Outfit 114, George Douglas’ photo of Robert Service in front
of a cabin along the Mackenzie River graced the cover along
with grisly story about the two trappers who died there. It
was a fascinating to hear from Douglas' niece, Kathy Hooke of
glad when you mention George Douglas and Lands
Forlorn. You might be interested to know that in the copy
he gave Hal and me he wrote underneath the p. 47 photo (of the
dead trappers): The publisher saw this picture and insisted
on including it much against my wish. – G.
“I used to
pore over my parents’ copy when I was a child. The photos
fascinated me. Everytime I’ve read it, I learn more. I’ve been
going over the diaries my aunt gave me of George’s later
trips. The March 1932 one is interesting where he is staking
claims for a Sudbury company and is fascinated with the early
pilots and their great skill in those bitter winter
“In late June
our granddaughter is going on a 10-day trip with Lakefield
College School on the Keele River which is probably a good,
safe expedition and body of water but far enough north to
sense what the Arctic is like. I envy her!”
continue to receive thoughtful reactions to the issue of
personal risk and responsibility in northern travel raised in
the last couple of Outfits. In this issue two of canoeing’s
heavyweights have written with their thoughts — all based on
many years of experience.
The first letter is from Cliff Jacobson, who needs no
introduction to the readers of this journal — so he won’t get
was without doubt, the most engrossing issue of all. I read it
cover-to-cover and simply couldn’t put it down. I applaud your
realistic appraisal of the dangers of canoeing wild northern
rivers, and I remain haunted by Garrett Conover’s description
of the “wild card” in the deck.
ago, while teaching an outdoors skills seminar for the Science
Museum of Minnesota, a woman in my class approached me and
told me she was a “channeler”. She said I had an “Indian
Guide” who protected me on canoe trips and helped me write my
books. She said he “wanted to be acknowledged”.
question was, “What’s a channeler?” Next was, “What’s a guide
and how should I acknowledge him?” The woman told me that she
was embarrassed about our meeting, but that her vision of my
Indian spirit was so strong that she felt compelled to share
his message. She repeated, “He made me promise I would tell
you; he made me promise I would tell you.” When she had
finished, she simply smiled and walked away.
“I am not a
religious man but I am spiritual. So I believed (and I
continue to believe) that there was something here. There’s a
statement in my book, “Expedition Canoeing”, which reads:
“Canoeing the wild rivers of the far north makes one
understand why primitive man felt so close to God.” I believe
it. And I think that most people who canoe the great northern
rivers year after year, and have at one time or other, come
perilously close to death, believe it too.
there have been many occasions where success was pulled out of
the hat at the last second. Here are some that come to mind:
Once, I nearly canoed over a falls but managed to stop just
two meters from the brim. On one of my early trips a canoe
drifted out from shore and was lost over a falls that had a
long rapid at its base. We found it intact at the bottom of
the rapid one-half mile away.
“In 2002, a
canoe capsized (on Manitoba’s North Knife River) above a
killer falls, just as they were landing). One man grabbed a
tree and climbed ashore. The other was carried down the
rapid. He managed to grab my out-stretched paddle (I was
standing on shore) maybe 20 meters before he would have gone
over the brim.
been some interesting bear problems too. I was standing at
the edge of a huge herd of caribou when I was charged by three
Grizzlies on the Hood River in 1984. They came within 50 feet
then wheeled away. I have twice been stalked by polar bears
and have had several scary encounters with black bears. The
photo I am sending (see page 2!) was taken at a campsite on
the Fond du Lac River (Saskatchewan) in 2000.
“I was just
20 feet from this big guy when the picture was snapped by
someone standing behind me (everyone was standing behind me!).
Five minutes earlier, I had fired a shot over the bear’s head.
Nothing. At the sound, he just turned and circled the camp and
came closer. We both just stood there and looked
non-threateningly into each other’s eyes and “communicated”. I
talked quietly to him for more than minute. I said I did not
want to shoot him, that we’d be gone soon and he could have
his way. Finally, he dropped to all fours and with dignity, he
left in peace. My Indian spirit guide? Perhaps. There was
more to this than posturing.
“I can think
of many dangerous cold water crossings on Hudson Bay and the
huge Arctic lakes. There were sudden squalls that heaped waves
so high they covered the boat, again and again. You’ve been
there. You know. I shook my head in disbelief at the e-mail
you received from the man who planned to canoe the Caniapiscau
with his son. Foolhardy? No, stupid comes to mind.
It is a dicey
game we play, but perhaps no more dangerous than driving to
work each day. Still, the rules for canoeing wild rivers are
enough different that it takes a lifetime to learn them all.
But as Garrett Conover suggested, that wild card in the deck
can come up at any time.
would offer that high testosterone levels, poor skills and
improper planning dramatically increase the chance of drawing
that card. I think that around 50 percent of a successful
trip is due to skills and planning. Good judgment counts about
45 percent (knowing when to run ‘em and when to fold), and
lady luck, the remaining five. And you’re way ahead if you
have an Indian guide on your side. Terrific issue of
Che-Mun, my friend. This one should be required reading
for everyone who goes north.”
Our second letter - and second set of eyes on the issue -
comes from noted wilderness writer and paddler, Alan
recent packet with the continuing drama having to do with
recklessness in the wilds struck a chord. I guess because I’ve
been thought reckless by a few folks. Marypat and I took those
two long journeys across Canada, spending the winters out, all
by ourselves. On one of them Marypat was seven months pregnant
before we came out.
heightened our awareness of danger by being alone, and
ratcheted up the cautionary scale accordingly. And we had our
share of close calls —some dramatic like a bear encounter,
others less spectacular but equally dangerous, like an abscess
infection. On some days I would have given a lot to have the
company of trip partners, but on balance, I’d never give up
the rewards of those one-boat trips.
trips you by definition succumb to social distraction and are
kept from engaging the wilderness to the depths that you can
on solitary trips. The quality of clarity, of uncluttered
decision-making, of deep partnership, and of profound
connection with a landscape are immeasurable treasures.
for us, that first solitary boat trip wasn’t planned that way.
We just couldn’t find anyone else who could make that
commitment, so we ended up on our own. Once we’d done it, we
realized what a wonderful way it was to travel. In addition to
the two long trips, we spent a one-boat summer paddling the De
Pas/George Rivers in Ungava. I wouldn’t trade the quality of
those trips for anything.
Now we have
children, and we’ve been thought foolhardy to take them into
the wilds. We took our first son, Eli, down the 550-mile
Yellowstone River, through Montana, when he was 8-months old.
No it wasn’t as remote as the Torngats, but for many of the
bad things that could have happened along the Yellowstone, it
wouldn’t matter that there was a road nearby. Sawyer and Ruby
have been on boat trips from before their first birthdays. All
three kids have been on the Yukon, to remote northern
Saskatchewan, and on innumerable rivers in the west. They
relish the experiences as much as we do. In fact, we just
returned from a six-day desert backpack in several slot
canyons in southern Utah (the kids are ages 8 - 12). Have I
ever had moments of trepidation or doubt? Of course. Have the
kids proven up to the challenges? Absolutely.
what happened to Daniel and Susan in the Torngats. My guess is
that their demise was as likely to have been due to some
mundane accident or miscalculation as to anything dramatic. It
is absolutely tragic. And they might have survived had they
been in the company of trip mates. Then again, perhaps not.
"The fact is
that we all make our peace with risk, whether it’s getting
into the car to go to soccer practice or getting into the
canoe to cross remote mountains. We prepare according to our
comfort levels. We take precautions we deem appropriate and
necessary. We reap rewards and consequences as a result.
planning to travel to Ungava with his two young sons may
indeed be irresponsible and flippant. Maybe, too, he’s pulling
your chain a bit. By the same token, I think of Olaus and
Mardie Murie who explored and camped in the Far North with an
infant in tow, and some 50 years ago — drying diapers by the
fire, putting up with bugs and bears and weather and
isolation. They had the time of their lives. I think of the
risks we don’t even consider in our every day lives — driving,
eating processed food, living in the midst of pollution,
trusting without question the vagaries of modern medicine,
playing contact sports — any of which could have consequences
as dire as the ones that come up on wilderness trips.
this father seems on the surface to be awfully cavalier. Yes,
I’d press him to consider his decisions, as you have. But risk
is hovering at the edges every day, part of the equation of
life, no matter what routines we barricade ourselves behind,
no matter what security nets we put in place. And the risk of
not living fully, not acting on our inspirations, and not
making leaps of faith, takes a terrible toll as well.”
It is coming up on 20 years that this Editor has been
producing Che-Mun. And when anyone asks how much I make from
it all - all I can tell them is it’s priceless. And that point
was never better made than in this wonderful letter from Tim
Farr in Ottawa who recently became a subscriber and ordered 33
back issues. (Something I encourage all of your to do!) Tim’s
kind words and thoughts are really the payment I treasure from
this endeavour, which my wife, and proof-reader, adds is
indeed a labour of love.
just wanted you to know that the back copies arrived two weeks
ago, and I've been lost in Che-Mun ever since. It's
like finding a Christmas present that you had forgotten under
the tree; I cannot tell you how much I'm enjoying delving into
those old issues.
“This year I
turned 50, and I took my first solo canoe trip when I was 15.
None of my family were particularly outdoors-oriented, so I
spent years learning the hard way how to be comfortable in the
bush. When I think of all the dumb things I did, I'm amazed
that I still can't wait for that first trip each year. But I'm
also coming to realize that this passion for canoeing has been
the one constant in my life, because with the exception of a
few lost years backpacking in North Africa, I have managed to
do at least one canoe trip somewhere on the Shield every one
of those years.
must be a labour of love for you, because every single issue
I've read has some experience which I can relate to. I wish I
could report that I've made some epic journey like a George
Luste or a Max Finkelstein but what fun it is to live
vicariously through their tripping. And boy do I love the
Canoelit section. It wasn't until middle age that I started to
realize that there was actually a body of canoeing literature,
and that you could connect the dots between Tyrrell
and Douglas and Hoare and Pelly and it was all part of this
wonderfully adventurous and oh-so-obscure Canadian tradition.
is sort of like that, it's been there all along and I wish
I'd checked it out earlier. I've only canoed north of the
treeline once, on the Sutton River. I'm lucky if I can get
away for two weeks at a stretch and my canoe trips must be
balanced against commitments to family and job. This year, I'm
finally going to treat myself to a journey in the Barrens, but
only because it's a special year for me and because my
canoeing partner is celebrating his retirement.
Che-Mun for the past two weeks (and I mean reading,
because I've got 33 back issues to savour) has been a
rare treat. I'm sure that cranking out those four editions
each year must get a little onerous at times, but I wanted you
to know that from the perspective of this reader, it's a
“I'm well and
truly addicted and you can count me as a Che-Mun
subscriber until you run out of stories or I drop dead. Thanks
for a wonderful little journal; it's great!”