Lange: Return to the Coppermine

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(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange has once again been paddling a canoe and swatting flies north of the Arctic Circle.

(LANGE) I’m writing this by natural light at solar midnight on the bank of the Coppermine River about one degree north of the Arctic Circle.  The sky is clear tonight, and our tent is light yellow, so it’s quite bright enough in here.  Over on my right, Bob is snoring gently in his sleeping bag; he’s a much better sleeper than I.  About fifty yards away, the river roars up against a sandstone cliff on the far side.  Thinking about tomorrow’s rapids may be one thing that’s keeping me awake.

There are two other tents a few yards away, pitched, like ours, on a flat bed of dry silt as hard as concrete.  Air mattresses and fatigue make it feel as soft as an innerspring at a five-star hotel.  The after-dinner conversation around the fire died away a while ago, as each man went off to bed and fell asleep to the roar of the rapids.

This is the twelfth northern canoe trip of the Arctic Division of the Geriatric Adventure Society.  We started twenty years ago, when our group’s name was still a joke; but now that most of us are in our seventies, it’s not so funny anymore.  Given our age, I try to plan the trips to begin with a few days of flat-water paddling, followed by rapids of slowly increasing challenge.  This trip has been a perfect example of that.  Our course follows a part of an ancient native route between Great Bear Lake and the Arctic Coast of Canada.  It wasn’t used much before the advent of Europeans, because the people at each end – the Inuit at one and Indians at the other – were enemies.

Three days of dodging drifting, impenetrable pack ice on a lake with the delightful name of Dismal Lake, followed by three days of easy running on the Kendall River, and now the amazingly swift current and big rapids of the Coppermine.  Just before we made camp this evening, we ran a rapid that scared all of us at least a little, but it expanded our perceived capacity, as well.

Our trips have always been quite civilized.  We have a daily morning reading designed to enhance our experience, and we have three hot meals a day – soup at lunch, usually followed by a nap, under a head net if the bugs are too fierce.

There are six of us here – two doctors, a business ethics professor, a technical and mechanical wizard, a military logistics specialist, and a relatively useless storyteller.  Our bonds go back years, and our fellowship is strong.  Unlike early Arctic expeditions, we have no officers, and operate more by consensus.  It’s in that give and take, and our common goal, we find our strength.

I’m shivering a little as I write.  I think it’s going to be below freezing tonight.  I’d better pull on some long johns and socks and slip into a fleece shirt before I zip up my sleeping bag and join the snorer on the other side of the tent in the arms of Morpheus.  Good night.

This is Willem Lange on the Coppermine River, dreaming of getting back to work.

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