Tundra portage. Photo: Adam Maxwell
The numbers are astounding: Fifty-six days in the Canadian subarctic, 907 miles, 61 portages, 2,646,720 paddle strokes. This summer, canoe-trippers Adam Maxwell, Ryan Ritter, Tessa Olson, Kari Smerud, Jake Bendel and Alex Compton traced eight wild waterways from the heart of the Canadian hinterlands to the Hudson Bay coast. We caught up with Maxwell to go beyond the numbers and learn more about 8 Rivers North.
CanoeKayak.com: Did the trip live up to your expectations?
Adam Maxwell: Our route lived up to many expectations—specifically encountering lots of wildlife and our hope of crossing paths with a herd of caribou. We saw countless caribou, lots of musk ox and moose, as well as a wolverine, ringed seal, polar bear and beluga whale. The remoteness of the route surpassed our expectations. Other than one short stop in the town of Black Lake on Day 10, we did not see anyone until our arrival in Whale Cove. The challenges and labor involved in this route, and specifically in crossing watersheds, proved to be more difficult than we expected and certainly more difficult than what I have experienced on other expeditions. Due to low water levels we were forced to drag our canoes over shallow sections of river and portage in many unexpected locations.
How did the experience compare to your previous expedition?
The natural features were very different than the 2012 trip from Jasper, Alberta to Churchill, Manitoba. We spent a large part of our time north of the treeline on this journey. Our time spent south of treeline was primarily in very sandy areas. This resulted in many thin patches of trees. Along the Fond Du Lac River we encountered many amazing sandstone formations.
Any lessons learned from the trail?
Don't take [plastic] boats that are almost as old as you are to the Far North. Unknown to us, one of our boats had preexisting dry-rotting. This caused the boat to crack and form a large hole after hitting a rock in the midst of a rapid. Although this was partially the fault of the paddlers, it shouldn't have caused so much damage. We'll be sharing more stories at the Midwest Mountaineering Expo (Nov. 21-23, 2014) in Minneapolis and at the Far North Symposium (Mar. 21, 2015) at Metro State University (St. Paul, Minn.).
What sort of demands did this expedition place on your bodies?
On long canoe trips I have generally found that the greatest stress on the body is within the first couple weeks of the trip. Once a person's body has become adapted to the rigors of the trail, daily tasks and travel become easier and almost automatic. On this route our hardest physical challenge was Chipman's Portage. This 2.5-mile portage was completed on Day 11 of our trip. Because it was so early in our trip and we had no resupplies, we carried nearly 50 days of food over it. The experience left us all physically beat up and limping around camp. However on a positive note, after Chipman's everything else seemed easy in comparison. After a few tough days when our bodies had fully recovered from the ordeal we were left feeling that nothing would stand in our path.
Four-person lift-over on the Dubawnt River. Photo: Jake Bendel
How did the group work together?
Group dynamics were fine. I was a little nervous going into a trip with six people as I have much more experience in smaller groups. On the upside we had strength, safety and most notably entertainment in numbers. On a downside, more people means a slower pace of travel. Our group got along well and shared many laughs and fun nights around camp. Although we brought cards and a few other games we never found ourselves bored with our company and thus only played a small handful of cribbage games.
I know I will return [to the Far North] but time and money will play a big role in when and where. A few routes that are in my mind include the Seal, Coppermine and Kazan. I am currently in the process of planning a 16-day trip on the Bloodvein River in Manitoba. I am also contemplating a three- or four-week solo backpacking trip in the Arrowhead region of Minnesota, which would combine the Kekakabic, Border Route and Superior Hiking Trail. I know it seems weird for a canoeist to willingly carry things on their back that they could float in a boat, but it appeals to me to further connect with the forest surrounding the region I call home. Neither route is set in stone, but if things go my way I will do the hike and the Bloodvein River in the summer of 2015.