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AUGUST 5. A Scotch mist enshrouded Garry Lake and delayed an early-morning start. As we groped our way from islands to heads of land along the irregular coastline, I thought about the tiny civilization of the missionary and his Eskimos. Along the entire length of the Mackenzie and at the estuaries of the Coppermine and Thelon rivers, and other great rivers of the Northwest Territories, small communities have grown around fur-trading settlements. But the only settlement the Back had ever known was Father Trinel's forlorn outpost.
It was a relief to know the big lakes were behind us when we slipped into the chute draining Garry Lake. In the narrows, fish rose to our lures. After two casts with a 15-pound test line, Kit hooked one that started to drag the canoe upriver. An hour later we had maneuvered it to the shallows of a rock island and eased it onto a poncho stretched between the two canoes. When the water drained out the hole where the boy scout's head should go, we flopped a 35-pound lake trout into my bow. John had to quiet the monster with an ax. We were lucky to find enough wood to cook the fish. North of Garry Lake the gnarled willows almost vanish and, with the constant worry of another storm and the tundra becoming browner and bleaker as it stretched in silence toward the sea, we began to experience the stark, raw threat of the barrens.
It was 230 miles to the Arctic Circle, 280 to the coast, and the worst rapids lay ahead. If there had been at times a remote beauty in the openness of the tundra, a sense that in the quiet, motionless expanses nothing is hidden from you, the return to the river brought again the anxious exhilaration of the unknown. At the brink of every swirling torrent came the decision: to be safe and make a portage or gamble and hazard a lightning-swift run down through the boulders, spray and waves of a rapids which, if harnessed, might light a small city.
AUGUST 9. At Rock Rapids we made our second portage, 200 yards skirting the irregular ledges over which the river corkscrewed into a narrows. We waded and dragged down through the rivulets at the edge of Sinclair's Falls, and, with the bowman standing to sight the channels and the cries ringing out, "Hard to the right," "Straight as she goes," "Sweep," "Draw," "The Vs dead ahead," we plunged for miles down Escape Rapids. Where the river narrowed and surged in huge white rollers under the shadowed cliffs of the far bank, we pulled into the gentle eddy behind some boulders and carried over the broad, flat rocks.
AUGUST 11. The choppy, merging currents at the foot of the first Sandhill Rapids almost swamped us, and we debated wading down the second set. I convinced the others that the water was too strong and the footing too treacherous, that we would be better off in the canoes. With some luck, Kit and I bashed through, and from a calm pool below the rapids watched the orange canoe turn broadside and be slowly devoured by a standing wave. Again came the frantic rush of the rescue—the race to shore, packs thrown out and the spring back into the current, in time to greet John and Tracy as they floated by, gasping and clutching the overturned canoe.
After an hour of drying out and taking inventory (one rifle lost, one sleeping bag damp), we had to face the third Sandhill Rapids. If to me the cliffs loomed a deathly gray as the water leaped at them, to the barely thawed paddlers in the other canoe the sight must have been terrifying. With little discussion, out came the rope, and we lowered down from the bank, concentrating on one boat at a time.
AUGUST 13. Today another black storm front built up in the north. We were on a southeast reach of the river beyond Mt. Meadowbank. The waves were the largest we had seen in the barrens, but up went the poncho. Rollers that left us at the most precarious angles would lash against the rocky shoreline and send plumes of spray several yards in the air. Kit, with his mammoth boot draped over the stern gunwales, wondered out loud how long this sailing operation could safely continue, and always the cry greeted him, "On 'til the sail is tattered!" John and I manned the sail and discussed Heidegger, the 17th century philosopher.
AUGUST 16. Today we crossed the Arctic Circle. There was not much commotion there—no neon signs or anyone selling pennants—and we did not create much. It was 32� after supper, the brandy was at the bottom of a pack and no one wanted to fight for it. We just let the dishes soak and went to bed. As I rolled a smoke in the tent, I noticed that the bright afternoon sun and reflection had irritated my left eye.
AUGUST 17. I was only half awake this morning when we started; my left eye was blind. With the orange canoe leading and Kit making all decisions in ours, we slid down the mushrooming chute called Whirlpool Rapids and across the gentle, windless swells of Franklin Lake. We were nearing the ocean. The gulls swooped low and there was a sharp odor of fish. The three Franklin Rapids came in quick succession, and as we heard the murmur of the river's final drop, I was told that several figures were bounding over the ridge with great excitement. "Too tall for wolves, and too fast for men," someone yelled. It was apparent we were approaching the first musk-ox herd since the one we had seen just north of Beechey Lake. I saw nothing until two bronzed hands pulled the bow ashore and I sat inches away from the wild, black hair flowing over the ears of an Eskimo's long, grinning face.
Our first gesture of "hands across the barren grounds" tonight was almost a fiasco. We had not enough spaghetti to share, so Kit gave the Eskimos a bag of prunes. Tracy quickly reminded us we should be sharing what we ate, so we rescued the bag, each took a handful of prunes and gave it back. No one had been offended. When I rolled my after-dinner smoke, I had a choice of three flaming Ronsons. The Eskimos invited us to a lunch of dried fish and tea tomorrow.