by J. D. Carpenter
IN AUGUST 1979, David Halsey beached his canoe on the western shore of the St. Lawrence River at Tadoussac, concluding the final chapter of a two-and-a-half-year, 4,700, mile cross-Canada epic. Four years later, before completing the manuscript of Magnetic North, his account of the trek, Halsey - diagnosed as manic-depressive died, a "probable suicide"
With the cooperation of Halsey`s parents and Peter Souchuk, the man who accompanied the young Virginian through most of his adventures and misadventures, Diana Landau, Halsey`s editor at Sierra Books in San Francisco, was able to finish Magnetic North. In her prologue she hopes "this has turned out to be a book Dave Halsey would be proud to have his name on"
The book is fascinating. Because we are informed, early on, of Halsey`s fate, our curiosity is aroused. What kind of man would want - let alone try -- to cross Canada by foot, dogsled, and canoe? What kind of man could so alienate his first three companions that after only four days they abandoned him in the British Columbia bush? What kind of man would suffer through hypothermia, poisoning, a fractured ankle, and bad luck pre, cipitated by misuse of a Cree medicine bag, just to pursue a dream so out-of-step as his? And finally, what kind of man, having completed his journey, having reached his goal and having seen that dream come true, would self destruct at the age of 26?
The book, then, is a character study.
Halsey was foolish - he was often illequipped, neglecting to pack a compass or rain gear or toilet paper; he often ran rapids he hadn`t scouted, or rapids he`d been warned against by locals. He was plagued by misfor-time
Eyeballing the proper lengths of brass wire, 1 fed sections across the floor with my right hand while the axe in my left rose and fell in matching rhythm, severing wire at two-foot intervals. 1 heard an odd-sounding "chop" and looked down at the wire. The end of my thumb, nail and all, lay on the floor.
But Halsey survived the physical wilderness. The photographs (by Peter Souchuk, mostly) reveal a tall, slim, good-looking young man with blond hair to his shoulders, a red headband, and wire-frame glasses. We grow to like him, to admire his courage and stamina. We enjoy his anecdotes about trappers and Mennonites and Ojibways and huskies.
By the end of his travails he is a much humbler, more likeable man than he was at first. But though we may like him, he has little use for us or any other of his fellow human beings. Shortly before his death, he told Peter Souchuk that if he were ever to homestead somewhere in the north, it would be at Good Site Lake, in northern Ontario. Souchuk remembers the spot as "innocuous, just a small round take and not especially attractive....I think its remoteness appealed to Dave ... the fact that it was so hard to get to"
In Polar Bridge: An Arctic Odyssey, the four Canadian and nine Russian men who undertook the 90-day trek from Cape Arkticheskiy in Soviet central Siberia across the North Pole to Canada`s Ward Hunt Island were responding to a similar challenge. Max Buxton, one of the Canadians, is described as "a typical middle-class North American of his generation, [who] had never experienced suffering or a severe personal test "
Culled from the taped diary entries of the four Canadians, Polar Bridge is, despite its potential, a disappointment. While it is true that what would be considered small irritations under normal circumstances are often blown far out of proportion in the microcosmic atmosphere of an expedition, the incessant infighting - over such issues as sleeping positions in the communal tent, wearing of equipment bearing sponsors` labels, and strict adherence to schedules - quickly becomes tedious. Perhaps because of an insurmountable language barrier, the two cultures never achieve anything approaching unity, and the worst bickering takes place among the Canadians themselves. As well, character development of the Soviets remains onedimensional, and too rarely does anyone take time to describe the spectacular surroundings; resentment and accusation and mistrust taint the air from the beginning.
Unlike David Halsey, the men on the Polar Bridge expedition never seemed to be at risk -except perhaps from each other. The dangers - frostbite, disorientation, equipment failure - were diminished by the constant buzzing of aircraft, some of them private, which monitored the group`s progress, as well as by the availability of radio-summoned help. What subplots there were - Dexter`s grief over his father`s death, Buxton`s attempts to arrange a polar wedding for his fiancee and himself - fail to distract the reader from the primary concerns of the expedition: funding and media coverage. (As they approached the North Pole and the media circus awaiting their arrival, one of the first things the trekkers saw were the "familiar golden arches" of one of their sponsors, airlifted in far the occasion.) Whereas Halsey was usually many miles from human contact of any kind, his Polar Bridge counterparts never truly left civilization. Halsey wanted the solitude that comes with wilderness, and he found it. Technology had not tamed his frontier, and despite his sad end he never allowed labels to obscure the landscape.