The Quoich River (175 km / 12 days)

The Quoich River is a lesser-known river in Nunavut and is approximately 370 km in length, flowing into Baker Lake. It is a treasure trove of wildlife and Inuit culture. Unlike better-known rivers in the Canadian North, it is far more difficult to access so it is rarely travelled.

The river is fast-moving with frequent rapids; fortunately, most are easily run. Most of the rapids consist of large standing waves and one rarely has to deal with rocks. We were the only group to paddle down the river in 2019. In previous years, I had paddled big-name rivers like the Nahanni, Coppermine and Snake so was looking for something different. I discovered an outfitter named Wanapitei Canoe and was very happy with the decision to go on this trip.

This trip report covers a section of the river that starts about halfway down and ends close to the mouth. Since access to the river is only possible by a plane landing on the tundra, there are only certain spots where it is possible to land. Normally there is not a lot of rainfall in the area, but 2019 was exceptionally wet which made tundra landings even more difficult.

Trip Completed: August 2019


Trip Summary

Starting Point: Quoich River (65.1521, -94.21133)

Ending Point: Quoich River (64.3713, -94.0014)

Total Distance: 175 km

Duration: 12 days

Difficulty: Advanced

Location

The Quoich River is found about 250 km north of the town of Baker Lake, Nunavut. Interestingly enough, Baker Lake is very close to the geographic centre of Canada. Travelling to Baker Lake is an adventure in itself.

Many people in the canoeing world associate Baker Lake with the end of the Thelon River and many trips end here. The journey to Baker Lake starts in Winnipeg. The only airline to use is Calm Air. Our first flight started in Winnipeg and stopped in Churchill, ending at Rankin Inlet.

Weather delays are very common due to the proximity to Hudson Bay and my flights were no exception as I feasted on vending machine junk food and counted ceiling tiles in both airports for a few hours. Once I landed in Rankin Inlet, I changed planes and landed in Chesterfield Inlet and finally in Baker Lake, where it was a balmy August 4 day of 5C.

Traditional Territory: The area of Nunavut where the trip was located is traditional Inuit land. The people here are mostly part of the Kivallirmiut (Caribou Inuit). The Inuit were a traditionally nomadic people but, thanks to oppressive Canadian government policies, were forced to abandon their lifestyles and now live mostly in towns and hamlets like Baker Lake.

Maps & Resources

Maps: Here are the maps we referenced:

  • 56 E/1 (Unnamed)
  • 56 E/2 (Unnamed)
  • 56 D/15 (Unnamed)
  • 56 D/15 (Unnamed)
  • 56 D/9 (Unnamed)
  • 56 D/8 (Unnamed)

And here is a map of the route and campsites.

Guidebook: There are no canoe route guidebooks and very limited information about the river. When going on a trip like this, I think it is very important to connect to the people who rightfully own the land.

I suggest reading Inuit Quajimajatuqangit – What Inuit Have Always Known to Be True, by Joe Karetak, Frank Tester and Shirley Tagalik, which will give you an idea of the issues that the Inuit face. I encourage you to stop by the Baker Lake Artist Cooperative for further education and to support the community.

During our weather delay, I chatted with many interesting and friendly people in Baker Lake who were a wealth of information.

I also recommend reading the book Death on the Barrens: A True Story of Courage and Tragedy in the Canadian Arctic by George James Grinnell. It is a sober reminder about the importance of safety and planning on an arctic canoe trip. The leader of the trip was Art Moffat and he is buried at Baker Lake. 

Outfitters & Services

  • Wanapitei Canoe – Provided the guide, logistics, and equipment.
  • Calm Air – The only way to travel to Baker Lake. At the time of this trip, they took Aeroplan points as payment.
  • Baker Lake Lodge – Highly recommended. The other 2 hotels are not nearly as nice and are not geared to tourists.
  • Ookpik Aviation – Transport to the tundra.

There are 2 stores that are VERY expensive and have a limited selection – Northern Store and Sanavik Coop. It is strongly advised to bring what you need. Note that alcohol sales are prohibited in Baker Lake. 

Other than the small Tim Hortons and Pizza Hut counters in the Northern Store, there are no public restaurants. Baker Lake Lodge has amazing food for its guests.

The artist coop is worth visiting. Please support the local artists.

There is cell phone service within Baker Lake. The internet is VERY slow.

For other information, see bakerlake.ca.

Trip Report

Day 0: Weather Delay in Baker Lake

Due to strong winds and heavy rain, the trip start was delayed for a day. In spite of the inclement weather, I took the opportunity to explore Baker Lake.

The cemetery is a very interesting place to visit. Because the entire area is mostly solid bedrock, coffins are “buried” under piles of rocks. Plastic flowers and wreaths are not easily available and are quickly destroyed by the climate so some people honour their loved ones with pieces of their lives that were dear to them, e.g. animal bones, snowmobile parts, Montreal Canadians crests. As mentioned before, Art Moffat is buried here.

The only other thing to see in town is a small visitors centre and an artist cooperative. We spent some time back at the airport where we checked to make sure that the PakCanoes contained all of the parts. Our guide had to deal with a nasty surprise: all of the food packs were sent to Baker Lake via Canada Post and one of them had disappeared! He scrambled to buy replacement food at the Northern store which had a limited, expensive selection.

Day 1: 5 km

Tundra Plane Flight: Flying on a tundra plane is a really harrowing experience. Fortunately, our pilot was known to be one of the best in the world. He was a really interesting person; born in Switzerland, he had been offered jobs all over the world. He talked to us non-stop during the flight and every second word was the f-word.

There is limited terrain where the plane can land. The ground must not be too soft and there can’t be too many rocks. The originally planned landing spot was too wet from the record-breaking rains so he had to find another. To test that the ground was suitable to land, he would touch the wheels on the ground and then take off again. We repeated this process 7 or 8 times before landing.

While we unloaded the plane, the pilot picked mushrooms for the chef at the lodge. Fun fact: there are no poisonous mushrooms in Nunavut and the area where were has very tasty varieties. When the entire group had arrived on the second flight, we set up camp and assembled the PakCanoes.

Campsite: The campsite was one of the better ones as the terrain was flat, relatively dry and no large rocks. There are no trees in the tundra, so every campsite has a spectacular view that goes on forever. There are many wildflowers and berries out at this time of year. If you like to fish, you will be in heaven! The avid angler in our group caught multiple large lake trout every day.

Campsite Coordinates: 65.1521, -94.21133

Day 2: 24 km

I quickly discovered that a PakCanoe is not nearly as nice as a regular canoe. The seats are very uncomfortable and large pieces of foam pads were added by the outfitter so we did not have to kneel on the aluminum ribs. The spray skirt did not fit properly on the canoe so today would be the first of many times that I would have to exercise the bailing pump. The bow seat is too far forward which makes you bow-heavy.

Because the hull of the boat is soft, it is very easy to get stuck on the river bottom, which happened about 15 minutes into the trip. After running a fairly easy C2, we ran a series of swifts and C1s before we had our first falls and portage (fortunately there were only 2 portages on the trip).

The tundra terrain is not fun for portaging. There are no trails, so you basically try and go as the crow flies to the end. The terrain is mainly large slippery rocks with pools of water between them. The portage was about 1.4K and took about 3 hours. As well as the falls we avoided a tricky C3. After another series of C1s and C2s, we arrived at the campsite.

Campsite: The campsite was nice and flat but split in 2 by a little inlet. It was very relaxing to hear the sounds of the rapids right beside us.

Campsite Coordinates: 65.12839, -94.27744

Day 3: 19 km

The day consisted of about 8 easy sets of rapids and swifts. Due to the inadequate fitting of the PakCanoe spray skirt, I had my first near capsize. In a long set of rapids with high standing waves, we almost filled the boat with water.

By a miracle, we kept the boat upright and were able to paddle to shore where we pumped up the water and McGiver’ed a better bow seat that was further back in the boat and made us less bow-heavy. I was very thankful to be wearing a dry suit which protected me from the cold water and the cool wet weather.

Campsite: The campsite was a bit more rugged than the last 2, with no sand and small rocks; thank goodness for Thermarests! The wind died down and we were introduced to Nunavut blackflies. These nasty creatures are considerably smaller than the ones in Ontario but even nastier in terms of their bite which leaves red welts. For most of the remainder of the trip we wore bug jackets or bug hats. We had a huge bug-proof eating pavilion which kept us sane.

Campsite Coordinates: 65.0722, -94.64019

Day 4: Rest Day

We woke up to some heavy rain and decided to take a rest day. It is prudent on a trip like this to have lots of contingency. It rained on and off all day and we were able to better organize things. We had our first major wildlife sighting. Apparently, we had set up camp along the regular pathway of a large male muskox.

Seemingly oblivious to us, he sauntered along the perimeter of our campsite, passing very close to my tent and continued along the shore. Solitary muskox are always males that are not dominant enough to have a harem of females with calves.

Day 5: 29 km

It was nice to be back on the water. We quickly ran a couple of swifts, followed by 3 easy C1/2s. Followed by lunch we ran 6 more easy C1/2s and then called it a day by the confluence of the Quoich and Tehert Rivers; it was rare of this trip for any bodies of water to have a name and this was one of the few other than the Quoich.

Campsite: The campsite was on the east side of the Tehert River just north of its terminus. The sun was coming out again and the view was spectacular! It was worth sitting outside and braving the black flies.

Campsite Coordinates: 64.9659, -94.83951

Day 6: Rest Day for Hiking

The plan was always to make this day a hiking day. We hiked north and east to a high point and enjoyed vistas for as far as the eye can see. A couple of the group walked over to the last set of swifts that we had passed on the Quoich and went fishing. They were treated to some large Lake Trout which fed the whole group.

The end of the Tehert was quite wide and I scanned the other side with my binoculars. To my delight, I saw a herd of muskox. There were about 19, consisting of a dominant male, 5 females, and the remainder were calves.

Day 7: 27 km

As we left the campsite, we were surprised that the herd of muskox was still there. I guess it was too wide a crossing for them to care about us. For the first time in the trip, the river had turned sharp south.

We got a rare break from rapids and swifts and the river got quite wide for a couple of km. We saw a single muskox on the east shore. The river narrowed again and we ran about 4 C1/C2s. We encountered a C3 with many large boulders lined on the left side. Soon the shores got about 20 feet high on each side and were very steep. We entered a long series of C2 rapids.

I should have taken the canoe closer to the middle because the canoe started to veer too far to the right as it got caught in an eddy current. The bow-person was not able to draw strongly enough and the canoe spined around and we capsized. After going for about a 400m swim we were able to get out on the shore and, with the help of the other 2 boats, right the canoe.

Camp Site: The bow-person was cold and wet and we decided to quickly make emergency camp. It was a challenge as we had to climb up an incline for about 50 feet before it was flat enough for a campsite.

Campsite Coordinates: 64.76672, -94.80508

Day 8: 19 km

We started the day much warmer, drier and humbler. Fortunately, it was sunny and a bit warmer. The first rapid of the day was a more challenging R2/R3, where you needed to avoid a ledge, followed by a bend in the river to the left.

After much scouting, we decided to run it and it was quite fun. The river widened substantially for the next few kilometres. Soon we saw a muskox on river left and had 3 more sets of R1s that were virtual swifts because of the high water. The last few kilometres had a very fast current.

Camp Site: The campsite was both interesting and nasty. Most of the area was wet pools of water with an excess of arctic goose droppings everywhere. The bugs were the worst that they had been so far; to have some variety there were mosquitos as well as the usual blackflies. There was, however, a fascinating short hike to a high rock which provided a breathtaking view of the surrounding area. 

Campsite Coordinates: 64.59593, -94.54111

Day 9: 16 km

The fast current continued for about 2k and then the river widened into a small lake and veered to the east. For the first time on the trip, we could not escape the black flies by being on the water. There was a hill on the west bank and we noticed a mother caribou calf with her young. A little further down there was another caribou; it was standing in the water to escape the bugs.

As the river narrowed again, we ran 8 easy R1/R2s and then approached our second portage of the trip. To avoid some very difficult C4 rapids and some high ground, it would be necessary to portage about 2K over the usual wet and rocky tundra terrain. The weather had been sunny until now and a passing shower decided to come over us while we portaged.

While this portage was longer than the first, we were now more organized and tackled it in about 2.5 hours, followed by lunch. At the end of the portage, the Quoich was joined by an equally large but unnamed tributary. After a few swifts, we were about to enter the most spectacular part of the trip.

The terrain was getting much hillier and scenic, and we were entering an area used by Inuit as a hunting and meeting place for hundreds of years (and perhaps longer). We stopped to respectfully visit an Inuit burial site. Marked by an Inukshuk, the large rocky tomb had an opening at the top and there was a human skull visible inside.

It was a very emotional experience to pay our respects and I am honoured that we were one of the handful of people to do this. I can’t imagine a nicer place for a final resting spot. After about 1km more of paddling, we reached our final campsite on the river left which was next to a large area of Inuit artifacts.

Camp Site: It was an amazing experience to camp by this Inuit meeting spot. We were a short walk from numerous tent rings, wolf traps and Inukshuks. Judging by the amount of caribou hair lying around the shore, a sizeable herd had passed through recently. The fisherman in the group caught several large lake trout. 

Campsite Coordinates: 64.55759, -94.25897

Day 10: Hiking Day

Hiking Day: We had our second scheduled hiking day. After exploring the Inuit artifacts further, we hiked to the top of the hill that provided a spectacular view. We were treated to nice sunny weather; this was the first day in a while that there was no rain. There was a really large Inukshuk at the top of the hill which likely was the main marker for the meeting place.

Day 11: 14 km

Paddling: The last day of paddling was shorter, but we had much work ahead of us to prepare for pickup. After a long C1, we stopped at another campsite that had several tent rings and dozens of smaller Inukshuks. We found out later that they were used to dry out the game that was caught and make cord from the sinew. The last C1 rapid was finished in style; a couple of large standing waves half-filled the canoe and we had to pull over to use the bailing pump. After another 2k we were at our final stop; the river had widened into a small lake and we were on a large sandy island where the plane would pick us up.

Camp Site: While the large, sandy island was a perfect campsite, the bugs were the worst of the trip. The weather was warm (about 16C) and there was less wind. We packed up the PakCanoes and got things organized for the plane pickup. As it was a fairly big island, we tried to guess where the pilot would want to land so we could minimize how far to carry the gear.

Campsite Coordinates: 64.46259, -94.12213

Day 12: 0 km

Pickup: The plane arrived to pick us up on schedule. Fortunately, it was a place that the pilot had landed several times before and the weather was great. We were back in Baker Lake by early afternoon and I was able to pay one last visit to the Artist Coop. We had a great final dinner at Baker Lake and started the long, final journey home the next day.

Reflections

What Went Well

Contingency Days: The weather is very changeable and it was nice to be able to sit out 1 particularly horrible day. Because of the contingency, we were able to have 2 incredible hiking days. 

Not a One-Dimensional Trip: It was nice to be on a trip that was more than just macho paddling. The hiking, scenery, wildlife and rich Inuit culture made the trip fantastic. 

The Tundra is Beautiful: I have done 2 tundra trips and have fallen in love with the landscape. Everything is so beautiful. While have loved my trips in Ontario, the tundra is very special.

Great Outfitter: The outfitter was top-notch. You realize how important a role they play when things are not going smoothly. I highly recommend Wanapitei Canoe. I would not recommend a trip like this without a highly skilled guide.

Personal Gear: A dry suit was not mandatory but I wore it most days. It really helped with the cold, damp weather and the bugs. After having a nasty reaction to blackfly bites on a trip a few months earlier, I took extra care to avoid being bitten (e.g. bug jacket), as well as bring prescription ointment. I fared much better than others in the group.

Inuit Culture: It was an emotional experience to be immersed in the rich Inuit culture of the area. I was very grateful to be welcomed to their land.

What Could Have Gone Better

Equipment malfunctions: The PakCanoe was horrible. The other 2 canoes on the trip were much better. Consider another brand. The zipper on the group tent broke halfway through which is not fun when there are so many black flies. Do extensive gear checks before tripping in such a remote location.

Inuit Knowledge: We should have spent some personal time with one of the local Inuit elders to better understand the area and culture before leaving on the trip. Good reading material is hard to find.

Gallery