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Why You Shouldn’t Miss Your Chance to Kayak in the Arctic

Kayak guide Geneviève Côté shares what make an Arctic kayaking experience so special. Learn more about Gen’s background as a kayaker, what to expect from Adventure Canada’s kayak program, and what you can do to prepare for this unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Kayaks Devon Island Croker Bay Nunavut Arctic

© Dennis Minty

Kayaking at Croker Bay, Devon Island, Nunavut

I started kayaking in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories after I met my spouse, John Blyth. He was a white-water kayaker here on the Slave River, which has some of the biggest white-water in the world. When we started dating, he took me to the community’s swimming pool with some small white-water kayaks, taught me how to roll, and when spring came, he took me on the river.

In 2007, there was a large-scale hydro dam proposal for the Slave River, which would eliminate most of the rapid corridor. Some people in the area actually liked the proposal, because they were afraid of the rapids and the big water. So, in 2008, as a positive protest, our small group of friends revived the Fort Smith Paddling Club and created a festival called Slave River Paddlefest. Our goal was to show local people how rich, beautiful, and important this rapid corridor is, in hopes of sparking a desire to conserve the natural character of the river.

Gen Cote and John Blythe polar plunge Greenland

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

Geneviève Côté and her spouse John Blythe (and their soon-to-be-born son) get ready for a polar dip.

For years, we volunteered our time every summer to instruct kayaking to as many local people as possible. We taught many people how to read the different shapes of moving water, showed them the great swimming beaches where families could take their kids on a hot day, and during our club nights, hundreds of folks paddled a big but easy Class 3 wave train called the playground.

We felt that if we could introduce a broad range of people to the sport, we could help take some of the fear away. Over the years, I have heard from dozens of people, born and raised in Fort Smith, who told me it was their first time going to such beautiful gathering places along the river and how exceptional their experience was. They said they had no idea these places existed, as they were never allowed to go near it growing up. It’s been very rewarding, and the hydro proposal has been shelved for economic reasons for the time being.

Paddling Slave River Gen Cote

Paddling on the Slave River, Northwest Territories

Sea Kayaking with Adventure Canada

My favourite part of being a kayak guide is getting to explore new areas with guests. Even for experienced paddlers, getting to share a new kayaking environment with them is truly wonderful. We take our guests to incredibly special and remote places, sometimes to see glacier fronts and to paddle through bergy bits, or to access areas that are otherwise hard to reach. On all of our Arctic expeditions, we’re paddling in Inuit Nunangat. The qajaq is an ingenious, ancient Inuit creation, and not only do I find it meaningful but, personally, I consider it an honour to get to use this method of transport here in the High Arctic where it comes from.

When we get out into the Arctic waters, I can tell the guests are so excited to dip their paddles. I notice that even the most experienced guests’ eyes fill up with excitement in Arctic waters. It’s so wonderful to share these moments. Seeing that excitement has always fueled my desire to continue being a paddling instructor and guide—I find these feelings so enhanced in the Arctic.

Traditional kayak stand Nuuk Greenland

© Jen Derbach

Modern and traditional qajait in Nuuk, Greenland

What Makes Kayaking in the Arctic Special?

Small-ship expedition cruising is already a personal, intimate travel experience, but kayaking takes this to another level. You’ll get to experience something in a way that very few others get to. It’s very special and unique.

Zodiac cruising is one of my topmost awesome activities to do on an expedition, but kayaking is different. In a kayak, you’re right there at the surface of the water, feeling the push and pull of the tides and the wind. Everything moves slower and you feel so much closer to nature. The air smells crisper, the sounds are sharper. You are more alert and focused, and there are fewer distractions.

Kayaking Ilulissat Greenland Arctic colourful houses mountains

© Dennis Minty

Ilulissat, Greenland

The quiet of a kayak ride really sets it apart from a Zodiac cruise. I like to compare this quietness to the difference between dog sledding or riding a snow machine. By dog team, you only hear the sleigh’s runners on the snow and the dogs breathing as they pull you down the trail. There are no sounds or smells of engines. Similarly, when you’re paddling past a glacier, you can hear all the tingling and cracking of the ice.

Seeing wildlife in a kayak is a completely different experience, too. If a seal pops up beside you, you can hear its breath and watch the water drip from its whiskers. It is a very special and serene activity.

Kayak Croker Bay glacier ice Nunavut Arctic

© Dennis Minty

Croker Bay, Devon Island, Nunavut

What to Expect from Adventure Canada’s Kayak Program

To participate in our program, some prior kayaking experience is required. You’ll be wearing a dry suit, which has rubber gaskets at the neck and wrists to keep paddlers warm and dry. Sometimes people aren’t always comfortable with the feeling of a dry suit if they’ve never worn one before, as it can feel a bit tight.

Our guests use double kayaks, so you don’t need to know how to roll, but basic paddling skills are important. The minimum age requirement is thirteen years old, and you need to be in good physical shape to handle paddling for an hour or two at a time. We have a unique method of launching our kayaks from a Zodiac. This allows us to get in and out of the water anywhere, not just from a beach, but it takes some getting used to. We are there to help, but you need to be physically able to get in and out of the boat by yourself.

Gen Cote and guests kayaking Kangerlussuatsiaq Greenland Arctic

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

Geneviève and Adventure Canada guests paddle in Kangerlussuatsiaq Fjord, Greenland.

Our kayak program is exclusive to a small group of guests who have applied in advance. This is the only group who gets to paddle throughout the expedition. One of the benefits of this is that every paddler gets assigned gear and a boat for the whole expedition, and after gearing up once or twice, the group gets quite efficient at getting ready to paddle, which means more time on the water.

By its very nature, sea kayaking in the Arctic is a weather-dependent activity. Every day we’ll assess the conditions and the location to make sure we can offer the best experience. Sometimes the weather could be perfect, but there might be a known polar bear in the area, which prevents us from launching the kayaks. (Speaking of bear activity, there will always be a Zodiac that stays close by to us for safety.) There are lots of moving parts to this program, but we make sure to keep the group informed about each daily plan. We guarantee at least two outings, but, of course, we’ll offer as many as we feasibly can.

Most of the time, our kayak excursions take place while the rest of the guests enjoy another activity, such as a hike, community visit, or a Zodiac cruise. You may have to make the difficult choice of going paddling or joining the rest of the guests on another activity. It’s often a really hard choice to make because you will want to do both so badly! But, when you think about it, it’s a pretty amazing opportunity to have to make that decision, isn’t it?

Personally, I can’t wait to dip my paddle amongst the Arctic ice with Adventure Canada again. It’s a beautiful activity and I feel immensely fortunate to be a kayak guide.

About the Author

Geneviève Côté

Geneviève Côté

Kayak Guide

Originally from Québec, Gen moved north more than a decade ago in search of great winter conditions and ended up falling in love with all northern seasons.

She possesses a versatile array of skills, from being an instructor in white-water canoeing, kayaking, and snowmobile safety to dog mushing, finishing carpentry, and event coordination for the Slave River Paddlefest.

Gen describes herself as crafty and energetic and loves bringing a flair for adventure to the Zodiacs she drives aboard expeditions.