Cold Wind, Sucky Mud, and Big Fish on the Nanook River
by Willem Lange
VICTORIA ISLAND, CANADA, NANOOK RIVER at 71º35’N, 107º44’W — After a couple of weeks of camping and canoeing in open, treeless land, you can recognize your companions from almost as far away as you can see them, by the color of their clothing, their gaits, their mannerisms.
Toward the end of a pleasant afternoon yesterday — cool, partly cloudy, light southerly winds — Alex and I stood by the tents wondering when everybody else might be returning for supper. Away off downriver a tiny figure appeared, right next to an ancient stone cairn. Beige outerwear, purposeful trudge toward the bright-colored tents that were just specks on his horizon. It was Rick. Something was reflecting the evening sun alongside his right leg.
“He’s got a fish!” I said. Alex dug out his binoculars — monocular now, after a lens fell out somewhere — and peered. It was a very big fish. About every hundred yards, Rick paused, set it down, stretched his back and shook his right arm, and came on again. In twenty minutes or so he finally arrived, bearing a 36-inch long male Arctic char and a grin that suffused his entire face. We took half a dozen pictures. Then he reached into his pack and pulled out his small Lexan jar of precious single-malt Scotch. We passed it around and toasted the day.
Toasting the day is a good idea here, because yesterday was probably awful and tomorrow may be worse. New England can’t hold a candle to this place for fickle weather. Changes in wind direction, sun and showers, balmy zephyrs and roaring gales, mosquitoes and snow flurries all follow each other around the clock. We have a tarp that we put up to shield us from the wind while we cook and eat, nailing down the windward edge with stakes and boulders; and we’ve changed its orientation so often we’ve lost count. Last evening, a powerful gust fractured one of its aluminum poles, so we’ve splinted that with a piece of driftwood from the river mouth.
The Nanook (“White Bear”) has been a surprising river. Quite short on the map, it’s considered a “10-day river.” But cautious about being windbound or icebound on lakes, and wanting extra time to fish, we allowed twelve. A week before leaving, too late to change our minds, I found a report by a previous voyageur, a Canadian professor, who described it as “raw…mean-spirited…impossible shallows…impassable whitewater…little more than a drainage ditch.” Uh-oh. So the fact that it’s been surprising has been a blessing. The professor had hit a stretch of miserable weather, which confines parties to their tents for days and colors perceptions of the whole experience. But he had one thing right. He mentioned treacherous clay lurking just under the most innocent grass or rocks. We called it “sucky mud.” It almost seemed there was a strange species of mud puppy down there, leaping to grab our shoes and cover them with sticky, beige clay.
The charter pilot dropped us off in a shallow, silty stretch of the Tuktu (“Caribou”) River, a tributary of the Nanook, which was the only place he could land. Even at that, he got stuck on a sandbar just before his first takeoff and had to climb out to push the plane free. In an unpromising drizzle, we assembled our folding boats, loaded up with two weeks’ food and gear, and, with much bumping, pushing, and jumping in and out, headed downstream.
We camped that night at a spot where the river some time ago broke through a big esker. Jock caught the first fish. Far above us, about half a mile away, a diamond prospecting camp, with large, heated temporary buildings, an airstrip, and a big helicopter crowned the esker. We watched the helicopter come and go with loads of (we presumed) core and placer samples. Then, just after supper, I looked up, and here came a man accompanied by a sled dog. No, not a man; a woman! Megan, the cook at the camp, had brought us a Tupperware container of cake for dessert. A sled dog enthusiast from British Columbia, Megan cooks at a different camp each summer and makes enough to run her dogs all winter. If her meals are as good as her cake, that’s a happy camp.
The river got bigger much faster than we had expected, but it was the many lakes that concerned us. High winds or land-fast ice could stymie our progress. Amazingly, the wind stayed behind us all the way down, and we were able to cross without too much stress. On one shallow lake, big trout were cruising for hatching flies in three feet of water. Eric stood up in his canoe and, like a Bimini bone fishing guide, told Rick which direction to cast. We caught a lot of ’em.
The next lake was half-choked with ice, but we paddled the long route around it, made four short portages along the shore where it blocked the way, and got back into the river. The wind shifted again at evening, loosening the ice. All night as we dozed, big chunks rumbled into the shallow river with the roar of high-flying jets, while the smaller chunks marched by with the tinkle of wind chimes or a steel band. Next day, the ice kept to the fastest water in the rapids while we zoomed along beside it in the less turbulent current. And so we came at last to a canyon, carved through ice-shattered quartzite, where we met the big male char coming up from the sea to spawn.
All along the river, musk oxen watched us pass and once, at two in the morning, grunted among our tents like hogs. Peary caribou, small and fluffy as toys under a Christmas tree, trotted along the skylines and watched us warily. Dozens of birds — three kinds of loon, Canada geese, a gyrfalcon, snowy owls, swans, ravens, Lapland longspurs — surrounded us most of the time. Down near the foot of the canyon, two hundred yards from a huge fall of water, where the char pause in clear pools before starting the climb, we found the lichen-covered rocks of tent rings and hearths, where the Inuit, unaware of any other world, had camped to hunt and fish a thousand years ago.