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HAUNTING THE ARCTIC
Bil Gilbert
July 08, 1974
In 1820 a British expedition set off from Great Slave Lake searching for the polar sea. Using its log as a guide, six adventurers retrace the journey and find the specter of the earlier party still hovering over the land
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July 08, 1974

Haunting The Arctic

In 1820 a British expedition set off from Great Slave Lake searching for the polar sea. Using its log as a guide, six adventurers retrace the journey and find the specter of the earlier party still hovering over the land

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"We are in trouble," said Terry, who is a pragmatist and had begun to learn that Franklin was inclined to treat portages casually, very likely because he did so little work on them. "We are the men he is talking about," Terry said, getting to the heart of the matter.

Nearly all the components of a difficult portage are to be found in the Nine Lakes portage. The trail is indeed bad. The small lakes are separated by sharp, steep ridges of rock that must be climbed. Between the ridges are swales of muskeg, full of hidden potholes of icy water and permafrost. Finally the term Nine Lakes is a figurative one. Franklin happened to use Nine Lakes but, in fact, there are some 20 bodies of water jammed together in a bewildering maze. We spent six hours cutting a mile-long trail through the Arctic jungle to what we thought was the first portage lake. When we had made the carry to it and sat down to puzzle out the next move we found that we had miscalculated our compass declension and had to cut another half-mile of trail to get back to where we belonged. On the third day a howling wind and rainstorm came out of the north, pinning us to the shore of a lake, across which it would have been suicidal to paddle. By and by the wind abated but remained a head wind of the sort against which a mile in an hour is very good, if hard, progress.

The carry back to the river was torturous, beginning in the muskeg, dropping down over the wall of the gorge across ledges and loose scree. Coming back for their second trip, Sam and Bil sat to brood for a time before picking up their respective canoes.

"I have been thinking about something today."

"Good."

"I have been wondering if I am having any fun."

"Are you?"

"I don't think so. I think we are hung up with an idea like a segregationist or religious fanatic. We are killing ourselves trying to act out this movie—After Franklin."

"To me the fun is that we are seeing some country and doing some things that few people have ever seen or done. The work is how we are paying. If you want to see Yellowstone or Tahiti you pay to go there with money but so can anyone who has money. The only way you can pay to get here is by half killing yourself. That is why we haven't seen anybody in a month. The price is too high. Makes you feel rich."

"But that's what I mean. We're paying but we're not collecting. I've been thinking about this trip for two years, ever since we spread out those maps on your kitchen floor. But we really aren't seeing anything or getting to know anything. At night when we stop I think I should go off and look at the scenery, or find an animal, or think about the meaning of it all, but I'm too tired and hungry to do anything but eat and sleep. We get up in the morning and do it again. Mostly what I see is the underside of this canoe. You probably think I am a baby, but that is how it is for all of us, even you."

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