Across the “Otherworldly” North
Canoe-tripping friends reflect on a summer north of 60
By Conor Mihell
Longtime Camp Wabun campers and staff Stef Superina, Jesse Coleman, Max Flomen and Andrew Stachiw spent many a summer evening around the campfire in Ontario’s Temagami wilderness dreaming of the day when they’d embark together on a canoe trip of their own. True, the foursome developed passions for canoe-tripping and life-altering friendships at venerable Wabun, but they anticipated going on a journey to a place they could challenge themselves without the responsibility of looking after teenage charges. Their wish came true last summer when they recruited fellow paddlers Jonathan Metcalfe and Seth Wotten, secured a prestigious Royal Canadian Geographical Society grant, and launched Coppermine 2012, a 1,500-mile expedition across the barrens of Canada’s Northwest and Nunavut Territories to the Arctic Ocean.
The team set off from Yellowknife on July 1, tackling the big waters of Great Slave Lake in three canoes. At the lake’s east end, they met native Dene elders and youth at the village of Lutsel K’e, who shared local knowledge for navigating the rugged Pike’s Portage route to the Lockhart River. “It’s not a single portage but rather a string of 15 to 20 carries in a 25-mile section,” says Stachiw, an outdoor educator based in Amherst, Mass. “It starts with a three-miler which also happens to be the first portage of the trip. It felt pretty crazy to go from the hugeness of Great Slave Lake to these little ponds.”
From there, they entered the infamous treeless “Barrenlands” of Canada’s north. Flomen, a Montreal native who’s currently working on a Ph. D. at the University of California in Los Angeles, described the landscape as “otherworldly, like what I imagine the planet to have looked like a long time ago.” They reveled in near 24-hour daylight, which facilitated the long 25- to 30-mile days necessary to cover the route during the short summer season. “It’s definitely unlike any other geography I had ever traveled,” adds Stachiw, “simply because there are no trees and there’s no darkness. I loved it. I thought, ‘Why do we ever trip in places where there’s darkness?’”
Fifty days on the water gave the Wabun alumni plenty of time to rekindle friendships. “I’m fascinated by how well you get to know people and how your rhythms get interwoven,” says Stachiw, who met Flomen, Superina and Coleman at summer camp at age 13. “You learn how people behave and you become respectful of it; and you learn how people’s emotions affect others. It’s pretty awesome. All inhibitions get dropped and you know what each other is thinking.”
Despite the ambitious schedule, the team was able to fulfill their mission of documenting their experiences on the land and exploring the role of the North in Canadian culture. Currently, the region is a vast resource frontier—for instance, the team paddled past two massive diamond mines, which Flomen describes as having the out-of-place look of “James Bond villain complexes.”
Clearly they envision the North as less boom-and-bust and more of a timeless wilderness. “It’s important for people to know the facts, to know how decisions to be made now will be transformational in the not too distant future,” says Flomen. “These issues have to do with the land and the people who live on it. Society will have to find a way to do this to everyone’s satisfaction. We don’t have the answers, but we can help people educate themselves and form their own ideas, and maybe even to go there and learn more about it.”
All along, they planned on leaving their canoes, paddles, PFDs and camping gear at the village of Kugluktuk, an Inuit community of 1,450 at the mouth of the Coppermine River. Stachiw hopes the gear, to be maintained for local use at the village community center, will inspire youth to rediscover the joys of traveling on the land and have the same sort of experience that shaped his love of the wilderness as a youth at Camp Wabun. In addition, the team is currently wrapping up a series of educational multimedia to make the people and geography of the North better known in Canada and the United States. Stachiw hopes lesson plans, videos and photographs will share the rewards of adventure and friendship he’s received from the wilderness.
“Working with the kids, you get to see the positive impacts of being in the woods,” says Stachiw. “There’s a real dislocation between kids and the wilderness today. To the extent that we can travel and help bring awareness and encourage action … that’s an important part of our message.”