In these Mackenzie lowlands frost whitens the ground.
Patches of fog drift in and out. A sudden parting occurs in the fog and for moments, a vista to the west appears. On this cool morning, a fresh snow covers the sharp peaks of the Norman Range, miles to the west. Minutes later, the fog closes in, and the Norman Range disappears. The light wind out of the south that has been with me through the night, holds.
I took over an hour to paddle across to the Fort Good Hope side of the Mackenzie River. This August day is perfect for canoeing: blue skies, warm, and little wind.
I crossed the sixty-sixth parallel of latitude.
It’s nearly midday, and I just passed the confluence of the Tsintu River. The current picks up, and the Mackenzie River narrows into a great rock-walled gorge. I see the beginning of the Ramparts. Both sides of the river rise to 80 meters. The current, according to the tourist brochures I saw in Norman Wells, should pick up, but not to dangerous levels. I hope the wind stays down until I reach the other side of the gorge. I am still four miles out from this great gorge.
Going through the Ramparts on a calm day with the river low should not create an occasion for concern. The tourist brochures recommend it, but imagine how the first man to encounter these cliffs must have felt. He could hear the same roar of the wind and the water I hear. He could see the gray walls rising from both sides of the river, and guess that once committed, there would be no turning back. I don’t remember Alexander Mackenzie’s thoughts on this stretch of river. He is the first man to go through, likely to have recorded his thoughts. His thoughts might not interest me. A man determined to make a name and a fortune, his view of nature would reflect the Christian view of the King James Version: that man shall have dominion over the bird, fish, and fowl attitude.
The thoughts of the first Mountain Dene, or his even older antecedents, who would have run the Ramparts in a bark or skin boat, might have held more raw human emotion. Without his armor of culture and religion, he knew himself as a frail creature of skin and bone, protected by nothing beyond his wit and luck. The occasion for his first sight of these great walls, rising from both sides of the river, would have been at a time when he traveled far from home, as he searched out new country. He might not have had the choice to turn back. Likely, he ran from enemies or starvation, and the chance of the new world beyond the great rumble of wind and water he heard from downstream held more promise to him than anything he left behind.
By mid-afternoon, I still paddle inside the Ramparts as the sight of Fort Good Hope with its low, drab buildings opens to me in the distance. The sight of the little church, Our Lady of Good Hope, dominates this little village. Most of the men who paddled the Mackenzie River in the last century were uneducated, perhaps almost primitive. Their religion would have been a simple one. I suspect that first sight of the little white church with the green roof in the distance and the white steeple reaching to the sky must have been an emotional one.
I have had a chance to read, to know many men, and many ways and manners.
I could virtually taste-test among the religions, the philosophies, and the ideas. Yet, I wonder now, now that it is too late to turn my back on what I have chosen and become, if perhaps a simple faith wouldn’t have been best after all.
It always surprises me to note how, even now, with all of the time I have spent on the Mackenzie River, and in the Arctic, how easy it is to misjudge distance. Fort Good Hope looks so close that I thought I could finish the distance in twenty minutes of hard paddling. I just passed another mile check sign for the barges. This one said “680.” That means I am still four miles out of town.
I will be in Fort Good Hope for the night and for most of tomorrow. I came in too late to get to the store and the post office, which are in the same establishment, and since tomorrow is Sunday, it won’t open again until afternoon.
I wouldn’t have chosen this rock bank in front of town for a campsite because I will have to pitch the tent on a slanted bed of stones. I thought about spending the night in the little hotel, but after I reached town, I lacked the desire. A shower and a bed mean so little.
The time I spent in the church was not soothing.
The site had historical value, and I saw the pains taken to decorate the building. Some of the earlier priests had done a number of oil paintings. The effort overall, I found harsh. This is a harsh land, and death, and awareness of death, are part of the lives of the people. It is simply a part of being with or traveling in this country. So much emphasis on suffering and none on joy struck me as out of balance. I found I could not enjoy my tour of the church graveyard, no matter how historical or how artistically arranged when the feature that drew my eye more than any other was the tiny little white picket fence surrounding the graves of the small children.
These early missionaries were hard on themselves and equally hard on the world. They came to this North not out of love for the country. Most of them felt that in coming north they gave up all worldly joys. They came only to spread their missionary word. Their conception of life was suffering, and it showed in their church. I wonder if this church ever saw too much laughter.
Photo credit: Getty Images