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I went through our slides and scanned the images that seemed to best represent the trip. There were many more but the slides shown here illustrate much of what we experienced.


Home  | Arctic River Trips Horton River Trip




Burning Anthracite at Franklin Bay

The Horton River trip was our second Arctic canoe trip. We were much better prepared than we had been on our first trip down the Caribou River. The summer before the trip we joined the Minnesota Canoe Association and took their white water canoeing class. That course was invaluable in all of our subsequent trips. We were very green and inexperienced paddlers before we went through the course. We also put together the correct clothing, gear and food for the trip. The emphasis was on less gear and less stuff. The less you have, the easier the trip becomes. The Horton was in the Western arctic about 300 miles east of the Mackenzie River and went through spectacular country. I have scanned the slides that seem to be representative of the terrain that we traversed. We started the trip at Horton Lake which was still covered with ice in early July. The river  was ice free and about twenty feet wide when it left the lake. When we got to Franklin Bay, about 400 miles downriver, it was a mile wide and meandering through the countryside until it broke through the headland into the ocean which was studded with small bergs and bits of sheet ice left over from the previous winter. This is a great river to paddle. Paul and I highly recommend it to anyone with the time and interest. Try to paddle it in a single canoe as we did. It's quieter. 

                                            The Big Picture

The Horton River is in the far west about three hundred miles east of the Mackenzie River.
 It was
our longest paddle and the farthest north, ending about 72* north.

I have marked the headwaters, Horton Lake, with a couple of red arrows. That's where

we started and we paddled to Franklin Bay, Beaufort Sea. There was an abandoned

Dew Line Radar station not to far from where the river enters the Bay.



We traveled on Air Canada from  Minneapolis to Winnipeg and then to Yellow Knife were we changedplanes. Our new ride was an old "737" that was refitted to carry cargo and passengers in the passenger cabin. From Yellow Knife we flew Northwest over Great Bear Lake which was still frozen and then to Inuvik. This is Great Bear Lake looking out of the window as we flew over.

We landed at Inuvik were we had made arrangements to get a canoe and a ride to Horton

Lake and the beginning of our trip. At this time of year, the sun never goes down. We

never really stopped at Inuvik.

We were picked up at the airport by the flying service and taken to their base at a nearby

lake were we loaded our gear on a very beat up Cessna 182. It took four tries to get off

the lake and we flew with the stall horn buzzing for over an hour until we burned off enough

fuel to be able to lower the nose to pick up enough speed to leave that very uncomfortable

 flight regime.

We were surprised to see Horton Lake still covered with ice. There was enough open

water near the river outlet on the  north shore to land the plane and unload.

As our rather young pilot circled to land in the bit of open water near the shore, we got

our first glimpse of the river.

The lake ice was breaking up near shore. We landed about 3:00 AM, unloaded our stuff,

set up hasty camp and went to sleep.

This was our second camp and was about twenty miles downstream from the lake. The

country was still very open but we could see the hills that we would be paddling though

up ahead.

The river was picking up more water and more speed.

The Horton is well known for it's plentiful population of brown bears. We saw tracks and

scat at nearly every place we got off of the water. We carried a short barreled stainless

steel 12 gauge shotgun loaded with slugs everywhere we went. It was heavier than pepper

spray but it made more noise.

The river grew bigger and the hills grew higher.

As we got further down the river we started to pass limestone cliffs. Bald Eagles nested

on the cliffs on the upper river and Golden Eagles nested along the lower river. The

limestone cliffs were the harbinger of the Horton Canyon that we were approaching.

This was the only time that I was able to spend any amount of time outside of our tent

without a shirt on. It was very warm and the bugs did not come out. Goodness knows why.

They were with us full time whenever it was warm and blowing hard.

The river cut it's way through a broad plain. There were some trees that grew in the

protection of the valley but it was classic treeless tundra once you were on top.

That's me on the same shirtless walk with my answer to pepper spray.

The river had cut a very large, beautiful valley through the plain. When we got up

high we couldsee the how much material the river had moved.

The meandering river cut a huge valley and left gigantic gravel bars that were great to

camp on.

The gravel bars were flat, dry and clean. We camped on them whenever we could.

The shoreline was usually brushy and buggy

There was a huge variety of flowering plants and shrubs on the plains and in the river

valley. This was some kind of flowering grass.

Some of the gravel bars seemed to go for miles.

The whole river was like a physical geology lab. Here we see an example of soft soil

erosion with small deltas at the base of the eroded areas.

We came around a fast flat water bend and entered the Canyon. The river cut through the
limestone exposing the layers of old ocean bottom.

We were very careful in the Canyon as there was no room to make a mistake. The river

was fast and narrow, dropping over limestone shelves that created little falls and big rapids.

There were many places without shoreline were we were unable to portage or line.

Climbing to the top of the cliff gave us the big picture. It was pretty neat.

We ferried back and forth across the river trying to avoid the biggest rapids and drops.

Even so,we still had plenty of excitement.

Limestone shelves ran from shore to shore almost continuously through the canyon and downstream of the canyon making us get out of the canoe frequently. We remained very

careful in the canyon.We didn't want to go swimming.

As we got near the end of the Canyon, the formations became lower and showed evidence

of being in the river's flow at one time or another. It was very pretty.

The Horton was a 400 mile bird sanctuary. It seemed as if every bird that lived in North

America came to the Horton for the summer. There was a tremendous number of eagle

and hawk nests allalong the river banks. These hawk chicks were just getting feathered out.

The chick's guardians were very protective of the nest and make a huge ruckus. They

dive-bombedus until we got back to our canoe and went away.

When we got near the canyon we started to see musk oxen. We never saw large groups

but only whatwe suspected were single males.

Not long after we left the high walls of the canyon we hastily camped when the afternoon

weather started to threaten. We had no sooner got the tent up when a wall cloud appeared

and roared over our campsite. The winds were gale force and so strong that we sat in the

tent holding the walls up and listening to our camp gear blow away outside. It was quite a

blow but we did find all of our gear.


As we went down river we came upon an area of collapsed limestone columns that has

been carved by the river.


Here's Paul standing on one of dozens of these bizarre things. They were typically about

15 feet across.

Once we got out of the Canyon we started to make big miles. We often shortened our

paddling day and went on hikes far from the river. The environment on the plains was quite different than in the

The Horton was really good fishing from Horton Lake to the dreaded cut-bank. Once we

hit the cut-bank, there were no more fish in the river. We were able to get some fish after

the cut-bank by walking up some of the tributaries and fishing them before they too turned

to mud. We had a ways to go to the cut-bank from here.

The fishing on the upper river was very good. We caught grayling and lake trout whenever

we wanted to eat fish. This is one of our rare fish fries. Usually we just chopped them up

and threw them in whatever we were making in the pot. Boiled fish was our usual meal.

The fish fry was a treat.

I found it hard not to keep taking these long view pictures of the valley. The valley was

very compelling. Here is another long view of the big valley. Keep in mind that we didn't

go down the valley, we went bank to bank. We were on a big meandering river now.

Here is another gravel bar that goes forever. In the early spring, this valley was roaring

with the winter's runoff, filling the river bed bank to bank.

Our camp on the far side of the gravel bar gives you a little bit of an idea of the scale of

the valley.

And yet another view of another endless gravel bar.

We found tracks and scat almost every place we got off the river. Some stretches of the

river were lined with willows that grew nearly into the water  and up the bank for thirty to

forty yards. It was very uncomfortable stumbling through the willows knowing that the

bears were in there too.

Once we got downstream of the Canyon, we started to see caribou. There were no herds,

but there were many groups of three to ten animals. They paid very little attention to us and would often walk right through our camps.

As we got nearer the Bay, the river wound through a large badlands. This is the beginning

of it. As we got deeper into it, the bare gravel hills ran right into the water and as the

permafrost on top melted, peppered the river with rocks, gravel and melted debris.

 We went through miles of a beautiful badland. Not a thing grew and nothing stirred but
the gravel as it melted out of the permafrost and tumbled hissing into the river. On a day

like this, we could hear the gravel coming down in the middle of the river.

We had been smelling smoke for a couple of days and finally paddled into the Smoking

Hills. Deposits of anthracite at the surface were spontaneously igniting and burning, producing billowing smoke that could be seen from miles away. The plume of smoke above the ridge

line was the first smoke we saw.

Another endless gravel bar disappearing into the smoke from the burning coal. When the

English came to this area looking for Sir John Franklin, they mistook the smoke from the

burning coal for signal fires from the lost seamen, and thus our river ends in Franklin Bay.

This is what the burning anthracite looked like. This deposit is nearly burned out but still smoldering.The river banks were lines with these deposits and there were a number of

days that we paddled hrough a fog of sulfurous smoke which obscured the hills and shoreline.


We never saw the big herd, we saw many small groups of three to ten animals. The caribou

often walked right through camp, acting as if we didn't exist. They are very curious and would sometimes give us a really good looking over before moving on.


Another beautiful place to camp. These gravel bars spoiled us forever; dry, clean and bug

free. In all of our other trips we never found so many pleasant places to stop.


Another caribou that has got over his shyness. They almost ignored us completely and

there were many times that they just walked through camp.


This is a look back at the badlands and the portion of the river we has come down the

previous day.


Another physical geology lab. Erosion patterns and delta building don't get much plainer

than that.


Just another caribou completely ignoring us.


And finally the dreaded cutbank. the river went from crystal clear to coffee color right there.

In a matter of fifty feet, the river went brown and the fish were gone.


Another shot of the cutbank. Look at what the water looks like here, clear to mud in nothing flat.


And one last look at what made us eat dirt for the rest of the trip. We got used to it pretty

quicklyand it didn't taste bad either. It was probably good for us, lots of minerals, and grass

and sticks and whatever else was imbedded in the old river bottom.


This is me, the main cook. I look a little glum but I wasn't. I had all my kitchen gear laid

out and the stove going. That would be dinner next to my right leg. That's the pot on the

stove that will feed us.



The caribou herd crossed the river en masse sometime in the last several weeks. The white material in the gravel is caribou hair and it came from a large number of animals crossing

the river. As we neared the coast we saw more and more caribou.



This was one of our last camps on the river. We are still in the smoke and tried to find

places that weren't  too dense and smoked up.



We came upon a cache of broken and smashed canoes about ten miles from the bay.

We did way

better than they did. Our canoe still worked.


If you look over the edge of the plateau, you can see where we got our first view of salt

water.That blue line is Franklin Bay. We were pretty excited about that. We had hiked a

couple of milesfrom the river to get to the Bay.


There it is! Franklin Bay, Beaufort Sea, Arctic Ocean. Yahoo! Look at the grounded berg

and the old pack ice.



From the top of the headland looking north, we could see the giant delta that the Horton had built

in the Bay.


I climbed down the steep, loose slope to the shore and tasted salt water!


This was the shoreline looking north.


This was the shoreline looking south. There was a large deposit burning vigorously about

one-half mile away.


I walked down to it to get a better look. It was very impressive.

Another night on the gravel bar. We often used the canoe to guy our tent and help make it "bombproof" against the wind. You can't have to many solid guylines when it gets windy

on the river. We didn't  have any protection to speak of and when the wind came up, it roared.


This is our first view of the river breaking through the headland, a pretty sight after our

long trip. Our airplane driver is to meet us somewhere down there.


Shortly after the previous picture was taken, we were hit with a giant thunderstorm that

last for hours it scoured the plateau and dumped tons of debris into the river, turning the

nice coffee colored river that we had gotten used to into this sickening, dirty looking, stick

and grass infested cesspool. We got used to drinking this too. It took about ten minutes.



This was our last camp on the Horton. We weren't sure what the tide did or if we would be swamped out here on the gravel bar, so we tied everything together and tethered the

canoe to us in the tent so that  it wouldn't float away in the night. We did have a little tide but we didn't get wet.


This was as dark as it got at our last camp.


Late the next afternoon,  our ride showed up and landed. We were happy to see him. He told us

he was not surprised to see us either. Confidence was running high.



Here's Paul and I waiting to fire her up and leave the Horton.



We are back in Inuvik and looking for a nice musk ox burger.


That's Paul posing on the main street in Inuvik. It was really a nice little town next to the

middle of nowhere.


Our last look at the town as we headed for the airport and home.

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  2009 Jim Rutzick