Arctic Ocean, Canoe trips

Canoeing the Arctic Ocean

June 14, 2019

Three in the morning and the wind woke us up.  It had switched directions and was blowing hard with an ominous looking cloud off to the northwest.  It had been a hot day, but the wind was really cold now.  We got up to take down the bug tent and pull the canoes higher up the beach.  The tides are quite small in the Arctic Ocean, so we didn’t expect the water to come up too much higher.  Our camp was set up right on the beach.

Our camp on Warren Point

Camping with kids isn’t all play, exploration and wonder.  With the long days it’s hard to get the kids to sleep and the night before Molly had fallen asleep crying after Chuck had kicked her in the face when they were wrestling in the tent.  Shortly after that, Dwane and I were up at 3 am reorganizing the camp and Molly woke up an hour later still crying about her sore face.  I lay there wondering how sleep was even possible.  If the daylight wasn’t enough, the waves were pounding onto the shore and the tent was flapping madly in the wind.  Then Dwane came over and through the tent said “Sarah there’s a black thing coming down the beach“.  It turns out he meant a storm, not a bear.  We got up again and secured everything down better.  Then it hit us – ice fog! 

When we woke the next day it was still foggy and very cold.  The cold north wind had picked up significantly and the large waves were crashing on the beach.  We moved our camp around the corner so we would be more sheltered from the wind by the sand dunes.  Then we hunkered down, ate, drank tea and played games under the tarp.  Then we ate more, put on more clothes, lowered the tarp, adjusted the tents, then played more games and read books.  Sea ice started coming ashore with the wind and waves, blowing big chunks onto the beach.  I could only hope that the pack ice (and polar bears) were still far out to sea. 

Washing dishes on the Arctic Ocean
The dogs in the cold Arctic wind

The next day the wind was still blowing strong.  It was freezing cold with large waves crashing on shore.  We hiked south over the sand dunes to the lagoon where we had seen all the belugas on the first night.  Unfortunately the belugas were gone but it was still so beautiful with tundra flowers and a huge view in all directions.  It was so cold so we took the opportunity to rest crouched behind the sand dunes to get out of the wind. 

Hiking around the sand dunes of Warren Point
The huge beach of Warren Point
Take only photographs and leave only footprints

Back at camp we wondered what we should do next.  Our walk had confirmed to us that the sand spit extended as far as we could see, even with the binoculars.   It would be a very long paddle to get around Warren Point and into the Hutchinson Bay.  In any case it was not possible to launch into the crashing waves off the beach even if we wanted to.  After a day and a half with no change in the weather (it would ease up and then start blowing again, the sun would poke through and then disappear again) we decided the best course would be to portage across Warren Point into Hutchinson Bay.  It was a 1 km portage and Dwane packed most of the gear about two thirds of the way to the most sheltered spot we could find for a new camp.

Hunkered down under our storm tarp
The dogs were happy once they were wrapped in blankets
The kids love drawing in their nature journals

Our new sheltered camp was much more comfortable.  It was still cold but not unbearable to be outside without the tarp.  Our plan was to finish the portage the next day and paddle around the protected bay to get fresh water from the first creek flowing into Hutchinson Bay.  Of course we were to learn that nothing goes to plan in the Arctic.  We were awoken early the next morning by a strong wind blowing against the tents.  Had it changed direction? Of course it had!  The sun was out and the sky was a beautiful blue, but the wind was now coming directly from where we had planned to go.  The water in the bay we were heading towards was now full of big white caps.  Back across the spit the waves were still crashing on the beach so we couldn’t paddle in either direction. 

We finished our portage, ate and waited, hiding behind the sand dunes for shelter and watching the waves crash in the bay.  The kids were happily playing cars.  We couldn’t believe that we’d been stuck on Warren point for 3 days now, but almost more unbelievable was how easy the kids were being.  They weren’t fazed by the bugs, the cold, the hours in the canoe or three days on the same beach.  They took it in stride while Dwane and I grumbled and worried.  I realized adults are more used to making themselves comfortable and that we have a much harder time being uncomfortable than kids.

By afternoon the wind was still blowing, maybe even harder than it had been that morning.  We hoped this wind was from the front of a high pressure and hoped it would pass soon.  By evening the wind was still blowing hard and the water in the bay was white capping and the waves were crashing on shore.  Used to weather patterns at home on the Pacific Ocean we had been thinking the wind would ease in the evening as it got cooler.  Of course the sun in the Arctic is still high in the sky in the evening and we finally accepted that there was no sunset that might bring on a change in the weather.

When we set out on this trip we knew we’d get stuck by the wind, but we had always thought we’d be somewhere we could hike to water.  We hadn’t anticipated being stuck on the biggest sand spit we’d ever seen for three days.  We needed to leave to get fresh water.  We loaded our canoes with the bows hanging over the water ready for a quick launch when the wind eased.  We fueled up on a dinner of pancakes and with determination pushed our canoes into the waves at 8 pm. 

We paddled hard to get through the breaking waves.  Out in the whitecaps I angled my boat down the shore.  We were making some headway, but not fast!  Dwane paddling behind me with the larger canoe and the dogs was also obviously struggling.  Eventually we made it about 150 m down the shore to the entrance of a pond.  We turned in and reassessed.  The bay was not paddle-able, but the pond we were in connected to more ponds and lead back to a narrow part of the spit.  Our new plan was to portage back across to the front beach near where we had originally landed. 

Yes it was ridiculous that we had just spend three days portaging in a circle, but we had to try to get out of here and this portage was much shorter than the way we had come.  The spit here was only about 150 m wide and we hustled back and forth with the help of the kids for a quick portage. 

Portaging back across the spit at a narrow section
Lots of stuff!
The kids thought portaging was fun!
Mum found portaging a little tiring!

Conditions on the front beach were still a little rough.  Swell was rolling in, left over from the big wind of the last few days.  It was also a bit choppy since the south wind could be felt out here and blew against the swell.  However it seemed wonderful compared to the conditioning the bay.

We launched off the front beach at 10 pm.  We paddled hard, a long ways to the next radar reflector, then past the beach where we had seen the caribou and the hill were we’d seen the graves.  We were trying to get as far as we could around Tuft Point and down the coast to where we could find a creek.  I hadn’t remembered Tuft Point being so long!  Of course we had come up the coast on a beautiful day with a light tail wind so it had been a fun paddle.

The waves coming in from offshore were getting bigger.  It didn’t make sense that they would be getting bigger if they were left over from yesterday’s storm so we wondered if there was a new storm building on the horizon.  “Paddle as hard as you can!” yelled Dwane. So I did.  But it wasn’t a sprint to the end.  We paddled as hard as we could through the huge (huge for a canoe) seas for a long time.  Sometimes our bow would be lifted by a wave, then slam down in the trough.  But usually it was big rocking waves that slowed us down.  Our dog Nelson at my feet was annoyed as I dripped water on his head as I changed from paddling on the right to the left and back again.  Switching sides kept the forward momentum instead of slowing ourselves with a steering stroke.  The only time I would J-stroke was if we were about to be hit by a wave and I needed to keep my paddle in the water to brace for stability.

Suddenly a big white wave broke to the right of Dwane’s canoe.  No, it was a beluga!  A beluga surfaced beside Dwane and Chuck’s boat another five times.  I could hear Dwane and Chuck’s excitement and Molly was singing “Baby Beluga in the deep blue sea”.   Dwane thought there was a group of whales, however from behind it looked like one whale swimming alongside Dwane’s canoe and helping us get around Tuft Point.  With the whale’s help we finally rounded the point, but Dwane wasn’t going to shore.  I finally figured out that we were paddling along another long low sand spit that ran perpendicular to the first.  This spit wasn’t as long, but it did have breaking waves that would grab the bow or stern and spin the canoes in a quick 90 degrees.  We had no choice but to paddle through them.  Finally we rounded the second point and we were in calm water behind the spit.

We hadn’t reached a creek but ahead of us was a beach, to the left there was a high bank with a snow patch which we could melt for water making this a safe place to camp.  It was 2 am and we were tired.  Worried that a storm might hit us we ran the gear up the bank and set up the tents on the tundra.  We were relieved to camp out of the sand but the mosquitoes were fierce!  We couldn’t believe we’d been fighting the wind all day and then the bugs were so bad where we landed.  The Arctic is the land of extremes.

The kids were quite wound up from the day’s excitement so it took a while to get them settled down and off to bed.  At least they seem to be loving the trip so far even though they don’t understand that that paddle around Tuft Point was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.  Dwane unpacked the food stuff and pulled the canoes higher up the beach.  We finally settled down around 3 am for the night.

Our camp on the tundra
Hot chocolate tastes the best when camping

The next morning, our eighth morning of the trip, we woke to rain.  Dwane had set up the tarp by the time I got out of my sleeping bag and started collecting rain water.  The wind had switched directions and was blowing from the north again.  The north wind is cold, it feels like it is coming straight out of the North Pole. We had all of our warm clothes on and we were still cold.  We sat under the tarp most of that day.  The kids played in their tent and the dogs slept in their tent.  The rain was light and the wind continued to blow, but luckily we were able to collect about 20 L of drinking water, enough for two days. 

By that evening the rain stopped and the wind eased so we got the kids out of the tent and went for a hike.  The area around the campsite was intensely beautiful.  We walked the lagoon and checked out the old hunting blinds and a small caribou skull half covered in lichen.  Then we walked around a large pond and up a hill to find many old ruins of tent frames and large blinds. 

We heard and then we saw a beautiful pair of Sandhill cranes.  We walked a wide circle around them and then up a ridge for a great view of the spit we had paddled around the night before.  We kept watching the two Sandhill cranes walking across the tundra not far below us.  They seemed to be okay with our presence so we stayed and watched them for quite a while. Molly was really intrigued by these two big birds, trying to guess where their nest of eggs might be.

Hiking up the cliffs
A view of the coast we’d paddled down the night before
Above the snow covered bank
This was a favourite camp with beaches and tundra

The walk had lifted everyone’s spirits.  Back at camp the wind had switched directions again.  It was still blowing hard but instead of from the north it was now from a north westerly direction.  The wind was warmer, thankfully, but since we had our camp set up into the north wind the new wind direction had knocked down two corners of our tarp and one of the dog beds had blown away.  This prompted another walk, this time around the lagoon to retrieve the dog bed.

Another hike around the lagoon, our camp is seen in the background
Molly with the dog mattress which had blown away from our camp far in the back
We kept away all around the lagoon and back to the ocean beach
We left our canoes and heavy packs on the beach 200 m from our camp

Arriving back at camp the wind was blowing harder again.  I brushed the kids’ teeth and washed the dishes down on the beach in the strong wind.  Dwane finally took the tarp down after struggling with it for some time.  The tents flapping madly kept us awake.  The wind is so strong it feels like another storm coming.  Our Hilleberg tent is really strong but it was taking a beating and the dogs’ Mountain Hardware tent had started to leak and the poles were bending.  The wind kept increasing and we guessed the wind speeds were up to 100 km/h.  Dwane and I couldn’t sleep and though we were about 200 m from the beach we could feel sand being blown hard against the tents.  We lay there hoping the tents would be okay. 

As we lay awake thinking how unbelievable it was that the kids were sleeping through such a storm we heard a big bang.  One of the canoes had been lifted and thrown up the beach over logs from the wind.  The only thing stopping it was the bowline that was tied to a large log. It was amazing going down to the beach where the canoes were.  If we had thought it was windy by the tents, it was nothing like the wind on the beach.  A canoe trip in July on the Beaufort Sea, I had worried about bears and bugs, but had not realized I would also experience the strongest wind of my life!

When we woke up the next day the wind was still blowing and the waves crashing.  The wind had lightened up and had shifted to a new direction.  It was now from the west, so we adjusted the orientation of the tarp again.  By afternoon the wind was warmer and lighter and the sun came out.  The kids played.  The ocean was still too rough to paddle, but this was more of the wind day we were expecting.  Too windy to paddle but pleasant on shore.  No bugs because of the wind, and some time to clean and organize.

Chuck playing with his cement mixer

The sic sics (ground squirrels) on the hill above us are taunting our dog Jojo.  They sit by their holes and call to her, but when she gets close they dart underground.  After a long time of darting at every squeak, Jojo seems to have figured out that aren’t playing fair and is now ignoring them.  It seems her attitude is making them chirp at us every louder.

Jojo and the Sic Sic

By late afternoon it still seemed too windy and the seas were too rough to paddle.  However the mosquitoes were starting to come out so we ate and packed up camp quickly.  We figured if the mosquitoes were coming out that the weather must changing.  We launched off the beach in the lee of the sand spit where the water was calm.  But once we got away we were paddling through waves.  We had only paddled about 20 minutes when the wind picked up again.  Not long after we decided to bail and did a surf landing in the two foot surf, big enough to get wet on the way in. 

We pulled into a little channel into some tidal ponds and spent the next few hours walking around finding bones and feathers with the kids.  There was a big caribou fence up the hill from where we landed and a cabin with furniture remains up the hill in the other direction. 

Caribou bones at an old hunting camp
The kids love finding natural treasures like bones and antlers
More antlers in the muck
Remains of an old caribou hunting camp
A fence to trap the caribou

We hiked all around the area looking for a creek with fresh water flowing from one lake into another but we couldn’t find one.  We hiked about 2 km inland up a hill to a large lake and collected water from that lake.  As far as we could see there was no inflow or outflow so this is what the locals call dead water. It didn’t taste right, but we collected it anyways because it was our only option.

The next day I woke up to the realization that I had to paddle through these waves.  We couldn’t sit here and wait for calm seas.  We needed drinking water so we had to go.  All morning Dwane and I talked while the kids played happily in their tent.  We talked about stress and what motivates us to do trips like this.  We talked about how much we love our home and why we need to get out in the wilderness and unplug from modern life.  We talked about our family and all the things we’ve learnt about each other and ourselves on this trip.  We realized that even though this was a shorter trip than others we’d done, by day ten we’d learnt a lot on this trip; about ourselves and the land we were travelling through.

Molly helping take down the tent
Both kids always wanted to help set up and take down the tents
Rolling around in the sand always results in sand in the boots
Walking down the beach to check out the wind and wave condition
Molly eating her fruit bar and looking at the waves
The kids found a blind on the beach and spent shotgun shells
An ocean monitoring buoy from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

By late afternoon the canoes were packed and waiting for the weather to allow us to go.  We were being optimistic.  This was the sixth day of wind and surely it must end sometime!  We went for a walk down the front beach to check on the wind and wave situation.  On the way back the wind felt less and we realized it was time to leave.  Back at camp the tide had dropped so we hurried to launch before we lost the water in our little channel.  There’s always one more challenge, but we rushed and got out of the channel just in time.

Quickly handing out snacks before paddling out the channel

We paddled hard to get away from the beach through the surf.  The kids in the bow seats got splashed but they were fine with that.  They were happy to be on our way again too.  The ocean still had a good swell going beyond the surf line but it seemed better than the night before, or at least we were more determined to go.  We paddled for the next three hours.  It was hard going all the way with the wind and the waves against us.  Most of the paddling was at a 45 degree angle off the shore, meaning approximately half our energy was keeping us off the beach and only half was propelling us down the coast.

Occasional waves wet the kids in the bow, the dogs at our feet and sometimes even Dwane and myself in the stern.  The poor dogs were cold lying in a puddle at our feet.  All of a sudden up ahead I saw Dwane and Molly’s canoe being thrown by a big wave.  Since I was following him I was able to see these trouble spot’s when he hit them and I could avoid them.  Dwane and Molly were soaked by the time I caught up to them and he was bailing some water out of the canoe.  Finally in the lee of Bird Island we found a good beach to have a rest.

Trying out and warming up in the lee of Bird Island

The kids were in good spirits but once they got out of the boat they realized they were cold.  I was already pulling dry clothes out of the pack and got them changed into warm dry clothes.  We set up a tent and pulled out the sleeping bags and they got in and warmed up.  The wind was completely gone and the mosquitoes came out in full force.  It was the worst bugs I’d ever seen.  In our bug tent we had a midnight dinner of crackers, cheese, peanut butter, jam and tea full of mosquitoes.

A few mosquitoes in the tea. We scooped them out and drank it.
Happy in the bug tent

It was after midnight and it felt like the sun was setting as it was low in the sky and the colour was beautiful.  But the craziest thing of all was that the air was calm and the sea was almost flat!  How did that happen?  I’d almost stopped believing that calm weather was possible.

Setting up camp in the lee of Bird Island
A cozy camp, but still no fresh water.

Camp was mostly set up, it was late, everyone was tired, but we hadn’t found fresh water.  We’d seen the weather change fast and while the stillness was calming, Dwane and I still had a fear that the wind could start again any second.  Instead of crawling into our sleeping bags we decided that we need to carry on.  We packed up camp and headed out again at 2 am.  We explained what we were doing to the kids and they were onboard, but we could see that the dogs were confused about getting back into the canoes without a real sleep. 

I can now confirm that sometime between 2 and 3 am the sun reaches its lowest point, still completely above the horizon, then it starts to rise again.  The sky was red like a sunset for over an hour but it never set even on July 22nd, a month after the summer solstice. 

The long sun set
Chuck wondering if we were really heading out again instead of going to bed!

As we paddled the wind tapered off and the Ocean got calmer and calmer.  Sometimes the wind would pick up briefly, but it always died down.  We saw a black cloud building on the horizon and worried about a storm, but it dissipated above us without affecting the weather.  All those days in the wind and watching the waves I couldn’t believe that the water would ever be calm again.  Now here we were paddling in calm water, not 12 hours after watching the whitecaps and surf crash on the beach.

The kids slept in the bow of the canoes and we paddled thru the night.  It was the fear of getting stuck again without water and the mosquitoes on the shore that kept us paddling.  But it was also an amazing experience to paddle through the night on the Arctic Ocean under the midnight sun.

An amazing experience paddling through the night
The kids have no trouble sleeping in the rocking boat
The ocean was calm as we paddled into the sunset

We saw the occasional beluga whale and I had a big grey whale swim with us for a while (real or a dream?)  Four in the morning was the coldest time of the night.  We saw a huge Bowhead whale carcass on the beach.  It was amazing how large it was and we found out later that everyone in town knew about it because it had been there for over a year.  There was still quite a bit of rotting flesh and the bones were huge!

At six in the morning we finally reached the fresh water creek near Tibjak Point where we’d collected water on the way north.  We’d travelled up the coast 50 km and this was the only freshwater creek we’d found!  We filled up all our water bags.  Even though we were planning on getting back to town soon we would never pass up fresh water.  It wasn’t such a relaxing place as it had been the first time, because there were big fresh grizzly tracks all around.  We filled the water containers as quickly as we could, had a little snack and headed south again. 

It was only six in the morning but the sun was already high in the sky.  We had been up all night but the sunlight and the warmth it brought gave us the energy we needed to keep paddling.  We couldn’t stop long anyways because every time we did we saw more grizzly tracks.  Instead of stopping for a long rest and breakfast we continued paddling and snacking in the canoe. 

When we reached the spit with the hunting camp where we had stopped the first day we decided to try again to take a rest in a place we had enjoyed on the way up.  We pulled our canoes up to the beach, scanning all the time for any sign of a bear.  I was a bit behind Dwane and when I finally pulled up to shore he was already out of the canoe up on the beach looking around.  I looked up the shore to remind myself how long this spit was when I saw what looked like a big shaggy dog coming out of the water onto the beach.  The whole trip I’d visualized yelling “BEAR” or blowing my whistle or pulling out my bear spray when I saw a bear.  Instead I called out to Dwane “what kind of animal is that?”

Dwane yelled “BEAR get out of here!”  The bear was shaking the water out of his fur and seemed to be coming towards us, but then he turned and ran across the spit and disappeared from sight.  We paddled hard away from the beach to get into deeper water where we felt safer.  Paddling down the spit we soon saw three beluga carcasses on the beach which had been left by the local hunters.  No wonder the grizzly was there.  He must have been lying in the water, trying to cool off and get a break from the bugs after eating his fill of beluga when we happened to pull up a long side him. 

Rounding the spit we had a clear view of the town of Tuktoyaktuk.  We couldn’t believe that our only bear sighting was almost within view of town, although I guess it’s not too surprising.  With no further thought of taking a rest stop, we headed to town.  We had one more beluga sighting in the mouth of the harbour.  We pulled into town in the most flat calm conditions imaginable. 

We unloaded the canoes and got everything back into the truck in the heat and the bugs.  With my bug jacket on only my hands were exposed and while I was busy working I had 10 mosquitoes bighting each hand at the same time.  The cold had been intense, but I think the bugs are harder.

The trip was over, but it would be a long time before we could process all that we had experienced on this trip.  It had changed us all.  It had been the hardest trip any of us had ever done, but we still talk about one day returning to the Arctic Ocean and the fabled Northwest Passage.

Paddling into town on a Sunday morning
We pulled into the beach by the Northern Store
Are we really here?
Ending is bittersweet

This was part 2 of our Arctic Ocean canoe trip. To read part 1, click here.