Thursday, July 10, 2008

Banks Island; The Thomsen River Kayak Trip

The summer of 2005, club member Dean Behse, my wife Kathy and I were able to fulfill a long time dream. We joined two naturalist guides and five other guests for a once in a lifetime kayak trip down the remote Thomsen River in the Canadian Arctic. The trip came highly recommended and we were drawn to the area by the sheer remoteness of the place and the promise of an abundant birds and wildlife living in an area virtually untouched by humans. We were not disappointed.

The Thomsen River flows north in Aulavik National Park on Banks Island, which lies at the western entrance to the fabled Northwest Passage. About the size of Vancouver Island, Banks is home to less than 200 year around residents and the remote Aulavik Park sees fewer than fifty visitors in a typical year. The Thomsen can only be paddled during a narrow June-July window after the ice melts and before the water flow drops and it becomes too shallow. Like several other Canadian Arctic parks, Aulavik can only be reached by plane during the short summer season and offers absolutely no services of any kind for the visitor.

“That is the beauty of the place,” says Dean. “It’s totally undeveloped. Once you are in the park you’re on your own.”

We chose W&S Expeditions, a Canadian tour company, to lead our band of adventurers. We’d kayaked with them on two other occasions and it was their glowing reports of Banks Island wildlife that placed it on our “must see” list. The lead guide, Bob Saunders, was a biologist with nearly ten years experience guiding in the north country. The second guide, Jamie Whiteside contributed arctic experience, a penchant for organization and an exceptional singing voice to the mix.

In mid June the Bellevue contingent met former club member David Harrison, four other guests and the guides in Edmonton, Alberta, for the start of the journey. We flew north to Inuvik by commercial jet, spent the night and then boarded a chartered Twin Otter (the big brother to the deHavilland Single Otter flown locally by Kenmore Air) for the three hour flight across the Beaufort Sea to Banks.

Lacking a formal runway, a luxury in the Arctic, the Otter deposited us on the flat shoreline of the Thomsen River and left with the promise of a return flight from a particular sand island near the mouth of the river two weeks hence.

The plane’s departure was one of the more memorable moments of the trip. It lifted off into a snow filled 30 knot wind leaving our group standing on the treeless tundra beside a jumbled pile containing five collapsible kayaks, five tents and a mountain of food and personal gear. As we dug through the pile in search of additional winter clothes we all questioned the sanity of otherwise normal people who would give up home and hearth to come to such a barren place.

Once tents were up and anchored, providing us with a respite from the wind, spirits revived and we began to assess the island that was to be our home for the next two weeks. The slow flowing Thomsen is surrounded by low, rolling hills. From a distance the ground looks quite dead but on closer examination the tundra is very much alive with masses of hardy plants and spring flowers on a spongy base.
The first day was devoted to repacking our food stocks into kayak sized nylon bags which were distributed so each kayak carried a portion of the group supplies. In the land of the midnight sun the packing operation carried us into the evening and the first dinner wasn’t served until well past 10:00 p.m.

“Time somehow loses meaning when you have no schedule and it’s light 24-hours a day,” said Dean. “It became difficult to remember what day it was!”

The next morning we assembled our collapsible Klepper kayaks, by stretching their rubberized canvas skin over a fragile looking wooden frame. The sturdy little boats proved to be quite seaworthy and capable of carrying two people and all of our food and camping equipment.
The second day we fell into a routine that would be maintained for the duration of our Banks Island stay. With 24-hour daylight, eating habits were adjusted to reflect an Arctic tempo; breakfast mid morning, lunch late afternoon and dinner between 8:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. Any concern about sleeping in our bright yellow tents with the midnight sun were quickly dispelled. Typically tired after a day of paddling or hiking, no one complained about the light. On kayaking days we would break camp, be on the river by late morning and in a new camp by early evening. Other days we would stay ashore and devote our time to hiking, fishing or just relaxing.

The prevailing north wind was a factor everyday. The good news was that it kept all but the hardiest bugs at bay. But, with rare exceptions, it was always blowing against us on the river creating a paddling challenge. One afternoon we simply gave up paddling, tied lines to the kayaks and walked along the shore, dragging the boats behind.

Where possible we tucked our five rugged little tents into gullies beside the river, sheltered from the strongest winds. Our guides capitalized on that protection allowing them to perform kitchen magic at meal time. Breakfast ranged from staples like cold cereal and oatmeal to pancakes, omelets and eggs benedict. Lunch, in camp or on the river, consisted of cold cuts, fruit, a variety of breads and other surprises. Dinner was the highlight of the eating day. Soups, chili, burritos, cous cous and polenta served with assorted canned meats kept everyone’s calorie count up. When the fishermen were successful their Arctic char or trout would be added to the menu.

The promised wildlife did not disappoint us. The island is home to the world’s largest muskox herd. Built like an American buffalo the muskox sports a shaggy winter coat well adapted to the harsh northern winters. In the summer, as they shed their winter fur, they look a bit ragged. We saw them every day; sometimes in the distance and sometimes very close to camp. Normally they are skittish around people but we heard they can be aggressive so we treated them with respect. Wolf, fox and the hamster-like lemming rounded out the mammal populations. None of them proved curious enough to threaten our food supplies.

Dean, an early riser at home, maintained that schedule on the river taking morning hikes while everyone else slept. On one such hike he spotted and photographed the only wolf seen on the trip.

“He captured an image on his digital camera so we wouldn’t write off the sighting as a tall tale,” Kathy offered with a smile.

Bob, the guide, favored midnight hikes and had excellent luck spotting difficult to find birds and wildlife well after midnight.
Any concern about potential polar bears was put to rest by the guides who pointed out that the big white bears favor the ice pack along the island coast where the seal hunting is best. While not unheard of near the mouth of the Thomsen the guides had never encountered a bear up-river and rated the risk low. That was fine with us.

The wide variety of birds nesting on Banks provided a never ending aerial show. Considering that migrating birds must cross all of northern Canada and 100 miles of open sea to reach Banks the variety of bird life impressed us. Snowy owls, gyrfalcons, peregrine falcons, eiders, loons and sandhill cranes were just some of the species we identified.

In addition to birds and wildlife our guides provided an archeological bonus. Several hundred year old campsites along the river gave evidence of native peoples that once lived in this harsh environment. The absence of contemporary visitors meant the stone tent rings and other signs of native life were well preserved.

After 13 days, 100 miles of paddling, eight different camps, seven fish tales, one wolf tale and, between us all, about 2900 photographs we pulled ashore for the last time on a sand island that was to be our final campsite and the landing strip for the return flight. With a mix of relief and sadness we began taking the kayaks apart and organizing our gear for the flight out.

There had been some difficult days when wind and rain lashed our campsite, driving us into our tents for hours at a time. There was a day on the water when the wind was so persistent it felt like we were paddling in molasses. But those days were more than offset by the wildlife, the sunny days and the stark beauty of the island. Both guides and guests had made the best of every situation and nary a discouraging word was heard during the two weeks.

As the day of departure dawned we were reminded of Arctic Travel Rule #1 in the park visitor guide. “The schedule will change. Poor weather conditions often prevent scheduled flights from arriving on time. A delayed departure is a real possibility ...”

Via satellite phone the guides confirmed that weather in Inuvik had delayed all flights and put our schedule in jeopardy. After a long day of uncertainty we learned our plane was in the air and finally, as midnight approached, the sound of the reliable Otter was heard. After a last look around our river home we climbed aboard and were soon heading back to a world of cell phones and internet access.

“It was nice to be back but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. The trip proves there still are places on this earth where you can truly ‘get away from it all,’” said Dean.
Would we recommend the trip to others?

“Absolutely! It is one of the few unspoiled places left,” said Kathy. “I loved the birds and wildflowers. Another trip north is on my life list, but not this year.”

Northern Canada offers a range of choices for the would-be traveler. Many are accessible by car and lodging choices range from first class hotels to tents in the tundra. But the area can easily be enjoyed without “roughing it.” Festivals, fishing, hiking, boating, wildlife viewing and just driving around are options. A variety of online resources are available to help with your travel planning.

Canadian National Parks: The parks site provides information about the Canadian system; what to expect, how to get there and trip planning information.

Provincial Government: The two northern provinces most accessible from Bellevue are the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Both have excellent sites to assist with your travel planning.
For the Yukon visit
For the Northwest Territories visit

Guides and Outfitters: There are many qualified outfitters and guides. They can be found with a web search or through links from the government sites. Outfitters in the area include:
W&S Expedition which offers several kayak trips in the area.
Nahanni River Adventures which offers trips on most of the areas major rivers.
Canadian River Expeditions which offers rafting and canoeing trips.
Black Feather offers canoe, kayak and hiking trips. The also offer women only trips.


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