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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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It could have been a very bad road, but it was not. In fact, and this may have been the original discovery of the expedition, the 25-mile Yellowknife gorge is an extraordinary place to paddle a canoe. The water is fast and a good paddler in a covered canoe without much gear could go through the gorge in a day, if he were foolish enough to race along at such a clip. We took three days; a week would have been better.

We paddled for a time between 500-foot cliffs of dawn-pink rocks mottled with big rosettes of sea-green and black lichens. The sun was bright, making the chop of the current glitter as far ahead as we could see. High on the east cliff an adult bald eagle sat taking the sun, watching us from the rim of her bulky nest. From west to east a moose swam across the sparkling water. For good measure a perfect double rainbow arched across the gorge.

"Damn," said Sam. " Walt Disney has been here."

"My heart soars like an eagle," said John, one of the last surviving men who can say such a thing without being thrown overboard.

One afternoon Bil was working ahead, looking for a carry around a quarter mile of cascades. He came out on a wide place in the river, a little lagoon. There was a strip of gravelly beach leading back through scrub willow to the base of the cliff. In the brush there was movement, a glimpse of white. He stopped and watched. First one, then a second, finally five wolf pups—plump, cream-colored, a month or so old—came tumbling down on the beach, wagging and twitching in an ecstasy of curiosity and doubt. Bil eased out of sight, waved for the others to come quickly but very quietly. They did and found the pups still playing on the beach. While the pups watched, camp was set up on the far side of the lagoon. Sometime that night the pack adults who had been foraging returned and took the pups upstream, then sat and began to sing, making wolf music until daylight.

The water in (he gorge is moderately fast. There arc some sporty, tricky stretches of rapids and cascades but more formidable white water is to be found within a hundred miles of New York City. There are different, more constant, problems on this river than failing to execute some technical maneuver. There is danger simply because the total environment is so inhospitable. In a place where there is no help to be had, where travel is so slow and difficult, food so scarce, weather chancy, a sprained ankle, an ax gash, even getting lost for a few days, can be a true catastrophe. This is no place to come looking for thrills, for hard country almost inevitably kills a thrill seeker.

For these reasons we often went around rapids that at other times and in other places we would have run without much hesitation. Here the water numbed too quickly and thoroughly to risk a capsize. A food bag lost on the Allagash or the Arkansas can be an inconvenience, but on the Yellowknife, where there is never quite enough of anything, it would be a disaster. We had spent the summer with these imperatives in mind, moving cautiously, but in the last days in the gorge, with the end in sight, we began to feel frisky and foolish.

A fine half mile of white water involved three traverses across the current, precise shots through narrow gaps in ledges. John and Bil thought it was the best run they had made during the summer. They shot out into a pool below the standing waves, both turned to wave at the canoes above and to let each other know how well they thought they had executed the run. As they turned and looked away, the canoe swung up on a rock, hung crosswise to the current for a moment, then capsized.

There is an initial moment at such times of sheer astonishment. Swiftly one senses this is not the moment for analysis and instant replay. The ice water is already beginning to burn and cramp. The canoe is rolling in the current like a sick shark, bits of gear are floating away. From above there is a yell. Terry and Ky are the best team of the group, probably the best paddlers in the Northwest Territories at that moment. Let them worry about the canoe and gear. Below the pool the rapids recommence. There is no telling how bad or easy they are or how long they run, but being caught in them, rolled through them, must absolutely be avoided. Trying to swim 50 yards directly across the pool at a right angle to the current is not smart. The best thing is to angle downstream, time it properly and hit the beach just before the pool empties into the rapids. It seems quite possible, but there is a last thought, not so much panic as reality. There is a chance that all the planning, all the horse work and antidumbness lectures will come to a halt in Stupidity Pool. But such musing does not help to get a body to a beach.

Ultimate satisfaction comes with knowing what you truly need and finding it—for example, a place where your foot can touch solid rock in an ice-water pool. Having found what is absolutely necessary, there is no need for further wishing and speculation. Everything else—crawling out, building a fire, drying clothes and gear, emptying the canoe, going on—will follow.

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