Call of the North by David Silcox

Most books on canoeing in the Arctic make the trips sound like the Boy Scouts at their most prepared, rigorous tests of manhood, or sadomasochistic trials of character. Our trips were never like that. First, we went downhill only, preferably on the fastest rivers with the fewest obstacles or portages. Our trips are an anthology of the choicest parts of the best rivers, somewhat like the four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which won the Second World War.

The ideas of communing with nature, of ooohing over caribou, of being enraptured by clouds, or of praying in the morning; none of these ever crossed our minds. Certainly we felt a number of different emotions, since no one who spends a little time in the north is immune from that, but it wasn’t sentimentality. More often than not it was pure gusto and hilarity. Sometimes we followed the track of the early explorers and coureur de bois, getting information from our mentor Eric Morse, who described the voyageurs’ qualifications as including ‘a passing acquaintance with Rabelais and a voyageur’s low mind.’ He might well have been describing us, for our trips were like the Keystone Kops going north to visit Santa.

Why does one go to the Arctic or enter the wilderness in the first place? What is the interest in the far reaches of the globe? Especially when voluptuous California or Caribbean beaches are closer? Is it for adventure? For fortune? To escape? By accident?

I first went, years after thinking I ought to have gone, in 1977, in response to a timely invitation to ‘do’ the Nahanni, just as I had staggered through a heavy divorce and needed light diversion. Perhaps this coloured my attitude somewhat. Since then, however, I have become enamoured of the north’s wide spectrum of moods and vistas. And I learned that the Nahanni isn’t even “North” in the true sense of the word; the Petawawa far less so. Further, I learned that in any case the wilderness is a great escape, that it costs a fortune to get to, and may therefore be saved after all. And whether or not it’s adventuresome, it seems so to those who have never been.

This website is about some of our escapades, the people who took part in them, the politics of friendship, the hysterics of the trips themselves, the truth about the gossip and the foibles, and the unvarnished versions – I’m speaking, of course, of mine – of what it was really like making one of these weird and wonderful sorties into the land of Santa Claus. Because we came home with hundreds of wonderful pictures of ourselves and the terrain we inflicted ourselves upon, I am glad we are sharing them with a larger audience than those few lucky friends who giggled, guffawed, or yawned their way through slide shows at our annual reunions.

In the unlikely event that I might have been too romantic in my assessment of the North, let me give the last word to Glenn Gould who made both a three-part radio program called The Idea of the North and a short video on the subject: “And the North has remained for me a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and, in the end, avoid.”

David Silcox


Of course Mr. Service advised in “The Law of the Yukon,” (and we so liked to recall):

This is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain:
Send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane.
Strong for the red rage of battle; sane for I harry them sore;
Send me men girt for the combat, men who are grit to the core;

We’ll leave to the website visitor’s judgement the extent to which the Arctic
and Rideau Canal Canoe Club followed Mr. Service’s advice.

Robert Fowler