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Home  | Trip Journals  Horton River


The Horton River is in the far west of the former Northwest
Territories, about three hundred miles east of the Mackenzie
River. This was a long, beautiful trip that started on Horton Lake and ended at Franklin Bay, Beaufort Sea, Arctic Ocean. Selected images of that trip can be seen on "Arctic River Trips". My day by day journal follows.




Nervous and confused. Trying to ready my life to be gone a month. Trying to tie up my business life and my personal life. The trip down the river -that’s the easy part. Sandy got Peter Clarkson to get an ELT for us to carry, she feels better. I don’t know who will monitor it.


This is the day the trip really begins. I have been thinking about this and planning for this trip for two years. There hasn’t been a day in the last year that I haven’t thought about this day, the day we leave for the North. It’s not clear to me exactly what two guys our age, and we are pretty far from young, find so compelling about the far North that we would put ourselves through the anguish and torture of leaving our fairly structured, comfortable lives for the tremendous physical exertion and uncertainty involved in descending an Arctic River, but I suppose those issues are the answer. The effort to leave is tremendous, with the complexity of the planning, supplying and packing out, pulling one way while life with family, office and friends pulls the other way. I have had many people say good-bye to me as if I was terminally ill with a fairly well defined end in sight. I’ve been saying good-bye to my kids for years as they’ve left on their trips, so being on this end of good-bye is strange. My little girl, 27 years old, got choked up when I called her to say good-bye. Turn about is fair play. I’ve been there.

Paul will be here soon to help me do the final stuffing. Then the dragging of the gear will begin. Edmonton tonight. Yellow Knife and Inuvik tomorrow and on to the River. We repacked, loaded up Paul’s truck and headed to the airport, stopping to eat on the way. The flight to Edmonton was scheduled to leave at 8:00 P.M., but we were initially delayed due to the lack of a working autopilot.

While waiting for the plane to be repaired or a replacement to be found, a monstrous storm closed the airport for about an hour causing delays that must have lasted two days. We finally left at mid-night after a replacement aircraft was delivered from Omaha. We arrived at Edmonton at 3:30 A.M. I was completely exhausted from the effort of leaving and the commotion at the airport.

Up at 8:30 and to the airport, dragging our half-ton of gear. We paid $100 for our over weight gear at MSP and $75 at Edmonton. On to Yellow Knife and then Inuvik. We flew over Great Bear Lake and it is still frozen. We’ll have plenty of ice for cocktails. This is a long hard travel leg for me; I’m totally exhausted!





67 32 205 N

122 16 340 W

67 41 680N 122 46 430W

Got up early. I still wasn’t feeling well. I got badly dehydrated on the trip in. It took most of the morning to re-hydrate myself. We packed up, loaded the canoe for the first time and left Horton Lake, hoping not to see the Danes again.

The little river was clear and fast. Looking at the bottom slide by gave us vertigo. The water was shockingly clear. We paddled numerous little rapids and lined down one bigger rapid. We were away from the Danes. The day warmed up with rising pressure and reached 60 degrees by mid afternoon. We made 35 miles. Pretty good for break-in day.


Woke to warm, sunny blue skies. Not a cloud or a breath of wind. We’re temporarily in the Banana Belt. No black flies but good strong mosquitoes. We’re hoping to go 35 to 40 miles today. We got to 67 57 601 n and 123 05 465w, which is about 33 miles, ten hours on the water. A beautiful day, nice paddling. The river valley opened up and we paddled through huge valleys made up of hills 600 to 800 above the river. It is absolutely spectacular. It’s like paddling through the Beartooth Mountains. We made one portage at the end of the day after partially swamping the canoe as we attempted to line it through some very fast water, which hit a bank and made a 90-degree turn to the right. We quit soon after and ate macaroni at midnight. It’s hotter now at 12:30 a.m. than it’s been all day. The sun, which is in the north, is cooking us like brats on a grill.


Woke up cooking in the tent. We were going to sleep in as we got off the river at midnight last night but it’s too warm to stay in the tent. We feel pressured to get down the river. After looking at our sixteen maps to the Ocean, we feel we have a very long way to go. Looking at the planning map makes it look even farther. We hope to make 30 to 40 miles today.

As soon as we got in the canoe the wind came up and the temperature dropped 15 degrees. It remained clear and windy until we made camp, nine hours later. We didn’t make our target, but went a hard 30 miles, almost all into a strong North wind which whipped up standing waves on many of the long open stretches. As soon as we made camp the wind stopped and the mosquitoes appeared. Healthy and numerous, seeming to thrive on Muscol and Deep Woods Off. The valley today was even prettier than yesterday, going from wide and open to narrow and steep. It’s the mountains. It’s like paddling through the prettiest high areas that I’ve been to, going from one vista to another. Every bend is different and unique. We ate at 10:00. It’s cooling off now. At least tonight we’re shaded from the sun by a mountain. Last night we cooked in the tent all night. I never got in my bag, but slept out on top of my air mattress naked. It feels good to get out of the sun for a couple of hours. So far we’ve paddled over a hundred miles. We’re anxious to get to the Canyon. It will be slower there.

We are at:

68 07 577 N

123 28 624 W




We woke to low clouds and drizzle, temperature about 45 degrees and windy. It cooled off during the night and rained. The mosquitoes were gone with the cooler weather. Without the sun beating on the tent we slept in, didn’t get up until 8:00 NWT time. We turned in late, long after midnight. It’s hard to stop up here when the sun is out all the time. The late evenings are really the most pleasant part of the day. It’s cooler and the light is warmer, a little gold in tone and the animals come out.

The evening or late afternoon is warm and it’s more comfortable to be on the water until later when it starts to cool off a little.

Today we paddled into a serious head wind all day. In the open stretches, which were numerous the winds created large standing waves in the current. There were a couple of stretches that we grunted up, barely moving. The miracle is that we made 31 miles. That’s what happens when you plug along for eleven hours. We’re moving down river, away from Kurts. (The subject of "Heart of Darkness")

The scenery today was more spectacular than yesterday. We paddled through huge valleys with mountains on side, huge cut banks and limestone palisades, through open braided channels. Every bend provided a new scene; it was vista vision without end. It was thrilling to rush through the churning white water, the Arctic shoreline sliding by, knowing where we were, and how far away we were from the rest of the world.

We quit about 9:00 and stopped at our prettiest campsite yet. Every place we have stayed has been prettier than the last. We have always had a terrific view. This is the land of the big view. It makes the West claustrophobic by comparison. We have been walking the tundra whenever possible. At the top of almost any hill we can see three to five hundred square miles. We can easily see ten to twenty miles in most places.

It’s nice and cool with partially overcast skies. It will be good to lie down. This was our hardest day so far. We saw an arctic white wolf on the riverbank. He looked at us, we looked at him, and he followed us down the shore and watched us while we drifted down the river and watched him. He watched and followed us for a long time. We stopped at 68 20 924 N and 123 40 159 W


We left our camp at mid-morning. Skies were overcast and the temperature was about 45 degrees, no wind. I was a little tired and sore from yesterday’s upwind paddle. I brought too much food. I had big eyes packing. We could stay out two months the way we’re eating; that is, we’re not eating that much. Paul and I both agree too much food, not enough liquor. I brought only one quart and it’s almost gone. We’re saving the last three fingers for our first view of the Arctic Ocean.

We had long stretches of easy paddling in fast water off and on all day. No rapids, just little chutes were the river turns always a gravel bar on the inside and a chute on the outside. We stop every so often to snack, drink, pee, and stretch. Never for very long, five to ten minutes at the longest, even when we eat. We stopped and fished several times when we saw the swirls. We were sight fishing. It was like bone fishing in the Florida Keys. See a fish rise, throw a lure at the swirl, catch a fish. It was simple.

The Grayling are big, two to two and a half pounds, very impressive. We caught one nice one late in the afternoon and I cleaned it for dinner. It rained off and on all afternoon and into the evening. We stopped after thirty-two miles, both of us very tired. Dinner in light drizzle, with a stick fire for potato pancakes with the fish boiled in a stew. We cleaned up camp and into tent in a good solid rain. Tonight’s position is:

68 35 067 N 123 54 817 W

A day and a half to the Canyon.


We woke to overcast skies and fifty degrees. Light winds. I’m still tired. It rained most of the night but it’s dry now. We paddled about 33 miles and stopped at 68 45 964 N 124 29 251 W which is mile 210. Two hundred and ten miles to the ocean!

It was a nice day of paddling. Overcast with a little rain in the morning, slowly clearing through the day to sparkling clear blue skies with moderate winds. We paddled by limestone palisades that were a half-mile long, alternating from one side of the river the other. The stone is younger than the very fine white stone we have been traveling through the last few days. The younger stone is more course and crumbly, creating chimneys and caves and ledges. The white stone weathers very uniformly, creating steps and terraces. We saw numerous golden eagles and their nests in the limestone bluffs and a grizzly bear track, but no musk oxen. Tomorrow we enter the Canyon.

Our camp is high over the river in a marshy meadow. I climbed to the top of the hill and could see the entire spectacular countryside. Once again, the area defies description. I can see forever in the bone-dry arctic air!


Woke to 6000 broken to overcast, unlimited visibility, barometric pressure at 30.05 and steady, wind out of the NE at twenty knots and totally clear to the southeast. The early temperature was about 50 degrees.

We’re into the Canyon today. Slept in, we’re up late. We like traveling later in the day. It’s much more comfortable, especially in the warm weather we’ve been having. It’s too hot to be on shore in the late afternoon and early evening so we stay on the water.

It’s now midnight, camp is cleaned up, we just finished eating and we are 18 hard miles down the road. The weather is spectacular, blue skies, light winds and 65 degrees. Really too warm for what we’re doing, but it’s nice, better than sleet and cold.

We made some miles early and then hit the mini canyon. A preview of the Canyon and the faster harder water. The mini canyon had three very impressive rapids with three and four foot standing waves and a lot of noise and commotion. There’s a lot more water in the river now. The Whaleman River, which is a fairly big river joined the Horton today about 25 miles upriver from our camp and brought a lot of water with it.

The canyon areas reduce the river’s width. It runs over the bare limestone, wearing a narrow channel in the soft stone. When the limestone breaks away creating a ledge or step, a rapid is created. Most of the rapids in the canyon areas are created in this way, and they are fairly numerous. Some of the ledges are three and four feet high, creating a little falls all the way across the river.

We lined down seven rapids today. We scouted them all and carefully planned our course of action. We’re making an effort not to mess up and have an accident. The river is big and fast here and a mishap could prove problematic.

The last rapid we negotiated was a four or five foot ledge running shore to shore. It created standing waves four to five feet high and had a "hole" that was big enough to lose a Buick in. It was a guaranteed keeper.

It was a hard day, but a good day. We ferried across the river in a very fast chute and generally handled the faster water and its obstacles. We’ve been practicing and preparing for the canyon since we left the lake and now we’re there. We feel ready. We’ll be going pretty slowly the next few days. We have plenty of time and intend to be careful. This is no place for an accident.


Woke up baking like bread in the oven. Skies blue, it’s hot already and the barometer continues to rise; 30.15 and trending up. Looking forward to a slow day in the Canyon.

It got hotter as the day wore on, we cooked. I’m hot and tired. We got to 68 45

971 N 125 10 660 W which is mile 180.

That’s twelve hard miles today. We lined eight to ten rapids, some very big and made several ferries in fast hard water with large rapids at our back. Paddle or die! We saw two musk oxen, one on the shore and the other on the bluff. We were able to get fairly close as the musk ox on the shore pretty much ignored us. Near evening we arrived at a portage, lined and portaged around a huge series of rapids formed by the river narrowing down to twenty yards across in one place, and going over a five foot ledge in another and making a 90 degree turn at the end. It was a very obvious portage. There were numerous standing waves five to six feet high, with several significant holes and a plethora of other obstacles, which made it a long forbidden zone for boaters.

The Canyon is quite beautiful with yellow limestone walls rising two to three hundred feet above the almost constantly boiling water. Vegetation is completely absent while a few pathetic trees can be seen hanging on some of the high cliff walls.

We were able to paddle down some of the rapids by staying in the slower water on the inside curve. This usually provided us with a workable route. Even so, a great deal of caution and care had to taken when paddling or lining the canoe through the big rapids as you could swamp the canoe and sink it in the fast water. Lining, even with these risks proved a better choice as it saved us a lot of walking and portaging which would have been very difficult in the Canyon as there was very rarely any shoreline.

We still have fifteen to twenty miles of fairly fast water to negotiate.

When we got to the end of the portage we were totally gassed. We made camp right on the rocks overlooking the last big rapid. It’s noisy but its home for now. The tent is set up on a flat stone terrace forty to fifty feet over the river. We can see straight down the river out the front of the tent and right back up the river were we had just come from out of the back of the tent.

The black flies are finally here. I have been waiting for them since we started the trip. They must have just hatched out with the warm weather we have had the last few days. They first showed up in the afternoon and were plentiful by midnight when we went in the tent. They were absent when we got here allowing us to bathe in the river, which was a real treat. Thanks for small favors.

DAY 10 JULY 11

Woke to blazing sun and clear blue skies. Temp in the fifties and a high pressure of 30.30 and trending up. It sprinkled last night.

It’s at least 75 F and almost no wind. We’re going to get baked again. We never expected to be in this kind of warm weather. It won’t last. We had a sample of cold at Horton Lake. I slept in nearly all of my clothes and was still cold. We are in the Arctic after all.

We are in a magic place. Sitting on the terraced rocks we watch the river tear by, boiling and rolling. It feels so comfortable and calming. We don’t feel the pressure to move now. We covered two thirds of the river in one third of the time we have. We’re on vacation now. We know how far we can go in a day and we know we can get to the ocean and the plane allowing for wind and non-travelable days, we’ll try to pace our travel. We made big miles every day except yesterday and we’ve traversed the most difficult obstacles on the river, weather, wind and waves excluded.

We had our first medical emergency as we were packing up. Paul slipped in the loose rocks near the river and badly skinned his chin and bruised himself up. Upon closer examination, I diagnosed a large abrasion and an accompanying hematoma but no deep cuts. I was a little disappointed as I had an exquisitely appointed suture kit and was looking forward to trying it out. I had practiced suturing chicken skin and wanted to move up to Paul's chin; no joy.


We left the "Castle in the Rocks" camp and quickly lined two very big rapids. The rest of the Canyon was fast clear water with few obstacles, all of which could be easily avoided.

As we traveled further down and out of the canyon the countryside opened again, displaying the twenty-mile vistas that we had traveled through upriver.

It was warm, but not as warm as yesterday, and not a breath of air. We drifted and fished and watched the riverbank glide by all day. Late in the evening we pulled off to wait out a thunderstorm. Paul caught a grayling and we ferried across the river and made camp. As we cooked and set up, we saw another very dark storm approach. We ate and packed up while eating, racing what soon materialized as a fully developed wall cloud. It reached us just as we secured the tent. I could only describe it as "hurricane force" with a deluge that reduced visibility to five feet. It was unbelievably strong and nasty; blowing the tent in on us and making us hold it up from the inside. We’re dry and fed and the days over, one of our very nicest, or at least, one of our most memorable. We are at 68 53 568 N and 125 26 960 W. That is mile 165. We drifted 15 miles down an Arctic River. It was a dream-like day.


The ferocity and intensity of the storm is something I’ve rarely seen. We watched the wall cloud approach in total silence, not a breath of air stirring, not a sound from anywhere. And then, with the black and green leading edge of the storm front well overhead, the straight line winds hit us, going from dead calm to 70 plus knots in a few seconds. Lightning, thunder, and an avalanche of rain roared over us. We held the tent up from the inside as the winds pummeled us. The tent stayed remarkably dry and once the first big gusts went by, it stayed up without our support. It performed very well. During the height of the downpour, I peeked outside but couldn’t see two feet. Luckily, non-of our gear or the canoe were lost. We are in the habit of securing everything very well. This was a lesson we learned the hard way on our last trip when we watched our canoe blow over our heads doing cartwheels, but that’s another story.

DAY 11 JULY 12

52 degrees 30.30.and steady

Woke to clear skies and fifty something. We both slept through the light rain that followed the storm. Later in the night the sun came out and it warmed up again. We’re just getting cooked like beans in the pan. We’re praying for cold and windy weather. This heat is killing us. The heat has hatched the black flies. They are everywhere and swarm out of the grass and the rocks when you bend over or walk around. They hurl themselves at the tent if we are inside making the sound of light rain as they hit the fabric.

The whole pace and tone of the trip has changed. When we left Horton Lake we were facing 450 miles of unknown river and weather. It was cold and windy and we felt pressed to get down river. The result was 9, 10, and 11 hour days, traveling with infrequent and very short stops and rest periods.

We blew down the river and shot through the "Canyon". Now we have only 160 miles to go and two weeks to do it in. We’re on vacation. The fishing gear is coming out and we’re in the drift mode, going as slow as possible. It’s hot and it’s going to get hotter today. It’s much more comfortable to be on the river when it’s hot than to be on shore, so we’re looking for a nice slow day on the water.

Its late evening and we’re "holed up", there’s another big storm coming.

We had a beautiful drift down the river. It was hot on the water and hotter on the shore, so we’re trying to go slow and stay on the water as late as possible. We don’t want to get to the ocean a week early and sit around waiting for the plane.

It was very warm and partially overcast most of the afternoon. The clouds kept us from totally cooking and lowered the temperature a bit. The air was delicious tasting, smelling, feeling; you could almost touch it. You could feel it around your body and it felt good, it was clear, clean, sweet smelling and warm, perfect. It was a joy just to feel it surround oneself. It felt wonderful just to be, to sit in the coon and watch the shore go by. It made you feel lucky to be here and lucky to be alive.

We traveled through wide meandering valleys, three to four miles long with towering sand hills on either side. The hills were the material carried out of the "canyon" and deposited on a broad plain, which the river then cut through again, or, they were the remains of a shallow bay in a warm shallow sea which was a few thousand miles south of here two or three ages ago. I haven’t got the geology figured out, I’m only guessing.


We stopped where the River flows out of Garret Lake to overnight. As we were setting up camp, a tremendous North wind hit us, dropping the temperature twenty degrees and blowing our gear off the gravel bar, which we had landed on. We set up the tent and "bomb proofed" it just as the first of a half a dozen strong thunderstorms hit our camp. So far it’s been three. If they stop, we’ll cook and eat. We’re just lying in the tent waiting. I’ve left the tent after every downpour to try making something to eat, but the next wave of rain and wind is to close. It’s exciting, but we’re hungry and I want to eat something. I got out long enough after the last cell to rummage in our stuff and find the can of chocolate frosting. I had a couple big spoons of that and I’m better. That really hit the spot!

The south wind, which has been with us for three days, brought the warm weather and the bugs. The North wind has ended both.

The cold air from the North has collided with the warm air from the South creating tremendous thunderstorms. We seem to be right at the meeting place of all this atmospheric hostility and chaos as wave after wave of thunderstorms rip through our camp. It’s very exciting but has made it hard to cook and serve our last meal of the day. Eventually, we cooked a very quick one-pot meal between rips.




DAY 12 JULY 13

We stayed over today. It was foggy and cool when we woke, clouds down to the ground. We ate breakfast, packed a lunch and walked the ridgeline of the "Little River" valley, getting higher as we walked east. The tundra was beautiful and the vistas were better and better the higher we went. We could se the whole countryside, probably twenty miles in every direction. All kinds of animal sign but not one varmint in our line of sight. It was surprising to see so much country with nothing moving.

We came back, made soup and fished the "Little River", hit them hard, got lots of grayling and had fish stew for dinner. In early, before midnight. Real early for us.


DAY 13 JULY 14

Woke late to low overcast and cool North wind, 50 degrees, 30.40 and steady. No bugs. Until now we’ve been sight-fishing the grayling. See a rise, drop a plug in front of the fish, and catch a fish. Just like bone fishing in the Florida Keys. Had a leisurely brunch and packed up. We’re going fishing today. The grayling are schooled up wherever a little river comes in, and there are a number of them in the next five to ten miles. No fish in the Horton, it’s all silted up now from flowing through the tremendous sand hills that used to be the "Canyon " rock.

WE paddles half a mile to where the Garret(?) maybe Garnet River joins the Horton and fished the eddies. Caught many large grayling and then hit some Lakers. Paul caught a three ponder and I landed a four pounder. What fun to catch big trout on light tackle? I filleted a nice one and we put it away for dinner. Drifted down the river in light winds, trying not to go too fast. We don’t want to beat the plane by a week. WE fished several places and caught only grayling, no lake trout. Made camp at mile marker 140.

69 4 119 N

125 42 015 W

We set up our tent and went for a long walk to the top of the hills behind the camp. The top provided a view of this whole part of the world. We were at the highest point in the area for 20 to 30 miles. WE could see everything and everywhere. The top of the hills opens up into a high very flat plateau. It looks exactly like the Beartooths. WE walked the plateau for an hour and a half and saw many musk ox tracks, tundra polygons, and an arctic fox catch a lemming. We also saw a pair of American Golden Plovers. These bird where quite striking and bold in their coloration. We went back to camp and had a fish fry at "Paul’s Place" with corn bread and scalloped potatoes. It was a terrific day. It’s raining now; 12:30 and we’re just getting ready to quit. This was the "Willows From Hell" camp, dirt y and muddy between the beach and the tent. When it rained it turned into a slimy filthy obstacle course. Paul hated it. He got his shoes muddy and his clothes dirty from stumbling through the willows, which were covered with dirt left from the spring flood.


DAY 14 JULY 15

Barometer steady.

It rained all night. We slept in until it quit. Fifty degrees in the tent, forty-five degrees outside. A good day for a leisurely drift down the river. We’re looking for the Caribou. We see fresh tracks everywhere but no animals. Maybe today.

No animals. We drifted and paddled down the river under overcast skies. It got buggy. We set up camp at "Pebble Beach". We camped on a giant sand bar. It was the only dry place around. Everything else is boggy and brushy. After setting up camp we paddled across the river and hiked up one of the low black loamy eroded hills. It was a walk from Hell. I’ve never seen mosquito’s worse! Back to camp and corn bread and salami and eggs. Turned in early. It’s only 11:00 but it’s getting cold and it’s still buggy out. Another beautiful day. We did see bear tracks across the river, but no bear, which is OK, We carry the shotgun everywhere.

60 01 188 N

126 06 498 W

We saw three golden eagles put on an air show, climbing high and then diving, pulling straight up to a hammerhead stall, dive and pick up air speed, pull out and back up to another stall and over again and again and again, all three birds, It was an incredible display of airmanship.


DAY 15 JULY 16


"Pebble Beach". Slept on the gravel bar, I did anyway. Paul claims my snoring kept him up all night. Just like Sandy, but Paul doesn’t beat the tar out of me like she does. He just took it like a man.

45 degrees and overcast skies. Fog earlier. We’re only 60 miles from the coast, line of sight and 125 miles down the river. We’re getting the coastal weather now, foggy at night and cooler.

We’re going to look for a place with wood tonight so we can cook; we’re running low on fuel.

Three caribou walked by us as we ate two calves and a female with a huge rack. Their coats were mottled brown and black and their racks were still covered with velvet. We saw bear tracks last night across the river but no bears. The tracks were fresh.

We paddled and drifted down the river into Big Valley Country. Huge valleys four and five miles long and a mile wide appeared around almost every bend. It was cool and cloudy and buggy most of the day, but no black flies, what a blessing. We only had black for a few days after it was very warm. The warm weather must have hatched them out.

We stopped and fished at the West River. Paul caught a grayling and I caught a five-pound trout, which I photographed and promptly filleted.

We moved on to the Coal Creek which was dry and found a tent site on a huge gravel bar in the middle of the valley we were paddling through. It’s magnificent. The valley is twenty miles long and we’re at the midway point; we can see both ends. The view from camp is one of vast Open River valley surrounded by three to four hundred foothills. It’s canoeing in the mountains!

This evening we had the best trail meal I’ve had the pleasure of eating ever. I poached about a third of the Laker, and Paul pan-fried the rest. I made biscuits and pasta with white sauce. Unbelievably good. I poached the fish in garlic and onion soup. Try it!

After leaving the West River we saw two Caribou. We camped at "Pebble Beach 2" at mile marker 110, having traveled 14 miles. We are 56 miles line of sight to our pick-up.


We camped at 69 8 435 N

126 20 674 W

I saw fossils in the canyon that looked like sponges.



DAY 16 JULY 17

Woke to clear skies and fifty something. Barometer steady at 30.75. We’ve been in a month long high. The pressure hasn’t dropped in the whole month.

"Pebble Beach 2" is a great campsite. Magnificent views and a large flat level place to tent made up of pea sized gravel. It’s good to sleep on but doesn’t have a holding power so we’ve been anchoring the tent with the coon and our gear. I don’t want to get blown away some night. We’re looking forward to a good day and ten to fifteen miles down river.

I see cumulus building in the North. It may storm again later today. Conditions are similar to the last storm day.

The end of another beautiful day. It was warm when we got up and it stayed warm all day. Warm and very buggy. The wind was absent all day exacerbating the bug deal, but we paddled and drifted down the river after hiking to the high plateau West of our gravel bar. I was shirtless for part of the day. That’s how warm it was, and we are only forty or fifty miles from the Arctic Ocean.

I an sitting outside looking South at a ridge of huge hills and a rising plateau, a magnificent site, completely engulfed in a swarm of extremely active and aggressive mosquitoes. I would go in the tent but the scene is too much to leave, so I’ll endure the little pests, mind control and Muscol. The sun is in the North, behind me lighting up the hills. I’ll snap a picture; my long shadow will show. This is maximum bug time and the wind has died. Its midnight and going in.

I’m out of the mosquitoes, what a relief.


We are on another gravel bar, 13 miles down the river, mile marker 97.

69 14 707 N

126 41 664 W

We saw caribou all day, almost all-single males with velvet on their horns. We went by "Red Clay Creek", no fish. It was running red with clay. This is probably the end of the fish. The river is pretty silty now. I kicked a pair of ptarmigan out of the brush looking for a tent site. Our first ptarmigan sitting. I hope it cools off. I’m lying nearly naked on the cool gravel under the tent. This is "Willow Run" camp.

The valley is widening and the trees are thinning, they’ll be gone soon. The river too is widening and slowing. It is no longer"

Gin Clear", but is carrying an ever increasing load of silt.



DAY 17 JULY 18

Temperature: 75 barometer 30.60 and slowly falling.

"Willow Run"

We camped on another sand bar. It was the only flat place within miles that wasn’t boggy, and with distant cumulus building and visible rain showers all around, we bomb proofed the camp. The last time we had this weather, a fully developed wall cloud hit us. We tented next to some willows and tied off to them and the canoe. Not necessary. The storms missed us.

We woke to the sun in a cloudless, breathless sky, baking us like biscuits. It sounds like rain but it is only the mosquitoes hurling themselves at us. It’s going to be a very hot, very buggy day. We pray for cold weather. I never thought we’d be suffering with this kind of heat fifty miles from the ocean.

Sort, pack, load, and travel. Watch the weather, snack on the gravel bars, and find a tent-site. Unpack set-up, cook, clean and sleep. Sort, pack and paddle. We’ve been deep and well into this routine. Everything has a place, a spot, and a niche. It’s very comfortable. We’re off again.

The sun mercifully stayed behind a broken overcast all day. If it had been clear, we would have fried. There is no shade here, no place to hide from the sun, and the sun is always out. Early in the trip the tent was pitched with the front entry North. As it was very warm, we left the vestibule open, and the sun burned into my face as I was trying to sleep and woke me up. This was at one a.m.

Today was our worst bug day, very little wind, warm and no let-up from the mosquitoes, not even on the water.

Every bend brings a new scene, a new vista, but today we had a whole New River. At our last camp, the water was still clear, but today we got into the badlands, and the river is very turbid. It started at a huge undercut black cutback. The river had excavated a deep undercut as it made a sharp sweep to the left, exposing a forty-foot wall, which was falling into the river as the permafrost melted. Gushers of muddy water and debris would spout from the cut and fall into the river, sometimes starting a mudslide. Some of the slides were big, and it was like watching a glacier calf.

The material that was coming down was made up of many layers of alternating black earth and vegetation. This area had obviously been overlain with water born sediment, vegetation including trees grew and then it was flooded again, many times in succession. The layer between floods was very apparent.

From that bend on, you couldn’t see your paddle in the water. The banks muddied up, and the river bottom became covered with silt.

The trees are now all but gone, save for an occasional clump, or scattered thin stands that can find a little protection from the elements. The hills are high on both sides and covered with tundra near the water and mostly bare higher up. There is red showing and gray turning to black. We can still occasionally see a sand hill, which was formerly so frequent and familiar.

We made camp after several tries at "Dry Creek". The riverbanks are mostly mud and wet, while the area away from the river tends to be marshy, lumpy and wet. Tent sites that are flat and dry are rare. We tented quite a way back from the river up a dry wash. Hopefully it won’t rain, because if it does, we are going to be washed away. We went 19 miles today. We have to slow down. We’re at mile marker 78.

69 25 508 N

126 54 540 W According to the GPS we’re 35.2 miles to the pick-up, line of site.

Its midnight and the mosquito’s sound like rain hitting the tent. This is the time of day that they really come out. The hum of their wings gets louder and louder. As the evening cools, which is not happening tonight, they retreat to the shrubs and grass. It has stayed very warm and it’s not going to cool off. We’ve had many nits like this. The bugs never go down. We must stay in the tent. I like to walk in the late evening but when it remains hot the mosquitoes are unbearable and I must retreat to the tent.



DAY 18 JULY 19


The day dawned at 75 degrees and a steady barometer of 30.35. Dawned is a misnomer, it never dawns, it’s always bright daylight. The morning just comes. You know its morning because the sun is in the East and not the North.

We’re at "Dry Creek Camp". We’re up to slightly overcast skies with cumulus building all quadrants, a light breeze from the south and heat. It was cool sleeping but it’s cooking up again. BUGS RULE!

We’re staying over and climbing one of the nearby peaks looking for the caribou herd. We’re still seeing single males trotting up and down the shoreline. It’s very hot, we’re hoping for a north wind. We need cooler weather. The heat makes everything harder and of course the bugs are worse. We want some good cold weather from the ocean.

We started at noon, hot and buggy. I was bare from the waste up; the bugs left me alone. Following caribou trails, we climbed to the top of the hills were the plateau began, an ascent of about a thousand feet. The view, a panorama of 360 degrees was striking. We could see were the river exits the hills, about 12 to 15 miles from were we were. We probably could see 500 square miles from the top of the plateau. There were cumulus build-ups and thunderstorms all around, but they all passed by us. Not an animal in sight! We are very surprised that we don’t see more animals when we can see so much area.

We’re hoping to come upon part of the herd, but no luck. We’re seeing the single males, numerous tracks and scat everywhere but herd. You can see where they’ve uniformly browsed the tundra shrubs down. It’s perfectly even everywhere. It looks like someone came through with a power trimmer; it’s that even. The view of the badlands is striking; red, orange, gray, white and black bands and deposits with very little vegetation, all of it looking very much like the badlands in the Dakota’s. As beautiful as it is, these hills have turned the river into a muddy mess. We are drinking water that I wouldn’t ordinarily walk through. It’s back and its nasty looking but it doesn’t taste bad and we haven’t become ill so I guess it’s OK. Fish, no way! You can barely see the bottom of a cupful of it. It’s very dark and dirty, but we’re drinking it, it’s all we have. Tomorrow we move on. Maybe the water will clear up a little down river.

Its midnight and we’re lying naked. It must still be 75 or 80 outside and the midnight sun is beating down on the tent cooking us like sausage but we can’t go outside. The buzzing of the mosquitoes tells me they’re in a frenzy. It’s good to be inside when they fire up like this.



Corn meal mixes, apple cinnamon cake mix is a nice treat. Knorrs pasta sauces are good. We’ve eaten all the raisins and most of the dried fruit. Eggs and powdered milk are good. Milk in granola cold is good. Nuts are gone. We’re fuel low. One container for six days. Pasta soups are good. Can of chocolate frosting really hits the spot!


DAY 19 JULY 20

We woke to 60 degrees and a rising barometer of 30.55 with clear and sunny skies.

We’re leaving "DRY CREEK" and moving down river. Eighty miles to the ARCTIC OCEAN. It’s going to be another hot day.

Well, another gorgeous day in the Arctic. Thunderstorms blossomed around us all day and not one came close. It was not as hot today as the wind is from the North, but I did paddle shirtless for several hours. The wind kept the bugs down.

We’re not quite out of the badlands, but the water is not nearly as muddy as yesterday. The badlands are very pretty, big vistas and great coloration. We continue to see single caribou and there are tracks everywhere, but no herd yet. We may not see it.

We made camp on a giant gravel bar and used the canoe as a windbreak and a tie-off in our usual fashion. The view north and South is exquisite. The bugs came out huge as we cooked and ate worst attack yet! WE had to retire to the tent early; it’s only 10:00. Usually we’re still eating now or hiking.

We are at "Pebble Beach Three/BUGS." BUGSVILLE!

69 32 107 N

127 00 96 W

We traveled 16 miles down river and are at mile marker 62. Five more days and a wake-up. We’re looking forward to seeing the ocean. Most of this trip has been about seeing the ocean. We’ve been saving the last of our vodka for the first ocean sighting. We want to see the ocean.

We saw a pair f beautiful hawks mid afternoon nesting in a high dirt bluff. We couldn’t make a positive I.D. but our best guess is rough-legged hawk.





DAY 20 JULY 21

We left "Bugsville" for cooler climes. Woke to broken high overcast; fog in the hills to the North and cooler temperature, maybe fifty degrees. Broke camp, packed and moved out, very routine; it was routine the first morning. Everything in its place, very orderly, very comfortable. The coon is loaded the same way every day, no changes. Two big packs behind my seat lying on their sides, both bottoms facing the same way, then the shotgun between the second bag and the middle thwart. Next the third big bag bottoms opposite the first two bags, then the little river bag with lunch and travel clothes. The spare paddles slip in the sides, the fishing rods slip down beside the last pack and the tent under my seat, clipped to the first big bag. We don’t want to lose the tent. Very orderly. Very routine. Everything in place.

Soon we will have to deal with the lives we left behind. Complicated, varied, variable. The trip is very orderly and focused, very narrow. We pack up, we travel, we eat, fish, hike, observe, watch the country slide by. We unpack set-up camp, cook, clean and eat. Plan the next day, check today’s progress, watch the weather kill mosquitoes, and start over again. It’s predictable and in a strange way controllable. I’m anxious to know how my family is, how my friends are doing, but until next week, I’ll have to wait and paddle.

We paddled 18 miles today; some of it in very strong headwinds and moderately sized standing waves and chop created when the wind blows against the current. We’ve paddled about 400 miles and have seen a lot of this country. It is amazing and beautiful, unpredictable both in its docility and its violence. We’ve seen both.

We’re at mile marker 44,

69 41 871 North and 126 57 669 West

44 miles to our pickup. The weather is cool and foggy and it feels good.

We baked a corn bread and a huge pile of potato pancakes over a stick fire in the gravel. As we cooked a fully antlered caribou pranced by us on a much used trail, went up the beach, browsed, and slowly walked back past us, 35 feet away. He browsed and then swam the river and disappeared.

We also saw a pair of Northern Harriers, disturbed a pair of Peregrine Falcons and saw an Arctic Swan. When we hiked by camp, Paul spotted fresh, very large bear tracks.



DAY 20 JULY 22

We woke to clear sunny skies. Barometer 30.70 and steady, about 50 degrees and rising. We’re going to get another bake job. So much for my theory of coastal weather. Back to the Sahara.

I an sitting next to the stove making coffee, watching the river which is about fifty feet away and only some six to twelve inches below me flow swiftly by. There is a low fifteen-foot cut bank on the other side of the river, a mile of flat tundra and a line of low well eroded hills beyond that. This is a wonderful place. My repeated exclamation is "WADDA PLACE!" And now some very black strong coffee.

We moved about 15 miles down river in a very leisurely fashion and made camp just short of mile marker 30. On the way we spotted the nest of a rough-legged hawk with three chicks in it. I climbed the bluff and photographed the nest from above, much to the consternation of the protective parents who dive-bombed me until I left.

A young caribou just walked through camp completely ignoring us. It happens with some regularity. They act like we’re not here.

We dodged a few thunderstorms and set up another camp on a gravel bar. We like the bars, they’re clean and open, and we get whatever breeze there is and the best view of whatever is around. The bugs rule! It’s warm and they’re out big time. Tomorrow we’ll see the ocean. We saw burning lignite today, our first smoke in the "smoking hills".

We stopped at mile marker 32; we’re 10.7 miles from the pickup point, line of site.

69 46 682 North

126 55 589 West



DAY 22 JULY 23


We woke to what for us are typical now, 50 degrees, clear skies, light winds, and a steady barometer of 30.70. We went to the Arctic and end up paddling the Sahara.

It has been very dry and hot. We’re at "BIG BEND 2", 10 miles from the ocean. Today we’ll go 17 miles to "BIG BEND 1", 1 mile from the ocean. We had target practice last night. The gun fires straight and true. We used a tree trunk that had washed up on the bar for a target and made it into little pieces.

A beautiful day in the Arctic. "Wadda Place"! We’re in the SMOKING HILLS; deposits of lignite exposed by erosion ignite spontaneously and burn creating huge plumes of smoke, smelling very sulphery.

As we paddled by "Big Bend 2" we saw our first burn up close. It was at the bottom of a very high unstable bluff. The area had already burned itself out. The bluff was eroding before our eyes, mud spouts and mud slides, rockslides and occasionally whole chunks of turf from the top are released as the frost melts. The bluff was constantly coming down and the sound of falling gravel and rock never stopped. It was protected from the wind and dead calm and still except for the sound of falling gravel and rock, Very spooky. Around the next bend we saw the source of the smoke which had filled the valley with haze. It was coming from the far side of the buff and blowing inland on a very stiff wind. The wind provided us with a good stiff pull of about two and a half miles, and a temperature drop of about 20 degrees. I was paddling shirtless until that crank upwind.

We saw numerous hawks and one pair of what we think are immature Golden Eagles.

We made camp at the place which is closest to the Ocean. The gravel bar was still being swept with a very stiff ocean breeze coming down the hillside, so we bomb proofed the tent. Still very buggy. These Northern mosquitoes can REALLY FLY and they don’t quit when it gets cold or windy. We’re SWARMED!

We had trouble with both stoves. We may be eating cold food or building more fires. Had a quick one-pot meal of our usual pasta and started up the hills to see the sea.

10: 54 NWT! We came over the crest of the high plateau and there it was! FRANKLIN BAY, THE BEAUFORT SEA, ARCTIC OCEAN. What a thrill. We’ve been humping down the RIVER for three and a half weeks and planning the trip for two years to see it, and here it is. It is beautiful; ice still coming out, big and small pieces everywhere and deep, deep blue water. The sun is lower and it’s almost dusky. The tundra is tinted gold and amber and the air is cool. The sky is cloudless and there is no wind and few bugs. It is perfectly tranquil and peaceful.

The RIVER’S delta can be seen from our lookout. It extends far out into the Bay, and it’s not even a 100 years old. Things change fast here. Time seems compressed.

There are caribou everywhere, mostly single males, but small groups graze all around us on the plateau. They are much more active at this time of day. Caribou walk right by us and come from every direction. "WADDA PLACE."

We came back to camp about 1:00 A.M. The wind was down a bit and we got swarmed like we’ve never been swarmed. Into the tent. It sounds like it’s raining hard, but with a loud background hum and buzz. It was a great day. We saw an arctic fox on the riverbank.



DAY 23 JULY 24

We woke to the sound of gentle rain. Clear and sunny in the Sahara. It was the bugs. This month of warm weather seems to have raised a good crop. As we sat in the tent five caribou galloped by over a twenty-minute period. They sound like horses, hoofs pounding the sand gravel. I felt like I’m in a spaghetti western.

The temperature is 55 degrees with our usual steady barometer of 30.70 with a light breeze from the bay. We’re waiting for the wind to come up so we can go out. We’re sage in the tent. The bugs are up this morning. We had a leisurely breakfast, packed a light lunch and walked up to the plateau overlooking the ocean. Dead flat calm, very dark blue with numerous large rafts of last winter’s ice. We could see the Horton’s Delta to the North and the long curve of the bay going south. What a beautiful sight. We walked about two miles north and lunched on a high promitory overlooking the Bay. I was determined to bring back some SeaWater, so we walked back south until I found a gorge I thought I could deal with and I started down. The bluffs overlooking the Bay were freshly eroded and very steep and loose, falling down and collapsing as the permafrost melted as we had seen in the cut banks. It was icy and muddy and very loose going down, but down is easy, gravity wins. Very steep in unconsolidated dry flaking clay with some portions solid and slippery. I goose-stepped, slid and sometimes just kicked a sheet loose and went down with it. Very steep. It took about 30 minutes to reach the chore line but "WADDA PLACE"! It was magic. The sea was dead flat calm and dark blue, down the beach a huge jumble of lignite mixed into a limestone and clay matrix was burning furiously but noiselessly, sending tremendous billows of smoke up and over the bluff. Next to the gully I had descended was a vertical rock and clay wall, coming down before my eyes. A constant cascade of rock, gravel and debris came down continuously, filling the shoreline with its ominous sound, sometimes sounding like fast running water, sometimes the signature rumble of a rockslide. I took pictures, collected my water and picked the easiest looking place for my ascent. It was loose dry clay, just like snow. I made an ice/clay tool out of a driftwood stick and started up. Forty -five degrees, kicking steps into the hill for a third of the way up. Fifty -five degrees, kick, place the tool, kick, place the tool, kick, and place the tool. It was exactly like climbing steep snow. Then I was facing the hill two -thirds of the way up. Sixty - five degrees, place the tool, kick two steps, and place the tool. Just like steep snow. I kicked a couple of rocks loose to check the grade. Very steep! They made it all the way down the bluff, across the beach and into the water. "WADDA PLACE"! We kicked up a ptarmigan on the way down. I walked through a grassy gully and was swarmed in a way I didn’t know could exist. I was breathing squeeters. An indescribable event. I couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe, and was nearly immobilized. In the end, I ran blindly for the tent and dove in. Eventually, they went away and I could be back outside. We cleaned up. Did some laundry and made a stick fire for bread, cooked our usual, lotsa pasta. Bugs were average. Beautiful night, big storm coming. Tomorrow’s our last camp.


DAY 26 JULY 25

This is our last travel day; we go to the pick-up, about ten miles, maybe fifteen. We’re in the BIG BEND COUNTRY. Giant loops, working towards being five miles on a side, making ten-mile oxbow lakes. We will travel twelve to fifteen miles to go two miles North, two miles closer to the pick-up. Hilly on the outside, flat tundra perhaps twenty to thirty feet above the riverbed on the inside. Still warm and clear. More bugs than ever. No rain out of those massive black clouds that slowly moved over camp last night, just a little thunder. The usual bunch of Caribou galloping through camp this morning.

We left camp with a horde of mosquitoes following us and headed down river. One last long "BIG BEND" to go, about twelve miles. Warm, shirtless, and cloudless until mid afternoon when cumulus formations built and got organized, Big storms, and it looked like they might finally reach us. They had been sliding by us for two weeks and now it looked like it might be our turn. We ate lunch on a gravel bar and watched the storms build all around us. Back in the coon and Down River but we didn’t make to the last bar in the river. When it sounded like an artillery range, we pulled up next to a high bank one and one half miles from the pickup and holed up. We could see were the river had cut through the hills to join the ocean but we couldn’t continue. Wave after wave of huge thunderstorms blew through, one bigger than the last. The first storm was huge and dropped a wall of water on the parched tundra. It rained and blew for forty-five minutes and then was gone.

About fifteen minutes after the storm blew through, we were still sitting on the riverbank when we heard the sound of roaring water, like a rapids, but there wasn’t a rapid for the last 100 miles. We walked down the beach and found not a rapid but a recently dry gully filling with turbulent slurry of mud and water and tundra. This was a real time geology laboratory. The river of mud built a small delta, which extended into the river about forty feet in forty-five minutes, making the river completely brown in the process. Don’t camp in a dry wash! The river water, which had finally become almost drinkable before the storm was now totally fouled with mud, grass and all manner of detritus washed into from the surrounding hills.

After three hours of rain, we continued to the area of the pick-up and camped on a huge gravel bar, the last bar before the delta. It was low, so low that the issue of the tide was a topic of serious and lengthy conversation and speculation. We didn’t want to camp in a tidal flat and wake up floating away. Caribou were everywhere, walking through and around camp and grazing in the surrounding hills. A spectacular evening, almost a sunset. The sun was low over the northern hills and lit up the bar and the hills and now brown river in a lush warm golden glow. It was three o’clock in the morning. We decided that the tide was negligible based on our perceived high and low water lines and made camp, bringing the coon up on the bar and tying the tent off to it just in case.


126 54 016 SOUTH




Woke to fog, wind and drizzle. This is the first day like this in three weeks. Low and no ceiling, low visibility. It figures. The trip is over but we’re not out of the woods yet. Did you ever wonder where that expression came from? It was painfully clear that that phrase was born out of times like this. There’s no way anybody can fly in here in weather like this. We have a week’s food and no fuel. We could probably sit on this bar three weeks with the caribou or longer, but someone will be here before that.

It’s now late in the afternoon and it has cleared up enough to fly, but no pick-up yet. The wind is now off the ocean and it is cold. The bugs are finally gone. We’ve walked up and down and around the bar and out to the very end to the beginning of the delta. It’s a very neat place, but it is cold and windy damp. I’m in the tent to warm up and wait for the plane. We’re ready to be gone. We’ll wait. We’re packed, we can’t go for a hike, the plane may come, and we just have to sit here and wait. This is always a hard part of a trip. Nothing to do but wait, listen to the wind, listen for the plane.

Paul called me to eat. He needed something to eat. I didn’t want to unpack everything but he had to eat so I got out of the nice warm tent, got dressed and went out to prepare some food. I told Paul that breaking down the packs was the sure way get the plane here and he said we can always abort if it shows up, so we broke down the packs and started to prepare a meal. We call this ritual "calling the plane"

Four minutes after unpacking, 7:40 NWT the plane burst around the bluff from the ocean side, flew the half mile up the river and landed in front of us. We’re going home!

We’re up and away flying over the water studded tundra. No problem getting off the water now. The plane fairly leapt off the water, first try, fifteen hundred feet, not like the four times and maybe at Inuvik a month ago. Polygons, polygons, lakes, lakes, rivers, streams, oxbow lakes, puddles and marshes and bogs. A giant mosquito ranch. The sun is lighting up the ocean silver and orange, the clouds above the horizon is pink and red, and I’ve never felt physically of mentally better or stronger. We’re going home. I can see the coastline slide by, and I’ve been there. The geometry of the ponds and polygons is fascinating. Large tracts of tundra are delicately laced by these figures created by ice and thaw, over and over again. It seems empty from here, 1500 feet above the ground, but I know it teems with life of tremendous variety, complexity and hardiness. It all fits and works. The lemming, signature animal of the arctic, it feeds everything. They’re numerous, fat and slow. Paul had one cornered in the open, slow and easy.

I can’t believe 26 days has gone by. It went in a flash, but it was packed with activity and challenge.

The trip went perfectly, part from planning, part from execution, and part from luck. We’re very lucky, very fortunate to have had this opportunity.



We came back with thirty pounds of food, pretty much what I had planned. We had about a week of margin. We could have sat on the gravel bar for four or five days without doing anything about food while we waited for the plane.

We ate all of the nuts, dried fruit and cheese. We came back with one salami; Paul didn’t eat any of it. We ate all of the granola; it was good cooked and cold with powdered milk. There was a little oatmeal left. The Caramel Bars was a mistake, they melted and leaked. The chocolate frosting was a great treat. Powdered eggs were good for baking and eating. We made a couple of big egg meals, not quite a soufflé but close enough for the trail. I made the eggs with salami, the refried beans and the Mexican spices. It was really good. The Knorrs Pasta Sauces were good, but you need two per meal. The corn bread mix was good; we had six and used them all. We didn’t use much of the instant potatoes on this trip. We’ve used them up in the past but they didn’t get in the pot this time. The Bisquick is always good and we used it all up.


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 © 2009 Jim Rutzick