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."
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
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
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.
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.
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."