June 16, 2010

An Adventure Tale That Assigns No Blame

"Art [Moffett] took us to a place of peace, and ever since--during these last fifty-three years--I have been trying to rediscover it," writes George James Grinnell in Death on the Barrens: A True Story of Courage and Tragedy in the Canadian Arctic.

Much outdoor-expedition writing seems to be about placing blame when things go wrong. Jon Krakauer writes Into Thin Air about a 1996 expedition to Mount Everest that ends in catastrophe, and then mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev, insulted by Krakauer's account, writes The Climb, with his own perspective on the tragedy.

And so it goes.

Death on the Barrens is an "old man's book,"a genre unto itself. Grinnell was seventy when he finished the revision that was published. In that it reminds me of Norman Maclean's posthumously published Young Men and Fire, which while trying to determine what went wrong on the Mann Gulch Fire back in 1949 also stops at times to patiently reflect that there are times when the universe is just against you.

In Grinnell's case, six twenty-something men, with a slightly older leader, set off in 1955 to spent a summer canoeing and portaging through hundreds of miles of northern Canada. Their leader, Art Moffatt, an experienced wilderness canoeist, died of hypothermia after a disastrous spill in cold rapids, and the others came close to dying before finally reaching the Hudson's Bay Company post that was their goal.

While the canoeists' trip could be critiqued—inadequate food, too many days  spent relaxing during good traveling weather—Grinnell does not place blame. Instead, he remembers how their leader took them "to a place of peace" and "a time when my fears had been elevated through beauty into awe, when my vanity had been transformed by awe into love, and when love had bathed my soul in the waters of eternal peace."

For that he experienced starvation, frostbite, and near-drowning.

After Grinnell himself had become a university professor, two of his sons died on a canoe trip down northern Ontario's Albany River, along with two of their friends: "The four of them embarked down the longest wilderness river in Northern Ontario in quest of peace, harmony, and reconciliation. Forty days later, they were all dead."

"Canoe trip as spiritual pilgrimage" is a trope in Canadian literature. You can even take deliberately designed "contemplative" canoe trips. No doubt the survival rate is higher than on Grinnell's more extreme canoe trip.

Yet though Grinnell admits being lost in despair at times, this is a book of recovery and acceptance.

Farley Mowat writes in a cover blurb that Death on Barrens records the inner process of "looking for an explanation where perhaps none exists." That too reminds me of Young Men and Fire. Sometimes what happens cannot be explained. Sometimes blame cannot be assigned.

1 comment:

Camera Trap Codger said...

Sounds like my kind of reading. Will have to get a copy. Eric Severeid's "Canoeing with the Cree" is a great read too, though more of a coming of age tale. There's a condensed version in his memoir "Not so wild a dream".