Sunday, June 2, 2013

Magnetic North

Illus. credit:
Magnetic North: A Trek Across Canada, by David Halsey, with Diana Landau (pub. By Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, CA, 1990, 247pp.)

In May of 1977, four young men stood at the edge of the Pacific Ocean in Vancouver, BC, ready to start the 1977-78 Trans-Canada Expedition. This 4,700 mile journey, if successful, would be the first time in history that Canada had been crossed coast-to-coast by foot, snowshoe, toboggan, and canoe. The objective was to be the shore of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. Spurred by his interest in Robert F. Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and Alexander Mackenzie, David Halsey planned this trip while still a student in college. It was ambitious enough to attract the attention of the National Geographic Society, which provided some camera equipment and seed money. Bill Graves, Senior Editor for National Geographic, said “He (Halsey) was born with that essential drive that all great explorers and trekkers have, a form of tunnel vision that excludes everything finally but the goal.”

Just a few days into the trip, his three partners mutinied, having discovered that such a trip is not always either easy or fun. They abandoned Halsey, taking most of his gear with them. By the time Halsey had reached Saskatchewan, he had been joined by a young photographer, Peter Souchuk, to meet National Geographic’s need for photo documentation. They now were into winter, and needed to switch to a dog team and toboggan. They threw together a bunch of dogs not even slightly ready to be called a team. Two were pups, two were undersized, one was blind, one wanted to fight anything he could get close enough to, and none of them were trained. They didn’t know the commands of “Gee” (go right) or “Haw”, (go left), nor “Marsh.” Here I learned that the popular command of ‘mush’, to get a dog team moving, is actually a corruption of the correct ‘marsh’, the abbreviation of the French “marcher”, “to walk.” While off on any such expedition, one always strives to survive, and if one is really lucky, possibly fool onlookers into thinking some professionalism or expertise is involved. Our duo missed the mark a bit in their first half-mile dog team run to get out of town. They collided with two other toboggans, upset twice, got involved in fights with three other dog teams, got stuck in a snowdrift, learned a lot about untangling dog harnesses in the midst of each incident, and provided the town’s Chipewyan inhabitants with immense entertainment.

The adventures come one after another with nearly every turn of a page. This is both an exciting and tragic story, but one you will find more than worth the time to read. As for us, we have a two-day window before the next severe weather system moves in. We’re taking off to do a bit of paddling to find some adventures of our own. Keep checking back. Best wishes. jim

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