Rebecca Raglon (Ph.D., Queen's U) teaches at the University of British Columbia and is the author of the short story collection The Gridlock Mechanism (Oberon 1992). Her essays have appeared in Environmental Ethics, Critique, and the Environmental History Review.
Early one July morning, about twenty years ago, I slipped on a back pack, locked my apartment door for the last time, and started my journey away from the city. I had on a pair of new boots, jeans, and a t-shirt; everything else I owned was crammed into the new pack. I was heading for the wilderness—the last real wilderness—somewhere in the far north. I had fortified myself for this adventure by reading various books on how to forage for edible plants, skin a moose and live for pennies-a-day in the woods. I had spent hours studying maps of northern British Columbia, Alaska, and the Yukon. For some reason, however, I found myself drawn to a nameless, roadless space in the center of Canada. I thought if I could get to the Northwest Territories, I really would have seen something, come face to face with something that existed only in dreams or history books. I scoured the libraries but it seemed that the Territories weren't like Alaska or the Yukon, full of colorful stories and poems about gold rushes and northern lights. They weren't like the Arctic, filled with accounts of intrepid explorers, dog teams, polar bears and Eskimos. The spot I was staring at, there where the road ended, on the banks of Great Slave Lake, was a blank. There were no stories about this place, nothing to expect. To me, at least, it was truly unknown.
And so I began hitch-hiking, and as I traveled, I found my ideas of what was north, what was vast, and what was wild being revised. In Edmonton, I went into the rail yards and hopped a freight heading further north. When I was sure that the train had cleared the rail yard, I removed the piece of wood I had jammed in the door, sat with my legs dangling over the side of the box car, and watched the countryside go by. We were heading out through flat country covered with small thin pines and aspens. Occasionally we passed a defeated-looking homestead hacked from the bush. The fields were filled with yellow mustard and fireweed, and pieces of equipment and old cars rusted in front of weather-beaten houses. Once in awhile I saw flapping sheets, jeans, and shirts pegged onto a clothesline or a wisp of smoke curling from a chimney and disappearing into the cloudless sky. Later in the evening we passed along the shores of Lesser Slave Lake just as the sun was setting and I stood and watched the geese and the ducks, the overturned boats, the breaking waves, and a sky the color of eggshells. The sun went down around midnight, but there was no moon, or stars, just a strange twilight that we continued to move through. The train went on and on through the twilight, through a narrow tunnel of small dark trees.
The next day we were still traveling through the land of dark pine and spruce—only those trees were getting smaller and smaller. They were the strangest trees I had ever seen—so small and so skinny. I was surprised by the land, by the way that it looked. It wasn't what I expected and I had to admit that it was disappointing: the flatness and smallness of it all. The unexpectedness defeated me. I could not locate this land within any language, dreamscape, or history. It was utterly unknown. To begin with it wasn't really beautiful in any sense that I could understand, that is, in the way I had been taught to believe that large, towering trees, waterfalls, canyons, lakesides or mountains are beautiful and desirable. It wasn't open and clean and buoyant like a sunny prairie day. This land was not scenic. It was strange and flat and fierce. "Fierce" was the word that came to mind most frequently as I looked out on that sea of small spiky trees. It was an elemental landscape composed of tree and sky and train pushing a long straight path through it. The predominate color wasn't green, but grey-green, green washed with black. From time to time I could see patches of water—stagnate looking bogs—flash darkly through the trees. Once in awhile a raven flapped across the sky. This was fierce land, a somber land, a land made up of muskeg and bogs. It struck me that no one had been taught to love this land, those trees, this sky. The train passed through it without stopping.
Hay River was a dusty little town at the end of the rail line. The line had actually been built to service a lead mine which existed a bit further east, but the train first made a stop in Hay River. At that time the town was a kind of shipping point for the rest of the Territories. Tugs and barges would cut across the Great Slave Lake to Providence and then begin to head up the Mackenzie River, delivering winter supplies to the small settlements along the way. The town itself had all of that hideous sloppiness associated with the Quick Buck. It was clear that most of the people there could hardly wait to leave. A belt of bull-dozed trees, the fire break, surrounded the town, which was made up of haphazardly built shacks, boardwalks and trailers. Rusted pieces of equipment lay everywhere. As I made my entrance into town, aboard the train, I couldn't believe what I had done. I couldn't believe that I had chosen to come here. I had never seen anything like this strange, squalid place. Dust blew down the unpaved road, ravens tore at plastic bags to get at the garbage inside, someone staggered out of a bar and sagged against the front of the building. Dogs on short chains barked and howled. Old fishing boats stood on skids, and large black barges moored in the river, were waiting to be loaded. Behind the leaning shacks were outhouses, rain barrels, and strips of caribou drying on racks. Hanging over everything was a sort of pall, a smoky smell, coming from a forest fire burning forty miles to the west.
I found the lake at last—Great Slave Lake—a long sheet of light lying outside of the town, beach littered with driftwood, with a dark smudge across the lake suggesting the meeting place of water and sky. I barely caught a glimpse of the lake before a huge swarm of mosquitoes covered me like a veil. I smeared on repellent, put up my tent, zipped up the fly and watched the shadows of those wretched insects crawling over the nylon walls, whining in angry frustration. I fell asleep in broad daylight, hoping that the next morning would reveal something different.
I've engaged in this rather long prelude as a way to suggest that the distance I personally needed to travel in order to come to terms with the concept of wilderness, directly parallels the physical distance I needed to travel. I don't know why I had the desire to go to a place where humans were scattered so thinly across the land, but I was wise to follow my instinct, for I now realize that the experience I had there was both precious and rare. I wanted to go to a place that had not yet been bent double under human expectations, a place that didn't bear the disfigurement of a label—park, refuge, reserve. I wanted to witness a place that hadn't been identified as anything in particular in my mind. For awhile I thought I had found such a place. Later, of course, I learned better. I learned that this land, like land everywhere, is contested, desired, used, loved, and abused. It is a land with a history, and a future, it has been named and identified, given rise to many stories, and is in the sorry process now of being discovered, explored and "developed."
What I had entered unknowingly at age eighteen was the "circumpolar ecosystem." Even today, twenty years later, it is not well known or well studied space, though it is in the process of becoming well used now that several large state-of-the-art pulp mills have been located in northern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It is a heavily forested landscape, of long winters, short summers, and permafrost. It's the permafrost that is responsible for the existence of vast bogs and muskeg covering the area, for in actuality there is not much rain or snowfall. It is a landscape which circles the globe—linking much of Canada, with Northern Europe and Siberia. It is home of a variety of indigenous peoples—at the mouth of the Hay River for example, live the Slavey Indians, while just across the Great Slave Lake are the Dogribs. It is also the home of woodland caribou, the magnificent wood bison, wolverine, lynx, beaver, varying hare, ptarmigan, wolf. Because of the muskeg there is a tremendous abundance of bird life—and Wood Buffalo National Park is now known to be the summer nesting area of the whooping crane.
One time I had a chance to go up in a small private plane and we rode out over a land where there were nor roads, no logging cuts, no neat little rectangular fields. As far as I could see there was nothing but tree tops and the glint of dark water. I could live to be a hundred and travel to a thousand different places, but I am convinced I will never see untouched, brooding land like that again. I gradually began to learn that this was land of immense dignity and foreboding, a land to be respected. One evening I took a boat out onto the lake and rode along the shore, looking for a likely place to begin to set up a winter camp. The boat was filled with lumber, tarp, stove pipe, and some tools. I never saw the storm coming. Suddenly the waves were lapping up over the bow of the boat and the engine was spluttering. There were purple clouds overhead, lightning flashing. Without warning it was dark, and there were no lights along the shore to guide me. I can still feel the boat's sickening pause every time a wave ran up over the bow, and hear the motor sputtering. I turned the boat around and drove into the darkness for what seemed like hours before I saw a light from the town, a light I could navigate by. I don't suppose I was ever in any real danger, for I was on the shallow, sandy portion of the lake, but I was badly frightened by the experience.
It is a place to be respected, but it also has the buoyancy of all wild places, the buoyancy created by abundant life glimpsed—or sensed—everywhere. Traveling to Fort Smith along the dirt roads you might never pass another car or truck, but you could always see wood bison, huge animals, running with an amazing litheness back into the trees. In the summer months you might find orchids, less than an inch across, blooming at your feet, and you could pick strawberries and Saskatoons until your fingers turned purple. In the marshy spots where streams pour into the lake there is an unexpected lushness, a tangle of wild mint, wild onions, purple fireweed, roses and dragon flies clicking their wings against their iridescent bodies. Even in the winter when the cold comes crashing down like a blow, silencing everyone else, saucy black ravens parade out in the middle of the street, beaks bearded over with frost. Back in the trees you can spot ptarmigans and hares, both dressed in winter white, while out on the ice, fishermen pull in nets full of white fish and pickerel. Overhead the sky dances with northern lights.
It is a place which evades expectations. It is not scenic or cute or tame. It contains a type of beauty which is hidden at first glance, but when revealed is awesome. It is not the kind of land that can be admired through a car window: it is land which must insinuate itself into you. It is a place that can drive the unwary insane.
In this place you tend to gaze up a lot, dumbfounded by the display of lights and by all those strange things going on in the sky. But equally you can find your mind sinking down into the bogs which surround the town, going down, and down, until all that you know about yourself is that you are no more than a tiny piece of the reflected sky. Slowly you began to think muskeg thoughts. When winter comes you shut your eyes and let the snow cover your face and you live in a kind of frozen terror imagining that you will never live to see the sun warm the earth again.
Strange scenes passed in my winter sleep: Jimmy the trapper, butchering the moose on the dirt floor of his cabin, throwing the bloody jaw outside to Stubby, his lead sled dog. Waking up one morning and seeing three round bright suns in the sky—sun dogs they're called. The sudden sharp crack of ice or trees splitting the silence. When I went out, I wrapped my feet in mucklucks, skin boots trimmed with wolf fur, walking through the dry snow, facing a wind that could slice through layers of clothing, making me naked to the wind. I watched heat halos forming around the trailers and shacks that made up the town and listened to the dogs howl all night long. Strange and terrible stories vexed our winter sleep; the bush pilot, lost somewhere in the dark forest, rescued, whispers of cannibalism; children wandering outside, found, frozen, only minutes later; houses burning with unquenchable savagery, water from hoses turning to ice before it reached the flames.
One night, in the heart of winter, I was walking home along the shore of the lake. I was alone, mucklucks on my feet, hands in double mittens, parka hood up. Black sky, glittering stars. I was walking along in utter silence when suddenly I stopped to listen. I waited and waited, standing there in the black night, the white ice of Great Slave Lake stretched out in front of me. Stretching on and on, further and further north, a thousand miles I could go, and not find a city or another human being. Or I could travel a thousand miles south before I would find Edmonton, Alberta. I could travel east or west. Here I was under the great empty sky, standing alone, alone like the pilot who sat huddled in the woods next to his ruined plane, for forty days and nights, waiting to be rescued. What was out there? What fragile flesh, what terrible stories?
Sometimes when I'm reading the many books and articles dealing with "wilderness" I think back on that experience, and on the years I spent in the north—going up and down the Mackenzie River, traveling to the Yukon, and Alaska, and back again. I've read books on wilderness trying to find some resonance with what I felt that night as I stood alone on the shore of the Great Slave Lake. There's plenty of "peak" wilderness moments in literature—Thoreau on Ktadaan, Muir riding out a storm on top of a Douglas Fir, Abbey and the mountain lion. The American experience always retains something of a fierce exaltation, though. In the midst of terror, joy. This was different, perhaps because it had nothing to do with the height of a mountain, or the rage of a storm, or the uncertainty facing a wild animal. There was no heroism, no drama. This had to do with experiencing pure space spreading out, and on, extending finally into a silent and still universe. Exaltation was out of the question. The experience was anti-heroic. It wasn't even an epiphany, really. In the end, I just felt incredibly small. I thought of the other animals tucked away in the trees, animals made from the same stuff as my flesh, all of us surviving together, somehow, in the midst of a vast very cold indifference.
The experience was an uncomfortable one and yet I treasure it. I treasure it because I feel that somehow the mystery of who we are as humans, the mystery of what we do, how we behave, is somehow tied up with the experience of feeling vulnerable and small, against an immense background of silence. We emerged from that silence; stories, perhaps prototypes of the ones we still tell ourselves today, originated against that background. We told ourselves stories to convince ourselves that we were not alone. Our words must have been so valuable then. Now all we can hear is our words, all we see is ourselves. We have banished silence. Even wilderness has been turned into something that we think we have made.
Canada is an unusual place—it's now the largest country in the world and yet has a relatively small population of 28 million people. It has even more "space" than these bald facts convey because for the most part, those 28 million people live in cities tucked up against the U.S. border. Northrop Frye fashioned a national myth from these facts, theorizing that Canadians were made Canadian by a "garrison mentality." All around us, so the theory goes, was a vast and hostile wilderness. Unlike the Americans, who marched forward, intent on converting their wilderness into a New Jerusalem, Canadians huddled down in forts, looked inward, sought comfort from one another. The difference in outlook, while arguably accountable for more equitable social relations in Canada, unfortunately, has not resulted in any noticeably kinder treatment of the land.
Still, I believe the Canadian experience of the land contains some valuable insights. We see what we have done to the earth and are appalled: we must change we tell ourselves. We must save the earth, give up old myths, reconcile ourselves to the end of nature. We glance at the land that has been "saved" but it is imprisoned, bonsai sized, wilderness so imbued with the human presence that it can scarcely function in its role of providing us with glimpses of a philosophic "other." Given the crowded conditions of many wilderness areas, we find ourselves retreating into notions of wildness for our comfort. If you can no longer set out on unimaginable adventure—no matter, glance at your feet and behold wildness! Watch it sprout out of empty lots, watch it push through pavement.
Only occasionally do we see the skin of our normality split and then we stare with an uncomprehending horror at the unexpected and unknown. For at the heart of the Canadian wilderness experience is a deep sense of being dislodged from the center, of being caught in the implacable jaws of existence, of being created. This has nothing to do with experiencing freedom, adventure, or otherness. It is not an experience to embody swaggering self-confidence or joy in solitude. It has to do with raw power, and humbleness. It has to do with being touched by a land, in the way that survivors of floods, earthquakes and tornadoes are touched. Canadians for the most part have not yet experienced that great optimistic and secular enjoyment of landscape that Americans seem to posses. In some ways this northern land still retains the terror of what is holy.
To stand in the dark on the edge of a muskeg territory is to stand near land which can unexpectedly bend you to its will. What emerges from that is the capacity for a certain humbleness, and tenderness. There is a sense of kinship with other creatures who are similarly bent by experience, the deep acknowledgment that you are shaped by forces beyond your understanding. Perhaps that is what humans hundreds of thousands of years ago felt as they stood on the edge of forests and ice fields and looked up at the cold sky. Perhaps they had a keener sense of necessity back in those days, a surer sense of what it meant to be human.
Perhaps in order to deal with land, we need to deal with our terror, not by attacking and tearing down what we do not understand, or pretending that the terror is not there, but by giving ourselves over to that experience. We must learn to value silence while we still have it, instead of trying to out shout it. Words and more words—and yet, at the heart of a wilderness experience is silence, emptiness, vulnerability. Sensing our vulnerability in a hard, cold place can send us scurrying back to our mental garrisons we have built against nature. On the other hand vulnerability can allow us to experience ourselves as created beings. It can dislodge us from our self-appointed place in the center of the universe. It can make us feel and value the abiding presence of our fellow creatures. Perhaps here in this strange and little known land is the source of a wisdom that will come blowing out of the north like a harsh, yet cleansing wind.