Kuujjua River and Beaufort Sea Expedition

By Jim Baird

This trip report encompass’ the events of a five week canoe expedition north of the Arctic Circle on Victoria Island. The crew consists of only two paddlers Jim Baird (myself) and my brother Ted Baird. We began the expedition by floatplane charter from Cambridge Bay Nunavut and completed it in the community of Holman Northwest Territories. The total distance traveled was 465 km. We traveled 350 km on the Kuujjua River and connecting lakes, an additional 115 km was traveled on the Beaufort Sea.  

During the expedition I made voice recordings of daily events. I have written this trip report using those recordings as a guide. Often times it is written word for word with what I recorded on that day. The sentences are mostly structured in a point form style and tenses may change through out the report.

July 10 – Arrive in Cambridge Bay Nunavut from Toronto Via Edmonton and Yellowknife. Beautiful day, we heard the locals complaining about the heat. Got shuttled from the airport to the hotel where we had shipped our Pakboat and other gear. Collected gear and learned that it was $300 per night to stay. We stayed for a night and hauled our gear to the room to finish organizing it. 

fishingJuly 11- Camped outside of town awaiting the arrival of our floatplane pilot who left Penticton B.C. flying two days earlier. We learned that the pilot had run into some mechanical problems and would be arriving tomorrow night. We already started loosing track of weather it was night or day due to the 24 hours of sunlight. We did some fishing with a local and caught some Char and Lake Trout. Everyone was really friendly.

July 12- Still camped outside town awaiting the arrival of our float plane pilot. Walked around the bay and saw some sites including the remains of Amundsen’s Maud which was the first ship to successfully sail the Northwest Passage. We also saw an old church that had been built of stone clay and seal blubber in 1953. Unfortunately it had burned down in the last few years. We saw a team of dogs that were tied to posts. Each dog had a whole caribou carcass thrown down in front of it for food. Nearby there was a small plywood cabin were some more dogs were tied and several A.T.V.’s and snowmobiles were parked. We figured that whoever lived there must have been pretty hard core. We later learned that the person living there was someone we had previously read about. In the 60’s a strange disease fell on a part of the Arctic. The disease caused people’s limbs to rot off before death. At the age of eight while living in a snow house with his mother this man contracted the illness; his feet were rotting and it was quickly moving up his body. His mother had to hack off his foot with an uloo (traditional Inuit knife) before government people came in and took him to Edmonton for medical treatment. He now has two wooden legs and is known as the best Polar Bear hunter in Cambridge Bay. 

We went to do some more fishing when we saw a couple of float planes on the horizon. We walked to the float plane base which was near our camp and watched the planes land. We talked to the pilots and they said they would probably take us out tomorrow.

July 13- flew out at 3:00 pm. Our pilot had not flown into that area before and was not familiar with it. Before we left we looked at the maps and evaluated all of our possible landing locations. He assured us that he would be able to get us in, but it may be at one of the spots that could leave us with a long and grueling portage into the river. The flight was beautiful. We saw lots of muskoxen and caribou. We watched rivers and frozen lakes pass by underneath us. We saw eskers and shorelines of ancient seas. Our pilot flew us out of the way to see some archeological sites that included old shooting pits, inuksuit and fox traps. We had been flying for about two hours when we saw our first possible and one of the more dreaded drop off spots, Burns Lake. There was still a lot of ice on it and the rivers flowing into it were pretty dry it looked like we wouldn’t be able to paddle towards the Kuujjua at all and would leave us with an unrealistically huge portage through mushy ground. We kept flying and saw another possible landing spot, the extreme headwaters of the east arm. Some of the lakes still had ice on them. Our pilot flew low and went into a tight turn where he circled the lake a couple of times looking straight down out of his side window trying to see if the lake was deep enough. He decided it was and we went in for a landing. The water was to shallow close to shore so the pilot put on hip waders, climbed into the water and held the plane so the wind wouldn’t blow it away as Ted and I unloaded our gear in waist deep water and waded to shore. Then the pilot jumped back in the plane and took off. We assembled the Pakboat and went out to do some fishing. Every cast was an Arctic Char it was the best fishing I have ever seen in my life by far. We finally went to sleep after being up for about 24 hours.caribou

July 14- woke up at about 7:00pm. Our schedules were definitely out of whack but it didn’t matter as it never got the least bit dark. We moved on past the Nunavut border in to the Northwest Territories. We saw some Caribou and an old Caribou kill with both the antlers attached to the skull. As we were entering the stream that connects the lake we were on to the next lake we realized the water was low and we could not paddle. We got out and dragged until we reached the next lake. Paddling went well on this reasonably calm day, but we hit ice and had to make camp. The wind coming off the ice was frigid. We shivered as we changed into warmer cloths.

July 15- Woke up at 3:00pm tried to plot a portage route around the ice about 6km we figured. We looked with binoculars from a different angle and decided we thought we could get through on the far side of the lake. After searching for a channel and dragging over some ice we made it through in much less time than it would have taken if we had to portage. Falling through the ice was not a huge concern because we were both wearing our drysuites. We were relieved, but we had to drag again to get to the next lake. It was cold and the wind was blowing strong in our faces. We pushed on and paddled the lakes, but had to drag in the connecting river. We passed a large chunk of ice on the last lake and got out to climb a hill for a look at the beginning of the 20 km stretch of the east arm. It looked shallow. Feeling cold and somewhat vulnerable in this stark landscape with no trees, we pushed on. The dragging started immediately. It took both of us all we had to drag over the shallower spots and during the really shallow stretches we had to portage our heavier gear about a km and a half just to get the boat to budge. We kept going, dragging for about ten km until the boat had a large hole worn in the bottom and we had to stop and patch it. The patch kit worked really well and the boat was as good as new. We decided that we had had enough for the day and set up camp.

July 16- woke up at 2:00 pm to the splashing sounds of a herd of ten Caribou crossing the river right in front of our tent! We crept up on them and got some good pictures and video footage. We then packed up and started dragging. After the first couple hundred meters the river got so shallow that both of us together couldn’t budge the canoe. I grabbed the heavy-packhuge 150 pound Ostrom pack out and that seemed to lighten the boat enough so Ted could drag while I portaged along the banks. We just kept going like that for about 9 km. The well padded shoulder and hip straps of the Ostrom pack made it possible for me to carry this heavy load for the distance I did. I saw a lone white Peary Caribou and Ted saw a couple as well. I also found a Musk-ox kill while cutting a corner of the river and brought the bleached skull back for Ted to see. Finally, the last km or so of the east arm got some water, it was crystal clear and beautiful we got to the main branch of the Kuujjua which was much wider and were relieved that our dragging days were over. We dragged 30 km in total and began to think that a 15 km portage would have been easier. We pushed on paddling five more km and then portaged a good distance up a steep slope into a side lake we thought would have Char in it but it didn’t. Exhausted, we made it back to camp wondering why the hell we had added that last bit of unneeded torture to our day. We fell asleep after being up for another 24 hours.

July17- Started to break camp and realized our Achilles tendons were very sore from all the dragging. Ted’s knee was also bothering him as well. Very cold, we pushed on and paddled for about seven hours. The river, although wide, was still shallow and we had to get out and float the canoe over a couple shallow parts always realizing that if we had just been in a different spot we could have stayed in the boat.

July 18- Freezing cold. Had a big breakfast with pancakes, saw Caribou grazing near the tent. Paddled 50 km in 13 hours into blasting headwinds. Our boat would have blown back upriver if we stopped paddling. Saw five muskoxen and got close to them. The scenery was really mountainous and beautiful. The winds finally died in the evening. We saw some wolf tracks and Ted pointed out that they looked fresh. We ate and got back in the boat. A couple of minutes later we saw a wolf and watched it for some time, it started howling and kept it up for a good five minuets, amazing. We them started to see allot of Muskoxen kills along the river banks and realized we were in serious wolf country.  It was sunny and the winds had died and we thought it had gotten pretty worm that’s when we saw condensation had frozen on our tent and map case. We figure it was about -10 Celsius with the wind chill at times and there was snow and sleet.  A wolf slept across the river from us. Went to sleep at 4:14amthe-catch

July 19- Ted got close to some muskoxen, really beautiful scenery. A wolf walked through our campsite at night and we saw its big prints when we woke up. We had to patch our boat again; it had a couple leeks in it. Saw some gas drums from an old prospecting operation. The temperature was freezing cold in the early morning. We saw a pack of Arctic wolves, the Alfa was thirty feet away on the bank they had blood on their white coats from the fresh kill that was lying on the bank. They followed us for a while as we floated down river and we saw the river getting shallow. We got hung up on some rocks and the wolves were still following Ted fired a bear banger and they ran away. Later that evening we saw an Arctic Fox, we had already seen a couple before that but this one trotted along shore beside us and came as close as 20 feet. We made it to a beautiful site with a large black mountain and huge cliffs. Ted caught two Char and a lake trout in three casts. The winds were very strong. We guyed down our tent, double staked it and we went to sleep while it was pouring rain. We were off the river at 6:00am on Aug 20 and had done 50 km.

July 20- Very bad weather we did not travel. The river had raised three or four feet and I woke up  and dragged everything further away from the river. Did some fishing and caught mostly Lake Trout I caught a nice sized Char. Ted lost two Char. I caught a big Lake Trout in a foot of water. The dark black clouds were so low you could almost touch them.

July 22- Saw Rough Legged Hawks on cliffs and an inukshuk. Beautiful cliffs and scenery, nice weather no wind and sunny. The bugs were bad. We ran a couple of easy class two rapids. We stopped at a tributary before the first big lake. Tons of Lake Trout in the river and Muskoxen on the land. We hiked up a ridge and found   another archeological site with what looked like some stone blinds. We saw several tent rings in the area. It was beautiful and worm out.

July 23- Woke up to a heard of Muskoxen crossing the river right in front of us. Freezing cold and raining today. The weather seems pretty unpredictable. Headed for the lake but couldn’t cross because of the waves and winds. We had to wait it out for about 16 hours

July 24 – Paddled 25 km into head winds. We were slaving couldn’t cross the lake yesterday because of the winds. Woke up at 3:00am winds were down when we crossed the lake but picked up again around 9:00am. We had to drag for a couple of km’s on the lake and saw a heard of about twenty caribou running across the lake through a shallow area on the other side.

July 25- Saw a heard of about 16 muskoxen and paddled up really close to them. Lots of wild flowers and small may fliesmusk-ox-skulls seemed to be hatching which meant we saw allot of fish jumping. We paddled some swifts and good current. 

July 26- Woke up three km before the first large set of rapids. Started a small fire to dry some things out. It took us along time to get going we had to patch the boat, tie our lining harness, and all the other camp chores. The rapids did not turn out to be as challenging as we thought in this stretch we ran everything scouting from the boat. We had mostly class two with some small areas of class three. We lined a ledge down the right which was easier than the expected portage. A ferocious drop on the left could not have been run or lined. We headed to the canyon and a falls where we camped before the portage. We were so excited to be in this beautiful spot. We hiked the canyon and saw an absolutely monstrous lake trout as we looked down from the 100 foot sheer cliff. There was an inukshuk that seemed to point downriver. We stayed up and fished and explored the canyon until 7:00am on the 27th. I was really hungry and we were far away from camp so I ate a raw Lake Trout. I figured that the Inuit do it so why not try it. I convinced Ted to try a piece he said it was absolutely terrible and that I was crazy.

July 27- Woke up at 3:00 am paddled a couple rapids after a small portage. We managed to safely line to an eddy just before the drop on the right and only had to carry along the rocks for a short distance. We got to the big canyon. It was amazing with Rough Legged hawks calling overhead beautiful day. Ate lunch in the canyon and scouted the rapid, a big and technical class three. We managed to find a line more or less straight down squeaking between two large boulders in the violent water. We braced and did some small strokes to keep us in the current line. After the rapid we leisurely floated through the rest of the canyon taking deep breaths and admiring the scenery, soaking in the worm weather. We ran another class two eddied out before the rapid picked up and climbed on top of a large flat glass like rock about the size of a Hockey rink. We camped there at the base of the huge walls with their harsh beauty and freestanding pillars. What an amazing spot.

July-28 Slept for 12 hours got up at 12:00 noon. Climbed up the canyon and got an amazing view. Ran a couple of class threes and got some video footage. Crossed the next big lake and had to drag. The aerial photos we had showed the deep channel along the left shore of the shallow part and that’s the way we got through. A family of swans was on the lake as well as ducks and a couple different loon species. We camped on a large beach at the end of the lake and had a fire with a bunch of small sticks we found. Ted’s fishing road snapped in half in two places on a big Lake Trout. It was nice outside. We went to sleep at 11:52pm

July 29- Woke up at 11:00am moved on down river and ran three nice ledges all class threes. Got some video footage. The rapids were really fun and the Pakboat handled them well. Saw some muskoxen as usual. We finished at 1:30am and camped at the base of another canyon.

July 30- Woke up around 10:00 went on a hike, six our round trip. Saw some more muskoxen kills and wolf tracks saw some sand hill cranes. Climbed a 2000 foot mountain, great view. A boulder strewn water fall pored out of a small pond and some snow on top of the mountain. Gale force winds blew heard especially on top of the mountain. It was very sparse and rocky on the summit. I saw a Ptarmigan up there. On the way back we stumbled over an archeological site with tent rings and an ancient stone arrow head which I left there. The wind blew down our tarp and we managed to get it back up in a rock solid position for supper right before the heavy rains came.

sky-and-waterJuly 31- Had a slow start re-organizing everything from the hike and taking down tarps. Got on to the river at 4:00pm, and saw an Arctic wolf trotting along the opposite bank, it stopped right as it was parallel with us, had a look at us but just kept on going it looked a little puzzled at our appearance as many of the animals we saw seamed. As we paddled onto the lake the day got really nice, perfect mirror reflection, lots of swans and ducks on the lake. Ted Caught a huge Lake Trout about 15 lbs. As we entered back into the slow river and began to go through a short steep canyon we saw a fox swim across the river. Ted got out with the camera and I followed a couple minuets later I saw that Ted had crept up within 20 feet of the fox as it lay there curled up warming itself from the cold swim. We crept up within two or three feet and it new we were there, it would look at us time to time and didn’t seam concerned. I held out a nice fresh piece of Lake Trout and it gladly ate it off my hand while Ted got the whole thing on video. We saw another herd of muskoxen and ran some shallow class 2’s one with a small boulder ledge at its end. We back ferried back and fourth at its brink looking for a tong. We didn’t see it and tried to make it down in a less than ideal spot and got stuck. We then made it to another canyon with a falls that looked runable and camped, beautiful day.

Aug 1- Didn’t paddle today as we were ahead of schedule a good bit. Explored the canyon and found some more old tent rings and an inukshuk. Didn’t get to see the eclipse of the sun, either we missed it when we were sleeping or there was too much cloud cover.  Went to sleep 12:35 am on Aug. 2

Aug 2 -Woke up at 11:00am. Ran the drop in the canyon, serious class 3+ chute made it through O.K. There were some technical currents and boulders up stream to negotiate before we hit the tong and low braced through the big stuff. Ran another technical drop still in the canyon and scraped a small hole in the side of our boat when we bumped a rock. Then we paddled 22km of flat water and three lakes. We dragged for a good stretch on the fourth large lake. Saw some Seagulls dive bomb a bunch of Ducklings. The Gulls ate all of them, just swallowed them whole. We felt kind of bad because we thought we had scared the mother away from the ducklings in an attempted to distract us and that’s when the gulls came in. went to bed at 2:40am the morning of Aug 3rd. We also saw a baby hawk sitting in a nest in the canyon and climbed into a small cave. We paddled across the fifth and last large lake, stopping at an Inuit fish camp. You could tell that people live there for a good portion of the year netting fish through the ice when it gets thin and the Char are running. It also looked like there was a lot of hunting and trapping that went on as well. The buildings were small shacks made of plywood and 2×4’s, there were about 10.

Aug.3- Paddled around the last big lake and did not push on towards the coast thinking we had paddled a good bit in the last day. We would still have more than enough time for the coast, we thought. No Char in the lake at that time of year but we ate lots of Trout and explored the area.

Aug 4-  Did the last stretch of river which included about 10 km of continuous white water the water was low so we didn’tantlers encounter any long class 3’s or 4’s however you had to stay alert during long stretches of boulder dodging with current strong enough to firmly pin a canoe. We enjoyed this stretch but could easily see how with a little more water it would be a lot more dangerous and challenging. A little rain seems to go a long way on this river with the relatively small and shallow drainage. The weather started off nice but then got really windy, foggy and foul as we got to the coast. Saw about 35 muskoxen that day. We could not head out onto the ocean because of the heavy seas.

Aug 5- Stayed in a cabin at the mouth of the Kuujjua owned by the Goose family. Names and dates of others to pass by this way were written on the walls. Looked like the owners haven’t been there for eight years. We saw another group had done the Kuujjua in 2005 and flown out by twin otter from near there. One group in 2000 said next stop Holman but lots of ice. We could not paddle on the ocean again because of the very strong head winds and large waves.

Aug 6- Woke up12:53 pm still trying to wait out the winds. It started pouring last night and the ceiling started leaking big time! Continuous streams of water were pouring down allover the place and splashing everywhere. We feared the ceiling would cave in. I had climbed in my sleeping bag placed miraculously in the only dry part of the cabin. Ted ran around placing pots and pans in various places while I lie there bundled in my sleeping bag terrified as the winds howled outside. One of the leaks filled up a ten gallon gas tank twice. We found an old wood canvas freighter canoe, part of a Bowhead whale skull and a polar bear skull all in the area of the cabin. The weather is not getting better at all and the clock is ticking we are beginning to think it is always like this. We were going to try to make it somewhere today but the winds and fog have gotten worse. And the waves got bigger. We are beginning to think we should have left during a brief window we had when we woke up at about 3:00am last night. We will get up at 3:00am again and check the conditions, not looking good. There are gale force winds, it is snowing and monster waves are crashing on the beach in front of the cabin. You can see huge waves breaking on the ocean as far as the eye can see. We are beginning to think that, if this keeps up we may need to start thinking of alternative ways to get out of here.

stormy-cliffsAug 7- Woke up 12:00noon weather had not changed. We completed the first stretch of the coast paddle we figured that the weather was never going to break, that it is just always like this here so it’s now or never. Hit some big irregular waves where they collided with the current of the river at the mouth. Hung on OK and kept going.  Ted got horrible stomach cramps and we had to pull over. We stopped in a bay behind a large point where the waves weren’t to bad. We saw a seal there. Ted decided he was OK and wanted to push on. When we rounded the point the waves and winds were just crazy. And we knew we had to paddle past a good portion of the dreaded cliffs of Minto Inlet. We paddled over ten foot massive rollers where waves bounced off of the towering cliffs we were terrified and thankful that our Pakboat did not take in any water. Beautiful cliffs but you don’t get time to look at them because you’re just waving your paddle franticly hanging on trying not to die. It would be safe to say a few times that if we dumped we would have been in big trouble. We didn’t take in much water with our spray deck and we never felt like we were about to tip but all around it was probably one of the most dangerous things and dumbest things to have done. We kept our drysuites on our sat phone strapped to our backs and attached our survival kits with colored smoke and GPS to our person. Only passed three km of the cliffs. We got out at a small take out when we figured we had had enough terror for the day. Ate dinner, it is absolutely miserable outside. Went to bed at 4:58 am on the morning of the 8th.

Aug 8- We are still experiencing some really bad weather on the coast we tried to make another push for it to day, we should have never have left when we saw what the waves were like. We pulled over and made somewhat of an emergency take out at one of the three or so possible take outs along the cliffs. The waves smashed our boat up on some rocks, tore large holes in the skin snapped one of the chine rods and badly bent several other parts, not to bad but still kind of scary. The dry suites were a lifesaver here as they enabled us to go into the water in the ocean waves to unload the boat and haul it up on the rocks. A couple of times the waves knocked our feet out and we were swimming. We paddled over an hour in heavy seas and only got 1.5km we couldn’t make it another 3.5 km to a safe harbor. We decided that this is insane let’s try to charter a boat from Holman with our sat phone. The RCMP officer in Holman said that no one could make it out there in a boat in this weather, planes aren’t landing in town, he said someone may be able to come out by ATV, We are thinking that is not possible due to the terrain and distance. We are trying to think of what we can do, do we walk 20km back to the last big lake and call for a plane? Should we try to portage to the small harbor 3.5km down the coast? We asked Jason the RCMP officer if he could get a weather report and we would call back tomorrow. He told us the weather should break and to sit tight. Not really going good at the moment. Beautiful inlet beautiful cliffs we hiked up the walls to scout a possible portage route into the small bay, awesome view huge cliffs but it’s kicking our butts right now. The waves are slamming on shore and shooting up 40 feet in the air, no place for a canoe to be. The phone call answered our questions that anyone who has attempted paddling this coast, there is no way they are paddling in this crap. Every thing will probably work out but it is looking like there is a possibility that we will need a very expensive rescue, basically. 

the-crewAug 9 – Waited in the tent looked like the weather had calmed down. We called our contact in Holman for the weather report he told us that there were blue skies coming our way and they expect a high pressure system for the next four days. This news was just hugely uplifting. We were beginning to think that the weather was always terrible. He asked if we still wanted to charter a boat and we said no we are going to make it. Took us three hours to break camp we were rushing but we had to fix our canoe. We put about seven patches on the side of the boat and splinted the broken chine piece with some plastic ties and a piece of our extending tarp pole, the canoe preformed as good as new. We paddled by some more huge cliffs it was sunny and nice out which was a relief. Some pretty big waves were ricocheting off the cliffs but it was nothing compared to what we had already experienced. Paddled for thirteen hours, made it 37 km and stopped at Cape Wooleston. Their was a freshwater stream and lots of big drift wood logs that had floated there all the way from the Mackenzie River. We had a big bonfire. Saw an inukshuk about 8 feet high. We are hoping the weather keeps up we plan to head out tomorrow around 1:00pm we are now 63 km from Holman and past the big cliffs. Went to sleep 7:22am sun Aug 10

Aug 10- We are now in Holman!!! Slept for three hours and awoke to a gun shot, Ted said “There’s a boat out there”. We scrambled out of the tent and the man and woman in the boat asked if I was Chris. I sad “No I’m Jim” They looked puzzled and I was definitely puzzled they turned around and drove off into the horizon. Ted figured out that that boat (small 18foot aluminum) was going out to find the two Australians who were walking unsupported across the island, what a strange coincidence. They were the first people we had seen in a month. It was overcast and raining but the ocean looked calm so we decided what the hell lets go. About an hour or so into the paddle I felt a breeze on the back of my neck turning around I saw the ripples on the water and I knew we were getting a tail wind. Ted and I paddled 63 km in twelve hours that day. It was cold and there was snow. We only stopped ounce. Exhausted but happy we made it. Amazed that we had paddled the distances that we did we climbed into our sleeping bags and went to sleep at 4:48am on the morning of Aug 11th having paddled 103 km in 36 hours.sunset

Aug 11- Woke up at 11:30am a guy came by and dropped off some water after having seen our tent on the beach. We found Pat and Gene the people we had seen looking for the Australians. They told us all sorts of amazing stories about their days living off the land and were amazed at the time we made. They fed us dried Char, bannock and made a pot of coffee, really nice people. Talked to the RCMP officer who was absolutely blown away that we hade made it to town and that we were already awake and doing things. He told us we must be really tough which made me feel good to get the validation.

Aug 12- Slept a good bit walked to town and dropped by the wildlife officers place to pick up a permit that you need to get when taking things like muskoxen and polar bear sculls out of the Northwest Territories. We met a guy who told us he was born on the eastern shore of the last big lake on the Kuujjua in winter. We also told them about the cabin we stayed in and they said it was an old mission built a very long time ago which explained the leaky roof. I told them some stories about our trip and they loved listening to them, every one in this town of about 500 people was interested and very nice. I told them that I ate a raw lake trout because I figured the Inuit did. They said “we don’t eat that crap” and had a good laugh. Well they do eat it raw in small pieces when frozen.

Aug 13- Bought a Muskoxen hide from Pat and used it as a ground pad for our last night in the north. It seemed to have its own heat source I didn’t even get in to my sleeping bag that night. We walked up on a couple of woman butchering some Caribou with their ulos. They handed us a shoulder and we fried the tender meet for dinner. We tried some danuk which is just raw hardened fat straight off the Caribou it tasted waxy and was heard to swallow. 

Aug 14 – Flew out of town on a turbo prop. Couldn’t land in Kugluktuk as scheduled because of the thick fog the pilot got lower and lower and as soon as we broke through the fog we saw the ground, we were really close and the pilot pulled up fast. The five passengers on the plane (including Ted and I) were pretty scared, one last little adventure. The plane did not attempt another landing and flew straight through to Yellowknife. We flew back to Toronto via Edmonton. What a trip.

-Jim Baird

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