Nature's An Open Book
By Tamia Nelson
January 22, 2008
The journals and reports of 19th- and early 20th-century explorers fill whole libraries, and their chronicles of a lost world make fascinating reading for 21st-century paddlers, particularly those of us with interests in natural history, geology, or anthropology. These virtual voyages are guaranteed not to disappoint. At least that's been my experience. And there's probably no better introduction than the books of Raymond M. Patterson. Familiarly known as RMP, he was more historian than naturalist, but he was first and foremost a storyteller, and his books paint a vivid portrait of the Canadian Northwest in the second quarter of the 20th century. Perhaps his best-known work is Dangerous River, and there's a good reason for this. It's the perfect fireside companion on a blustery midwinter's night. But though it ranks as one of my all-time favorites, two other books by RMP give it close competition:
- Trail to the Interior. Years after the Nahanni sojourn recounted in Dangerous River, Patterson went back up north to explore the Stikine and Dease Rivers. Trail to the Interior is the story of his journey along this historic route linking the Pacific and Arctic watersheds.
- Finlay's River. Both a richly textured narrative and a eulogy, this book describes a world truly lost, a world submerged in time and space, the landscape that was drowned beneath the waters of the massive impoundment known as Williston Lake, once the globe's largest reservoir.
Satisfying fare? You bet. But good books are like good food: my appetite grows with eating. And RMP's books are no exception. No sooner had I put the last of them down, than my hunger for northern narratives intensified. Here's where it led me:
- The Arctic Forests by Michael H. Mason. No, you won't find it on any list of contemporary best-sellers. This is the book that awakened RMP's interest in the Nahanni country in the winter of 1926-27. And no wonder. It contains a wealth of information about the history (and natural history) of that storied region, enlivened by the author's own traveler's tales. A period piece, to be sure, but one well worth exploring.
- A Journal of a Voyage From Rocky Mountain Portage in Peace River to the Sources of Finlays Branch and North West Ward in Summer 1824 by Samuel Black. RMP himself wrote the Introduction to the 1955 edition published by the Hudson's Bay Record Society under the more manageable title Black's Rocky Mountain Journal. I can't improve on his description: "[A] valuable and detailed record of
the Finlay-Stikine watershed in the days before [it] vanished forever. Few details of any kind escaped Black's seeing eye and no detail was too small to be recorded."
- The Wild North Land by William Francis Butler. Soldier, explorer, writer Butler had a narrative gift that rivaled RMP's, and though this account of a "Winter Journey, with Dogs, Across Northern North America" was first published in 1873, it's still can't-put-it-down reading. Accompanied by Cerf-Vola, his indefatigable "Esquimaux dog," Butler slogged all the way from Fort Garry on Manitoba's Red River to the Pacific Ocean in the dead of winter, traversing the Peace River country in the process. If you're like me, you won't want to miss a single step of his journey.
Of course, not all tales end happily, nor does every traveler end his (or her) days in comfortable retirement. After all, Samuel Black survived the hardships of the Finlay and Stikine only to be shot dead near Kamloops, British Columbia. (There's anticlimax for you.) Perhaps no arctic tragedy has attracted more interest than the fate of the Franklin Expedition, however. Even after more than century and a half, it continues to provide grist for the creative mills of filmmakers and writers. But the arctic chapter of Sir John Franklin's life began long before its frozen ending, with yet another ill-fated expedition, as chronicled in
- Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea in the Years 1819, 20, 21, and 22: With an Appendix of Various Subjects Relating to Science and Natural History, by John Franklin. At least Franklin got to tell his own story this time. And what a story it was! More than half of his small command were lost during the long struggle to get down the Coppermine River to the Arctic Ocean. Most of these unfortunates starved to death, but at least one man was murdered, and some of the survivors may have subsisted on the remains of their unlucky companions. All in all, the Narrative tells a grim and cautionary tale, the only relief being the evocative sketches and paintings made by Lieutenants George Back (of Back River fame) and Robert Hood, along with the natural history notes of the expedition surgeon, Dr. John Richardson. Lieutenant Hood wasn't among the lucky survivors, by the way. In fact, he was the murdered man.
Then, when Franklin's expedition to explore the Northwest Passage disappeared without a trace more than 20 years after his return from the Coppermine, the result was a flurry of rescue attempts. One of these was a boat expedition along the arctic coast under the command of W.J.S. Pullen, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. It's described in
- The Pullen Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin by H.F. Pullen. And while this effort, too, was ultimately and spectacularly unsuccessful, the harrowing narrative makes engrossing reading for any kayaker, canoeist, or small-boat sailor with an interest in the arctic.
But tragic failures weren't confined to 19th century. Though most of the blank spaces in the map of northern North America had been inked in by 1900, there were still many unexplored corners, and travelers to these remote regions still came to grief. The 1903 Hubbard Expedition to Labrador is only one unhappy example out of many. It's better documented than most, however, and it embodies a heady mix of romance both with and without a capital R and rivalry. It also makes a great yarn:
- The Lure of the Labrador Wild by Dillon Wallace. A classic of canoeing literature, Lure of the Labrador chronicles the ill-starred attempt by a couple of city slickers from New York to put two "unknown" rivers between Hamilton Inlet and Ungava Bay on the map, an effort which ended in the death (by starvation) of the expedition's organizer, Leonidas Hubbard. His partner survived and he got to write the book.
At least he was no quitter. Two years after the death of his friend and erstwhile canoeing partner, Wallace returned to Labrador, hoping to finish the job they'd begun together. The result was
- The Long Labrador Trail. And it's quite a tale in its own right.
But Wallace wasn't the only person racing north that summer. Hubbard's widow was also in Labrador. Why? It's likely that she blamed Wallace for her husband's death. In any case, it's evident that she didn't want his former partner to garner the credit for succeeding where her husband had failed. She felt she had something to prove, in other words and she lost no time in getting on with the job, as her own lively narrative attests:
- "My Explorations in Unknown Labrador" by Mina Hubbard (Harper's Monthly Magazine, May 1906). Happily, both Wallace and Hubbard's widow made it to the end of the trail on Ungava Bay. But Mina got there first.
Other women followed in her wake. Constance Helmericks, who'd traveled through the high arctic with her husband in the years immediately after World War II and had written about it returned to the north in the 1960s to paddle down the Peace, Slave, and Mackenzie Rivers, accompanied only by two teen-aged daughters. Her tale is told in
- Down the Wild River North. Unfortunately, Helmericks is no RMP: parts of Down the Wild River are practically unreadable, and the narrative is an astonishing catalog of incompetence. But it's worth wrestling with Helmericks' turgid prose nonetheless. The story of the great rivers she descended transcends her telling.
There's more to exploration than epic voyages, of course, and the age of discovery didn't end with the invention of the airplane. You can learn a lot in your own backyard, particularly if your home is a cabin in northern Minnesota. That was the case for Helen Hoover and her husband Adrian, who traded big-city bustle (and big-city incomes) for the uncertainties of the big woods. Their experiment nearly ended in disaster, too. But at the last minute fortune smiled. The result was a series of delightful books, all of them written by Helen and illustrated by her husband. These are the three I enjoyed most:
- A Place in the Woods. It's the sort of book Thoreau might have written if (1) he'd been a women, (2) he'd been married, and (3) he'd lived in mid-20th-century America. It also manages to be both poignant and funny often at the very same time.
- The Long-Shadowed Forest: Changing Seasons in a Northern Wilderness. Less a memoir than a collection of essays, Forest is the other, more reflective, half of Hoover's Walden.
- Gift of the Deer. In this intimate chronicle of the lives of a family of whitetail deer over several generations, Hoover infuses disciplined observation (she was a metallurgist by training) with unapologetic compassion. It's a masterful performance.
OK. That's enough about my favorites. What about you? Are you, too, feeling the magnetic tug of the north, even as the sun inches its way back from the equator? Are you wishing that you could chuck your day-to-day routine and light out for the territory? Well, take heart! You can. And you don't have to quit your job. Just pick up any one of these books and settle back in a comfortable chair. Then let the snow drift undisturbed for an hour or two. You're headed up north on a voyage of discovery, after all. The tide is on the turn, and there's not a moment to lose. You can deal with the drifts in your driveway when you return to "sivilization."
The journeys and journals of long-dead explorers still have a lot to teach us. These men and women faced a world very different from our own, a world without good maps or known boundaries. Those days are gone forever, of course, but we can rediscover this lost world any time we want in books. I've been doing it for years, taking virtual voyages at will, journeying back and forth in time with no more effort than it takes to walk to the library. Sounds good, doesn't it? Then why not join me?
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