The Kazan River flows through the cradle of Caribou Inuit culture, in the heart of Nunavut’s barrenlands. Over the centuries, the Inuit have left a subtle imprint on the rugged landscape of the Kazan valley, where tree cover is rare and the rocky outcrops of the Shield are dramatically exposed. The banks of the Kazan are rich with signs of former occupation, including inuksuit standing sentinel at river crossings, campsites and caches. This unique concentration of historic and prehistoric sites adds a fascinating atmosphere to a visitor’s experience.
The apparently barren wilderness lies on the migration route of the 500,000 strong Qamanirjuaq caribou herd – one of the largest movements of land mammals in the world. It also is home to numerous muskox, the rare wolverine, and more than 60 species of birds. The endangered peregrine falcon nests along the river, favouring the spectacular cliff sides of Kazan Falls, and the river’s pure waters support an array of fish, including lake trout and grayling.
Geography of the Kazan
The Kazan rises near Kasba Lake, close to the northern border of Saskatchewan, and then flows northward for 850 km to its mouth at Baker Lake, which in turn drains through Chesterfield Inlet into Hudson Bay.
Its drainage area, which includes 5,000 sq. km in Saskatchewan and northern Manitoba, totals 71,500 sq. km. The river flows through a transitional area of boreal forest and treeless tundra, but the 615 km designated section, from the outlet of Ennadai Lake to Baker Lake, is beyond the limit of continuous trees. At the river’s mouth is a large, 7 km-wide delta.
In its upper reaches, the Kazan flows through transitional boreal forest and tundra. Near the outflow of Ennadai Lake, the forest has thinned to sparse black spruce and tamarack. Rarely more than a metre or two high, these isolated conifers are stunted by harsh winds and dry summers.
In the river’s middle and lower reaches, the riverscape varies from rocky hills to plains, but is unmarked by eskers or moraines, a remarkable characteristic of the region’s creation: the Kazan was not at the edge of the glacial icesheet that covered the area, but at its centre, under the Keewatin Ice Divide for much of the Wisconsin Glaciation. The ice was thickest here; spreading east and west, and it remained here longer than at any other place in mainland Canada. Greatly depressed by the weight of the ice, the land is now “rebounding” at one of the highest rates in the world – more than half a metre a century.
For most of its course, the river cuts through a distinctive rocky landscape, the Kazan Uplands. The topography varies from lush tundra to barren rock, from gently rolling hills to steep cliffs and from calm lakes to swift-water narrows and imposing waterfalls. Notable features on the river include: The Three Cascades, a series of 5 to 7 metre waterfalls between Angikuni Lake and Yathkyed Lake, and the beautiful Kazan Falls, where whitewater drops 25m then rushes for 2 km downstream through a red sandstone gorge. Along the portage above the falls, is a cairn which has been used since 1973 as a repository for messages from river travellers.
As well as being on the annual migration route of the almost 500,000 strong Qamanirjuaq caribou herd, and the occasional route of the 275,000 member Beverly herd, the Kazan supports a variety of wildlife:
- Both the rare wolverine and the once-endangered muskox inhabit the area. Once decimated by 19th century European demand for muskox robes, more than 1,250 muskox now thrive between the Dubawnt and Kazan;
- Peregrine falcons nest along the river, and tundra swans nest on lakeshores;
- Kazan waters are home to lake trout and grayling, humpback and round whitefish, cisco, burbot, slimy sculpin, longnose sucker, and ninespine stickleback.
Myriad caribou trails cross the tundra, and the long twilight hours of summer are often filled with the distinctive clicking of caribou ankle bones which gave rise to their Inuktitut name ‘tuktut’. As well as caribou, travelers often see muskox, particularly between Yathkyed and Thirty Mile lakes. Much smaller creatures, like the Arctic ground squirrel are common and bird watching is also excellent. Birders enjoy many species that are rarely seen in the south: Arctic terns, tundra swans, snowy owls and ptarmigans. The Kazan and Kasba Lake both take their names from the Dene word for “ptarmigan”.
The Dene and the Caribou Inuit
Signs of the Caribou Inuit and the people who came before them are everywhere along the river, evocative of a time when they lived entirely off the land. Dene and Inuit ancestors used the river during summer for more than 5,000 years, retreating to the treeline or the coast for the rest of the year. In the 18th century, the Dene use of the river declined substantially, while the first generation of Caribou Inuit began living on the river year-round after discovering that they could harvest enough caribou to last throughout the winter. This generation later evolved into three distinct groups: the Ahiarmiut living south of Angikuni Lake; the Harvaqtormiut north of Yathkyed Lake; and the Padleimiut, south of the lake, between the other two groups. In his late 1800’s diary, pioneer Christian missionary, Father Alphonse Gasté recorded peaceful celebrations between the Dene who used the river and the Caribou Inuit who lived there.
Expeditions on the Kazan
Chipewyan Dene introduced the first European to the barrens, Samuel Hearne, in 1770. He crossed the Kazan at Padleijuaq, where it flows into Yathkyed Lake and recorded the lake’s Chipewyan name “Yathkyed”, meaning White Swan, in his journal entitled “A Journey from Prince of Wales Fort to the Northern Ocean”.
The Kazan was unmapped until J.B. Tyrrell, the first geologist on the river, canoed from its headwaters to Forde Lake in 1894. His name was given to the east arm of Yathkyed Lake, Tyrrell Arm, and, to the now-diminished postglacial sea in the Hudson Bay depression, the Tyrrell Sea. During his trip, Tyrrell visited 39 tents housing at least 500 people along the Kazan. Every campsite had caribou meat drying on racks or cached for the winter.
The Fifth Thule Expedition of Knut Rasmussen explored the river from 1921-24. Expedition anthropologist, Kaj Birket Smith, was the first to describe the Caribou Inuit culture in Rasmussen’s 1930 “Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition”.
The most recent study expedition on the Kazan was the 1988 Operation Raleigh. This international youth education, research and exploration program travelled 500km of the river in 7 weeks and identified 186 archaeological sites along the river.
Cultural and Recreational Activities
Local Caribou Inuit still travel, hunt and fish on the Kazan. Today, for 6 to 8 weeks during the summer, recreational canoeists are increasingly travelling the river each year. But even in July, ice can force paddlers to wait for break-up. Yathkyed Lake is called ‘Hikulijuaq’ in Inuktitut which means “the great ice-filled one”. Water levels and ice conditions change from year to year, depending on snowfall and the timing of spring break-up.
Canoe trips down the Kazan usually begin by float-plane to Kasba or Ennadai Lake and take 4-6 weeks. Since Kazan topography varies, the river can offer several types of paddling in a single day, from wide stretches of river with lazy current to whitewater narrows and broad lakes. Five lakes, Dima, Angikuni, Yathkyed, Forde and Thirty Mile, make up 235 km of the river, while the remaining 380 km fall.
Campsites are plentiful and easily accessible. Virtually every site has been occupied in the past and travelers often feel like they are walking through recent Inuit camps, hunting grounds, trails, lookouts and gravesites, although most were abandoned long ago. Protected by law, these sites must not be disturbed. Hikers marvel at colourful tundra plant life: translucent Arctic cotton grass, delicate heathers, June blooming mountain avens the territorial flower, and August’s brilliant fireweed.
Fishing for Arctic grayling and lake trout is excellent along virtually any stretch of the river. A Nunavut Territory fishing license is required and is available at stores and government offices, is required.
No roads lead to Nunavut; our Territory is accessible only by air and sea.
First Air and Canadian North both fly regular daily schedules to Iqaluit from four main southern airline ‘hubs’: Ottawa, Montreal, and Edmonton (via Yellowknife and Rankin Inlet). Flights from Winnipeg (via Churchill and Rankin Inlet) are also available.
Kivalliq Air operates flights from Cambridge Bay to Baker Lake (en route to Rankin Inlet), Monday through Friday. Calm Air flies from Winnipeg to Rankin Inlet and then on to Baker Lake daily except Sundays. Please check with the airline for schedule changes.
Access to the Kazan is usually by chartered aircraft from Baker Lake or from Lynn Lake and Churchill, Manitoba. Baker Lake is connected to the south by scheduled airline from Churchill and Winnipeg, and Lynn Lake is serviced through Winnipeg. The closest road and rail access end at Lynn Lake and Thompson, Manitoba. It is also possible to paddle to the Kazan from Lynn Lake, beginning near town at Reindeer Lake, up the Cochrane River, then portaging over the Kazan watershed, but the trip is very long and the canoeing season, short. Canoeists therefore prefer to arrange floatplane drop-off on Kasba or Ennadai lakes. To end the trip, pre-arranged air charter pick-up is possible from many points along the route. Most travellers, however, paddle directly to Baker Lake.
Tour operators in Baker Lake also offer day trips and sight-seeing tours on the Kazan. The 100 km trip to Kazan Falls from Baker Lake by charter floatplane or motorized freighter canoe is quite spectacular.
Where To Stay
There are three hotels in Baker Lake, and the Baker Lake Hunters and Trappers Association can help you arrange guiding and camping supplies. You can also camp at Inuujaarvik Territorial Park, located between the airport and the town on the shores of Baker Lake. The campground is equipped with picnic tables, tent platforms, firepit, a cookhouse/shelter and washrooms.
Iglu Hotel – Inns North
Baker Lake Lodge
Hunters and Trappers Association
Edwin Evo Outfitting & Naturalist Tours
Qataq Sports Hunts
Arts & Crafts
The Jessie Oonark Centre and other local galleries showcase the art of Baker Lake’s talented local residents. You will see Baker Lake’s famous carvings of black soapstone, stitched and appliquéd wall hangings, jewellery, and silk-screened prints and clothing.
Jessie Oonark Centre
Baker Lake Fine Arts & Crafts Shop
Ookpiktuyuk Art Gallery
Email Ookpiktuyuk Art Gallery
Qamanittuaq Fine Arts Gallery and Studio
Email Qamanittuaq Fine Arts Gallery and Studio
The Vera Akumalik Visitor’s Centre is located in the restored Hudson’s Bay Store/Trading Post in Baker Lake. The centre features the original store and storehouse areas, counter and shelves, and the fur loft. It provides interpretation of the Caribou Inuit people and the community of Baker Lake; and the cultural and natural heritage of the Kazan and Thelon Rivers. Staff at the centre, which operates from July to September, will also provide you with information on local outfitters, businesses and other local attractions.
Vera Akumalik Visitor’s Centre
A diorama of the Fall Caribou Crossing national historic site is located in the Inuit Heritage Centre, as is a collection of photographs from the Fifth Thule Expedition.
Inuit Heritage Centre
To reach either the Vera Akumalik Visitor’s Centre or the Inuit Heritage Centre, email the Hamlet of Baker Lake.
Nunavut Parks publishes a wide range of documents and reports on the work it does for each park – ranging from master plans, management plans, maps, brochures and other reports and publications. Many of these resources are available here.
Kazan Heritage River Editorial [.pdf – 908KB] – This four page editorial offers some information on the Kazan Heritage River.
Kazan Heritage River Nomination Document [.pdf – 1.9MB]
Kazan Heritage River Management Plan [.pdf – 900KB]
Kazan Heritage River Management Plan 10-Year Review [.pdf – 1.1MB]
Visitor information is available from the Visitor Information section of the website, and at relevant visitor and information centres throughout Nunavut. Contact Nunavut Parks for any additional information you may be looking for.
Burch, E. S., Jr. 1986. “Caribou Inuit”. In Morrison, R. B., and Wilson, R. (eds.), Native Peoples, the Canadian Experience, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto.
McKay, John W. 1983 Arctic Adventure: A Kazan River Journal. Betelguese Books, Toronto.
Morse, Eric. 1987. Freshwater Saga: Memoirs of a Lifetime of Wilderness Canoeing in Canada. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
Pelly, David. 1986. “Kazan: River of the Living Barrens”. In J. Raffan (ed.), Wild Waters: Canoeing Canada’s Wilderness Rivers, Key Porter Books, Toronto.
Pelly, D. and Chris Hanks, eds. 1991. The Kazan: Journey into an Emerging Land. Outcrop: the Northern Publishers. Yellowknife, NWT, 135 pp.
Pelly, D. & A. Stewart. 1989. “The Kazan”. Canadian Geographic, Sept/Oct.
Travel Keewatin and Keewatin Chamber of Commerce. Canoe the Keewatin Wilderness.