The Journal of Canadian

Wilderness Canoeing

  SPRING 2004










In this issue

Front Page



Spring Packet


From the Editor


Back Page




 In 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 Peterborough, ON.

“I’m always 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 conditions.

“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!”


We 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 one!

“Outfit 115 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.

Some years 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”.

“My first 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. 

“Indeed, 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.

“There have 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.

“However, I 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 Kesselheim.

The 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.

We certainly 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.

On larger 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.

Of course, 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.

 “Who knows 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.

“The man 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.

"Yes, 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.

“I 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. 

Che-Mun 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. 

Che-Mun 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.

But reading 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 magnificent achievement.

“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!”



Fond du Lac bear to get a Jacobson autograph

– or dinner?

 Spring 2004         Outfit 116 

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