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Like Thickets on a Skyline
Bil Gilbert
November 03, 1975
He had spent a lifetime in the wild but never had he seen anything to compare with the herd of caribou and the pair of wolves that followed
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November 03, 1975

Like Thickets On A Skyline

He had spent a lifetime in the wild but never had he seen anything to compare with the herd of caribou and the pair of wolves that followed

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Canada's Northwest Territories are about one-third the size of the U.S., with a population of less than 50,000, and no area is emptier than the tract of muskeg, lakes, rock and permafrost lying between Great Slave Lake and the Arctic Ocean. Within that rectangle, measuring 400 by 500 miles, there is only one name on topographic maps that hints of human occupation and industry—Fort Enterprise. Seeing the name, one might think it is a substantial place, an administrative station or Mounties' outpost, at least a historical monument with a brace of antique cannon, a small museum and a few caretakers pottering around. But this is not the way it is. The name on the maps is now the most substantial thing about Fort Enterprise.

In the summer of 1820 the explorer John Franklin set off by canoe from the last fur-trading outpost on Great Slave Lake, hoping to chart the vast wilderness to the north. In late August, Franklin and his party halted on the western edge of a large lake (which Franklin perfunctorily but reasonably called Winter Lake) to set up a base camp. The men stopped largely on the advice of the Copper Indians, who said beyond lay the terrible and treeless barrens in which the explorers would find no wood for fuel or cabin logs.

The party built two cabins and a storehouse, and called the place Fort Enterprise. The compound never had any military function; the buildings were erected to withstand the siege of only one enemy—winter. And for that they were barely adequate. At times, according to Franklin's journal, the temperature inside the cabins, within 16 feet of the fire, was 40 below zero. Nevertheless, the party survived and the next spring stumbled to the Arctic coast. In fact some of the men returned to Fort Enterprise the following winter, having walked 300 miles across the barrens in the belief there might be a cache of meat at the camp. During this awful hike seven men perished—one was murdered, one executed for the murder and the other five starved. When the survivors staggered into Enterprise there was no food, only the old bones and bits of leather they had left behind in the spring.

What happened at Fort Enterprise in the winters of 1820 and '21 is all that has ever happened there in a formal, historical sense. There is no record of anyone else ever having made use of the outpost, though Indian hunting parties surely camped nearby for the same reason Franklin did: good wood, good hunting and fishing. Fort Enterprise is not the kind of place to which even the most avid amateur history buffs make pilgrimages. It's not even a regular stop for the professionals, the most recent visit having been made five years ago when a group of Canadian archaeologists trekked in. But I went there last summer, having brooded for a decade on the journals of the Franklin party, memorized much of them and spent one summer following the expedition's trail through the Arctic (SI, July 8, 1974). I had to see Fort Enterprise, if only briefly, because it was the central set of the Franklin drama and also because like a small cloud on the horizon the notion was beginning to form on the edge of consciousness that sooner or later I would have to live there for a time, say for a winter.

My wife Ann came along because it was a chance to get a look at a part of the world few see, and she had been hearing about the place ad nauseam for years. I think she was interested in knowing if the Arctic was real or just a fantasy. I wanted to show off the place, to demonstrate to my wife that it was worth the time, money, separations and dislocation it had cost us—that it was worthy of being an obsession.

Colin, a bush pilot we engaged in Yellowknife, was uncertain about the location of the fort, whether it was on the lake or the rapids below it. The topographic maps of the area are based on a whopping 1:250,000 scale, which means that while they show the general terrain, they are not precision tools.

As it turned out, there was little choice about where to put down. A brisk wind had whipped up waves on Winter Lake, masking the rocks along the shore. Not wanting to wreck a pontoon, Colin set us down below the rapids, the half-mile-wide river being calmer than the 10-mile-long lake.

"That will be fine," I said. "We'll work our way back up the shore to see what we can find, but come back here tomorrow for our pickup."

"Righto," said Colin, sliding the little float plane within duffel-throwing range of the bank.

It was 10 p.m. by the time we landed, with only an hour of Arctic twilight remaining. Also it was a cold, raw, misty night (in another two or three weeks—early September—it would be snowing there) so we put up the tent, spread the sleeping bags and went to bed. The morning was fine, however, with a lot of blue sky and sun. The temperature was in the 50s and the air had a washed, spruce-scented tang to it.

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