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.

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