Dye-tracer experiments undertaken over two summer melt seasons at polythermal John Evans Glacier, Ellesmere Island, Canada, were designed to investigate the character of the subglacial drainage system and its evolution over a melt season. In both summers, dye injections were conducted at several moulins and traced to a single subglacial outflow. Tracer breakthrough curves suggest that supraglacial meltwater initially encounters a distributed subglacial drainage system in late June. The subsequent development and maintenance of a channelled subglacial network are dependent upon sustained high rates of surface melting maintaining high supraglacial inputs. In a consistently warm summer (2000), subglacial drainage became rapidly and persistently channelled. In a cooler summer (2001), distributed subglacial drainage predominated. These observations confirm that supraglacial meltwater can access the bed of a High Arctic glacier in summer, and induce significant structural evolution of the subglacial drainage system. They do not support the view that subglacial drainage systems beneath polythermal glaciers are always poorly developed. They do suggest that the effects on ice flow of surface water penetration to the bed of predominantly cold glaciers may be short-lived.