I’d left Yellowknife well-outfitted, lots of gas and supplies lashed down in my freighter canoe, just before fall one day in the early 1970s. The outboard motor was running well, and with any luck I figured I’d be in Inuvik in a month or two, well before freeze-up anyway. It was close to 1,500 miles to the Arctic coast, but it was all easy water, mostly downriver on the Mackenzie and there shouldn’t have been any trouble. There shouldn’t have been.
I‘d been travelling south about a week, just taking my time, working my way along the north shore of Great Slave Lake with everything going according to plan, when a storm came up. It was far too rough to cross the North Arm of Great Slave Lake, with big waves running in from the south-east. I had to wait before crossing, poking around Rae Point where the old village of Fort Rae had been before they’d moved it to Marion Lake. A good place for ghosts, I thought, and probably souvenirs.
But it didn’t feel right to be poking around too much. It was kind of spooky; a quiet graveyard with no tombstones. So I just left the old fort to the wind and the long stalks of yellow grass rattling against the sheets of stone, and I kept going on as soon as the wind let up a bit.
Up to White Beach Point the waves had been big—three to four footers—but the canoe could handle them if I was careful. But once I rounded the Point there were 200 miles of open water with nothing to stop the wind. The waves pounded in, eight, 10 feet high.
I made it across to the south shore, but barely. That little outboard pushed my big canoe up those waves, and then surfed down into the troughs while I was bailing like hell whenever the nose dug into a crest and the ice-cold water came roaring over the thwarts. But I made it to White Beach Point.
I camped there because the wind was still howling out on the main lake. Up to White Beach Point the waves had been big—three to four footers—but the canoe could handle them if I was careful. But once I rounded the Point there were 200 miles of open water with nothing to stop the wind. The waves pounded in, eight, 10 feet high. I wasn’t moving until things calmed down a bit.
I set up camp and wandered around on the beach, all pure white sand. There wasn’t a footprint or beer can to spoil it. Only God knew when the last person walked along this beach; maybe years before. The next morning, it wasn’t so bad. The surf was still running pretty good but the wind was down. It was easy starting out from behind the shelter of the Point, but things started getting hairy once I hit open water.
I didn’t last long, maybe halfway to Old Fort Island and crunch; I had one very damaged outboard motor. The canoe went up on the crest of a big swell and came down in the trough, not in water, but onto a reef. It felt like the hit shortened the leg on that outboard about half a foot.
I managed to paddle back around White Beach Point and land the canoe on the beach to assess the damage. I got the motor running again okay, but the propeller was smashed and I had no spare. I tried heating up a heavy tin can in the fire and working the metal into the shape of a propeller but that didn’t work. Then I tried carving one out of wood, but even when I got the twist just right, it wasn’t strong enough to stand the strain of pushing that big canoe.
What to do? It was only about a 40-mile paddle straight across the North Arm back to Yellowknife. If it had been calm I might have tried it, but with those heavy seas running I would have been swamped in no time. The only thing to do was to head northwest and paddle to Fort Rae, 75 miles-or-so down the North Arm.
The first four or five days weren’t too bad. Travelling from island to island avoided the rougher open water but, man, it was heavy work. The canoe was loaded so heavily it paddled like an old log. I had lots of grub, but no fresh meat and you can’t live on canned goods when you’re boosting a half-ton of canoe along with your muscles, even well-developed muscles from working underground in the gold mines of Yellowknife. Then a real storm hit. It made the last one seem like a breeze.
Paddling along with the wind was okay, riding the swells, but trying to beach the canoe in the surf was a nightmare. On land, I’d make a fire in the wind and rain and rig a lean-to with a tarp and half-dry my things over the fire and look out over the mists and grey waves rolling up the North Arm and begin to wonder just what I’d gotten myself into. I was making maybe five or six miles a day, paddling 10 or 12 hours and I was beginning to feel like maybe this hadn’t been such a great idea after all.
There I was, rolled up in a tarp, shivering and shaking in my wet clothes on a gravel beach, too exhausted to even make camp, figuring this was it, I was going to die right here.
There were lots of ducks but no fish—at least I couldn’t catch any. The ducks were huddled in the bays. It was too rough for them to do anything but wait out the storm too. They were easy to shoot. I’d just sneak up along the shore and blast them with my shotgun. But then I’d have to watch them drift away because it was so rough I couldn’t launch the canoe to catch up to them. So it boiled down to squirrels, literally. I hunted them every time I stopped to make camp. I’d get wetter and colder every time I brushed against a tree or clump of grass. But I’d get one or two and then head back to camp and boil some potatoes and an onion and throw in the squirrels. It was nothing fancy, and there’s not much meat on a squirrel, but it helped.
The weather picked up a bit and I got in another few days of travelling before my strength gave out completely. There I was, rolled up in a tarp, shivering and shaking in my wet clothes on a gravel beach, too exhausted to even make camp, figuring this was it, I was going to die right here.
But after dozing off and then waking up and sticking my head out of the tarp, I could see the moon and some stars. It was the first time in what seemed like weeks it wasn’t cloudy and cold and raining. Clear sky and the wind was gone. So I crawled to my feet and looked out along the bay and there to the north- west, maybe 10 miles ahead, was a faint red light glowing in the dark, the beacon on top of the forestry tower on the highway to Fort Rae.
I didn’t even wait for it to get light. I just threw everything into the soggy mess that was the last of my outfit and started out, and I made it. I finally pulled the canoe up near where the highway passes the lake and it suddenly felt very strange.
First a semi-trailer, then a car came roaring by. The 20th century and, here I was, half-dead, soaked to the skin, all whiskery and smelling like a voyageur. I could have hiked out the few miles to the highway and flagged down a truck, but I didn’t. I camped and got my gear re-organized and it sounded good, reassuring, to hear those cars and trucks going by every so often, and me there still not needing help, not yet anyways. After all, it would have been embarrassing to ask for help. Because I had no business stumbling around the bush in the first place if I didn’t know what I was doing.
Soaking wet and, looking very large in many layers of sweaters and jackets, I pointed at the fire, and pointed at myself and made a motion with my hands like I’d appreciate a chance to warm up. He bid me entry.
In the morning I paddled up the few miles to where Frank Channel joins the North Arm of the lake. I figured it was about seven miles up the channel, and I would be in Fort Rae.
After a couple of miles of that there was a welcome sight ahead, a house—the first sign of habitation I’d seen in nearly three weeks. It was a shack, really, squatted into a low spot in the ground and there was smoke coming out of the chimney. I tied up the canoe and made my way up the hill, feet squelching at every step, and banged on the door. It was no time to be shy.
The door opened and a small man looked out curiously. In his lifetime, I figured he had seen some weird things pass by his door but I might have been the weirdest. Soaking wet and, looking very large in many layers of sweaters and jackets, I pointed at the fire, and pointed at myself and made a motion with my hands like I’d appreciate a chance to warm up. He bid me entry.
I bent over to get through the door and stayed that way. The cabin was maybe five-and-a-half feet tall, and the floor space was 10 by 15 feet. But it was warm and cozy and the old man gave me tea. I smiled and began to thaw out—finally—after many days without a dry change of clothes or a chance to get completely warm.
This old man was curious—no wonder, because I didn’t speak Dogrib (also known as Tłi¸cho¸) and he didn’t speak English. So I sat by the fire and savoured the tea and smiled a lot. I kind of felt like I didn’t really have to explain anyways, because he had to be 70 years old, and I knew I wasn’t the first fool he’d shared his fire with.
It rained all day, and he let me know that I could camp there for the night if I wanted to. A feeling of kinship began to grow between us, and I tried to learn his words. “Leedee na woo?” “Do you want some tea?” That was easy and I wrote it down on the back of my soggy cigarette package. “Mahsi” “Thank you” and, “Mahsi Cho” “Thank you very much.”
More easy ones and pretty soon there wasn’t enough room on the package so I scrounged around in my gear to find a not-too-damp notebook and started a list of his words and phrases. Some of them were right, some wrong. Like when the door blew open and he said “Edza” and I figured that meant, “Close the door.” It wasn’t until months later that I found out it really means, “It’s cold.”
Later, I found out that the man, Old Jimmy, had lived in this spot for 50 years, pretty much just the way he is living now. The river channel brought fish to his nets and the bush supplied rabbits and bigger game, and plenty of wood to keep him warm. He had everything he needed to survive at his fingertips and, for now, it suited me just fine to be bedded down by his fire listening to the rain and the wind, and feeling warm and content among friends.
In the morning it was still raining but I knew I’d get soaked anyway hauling the heavy canoe up the channel so it didn’t really matter. The old man shook his head as I started off, a crazy young guy in the rain, up to my waist in the freezing water, working my way slowly along the bank, dragging my 20-foot freighter canoe full of soggy gear slowly upstream.
All day I pulled that canoe, hand-over-hand along the bank through the willows and sedges, occasionally finding a particularly deep spot to fall into just to make sure I was really soaked. By late afternoon I’d made it to the end of the channel, and there, across Marion Lake, was my destination, Fort Rae. I could just make out the white steeple of the church and some low buildings across the water.
But, it was rough, really rough. The wind came up again and there were whitecaps as far as I could see. There was no way I could cross that with just a paddle. So, I shrugged, got into my canoe and paddled back downstream in a half-hour what took me all day to fight my way upstream. I arrived back at Jimmy’s house. He didn’t seem surprised to see me. I settled in by the fire again and ate some more fish and drank some more tea and watched him go about his business.
He was making snowshoes. I watched, fascinated. Cross-legged in his moccasins, sitting in a pile of shavings, he had shaped and formed the long pieces of birch that frame each snowshoe. Just a jack-knife and an old nail to drill holes with, and Jimmy created a work of art right before my eyes. He motions, “What do you think?,” squinting down the lengths of birch to see if they are curved just right, and they are absolutely perfect, symmetrical and balanced. I know I couldn’t do that if I had a whole machine-shop full of tools and a couple of months to work at it.
And, here and there among the clutter of his 70 years of living were other examples of his craftsmanship. A hand-carved canoe paddle, blunt-nosed, Dogrib style. And there were baskets woven from birch bark for storing ammunition and tea and berries.
By suppertime, I was getting restless. I would have expected, by now, to have been offered some tea or some lunch, after the hospitality of Jimmy’s house. Then it dawned on me: there was nothing to eat in the house. So I went to the general store, packed a big box of groceries back to the house and then everyone was all smiles.
The next day I was jolted back to modernity. Visitors arrived in an old jalopy to check their fish nets in Frank Channel and stop for tea and a visit with the old man. One man told me that they had a big skiff back at Rae and could come back and give me a tow into town if I want.
I shook hands with the old man when the skiff arrived. I had given him a bunch of gear and canned stuff I wouldn’t need anymore and, through one of the men who spoke both English and Dogrib, told him I’ll come back and visit some time. Then we departed and, in no time it seems, we were in Fort Rae.
I was still learning so many things. We arrived at the fellow’s house about noon. His name was Louie. I sat there in the living room like a dummy, smiling a lot. The kids ran in and out, giggling and speaking to each other in their language, Dogrib. By suppertime, I was getting restless. I would have expected, by now, to have been offered some tea or some lunch, after the hospitality of Jimmy’s house. Then it dawned on me: there was nothing to eat in the house. So I went to the general store, packed a big box of groceries back to the house and then everyone was all smiles. Louie’s wife cooked up a big meal and I settled in to wait for parts for the motor, which I’d order the next day, as if I was already one of the family.
Throughout the next few days, I wandered around town with my notebook learning Dogrib. You know, they thought I was a priest, walking around town, writing things down. Oh well, I’ve been called much worse things than a priest.
The hunters were overdue. We’d hunt ducks, and wait. And check the fishnets, and wait. I’d phone to see if the parts for my kicker had been shipped yet, and wait. We travelled by freighter canoe up to the last portage the hunters would have to take on their way back from the barrenlands. We waited a few days, camped there. Still nothing. No one was worried but I could feel the anticipation building. Back to Fort Rae and we’d wait some more.
We took another trip up to the portage. I watched the handgames, played in the places we’d stop to camp overnight—tiny villages with just a few families living in cabins together. They would feed us fish and bannock and tea. The men first, then the women, then the kids, very structured and proper, done with exquisite dignity, knowing exactly how things should be done in a culture established before the time of my people in this land.
And to watch a complete church service in a cabin in the bush, with the hymns and chants and reverence, all in Dogrib, done perfectly and beautifully, made me envy these people. They didn’t need a priest to show them what to do. They knew. They belonged to something the white man, my culture, had lost long ago. In all they were just a couple thousand people with their own language, their own tradition, and their own culture.
The hunters were easily recognized by their faces, darkened and weathered from the days spent in the winds of the barren grounds. And proud. Quiet, strong, and very proud.
Travelling, we’d pass the old camps. Dogsleds and canoes up on the caches, not disturbed or vandalized. Places to go when the fish ran, places for when the moose rutted, places for when the caribou came. It was a city with no buildings; an area of wilderness all understood and utilized, yet unchanged and unspoiled; a self-renewing supermarket with many departments, each supplying a different item when it was needed, and each in its own season bringing with it the sustenance of life.
We were always camping on islands. Why? Because of bears, or something more dangerous: “Nagahn,” The Bushman. Stories that I could half understand were told around the campfires of “Nagahn”, a boogeyman, stealing children, bothering people, like a Sasquatch. He lives in caves in the far-away mountains where no one dared go.
Back in Fort Rae, waiting on a day that dawned with icy blueness and the fall smell of ripe cranberries, the guns were heard at last. Far out on Marion lake: Bang. Bang. Bang. And, from town the answer: Bang. Bang.
The people all hurried to gather at the point near the general store and, gradually, the hunters come in across the lake. Freighter canoes, big ones, 10 or more, with four or five men in each boat. And the shots echoed and rolled across the water: Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. And from town they were answered by a dozen rifles: Bang. Bang. The hair went up on the back of my neck.
The hunters had been gone for many weeks, from Fort Rae travelling north to the barrenlands, the Arctic tundra. There were over 50 portages, where each canoe had to be unloaded and reloaded—kickers and drums of gas, and tents and guns, and the hundreds of things it takes to sustain life on the barrengrounds all portaged around each rapid. Now they were coming home with meat for the winter—caribou meat, fat and hides. All dried and tied in bundles that a strong man can barely lift. Caribou is life to the Dogrib and the guns mean a successful hunt. No one lost or drowned, or cut with the axe. The men were coming home.
Then the dancing started and around and around the people went, pressed tight in a circle. It was hypnotic, the keening voices rising and falling, the drums pounding, the smell of moosehide and wood smoke and the land. “Dagawa! Dagawa!” “Dance! Dance!”
The shore was crowded. Everyone was excited and talking at once, and the dogs, hundreds of sleigh dogs, howling and whining and jumping at their chains. The women in their kerchiefs and brown stockings with their babies carried in blankets on their backs. The kids, running, shoving, laughing. To know that dads and big brothers are finally home.
At last, the boats were beached. Two lines form, one for the men and one for the women, and the hunters were welcomed ashore with handshakes from everyone. The whole town pitched in and soon the boats are unloaded and the gear and bundles of meat and hides are packed to the houses in the town.
The afternoon came, quiet, the town seemingly empty, but the houses abuzz of wives and husbands and children being a family once again. And couples long apart stole away to whisper secrets.
Darkness comes and things begin to stir. Little by little, movement became apparent, a drift of people toward the chief’s house. Twenty people in the house, then 40, then 60. New beaded jackets, fresh tanned moose-hide gloves and moccasins. The hunters were easily recognized by their faces, darkened and weathered from the days spent in the winds of the barren grounds. And proud. Quiet, strong, and very proud.
Two or three Coleman stoves were lit in the kitchen and the first taps sound from the drums. Drummers were tightening up the rawhide in the heat from the stoves. Soon the leather was tight and the house was crowded and full of the smell of moosehide and people of the land—earthy, rich and alive.
Then the dancing started and around and around the people went, pressed tight in a circle. It was hypnotic, the keening voices rising and falling, the drums pounding, the smell of moosehide and wood smoke and the land. “Dagawa! Dagawa!” “Dance! Dance!” Around and around and my feet were moving and I was joining in, pulled in by the flashing eyes of the girls and the hypnotic rhythm of the drums and the smiles and the laughter and the friendship and the kinship.
It was another world and I was honoured and proud to be there. The drums pounded on and on into the night and the voices chanted and sang. “Mahsi. Mahsi.” “Thank you. Thank you.” Mahsi for the caribou and mahsi for making it a good hunt and mahsee for bringing the men home safely and mahsee for creating the Dogrib people and mahsee for making us alive.
There was no Yellowknife, or Vancouver, or Paris. There were no troubles or problems. There were only the drums and these people and this time and this place. Nothing else existed. On into the night we danced and the whole world faded before the power and the majesty of the people and the drums.