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