Monday, September 9, 2013

Arctic Canoe Trip - This article appeared in the October, 2004 edition of the Canoe Journal.  Longer versions of this piece also appeared in the Canadian Geographic Journal, River Runner magazine and Cathay Pacific's in-flight magazine

My new book, "Leadership Basics for Frontline Managers", was published by CRC Press (Taylor & Francis) in March, 2014.  To see the book, click here  then click on the Google Preview button to browse the first 25%.  Find me via email: info(at)ascentassociates(dot)ca or visit my web site or blog 


On Captain Back’s Route: Retracing the First Descent of the Back River in Canada’s Northwest Territories

We had been preparing for this trip down the Back River for a year.  The logistics of getting six paddlers, three canoes and close to a thousand pounds of gear all the way to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories had been formidable.  We wanted to retrace the route of Captain George Back; his was the first expedition to run the full length of the river in 1834.  So the Captain Back’s Journal became required reading.  Once we finally got on the river we found many echoes of our own experience in his words.  

"I had escaped from the wretchedness of a dreary and disastrous winter...from wearisome inaction and monotony....Before me were novelty and enterprise; hope, curiosity and love of adventure were my companions...In turning my back on the Fort, I felt my breast lighten and my spirit, as it were, set free again..."

With these words, Back and his crew of nine left Fort Reliance on Great Slave Lake on June 7th, 1834, bound for the Arctic coast along a completely unexplored river. A similar lightness of heart overcame me as our Twin Otter floatplane droned out of sight, leaving us on the shores of Musk Ox Lake -- the headwaters of the Back River. Over a century and a half had elapsed since the redoubtable captain and his hardy crew set out on this epic voyage but my sense of overwhelming relief at finally getting on the water was the same.

Our journey could hardly be described as an exploration epic. We had good equipment, state-of-the-art survival gear, a generous horde of freeze-dry food, a VHF rescue radio and best of all, highly accurate maps based on aerial photography, all impossible to even imagine in 1834. Back and his crew didn't know where they were going. Surely one definition of courage must include, as Back wrote in his journal, "heading off across the Barrens in a large row boat with nothing but aboriginal legends as a guide."

The Back River has a formidable reputation: Back’s route was not repeated until 1958 when a group of Americans ran the entire 600-mile length of the river. There have been several drownings since then.  We were all competent paddlers but none of us had tackled a river with such a treacherous reputation.  Although we has all paddled together as Outward Bound instructors, none of us had been north of the 60th parallel.  And none of us had ever been so far away from outside help. 

Our minor discomforts were trivial compared to the hardships on Back’s expedition.  We drove to Yellowknife from Toronto in seven days; it took Back almost a year to paddle up from Montreal.  Once in Yellowknife we were able to fly to the headwaters of the river in 90 minutes; Back and his crew had to drag their boat across lakes and upstream through rapids for 20 days to reach the same point. Once at our put-in, we were able to back all our gear in three 17-foot ABS canoes.  We didn’t have to depend on food drops along our route.  Back had to employ local hunters to go ahead of him to leave caches of caribou and pemmican. These food caches covered less than one-fifth of the total distance his team was to travel.

Even the weather favored us.  On July 19th, 1834, Back and his crew were trapped by ice on Pelly Lake and were forced to drag their boat for miles to find open water. They were frequently battered by rain and snow squalls.  We never saw lake ice during our trip; for the first two weeks we basked in T-shirt weather.

As we paddled out of Musk Ox Lake we began to run the first of 83 sets of major rapids before reaching Chantry Inlet on the Arctic coast.  Our new canoes proved to be responsive and stable in whitewater,  good at tracking on flat water and forgiving of the occasional scrape over a hidden rock.

Back’s crew, by comparison, traveled in one 30-foot boat built from local scrub pine.  This wide-beamed boat had a 23-foot keel, masts, tiller, oars and a hull coated with tar.  Although Back could boast that “considering the knotted and indifferent material of which (it was) constructed, (the boat) did much credit to the builders”, we cringed to think of running those heavy rapids in a large wooden rowboat.  Field repairs were not an option for Back’s expedition; their entire route lay above the tree line. 

Two weeks into our expedition the summery weather gave way to bitter, wind-swept days that had us wearing most of our clothing.  But for the fact that the interiors of our tents remained dry, Back’s journal entry for July 26, 1834, could have been written by us for the same date over a century and a half latter:

The men, with great resignation, making the best of their damp lodgings, looked about for the most sheltered place to lie down; some wrung out their blankets while others, as a last resort, put on their entire wardrobes in the hope of a little warmth.”

Although we were chilly at times, we were infinitely more comfortable that Back’s crew in their wool, hides and furs.  With synthetic clothing – polyvinyl-coated nylon, Gortex, polypropylene, nylon bunting and pile—we could keep warm and dry.  Our footwear varied from neoprene booties to laced rubber boots.  We all agreed that it would have taken a very special kind of fortitude to endure icy water in the bilge of what surely must have been a leaky boat for up to 14 hours a day in wool socks and frayed moccasins. 

Part of our comfort was due to our superb tents.  No matter how miserable the weather was outside, life inside our domes remained snug and dry.

Often during the last two weeks of our expedition – two weeks of stormy weather, strong headwinds, aching muscles, lack of sleep and frayed tempers – we marveled at the fortitude of Back’s crew.  Despite having superior equipment, much better food and a far greater chance of surviving an upset swamped in the rapids – we were all strong swimmers and wore life jackets—we were still itching for the comforts of home.  Imagine the terror those explorers had to face at each rapid: Life jackets had not been invented yet and few of them even knew how to swim.  In our canoes we could ferry back and forth, pick our lines and avoid stopper waves and bus-eater holes.  Running rapids in Back’s rowboat must have been the 19th century equivalent of rafting minus all the floatation and most of the maneuverability.

Our respect for Back’s crew extended beyond their courage in whitewater.  Our rotating menu meant never having to face the same dish more than three times every two weeks.  Our bland lunches (crackers, cheese, trail mix, dried sausage and on rough days hot soup) included a different chocolate bar every day.  Back’s crew lunched on far rougher fare:

“The meat had suffered considerable mutilation from the wolves.  The cache was most consisted of deer and musk ox, both very poor, and the latter impregnated with the odor to which it owes its name.  This was so disagreeable to some of the party that they declared they would rather starve three days than swallow a mouthful; ...I thought it right to counteract the feeling, and ... impress upon their minds ... the necessity of accommodating their tastes to such food as the country might provide.”

Who were these men who endured so much while travelling down the river we were on?  Back came to Canada with four Englishmen – Dr. Richard King, the expedition surgeon and naturalist, and three others.  In Montreal, Back accepted three volunteers, all British soldiers stationed in Quebec.  In Norway House, an outpost en route to Great Slave Lake he recruited two Metis from the Hudson Bay Company.

In the evenings we would read Back’s Journal to know what the river would be like during the next days.  We were eager to get to a chain of mountains that Back described as being “formidable summits of Alpine grandeur”. When we arrived at the point on the map where these peaks should have been, we were amused to discover that Back’s lofty mountains were just a cluster of low hills. The tallest of these – perhaps 200 feet in altitude above the shore – he named Mount McKay, in honor of one of his crew.  We strolled up this hill in less than 10 minutes after lunch. Back had applied a generous dash of hyperbole to his journal in order to impress his sponsors back in England.  In the 1830’s the Royal Family could have hardly ordered their Auditor General to verify Back’s claims by dispatching a mission to fly to Yellowknife then rent a floatplane to inspect the river.

On August 13 we arrived at a small island in the mouth of the Back River where it emptied into Chantry Inlet on the Arctic coast.  A motorboat was supposed to meet us there and take us across to Gjoa Haven, a hamlet on King William Island, from where we could catch a flight back to Yellowknife.  Our boat captain was not there.  We hunkered down to wait, assuming our boat was held up by bad weather.  Two days later we started broadcasting requests for help.  No reply.  We sent messages that our boat was overdue and the crew possibly in trouble.  Again, no reply.  We switched frequencies, attempting to make contact with high-altitude commercial aircraft.  No return calls.  During our 35 days on the river we had seen aircraft on average every four days.  Now the sky was empty.   

We were in no danger.  We still had enough food for a week and our two fishermen were at last catching huge trout and Arctic Char.  We made ourselves comfortable by erecting a large windbreak made from the wreckage of an abandoned nursing station.   We knew that if we did not arrive back in Yellowknife by August 22 that our families would alert the authorities.  Still, we were marooned. 

At last we made contact with a cargo plane.  The pilot knew where we were from our description of the land and the river.  He relayed our message to Yellowknife.  It turned out that our boat captain had been trapped by sea ice and was unable to leave his harbor. Two days later a Twin Otter droned over the horizon, circled three times and landed at our beach.  In minutes we had loaded our gear and were en route to hot showers and cold beer in Yellowknife, five hours away.

In late August Back and his crew began their return journey to Great Slave Lake.  It took them over a month to row back upstream to their base camp. 

We arrived just before dinnertime in Yellowknife; we were soon settling into motel rooms, flipping through surreal TV channels and squabbling over which restaurant we should go to for a final feast.  Back arrived home to a very different set of circumstances.

“Late in the forenoon (of September 27) we arrived at Fort Reliance, after an absence of nearly four months; tired indeed but well in health, and truly grateful for the manifold mercies we had experienced in the course of our long and perilous journey.  The house was standing, but that was all; for it inclined fearfully to the west, and the mud used for plastering had been washed away by the rain.  Nothing, in short, could present a more cheerless appearance for a dwelling, and after three hours’ rest, the men were set to work about the necessary reparations.”

No comments:

Post a Comment