Thomas Simpson, wandering this country on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company in the early part of the nineteenth century, must have been having a bad day when he came across a string of lakes lying half-way between the arctic circle and the coast. He called them the Dismal Lakes.
Like any other place on the planet, the lakes probably can look a little "dismal" at times, but on a sunny late-summer day, after the mosquitos are spent, it’s a pretty place. The scrubby trees are scattered over the south-facing slopes, creating a park-like landscape. Small creeks enter the lake every half-mile or so over waterfalls and through small canyons. And, they say, there are big lake trout here!
I’ve taken a day of leave and left Kugluktuk bright and early. The first leg of the flight takes me to Hope Lake, once a large mining exploration camp. In the late 1960's, political upheaval in what was then the Belgian Congo threatened to cut off the world’s major source of copper and drove prices to new highs. Every square inch of land for a hundred miles around the lower Coppermine River was staked, and one can still find old two-by-two claim stakes from that era, complete with their little brass tags and claim numbers. Hope Lake is now just one of many messes left behind from the time, with little "hope" that the abandoned oil drums, bulk fuel tanks, remnants of buildings and contaminated soil will ever be cleaned up. With the help of lax securities laws and the Vancouver Stock Exchange, a few dozen people made a killing and a few thousand lost their shirts. So ended the largest staking rush in Canadian history to that time, without an ounce of copper ever being mined.
There’s still an airstrip at Hope Lake. I last visited the place in the eighties by DC-3, and we landed and took off again without difficulty. Now the strip is almost unrecognizable - the willows and "chuck-holes" would make for an interesting landing that would certainly focus the mind.
The very first time I visited Hope Lake was on a January weekend in the early seventies. The camp was still in use during the summer and a watchman, a grizzled french-Canadian, lived there alone all winter. The previous night, David Klengenberg and I had slept (or tried to) in a tent after a day of caribou hunting. The watchman later told us that it had been -54F that night. The second night we slept on the floor of the watchman’s trailer - luxury!
After a 13-mile hop over a range of hills, it’s a down-hill glide to a landing on Dismal Lake. Sometimes the best place to beach a float plane is not the most ideal fishing spot, and that’s how it is today. I half-heartedly try a few casts, but spend most of the next three hours admiring a landscape that I’ve seldom seen during the summer months. My aeroplane has now changed that!
I turn on my new Iridium satellite ‘phone and notice a text message from my wife. "I’m up", it says, meaning that I can now place a call without disturbing her slumber. The technology of today, particularly GPS for navigation and satellite ‘phones for communications, means that lost and missing pilots are now pretty much a thing of the past - as long as the batteries don’t die!
With the wind coming up on the big lake, it’s time to leave. The next leg takes me down the short but scenic Kendall River to it’s meeting with the Coppermine. I had planned a landing here, but it will have to be cross-wind and into the strong current. Besides, the beach doesn’t look too friendly for fibreglass floats. I pass on the stop-over, probably missing the chance for an arctic char.
Now it’s up and over the September Mountains to the Mouse Lake exploration camp, just a 20-mile hop. The well-maintained camp is beside a large lake, and a sandy beach in front of the camp makes an ideal place to moor the ‘plane. I’m welcomed by the camp manager and others that I had met in the spring of 2006, and they graciously invite me to stay for lunch. The pilots and prospecting crews are all out in the field for the day. There are a few caribou here, and they don’t seem the least annoyed by these humans with their noisy helicopters and diesel generators. The camp is comfortable, with good food, satellite telephone and TV.
After re-fuelling the ‘plane, I’m off again for home. The next ten miles are over the mountains, a rugged sedimentary basin that the geologists tell me was once located near the equator. It’s a hot-bed of geological investigation, and these days the quarry is uranium or diamonds, or whatever the stock-market flavour-of-the-day might be.
The Coppermine River soon comes into view, and I begin following it in the general direction of Kugluktuk, still about 40-miles away. Following a river is usually a pretty safe thing for a float-equipped aircraft, but the lower stretches of the Coppermine have fast water with many rapids. If one were forced to make a landing on the river there would be a very real danger of being swept through rapids. It occurs to me that a safer course of action would be to make a wheels-up landing on the flattest piece of available tundra. At least one could avoid drowning!
I soon approach the Musk Ox Rapids, named by Samuel Hearne in 1771. Sure enough, the musk-ox are still here! Two herds, of about thirty animals each, graze peacefully on the eastern slopes overlooking the rapids. Just above the rapids I pass a beached canoe but see no humans. No doubt they are out photographing the musk-oxen. Mid-way through the rapids a 100-foot waterfall tumbles over the cliff-top and into the river.
Bloody Falls comes into view, again named by Hearne for the massacre of Inuit on this spot by his Chipweyan guides in 1771. From the hill overlooking the falls, Hearne was the first European to see this part of the Arctic Ocean. Quite unlike the more "civilized" parts of this country, the scene one sees today remains almost unchanged in the intervening 250-years.
The days are getting shorter now, and this will be the last major trip of the season for my Challenger and I. In another two weeks there could be snow on the ground. Then I’ll make the change-over back to tundra tires for the winter, then to wheel-skis in March. I’ll soon have to set my net in the Coppermine River and spend a week or so at the cabin, commuting daily with the winter’s supply of fish. After that, the cabin will have to be winterized, water tanks drained, docks hauled to high ground, and a hundred other small jobs. Soon the cold, dark days of winter will be upon us again - and I can relax a little!
Photo: Some of the things that makes Kugluktuk unique among Nunavut communities are the variety of landscapes and geology and our proximity to the tree-line. This is part of Dismal Lake, just seventy miles south of the community.