Diary of a Lake, Edited by John Harris and Vivien Lougheed, Repository Press, 2002, $22
This book’s subtitle reads as follows: An Intimate Description of the Natural History of Glacier Lake and the Cirque of the Unclimables, In the Words of Scientists Who Were among the Area’s First Pioneers. Glacier Lake is (from the first paragraph of John Harris’s introduction) in the geographical heart of the North West Territories’ Mackenzie Mountains, …a mecca for rock climbers and for canoeists on the upper South Nahanni River . What it offers is a useful contemporary trail guide by Vivien Lougheed, a series of first-encounter accounts by naturalists and surveyors beginning in the mid 1930s and ranging into the early 1950s, several later-in-life interviews with the first visitors, some obituaries, and a bibliography. There are even some dessert recipes able campers can cook up. Harris and Lougheed have traveled into the area at least a half-dozen times, both are competent hikers and knowledgeable amateur naturalists, so this is no armchair survey of sources. Anyone contemplating a trip into the Nahanni, one of the continent’s few remaining pristine areas, would do well to obtain this privately published and distributed book . It’s available from Books & Company, 1685 Third Avenue, Prince George, B.C. V2L 3G5, tel (250) 563-6637 or email: BookSales@books-and-company.com), and you should know that Harris is the least known among a very select group of Canadian writers worth reading just for way they think, and put together English sentences.
Now, I happen to be from the Satchel Paige school of physical exercise, and so people who climb rock faces and mountains for no other reason than that they present challenges to their bodily ego aren’t my cup of tea. My idea of a worthwhile challenge to the mind and body would lean more toward 40 pages of The Remembrance of Things Past than 40 miles of the Nahanni. I’ve done my share of river canoeing, but it’s been a very long time since I’ve been out for more than a day-trip, so all in all, this book ought to hold little personal interest for me. Both Harris and Lougheed are admirable people in a number of ways when they’re not hoisting trail-bikes across icy freshets lined with grizzly bears, but I don’t want to hang out with the sort of people who’d buy their book as a travel guide. Happily, there are a number of other ways to use this book.
I started to realize this on page 18, which features a 1939 photograph of botanist James H. Soper, who was Hugh Raup’s field assistant at Glacier Lake and later went to Harvard, taught at the University of Toronto and eventually became the chief botanist at the Canadian Museum of Nature. In the photograph, Soper is perched atop a packing box on a Glacier Lake raft, one shoe off, black fedora on his head, sketching a nearby mountain in a notebook and leading a contemplative life in a place that, well, doesn’t lend itself to contemplation. What’s going through his mind, and why is he here? A few pages later a 1952 photograph shows a middle-aged man, stern-faced, hands on hips, with a .45 revolver in a shoulder holster. He’s not being macho. There are grizzlies around, and a .45 slug at short range, which is where grizzly encounters tend to occur in this sort of country, might save a life. From there I jumped to an account of a three-man prospecting expedition sent out in 1952 by the Catholic University of America. It is one of those "everything-that-can-go-wrong-does" accounts, with a near-fatal grizzly encounter, falls into icy rivers, broken bones, boots that break down within days of arrival, and near-starvation. The three men survived the trip by sheer luck even though they were each competent woodsmen with excellent practical skills.
What I’m suggesting here is that Harris and Lougheed have compiled a cast of characters that are worthy of attention, and that the way they did it—by documentary collage, makes the book an intellectual puzzle with multiple facets. What sort of cultural milieu produces a man like Harvard professor Hugh Raup, who brought his family—including 6 and 9 year old boys—to the wildest area of North America summer after summer when he could have been lounging in the Catskills sipping Boston julips? Or Harry Snyder, who may have been the first white man, and arguably the first man of any colour to spend time in the region. This was a guy who brought Canada’s first radium mine into production before WWII, ran an oil company which employed Pierre Trudeau’s father, shot the world’s largest elephant in Kenya and was called, by the New Yorker magazine, the dean of North American big game hunters. He’s the kind of man who isn’t very fashionable right now, but he financed most of the scientific expeditions into the Nahanni out of his own pocket, and returned year after year. Was he just using the expeditions as a way of obtaining hunting licences, did he merely want his name on a mountain range, or did he fall in love with the far north?
What waits between the covers of this book are a collection of capable, disciplined, but passionate human beings, of a type that isn’t often seen these days. They’re mostly admirable, because, as Harris points out, they weren’t merely looking to get rich and none of them got bushed. They were there more for the place than for their own egos, and they came back because they’d seen something there that bore witness to larger mysteries of life. The Nahanni isn’t the Heart of Darkness, but it seems to draw the spiritual companions of Conrad’s Marlow. In that sense, Harris and Lougheed are writing about their own kin. And that makes the book interesting, particularly because they’ve done it without an iota of hype or hagiography. This may seem like an obscure travel guide, or half-cooked history. It’s a lot more, and a lot better, than either of those.
1000 words, November 7, 2002