[Oxford graduate R. M. Patterson (1898–1984) returned from the First World War, and, after working for a while at the Bank of England, decided he wanted more adventure than the bank could provide. In 1924 he left for northern Canada and found all the adventure anyone could reasonably ask for. In fact, it was something of a miracle he survived to tell his tales. One of his many adventures in the north country was exploring the South Nahanni River by canoe. The passage below, taken from his most famous book, The Dangerous River, details everything involved in his setting up camp one winter night late in 1929 or early 1930. (It wasn’t until the publishing of The Dangerous River in 1954 that the legends about the region were put to rest and the river entered the public consciousness.) He was alone, the temperature was thirty-five below (Fahrenheit), and in 1929 aircraft had not yet come to Northern Canada. And, needless to say, there were no helicopters or satellite phones. So, with no chance of rescue, great care and experience went into his preparations for the night. Make one mistake and you were finished.]
As you come round the point of rocks at the foot of the Cache Rapid a long reach of the canyon opens out—it might be a mile and a half in length, or it might be nearly two. At the foot of this reach the Nahanni fetches up against a towering wall of level strata, swings to the left and disappears. Just above the elbow of the bend is a timbered island, and on that island I planned to make camp. The wind was rising now out of the north-east and blowing dead up this reach of the river. There was a little daylight left—but, if I went on, my only camping places would be burrows between the rocks of timbered points or on the beaches, and the way the night was shaping up, the big sheltering spruce of this alluvial island looked more like home than any windswept shore. Furthermore, I had no wish to get myself involved with Gordon’s stretch of open water this late in the day; so I broke trail down to the island and climbed up the south bank into the shelter of the trees.
It was a dirty night. The roar of the wind could be heard out on the open river: inside the trees one could feel it a little, and occasionally there would come the whirring thud of snow dislodged by the gentle movement of the branches. I chose two spruce about ten feet apart, more or less in line with the wind, and with an open space in front of them. I snowshoed quickly around the campsite, sharply striking each overhanging tree twice with the back of the little axe: that fetched down any loose snow which would otherwise fall into camp or on to the fire when the heat from the flames rose among the branches. Then I trimmed the two chosen spruce up to a height of about six feet, laying the small dead branches in a pile to serve as kindling. Next, off came the snow shoes, and one of them was used as a shovel to dig down to ground level, banking the snow up all around, but especially behind the fire-place where it would act as a reflector. Then I laid the kindling in the fire-place, together with a twist of birch bark from my pocket. A match was applied, and the little pile burst into flame: I nursed it carefully, adding bigger twigs and then branches and then a log or two—anything I could reach till it became a fire. I got the tea pail and filled it with snow, rammed in and pressed down, for this dry snow is nothing but frost crystals; it has nothing in common with the snow of southern lands, and there is very little water in it. I pushed back the blazing logs and set the tea pail on the ashes, right up against the hottest part of the fire—it was safe there and could not overturn. Next, I cut down a tall, dead spruce, about fifteen inches through, that was standing handy. I felled it behind the fire and moved alongside it on snowshoes, trimming the branches and flinging an armful on the fire to get more light to work by: then I cut through the tree and moved forward first one end and then the other of the big log till it lay resting on the snow wall at each end, just above and just back of the fire—between the fire and the big reflector wall of snow. The flames promptly curled round it, and soon it would be a glowing, radiant mass of charcoal on the surface, giving out heat all night and ready to burst into flame again at breakfast time.
I remembered the tea pail and lifted it out of the fire, using the little axe as a hook. It hissed and spluttered; there was nearly an inch of scalding water in it, and into this I rammed and pressed more snow, making a soggier mixture this time and setting it back where it stood before. Then I cruised around in the bush with the axe, returning again and again with armfuls of soft, green spruce boughs. These I worked into a mat in front of the fire and into my bed, interlaced, underside up, and with the butts buried so that all should be soft to sleep on. At one end was a treble thickness of boughs—the pillow.
This time the tea pail was half-full of water when I looked, and I jammed more snow into it, getting a pot full of ice water which was set back again on the hot ashes. Beside it, in the little frying pan, lay frozen blocks of wolverine and bean stew, well packed around with snow. Occasionally there would come a sharp “spang!” from some glowing log, and a fragment of charcoal would fly out, perhaps into the stew. Let it stay there—it could be fished out later. Soon the tea water was hot but not boiling: I lifted it off the fire and drank two cupfuls of it to replace a little of the sweat that I had lost coming through the Ram Creek drifts. Then I filled the pot up once more with snow, this time for tea, and gave the stew a stir, setting it back on some raked-out coals.
While the tea water was boiling I set up the lean-to, tying the two long leather laces of the tarpaulin to the two spruce trees a little over four feet from the ground and stretching the tarp between them. It was then stretched back and pegged down into the snow and frozen moss with four tent pegs made from the dry spruce branches of the felled tree and driven through the leather loops. Snow was then banked around the back of the tarp and built into a wall at both ends, and camp was complete. The tarp had been set sideways on to the wind, thus allowing the smoke to be blown away: had it been set with its back to the wind, the fire smoke would have eddied back into the shelter.
Tea was made and set by the fire to draw while I piled up some eight-foot logs, end-on and with the butts lying over the snow wall towards me so that I could reach them easily from the mat. Then I kicked off my snowshoes and set them upright in the snow, stepped on to the spruce mat and stood before the fire, turning slowly around in the heat of it, thawing the ice on my moccasins and on the shoulders of my mackinaw. Soon a quick shake sent the particles of ice flying, and the moccasins could be scraped clean: and then—and how can I convey the faintest idea of the blissful comfort of it?—as I lay relaxed and warm on the spruce mat, propped up against the spruce pillow and the pack, down went the tea, hot and strong and tasting of spruce needles, closely followed by that most delicious wolverine stew. I lay back luxuriously and looked up at the sloping roof above me. Above it, I knew, beat down sixty-odd degrees of frost straight from the empty spaces of the Barrens, whipped up the canyon by this raving wind, but underneath from every point, from the snow walls and the back log and from the tarpaulin lean-to itself, the fire’s heat beat down on me.
I roused myself after half an hour or so and put on snowshoes, mitts and a woollen hat. Wood had to be cut and dragged up to the mat; and for most of an hour I moved to and fro among the trees, cutting down dry spruce and cottonwood by the light of the fire, dragging logs out from under the snow and slashing off sound, dry branches. The big stuff, cut into six- or eight-foot lengths, was piled at one end of the mat and the small stuff and kindling at the other. At last it was done—and before taking off my snowshoes for the last time I went across the island to the main river. A fine snow was falling, so fine that it was only granules of frost. One could just see the white surface of the river fading out of sight between sheer, treeless walls, snow-powdered and forbidding, which themselves vanished from sight, but upwards and into the night. An eerie place.
Back by the fire all was warmth and comfort. Another pail of tea went down, followed by a frying-panful of oatmeal: and then I sat there turning and toasting myself, drying inner mitts on short stakes set in the moss, melting snow for the breakfast tea, warming my bare feet at the fire while I dried out the moccasins and socks worn during the day. I had with me a change of socks and moccasins, and I put them on, three pairs of socks and a loose pair of moosehide moccasins, dry, clean and warm. I would sleep in these, keeping the used ones to travel in.
As I sat there I made plans for crossing the open water. I had brought with me an eighty-foot length of trackline so that I could make a raft—and I sat gazing into the fire, planning the raft down to the last knot and brace. This wind would have to drop a bit, though—but, used by now to the vagaries of the Nahanni winds, I easily put that worry off for the morning.
Half-dozing in the warmth I fell to wondering who had passed this way before—what manner of men they were and how they had travelled. It was a good camping place, this island, in summer or in winter—I wished I could see all that it had seen. Only thirty years ago there would be the Klondikers—a few small parties of resolute, mustachioed men, poling their boats in summertime, dragging sleds made from the boards of these same boats over the winter ice. Few ever reached the Pelly River by this route: the wild country got them—or the Indians.
But there were earlier visitors than these: one reads in the Hudson’s Bay Company records that John McLeod left Fort Simpson on June 5th, 1823, with a small party for the South Nahanni. How far, one wonders, did he get up the river? Did he pass by this island, craning his neck at the marvels of the Lower Canyon? At any rate he found the Indians friendly and was back at Fort Simpson by July 10th, returning again to the “Nahanni Lands” in June 1824 when he persuaded one of the chiefs to accompany him back to the fort. That was a hundred years ago: the “explorers” of the twentieth century, we must frankly admit, arrived a trifle late on the scene. And again, in 1828, Governor Simpson planned to establish a post on the Nahanni, and the outfit of twenty-five pieces was expected to yield twenty to twenty-five packs of furs, “value about £2,000.” That was a businessman’s considered estimate—they must have known a thing or two about the Nahanni by that time.
But, ages before this, came the nomad hunters—the wandering tribes of the great Déné race whose spearhead, the Apache and the Navajo, was only halted by the white man on the borders of Mexico. The Nahanni would be no main highway of this folk-wandering, but some parties must have come this way from the wild caribou uplands at the head of the South Nahanni and Gravel Rivers and the branches of the Pelly—driving onwards, fighting their way towards the grasslands of the south and the valley of the Rio Grande. And at this stage in my meditations, with clear, melodious trumpet note, I remembered the wolverine, and felt at one with the Déné in their urge towards the sunlands—out of this damned black and white hell into some gentler clime where a man would have time for something else besides just trying to keep his belly full and himself from freezing. They had reason on their side, those old Déné hunters. . . .
The thought became vivid as thoughts do when a man is much alone: and I peered out beyond the fire into the leaping shadows and the driving snow. You’d think, by God, you could see them now out there in the snye [a side channel]—a weary, shuffling parade of ghosts moving southwards, looking always over their shoulders for the alien clans who pressed behind. Simpson’s men, too—but they were headed upstream on this night of dreams and fancies, fur-hatted, their guns in fringed and beaded covers and their—dammit, what was that? I sat up, wide awake and alert—I could have sworn something was moving in the snye. But it was only a grey snow devil spinning up the canyon on the furious wind.
Midnight and bedtime. I broke up fine twigs for kindling and laid them ready to hand: then I arranged some big stuff so that I could reach out and pull it on the fire without getting up, and so losing heat. The tea pail was set where it couldn’t freeze and then split with the expansion of the ice, and the fire was built up into a lasting blaze with the soundest of wood. Quickly I loosened my moccasins and my belt, put on my fur hat and tied down the earflaps: over the fur hat I drew on a woollen balaclava helmet, and on to my hands, dry woollen mitts with outer mitts of soft moosehide over them. Then I took off my stag jacket and rolled up in the blanket—a cheap, light affair, mostly of cotton, but it helped to maintain body warmth. Over my feet I laid the windbreak overalls, while the heavy mackinaw jacket was put over my shoulders. That was all; nothing had been overlooked, and in two minutes at the outside I was asleep.
The system was a simple one: a well-built fire lasts about two hours before dying down into a mass of glowing charcoal; at the end of two hours, therefore, the cold would wake me with a stinging sensation on the nose—there was not the slightest danger of being “frozen to death while sleeping:” long before that took place, acute discomfort would rouse one to action. And sure enough, at the end of two hours almost to the minute I woke up and peered sleepily at the fire. The big logs were burnt through; the ends glowed and sparked a little in the wind, and smoke wreathed this way and that from the pile of red-hot embers. I drew the charred ends together with a hooked stick from where I lay and threw on one or two small sticks. Then I rolled on a couple of bigger ones, and a sudden burst of flame rewarded my efforts. Now a real big one on top to hold the fire, and already it was warm again under the lean-to: in a few moments I was off to sleep again.
Two hours later the wind had dropped and the sky had cleared: the cold of the black, empty spaces that lie between the stars was beating down upon the island. Thirty-five below and dropping, I thought, as I made up the fire; for already the ice and the trees were cracking in the intense frost. So much the better—that would tighten the river up, and there would be less delay from overflow—and I dropped off to sleep again for the last lap of my six hours. The next time I woke it would be breakfast time, and after that I could pack up camp and make all ready for the trail, piling the last of the wood on to the fire and waiting for the first faint light of the new day.
Coldest of all was the hour before dawn when the trees took shape again out of the shadows, and the topmost pinnacles of the canyon became outlined against the pale eastern sky.
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