The Kazan Heritage River flows through the cradle of Caribou Inuit culture, in the heart of Nunavut’s barren lands. Over the centuries, the Inuit have left a subtle imprint on the rugged landscape of the Kazan valley, where tree cover is sparse and rocky outcrops of the Canadian Shield are dramatically exposed. The banks of the Kazan River are rich with archaeological signs of former occupation, including ‘inuksuit’ (Inuit stone cairns) standing sentinel at river crossings, camping locations and food cache sites. This unique concentration of historic and prehistoric sites adds a fascinating atmosphere for visitors to experience.
The fertile yet seemingly barren wilderness lies on the migration route of the Qamanirjuaq caribou herd — one of the largest movements of land mammals in the world. It is also home to numerous muskoxen, the rare wolverine, plus more than 60 species of birds. The peregrine falcon nests along the river, favouring the spectacular cliffs at Kazan Falls. The Kazan River’s pure waters support an abundance of fish, including lake trout and arctic grayling.
The Kazan Heritage River rises near Kasba Lake, close to the northern border of Saskatchewan, flowing northwards for 850 kilometres (528 miles) to its mouth at Baker Lake, which drains through Chesterfield Inlet into Hudson Bay.
Its total drainage area is 71,500 square kilometres (27,606 square miles), which includes 5,000 square kilometres (1,931 square miles) in Saskatchewan and northern Manitoba.
In its upper reaches, the Kazan flows through a transitional area of boreal forest and tundra. Near the outflow of Ennadai Lake, the forest is thinned to sparse black spruce and tamarack. These isolated conifers are stunted by cold winters, harsh winds and dry summers, rarely growing taller than a metre or two (three to six feet). Most of the 615 kilometre long (382 mile) Canadian Heritage River designated section, from the outlet of Ennadai Lake to Baker Lake, is beyond the limit of trees. The river’s mouth forms a large, seven-kilometre (four-mile) wide delta.
The topography varies from gently rolling lush tundra hills to steep barren rock cliffs, from calm lakes to swift flowing narrows and imposing waterfalls. Notable features on the river include the Three Cascades, a series of five to seven metre tall (16 to 23 ft.) waterfalls between Angikuni Lake and Yathkyed Lake, plus the beautiful Kazan Falls, where whitewater drops 25 metres (82 ft.) then rushes for two kilometres (1.2 miles) downstream through a red sandstone gorge. Along the portage route above these falls, is a cairn that has been used since 1973 as a repository for messages from river travellers.
Located on the annual migration route of the Qamanirjuaq caribou herd, the Kazan Heritage River also supports a variety of other wildlife species:
Wolverines and once-endangered muskoxen both inhabit the area. Nearly decimated by 19th century European demand for muskox robes, more than 1,250 muskoxen now thrive between the Dubawnt and Kazan Rivers;
Peregrine falcons nest in cliffs along the river and tundra swans nest on the lakeshores that it links together;
Kazan waters are home to many fishes, including lake trout and grayling, humpback and round whitefish, cisco, burbot, slimy sculpin, longnose sucker and ninespine stickleback.
Canoe trips down the Kazan usually begin by floatplane to Kasba Lake or Ennadai Lake and usually take four to six weeks. Since the topography varies, the river can offer several types of paddling experience in a single day, from wide lazy stretches of river with gentle currents to whitewater narrows and broad windswept lakes. Five lakes — Dima, Angikuni, Yathkyed, Forde and Thirty Mile — make up 235 kilometres (146 miles) of the total 850 kilometre long (528 mile) river course.
Campsites are plentiful and easily accessible. Nearly every site has been used long ago in the past and visitors often feel like they are travelling back in time when walking through ancient Inuit campgrounds, hunting trails, lookouts and gravesites. Protected by law, these important archaeological sites must not be disturbed. Please treat them with respect. Hikers often marvel at the colourful tundra plant life, with translucent arctic cotton grasses, delicate heathers, pretty mountain avens and brilliant fireweed.
Fishing for arctic grayling and lake trout is excellent at every stretch of the river. A Nunavut Territory Sport Fishing License is required for anybody except a resident Inuk. These licenses are available from the Government of Nunavut (GN) Department of Environment (wildlife offices), at most local sport fishing lodges, sporting goods stores, co-op stores and at certain offices of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
In the long twilight hours of summer, the myriad caribou migration trails crisscrossing the tundra near the Kazan are often filled with the clicking sound of caribou anklebones. The Inuktitut word for caribou — ‘tuktu’ — is derived from this distinctive sound.
Kazan Heritage River travellers will often see herds of muskoxen too, particularly between Yathkyed Lake and Thirty Mile Lake. Many smaller creatures like arctic ground squirrels and arctic hares are commonly seen and the birdwatching is excellent. Visitors enjoy many avian species that are rarely seen elsewhere, including peregrine falcons, arctic terns, tundra swans, snowy owls and ptarmigans. The Kazan River and Kasba Lake both take their name from the Dene word ‘k’áhba’ which means ‘ptarmigan.’
How to get to Baker Lake:
First Air and Calm Air have regular scheduled flights from Iqaluit to Rankin Inlet and then on to Baker Lake. Baker Lake is also serviced by airlines arriving — via Rankin Inlet — from Winnipeg, Churchill and Yellowknife.
Iqaluit is reached from Ottawa and Montreal on First Air and Canadian North. Yellowknife is reached from Calgary and Edmonton on First Air, Canadian North, Air Canada and WestJet. Rankin Inlet is reached from Winnipeg on Calm Air and First Air.
How to get to the Kazan Heritage River:
Access to the Kazan Heritage River is usually by chartered aircraft from Baker Lake, Lynn Lake, or Churchill. Lynn Lake is air serviced through Winnipeg and it is also accessible by road or railway.
It is possible to paddle and portage to the Kazan River from the community of Lynn Lake, beginning near Reindeer Lake, travelling up the Cochrane River, then portaging over the Kazan watershed, but this way is very long and the canoeing season is relatively short. Canoeists usually prefer to arrange a floatplane drop-off on Kasba Lake or Ennadai Lake. To end the canoe trip, a prearranged air charter pickup is possible from many points along the river route. Most travellers, however, paddle directly to Baker Lake.
For more information, check the Nunavut Parks website.