Our Route & History
Our Route

Our route commenced at Yellowknife on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake. From there we headed east, passing Fort Reliance, originally built in 1833 by George Back during the Arctic Land Expedition to the Arctic Ocean. Continuing east, the route took us through a series of portages named Pike's Portages, where a transition between the boreal forest and Arctic tundra occurs. Named after Warburton Pike, an eccentric Englishman who descended it in 1890, this route was mapped by J.W. Tyrell's party in 1900. Before the bush plane, these portages acted as a highway to the barren lands for trappers, prospectors, surveyors and naturalists. Once in Artillery Lake, the route commences its northward progression, arriving at Clinton-Colden Lake, the ninth largest lake in the Northwest Territories. From there, we headed west, navigating through a series of smaller lakes, arriving at Courageous Lake, the headwaters of the Coppermine River. Those who choose to travel the Coppermine typically start at Lac de Gras, 20 kilometres north, opting out of the rigorous travel from Great Slave Lake., which the bush plane has made a viable option. The expedition party mapped a northerly route from Courageous Lake, bypassing Lac de Gras to the west; a stretch of 60 kilometres, the lack of trip reports or journals documenting this passage suggests it has rarely been traveled before. Arriving at the Coppermine River, we then proceeded on an 845 kilometres paddle, generally north, arriving in the Inuit Town of Kugluktuk (formerly Coppermine) on Coronation Gulf.
The Copper Inuit: Background

The Copper Inuit have travelled the land and waterways of the Coppermine River region for close to three millennia. Their nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle sustained a vibrant culture completely independent of European civilization. From the land, the people made copper arrows, spear heads, ulu blades, chisels, harpoons and knives for both personal use and trade. Only during the last 60 years has their culture, and the natural environment which sustains it, been placed under increasing stress. Despite the often negative influences of western products and the environmental degradation caused by resource extraction, the Copper Inuit continue to practice their traditional lifestyle in an effort to preserve their past and instill its teachings in their children. Not until 1771 did the Copper Inuit come into contact with Europeans. On the orders of chief-factor Moses Norton, Hudson Bay Company agent Samuel Hearne was instructed to travel overland in search of copper deposits. With no canoe routes yet known to stretch northwest of Churchill, Man., Hearne and his expedition had to live off the land, joined by a group of Cree and Chipewyan guides – people whose skill and knowledge allowed Hearne and his men to survive. After his first two expeditions resulted in failure, Hearne undertook a third journey in December 1770. Traveling as the only European with a group of Chipewyan led by Matonabbee, the party arrived at the Coppermine River by summer and succeeded in reaching the Arctic Ocean by canoe.
Bloody Falls

The most dramatic, and tragic, event of Hearne and Matonabbee's expedition occurred when they reached the headwaters of the Coppermine in July 1771. In constant conflict with the Copper Inuit, it soon became apparent that Matonabbee and the Yellowknife Dene who had since joined Hearne came not solely as guides, but as a war party intent on inflicting great loss on the Inuit harvesting the Coppermine's rich bounty of fish. On July 17, the so-called Massacre at Bloody Falls, Dene guides ambushed sleeping Inuit, killing approximately 20 men, women and children. Hearne himself was deeply disturbed by the event, as revealed in this excerpt from his Journey from Prince of Wales' Fort, in Hudson Bay, to the northern ocean: "...even at this hour I cannot reflect on the transactions of that horrid day without shedding tears." Despite this occurring within two kilometres of his objective, Hearne would push forward and become the first European to reach the shores of the Arctic Ocean by an overland route. From Coronation Gulf, Hearne proceeded overland to Great Bear Lake and finally returned to Fort Prince of Wales in June of 1772, having walked an estimated 8,000 kilometres and explored more than 650,000 square kilometres, about the same land area as the province of Alberta.
The 19th Century: Scattered European Contact

Expeditions to the region in the late 19th century in search of the Northwest Passage proved unsuccessful, often claiming the lives of those seeking its route. Post-Confederation, there remained little contact with the Copper Inuit. Indeed, in an official map produced in 1906 the Canadian government went so far as to label Victoria Island uninhabited! In 1913 the isolation of the Copper Inuit from the remainder of Anglo-Canadian society was brought home following the murder of two Roman Catholic Oblate missionaries by the Inuit shamans Uluksuk and Sinnisiak. The subsequent trials in Edmonton and Calgary were the first in which Inuit were processed by the Canadian judicial system. The eventual acquittal of Uluksuk and Sinnisiak owed more to anti-Catholic sentiment among the jurors than any understanding of the culture clash that precipitated the murders. Not until Canadian anthropologist Diamond Jenness spent two years living with the Copper Inuit between 1913 and 1918 was a greater understanding of their culture made more available to Canadian officials and the general public.
The Expansion of Trade

Recognizing the potential for economic gain in the region through trade with the Copper Inuit, the Canadian government moved towards establishing permanent trading posts to facilitate the exchange of goods. Nevertheless, the Coppermine basin and the surrounding Barren Lands remain among the least visited and appreciated areas of Canada, despite their indelible influence on our past and their potential contribution to our collective future. The history of the Coppermine and its people, one of endurance and endeavor; triumph and tragedy; missed chances and new opportunities, remains only too relevant in the year 2012. In few other places is the delicate balance between the natural environment and human civilization on such breathtaking display. As issues of Arctic sovereignty, resource exploitation, sustainability and Aboriginal access to land continue to confront Canada and Canadians, the need to expand our knowledge of this region is imperative.