50 days and 51 nights
Teen canoeists conquer the Arctic

Daniel MacIsaac
Northern News Services

INUVIK (Aug 27/99) - A group of 12 weary teens paddled into Inuvik last week after having spent 50 days on the land -- canoeing up and down the territory's rivers and battling cold, rain, bugs and portages.

Refreshed after a shower at Happy Valley Camp Ground on Wednesday night, the vast majority said that given the chance they'd head right back out into the bush.

"Right away, we'd go right away," they shouted together -- making it very clear they'd prefer to pick up their paddles than pack their bags and head home the following day.

Led by councillors Julie Sunday and Mike Payne, the 16 and 17-year-olds had come from Camp Wanapitei, outside Temagami, Ont. -- where many of them have spent their summers growing up, getting to know nature and setting off on canoe trips around the country.

Sunday said this trip was the camp's first visit to the Inuvik region in several years, adding that when the group set off from Norman Wells in late June, it was charged with the task of charting a new canoe route for the camp.

"The idea of the trip was to find an exploratory route," she said, "and to have both an upstream and a downstream section."

She said, for example, that the group started upriver out of Norman Wells along the Loon River before heading downstream toward the Arctic coast. There was only one problem -- water levels. Sunday said the easy downstream section that the group had been looking forward to as an easy stretch proved to be the most difficult part of the trip. Shallow water left boulders and tree trunks exposed and forced the teens to do a lot more portaging with heavy packs, wading and sawing than they had expected.

"Just when we expected an easy ride, we got this insane creek," confirmed Martha McDonnell. "We were doing these 12 and 13-hour days, up to our waists all the time in murky water because we had to keep getting out to cut logs so we could get by."

In fact, McDonnell said she nearly lost her head on the creek -- literally -- when it got wedged between an overhanging branch and luggage in her canoe.

Other challenges along the way included cool temperatures and plenty of cool rain.

"Whenever we stopped we were so cold we had to build these huge insanity bonfires with eight-foot flames," said Willy Inglis. "We'd still be shaking for a half-hour."

But American Lilly Morrow from Vermont said the kids took the tough times in stride.

"There were no bad parts of the trip," she said. "There were hard days, but they just made the rest of it that much more wonderful -- almost everyone was in tears at different times, but you learned to go with it and everyone was there for you."

Certainly the group had as many tales of triumph to tell as those of tragedy. Torontonian Meredith McEvoy said her finest moment came when the group emerged from the river valley onto a smooth-as-glass Arctic Ocean, which they would paddle on for the next two weeks.

"We came out onto the ocean and it was our first real time seeing the tundra -- and it was just flat," she said. "There were beluga whales and there was a warm breeze coming off onto the water."

With memories like that, even Katie O'Brien, who hadn't immediately shouted on Wednesday that she was ready for more canoeing, said she soon would be.

"As soon as I get back to the city, I know I'm going to want to turn around and come back here," she said.