Death on the Barrens: A True Story of Courage and Tragedy in the Canadian Arctic
George James Grinnell
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Set in the remote arctic region of Northern Canada, this book takes readers on a harrowing canoe voyage that results in tragedy, redemption, and, ultimately, transformation. George Grinnell was one of six young men who set off on the 1955 expedition led by experienced wilderness canoeist Art Moffatt. Poorly planned and executed, the journey seemed doomed from the start. Ignoring the approaching winter, the men became entranced with the peace and beauty of the arctic in autumn. As winter closed in, they suddenly faced numbing cold and dwindling food. When the crew is swept over a waterfall, Moffatt is killed and most of the gear and emergency food supplies destroyed. Confronting freezing conditions and near starvation, the remaining crew struggled to make it back to civilization. For Grinnell, the three-month expedition was both a rite of passage and a spiritual odyssey. In the Barrens, he lost his sense of identity and what he had been conditioned to think about society and himself. Forever changed by the experience, he unsparingly describes how the expedition influenced his adult life and what powerful insights he was able to glean from this life-altering experience.
Art had been on six previous trips into the wilderness and before that had served three years with the American Field Service assigned to the British Eighth Army in Africa. He, therefore, had met Reality before. But Joe Lanouette and Bruce LeFavour, my fellow bowmen and novices like me, had been brought up in civilization and felt, as I felt, that some protective veil would always hang between us and the abyss, and we wanted Art to be that veil. All three of us followed him around, hoping to pick up scraps of wisdom.
The sky is resplendent with endless color in all directions. We would admire the summer dawns all morning while the sun played spectral games in the cold, crystalline clouds until noon, and then we would watch the summer sun mutate them again through all the colors of the rainbow till dusk. We watched Arctic terns diving for fish, ducks gliding to graceful landings, and geese in molt skittering across clear water. Ancient dwarf birch trees grew like bonsai about the brooks and dropped their autumn leaves in limpid pools.
At first he had been angry just with Joe because he disapproved of Joe’s table manners. Then he was angry at me for not getting all the scales off the fish that he, Bruce, and Pete had caught. He had gradually become angry at Bruce for fawning over him, and he was angry with me again for doing a poor job of skinning a caribou. He claimed that I left too much fat on it. Traditionally, the way to get the fat off a hide is to chew it off, which also softens the leather. Skip wanted the hide, but he did not like the idea of chewing the fat.
There were really two voyages here: outwardly, six of us set out across the Barrens in 1955, but there was also an inward voyage, which I found more difficult to tell. I am therefore particularly grateful to Rod MacIver, whom I met at the 1995 session of the Wilderness Canoe Symposium. He was starting a journal called Heron Dance in which his watercolors illustrated the spiritual voyage in search of satori. In the end, all pilgrims are on the same journey. The quotations at the beginning of each chapter are drawn from Heron Dance.
Viking, Harper, Norton, and many other publishers have turned down various versions of this book in the past, and I am very grateful to them because every time the book was turned down, I rewrote it. I think it is a better book because of their rejections. If many have rejected Death on the Barrens, others have encouraged me to publish it. George Luste asked me to tell the story at the 1986 meeting of the Wilderness Canoe Symposium and again at the 1995 meeting in a longer version, which he then put into print the following year.