A Wild Ride Down the Firth River in Ivvavik, Canada’s Primeval Park

The water in the Firth River is so clear that when you fly over it, you can actually see fish swimming far below. As the Twin Otter comes in for landing along the riverbank, flashes of Dolly Varden char slice the current into ribbons of green and pink. Shimmery strands, they make up the tiny stitches in the grand tapestry that is Ivvavik National Park, a swath of wilderness that drapes the northwesternmost corner of the Yukon. Piled up at the centre of the park, the weathered British Mountains lay bare millennia past. It’s not until the plane touches down with a thud that I’m jolted back to the present.

I’m about to embark on a 13–day rafting trip with Canadian River Expeditions – a journey down Canada’s oldest flowing river with an opportunity to help preserve it. After setting up my tent, I join the 12 other guests for tea and trail mix. Most of us have come for the adventure of a lifetime in a hinterland that sees only 100 visitors a year, but ours is the only expedition done in partnership with Parks Canada. Every year, since the summer of 2016, it sends a team of scientists and Inuvialuit cultural interpreters to collect environmental data that will help them better understand – and protect – this unspoiled area of the Arctic.

December 2, 2019
A man sets up his camping gear by the riverside
Rafting down the Firth River is akin to travelling through geological time, with rock strata in different colours offering a glimpse of the distant past.

Unlike other waterways in the country that have been forced to take new routes over and over again by a succession of ice ages, the Firth River has stuck to its course for more than 2 million years. Most of Ivvavik was spared the scraping and gouging of advancing ice sheets, leaving instead a wind–worn terrain where the valleys retain their ancient, unglaciated V–shapes. This slowly weathered ice–age refugium is home to scenery not found anywhere else on the continent and unique flora and fauna like the bear flower, the Dall sheep and muskox living alongside caribou so numerous their migrations have permanently etched the landscape.

Wind in trees 
A cluster of black spruce trees
Located in Canada’s Western Arctic, most of Ivvavik is north of the treeline. Still, some black spruce stubbornly stipple the topography.

To understand this swath of pristine wilderness, we’ll travel from Margaret Lake to Nunaluk Spit on the Arctic Ocean. Our convoy, led by four river guides, will float 150 kilometres through wide mountain valleys, narrow canyons and coastal–plain channels before winding up at the Beaufort Sea. As dinner gets underway on the first night, Paden Lennie, a young Inuvialuk and a raptor specialist given to identifying eagles and falcons from surprising distances, provides an overview of the work being done by the Parks Canada team. He explains that they’ll be collecting water samples and aquatic invertebrates along the route to monitor the health of the river. “We need volunteers to help out, eh,” he says, prompting 13 forks to shoot into the air. Already, the Firth is coursing through our imaginations.

A man in a baseball cap and hood
Dolly Varden char

After a few days on the Firth, I come to rely on the 6:30 whoosh of a burner that gets water boiling for coffee, followed by a cheerful “Good morning! Good morning! Good morning!” Dave Evans, the expedition leader, summons us to the daily trip briefing. He rolls out a map and traces the route he’s planned: One day, it’s a mere three–kilometre hop before setting up camp at the treacherous Sheep Slot Rapids to wait for high water from a succession of downpours to recede, leaving us more time for hiking up mountain ridges studded with limestone pinnacles called tors. On another day, it’s a 30–kilometre commitment through whitewater in constricted canyons that make for wild roller–coaster–like rides.

For the guides, the river has a deeper meaning. “The Firth is not about the rapids, as exciting as they are,” says Evans. He should know; he’s guided more than 50 expeditions here. “There are so few intact ecosystems left on the planet,” he says, his gaze skimming the river like a skipping stone. “Ivvavik is one of them.”

A man hiking up Engigstciak, a limestone out-cropping
Limestone out–croppings along the Firth River, including Engigstciak, or “young mountain” in Inuvialuktun, add texture to the landscape – and goals for the expedition’s daily hikes.

Every place has its rituals and patterns that offer a sense of certainty. In Ivvavik, the seasonal caribou migrations and the return of spawning Dolly Varden char signal that things are as they should be. The headwaters of the Firth River originate in the Brooks Range in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), established in 1980 to protect the landmass between the mountains and the Beaufort Sea from human alteration. Conservation was also the catalyst behind Ivvavik, the first national park in Canada created as the result of a successful Indigenous land claim, the Inuvialuit Final Agreement, in 1984. Like the ANWR, the park safeguards habitat for caribou and other animals and ensures Inuvialuit can continue their traditional hunting and fishing.

A compilation of images of the people and landscapes of Ivvavik

Over snacks one evening, Lennie and Mervin Joe, the other Inuvialuk on the Parks Canada team, share their concerns about the future of this ecosystem. If a 2017 U.S. budget provision gets the go–ahead, it would allow oil and gas to be extracted on the coastal plain in the ANWR; essential polar–bear denning areas and caribou calving grounds could be damaged. Indigenous people, environmentalists, scientists and conservation–minded outfitters like Canadian River Expeditions say industrial development would hurt the fragile Arctic biome – with consequences in Ivvavik, which is on the migration route of the largest caribou herd on the continent.

Thanks to minimal infrastructure due to the protected lands, the Porcupine caribou herd exceeds 200,000, up since the protection of the ANWR and Ivvavik. Ivvavik means “nursery” in Inuvialuktun, referring to the caribou calving grounds in the area. Endanger this herd, and you risk toppling a cornerstone of a robust ecological community.

Crooked Creek 
A group of people go rafting between the rocks of Firth River

Tracking this delicate ecosystem balance is what drives the scientific team at Parks Canada in Ivvavik. An artery that supports a web of life, the Firth provides a snapshot of the park’s overall health; changes in water chemistry can affect aquatic invertebrates, which can affect the fish that eat them and, in turn, the raptors, grizzly bears and other animals that depend on the fish. Each day, the expedition itself is a microcosm of interdependence, science hinging on the hydrological know–how of the guides. Constantly assessing currents and countercurrents, Evans and his team safely manoeuvre out at monitoring sites along the river, dropping us off with buckets, nets and notepads.

Lennie, clad in hip waders, steps into the water at the last science stop before the river splits into a labyrinth of braided channels on the coastal plain. He dips a probe under the surface to record pH, turbidity and dissolved oxygen. Hayleigh Conway, another researcher, follows to catch “benthics,” aquatic invertebrates. “We look for changes over time,” she says, explaining that a decrease in benthics can indicate a shift in the stream’s overall health. While the probe captures the state of the river on a chemical level, the benthics show how nature responds to that chemistry.

A single caribou horn sits amongst the foliage on the ground
A man overlooks the wide expanse of land that the Firth River runs through

Our team of citizen scientists follows along, helping measure the distance from one riverbank to the other and noting shoreline vegetation, as well as measuring rocks to determine peak river flow and scraping the bottom of the river for invertebrates. Conway watches as we put away our notepads and haul nets and buckets back to the boats. “Go science!” she yells, pumping her fist in the air.

The scientific lens on Ivvavik brings into focus a field museum that illuminates not only hydrology and biology, but also geology and archeology. The expedition wends through a composite of continental breakups and underwater mudslides solidified over eons as bedrock. At one point, the rafts pass a rippled ocean floor thrust into the air and left hanging like a petrified curtain. Later, we float by an anticline, a giant limestone layer cake punched from below to create an arc slowly devoured by the river. Millions of years are buoyed by the Firth. Human presence, however, is a mere blip on its rapids.

Walking on Beach 
A man holds an animal's tusk on the beach

Approaching the Beaufort Sea, this blip becomes more evident, first at Engigstciak, a rock outcropping that has served as a lookout and stone–tool quarry for Inuvialuit hunters for at least 9,000 years. The concentration of human activity is focused along the coastline, including Nunaluk Spit, where the river finally meets the sea. Joe, whose family has lived in the region for generations, leads us down the Spit’s pebble beach, past the remains of an old cabin, sharing how his grandfather used to stop by here on hunting trips.

We’re on the lookout for whale bones when Evans spots something on the ground. He picks it up and calls Joe over. “It’s a snow knife!” Joe says, holding up a sickle carved from a bone. “It would have been used to cut blocks of snow for igloos.” The knife is left in place. Joe will return to record its GPS location and take photos before packing the artefact up for the Parks Canada archeology team to analyze. It occurs to me that the snow knife is a metaphor for the Firth, cutting its own swath through the ages. And if this expedition has anything to do about it, the river – like the knife – will be saved.