Sunday, December 4, 2011

Nahanni Journals

Illustration courtesy Michigan State University

Nahanni Journals:  1927-1929 Journals, by Raymond M. Patterson (edited by Richard C. Davis, 2008, Pub. by Univ. of Alberta Press, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, 204pp.)

In his forward, Justin Trudeau writes, “In this rapidly urbanizing civilization, we have lost our balance. Our current environmental crisis stems from the fact that we act as if we are not a part of the world, but somehow outside of it. …Our food comes from supermarkets, our water from taps, and our electricity from power lines. As our weather grows more extreme, we watch from within our comfortable climate-controlled homes and shake our heads, and promise ourselves that we’ll definitely make an effort to try to recycle a little bit more.” And that’s our tie to nature. A plastic world, in which we live a plastic life, and hope we can become closer to nature by recycling more plastic.

Unlike most of us, Patterson determined to escape from his office cubicle. “Indeed, much of our pleasure in learning about Patterson’s Nahanni travels grows out of a perhaps unconscious admiration for a man who succeeds at breaking the fetters that we still allow to encumber us.“ He grew up in a comfortable home, but always yearned for the wild, untamed nature to be found in the wilderness and mountains. He graduated from Oxford University, and found himself profitably employed by the Bank of England in London. The unquenchable need for a bolder and more elemental life became more and more pressing until a summer day in 1923. Pushing back from his desk, and went to his employer to give his notice.

At the age of 26, he bought 320 acres of scrub land in the Peace River area of Northwestern Alberta. To meet the obligations of homesteading, he first had to clear the land and build a cabin to satisfy his claim. The lure of the barely mapped and untamed regions of the Northwest Territories were still drawing him though, even from his remote homestead, so by the spring of 1927 he headed up the South Nahanni River to the 295-ft. Virginia Falls. In all, his trip would occupy him for 18-months,and take him 2,888 miles.

Patterson was not an experienced canoeist, but an advocate of the learn-as-you-do school. He was content with skill coming from sheer grit and determination. He describes portaging thus: “the struggle to get the canoe up on to my head was extensive, the tracks on the sands of the bay look as if a circus had come in town. I had never done it before---there is a trick to lifting it that I had been told and had forgotten, so I had to find it out, with much cursing, for myself.” He begins to find peace with this form of education as he goes along. “I was almost disheartened, but the Nahanni is a fine river for building character…it develops in one an appalling obstinacy.”

Patterson’s journal writing satisfied two needs. As an educated man he simply took pleasure in words, whether reading the books he carried or being able to share his experiences through his narrative. The journals also helped guard him from loneliness. He knew his story would eventually be shared with his mother and his fiancée. The writing made him feel he was speaking directly to them. Those familiar with Bill Mason’s Waterwalker will immediately recognize this dichotomy. They both enjoyed the adventure, the absence of constraint, the lack of any schedule or deadline, the sense of being on one’s own and one with nature rather than a mere spectator of it, but they were alone. To stave off loneliness, they both needed to feel they were sharing their experience with those they cared for. Whether on a flat rock ledge next to the moving water or next to a fire as the sun set, they dedicated time to trying to keep their loved-ones close to them by creating something they could take back and share---Mason by his film and painting, and Patterson by his written description of his day’s struggles and experiences. A third justification for the journals was their use in later writing The Dangerous River. There are some differences between the journal account and that in the book. The book is a more readable and polished narrative, but the journals are more honest.

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