Canoeing the Soper River Valley

“Any landing is a good landing!” our bush pilot hollers above the clamor as his heavily loaded twin-engine Otter hits the 150-yard scrap of tundra runway hard, bouncing repeatedly before screeching to a halt. Just moments ago, the rest of us-five tense, hushed passengers-snugged up our seatbelts and braced for one of those moments that compel complete strangers to turn to one another for solace.

And strangers we are on this eastern Canadian island of Baffin, the world’s fifth largest. With its stark, treeless mountains and icy rock ridges protruding like ribs, Baffin’s landscape looks like the naked bones of the earth, a place as desolate as anywhere on the planet. Right?

Not quite. Two hundred miles below the Arctic Circle, on southern Baffin’s Meta Incognita Peninsula, lies a far-north aberration, an ecological oasis in an otherwise barren desert of glaciers, boulders, and midnight sun. And like all deserts where water magically flows, the Soper River valley has a life-giving spirit, drawing animals, birds, and a relatively lush community of vegetation to its shores. Adventure-lusting paddlers, we’ve succumbed to the lure of the Soper as well.

Before unloading the plane-jammed with dry bags and expedition canoes-our brawny, pipe-smoking trip leader, Martin Brown, consoles us with the fact that last year’s landing was even rougher. “The passengers were equally divided between screamers and pukers,” he says. “When the plane finally came in, it rolled off the end of the tundra into a shallow section of the river. Hell, this time we didn’t even leave the runway!”

Thus comforted, my lurching stomach nearly back in place, I stumble out and take a look at this strange new world of sharp, crystalline light and wild, windswept vistas. I like what I see. Covered with a mantle of richly hued, flowering tundra, punctuated by 150-year-old birch and willow trees all of six inches tall, the countryside is serene and austere. And in the midst of all this stillness, the swift Soper River rolls on, a highway to the unknown.

Yes indeed, the far north has a way of obliterating the known and expected, dishing out unforeseen circumstances despite months of planning. After a brief scout, our leader gets right to the point: the Soper is running considerably lower than the previous year-maybe a foot and a half-with rocks the size of basketballs clogging the course and only a few clean runs between. “The bad news is we might have to do some dragging in this upper stretch,” Martin muses between puffs on his pipe. “The good news is we’ll probably be able to run some of the heavy rapids we had to portage or line last year.”

As our leader has predicted, we spend our first day pulling and paddling single-file through shallow, rocky whitewater. By mid-afternoon, we confront our first major barrier: a tricky stair-step rapid. Martin’s technique to get around it is simple-backbreaking, but simple. Unable to line from our position, we hoist, drag, and sled the ultra-laden canoes up the bank and along a caribou trail to a point about 150 yards downstream. At the conclusion of our hour-long carry, we throw our weary bodies on the arctic heather and Martin lights up for a leisurely smoke. “This, folks,” he announces, “concludes your aerobics class for today. You won’t get that kind of workout at Club Med.”

After our all-too-brief rest we negotiate more obstacle-strewn Class I-II rapids, but then the bottom falls out of the river. Literally. As far downstream as we can squint, the liquid thread bristles with smooth, round, shiny rocks, and for the remainder of the day we water-walk the beastly boats over the newly named Soper Minefields. However, fully aware of the vagaries of arctic travel, we rally and take this latest setback in stride.

The following morning brings more of the same: push, shove, haul, hop in, hop out, punch through rock-strewn rapids. We are moving at the pace a fat baby crawls. Unperturbed, Martin predicts that our shallow water travail will soon be over. “Oh, really?” interjects Bob, a trial lawyer from Boston, in his most diplomatic manner. “Could it be, dear guide, that you know something we don’t know, or maybe you heard about the mutiny in your midst?”

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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