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NORTHWARD, ON THE SCENT OF AN ODDLY NAMED PLACE

Feb. 09, 1987
Feb. 09, 1987

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Feb. 9, 1987

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NORTHWARD, ON THE SCENT OF AN ODDLY NAMED PLACE

As others are drawn in imagination and body toward coral reefs and rain forests, I am attracted to permafrost and tundra. My sun shines brightest from the north, and it is toward these regions I generally head when the opportunity for foreign travel presents itself.

This is an article from the Feb. 9, 1987 issue Original Layout

I first went north on a canoe trip toward James Bay in Canada when I was 17. In the succeeding 40 years there have been a dozen or so reasons or excuses for wandering about in the lands and waters between Siberia and Greenland. I think I keep returning for the stimulation. I have been more miserable, tired and frightened by this environment than any other, but also more elated and engaged.

For me the best of the boreal realms lies within the Northwest Territories of Canada, which extend from the woodland and prairie provinces to the Pole. The Territories are about half the size of the United States but are inhabited by fewer than 50,000 people, by far the most extensive wilderness tract on our continent.

About 20 years ago, in a warm southern place, I was mooning over maps of this region and came across an odd section. The two most northwesterly reaches of Great Bear Lake, Smith Arm and, 20 miles to the south, Deer Pass Bay, pinch together at their western ends to form a 60-mile-long peninsula. It is shaped somewhat like the head of Snoopy, with ears laid back and nose pointed northeast, resting approximately on the Arctic Circle.

On the map the entire promontory is labeled the Scented Grass Hills. While within this 1,200-square-mile area the charts show perhaps 500 lakes, a good many streams, rivers and prominent knobs, none of the features in the dog's head are named. Within areas as extensive as the Scented Grass Hills there are generally a few names spotted about to indicate that a hunter, trapper, explorer, prospector, naturalist or bush pilot has had a special interest in a given place. That this section is nameless suggests that visitors to it have been few and far between. When I first found the Scented Grass Hills, I thought: What the hell is something with such a tranquil name doing on the Arctic Circle? Someday I have to go there. I don't want to know the reason for the name before I see the place.

As noted, a lot of years have passed since then, so many that I have come to the time when it seems unwise to leave important business unfinished or serious promises unfulfilled. Going to the Scented Grass Hills fell into both these categories. Since taking care of this alone would be unpleasant to impossible, I got in touch with Bob, Bruce and John, congenial people I thought might appreciate such an outing enough to endure it.

Bob is a birthright New Englander of the hiking and skiing persuasion. Bruce has lived in Alaska for the past five years, in part because of the opportunities it offers for fishing, dogsledding and general bushwhacking. John is a Californian. Nevertheless, for nearly two decades we have been good companions in odd places—deserts, caves, the Sierra and the Arctic.

So one July day we flew to Yellow-knife, from where it was no more than five hours by bush plane to the Scented Grass Hills—to a body of water that had seemed promising on a topographical map, being centrally located for getting about the Hills and apparently big enough to accommodate a de Havilland Otter. Because nobody had previously called it anything, call it Fortunate Lake, because from only a small-scale topo there had been no way of knowing what a fine spot it was.

The Otter left us in a shallow bay at the south end of this lake. There the shoreline dribbled off into a half-mile-wide belt of muskeg that was obviously very wet and probably had a biomass of bugs running a ton or so to the acre. The bugs—mosquitoes, gnats, moose flies and deerflies—are the most numerous and aggravating creatures of these regions: Beekeeper head nets are a necessity in the swampy northern jungles. They are worn less to escape being bitten—which can't be entirely avoided—but so that eyes, nostrils, ears and windpipes will not become clogged with bugs.

As it turned out, all the country adjacent to the lake was similarly proscribed except for a single spit of land which jutted out 300 yards into the water from the north shore—an esker, a formation that appeals to Northern travelers the way a decent motel in, say, the wastes of West Texas does to gummy-eyed midnight drivers.

Eskers are mounds of sand and gravel deposited by ancient streams that ran in and under the ice sheets once covering this country. Sometimes they extend for miles as raised beaches or dunes standing above the taiga, the subarctic forest, but more often they are disconnected hummocks or hills, the original ridge having been breached or eroded by weather and water. Eskers are well drained and in consequence dry and thinly covered with vegetation. They make for easy walking, sitting and sleeping. Most critically, they provide relatively poor bug habitat.

The esker shard in Fortunate Lake had a good many other desirable-to-necessary features. There were flat, sandy beaches on each side, good for landing canoes, washing and drawing water. This tiny peninsula was shaped somewhat like a humpback whale, its flanks rising steeply to a sharp backbone 50 feet above the lake. The ridge top was windy—which was good, because wind drives off bugs—and so narrow that it was easy to move fires, tents and bodies a few feet to get leeside protection. Being high and open, the whaleback made a fine place for watching the taiga-covered hills beyond the lake, and the ducks, geese and swans that were gathering in premigration rafts on it. Above, for instruction and pleasure, were ravens, falcons, eagles, very high quality clouds, stars and northern lights.

In the main the esker was thinly covered with mats of low, creeping tundra plants, most notably reindeer moss, a lichen which has somewhat the look of coral and makes a dependable fire starter. Next to the water on the south facing, more protected side of the ridge, there were also half a dozen scraggly but 20-foot-tall black spruce, fairly large specimens in this country and big enough to make a high cache for food bags. This was essential. According to the scats and tracks, the esker had been visited by many major northern mammals, including bears. This country lies within the range of both blacks and grizzlies. We met neither, but found bear-of-some-sort sign.

Deservedly, the far North enjoys a worldwide reputation for the variety, quantity and quality of its fish, but they are not necessarily in all bodies of water, some of which are frozen solid most of the year. Therefore in planning you figure you will eat a lot of fish but cannot absolutely count on it, and have to be braced for a steady diet of rice and noodies. Bruce, the skillful and obsessed angler in the party, set off looking for fish. He shortly reported that there were whitefish, grayling and pike. The latter proved to be so abundant that on a day when the wind was right, it was possible to drift along in sedgy coves and hook one every 20 yards or so.

Occasionally in the North somebody gets lost, starves, freezes or, much more rarely, is rubbed out by a bear or the many bugs. The only exceptionally risky thing about this wilderness is that, because of its isolation and environmental harshness, small acts of ordinary dumbness can be magnified into catastrophes. If a canoe tips in Appalachian waters the dunking and loss of gear is unpleasant, but 40° Arctic waters begin immediately to numb and paralyze. There is no place to go to get replacements for things lost, and there are limited means for improvising or foraging substitutes.

The worst dumbness is hubris—refusing to admit limitations, trying to show off strength, nerve—pushing your luck. The jackass who enters a rapids braying, "Hell, I've run lots worse in Tennessee," is potentially at least as dangerous for anyone with him as a grizzly. If he breaks his leg and loses two food bags in the North, everyone thereafter has to limp along at the cripple's pace, do his work and eat less because of the food his ego has consumed.

The main rule in places like the Scented Grass Hills is to keep thinking about what it will cost to get out of whatever you get into. Most of the negative principles of this lecture were emphasized on one occasion by my own display of dumbness and mindless bravado.

The Scented Grass Hills plan was based on John's and my past experiences and on my current infirmities. This trip was conceived as one on which less energy would be spent on ferocious traveling and more attention paid to the details of, say, cloudberries, wolf dens and eskers.

As to my condition, I had recently had some fancy patchwork done on my knees. By July my wheels were working better, but not well enough for a lot of bushwhacking, particularly not for carrying a canoe across long portages. However, it did seem I was up for straight paddling, ordinary domestic chores and smelling plants.

In addition to its other attractions, Fortunate Lake was selected from a map because it seemed nicely suited to what we wanted to do and what I could do. It was shown to be at the center of a complex of streams with chains of small lakes wriggling off in half a dozen different directions. The scheme was to canoe one of these waterways for a few days, come back to Fortunate Lake, rest up, restock and head someplace else.

In fact, the cartographers, to show wetness, had symbolically drawn open streams and ponds in the drainage systems. There was indeed water, but it lay mostly under muskeg and was thus so little or intermittently navigable as to make canoes useless except in Fortunate Lake and the few smaller ones just to the west. It took a few days of thrashing about to make us fully appreciate this.

One of the things we had intended to do was make a short portage over the escarpment that made up the northern flank of the hills and paddle down to Great Bear on one of several indicated streams. But because of the growing suspicion that map and ground waters might be quite different, it seemed like a good idea to first walk down to the big lake before trying to lug canoes to it. We set off on the second day we were in the hills. What followed was nobody's fault but mine. Particularly it was not the fault of John, who, as we were getting ready, stared thoughtfully at my legs and said that it wouldn't be all that much trouble to pack along one tent and the sleeping bags. I brayed, "Hell, it's only six miles at the most. We'll get back hours before dark." (At this time of year there are 20 hours of useful light.) John shrugged, having done what he could short of open confrontation, another sort of dumbness that Arctic parties must avoid. We set off in midmorning, taking along a small bag of nuts, dried fruit and chocolate bits. Seven hours later we came out of the muskeg-taiga, which had been more difficult than any I had previously seen, onto the shore of Great Bear. I was stumbling frequently and falling occasionally, while the others were more than ordinarily tired.

I could not get back to Fortunate Lake that day. The others might have, but there was about an equal chance that they might not. The return trip would be harder and slower because of fatigue, because the hills had to be climbed rather than descended, because it is trickier to find a small lake in a muskeg jungle than it is to find an inland sea. Running out of light and spending an unprotected night in the thickets and bugs would be bad. Getting lost and being there a few days more without food would be edging toward disaster. It was obvious that we had no choice except to obey natural laws and stay the night where and as we were.

There are many worse things than spending a night in the open in your shirtsleeves and missing supper. In fact this turned out to be unusually fine. Great Bear is spectacular. Its waters are as clear as those of a spring—faintly amber when we first saw them in the western sun—and very nearly as cold as ice. In a spirit of celebration, or resignation, we stripped and jumped in to wash off the muskeg muck and mosquito parts. The lake makes an impressively invigorating bath for about 30 seconds, after which it is torture.

White sand dunes and flats stretched from horizon to horizon. We were the only tourists to visit here recently, or perhaps ever, but this section of beach was obviously popular with local residents. Moose, caribou, bears, wolves, lynx, otters, ravens, owls, geese, swans and innumerable other water birds had paced, waded, scavenged and picnicked on these shores. There were also some attractive communities of saxifrage, potentilla, smartweeds, buttercups and asters. But no scented grasses.

Since it makes him uneasy to be without one anywhere, Bruce had carried a folding fishing rod through the muskeg. The immensity of Great Bear raised doubts about doing any good in it from the shore, so Bruce worked his way eastward along the beach to a small headland. He cast 75 feet and, to the general amazement, caught one, then a second, lake trout. Chunks of their tomato-red meat were strung on willow spits and roasted over a driftwood fire. While we ate, a pair of peregrines, the loveliest of all the falcons, entertained with diving, spiraling aerial acrobatics.

No doubt the four of us, for the rest of our lives, will not simply recall but will feel again those hours on the most northerly of all the great lakes: the sound of its surf, the chill of its waters, the taste of toasted trout and the grace of peregrines. It will exist only for us. Each of us will be there as we were that night for so long as one of us lives.

That it turned out to be a fine, memorable time did not alter the fact that it was very dumb to be there. We had gotten into a spot where there was nothing to be done except take what the Arctic weather had to offer—and the Arctic weather can become fierce on very short notice. The bottom line occurred to me often that night as I watched for clouds. By acting out my mind-over-knees fantasy I had delivered all of us directly into the hands of meteorological fate. If a storm had come up we probably would have endured as we were, but the experience would have been terrible, the more so for being unnecessary. After we got back to Fortunate Lake and were warm and well fed, I apologized for being so stupid and said I would try to be less so.

Among other things, it was agreed that henceforth we would travel no more than eight hours, preferably less, in a day. This less ambitious schedule fit in with what we all wanted to do, and if I did more I might become a liability again. I said that if I got too optimistic about trekking they should break my paddle, tie my bootlaces in granny knots and hide my morphine. Thus better attuned to what and where we were, we found our trips about the Scented Grass Hills less eventful but nonetheless satisfying.

We appreciated the eskers. Eskers are beautiful in the abstract way of a simple but elegant mathematical equation or line of prose like "Call me Ishmael." Generally in the Arctic what might be called the workings of nature—the reasons for things being where and as they are, the relationships between them—seem much more visible and comprehensible than they are elsewhere. This is not an illusion—they are.

The North thins out, and therefore tends to clarify, natural phenomena. Because of their elevations and relatively sterile soils, this is especially true of eskers. One's second impression is that eskers are marvelous museums, created purposely, with supernatural artistry and intelligence, to display and explain certain ecological principles.

Walking a quarter of a mile across an esker one passes through microenvironments that duplicate virtually all of the macroenvironments that would be met on a 500-mile north-south journey. Each of these tiny life zones is as discrete, distinctly separated from others, as the dioramas of a museum. And like, say, a small room or alcove of the Smithsonian, hours can be happily and profitably spent in each one of them.

About halfway up the north side of an esker. between the wet muskeg at the foot and the windswept, often bare, sandy ridge top, there is an interesting exhibit of tough little plants, none of which can be, because of the weather they must endure, more than a few inches high. Among them are crocuses and legumes that make up for what they lack in stoutness by being in a sense botanical sprinters. In the 10 or 12 weeks between the last of the snow and the first killing frosts, they rush along at a great rate, putting up leaves, flowering and setting fruit. Individual plants that have not done so by mid-August are goners. Below them are the endurance specialists, flat little heathlike evergreens, crow-and cranberries that hang on to their leaves and fruits until they hit the wall of dead winter.

Quaking aspens are normally a south-slope tree: However, we found a grove of them in a 20-foot-deep hollow on the north side. This appeared to be a particularly warm and fertile spot because the aspen were exceptionally stout there. but they were of peculiar shape, the tops of the trees being flat. They were so because they can grow only up to the rim of the hollow. If they get above it the north wind shears off the tender shoots.

In the transition zone, where esker and muskeg meet, a frail-appearing perennial is common. It bears clusters of lovely, white, bell-shaped flowers and a lovely name—Grass of Parnassus. But it belongs to the saxifrage, not the grass, family and is not at all scented.

For travelers the little esker penisula that we used as a camp in Fortunate Lake was a dead end. But according to the signs it had often been used by wolves. The first night, and several times thereafter, we heard a wolf singing in the hills beyond the shoreline. ("Howling" does not do justice to the rising, falling music of the wolf call.) It is a good guess that he was singing about us, wolves being insatiably curious and communicative animals, given to calling out the news to one another. One day we worked across a plateau in the central hills. On the opposite side of a ravine a white wolf separated himself from the camouflage of a spruce windfall and trotted off, disappearing into the scrub. There is no way of knowing, but the chances are he had made us much earlier and had sat down to study our party, because knowing what is going on in the neighborhood is the regular business of wolves and, I think, one of their principal pleasures.

Certainly in numbers, probably in terms of total biomass, the major mammal of the Scented Grass Hills and many other northern regions is the lemming. Except on bare esker ridges and rocky islands it is likely that we were never more than 25 feet away from at least one of these little rodents. They were constantly scurrying and squeaking in their tunnels: If a boot came down too heavily or too close, one often would pop up like a spring toy and, lemmings being pugnacious creatures, would chatter challenges and curses at us.

Lemmings are the staff of life for everything that takes its protein straight, a regular item of diet, and sometimes the main one, for everything from gulls to grizzlies. Nevertheless they are one of the most, if not the most, successful mammals in the Arctic. They are little affected by the ferocious weather, and in fact winter seems to be a particularly secure and comfortable time for them.

They remain active during the coldest months. It is the good times, paradoxically, that get lemmings. In unusually benign years their population may explode so that by summer's end there are many more lemmings than any combination of predators can consume. It is then that their famous "death marches" occur, thousands of the animals wandering aimlessly across the country. (The notion that they are suicidally heading toward the sea is inaccurate. The lemming armies generally march downhill, perhaps because that is easier, and therefore by and by come to water. Apparently by accident rather than design, many enter the water and die in it.)

Because of their nature and numbers we did not work up any particular affection for any individual lemming. But with a loon family (hen, drake and single chick), it was different. We met them on the first day we were on the lake, subsequently saw them often and found them entertaining and instructive. In the first week of August the chick was fairly feeble and clumsy. In canoes, we met the family on the water, and the parents would hoot, holler and splash noisily off to decoy us away from the vulnerable offspring. Thereafter the loons became more tolerant of us, and the chick grew stronger and more learned. We watched it taking what appeared to be diving lessons from its mother. She would duck under the water briefly, then surface by the young bird, swim around it, sticking her head encouragingly into the lake. A few days later it was diving regularly, if not expertly. However, as the summer ended, the young bird still did not seem able to fly. We began to worry about this, since these fish eaters must migrate to the south before the lakes freeze.

The loons were the last living things we saw as we were leaving Fortunate Lake in the Otter.

Make no mistake about all of this. We were tourists, protected from the true North, like a diver in a bell from the true sea, by all the dehydrated, metal, nylon and plastic things brought with us. But so many and strong are the laws here that even as protected foreigners we had to abide enough by some of them to get a certain appreciation of what it is like to be a permanent resident.

In this environment interest is quickly lost in things outside the immediate sensory range. The rest of the world comes to seem greatly distant, very abstract and dreamlike. But there is a much heightened awareness of the nature of things close at hand, including oneself. You walk on an esker as wolves do, not simply as a matter of intellectual curiosity. In doing so you come better not just to understand but to feel the faculties, needs and pleasures that are common to men and wolves. Reflexively you look for communities of spruce clumps, reindeer moss and cloudberries, because places where these grow well are good spots for people. There is a very apparent connection between certain arrangements of sedges, gravel bars, snails and pike and your stomach.

Given the obvious restrictions and aggravation of the North it is not easy to explain its appeal. Perhaps as a last, weak stab it might be said that despite the support systems, one has there a strong, invigorating sense of temporarily going native.

Epilogue

We did not, as we first imagined we might, come across great waving meadows of scented grass, not even a single clump of it. Since field work had not solved the mystery, I tried other methods after returning.

Our more or less constant companion in the hills was a splendid botanical text, Vascular Plants of Continental Northwest Territories, Canada, written by the late Erling Porsild and William J. Cody. Learning that Cody is at present employed by the Canadian agriculture department, I called him. He said that so far as he knew there was only one genus of grasses which might grow in the Scented Grass Hills that had species which were scented.

"The Holy grasses—Hierochloe?"

"You did indeed read our book."

"I'm rusty on keying out plants, but we didn't find anything that remotely resembled one of the Holy grasses. If they are there they are so insignificant that it seems strange if the whole peninsula is named for them."

Cody agreed and said he was sorry he could be of so little help. He suggested I call another federal agency, the Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names. I did and spoke to Kathleen O'Brien, a toponymist, i.e., a student of topographical names. O'Brien obtained the file card.

There were only two main entries. In the 1820s John Richardson, a surgeon-naturalist serving under John Franklin, the first white explorer of many Arctic regions, had traveled in the vicinity of Great Bear Lake and thereafter made a map of the territory. Richardson designated the peninsula in question as Gaiet-Thella Hill.

(Franklin and Richardson are old, if noncorporeal acquaintances. In a previous outing, John and I and some others had become semideranged from fatigue, hunger and anxiety while trying to follow the route used by these two in 1821 (SI, July 8, 1974).

The only other seemingly relevant note in the file indicated that on Jan. 15, 1945, the peninsula was officially named the Scented Grass Hills and has been so called on maps ever since. O'Brien said there was no translation of Richardson's Gaiet-Thella, nothing to show that name was connected with the present one.

So that is that, and fine with me. After all, the mystery of the name was an excuse for going to the place, and having been there I am as well pleased to let the mystery remain.

PHOTOJOHN THOMSONIt wasn't the Arctic Hilton, but this whale-shaped esker proved the ideal campsite.PHOTOJOHN THOMSONJohn (right), who did the cooking, sips coffee as the author sits resting his gimpy legs.PHOTOJOHN THOMSONBil and Bruce watch Bob cast into a school of grayling in a small stream that they found.PHOTOJOHN THOMSONIn a land populated with caribou by the hundreds of thousands, this stood out alone.THREE PHOTOSJOHN THOMSONPHOTOJOHN THOMSONBruce surveys the area's display of scrub birch and willow, already colored in July.PHOTOJOHN THOMSONBob is framed in the moonlight on Great Bear.