An ambitious 1,000-mile odyssey across the Canadian North
By Conor Mihell
This summer, six educators, historians and canoe guides from Canada and the U.S. will attempt an ambitious canoe route across the Canadian north from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories to Kugluktuk, Nunavut. The 1,000-mile expedition will trace the length of the historic Coppermine River, from sprawling Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean. The group’s goal is simple: to make this largely untouched hinterland’s rich history and vibrant people better known and appreciated.
CanoeKayak.com got in touch with expedition members Jonathan Metcalfe, Andrew Stachiw, Stef Superina, Jesse Coleman, Max Flomen and Seth Wotten to learn more about their tripping style, the historical significance of the Coppermine River, and the educational materials they hope to develop on the expedition, which has received the support of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
CanoeKayak.com: What got you interested in paddling the Coppermine River in the first place?
Jonathan Metcalfe: The historical significance of the Coppermine River is what really attracted our attention at first, as it follows part of Samuel Hearne’s first successful overland expedition by a European to the Arctic. Prior to reaching the Coppermine, we cross through the Barren Lands where the boreal forest transitions into the arctic tundra—a spectacular environment that many people do not get to visit. The whole area is very pertinent to our educational objectives. The Arctic is a fascinating part of Canadian history and will have a very significant role in its future. Traveling through this area will allow us to address a wide range of topics that are pertinent to Canadian students.
What is the significance of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society grant?
The support from the RCGS allows us to really emphasize the academic aspects of our journey. Utilizing their curriculum program will be a great resource and following in the footsteps of past RCGS expeditions is something we are all looking forward to. Our objectives are in line with their mandate of making Canada better known to Canadians. They have also introduced us to a very valuable network of supporters who have been great in helping us raise awareness for our project.
Why have you decided to paddle wood-canvas canoes on this trip? Do you have any concerns about their durability over such a long haul?
Andrew Stachiw: In terms of paddling, there are few things like guiding a wood-canvas canoe through the water. We will be taking one wood-canvas canoe on this trip, and we think that it is an important part of the historical and educational component of this trip. People have traveled this land for a long, long time, and many of them used wood-canvas canoes or other more traditional modes of travel. Wood-canvas canoes can be both surprise you with their strength and beguile you with their fragility. That being said, we have a lot of experience maintaining and repairing wood-canvas canoes, so I think we are well suited to travel in one this summer.
Did this interest in using traditional gear come from your background at Camp Wabun as a kid?
Stachiw: Camp Wabun had an enormous impact on me as a canoe tripper and young man. At Wabun, we used wood-canvas canoes, wannigans, tumps, duffels, and cooked over an open fire. This tripping style is often projected as more time consuming or ‘difficult,’ but I think this more traditional style draws you closer to the land and to your own capabilities as a person. Mix these feelings with a passion for history, and this more traditional style was a perfect fit for me.
Why is it important that young Canadians learn about this part of their country?
Stef Superina: Canada’s north, its rich history and diverse geography, are all too commonly skipped in our history textbooks. As a country that derives much of its wealth from natural resources, the Canadian north will play an important role in our country’s growth. Engaging our youth in discussion on economic and environmental themes is integral to the sustainable development of our country’s resource base, as they will ultimately become the decision makers of the future.
What type of educational materials do you anticipate developing on the trip?
Superina: As a classroom learning initiative, a series of interactive lesson plans will be created en route to submit to the Canadian Council for Geographic Education with an emphasis on broadening geographical and historical knowledge of the area in which the expedition will be traveling. To facilitate this, the expedition will be carrying a laptop, still photography and video equipment. Proposed initiatives will allow educators to access lessons which are directly related to their specific grade level.
How did a couple of American paddlers [Stachiw and Coleman] become so interested in the Canadian north?
Jesse Coleman: My interest and passion for the Canadian north can be attributed to my father, who was a camper and staffman at Wabun, in Temagami, Ontario. He sent me there as an adolescent, where I met Andrew when we were 13, and we proceeded to paddle together for many years, both of us becoming staff, and sharing our respective love for the Ontario wilderness with younger generations. This trip gives us the opportunity to explore another part of Canada’s vast stretches of uninhabited landscapes, and in doing so, educate other young Americans on its value and importance in preserving it for future generations.
How did Keith Ross Leckie’s novel Coppermine inspire your expedition?
Coleman: This book started it all, really. It was a catalyst for getting the group together and talking about the possibility of paddling together again and exploring the rich history of the land of which the novel so eloquently portrays. Literature on the north is so extensive, filled with adventure and heroism, and we hope to bring this element of the trip into classrooms through our lesson plans that allow students and teachers to gain a better understanding of the Canadian north, past and present.
It says on your website, ‘The history of the Coppermine and its people, one of endurance and endeavor; triumph and tragedy; missed chances and new opportunities, remains only too relevant in the year 2012.’ Why is it so important to explore the lessons learned from the Coppermine today?
Max Flomen: Human society faces constant, often self-created, challenges to its existence. Today’s challenges are increasingly driven by the need to extract an ever-great quantity of resources to sustain the Earth’s surging population. The Coppermine River and the surrounding Barren Lands, a seemingly forbidding environment, have in fact been home to all manner of life, including human, since time immemorial. Traveling this region and observing the land itself will provide insight into how we, as individuals or a society, can demand more of ourselves and less of our environment.
Give me a sense of your itinerary. How much distance will you be covering each day?
Seth Wotten: We will be traveling over 1,000 miles this summer, so we have a significant amount of ground to cover. That being said, with six experienced canoeists in a good shape (and lots of summer sunlight) we will definitely be able to motor. We have given ourselves 50 traveling days for this trip, so that leaves us with an average of over 20 miles per day, which should be no problem. Of course, that is if everything goes well every day and we have nothing but open, calm water. When you factor in days we will be wind-bound, the days we will only move a handful of miles due to portages, and all the other things that can happen when you are traveling the land, our days start to look more robust.
What type of challenges do you expect to encounter en route?
Wotten: All of the trip logs we have read seem to indicate that wind might be our biggest obstacle. We have calculated our preparations to include wind-bound days, from food supplies to reading material, but we have also discussed tripping during the bright nights when the wind might calm down. The rest of the climate could also be a concern, in terms of how cold it will be and how much rain may fall. For some of the rapids later in the trip, I think we are hoping for a dry summer along the Coppermine because we cannot afford to dump in those waters. We are certain there will be more bugs than we have ever seen before so we are simply preparing for the worst in that regard.