First Look: Together to the Tundra

Dan Clark documents his family's 600-mile wilderness canoe epic in the Canadian Barrenlands

STORY, PHOTOS, AND EXCLUSIVE VIDEO BY 2016 SPIRIT OF ADVENTURE NOMINEE DAN CLARK

As I stare at the water pouring through our crumpled canoe, my mind is stuck on two facts: We are 42 days into the most vacant wilderness in Canada, and 150 miles of tough travel from the nearest road. This is the moment that every outdoor enthusiast fears, where one poor decision alters the course of a trip — for the worse.

On July 2, 2015, we set out into the unknown from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. We were well prepared yet pleasantly naive, the requisite mental state when you are biting off a big chunk of adventure.

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Our route was ambitious: Paddle the expanse of the 10th largest lake in the world, N.T.’s Great Slave Lake; then shoulder everything and head overland and upstream on a century-old route to the tundra; and then paddle back to Yellowknife and tree line, closing a 600-mile loop before snow flies from the sky.

What made this even more ambitious and adventurous was the nearly 60-year age spread in our group, from 6-year-old Ava Fei to Bruce, who retired from a plum guiding gig to go on this dream trip. Ours was a multi-generational group: myself, my wife Alice, 8-year-old Koby, Ava Fei, our friends Bruce and his wife Marilyn. We hoped to follow in the footsteps of explorers and First Nations families who had paddled these waters for millennia in craft far more fragile than ours. This felt more adventurous than being dropped at the headwaters of some beautiful river by a seaplane. Little did I realize just how big a bite of adventure we were going to be swallowing.

The first two weeks consisted of 250 miles of paddling on the Great Slave Lake. We paddled early each morning, until a distant whisper of wind whipped the broad expanse of the lake into huge rollers. We carved out a campsite each night from the untrammeled shoreline of stunted trees, sleeping on granite from the Canadian Shield. These first days strengthened our arms and our fortitude. We met no other paddlers.

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Central to our route was the historic Pike’s Portage route used by explorers like Ernest Thompson Seton, the pioneer of the Boy Scouts and best-selling author of Wild Animals I Have Known. This portage route climbs through the transition between boreal forest and tundra and is the site of the proposed Thaydene Nene National Park. Peter Marshall told me this was one of his favorite places in the 2,600 miles he paddled across the North in 2012. Superlatives aside, it would not be easy.

I’ll admit now that before this trip I had never portaged a canoe (an empty canoe around the block doesn’t count in my book). Our introductory carry right off the Great Slave Lake was 3.5 miles with 1,000 feet of climbing. It almost killed us. Hot weather, a burned-out forest, and some healthy bugs meant that we couldn’t wait to get back in the boats for some easy miles on the water. The next nine portages were shorter, but included mud, tundra hummocks, some challenging route finding, and winds that would blow the canoe off your shoulders. We felt incredibly thankful to dip the hull of our canoes in Artillery Lake and paddle into the tundra after three weeks of constant movement.

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At this point, you might be asking yourself, “What is it about the North that attracts paddlers?” The tundra is the least populated biome in the world. It is the lure of wide open wilderness with a total lack of people, and a patchwork of rivers and lakes unlike anything in the South. Peter Marshall once told me, “You can go anywhere in the tundra by canoe, just pull out the map and sketch a route across it.”

A series of serpentine lakes led us in a broad arc north and west. Mostly we paddled on large expansive lakes with loons calling in the distance. One fine morning we woke to stillness and fog so thick that we needed to travel by GPS. As the sun burned through, we paddled below the arch of a fog bow, similar to a rainbow but white instead of multicolored. We saw our first white wolf and searched for caribou.

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We never did find any caribou, but we found lots of hard travel as we left the big tundra lakes. Water levels were low in the North last year, and we were confronted by rivers impossible to navigate with all of us in the boats. Alice, Marilyn, and the kids walked the shore for many a mile while Bruce and I struggled with the canoes. When there was more water but too much current, we worked lines and carefully dragged the boats upstream. The kids waited patiently on shore, eating snacks or playing with feathers, rocks and sticks.

Gradually we fell behind schedule and the pressure of too much distance in too little time caused me to push too far. On Day 42, in a narrow swift I could have waded, I lost control of the bow of the boat. It swung instantly into the current and caught on the far side. The force of the water folded it. Everything went in the water: all of our gear, weeks of food, and the kids.

That one poor decision altered the course of a trip, but not only for the worse. We learned from that mistake and realized that we are defined by our responses to such challenges. We worked through it as a group, got dried out, and fixed the boat. We paddled on.

After 52 days of wilderness paddling, portaging, lining and poling, we emerged back into civilization in Yellowknife. We discovered an exotic realm that is more isolated, varied, and memorable than we could have imagined.

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— See more from Dan Clark, with his tips for HOW TO: PACK FOR KIDS ON CANOE TRIPS, check out his TOP 5 TIPS FOR CAMPING WITH KIDS, and check out his inspiring, award-winning film, ‘HAVE KIDS, WILL PADDLE‘ about bringing their small children into the wilderness for a bold 100-day trip, and watch the full film, TOGETHER TO THE TUNDRA, below.

Together to the Tundra from Dan Clark on Vimeo.

— Click HERE to vote for Clark’s nomination for the Spirit for Adventure Award at the 2016 Canoe & Kayak Awards.