AMC Outdoors, March 2001
By Michael Lanza
Several summers ago, Cliff Jacobson and some companions were canoeing northern Saskatchewan’s North Knife River, which flows into Hudson Bay. They chose late July because it’s a good time of year to see polar bears.
As they rounded a river bend, his canoe partner called from the bow, “Oh, Cliff, a mountain goat!” As Jacobson recalls, “I looked up, and yelled, ‘*@%#! It’s a polar bear!’ A huge male bear was standing on the bank looking down at me. As soon as he saw the canoe, he slid into the water and came at me like a torpedo.” Struggling to back-ferry against the rapid, with the bear drawing nearer, they reached the opposite shore. Jacobson, the only member of the party who’d thought it necessary to keep his rifle loaded, pointed it at the bear. “I can’t tell you how scared I was. I thought, ‘Please, God, don’t make me shoot.’ But I vowed that if he came ashore, I’d shoot.”
The other canoes in their party made land just before the bear. Seeing them, the bear turned downstream and disappeared. Convinced it would circle back, everyone scrambled to load their rifles, their hands trembling so badly that they were dropping shells in the sand. The bear never returned.
Jacobson is a good person to turn to for advice when you’re ready to graduate from canoe-camping in places like Maine’s Allagash Wilderness Waterway to expedition-canoeing remote rivers of northern Canada and Alaska. He’s been taking and guiding trips to the far North for 30 years and has many stories to share — including being charged by a grizzly. Jacobson is still around to tell his stories precisely because he adheres to a fundamental rule about expedition canoeing: “You shouldn’t be wet and cold or have close calls. Everything should be programmed. You shouldn’t be flirting with death.”
The author of Expedition Canoeing: Guide to Canoeing Wild Rivers in North America (Globe Pequot Press) offers the following advice to anyone planning an expedition by canoe to a remote river of the far North.
- Do your homework: Know as much as possible about your destination. Talk to people who’ve done the route. Make sure you’re going at the right time. “You have a narrow climate window,” Jacobson says, with snow and ice possible at the start or end of the trip. “If you’re not meticulous, you’re not going to make it.”
- When you’re going north of the treeline, make your first trip with someone who’s been there. “There are obscure reasons for that. One is that the first time you see the barren lands, your brain cannot accurately determine distances,” says Jacobson. Landmarks appear much closer than they are.
- Your paddling and navigation skills should be expert. For instance, you must read a contour map well enough to figure out how to portage around any river obstacle. Jacobson recommends GPS technology for wilderness river navigation.
- In trip planning, do a river profile, determining its drop per mile and whether that drop is largely within a short stretch — which can be portaged — or is spread out. Paddling 15 miles a day “is a high average” for expedition canoeing, he says, warning, “There’s never enough time on barren-lands trips. Once you get above the treeline, everything changes. The weather is cruel, high winds come up, nothing is marked.”
- “You can’t adopt a superminimalist go-light attitude, because you can get yourself in trouble.” Your gear checklist will include items as foreign to lower-48 canoe trips as an ax, which may be needed to cut a portage through thick forest.
- Above treeline, winds are routinely strong enough to blow anything away — even canoes. Don’t leave anything lying around. Overturn canoes and pile rocks on them, or leave them upright and filled with gear.
- All equipment must be “expedition-capable,” Jacobson says. For example, plastic parts on stoves burn or break, as do small zippers. Bring spare parts and extras of critical equipment like stoves.
- Disperse food and gear evenly among dry bags and canoes, so that if you lose one canoe, the other canoes contain everything you need.
- Wear your life jacket virtually all the time — even on shore. Many drownings in the far North happen to people who weren’t even canoeing; they might have been lining a canoe around a rapid and the line pulled them in.
- Bring bright colors in gear and clothing so your bush pilot can see you, or if you need to be rescued. “They’re not going to find two red canoes; that’s not enough color out there. You tell your pilot to pick you up at a particular spot, and you might be able to get within only a mile of that spot, and he’s flying around looking for you,” says Jacobson.
- Have a doctor provide an advanced first-aid kit, including antibiotics for serious infections. You may need medication for several days.
- Carry signaling equipment. Jacobson recommends marine-orange smokes because they’re visible in daytime. CB radios are cheap and handy in places like Hudson Bay because fishermen often have those radios on their boats.
- Rather than a wetsuit, which would be too warm in the hot sun, Jacobson recommends “traditional clothes” — wool, polypropylene, fleece, breathable rainwear — and neoprene booties.
- Survival on far-North rivers sometimes requires compromising low-impact guidelines. You might have to chop down trees to portage, but “you might be the only people on that river that year,” Jacobson points out.
- Build up your skills, beginning with local rivers and moving on to places like the Allagash and Boundary Waters before gradually venturing farther north.
- Finally, Jacobson says, “be accurate in assessing your own abilities.” Do not run a rapid unless you’re certain you can make it. “Forget about this macho stuff. You screw up, and you won’t get out. You simply cannot tip over. Nobody ever died on a portage, and there is always a way around any [river] obstacle.”
“Most accidents on wilderness rivers are due to poor timing. You look at the map and figure you can do 15 miles a day; then you get there and find you’ve got low water or no water, and you’re making five miles a day and have an airplane waiting to pick you up, and you start doing stupid things.”
Given the hardship and hazards, Jacobson asks the logical question: “Why on Earth would anyone want to do this?”
Of course, he has a ready answer.
“The first time you stand in a herd of 100,000 caribou or get chased across the river by a polar bear or stand head-to-head with a herd of musk ox, you’ll know,” he says. “There is a sense of awesome freedom and on-your-own resourcefulness that you’ll find nowhere else on Earth when you go to the far North. And you rub shoulders with native peoples — there’s a social experience that you capture on no other canoe trip.”
—Michael Lanza is author of The Ultimate Guide to Backcountry Travel, from AMC Books.