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Up North

Reflections on Mystique, Reality, and Magic

By Tamia Nelson

May 1, 2007

Up North. To a girl with a hankering for adventure, growing up among the hardscrabble farms on the borderland between New York and Vermont, those two words meant escape. "My" mountains were only low hills, the nearby woods had been managed till they were little more than thickets, and the local streams were fouled by the waste of hundreds of cattle (not to mention the raw sewage from small towns too stingy to invest in treatment plants). It was just too "sivilized" for me, and like Huck Finn, I longed to light out for the Territories — to go up North, to a place where there were no Holsteins, no fences, and no cornfields. I wanted to lose myself in a land of infinite forests, to scale stony cloud-capped peaks, to stand on a beach and feel the chill swash of an arctic sea swirl round my feet. I tried to assuage my hunger by consuming every scrap of information about the North I could find, but nothing really satisfied. My appetite grew with eating. Still, I persevered, and the more I read, the more I fell under the sway of the North's…


I wanted excitement. I wanted adventures. I wanted thrills and drama. But I was only a kid, compelled to live life at second-hand. Books and magazines were the best I could do. So I quarried explorers' tales from among the scanty offerings in school and public libraries, and rummaged through musty boxes and dusty shelves in my grandfather's house, in search of back issues of Outdoor Life and National Geographic. Most of the time I was disappointed, but now and again I struck pay dirt. Slowly, nourished by the work of a handful of writers, artists, and photographers — not to mention a myriad of anonymous cartographers — my imagination conjured up a Northland that met my every expectation: a vast, wild country untouched by the hand of man. A region impossibly rich in wildlife, with flocks of waterfowl that darkened the sky, and a grazing moose or fishing bear around every bend in countless free-flowing rivers. A land where pioneer virtues endured, open to anyone with sufficient strength of mind and body. A rugged country of forbidding peaks and ice-fed torrents.

My imagination didn't function in a vacuum. It had a lot to work with. Grainy, black-and-white pictures in the sportsmen's magazines. Carefully composed color compositions in National Geographic. And maps. Above all, maps. Here, too, National Geographic set the standard. The magazine's canny editors understood that maps and dreams go hand in hand. I was only a kid, but I could still trace the great rivers as they wound their way up North on paper, and I dreamt of the day when I could follow them for real. But the best dream-fodder of all were the blank areas on the maps in the oldest magazines, the places were the rivers became dotted lines and mountain peaks were labelled "Not Surveyed." Much later, in my teens, I came across R.M. Patterson's Dangerous River. I hadn't read very far before I knew I wasn't the first person to be intrigued by the blank spaces on a map:

The Yukon-Mackenzie divide [Patterson wrote], land of my boyhood dreams, was shown as a dotted line, named (inaccurately) "Rocky Mountains" and running vaguely between the heads of dotted rivers, themselves vague and their courses only guessed, north to the Arctic Ocean. Reaching up into the southern portion of these so-called Rockies, and rising near the heads of the Pelly, which are the furthest heads of the Yukon, there was a river. It was (inaccurately) shown to be a straight line and it had a couple of tributaries; it seemed to be about two hundred and fifty miles long, and it ran southeastwards into the Liard which, itself, is the West Fork of the great Mackenzie. The river led into the country that I had always wanted to see, … and its name was the South Nahanni.


Heady stuff, this! It was enough to make my arms twitch and my blood run hot. It still is. Of course, Patterson was a gifted storyteller, as well as a real-life pioneer. Yet he hadn't been born to the pioneering life. He, too, was influenced by earlier writers, among them Michael H. Mason, in whose Arctic Forests the map that inspired him first appeared. Clearly, the link between maps and dreams is one of long standing. But dreams aren't enough in themselves. And as I grew up, I came to realize that romantic visions, however cunningly wrought, are no substitute for…


My Grandad, a sometime Adirondack guide, was a taciturn man, and a supremely practical one, as well. He could spin a good yarn when he chose to, but he was at his best as a teacher. And he taught, not by words, but by example. As I approached the age when I could begin to adventure on my own, I knew he could be counted on to give me the straight skinny. After all, a forthcoming summer visit to his Adirondack cabin was going to be my first extended excursion up North, a journey to a world of trackless woods, populated by wolves and "painters" (the local name for mountain lions). Or so my parents told me. In any case, I was dizzy with excitement. But when the great day finally arrived, and I found myself on the threshold of Grandad's cabin, he brought me down to earth in a hurry. "Never seen a wolf," he said. "Not once. Nor a painter, neither. Most likely, it's only summer people that sees 'em." And that was that. Romance had collided with reality, and reality won the day. Oddly enough, though, I didn't mind a bit. Grandad's Adirondacks were my training ground. I explored the cliffs along his river, hiked (and biked) into his secret fishing holes, paddled remote beaver ponds, discovered rotting cabins and old root cellars hidden deep in dark spruce woods, and learned the survival skills I'd need when I went up North for real.

And then, at long last, in a single golden year, I made the leap. After a month in northern Washington's Cascades — not quite up North, but with plenty of honest-to-God snow-covered peaks — I was off to northern Québec. We left the road behind us, loading our canoes and packs aboard a bush train. Then we found seats wherever we could in the sole passenger car. It was crowded with whole families, ranging from nursing infants to great-grandparents, all returning home to a Native reserve further up the line. Our traveling companions welcomed us with shy smiles, then continued conversing among themselves in a sibilant patois that melded both Québecois French and Cree. This was the real thing, I thought. I was up North at last. Soon, however, the first discordant note intruded. The train juddered through a landscape scarred by recent logging, waking an old man from his fitful sleep. Farwell was seated directly across from him. The old man looked at Farwell in silence for a minute, then gestured at the slash piles and said something in a voice only a little louder than a whisper. But Farwell, much to his embarrassment, couldn't understand a word. He could only shrug his shoulders. The old man repeated what he'd just said, raising his voice till it boomed. Farwell still didn't grasp the meaning of a single word. He grinned nervously and shrugged his shoulders once more. Now it was the old man's turn to smile. He rummaged through his memory for words that his seatmate would understand. "Too many Frenchies," he said at last, gesturing again at the logging slash. He paused. "And not enough moose." And he tapped Farwell gently in the ribs before they both exploded in laughter.

Later, we unloaded our gear from the train and paddled off into a northern wilderness. In some ways, it was the stuff of my childhood dreams. I thought we'd left the loggers far behind. Unbroken forests stretched before us, seemingly endless. The rivers ran free. Yet the illusion didn't last for long. We saw no beaver — not one — and we spotted few active lodges. The "endless" forest ended abruptly when a portage trail disappeared into a tangled hell of fresh logging slash. Our riverside campsites were invariably scarred by apparently random ax work and inevitably littered with multiple can dumps. And new survey tape, fresh and bright, was everywhere. It was a sign of things to come.

There was still plenty to see, of course. We paddled through millions of acres of black spruce and muskeg, waded rills, ran miles of wild river, and crossed great, island-studded lakes. There was plenty of wildlife, too, though some of it hadn't figured in my map-inspired dreams. I'd reckoned without the swarms of mosquitoes and blackflies, for example, and I'd failed to anticipate the ruthless persistence of the saber-toothed bulldogs (aka deerflies). By the time we flagged down the bush train that would bring us back to our starting point, I felt like I'd endured a sanguine rite of passage. But if I was bloody, I was also unbowed. In other words, I was hooked. So I returned to the North again and again, whenever the opportunity presented itself. And yet… Each trip ended with me convinced that I still hadn't found what I was looking for. The wilderness retreated before me as I paddled. Or so it seemed. I felt a little like a character in one of Arthur Ransome's children's books — Ransome was a journalist and author, and he may have been a spy, as well — a young girl who, when she discovers that a supposedly secret retreat has been visited before, laments that all the discoveries in the world have been made already. I came to know this mixture of exasperation and disappointment well.

It wasn't news to me that the blank spots on the maps of my youth were rapidly filling in, of course. But the advance of "sivilization" was nonetheless alarming. Every river I ran, however remote, had been charted, and every lake was named. Somewhere along the line, Hudson's Bay lost both its apostrophe and its historical connections. Floatplanes replaced canoes as the dominant form of transport. "Traditional" hunters traded their teams of dogs for snowmobiles and never looked back. Remote bush towns boasted bigger supermarkets than the little farm community I once called home. In short, the mystique of the Northland was gone. Reality had triumphed.


Yet something more remained. What was it, I wondered? Then I found the answer, and curiously enough I discovered it in words that Arthur Ransome put into the mouth of the very same little girl who bemoaned the relentless pace of discovery: "Any place is secret," she observed in another of Ransome's books, "if nobody else is there." I guess this is as close as any of us will ever get to…


At first glance, it's obvious that there are no secret, undiscovered corners left on this earth. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can view high-resolution satellite images of just about anyplace on the planet's surface. But this isn't the same thing as being there. Computers can only make us spectators — voyeurs, if you prefer. We're outside the frame, looking on from the sidelines. But paddling is different. Like hiking and cycling, it puts us in the picture. We're no longer spectators. We're participants. It doesn't matter if you're paddling in waters that have been "discovered" by thousands of folks before you. If it's your first visit, it's new to you. And if nobody else is there? Then it's your secret place, for as long as you're alone.

This has important practical implications. Nowadays, when the urge to go up North becomes overpowering, I don't need to clear my calendar for a month or more. I can discover new waters right on my doorstep. So can you, though if you live in an arid part of the continent, you may want to enlarge your idea of "doorstep" a bit. And later, when you go up North for real, what then? Don't let the contrails in the sky or the scars of seismic survey lines on the land distract you from the important things. Things like the sound of a brisk north wind sighing through the rushes. The gabble of a flock of wavies taking flight. The crimson glow of leatherleaf in the autumn twilight. The tremolo of a distant loon. The slap of a beaver's tail at dawn. Or the roar of a nearby falls. Loren Eiseley said it best: "If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water." And that's magic enough for any paddler.

The North has called to a lot of people down through the centuries. Its mystique has lured explorers to push beyond the limits of the known world time and time again — to probe deeper, climb higher, and travel further than those who came before them. Now, however, there are no more blank spaces on the maps to tempt explorers. Or are there? The cartographers may have finished their work, but the human spirit defies all attempts to map it. And as long as we can find any corners of this world that are new to us, there's something left to tempt each of us onward. Up North. Don't look for it on any map. You can only find it in your heart.

Up North

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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