Canoeing the Lorillard River
By Brian Johnston
I am a Far North paddler. I travel with others that share my passion for exploring this vast region of Canada. As we continue to chase our dreams and follow our passions, we will continue to research, paddle, and report on original and unique water routes. This is one such trip report.
I have been a fan of canoeing rivers in the Keewatin area of Nunavut for years. In addition to the popular waterways, there are other less known watercourses. There are even rivers that have not yet carried modern canoeists downstream. First descents await their debut.
The Lorillard River is little known and until recently un-paddled. This unfamiliar river lies between Chesterfield Inlet and Wager Bay, and drains directly into the formidable Hudson Bay. The nearest community resides slightly south of Chesterfield Inlet and bears the same name as this Inlet. It is a hamlet that seldom sees canoeists.
Internet searching revealed that the size of the Lorillard River was similar to the Ferguson River, which unfortunately was of little value because we had yet to paddle the Ferguson. As luck would have it, Water Survey of Canada had old data that confirmed the Lorillard River held promise and held water—if we began our voyage in early July.
Small rivers provide an intimate paddling experience compared to exploring larger rivers. One can feel powerless paddling large volume rivers. It is difficult to see across wide rivers, especially in the Far North where the land is often low lying. Likewise, large rivers are difficult to navigate, especially if you can only see one side. Furthermore, major watercourses are notorious for causing wind bound delays. Their massive rapids and falls often entail or necessitate substantial portages and their fast current can sweep you along too quickly. Contrast to a minor river where you can paddle upstream, watch wildlife on both sides, and use features on the opposite shore to get a fix on your location. You can also paddle in the shoreline lee right up to the brink of a ledge, and lift-over, all while easily controlling your river descent.
Even though there are benefits to canoeing small rivers, this does not mean they are without disadvantages. Minor rivers fluctuate—rise and fall quickly based on precipitation and runoff. Expect to walk shallow rapids. In the wider, lake-like river sections expect to search for a deep-water channel. Do not be fooled into thinking that little rivers remain quaint, for they often gain and build in volume. Before you realize, they morph into a force to be reckoned with.
Having experienced and enjoyed other small Keewatin rivers and tributaries for instance Kunwak, Prince, and Quoich Rivers, we wondered what the Lorillard River would entail. If the landing or river appeared to be unacceptable, the nearby Quoich River was our backup plan.
The usual questions arise when planning a first descent: how would we get there? Where would we put-in? Small rivers lack large headwater lakes to land on. Will there be sufficient depth and flow? What would we do at the end of the river—fly out or paddle out? Without trip reports, we even wondered about how many days to plan for the descent.
Although we believe we were the first recreational canoe party to paddle the Lorillard River, on the lower sections there were extensive signs of Inuit use (tent rings, cairns, caches, and so on). On behalf of the American Geographical Society, in 1880, U.S. Army Lt. Frederick Schwatka traveled up the river on his way to search for lost papers of the famed Franklin expedition. In fact, Schwatka named the Lorillard River. His circle trip of almost a year connected the Lorillard, Brown, and Hayes Rivers to King William Island. On his return voyage, he linked the Back, Meadowbank, and Quoich Rivers en route back to Chesterfield Inlet.
Crew recruitment can be a major hurdle to overcome in organizing canoe expeditions. We were having difficulty filling our final sixth spot to complete the group. Alv Elvestad of Pakboats, an avid paddler himself, entered the scene and bailed us out by advertising our predicament. Within weeks, we had our sixth trip member.
By starting shortly after ice-out, we enjoyed a week sans mosquitoes and even longer without black flies. Due to our early season timing, fresh berries were not available so we nibbled on year old cranberries—they were delicious after spending the winter frozen.
We found the terrain varied and friendly. There was a variety of open tundra as well as hills, ridges, and eskers for hiking. Suitable campsites were always nearby when needed.
In general, the river drops one meter per kilometer. The playful whitewater as well as pool and drop style rapids and falls peppered the river route. A steep sided shoreline and small canyon spiced up the otherwise easy to scout whitewater.
The Lorillard River did not stand out for wildlife encounters. Nor was it void of life. We saw eagles, bank swallows, loons, geese, sandhill cranes, ptarmigans, sik siks, wolves, caribou, fox, lake trout, grayling, arctic char, seals, and a polar bear!
Our plan was to paddle and portage from the Lorillard River to Chesterfield Inlet via the Connery and Sagvaqjuaq Rivers to mitigate our exposure to Hudson Bay.
At 2 a.m. one morning, one of our crew woke and sat up face to face with a 950 lb. eight year old male polar bear. The curious bear had nosed his feet at the bottom of his sleeping bag! Its head was fully in the tent vestibule!
Naively, we thought the next day we would be venturing into possible polar bear country and were caught a bit off guard (we had the air horn and shotguns at the ready but had not erected the electric fence). Clearly, we were mistaken.
We initially scared the bear off and checked and cleaned up the camp, placed pots on packs as noisemakers, and erected the electric fence we had packed and planned to use the next night!
At 6:30 a.m., our cadre was summoned again when the polar bear returned for its second visit. After firing shotgun-warnings, blasts from an air horn, and bear bangers we again caused it to retreat but this second return concerned us. As we packed up camp and discussed our situation, we noticed the polar bear stalking us in the water like they do when hunting seals, barely his nose and eyes out of the water. We immediately tried to get him to alter course but we were unsuccessful and the bear came ashore just upstream and up wind of our camp. Eventually, with more warning shots and bear bangers we were able to force him to retreat for the third time, this time back into the river where he remained near the opposite shore, across from our camp, near the top of a rapid watching us, but blocking our exit river.
To us, his stalking behaviour and attempting to get upwind of us indicated an escalation from curious bear behaviour to predatory or hunting behaviour. We called via our satellite phone the Conservation Office in Chesterfield Inlet for advice and unfortunately were informed he was on holidays. Before we could complete another call the bear took a direct fourth approach of swimming to our side of the river and making a beeline right into our camp despite our noise making and warning shots.
The bear’s demeanor had changed. It was no longer stalking or sneaking but rather taking the direct and determined line into our camp showing no sign of annoyance, fear, or hesitation. Without regard for our deterrence actions, the polar bear crossed our line in the sand and unfortunately we had to dispatch the bear.
We had known that seeing polar bears was a real possibility so we had two 12 gauge pump shotguns loaded with 3” rifled slugs, a small electric fence, bear banger flare style noisemakers, as well as an air horn. Following the incident, there was a group consensus to shorten the trip and arrange for a pickup at the end of the Lorillard River at Daly Bay instead of venturing overland towards Chesterfield Inlet. We were shaken and concerned about encountering more polar bears and aware that numerous warming and lethal shots had left us with a short supply of slugs. We decided to shorten our trip by arranging for a motorboat pickup at the mouth of the Lorillard River.
The hamlet of Chesterfield Inlet is a friendly and welcoming community. For a long time, some northern locales have been common destinations for canoe parties. Not so for Chesterfield Inlet, as it seldom sees paddlers.
Why Pack a Canoe? It was the easiest and simplest way to get canoes to and from the Lorillard River. We could have completed the trip in hard shell canoes, but it would have involved more logistics and funds. Our Lorillard River trip is a model example demonstrating the advantages of using folding canoes in the Far North.
Our trip started with commercial flights to a northern community. We arrived at the airport check-in with PakCanoes, an option not available with hard shell canoes.
The next leg of our journey was a charter flight. Our three PakCanoes stowed easily inside of the wheeled single engine Otter. Interior loads are safer, cheaper, and faster regardless of float or wheeled aircraft.
During the canoe trip, our Pakboats were lighter to portage than many hard shell canoes. Without prior knowledge of portages, it was reassuring to know that our canoes would be light to carry.
At the end of the Lorillard River, we packed away our canoes to accommodate the unplanned boat pick-up. Similar to flying, boat shuttles are safer and faster with canoes packed away. The two small boats that we hired easily transported us across the open water without incident.
Similar to the start, our three PakCanoes left Chesterfield Inlet with us as checked baggage on a commercial flight—something we would not have been able to accomplish with hard shell canoes. We avoided having to ship hard shell canoes as air or barge freight, or trying to sell them.
After the trip, PakCanoes present practical storage possibilities during the non-paddling season. Mine is in a small gear closet awaiting the next trip.
Environment Canada, Water Survey of Canada, Archived Hydrometric Data Online, Lorillard River above Daly Bay (Station ID 06OA001) data.