Stories from Dad

1975 Coppermine Exploratory Trip: A Brief, Belated Journal (4 min)

Reading Time: 5 minutes
This is an almost 40 years belated recall of Northwest Expedition’s exploratory trip on the Coppermine in July of 1975.

Late in 1972 five of us who had canoed and kayaked together decided to try to start a rafting company, and by early 1973 Northwest Expeditions was formed.

We flew to Cedar City, Utah in March 1973, as I recall, and initially purchased four 16-foot rafts from a company that offered rafting tours on the Colorado River in Arizona. I believe the company was called Colorado River Expeditions.  

We offered trips on the Red Deer River and Athabasca River in Alberta and on the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories, then later, on the Coppermine River, NWT. Joe ran the Red Deer trips, Henry and Shirley ran the Athabasca trip, and Prokop and I ran the Nahanni trips

I worked through the winter of 1972 designing a logo and brochures for the Company and trying to get some advertising out on our very limited budget.

Dad's Original Hand Drawn North-West Expeditions Logo

In the early spring of 1973 I drove to Yellowknife, the capital of the NWT to seek a guide and outfitters licence. The officials with whom I spoke denied the licence at that time as they were trying to save such enterprises for the Native people of the Territories, but they arranged for us to meet Ted Trindall who offered trips by scow on the Nahanni River. I drove to Ft. Simpson to meet Ted Trindall and he was agreeable to the proposition. We were obliged to take a Native Guide with us while operating on Mr. Trindall’s licence.  Later, I was granted a guide and outfitter’s licence for the NWT in my own right.

We had run 10 trips on the Nahanni by the time we set out to explore the Coppermine so I had had some significant experience river rafting and cooking for a large group over an open fire.


Seven of us left Edmonton at about the second week of July 1975 and drove straight through to Yellowknife in my 1972 or 1973 Dodge 12 passenger extended van. 

The seven of us were: Ernie, a MD; Gray, a biologist with the Alberta Government; Jerry, a college teacher from southern California; Russ a cartographer (and avid fisherman) from Ottawa; Ingmar, a naturalist from Ontario; Sam, a lawyer from New York; and me. At that time, I was a licensed guide and outfitter in the NWT in the summer, and in fall and winter a Masters student in Educational Philosophy at the University of Alberta living on a scholarship and GTAs.

The trip to Yellowknife was uneventful. We even made the ferry across the western end of Great Slave Lake without significant delay. We arrived in Yellowknife in time to visit a Native craft centre (some beautiful stuff, but expensive) before going to the float plane base in Old Town Yellowknife to meet our plane.

We unloaded the van, passengers and their gear, two inflatable rafts, paddles, a rowing frame and four oars for the “kitchen raft. The “kitchen raft” -as might be expected- carried the cooking gear, food in plastic pails and two coolers and was rowed by one person, usually me. The “paddling raft” was paddled by the other six guys.

We flew from Yellowknife to Red Rock Lake about 322 km or 200 miles (assuming the pilot flew the shortest flight path by compass bearing, rather than line of sight from place to place) in a turbo Twin Otter and landed on the lake.

Float Plane lands the North-West Expeditions Team

We had of course good topographic maps of the Coppermine. We expected that we would have to run some rapids on the river, but at that time we didn’t know that several of the rapids had names, other than Bloody Falls.

Now, nearly 40 years later, I can’t remember the sequence of the canyons and rapids, but I was able to identify (with the help of Google Earth) Rocky Defile, Escape Rapid and Bloody Falls and the photos of those places are grouped accordingly. 

The Coppermine runs through narrow stretches, through canyons, rapids and broad lakes. It is quite a warm river because of the sun shining for nearly 24 hours a day on the wide lakes. A few of the guys swam across where we reckoned (guessing from the topo. maps, no GPSs in those days) the Coppermine flowed across the Arctic Circle.  

Because I can’t positively identify the various places, I’ve called the photos made on the river The Many Faces of the Coppermine. 


In the Plants of the Coppermine sequence, many of the photos were made at sundown or later.  The sun was dropping below the northern horizon for perhaps 30 minutes, but it was never dark.

(Note – More of the Plants Coppermine Sequence is posted on Instagram @northwestexpeditions)

In the Animals and Birds sequence, at the place where the Arctic Ground Squirrels are shown, Gray found the partially degraded skull of a Barren -ground Grizzly (Ursus arctos) apparently chewed by another bear or rodents like the Arctic Ground Squirrel. 

Animals of the Coppermine - Ground Squirrels Plants of the Coppermine - Photo by Riverman Dr.David Rowe North-West Expeditions

(Note – More of the Animal and Birds Coppermine Sequence is posted on Instagram @northwestexpeditions)

We arrived about 22oo hr (10:00 pm.) We found many young children, at least as young as five-years old, up and very curious. They asked four questions repeatedly: Why are you doing this? How much are you getting paid? Who’s the Boss? and Did you see any Indians? (perhaps a memory of the Bloody Falls massacre? See Dictionary of Canadian Biography Vol IV A Short biography of Samuel Hearne if you are interested). The same children we had seen the night before seemed to still be on the beach when we arrived the following morning. I rowed a few children out into Coronation Gulf where they fished and swam in the Arctic Ocean.

In the Flying over the Tundra sequence first photo shows caribou carcases (the lighter spots on the photo). According to the nurses at the Coppermine Nursing Station, an unusually large herd of caribou wintered near Coppermine in the winter of 1974-1975.

Flying over the Coppermine - Caribou Plants of the Coppermine - Photo by Riverman Dr.David Rowe North-West Expeditions

(Ian Note – Flying Over Tundra Coppermine Sequence is posted on Instagram @northwestexpeditions)