(Editor’s note: The Nature Conservancy’s lead scientist Sanjayan and Canada program director Dr. Richard Jeo are on an expedition through one of Canada’s most pristine areas with young members of the Dene First Nation. They will canoe along the Thelon River and end in North America’s largest and most remote wildlife refuge, the Thelon Game Sanctuary. Follow their journey.)
Day 1: The Things We Carry (with a nod to Tim O’Brien)
The great Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton had a hard time getting out of town, they say. On expeditions, he was decisive and brilliant — but in the run up to setting out, he dithered endlessly.
Likewise, in the modest town of Yellowknife (Northwest Territories, Canada), with just a couple of hours before we had to push off, we were still packing and repacking and weighing every item against the twin scales of need and comfort. My luggage had never made it out (lost in transit), and so I went on a tear through the local version of a big box store (something called Canadian Tire) to find everything from underwear to a tent. And I was trying to savor the last coffee made by someone else I would have in a while.
Preparing for an expedition is all a question of eventualities, and our heads ached with the worry of trying to plan for every contingency we might encounter along the way. What happens if wind or even snow pin us down? If a canoe is lost or someone injured? If we can catch fish to eat — or if we cannot? Each possibility spawned a myriad of probabilities…each with its own requirement of gear.
Is what we have superfluous, or do we have what we need? Do we have too much? Or — even more worrisome, as we stand in the parking lot of the local strip mall — too little?
There are never right answers, of course, until after the fact; and we all walked preoccupied, a little bowed with worry.
But time was pressing, and for us to make it onto the Thelon River today, our charter planes — a heavily loaded Cessna Caravan and a Twin Otter on floats — had to leave before noon, flying us 308 miles into the Thelon. We were aloft at 12:05.
And by 4 pm, with the sun still gloriously high in the sky, we were on our own, gear scattered like colorful flotsam from a shipwreck, on a beach at Jim Lake — the start of our journey.
The sound of the piston engines of the departing planes was soon replaced by a different whine – the whine of descending mosquitoes and black flies.
The rest is silence and big blue wide-open country.This is it.
As Julius Caesar said when he crossed to Rubicon: “the die is cast.” We were on our own — 14 of us and 3,800 lbs of gear.
Funnily, it wasn’t a moment of trepidation as I might have expected, but rather relief. Everyone was in great spirits, and it was as if a great weight had been lifted from us. How liberating to be so unencumbered.
Bring more and you are comfortable for a lot of the while, but suffer during the portages. Bring less and it’s a little discomfort all the while.
The things we carry on the Thelon River are a fine balance of what we need and what we like, of weights and space. If everything comes back used, except for the first aid kit and the bear spray, it would be just right. And just right is about as happy as we can be.
Life is a trade-off, and so, too, are the things we carry.
View Thelon Expedition in a larger map
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(Image: Richard setting up camp. All equipment is packed in waterproof dry bags and hauled in canoes and on our backs. Image credit: All Rights Reserved–Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures.)
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