Thelon River NWT, July 1989

In the early summer of 1989, partly to celebrate my 50th birthday, I joined a canoe trip led by the well-known guide and naturalist , the late Alex Hall. The participants assembled in Fort Smith NWT (Alex’s headquarters) and from there were air-lifted to the Clarke River (tributary of the Thelon River). Two days on the Clarke River took us to its confluence on the powerful Thelon River. After twelve days on the Thelon River we reached the entrance to Beverly Lake where the float planes met us and ferried us back to Fort Smith.

Being part of a small group of people travelling together, isolated from the rest of the world, is uncommon to most of us today. Our expectations were that at the end of our trip we would be smoothly returned to the places from which we departed with little change in either one. But that cannot be guaranteed although I did not mention this to my group at the time. There were some interesting internal dynamics and the one that sticks in my mind is the division around booze. I enjoy my glass of beer with dinner but providing myself with an equivalent supply of alcohol (plus some to share) for two weeks would be awkward so I decided to do without. But some of the party were loth to abstain and so the camp divided into two squads, wet and dry. The wets looked forward to their tipple at the end of the day as dinner was being prepared. The presence of drys at tipple time was awkward because the wets, carefully managing their supply, could not afford to share. I avoided this awkwardness, once camp was set up and firewood gathered, by going for a walk with my sketchbook. At the end of the trip I had accumulated sixty small drawings and paintings.

Start point on the Clarke River

Evidence of the last glaciation is prominent in the terrain we travelled through on this adventure. Large accumulations of glacial debris (drumlins) occurred frequently along the banks of the river; some of these were over 100 feet high and the summits afforded fine views of the surrounding terrain. Other people had been using them long before us; we often found evidence of the manufacturing of stone arrowheads and spear points. The breezy summit of an esker would be a good place to escape mosquitos and to size up hunting opportunities.

Spruce trees grew in sheltered areas along the river, diminishing in size and number as we moved north. Here and there on the drumlins spruce seeds found marginal footholds and struggled with lack of water and particularly wind erosion. These trees, whose lives were determined by where the seed fell, lay close to the ground because of the winds and those winds also eroded the soil from around the roots, forcing the tree to put down more roots where the trunk lay in contact with the soil. There’s a poem in there somewhere but I have not found it yet.


On 28 April, 1847, the brigantine Carricks of Whitehaven was wrecked in a severe storm off Cap des Rosiers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Of 176 Irish emigrants aboard, 9 died on the voyage, 119 perished in the wreck and only 48 survived. The survivors were sheltered by the local population; many of them re-established themselves in the Gaspe region, and their descendants, now francophones, carried forward their Irish family names.

The Crossing

They dragged me from the surf,
draped me in a rough blanket,
and left me puking out the bitter salt.
Dazed and shivering, I stumbled up the shore,
peering at the heaps of sodden rags.
But Eileen was nowhere to be found.
Next day we loaded corpses on the wagon,
many trips to the burying place,
and Eileen was nowhere to be found.

It was Eileen that said we had to leave;
the times hard and getting harder.
I often thought of her old parents on the quay
smiling through their tears and saying,
“Ah, but you’ll do well in Canada.”
For Eileen a trust, for them a rainbow of a prayer
with Eileen the pot of gold.
And me, not having the writing or the lingo of my rescuers,
it was a time before I could send word, and none returning,
I could not know if they went to their graves in sorrow
or with their rainbow’s end still shining,
though Eileen could not be found.

Good people sheltered me and gave me work to do
and ‘twas their Marie who offered harbour:
I learned to say “Je veux bien.”
Next spring, seeds planted, Marie and I were married.
For an instant, at the back of the church, I thought I saw Eileen
standing, face averted, like at her sister’s wedding,
a little sad that someone loved was leaving,
but hopeful for them, too.
Tears blurred my eyes,
and though I could not see her,
Eileen was somewhere to be found
and I knew
her crossing was complete.

( 2001?)


In 1898, the famed (and now somewhat discredited) Arctic explorer, Robert E. Peary, persuaded six of his Inuit associates to travel with him from Greenland to New York promising that they would be returned to Greenland after a short visit. In this group were Qisuk, Peary’s guide, and Qisuk’s young son, Minik. Peary effectively abandoned the visitors at the doors of the American Museum of Natural History, leaving the Museum responsible for their care. All five adult Inuit soon perished from tuberculosis and other urban diseases. Minik was adopted by a Museum official. The remains of the adult Inuit were treated as scientific specimens and stored in the Museum for 95 years before being returned to Greenland in 1993. Here is a link to a fuller reccounting of this sad story:

Qisuk: Bones on a Shelf: Box 99/3610

Oh and if these bones could walk,
shake off museum fug and city’s dust,
stride out into the frosty air,
walking north.

Head down against the wind,
fleshed and robed by driving snow,
the lost hunter reforms.

He is heedless of the traffic and the crowds;
they watch him at the scrubby edge of things,
crossing the littered field, the sluggish creek
melting into the thickets.

Farmers at their midnight windows
see a figure in the distant pasture.
Dogs whine and shake their chains
but dare not bark.
No prints upon the snowy ground.

A group of hunters at the tundra’s rim
tell of a hooded figure at the firelight’s edge,
a man who stopped and faced them at their call,
stepped nearer to the flickering light.
Then with an upraised arm,
he turned and strode into the night.

The open ground at last,
the clean north wind, the Arctic ice.

(Revised 10/03/2016)


Tark Hamilton, the current Artistic Director of the Deep Cove Folk Club, is a geologist by profession and a polymath by inclination. One club evening Tark had occasion to bring up the topic of continental drift, the similarity of rocks on the west coast of Britain and those on the east coast of Canada as well as the growing speculation as to whether there was early (prehistoric) migration of people from Europe to North America along the winter extensions of Arctic ice. Looking around the room, here on the western edge of the continent, I noted that we were a mix of migrants from many different places and that shared music was a powerful integrator.

Deep Cove Folk Club

Along that cold rift,
sealed with black waters of Loch Ness,
there are stones that link to Canada,
once close, now separated
by Atlantic interceding.

Here in this room on the western rim
we are Scots, Africans,
and who knows what other mongrel wanderers,
hopping on the stepping stones
to distant continents,
blown by winds across rough seas.
A thin furze on this shifting earth.

Tonight, there is the synergy of music.
The murmuration of the notes,
welcomes us to shine as one,
so that from a distance,
our small and spinning world
sparkles in the dark places
with a pixilation of tiny pulsing lights.

(14 March 2014)


7 thoughts on “Journeys

  1. Remember when I went to Fort Smith to be an instructor for a wilderness + remote first aid course? This was in May 2009. You suggested that I look up Alex Hall. I called him as soon as I got to the place I was staying. (A small hotel with a chinese food restaurant in it, where my room had a view of a bunch of sled dogs!)

    When I called Alex I introduced myself and said I was in town for the WRFA course. He had heard about the course – I think a lot of people in the area had. He asked me if I happened to be related to Farrell Boyce! He remembered you well and that trip you were a part of. We chatted on the phone for a while and figured out a time to meet. I had very limited time off while there. We met early for breakfast one day and Alex had the annotated maps from the Thelon river area your canoe trip had been in, and the log from that trip. He gave me two copies of his book “Discovering Eden: A lifetime of paddling Arctic rivers” – one for you, and one for me. I enjoyed talking with him. He said you were really good to canoe trip with – and I could tell he wasn’t just saying that; you stood out as one of the people he had enjoyed having on a trip over his years of guiding trips. He liked a lot of people he had taken on trips, but not all. And it sounded like you two had connected with some interesting conversations and discussions.

    We talked about trip dynamics, the WRFA course, family, communities, the areas he loved to explore, his sadness that even the most wild and pristine areas had been negatively impacted by humans – he had spent time in these areas while they were still more pristine and was happy to have had those experiences. But at the same time felt sad about the changes. His annotated topo maps were amazing. There were lots of notes in the margins and on the back – and locations marked on the map – many notes related to wildlife observations. I wished I could have stayed for a couple of days there after the course was complete and visited with Alex again; but I am glad that I had the time I did have with him to share some stories.

    I’ll probably have more to write after I read everything you wrote for this post, but wanted to write a bit about meeting Alex while that was on my mind.


  2. Thanks as always Farrell, I always enjoy and appreciate your creations. Another famine story – never heard of this one, how could I really, but I’ve heard many and so many died who need not have done. Same thing happened in the US under Trump who didn’t seem to give a damn how many of ‘his’ people were dying he did nothing. Sounds like a fantastic trip by canoe and no surprise that it was alcohol that raised its potent head as trouble, Pauline



    1. Thanks, Pauline. No one did anything outrageous under the influence but the booze did divide us rather than unite us. The golden rule should be something like “If there is not enough for all, leave it off the menu.” I shared a tent with another no-boozer, a very nice guy from Australia.


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