MONDAY: The Barrens, Part One

BY KATHARINE O’FLYNN

This is the first part of a two-part story. The conclusion will be posted here tomorrow. This story was previously published in Artica magazine in 2010. Copyright is held by the author.

JAMES CRITCHELL-BULLOCK wrote the date in his diary. “December 24, 1924,” underlined it, then, in a spate of sharply slanted copperplate, poured forth his woes:

“Discomforts! Such discomforts!

“Alone this Christmas Eve on the Barren Lands of the Subarctic of America, when those outside are contemplating the morrow with hearts full of happiness and pleasurable excitement. Alone in a dug-out beneath the sand and snow.”

He moved closer to the feeble light of the fox-fat lantern he and his partner, John Hornby, had made from a tin can.

“Alone in this awful shack of continual discomfort with its subsiding walls and crazy roof likely at any moment to fall and entomb me in a living grave. Alone with sufficient wood to make only one more fire. Alone with a dying dog whose foot is stinking with decay. Alone with but the howl of the blizzard outside . . .”
Hornby should be here with him. If he were here, they could play chess, or talk of Christmases past. They could break open a bottle of rum from the medicine chest and drink toasts to absent friends, forget the dangers and discomforts of this place for a while.

Hornby should not have left him alone, not on Christmas Eve. He’d gone off this morning, without a thought for the season, to fetch wood he could have brought in any time during the past week. It was maddening beyond endurance the way that man left things till the last minute.

In his agitation, James set aside his diary and went again to look out the doorway. Drifting snow had blocked the entry. He had to shovel it aside before he could step out into the storm. “Hornby! I say, Jack, are you there?”

It would be full dark soon. Hornby was not likely to arrive tonight. He’d have made camp in the shelter of a spruce grove down by the lake, probably, or he may have made his way to the Stewarts’ cabin on the Casba River. Wherever he was, he’d be fine, drinking a cup of tea, no doubt, made sweet and strong, the way he liked it. Hornby knew how to look after himself in the wilds.

James stepped back inside, stopping to pat the injured dog, Bhaie. “I’m afraid we’re on our own, old fellow. No Christmas cheer for us.”

If he let himself go, he could weep with frustration at his situation. It was all Hornby’s fault. When the two men had met in Edmonton last year, Hornby had lured him here with his talk of the Barren Lands, speaking as though they were the northern Garden of Eden, and James had listened, spellbound.

“The Barren Lands lie north and east from Great Slave Lake, just beyond the tree line. Rolling plains, slashed with countless unnamed lakes and rivers, teem with wildlife: caribou and musk-ox, white wolves and foxes, geese, ptarmigan, all following the seasons and the cycles of their lives. It is a land of astonishing beauty, bright with flowers and lichen for a short season, cold and windswept for long months, a vast land and empty of human habitation. It is a land where a man can be truly free.”

Yes, James had thought. Oh yes, I could love a land like that.

“It is a harsh land,” Hornby continued in his upper-class British accent, “dangerous and unforgiving. Death is always close at hand. Any small mistake — a careless swing of an axe, a clumsy fall on a portage, a broken sled runner, a misjudgment of time or distance, can push a man in a moment from the edge of life into the abyss of death.”

James’s eyes shone all the brighter. Oh yes. This would be a land to test a man’s strength and mettle and endurance. Like Scott’s Antarctica. Yes, oh yes.

“Without a word of a boast, I can say that I know the Barrens better than any other man alive.” Hornby’s intense blue eyes gleamed with passion. “I could show you how to live there.”

“Yes,” James agreed without hesitation.

He was 25 years old, and he had found a new life.

Months of preparations followed. James planned a scientific expedition, like Scott’s. He would take meteorological readings, collect specimens of flora and fauna, take photographs, make notes on the migration patterns of birds and mammals, survey unmapped rivers and lakes. His expedition would make a significant contribution to the world’s knowledge.

From the office he established in Edmonton, he wrote letters to the government outlining his plans, asking for funding. His efforts were unsuccessful. Hornby dropped a note to a couple of people he knew in Ottawa and one of them agreed to supply a grubstake and $200 for the venture.

“Two hundred dollars and food besides!” Hornby was delighted.

“What about equipment?” James asked. “Canoes and transport boats. Tents. Stove. Portable kitchen. Medicine chest. Tools. These in addition to scientific instruments, cameras and film.”

“We don’t want to overburden ourselves with paraphernalia,” Hornby cautioned. “We’ll travel much of the time and we want to go light. Of course we’ll have to den up for the winter. We do our trapping then. Mark down traps on your list there.” He pointed to James’s ever-ready notebook.

“Trapping?” James had thought Hornby a British gentleman, like himself, not a backwoods trapper.

“We may as well make something for ourselves out of this. I reckon we could easily collect $30,000 or $40,000 worth of white fox furs alone.”

Hornby was the one who knew the country; his word went on all matters. James added “traps” to the long list of essentials. If they made their fortunes out of fox furs, so much the better.

It was August before they were ready to travel, in company with four trappers, from the railhead at Waterways up the Athabaska River and across Great Slave Lake. At the east end of the lake, at the place known as Reliance, they cached more than a ton of gear, including most of the scientific equipment. “We’ll come back for it after we settle ourselves,” Hornby promised. “All this extra gear will slow us down through Pike’s Portage. We need to get in fast and get our cabin built before snowfall.”

Pike’s Portage was long and difficult, and James had to admit it would have been just about impossible with the weight of the scientific equipment.

“We’ll come back for it,” Hornby promised.

“When?”

“Soon.”

From Artillery Lake, the going was easier. Here the party separated. Two of the trappers built a cabin on the wooded lakeshore. Thirty miles further north, the Stewart brothers found themselves a good building site in the sheltered valley where the Casba River flowed into the eastern end of the lake. Stunted spruce trees grew there, along the river bank.

James and Hornby pushed on another six miles into the true Barrens, where no trees grew. A vast unbroken plain, bright with rich autumnal reds and browns, stretched under an equally vast sky, space unbounded. James was enraptured.

Even when the first snowfall engulfed all colour in monotonous white, even when the daily struggle to keep themselves fed and warm turned the adventure of discovery into a wearing routine, James remained enchanted. He loved the serene emptiness of land and sky, the brief eerie days and the long nights when the earth groaned with the burden of cold. No other landscape he knew was so stern, so uncompromisingly beautiful.

For their shelter, Hornby and James dug into the gravelly sand on the lee side of one of the long eskers that crested like frozen waves across the plain. They hollowed out a rectangle, 10 feet by seven, lined it with spruce boughs they hauled from the woods by the river, and roofed it with poles, covered with a tarp and weighted down with sand.
“We’ll feel no breath of wind here, no matter how hard it blows,” Hornby said.

They felt no wind, but they felt sand. Sand drifted in between the roof poles, dribbled and sometimes even cascaded down the walls. Sand trickled into their sleeping bags, into pots and pans and clothes and food. There was always the grit of sand in their mouths, in their hair, scratching at their skin.

“Will the roof hold at least?” James asked.

“I should think so. More likely than not.” Hornby was not a worrying man. “We can always stick in an extra prop or two.” Over the following weeks they stuck in props until the little room was a hazardous labyrinth of crooked columns, and still the roof sagged under its weight of sand and snow.

James was glad to get out of the foul hole during the day to set traplines or fetch wood. But days were short and the nights were long in the den they called home.

Sand drifted down on them and the stove smoked. When they let the fire go out, as they often did to save precious wood, the cave grew cold as a tomb. James’s beard froze solid. “I could cut my own throat by nodding my head,” he complained.

And then there were the carcasses. When Hornby had mentioned trapping, James thought of furs as he had seen them in Hudson Bay posts, in neat, dry stacks. In reality, collecting furs meant living in the constant stench and debris of slaughter as Hornby disemboweled and skinned wolves and foxes. “I can’t work outside, not in this weather,” he explained to the squeamish James.

Many of Hornby’s habits grated on James’s nerves; the way he cracked caribou bones for the marrow in them, for instance. He’d sit crosslegged on the floor by the stove surrounded by blood and bones and hide and sinew, pounding at the bones with a hammer, scraping them with his hunting knife till he got into the marrow which he would eat from the knife with lip-smacking gusto. Crack and scrape, scrape, scrape and then the slurp of the sucking. “You really ought to try some.” He offered a pasty pink mess on the end of his knife. “It’s delicious.” He spoke as if he were passing a plate of cucumber sandwiches or petits fours.

James turned away in disgust, but not before noticing how Hornby dipped his gore-stained fingers into the sugar tin to take a pinch for his tea.

“For God’s sake, could you please use a spoon!” James shouted.

“I say, your nerves aren’t going, are they? Do compose yourself.”

James struggled for calm. Of all the dangers of life in the northlands, the worst was a partner who went bushed. You didn’t dare quarrel with a partner, not in a 10 by seven foot space filled with rifles, axes, knives and the smell of blood. There were too many stories of that sort of tragedy.

James calmed himself.

Even more trying than Hornby’s annoying personal habits was his lack of interest in James’ research plans.

He could never find time to go back to Reliance to pick up the instruments they’d cached there. James wanted those instruments. The whole reason for being here, he argued, was the scientific work he’d planned. If he couldn’t do that, what was he doing here enduring such discomfort when he could be safe and snug in Edmonton?

“Discomfort?” Hornby asked, amazed. “Are you cold? Are you hungry?”

“Not at the moment, but —”

“Well, then. Anyway, I don’t see the necessity for all that gear to study this place. Go out and look at the caribou. Think about them. Camp out a night or two. You’ll learn about temperatures. You’ll feel them all right.”

“I need my instruments!”

“You’ve got your camera; you’ve taken plenty of photographs. You’ve got your notebooks and that diary you’re forever writing in. Isn’t that enough? What else could you need?”

“Thermometers. Barometer. Theodolite. Specimen cases. . . .” James began.

“Maybe later,” Hornby interrupted.

And now it was Christmas and James despaired of ever getting his instruments. The scientific aims of the expedition had come to nothing. He and Hornby were fur trappers, like the others down on the lake, only not so well housed. He should have given up and left. He’d had an opportunity only a few weeks ago when the Stewarts made the trip back to Reliance for more supplies. But he didn’t go. He couldn’t. The land held him, enthralled him still. And Hornby was the best guide to it.

James went one last time to the doorway to shout again into the void, “Hornby! Hornby!” He fired off a couple of shots to give direction in case the man was lost out there, though that was hardly likely. Hornby never got lost.

Come back tomorrow to read the conclusion.

3 comments

  1. Pingback: TUESDAY: The Barrens, Part Two |

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