Historical Significance: The Franklin Expedition

This route, in addition to being of scientific interest to our group, has historical significance as well. The section of this route from Big Lake to Winter Lake follows the same path as that taken by Lt. John Franklin on his Coppermine expedition of 1819 to 1822. On our route we will travel past, and undoubtedly stop at, the site of Fort Enterprise. Fort Enterprise, now just a small collection of cut logs, was where the Franklin expedition spent the winter of 1820-1821 and where they were rescued by the Yellowknives at the end of their journey. The goal of this expedition was to map the northern coast of Canada as part of the British desire to find the Northwest Passage.


Lt. John Franklin

The expedition began on May 23rd, 1819, when Franklin and his crew left the British Isles on a Hudson’s Bay Company ship. Franklin’s expedition reached York Factory, on the southwest coast of Hudson Bay on August 30th. Issues with supplies soon became apparent due to the fact that the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company were rivals and cooperation between the two trading companies was impossible. Franklin’s expedition traveled overland to Cumberland House on the modern day border of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, which at the time was a just small garrison of Hudson’s Bay men. This is where they would spend the winter of 1819-1820.

Franklin Map 1

From arrival at York Factory to Cumberland House across modern day Manitoba.


First winter at Cumberland House.

Franklin Map 2

From Cumberland House across modern day Saskatchewan.

In January 1820 the expedition traveled to Fort Chipewyan, arriving in late March after difficult travel in freezing conditions. There they recruited sixteen voyageurs, leaving for Great Slave Lake in July. Travel at this point of the expedition was mostly by canoe, and Franklin was able to reach Fort Providence (near present day Yellowknife) after ten days on the water. At this point, Franklin met with the Yellowknives (a local aboriginal tribe) and was able to trade for hunting and guiding assistance until reaching Inuit lands.

Franklin Map 3

Towards Fort Chipewyan and the route to Fort Providence.

After this meeting, in the summer of 1820, Franklin’s expedition traveled north up the Yellowknife River until reaching a point on Winter Lake. This site, named Fort Enterprise by Franklin, was picked by Akaitcho (the leader of the Yellowknives) as the expedition’s winter quarters for 1820-1821. The second winter was tough, with food and ammunition shortages creating issues. The deteriorating situation led to unrest within the group, with some voyageurs practically in open rebellion.


Akaitcho and his son.


Winter at Fort Enterprise.

On June 4th, 1821, Franklin and his group left for the mouth of the Coppermine River. Plans for their return were vague and up in the air and thus there was uneasiness in the group. The Arctic Ocean was seen on July 14th, where an Inuit camp was located and the Yellowknive guides returned south. The Inuit fled the area and thus Franklin did not have an opportunity to communicate and trade for supplies. Those that were returning south were advised to stock the route and Fort Enterprise itself with food for the returning expedition.


Camp at the mouth of the Coppermine River.

At the mouth of the Coppermine River, near modern day Kugluktuk, Franklin’s expedition set off to the east (along mainland Canada’s northern coast) towards Bathurst Inlet. Franklin mapped 500 miles of coastline, but found that rough seas made a return journey to the Coppermine River impractical. Thus, in late August, Franklin and his group canoed as far as they could down the Hood River (outlet at Bathurst Inlet) and then began overland travel across the Barren Lands.


Last camp on the Arctic Ocean before heading inland.

Winter arrived in early September and the expedition quickly ran short on food. Hunting was scarce and the vegetation provided little in terms of food (besides lichens termed tripe de roche). The overland travel was extremely difficult on the voyageurs, who left the canoes, fishing nets and other heavy equipment behind in order to save energy. On September 26th, the expedition reached the Coppermine River. Without canoes, however, it was impossible to actually cross the large and swift river in order to reach Fort Enterprise. After 10 days stuck on the shores of the Coppermine, a voyageur with some strength was able to construct a small one-man canoe so that each man could cross the river one by one before the makeshift raft broke down.


Travel through the Barren Lands.

Fort Enterprise was only a week or so away, but that proved too much of a journey for some of the weaker members of the expedition who stayed behind. Franklin and a few of the stronger members of his party reached Fort Enterprise on October 12th. Unfortunately it was deserted and no food had been stocked for the expedition. Those in the party who were able made their way to Fort Providence and suspected aboriginal locations in search of food while those who remained waited at Fort Enterprise and did what they could for food and warmth. Of those who were too weak to originally make it Fort Enterprise and stayed behind, only two of the British officers survived and made it to Fort Enterprise on October 29th. Three of the other voyageurs and British officer Robert Hood had been killed by a fourth voyageur who had resorted to cannibalism for food (who was then himself shot and killed by one of the surviving British officers).

Franklin Map 4

From Fort Providence to Fort Enterprise and up the Coppermine River to the Arctic Ocean and back over the Barren Lands. Red circle show the location of our field expedition this summer in relation to the historical Franklin route. 

On November 7th, Akaitcho and the Yellowknives arrived at Fort Enterprise, bringing with them food and supplies. The expedition survivors, having been treated back to health by the Yellowknives, were able to leave for Fort Enterprise and arrived at Fort Providence on December 11th. Akaitcho explained that the lack of ammunition, hunting accidents and the fact that the Yellowknives did not believe anyone in the expedition would survive what they believed to be a foolhardy journey led to the lack of support at Fort Enterprise. In the end, eleven of the nineteen men who were part of the expedition had died and only 500 miles of coastline had been mapped. Despite this, however, Franklin was greeted as a celebrity in England upon his return in 1822 and praised for his courage in dealing with an expedition always on the verge of disaster.


  • John Franklin: Traveller on Undiscovered Seas (Wilson, 2001)
  • To the Arctic by Canoe 1819-1821 (Hood, ed. Houston, 1974)
  • The Man Who Mapped the Arctic (Steele, 2003)
  • Arctic Artist (Back, ed. Houston, 1994)
  • Arctic Ordeal (Richardson, ed. Houston, 1984)
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We’re Back!

After five weeks away and a very successful expedition, the crew returned to Kingston in the early morning of Friday, August 26 after a long day of travel from Yellowknife via Calgary (and a total lack of Air Canada in-flight snacks).

Stay tuned to the blog throughout the fall as we post pictures, provide research updates, weave tales from our travels (included a fishy one or two) and provide gear reviews for those looking at long canoe expeditions.


Greg on behalf of the C2T2 crew (Ryan, Mitchell & Stuart)

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Tales Trees Tell

We frequently pass them by and pay no heed, but trees are constantly at work. One of the things they are doing is producing wood and that wood shows up as annual rings that we can see on pieces of wood that are cut in a radial section (think of a tree stump). These rings are a natural archive of information about the tree’s environment and can be harnessed to tell many stories about the tree and its environment.


Annual rings visible on a well-sanded cross-section.

Counting the number of rings near the base of a tree we can get a very good estimate of the age of a tree. By understanding the age of a wide number of individuals on a landscape we can gather demographic information (how old are individuals, when did they start to grow, what spatial patterns do they show on the landscape) and get a sense of how the landscape has changed over the past several hundred years (depending on the age of living and dead trees).

Tree rings can also provide insight into the growing conditions of a tree and what factors contribute to better or worse growth. By measuring ring width and other possible measurements such as wood density or perhaps isotopes contained in the wood, we can understand how climate influences growth and how that might change in the future.

This summer, we will be collecting samples primarily concerned with the first task above in order to understand how the treeline (the area of transition between the subarctic tundra and the boreal forest) has changed over the past 200 years.


Photo of northern treeline taken from Manitoba (likely to be similar at our sites in central NWT!). Photo credit: Christian Artuso.

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In Yellowknife!


Flight from Ottawa was uneventful and our gear made it here in one piece. The city is beautiful (and a bit chilly)!

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Route Details

This post will provide some details that our group has collected about our canoe route from Big Lake to Wekweètì . Although it is impossible to fully understand exact intricacies of an area without seeing it in person, gathering route details and photographs from past travelers is helpful. Below you will find a brief summary of  the route from Big Lake to Wekweètì, as well as a collection of landscape photographs of the area.

Simple Route Map 6-21 (1)

Big Lake to Wekweeti. Distance: ~130 km


Big Lake and route south to Little Marten Lake

Route 1

This beginning section of the route will see us dropped off by float plane at the aptly named Big Lake. This lakes lies above treeline and thus will be mostly devoid of trees, with shrubs and other smaller plants dominating the tundra landscape. This route is known to be a difficult paddle, with past travelers in the area indicating that water levels are lower then they appear. It is likely that the rivers that connect the small lakes south of Big Lake in the above image will be boulder strewn in some places. These areas will have to be portaged (unpacking everything out of the canoes and traveling overland to a more favorable area) or lined (attaching ropes to the canoe and walking them along the shore until the danger is passed).

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Little Marten Lake to west outlet of Winter LakeRoute 2

Little Marten Lake is T-shaped lake found about halfway between our start point at Big Lake and Winter Lake. This lake will likely be a welcome site, providing us with some nice lake paddling uninterrupted by boulders or rapids. In addition to this, Little Marten Lake is known to have a hunting/fishing camp on it, meaning there is a chance we run into others at this section of the journey.

Once leaving Little Marten Lake, however, we will return to chains of smaller lakes connected with fast-moving, often boulder strewn rivers that will have to be negotiated carefully. Dogrib Rock, a prominent feature between Little Marten Lake and Winter Lake, rises above the relatively flat landscape and can be seen for many kilometers in all directions. The local Tłı̨chǫ aboriginal tribe has used this feature to aid travel in the area for centuries. The view from Dogrib rock will also be interesting to us since this area is where the transition from tundra to forest really becomes apparent. As we move closer to Winter Lake trees will change from being a rare site to being almost ubiquitous on the landscape within only a few dozen kilometers distance. This transition zone is of great interest to all of our research and we are thus likely to spend a lot of time in this area.

Winter Lake is an important feature, forming a nature mid-point to our journey. The south and west side of Winter Lake is more densely forested and is home to the location of Fort Enterprise where Lt. Franklin and his companions spent the winter of 1820 and were rescued late in 1821 (Franklin Expedition section upcoming). Although this “fort” is mostly gone at this point, it will be an important point on our journey since many pictures have been taken in that area and it has historical significance.

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Fort Enterprise to Snare Lake (through Roundrock Lake)

Route 3

Fort Enterprise is found at the western outlet of the Snare River from Winter Lake into Roundrock Lake. The connection between Winter Lake and Roundrock Lake is known to have at least two rapids that will likely need to be portaged. We have been told that, due to the amount of travel this section of the route sees, portage trails are marked. Once Roundrock Lake is reached most of the rest of our journey will consist of lake paddling. Although I bet we will be thankful to escape the strenuous work that is portaging and lining canoes we must be careful about wind on these long thin lakes. The forests around Roundrock Lake will likely grow in size and density as we continue to move south.

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Part 4: Snare Lake to Wekweètì

Route 4

The final days of our journey will consist of more lake paddling down Snare Lake towards the Tłı̨chǫ village of Wekweètì. This village, home to about 140 people, is most easily accessed by a daily flight to and from Yellowknife as well as by ice road in the winter. We hope to spend at least a few days in Wekweètì where we can communicate our research to local people. If time permits, we will also travel either south or west of Wekweètì and conduct field sampling in the densest boreal forests that can be found along our route (see 1000:1 tree:tundra ratio from top map).

Wekweeti (Google)

The village of Wekweeti

All in all, our journey by canoe will only be 130 kilometers but we will be able to experience the entirety of the tundra to forest transition zone. Certainly an exciting opportunity!

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Route Planning

When traveling in remote locations, such as central Northwest Territories, it is important to carefully plan your route in order to minimize risk and gather as much information about the land as possible. The original planned route for this expedition was from the Daring Lake tundra science camp to Wekweètì. This route met our objective of allowing us to sample along treeline in central Northwest Territories while also having the opportunity to begin our expedition out of a Queen’s University affiliated science camp. As research into this route progressed, however, it became clear that this route may not be feasible. Discussions with people who have canoed in the area, as well as those with local knowledge, found that canoe travel between Daring Lake and Wekweètì is rare. The reason for this is due to the fact that the section of the route between Providence Lake and Winter Lake crosses over a major watershed boundary, meaning that long sections of overland travel would be required.

Potential Routes

Map of two discussed routes. Upper reaches of selected route (red) are above treeline and tree size and density increases as you move south.


Although lacking the logistical support of Daring Lake, our group looked towards other options. We found that starting 60 km west at Big Lake would allow us to cover a similar tundra to forest transition with less difficulty. A further benefit of this route is, in addition to being less strenuous, is that it is not as long. Daring Lake to Wekweètì is 180 km while Big Lake to Wekweètì is 130 km. Finally, this route is has historical significance (Franklin Expedition section coming soon), being part of the Coppermine Expedition of 1819-22 and is thus canoed often.


Big Lake and route south, with important details marked by a past canoe trip. P = Portages, L = Lines, C = Campsites.


Our group was able to get in contact with people who have canoed the route in the past in order to gain important details about it. Maps and descriptions provided by past trip leaders gave us information on campsites as well as portage and rapid locations, which will be invaluable in the field. Pictures from their trips were also provided (Route details section coming soon). In addition to this source of information, various books, articles and journals provided information on the Big Lake to Wekweètì route.



  • Canoeing Canada’s Northwest Territories (McCreadie, 1995)
  • An interdisciplinary investigation of Fort Enterprise, Northwest Territories, 1970 (Losey, 1973)
  • By Canoe up the Yellowknife River in 1932, Part One and Part Two (Wray, 1980)
  • Franklin, Oops, Mud & Cupcake (Pitt, 2014)
  • Email contacts with four separate people who led canoe expeditions over the route in past
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Fieldwork Power Needs – The Challenge

Five weeks in the field without any access to electricity is a serious challenge with gear that requires regular recharging. We could certainly get by if this was a much shorter trip, or if we didn’t have any scientific requirements, but there are several pieces of equipment that we need to bring along for measurement and recording. For this blog post I describe the challenge we face. In a subsequent post I will describe the solution we came up with.

Trimble GeoExplorerXT 6000

This is a mobile GIS field unit with integrated GPS capabilities. It runs on a Windows CE operating system and has a suite of software that includes Trimble TerraSync for collecting geospatial data and linking it to desktop GIS applications such as ArcGIS. The GPS capabilities of the unit are remarkable. It utilizes both the USA GPS satellite network and the Russian GLNSS network to achieve sub-metre position accuracy. One battery charge lasts for about one full day of operation. We have a second battery, but we will be using the unit every day for ground-validation of satellite imagery (see Mitchell’s previous blog post on what that entails). The unit is water resistant but not totally waterproof. It is being transported in a waterproof Nanuk hard case.


Dell Latitude E6400 ATG Computer

A computer is required to interface with the Trimble unit to check the data regularly for quality control and to update any of the data collection fields. It is also needed to download and view the aerial photographs we collect (see previous blog post on KAP). This laptop is considered “semi-rugged” and meets US Military requirements for extreme temperatures, vibration, dust intrusion and altitude. It is not waterproof, so it will be transported in a waterproof Pelican hard case.


Iridium 9555 Satellite Phone

There are several possibilities for satellite telephone communication, but the Iridium is the only real choice for high northern latitudes because of the orbital patterns of the satellites. I’ve owned this unit since 2010 and it has seen regular use every summer. We can dial out and receive calls, and also send and receive short (160 character) text messages. It is being transported in a waterproof Pelican hard case along with other smaller electronic items.



Various Cameras

We are taking several cameras on the trip, including a Canon G16 (Ryan), Canon Rebel DSLR (Greg), Nikon DSLR (Stuart), and Nikon Coolpix (Mitchell). In addition, we are taking a GPS-enabled Canon S100 for kite aerial photography and a GoPro Hero2 for general documentation of the trip. Each camera uses a different battery, and there are different charging requirements associated with each battery. Only the GoPro can charge via USB, meaning that we needed to find a way to provide AC charging capacity.


Various Small Devices

We are taking several devices that use AA or AAA batteries, including headlights, two SPOT satellite transponders for daily safety check-ins,, two Garmin GPSmap 76cs handheld GPS units for navigation and fieldwork , and a Haglof Vertex and transponder for measuring distance and height of trees. Ryan is also taking along his iPod Touch with an e-version of Sibley’s Birds of North America installed on it, and Mitchell is taking along his Kindle e-reader. Both of those devices recharge via USB.


A future blog post will describe our solution to our power challenges. Stay tuned!

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