Sixty years ago right now, Sigurd Olson and his companions known as “the Voyageurs” were on their Arctic canoe trip. They spent three grueling weeks in the Northwest Territories traveling along the Camsell River to Great Bear Lake and the Mackenzie River.
Shortly after returning home, he summarized it in a letter:
It was a wonderful experience through some of the most savage, bleak and beautiful wilderness I have ever known….It was bitterly cold with winds sweeping off the ice of the Arctic Coast and we fought our way northward into the teeth of terrific gales.
Blair Fraser’s contemporary account
Fellow Voyageur Blair Fraser, a famous Canadian journalist, wrote about the trip for Macleans, Canada’s major weekly:
We found the north a harsh country, a land of little grace and less mercy. For the fourteen days we spent at the east end of Great Bear Lake, in near-barren terrain just southwest of the tree line, we were always cold, often wet, and occasionally as miserable as men can be without any serious trouble. We found out why the Mackenzie Valley, with its real soil and its real trees and its fairly warm summer days, is known in the north as the Banana Belt.
But never, even at our coldest and wettest, did any of us for a moment regret having come. What drew us were the things that draw so many men, and a few women, to the north—the challenge, the sense of contact with the historic past and with eternal reality, that you find in all of Canada’s wilderness….
The leader of our group is Sigurd F. Olson of Ely, Minnesota, president of the National Parks Association, a man who has the skill of a professional in the woods. Sig is known to us as The Bourgeois, because the voyageurs of furtrading days used that term for the company officials who accompanied and directed canoe parties. The word as we use it is historically inaccurate. The Bourgeois of old did no work at all. Our Bourgeois does more work than anyone else, including all the cooking. He also makes all decisions for the group— when we start and stop, where we camp, whether or not we risk a crossing of open water in a high wind or swell, 1 whether we portage or run a rapid….
We were certainly cold at night, and most of the time we were cold all day as well. When we got to Port Radium on the fifteenth day we learned that during our fortnight of travel, the highest recorded temperature had been 52 degrees Fahrenheit and the lowest 34. On the inland lakes where we were paddling it was probably warmer than that on the few fine days; it was certainly colder at night, for twice we woke to find ice on the rocks outside our tents.
We dressed as if for a ski trip—flannel shirts, sweaters, wind-proof jackets. Some brought long underwear, the rest of us bought it at Port Radium. Those who failed to bring warm gloves regretted the omission.
We are not a particularly fastidious lot. but we had trouble keeping clean enough to be comfortable. Bathing in ice water is no great feat when the air is warm and still, but when the air and the water are both below 40 degrees and a sharp breeze is blowing, nobody bathes for pleasure. These conditions were normal throughout the trip. The cold water is more than a mere discomfort, it’s a hazard, for no man can live in it for long. This thought made us more than usually cautious about shooting rapids.
There’s much more here, including great historical context and more details about the land as they found it.
an Arctic dream achieved
For 60-year-old Sigurd, canoeing north of the 60th parallel in the Arctic Circle was a lifelong dream. In the middle of the trip, when they stopped at a Hudson Bay Company post, he took time to write a letter to his wife, Elizabeth. “You may not get this until after I get home but I wanted to write to you in any case to tell you how much you mean to me and how I love you….:
The loons are calling just like at home. The dogs are tuning up. What a wild, lovely sound. How I wish you were sitting here with me. You are wonderful darling, all my life you have been that and I love you.”
Their trip ended at Norman Wells on the Mackenzie River, where one of the Voyageurs took this well-known photo of Sigurd:
Photos courtesy of the Olson family.
A canoe trip such as the one described here usually fits best in the teal area of the singing wilderness spiritual map, although it can also include elements of the gold area.