by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – The anticipation of a coming event, good or bad, is a large part of the event itself. So goes the folk wisdom on the subject. I know it’s true for me, perhaps even in outsize proportions. To my delight, science has added an affirmation to the notion by determining that people who look forward to an event appreciate it a lot more than those who don’t.
Every other year from 1989 to 2011 the Arctic Division of the Geriatric Adventure Society took a canoe trip in the taiga or tundra a few hundred miles north of us. The memories of those epics are indelible. Yet as enchanting and adventurous as they were – lakes usually quiet during the late hours or wind-tossed by day; noisy rapids that, like Ulysses’ gulfs, threatened to wash us down; caribou, muskoxen, and Barren Lands grizzlies; giant lake trout; black flies and mosquitoes by the gazillions – the preparation and anticipation were for me a major part of the experience.
When we began this biennial madness, communication with folks in the far North was much more difficult than it is now. The postal service was impossibly slow; rumor had it that the Canadian government collected in a huge gymnasium all the mail addressed to north of 60º, and when the gym was full, delivered it. The telephone worked, but it was one-way and expensive. My first contact with Larry Whittaker, who owned a schooner and agreed to meet us at the mouth of our river, was like that. At the end of each transmission, you said, “Over,” to let the other guy speak. But it worked. Larry was right there at the river mouth as he promised — then and ever since.
Later, the fax machine became available, and it was alleged that the Inuit possessed the largest number of them per capita of any modern society. It was perfect: It allowed responses when convenient, and charged only actual transmission time. But perfection gave way shortly to the Internet and email. Now Larry (and his wife, Helen) are Facebook friends, and we can post back and forth anytime. Helen just sent a video of the Coppermine River ice breaking up last week and flowing out into Coronation Gulf.
But I digress. The real fun involved airplane tickets and reservations; getting hold of a charter airline; producing a schedule and equipment and clothing lists; getting the gear together and making sure it was working; buying fishing licences (Canadian spelling) by mail; informing the credit card bank that I was traveling (I forgot only once, and spent a very anxious time on the phone from a float plane base in Yellowknife); and a myriad other details.
Meanwhile, my wife took up all the available horizontal space in the house with 63 bags of meals spread out for packing (a three-week trip at three meals a day, providing at least 6,000 calories per man and weighing no more than ten pounds a day). When they were all ready, they went into three large waterproof bags — yellow for breakfasts, green for lunches, and blue for suppers — weighing about 70 pounds apiece. One year, in a fit of playfulness, she emptied a sack of sour balls into the supper bag as extra treats. That bag happened to be in the canoe that one day came to grief, and some water leaked into the bag, Imagine what the inside was like afterward. It had to be turned inside out and rinsed twice, and it was still sticky.
Another favorite part of the preparation and anticipation was answering questions about the items on the lists I sent out (always “Suggestions”; old guys have had it with being ordered around). I got an email remarking the lack of flashlight on the Equipment list. “Where we’re going, you won’t need a flashlight,” I responded. “You can read in your tent at midnight without one.” I don’t know if he believed me and brought it, anyway; but I do know he didn’t need it.
But the best was the call I got wondering how only three pairs of undershorts could be adequate for a three-week trip. Well, I answered, you wash ’em when they get gamy. “What?” he asked. “Right in the cold river water?”
“No,” I said. “After supper there’s a big pot of hot, soapy water and another of scalding rinse water. Now, if nobody sees what you’re using for a dishrag…” I haven’t had to wash a dish or a pot since.