“Experimental” Canoeing: Canadian Arctic Expedition Reaches Baker Lake

Photo: Expedition AKOR

One month ago, Guillaume Moreau and Nicolas Roulx picked up their canoes in Gjoa Haven and set out on the third leg of their epic journey through Canada. Philippe Voghel-Robert and Etienne Desbois joined them for the 700km journey inland to Baker Lake.

Their ski journey from northern Ellesmere had been physically and mentally draining. Moreau and Roulx were excited to switch to their primary discipline, paddling.

First, they needed to reach the thawing waterways. The four-man team hauled their two canoes 40km over the sea ice from Gjoa Haven to the mainland. Then they made their way south down the coastline. Some rivers had already melted, dumping fresh water out on top of the still-solid sea ice. This created a weird landscape of freshwater lakes and puddles sitting on top of the frozen ocean.

After two physical days of hauling on the sea ice, and another seven days of mostly manhauling along the coast, they took a day off to rest tired tendons and joints.

Originally, they had planned to paddle up the Back River into the heart of Canada. However, the cold spring and chilly start to summer meant that rivers and lakes had only just started to break up. Skiing on the river as it broke up would be too dangerous. Instead, they headed further west, using a web of smaller rivers and lakes to progress. Moreau called this a “conservative, but ultimately very good, decision.”

A network of mostly frozen waterways. Photo: Expedition AKOR

The team could paddle some of the rivers, but the lakes were still frozen. It was only during the second half of their journey that the edges thawed and allowed them to paddle along the lakeshore.

Canoe issues

Transitioning the canoes from ice to water and back again, sometimes several times a day, was punishing both for the team and the canoes. Their boats became brittle and the insides started to crack. In retrospect, Moreau believes that newer canoes would have fared better. Their older canoes did not have enough flexibility to cope with the bending caused by the transitions and from water seeping in and freezing during the sub-zero nights.

Eventually, the canoes deteriorated enough that a routine collision with a rock caused a large hole. Using the rubber from a pair of boots and some elastic, they patched up the hole and set to work on the interior of the canoe.

Despite the group’s considerable experience, the internal cracks were almost impossible to fix. Moving forward they would have to get “experimental and weird” to protect the most delicate canoe. For periods, they loaded one canoe atop the other. This colossal load necessitated dragging as a four-man team. Portaging and hauling as often as paddling, this was not a typical backcountry canoe trip.

Canoe repair work. Photo: Expedition AKOR

By July 13, the lakes had melted and the final leg of their journey to Baker Lake could proceed more traditionally. They surprised the visitor centre, which hadn’t seen tourists since the beginning of COVID and wasn’t used to paddlers arriving so early in the season. The journey from Gjoa Haven had taken 34 days, a day quicker than they had expected, despite the extended stop to repair the canoes.

Personnel issues

This section, which Moreau had feared would be the most dangerous part of their expedition, had proven relatively safe and smooth. But perhaps the experimental manhauling took a toll beyond the physical.

Unexpectedly, Voghel-Robert has left the expedition. Moreau was diplomatic, citing only “interpersonal reasons” for the sudden change. For whatever reason, Voghel-Robert had not integrated with the team and had taken the difficult decision to leave, flying home from Baker Lake.

Tricky canoe management. Photo: Expedition AKOR

This caused considerable upheaval. Moreau was unsure if they’d be able to continue with just three people. They needed to find a replacement at very short notice. But where would they find someone with the requisite backcountry skills and experience, who would also be willing to drop everything and fly out to Nunavut at a moment’s notice?

It turns out that Moreau was uniquely positioned to find the perfect replacement. Catherine Chagnon, Moreau’s girlfriend, has plenty of paddling experience and knows Roulx and Debois well. She arrives at Baker Lake on Sunday.

Chagnon will have a day or two to settle and familiarize herself with their gear before they decamp and continue south towards Black Lake. The 1,100km segment should take between 40 and 45 days.

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About the Author

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh is a freelance writer and wildlife photographer based in Da Lat, Vietnam.

A history graduate from the University of Nottingham, Martin's career arc is something of a smörgåsbord. A largely unsuccessful basketball coach in Zimbabwe and the Indian Himalaya, a reluctant business lobbyist in London, and an interior design project manager in Saigon.

He has been fortunate enough to see some of the world. Highlights include tracking tigers on foot in Nepal, white-water rafting the Nile, bumbling his way from London to Istanbul on a bicycle, feeding wild hyenas with his face in Ethiopia, and accidentally interviewing Hezbollah in Lebanon.

His areas of expertise include adventure travel, hiking, wildlife, and half-forgotten early 2000s indie-rock bands.

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