BURNSIDE RIVER: Part Five (Northern Rivers Series)

Day 10, Camp #6

We cast our lot upon the river today, and for once the river was kind.  Down we floated, past hundreds of caribou for a while and then into a land strangely devoid of wildlife.  Hot sun encouraged us to pack our waterproof clothing, a decision that encouraged Travis to find the biggest, sloppiest waves in order to drench his passengers.  Later the quiet rhythm of the oars, the placid river and the warm breeze silenced our voices and laughter.

It’s a hard life, but somebody’s gotta do it (that’s me in the boot). (Photo by Don Taves)

When we crossed the Arctic Circle the guides spun the rafts around twice.  There was also supposed to be a loud explosion, but I guess the bear banger fizzled.  A leisurely lunch by some tent rings and kayak holders reminded us how recently we have come untutored to this land.

This simple arrangement of four stones was used to hold a kayak off the ground. (Photo by Don Taves)

We drifted in the fast current for much of the afternoon.  Ice chunks still line the shores, but the Burnside, now swollen from its confluence with the Mara, will no longer be denied in its rush to the sea.

The River.  I am in awe of its power and beauty and of its haughty disdain for our wishes.  What does it care about our prior commitments, our lives elsewhere, our need to be on time?  Time is irrelevant here, yet we humans try to impose a schedule.  We should not be surprised that for much of this trip we have been at odds with the invincible rhythm of the River.  We have no choice but to appreciate the beauty and wait patiently for the secrets that lie downstream.

After dinner I took the little container of Mike’s ashes and a mini bottle of Baileys to a knoll overlooking the Burnside.  It’s a quiet place with flowers, bird song and a peaceful view.  A far different setting than our Baffin trip, but north of the Arctic Circle nonetheless.  I am happy to leave a trace of us both here.  The future still seems dark without Mike, but in the timeless beauty of the North I am beginning to let go.

Mike’s place

Day 11, Camp #7

We spent little time in the rafts today, as the fast current of the river hastened our journey.  We did, however, have a close view of some muskox.

Muskox near the river (Photo by Don Taves)

This is our final campsite and our tents sit on a windy bench overlooking the Burnside.

Last campsite (Photo by Don Taves)

Once unloaded, the rafts had to be carried uphill to a cairn.

Carrying the raft (Photo by Don Taves)

The day after tomorrow Inuit outfitters from Bathurst Inlet Village will come to take our gear to a ridge we see in the distance.

Inuit outfitters arriving to take our gear.

It’s not a landing strip, but unbelievably, a plane is supposed to land there.

The ridge where our plane would land (Photo by Don Taves)

Tomorrow we have a long hike to the falls where the Burnside empties into Bathurst Inlet.

Day 12, Camp #7

Today was halcion, a fitting cap to a wondrous trip.  We hiked over hummocks and washes, through willows, up and down sand and over rock to see the falls of the Burnside.

Hiking below the eskers (Photo by Don Taves)

A rocky hike to the falls (Photo by Don Taves)

It is sobering to think that those who travel by canoe have to portage this long, rugged route in order to reach Bathurst Inlet Village across the inlet.

In the distance Bathurst Inlet Village, a place I would visit in a later year. (Photo by Don Taves)

We, however, being footloose and fancy free, had ample time to savour the beauty of the river and the pounding cascade of the falls.

The falls

Contemplating the power of the water

The Burnside crashes into the sea.

There’s time to swim in a high lake with goose poop for footing.

Walking on goose poop

Time to photograph flowers which have sprung up in profusion overnight.


Time to lure one last caribou with our silly “pretend caribou” poses.  Time to listen to bird songs, to stretch our legs and lungs, to breathe clean air, to see a world scarcely impacted by humans.  I leave here with deep sadness, but I know that I will come again.

Day 13, Yellowknife

The plane came for us at 0930, having already ferried several loads of gear to Bathurst Inlet Village.

Our ride home arrives.

The hot shower was nice, chairs with backs and soft seats are welcome, but my heart is lost somewhere out on the tundra. There will be one last meal as a group tonight.  We were a very congenial bunch, considerate, generous, well travelled and interesting.  I will miss them and the wonderful Nahanni River Adventures guides.

I end this post with a few photos that somehow did not fit into earlier narratives.  I must also repeat my thanks to Don Taves, whose skill with a camera greatly enriched this blog.

Stu tests the crossing.

HIking (Photo by Don Taves)

Sometimes nature creates a perfect circle.

Chandelier ice

Lazy day in camp

Steak cooked to order. Oh we did eat well! (Photo by Don Taves)

Jewel Lichen (Photo by Don Taves)

BURNSIDE RIVER: Part Four (Northern Rivers Series)

Day 8, Camp #4

A white wolf near camp interrupts our breakfast.  It has blood on its muzzle and disappears over a hill.  The caribou are still here, moving back and forth, thousands of them, thick as ants, grazing.

Caribou migration (Photo by Don Taves)

After breakfast we walk downriver for a closer look.  A grizzly appears, ambling casually and spooking the herd.  A male peregrine falcon, startled from its perch, squawks insults as it flies away.  Another raptor, unidentified, cruises the ridge in search of ground squirrels.

We return to camp for lunch, then head upstream for what we expect to be a short walk.  Stu spots the caribou massing on the shore, nervously getting ready to swim the river.  We settle in to watch, spellbound by what we are witnessing.  Once it begins, the crossing continues for hours.

Caribou crossing (Photo by Don Taves)

The herd leaders have chosen an eddy that allows them to cross slightly upstream from the landing point.

Caribou reach the landing point (Photo by Don Taves)

The animals go in single file, mothers leading their young calves, some of which are barely two weeks old.  One calf strays into the strong current and is swept downstream.  The mother swims after, calling the calf, trying to get it to turn around, but of course the current is too powerful.  Eventually the mother swims back to the calf and guides it gently to the shore, where the pair trot up the bank and return to try the crossing again.  More and more calves get carried away, and not all survive.  One calf is so exhausted that it lies motionless on the bank, its hindquarters in the water.  We assume it is dead, but the mother grazes calmly nearby.  Suddenly the calf gets up and trots off with its mother.

Exhausted calf (Photo by Don Taves)

I am awestruck by this epic struggle that must rival in drama the Serengeti migrations.

We return to camp but continue to watch the caribou until bedtime.  I’m no sooner settled in my sleeping bag than Travis comes round to say that a grizzly is feeding on a caribou calf across the river.  We watch this most magnificent of predators eat, drink, poop and then wander up the slope to a ridge where caribou are grazing.  Neither is aware of the other until the last moment.  Suddenly the grizzly rises up on its hind legs.

An unexpected encounter (Photo by Don Taves)

The caribou stampede in one direcetion and the grizzly, equally startled, flees in another.  Down the slope, across a small bay and over another ridge the bear gallops and swims, utterly wild, beautiful and free.

I know that I will treasure this day as long as I live.

Day 9, Camp #5

The word is “Go!”  We pack up quickly, everyone impatient to finally make good progress down the river.  Only the guides know what really awaits us.

The swift current carries us past a peregrine falcon and a gyrfalcon sleeping next to its nest.

Gyrfalcon next to nest (Photo by Don Taves)

Then we reach the “splits”, where the river widens and splits into multiple channels.  Usually the guides have to find a way through sand bars and rocks, but this year the river is still in flood, and the sand bars are well under water – easy going.  Further along, however, our way is blocked by blue walls of ice, so high that the guides cannot see past them to choose the proper channels.  The rushing current cannot be denied –  the guides have to choose quickly and irrevocably.  One wrong choice and we may crash hard, perhaps disastrously.  Stu is as cool as the ice, but I know that behind the calm face there is great concern.  All heave a sigh of relief when we come through unscathed and pull ashore for lunch.

White knuckles on the raft

Get it right the first time! (Photo by Don Taves)

Stu leads the way. (Photo by Don Taves)

And we all follow. (Photo by Don Taves)

The rest of the trip is mellow.  We find quiet water and let the rafts drift in silence.

After the splits

Caribou continue to line the shore.  One calf has a broken leg but tries valiantly to keep up with its mother.  Its fate is sealed; there is no room for the weak in this land where predators lead as tenuous an existence as prey.  A red fox and kit by their den allow us to come quite close.

The fox (Photo by Don Taves)

The kit (Photo by Don Taves)

As we near our campsite several caribou swim the river in front of us.

Caribou from raft (Photo by Don Taves)

Now I sit in the evening light, listening to the gurgle of a stream, a concert of tree and Savanna sparrows, and the raucous calls of gulls that have found something to eat a little upriver.  A wolf comes by on the opposite shore carrying a full haunch of adult caribou, paying us no heed whatsoever.

Wolf carrying caribou haunch (Photo by Don Taves)

Another wonderful day in a trip that is all too quickly drawing to a close. Tomorrow we will cross the Arctic Circle.

BURNSIDE RIVER: Part Three (Northern Rivers Series)

Day 6: Camp #3

Still here – and likely to be here tomorrow too. As we wait for the river to writhe its way into summer we spend the day hiking.  For seven hours we traverse tundra, ascend eskers, ford streams and revel in the environment.  The tundra terrain is quite varied.  Some of it is vegetated and fairly wet.

Tundra turf (Photo by Don Taves)

Some more wet than dry.

You definitely need boots here. (Photo by Don Taves)

In places the ground heaves into polygon shapes.

Stu explaining the terrain (Photo by Don Taves)

But the tundra can also be a desert.

Study of Sand and Gravel (Photo by Don Taves)

During our hike we have a close encounter with some curious caribou and attempt to lure them closer.

We meet some caribou. (Photo by Don Taves)

Pretend caribou.  You wouldn’t expect caribou to be fooled by this, but they were! (Photo by Don Taves)

On our return we find the shower tent up – an unexpected luxury!

Camp with dining tent, kitchen and shower (Photo by Don Taves)

Our junior guide (and sometime gofer) Rob has spent the day baking a cake.  After dinner Stu and Travis tell him that they have unfortunately dropped the cake and they send him to the rafts to find something else for dessert.  He returns, crestfallen, with a bag of cookies.  In his absence Stu and Travis have decorated the cake with “Happy Birthday Rob,” and we all serenade him.

Rob gets his birthday cake. (Photo by Don Taves)

I’m sitting now on a rock above the river.  Overhead the sky is blue, and a gentle breeze barely rustles the sedges.  The Lapland longspurs seem to be holding a singing and diving competition.  Lacking trees, males must find another way to draw attention to themselves, so they fly high, then spiral downward, warbling their beautiful song on the descent.  It’s warmer than it has been all trip, and a few insects are flitting about.  Peace and tranquility surround us as we rest here in nature’s hands. The river will decide our fate tomorrow, but tonight it will sing me to sleep.

Evening on the river. (Photo by Don Taves)

Day 7: Camp #4

By 0500 the tent is so hot that I fling off my sleeping bag.  I crawl out to a crystal blue sky, but see that the ice has not moved.  The guides bake cinnamon buns for breakfast, and Stu announces that we will spend the morning in camp to see what the river will do. Some of the others wander off, especially Don, our resident birder.  Don is usually seen charging away, binoculars around his neck, Pelican case in hand, in search of his “target list”.  I sit by the river, lost in thought, listening, seeing and feeling.

A few chunks of ice break off and float downstream. One by one, other bergs, some huge, some small, surrender to the current.  At first there is a narrow lead of water through which the icebergs parade like some ghostly flotilla.  Then the whole river opens. By noon there is scant evidence of the ice jam.

We lunch on smokies, break camp and launch.  On the ridges and flats along one bank of the river we begin to see hundreds of caribou; the migration has reached us.

We begin to see large numbers of caribou. (Photo by Don Taves)

We soon go ashore so that the guides can scout some rapids ahead.  After a safety lecture we launch again into an all too short, wet, exciting passage.

Bellanca Rapids (Photo by Don Taves)

A few more kilometres and … more ice!.  “We’ll take a short hike” says Stu.

On our return we dine on hamburgers and rice salad.  We’ll be moving on, but there is time for a glass or two of wine. Once more on the river we encounter fewer random icebergs.  Stu catches sight of a white wolf on a ridge above us.  He’s curious about us, pausing every few steps to turn and stare.  Is he sizing us up as prey, or simply intrigued by this weird intrusion into his world?

White wolf watching us. (Photo by Don Taves)

We gain a few kilometres before pulling to shore for the final time.  It took some doing, but for the first time this trip we have reached the destination the guides had been aiming for.  We will spend a full day here, as the next stretch of the river is treacherous, and Stu wants to give the ice time to recede.  Meanwhile we have the caribou to keep us company.

Caribou across the river (Photo by Don Taves)

BURNSIDE RIVER: Part Two (Northern Rivers Series)

Day 4, Camp #2

The Burnside flows through western Nunavut to Bathurst Inlet and the Arctic Ocean, passing mostly through tundra, with canyons at the northern outlet.  Whether we will actually be able to navigate it is another matter; we are scarcely downstream from our previous camp, and ice still jams the river, blocking our progress.

After a breakfast of porridge, bacon and pancakes we broke camp with all the efficiency of a group that has yet to learn the routine.  By the time we had stuffed our gear and the guides had figured out the best way to load the rafts, it was 1130.

Loading rafts (Photo by Don Taves)

The rafts can hold up to four people plus guide; two go in the raft with the most gear while the rest of us split up four and three.  Getting in and out takes some scrambling, but once in we are comfortable.  Paddling is optional as the guides do all the work.

Guide Travis – a great guy to have when you need a strong hand at the oars.

Our first stop is Nadlak, a tiny islet near a major ford of the Burnside.  For hundreds of years the island was used by the Inuit to process the caribou they killed at the ford.  More than 40,000 pieces of caribou antlers have been found there.

Nadlak with caribou antlers

Bones lie buried a meter thick by the shore, where they were discarded.

Caribou bones under the soil by the shore  (Photo by Don Taves)

Because Nadlak is very small and is surrounded by water, there is no permafrost, making it an ideal storage place. The Inuit air-dried whatever caribou meat they did not eat raw, there being no source of fire, and buried it in pits.  Stone rings were topped with antlers over which they stretched hides to make shelters.  These rings have been partially reconstructed and antlers are piled around them. For the first time I am seeing how a people could survive without wood or metal tools.

Stone rings and antlers on Nadlak

Leaving Nadlak we follow the river as it curves inevitably into the next ice jam.  No choice but to make camp at a place where the only dry tenting area is atop a ridge, meaning a long walk with our gear.  The guides help us carry, then go about the never-ending business of feeding us.

Camp #2

An hour or so later the water level drops dramatically and we see that the ice that was blocking us is gone.  There is still another jam downstream, so I don’t know how far we will get tomorrow.  The weather here reminds me of Pangnirtung on Baffin Island – radical changes every 30 to 45 minutes.  It’s snowing at the moment, but we’ve also had warm sun, gentle breezes, bitterly cold winds, rain, sleet and more snow.

John and Eleanor enjoying a sunny break at Camp #2

Lapland Longspur (Photo by Don Taves)

Day 5: Camp #3

Our small progress is hard won.  Today we had to muscle the rafts between the ice and the shallow shoreline, where they repeatedly hung up on rocks.  The guides rowed when they could, we walked, and all pitched in to heave the rafts over land when necessary.

Travis dealing with the ice (Photo by Don Taves)

Dragging the raft (Photo by Don Taves)

When finally we reached open water the fast current bore us onward only a few kilometers, delivering us to yet another ice jam.  This is one we cannot pass.  With some hot sun the ice will move, but we still endure cold and wind, today accompanied by rain.

Purple saxifrage

We have been blessed with wildlife, especially this evening when four muskox appeared on a ridge across from camp.  We have also seen more caribou, golden plovers, horned larks, pacific loons, and a sandhill crane standing alone and looking lonely on the ice.  Purple saxifrage is blooming and the delicate nests of Lapland longspurs hide amidst small shrubs, invisible until you almost step on them.  Flora and fauna go about their business, unconcerned with the late arrival of summer.  Only we humans are out of step.

Pacific loons (Photo by Don Taves)

Sandhill Crane (Photo by Don Taves)

Bird nest hidden on the tundra

Burnside River: Part One (Northern Rivers Series)


The river trips in this series were taken in the years following the death of my husband in 2006.  I decided to write about them after reading a brilliant set of blogs on WordPress by Loz Koleszko, which he called Loz K Goes to the End of the World.  Mr Koleszko’s experience of the North, from Alaska to Tuktoyaktut, could hardly be more different from my own.  Through his eyes I saw a land that he, as an outsider, found to be vast and impressive but mostly unforgiving, unwelcoming and often ugly.  And he is right, of course.  The land is indifferent; it is only our perception that counts, and his is as valid as mine.  Still, I cannot let his views go unanswered.

Over many years I had considered the North, especially the Arctic, as home even though I was but an occasional visitor.  From Mts McKinley and Logan to the glaciers and granite spires of Baffin Island, I had withstood the planet’s worst weather, rejoiced in its wild, stark beauty and fallen hopelessly in love with it all.  But until I took the trips with Nahanni River Adventures, I had never seen what lay beneath the snow and ice.  I had never seen the tundra and wasn’t sure how I would like the northern summer.  Rafting the Burnside River was a voyage of discovery.

Note:  I am indebted to Don Taves, a fellow participant who generously sent a copy of his Burnside photos to the rest of our group.

Day 1:  Yellowknife, NorthWest Territories

From my hotel window my gaze sweeps across the huge northern sky and a flat land, dotted with lakes, stretching to the horizon.  Yellowknife is a small modern city built on bedrock which precludes basements and leads to innovative, stair-step architecture on its hills.  Float planes take off and land constantly, and tomorrow we will board one, leaving behind all modern conveniences and roads as we wend our way northeast to …. somewhere.

Yellowknife, a city of sky, lakes and bedrock

I’m here to start building a new life without my late husband, Mike.  It’s fitting that I should choose the Arctic as a first venture, for there is no place that Mike loved more, a love forged in the windswept valleys and on the glaciers beneath Mt Asgaard on Baffin Island.  I doubt that I will ever return to Asgaard, so I have brought some of his ashes to scatter once our rafts have crossed the Arctic Circle.

Day 2: Camp #1

I have never seen anything like the land we flew over today.  Only the ocean could be as flat and endless, yet the terrain changed with the miles. After our float plane took off we crossed bare rock split by countless small ponds and streams; only the most indominatable shrubs could put down roots.  Gradually the land produced thin soil for conifers, which we skimmed so low that we could almost have grabbed a branch had the windows been open.  Trees yielded to tundra and ice-covered water; where would the pilots land?  Lake Kathawachaga is huge, with plenty of open water.  On the shore below we saw three rafts, some bags and a couple of people plunked about as close to the middle of nowhere as one could get.

Welcome to Camp #1   (Photo by Don Taves)

Our first task is to unload the plane and set up camp.

Unloading the plane

One of the rafts is tilted on it side to provide a windbreak for the kitchen.

Our first dinner on the tundra  (Photo by Don Taves)

So here we are on the watery tundra, the temperature near freezing, snow falling and the “barren lands” all around.  Yet the land is not barren at all.  Birds abound and some of us have already seen caribou.  The guides and group are good people, more than ready for the rough conditions. We should have an excellent, if frosty, trip.

In the middle of nowhere

Day 3: Camp #1

We didn’t move today.  Spring is three weeks late and the river ice has not broken sufficiently for us to pass.  It snowed overnight and prospects are dim for a quick melt.

Morning on the tundra (Photo by Don Taves)

June 19 on Kathawachaga Lake  (Photo by Don Taves)

We spend most of the day walking.  Stu, our head guide, wants to survey the ice on the river, and what he sees is not encouraging.

No place for a raft (Photo by Don Taves)

The tundra is alive with fauna (bugs and flowers are nowhere to be found).  Amidst the tufts, willows, rocks, mat-forming plants and watery patches where our boots sink down to the permafrost, we find Lapland longspurs (a beautiful little bird with a bubbly song), willow ptarmigan in full mating display, golden plovers, savanna and tree sparrows, redpolls and a short-eared owl.  Courtship rules the day –  love on the tundra.

Male Willow Ptarmigan in mating plumage (Photo by Don Taves)

Mammals include lemmings, wolf tracks, and a few caribou across the river.

Lemming (Photo by Don Taves)

High above we spot arctic terns, herring gulls and a bald eagle.  Quite a list for a place that is called (and looks!) barren.

Arctic terns (Photo by Don Taves)

Evening brings a welcome dose of sun and warmth to our camp. With luck we will move tomorrow.