Paddling the Dubawnt and the Kazan - 2004 Canoe Expedition

Day 25 - Sunday August 01, 2004


A great day. We are now in camp and set up at 7:00. Coffee is made, pizza dough is rising. To top it off, as we set up the tent a lone female caribou hiked over a nearby hill. It's always great to see them but we both secretly hope to see some large groups and to walk into the herd as we did on the Thelwiaza near ten years ago. What a moment that was.

We are camped now at a wonderful little sand beach in a cove behind a lone hill of gray-black granite swathed in patches of green birch, grasses and tiny arctic plants. This spot is Knife Head Hill to us. We stopped here in 1998 - we think it was 98. But more about our name for the hill later.


An overcast day lent a gun metal grey colour of the sky to the water. In the soft light the hills were a vibrant green - all the colours leapt out at us. The sun was unable to wash away the vibrancy with her usual unrelenting noon-day show of force.

The river runs through much bleached bone white rock here. You can see the rock outcroppings from miles away. To walk on them is to marvel at the scouring and polishing done by wind, water and the ice sheet. Smooth as glass, and perfect spots for lunch if inhospitable for a night camp.

One "almost" lake about 4 miles long was sprinkled with sand beach after sand beach. The moods of the glaciers were many. And it was a good day when this lake was carved out of the earth's surface. God's own Engineering Department couldn't have done better work. Behind each sand beach was usually a ridge covered in tall - say 15 feet - lone spruce trees. The hills surrounding the lake had randomly scattered tall trees as well, really what you would see as you got into Taiga going up a mountain.

At lunch we stopped on a bare rocky island. We found a nice spot near the top and put up the tarp - to get out of the wind and the sea of grayness. Under the tarp we marvel at how other people cope without one. We were soon warm from tea and cheddar broccoli soup Bear Creek of course - and I fell into a deep sleep. By the time I woke the wind from the east had blown in some new weather that tried to gain a foot hold.

As we paddled away it was the oddest sky. Bleak, high and gray to our left. Soft billowing low white clouds and blue sky to our right. And over top the river a wedge of blue between the two that tapered off to the horizon. "Good and Evil weather wrestle," Lynda commented. The two systems sparred all afternoon. Evil finally won. But for a while the sun poked out through mists of gray and sparkled on the water in those soft flat shimmering sheets off light you see late afternoons on the ocean in Mexico

Two spots of significant whitewater today. One simply marked "nasty" and the other "beyond nasty - portage left" from my 98 notes. They lived up to their names. We paddled and lined the bottom of "nasty" and ran and portaged "beyond" nasty. Nasty is a huge rapid with giant sucking holes and waves everywhere you look. No easy line can be found. Do-able in lower water. We ran it all in 98. Beyond is not do-abe at any water level.

Supper is almost ready so I'll have to explain "Knife Head Hill" tomorrow.

Of note and forgotten yesterday are the walls of ice we are encountering along the river. Quite something when you think that it is near August.

In closing, in the May of 1926 Thierry Mallet, Del Simons, Peter Linklater and "another Cree man" set out from Reindeer Lake with a 19 foot canoe and a 3 1/2 HP motor to go to Baker Lake. They picked up Kakoot - the same person who, as a young man, found Tyrell's "field glasses" (not telescope as I said yesterday - for him - at Ennadai Lake to guide them. When they got to Yathkyed - we should be there tomorrow - the lake was covered in ice. Kakoot told them that the Pademuit name for the lake is Heeko - leeg - juak (Big Solid Ice Lake).

They set out back up-river. - how they did it is beyond me - and Kakoot said he would walk back to Ennadai My guess is he thought about how hard it would be to paddle upriver and left the white guys to their own devices. When the paddlers pulled into Kakoot's camp exhausted and famished, he was waiting. He'd been home to his three wives and clan for a few days and was none the worse for wear for his hike. Take a look at a map to get a sense of how far he went. Amazing!

Day 26 - Monday August 02, 2004

What an unbelieveable day. But if I don't tell you about Knife on Head Hill now I never will.

In '98, when we did the Kazan, we got in wind so big we couldn't get the canoe down rapids where we were doing over 8 mph this year. Worse, the canoe got turned sideways and we were stuck mid-river. It was too deep to get out and we tried everything known to man to get the canoe turned. No way, Jose. We had to sit there for 15 minutes until there was a lull in the gale force winds. We got turned and paddled for all we were worth to gain the privilege of landing on a rocky, inhospitable shore.

We set up the tarp, crawled under, sipped coffee, read books, and waited. We deluded ourselves into thinking that "any minute" the wind would quit. Good luck. I fished for hours and did so without a hat on. This was a pre-Tilley hat trip and the one I had wouldn't stay on in the wind. Being hair challenged, I got way too much sun and got a bad headache. The aspirins were in the bottom of a barrel so I thought I would just tough it out. Then I remembered that some willows have ASA in them. So I ate a ton of them, and birch - leaves, bark and all. Well, the headache got so bad it felt like my head was ready to explode.

We finally got away at about 6, after waiting all day for the wind to die. We passed "Beyond Nasty" rapids and pullled into K on H Hill. It was late and we were wiped out. I got the tent up and crawled in, but I couldn't lie down, the pain was so bad. Try as I might I couldn't lie down lest my eyeballs pop right out of my head. I was almost in tears - I am sure I had sun stroke. God only knows what was in all the tree material I ate. Lynda got me a Tylenol 3 and after about 20 minutes I could almost ease my head down onto my pillow without it feeling like knives were being pushed into my eyes. Thirty minutes and I was almost asleep.

All I remember next is looking up at the roof of the tent where Lynda had wound her pants around a make-shift clothes line - we don't have one now. Then it happened. Lynda's Swiss Army Knife fell out of her pants pocket and bounced off my forehead. Because it was tied onto her pants with a string, it bounced off another 3 or 4 times - like a bungie-jumping wild dervish. I let out a moan of utter defeat and pain. Lynda leaned over to see what had happened. And she broke out laughing so hard she near cried. I was ready to hit the PLB button. I saw nothing funny. Hence the name - Knife on Head Hill.

A lovely day today - hot and sunny. Winds from every quarter seemed to come and go every half hour. One minute we were fighting it. The next it was behind us. The next it was dead calm.

When we left this morning we passed some huge gray gneiss outcroppings in the lake. Polished smooth and with no rocks on top, they looked like half-submerged giant whales. A 7 mile race across an open stretch took us to the north shore of the lake. Camp spots rating 11 on the 10 scale are a dime a dozen, mile after mile. Soft rolling tundra hills fronted by sand or gravel beaches seemed to be the order of the day.

Just at lunch we were approaching a point that showed promise. I wanted to eat and convinced Lynda to let me troll to shore. We had been seeing trout surfacing mid-lake all day so when she uttered an "expletive deleted" I thought she had seen lunch stiking its fins out of the water. Nope. A lone muskox was alseep on the beach, no doubt getting a sun tan. He - it was a he as the "boss" on the head wasn't joined - just wouldn't leave. At one point we were less than a canoe length from shore and he was maybe 10 feet from the water. We watched him - and he us - for about 15 minutes. The I made enough noise to get him to leave so we could pull in for lunch. He ambled off in no particular hurry.

I tried to catch a trout for lunch with no luck. But I kept seeing these circular ripples near shore and could actually hear a "gulping" noise coming from them. So I put on a fly and in 1 cast had a 1 1/2 pound grayling. And we are at least 12 miles from the river. Wild!

We did another 12 mile dash to the outlet of the lake where we are now camped in a 10 in the 10 scale spot. This is the kind of spot where you would positively love to be wind-bound - for a day anyway.

A mile from shore I saw trout surfacing so I made a quick cast. One cast, 1 fish. It really isn't fishing here. It 's hunting. You scan the surface for your quarry and then cast at it and .. BAM.... you have supper.

Supper was Honey Garlic noodles with Black Beans and fried trout. Heavenly.

River and rapids tomorrow. 24 miles today - and that on a lake. Not bad for an old bald fat white guy and his young lady friend.





Web Casts on

Paddling the Dubawnt and the Kazan - On Going 2004

Vermette Lake, NWT to Stoney Rapids, Saskatchewan - 2003

La Ronge to Arviat on Hudson Bay: 55 Days and 1000 miles - 2002

Paddling the Dubawnt River through the NWT and Nunavut - 2001



Text - Bill Layman
Photos - Bill Layman and Lynda Holland
Live text edited by Joan Eyolfson Cadham, freelance writer/editor, Foam Lake Saskatchewan.
Layout and art work - L. Librehomme
Live Radio Interviews - CBC Saskatchewan & MBC - Archives (Real Audio)


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Other Rivers

Coppermine River - Northwest Territories

Fond du Lac River - Saskatchewan

Kazan River - Nunavut

Thlewiaza River - Manitoba/Nunavut

Thelon River - Northwest Territories/Nunavut


Other Articles

Canoe Gear For The Subarctic - BIll Layman


Other Features

Kanawa - Canada's Paddling Magazine

Canoe and Kayak - America's Paddling Magazine


Related Links



Bill writes for KANAWA magazine and Canoe & Kayak magazine about their canoe trips. Lynda has published several books about the Dene of northern Saskatchewan. The most recent are the two volumes in the Dene Elders Project and are published by Holland-Dalby Educational Consulting.

  • The Dene Elders Project: Stories and History from the West Side (ISBN # 0-921848-23-4)
  • They Will Have Our Words: The Dene Elders Project, Volume 2 (ISBN #0-921848-25-0)

For copies of either of these books you can contact Lynda directly at or PO Box 327, La Ronge, Saskatchewan, S0J 1L0

Bill has an article featured in the May 2004 issue of Canoe & Kayak covering a portion of his 2002 La Ronge to Arviat canoe trip. - Canoe & Kayak Website You'll also find several other articles on gear and expeditions written by Bill in Kanawa Magazine

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