Wilderness Canoeing Above the Arctic Circle

canoeing above the arctic circle

Jim and Brian canoeing the Horton River, Northwest Territories (photo courtesy of Maggie Matear)

Minnesota canoeist, Jim Gallagher, has been on more than 20 wilderness canoe trips above the Arctic Circle in Canada and Alaska. He’s written and shared photos about some of his travels on Canoeing.com.

“At 69° North Latitude in the Canadian Arctic, the summer of 2014 seemed to have taken a vacation. Elsewhere on the globe, this year shaped up to be the warmest in 134 years of recorded weather history. On Victoria Island in Nunavut, the warmth experienced elsewhere on the planet was elusive. In July the residents of the Arctic hamlet of Cambridge Bay could not remember a year when so much ice remained on inland lakes and the saltwater bays of the island they call home.” (excerpt from “Summer at 69º North Latitude”)

We wanted to hear Jim’s story about how he got into wilderness canoeing and what he loves about paddling in the Arctic. Here’s our conversation:

AQUA BOUND: Tell us about your canoeing background.

JIM: My first Boundary Waters trip was as a college student in 1976. I went with an organized group and we were out for two weeks.

When you’re 20 you think you know a lot! And pretty quickly you learn you don’t know much. But you know what you like, and the Boundary Waters was really an eye-opening experience for me. It got me started in paddling. I had paddled before, but not tripping.

I came back (to Minnesota) and worked with the Youth Conservation Corp and traveled into the Boundary Waters to work on projects. That was another eye-opener: You can actually live and work out here. So I kept returning for jobs.

brian johnston canoeing the arctic

Jim’s canoeing partner, Brian Johnston

I took a job as a wilderness ranger in 1980 and worked in the Boundary Waters for five seasons. I thought “This is the best job ever!” You can live out of a Duluth pack all summer long and work. Some of the best work years of my life were in the Boundary Waters. That was the beginning of my 30-year career with the Forest Service.

When you work in the wilderness, in the Boundary Waters, you really don’t have time to travel. It wasn’t until I transitioned out of the wilderness work that I began to see opportunities to go elsewhere. And here in Minnesota a lot of people go north into Canada and the Arctic. I worked with a lot of those people and always wanted to go. But it wasn’t until 1992 that I took my first trip into the Arctic. Since then I’ve been on 21 trips in the Canadian Arctic and Alaska, and I’m not done yet, I hope!

AB: What is it you love about the Canadian Arctic and canoeing there?

JIM: The Boundary Waters is a national treasure…an international treasure, no doubt about it. But there’s this whole other world at the north of our continent that’s mostly untrammeled wilderness. It’s full of rivers you can paddle, and tundra you can walk, and animals that have never seen a human. It’s simply true wilderness.

There’s not this feeling that you’re in a national park. Some people see the Boundary Waters as a national park—it’s not, it’s a wilderness. But there’s another level of wilderness that exists in the north.

Once I experienced that I needed to go back! That helps explain 21 trips, and increasingly harder trips. You gain skill and confidence and you see rivers no one’s traveled before. If you’ve got the skills and where-with-all to get out there you can go places where modern people haven’t been before…at least modern people.

float planes carrying canoes arctic circle

Float planes are a main means of transportation in the Arctic

AB: What kind of person do you need to be to do these kinds of wilderness canoe trips?

JIM: You need to be comfortable with isolation and solitude. I’ve been with people who get a little bit wigged out being that isolated, and being with their own thoughts for weeks. You have to be comfortable with that. And that comes with time and wilderness travel. The more you do it the more comfortable you are in your own skin.

Attention to detail. Logistics get really complicated on far north trips. There are a lot of modes of travel: getting across the border, airlines, charter groups, working with Inuit boat operators. There are lots of details to thread together to make things happen, and not a lot of cushion for mistakes. You forget something and you’re out of luck. There’s no REI up in Baker Lake, Nunavut! You have to be self-reliant.

Another part of it is working within a group. Lately I’ve been traveling with one other person, Brian Johnston. He and I been doing these trips since 2013, but even working with Brian there’s an attitude of working for the common good. An absence of selfishness and having to be thinking about the collective. That’s even more important when you’re in a bigger group. I’ve traveled in groups of 4 or 6, and the dynamics can get complicated, especially if they’re new people.

What I realized in ’92 when I went on my first Arctic trip is that the Arctic is not the Boundary Waters. There’s a whole different set of skills you need to be a good Arctic paddler. The rules are different up there. You’re very far away and you have to be able to assess your own skills accurately. A know-it-all attitude is a dangerous thing there.

At this point I think I know what I don’t know, and have a set of skills I’ve developed over a couple decades. I’m in a different spot than a newbie and like to help people when I can so they won’t make the same mistakes I did!

canoe on an arctic river

Jim navigates a ledge (photo courtesy of Brian Johnston)

AB: Did you ever have an emergency during one of your trips that truly frightened you?

JIM: No medical emergency, per se. There were some things that were of concern—people broke bones, a twisted ankle on one trip.

I had an issue with a polar bear on a trip. The bear stuck its head in my tent, woke me up at 2:00 in the morning by pushing at my feet. The head on a polar bear is huge, and I sat up and was 2-3 feet from the face of this polar bear looking at me.

Things devolved through the morning and the bear didn’t leave us alone. It was the beginning of the end of our trip right there. That was our biggest close call in my 20-some years of paddling up there.

I learned a lot about bears and preparing for trips in bear country from that experience. We were prepared, but maybe had let our guard down. We don’t want to underestimate them.

musk ox

Other large Arctic residents include musk oxen

AB: Where have your latest canoe trips been?

JIM: 2018 and ’19 were 300-mile and 250-mile trips that were challenging and new. They weren’t well-traveled routes that anyone had any information on. That’s the lure for me for going north—the opportunity to go places where nobody has, and then talk and write about them and share photos.

2020 was a lot of local paddling, lots of local day trips. You have to “live to fight another day”…stay healthy and plan for the future. I’m going back to Yellowstone with a friend in a few weeks. Then, hopefully, in January going to Antartica for some sea kayaking around the islands. That’s a bucket list trip for me.

AB: Why do you use Aqua Bound canoe paddles?

JIM: I really like equipment that works and that lasts. I’ve got three of the Aqua Bound paddles [Aqua Bound Edge 3-piece and 2-piece paddles]. The Aqua Bound paddles are just solid, you don’t have to baby them. For going down rocky rivers and paddling whitewater they haven’t let us down at all.

The sectional ones are very compact. I’ve traveled in groups with whole pack of paddles that don’t break down and it’s costs you money to ship them. But I can take the Aqua Bound paddles apart and fit them in a pack and you’re good to go. It’s an element of practicality and cost.

jim gallagher arctic wilderness canoeing

Jim Gallagher (photo courtesy of Brian Johnston)

Read Jim’s trip stories on Canoeing.com:

Have questions about the Edge or any other of our paddles? Contact our friendly Customer Service team today: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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