West of the Hudson Bay

Early October was way too late to be alone this deep into the Keewatin District of the Northwest Territories. The shore ice extended into the deep water, leaving a shelf too thin to stand on and too thick to force my canoe through if I found myself in trouble and needed to reach the shore fast. The season closed in. The geese had left, and in the drifted snow of the shoreline I saw no sign of small animals or birds. A few days before, I’d watched a snowy owl with a fish on the shoreline of Beverly Lake, which marked the terminus of the powerful Dubawnt River, cut deep into a great flat plateau. Everything changed when I entered Beverly Lake. The great tundra walls hid me from a larger world. Shore ice formed quickly in the shallow edges, where only a few grasses and sedges rose above the uneven ground. If I chose the wrong campsite in a shallow bay, ice would form in the night and trap the canoe for the season.

I hadn’t allowed myself to hope to see the finish of the Dubawnt. I’d lasted longer than I expected. The old utility Mad River canoe that had taken me this far twisted in circles. It was a dog in the wind, and it took strong shoulders to turn her in current, but more than once her stability had saved me in ten-foot waves when storms on the big lakes came suddenly. I’d like to say I chose this canoe because of my instincts with small watercraft, but that would be wrong: I chose her because of the emblem of the Mad Hatter emblazoned on her bow. When I looked up after straightening the bad tangle my Mepps spinner had made in my fishing line, I saw a featureless shoreline, low and snowy in fog. I had no idea where I’d come from or which way I needed to go. Surrounded by heavy, cold fog that both settled around me and permeated my mind, I spent a long time with the map and compass.

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