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Arctic adventurer shares his 'Journey North'

Back in 1997, John Dunn began a very large project. His plan was to traverse Canada, south to north, by self-propelled means – hiking, kayaking and skiing.
John Dunn 2016-L-10
John Dunn has travelled 8,000 kilometres from Vancouver Island to Canada’s Arctic islands by hiking, paddling and skiing. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Back in 1997, John Dunn began a very large project.

His plan was to traverse Canada, south to north, by self-propelled means – hiking, kayaking and skiing. He’d begin at Vancouver Island and continue to the country’s far northern Arctic islands.

From the start, Dunn knew travelling 8,000 kilometres was not something he would accomplish in one continuous trip. By the time he began planning his super-traverse, he was an experienced wilderness traveller who had traversed the eastern Arctic seaboard of Canada from the tip of Ellesmere into Labrador, minus Lancaster Sound and Hudson Strait.

“The Journey North was my next ‘big thing,’ ” Dunn said. “The aim was to trace a wild route through the country. It seemed like a great way to do more wilderness trips and link them together into something challenging and satisfying.”

Dunn will share his Journey North story, spanning 10 different expeditions over the course of two decades at artsPlace on Sunday (Jan. 26). A skilled photographer and dynamic storyteller, he will describe the series of journeys, some solo, some exceptionally arduous and all fascinating.

He launched his big project with a solo kayak journey up the west coast of Vancouver Island, which he followed by paddling a replica Northwest canoe up the intricate Inside Passage. After that, he and a colleague made an “extremely arduous” 1,000-kilometre crossing of the Coast Mountains from Pacific tidewater to the interior plains of B.C.

The next section involved two late-winter attempts to push the route onward, which resulted in Dunn pack-rafting 800 kilometres down the Muskwa, Fort Nelson and Liard rivers to reach the Mackenzie River at Fort Simpson.

“There's still a couple of hundred kilometers of the Mackenzie to cover, but the rest of the Boreal forest route across Great Slave Lake and up onto the Barrens is complete,” Dunn said.

From there he hiked, paddled and skied from Artillery Lake in the NWT to the northern edge of contiguous North America at Bellot Strait.

"The Arctic Mainland section of Journey North cuts through the Southern Arctic ecozone and into the Northern Arctic – the real Arctic,” Dunn said.

The main components of this section involved paddling the Back River and skiing the Boothia Peninsula. He completed the northern-most section over the course of three expeditions totalling 150 days’ travel by ski across Somerset, Devon and Ellesmere islands.

His longest single expedition was a 96-day, 1,200-kilometre traverse of Ellesmere Island; the next longest was the 56 days it took to paddle and hike across the Coast Mountains.

“It was 56 days of really hard going through the untracked wilds of northern B.C.,” Dunn said. “At one stage it took us almost three weeks to cover 65 kilometres. But it was ultimately very satisfying.”

With all that though, there remains the two per cent section of the Mackenzie River that he hasn’t yet travelled.

“I might get to it after I have finished some bigger, more pressing projects – like this year’s May-June attempt to cross from Ellesmere to Greenland, but that’s another story,” Dunn said. “Someone needs to traverse the whole country from south to north in one continuous trip: now that would be a cool challenge. Pelee Island to Cape Columbia.”

With that he suggested the next person to visit Cape Columbia remove a plaque dedicated to a now disgraced prince.

A native of Britain who now lives in Canmore, Dunn was made a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society for his efforts in promoting awareness of Canada’s Arctic geography. His Journey North presentation takes place at artsPlace Sunday (Jan. 26) with showings at 4:30 and 7 p.m.

For tickets visit