Vanessa Kohut was the co-leader on this extensive canoe trip beyond the tree line in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
The Barrens are in northern Canada. It’s called that because it is above the tree line so it is barren. It’s really a tough environment to be in because it’s super windy and buggy. If it’s not buggy it’s raining. We were there with Camp Wanapitei and flew to the eastern part of Great Slave Lake where we started canoeing north. We were always moving, usually getting on the river around 10 in the morning and off around 6 at night.
The Barrens are absolutely gorgeous. You paddle to the end of a lake and walk up a hill and there before you is another lake. The landscape is rolling and there are no trees so you can see everything around you. You really appreciate the space. We saw so much wildlife because there is nowhere for animals to hide. We saw herds of caribou, many white wolves, wolverines, muskoxen, and golden eagles. And the double rainbows were incredible. At that time of the year there are 24 hours of daylight so time can become a weird concept.
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It was really hard. Hard trips can make you better although sometimes too hard is not good. It was extremely buggy so we had a bug tent where we would cook and eat. The wind was so powerful because there is nothing to slow it down and sometimes it was too windy to paddle. Sometimes it was too windy to even put up the cooking tent so we would have to cook under our canoes.
We were all experienced paddlers and we had our route. We had a map and GPS. Some parts previous campers had done and they shared their journals with us; some parts we didn’t know very well other than to know that we should go down a certain stream because the map showed that a lake was attached to it. When I’m on a river I know if white water is coming although I don’t know how extreme it will be until I get there. We would decide if we could run it or else find a way around it, perhaps walking the shoreline and pulling the boat or unloading the boat and walking down.
A really hard day was when what should have been a lake turned out to be a shallow pool so we had to carry our packs and pull the canoes. Something what we thought would take 30 minutes took us three hours but we had to go forward for there was no choice. So things like that happen. You just have to say, “This sucks but let’s just pull through it”. Then you reward yourself with something like spaghetti—we had three-cheese-spaghetti that day and it was delicious. You have to plan some flexibility into the trip in case things like that happen.
We carried our food for 56 days. We had onions, peppers, garlic and cheese the entire time and lots of pasta and oatmeal. Nothing fancy, but we were not starving. We had this outback oven which was amazing: we could bake bread, cake and muffins. We couldn’t have fires because there was no wood so we had to carry all our fuel. We would set up the kitchen tent far away from the camp. Animals never bothered us, perhaps because they are not used to humans. They actually seemed scared of us. When we caught fish, however, we always cleaned them before we got to camp.
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The trip was hard simply because it was hard and the last three weeks were rainy and cold. But everyone loved being up north and understood the challenges. There were these sand dunes that the boys loved jumping from; they thought it was the best thing in the world. The white water was really good. We loved paddling, loved being out there. We all pushed ourselves. It is something to step away from technology and just appreciate that unique environment.
I didn’t wash my hair for two months. The water was freezing so I didn’t want to jump in. You bring baby wipes to keep clean and get used to having a nice odour. You basically wear the same clothes every day. You have your wet clothes and you wear them during the day because they will get wet, and you switch into your dry clothes at night and in the morning you put your wet clothes on and they’re still wet! You have to keep certain parts dry, like you have to change your socks or you might get a fungus. You can’t have a fire so it’s hard to get warm. But as long as you layer up and keep moving you’re fine. We would sing, dance, karate chop, cuddle, have soup, all those things to keep warm.
When we reached Baker Lake in Nunavut we checked our email and got money to buy candy. We were in this grocery store and the woman at the cash said, “You guys really need to shower.” So she took all the girls to her house, gave us towels and after we got clean she let us stay and watch TV.
It was a great adventure. What I liked most about the trip was that we were right in the middle of it and there was no turning back. It was going to suck at times and usually when things suck in our regular life we just say, “Let’s go to a hotel” or “Let’s go back home”. But you can’t on a trip like that, you have to make do and it can turn into a really good experience. I feel my heart is still there.
Another canoeing article:
Canoeing in Algonquin Park, Canada
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Photo credits Vanessa Kohut
© Riding the buses 2011