As others are drawn in imagination and body toward coral reefs and rain forests, I am attracted to permafrost and tundra. My sun shines brightest from the north, and it is toward these regions I generally head when the opportunity for foreign travel presents itself.
I first went north on a canoe trip toward James Bay in Canada when I was 17. In the succeeding 40 years there have been a dozen or so reasons or excuses for wandering about in the lands and waters between Siberia and Greenland. I think I keep returning for the stimulation. I have been more miserable, tired and frightened by this environment than any other, but also more elated and engaged.
For me the best of the boreal realms lies within the Northwest Territories of Canada, which extend from the woodland and prairie provinces to the Pole. The Territories are about half the size of the United States but are inhabited by fewer than 50,000 people, by far the most extensive wilderness tract on our continent.
About 20 years ago, in a warm southern place, I was mooning over maps of this region and came across an odd section. The two most northwesterly reaches of Great Bear Lake, Smith Arm and, 20 miles to the south, Deer Pass Bay, pinch together at their western ends to form a 60-mile-long peninsula. It is shaped somewhat like the head of Snoopy, with ears laid back and nose pointed northeast, resting approximately on the Arctic Circle.
On the map the entire promontory is labeled the Scented Grass Hills. While within this 1,200-square-mile area the charts show perhaps 500 lakes, a good many streams, rivers and prominent knobs, none of the features in the dog's head are named. Within areas as extensive as the Scented Grass Hills there are generally a few names spotted about to indicate that a hunter, trapper, explorer, prospector, naturalist or bush pilot has had a special interest in a given place. That this section is nameless suggests that visitors to it have been few and far between. When I first found the Scented Grass Hills, I thought: What the hell is something with such a tranquil name doing on the Arctic Circle? Someday I have to go there. I don't want to know the reason for the name before I see the place.
As noted, a lot of years have passed since then, so many that I have come to the time when it seems unwise to leave important business unfinished or serious promises unfulfilled. Going to the Scented Grass Hills fell into both these categories. Since taking care of this alone would be unpleasant to impossible, I got in touch with Bob, Bruce and John, congenial people I thought might appreciate such an outing enough to endure it.
Bob is a birthright New Englander of the hiking and skiing persuasion. Bruce has lived in Alaska for the past five years, in part because of the opportunities it offers for fishing, dogsledding and general bushwhacking. John is a Californian. Nevertheless, for nearly two decades we have been good companions in odd places—deserts, caves, the Sierra and the Arctic.
So one July day we flew to Yellow-knife, from where it was no more than five hours by bush plane to the Scented Grass Hills—to a body of water that had seemed promising on a topographical map, being centrally located for getting about the Hills and apparently big enough to accommodate a de Havilland Otter. Because nobody had previously called it anything, call it Fortunate Lake, because from only a small-scale topo there had been no way of knowing what a fine spot it was.
The Otter left us in a shallow bay at the south end of this lake. There the shoreline dribbled off into a half-mile-wide belt of muskeg that was obviously very wet and probably had a biomass of bugs running a ton or so to the acre. The bugs—mosquitoes, gnats, moose flies and deerflies—are the most numerous and aggravating creatures of these regions: Beekeeper head nets are a necessity in the swampy northern jungles. They are worn less to escape being bitten—which can't be entirely avoided—but so that eyes, nostrils, ears and windpipes will not become clogged with bugs.
As it turned out, all the country adjacent to the lake was similarly proscribed except for a single spit of land which jutted out 300 yards into the water from the north shore—an esker, a formation that appeals to Northern travelers the way a decent motel in, say, the wastes of West Texas does to gummy-eyed midnight drivers.