Larry Rice  /  C&K
If you think the floatplane landing was adventurous, wait until you paddle the untamed and serene Soper River.
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updated 7/20/2005 6:44:26 PM ET 2005-07-20T22:44:26

"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?"

Finally, we make it past the Joy and Livingston, major tributaries that pump new life into the water-challenged river. For the next three days we paddle in pure bliss, a steady downhill gradient sweeping us mile after mile past upland lakes, deep gorges, and elegant waterfalls. In a land where Inuit hunters still roam, lone bull caribou eye us nervously from gravel bars, and in the translucent light, where wide-open perspectives confuse the eye, arctic hares bound into view looking as large as deer. Foxes and wolves leave signs of their presence, and snowy owls, horned larks, gyrfalcons, and soaring hawks grace the rarely darkening sky.

Eventually the mountains begin to wither, replaced by rolling hills and tussocky, pond-filled meadows. At one of our tent camps near the coast, we discover strange circles of rocks. A dozen pit-type excavations are nearby, littered with whale ribs. The remains of an ancient whaling village, it undoubtedly belonged to the Thule, forerunners of today's Inuit who occupied coastal Baffin from AD 1200 to 1800.

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Camping near the centuries-old hunting camp is a heady experience, a true privilege, for the Thule were the world's first kayakers, having invented the qajaq. With quiet admiration, we wonder how they survived in this unforgiving land. We cruise in plastic boats and eat deli-style lunches, whereas for the Thule, kayak forays into frigid, often dangerous waters determined whether their families would eat or starve.

Climaxing our extraordinary journey across southern Baffin Island is Soper Falls. With a deafening roar, the emerald river drops through a snow-white cataract gorge, mingling its fresh waters with the salty arms of the sea. Humbled, we take a last look back at the sheltered, enchanted valley and recall the tough lives of the island's original paddlers. Our loads suddenly feel lighter as we shoulder our canoes up the final portage trail.

Getting there: With daily jet service from Ottawa and Montreal, Iqaluit, capital of Nunavut, is the jump-off point for your south-flowing journey. Once in Iqaluit, you can meet your guide or charter an aircraft for the half-hour transport to the Soper valley.

Logistics: Known locally as the Kuujjuaq (pronounced Kooj-wack, meaning "Big River"), the Soper is possibly the most northerly waterway in the eastern Arctic navigable by raft, kayak, or canoe. Six days is more than ample time to complete the 50 navigable miles of this Canadian Heritage River, a major flow by arctic standards.

Camping/lodging: An abundance of sandy river terraces provide easy camping, and you can spend evenings hiking into the backcountry. Trip terminus is the coastal village of Kimmirut on Hudson Strait, where you'll find art studios, a hotel, cafŽ, and two retail outlets for food and supplies.

Outfitters/resources: For maps and information, contact the Katannilik Park Visitor Centre (867-939-2416, www.nunavutparks.com). Guide services include Sunrise International (800-748-3730, www.sunriseexp.com) and The Great Canadian Adventure Co. (888-285-1676, www.adventures.com).

Canoe & Kayak Magazine is the number one paddlesports resource, with a wealth of information about canoeing and kayaking destinations, gear, and techniques.

Copyright 2013 CanoeKayak.com

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