People & Culture
On thin ice: Who “owns” the Arctic?
As the climate heats up, so do talks over land ownership in the Arctic. What does Canadian Arctic Sovereignty look like as the ice melts?
- 4353 words
- 18 minutes
Rafting the Firth River with Nahanni River Adventures
Brian and Dee Keating share their incredible rafting journey in the remote Arctic tundra on a once-in-a-lifetime Canadian Geographic Adventure
Twelve days, 150 kilometres, an elevation drop of approximately 460 metres and a lifetime of unforgettable memories – this is what you can expect on the Firth River Rafting expedition with Nahanni River Adventures.
From June 25 to July 10, 2023, Brian and Dee Keating, 13 other group members and four guides participated in a daring rafting adventure in Ivvavik National Park, located in the Northwest Territories. This expedition brought guests through an enchanting, scenic passage to the Arctic tundra plains and the Beaufort Sea. They travelled through a range of habitats from tundra meadows to rich benchlands and rocky alpine ridges to lowland delta and coastal lagoons. Throughout this adventure, wildlife such as Dall’s sheep, caribou, grizzly bears, and moose were spotted, along with a variety of northern bird species like peregrine and gyrfalcons, rough-legged hawks and tundra swans.
As a fly-in, fly-out adventure, this rafting journey began in Inuvik, N.W.T. and ended at the Arctic Ocean. Guests experienced class III rapids and Inuvialuit cultural sites throughout the journey, and with 24-hour daylight, there was plenty of time to take advantage of the excellent hiking opportunities. Their trip included two layover days for full days of hiking for those who wished to take advantage of this one-of-a-kind adventure.
Total bird species: 48, including snowy owls, tundra swans, and bald eagles
Total mammal species: 10, including grizzly bears, caribou and beluga whales
The Group: Janice Heard, Jo (Jo Ann) Telfer, Phil Dunn, Doug and Nancy Vanbeselaere, Keith and Gail Chase, Cal and Lisa Vettese, Shelagh and Gord Weatherill, Geord Holland and Joan Proudfoot and Brian and Dee Keating
Guides: Whitey (Dave) Evans, Jim Muir, Chris Rhodes and Ursula Kilbridge
The first day began with a 6 p.m. orientation at the Midnight Sun Complex (Inuvik’s sports complex), where gear was passed out and tried on before a group photo was taken with RCGS hats and Canadian Geographic magazines in hand.
We took two Twin Otter flights to get all the gear, food and guests to our remote camp near the Firth River headwaters in Ivvavik National Park. Our bug jackets immediately came into use to ward off the mosquitoes that met us. The rafts, kitchen and biffy tent were already set up.
We flew over a portion of the Mackenzie River Delta, an expansive and complicated wetland where Caribou trials could be easily seen in the landscape below.
After camp was ready, we hiked to the summit of the hill behind camp, identifying many flowers along the way. The spring flowers were in abundance, including Arctic poppies, spotted saxifrage, Labrador tea, mountain aven, Alaska phlox, Alpine forget-me-not, moss phlox, butterwort, bog rosemary, capitate lousewort, Yukon sandwort, hedysarum, rock jasmine, large-flowered wintergreen, cotton grass, and many more.
We had great views to the north of the headwaters of aufeis (a sheet-like mass of layered ice) that melts to feed the headwaters of the Firth River. It looked like a white mirage lens of snow. The highlight, however, was a blonde grizzly bear sighting.
After a dinner of tortellini, spinach salad, garlic bread, and strawberry cheesecake, the staff addressed us on tomorrow’s plans, camp etiquette, toilet responsibilities, and the potential of grizzly bear close encounters.
We awoke to a high thin cloud to the east and solid blue skies everywhere else. After a relaxed morning of packing, we were given a rafting safety briefing and were off at noon.
The Firth River has four geographic regions called Reaches. The start is known as the Aufeis Reach, which then becomes the Mountain, Canyon, and Delta or Coastal Reaches.
At Muskeg Creek, we pulled in to catch dinner. At the “fishing hole” just up the creek from the main river, there were perhaps 100 or more Dolly Varden char. As we caught and cleaned the fish, we could see a nest with three large peregrine chicks being watched over by adults on the yellow cliffs.
Twice along the river, we spotted bald eagles, and we had a good look at two Red-throated loons. Several times, red-breasted mergansers flew from the river ahead, kicking loudly with their feet until airborne.
Perhaps 100 metres distant from the fishing hole, we pulled in on the opposite side of the river and did an excellent hike up and around the same cliff and tors. Two species of birds of prey were nesting here – peregrine falcons and rough-legged hawks – they let us know that they were the cliff owners.
The view from the top was spectacular. We sat in the cool breeze, scanning the vista. A huge bull moose some distance away was spotted, feeding in a small pond.
A few more kilometres down the river, at 7 p.m., we pulled out at Crooked Creek and set up on some excellent mountain aven and willow flats. Muskox qiviut was found clinging to the bushes and on the ground in relative abundance. We enjoyed a wonderful baked char dinner riverside.
We finished the evening by walking up a nearby hill, passing bits of muskox qiviut virtually all along the way. The evening light at midnight was stunning, illuminating our happy little camp with low red light.
We awoke to solid blue skies and calm conditions. White-winged crossbills and the usual white-crowned sparrows were calling throughout the night. A red-throated loon was back on the quieter water, fishing in front of our camp. We were in the rafts by 11:30 a.m. after a filling breakfast of some of the best pancakes we had ever tasted.
We had a superb sighting of a lesser yellowlegs sandpiper. A golden eagle flew from a cliff-side nest, with a short-billed gull in hot pursuit! We pulled over and set up the scope, but the nest appeared empty, or if there were chicks, they had “pancaked” in the nest bottom, out of sight.
In a flock of five mergansers spotted ahead of the lead raft, there was a lone pintail duck. A Canada jay called from the forest on a few occasions. Four American ravens were seen flying over the forest edge on a higher ridge, making us wonder if they were following some unseen carnivore. The rafting was perfect today, with ideal water and a continual rollout of spectacular scenery.
We rafted into camp around 3:30 p.m. at Joe Creek Camp and the start of the Mountain Reach. We were immediately greeted by an Arctic ground squirrel announcing our arrival. Muskox tracks were prolific here, so we knew they were present. Aufeis could be seen up ahead, riverside, just beyond at the mouth of the creek. We would pass by the ice tomorrow when we continued our float.
After an excellent dinner of stir-fried chicken, we enjoyed a birthday party for Doug, complete with carrot cake and the traditional chocolate-covered coffee beans.
Later, at 10 p.m., we climbed the slope behind camp, traversed to the high plateau, and had a magnificent view of the “aufeis” of Joe Creek. The flower meadows were colourful, and we identified several new plant species.
We returned to camp under blustery skies, having left camp two hours earlier when all was quiet and calm. A storm was brewing upstream, so we battened down the hatches and quickly storm-proofed the camp.
Just as we were about to receive our morning briefing, a grizzly bear was spotted upriver from us. It rapidly disappeared but provided a great morning start to a fantastic day.
Once packed up, we set off under blue skies. With our guide Ursula at the helm today in our raft, we quickly passed by the aufeis at the outflow of Joe Creek. The current was fast, and we were quickly into the first of dozens of rapids.
We soon stopped for lunch at Wolf Creek, and afterwards, we went for an excellent walk up a ravine, topping out at a spectacular panoramic viewpoint. We encountered a grizzly bear rubbing tree on the way up with some grizzly bear hair attached. We saw where the bears had walked in the same footprints likely for years, creating a “foot stomp” pathway.
We walked around Wrap Rock Rapids, photographing the guides as they went through the narrow passageway. One guide was the bow paddler in position to push the boat away from any rock walls so it wouldn’t get hung up in the narrow channel.
Dee spotted four Dall’s sheep on a distant caribou trail a short time later. But the highlight for most of us was Dee‘s second big sighting of the day, a family of five muskoxen on the ridge we will have access to hike tomorrow. Once at our camp, we set up the spotting scope and had some excellent looks at these magnificent animals. It was a real treat.
Once settled in camp, everyone returned to the “Beach“ and had a fabulous bath. It was a hot 25 degrees Celsius, and the water was warm enough to do repeated short swims in the clear, fast-running river with the spectacular cliff as a backdrop. After dinner, a few ladies did some stretches and “tundra yoga” on a tiny patch of grass above the beach.
We were here for two nights, giving us tremendous access to spectacular hiking. We finally climbed into our tents around midnight.
Under partly cloudy morning skies, I set up the scope on four Dall’s sheep on a distant slope. And as I sat for my morning constitutional, a green-winged teal landed across the river. With binoculars at the ready, I could see his green head stripe before he disappeared behind some rocks.
After breakfast, we headed with a packed lunch up towards Stegosaurus Ridge. At one of the tors, there was a nesting gyrfalcon with two white, fluffy chicks in the nest. From there, we went up to the high point, where half the group continued on a long walk with Whitey, and the rest of us continued over to where we saw the muskox yesterday. We complimented the day with another lovely swim in the river.
We saw some Say’s phoebes near the gyrfalcon nest, and on the ridge, we all watched the American pipit perform its aerial display. Under the falcon nest, the grass was lush and thick, and there was the skeleton of a gull carcass picked clean, obviously dropped from the nest. Lots of other bones littered the area.
The views from the ridges were stunning. From the far ridge, we could look towards the river and saw Sheep Creek Camp with several permanent tents on platforms. This is the only overnight facility in the park, run by Parks Canada, for visitors and researchers to use as a base.
The flowers along the way were in prime shape with excellent diversity as we saw northern bog orchids, whorled lousewort, Northern bluebells and more. Tracks of muskox and Dall’s sheep were frequently encountered. Two Dall’s sheep were across the valley from us, likely the same ones we spotted this morning from camp.
We left camp at about 10:30 a.m., passing a soft sand beach with fresh mama and cub grizzly tracks. Soon after, we entered the Canyon Reach and did the mandatory walk around Sheep Slot, Sheep Horn and Ram Rapids, watching our guides expertly manoeuvre between some big Class III and IV rapids.
Two golden eagles flew above the ridges as we began a full day of incredible rapids, one after the other, through some awesome geological scenery.
This area is the land of Dall’s sheep: we counted 11 in one group on our lunch hike above the river’s classic “S” bend. In total, counting two by two, our total for today was 28. One sighting highlight was a female and her youngster on a steep rock wall, licking minerals hardly 10 metres above the river.
We ended up camping on a sand flat that we had not camped on before, just upstream from last year’s Red Hill camp. It was an excellent spot with beautiful views of distant ridges, but most importantly, access to excellent hiking and views to observe some caribou.
We stopped at a small valley and picked up some ice, and the staff surprised us later at our campsite with gin and tonics with ice before dinner, which was a delicious meal of fish.
After dinner, we hiked up to the plateau behind the camp. We counted 35 sheep in two large groups on the opposite side of the river on the mountain slopes. We walked the ridge to the pinnacle, where we photographed two gyrfalcon chicks in the nest. We found two huge moose antlers slowly being reclaimed by the tundra.
After a fantastic breakfast of eggs Benedict, we ferried in two loads to the other side of the river to a small waterfall to begin our long hike up the Red Hills ridge.
The weather was 25 degrees Celsius, so we took it easy up to the first grassy dome, where a half dozen of us called it a day and enjoyed the views and lunch from that point. On the way up, we spotted four Dall’s sheep rams off in the distance, and Phil, doing a headstand in the foreground. Both sightings were spectacular.
Ten of us went to the summit ridge, where we enjoyed lunch with a view and from there, five went down, and five continued further up and over to view the next valley.
We spotted seven adult rams at a significant col just before we got to the pass that overlooks the next valley. On our way back, the rams had moved into a better position, and we had an incredibly close encounter, giving us some superb looks at these handsome creatures.
Just as we gained the next ridge, near some tors, Whitey pointed out another ram, sitting on his own, in a unique little geologic cave in a tor. Twelve sheep total today, plus another ram that the other five hikers encountered at close quarters when they surprised it coming up “his trail.” The hikers politely exited the trail, allowing the sheep to continue on his way, but not before he foot-stamped and showed his big profile with horns. They had a wonderful experience.
Dinner consisted of steak. I had mine with the one delicious little morel mushroom I had found at the edge of a clearing on our return walk, fried in butter.
Breakfast was scrambled eggs and leftover steak, toast, and potatoes. We were on the water in record time this morning, as everybody was getting more efficient at their camp takedown. Today was a day of incredible canyon views and continual rapids to camp. We all had to wear helmets through the bigger rapids.
We stopped for lunch at a brilliant location just after the Big Bend Roller Coaster rapid. We enjoyed some freshly grilled caribou sausages and then hiked up onto the plateau to view the ancient caribou fences placed there by past hunters.
Our first raptor sighting was an immature golden eagle, flying directly overhead and nicely showing the black terminal band on the tail. We also saw several adult golden eagles and one bald eagle. Say’s phoebes entertained us throughout the rafting day, flitting like little shadows against the canyon walls. Whenever the water was calm and there was enough shrubbery around, we would hear the call of the white-crowned sparrow, “Little Johnny peed his pants.”
Two peregrine falcons made their presence known with loud “kili-kili-kili” calls. After seeing them today and comparing them to our previous sightings of gyrfalcons in flight, we could easily see a significant difference between the two species’ flight patterns.
The geology was amazing: folds, faults, anticlines, synclines, blue, red and green shales, and ancient ocean mud bottom ripples, now turned to rock and uplifted. And all this, with the dramatic landscape of rolling hills, walkable ridge lines, and classic Arctic vegetation. Only a few remnant stunted spruce trees were seen now, growing in small microclimates.
Bear flower, or Boykinia richardsonii, a type of saxifrage which is a Beringian endemic special to this area, was growing in good numbers here. We were truly entering the Arctic phase of the trip.
Once at camp, at the request of one of the group members, I gave a “TED Talk“ on Polygonum viviparum, the plant that “nearly killed me” when I was on Ellesmere Island decades ago. Of course, a girl was part of the story. Two young women researchers were studying the ‘root-to-shoot growth ratio” in a disturbed plot 25 km from the weather station where I worked. My work buddy and I hiked to see them and to assist with some note-taking on their focus plant. We nearly didn’t return to the station, suffering from serious hypothermia.
After dinner of veg curry and fresh baked shortbread, we headed to the plateau behind the camp for a short hike. The vista was fantastic in all directions, but there were no caribou.
After a sometimes violent night of high winds, we were again on the water by 10:30 a.m.
A pair of peregrine falcons, several golden eagles, and a few rough-legged hawks were all identified throughout the day. We saw at least one pair of gyrfalcons with chicks in the nest.
Our lunch stop and walk was at the water survey location. This was the site of our first new bird in two days, the northern wheatear. Two obviously had a nest in the area and kept close watch when we were in their territory, flying in and landing close.
A Canada goose family with four youngsters floated past our rafts tied up against the shore. Whitey took us on a walk across the flat tundra to an archeological site represented by a few rocks placed in a situation that indicated perhaps a dwelling or a hide.
Under clear skies, we floated downstream, officially into the Delta Reach and Engigstciak campsite. Our third new bird of the day greeted us at our new camp amongst the willows and sand flats: a semi-palmated plover. A short time later, as I sat on the biffy, a common redpoll landed very close on a nearby bush. And finally, three Arctic terns were seen flying effortlessly in their buoyant style above the river, dipping for food.
Before dinner, we walked up to the summit of Engigstciak (a new or young mountain). Once on top, we admired the glorious scenery with exceptionally clear conditions. We could see out to the Arctic Ocean, Herschel Island, Nunaluk Spit, and the cabin, our final destination. A grizzly was spotted off in the distance, which we watched foraging before it eventually disappeared. Then we observed a big moose, which several of us had seen earlier, thinking it was just some junk left on the tundra. Sure enough, it was a big bull moose with a nice set of antlers. Three tundra swans were also spotted.
We descended the opposite side of the mountain to look at the archeological site at the base of the cliff. There was an incredible orange “pavement” of xanthoria or sunburst lichen all over the rock, and the flowers were magnificent. We then walked back to camp via a mineral lick, where about 100 caribou antlers of various sizes and ages were spread about on the ground and in the dry mud.
Some of us bathed in the river before drinks and dinner. I gave the presentation tonight on bird sex, specifically highlighting the meaning of the “cloacal kiss.” An excellent dinner was enjoyed in a mosquito-free, breezy environment before we all turned in for the night.
By 10:30 a.m., we were on the river, enjoying a gentle drift in shallow water through braided streams to our camp, arriving there at about 3 p.m. On the way, we had one stop at the last highest bluff so that Chris and Whitey could climb it and get some visual information about the upcoming stream flow.
I wandered into the thick bushes to escape the wind, hoping my Merlin bird app would allow me to pick up a few new birds. It worked wonders. Yellow warbler, northern waterthrush, savannah sparrow, common redpoll, American tree sparrow, and white-crowned sparrow were all picked up. But the first surprise was a lovely rock ptarmigan, which burst in flight, croaking its low guttural call.
Arctic terns passed us repeatedly, giving us some excellent views of their pointed tail feathers. Another gull species, possibly a glaucous gull, flew past several times. Two Bald eagles were seen dancing in the updrafts next to the steep riverbank on the far side of the river. We also saw a raven, and several sandpipers, possibly Baird’s sandpiper, flying.
Our afternoon hike through hummocks and thick willows was challenging at first, but we were lured by the colour of the lupines that paved the landscape ahead. In the distance, we counted six muskoxen shimmering in the foreground, with ice and ocean in the background. They were far away, but we had a good view from a distance.
We could also see the “summer ice” that appeared like blocky mirages above the ocean and delta aufeis to the eastern shore. On the return trip, a red fox briefly appeared ahead, allowing a few of us to see it before disappearing into the river valley. A female snowy owl suddenly appeared, hovering with slow deep wing beats, obviously keeping track of where the fox was.
We encountered one rock ptarmigan on the way back. Amongst the willows, caribou and muskox tracks are abundant.
During dinner, Whitey outlined what the next day, with the tricky channel navigation and crossing the lagoon to the coast, would entail. We were to get out our warm layers and heavier socks to fit into our issued hip waders.
The day started extremely foggy, so we didn’t depart camp until just before noon.
Glaucous gulls escorted us nearly all the way to our camp on Nunaluk Spit. Our first new bird of the day was a northern harrier, being pursued by a single glaucous gull!
Whitey noticed some dark shadows in the fog ahead, and sure enough, 12 muskoxen materialized, including three small youngsters. We pulled up our raft on the opposite side of the river, and after a short time, the fog lifted enough for us to get a great view of these magnificent creatures. After quietly watching, we left them as they all settled to rest.
Soon after, we encountered some aufeis and had to stop and play, breaking the candlestick ice as it disintegrated along the floe’s edge.
We noticed five caribou off in the distance at the lunch stop on some other aufeis. We were able to set up the scope and see our first Caribou of the trip. They were far away, and the heat waves shimmering off the landscape distorted the image, but we all got a lovely look.
In the lagoon, we had difficulty getting into water deep enough to float the rafts, but it finally all came together, and we heroically rowed up to the Spit.
On the shore, a small flock of snow buntings greeted us. About a dozen tundra swans flew over, and several common eider ducks, long-tailed ducks, and a flock of white-winged scoters flew by.
As we were settling into camp, somebody noticed beluga whales in the bay, so we all rushed up to the edge to watch. They had initially passed close by, giving us a perfect look at their white bodies momentarily breaking the surface, but soon they were way off in the distance.
We had a fantastic campfire, keeping us all warm over dinner. Everyone enjoyed a drink from a pail of margaritas made with the aufeis candlestick ice that we had collected earlier.
Afterwards, we walked in small groups down to the east side of the Spit, where the current flowed swiftly in and out of the lagoon. At the end of the Spit, we found some stunning common eider males floating close to shore. Two ringed seals appeared and disappeared behind the waves out in the ocean.
Along the way, we were dive-bombed several times by Arctic terns. Obviously, we were close to their nests too.
In bed, just after midnight, it soon started to rain and continued throughout the night.
We slept in until the rain stopped at about 10:30 a.m. before a breakfast of savoury and sweet cinnamon buns, hot coffee and tea.
Whitey then took us on a long walk to the slight rise of land, a couple of kilometres westward on the Spit under mostly cloudy skies. The sun kept us warm as we paused and lay down, letting nature come to us. Several tundra swans and some red-throated loons and long-tailed ducks flew over. Out in the bay, we saw large flocks of sandpipers wheeling about in their numbers in a flight pattern called “murmurations.” A mother common eider nervously swam along the shore with six newly hatched ducklings. A few sea ducks, mostly white-winged scoters, flew offshore in long undulating lines.
Even though we sat in the warmth, a fascinating fog came and went off the Beaufort Sea, eventually engulfing us during our walk back.
After an excellent lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches, Whitey had us meet at the Beaufort Sea shoreline, where we participated in his much-acclaimed plunge into the Arctic Ocean and warmed ourselves afterwards by a huge bonfire.
We all gathered firewood and piled it up into a huge teepee-shaped burn pile, and soon it was ablaze. With much yelling and screaming, we all ran into the cold, crashing ocean! A few hearty souls went in twice, and at least one went a third time – well done, Keith!
Dinner was a delicious homemade lasagna. We said more “thank you’s” to our guides and were in bed by midnight.
It rained hard all night, from the moment we climbed into our tent until 7 a.m. when it stopped. Amazingly, the cloud ceiling was high, with plenty of room for our incoming flights to take us home.
Whitey had made up the flight list the night before, and those chosen to fly out first had already packed up their campsites by the time Dee and I showed up for our breakfast of pancakes and real maple syrup.
The first flight arrived as expected, landing on an incredibly short runway distance on the gravel strip beside camp. The first group departed with much fanfare. The second group left about three hours later.
Fortunately, a beaver taildragger had arrived between the two flights, with only one pilot, to take a smaller load of heavier boxes and gear. That single-engine aircraft runs at a much lower cost compared to the Twin Otters.
The sky was virtually clear blue when our flight arrived. An hour or so later, we were in Inuvik on our way to the Mackenzie Hotel for a much-needed shower and cleanup. Soon after, our group met at our favourite hospital cafeteria restaurant for a chicken dinner.
Most of us were at the airport by noon for flights south. I managed to squeeze in a CBC radio interview summarizing the rafting trip, which aired later in the day. What an amazing expedition we all had!
People & Culture
As the climate heats up, so do talks over land ownership in the Arctic. What does Canadian Arctic Sovereignty look like as the ice melts?
In February 2021, the world was introduced to Mutehekau Shipu — also known as the Magpie River — when the people of Ekuanitshit, Que. and the regional municipality made a joint declaration granting the river legal personhood and rights. The declaration carries broad implications for the fight to protect nature across Canada and around the world.
People & Culture
Award recipients honoured in the first virtual Annual General Meeting and Fellows Show.
People & Culture
Explorer Adam Shoalts, who completed his monumental 4,000-kilometre journey on September 6, speaks to Canadian Geographic about an expedition that calls to mind the likes of Vilhjalmur Stefansson and Joseph Tyrrell