Following Farley Mowat's bestselling memoir, Otherwise, the literary lion returns with an unexpected triumph
Eastern Passage is a new and captivating piece of the puzzle of Farley Mowat's life: the years from his return from the north in the late 1940s to his discovery of Newfoundland and his love affair with the sea in the 1950s. This was a time in which he wrote his first books and weathered his first storms of controversy, a time when he was discovering himself through experiences that, as he writes, "go to the heart of who and what I was" during his formative years as a writer and activist.
In the 1950s, with his career taking off but his first marriage troubled, Farley Mowat buys a piece of land northwest of Toronto and attempts to settle down. His accounts of building his home are by turns hilarious and affecting, while the insights into his early work and his relationship with his publishers offer a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a writer's career.
But in the end, his restless soul could not be pinned to one place, and when his father offered him a chance to sail down the St. Lawrence, he jumped at it, not realizing that his journey would bring him face to face with one of Canada's more shocking secrets - one most of us still don't know today. This horrific incident, recalling as it did the lingering aftermath of war, and from which it took the area decades to recover, would forge the final tempering of Mowat as the activist we know today.
Farley Mowat grows wiser and more courageous with each passing year, and Eastern Passage is a funny, astute, and moving book that reveals that there is more yet to this fascinating and beloved figure than we think we know.
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McClelland & Stewart
October 11, 2010
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Excerpt from Eastern Passage by Farley Mowat
IN FROM THE COLD
We had been waiting almost a month for Gunnar's plane when, on the first day of October, I stepped out of the cabin to find the nearby gravel ridges alive with dense flocks of ptarmigan making their way south ahead of winter. When I paddled off to haul the net upon which we were now largely dependent for food, I had to break through a scum of ice that had formed overnight. There could be no doubt about it - if we were not picked up within the next few days, we would be marooned for another six or seven weeks until, and if, a ski-equipped plane could land on the frozen bay.
We woke on October 9 to a falling thermometer, a plunging barometer, and a sky darkening with snow clouds. A storm was brewing, and even the usually irrepressible Tegpa was reluctant to go outside until, just before noon, he flung himself at the cabin door in a paroxysm of barking.
Seconds later the Norseman roared low over the crest of the Ghost Hills and slammed down on Windy Bay, its floats shattering the skim ice like a hardball smashing a plate-glass window. Gunnar had finally arrived. Although more than a month late, he offered no explanation or apology. When I pressed for one, he replied casually:
"Pranged a drifting oil barrel on take-off a while back. Buggered a float and this old bitch pretty near sank. Took a while to patch her up. But what the hell, let's get the show on the fuckin' road!"
Time was always of the essence with Gunnar. I heaved our gear (it didn't amount to much) on board, while Fran and Tegpa squeezed into the cramped little cabin even as Gunnar began opening the throttle and Andy shouted his goodbyes.
"Gonna be tight gettin' to Brochet before dark," Gunnar yelled to Fran and me. "Might have to spend the night on some godforsaken moose pond the middle of nowhere. But what the hell, there's a bottle of rum in the back pocket of my seat. Have yourselves a snort . . . just don't be givin' that damn dog none! Don't want no drunken dog aboard!"
Fran and I got a close-up of the world below us that day because there was a head wind to deal with, and in order to conserve gas Gunnar kept the Norseman, as he said later, "close enough to the goddamn trees if they'd been cherry trees we coulda' picked a goddamn basketful."
We flew on, fighting the wind while a shaggy carpet of spruce and Jack pine dotted with lakes and fragmented by streams and rivers slid by close beneath. Then abruptly we were over open water and Gunnar was shouting that this was Reindeer Lake.
A hundred and fifty miles long and fifty wide, contained by several thousand miles of convoluted shoreline, Reindeer Lake was the centre of the ancestral wintering ground for what in 1948 may have been as many as a quarter of a million Barren Ground caribou. The area was also home to about three hundred humans - Woodland Crees, Chipewyans (Dene), Metis, and a scattering of white trappers. There were only two settlements - a small one at the appropriately named South End, and Brochet, only slightly larger and at the north end.
Brochet was not much to look at as Gunnar slammed the plane down on the bay in front of the settlement. Two dozen log shanties squatted haphazardly along half a mile of sandy foreshore and three sketchily fenced compounds enclosed a handful of frame structures. Two of the compounds were owned by competing trading firms; the third belonged to the Roman Catholic mission and boasted a grand new church, the glitter of whose sixty-foot steeple encased in sheet metal could be seen miles away.
Having visited Brochet on two previous occasions, I was not dismayed. Frances may have been, but was so relieved to have escaped from the Barren Lands and at finding herself comfortingly surrounded by trees again that not even the coolness of our reception daunted her.
We clambered ashore under the glacial gaze of foxy-faced and soutane-clad Fr. Andr? Darveaux, second-in-command of the Roman Catholic mission; aging Jim Cummins, a former trapper who was now the game warden for a region encompassing about fifty thousand square miles; and willowy Jim Johnson, clerk of a trading post belonging to an entrepreneur named Isaac Schieff, who lived several hundred miles farther south. Neither of Brochet's most prominent residents - Bill Garbut, the long-time manager of the Hudson's Bay Company's sprawling, white-painted, red-roofed trading post, and white-haired Fr. Joseph Egenolf, head of the mission and the uncrowned king of the Reindeer Lake country - was in evidence.
Nominally, Brochet's population included about 250 aboriginals and people of mixed blood, but most of these spent the better part of the year widely dispersed at fishing stations and winter camps. The day we arrived, fewer than two dozen were at the settlement and none showed any desire to be friendly with Fran or me, though they did seem much taken by Tegpa, whose impressive appearance and assured behaviour was in marked contrast to that of their own dogs.
Brochet possessed two of the three elements that made up the ruling triumvirate of most northern Canadian communities in those days. The missionaries and traders were well established, but the usually ubiquitous detachment of Royal Canadian Mounted Police was absent. There were, however, two soldiers of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals operating a weather station as part of an extensive surveillance system being constructed across the top of the continent to contain the godless communists of the Soviet Union. As a recent survivor of the Second World War bitterly averse to being sucked into another world holocaust, I would have kept my distance from the "weather station" had not my employer decreed otherwise.
A letter from the federal Department of Mines and Resources had been awaiting my arrival at Brochet. From it I learned that Andy and I (no mention made of my wife) were to winter with the soldiers in a small barracks attached to the station. However, when I approached the corporal in charge about this he told me he was under strict orders to deny civilian access to his high-security installation. The most he was prepared to do was let me send a radiogram to my department, apprising my employer of the situation and asking for instructions.
These came four days later, brusquely ordering me to make my own arrangements. Fran was indignant - though I was not.
"Typical SNAFU," I told her. "Situation Normal All Fucked Up. Fact is, we're probably lucky to be left to our own devices."
She was not easily reassured, or perhaps she glimpsed an opportunity.
"They don't seem to care what happens to us. Mightn't it be best if you resigned the job and we just went on home?"
"I'm not going to do that, Fran. The cement heads have screwed up as usual, but we'll get by. I'll have a gab with the old game warden. Seems like a decent kind. Might help us out."
Jim Cummins wasn't much help on that front, but I did find out why our reception had been so reserved.
"Brochet heard you was coming, couple of months ago. Schieff's manager spread the word you'd been up to some shady business - you and Charlie Schweder, when you canoed through here last summer. Said the Mounties was looking into it. You really pissed Isaac off when you bought your supplies for the rest of your trip from the Bay instead of from him. I'd like to help you and your pretty missus, but I got to stay neutral here . . . you understand?"
I thought to see what could be done for us by the Hudson's Bay Company but the manager was away on a journey to South End.
Winter was almost upon us, and we were without shelter and had no stocks of food or fuel. Moreover we felt more and more like interlopers in a tightly knit and unwelcoming community. Our prospects did not seem bright as we sought temporary shelter in a shack that was already occupied by a horde of red-backed mice. They, at least, welcomed us, acting as if we and our sleeping bags (especially our sleeping bags) were a gift from the gods.
We were rescued by Father Egenolf, big-nosed, white-haired, lean as a whippet, with a bony handshake that could have crushed a baseball. He came striding through our doorway one morning, his rust-coloured soutane hanging about his ankles, to tell us he had just returned from a distant fish camp where he had been netting a winter's supply of whitefish and lake trout for the three human and fifteen canine residents of his mission.
The Egg (as he was familiarly called, though never to his face) and I had met briefly during the summer of 1947. Now he gave me a tepid smile but lit up like a lantern as he grasped Fran's hand and kissed it with Gallic fervour.
"Halas! Here is a demoiselle in distress, non? I shall rescue her!"
Soutane swirling, he led us to a log cabin belonging to a Cree family currently wintering at South End.
Eighteen feet square and one storey high, the cabin had one room and a tiny, windowless attic. The logs had been plastered with a yellowish mixture of mud and dry grass but most of this had fallen off, exposing numerous cracks and gaps. The tarpaper on the steeply pitched roof was in tatters and the panes in the three small windows cracked and grimy. The only furniture was a battered cast-iron cookstove at the far end of a room floored with rough-hewn planks and ankle-deep in debris.
Father Egenolf arranged for us to rent this, the only unoccupied house in Brochet, for five dollars a month. The price was certainly right.
Having found a home for us, the Egg also provided a rusty, metal-framed bed, a lumpy mattress, and a splintered table. Then he gave us a month's supply of firewood. Despite being surrounded by the world's largest forest, firewood was precious stuff because most suitable trees within ten miles of Brochet had long since been consumed.
We still had to acquire a supply of basic food stuffs (flour, sugar, baking powder, oatmeal, bacon, and lard), together with everything else needed to keep us alive until spring. Neither of the trading posts had much to offer, most of their staples having already been purchased and carried off to camps and cabins on winter traplines. And Schieff's manager refused to let us have even a small portion of what remained in his store.
We had better luck at the Bay. Its manager - big, bluff British expatriate Bill Garbut - was initially wary of me but his elfin wife, Renee, immediately took to Fran. She loaned Fran priceless items of household equipment and winter clothing, while Bill gave me access to what remained of his post's stock and, at Renee's prodding, even provided scarce food supplies from their own private storeroom. Our acquisitions included fifty one-pound blocks of butter that had gone rancid and been "condemned" to be used as dog feed. I bought the lot, paying only a token sum, having discovered the rancidity was mainly restricted to the surface of the blocks, leaving the inner portion reasonably edible.
We spent the next few weeks furiously engaged in homemaking. Almost everything we needed was in short supply or non-existent, so we made do. Tools were few and primitive, yet we eventually put together a home that was not only comfortable but even stylish - by Brochet standards.
The smoke-grimed ceiling and dingy walls became resplendent with canary-yellow canoe enamel. I patched together cupboards, shelves, two chairs, and a kitchen counter from scraps of old packing cases, and Fran made curtains from the cheap but colourful cotton prints the Bay sold as women's dress goods. I sealed off the attic with layers of wrapping paper, converting it into a deep-freeze for caribou, fish, ptarmigan, rabbits, even a hind quarter of moose kindly sent our way by the game warden. I rolled several new layers of tarpaper over the roof and nailed saplings on top as protection from blizzards and winter gales. I caulked the log walls inside and out with strips of waste sacking and finally piled sand high against the foundation logs to keep out the worst winter drafts and all but the most persistent voles and mice.
Water and sanitation presented special problems. In summer every household supplied itself with water scooped by the pailful from the lake, and in winter from holes chopped through the lake ice, which froze to a thickness of several feet.
Toilets were non-existent, except in the traders' homes, some of which boasted chemical lavatories. The rest of us made do with vestigial outhouses sited anywhere from a dozen feet to a dozen yards from the cabins they served. Ours was a doorless, roofless construct with three skeletal walls and a horizontal pole bridging a shallow hole. It wasn't even really ours. Rather, it was a communal facility used by anybody and everybody living nearby. It was also a favourite hangout for some of Brochet's many stray and hungry dogs.
The prospect of my wife having to wait in line during a howling blizzard with the temperature at forty degrees below zero weighed heavily upon me. So I installed an empty ten-gallon lard pail in our attic that I made accessible by means of a trap door in the ceiling and a spruce-pole ladder. With the temperature well below zero, the attic was no place to linger: the cold up there quickly froze everything solid. Once a week I wrestled the icy pail down from its eyrie, rolled it outside and away from the house, then thawed it for an hour or more over an open fire so I could empty it.
The thawing of the bucket always drew an audience. A circle of ravenous dogs would form around me, drawing closer and closer until I drove them back with threatening gestures and shouts. A few human youngsters might also be present, watchful but, like the dogs, silent. They bestowed a descriptive name upon me - one still remembered when, twenty-six years later, I revisited Brochet in the company of Manitoba's then-premier, Edward Schreyer.
On that occasion a grinning Cree man amongst those gathered at the float dock to greet the dignitaries was heard to say, "So . . . Dogsoup Maker come back, eh? Wonder what he going to cook this time?"
Winter was in full swing before the first ski-equipped plane risked touching down on the ice at Brochet. It brought mail - including a stiff reprimand from my employer for having wasted my time and taxpayers' money the previous summer trying to ameliorate the desperate conditions of the Inuit I had encountered in southern Keewatin Territory. The letter concluded with these words:
"You are herewith instructed to refrain from meddling in matters outside your jurisdiction and to leave all such matters to competent authority."
To say I was upset by this would be to put it far too mildly. I railed against the ignorance and stupidity of the Ottawa mandarins, until Frances pulled me up.
"They probably will fire you if you carry on like this, though I don't suppose that will stop you. . . . Maybe you ought to quit this job now, then we could go back home where you could tell the papers what you've found out."
I had only recently been told by Father Egenolf's assistant of a mass grave for about forty Chipewyan men, women, and children who had perished in or near the settlement the previous spring of some unidentified disease. One that never was identified because the government doctor for the district was not able to find time to visit Brochet until a month after the lethal epidemic had run its course.
"We lose half our Idthen Eldeli [People of the Caribou] here and out at the camps," the young priest told me, smiling sadly. "Eh bien. They live like dogs, les pauvres. Peut-etre it is better if the Lord takes them to His House for then they will be saved."
With these words sticking in my craw, I thought long and hard about what Fran had suggested. Should I tell my bosses in Ottawa to go to hell? And try writing something for the press about the abominable treatment of the native peoples I was seeing?
I had something else to think about as well. Having spent nearly five years as a sanctioned killer of my own kind, I was becoming increasingly averse to killing any living thing except to maintain the lives of me and mine. I was especially reluctant to slaughter caribou and wolves, as was required of me "in the interest of amassing scientific knowledge." But I was finding it hard to abandon the ambition I had nurtured since childhood of becoming a professional zoologist.
It was Hobson's choice, and the days slipped by without me making a decision.
Clock time had very little significance to those wintering in a community like Brochet. Our day began at dawn when, rousted by Tegpa's cold nose thrust into my face, I would scramble out of bed, rush to the cookstove, light the kindling I had carefully arranged the night before, then scoot back to the comfort of the double sleeping bag I shared with Fran to wait until the frigid cabin had warmed up at least to the freezing point.
When we could no longer see the frosty vapour of our breath, we would get up and, having broken the ice in the bucket, have a brief wash. Thereafter Fran would cook breakfast, usually cornmeal or oatmeal porridge with a slice or two of cold deer meat on the side, and our own homemade bread washed down by tea thickened and sweetened with evaporated milk.
As breakfast cooked, I would trot down to the lake armed with a twenty-pound iron bar flattened at one end in the form of a chisel, with which I would bash through the six or seven inches of new ice that had sealed our "well" during the night. Then, while Tegpa did his rounds, asserting and advertising his mastery over the local canines, I would shuttle five-gallon buckets of water back to the cabin.
Breakfast over, Fran would tackle her household chores, cooking, cleaning, mending our clothing, and doing the washing, while keeping the stove parsimoniously stoked with precious firewood, which was always in short supply. In the afternoons, weather permitting, she might snowshoe the half mile to the Bay for something she needed, or just to visit Renee. Or she might visit one of our closer neighbours, there to drink endless mugs of tea with the women and children while wrestling with the difficulty of trying to converse in a mixture of English, Cree, and Dene.
If the weather was reasonable (not more than thirty below and no blizzard blowing), I would strap on snowshoes and, accompanied by Tegpa, set off to check my trapline, which, to the bewilderment of the locals, consisted of fifty ordinary household mouse traps set under logs, tree stumps, or at inscrutable little holes in the snow. I did this because I was under instructions from my employer to "collect representative small mammals for taxonomic purposes and population analysis."
Tegpa and I regularly travelled ten or fifteen miles through frost-brittle Jack pine forest counting caribou and wolves (as much by their tracks as by their physical presence), and keeping a sharp lookout for ptarmigan or chicken (sharp-tailed grouse), which could be potted with a .22, not as specimens but to help fill our stomachs. Also I always carried a short axe in case we might come upon a stand of birch or tamarack previous generations had somehow overlooked.
I loved these excursions, as did Tegpa, and though we may not have learned a great deal about the specified "study species," we made the acquaintance of whisky-jacks (Canada jays), boreal chickadees, occasional ladder-backed woodpeckers, a porcupine, a great grey owl, and, on one truly momentous occasion, a wolverine, who looked us over challengingly from a few yards away until I unslung my .22, whereupon he pissed contemptuously in our direction before slogging off, belly deep in snow, with never a backward glance.
On occasion, I might join one of the local trappers in his carriole (a toboggan with built-up canvas sides, hauled by dogs) for a trip to a fish cache or trapping cabin as much as fifty miles away in the labyrinthine world of Reindeer Lake's boreal forest. On such excursions, I saw herds of caribou numbering as many as two or three hundred spending the daylight hours far out on the lake ice, where they could see would-be hunters, human or lupine, long before these could approach close enough to be a threat.
I had been instructed to "collect" up to a hundred caribou of all ages, together with as many wolves as I could shoot, trap, or poison, and had been provided with rifles, steel leghold traps, and cyanide bait for this purpose. I had been further instructed to dissect and minutely examine every specimen procured. External and internal parasites were to be identified, counted, and preserved in alcohol. The condition and state of development of sexual organs was to be ascertained, and a full range of foetuses preserved for future study. Stomach and bowel contents were to be analyzed - and so it went, ad nauseam.
I failed to comply.
Perhaps I refrained because of the growing conviction that studying animals alive in their own undisturbed habitat might reveal more truths about them than could be uncovered by gun and scalpel. I killed only one caribou during my time at Brochet, and it died not for Science but to provide food for the three of us. Moreover, I killed no wolves, nor did I make any attempt to do so.
During the long winter evenings Fran and I were often visited by neighbours, both white and native, or went visiting them. Few owned radios so conversation was the entertainment. They were exceptional storytellers, and even most of the youngsters had good tales to tell. After these visits, I would sometimes stay up past midnight, scribbling notes about travellers, hunters, missionaries, trappers, lovers, and losers; about Cree, Idthen Eldeli, Metis and whites, and the lives they led.
A bent toward writing was increasingly preoccupying me, and Fran's suggestion that I might have it in me to become a full-time writer seemed almost credible. I began spending a lot more time at my portable typewriter than in filling notebooks with scientific data as a dedicated biologist would have done. Of particular moment, I started expanding an account I had sketched earlier about the terrible events the year before that had decimated the Barren Land Inuit - especially the Ihalmiut of the Kazan River country.
By mid-November I had what I thought might be a publishable account of this disaster so, with Fran's encouragement and acting on the assumption that I might as well start at the top, I titled it Eskimo Spring, addressed it to the editor of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly magazine in Boston, USA, and sent it off with the next mail plane.
Then, feeling cocky at having perhaps loosened the fetters binding me to Ottawa, I decided to take a week off and travel by dog team to South End, a hundred and fifty miles away to see how the caribou, wolves, and people to the south were making out.
I borrowed a dog team and carriole from Shorty Laird, a white trapper temporarily laid up with a bad leg, and made ready to depart one crystalline morning with the mercury registering thirty below and just a breath of wind.