Saturday, April 20, 2013

Death on the Barrens

Jacket credit: Heron Dance
Death on the Barrens: A True Story of Courage and Tragedy in the Canadian Arctic
By George James Grinnell (1996, reprint 2005, 2006, and 2010, 277pp., North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA)

If you want to get away from it all, there’s nothing to beat a trip to the Canadian Barrens of Nunavut, west of Hudson Bay. The trip that Arthur Moffatt, George Grinnell, and four others made to the Barrens in 1955 would be only the third attempt by paddlers to venture across the area. The other two attempts, in 1771 and 1893, had been with the assistance of Indian guides. This trip would be unsupported and unguided. It would mean three months without human contact, and they had no radio nor anyone to reach if they got in a jam. It would also mean that Art Moffatt would die of hypothermia at the age of 36, and that his body would remain at Baker Lake in Northern Saskatchewan, and the other five would barely get out alive.

The remoteness of those high latitude barrens is also evidenced by the 1927 attempt by the John Hornby expedition to travel north in the Northwest Territory. He and his two partners missed the caribou migration and slowly starved to death. It would take the mounties two years to reach their camp and find the bodies, and evidence of cannibalism.

This story of the Moffatt expedition is familiar in a lot of ways: the tension that develops over the management of the expedition, disagreements over navigation, suspicion and competition over food, resentment, and the unavoidable self-examination brought on by exhaustion and stress. They began to fall behind schedule and short of food. All of that was somewhat manageable until they got overconfident and decided it was unnecessary to scout that one rapids. The rapids turned into a series of falls. All but one canoe capsized, much of their gear and food was lost, and all were too long getting out of the ice-cold water. They got a tent up, climbed inside, stripped off their clothes and dove into sleeping bags. Grinnell tells how he lapsed for some time in and out of consciousness. It was some time before their mental faculties were restored enough to realize that Art was not with them. His frozen body was on the ground outside the tent.

While this trip was over, the loss would not end of Grinnell. In 1984, another group of four paddled along the barren shore of James Bay. A fierce storm swept over them, and the search for them would almost be abandoned before the first trace of their canoes and a few pieces of gear were discovered. All four of them had been lost, and two of them were Grinnell’s two sons.

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