KING KEVLAR: A Meditation on Travel/Adventure Writing

By John Harris | January 28, 2001

R. M. Patterson (1896 – 1984) is a god among the outdoor adventure/ adventure travel crowd in western Canada. He canoed all the big rivers back before the areas they drained were settled or converted into parks or hydro lakes. He wrote accounts of his adventures for Blackwood’s, The Beaver and book publishers in London, New York, and Victoria. His five books have never gone out of print, the Horsdal and Schubart-published set of them are conspicuous in local history or adventure sections of Western Canadian bookstores. Dangerous River (1954) is his classic, the story of two trips, in 1927 and 1928-9, up the South Nahanni River. It and Far Pastures, a collection of his short stories, are books that the general reader might stumble upon and read with amazement, for Patterson had a way of going at a story and a sentence that indicates wit and intelligence.

Yet, if you don’t own a canoe, you do have to stumble on Patterson. The usual cues from literary criticism are lacking or ambiguous – as they are to some extent for many of Patterson’s literary heroes like Rudyard Kipling and Jack London (but not Joseph Conrad), for Farley Mowat, and for the younger Canadian heroes of adventure-travel like Ronald Wright, Wade Davis, and Sid Marty.

Critics have difficulty classifying books of what might be called autobiographical realism – novels and stories narrated in the first person by (for lack of evidence to the contrary) the author. The difficulty became acute with the “new journalism” of Hunter Thompson, Norman Mailer, Tom Woolf, and Truman Capote and with the upsurge of interest in adventure/travel stories such as those written by Bruce Chatwin, Jon Krakauer and Paul Theroux. The unspoken rule seems to be that if autobiographical realism is lyrical – featuring a good deal of inner monologue about domestic issues like sex, aging, family, and work (especially if that work is, like teaching, sedentary, solitary, and conducive to drinking) – it is accepted as fiction. “Fiction” is a value as well as a genre designation, indicating acceptance as literature or “creative writing.” Amongst contemporary Western Canadian writers, Stan Persky, Gladys Hindmarch, Brian Fawcett, Bill Schermbrucker, and George Bowering each write autobiographical realism that is accepted as fiction. When similarly structured stories include settings and political or historical situations that can be identified or verified, as the stories of Patterson, Mowat, Marty and Terry Glavin do, these stories are classified as non-fiction – which is also a value designation as it indicates that the text is sub-literary even if the adjectives “creative” or “subjective” are, as an act of politeness, added.

It may be though that a story should be evaluated as literary or non-literary on the basis of its literary merits rather than by an arbitrary sorting and weighing of its fictional and non-fictional components. For example, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, sometimes referred to as the first English novel, is treated as fiction because we know how it was written. It seems to be non-fiction, the diary of the survivor Crusoe, edited by Daniel Defoe. Memoirs of Montparnasse is also a counterfeit, as scholars have discovered, but we prefer to take Glassco at his word that it is non-fiction, probably because we know, from outside the text, that Glassco was in Paris even if he did little of what he said he did. And Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, probably the most widely-read and influential novel of the twentieth century, is accepted as fiction but read as if it were autobiographical. Important critical analyses of it, like Chinua Achebe’s attack on its racism, are premised on Conrad’s statement that the story was “pushed a little (and only a very little) beyond the essential facts,” and on the fact that Conrad and his narrator, Marlow, share similar biographies. In fact, all of Conrad’s fiction invites this treatment – Conrad being the kind of story teller who likes to draw an audience closer by assuring it that a story “really happened.”

In realistic stories, fact is the energizing factor and fiction (the oldest and most effective way of educing meaning from fact) is the organizing factor. It is essential that the reader not know when fact stops and fiction begins. Fictions like Heart of Darkness and Memoirs of Montparnasse are especially intriguing because we are given to believe they are fact, but really it is always the task of the realistic novelist to create this illusion no matter how fictionalized the writing. Good counterfeiting is essential in the writing of realistic novels and short stories.

Thus, it might not be wise for literary criticism to build categories that are based on separating out and weighing fact and fiction. First, it takes attention away from the real task of criticism, which is to determine the merits of stories. Second, critical categories become dictatorial in the hands of arts bureaucrats, teachers, and publishers. The attempt to base categories on quotients of fact and fiction seems to be pushing autobiographical realism towards lyricism and encouraging the idea that action/adventure is essentially sub-literary, and even that action itself, unless it is predominantly internal, lacks meaning.

This may be why it has taken a “real” (not a literary) historian, the author of seven books on topics like petroleum exploration in Alberta, the history of Calgary, and the construction of the Brooks Aqueduct, to write the first biography of Patterson: R.M. Patterson: A Life of Great Adventure. Clearly Finch tackled Patterson partly because Patterson lived for many years in Alberta and is acclaimed as a native son – last year, a 9000’ peak there, visible on a clear day from Calgary, was named after him. But Finch is a canoeist as well as an Albertan, and he first encountered Patterson accordingly – a friend who was teaching him how to line and track his canoe said, “You should really read The Dangerous River about this guy who . . . .” It’s a credit to Finch’s professionalism that he has treated Patterson as he first encountered him, not primarily as an adventurer or explorer but as a story teller, and has written a biography that addresses the way in which Patterson uses fact and fiction to make his stories convincing.

Patterson, Finch shows, thought of himself from the very start as a storyteller, and of his life as the material for story. Finch doesn’t attempt to prove that Patterson was a great fiction writer, but assumes he was and proceeds to treat Patterson’s life as the source of his stories. He shows, in the notebooks, letters and other sources of historical fact, how the material of Patterson’s books, especially those of Dangerous River, was “pushed.” Finch’s book provides a foundation and stimulus not only for a critical evaluation of Patterson and estimation of Patterson’s place in Canada’s literary history, but also for speculation on the merits of classifying adventure/travel writing as fiction – as novel and short story – and evaluating it as such.

The case for inserting Dangerous River into the list of Canada’s literary classics is an interesting one. The book was presented as autobiography but in various ways “pushed” a considerable distance into fiction. It was pushed in some of the usual ways – Patterson invented dialogue for events that had happened over twenty years earlier, and he made himself a little more capable and heroic than he really was. But he also, as Finch shows, developed two major fictions. First, he pushed his story an extra few miles through the treacherous Fourth Canyon of the Nahanni to Virginia Falls, the geographical objective of his journey. In reality, Patterson couldn’t handle the Canyon and turned back to the mouth of the Flat River, where the man he’d met accidentally on the way in, Albert Faille (pron. Faylee), who’d towed him a ways up the Liard and showed him the proper way to line and track his canoe, was building a cabin. Faille wanted to see the falls himself before settling into his new home for a winter’s trapping, so the two made the trip together in Faille’s thirty-foot canoe with its little outboard – no easy trip even with the help of some technology. There, they took the first photo of the falls. In Dangerous River, this first and only visit to the falls becomes the second visit, and Patterson is seen as taking Faille to the falls rather than being taken there by Faille.

A second way that Dangerous River was “pushed” was that Patterson claimed he found archaeological sites as well as signs of gold and other valuable minerals up the Flat River, the Nahanni’s major tributary, and in the country above Deadmen Valley towards the Yukon Divide. This allowed him to hook his story to one of the most intriquing of Canadian legends, the story of the lost McLeod Mine– the story that jump-started Pierre Berton’s career as a popular historian. The story tells of the three McLeod brothers who, in 1904-5, in the course of a veritable northern odyssey, found an abandoned mine somewhere along the Nahanni River or the Flat. The mine had been dug years earlier, either by the Nahanni Indians, a tribe that had dwindled to near extinction by the turn of the century, or by some Klondikers who had chosen an unusual route to the Dawson goldfields. The brothers brought their incredible story to Fort Simpson, and then two of them returned to work the mine. They never came back; a few years later, the third brother found their headless bodies in the valley just above the first canyon of the Nahanni. Here, the McLeod story links with an earlier story circulated by mid-to-late nineteenth century Hudson’s Bay Company explorers and fur traders (like Robert Campbell), a story of a “lost valley” heated by geo-thermal action and populated by monkeys, lions, and a tribe of headhunters – the Nahanni — led by a tall, beautiful, and fair-skinned woman (who liked white men).

This story adds suspense and some comedy to Dangerous River. Patterson recognized the distant hand of H. Rider Haggard and at the same time saw that the story was a perfect distillation of a landscape that was both wild and (because parts of it had escaped the last ice age) different, and so seemed ominous to the whites that first penetrated it. His trips were staged, in part, as challenges to the legend-spinners, and yet over their campfires he and Faille, and then he and Gordon Matthews (Patterson’s trapping partner on the second trip), recite the litany of the dead and express their apprehension that the legend-spinners could have some truth on their side. They are visited by a wandering band of Nahannis; a good deal of tea is consumed and no one loses a head. They also search for clues to the whereabouts of the lost valley and the mine and for signs of the headhunters, and they have to deal with other prospectors and explorers who are intrude on them, convinced that they know more than they are saying.

Patterson’s development of his two major fictions was sparked by good instincts and some luck. First, Virginia Falls turned out to be a worthy objective for Patterson’s journey. At twice the height of Niagara, they are among the most spectacular falls in the world, and they must be reached, like an enchanted princess, through four forbidding canyons, the deepest in Canada. Patterson excels in descriptive prose; the Nahanni landscape with its hotsprings, rock labyrinths, extended cave systems, and ancient limestone landforms inspired him to new heights. Second, the McLeod story had already acquired subtlety and polish though years of loving repetition around northern campfires. Patterson made full use of its intricacies. Third, Albert Faille turned out to be a rare find, a perfect hero and good contrast to Patterson who portrays himself as too snooty and confident for his own good. Faille is affable, easy-going, and yet charismatic in his commitment to the country and the exploration of its mysteries.

Largely because of Patterson, Faille has become an icon, his shack in Fort Simpson a major tourist attraction, his life the subject of numerous articles (like Heather Robertson’s in Nobody Here But Us) and of a famous NFB short, “Nahanni.” There’s even an Albert Faille website, where you can visit the cabin, smell the moccasins, and accompany Faille, the glad trapper, on a journey up the Nahanni and Flat in search of the McLeod Mine. The legend of Albert Faille continues to grow, parts of it now based on Patterson’s portrayal.

Patterson’s fictions make Dangerous River one of the greatest river adventure books ever written – just as Glassco’s fictions make Memoirs of Montparnasse into one of the best accounts of expatriate Paris in the twenties. I think Dangerous River is really, like Memoirs, a good novel. It has faults. The first is the excess of detail about river tripping. Like Defoe, rummaging through survivor’s accounts and diaries for Robinson Crusoe, Patterson can become mesmerized by details. Second, Patterson’s theme, the celebration of the active life and affirmation of the value of connecting, through that life, with the immediate past when people like Faille lived as trappers and hunters and outdoor adventure was a part of life, is, as Conrad might have put in, “unmeditated.”

Bruce Hutchison once referred to Patterson as a mix of Jack London and Henry David Thoreau. This is true, and Hutchison meant it as a compliment. But Patterson never really mixes or reconciles these two sides of his personality. Patterson’s theme is also, partly because it is unmeditated, presented in some ways that would not now be considered politically correct. Of course, this particular impediment to granting Dangerous River literary status may be criticism’s problem as much as it is Patterson’s.

A good deal of adventure/travel suffers from “split personality” – enthusiasm for adventure along with enthusiasm for nature and simplicity. These two may seem contiguous until the desired “adventure” is described. No one (not even Wade Davis) is proposing to “go native.” Even the hero who set out to walk across the Sahara from the Mediterranean to the Niger (he never made it) was pushing a wheelbarrow full of plastic water bottles. Modern adventure is dependent on, and sometimes defined by, modern technology, from Visa to velcro. Yet its primary motive is to escape the “system” through outdoor activity and to celebrate that activity as a return to past values. As a result, when adventure/travel writers emote on their theme they are, like Patterson, unconvincing. They externalize the system, yet are obviously carrying it with them in their equipment and their attitudes. Patterson’s hymns to unspoiled nature and his rants against “progress” are given the lie by his luger, his rifle, and his “Chestnut Prospector,” of all of which equipment he is inordinately proud. Patterson also luxuriated in his status as a white person – as a Brit, even — of modest but (compared to Faille, say) substantial means. About all this he is usually candid, telling stories of how the indigenous (Slave) Indians often helped him – they saved him from certain death on one occasion described in Dangerous River. But he also says that these Indians are “ugly,” he scoffs at their birch-bark canoes, skinboats and other inferior equipment, and he seldom mentions their names.

In this, he epitomizes as good deal of adventure/travel writing. There’s a whiff of sexism, racism, and/or colonialism hanging over most of it – all those stories about mostly male, mostly first-world (i.e. well-off), mostly white people “conquering” Everest, doing drugs with the Yanomami Indians on the upper Amazon, rescuing tourists in Banff, and paddling kevlar kayaks around the world. Adventure/travel goes over best when the story is told straight and the attitude of the narrator is apologetic: “I can’t explain why I have the compulsion to do these stupid things,” or “I guess I’m addicted to my own adrenaline.” When there is bragging or an environmentalist theme or an attack on the “system” (as there often is in Mowat and sometimes in Glavin) the reader can only blush.

Had Patterson looked more closely at his hero Conrad, he might have developed his theme more intelligently. Conrad, like Patterson, was proud of his technology and technique and the Empire that had introduced it to the world. Like Patterson, too, Conrad was, at the same time, also cynical about progress. In fact, Conrad used the word “progress” as a sneer, and defined the conquest of the earth as “the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves – not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” But this definition of progress indicates that Conrad, unlike Patterson, was examining the contradiction he was involved in. Conrad was also aware that there was no turning away from progress, as Thoreau believed. Progress is us; is any human being. Conrad rejected mere adventure as escapist: “the mere love of adventure is no saving grace.” He sought redemption in what he questioned but could not avoid: “What saves us is efficiency — the devotion to efficiency.”

A laughable concept, perhaps. Patterson would’ve thought so, and Marlow’s religion of efficiency, of work, while it may help him through the darkness by enabling him to act decisively according to a set of generally agreed-upon principles that are not hopelessly idealistic, does not guide him to the light. He drifts instead into admiration of men of questionable morals like the Accountant, and complicity with the monster Kurtz. He is a loner. Patterson never worked (except as a writer), was proud of his ability to keep away from work, could not see any redemption in it and pitied those who had to do it. He was, really, the last of the remittance men; he escaped from civilization and ran to wilderness and adventure (not to mention his fatuous and largely unfulfilled dreams of sheep or cattle ranching).

People who leave the road of progress for awhile, to go off into wilderness and adventure and pretend that they are heading in a different direction than the masses, cannot be blamed. What’s a vacation for? As novelists like Margaret Atwood show, the road, passing as it does through the valley of the shadow of industrialization and specialization, is a tough trek, and the compromises of freedom and individuality that are called for can be soul-destroying. But those who go off can be blamed if they believe or pretend that they are not pretending. Farley Mowat learned this when he went to live with the wolves and the Inuit. He claimed he was fighting the system, rebelling against the bureaucracy. He seemed merely foolish until he learned that he was really fighting himself: “. . . a wolf howled . . . . It was a voice which spoke of a lost world which once was ours before we chose an alien role; a world which I had glimpsed and almost entered . . . only to be excluded, at the end, by my own self.”

This is a revelation, and a satisfying ending to a good story. Sid Marty goes beyond this, describing in his fictions how his love of wilderness and adventure has affected (at time devastated, at times elevated) his family life. He confronts the conflict in himself, in his actions as well as his thoughts, when for example he takes his son to hospital for a condition that can only be corrected by the most advanced medicine. He realizes that he has endangered his son’s life in his attempts to walk away from the road, to protest progress, the very thing that could (and did) save his son’s life. Patterson, and too many adventure/travel writers, never get close Marty’s degree of self-awareness. Like the producers of the Eco-Challenge and Survivor (and even of David Suzuki) on TV, too many of these writers don’t want to show that behind the scenes they portray is Boeing, the scent of gasoline, the thunder of choppers and the hum of camcorders.

Far Pastures ends with an explicit statement of the theme that concerns Patterson in all of his books, including Dangerous River. Patterson attacks machinery which, he says, destroys skill and devalues endurance, hardihood, and physical fitness. He affirms the “simple pioneer virtues of courage, endurance, loyalty, and fitness preached by Rudyard Kipling and Jack London.” He mourns the end of the British Empire, destroyed (he says) by false idealism which is always for “some cause far enough away to be quite safe – not of course the full citizenship of the Canadian Indian and return of his lands but the handing over of any white farm lands in Africa to the tender mercies of black or brown.”

This is the voice of the hectoring grandfather, out of touch, memories rose-tinted. Yet what if there is some truth – testified to by the accomplishments of that grandfather – behind the hectoring? What if Patterson is correct in his assertions that we are losing, in our fascination with technology and our acceptance of progress, the ability, even the will, to seek out and express our individuality? What if we have applied our ideals to questions safely distanced from ourselves, lost our faith perhaps that meaningful action – action that impacts on others – is possible for individuals? What if we have come to believe that the system does it all anyway or (even more insidious) that having any impact on others is inherently evil, an affront to their individuality, and therefore that we should let the system do it and keep our consciences clean?

A Life of Great Adventure concludes with an act of literary criticism. In his penultimate chapter, Finch informs us that, in old age, Patterson completed a book entitled The Emperor’s Horsemen. It’s about Napoleon’s couriers, and Patterson researched it extensively in European libraries and archives and on the battlefields. He fictionalized it, too, wanting to make it immediate, to tell a good story. Patterson (again, with charming innocence) tried to get a Canada Council grant for this book. Of course, the Council wouldn’t touch it, and neither, later, would any publisher. Patterson’s appeal was his usual one, “I write about men doing things.” Very suspect. Finch says The Emperor’s Horsemen could be Patterson’s masterpiece. I’m entranced enough by Patterson’s other stories, and by Finch’s telling of Patterson’s story, to want to believe it.

3730 words



Posted in:

More from John Harris: