Saturday, January 09, 2010

LOST IN THE FROZEN NORTH

Sir John Franklin set sail from England in 1845 in search of a sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the coveted northwest passage. He took two ships and 129 men. He was a couple of thousand miles north of the place where Winnipeg is now when he got lost. It wasn’t difficult to get lost in the north in those days. The Eskimos knew their way around, but Sir John wasn’t one to ask for directions. It was back in the time before aerial maps, in the time before any officer of the British Navy had put the whole northern picture together, back in the time when they thought Repulse Bay might be a through channel instead of a bay, when they thought that King William Island was a peninsula.
Pierre Burton, that great Canadian historyian, says it was actually Sir John’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin who wanted to be an explorer. She was an adventurous woman who loved travel. But ladies didn’t explore the frozen north in those times. Her true nature began to show when two years has passed without word from or about Sir John and his ships. She nagged and pestered the Navy. She wrote letters and courted newspaper editors and raised public awareness and money for search parties until, over a ten-year period, 13 ships had been launched to search for her husband. In the course of all this searching two routes through the passage were discovered. The successful search was launched with her own funds, the search conducted in the places where she told the captain to search. It ended in 1857, when one tiny written message from a crew member was found. It said little, but it did say that Sir John had died in 1847.
Further searches revealed that under Sir John’s command the crew had done some stupid things. Instead of fending off scurvy with fresh meat as the Eskimos did, they took salt meat in poisonous lead tins. Instead of travelling light and wearing animal skins , they took along fancy navy clothes and silver cigarette cases.
lady Jane did not stop when she learned about her husband’s death. She nagged and pestered the navy. She wrote letters and made presentations until Sir John was declared the first discoverer of a northwest passage. There was no written record to prove otherwise. Now there’s an apartment building in Edmonton named after him, a mall in Fort McMurray, the main street in Yellowknife is Franklin Avenue.
Other northern explorers kept better records and are far less well known. There was Perry, and Collinson, and McLure, and McClintock, and me.
Yes me. I too have been lost in the frozen north, in the days before cell phones and gps, in that inscrutable suburban land of islands and dead-ends and circles where so many have been lost despite the stars, the maps, the compasses. I was lost in the land known as Mill Woods.
My journey began 300 yards northwest of 38 avenue and 66 street. It was late January, 10:45 on a Sunday night when the snow had been falling all weekend while the wind howled like a banshee at the window. Huddled under a pile of blankets on a rockingchair my spouse shivered and sweated, the victim of strep throat. Our children were nestled all snug in their beds and I was getting ready also. Then Spuds, our tiny white poodle said “Hmm, Hmm, Hmm,” which loosely translated means, “Wendy, the wind has gone down and I haven’t been for a walk since Friday. Would you rather take me now, or go to bed while I sit sorrowfully beside you?”
So I put on his leash, and my boots and my coat and my toque and my mitts and out we went.
One step outside our door brought us to a new land, a virgin land. No shovel had cleared a walk, and no car had rutted a path. Here was a land where anything was possible.
Perhaps this would be a good time to teach a little lesson about blindness. I have very little sight, so little that ophthalmologists don’t bother to register it. Technically, outside on that night I could see the glare of the white snow, and the two nearest street lamps. But that night was magical. When Spuds paused to sniff I turned my face upwards and imagined a sky shimmering with stars, Sirius, orian’s belt, Venus, the many moons of Jupiter. I swear I saw the rings around Saturn. Then Spuds finished peeing on the lamp post and we set out again, heading north on 67 Street, turning west on 40 Avenue.
It may seem obvious to you, but at this point I think I ought to stop and point out some differences between being sighted and being blind. sighted people guide themselves with their eyes. They look down at where their feet are going, and up at all the things around them. Blind people, in contrast, guide themselves by touch and memory. The memory is a mental map of whatever they have believed is in the vicinity. Bearings are taken by the touch of sidewalk, or street, or grassy edge. With nothing to touch but snow that lay ankle deep and crisp and even, except where it had drifted to above knee-level, and nothing to see but street lamps, I was at somewhat of a disadvantage, though I did imagine our passing the 67th street island, the 40th avenue crescent, the alley of 66 street, the 39 Avenue crescent alley and some houses. Still, with no proof or confirmation of anything, and only the deep snow under foot, I worried that we might have strayed onto a lawn, or maybe a crescent island. It was cold. Spuds was walking on three paws. It was time to go home.
On an ordinary night I would have turned cautiously around, stopped to get my bearings, and dragged spuds along. But this being no ordinary night, so quiet, so still, so private, I raised my voice and said, “Spuds, take us home.!”
You can know your dog, and then find that you didn’t know him at all. These, apparently, were the words Spuds had been longing to hear. At the sound of those words Spuds jerked the leash and started to run.
Blind people don’t run much in public. It upsets others. And they could fall. But on this glorious night, with the snow so deep and soft there was no reason not to run. So we ran. Spuds was in charge. Throwing caution to the wind we lifted our feet and leapt through snowdrifts and laughed until we finally halted. And that’s when I realized for the first time ever, that my mental map of the neighbourhood did not include the location of fire hydrants. Nevertheless, we stopped to enjoy this one. When Spuds was finished sniffing, we set off slowly. Travel is slower on two paws. “You’ll have to finish the job,” I said to Spuds. I have no idea what direction we were facing. But Spuds set off again, and soon enough we were going toward a house, and there was one step up, just like our front door. And there was glass beside that door, just like our glass. And things were fabulous, except this was not our doorknob. And suddenly, for the first time ever, I realized that my mental map of our neighbourhood did not include a detailed description of doorknobs, or even the location of houses with only one step up to the door.
Now that we had found a door, Spuds was ready to go in. “Hhm, Hhm!” he said. Loosely translated this means, “Ring the doorbell, Dummy.”
It was a good idea, and I might have done it too, had I not been imagining how I would feel upon meeting a stranger at the door and explaining that I was a blind woman lost in my own neighbourhood. But even then I might have done it had I not been contemplating the idea of meeting somebody I knew, maybe one of the other soccer moms. If that house contained somebody I knew, then tomorrow I would be the subject of coffee conversations, and maybe a committee would be formed to take me for walks, and they would come over to meet with David in private to see why he had allowed me to get lost, and maybe somebody would call social services. What if they took away my children?
“Hmm Hmm,” I said to Spuds. Loosely translated it meant, “Let’s get out of here before somebody sees us.” I had to drag him out to the street. By now we were going really slow. You don’t make very good time hopping on one paw.
Nothing moved in the area near us. The neighbourhood was quieter than I’d ever known it, so quiet that I could hear the distant sound of a very rare thing, a Sunday night transit bus on 38th Avenue. Then there was quiet, and then, as the traffic light changed, there was the north south traffic of 66th street. Then quiet, then the east west 38 avenue hum again. Slowly it dawned on me that here was my compass for guiding, my whole sky full of stars.
“We’re going to make it,” I said to Spuds. We’ll go east toward 66th street, and then south towards 38. We’ll be home before you know it.”
At the sound of my confidence, Spuds put down all four paws and off we went, heading east, bumping into cars on the street and intuiting sidewalks beside them, turning south through the huge drift around the hedge at the corner, turning toward a house, going up one step just like ours, turning a doorknob just like ours, stepping over the sill. There we stood, heat blazing on our faces, stamping and snorting and shaking off the snow.
I think I understand why Sir John never left much of a written record. Who would want to admit that many mistakes in writing? He would have been accountable to his neighbours, to Lady Jane.
I cannot say exactly what I thought would happen when I got home. I don’t know how long I was gone. No search party had been arranged. From under the shivering rockingchair blankets a pained voice quavered: “How come you were gone so long? I thought you were just going for a short walk.”
We don’t know if Sir John learned anything from his experience. But I learned a thing or two the night I got lost in the frozen north. I learned, for one thing, and the evidence is here in this story, that excitable miniature poodles should never be placed in command of exploratory expeditions. And I also learned, though I hate to admit it, that men aren’t the only ones who won’t stop and ask for directions.

(Find Pierre Burton’s account of Franklin’s voyage in Exploring the Frozen North: An Omnibus by Pierre Berton, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, Limited, 2006).

1 comment:

hope101 said...

Brilliant, Wendy. I love it.