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Dreaming About Belcher Islands Kayaking

Belcher Islands overview

Today, I was going to write an essay about my view on rough water sea kayaking and whether or not this specific subset of sea kayaking really fits in with my view of what sea kayaking is and whether or not the continued emphasis on rough water paddling is good for the sport, but I got sidetracked, probably for the better, by the Google maps on GeoGarage while trying to identify several lights that I saw last night from across Lake Superior. What I saw on Google maps that blew my mind was the Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay, and the cool thing: the islands have a history of kayaking that goes back to the seal skin kayak days. Just looking at these islands makes me dream of a month or month-and-a-half adventure circumnavigating several of the major islands.

What I Know of the Belcher Islands After an Hour of Surfing

Not a whole lot, other than they are some of the coolest looking islands in the world, and not only are the Belcher Islands cool looking, but it’s not just one or two islands, it’s an archipelago of about 1,500 islands — a sea kayakers dreamn. The islands are located on the southeast corner of Hudson Bay, which from what I read is a really crazy and harsh place to paddle. I’ve read stories about Hudson Bay that tell of shallows that drain out leaving kayakers stranded miles from solid ground until the tide comes in. I’ve read about sudden wind storms turning a peaceful paddle across the shallows into the inside of a blender mixed with automobile sized rocks that seem to thrust out of the ocean randomly. I’ve also read about crazy pack ice that blows in and threatens to smash kayaks to tiny bits and lots other adversity, such as really really cold water. I imagine that the bugs are pretty bad, because it’s up north and anything north of Grand Marais, Minnesota (which is really buggy in the spring and part of summer). I hate bugs, especially black flies.

Volcanic rock makes up most the the islands, but there’s also sedimentary rock. There’s limited soil and no trees because of that. The islands are dotted with freshwater lakes that are reputed to be crystal clear and harbor Arctic char, which is related to salmon and trout, and whitefish. There are three types of seals, beluga whales and walrus on the islands and a herd of reindeer. I can imagine that the camping on the islands would involve staking out the tents with rocks and rope, and because there are polar bear on the islands care would have to be taken for setting up a kitchen far away from camp, but maybe it’s not a problem in summer when the average temps are 50 degree Fahrenheit. There’s going to be lots of daylight in August when the winds look more calm, at least, according to this chart:

max winds in the Belcher Islands

I didn’t find an easy way to find average wind speeds and directions, but I used Environment Canada’s National Climate Data and Information Archive to scan through several weeks from 2012 in July and August and it looks like the prevailing wind is NNE and almost always blowing in the 12 to 20 mph range and then some. A few calmer days were mixed in, but for the most part it was windy. The crux of the trip then becomes the northeast side of the island as it’s rather exposed to an 60 to 100 mile fetch with only a few islands 10 to 15 miles away blocking the fetch. That’ll be a day or two of launching and landing in moderate to rough seas, and did I mention the point that sticks out like a sore thumb, or if motivated, it’s only about 17 miles to town from a likely campsite. Of course, finding fresh water might be pretty difficult on the entire trip, but I’m not too sure about that. And currents and tides and such.

Belcher Islands sea kayaking the hard part

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Flaherty Island, the only island with a permanent settlement was named after Robert Flaherty, who mapped the islands on expeditions in 1914 and 1916. Flaherty went on to produce the film, Nanook of the North. Check out the cool kayaking scene that starts at about 5 minutes into the video.

Flaherty wrote this about his first encounter with the islands:

That evening we arrived at the northerly extreme of the island, logging twenty-two knots for the distance. From the crest of the shore range, a bold island-free coastline of barren, ice-scoured diabase descending some 250 feet half roundedly like a whale back into the sea, we gained a view of unbroken ranges of land to the westward, barren save for plots here and there of russet mosses, studded with tiny lakes, and extending inland to a horizon twenty miles away…

The permanent settlement is called Sanikiluaq. It has about 750 people in it, and hotel rooms go for $275 per person a night! Yikes! Probably best to ship in supplies, because it’s not going to be any cheaper to buy supplies once you’re there — if you can even get them.

Belcher Islands Kayaks

One site that I surfed suggested that tandem kayaks were common in this area, and the website had neat drawings of tandem kayaks. Just to check that out, I surfed over to Harvey Golden’s Traditional Kayaks website to check out his Circum-Polar Kayak Types: An Illustration of What is (and was)Where article. There I found out that he had built a replica of Canadian Canoe Museum’s 990.61. It’s 18’6-3/4″ long by 30-7/8″ and is 10-5/8″ depth-to-sheer. That’s long and wide., and the single cockpit looks strange compared to modern keyhole cockpits; it’s shaped like a “D”. I’m sure that Golden details more in his massive Kayaks of Greenland: The History and Development of the Greenlandic Hunting Kayak, 1600-2000 book or maybe not, but you should buy the book anyway. The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America doesn’t really give us any guidance for the type of kayaks used there. It turns out that Brian Schulz of Cape Falcon Kayaks built a Belcher Island kayak. And Eugene Arima writes about the kayaks in “Inuit Kayaks in Canada.” He mentions four tandem kayaks that were built in 1954, but my reading of what he writes doesn’t make it seem like he thought they were traditional to the area. Maybe his Inuit Kayaks in Canada has more info and maybe even the lines for a kayak from the area. I don’t have it, so I don’t know, but I did just order it in to my library — I’m happy that my tax dollars can make that happen. The Canadian Canoe Museum says this about the Belcher Island kayak that they have in their collection:

The kayak is essentially a hunting tool – designed to be fast, agile and seaworthy. Many older kayaks were made to be sleek and narrow in order to allow its hunter to get close enough to the prey to throw a harpoon or killing lance.  This particular kayak, made during the mid-1900s, has been made to a much wider and more stable design, and suggests a change in hunting methods. Combined with a larger cockpit opening, this would have been an ideal adjustment to allow the hunter to rest the kayak paddle, and use both arms to steady a rifle that had been carefully kept inside the kayak when not in use.

Logistics

This one seems like it’d be hard to pull off. There’s an airport in Sanikiluaq, but I’d likely want to ship in the kayaks and supplies ahead of time. It all sounds pretty expensive, so some kind of sponsorship would be a must or winning the lottery. I’m not even sure of the legal requirements for camping on the island. I’m sure there are some, plus probably fees and such for that sort of thing. With shipping, supplies and other expenses, I’d guess that this trip would run somewhere around $5000 to $6000 per person and maybe higher depending on how expensive it is to ship everything there. Maybe folding kayaks would be a good option. This sort of thing would be easier to figure out after figuring out who and how many people are going.

Maps

Belcher Islands claw point

If you want to dream with me, you can download the topo maps. It’s mainly in 34D and 33M.

Is This Trip Doable?

I don’t know. Probably, and it would be a dream trip, a trip of a lifetime and any other glowing cliche that you want to say about it. Just thinking about it gets my heart racing more than thinking about a day spent in cold water surf, rock gardens or lumpy water. But my point is that trips such as this are what sea kayaking is really about. Get the skills to handle what the sea is going to throw at you, and gain the judgement to know when it’s best to get to shore or to stay on shore, but don’t forget about the big picture. The exploration, discovery and adventure exemplified by a trip such as this one is what drew me and many others to the sport, and without big adventures that drive kayakers to get better skills or even day trips to local areas that remain unexplored, kayaking becomes a stale run down another wave. A trip to the Belcher Islands is really what the essence of sea kayaking is, and don’t let all those rough water tidal race/surf videos make you think otherwise.

So, what do you think? Do you want to come with me?

9 comments

  • 1442 driving miles from Virginia to Ile de Fort George towing a RHIB or soft bottomed inflatable to act as a mother ship, RHIB around the point and up the coast to the closest crossing point. Cross to the islands and deflate and cache the inflatable, then it’s kayaks away. A month of exploring is certainly doable. The RHIB would allow a larger logistics supply to be brought and cached as well to avoid having to get re-supplied by air or other method. Call it a $1000 in fuel, $1000 in other logistics, and you are in the $1000/person range if you already have the inflatable, for two people. Need to figure out how to best lash the kayaks to the inflatable though. It would still be an arduous trip since even the crossing in the RHIB is at least 50 NM on the Hudson Bay.

  • I would wonder what the tidal situation would do in between those islands. It may be quite the tidal races. From what I remember Hudson bay has a crazy tides and “drains” really quickly.

  • These Islands are part of the Nunavut territory. Did you contacted the Nunavut tourist information?

    http://www.nunavuttourism.com/canoeing_kayaking.aspx#

    There is also an outfitter that organized trip in the Nunavut than can have more information about the area.

    http://windigo.qc.ca/anglais/menu2/index.html

  • You may be interested to know that it is possible to take a scheduled train as far as Moosonee, at the S. end of James Bay (http://www.ontarionorthland.ca). It may not be so hard to get kayaks up at least that far using that route. Given the distance, a float plane out of Moosonee would be most appealing.

    If I were dreaming of going up that way, it would likely be to visit Saglek Fjord (NE coast of Labrador). Check out Nigel Foster’s kayak trip there: on the web (http://www.nigelkayaks.com/941/20522.html) or his book “Stepping Stones: of Ungava and Labrador”.

  • […] and that it’s 22-foot length and 29.5-inch beam would make for a good trade kayak between the Belcher Islands and mainland. He also notes that it’s likely as much as a single paddler could handle by […]

  • […] just looked like a great, easy-to-learn and calm way to explore. I bought a sea kayak and explored. That’s what I still do in sea kayaking and offering that joy of exploration to others is one of the reasons that I decided to start a […]

  • Greetings from the Belcher Islands!

    If you ever manage to get here, I am sure you won’t be disappointed. The land is beautiful and the people have been very good to my family.

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