The Back River
rises as a small stream near Aylmer Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories. It
flows northeast for more than 600 miles through the almost treeless Barren
Grounds and empties finally into an arm of the Arctic Ocean. Some 80 rapids,
cascades and falls mark the Back's tortuous descent, a descent that until last
year had not been traversed in its entirety since 1855.
The river got its
name from Captain George Back, an intrepid Englishman who set out overland in
1834 in search of Captain John Ross. Ross had sailed from England in 1830 to
seek the Northwest Passage. Called the Great Fish River by the Indians at Great
Slave Lake, the Back entered the Arctic Ocean at the approximate point Ross was
known to have headed toward. The fact that Ross turned up safe and sound before
Back could get started did not deter him. He made the hazardous run in three
weeks. Twenty-one years later another Englishman, James Anderson, became the
second and last person in the 19th century to travel the length of the Back.
Chief factor of the Hudson's Bay Company, he led a party in search of the
ill-fated Franklin expedition, lost too as it sought a navigable Northwest
intrigued by Back's description of the river that bore his name, the author, a
newspaper reporter from Buffalo, embarked with three companions to duplicate
the two earlier descents. This is Hoyt's diary of the four men's adventures on
a dangerous and all but impassable river.
The Indians at
Yellowknife by 1962 knew nothing of the river. And the white men knew even
less; they could tell us only to pan gold and take along heartburn pills. One
man, however, dared to take us the 300 miles to the river's source with our
canoes and gear—an exceptionally heavy load for a small plane. The man was
Chuck McAvoy. His plane was a 1938 Fairchild.
Yellowknife Bay at 10 o'clock the night of July 12. The two canoes were lashed
underneath the plane. In the cabin were the four of us and Chuck, our six packs
and our diversion and scapegoat for moments of trial, a ratty Indian dog.
With a deafening
roar, the old clunker headed north for Aylmer Lake. The four years in which the
idea of descending the Back River had been simmering in my mind, the last few
months of rounding up a crew and dried food, the tedious job of packing
everything in polyethylene bags and the 3,300-mile drive from Buffalo to
Edmonton and up the Mackenzie Highway to Yellowknife—all this was over now. For
three hours we sat on the packs crammed in the plane's cabin and peered out at
the barrens, the vast desert of rock and water, where we would spend the next
"If you want
to see caribou and musk-ox in the barrens, take the Back River," the
prospector I had met in northern Manitoba four years ago had said. And more
than 100 years ago Captain Back had written of rapids on the Great Fish River
that "foamed and boiled, and rushed with impetuous and deadly fury. "He
wrote of Rock Rapids, Muskox, Rapids, Hawk Rapids, Escape Rapids, Wolf Rapids,
Whirlpool Rapids and scores of others. The justice of the peace in Yellowknife
had told us please not to drown, because he would have to identify our
I thought of the
letter from Superintendent Fraser of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's
"G" Division, incharge of the Arctic. The bugs would be almost
unbearable, the rapids and portages impossible, and our trip without guides and
equipment procured in the north would be foolhardy.
There is not a
guide alive who has set foot on more than a few miles of the river. As for
equipment, the Hudson's Bay Company in Edmonton is fully stocked with tartan
ice buckets and sailboats. But they did not have a good collapsible frying pan
and never heard of a tumpline [a forehead or chest strap used for pack
I stared out into
the twilight that had fallen over the barrens. We were over the Lockhart River.
The flecks of white marking the rapids looked so benign, and then I remembered
the last person I had heard of to lead a canoe party into the barrens. Seven
years ago, and south of where we were to start, Arthur Moffatt's party (SI,
March 9, 1959) left its leader buried in this desolate land.