Bob Schaefer lowered his field glasses and announced, “I don’t see any shore lead. “We trudged off a hill overlooking ice-choked Kamilukuak Lake and back to our canoes at the edge of Nowleye. Being stopped “cold” had not been in the trip planning. Time to talk.

Three of us, with collective Canadian wilderness paddling experience of about a century, were attracted to little-traveled streams. By eliminating rivers in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut that we had already canoed, an ostensible waterway down the Nowleye and Finnie Rivers was stitched together. At least it looked good on the map. Our fourth canoeist, Richard Belisle, was new to the North. We anticipated giving him a small sampling of the greatest wilderness in North America, the sub-Arctic taiga and tundra.

We knew enough to start early since seven inches of annual precipitation classified the region as a semi-desert, making it necessary to catch the spring runoff or it would be miserable, scrapy going. Our late-June charter flight from northern Saskatchewan with Points North Air Services took us over white fields of unyielding ice on the larger lakes (see map). But when the Otter’s floats cut the upper Nowleye River, its water was translucent blue and running a healthy volume.

No sooner had the aircraft been unloaded than we had to scout a 200-yard Class II rapid. On the run down, our sturdy 16- and 17-foot Mad River Explorers wallowed a bit–hardly the boats’ fault. They were crammed to the gunwales with 30 days’ food and all those “necessities” we modern paddlers cart along. The Nowleye valley was a contrasting mix of ecosystems, despite being technically north of the supposed tree line. A spruce-and-larch forest blended into tundra on the hillsides. Arctic willow, barely in bud, fringed the shores with dense growth. Often, it looked as if winter had just vacated, though swaths of colorful miniature flowers were already blooming. To work some non-paddling body parts, we clambered over the remnants of massive ice jams fully a quarter-mile long.

What a country–and all ours! With only one other recorded descent, and that six years ago, this was a virtually untouched corner of Canada’s northern taiga/tundra wilderness. The only trails were those made by migrating caribou and jetliners passing at 35,000 feet.