(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.)
When Edgar Christian died by the banks of the Thelon River he was but a few days shy of his 19th birthday.
He had come up to the barren lands with his uncle and mentor – John Hornby – aiming to spend a year in the wild and become a “man.” Though Hornby had survived many hardships and close calls in the past, this one proved too much even for him. The caribou did not arrive and the small party stuck in a cabin on the frozen tundra starved to death.
Methodical in life, Edgar, meticulously kept a diary. When he knew his end was near, he placed his diary into the ashes of the metal stove, thus preserving it from the weather, and laid down in his bunk, pulled over a blanket and passed away.
“Left things late” were the last words recorded in his diary.
Now at Camp 8 we were pinned by a storm that would last for four days.
The buggy evening, without a spot of wind, was transformed near midnight into a gale. We had picked out campsite on a ledge about 5m above the river, designed for the views and to catch the slightest breeze; we were unprepared for the hard rain.
The storm had shadowed us below the horizon and while we slept it sprang its trap. It was so strong that the walls of our dome tent became concaved and sizeable rocks we used to tie down the sides were edged forward grinding on the granite ledge we were on. In the middle of the night we had to awaken to do repairs, covering our tents with every spare tarp we had.
My tent was borrowed from Richard. It leaked suspiciously. When I yelled across to him “did you waterproof this rain fly,” his reply was not reassuring.
“I didn’t quite get to that,” he said.
Within 24 hours it became a struggle to just keep my sleeping bag dry. A tarp shelter we built with some cut branches of black spruces gave us enough cover to have a smoky fire. In front of it, holding up steaming blankets and jackets were a parade of Dene kids.
Computers were put away, cameras huddled, and we sat in our tents and shelters reading and eating power bars and soup, barely able to speak through the roar of the wind.
The toughest part of course is not knowing when it might break. How many storms have I weathered at home entirely unnoticed? You barely recognize it and you can check on its progress online and order take-out. Here each ebb is felt, every shift in the wind, and every new trickle running down the side of your temporary home is cause for some alarm.
The kids were simply amazing, not one peep of complaint. Mike kept the food coming (no easy feat making soup when adding water simply means opening the lid) and the kids seemed content with dangling shoes on sticks, not marshmallows, over the flame.
Maybe it’s in the nature of the Dene people to be stoic about what comes on the wind. Maybe their culture has experienced such cataclysmic change that another storm is always simply passing. The long arctic winters are good preparation for learning how to stay put.
A small break in the weather came when the eye of the storm approached. We took the chance to make repairs to our semi-permanent shelters, but mostly stood around talking about what might happen next? Would this affect our plans? Would we still get to our destination of Hornby Point? Would our supplies run out? Could we call in the float planes in these conditions to get us out?
Two people were missing from this group of speculators – James and Joseph – our two Dene guides.
Joseph had taken his rifle and gone up to the highest hill in sight, to scout out the rapids ahead. If we can’t sit here, we had to move and on a river the only way out was down. Best to know the way when things were visible.
James was by the “kitchen” fire elbow deep in dough. He was baking bannock (flour, water, baking soda) – a delicious bread long used by First Nation’s people and trappers. Two thick round cakes emerged, not be eaten fresh, but to be put away for a later meal if things got worse.
These guys were not wasting time. Who knows how long this storm might last and its best not to leave things late.
(Image: Looking out for incoming weather. Image credit: ©Ami Vitale)