In any enterprise
that involves living and traveling where there are no settlements, no supply
depots and no agriculture, the concern that dwarfs all others is eating. There
are two ways to cope—bring food with you or forage. Neither method is entirely
satisfactory, which is why the bulk of the world's population is found in
settled districts that support agriculture and commerce. The disadvantage of
carrying food is just that—it must be carried, picked up, put down, endlessly
lashed and lugged. Foraged food does not have to be carried far (though
foraging tools, guns, ammunition and nets do), but one way or another it must
be hunted. Hunting takes time, energy (food) and is chancy.
The six of us
brought food for six weeks, a bit over two pounds per man per day, rations that
fortunately were bulked out by fish, blueberries, raspberries and squawberries.
Except for some jugs of honey, peanut butter and oil, the provisions were dry
in the interest of saving weight—rice, noodles, wheat, soybeans, corn flour,
nuts, raisins, powdered juices, milk, tea and salt.
In the beginning,
Franklin apparently intended to do as we had done, that is, carry most of his
supplies. However, he found that commodities that could be casually ordered in
memos written in London simply did not exist in the Canadian bush. Also the fur
companies tended to regard newcomers from Europe, no matter what their
credentials, as fools, fops and glory hunters and were not overly eager to
share supplies with them. Therefore, when Franklin left Fort Providence he was
badly underprovisioned. He had with him two casks of flour, 200 caribou
tongues, a little dried moose, two cases of chocolate, two canisters of tea,
some dried soup and arrowroot—all of which amounted to only 10 days' worth of
food for a party that was setting off for no one knew how many months in the
wilderness. Franklin expected to overcome these obvious deficiencies by
employing Akaitcho and his men as hunters.
The Indians had
lived, after a fashion, off this land for many years, but they were few in
number and survived by going to good food places (productive fishing holes or
spots passed by migrating caribou herds), staying there and spending nearly all
their waking moments collecting food. Franklin expected the Indians not only to
continue to feed themselves but to find food for 30 extra mouths. At the same
time the party was to spend 14 hours or so a day in the nonproductive (so far
as food was concerned) labor of exploration. Akaitcho and his hunters gave it a
try but the land simply did not produce sufficient food to support such an
enterprise in any sort of comfort.
The food Franklin
brought from Fort Providence did not last 10 days, but six. During the next 20
months there probably were not 20 days when the party was not hungry. The men
occasionally went foodless for two or three days. They often ate rock tripe, a
large, ugly-looking lichen that can be boiled into an unappetizing,
non-nutritional stew that fills the stomach to the gagging point. They ate
carrion, boiled old bones, pack thongs, their boots and moccasins. Even so,
their travel-by-hunger technique was not completely successful. Four of the
party starved to death and the deaths of others were hastened by
It would be
presumptuous to suggest that in our five weeks on their trail we suffered as
Franklin's men did, but we had a kind of introduction to hunger sufficient to
be able to sympathize with the Franklin expedition. Our workday was 12 or 14
hours long. We began it with a cup of dehydrated juice, a cup of tea, a cup of
some sort of flour mush. At midday there was a cup of soup, one hardtack
cracker, half a handful of nuts, raisins and sunflower seeds. At night we
filled a two-gallon pot with rice, noodles, fish and whatever else we had come
across, boiled the mess and licked the pot clean.
Sam is 6'6",
240 pounds, and he was a workhorse, the one forever taking the extra pack,
making the extra portage trip. In more hospitable places he is a notable
feeder, a national-class junk-food eater. "I am not exactly hungry," he
said after a clean-the-pot feed, "but I am not what I would call full."
On such a diet, doing such work for five weeks, Sam became a tall, gaunt man,
ending up 35 pounds lighter than he began.
We knew that we
ate better than Franklin and his men had and thought that for that reason, and
because of our age and general condition, we were at least as strong as the men
we were following. It seemed that we worked as hard, as long and as effectively
as they did. But we slowly, steadily lost ground to Franklin. We would work
until 10 at night, paddle four lakes, make five portages and find when we
looked at the Narrative that Franklin had taken his cumbersome, famished group
two lakes and a cascade beyond us.
technical reasons for the greater speed of the earlier travelers. Our aluminum
canoes handled better in fast water and were more durable than the birch-bark
ones Franklin used. However, in flat lake water, especially going into the
wind, the freighter canoes, paddled by a dozen men, went twice as fast as our
two-man craft. It was simply a matter of manpower.
Franklin, even though he was the first to travel in these parts, went faster
because he had a better idea of where he was going each day. As guides we used
the Narrative and a set of topographic maps. Often we had to stop and thrash
about to find clear portage trails. Franklin was spared much of this work and
delay because he had with him living topo maps in the persons of Akaitcho and
his hunters. In many cases the Indians knew where the trail led because they
had hunted or trapped in the country. In new territory, the hunters often
worked several days ahead of the main party and had marked the best portage by
the time Franklin came up with the heavy freight.