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There was another, essentially metaphysical, factor that cannot be translated into miles per day but that probably worked to our disadvantage. Toward the end Sam's throat became badly infected, closed to the point that he could not eat solid food. He was shaky, beset by hallucinations and would find himself struggling to keep up with a weirdly mixed portage party of us, Franklin's men and hands from the Pennsylvania farm where he worked. One morning about two o'clock, sitting watching the twilight and dawn mingle over the water, he whispered painfully, "On top of the rest I had a revelation."
"I thought it was food I was craving—cheeseburgers, milk shakes, pizzas, all that. But I just figured it out. It isn't food. I want freedom."
"I mean, we've been like parts of a machine. You can't do anything on your own because then everything breaks down. Everything we do has got to be done if we are to keep going. What I'm really craving is to be a free agent. The food was an excuse."
"It's the great freedom symbol. People bitch about the food in prison, in the Army, in dorms. It isn't that it is so bad, it's because they have no choice about what or when or where. If you have to eat by the numbers you know you're trapped."
"Maybe. My revelation didn't go that far," Sam said. "But if I ever get back to Yellowknife, I'm going to buy all the food I can carry and get a room in that hotel and sit there and eat it all alone. I don't want any of you people in my movie for a couple of days."
In 1820 the lives of Franklin's voyageurs and Indians, the men who did the work and enduring, were ordinarily short and brutal. The hardships of the polar expedition were only marginally more severe than those the men experienced routinely. A few times a year they might get a square meal. Otherwise they expected to be hungry, cold, exhausted, to be bent under a pack or over a paddle by another man's command and to function like a part of a mindless machine until they broke down like a machine part.
The difference was not so much that our bodies and minds had degenerated significantly. It was that during the intervening 150 years the level of comfort and human expectations had changed. Too many soft sheets lay between Sam and Akaitcho. We were plagued by questions of why—by trying to find some lesson in the ordeal. Such speculation gnawed at our minds and bodies.
The festering came to a head at Nine Lakes. A hundred miles north of Great Slave, the Yellowknife narrows as it approaches its sources. It enters a 20-mile-long gorge, up which, Akaitcho advised Franklin, it was impossible to paddle and dreadfully difficult even to drag canoes. The way to get around the obstacle, said Akaitcho, was to make a 2�-day portage through a string of nine small lakes parallel to and west of the gorge. Accepting this advice, Franklin wrote of the first day in the Nine Lakes: "We crossed five portages, passing over a very bad road. The men were quite exhausted with fatigue by 5 p.m., when we were obliged to camp."