A Trip Through the Tundra Canoeing in Canada's Barrenlands

Canada’s Barrenlands are anything but. On a summer canoe trip, we found this huge swath of sub-Arctic tundra pulsing with as much variety as you could pack into a single ecosystem.

Most of the year, North America’s largest wilderness is frozen solid. But in summer, snowbanks face wildflowers; lichen-carpeted fields neighbor spruce oases; rivers run wild beneath the majestic calm of a big sky; and curious white wolves trot riverbanks vacated by molting geese.

The Barrens are a low-elevation triangle of half a million square miles between Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean. Our 11-day guided trip was to their center—the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary—a roadless patch half the size of Pennsylvania.

Our group ranged in age from 41 to 69, from veteran canoeists to relative beginners. Guided by Alex Hall of Canoe Arctic, Inc., we’d be among the 200 or fewer humans who visit this stretch of the Barrens each year.

It takes a lot of technology (and some $5,600 in outfitting and chartering fees) to reach such a wild place—two twin-engine float planes brought us 400 miles northeast of little Fort Smith in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Black lichen and wildflowers

On the ground, 100 miles north of treeline, in sunny, 70-degree late-June weather, our six yellow tents overlooked a lake half-covered by ice we’d chop through on our first morning’s paddle. Around us lay sand and rock deposited by ancient vanished rivers and glaciers; winter-browned Labrador tea and the pink blossoms of blueberries; and mats of crunchy-dry lichen. We ate sweet, wintered-over cranberries; we fished off snowbanks.

Follow the Light

In virtually 24-hour sunlight, we paddled between limestone cliffs, and past thick floating ice fields glowing blue-green and streaming with crystal meltwater. The landscape’s variability was remarkable. A brief hike would traverse a cranberry bog pocked by moose tracks; an open field where permafrost was bedrock to pillowy spaghnum moss; then an upland meadow; and finally a steep sandhill, the twisted roots of willows grasping for purchase.

We heard both the tinkling of candle ice in the lakes and the ceaseless buzz of a billion hungry mosquitoes. (Headnets are de rigueur.) After its minus-40-degree winters, the Barrens’ compacted spring and summer find plants blossoming and going to seed in a matter of weeks. Here, black spruce seedlings need a century to grow a foot, and toilet paper takes two years to biodegrade.

Indeed, by southerly standards, the tundra is “empty,” supporting vertebrates only sparsely: You might paddle an hour hearing no sound but the plish of paddles and odd bird call. But animal life there is. A pair of great white tundra swans flew past; countless ducks bobbed—merganser, old squaw, pintail. A moose and her calf browsed riverside willow. There were tracks of grizzly, and bones of caribou. Lanky wolves—we saw two pair—ranged the banks. And the long-haired, atavistic musk ox, stolid in repose, were surprisingly graceful in uphill gallop.

Modern Encroachments

Though remote, the Thelon and its namesake waterway, the Thelon River, have been threatened by industry. In the 1980s, Hall himself led the fight to prevent uranium mining there. More recently, opposition from the Dene Indians who govern the Northwest Territories again rebuffed mining interests. But such pressures are likely to continue—as will the threat climate change poses to both the permafrost and the fragile food web of a subarctic ecosystem.