all directions. We even built a hot rock sauna in a sheltered cove using willow branches and our tent flies, warming ourselves after a brisk dip in the river.

Finally, the wind dropped, and in the evening, two motor boats churned up the river, their wakes glistening like silver. Our canoes were tied down safe for pickup at a later date, while we tossed our gear in the fishing boats, eager to get a few miles in before the full dark. A day later, we pulled up to the shores of Baker Lake, our new Inuit friends welcoming us to their community for our last night in the Arctic.

Eric compares his hand to a huge grizzly bear print left on the shore
where we had a swim, made dinner, and quickly left again!
As we shared a simple meal, we talked about the life on the land. Our hosts listened and nodded as my kids described how they’d cooked a meal on a beach covered with grizzly paw prints larger than the prints of our own feet then left the area spotlessly clean as we packed up and canoed downstream for five kilometers to avoid any nocturnal visitors. They described how they’d learned to cook a fish using spruce bows as nature’s grill, and how Steve had taught them to use a map and compass first, before being allowed to check their position with a GPS.

I looked at my sun-burnished crew, glowing with health and the joy of living so close to the earth, and while my heart would feel bruised for years to come, I was also filled with the love and pride of my family and what we’d accomplished on our Arctic Adventure. 


  1. What an exciting adventure, Lanice. This reads like a suspense story. :) I'm sure it was an experience your kids will always remember and treasure. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  2. Wow, what a journey! I used to do a lot of outside adventure when I was young – especially since woods in Russian were plenty, but to spot any kind of wildlife wasn’t that easy. The pictures are absolutely incredible. Thank you for sharing your story.

  3. I am so glad you undertook this journey regardless of what was going on with your husband. You're a wonderful example of determination and inspiration not only for your kids, but for everyone who reads this post. Thank you for sharing!