All man's works are swallowed without a trace in the glacial vastness of the Canadian Arctic. For all the money and material that's been poured into it, the north for mile upon mile is just as primitive as it was when Mackenzie found it. You can paddle for weeks without seeing a soul or a sign of life.

BLAIR FRASER November 7 1959


All man's works are swallowed without a trace in the glacial vastness of the Canadian Arctic. For all the money and material that's been poured into it, the north for mile upon mile is just as primitive as it was when Mackenzie found it. You can paddle for weeks without seeing a soul or a sign of life.

BLAIR FRASER November 7 1959

Among travelers who go by air to its raw little towns and stay in its overheated houses, the phrase for the Canadian north is “land of tomorrow" — land of the limitless future, of undoubted though undiscovered wealth, of progress inevitable and imminent. To a smaller number of visitors who see the north at ground level, away from the handful of tiny settlements that dot its million-and-a-half square miles, it seems more a land of yesterday, a land that time forgot. Few places still look quite so much as they looked to the first white men who ever saw them, two centuries ago.

It was this survival of the past, not any promise of things to come, that lured eight of us to the Northwest Territories last August, through four hundred miles of shallow lake and rapid river by canoe. For the first two weeks of a three-week trip we did not meet one living soul. Even the signs of human habitation were few. We saw no dwellings except for three abandoned mines, and sometimes the cone of bare tent poles that marked a former Indian encampment. The only daily reminders of the twentieth century passed overhead — six jet bombers of the U. S. Strategic Air Command that went over every morning, headed north. (We never saw them returning; for all we could tell. World War III had started.) Around us was desolation as wild and empty as when Samuel Hearne marched with his unruly mob of Indians across the barrens, a few' miles east of our canoe route, to the Arctic Coast in 1772.

Ten days out from our starting point in Sarah Lake we came upon an abandoned mine that bristled with object lessons. It was a uranium mine, evidently begun when uranium stocks were the hottest thing on the Toronto market, and discontinued when the uranium boom ended three years ago. The crew must have left in a hurry at the end—a cherry pie with one piece cut out was still sitting on the cookhouse table, hard as a rock but with no trace of mold on it. We lifted some excellent canned goods from the pantry, and salvaged an expensive surveying instrument from an open bunkhouse.

But the most prominent feature of the landscape, visible for miles, was a gleaming Bristol aircraft sitting on blocks beside the shore. New. it must have cost $200,000 at least. It had been damaged slightly, but only slightly, in the crash that brought it down in 1956. Apparently. though, it hadn't been worth anyone’s while either to move it out by sled, or fly in the parts to repair it.

That derelict aircraft was visible proof, if we needed any, how valuable a commodity must be—per pound—to be worth taking out of the north. This is the unemphasized footnote to all the talk about the undiscovered resources. It is indeed probable, almost certain, that the resources are there—the geological evidence is favourable. The catch is that every find must be richer, not just slightly, but vastly richer, than the same thing would have to be in an easier location, in order to be worth exploiting.

The Banana Belt

We found the north a harsh country, a land of little grace and less mercy. For the fourteen days we spent at the east end of Great Bear Lake, in near-barren terrain just southwest of the tree line, we were always cold, often wet, and occasionally as miserable as men can be without any serious trouble. We found out why the Mackenzie Valley, with its real soil and its real trees and its fairly warm summer days, is known in the north as the Banana Belt.

But never, even at our coldest and wettest, did any of us for a moment regret having come. What drew us were the things that draw so many men, and a few women, to the north—the challenge, the sense of contact with the historic past and with eternal reality, that you find in all of Canada’s wilderness.

Old-timers make fun of this sentimental mysticism. Angus Sherwood, the postmaster of Norman Wells, who has been knocking about the north country for forty years and knows it as well as any man living, has erected a plaque with the following inscription by a boulder outside his house on the bank of the Mackenzie River:

"Upon this stone on August 2nd, 1789, sat Alexander Mackenzie whilst fighting mosquitoes and planning this present (Imperial Oil Company) refinery. Since that date this stone has been a saluting point for dogs, foxes, and wolves, in honor of the man who led the missionaries, fur traders, tuberculosis and tin cans down this great river to the Polar Sea.

“Lacking matches, cigarettes, radio, Esso gasoline, rubber boots and tissue paper, Mackenzie made the round trip from Lake Athabaska to the Frozen Ocean in 102 days, in a bark canoe powered by internal combustion Indians. Modern pioneers complain if the toast is cold or the mail plane is late.

“This plaque erected by the Bureau of Sights and Sites. Contractors: Sherwood & Associates. History Made and/or Repaired.”

Of one well-known writer, whose books fairly vibrate with the thrill of the northern wild, Angus Sherwood remarked: "He’s the most helpless man in the bush that I ever saw.” Sherwood told us of one downriver journey, described in a book in terms of high adventure, which he himself had made about the same time in a twenty-two-foot freight canoe accompanied by thirteen unruly sled dogs, twelve Indian adults and children, and all of their gear.

But in spite of the mockery of the real sourdough, this peculiar charm of the wilderness does exist. Our little group of amateur voyageurs had been seeking and finding it along the northern edges of settlement in Canada ever since 1951. In eight annual and innumerable week-end canoe trips, some of our members had covered about three thousand miles on the old fur trade routes that ran between Lake Athabaska and Montreal.

One trip, five years ago. retraced Pierre de la Verendrye’s way from Lake Superior over the Grand Portage and westward to the head of Rainy River. Another, from Reindeer Lake in northern Saskatchewan to Fond du Lac at the eastern end of Lake Athabaska, went past Thompson Falls where the great explorer and surveyor, “Mr. Astronomer” David Thompson, lost his clothing and gear and very nearly lost his life in 1796. In other summers the party came down the Churchill River from Ile à la Crosse and over to Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan, the trading post founded by the great Samuel Hearne for the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1774; down the Hayes River and through the maze of streams and lakes that once carried voyageurs from Norway House to York Factory; upstream from Ile à la Crosse and over the famous Methy Portage to the Clearwater and the Athabaska, Alexander Mackenzie’s route to the Arctic Coast.

Only one man has been on every trip —Eric Morse, national director of the association of Canadian Clubs, a fanatical outdoorsman who makes a hobby of keeping himself in good physical shape, and a life work of seeing Canada by canoe. But all of us had had a fair amount of experience out of doors, and all but one had been on three or more of our own voyageur expeditions.

He makes all our decisions

The leader of our group is Sigurd F. Olson of Ely, Minnesota, president of the National Parks Association, a man who has the skill of a professional in the woods. Sig is known to us as The Bourgeois, because the voyageurs of furtrading days used that term for the company officials who accompanied and directed canoe parties. The word as we use it is historically inaccurate. The Bourgeois of old did no work at all. Our Bourgeois does more work than anyone else, including all the cooking. He also makes all decisions for the group— when we start and stop, where we camp, whether or not we risk a crossing of open water in a high wind or swell, 1 whether we portage or run a rapid.

Sig’s canoe partner is a fellow American. Tyler Thompson, United States Minister to Canada, who has been a regular voyageur since 1956. Chief assistant to the Bourgeois, though, is Major General Elliot Rodger, who was vice-chief of the general staff when he retired from the army a few years ago, and is now director of the Manitoba Heart Foundation. Elliot Rodger is the most usefully unselfish man I’ve ever known.

I've met a few, not many, who were as willing as he to help other people, hut none so competent at actually doing it.

Physician and surgeon to the party is Dr. Omond Solandt, formerly chairman of the Defence Research Board, now vice-president for research and development of Canadian National Railways. Because he has spent his whole career in non-medical research, many people assume that Dr. Solandt is a Ph.D. in physics or chemistry. In fact he is a doctor of medicine, but he has never practised except on these canoe trips. This is just as well, for his bedside manner is something less than soothing to the patient. His most memorable prescription was given on the Churchill River trip in 1955, when Denis Coolican had an infected finger:

"Just soak it in hot water, Dish water will do.”

Coolican, who is president of the Canadian Bank Note Company Limited in Ottawa, has no specialty of skill or experience in woodcraft, but is as strong as a bull moose and indestructibly cheerful. He and I are the unskilled labor of the party. The one remaining “regular," a charter member from 1951 until he left Canada in 1957, is the inimitable, irreplaceable Tony Lovink—A. H. J. Lovink, former Netherlands Ambassador to Canada, now representing his country in Australia.

Tony’s paddle was taken this year by Harry Fast, one of Omond Solandt’s colleagues in the CNR. a newcomer to our group but the only one of the eight of us who'd had much experience in the north. Most of us had been in the Northwest Territories on occasional airborne visits, but that was all. Harry, as a student at Saskatchewan University in the Thirties, had spent twelve months prospecting and surveying in the country north of Lake Athabaska, and had worked at a war job in Yellowknife for a year and a half.

It was Harry Fast who cocked a gloomy eye at the weather on our first night out. as we were flown in from Yellowknife to a small lake just over the height of land between Great Bear and Great Slave Lake. When the first half of the group arrived in mid-afternoon it was calm, bright and almost warm—a perfect northern day. By seven o’clock a strong north wind had got up, the swell was pounding at the rock where we were camped, and the temperature had dropped to the low forties.

Harry’s recollection was that when the wind came up at the end of the day like this, it usually meant a three-day blow. He was too right. In the fortnight to come there were only two or three days when we weren’t fighting a head wind, working our way from island to headland to island again, and sometimes wind-bound altogether for a few hours. On most days, the wind carried fitful showers of rain. The subArctic is listed in geography books as semiarid country, with only ten to fifteen inches of precipitation a year, but the small rain is well distributed from day to day.

“You need women for the work”

On the third night out. as we sat around the fire shivering in damp jackets and jeans, Sig Olson quoted to us the advice given to Samuel Hearne by his Indian guide Matonabbee. Hearne’s first two attempts to reach the Coppermine River had failed. Matonabbee said, because he had neglected to take any women in his party.

"For,” said Matonabbee (as recorded in Hearne’s journal), "when all the men are heavy laden, they can neither hunt nor travel any distance. And in case they should meet with some success in hunting, who is to carry the produce of their labor? Women are made for labor. One of them can carry or haul as much as two men. They also pitch our tents, make and mend our clothes, and keep us warm at night."

We were certainly cold at night, and most of the time we were cold all day as well. When we got to Port Radium on the fifteenth day we learned that during our fortnight of travel, the highest recorded temperature had been 52 degrees Fahrenheit and the lowest 34. On the inland lakes where we were paddling it was probably warmer than that on the few fine days; it was certainly colder at night, for twice we woke to find ice on the rocks outside our tents.

We dressed as if for a ski trip—flannel shirts, sweaters, wind-proof jackets. Some brought long underwear, the rest of us bought it at Port Radium. Those who failed to bring warm gloves regretted the omission.

We are not a particularly fastidious lot. but we had trouble keeping clean enough to be comfortable. Bathing in ice water is no great feat when the air is warm and still, but when the air and the water are both below 40 degrees and a sharp breeze is blowing, nobody bathes for pleasure. These conditions were normal throughout the trip. The cold water is more than a mere discomfort, it’s a hazard, for no man can live in it for long. This thought made us more than usually cautious about shooting rapids.

Our route in this first fortnight was the course of the Camsell River, from its headwater, Sarah Lake, to its outlet in Conjurer Bay on Great Bear Lake— 140 miles as the crow flies, maybe twice that far by the tortuous canoe route. The river is named for Dr. Charles Camsell, the former deputy minister of mines and resources and internationally famous authority on Canada’s northland, who died in Ottawa last winter. All of us had known him. and it was partly on his advice that we chose this area for our journey.

Charlie Camsell’s experience was a reminder how very new. how raw and how wild this north country is. When his name was given to this meandering river. Camsell was not an eminent civil servant but a quite unknown young college student, aged twenty-three. He was assistant to the late Dr. J. Mackintosh Bell, who. though only a year older, was in charge of an expedition for the Canadian Geological Survey. The two boys, with three canoemen, spent the summer of !9!)0 mapping the shores and hinterland of Great Bear Lake.

They nearly starved. Conditions in the area had not changed since the lake was named after an arctic grizzly seen by Sir John Richardson when he went through with Sir John Franklin s party in 1825. Others had explored it in the meantime—Richardson himself had come through again in 1848. in command of a search for the lost Franklin; so had Dr. John Rae, and P. W. Dease, and others whose names survive in lakes and rivers and bays and islands there. Father Emile Petitot, a French Oblate missionary who spent most of his adult life in the region, explored it thoroughly in the 1860's and left minute descriptions that can still be used. But nobody came after these lone interlopers, to settle or to change the cold wilderness.

Camsell and Bell started up the Camsell River (as they decided it should be called) in late August. 1900. Winter was approaching, and they knew they hadn't much time; they also had no food and no guides, and only an approximate notion where they were. But they had the luck to kill a cow moose in Conjurer Bay. where the Camsell River empties into Great Bear Lake, and this good omen encouraged them to set off in search of the canoe route to Great Slave.

Two weeks later they were desperate. Their meat was gone, the leaves had fallen, the cold rain was turning to snow, the portages no longer showed any sign of recent use. and they had constant trouble finding their way. It sounds easy to paddle up a river, portage over the height of land and come down the other side, but the typical “stream” in this flat country is a chain of shallow lakes, connected by short rapids that may run in any direction. Even with a map. the outlet of each lake is hard to find. Without one, the traveler must patiently work his way all round the shore, exploring false bays. When Camsell and Bell emerged on September 11 into Hottah Lake, which looks tiny on the map of Canada but is large enough to show an open water horizon to a man in a canoe, they came very near despair.

What saved them was a party of Dog Rib Indians, who guided them out to Fort Rae on Great Slave Lake. Reading the accounts of this adventure, written by Camsell and Bell years later, you feel yourself carried back to the days of Samuel Hearne and John Franklin. There is no perceptible difference, though the Camsell journey was less than one lifetime ago. And even today, the difference is smaller than you might think.

Mackintosh Bell’s report for the Geological Survey that year contained a famous sentence; “East of McTavish Bay (in Great Bear Lake) the steep rocky shores are often stained with cobalt bloom and copper green." That was the note that caught Gilbert LaBine’s eye thirty years later, and led to the discovery of radium and the establishment of Eldorado mine, which has been since 1944 a famous source of uranium under Canadian government control. Port Radium, the mining town, has about two hundred year-round citizens including several families, and all the comforts of home.

Snug comfort is the outstanding quality of all the permanent settlements up north. Eldorado guest house at Port Radium has the amenities of a first-class hotel, plus the warmth and charm of northern hospitality. The residence of Jim McMillan, who is in charge of the Imperial Oil refinery at Norman Wells, could be set down without alteration in Toronto's Forest Hill Village or Ottawa’s Rockclitfe Park — only the magnificent view of the Mackenzie River from its living room picture window makes it unique. All the houses that the government builds for senior civil servants, or Imperial Oil for its executives, would be good homes anywhere in Canada. The Hudson’s Bay Company station at Fort Norman, the 150-year-old trading post at the junction of the Great Bear River and the Mackenzie, is a well-stocked country store that would do credit to any village.

In all northern buildings the element of discomfort, insofar as it exists, is not the cold but the heat. Steam radiators, turned on all the year round, keep indoor temperature high. Omond Solandt quoted the sardonic remark of an arctic medical officer:

“The menaces to public health up here are heat stroke and alcoholism.”

The trouble with this urban luxury is that it seems to have no economic foundation. The enterprises now operating north of Great Slave Lake are mostly either temporary or artificial, or both.

Eldorado mine is a case in point. It has been a going concern now for more than twenty years, and is the heart of all economic activity around Great Bear Lake. Thousands of tons of uranium have gone out from its refining mills— the fine concentrate flown out, as return cargo for the aircraft that bring in supplies; the coarse concentrate taken out by barge. The waterborne traffic has a very brief season—this year, the ice went out of Great Bear Lake on July 23 and was expected back in October—and cargoes are unloaded and reloaded twice to pass the shallows of the Great Bear River. But it’s still cheaper than air freight.

The Eldorado operation is almost finished. One more year, or two at most, will see the last of its uranium extracted. The barge service then will be abandoned, and again the Great Bear Lake region will have no means of transport between aircraft at one extreme and dog teams at the other.

Norman Wells is the local source of diesel and bunker fuel. The oil field there covers 4,000 acres, has proven reserves of thirty-six million barrels, and during the war had sixty-seven wells pumping crude oil through the Canol pipeline. Now, only about a dozen wells are in operation. It is sufficient for all the fuel needs of the region. If the U. S. were to discontinue operation of its DEW line, Norman Wells' market would be further reduced. This makes the local oil engineers somewhat skeptical about the exploration now being carried on. in the Mackenzie Valley and the Yukon, by other oil companies.

Meanwhile, the real established industry of the country is still what it was in Samuel Hearne’s day, hunting and trapping. It still provides, as it always did, a meagre subsistence to the scattered handful of truly indigenous people. For centuries it has kept them from complete extinction and that much it still could do. But it never has kept them, and would not keep them now, from starving in large numbers from time to time.

For the past ten years, and especially in the last five, the government has been making a sincere and energetic attempt to bring the northern Indians and the Eskimo into the twentieth century. Large sums are being spent on education, public health, vocational training and general rehabilitation. At Fort Norman, the Indian band wifi soon be completely rehoused in neat, snug cottages that cost the government as much as $2,800 and are sold to the Indian for $300, payable if necessary in labor or in kind. The young Indian agent, Ken Stowell, and his wife have the greatest, most sympathetic interest in their charges; their relations with the band of Indians are obviously cordial.

Only one thing is missing: The Indians still have nothing much to live on.

Their numbers, no longer kept in check by starvation and epidemic disease, are already a little too great for the local resources of game and fur. Those who cannot obtain enough food for themselves get “destitute rations,” and living even on this sparse dole is easier than living by hunt and trap line. So fewer and fewer of the young men take the trouble to learn the skills by which their fathers lived.

Everyone—missionary, trader, government official—agrees that this situation is bad. Nobody knows how to cure it. Meanwhile, outside the little settlements, the vast barren country lies as desolate as of old, if anything even emptier of human and animal life.

Land of tomorrow? Perhaps. Land of yesterday? Maybe—though even in the wilderness, history doesn't repeat itself verbatim. But one thing about the north is absolutely certain. Whatever else it may be, it is not the land of today. ★