Death on the Barrens

George James Grinnell, Death on the Barrens: A True Story of Courage and Tragedy in the Canadian Arctic (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books) 2016 edition.

Grinnell - Death on the Barrens
The 1955 Moffatt expedition from Lake Athabasca to Dubwant Lake and down the Dubwant River to the RCMP station on Baker Lake was an incredible challenge even in the 1950's. In a time before GPS and accurate satellite maps, there were all sorts of ways for the expedition to meet with tragedy. The fact that the expedition leader, Arthur Moffatt was trying to create a movie added to the complexity and challenges of the trip. Equipped with 3 18' Chestnut Prospector wood and canvas canoes, a team of six undertook the voyage. Starting just a little bit late, their pace was slow enough that they were in trouble by the time they reached the point of no return. the approach of cold weather, the prospect of encountering an iced-in lake, and the shortness of food created a temptation to take shortcuts and one shortcut - running a set of rapids without properly scouting them - turned into disaster. Two of the canoes swamped. Five of the six explorers ended up in the water. Necessary gear including tents and sleeping bags was lost to the river.

It took more than 40 years after the expedition for Grinnell to write his book. And, apparently his book sparked something in another of the expedition's participants, Fred "Skip" Pessl, to write his own account of the journey in a book that came out from Dartmouth College Press in 2014. I am currently reading that book and will review it here when I have finished it.

Grinnell's book is based on his own memories and doesn't seem to be based on the journals of other participants in the trip and I'm sure that the story is told with a bias. Nonetheless, the reality is that a tragedy occurred that might have been prevented, but to which no particular blame can be laid. The loss of Arthur Moffatt might not have occurred in this day of better equipment, satellite phones, helicopter evacuation and other safety nets. The complete isolation and self reliance of the team, however, is part of what made the expedition such a great adventure.

Others have ventured into the Barrens since, and I've read several other accounts of expeditions and explorations in the region, but Grinnell's account of the expedition should hold the interest of anyone interested in canoe camping and expeditions.