Willem Lange's Column on the 2017Paddlers Gathering

HULBERT OUTDOOR CENTER, FAIRLEE, VT – It’s a perfect March Sunday morning in Vermont: a bright and sunny weather-breeder, a couple of degrees above zero; full moon coming tonight; smell of wood smoke lingering along the ground, unable to rise. At the far edges of the field, a few hard-core outdoors types are stirring in their tents and firing up their camp stoves. Freshly showered and ready for breakfast, I cross the frozen grass and view their canvas walls with utterly no envy. Inside the main building I can hear the preparations for breakfast; the aroma of hot coffee begins to edge out the wood smoke, and the lure of cheerful conversation grows stronger.

I watch Jeopardy a lot. Its longtime host, Alex Trebek, is a native of Ontario, and always betrays a special interest in topics relating to Canada. I share his frequent discomfiture when otherwise brilliant contestants display about as much knowledge of our northern neighbor – the second-largest country in the world – as of the dark side of the moon: names of the provinces and their capitals; which of the Great Lakes is not partly in Canada; what’s the Canadian dollar called; what’s the name of the iconic Arctic migratory ungulate? Whenever the simplest of his clues elicits no (or the wrong) response, a flicker of sadness momentarily darkens his genial expression.

Alex would be much happier here at the annual Wilderness Paddlers’ Gathering. When I asked Friday evening how many Canadians were in the group, about a quarter of the folks in the room raised their hands and cheered. I thanked them for their embrace – unlike our own – of strangers, orphans, and refugees. They laughed and murmured knowingly.

Often in the past, when I’ve mentioned in conversation that my friends and I were going to the Arctic, the typical American response has been,”Alaska, eh?”  The Alaskan Arctic is only a fraction of the size of the Canadian, from Repulse Bay in the east to Herschel Island, just shy of the Alaskan border on the west. Likewise, the Gold Rush of 1898, which centered around Dawson, Yukon Territory, is popularly thought by our countrymen to have occurred in Alaska. Blasphemous Bill MacKie, Dan McGrew, and the Lady that’s known as Lou are, however, actually Canadians, or possibly even Irish or British immigrants.

Most of the participants here at the paddlers’ gathering are above average at northern geography, mainly because a lot of them have experienced it firsthand. They’ve traveled at water level to places with names like Kangiqsujuaq (“Big Bay”), Quaqtac (“Tapeworm”), and Kugluktuk (“Where the water falls down”), and paddled rivers obscure to most people, from the French-named voyageur trade routes of southern Canada to the rivers of the northern coast that have retained or regained their native names – Kuujjua, Nanuk, Koroc. They’re probably the last generation of adventurous canoe trippers to experience the Arctic during its latter days, before the current rapid warming and concurrent expansion of commercial interests.

We started off yesterday morning, however, far from the Arctic Circle. Tim Caverly of Millinocket, Maine, led off with some great stories and photos of his native territory, the Allagash River. He was followed by Jake Risch of North Conway, who took us down an almost frightening descent from the hydrological source of the Amazon River. It’s always interesting to see how the Andes, buttressing the Pacific shore of South America, direct virtually all the continent’s flowing water eastward all the way to the Atlantic. And it was startling to see the extent of hydropower development – dozens of new dams – on the upper Amazon. Jake was followed by David Gilligan, a professor at Sterling College, who narrated a sea kayaking naturalist’s guide to the two great gulfs of our South, the Sea of Cortez and the Everglades coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

But the talk I most looked forward to was the one that ended the scheduled proceedings last evening. David Pelly, a writer, documentary film maker, and Inuit culture maven, has spent years living in the Arctic, and during that time has interviewed dozens of elders in an effort to preserve the memories and lore of the people who immigrated into the eastern Arctic probably more than a thousand years ago and have inhabited it ever since. Only in the last 50 years or so have they left their semi-nomadic life on the land and moved into accessible coastal villages, at the behest of the government, in order to take advantage of “essential services.”

David’s particular area of interest and study has been a long, fjordlike inlet on the northwest shore of Hudson Bay named Wager Bay by a British explorer.  Its original name, and the title of David’s book of interviews and stories, is Ukkusiksalik (The People of the Place Where There is Soapstone). Soapstone, used in Vermont for sinks and wood stoves, was important to the Inuit for carving seal oil lamps, with which they cooked and heated their winter dwellings. Game and fish were also abundant along the bay, so, in a culture dependent upon hunting and gathering, it was a natural place to live. It’s also the source of hundreds of stories and histories.

We civilized folks tend to regard our recorded history as more nearly authentic than the oral history of cultures without written languages. David Pelly has recorded the story, told in 1996 by an elderly woman in Ukkusiksalik, of the local Inuit who accompanied an 1879 American party looking for relics of the lost Franklin expedition. She had no idea who the seekers were; but her account accords exactly with the written record kept by the scribe of the expedition. She knew the personal details of the trip, and talked of them as if she were describing last week’s trip to the beach. It’s a fascinating reminder of the power of story-telling and the mystery behind the veil of anonymity we often draw over the lives of the original inhabitants of the land.