Follow Will: Facebook Twitter

A Yankee Notebook

August 1, 2011


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – This year ends in an odd number, so the Arctic Division of the Geriatric Adventure Society is gearing up for another foray into the frozen North. I’m writing this before leaving for the canoe trip, which may well be over by the time you read this. There’s no way to communicate from where we’re going, except by a satellite phone that we carry with us in case of emergencies. Having it with us takes something away from the experience of isolation; but after our 1997 trip, at the end of which our chartered pickup plane couldn’t find us for a few days, our wives suggested it would be thoughtful of us to carry one. So we do, and I call home every Sunday morning to see if there’s any important family news, and to assure our spouses that all is well.

It’s probable, given the pace and tone of the negotiations currently afoot in Washington, that we’ll enter the State of Incommunicado without knowing the outcome that much of the rest of the world so anxiously awaits: Will the United States tumble into default on its debts? We’ll emerge from isolation the day after the deadline, and I don’t imagine we’ll have spent much time in camp talking about affairs that so occupy the attention of news organizations and pundits of all stripes. It’s difficult, when you’re running rapids most of the day, fighting off flies and mosquitoes, catching trout and char the length of an arm, to get excited about the fuming of congressmen.

Mother has all the freeze-dried supper makings already stowed in separate plastic trays. The last day before we leave, she’ll seal each supper in shrink wrap, along with instructions for its preparation, and stow them in a waterproof river bag. The same with breakfasts and lunches. She’s made up a huge kettle of gorp that’ll be divided into individual bags designed to last each of us the whole trip, if we wish. In recent years, we’ve begun to have hot soup with lunch, which makes a nice break for ancient joints and muscles. We even take a bit of a nap afterwards. We’ve found that, with our full rain suits, we can go to sleep on the river bank even in a storm, until the frost in the ground chills us from below. Eric is bringing the cooking oil and spices for the daily evening fish fillet fry, and I’m sure Rick is pouring a bit of Macallan’s into a BPA-free plastic bottle.

People sometimes ask us how we choose the rivers we paddle. Truth be told, you could throw a dart at a map of northern Canada and hit a river that, for one reason or another, you’d find fascinating. We’ve felt a certain obligation to do some of the rivers that belong in every paddler’s resumé – the Coppermine, George, and Kuujjua – as well as others that are rarely visited – the Tree, Hiukitak, and Hayes. We’re all fishermen, so the river must have fish. The Tree, which had never been paddled before we got there, and never will be again by anybody sane, had produced the world’s-record Arctic char; it also featured lake trout so large that their heads were bigger than ours. We let them go. The Hayes had huge orange char. We cut one into steaks that fed the six of us for days. Luckily, it snowed most days, so it kept well.

This year’s river is called the Rae, after the intrepid Scottish explorer Doctor John Rae. I first heard about it from a group of six young women who a few years ago pond-hopped and portaged about fifty miles across the tundra to reach its headwaters. Their videos of char-filled, gin-clear water and wolverines were very persuasive. It’s also smaller than some other rivers we’ve done, which at our age is additionally charming.

One positive feature of Canada’s Arctic history is that there’s so little of it; until the end of the last Ice Age, it didn’t really begin. The early Inuit kept no written records. Nor did the Norse who sojourned in West Greenland about 1000 years ago during a climatic optimum. The stories began during the search for the Northwest Passage, which captivated Europe from the 17th to the 20th century. They reached a climax with the disappearance in 1845 of the last Franklin expedition.

The many searches for the lost sailors vastly increased the geographic knowledge of the Arctic. Many of the European names still clinging to rivers, mountains, capes, and harbors date from that time. The Hayes River, for example, was named by a United States Army-sponsored search party that discovered it in 1879, during the Presidency of Rutherford Hayes.

John Rae was an Orkneyman and surgeon who went to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company, as did many of his countrymen. What set him apart was his ability to walk almost unbelievable distances, often on snowshoes. He spoke the Cree and Inuit languages functionally. They called him Aglooka, “Long-Strider.” He adapted to native living techniques (which damaged his credibility in England when he eventually brought bad news). He even discovered – on foot – the route of the Northwest Passage. And he once traveled by dog sled down the valley of the river now named for him.

In the 1850s he began to hear from the Inuit (whose oral history has been at least as accurate as any written one) about a band of white men dragging sledges southward on King William Island. They were later found dead by the Inuit, who removed relics that unmistakably identified the men as Franklin crew members, and there was evidence among the bodies that the last of them had resorted to cannibalism of their dead shipmates. Rae returned to England with the relics and the stories, which he presented to the Admiralty in what he assumed was a confidential report.

The English were aghast at his allegations. Lady Franklin, a latter-day Niobe, and Charles Dickens savaged Rae’s reputation, and he was thus the only prominent British explorer of his age not to win a knighthood. But we’ll think warmly of him as we paddle his lovely little river.

Photo by Willem Lange