A Yankee Notebook, Columns

Even the Fax Machine was Still in the Future

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EAST MONTPELIER – Twenty-four hours of daylight starts tomorrow! That notice popped up on my Facebook page this morning. It was posted by my dear friend Larry Whittaker in the Inuit village of Kugluktuk at 67.8º N, 115.1º W, on the shore beside the Northwest Passage at the mouth of the mighty Coppermine River. As you can see by his latitude, Larry’s home is north of the Arctic Circle. But you can forget any images you may have in your mind of igloos, skin boats, and dog teams. How, for example, do you suppose Larry managed to post on Facebook?

I first met Larry at the end of July in 1991. The Arctic Division of the Geriatric Adventure Society had just finished an epic descent of the Tree River, a knotted, deeply incised stream flowing through rapidly rising land in isostatic rebound, thanks to its relatively recent release from the terrific weight of the continental ice sheet. We passed by several abandoned channels and portaged others too hair-raising to even contemplate running. The upper river was practically pristine, unmarked by human activity. The caribou and muskox we passed were cautious, but unafraid; and the fish, well, try to imagine a lake trout as long as your arm. That’s how big they were, and I have pictures to prove it.

The four of us paddled, portaged, and lined the river’s length to the ocean, spending more hours afoot than afloat, and arrived at Port Epworth, a barren, windswept point of land and former Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Hudson’s Bay posts, pretty well spent. Ours had been the first descent of the river. At its conclusion, I declared that it never again would it be done by anybody sane.

We happened to arrive at Port Epworth right on schedule. I had allotted 16 days to paddle the river’s 160 miles, and we hit it on the nose. Setting up our tents to break the wind coming off unseen ice offshore, and starting a driftwood fire in an abandoned oil drum, we huddled together to wait for Larry to show up.

Over the years we made over a dozen biennial trips north. The Tree River, for its awe-inspiring drama, was probably the most memorable. I picked it almost willy-nilly after reading that it never had been canoed and had produced a rod-and-reel world-record Arctic char. Hiring a charter to fly us to the headwaters was easy; the company was in the directory. Having them pick us up was prohibitively expensive; finding someone to pick us up at the mouth was a little tougher. It was still the time of the one-way telephone (you said, “Over,” at the end of each statement or question); even the Fax machine was still in the future. But after innumerable calls, I got referred to Larry, who said he’d be traveling west along the Arctic coast in his schooner (a 47-foot retired RCMP workboat) at the end of July, and could pick us up and take us the 60 miles to Kugluktuk (in those days, Coppermine), from which we could ship our canoes and catch a scheduled airliner home.

The water in Port Epworth was, unsurprisingly, brackish and unpotable; but I found a little pool of fresh water tucked behind a dune, so we were able to make soup and coffee. Trouble was, the water was loaded with mosquito wigglers that, when boiled, turned pink and became crunchy like crayfish (they are, after all, arthropods). It made for interesting, chewy meals.

None of us was up for paddling the ocean to Coppermine, so huddling beside the oil drum while waiting for a man who existed only on the other end of a crackly phone line was loaded with a bit of anxiety. But just about eight o’clock, when I was almost ready to acknowledge the egg on my face, we heard the distant throb of a diesel engine, and the M.V. Hearne chugged into the harbor. She rounded up; we heard the rattle of the anchor chain; and a few minutes later a big aluminum outboard zoomed straight toward us, loaded with Larry and his wife, their three sons, an Inuit girl, and a beagle named Gypsy. “You must be Willem,” said the man. What a relief!

Since that evening, Larry’s picked us up a couple of other times, at the mouths of different rivers. He’s one of those fascinating guys who never quit churning. He’s added a whole after-cabin to the Hearne, built a greenhouse and sheltered garden (in manufactured soil), flown an ultralight to the limits of its range, and now flies what looks like a Piper Cub to a new camp he and his wife have built 70 miles up the Coppermine River on an unnamed lake. He also reminds me from time to time of some very happy days in the frozen Garden of Eden of North America.

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