The Ladies, the Gwich'in, and the Rat: Travels on the Athabasca, Mackenzie, Rat, Porcupine and Yukon Rivers in 1926
By Clara Vyvyan
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Edited by I.S. MacLaren and Lisa N. LaFramboise.
Foreword by Pamela Morse.
Published by the University of Alberta Press 1998. $29.95
364 pages, B&W photos, 12 colour illustrations.
Review by MICHAEL PEAKE --
Wilderness canoeists are drawn to the north for essentially two reasons - people and no-people. Most of us like to experience solitude on our northern journeys - yet it's a solitude that is accompanied by the history of people from the past. This combination of wild, solitary northern scenery and a vibrant understanding of the history of the people who lived and travelled there has an unbeatable allure.
These are precisely the characteristics of the book Arctic Adventure written in 1961 by Clara Vyvyan and based on a trip she did in 1926! It now appears under the new title The Ladies, the Gwich'in and the Rat. It tells the stories of two English women, Clara Rogers who later became Clara Vyvyan and Gwendolen Smith who travelled the breadth of the north purely for recreational excitement.
Her story takes the reader down the Athabasca and Mackenzie rivers but the crux of it is the ascent of the Rat River and McDougall Pass, the lowest pass in the entire Western Cordillera. In doing so, her book encompasses a sweep of the north in 1926 a time of great activity and change. The people they met, towns they visited capture a splendid snapshot of the north in that time. Her stay in Aklavik, at the mouth of the Mackenzie and long-since abandoned for Inuvik, is particularly interesting and enlightening.
But this is more than a reprinting of the original book, which has been out of print for some time. Editors Ian MacLaren and Lise LaFramboise have brought the entire thing to life by presenting, for the first time, an error-free (we think) presentation of Vyvyan's story and now filled with all kinds of supporting material; the field notes, photographs, watercolours and full list of plants and a rich and lengthy introduction which sets the table beautifully.
This is a bang-up job of superb research, delicately applied to a wonderful story that while not "earthshaking" is a very real look at an early modern era canoe trip in the north. MacLaren, a professor at the University of Alberta, is well known for this sort of work. His earlier collaborations with Stuart Houston on a trilogy of northern journals by Back, Richardson and Hood are outstanding. One minor note, the title is a bit of a mouthful and seems to have been put together by a committee.
Of interest to Che-Mun readers, the ladies with their Gwich'in (Loucheux) guides were heading up the Rat just three weeks before Sherwood Platt's group arrived there. (See Outfit 90).
Their two guides took them as far as LaPierre House on the Bell River and they returned to Aklavik. The ladies continued downstream in their 18-foot Peterborough canoe to Old Crow where they obtained more guides to take them downstream to Fort Yukon
As one who has made the hard haul up the Rat, I was interested to read her account. Of course, their guides, Lazarus and Joe did all the hauling and the ladies walked alongside-still not an easy task along that rocky stream. Clara's description of finally reaching Summit, or Loon, Lake as she called it then is a beauty;
"There are some feelings too deep for tears, some thoughts that may not endure the captivity of words, some memories that are set apart among life's enduring treasures. I can shut my eyes now, dismiss all that has happened in 35 years and recapture the silence of Loon Lake. We were two middle-aged women travelling for pleasure, dishevelled and unwashed, with tired feet and tired bodies but I think, as we stood on the shores of that lake, gazing down at the reflected mountains, listening to the silence that was almost audible, we must have experienced what the saints described as ecstacy. Gwen never said a word. Nor did I."
Clara Vyvyan has provided the meat for a wonderful meal. Ian MacLaren and Lisa LaFramboise have turned it into a feast.
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