Eskers are mounds of sand and gravel deposited by ancient streams that ran in and under the ice sheets once covering this country. Sometimes they extend for miles as raised beaches or dunes standing above the taiga, the subarctic forest, but more often they are disconnected hummocks or hills, the original ridge having been breached or eroded by weather and water. Eskers are well drained and in consequence dry and thinly covered with vegetation. They make for easy walking, sitting and sleeping. Most critically, they provide relatively poor bug habitat.
The esker shard in Fortunate Lake had a good many other desirable-to-necessary features. There were flat, sandy beaches on each side, good for landing canoes, washing and drawing water. This tiny peninsula was shaped somewhat like a humpback whale, its flanks rising steeply to a sharp backbone 50 feet above the lake. The ridge top was windy—which was good, because wind drives off bugs—and so narrow that it was easy to move fires, tents and bodies a few feet to get leeside protection. Being high and open, the whaleback made a fine place for watching the taiga-covered hills beyond the lake, and the ducks, geese and swans that were gathering in premigration rafts on it. Above, for instruction and pleasure, were ravens, falcons, eagles, very high quality clouds, stars and northern lights.
In the main the esker was thinly covered with mats of low, creeping tundra plants, most notably reindeer moss, a lichen which has somewhat the look of coral and makes a dependable fire starter. Next to the water on the south facing, more protected side of the ridge, there were also half a dozen scraggly but 20-foot-tall black spruce, fairly large specimens in this country and big enough to make a high cache for food bags. This was essential. According to the scats and tracks, the esker had been visited by many major northern mammals, including bears. This country lies within the range of both blacks and grizzlies. We met neither, but found bear-of-some-sort sign.
Deservedly, the far North enjoys a worldwide reputation for the variety, quantity and quality of its fish, but they are not necessarily in all bodies of water, some of which are frozen solid most of the year. Therefore in planning you figure you will eat a lot of fish but cannot absolutely count on it, and have to be braced for a steady diet of rice and noodies. Bruce, the skillful and obsessed angler in the party, set off looking for fish. He shortly reported that there were whitefish, grayling and pike. The latter proved to be so abundant that on a day when the wind was right, it was possible to drift along in sedgy coves and hook one every 20 yards or so.
Occasionally in the North somebody gets lost, starves, freezes or, much more rarely, is rubbed out by a bear or the many bugs. The only exceptionally risky thing about this wilderness is that, because of its isolation and environmental harshness, small acts of ordinary dumbness can be magnified into catastrophes. If a canoe tips in Appalachian waters the dunking and loss of gear is unpleasant, but 40° Arctic waters begin immediately to numb and paralyze. There is no place to go to get replacements for things lost, and there are limited means for improvising or foraging substitutes.
The worst dumbness is hubris—refusing to admit limitations, trying to show off strength, nerve—pushing your luck. The jackass who enters a rapids braying, "Hell, I've run lots worse in Tennessee," is potentially at least as dangerous for anyone with him as a grizzly. If he breaks his leg and loses two food bags in the North, everyone thereafter has to limp along at the cripple's pace, do his work and eat less because of the food his ego has consumed.
The main rule in places like the Scented Grass Hills is to keep thinking about what it will cost to get out of whatever you get into. Most of the negative principles of this lecture were emphasized on one occasion by my own display of dumbness and mindless bravado.
The Scented Grass Hills plan was based on John's and my past experiences and on my current infirmities. This trip was conceived as one on which less energy would be spent on ferocious traveling and more attention paid to the details of, say, cloudberries, wolf dens and eskers.
As to my condition, I had recently had some fancy patchwork done on my knees. By July my wheels were working better, but not well enough for a lot of bushwhacking, particularly not for carrying a canoe across long portages. However, it did seem I was up for straight paddling, ordinary domestic chores and smelling plants.
In addition to its other attractions, Fortunate Lake was selected from a map because it seemed nicely suited to what we wanted to do and what I could do. It was shown to be at the center of a complex of streams with chains of small lakes wriggling off in half a dozen different directions. The scheme was to canoe one of these waterways for a few days, come back to Fortunate Lake, rest up, restock and head someplace else.