A journey through time by canoe

Text and photos by Vivien Cumming – @drvivcumming

Early morning on the Gatineau River — a gentle mist rises from the surface of the glassy still water; the sun’s first pink rays sparkle in the moving current and catch the repellent fur of a beaver’s head as it comes up for air.

Gatineau river
Gatineau River – photo credit Vivien Cumming

In the distance, the gentle sound of faster flowing water is punctuated by birds rising in the trees, dragonflies emerging to chase the buzz of mosquitoes and black flies — and the soft sound of paddle as it pushes through the water.

Then the clank as canoes collide and the splash of bodies falling into the water! Peace is broken. Chaos descends on the river as eight geologists find themselves floundering around in the water learning how to handle Canadian canoes, and themselves, in whitewater.

Fuelled by coffee, big barbecue-cooked breakfasts and hope that the cold river wouldn’t engulf us each day, we braved two days of whitewater river training with Boreal River Rescue and two days of whitewater paddling with Blackfeather Expeditions on the Gatineau River near Kazabazua.

We spent the days learning how to swim in whitewater, trying to read the signs of the river rapids, where you could be dragged under water or where a calm eddy could bring you a little peace. Tying ropes, throwing ropes and rescuing each other from the water, and most importantly, moving a canoe in a straight line down a river.

Whitewater canoe training on the Gatineau River
Whitewater canoe training on the Gatineau River – photo credit: Danny Peled

The reason— in July we embark on a ambitious scientific expedition to descend 200 km of the Coppermine River by canoe from Dismal Lakes to Kugluktuk where the river enters the Arctic Ocean. Eight geologists, four river guides, six canoes, 12 paddles (hopefully) and a lot of gear. A river renowned for its whitewater and a bunch of (mostly) middle-aged geologists with very little experience in canoes — it’s going to be an adventure!

The canoe is only the tool to make the adventure happen — the real adventure is in the science we will see along the way. Studying the rocks along the riverbank for the first time since the early explorer, George M. Douglas, followed a similar route along the river over 100 years ago (detailed in the book: Lands Forlorn).

These rocks will take us on a journey through 500 million years of Earth history, starting over 1.5 billion years ago when early multicellular life was beginning to emerge on Earth. We will study and sample rocks along the river banks as well as hike into the wilderness and use a drone for mapping the area.

We are on the lookout for some of the world’s oldest fossils; microscopic fossils of early eukaryotes (an organism whose cells have a nucleus containing DNA and other organelles enclosed within membranes). Carbon in the rocks will be studied to explain the environmental conditions these organisms lived in, and we will be searching for clues about the origins of a huge ancient volcanic event. One theory is that a massive outpouring of magma was caused by a mantle plume (large thermal upwelling originating from Earth’s interior) and another new theory is that it was triggered by a meteorite impact.

The training prepared us well, and more time was spent in the water than was perhaps desired, but its all in the name of safety and access to remote science. The journey down the Coppermine will take us through Earth’s history in Canada’s remote wilderness.

The 12-member expedition is led by Dr. Rob Rainbird, a scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada, and a team of Canadian and international scientists. National Geographic and BBC photographer, writer and geologist, Dr Vivien Cumming, will be documenting this expedition north of the Arctic Circle.

Getting ready for canoeing on the challenging Coppermine river with 2 days of whitewater river training
Getting ready for canoeing on the challenging Coppermine river with 2 days of whitewater river training – photo credit Danny Peled

The team is in the field between July 11 and August 11, 2017. You can join this adventure to hear about paddling the Coppermine, bug bites, a month without a shower, weather, wildlife and of course, the Earth’s history, by following the expedition’s blog at science.gc.ca. Follow @drvivcumming on Instagram and Twitter for social media updates.

Detail of a canoe paddle blade
Detail of a canoe paddle blade – photo credit Vivien Cumming

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