27 July 2019, near the north end of Aylmer Lake:
Barely one degree above freezing here this morning, a few miles northwest of the headwaters of the Back River, with squalls of snow and a brisk north wind. A hundred and ten miles north of the Hoarfrost, yes, and well up on the tundra, yes, but even here in the almost-Arctic, snow in July is something to remark upon. The month’s weather has been all over the map, with a cold start that prompted us to mark Canada Day morning by lighting a fire in the woodstove. Then in mid-month came a string of warm calm days (I at first wrote “hot” but then realized that describing temperatures of 80 degrees F. / 27 degrees C. — with virtually zero humidity — as “hot” would be scoffed at by readers who have been having truly hot summer weather.) Today as the month winds down we have this parting shot of cold wind and snow. So long July, bring on August. Never a dull moment.
A few days ago, it was warmer and we were southeast of here, near the lower Hanbury River… “Can you land in that lake?” (A bush pilot’s favorite question.) “We’d like to get one sample there.”
Three geologists studying eskers, and following the path of the grand-trunk highway of all eskers, known as the Exeter Esker. For these guys, and even to my un-scientific eye, this esker stretches unbroken from the tundra near Dubawnt Lake to the area of Exmouth Lake, a distance of 500 miles. Eskers are the bas-relief gravel piles of under-ice riverbeds, laid down seven to thirteen thousand years ago as the most recent continental ice sheets melted. Flying with a plane-load of geologists who are fascinated, in fact almost giddy, to have this aerial view of this notable esker and its corollary landforms, is pretty entertaining.
“Yeah, we can land there. We can get to shore up in that narrows.”
Once we are down and they’ve gone off for their sand and gravel sampling, I wade ashore too, to walk for a while barefoot on the warm sand. But for the black flies and a cooler-than-Caribbean breeze, I could be in Barbados or the Bahamas. Spotless white beach, deep blue sky, verdant green midsummer bushes.
I am so struck by that spot, that day, as I loiter and wait for my passengers, that I wade back out to the plane to pinpoint it on my map. When I do so I realize, with a startle, that the widening we have come to is a stretch of the Radford River. Which means I have been here before, twice, in April of 1981, on skis and alongside a dogsled, 38 years ago.
I stand there on the float and try to conjure up those days, one day as my two friends and I were eastbound, and one when just two of us were westbound. In the meantime our little group had dwindled by one, when a skiplane had whisked away John, whose mother had fallen ill. It was on that day that I had for the first time met up with my future neighbor Roger, who flew a Super Cub from his cabin on the upper Thelon, and who had somehow managed to find our tiny party in all that white blank expanse.
I can’t honestly say I recall anything specific about those days here, then. As I try, I find again that it is always a little painful to envision my younger self, brash as I was back then. So green and yet so confident. My opinions outweighed my experience by a staggering ratio, as is so common when we are “sophomores” i.e. “wise fools.” I think back to our gear, our dogs, our methods, and I can only wonder that we made it as far as we did — and came to no harm.
Oh well, no need to be sheepish. We all begin somewhere. We made the trip and we made it back. Nowadays a trip like that would be perceived as borderline lunacy. Yeegads, no satellite telephone, no Garmin InReach tracker and texter and weather forecaster and for all I know coffee-maker. Not even a two-way radio. We set off for Baker Lake, from Yellowknife, about 600 miles by trail, the three of us and ten dogs. There is a long saga here but the gist of it is that, at Hornby Point on the Thelon, about 4 weeks and 400 miles out, Kurt and I realized we would be at least 10 days overdue, if we made Baker Lake at all, so we turned back. It was the right thing to do. Safe and sound and wiser, we pulled into the Reliance weather station on Day 42, the 25th of April, 1981.
And here I am, back again, much to my surprise, on this widening of the little Radford River, a dozen miles west of the Thelon and south of the Hanbury. My life has circled me back to here, and I can’t help but wonder whether, in four decades, any other humans have passed on foot through this little notch of the esker. It is not impossible that someone has, of course, but I cannot imagine what they might have been up to. There is some chance — a good chance, I’d say — that my friends and I, in April of 1981, were the last of our far-flung and oh-so-pervasive species to set foot in this north-south notch of this long east-west esker. These days, there is comfort and some reassurance in knowing of places like this. And I wonder if this is it, for this spot, for my life, or if I will someday, for some reason, circle back to stand here again.
And now as I re-write this post, it is the 29th, and warm (I almost wrote “hot” again) and calm. The snow of two days ago is hard to fathom this afternoon. The horseflies are out, and they love this weather. Working from the Husky now, with just one of the geologists. This is to be our final day of this, and we’ll be glad to be done. We have reached the area where this grand-champion of the planet’s eskers finally peters out and spreads into a confusion of moraines and curving sand-piles. A few more hours and we will turn and climb southeast toward home; by then we will be almost 275 miles northwest of home base at the Hoarfrost.
Circling out, and circling back, returning and revisiting places, again and again, sometimes on purpose, often only by accident and serendipity, is a gift of this life and work. How many times I have looked down on and walked on various parts and pieces of this long wavery esker, as I’ve flown along it with all the various stripes of “-ologists “ over the years. Studying wolves, studying bears, studying rocks, looking for canoers, looking for diamonds, looking for caribou…
Decades pile on, and my life keeps circling low and slow in these funny little flying machines, as the landscape overflows with layer upon layer of memories.
I like these lines by Wendell Berry, a poet and writer eloquent in his passionate attachment to place:
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
from The Vision, a poem quoted in an interview / article, Going Home with Wendell Berry, by Amanda Petrusich, The New Yorker, July 14, 2019