The Kazan River / Inuit Ku - The River of Men

by Bill Layman


The river started to pick up speed, and I watched as the small black spruce and willows along the shore rushed by in a blur. My pulse quickened as I called out loudly, over the roar of the rapids, for Lynda to back paddle and draw, and as I did the same, the stern of our heavily loaded prospector canoe slowly angled to the left bank of the river. Loaded with all our gear and thirty five days of food, our canoe was heavy and awkward, and it was hard work to get it to respond to our paddle strokes. I fixed my eyes on a large rock on the shore so that I could make sure we weren't slipping downstream too quickly. A few more quick draws, and then I felt it. The angle of the hull was right, and the canoe started to surf toward the left bank, and as I looked downstream, I could see that we were going to make it to shore easily before we got to the blind left-hand corner around which the river disappeared. The boat slowed as we hit the shallow water near the shore, and I let it slowly drift, tail in, around the corner. The front of the canoe cleared the rocky point, narrowly missing some large waves, as Lynda back paddled with deep powerful strokes, and I kept the stern tight to the bank.

"It's clear, we can run it to the bottom on the left past that hole", she yelled over the sound of the rushing water.

As the stern of the canoe cleared the corner, I could see the line along the left shore that Lynda had spotted, and I called for her to paddle ahead as I did a couple of quick hard pries to straighten out the boat. The rest of the run to the bottom was through two-foot waves, and was just "plain old fun". We raced to the bottom, and I called out for a cross-bow draw as we peeled into a large calm eddy.

A perfect run through our first rapid of the year. My heart felt light with the easy confidence of success, and as I looked at the rapid through which we had just maneuvered, I saw an osprey hovering, then quickly folding its wings, and plummeting like a rocket into the water. Quickly it reappeared with a fish in its' talons. I pointed it out to Lynda and we watched as the bird slowly circled in slow spirals to the top of a dead spruce tree. It slowly spread its wings and let out a high pitched screech.... as if to announce its prowess to the entire world.

"A good omen", I thought as we carved out of the eddy, and back into the fast current of the Kazan River.

Last summer Lynda Holland, my paddling partner, and I paddled our canoe the 540-mile length of Nunavut's Kazan River, starting at Kasba Lake and ending at Baker Lake. We traveled through this sub-arctic landscape of limitless skies and cold clear lakes for 26 days. We paddled miles of raging wild rapids, and across lakes as smooth as mirrors late into the unending sub-arctic daylight. On Ennadai Lake, we crossed the tree line, and watched as small lone clumps of ancient black spruce, looking like tiny ornamental shrubs, gave way to a treeless landscape of rock, and wet tundra plains. We walked for miles to the tops of rock-strewn hills, and as the rich, sweet odour of the tundra peat fields wafted over us, we stood like giants silhouetted against the infinite horizon. Although we battled blackflies, mosquitoes, rain, and relentless wind, we savoured every minute of our trip.

With the exception of caribou and musk oxen, wolves and arctic foxes, and millions of migratory birds, we were totally alone for our entire trip. Alone, that is, except for the new friends we made along the way, the ghosts of the Inuit who were first able to live, and thrive year round in this rugged landscape, and who so gladly welcomed us into their long abandoned homes. The Kazan River was known to them then, and still is today, as Inuit Ku, The River of Men. To the Athapaskan Dene, who visited the area on their annual hunting trips, it is known as Ka-za-dese, The White Partridge River.

Lynda and I had made two other canoe trips into the taiga of Nunavut's southern reaches, at the north end of Nueltin Lake. These trips had been largely motivated by reading P. G. Downes' classic book, Sleeping Island. This book recounts Downes' 1939 canoe trip with John Albrecht, from Brochet at the north end of Reindeer Lake, to the Hudson' s Bay Company fur trade post run by Fred Schweder, at Windy River, in southern Nunavut. On both of these trips, we had paddled northeast through Kasmere Lake heading towards Graves Lake, on our way to the south end of Nueltin Lake. Each time, as we paddled across the middle of Kasmere Lake, I looked north to the long bay that stretched to the horizon. I knew from our research that this bay ultimately led to the Little Partridge River and Kasba Lake, the headwaters of the Kazan River, and I felt an overwhelming urge to follow it north some day.

J. B. Tyrell in 1894, and Captain Thierry Mallet of Revillon Frères travelling with Del Simons in 1926, turned north into this very bay of Kasmere Lake, tracking north upstream on the Little Partridge River toward Kasba Lake and the Kazan River. Not until J. B. Tyrell descended the Kazan, from Kasba Lake, did any European travel by canoe down this river. Along the length of Inuit Ku, Tyrell met resident Inuit, the so-called 'People of the Deer', as he had the previous summer, when he descended the Dubawnt River. Tyrell visited their many camps, traded for dry meat, watched them spear deer at river crossings, had his Peterborough canoes surrounded by 23 skin kayaks on one lake, and collected stories and maps. In short, he was allowed a rare glimpse of these people, living as they had for about a hundred years along the Kazan, and as yet not suffering any ill effects from their rare contact with Europeans. During this time, the Inuit's annual trips to faraway Brochet, or Hudson Bay, to trade their white fox pelts were peripheral to their day-to-day pursuits required to stay alive in their barren-land home, and they were thriving. During 1894, Tyrell encountered about 20 to 25 small camps of these Inuit from Ennadai Lake to his eastward portage from the Kazan to the Ferguson River north of Yathkyed Lake. He estimated the total population along the river at about 1000 people. The sudden disappearance of the caribou herds, following freak winter weather conditions in 1915, caused wide spread famine among the inland Caribou Inuit. By 1925, when the caribou herds finally started to return, the Inuit population was estimated at just 500 people. By the mid-1950s, disease, famine, and a collapse of fur prices forced the government to relocate the Inuit to coastal communities. The relatives of these nomadic people now live in Arviat, Rankin Inlet, Whale Cove and Baker Lake. All that remains of the rich Inuit history of the Kazan River are tent rings, meat caches, and the ever-present stone men - the inuksuit high on the barren hills.

During the summer of 1926, Captain Thierry Mallet with Del Simons, and two Cree from Cumberland House, Peter Linklater, and Joe Cadotte, traveled the Kazan River to Yathkyed Lake from Brochet. An account of Mallet's trip, entitled Exploring the Kazan, appears in the March 1950 issue of the Beaver magazine. Their guide, for a part of this trip, was one Kakoot, an Inuit, who as a young man, is thought to have traveled with Tyrell in 1894. It is not surprising that in the middle of July, when they reached Yathkyed Lake, known to Inuit as Hikuligjuaq, meaning Great Ice Filled One, and to the Dene as Yath-delgai-tue, meaning Snow White Lake, that they found their way still blocked by ice. Realizing that they were not likely going to get to Baker Lake before freeze up, they fought their way back up stream, whereas Kakoot opted to travel overland with only a rifle and modest supplies which could easily be carried on his back. Kakoot beat Mallet back to his skin tent, somewhere near the north end of Ennadai Lake, walking roughly 120 miles. Mallet and his party arrived at Kakoot's camp, half-starved, many days later, to find a happy well-fed Inuit wondering why they were so far behind him in their return. Kakoot's overland journey paints a clear picture of an Inuit man in harmony with his chosen home.

When we first read Sleeping Island, we were fascinated by the fact that Downes met three Inuit from Ennadai Lake, 'Kazan River men' as he called them, at Windy River when he arrived in July, 1939. Inuit trading their furs at Nueltin Lake? We puzzled as to who these people were, and what their story was. The more we read about the Nueltin Lake fur trade, the more information we found about these Kazan River Inuit, and the more we learned, the more we wanted to know. Each winter, as we planned our next summer's trip, we researched more and more information about Nueltin Lake and the Kazan River. As we amassed a mountain of information the picture became clearer. From about the mid-1920s to the mid-1940s, this area had a very active fur trade. This was when the white foxes ran thick in the north, and the Hudson's Bay Company, Revillon Frères, and many free traders and trappers, actively sought them through their arctic ranges. Small trading outposts popped up along the Hudson Bay coast from Churchill to Chesterfield Inlet, in the Baker Lake area, and near the north end of Nueltin Lake. Various companies, and independent traders, tried to leapfrog past their competition to get nearer to the Inuit who trapped the white foxes. This competition resulted in an abnormal increase in white fox prices as each group tried to outbid the others.

With fur trade posts moving nearer and nearer to the barrens during the early 1900s, the Inuit who lived along the Kazan River no longer had to travel to faraway Brochet or Churchill, to trade for Kabloona (European) trade goods. The white fox was in such demand, and so valuable, that the traders were more than prepared to travel to the Inuit to secure the soft white pelts.

Two groups of Inuit occupied the Kazan River. The Aharmiut Inuit, meaning dwellers where willow bushes abound, lived on the upper reaches of the Kazan River, from roughly Ennadai Lake to Yathkyed Lake. Sometimes called the Padlimiut, these people could now trade at the north end of Nueltin Lake rather than making the long trip to Brochet - these were the Inuit that Downes had met at Windy River. The Inuit who lived on the lower reaches of the Kazan River, from Yathkyed Lake to Baker Lake, were the Harvaqtormiut, meaning dwellers where rapids abound. Rather than travelling to distant Churchill, these Inuit could now travel east to nearby Padlei Post, on the headwaters of the Maguse River, or north towards Baker Lake, to trade their furs.

The Inuit, from the area of Ennadai Lake on the Kazan River, who frequented the fur trade posts in the Nueltin Lake area were part of a group of Inuit known to Europeans as the inland Caribou Inuit. These people were first brought to the widespread attention of Canadians by Farley Mowat's highly controversial books, People of the Deer, and The Desperate People. These upper Kazan River Aharmiut, and their northern cousins the Harvaqtormiut, were unique, among Inuit, in their complete dependence on caribou and musk ox, having severed ties with their relatives who all depended on the ocean and sea mammals for their survival. The Edthen Eldeli, the Dene known as the Caribou Eaters, from northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba, also traveled into this area as they followed the annual migration of the caribou herds north to their barren land breeding grounds in the spring. In the fall, as the herds moved south again, both Inuit and Dene hunters tried to intercept the caribou as they crossed major rivers like the Kazan, the Dubawnt, the Thelon, and the Thlewiaza. This fall hunt was important to the Dene, and the Inuit, as the deer were thick with fat and their hides were prime for the making of their all-important caribou clothing. The area around Yathkyed Lake on the Kazan River was an area where the Dene and Inuit territories overlapped as they hunted the caribou. The Dene didn't however, as did the Inuit, live full-time along the Kazan River preferring, instead, to retreat to edge of the forest for the winter months - the so-called taiga. The importance of the caribou, tuk tu in Inuktitut, edthen in Dene, can not be overstated. Without the deer there would have been no way these people could have survived in this rugged landscape. This fact was not lost on these nomadic people. When visiting Brochet in 1937, Downes was told by Father Joseph Egenolf, an Oblate priest, of a small Dene girl who intuitively understood the role of the caribou in her people's lives. When repeatedly asked,

"What is the most beautiful thing our Lord has created?", the rhetorical Catholic answer being, "The angels and man", she could not be made to answer anything but, "edthen" - caribou.

Father Egenolf presented the above dialogue to P. G. Downes as proof that the Dene was "not able to learn". No doubt the Dene wondered why, if these Catholics were serious about living in their land, they seemed unable to be made to learn the importance of the caribou.

The interconnected web of information that Lynda and I collected about the Caribou Inuit, the Dene, the trappers and traders, the caribou and muskox, and the white fox, all seemed to be bound together with a single thread of blue ink on our maps. This thread, the Kazan River, inexorably bound us into the web, and we knew we would have to paddle its length.

From our research, we soon learned that the Kazan was a river of large windswept lakes, harsh treeless rock strewn landforms, and that we would face miles of raging wild rapids. Our waking hours were filled with detailed planning and packing, and our dreams were filled with all the possibilities the river might hold in store for us.


Many articles have been written about paddling the Kazan River. The best comprehensive article I have read was written by Anne Spriggins-Harmuth and appears in the 1991 summer issue of Nastawgan magazine. This article describes, in great detail, all the rapids on the Kazan River and is the account of a couple paddling an uncovered canoe that chooses to portage when in doubt. They descended the length of the river portaging fourteen times.

We were much more aggressive in our decisions to paddle instead of portaging, but we were in an excellent whitewater boat, a 17-foot Western Canoeing Prospector, and we were using a spray deck. We portaged five times, each time around a very obvious huge unpaddleable waterfall or rapid. Three short carries (RR, RR, RL) at the Three Cascades below Angikuni Lake at (UTM NE 1501), one very short carry on RL at an unnamed class 5 rapid before Yathkyed Lake (UTM NE 3921), and a final carry on RR at Kazan Falls, saw us safely down the full length of the Kazan River. Between the second and third cascades, we did a careful descent along RR, and then front-ferried across the river against, a big pushy current to get to RL, where we descended along the shore to a short portage. This is a place where you just can not afford to have any doubt at all about your skills. You must have complete confidence that your ferry will work, as a swim would certainly see you swimming through the Third Cascade.

Virtually all of the rapids on the Kazan that can be paddled can be scouted from the water by eddy hopping along their length. With no trees to obstruct your vision, there is rarely any situation where the river disappears around a blind corner into the unknown, and in fact, in most places, you can see the bottom of all the rapids from your entry into them. The exception to this general rule is the first major rapid after Kasba Lake (UTM FT 5718). This is a tight turn to RL where your vision is obstructed, and scouting is very difficult, due to thick dense black spruce and willows. We paddled this rapid, without scouting it, close to shore and back-ferried our way around the corner scouting it as we went. I made sure I could stop the boat along the shore, if need be, until we could see an obvious and safe line along RL to the bottom.

We only had to scout three rapids from shore, and these are worth noting as they were difficult stretches requiring maneuvering, often in big waves and past ledges and holes.

Between Yathkyed Lake and Forde Lake (UTM NE 6988), we scouted from the shore on RR, and then front-ferried across to RL where we found a line past large waves and ledges at the top, followed by a long fast shallow straight forward rapid. Entering Thirty Mile Lake (UTM NF 9652), we paddled a long rapid on RR, in which we had to do a lot of maneuvering past ledges, holes and very large waves at the top. Near the top of this rapid, when doing our downstream turn after a perfect front-ferry, I managed to get us off line by two meters or less, and we ended up plowing head on into a very large hole. Since we were in a covered boat, the only damage was to my ego. For the next several hours I replayed that ferry and down-stream turn in my mind wondering what would have happened to us if we had been in an open canoe. Leaving Thirty Mile Lake (UTM PF 4460), we paddled the top section of a rapid carefully along RR. Near the bottom of this rapid, where a huge island splits the river into two channels, we did a very difficult front-ferry through large waves and cross currents. This ferry was above the RR channel that is a series of very nasty waves and a huge hole near the top of the island. We had to start this ferry from a boiling eddy, and it was very hard to get the canoe out into the downstream current with the proper angle. When I finally felt the RL current grabbing the hull, and knew we were across safely, the RR hole was less than 30 feet away - a shallow margin of safety. The balance of this rapid on RL, was a very easy straightforward descent. This was definitely the most difficult rapid we paddled, and in hind-sight would probably best be avoided by a short, but very rough, RR carry past the bottom.

It is also worth noting that many rapids occur between the Third Cascade and the sharp bend to the north about 30 kilometers later. Several of these are tricky and require precise maneuvering.

The Kazan is a big pushy river, and most often back-ferries and slower than current maneuvering is tricky. As I paddle stern, and am by far the stronger paddler in our team, and as I pick the lines we paddle, I quite often found it easier to front-ferry when making critical moves across the river. It would have been too hard for Lynda to steer the boat in such situations if we were to try slower than current back-ferries. As the Harmuths describe, all the tricky rapids on the Kazan can be portaged, if one so decides. My advice is that if you are in doubt in the slightest, you should portage. Any swim on this river would at best be long, and cold, and very dangerous - at worst perhaps fatal.

It is our feeling that a covered canoe is mandatory on sub-arctic rivers, not just for the rapids, but as well to allow an extra degree of safety on big lakes where high wind seems to be a daily occurrence. On cold days, a spray deck is also a blessed relief to keep you warm.

We also carry a Personal Locator Beacon, and a VHF radio. The former is like the locator used to rescue a downed aircraft, and the latter allows us to talk to airplanes in case of trouble. As well, we each carry a Silva Ranger compass, and these are put to good use in crossing the many big lakes we encounter. I also carry a GPS, but I don't use it much for navigating. I find that it is better suited to confirm my exact location when I am making a critical change of direction on a big lake, and I prefer to use the compass for point-to-point navigating. The other function of the GPS is, of course, to allow me to re-orient myself if we ever become hopelessly lost. This hasn't happened to us yet, but if it does I am familiar with the GPS, and understand how to read the U.T.M. (Universal Transverse Mercator) co-ordinates of my topographic maps. Do yourselves a favour, if you aren't familiar with U.T.M, learn it now! This is a far better system, than latitude / longitude for locating precise position on topographic maps.


The definitive book on the Kazan River is The Kazan, A Journey Into An Emerging Land, edited by David Pelly and Christopher Hanks. This book is a must read if you plan to paddle this river. This book tells the story of the birth of Inuit Ku as the Laurentide Ice Sheet retreated some 7000 to 8000 years ago. It describes the intertwining of the Dene, the Inuit, the explorers, and the caribou. It also describes the beauty of the unique flora and fauna, in what is now, a lonely and silent land.

There is a good article about the Kazan River in Canoeing Canada's Northwest Territories: A Paddlers Guide, edited by Mary McCreadie, and in it you will learn much about the river. As well, much information can be obtained from the Nunavut Tourism Office. If you call the office, be sure to ask for a copy of the descriptive brochure put out about the Kazan River by the office of the Canada Heritage River Systems.

Inuit Ku lies in a rugged harsh landscape that is utterly unforgiving. A quick glance at the notes at the cairn at Kazan Falls shows that everything about this river is big and extreme. The price of admission to this land is huge storm-tossed lakes, big dangerous rapids and falls, unrelenting wind, no shade or firewood, clouds of blackflies and mosquitoes, cold rains, and snow and ice in July. This high-spirited river will test your skills to the extreme, and there will be days you swear you hate her, and will never return. And just as you decide to leave forever, she will reward you with herds of caribou and musk ox, wolves, arctic foxes and wolverines, flocks of migratory birds, huge red-fleshed lake trout, delicate white-fleshed grayling, absolute solitude, skies that seem to go forever, countless gravesites, tent rings, and inuksuit of the former Inuit inhabitants. Today's quiet solitude belies the rich history of the Caribou Inuit who were, only midway through this century, removed to coastal communities.

The rugged beauty of the Kazan River captivated Lynda and I, and as I write this we are already planning our next year's return to another of Nunavut's many rivers, quite likely the Coppermine River. This is not a trip for beginners, and it is far from easy, but if you are prepared for all the Kazan River can throw at you, it could well be the trip of your lifetime.


This river runs from south to north, so you can start on ice-free waters and quickly paddle your way to solid ice if you aren't careful. Many notes, at the cairn at Kazan Falls, tell of groups who spent a week, or more, waiting for open water. Starting toward the end of the first week in July is usually a safe bet, but before leaving, phone Baker Lake or Kasba Lake Lodge, and check on how break-up is progressing. Fall comes early in Nunavut, and you should plan on being off of the river by about mid-August, unless you want to battle the ever-possible early snow and ice. Be ready to fight lots of wind, and plan for it in your food. We were 26 days on the Kazan but had food for 35 days.


We shipped our canoe and gear to Points North Landing in northern Saskatchewan with Ridsdale Transport. From here it was flown into Kasba Lake on a Points North Air DC-3 freight plane. Lynda and I arrived at Kasba Lake aboard one of Kasba Lake Lodge's, twice weekly, charter airplanes from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Alternately, you could drive to Points North Landing, and charter a float plane to Kasba Lake, or you could drive to Lynn Lake, Manitoba, and charter a float plane from La Ronge Aviation. A group of Danish paddlers we met had flown with Canadian North to Baker Lake, and had arranged with Baker Lake Lodge to charter a Twin Otter on tundra tires to drop them at Angikuni Lake to start their trip.

Kasba Lake Lodge has canoes for rent, and with a Beaver airplane for charter on site, provides a convenient location to start and end many canoe trips in the area. Horizons Unlimited has canoes for rent at Points North Landing and can arrange a guided trip on the Kazan River. Maps can be bought from World of Maps in Ottawa, Ontario

Two scheduled air companies service Baker Lake: Canadian North and Skyward Aviation. Canadian North can take you directly to Winnipeg, and Skyward Aviation can take you to Churchill where you can take the train, the infamous "Polar Bear Express", to points south. Skyward Aviation offers a better fare for cash payment, but cash is a hard commodity to get in Baker Lake so take sufficient funds with you if you plan to use this option. Your canoe can be taken out of Baker Lake on a plane, as room permits, or if time permits, you can send it with Northern Transportation Company Limited (NTCL), by barge, to Churchill, where it can be interlined with the train and a trucking company. NTCL can easily arrange all the interline connections for you, and they provide a much more economical way of getting your canoe home than does air transport.

We stayed at Baker Lake Lodge for 2 days after our trip, and the hospitality of Boris and Liz Kotelewetz comes highly recommended. Boris also handled all the details of getting our canoe onto the barge for us.

North Star Tours' staff, in Churchill, can arrange everything from hotel rooms, to train tickets, and have a staff that is knowledgeable about what canoe people need to get their trip started and finished.


Ridsdale Transport, Saskatoon, SASK. 1-306-668-9200

Points North Landing, SASK. 1-306-633-2137

Kasba Lake Lodge, Parksville, BC. 1-800-663-8641, 1-250-248-3572

La Ronge Aviation, Lynn Lake, MAN. 1-204-356-2457

Baker Lake Lodge 1-867-793-2905

Canadian North 1-800-665-1177

Skyward Aviation 1-800-476-1873

North Star Tours 1-204-675-2852

Northern Transportation Company 1-204-675-2378

Horizons Unlimited Canoe Outfitting 1-306-635-4420

World of Maps 1-800-214-8524, 1-613-724-6776


The equipment I listed in the body of this article is what I feel is wise to carry. To each his own, but remember you are on your own on the Kazan. We paddled 26 days without seeing any sign of another human, or even seeing a low-flying airplane (remember your VHF radio can easily talk to planes you can't see including high flying jets). In fact, when we got to Kazan Falls on July 25, the note that we left at the cairn, was the first of the year. Of course, a good first aid kit is indispensable, and ours got a good work out last year. I ended up with an abscessed molar, and was in real rough shape for three days until the antibiotics I had began to work. Without the antibiotics, it is quite possible I would have needed to be flown out. Last but not least, make sure your trip is logged with the RCMP in Baker Lake, and be sure to de-register when you get there.