5 January 2007: Fairbanks

The Traverse Route

Matthew Sturm


The map was in his head.  As a small boy, he had begun accompanying his father on longer and longer trips.  At times, his father would stop the sled and say to him “See that hill?  The rocks on top look like a loon. Remember that hill.” Using a stick, he could sketch almost the whole Barren Grounds in wet sand, every lake and stream.


We will follow historic and traditional trails. The route has 5 stages differentiated by native culture and physiography:

Stage 1: Yukon River to MacKenzie River  (Gwitchin and Dene)
Stage 2: The MacKenzie River Corridor (Athabaskan and Dene)
Stage 3: Great Bear Lake to Coppermine (Western Inuit)
Stage 4: The Western Barren Grounds (Inuit)
Stage 5: Thelon River to Baker Lake (Eastern Inuit)

We will start at the end of the road system in Circle, Alaska (pop. 94), and follow the Yukon River to Ft. Yukon (pop. 595). From there, we will travel along the traditional Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading route up the Porcupine River past the historic sites of Rampart and Lapierre Houses to Old Crow (pop. 264), the only village in Yukon Territory that is not on the road system. From there, we will cross of the height of the Richardson Mountains and drop down to Ft. McPherson (pop. 823) on the Peel River. This is the country where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police engaged in a famous and desperate manhunt for the Mad Trapper of the Rat River in blizzards and –50° temperatures during the winter of 1932; the manhunt was broadcast on the radio and thrilled audiences in the U.S. and Canada.

From Ft. McPherson, we will travel up the MacKenzie River. This mighty river was descended to the Arctic Ocean by a party led by Alexander MacKenzie in 1789, and prior to the development of reliable air transport in the North, was the primary transportation artery for NW Canada. Paddle-wheel steamers, scows, and canoes plied the river in the summer; freight moved by dog mushing in the winter. Break-up (when ice went out of the river) and freeze-up were the most important transitions of the year. Today, barges carry heavy equipment and freight in summer, but in winter an ice road for trucks has replaced the dog sleds. On this stretch of the route, we will travel through the communities of Arctic Red River (Tsiigehchic, pop. 200), Ft. Good Hope (pop. 549: Radilih Koe), Norman Wells (pop. 800) and Ft. Norman (Tulita).

We will turn east at the mouth of Great Bear River, traveling up the river to Ft. Franklin (Deline, pop. 616), then across Great Bear Lake, the 4th largest lake in North America.  If time and traveling conditions allow, we will visit Port Radium on the east shore of the lake. Here in 1930, pitchblende was discovered and uranium mined for the treatment of cancer. During the war, ore from the Eldorado mine supplied the Manhattan Project and went into the production of the first atomic bomb. Today, virtually nothing is left, the mine buildings have been burnt down in 1982, a classic case of Northern boom and bust.

From there our route will take us to our farthest north point, as well as back in time.  We will work our way up to Dease Arm, over the Dismal Lakes portage, then down past Bloody Falls to Coppermine (Kugluktuk, pop. 1212).  This is one of the most historic and culturally important areas along our route.  At Bloody Falls in July of 1771, Samuel Hearne was witness to the massacre of more than a dozen Inuit by his Chippewayan Indian guides, apparently just one in a series of wars between the pre-contact Indian and Eskimo peoples. Later, in 1913, Father Rouviere and Father LeRoux were killed by Inuit in nearly the same location, a crime that took the RCMP 3 years to solve in that era before air travel in the North.  Dease Inlet was the site of Fort Confidence, established by Peter Warren Dease and Thomas Simpson in 1837, and was later the location where of the winter quarters of G.M. Douglas, a geologist and one of the first photographers in the Northwest Territories.

At Coppermine (Kugluktuk) we will rest, refit, and refuel.  We have heard from other travelers that the people of Coppermine know the traditional routes across the Barren Grounds better than any other group, so our intention is to spend some time visiting and trading stories of the trail.  Also, once we leave Coppermine, there are no other villages until the end of the route.

From Coppermine, we will strike south-southeast heading for Daring Lake.  Daring Lake is a research site maintained by the Canadian Government where we will be able to obtain fuel. We will be joined here by two Canadian snow researchers who will travel with us the remaining 800 km to Baker Lake.  For much of the remainder of our trip, we will be traveling near the tree/brush line and will be in a position to examine changes in the location and nature of this line. North of the line is the Barren Grounds, the tundra portion of the Canadian Arctic that is often described as “timeless” by writers.  Yet in the very heart of this area we will visit one of the most dramatic new features of the Barrens:  the diamond mines. Our route will pass near Lac de Gras and the Ekati  and Diavik Diamond Mines. The multi-million dollar facilities are already producing about 5% of the worlds diamond.  In summer they are supplied by air, but in winter an ice road connects them to the road system at Yellowknife (Ekati is Dene for “fat”: the quartz veins in the area look like the fat in caribou meat).  In 1772 Samuel Hearne passed within a few miles of the present site of the Diavik mine; would he be surprised at the developments?  Perhaps not. After all, he was seeking a coppermine on his journey.

From the diamonds, we will continue to bear SE following the route of Samuel Hearne. He and his Indian companions basically followed the treeline in 1772, so this route will allow us to assess if that line has moved north. To our knowledge, most of the modern winter crossings of the Barren Grounds have been north of this historic route in order to avoid deep snow.  We will across Aylmer and Clinton-Colden Lakes and then intersect the Thelon River. This we will follow east, passing the location where Hornby and his two companions starved to death in the winter of 1927 (remnants of the cabin remain).  This part of the trip will take us through the Thelon Game Santuary, the largest and most remote wildlife refuge on the North America continent.   We will end the trip in Baker Lake (Qamani’tuaq), a village of 1500 people.





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