Monday, April 11, 2022

Baffin Island Adventure

 In 1981 I had a plan!

Vyneck kayak leaving appartment in Brighton, England
My Vyneck sea kayak ready to leave.

I would airfreight my kayak to Iqaluit on Baffin Island, Arctic Canada, and follow some weeks later. Launching my kayak into Frobisher Bay, I would head south to Resolution Island. From there I would cross Hudson Strait to northern Labrador and continue south as far as Labrador’s northernmost village Nain. From there I could catch a coastal steamer south to Goose Bay, to a flight home.

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Robert Burns, the Scottish poet wrote something like that in his poem To a Mouse. So, am I a man or a mouse? Either way, I was about to learn how plans can unravel.

The first hitch was a bomb scare at London airport. We passengers were directed to a different plane, but my checked baggage must have remained on the ground. Arriving in New York with only my carry-on bag, I filed the necessary paperwork for the missing bags to be forwarded. Since filing involved customs, as well as two different airlines, I missed my connecting flight. Did I mention that it was August, and I was in New York, wearing my arctic clothing to lighten my luggage?

With no seat available standby on any flights, I slept at the airport, to be awoken by a commotion. The news: 13,000 air traffic controllers had just gone on strike. It became clear there would be no flights leaving. I cashed in my ticket and hitched a ride to Montreal. A day later I flew to Iqaluit.

My sea kayak, air-freighted some weeks earlier, had not yet arrived. As the days trickled by with no sign of either kayak or gear, my plans seemed doomed.

Buildings at Iqaluit, Baffin island
Streets of Iqaluit, Baffin island, 1981.

 But when the best laid plans of mice and men go awry, we should not be afraid to give alternatives a try. A local man, Peter Baril, rescued me and found me somewhere to stay. A kayaker himself, originally from Ontario, he asked if I ever paddled whitewater. He had always wanted to paddle the Grinnell River from its source, Grinnell Lake, some sixty miles away in the barrens. The river enters Frobisher Bay at Iqaluit. With no news of my baggage, I leapt at the chance to paddle with him.

Peter Baril, left, the man with a plan
Peter, left before the Grinnell trip

 Peter’s friend, a Danish pilot, agreed to fly Peter’s plastic whitewater kayaks to the lake. He decided to see how the plane handled with kayaks first, flying alone with two kayaks strapped to the fuselage.

Lashing the kayaks to the airplane
Iqaluit, we tie the kayaks to the fuselage

Returning from the rough landing place he had marked out near the lake, he next ferried passengers, before fetching the remaining kayaks.


Airplane lands with kayaks
Airplane landing with kayaks near Grinnell Lake

 This plan, not of my making, had worked perfectly. Now all we had to do was skirt the edge of the lake until we found the river. By nightfall we had set our first camp where the lake ran into the river.

Two long fun days on the river carried us back to Iqaluit. There, first my kayak, and then my gear turned up. I was free to leave, but I had mixed feelings. I liked the wonderful people of Iqaluit and felt sad to leave. I also felt trepidation. I would be leaving two weeks later than planned. I had already seen the rapid change in daylight hours. I would soon experience how changeable the weather became at the end of summer. Peter’s planned river descent had gone without a hitch. Little did I know that my own plans would continue to unravel.

On the nineteenth of August I loaded my kayak and said goodbye to my friends.

Nigel Foster leaves Iqaluit in kayak 1981
Nigel Foster leaving Iqaluit

 Riding the outgoing tide along Frobisher Bay, I felt lonely. I focused each new target, crossing the bay to the steep mountainous western side, detouring to see icebergs, running the rapids between the islands. But loneliness and uncertainty eases after setting the tent, cooking, and getting a good night’s sleep. Waking to a stunning scene of cliffs and mountains, I soon became at ease with myself. 


Camping, Frobisher Bay
Camping,Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island

It would take me a few days to reach the end of Frobisher Bay, where I would leave the Baffin shore for the Lower Savage Islands, and resolution Island. For those few days I could settle into a paddling routine, puzzle how to find good landing spots when the forty-foot tides reached their low point and begin to savor my solitude.


Iceberg, Frobisher Bay
Eroding iceberg, Frobisher Bay

In the back of my mind, I held two alternative scenarios. I could circle Resolution Island and return to Iqaluit. That would make a shorter, but very interesting trip. On the other hand, I could continue with my original plan, despite the late start, and head south across the Hudson Strait, some forty miles to northern Labrador. There I would begin the coastal journey south toward Nain.


Map of proposed Stepping Stones trip
Map of Stepping Stones route


Which alternative did I choose? Would my plan finally come together, or would it continue to unravel?

Recently I sat down to a conversation with John Chase. John produces a podcast series, interviewing kayakers from around the world. He asked me about my early paddling experiences and was especially eager to hear about this trip. You can hear our conversation at