By Bernie Bell
Mike and I had been to the Neolithic/Foraging Feast hosted by the Science Festival and the John Rae Society, which was most excellent – informative and good fun, too. https://theorkneynews.scot/2019/09/10/a-feast-of-forage-at-the-orkney-science-festival/
Then, I got a cold – hoping to shake it off in time for the Hall of Clestrain Open Day on the 21st September. And so, John Rae, and Clestrain, were very much in my mind.
When I’m unwell, and can’t face even reading a book, I turn to a heap of old National Geographics which we have in a cupboard. The articles are of interest, and often written in quite an easy kind of style to read – with lots of pictures – just right for when you’re not feeling well.
So, I got out a few old Nat. Geographics, and, in the second one I looked at, dated March 1974, I found an article by Colin Irwin, about how he trekked the Northwest passage – as John Rae and his companions had done before him!
He did so to honour the 50th anniversary of Knud Rassmusen’s earlier expedition of 1923. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knud_Rasmussen So, we have a succession of explorers, following the route of the Northwest passage – Dr Rae (1853-4), Knud Rassmusen 1922-24, Colin Irwin 1972-73, and Arctic Return 2019. All working with their local contacts and associates, for a successful expedition.
Mr Irwin acknowledges, fully, how very much he depended on this Inuit friends for his survival. He mentions the techniques and knowledge they had, which, genuinely, meant the difference between life and death. He also believes that many of these abilities are being lost – the young ones prefer a snow-mobile to a dog sled, but….if a snowmobile conks out, you’re stranded, and will probably die. If your sled gets damaged, and you’re stuck, you can build a snow-house – (there is a clear description in the article, with pictures, of how to, quickly, make a cosy snow–house)………..and eat a dog. That sounds harsh, but – survival in these places, is harsh – it’s real – a harsh reality. A whole different angle on the theme of ‘foraging’ – Mr. Irwin and Co, ate the leavings of Polar bears, as in, the bits they left behind after feasting; dried up rancid seal flippers from abandoned traps. Anything to stay alive.
He also writes of the deep understanding and connection between the Inuit and the sled-dogs, and how this respect must be maintained.
On one occasion, a dog-handler loses his temper and strikes one of the lead-dogs. She then obeys his command, but later, when they camp, she stands, facing the wind, until she dies. It’s a raw world where all senses are heightened, and need to be, for survival – and that includes the sense of deep, true connection between two sets of creatures, battling across a hostile terrain, together. I was going to write “living creatures”, but, reading this article, I get a feeling that a traveller there, would feel the life in the land, and the air, around them, as a palpable presence – not always benign.
I can understand the dog’s action – betrayal is hard to bear (ask Mrs. Franklin about a sense of betrayal….), but betrayal in those circumstances, when mutual respect and cooperation are vital – well, I can see that that betrayal, could be un-bearable.
To stand, facing the bitter wind, until life, leaves you. What a gesture – possibly foolish, but – I felt a connection with that dog, and her feelings. People do that sometimes – they just give up, and ….die.
A raw world, where senses need to be heightened, but in which, if that heightening is mis-used – that can produce another danger. To be entirely practical – they were then one dog short, and a lead-dog at that, with all her experience and knowledge. And all because someone lost his temper, and lashed out.
One impressive strategy, which I’d never heard of before, was this – if there was a channel of water in the way of their route – not too wide, but wide enough to stop them – the Inuit would cut a rectangular block of ice, just right, then, place it across the channel, and fix it in place, which provided a ‘bridge’, just strong enough and which would last just long enough, for the dogs and people to cross it. They had to know, to a nicety, just what they were working with, and how to work it. They knew exactly how to gauge – everything around them – the depth and strength of ice, the kind of snow they were dealing with, what kind of ‘weather’ was on the air, coming their way. If they didn’t do this, they could die. Simple as that.
The Franklin expedition didn’t work with the local peoples, and paid the price. John Rae’s team, were prepared to learn, Mr Irwin’s team, were happy to learn, and so, survived to tell the tale – though they had very different tales, to tell.
This article chimed so much with what I know of the journey of John Rae and his companions, and gave a slightly different take on it, too – the differences between the expedition of the Victorian era, the early 1970’s expedition, and the recent Arctic Return expedition https://arcticreturn.com/, kitted out with all the best, most up-to-date equipment.
Colin Irwin has even more in common with John Rae, as he sailed, single handed, through most of the Northwest Passage, including Rae Strait, prior to crossing the Arctic by dog team. Here are the references:
_____ Half-way mark for a mighty Endeavour, Geographical Magazine, April, 1972.
_____ Alone through the Northwest Passage, Geographical Magazine, July, 1971.
If the reader is more Internet-savvy than I am, they might be able to work out how to access all these articles? It would be well worth doing so, if you have an interest in the history of exploration along the route of the Northwest passage, then and now.
Mr. Irwin writes of how he felt on returning home, after the expedition – “I used to live in one world, now I live in two, and my mind does not know where to settle.” I thought that John Rae and his companions, probably felt something similar when they came home. After living in such a totally alien environment, in the way they did, for so long, then, home, sitting at ease in the handsome, cosy gem of a building, which is Clestrain, warm, snug, safe and well-fed.
Iain Ashman iainashman.com helps us to imagine what the Hall may have looked like, to welcome Dr Rae, home……………