Thursday, 3 December 2009

Tip of the Hat to Mowat

So, one of my favourite books of all time is Farley Mowat's Lost in the Barrens, or as my beaten-up paperback is titled, Two Against the North. You can imagine my excitement when I not only was able to locate the places mentioned in the book on Google Maps, but discovered that there is a river system that connects these places right to Calgary! If they existed, if would be theoretically possible for the characters to canoe their way to visit me!

I realized how hopelessly dweebish that all sounds, so I wrote a little piece of fiction to justify my spending so much time tracing the route.


Kieran is busy lounging on the common room couch, with one leg on the armrest and the other leg on the ground. His left arm is on the backrest and his right arm lost all sensation long ago. He is musing the shapes formed by the bumpy stuff on the ceiling when Renee pokes her head around the corner.

Sooo, Kieran” she says, dragging the words out, “I was thinking about what you said earlier.”

Kieran stops looking at the ceiling to turn his attention to Renee. “I said something thought provoking?” The surprise in his voice sounds just shocked enough to be fake.

Renee raises her eyebrows. “Well, remember how you said I really didn't know anything about Cree culture? At all?”

I think so,” says Kieran, stretching out to sit up. “You felt so bad about it you were crying into my shoulder.”

I don't recall that's why I was crying. And I don't think it was into your shoulder.”

I do recall.”

Renee rolls her eyes and makes a sound that signifies disgust and frustration, but the near smirk on her face kills the effect. “Anyways, let me tell you what I've been thinking about,” she says, pulling a soft-cover novel from behind her back. “Ever hear of Farley Mowat?”

Kieran peers at the book. “Sounds like a new model of motorcycle.”

No, goofy. He's an author. A Canadian author. And he wrote a book called Lost in the Barrens.” Renee steps forward and hands the novel to Kieran. Mildly interested due to the assumption that Renee has a point to make, Kieran flicks through the pages and turns it over to look at the back. Renee plops down on the couch beside him. “It's about a white boy and a Cree boy – a Woodland Cree boy, just like you, by the way – who, in accordance to the title, aptly get lost in the barrens of Nunavut and almost die while on a canoe trip.”

And?” Kieran looks at her expectantly.

Aaand,” Renee drawls proudly, “the idea of a canoe trip kindled my interest. In the book they only traveled from Thanout Lake to just past Wolf Lake before wrecking on the Kazan, but they find this cool viking grave.”

And that pertains to you knowing nothing about Cree culture how?”

Renee smiles tightly before walking to the computer desk and pulling up Google Maps. She points out a bend in Fish Creek.“If we were to start here, and your sense of direction proved to be as good as you claim it is, we could actually canoe all the way to the viking grave mentioned in the book. Well, to where it would be if it actually existed. But the rivers are real.”

Not sure whether she means to be taken seriously or not, he leans over and places one hand on the back of her seat and another on the desk. “Show me the route,” he says.

Starting at the bend in Fish Creek, Renee's finger follows the blue squiggle eastward. “See, we'd follow Fish Creek until it ran into the Bow, where we'd turn south and follow the Bow until it joined up with the South Saskatchewan River in Medicine Hat. From there, we'd just stay the course until it turned into the North Saskatchewan River and flowed into The Pas, Manitoba.”

She stops here to gage Kieran's reaction. He remains stoic. “And from there? Where did you say the viking grave was?”

Along the Kazan. I'm not sure exactly how to get to Thanout Lake from The Pas, but I know it can be done. I anticipate someone at The Pas could tell us, because the Cree in the area have been coming down to trade there on canoes for years. Or used to, anyways. I don't know if they do anymore.”

Kieran grunts acknowledgment.

So if we could get instructions from The Pas to Thanout, the rest of the route is outlined in the book.” Her finger continues to outline the path. “Through Kasmere, Putahow, North Nuelthin, then along the Mikkiku and Goose rivers, through Halo and Kakut Lake – don't worry, all these lakes are really close together – and then onto the Kazan.” She stops pointing and leans back satisfied in her chair. “If you do a Google search,” she says, “you'll find that canoe trips on the Kazan, or Kazon-dee-zee, as it's called in the book, are apparently quite popular. It has some spectacular falls, I hear.”

So let me get this straight,” Kieran says. Renee turns to look at him concernedly. Those words he just used generally mean he's about to become somewhat condescending. “The characters in this book you read are adept and experienced canoers who get wrecked, lost, and almost die in the arctic barrens, and yet somehow reading their story makes you want to try to do the same thing, times ten?”

Renee rolls her eyes and makes a pff noise with her mouth. “Of course not,” she says, “this was just to show you that it would be possible. All I'm saying is I think it would be fun to canoe on Lake Chestermere sometime.”

Kieran laughs and whacks her on the shoulder. “That, I would agree to,” he says, standing up, “provided that I got to push you out of the boat at least once.”

Aw, come on!”

You still know nothing about Cree people,” he teases. “Pakan.”

Yeah, well, I got a little sidetracked with my research. This canoe thing was too enticing.”

So I see.” He starts to head to the kitchen for some lunch meat and crackers as Renee turns back to the computer screen. Still gazing longingly at the satellite images, she sighs.

Hey Kieran?”

Yeah?” he calls back from the kitchen.

Just out of curiosity, how long do you think a trip like that would take?”


To quote a Cree friend of mine: Hamaga pakan. It means "Hurry then, you nut." I like to learn the useful bits of any language I come across.

P.S. I really would like to go on a canoe trip some time.

1 comment:

art said...

Every time I hear Farley Mowat, I wonder about his ethics.Apparently he said that he does not allow facts to get in the way of truth. I suppose he was called to a higher truth that allows him to lie on the lower levels. I think he would have done much better had he not fictionalised his supposed historical documentaries.