Canadian adventurer, photojournalist and filmmaker Frank Wolf has made an annual habit of tackling audacious canoe expeditions in the Canadian wilderness. His only rule in selecting a trip: Never paddle the same route twice. Wolf is a tireless traveler, putting in long days to average 25 miles per day in challenging terrain defined by unmarked portages, heavy whitewater and windswept lakes.
Wolf teamed up with Ryan Bougie for his 2018 epic, which traced the north shore of Great Slave Lake before following the traditional Pike's Portage route inland to the Barrens. Wolf and Bougie stitched together obscure waterways to reach the Back River, one of northern Canada's greatest rivers, which they ultimately descended to the Arctic Ocean. The pair exceeded Wolf's lofty travel expectations and finished the 1,100-mile route in an impressive 35 days. We caught up with Wolf to learn more.
CanoeKayak.com: To start, talk about the appeal of the line you drew on the map for your 2018 canoe journey. What were you most looking forward to?
Frank Wolf: As with any of my trips, I wanted to go somewhere new to me. Fresh landscapes always excite me. Also, I’ve wanted to paddle the Great Fish River [aka Back River] for years, but access it by fair means by approaching the headwaters from [road access at] Yellowknife [rather than flying in].
Great Slave Lake looks like an amazing destination on its own. What was it like to paddle the north shore?
It was beautiful—high cliffs, crystal clear waters, gorgeous beaches, big skies, and rainbows. We had great conditions too and clipped along nicely there, getting from Yellowknife to Pike’s Portage in six days. We started on June 29th in order to avoid any ice on the lake. We passed another group who’d been stuck on the lake for nine days waiting for the ice to go out on the East Arm, as well as a solo canoeist who’d been stuck there for five days. This forced them to alter their plans drastically. Folks should wait until July if they don’t want to deal with ice on Great Slave.
Can you talk about the history of Pike’s Portage to the barrens and what this mean for your experience?
Other than it being a travel route of the Dene for millennia, and also the route George Back took to get to the Great Fish River, I didn’t delve too deeply into its history beforehand. For me, it was simply a functional way of getting around the Lockhart River and onward. Years ago I accessed the headwaters of the Thelon River on a journey from Yellowknife to Rankin Inlet via an obscure route through the lakes behind the First Nations village of Lutselk’e into the upper Snowdrift River. I found that to be a much more practical and enjoyable route to access the barren grounds, so I’m a bit surprised Pike’s is such an overwhelmingly popular thoroughfare to the interior.
What allowed you to cover the distance far faster than you originally expected?
I usually plan to average 40 km [25 miles] per day on my journeys, so I thought the route would take about 45 days. That takes into account big winds and grinding upstream sections. Besides a wee bit of upstream on the Lockhart, some grunting over Pike’s, and the first couple days on the rocky shallows of the Great Fish, we had great travel. The winds were also generally kind to us and we only lost a day sitting out a big blow. Also, the numerous rapids of the Great Fish were quite manageable—you can pretty much run and line everything so not too much portaging. So, putting in my usual 10-hour days with a strong paddling partner in the bow, we averaged 50 km [30 miles] per day.
You were greeted by Inuit elders at journey's end. Why was this so special?
Traveling through wilderness is great, but I also love the experience of connecting with local people who have an intimate knowledge of the landscape. This was particularly special in that we hung out with them on the land at one of their traditional camps on Chantrey Inlet. We hung out with Jacob and Martha Atqittuq, who lived on the land in igloos and skin tents until the mid-’70s before they moved to [the town of] Gjoa Haven; they have an incredible knowledge of the land. They fed us endlessly with fresh caribou, dried fish, bannock and coffee—incredibly hospitable. I gave Jacob our canoe so he could check his fishing nets in town, and we ended up staying at their house in Gjoa Haven for five days as we waited for our flights out. We got to know their huge extended family there and really felt like we were part of their clan by the end. You also saw the respect Jacob had among the family members. At 74 years old he was most certainly the strongest and fittest of the bunch, and when he spoke, everyone went silent and listened. It was impressive to watch. In town, we also got deep into the exotic foods of the Inuit—sampling fermented seal, raw char (including eyeballs), and narwhal. They eat this sort of thing all the time, and it’s definitely an acquired taste—an adventure in cuisine for sure.
Any critical pieces of gear for this trip?
Our Esquif Prospecteur 17 was awesome as usual—nimble and stable in whitewater, durable for dragging over dry rocks and tundra, great for cruising fast on the big lakes. Combined with a North Water spraydeck it’s the ultimate tripping machine. Love that boat. My MSR Fury tent—with over 150 days under its belt—still withstands all the rain and wind you can throw at it. Also have to mention my indestructible MSR Whisperlite International stove with about 1,000 days on it—that baby just keeps on chugging along. I used the MEC Fulcrum Guide PFD for the first time; it was really comfortable with lots of pockets to keep everything I need for the day super handy. It also has a handy tow belt I used to drag the canoe over the tundra on portages.
Anything else you think we should know?
I have a book that’s set to come out! It’s called Lines on a Map and is a collection of new and previously published work from my past 20 years of adventuring. Each of the 24 chapters covers a different self-propelled wilderness journey I’ve completed (canoeing, kayaking, packrafting, skiing, hiking, biking) relating to a master map at the front of the book. A detail and overview map opens every chapter, and there are 77 full-color photos from the expeditions in there as well. Anyone interested in adventure, wilderness and conservation will enjoy this book. (Stay tuned to CanoeKayak.com for a review of Wolf's soon-to-be released book.)
Download and watch all of Frank Wolf’s independent films.
More expedition canoeing at CanoeKayak.com:
— Editor-at-large Conor Mihell and Frank Wolf discuss strategies for long trips. Part 1, Part 2