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In fact, the cartographers, to show wetness, had symbolically drawn open streams and ponds in the drainage systems. There was indeed water, but it lay mostly under muskeg and was thus so little or intermittently navigable as to make canoes useless except in Fortunate Lake and the few smaller ones just to the west. It took a few days of thrashing about to make us fully appreciate this.
One of the things we had intended to do was make a short portage over the escarpment that made up the northern flank of the hills and paddle down to Great Bear on one of several indicated streams. But because of the growing suspicion that map and ground waters might be quite different, it seemed like a good idea to first walk down to the big lake before trying to lug canoes to it. We set off on the second day we were in the hills. What followed was nobody's fault but mine. Particularly it was not the fault of John, who, as we were getting ready, stared thoughtfully at my legs and said that it wouldn't be all that much trouble to pack along one tent and the sleeping bags. I brayed, "Hell, it's only six miles at the most. We'll get back hours before dark." (At this time of year there are 20 hours of useful light.) John shrugged, having done what he could short of open confrontation, another sort of dumbness that Arctic parties must avoid. We set off in midmorning, taking along a small bag of nuts, dried fruit and chocolate bits. Seven hours later we came out of the muskeg-taiga, which had been more difficult than any I had previously seen, onto the shore of Great Bear. I was stumbling frequently and falling occasionally, while the others were more than ordinarily tired.
I could not get back to Fortunate Lake that day. The others might have, but there was about an equal chance that they might not. The return trip would be harder and slower because of fatigue, because the hills had to be climbed rather than descended, because it is trickier to find a small lake in a muskeg jungle than it is to find an inland sea. Running out of light and spending an unprotected night in the thickets and bugs would be bad. Getting lost and being there a few days more without food would be edging toward disaster. It was obvious that we had no choice except to obey natural laws and stay the night where and as we were.
There are many worse things than spending a night in the open in your shirtsleeves and missing supper. In fact this turned out to be unusually fine. Great Bear is spectacular. Its waters are as clear as those of a spring—faintly amber when we first saw them in the western sun—and very nearly as cold as ice. In a spirit of celebration, or resignation, we stripped and jumped in to wash off the muskeg muck and mosquito parts. The lake makes an impressively invigorating bath for about 30 seconds, after which it is torture.
White sand dunes and flats stretched from horizon to horizon. We were the only tourists to visit here recently, or perhaps ever, but this section of beach was obviously popular with local residents. Moose, caribou, bears, wolves, lynx, otters, ravens, owls, geese, swans and innumerable other water birds had paced, waded, scavenged and picnicked on these shores. There were also some attractive communities of saxifrage, potentilla, smartweeds, buttercups and asters. But no scented grasses.
Since it makes him uneasy to be without one anywhere, Bruce had carried a folding fishing rod through the muskeg. The immensity of Great Bear raised doubts about doing any good in it from the shore, so Bruce worked his way eastward along the beach to a small headland. He cast 75 feet and, to the general amazement, caught one, then a second, lake trout. Chunks of their tomato-red meat were strung on willow spits and roasted over a driftwood fire. While we ate, a pair of peregrines, the loveliest of all the falcons, entertained with diving, spiraling aerial acrobatics.
No doubt the four of us, for the rest of our lives, will not simply recall but will feel again those hours on the most northerly of all the great lakes: the sound of its surf, the chill of its waters, the taste of toasted trout and the grace of peregrines. It will exist only for us. Each of us will be there as we were that night for so long as one of us lives.
That it turned out to be a fine, memorable time did not alter the fact that it was very dumb to be there. We had gotten into a spot where there was nothing to be done except take what the Arctic weather had to offer—and the Arctic weather can become fierce on very short notice. The bottom line occurred to me often that night as I watched for clouds. By acting out my mind-over-knees fantasy I had delivered all of us directly into the hands of meteorological fate. If a storm had come up we probably would have endured as we were, but the experience would have been terrible, the more so for being unnecessary. After we got back to Fortunate Lake and were warm and well fed, I apologized for being so stupid and said I would try to be less so.
Among other things, it was agreed that henceforth we would travel no more than eight hours, preferably less, in a day. This less ambitious schedule fit in with what we all wanted to do, and if I did more I might become a liability again. I said that if I got too optimistic about trekking they should break my paddle, tie my bootlaces in granny knots and hide my morphine. Thus better attuned to what and where we were, we found our trips about the Scented Grass Hills less eventful but nonetheless satisfying.
We appreciated the eskers. Eskers are beautiful in the abstract way of a simple but elegant mathematical equation or line of prose like "Call me Ishmael." Generally in the Arctic what might be called the workings of nature—the reasons for things being where and as they are, the relationships between them—seem much more visible and comprehensible than they are elsewhere. This is not an illusion—they are.