The hottest days of summer are perhaps the best time to contemplate the single-minded stubbornness of young Casper Whitney. Certainly no one in his right mind would want to pick a chilly day in winter to read about how Casper, a 32-year-old Bostonian just gaining a journalistic name for himself with some elegant pieces on fox hunting in Harper's magazine, went after musk-oxen on snowshoes across the world's coldest and most desolate country in the dead of winter.
A century ago Canada's northwest Barren Grounds seemed so inhospitable that even the Eskimo avoided them, and any Indian that wanted a musk-ox preferred to wait until summer to go after it. But at 32 Whitney was above all a stylist. He believed that sporting adventure should be undertaken without stint or smallness and so, having decided to take up snowshoeing, he cast about for a goal sufficiently difficult to make it worthwhile. The pursuit, in dead winter, of the musk-ox—which Casper called the most inaccessible game animal on earth—seemed an obvious choice. Thus it was that in the winter of 1894-95, Casper Whitney, the prime chronicler of American country-club sport, set out on snowshoes across nearly 3,000 miles of frozen desolation.
For six months Casper and his relays of Indian companions, prodded to accompany him on this unheard-of jaunt by appeals to their pride and their purse, suffered in the name of manly fun conditions that would have made any faintly reasonable person resign himself gratefully to becoming a permanent icicle.
Whitney's excuse for all this misery was that he wanted his "untamed spirit to play at monarch of all he surveyed," though as it worked out most of the time the snowstorms were so thick and his eyebrows so caked with ice that this doughty adventurer couldn't survey much of anything.
August 31, 1969
Whitney went as far as he could by rail, to Edmonton. Then he persuaded someone to drive him and his supplies by sleigh 175 miles north to Lac la Biche. Here he faced his first real hardship: the necessity of sleeping in the dirty cabin of a bachelor schoolmaster. Whitney had such an aversion to unclean quarters that later he often chose to spend the night outside curled up in a blizzard rather than brave an overcrowded, smelly cabin. Lac la Biche was the frontier. From there it was about 600 miles north to Great Slave Lake, where the Barren Grounds began. Whitney and his American companion, an artist named Arthur Heming, needed dog teams to carry their supplies, but no one thought dogs could survive the trip under winter conditions. Even guides suddenly became scarce.
Finally, however, a party was somehow put together, and the expedition set out on a glorious bright day with the temperature soaring to 20° below zero. Soon it began to snow. Everyone kept falling down, and Heming fell so hard into one gully that he damaged his kidneys and had to be sent back with the only guide in the party able to speak English.
Whitney pushed on, led by a stouthearted young Indian who spoke only Cree. There was not enough fish for the dogs. The snow was so deep and soft that even with their snowshoes the humans sank in up to their knees. At night the temperature dropped to 54° below.
Still, they managed to keep going at better than six miles or so an hour. Realizing that the cold would be much worse farther north, Whitney forced himself to use only half his bedding. After a few nights, exhaustion overcame his chilliness, and he learned to sleep with very little covering. So much snow fell all the time that in order to feel out the trail he had to take his snowshoes off and grope for miles with his feet, which led to a badly sprained ankle. From the strain of continually running on snow-shoes he developed leg cramps so severe that he sometimes had to drag himself along on his elbows. Even the Indians were too exhausted to do anything but silently hope he would (or, perhaps, would not) be able to make it. Many of them were stumbling along in pain from severe snow blindness.
Perhaps it is understandable that Whitney kept his own spirits warm by thinking dire thoughts about his Indian companions. In his testy opinion they were uncivilized, coldhearted and brutal. When he did admit an Indian virtue, he did it grudgingly. All of the Indians shared with complete unselfishness every scrap of their scarce food. But, wrote Casper, "It is so the world over. Those that have least to give, give of their little the more spontaneously." Not being a savage and thus used to deprivation, Whitney by his own admission later on nearly choked an Indian companion to force him to give up a piece of musk-ox intestine that Whitney thought belonged to himself.
After about two months' snowshoeing, Whitney and his party reached Great Slave Lake, which marked the southern edge of the Barren Grounds. To strengthen his legs against another attack of cramps with possibly fatal results, Whitney spent two weeks running 15 miles every day. Quieter moments he spent collecting his gear, which included very little food—they would, he decided, have to live off whatever they could hunt—and as much wood as they could carry.
To the local people Whitney's plan to continue north into the Barren Grounds during the worst season seemed suicidal. When he and his group actually started out, there was a gamut of solemn, funereal handshaking, and everyone sending them off seemed very depressed. The first few nights out were spent in the shelter of an Indian settlement, where there was no meat and the people were mourning one of their hunters found frozen near his traps. Whitney thought anything would be better than that suffering village—until he had his first view of the Barren Grounds. "I thought," he wrote of his first view of it, "as I stood and gazed into that treeless waste, if death marked my venture it would not be a hard country to leave."
Whitney's spirits may have faltered, but his actions never wavered. On they pressed, going as far each day (usually 40 miles) as they could, because each night's camp meant that much less wood, and Whitney was trying to reach the Arctic Ocean if possible. Some days the Indians refused to go on. Not being magazine writers they saw no reason to press forward when it was 67° below zero and snowing. Even without more than a token fire, a tepee gave some shelter, and the Indians preferred to stay in it. Whitney fretted; he wanted to find the elusive musk-ox when its fur was thickest and bring back some splendid heads. While his scouts went snowblind, lost their way and were only by chance found again, Whitney sang and whistled all the time to distract those in the main party or, as he said, "to shame the Indians from showing failing courage." At last, about 50 miles south of the Arctic Ocean, the young Bostonian decided he and his hunters had killed enough prime musk-oxen to satisfy his yen. Their fuel was running out, the Indians were no longer susceptible to bribes and Whitney himself was ready to turn around and start back south.
It was by then April 5, but still so cold that on the return trip to the Land of Little Sticks and Great Slave Lake the thermometer broke and the dogs began to freeze in their harnesses. There was not enough fuel left to thaw food or even frozen beards. The chief guide and another Indian got lost without a blanket or a scrap of food between them. Whitney made no attempt to find them. "It would," he said, "have been too dangerous even to try." Somehow the lost Indians survived and found their way back to the group. Soon afterward the party reached the woods and Whitney heard a bird: it was the first he had heard for four months.
The journey was almost over. The dogs had survived, though just. So had all the Indians. Whitney had bagged his musk-ox and had proved that for a brave man it was possible to snowshoe across the Barren Grounds in the worst possible time of year. Back he went to New York, where in time he became editor of Outing Magazine and wrote a number of sporting and travel books, one of which was called, On Snow Shoes to the Barren Grounds.
There is no record that the Indians of Lac la Biche were among his enthusiastic readers.