No Man's Riverw

Spring 2005 CSANews Issue 54  |  Posted date : May 17, 2007.Back to list

In No Man's River, Farley Mowat, one of Canada's master story-tellers, returns to the Arctic. This is familiar territory for him, and for all of us who have read his other sagas of the Far North. This story is set in 1947. The young Mowat has been thoroughly traumatized by the atrocities he encountered as an officer in the Second World War. Disillusioned by the human race, "a killer species without par," Mowat decides to try to find an obscure band of natural humans, "almost unaffected by civilization" – the Idthen Eldel, or People of the Caribou. Mowat had fond memories of accompanying his great-uncle on an "ornithological field trip" to the subarctic settlement of Churchill in 1936. He paints a vivid picture of witnessing La Foule – The Throng. This was the mass migration of the barrenground caribou, which at one time had harboured as many as a quarter of a million. Mowat was a distinctly unenthusiastic biology student at the University of Toronto after the war. Actually, however, he spent most of his time reading everything about the caribou and the native peoples who existed on the caribou in the barrengrounds. To get himself to these barrengrounds, Mowat leapt at the chance to join the U.S.-sponsored Keewatin Zoological Expedition, established to catalogue the wildlife of northern Canada. This wasn't exactly a monumental project, as the only other member of the expedition was the puritanical Yankee, Doctor Frances Harper. Harper was against alcohol (except as a preservative of scientific specimens), tobacco and profanity of any kind. This self-absorbed, humourless bigot wasn't exactly compatible with the irreverent, free-spirited Mowat, who preferred watching the antics of living wildlife to stretching their hides for museums. Harper's contempt for "lesser breeds" didn't exactly endear him to the natives whom they encountered on their travels, either. At one point, Mowat accused him of acting like "God with a grudge." Mowat writes so evocatively that you actually feel the bone-chilling cold, hunger and deprivation of the barrens, as well as marvelling at the sheer expanse and magnificence of our Far North, and the diversity of the wildlife. No Man's River is really divided into two distinct parts with the addition of a two-chapter Aftermath (dealing with the fates of the characters 20 years later). The first section deals with the dysfunctional Schweder family. Mowat and Harper met Fred Schweder on a train to Churchill. In conversation, Fred volunteered his cabin at the mouth of Windy River, and his trapper sons as guides. It turned out that Fred was a Nazi-supporting Prussian, who took a magnificent Cree woman as his wife and then abused their children. Fred's eldest son Charles (a conflicted Métis) became very close to Farley. Together, they made it their mission to help the starving Inuit, whose traditional, self-sustaining life had become endangered by both the decreasing caribou population and the introduction of the Kablunait (white man's) disease. They both felt a frustrated rage with the deliberate lack of intervention by the Canadian government. Inuit actually starved to death, looking hopefully skywards for the promised airplanes carrying supplies that never arrived. The period that Mowat spent at Windy Point was fraught with tension, not only with Doctor Harper, but with the conflict caused by the interaction of the Schweder clan with a little Inuit girl named Rita. Rita was a lovable little sprite (perhaps five years old) who delighted in checking the traplines, riding atop a sled and smoking a tiny pipe. This sunny child of ambiguous origins was the cause of extreme friction between Charles and his brother Fred, (and the antipathy of Father Fred.) Charles seems to have been absolutely obsessed with Rita. He may have even adopted the Eskimo custom of becoming engaged to a child, and playing a father figure until she was old enough to be his wife. Charles was very jealous of brother Fred's relationship with Rita. There were to be no happy endings in this drama, as we learn in the Aftermath. Not all was strife and hardship in No Man's River. I particularly enjoyed the second part of the book when, after Mowat and Dr. Harper finally split, he and Charles decided to explore the Thewiaza (or Big River). This area was really unmapped because it had never been surveyed. They didn't even know where the river ran into Hudson Bay. Mowat made very effective use of both his and Charles?s journals to describe their adventures. He was a little cavalier in his "last" letter to his parents. "We'll just travel east (several hundred miles) until the water gets salty, then turn south till we hear a train whistle. Piece of cake!" Well it wasn't! They saw all manner of wonders; herds of caribou – La Foule again. Picture Mowat having a burping contest with a caribou! Finally, they embarked on the Big River. Mowat describes it evocatively as "an aquatic ski run, laid out by a fiendish slalom master...with boiling waves of almost oceanic magnitude." Their pilot was Windy, an indomitable little hawk that had adopted them. He shrieked warnings long before they heard the roar of upcoming falls or rapids. At night, they both read from Farley's impressive small library, i.e. the Forsyte Saga, or The Travels of Marco Polo, and drank tea, which Mowat describes as the northern "lubricant for story-telling." Tea breaks were also essential, because the tea fire provided smoke, which gave some relief from the flies, mosquitoes or worst of all, the bot fly. This species could stampede a whole herd of caribou. All these critters are prevalent in every chapter of the book. Not exactly Chamber of Commerce material. The last night of the expedition was probably the most miserable. They were swept out into Hudson Bay and then smashed to land near Eskimo Point, by the tide. "The cold was stupefying. Our clothing was soaked...we finally huddled into one sleeping bag on the wet floor of the wrecked canoe." Even poor Windy coped by squishing himself against Mowat"s head. From Eskimo Point, they hiked south to Churchill, where they hurriedly parted ways as Mowat and Windy the hawk, hitched a plane to Ottawa. Windy spent a wonderful winter being spoiled by Mowat's parents in Toronto, before returning north with Mowat in the spring. Farley Mowat's career as a biologist ended in January 1949, when he was fired for paying too much attention to the natives, and not enough to science. Perhaps Canada lost a biologist, but it did gain one of our most famous, international writers. I found the maps in No Man's River a little confusing, but it's a thought-provoking epic. Willa McLean is a freelance writer who lives in Kitchener.