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A READER'S JOURNAL

Lost in the Barrens
A Novel

by
Farley Mowat

ARJ2 Chapter: Reading for Enjoyment
Published by Bantam Books/NY in 1984
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2011

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As a long time fan of Farley Mowat's writings, I couldn't resist this paperback as I walked through The Strand Bookstore in New York City last Fall. I was looking for a good read for our upcoming cruise up to Montreal and this fit the bill nicely. As luck would have it the book sat unread until the doldrums of Summer arrived, you know, the several weeks before Football kicks itself into prominence again. In the warm days of subtropical New Orleans Summer what better time to read about two boys stranded in the frigid subarctic regions.

In his Never Cry Wolf, my introduction to Mowat, he related the true story of his surviving alone in the frozen North, a place north of Norway, where he had himself airlifted and abandoned so he could investigate the feared and dreaded wolves of the region which were thought to be decimating the reindeer herds. He soon came upon evidence that the wolves survived mostly on a diet of mice. The book is filled with humorous and self-deprecating tales of his various predicaments, like when he radioed for help in England and the only station which picked up his signal was in Argentina! Or his tale of trying to survive on a diet of mice to prove that mice had all the nutrients necessary for a large mammal like himself and thus could comprise a complete diet for wolves. His subsequent fat-craving led him to conclude that he must eat the entrails of the mice, just as the wolves did, to prove his point. The recipe he left us in the book for "Mouse Stew" probably didn't suggest adding mouse-guts.

In this fictional account, one hero is Jamie, a teenaged boy from metropolitan Toronto, set out on a trip to the North with the other hero, Awasin, a young Cree, about Jamie's age. With a load of supplies, guns, bullets, and winter gear, they headed out in a canoe, wanting to meet up with the Chipeweyan hunting party which had gone to hunt reindeer in order to keep their families alive during the upcoming Winter. The Chipeweyans lived on caribou meat and trap white foxes to trade for ammunition. Due to a couple of bad trapping years, they were in dire straits, with no pelts to trade for bullets.

Our heroes journey was to take them from Cree territory through Chipeweyan land into Eskimo land. The Eskimos were enemies of their Southern neighbors and posed a serious threat to the hunting parties and to Jamie and Awasin. They strove to conserve their food supplies and live off fish and animals along the way.

[page 49] At dawn Awasin had left camp to scout out the land. He had gone less than half a mile when he spotted one of the brightly colored arctic ground squirrels sitting bolt upright on a ridge, whistling at him. Awasin had never before seen such a beast — but any animal was food just then. He had not brought his gun, and he was afraid to go back for it, so dropping on his hands and knees he crawled carefully forward.

He tried throwing a rock at it, but it quickly dropped down in the hole. He was about to give up when he heard the squirrel pop up and whistle at him again.

[page 49] For a moment Awasin stared back while he racked his mind for a way of killing the beast. Then an idea came to him. Hurriedly he untied the moose-hide lacings of his moccasins. Knotted together, the two pieces stretched about six feet. He tied a noose in one end, walked up and laid the noose over the hole — down which the ground squirrel had vanished — went back to the end of the lacing and lay down.

Soon he had the squirrel and was preparing for his supper. By using their wits, the two boys canoed North till they came to the Great Stone House. It seemed to be more of huge cairn rather than a house, but Jamie noticed a hare coming out of a small hole and lowered himself into it.

[page 61] His body blocked out the light but his outstretched hands touched something cold and rough. He gripped it, and backed out of the hole dragging the object with him.
       As the sunlight fell upon it Jamie's eyes grew wide with wonder, for in his hand he held a sword! And what a sword it was. Four feet in length, it had a double-edged blade and a two-handed hilt. It was the sort of weapon that only a giant of a man could have handled. The blade was deeply pitted and rusted and on the hilt were broad rings of gold, turned greenish by centuries of weather.

Clearly this mound of rocks was part of a Viking settlement. Later Jamie recovered a small sheet of lead with runic characters on it. When Awasin joined him, they also found a human skull which freaked out the superstitious Indian boy. They pushed the weapons back into the crevice and broke camp. At one point the two boys were mistaken from a distance as Eskimos by the very hunters they were trying to reach, and the Indians who could have been their salvation "slid silently past the place where the two boys slept by the dead ashes of their fire." The boys had neglected to leave some sign that they were not Eskimos, and their adventure continued into the barrens the next day.

They found the deer fence which warriors had erected to allow them to survive the mass migration of the caribou while hunting them from up close. They make it across the frozen lake and the hidden valley and discovered a highway which consisted of a river bed turned upside down. How can a river bed of gravel travel up and down over hills? Imagine a huge glacier of thousands of feet thick. Over its surface when the glaciers began to melt, rivers would run across them, creating grooves in the ice and depositing gravel. Later as the ice age ended, the glaciers would melt away completely and the gravel in the icy river beds would fall across the hilly terrain below leaving a stony trail which ran up and down hills. These trails are called eskers. For Jamie and Awasin these were the quickest routes they could take across land.

[page 104] Some are hundreds of miles long and they may even cross mountain ranges in the same way that the Great Wall of China snakes its way up and down mountains. In places the eskers drive straight across big lakes like causeways. They are the natural highways of the arctic plains.

Finally the boys spot the great migration of deer where they are waiting. They know they will have only day to shoot as much food as possible to help them survive the winter on the plain which will soon become a barren waste, void of vegetation or animal life. Jamie's eyes kept focused on the ridge for signs of life.

[page 107] Suddenly the crest of the ridge underwent an amazing change. It was as though a forest had sprouted on that naked hill. Thousands upon thousands of twisting branches seemed to be springing from the rocky ground and waving gently in the breeze. Jamie knew the trees were the antlers of the deer coming up the far slope. He pressed the butt of the rifle tightly against his shoulder.

Soon Jamie was firing at the deer passing him as he stood on a large rock and the teeming herd poured past him. Within a half hour he and Awasin needed to kill enough deer to see them through the winter. In a nearby location, Awasin was killing deer with his homemade spear and getting blood splattered all over him. After he stopped shooting, Jamie rested on his rock and surveyed the spectacle around him.

[page 108, 190] The endless movement of the deer began to hypnotize him. He sat still as a statue while the tremendous impact of the spectacle gradually registered on his mind. The heaving, seething sea of antlers and brown backs flowed on. Time passed like light. The flood poured on . . .
      It must have been several hours later that Jamie looked down from his perch and saw no living deer. Instead he saw the bloody figure of Awasin walking toward him. Stiffly Jamie lowered himself from the rocks.
      The world was very still and motionless.
      They met beneath the rock pile and said not a word to each other. Silently they walked back to their camp, each alone with his own thoughts. Never, while they lived, would they forget this day — for they had looked deeply into one the great mysteries of the animal world.

Once they had cleaned and secured their large stash of deer meat in several rock covered pits, Jamie and Awasin began making them a log cabin which would protect them from the wintery blasts to come. To do that they required rope, much more than they had available to them. Awasin set about making some babiche or Indian rope to lash the logs securely together. How can one make a continuous rope out of a pelt of hide? Awasin showed Jamie how to do it.

[page 114, 115] First of all he took a deer hid and scraped and cut all the hair from it. Next he soaked it till it was soft, pegged it out on the ground, and made a slit in the edge near one corner. From here he began a spiral knife-cut that went round and round, cutting off a strip about an inch in width. By the time Awasin had reached the center of the hide, he had a piece of skin and inch wide and almost a hundred feet in length.
      He soaked this for an hour in warm water, then took it in his hands and rolled it between his palms, starting at one end and working along to the other. Back and forth he went, and as the hide slowly dried it began to form a round, rawhide rope a quarter inch thick and as strong as the best hemp line.
      When a piece was needed, they soaked it until it was soft, then tied the logs in place. As the rawhide dried it shrank, and the joint became as tight as if it had been spiked.

The other part of winter survival required clothing for them which they made from deer hide. The hoods of their handmade parkas were lacking only one thing, wolf or wolverine fur to edge them, Awasin said.

[page 12] Why is wolf fur so special?" Jamie wanted to know.
      Because it and wolverine fur are the only kinds your breath won't form ice on," Awasin answered patiently. "Any other kind of fur ices up and may stick to you and freeze your face."

There was one missing piece of survival gear the boys needed: a pack animal. The small reindeer which had adopted them would not be big enough to help them, but it helped them in a different way. Oatanak as they had named the fawn, got separated from them and became a meal for some wolves. But as the two animals got closer, the boys were amazed to find them to be very large Huskies and Awasin immediately recognized the possibility of the acquiring the two as sled dogs. Building a trap and luring the dogs in it with meat, they captured the animals, but were unable to get outside their cabin because the trap utilized the cabin door as one side. They were forced to become friends with the dogs or else. Soon the dogs were sleeping in the cabin and pulling their sled with their caches of meat from their rock covered pits. Mainly the dogs dispelled the two boys' depressive loneliness.

[page 151] Now the loss of little Otanak was made good. The presence fo the dogs in the camp dispelled the loneliness of the land as nothing else could have done. The boys had a fresh interest in life, and they devoted themselves to the Huskies, who — if all went well — might be the means of delivering them from the winter Barrens.

With their sled dogs, the boys loaded up their supplies on the sled and began to make time heading south over the frozen waste. No more slogging through muskegs, no more wearisome paddling against a current, no more treacherous rapids to negotiate, just a brisk ride or walk alongside the sled as the dogs pulled their survival gear. Ironically, it was a tribe of the feared and avoided Eskimos who located the boys during their trek southward and helped them return to camp, creating a reconciliation of the long separated residents of the sub-arctic expanses. Finding the Stone House, witnessing the great caribou migration, building a log cabin, outwitting the wily wolverines, surviving a huge Grizzly Bear's attack, patching up relations between the Eksimos and Indians, and arriving home safely the two boys' adventures in the Far North have made for a great Summer read in the Deep South.






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