The prosaic answer is that every second year or so I am overdue for a solid break from the hustle and bustle of the everyday world all around me. And -conveniently- by that time I have forgotten most of the black flies and mosquitos too. I also like to see the one or other place with my own eyes. To see how drab the Dismal Lakes, how bleak the Barren Lands really are.
Robert W. Service gave a more poetic answer in his poem "The Spell of the Yukon":
It's the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It's the stillness that fills me with peace.
And Max Finkelstein gave an even more detailed understanding in his book "CANOEING A CONTINENT":
Before heading farther west, let's eddy out for a few moments and ponder this question: Why the Heck do we do this?
Why do some people undertake long canoe journeys. Everyone who undertakes a long voyage, no matter what the means of transportation, shares similar challenges and rewards. There is the mixture of thrill, fear and excitement of entering the unknown.
This is as true for the modern canoeist equipped with maps and Geographic Positioning Systems (GPSs), as it was for Mackenzie, although the uncertainties Mackenzie faced would seem overwhelmingly daunting to us mollycoddled modern explorers. All explorers and adventurers also share, I believe, a selfish, egotistical desire to experience places and feelings that most other people don’t, either through choice or circumstance. They (and I’m chagrined to say that I include myself in this group) see themselves as apart from most others. Not superior, but different, and a little bit privileged. Speaking for myself, I feel that I have experienced through my canoe trips beauty and feelings of well-being that have been so complete, so satisfying, that I have felt close to God. This gives me a strong sense of self, of accomplishment, meaning, purpose, identity, and, yes, it makes me feel just a little bit above the crowd. But I also know that others achieve these same feelings through others activities and passions. Canoeing is just my route to the same place.
There’s more. The biggest part of any adventure is, as the famous epithet says, not the destination, but the journey. To be a truly satisfying journey, it MUST involve physical discomfort, deprivation, extreme exertion, and elements of DANGER (real or imagined). That is why driving to the top of a mountain doesn’t pack the same sense of satisfaction as climbing there. A road takes away all the key elements of adventure — danger (although it could be argued that driving is the most dangerous activity we undertake, but we all share this danger, so that negates its value), physical exertion, deprivation, and hardship. Although the same beautiful view is there at the mountaintop, the value of the view is diminished if we drive there. The thrill is gone, at least for me, for Mackenzie, and for many others like us.
Big journeys are exclamation points in our mundane little lives. Completing them, or just surviving them, gives us memories we use to define, or redefine ourselves. I am a canoe tripper, a voyageur in training. I look back on my canoe journeys, and look forward to more, with happiness and not just a little bit of pride. The value of any canoe trip grows in proportion to the effort expended, the danger involved, the challenges overcome, and the deprivation endured. I’m not sure which of these is most important. It depends on the individual circumstances and the state of mind of the paddler. But if we were to take a survey of everyone who has goes repeatedly on long canoe journeys, when the talk runs high in the local tavern, it focuses mainly on ...c’mon, reader, take a guess: The beauty of the northern sky at night, the terror of listening to a grizzly bear snuffle around your tent, the bone-wrenching weariness during a day of repeated portages, or the thrill and satisfaction of eating French fries, followed by apple pie (made with canned pie filling) and ice cream at a greasy spoon restaurant at the end of the trip. My bet would be on the last.
All canoe trippers thrive on deprivation. I am not a masochist. I don’t actually enjoy being wet and cold and weary. I don’t like putting on frozen shoes and gloves in the morning. I don’t like rationing my Mars bars, eating one-quarter of a Mars bar when my body craves a 12-pack. But a little deprivation makes the value of things we take for granted increase exponentially, which makes life a very thrilling, rich experience indeed. A hot cup of coffee, an entire Mars bar, a dry sleeping bag...ecstasy. Kings and Queens could know no greater happiness. You just don’t know what’cha got ‘til you don’t have it.
I can’t resist telling you about an experience, one of those epiphanies of life, that happened to me many years ago, on my way home from a 75-day canoe trip in the western Arctic . I was on a flight from Inuvik to Yellowknife , back in the days when passengers were treated really well. The flight attendant (they called them stewardesses in those by-gone days) offered all the passengers complimentary coffee with liqueur, which she called “fancy coffee”, and a Mars bar. I was reveling in my good fortune, dipping the Mars bar in the coffee, and licking the melted chocolate, then taking a sip of coffee. Each sip and lick was bordering on orgasmic. Then, fingers firmly tapping on my shoulder broke into reverie. “Sir”, said the flight attendant impatiently, “you’ll have too put up your tray and finish your coffee”.
“Why”, I asked, blinking like someone had hit me in the nose.
“Because we’re landing in Yellowknife ”.
I looked around at the other passengers. Not a sign of coffee or Mars bars. Trays up. Seat belts fastened. I had been enjoying this treat for over an hour. If only we would relish all life has to offer us like that, how rich life would be. Perhaps that is the goal, and the motivation, of eastern mystics. To experience the joy in small, everyday things is a darn good reason to keep on going out into the wilderness. Not the only reason, but a darn good one.
Perhaps Sir William Logan, the founder of the Geological Survey of Canada in 1842 and one of Canada ’s most renowned scientists, best stated why people go on long canoe trips: “I have dined with lords and ladies, chatted with Queen Victoria , and have been formally received by the Emperor Napoleon III. Yet my most cherished memories come...from a leaky tent, a bark canoe...and the vast and mysterious wilderness of Canada .” Right on, Sir William, except for the bit about the leaky tent.
But let’s get back to those crazy mad fools who paddle across continents, for whatever reason. Mackenzie was the first European to reach the Pacific travelling overland by canoe and foot. He and his party hiked the last 215 miles) following a traditional native trading path over the Coast Ranges from the Fraser River . The path was established for the eulachan trade. Eulachan, or candlefish, is an oily fish that lives in the Pacific. The oil was a valuable trading item for oil-poor inland tribes. Today, we’d build a pipeline and pump the eulachan inland.
Mackenzie’s route to the Pacific was so difficult that it seems few followed it, especially his route over the Continental Divide. But we are a species driven to explore, and it wasn’t long before others were pushing their way to the Pacific. Their obvious motivation, like Mackenzie’s, was wealth, control and empire building. But in their hearts, they were explorers.
Che-Mun spring 2002