A Yankee Notebook, Columns

What Could Possibly go Wrong?

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by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Wednesday, 7/30, 10 p.m.  Cold, rainy, windy. Still wind-bound. Blew hard all day. Fished up and down the canyon with Baird, slept, read. Can’t move till the wind dies. Bob’s barometer still dropping. Half the fuel is gone, and we’ve seen barely a pencil stick of firewood so far. So we’re cutting back on cooking. Sushi tonight.

I always kept a journal on our canoe trips to the Canadian Arctic. Most of those old notebooks, dog-eared and water-stained, record exciting rapids, giant lake trout, and encounters with the natives – caribou, muskoxen, and grizzlies. This one is a catalog of meteorological calamities.

The year was 1997, the year that the weather on what the 19th-century British called the Great Barren Lands turned decidedly grumpy. Ours wasn’t (it turned out later) the only canoe trip in the eastern Arctic to suffer from it. Even other creatures felt it, too. One gray, wet, windy day we spotted hundreds of corpses of Lapland longspurs, most likely starved to death.

We were a long way from any sort of help and, for the last time, without any way to communicate with the outside world. The river was called the Hayes, a name given it by a United States military party sent north to look for evidence of the fate of the famously lost Franklin Expedition, all of whose members and both ships perished in a British navy search for the Northwest Passage in 1845-46. The party happened to reach the river during the presidency of Rutherford Hayes, and named it in his honor.

Some honor! I’ve characterized each of our dozen or so northern trips; this one forever will be “The Worst of the Worst.” After two halcyon days in the headwaters, we were suddenly beset with cold headwinds, rain, and – one severely unpleasant evening – snow that coated our tents during the night.

Thursday, 7/31, 3 p.m. – Still wind-bound! After much discussion, finally somebody said to me, “You’re the leader. What do you say?” I said, “Let’s go.” We moved our camp about half a mile downriver to get our kitchen away from the awful wind.

The leader, by the way, had committed a grievous blunder. Climbing out of the Twin Otter at the head of the river, I’d suddenly realized that we hadn’t brought any toilet paper. I sidled over to the pilots beside the plane and asked if they happened to have any cocktail serviettes or paper towels. They knew instantly what the problem was and, though I’d asked them kindly not to mention it, they shouted, “Hey, guys! Guess who forgot the toilet paper!” You can imagine the stony silence that produced. Later, we solved the problem (sort of) by issuing each man daily a sheet of paper towel from the wanigan. But that boo-boo will forever be a blot on my escutcheon.

There was more to come, of course. We went from sleet on our faces to a few decent days; we found scattered 2x4s at an abandoned prospect camp and were able to cook and even bake; Baird and I took a serious dump at the foot of a heavy rapid and almost lost all the cooking gear (Eric found and retrieved it); and we watched a little domestic drama between a tiny herd of muskox and a pair of Arctic wolves. Wolves followed us, almost invisible on the tundra, and stalked around the camp at day’s end.

But the major drama was yet to come. I had carefully described to the charter airline dispatcher before the trip the little circle at the river mouth where we would be on the day of pickup. If we weren’t there, the pilots were to fly upriver till they spotted us. A piece of cake. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, as it turned out. The feckless dispatcher either forgot or ignored what I’d told him, and sent two different pilots. We were still a long way from the mouth of the river, but camped conspicuously on a mud flat a Boeing 747 could have landed on. But nothing did. For four days. We stewed and speculated. So did our wives at home.

On the third day, a Beechcraft King Air zoomed over us with Mounties looking out the window. It disappeared to the south, and next day a Twin Otter arrived, landing almost vertically in that 40-knot wind. A couple of days later, after a series of standbys, frantic changes, weather delays, and rebookings, we were home at last. Now, looking over my journal entries, I realize that this worst trip of all deserves a book, not just a newspaper column. Boy, I’m glad I saved that beat-up little notebook!

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