Paddling Through Grizzly Country

by John Lentz

Sycamore Islander, October 2001

The Horton River offered over four hundred
miles of paddling above the Arctic Circle

What is the stirring that draws one back to northern Canada? After 14 canoe trips in the region over the past 40 years, a fair conclusion might be that the time has come for me to pass beyond such pursuits. The question could be answered with deep philosophical introspection; however, dedicated wilderness paddlers simply schedule another trip.

So it was not all that surprising to find three Washington area river rats emerging from a Twin Otter bush plane on a small un-named lake near the upper Horton River last July 2nd. Joe Lederle of Arlington, Virginia and Bob Schaefer from Mt. Airy, Maryland had been with me on 10 previous trips. Talk about veteran paddlers -- our average age was 65! Anders Karlsson out of Calgary, Alberta was the "youngster" of the party at 45. We had selected the Horton as its 410-mile route, from a wilderness north of Great Bear Lake to the Arctic Ocean, lay mostly along the tree line. Often one side of the river was well-timbered with white spruce, while the other was barren tundra. The river also had a manageable gradient of 3 feet per mile, and we predicted few portages.

Our put-in lake was half-filled with ice. Frigid shoreline shallows made for quick travel to the outlet. There we found a surprisingly good volume in a creek that would carry us to the Horton itself. Our stream work came to an abrupt halt when Joe spotted a mother grizzly and cub coming toward us. It's one thing to sight bear from the relative safety of a broad river, but quite another when wading down a channel just a foot wider than our canoe. With nowhere to hide and ursus horribilis rapidly closing, we breathed easier when, 50 yards off, mother caught our scent and steered her cub away to "safer" ground.

A few hundred mosquitoes try to penetrate Joe Lederle's headnet

We joined the Horton later that day about 20 miles from its headwaters. This was two days travel upstream from the standard put-in, the outflow from Horton Lake, for the half-dozen or so parties that run the river each year. The extra mileage was well worth it. We were treated to tundra country with the arctic willow buds just starting. Snow banks and grazing caribou were everywhere -- a northland paradise. Next day we encountered the first trees, then a habitation. It was a teepee frame of great age and almost primitive in construction. Although the spruce poles were firmly locked together at the peak, their base showed no use of an axe. Descending the Horton in plastic canoes with freeze-dried food and a satellite phone, we had little idea of the harsh conditions experienced by Indian families a half century ago.

The Horton carried us forward as we had anticipated: lots of riffles and easy rapids as the river cut between hills rising almost 800 feet. It was far from pristine, champagne-clear water. On most of the outer bends massive clods of humus were clawed away, often dropping before our eyes. As they separated, the river became an opaque brown that was unappealing to view and not the greatest for fishing, but not harmful to drink. Having good weather, we could clock 30 miles a day with time left over for an afternoon hike out of the valley.

Rapids in the canyon country

Progress slowed when we encountered two days of canyon country where 100-foot walls hemmed some challenging whitewater. About a dozen Class 3-4 rapids had to be scouted, sometimes after inching along the cliffside. Most were run on the less turbulent inside bend, but one heavy stretch had us carrying around for our only portage of the trip. When we paddled, peregrine falcons and bald eagles screeched at our intrusion from nests high above. At the inflow of a clear water tributary below the canyons, Anders caught a 23-inch northern pike that took one meal too many. The greedy thing already had two undigested fish in its stomach and was taking on a third when it bit the lure.

On the subject of digestion, we were witness a few days later to a grizzly's lunch. The bear was loping intently along the river's edge with his nose to the ground. No interest was shown in our canoes so we kept pace, only to see a ground squirrel make a mad dash uphill for its den. It was no contest. The swift-moving bear caught up to it in two bounds and came down on lunch with both front paws. We wisely decided not to interfere, and even had our own meal on the opposite bank.

We pulled ashore where Coal Creek dribbled into the Horton. Here the renowned arctic ethnographer and explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, together with another scientist and ten Inuit passed the winter of 1911-12. Using a photo from Stefansson's book, My Life With The Eskimo, and some good intuition, Bob found their cabin site about a mile up Coal Creek in a dense growth of spruce. Along the creek bank in a tangle of willow branches, we stumbled over what appeared to be an old rusted piece of sheet iron that had formed the sides of a wood-burning stove. While the artifact cannot unequivocally be traced to the Stefansson expedition, I thought it was sufficiently interesting to bring out and give to the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, the Northwest Territories' museum. Work on its origin is continuing.

After Coal Creek the country changed. Trees faded out at 69' 33' N. latitude, which we believe is the most northern forest in the western hemisphere. Bob and I briefly discussed our good fortune in being able to observe the limit of trees in both hemispheres, the other being on a 1990 trip in northern Siberia.

The Horton River with spruce in the valley
and tundra at higher elevations.

At the time, we were paddling by the Smoking Hills. This is a literal naming as lignite deposits have been smoldering there ever since being observed by the first Western explorer in 1826. Various minerals have created areas devoid of vegetation that engender an eerie other-worldliness.

On July 24 we came down the last bend of the Horton to look out onto an ice-choked Arctic Ocean. In terms of ice on the water, it brought us full circle from our landing lake. As we passed under a prominent hill on that final stretch, I looked up to see a lone caribou silhouetted against the azure sky. Was it a symbolic farewell from all those northern animals whose paths I've crossed? My take is that it was an au revoir from the Horton; I'll return to the north.

John Lentz has been a prominent participant in Washington area canoeing activities for many years, and is also a long-time member of the Sycamore Island Club. He and his wife Judy live up the hill from the Island. The photographs were taken on the trip by Bob Schaefer.