Thank heavens for the Gammel Dansk by David Silcox
The Koroc River rises where the height of land divides Labrador and Quebec; on the map the border is a long, long squiggle. The river itself is part of the Ungava Bay watershed of 33 rivers and their tributaries and it descends westward from an elevation of nearly 1700 metres through mountainous terrain and winds its way for about 100 kilometres to the southeast corner of Ungava Bay, which has some of the highest tides in North American. The spring tides (not the season but the surge when the moon draws ocean levels more strongly than the sun) sometimes surpass those of the Bay of Fundy, and are estimated at up to 17 metres.
Arrangements had been made to have the canoes delivered from Montreal to Shefferville on Lac de la Squaw, a little over 1100 kilometres northeast of Montreal. There we switched to two Twin Otters. The charter company was unwilling to stuff our three canoes, six canoeists and their gear into one plane, as we had often done in the western Arctic, and the pilots were unable to land on the river itself. We set down instead on a small lake not far from the headwaters.
The trek from lake to river was easily done, but the river itself made the first two days a pain in the derrière, since there wasn’t enough water to float the canoes with us in them. So we walked them down the first few kilometres, making slow time indeed. What kept our spirits up were occasional snorts from Stollery’s supply of Gammel Dansk, a Danish celebratory liqueur for weddings, birthdays, and the like, that earned a warm place in our hearts until the bottle was empty.
This generosity largely offset Stollery’s other contributions to our welfare, which he had acquired during his parliamentary visit to Scandinavia and Greenland with the Governor General of the day. These were six boxes of ice cubes from the water of a glacier and estimated to be two thousand years old, and a case of twenty-four bottles of Tuborg beer, which, with the welfare of the natives of Greenland in mind, was brewed as non-alcoholic. None of us could think of anything less appropriate for our Arctic trip on the Koroc than ice cubes of any age and non-alcoholic beer of any kind. Ah, but the Gammel Dansk! That carried us along in a cheerful state until the last drop.
I describe the main event of this trip – the loss of our canoe – in Wreck on the Koroc. But to be honest, I quite enjoyed becoming a passenger in the Kotcheff-Oliver vessel, although my occasional propensity to issue orders to my crew were met with grumbling and insolence. Eventually, though, in this bizarre configuration, we managed to reach the southeastern shore of Ungava Bay.
At this point we were faced with two related problems. One: Johnson informed us that we had to be at George River, our destination, by the end of the next day or the Search and Rescue system would be launched to find us, and at our expense (and rescue doesn’t come cheap). Two: As mentioned above, this part of Ungava Bay has tides among the highest in the world and Johnson had, with the greatest of regret, left the tide tables on the plane that brought us to the river. This sobering news was compounded by fog rolling in and an immediate choice of either paddling along the shore of a deep bay (three hours or more) or across its mouth in the open ocean (less than an hour). Despite the fog, we took a compass bearing and set out for what we hoped would be the northern point for the bay.
We chose high ground for that night’s camp, and were lucky that in the morning we were able to have an early breakfast and then start the race to get to George River in time to report our safe arrival to Search and Rescue. We made good time, but decided to make a brief stop for lunch. We hauled up on some rocks to eat and chat about various things, and then, when someone said “We’d better get going if we want to get there today,” we turned to find our two canoes aground and navigable water about half a mile away. The damn tide had run out while we were eating and no one had noticed it. We rushed to catch what we still could of it, but it wasn’t easy.
As time slipped by and our chances of making our schedule diminished, a Cree motor boat pulled up alongside our canoe (which had been left well behind and out of sight of the other, contrary to rule number one), and offered us a ride to George River and a tow of our canoe. We accepted immediately, as the tide was now running out with alarming speed. When we caught up with Johnson, Godfrey, and Stollery and offered to take them along as well, they refused. Stollery and Godfrey wanted to finish the trip; Johnson, however, took the wiser course and jumped at the offer. The ‘second canoe’ was eventually towed into port once they hit the powerful out-going tide, and wouldn’t have got to George River by lunchtime the next day, thereby missing the only plane out.
The issue of selling our canoes instead of shipping them back to Montreal to the place we rented them was an option based entirely on the numbers. We needed to sell each of them for a minimum of $200 to break even, and so suggested a selling price of $300 to give us a little room to negotiate. We also had to cover the cost of the lost canoe, so $300 was really the break-even point. We, perhaps unwisely in retrospect, put Oliver in charge of the task, and I reminded him of W.C. Fields’ admonition: “Never speak first in a business deal.”
Our canoe was placed upside down on a couple of sawhorses, and men gathered around to ‘kick the tires’ as it were. They commented on the bad shape the canoe was in, and how badly scratched. This was, of course, absolutely accurate.
Finally, someone asked Oliver how much we wanted. I’ll give him credit, for he said, “How much are you willing to pay?” The man hummed a little to himself and then said, “Three hundred dollars.” Well done, Tim and I thought.
Well, we thought too soon. Oliver’s immediate reply was: “Three hundred dollars is very good,” he said, “but I can do even better than that. I can let you have it for two hundred dollars!” Did we hear him correctly? Did he misspeak? Couldn’t he just accept graciously? But the deed was done, and at that point there was no prospect of getting more than $200 for the second canoe, which was probably in worse condition. Craig, did however insist that a condition was fetching in our delinquent friends in canoe #2 forthwith and gratis. And so it was done, their chagrin notwithstanding.
We bunked that night with Cree families before being lifted out early the next morning on a Twin Otter to Shefferville. The family Godfrey and I were with asked what we’d like for dinner. I suggested whatever their favourite dinner was, Godfrey agreed, and the family was pleased. It turned out to be filet mignon of caribou fondue. There, sure enough was the fondue pot, the fondue forks, and the cubes of lean and very delicious caribou meat awaiting our attention. And there were the condiments to accompany the filet: French’s mustard, Bick’s Sweet Green Relish, and Heinz’s Tomato Ketchup. It was a sweet and pleasant way to end a memorable trip.