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Expedition: Lookin' Back

  • A More Recent Look Back

    SPIRITS OF THE PASSED -- Austin Hoyt examines a hymn book at the mission in Garry Lake occupied by Father Buliard, who disappeared while on a winter dog sled trip in the 1950s.
    -- photos by Tracy Perry
    In the summer of 1962, a group of four young Americans became the first paddlers since HBC Chief Factor James Anderson in 1855 to descend the length of the extremely remote and rugged Back River in the NWT by canoe. The trip remains a landmark, and one of its members, JOHN LENTZ, takes Che-Mun readers back to that northern summer of '62. Ironically, there was another party on the river -- four British military paddlers who had their own unique way of doing things. This is Part One of a recollection of that summer long ago.

    It was February 1962. I put down Captain George Back's Narrative Of The Arctic Land Expedition, and gazed up at the elegant dome ceiling of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

    No way--we'd never make it down the remote, turbulent river named for this intrepid Englishman. The invitation to join with some paddling companions to challenge the Back in canoes was flattering to receive, but I had to straighten them out. Concerned by the Captain's sometimes harrowing description (the Royal Navy did not offer whitewater training), I met the others in Stowe, Vermont, for a skiing weekend. Maybe I was easily swayed from my mission to save the group--maybe some inner voice said to give it a try--but they did the convincing.

    I then had the task of appealing for three months leave from the Export-Import Bank, a U.S. Government agency that had just hired me. They could just as easily have said not to bother coming back, since I had only earned a piddling two weeks vacation. Realizing that my immediate boss was a believer in devotion to the job, I drifted by the office of his supervisor who was at least known to drive a Jeep. As we studied a wall map, the big man's reaction was, "Oh my God, the Northwest Territories!" Leave granted.

    Advice was sought from many quarters. The Arctic Institute of North America in Washington took me under its wing, recommending many layers of light clothing to accommodate the fickle northern summer, as well as an attitude of not bucking bad weather in small boats.

    We wrote to Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the venerable Arctic explorer at Dartmouth College, who referred us to a certain Eric Morse. Stef's letter said that Morse, "has been writing about small boat navigation of Canadian rivers." This was a reference to Eric's pre-Barrenland travels on the Churchill and Hayes. So began my quarter-century friendship with Eric and our exchanges on wilderness canoe routes (Eric had little use for height of land crossings), equipment, and northern literature.

    After our faithful Ford station wagon pulled into the Yellowknife Inn on July 5, the four of us became the objects of some attention. It ran to everything from serious safety lectures delivered by the RCMP and geology lessons from old-time prospectors to skeptical jibes by a gold mine foreman who greeted us at breakfast each morning at the Inn with, "Well boys, how many miles did you make today?" During a week of last-chance preparations, we didn't make any, but late on July 12 our small expedition finally got airborne in Chuck McAvoy's old 1938 Fairchild.

    Watching as the scraggly boreal forest yielded to tundra, I thought that no one would invite the risks of this expedition without being an inveterate optimist. Our plan to descend the length of the 620-mile Back River had been preceded only by the expeditions of Captain Back in 1834 and Hudson's Bay Company's Chief Factor, James Anderson, in 1855.

    Both of these early explorers were motivated by searches for lost countrymen. Back intended to look for Sir John Ross (who, after three winters in the Arctic, returned to England soon after Back had sailed for Canada). An "express" mail packet caught up with Back six months later in northern Saskatchewan, and he was directed to pursue a secondary objective of mapping the Arctic coastline. Back had difficulty in performing an accurate survey due to unfavorable weather conditions and the limited time available. This has been considered one reason why the infamous 1846-48 Franklin expedition was trapped in off the ice-choked northwest coast of King William Island, apparently without realizing it was an island. All 129 members perished, something of a record in the history of major expeditions. Had Back's chart of this difficult stretch of the Northwest Passage indicated that there was a channel, leeward of ice pressure, around the eastern side of King William Island, the Franklin disaster might have been avoided or at least ameliorated.
    A BEECHY CARRY -- Kit Gregg portages the heavy rapid below Beechy Lake.

    Anderson's journey in two birchbark canoes was to search for possible survivors of the Franklin expedition. Ironically, Anderson could have risen from being more than a minor figure in the annals of Arctic exploration if he had been equipped with sturdier boats. As it was, he reached Montreal Island, the southern fringe of the Franklin disaster area, to find quantities of the expedition's detritus scattered about, but no human remains. Anderson's canoes began to leak profusely in a region where trees offering repair bark do not exactly abound (ground birch won't do the trick). On August 10, a week earlier than Back had left the coast, the search was called off and they hastened back to Fort Resolution on Great Slave Lake

    Austin Hoyt, who organized our expedition, had sampled northern tripping on a 1959 kayak journey up the South Nahanni River to Virginia Falls. He was drawn to the Back by the remoteness of the region and the challenge of negotiating wilderness whitewater. Tracy Perry and Kit Gregg were friends who shared a curiosity about the north. All the others were medical students at Boston's Tufts College in 1962, leaving myself, a former fellow camp counselor with Austin and Tracy at Ontario's Camp Temagami, to be the last to sign on.

    Our first day on the Back was a combination of familiar activities in unfamiliar places. Portaging from the upper end of Alymer Lake into the Back, then wading four miles of shallows that mark the river's beginning, were routine to anyone who had tripped in central Ontario. But this first encounter with the

    Barrens left us to absorb much that was new: the land itself which seemed a cross between Irish heath and rocky moonscape, that extraordinary change from friendly acceptance to threat simply based on whether the sun was out--and all that space. When our modest whitewater experience began to prove out, life looked good. Not for long. The orange canoe's disaster at Malley's Rapid on July 17 was a life-threatening experience. Our tale has been recounted before, but bears repeating with the lessons, or, one might say, errors, emphasized:

    ERROR #1--We scouted from the top of the rapid without walking its length.

    ERROR #2--Tracy and I started down first, kneeling on our life jackets.

    ERROR #3 --We ran with a 30-foot stern line, knotted at the end, trailing behind us.

    Our only correct move was not to commit both canoes to the rapid at once. It was good we acquired an early respect for the Back or none of us might have finished the trip. In my case, it was a respect for big water never forgotten--for this and the many subsequent rivers I've since descended.
    UPPER BACK PAINS -- Letting down an upper river set of rapids.

    It was impossible to see a three-foot ledge near the rapid's end from that upstream scouting position. Our loaded 18-foot Chestnut lurched over it and plunged into the back curler below, rolling as she filled. When that ridiculous stern-line knot caught in the ledge, the canvas and wood canoe was levered under as if the Back was eager to claim its due. I came up spluttering to grab a floating pack. Tracy, astride the camera box, shouted encouragement, but I was quickly becoming hypothermic. My hands were almost numb, making it a struggle to control the pack. Legs were shutting down as well, so kicking to break out of the current was impossible. My brain flashed instructions to limbs which were summarily ignored. I looked down to see stones slipping by ten feet underneath. A passing thought was, "That's where I'll be lying before much longer."

    But the cavalry charged to our rescue. Austin and Kit, having walked the rapid, shot out to haul us into their boat. On shore, I was shoved in a bedroll, while Tracy bounded over rocks to restore circulation. Some lesson in how not to run rapids!

    At the lower end of Beechey Lake a few days later, we rendezvoused with the four-man British Cape Britannia Expedition, or BCBE as they called themselves. The BCBE had just been flown in, but we had become acquainted in

    Yellowknife. Their purpose was to run the rest of the Back in three kayaks and paddle to Cape Britannia some 60 miles beyond its mouth. A prominent cairn had been erected on the Cape by Simpson and Dease in an 1838 traverse of the Arctic coast. The BCBE planned to search it for a message that might have been left a decade later by the Franklin expedition, but they didn't learn until reaching Canada that the job had been done, without result, a few years before by the Geological Survey of Canada.
    DINNER's UP-- Austin Hoyt hoists a lunker lake trout.

    As we were all preparing to launch after portaging the cascade below Beechey Lake, I could sense a spat was brewing. Their kayaks had been stuffed with parcels of gear and small packs lashed on top, yet one ugly item--a huge cast iron frying pan--remained. In the confines of a London club it might have seemed essential, but transported to the tundra, where large fires are impossible, the pan was decidedly misplaced. Everyone was ready to push off, though the thing still lay on the beach. Trip leader Bob Cundy, using his best Special Air Service tone of command, ordered Royal Marine Robin Challis to take responsibility for the ten-pound monster. Robin carefully placed the pan on top of a pack, took a few hard strokes to mid-river, then gently leaned into the current--and we all watched it sink straight to the bottom. Bob glared at him, and the BCBE moved out.

    We crossed paths with them at various times down river, finding the group in varying states of harmony. Throughout his book

    Beacon Six, Bob made it clear that their attempt at military organization left a lot to be desired. Our style, on the other hand, was that of consenting adults who were at home in a wilderness environment. According to my journal, our first disagreement (over how late to paddle) did not arise until more than two weeks into the trip.

    Calories were being burned so culinary style became secondary to pure volume. The favorite was a pancake bloat for supper (three of pan-size each), which left some of us barely ambulatory. One of these feasts was in progress on a pleasant evening when I had the strange sensation I was being watched. I then did something unusual in the wilderness--I turned to look behind me. What a shock! My eyes met the cold, calculating stare of a massive gray wolf that had stalked to within 30 feet of camp. I let out a shout. My pancake went flying and so did the wolf, but I'll never forget that moment of looking into those wild, yellow eyes.

    We tried to divide meal servings into equal portions, a policy that held little benefit for Kit Gregg. At 6' 3" he had the largest frame to fill. From Kit's perspective, it was a case of slow starvation. But at least the sooner the meal was served, the better. Thus, there was no surprise late one afternoon that, when Tracy and I decided to photograph a muskox, the others pulled ashore downstream to make camp. I could see Kit quickly heading inland on his daily quest for willow branches. Wood meant fire, and fire meant food. With Tracy manning our 16mm Bolex movie camera and I the 35mm still, we carefully stalked the muskox, backing it into a small draw. Then Ovibos moschatus signaled the game was up by shaking his massive head, wheeling around, and charging off out of the draw. I figured the photo session was over, but then I saw Kit wandering up the back side, peacefully searching for our evening wood supply. Believing it was trapped, the muskox went into a full charge--straight for Kit. I got my friend's attention by yelling, "Hey, Kit!" which gave a moment of warning. Suddenly faced with one of life's little challenges, Kit responded wonderfully by not retreating a step, going into a crouch, then raising his arms and bellowing at the animal as if to say, "Don't you dare mess with me." It worked (phew!), as the muskox bolted by him without making contact, then thundered off into the barrens. For some reason, Kit's customary appetite failed to materialize at the evening meal.
    RAPID TRANSIT-- Hoyt and Gregg work down the upper Back.

    Hawk Rapids were not scouted since it only seemed necessary to pick out the best of many possible channels. Tracy and I had a successful run, though we just got by one large boulder. Atop a hill downstream with our cameras, we watched the yellow canoe negotiate the route. I could see they

    were also going to be surprised by the boulder, but never imagined their reaction. Austin pulled the bow past it, but as the stern swung hard toward the rock Kit whipped a leg over the gunwale to push off (it helps to have long ones, legs that is). This technique is not in any whitewater manual I know of, but why argue with success?

    When we visited the OMI mission on Garry Lake, Father Joseph Buliard had only been deceased for a few years (apparently went through the ice with his dogs). The building was still in respectable repair, while the Inuktitut hymnals and religious comic books were in good condition. Our night in the mission was enlivened by arrival of the BCBE. I hoped Father Trinel, the last resident, wherever he rested, was in a forgiving mood because that night we partied with overproof rum and a never ending supply of deep-fried doughnuts. David Gordon-Dean of the BCBE tried to transmit on their radio, but then gave it up. That night the mission lights again burned bright as tales of battling vicious rapids and fending off charging muskox grew to heroic proportions as the rum went round. Next morning, the vast expanses of Garry Lake might have delayed us, as they have so many others, had the wind been up, but after three days of unusual calm we returned to a more riverine landscape. s

    For Part II of 'Lookin' Back' click here.

  • A More Recent Look Back

    This article first appeared in Che-Mun Outfit 100


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