Arctic Ocean, Canoe trips

Paddling out of Tuktoyaktuk

June 13, 2019

In 2018 the first summer road to the Arctic Ocean in Canada was open to the public.  To us this meant we could drive right to the Arctic Ocean and launch our canoes into the Beaufort Sea.  Excited we planned a canoe trip out of Tuktoyaktuk, north up the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula. Researching the trip proved hard as not many people had paddled out of Tuktoyaktuk.  Those who had were usually trying to paddle the North West Passage or at least trying to reach the next town of Paulatuk.  We couldn’t find anyone who had done what we wanted to do, which was travel slowly up the coast exploring the land as we went.

The Incorporated Hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk

Since information on the internet was limited we needed to spend a few days in the town of Tuktoyaktuk before our trip to gather first-hand information about the land.  The people we met in Tuktoyaktuk were friendly and happy to talk.  Our biggest concern was how hard it was to find fresh drinking water.  A map of the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula shows that it is covered with ponds and lakes and you wouldn’t think finding fresh water would be a problem.  However because the peninsula is so low many of those lakes and ponds near the coast are brackish from the ocean’s salt water.  We knew in order to find fresh water we’d have to find creeks or hike to ponds that were further inland and hopefully higher than the ocean so not to be affected from storm spray. 

Walking around Tuktoyaktuk to talk to locals

The locals were very positive people and did not warn or deter us in any way.  From them we learnt that we should drink from flowing water, not from ponds that are fully enclosed with no creek flowing in or out.  Those ponds they called dead water.  We were reminded that north slopes still have snow on them which can be used for drinking water.  We also learnt that stranded sea ice can also be used for drinking water.  We were told that the salt seeps out of the sea ice if it has been exposed for as little as one day and will be good for drinking. 

We learnt from an elder Arctic Ranger than in times of survival to remember that the permafrost is frozen water.  He told us we can dig up the frozen earth and as it melts you can filter the water out to drink.  We realized it would hard to get water out of the dirt but it was still valuable information to have.  We learnt about other things as well, animal sightings, hunting and fishing camp locations, berry picking camps, and weather patterns. But most of the talk was about finding water. 

Camping on the beach beside the new road to Tuktoyaktuk

The weather had been cold for the four days and nights we’d spent in the town of Tuktoyaktuk.  We’d pulled out all our winter clothes and were camped right on the ocean.  It was beautiful, but being the first year the road was open it was full of tourists driving to take a picture of the Arctic Ocean, maybe jumping in the ocean, staying one or two nights and then heading south.  We wanted to see more.  After four days of intense weather it broke and we woke on our departure day to clear skies and no wind.

We launched our canoes on July 12th from deep in the Tuktoyaktuk harbour from Chuck Gruben’s backyard at Reindeer Point.  This added 5 km of paddling to get out of the harbour but we were happy to have found someone to watch our truck while we were gone.  The paddle out of the harbour was quiet.  An abandoned oil rig platform sat rusting, abandoned oil plants, containers and old ships with no one around.

Paddling out of the Tuktoyaktuk Harbour

The generator at the Dew Station was the first noise we heard.  What used to be a relic from the cold war years was being turned on due to current political tensions.  Heading away from town up the shore there was a lot of small cabins, quiet now, but used every fall during hunting season.  We stopped on a long sand spit and found a seasonal hunting camp, with tent frames, wind breaks, driftwood furniture and even a swing for the kids.  If felt like a special place and we stayed and enjoyed it and rested from our first morning of paddling.

Further up the coast we saw a creek and wanted to fill up our water containers.  Approaching the creek   we were surprised by a huge beaver who ran down the creek and dove in the water right in front of our canoe!  We hadn’t known beavers lived on the Arctic coast and only after the trip did we find out that the first beaver sighting on the Arctic coast had only been in 2015.  The beavers are extending their range north due to the warming climate.

Shortly thereafter we saw a red fox (Molly’s favourite animal), a whale vertebra on the beach and more old structures so we pulled over to have a look around.  Paddling on, we saw a black fox run up the bank.  Little fish jump in the water.  One bonked our dog Jojo in the nose while she was sleeping which gave us a good laugh.  For the next few days the jumping fish became a common occurrence although I continued to enjoy their antics and didn’t mind stopping to scoop them off the floor of the canoe and put them back in the Ocean.

Our first camp on our Arctic Ocean canoe trip

Our first camp was a beautiful site by Tibjak Point at the north end of a long bay.  Everyone we’d talked to in town had told us about their cabin, but we had come to realize that everyone in town must have a cabin out on the land since there are so many.  From the camp there was a huge sand spit extending out into the ocean which is not on the chart.  This was also our first realization about how much the sand moves and that navigation off the charts is not straightforward like our rocky shores at home on the Pacific Ocean.

Camping the first night was amazing.  Dwane and I were still in disbelief that we were actually paddling a portion of the North West Passage and the kids were loving it.  It’s amazing how much more fun they have in wild camps, compared to being in campsites full of people or even our wild camps close to town.

Our first night out on the land

After launching the canoes the next morning it wasn’t more than 10 minutes into our paddle when we saw our first Beluga whales!  Belugas were one of the main attractions for us to paddle the Arctic Ocean.  We were delighted to see them so soon in our trip.  There were quite a few whales travelling towards the mouth of the Mackenzie River.  The small grey babies were the ones that came closest to us.  Like kids, they don’t know the dangers that their parents know.  The beluga are actively hunted here, so we wished them a safe journey.

Around the end of the spit we found a beautiful big creek flowing into the ocean.  We stopped to fill up our water bags.  We had 65 L capacity to collect water.  We ate our lunch in this beautiful place, but by the time we had done lunch the mosquitoes had found us so we got back into the canoes and paddled on. 

The creek where we filled up our drinking water

The whole coast is one long sandy beach after another so it looks like it would be just as much fun to walk as to paddle.  We stopped again on a spit to get a view of Tininerk Bay.  The view blew us away.  If you think about the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen, this lagoon was right up there.  There were about a hundred loons swimming on the still water.  Old tent frames were on the hill above.  We found fresh caribou tracks on the lagoon beach and the kids enjoyed following them to see where the caribou had gone. 

The Tuktoyaktuk peninsula was a huge beach
The exploring was endless
Following caribou tracks
Where did those caribou go?

Back on the open coast Molly and I went for a skinny dip.  I hadn’t thought bathing suits would be needed on this trip, but now I realize the lack of bathing suits means no photographic evidence that we actually did swim in the Arctic Ocean!  I dipped only once, it was really cold.  Molly ran around and around and jumped in over and over.  She was definitely in her happy place.  All of a sudden Dwane called us and we looked up to see caribou antlers bobbing along above the sand dunes.  We quickly ran up the dunes for a great view of two caribou bucks, one big and one small, probably the same two whose tracks we’d been following earlier.  They didn’t stay long once they saw us, but we were excited about the sighting. 

Again the mosquitoes found us, this time with a vengeance and chased us back into the canoes.  More belugas appeared, we’d been seeing lots all day.  Quick sightings of each group as they were travelling in the opposite direction to us, but they kept coming.  A grey baby came close to Dwane and Chuck’s canoe.  Then Molly started singing Raffi’s “Baby Beluga” and a baby came close to us too!

We heard motor boats behind us and saw Chuck Gruben approaching.  He stopped to chat.  He had been concerned that he hadn’t asked us if we had a gun for bear protection so he’d brought us a shotgun with shells to borrow for our trip.  We told him we had brought a rifle so we didn’t take his, but we appreciated his concern.  He was out on a work trip so he quickly disappeared from our sight up the coast. 

We rounded Toker Point.  The weather was calm and we were still killing mosquitoes in our boats that had come with us from our last stop so we didn’t want to go to shore again.  We could see the sea ice out on the horizon.  There was a couple of chunks of ice in the bay stuck on the bottom so we paddled over to check them out.  We all enjoyed eating the sea ice.  I can confirm that the salt had drained out and it tasted better than the ice from our freezer back home.   

Checking out sea ice stuck on the bottom of the bay

The weather was calm so we decided to cross the big bay, rather than paddle around along the shoreline. We reached a long low island on the far side of the bay and decided to camp for the night.  The whole trip has been sandy beaches so there has been no concern about finding a good camp.  So far you can camp just about anywhere.  However the island we landed on was exceptionally beautiful, with Mew Seagulls and King Eider Duck nests to each side of our camp.  There were also Bonaparte Gulls and Arctic Terns.  A few Swans in the distance and Beluga Whales passing now and then with the pack ice on the horizon.  The bonus, no bugs, even though the wind was light.

Our camp on Bird Island
Mew Gulls

We had a good dinner and then went for a walk after midnight.  The water was calm as glass and the sunlight was beautiful.  I was exhausted from a long day on the water so the walk didn’t last too long.  The kids were super happy.  Molly summed it up “Best Day Ever”. 

Checking out the Eider Down left in the empty nests
No shortage of feathers to pick up
Chuck looking for Belugas
Eider Ducks and a Pingo in the distance

Tired after twelve days on the road, four days in the town of Tuktoyaktuk and two days paddling we allowed ourselves to sleep in the next day until almost noon.  After breakfast we walked to the south end of the island, picking up rocks and bones and sticks and feathers.  The sand island is covered with many multi-coloured flat rocks.  Chuck and Molly easily transitioned from days of building forts out of driftwood to building with the flat rocks and spent the afternoon creating lots of rock structures around the camp.  While I believe in no trace camping, I also believe in letting the kids enjoy themselves.  No harm in moving some rocks around, especially when it’s just as easy to put them back.  

After dinner we headed out towards the north end of the island, but the walk was cut short by a channel that divided the island in two.  Back in camp it felt like early evening, but it was midnight!  Trying to go to sleep with the sun blazing is hard for all of us, but we needed to get some rest as we were looking forward to paddling on the next day.  With no sun set, Molly finally fell asleep at 2 am.  Chuck woke up at 6 am, but then we all fell back asleep until almost noon.  While we brought watches to keep track of the days, there’s no reason to stick to a “normal” day schedule.  The sun gets the lowest in the sky at 2 am so that’s naturally when it’s easiest to fall asleep.  On travel days there’s no need to set up camp before dark and we eat when we’re hungry and rest when we’re tired.   We easily agreed to forget any schedule and not worry about the actual time of day.

Exploring Bird Island
A late night walk on Bird Island

We reluctantly left our beautiful camp, which we nicknamed “Bird Island”, because it was so nice.  We struggled into a headwind for a while so Dwane and I got out and pulled out boats by the bowline to the north end of the island.  Once there we rested and watched some seagull babies hatching before we decided to paddle on. 

Mew Gull eggs
Mew Gull chick

After rounding Toker Point we stopped to explore.  On the tundra it was spring and the flowers were in full bloom.  Up on a hill we found some old grave sites.  Because of the permafrost bodies were laid on the hill and covered with wood logs.  The wood had shifted and the bones were visible.  The sic sic (the local name for the ground squirrel) had dug tunnels under the graves.  There were also big holes where grizzly bears had been digging to get at the sic sic’s.  Looking south down towards the lagoon we could see two female caribou lying in the shallow water.  We watched them for a while until they saw us and ran off down the beach. 

Molly and Nelson playing in the sand

As we paddled further Dwane ticked off his bird list, Peregrine Falcon, Ruff Legged Hawk, Pacific and Red Throated Loon, Gyr Falcon.  Hundreds of Mergansers sounded like a waterfall as they kicked their feet and flapped their wings to swim away from us.  Two caribou, a male and a female, gave us a good show by running down the beach towards and past us.

Paddling our 16 ft Esquif Presage
Caribou sighting!

We stopped at the sand dunes at Warren Point.  A lone caribou was south of us walking down the beach away from us.  We were able to get quite close by doing the caribou dance Dwane had taught us.  Hands in the air, swaying back and forth like caribou antlers sway as they walk. 

The caribou dance
Caribou watching us approach

We climbed the highest sand dunes for a 360 degree view all around.  Looking north into Hutchinson Bay it was full of Belugas!  We wanted to paddle with them, but the sand spit that was Warren Point extended as far as we could see and we couldn’t imagine getting around it and into Hutchinson Bay that night with the energy we had left.  Instead we set up camp and started dinner.  While collecting firewood I found a dead polar bear half buried in the sand.  It’s not ideal to camp beside a dead animal but it looked old enough and we couldn’t smell any scent from it so we decided it wouldn’t be a problem that night!

The mosquitoes came out in force so we put up the bug tent for the first time.  Dwane and I stayed by the fire and enjoyed watching the cozy scene in the bug tent of the dogs napping and the children playing cards.  If only it could always be this mellow tripping with kids and dogs!

Set up at the sand dunes of Warren Point
A cozy scene in the bug tent of the dogs napping and the children playing

To read about the rest of the trip, click here.