Frozen: Portage Across Ice | Canoeroots Magazine | Rapid Media
Frozen: Portage Across Ice Photo: Tim Irvin

We were three weeks into an eight-week trip on Nunavut’s Back River when we hit the ice. As far as we could see, Lower Garry Lake, part of the river’s legendary lake complex, was frozen solid. It was July.

The six of us pulled our three canoes onto shore and climbed up a rock outcrop to take a look. We should have planned for this, I thought, but we hadn’t.
“I don’t suppose waiting is an option?” I asked. The others just looked at me.

We brainstormed our options, but it became clear that we would have to walk across the ice. Precisely what every child is told never, ever to do.

The situation reminded me of the movie Never Cry Wolf. My parents took me to see it when I was six years old, not realizing how much it would terrify me.

The main character, grasping his gun, falls through the ice. The current pulls him away from the hole, and he’s left pounding up from underneath. The camera follows him underwater through a chaos of bubbles, then cuts to the surface where the forest stands neutral and silent.

The next morning we donned wetsuits over light clothes and paddled out to meet the ice.

“Seems pretty solid,” my trip mate Tim said as he tested his weight on it.

We climbed out. The ice had a clear layer on top that looked and popped like bubble wrap. My paddling partner, Levi, grabbed the bow line; I grabbed the stern line. We leaned into the ropes until the boat began to slide.

Within minutes, sweat prickled into my suit and my back began to ache.

“We can’t do this all day,” I said. Then my foot broke through a patch of gray ice, and I dropped to my knees.

As a group, we tried different rope lengths, front and back, side by side. We tied the ropes up by our shoulders and down at our waists. A good lean forward and small steps helped, but the boats still weighed a few hundred pounds.

Levi found the winning system. He tied the bow line to the middle of a paddle, and we pushed against it—one on each side of the rope—in unison. We jumped small channels, clung to our boats when the ice got rotten, and invented smooth bobsled-like transitions to cross small pools.

“This is getting fun.”
The landscape did not change all day. Morsels of ice collided in the intermittent pools of open water and filled the air with their tinkling. The drag of our boats provided a constant background hum as the ice scoured and scrubbed them with each step.

The enormity of the ice shifted my perspective. We all felt it; what had been so uncertain at the beginning of the day now seemed like an adventure.

By late afternoon, the white ice lost some of its shine, and rotten gray ice transitioned to bigger and bigger open pools. With a paddle-swirling flourish we arrived back to the water. We hooted in triumph, and the air felt clear.

Jennifer Kingsley is a writer, radio producer and naturalist, who goes north whenever she can. She’s the author of Paddlenorth: Adventure, Resilience, and Renewal in the Arctic Wild.


This article first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. For more great content, click here and subscribe to Canoeroot’s print and digital editions, or click here to read the current issue.


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