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Barren Grounds

The Story of the Tragic Moffatt Canoe Trip

Skip Pessl

Publication Year: 2014

In 1955 Arthur Moffatt led an expedition consisting of young college students and recent graduates to the Inuit lands of Nunavut, Canada, to follow the path of the 1893 Tyrrell expedition and to film and photograph the group’s progress. The expedition, a 900-mile epic journey across the Barren Lands of Arctic Canada, has stirred controversy and criticism for over fifty years. The trip has been variously described as “the pioneering venture in modern recreational canoe travel” and as “an excellent example of how not to conduct a canoe trip.” Delays took their toll on the adventurers, exhausted by the seemingly endless paddling through unknown rivers and lakes, the trek across the windswept tundra, and torment by voracious insects. Threatened with diminishing food reserves and increasingly harsh weather, the members of the expedition were forced to travel with greater speed and less caution, and ultimately a fatal mistake was made. Two of the canoes capsized, dumping four men into the frigid waters. Moffatt, the leader, died of exposure. It took the survivors ten days of arduous travel with minimum food and equipment to reach the safety of the Hudson’s Bay Company post.

Barren Grounds features passages from the journals of two young Moffatt party members and excerpts about the 1893 expedition of Joseph Burr Tyrrell, along with entries from the journal of Art Moffatt himself.

Part cautionary tale, part nail-biting adventure, the book will appeal to outdoorsmen and armchair adventurers alike.

Published by: Dartmouth College Press

Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication, Quote

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pp. xi-xviii

July 2, 1955: Art Moffatt spider-crawled the gunnels and settled on the stern seat of his gray, heavily laden eighteen-foot Chestnut Peterborough prospector canoe, and with Joe Lanouette, Dartmouth sophomore, in the bow, pushed off into the windy, wave-tossed waters of Black Lake...

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pp. xix-xxii

From the beginning to the end of this project, my most grateful thanks go to my lovely wife, Molly. At the beginning, perhaps as an act of self-defense when faced with a grumpy, bored, post-op housemate, she suggested I take a look at my old Dubawnt journal. “Maybe start transcribing...

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Planning the Trip

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pp. 1-14

Serious planning for the Dubawnt journey began in late fall 1955, when Art Moffatt and I committed to the project and he began the complex process of food and equipment selection and purchasing, something he had done many times for his Albany River trips. Even though...

The Journals

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Getting Started

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pp. 17-40

After three days of grimy, restless train travel, our party arrived in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and spent the night in the Marlburo Hotel. The next morning, we flew north to Stony Rapids at the eastern end of Athabasca Lake, touching down briefly at Lac LaRonge. Stony is much...

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pp. 41-68

Arrived at the southern end of this “height-of-land” portage today after a short paddle of about 8 miles and a 3-hr picture-taking session . . . sequences of examining Indian graves and finding artifacts. When we got to the portage it was close to 6 PM and after unloading...

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Into the Barrens

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pp. 69-128

Spent the day in camp and although the weather was poor for filming, the caribou offered plenty of opportunity for excitement. After breakfast, Bruce and Joe climbed a nearby ridge, picked out a young, spike horn and shot it. None of us had ever had any experience in skinning and...

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pp. 129-143

As the storm of early last night grew in severity, the rain changed to wet, clinging snow and after a few hours the ground, rocks, tents, every solid projection, were covered with frozen, caked snow. The wind is so strong that it is impossible to hold the tarp flys over the tents...

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Baker Lake

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pp. 144-153

We were met by Corporal Clair Dent of the RC MP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] and a host of the local population, and were quickly informed that the Air Force and local authorities were to have started a search for us this very day. Apparently the news of our overdue arrival...

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pp. 154-158

Up at 7 AM after a 2 AM night before; weary eyes give way to the pressure of finishing up the business of leaving before the Peterhead pulls out. Sandy, Canon James and Clair all combine to take care of details of remains and equipment. Canon James says goodbye with a rather pointed...

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pp. 159-180

Grinnell’s account of the Moffatt Dubawnt journey was generally well-received by reviewers and the wilderness canoeing community and generated considerable comment and criticism, mostly negative, about Art Moffatt as leader of the journey and about the journey itself, its organization...

Appendix: Nontravel Days

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pp. 181-182


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pp. 183-186

E-ISBN-13: 9781611685916
E-ISBN-10: 1611685915
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611685336

Page Count: 176
Publication Year: 2014