The two things I have enjoyed doing more than anything else in my life are training martial arts and spending time in the wilderness.
A few years ago I undertook a 1,000 mile solo trip in the Canadian Subarctic and Arctic. Although I was way, Way, WAY out of cell phone range for that trip I did manage to upload pictures and stories from the field using a finicky satellite dish. People really enjoyed seeing pictures of that trip on my Instagram, and on my blog here.
Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise I’m going to try to share another trip with you guys in real time.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Seal River 2021 Expedition!
This route is 320 km from Tadoule Lake to Hudson Bay, and then an additional 70 km from the mouth of the Seal River to the town of Churchill for a total of 390 km.
It starts far beyond the northernmost road in the boreal forest of Northern Manitoba (black bear country), then passes out through the treeline onto the open arctic tundra (grizzly bear country), and then finishes on the shores of Hudson Bay (polar bear country).
Updates and Pictures from the Field
Here are the pictures and posts that I also shared on my Instagram @stephan_kesting under #sealriver2021…
Also, here’s a video posted on my Essential Wilderness channel, of the trip!
Friday August 13, 2021
Leaving for the North this weekend. We will be passing through the tiny native community of Tadoule Lake, and have been talking with the band councilors about how to do that safely and respectfully. This is particularly important because the chief of the neighboring village, Black Lake, just died of Covid and also the medical infrastructure in these tiny villages is very minimal.
Right now the plan includes pre-travel testing (check), chartering our own bush plane to the village airstrip, portaging directly from the airstrip through the bush to the lake, completely avoiding contact with any of the residents, and not going into the store or any buildings. This seems reasonable and we are happy to comply, but I do look forward to a time when these precautions are no longer necessary.
Saturday August 14, 2021
Hello from Winnipeg. Appropriately this sculpture of a caribou herd emerging from the water is called ‘Seal River’ and depicts the timeless migration of the herds across the tundra and northern boreal forest. I have been lucky enough to catch a caribou migration twice in my life, once on the Anderson River in NWT and once on the Thlewiaza in Nunavut; it was absolutely magnificent and awe-inspiring both times. I don’t want to get my hopes up too high, but the sculpture right beside the hotel I’m staying at is a pretty good omen…
The journey northward from here is a slow one. With any luck the paddling itself will commence on Monday August 16th.
Monday August 16th
And… we’re off!! Wandering through the hotel carrying 140 lbs of gear and bound for the airport to catch a 2 hour flight to Thompson, MB. The weather forecast is promising lots of challenging weather this week.
After lunch in Thompson it’s time to head out to the aerodrome there and take a 2 hour charter flight to Tadoule Lake. The indomitable Eva Schubert has decided to take a break from her beloved mountains join me on this mission. A better traveling companion cannot be found.
We flew into Tadoule Lake from Thompson at 17,000 feet. The climb and the dissent took us through multiple layers of clouds, so it was no surprise when it started to rain shortly after arriving at the Tadoule Lake airstrip. And to avoid the town report host through a swamp to get to the lake, and then assembled the 17 foot Pakboat in the dripping wet forest. And the final challenge was to cross the lake in the driving rain to get to the campsite, a paddle that ordinarily would have taken 20 minutes ended up taking an hour.
Setting up the tarp in the fog and the rain to have a dryish place to cook dinner. If the weather decides everything out here; from how long you can travel, to where you will camp, to how much you eat, and whether you go out onto the water at all that day.
Tuesday August 17, 2021
The day started out super foggy with an absolutely still lake. As the day went on the wind picked up and it looked like we were going to get hammered by rain and thunderstorms at any point but we successfully dodged them. Signs of wildlife are becoming more abundant: caribou antlers, wolf prints, moose poop, bear tracks, and seals hundreds of miles from the ocean. Birds so far include bald eagles, golden eagles, Canada goose, arctic terns, seagulls, ducks and loons. Humans might think that this is a harsh landscape, but all these animals call it home.
Making camp on a Caribbean quality beach (the sand, the water is a little cold) on Shethani Lake while thunderstorms roll passed in the distance. The sun even came out for long enough to dry out most of the equipment and clothing.
Wednesday August 18, 2021
Your next exciting summer getaway awaits!Come visit the North where headwinds, gray skies and driving are your daily companions. Trade in your bikini for multiple layer of fleece topped with goretex and neoprene. You can be warm if you eat continuously and never stop paddling.
We started out the day on the south shore of Shethani Lake, waking up to a stiff northern wind. That meant that we crossing to the north side of the lake and hugging the shore; even though this was a much longer route it did provide some shelter from the wind and meant smaller waves to paddle in.
There was a ton of bear tracks and bear poop in the vicinity of the campsite tonight! In part this was because of all the berries: crowberries, blueberries, and cranberries all over the place. It was also because the campsite was at the base of a large esker, which is an elevated ribbon of sand and gravel that goes high above the landscape. These remnants of the glaciers are lovely to walk on, which means that every animal trying to travel across this difficult landscape also uses them as a highway.
The presence of so much better sign meant extra precautions Kalman bear spray, shotguns, extra attention to camp hygiene, and a Pakalarm perimeter wire set up around the tent (thanks again Reidbuddy for turning me onto that alarm system!)
The Hilleberg Keron tents are some of the best tents have ever used. Bombproof in the wind and amazingly water resistant. But all tents have zippers and all zippers can fail, which is particularly awful when you’re in a land where mosquitos and black flies number in the millions.
To fix this zipper I used Chapstick to lubricate the teeth. Then I designated this door as emergency use only, a huge advantage of having a tunnel tent with a door at each end!
Thursday August 19, 2021
Sunbathing in the north. Although we have not seen the sun at all for five days – continuous overcast skies and rain – for the seals it’s fine summer weather. We saw our first seal back on Tadoule Lake on day 2 and there have been seals every day since then. Either they are bobbing around in the water hunting for fish on their own, or resting in groups on offshore rocks. I could be wrong, but it more than 200 km from the ocean these might be the furthest inland population of seal in the world.
There are many beautiful campsites on Shethani Lake including high rocky ridges and sweeping beaches. This was not one of them.
After the river leaves the last lake it goes through a low, flat, wet plain with very limited camping options. Maybe at low water it would be possible to camp on some gravel bars, but the water is so high now that the only place left would be among the black spruce trees and on the sphagnum moss where your tent would slowly sink into waterlogged oblivion.
And after a long day of paddling and with the sun setting we were very happy to find this open and dry area to camp in at the edge of an old forest fire.
Friday August 20, 2021
Today we paddled for miles and miles and miles through a gigantic burnt out forest fire area. Much of the area between Shethani Lake and the Great Island is reduced to bare soil and tree skeletons (except for the low-lying black spruce swamps). Patches of fireweed grow here and there, and it must be very pretty when they’re all flowering in July. Still, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would have looked like to be in the middle of this gigantic conflagration.
After hours of sitting in a boat it felt good to stretch the legs on an esker for 45 minutes. There @evaschubert and I found a cairn built of caribou antlers. Was it built by natives hunting caribou in the winter or paddlers coming across animal remains in the summer; I have no idea.
Almost a week on the river so far and it has been continuously overcast the entire time. Tonight was the only time we gave seen the sun: it came out for a few minutes at sunset, shining through a hole in the clouds far to the west. The lichen covered campsite on a ridge a few kilometers upstream of the Great Island was absolutely first class as well! I think I have finally reached that still Zen place where life has been simplified and all I am doing is eating, sleeping, and traveling. It is such an amazing contrast to how I live my life the rest of the time.
Saturday August 21, 2021
Long windy, wet cold day running the rapids of the southern channel around the Great Island. Despite the challenging conditions the scenery here really is pretty amazing: extensive eskers and bedrock canyons. The photo here is from the southern sneak route around the worst of the Bastion Rock rapids. At the end of this channel you had the best make a sharp right hand turn and stay close to the canyon wall or else you’ll really end up in some gigantic waves.
Some of the rapids here are pretty serious. This is the bottom of nine bar Rapids which features to very wide ledges hidden by tall haystacks and curling waves. If you’re not forewarned or very careful it would be very easy to screw yourself in these ledges; immediately downstream of here we found parts of a red royalex canoe, torn in half in the rapids above. Hopefully those people had a back up plan.
In a playboat or in a whitewater kayak it would’ve been tremendous fun to mess around in these waves, holes, pillows and ledges, but a heavily laden tripping boat carrying all of your survival equipment hundreds of miles from nowhere is an entirely different story.
I ended up lining the boat, which is to say use a length of floating rope attached to the stern end of the canoe, to guide it through the boulder gardens and avoid the worst of second ledge.
At the end of a day spent in rain, wind and whitewater we were very cold. We were there for very glad to reach the hydrological survey cabin built by Environment Canada many years ago.
Most bush cabins are infested by rodents and are full of mosquitoes; this one however was absolutely lovely, had a functioning wood stove and a wicked outdoor toilet. We stayed the night, warmed up, dried out, and left the woodbox full of freshly cut firewood.
Nobody else had signed the cabin’s logbook this summer. I know of one other group that has paddled Seal in 2021, but this is not a heavily trafficked river.
Sunday August 22, 2021
Sometimes you’re just too stiff and tired to get out of the boat at a rest break.
The sun finally came out in the late afternoon and transformed the entire landscape. There was even a rainbow and caribou antlers. @evaschubert was on security detail as well.
Camp tonight was on a very rocky point right beside the rapids. It took a fair amount of engineering with sand and rocks to build a flat tent platform here, but the view while cooking dinner was unparalleled: seals dove, terns swooped, and osprey hunted as we ate Mexican corn, bean, rice and chicken stew.
Monday August 23, 2021
It feels so great to be back out in the tundra and open country again. Also the Hilleberg Keron is an amazing tent.
We are entering the tundra now and are still 70 km from Hudson Bay, but the bear prints are getting ridiculously huge. Mostly the polar bears stay near the coast, but the occasional wanderer goes further inland…
This first bear print, found on a sandbar in the middle of the river, is almost certainly a barrenlands grizzly. They have the largest claws out here…
And this track – with its very wide paw and shorter claws – is almost certainly a female polar bear who had been denning inland with her cubs.
You know you’ve been in the bush too long when you accidentally brush your teeth with sunscreen. But hey, I’ve also brushed my teeth with Lamisil when a ringworm infection was going around a particularly dirty jiu-jitsu gym I used to train at…
There is tons of great whitewater on the Seal. It becomes frequent around the Great Island and continues all the way down to the Bay.
I think I caught some of it on this helmet cam which I wore for the harder bits. It still feels strange to wear a helmet in white water; I came up in an era where we were all watching Bill Mason movies and all he was ever wearing was his Tilley hat. But just because it’s strange doesn’t mean that it’s not the right thing to do, things can go sideways so quickly in rapids…
On the Seal there are some big name rapids.
These include Bastion Rock (moderate difficulty if you take the sneak route, very difficult down the center), Nine Bar Rapids (big water with technical moves required – found a canoe torn in half at the bottom of them), Deadly Rapids (barely different from the surrounding swifts, at least at this water level). But the highest volume and biggest waves are in Deaf Rapids, also known as Deaf Falls. They’re named that because of the deafening roar you can hear from miles upriver if the wind is blowing the right way.
A ride down the center of Deaf rapids would swamp any canoe, even if it had a spray deck, and would probably flip many rafts as well. But portaging them would be an extremely difficult endeavor as it would involve carrying heavy loads across unstable giant boulders in an area infested with polar bears.
Here’s video of us running Deaf Rapids using a sneak route down the left hand side. The trick is to stay as far left as you can without getting wrapped around a rock near shore.
My nightmare scenario has always been coming to these rapids and seeing a big polar bear sitting on one of those rocks offshore. Given that they hunt boat sized objects (beluga whales) by leaping off boulders and ice floes onto them that would NOT be a good day. Death by water or by claw. I suppose the plan would be to crash into shore above the bear, produce the 12 gauge shotgun, and try to frighten it off with the noise of a warning shot.
Below Deaf Rapids the river continues to fragment into a thousand tiny channels, each clogged with a million medium-sized boulders. The tide was out which made those channels even shallower than usual.
We stayed left and, just as we got to the ocean, spotted Jack Batstone’s cabin on the left bank. It’s impossible to see until you’re right beside it, so if you’re looking for it don’t despair – it’ll show up eventually!
Any guesses why this tiny cabin on the Hudson Bay coast has a nail studded door, a nail studded welcome mat, and a giant metal beam holding the front door closed?
It might have something to do with the bears…
Within 90 minutes of arriving at the cabin and pondering our next move we saw this: a mother bear and 2 cubs searching the shoreline near the fortified cabin. They shambled across the landscape, then jumped into the river and swam to the first big boulder island directly to the south of us.
To give you a sense of how close they are consider that this photo was shot on my iPhone and not with some telephoto lens setup…
On polar bear lookout duty at the mouth of the Seal River
We saw quite a few bear at and just north of the delta; a total of 9 in 24 hours. This was probably the biggest one
This big male had just swum across to the mainland from a small island in the delta. In the water, out of the water, these guys just don’t seem to care.
In theory polar bears don’t eat for most of the summer, losing about a pound a day. That being said, this is the only place in the world where polar bears do actively hunt beluga whales in the summer. They perch on rocks out in the water and then leap down on the whales from above. Again, this video was shot on my iPhone through the window of the cabin when the tide was high, bringing the shoreline much closer to the cabin.
We were both so very glad to have a heavily armored cabin to lie low in tonight with all the polar bears around.
There are three options for extraction from this point…
Plan A is to get a Churchill resident – typically Jack Batstone, the man who built this cabin – to come out in a motorboat and take you to Churchill. This is a very weather dependent strategy and many people have sat here for days waiting for wind and waves to subside enough for a motorboat to cover the 60 km each way from town to the Seal River delta.
Plan B is to paddle 10 km north (ie the wrong way) to the Seal River Lodge and charter an airplane to fly you to Churchill using their airstrip. This is more expensive than Plan A and requires decent weather as well.
Plan C (actually plan Z because its such a bad plan) is to paddle the coastline down to Churchill yourself. I did this years ago and it was terrifying: ridiculous tides, miles and miles of tidal flats, the ever present possibility of storms, and the constant danger from polar bears. There are so many stories of paddlers running into problems trying to paddle down the coast, well, it’s not even funny. Basically when I did it things turned out well but I was scared shitless and didn’t sleep for 2 1/2 days. Not looking forward to repeating this.
Tuesday August 24, 2021
It was a warm and quiet night in the cabin.
After spending some time on the satellite phone last night and this morning it turned out that Jack Batstone had been drafted to do a polar bear survey. This meant that a boat pickup (the cheapest and safest option) was now out of the question so we had to go to Plan B to get back to civilization. I still resolved to pay Jack $200 for the use of his cabin when we got to town – I’m sure it being there has saved the lives of both paddlers AND polar bears.
Plan B was to paddle to the Seal River Lodge s 10 km north of the Seal River delta on Hudson Bay and then charter a bush plane to their runway. Fortunately this giant and cantankerous body of salt water was as smooth as glass today.
We also had a pod of beluga whales escort us almost the whole way. They are so playful and curious that they were coming within a foot of the boat, swimming under it, and then racing ahead of us. There must have been 100 whales in all!
The Seal River Heritage Lodge is a ridiculously beautiful eco-lodge about 10 km north of the Seal River itself. It’s not cheap but here you can get beautiful accommodations, amazing food, and trips guided by biologists to see the local bears, belugas, foxes, and other animals.
Having already seen most of those things from our canoe we weren’t staying here, just using their airstrip. Even though we weren’t guests the lodge staff was still courteous, inviting and friendly as could be. For the right people this would be an amazing getaway!
The flight from Seal River Heritage Lodge to Churchill is a short one. We flew out on the return flight of a Caravan that had just dropped 11 tourists off at the lodge.
We flew above the massive intertidal area the whole way, and I felt very grateful to be admiring this beautiful landscape from above instead of trying to navigate this insanely difficult and dangerous terrain by canoe (I’ve paddled this section alone before and was basically terrified the whole way – here’s the full story about that).
First we flew low over the Seal River delta we had just descended the previous day…
Then we flew over the massive intertidal area for most of the 60 km back to Churchill. It stretched on and on, with pools, rivulets, mudflats and boulders everywhere…
Finally we approached Churchill itself. The first feature visible are the tall grain elevators waiting for the boats to take this grain northwards, out through the Hudson Strait into the Atlantic Ocean, and finally to Europe.
To finish the trip we played tourist in Churchill Manitoba for a few days.
We had the time: I had wanted to include a buffer at the end of the trip in case we got held up at the cabin by bad weather (which is also why I took about 4 extra days of food). Additionally there’s no fast way out of town: no road to the south, the train to Winnipeg literally travels mostly at walking speed and takes 48 hours to reach Winnipeg, and there are only 3 flights out a week.
We took a guided trip to go look at the Ithaca, a ship that snapped its rudder and broke its sea anchor during a massive storm on Hudson Bay 60 years ago. It’s been sitting in the intertidal ever since. Who needs SCUBA skills to explore maritime wrecks anyway?
And finally, a northern lights show to finish off our time in the north. Farewell Churchill, farewell Hudson Bay, hope to get back here soon.
BEARS, BELUGAS, AND AN OFFSHORE TIDE ON HUDSON BAY
Years ago I spent 3 days and 2 nights paddling from the Seal River to Churchill. It was a beautiful, moving, and absolutely terrifying experience.
1000 MILE SOLO TRIP FROM MISSINIPE, SASKATCHEWAN TO ARVIAT, NUNAVUT
In 2019 I completed a difficult 42 day, 1000 mile, solo trip down the Churchill River, up the Reindeer River, across Reindeer Lake, up the Cochrane River, across Nueltin Lake and down the Thlewiaza River to Hudson Bay.
It’s a pretty cool story – click here to read about it on this site.
Seal River 2021 Packing List
I’m being super detailed in this list because it’s something that I’m always interested in for other people’s expeditions.
(Plus when I am old and gray I can look back on this list and remember what a giant pain in the a$$ it was to pack all this stuff before leaving on this trip.)
Canoe and Paddling Gear
- 17′ Folding Pakboat Canoe
- Spraydeck (also by Pakboat)
- 2 x Carbon fibre bentshaft paddles
- 2 x Heavy duty whitewater paddles
- 2 x 50′ lines, bow and stern, for lining
- 100′ Parachute cord for tying packs into boat
- 2 x PFDs equipped with rescue knives, whistles, firemaking tools, bug nets, survival blankets and signalling mirrors
- 2 x Whitewater helmets
- 2 x Shorty wetsuits
- 2 x Neoprene booties
- 2 x Open palm Neoprene paddling gloves
- Bailer equipped with floatation and carabiner
- Hull repair kit
Tent and Sleeping Gear
- Hilleberg Keron 4 tent
- Eureka NoBugZone CT 11 tarp shelter, extra parachute cord for rigging
- 2 x Collapsible poles
- 2 x Thermarest mattresses
- 2 x Mummy bags (1 x down, 1 x synthetic fill)
- 2 x lightweight folding camp chairs (a luxury, I know)
- 2 x PakAlarm perimeter lines and alarm
- 1 x Critter Gitter motion sensor alarm (should have bought two units to achieve a close to 360 degrees of protection)
- 2 x Bear spray and holster
- 1 x Winchester Marine Defender 12 gauge shotgun with folding stock
- 12 x 00 buckshot shells
- Strict odourproofing food protocols
Cooking and Eating Gear
- MSR Whisperlite stove with windscreen
- 2 x 887 ml bottles of white gas stove fuel
- 2 x nesting pots
- 3 x titanium spoons
- 2 x nesting cups
- 2 x hollow fire irons
- Biodegradeable soap and tiny sponge
- Matches and lighter
Navigation and Communication
- 14 x 1:50,000 topographic maps printed on Tuffcoat paper (waterproof) – not shown
- 2 x Silva Ranger Compasses – not shown
- Garmin Inreach Explorer+ (a GPS unit with limited text communication capabilities)
- Cobham Explorer 510 BGan satellite dish
- Goal Zero Nomad 28 solar panel
- Irridium 9505A satellite phone and spare battery
- iPhone 12 Max Pro
- GoPro Hero 9 and extra SD card
- Sherpa 100 AC power bank
- Cables to charge phone, camera, GPS and BGan satellite dish from solar panel and power bank
- Mini folding binoculars – not shown
- Some light reading material for those windbound days (also on the Kindle app on my phone, but when it’s windy it’s often overcast and that means you can’t charge your phone very effectively)
- Nail clipper
- Toothpaste (small tube)
- Dental floss (small container)
- SPF 50 sunscreen
- Toilet paper
- Ciprofloxacin (20 tablets, 500 mg)
- Cephalexin (60 tablets, 500 mg)
- Prednisone (10 tablets, 50 mg)
- Tylenol 3s (30 tablets, 30
- Metronidazole (28 capsules, 500 mg,)
- Cetrizine (30 tablets, 20 mg)
- Vancomycin (40 tablets)
- Lamisil, 30 mg tube
- Polysporin, 30 mg tube
- New Skin, 30 ml bottle
- Sam Splint
- Water purifying tablets x 10
- 12 bandaids, various sizes
- 2nd skin (2 pieces, 1.5” x 3”)
- Wound dressings
- Scissors and tweezers
- Caffeine (10 tablets)
- Zopiclone (6 tablets)
- Tylenol 3 (10 tablets)
- Regular Tylenol (30 tablets)
- Q Tips
- Elastic Bandage and safety pins
- Extra firelighting supplies
- Nylon straps and buckles
- 2 part epoxy
- Silicone goop
- MSR stove repair kit
- Spare compass
- Extra batteries (not shown)
- Half roll Gorilla tape
- Extra shock cord
- Backup stove pump
- 4 x tiny superglue containers
- Leatherman Surge multitool
- Adhesive repair tapes & Thermarest repair kit
- Tiny sewing kit
- Pakboat canoe hull repair kit (not shown)
- Extra cordage x 2
- Extra lighter
- Spare buttons, grommets, wire and screws
- Fine tip sharpee
- Sewing awl
- Extra Velcro
- Lightweight carabiners
- Heavy duty rainjacket and rain pants
- Tilley hat (you can’t go canoeing without a silly hat – it’s a rule)
- Light fleece sweater
- Heavy fleece sweater (or treated down jacket)
- Bug shirt
- Leather gloves
- Waterproofed egyptian cotton pants and light nylon pants
- 1 x Long sleeve shirt
- 3 x T shirts (2 x Merino wool)
- 4 x Wool socks
- Low cut hiking boots
2 people, 12-13 days, 2-3 days extra, just over 70 lbs total, roughly 3,600 calories per person per day.
- 4 x Barley cereal with added dried fruit
- 4 x Bannock
- 8 x Homemade muesli
- 3 x Freeze dried eggs and hashbrowns
- Powdered cashew and powdered coconut nut milks,
- Ziplok stuffed with energy orbs,
- Beef jerky
- Landjaeger sausages x 12 (vacuum packed) – not in photo
- Vacuum sealed hard cheeses – not in photo
- Chocolate covered dates
- Dried hummus
- Roasted almonds
- Ritter Sport chocolate
- Gummy bears
- Cliff bars
- Rebar bars
- Dried peaches
- Trail mix
- Toasted hazelnut dark chocolate, my favorite flavor from Denman Island Chocolate
- 6 x Pasta, homemade and home dried pasta sauce and fresh Parmesan
- 3 x Chicken stir fry on rice with freeze dried chicken, mushrooms, and broccoli, home dried carrots and green onions, chicken bullion, dark soy paste and corn starch
- 4 x Mexican stew on rice with freeze dried chicken, corn, and black bean flakes with beef bullion powder, and Mexican chili powder
- 2 x Homemade and home dried beef barley soup
- 4 x Various freeze dried camping food.
- Dried miso and chicken noodle soups (1 per day),
- Daily protein powder (whey and vegetarian)
- 2 x Commercial apple crumble desserts
- 3 x Home grown and home-dried rhubarb/apple crumble,
- Dried kale
- Dried cherry tomatos
- Dried brussel sprouts,
- Dried basil
- Dried cauliflower
- Triple packaged oil and vinegar containers
- Teas (mint, chai and earl gray tea)
- 2 x nomad borscht
- 1 x nomad Hungarian goulash
- Spices: salt/pepper/chipotle