The Twin Otter seemed to barely clear the trees as it throttled north. Open stands of dark spruce and yellow birch rolled quickly past below. Jammed in back with three canoes and mounds of gear, our crew of three men, three women, and one dog stared out the windows in anticipation. Our two-week canoe trip down northern Manitoba's Wolverine and Seal Rivers was finally about to begin.

When the plane circled steeply over the wind-tossed water of Nejanilini Lake, the forest had dwindled to a barren landscape of patterned tundra and yellow tamarack, etched with the trails of migrating caribou. We could see herds of them running across the boggy terrain on the island below.

The pilot landed, brought the
Otter to a stop against the island's gravel beach, and cut the engines. Immediately, the plane was blown back into the open lake by the gusting wind. We scrambled to extract our gear and get into our canoes. Within minutes, the plane took off and banked west toward Stony Rapids, and we smiled with a sense of relief, knowing that there was no turning back now. At the same time, we felt an undeniable sense of urgency. It was September 16, and at our latitude, fall is merely a brief interlude.

We pitched camp in the shelter of a nearby esker and hunkered down for lunch before an afternoon hike. It was cold and wet, and from a nearby hill we could see the wind whipping the northeast expanse of Nejanilini into a cauldron of whitecaps. We shivered at the prospect of riding such a sea down the rest of the lake, and we anchored our camp to boulders and the trunks of twisted spruce trees before heading off to explore the island.