Although we had
never tripped together, I had confidence the four of us would reach the sea.
Tracy Perry, next to McAvoy in the cockpit, had guided in Timagami, Ontario and
had descended the Mattagami with me in 1960. He was the first to sign up.
Straddling a pack next to me was John Lentz, whom Perry and I had known as a
camper and guide in Timagami. John is a banker, but it did not take him long to
decide to uproot for the summer. We would need his conservative judgments. Kit
Gregg perched in the back of the cabin, studying maps. Kit had splashed around
in a canoe on the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass. for a couple of afternoons
before we left, had never handled white water. But he had rowed for Harvard,
was a veteran sailor and skied Suicide Six at Woodstock, Vt. like a snowbound
Captain Ahab. So along he came.
I wondered again
what right I had to drag these three 615 miles across the barrens to the Arctic
Ocean, and the problems of past summer ventures flashed through my mind:
1957—Otter Rapids of Abitibj River near James Bay, the food pack slides over a
falls, the paddles disappear among the foam of a whirlpool, we trudge to the
railroad; 1958—second day of a grand descent of the Churchill River to Hudson
Bay, canoe destroyed, trip leader leaves to live with the Indians, again we
retreat to the tracks; 1959—South Nahanni River, north of Canadian Rockies,
kayak flips six times, we eat too rare bear steaks and end up in the hospital
We would just
have to be more careful on this trip. There would be no railroads and no kindly
nuns running bush hospitals. As the Head Mountie had written, "There is
absolutely no one between the eastern end of Great Slave Lake and the arctic
coast in the direction of Back River—no trappers, travelers or
Why would we, for
pleasure, chance fate in a country where a broken leg, a capsized canoe or an
encounter with a grizzly might mean disaster, where the only relief from bugs
is a frost or chilling arctic wind and where wet moss is often the only fuel?
Most who travel for pleasure seek beauty of some sort. But there is little
beauty here on this vast expanse of sterile tundra. The canoeist does not
primarily seek scenic beauty; his satisfaction is derived from his relation to
the river, from the exciting gamble of making the run down the white water
rather than trudging over a tedious portage.
It was a dusky
one in the morning when Chuck landed on the north end of Aylmer Lake and pulled
up to an uninviting patch of muskeg in Sandhill Bay. We reconfirmed our pickup
for August 28 on the coast of the Arctic Ocean and watched Chuck take off in
his rickety plane and fade away south.
JULY 13. We made
our first portage this morning, climbing the low hills above Sandhill Bay and
making our way across the treeless land to the modest beginning of the Back
River. Our dog apparently didn't like us much. He bounded off across the tundra
in chase of a caribou, and that was the last we saw of him.
For the next two
days, where Back had portaged for four miles and Anderson for two, we waded,
dragged and scraped over 15 rapids which, several weeks after the thaw, now ran
below the boulders strewn at random on the river bed.
JULY 16. We
reached Muskox Lake, where we conserved energy by lashing the two canoes
together side by side, stretching a poncho between two paddles in the bow and
sailing the length of the lake. At Muskox Rapids, where Back had smashed his
30-foot boat which carried a load of 3,000 pounds, our 18-footers, with only
300 pounds of gear in each, glided safely over and around the dangerous
It was exciting
to see the river grow, nurtured by small tributaries. Kit was rapidly learning
the fundamentals of white-water canoeing: to aim for the Vs pointing
downstream, to avoid the smooth humps or haystacks and the Vs pointing upstream
which indicate submerged rocks, and not to worry about the dramatic horsetail
sprays where water curls up at the foot of a rock or ledge.
JULY 17. Early
this afternoon we stood on the bank discussing whether we should try to shoot
down the side of a falls that foamed before us. We felt confident. We had dined
well on a 15-pound lake trout, had filmed our first musk-ox and it was a
gorgeous day. When John suggested he and Tracy cross the river to where it
looked calm by the far bank, Tracy agreed. Kit and I watched as they set out
across the current. When the orange canoe was in mid-river we noticed a fine
mist rising over John's calm spot. It was a hidden falls, and we saw one end of
the orange canoe rise. Suddenly it disappeared. By the time Kit and I could
cross the river, unload and shoot down the far side of the falls, John and
Tracy had been swept to the foot of the rapids, through another rapids and were
clutching packs in the shallows of a bay half a mile downriver. After 15
minutes in the icy water John was numb and inarticulate as we flopped him into