Book Review — Dangerous River

February 5th, 2013

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I finished Dangerous River by R.M. Patterson less than half an hour ago. As I read the last twenty pages or so, I savoured every word, wishing it could be a little longer, but feeling the end approaching with every paragraph. Spring was descending on the Nahanni River, which would bring the story full circle. It will be difficult to summarize Patterson’s incredible 270-page adventure, but I will try.

R. M. Patterson weaves a beautiful tapestry as he tells the story of his two excursions into the Nahanni country of the Northwest Territories. He went the first time in the summer of 1927, as a man with minimal wilderness experience but more than enough heart. He knew little of the country, but as he travelled North, through Fort Smith and Fort Resolution, he heard more and more legends about the First Nations people of the area — he called them “Indians” — and tales of lost prospectors, unsolvable mysteries, hidden gold mines, betrayal and murder. In the book, he recounts these legends at length, which gives a great background for the adventures to come.

And what adventures he has! His journey starts in northern Alberta, but he picks it up as he poles upstream on the Liard River, headed for the mouth of the South Nahanni river and the Nahanni Butte. He meets up with Albert Faille (pronounced “fay-lee,” a legend unto himself), and ends up travelling with him. The two of them make it up the South Nahanni river to the Flat River confluence, where Faille and he part ways. Patterson continues, working ingenious and risky methods upstream against the current, until he gets all the way to the base of Virginia Falls where he plays in the ripples and eddies, in the mist. It is incredible how well he travels completely on his own, and he isn’t exactly spartan about it:

“I defy anybody to better that breakfast menu, or to bring to it a better appetite: porridge, sheep liver and bacon, bannock, butter, marmalade and tea, topped off with a bowl of raspberries and cream. And the porridge, let me explain, was no invalid dish, nor would it ever figure on the diet sheet of a slimming movie star: porridge as developed by me on the Nahanni consisted of a mixture of rolled oats and whole wheat, and into this was thrown a little salt, a large pat of butter and a handful of seedless raisins. The finished product was served in a large bowl: on top of the porridge a thin slice of cheese was spread, and the dish was topped with a pouring of dried milk to the consistency of cream and a liberal sprinkling of brown sugar. It will be easily understood that this porridge lays a good foundation for a good breakfast to follow.” (page 69)

As you can see, Patterson’s writing style is descriptive and poetic, and I enjoyed the early 1900’s tone of the book. He manages to capture the magnificence of the scenery and breath-taking moments. In reading Dangerous River, I was reminded what it means to be alive, to explore, and to thrive in those incredible moments you experience when you are alone in the wilderness with the sun beating down on you, with only the birds for company… when you round the curve in a river to see cliffs you’ve never seen before… when you see an amazing sunrise or sunset, and you’re the only human around to witness it…

“I was heading east into the sun which was climbing into the sky above the Lower Canyon: as it rose it touched with fire and lit, one by one, the cottonwoods along the river and the clumps and belts of golden aspen poplar on the benches and the mountain slopes, till the valley shone with the flaring magnificence of the trees. The air was clear and keen like a fine dry wine, and the deep blue shadows of early morning filled the clefts and canyons of the hills…” (page 149)

In May of the following year, 1928, he returns to the Nahanni country with his friend, Gordon Matthews and a team of dogs. Through record-breaking flood levels, they work a three-canoe rig with small kicker upstream, although on the very first day going up the Nahanni, the kicker falls to disaster (a submerged deadhead). They continue on manually, ferrying above churning rapids, tracking in waist-high water, and surviving more than a few close calls. The author, however, knows when to call it quits and wait for the river to fall a little, or when to change techniques or simply accept that the risk is too high and a portage is necessary. He and Gordon make it up to Deadmen Valley where they establish a camp, complete with cabin, cache, traplines and hunting grounds.

The story continues as autumn descends and they work through the transition to frozen winter. They travel extensively around the valley — by canoe until there is too much ice running, on foot and later using dog sleds. There are many stories within this book, but I will just mention one: in late December, Gordon makes a trip to Fort Simpson with the dogs. He has to turn back once due to open water, so back at the cabin, they rig up a nested sled to hold a canoe, which then holds the smaller dog sled, and he switches to the canoe where the open water is. Suddenly, a wind comes up, the dogs get scared and all go to one side so the canoe capsizes! Luckily, they are near shore and he manages to save most of his gear; all the dogs swim to shore and he lights a huge bonfire from driftwood nearby to fend off hypothermia. He eventually arrives in Fort Simpson but is held up there due to major blizzards. When he doesn’t return on time, Patterson goes looking for him on foot, and through countless trials — which I won’t go into… I don’t want to give away all the suspense of the book! — he walks all the way to Fort Simpson where they are happily reunited. They return to their cabin later and continue to thrive through the winter and spring in the beautiful Deadmen Valley.

I’m afraid this review simply cannot do justice to the journey that Patterson was on! Although it was full of struggles and trials, much of it was borne happily, it seemed, and only in the truly miserable circumstances did he complain. As in all our lives, times of ease and joy balanced out the challenges and hardships; he truly seemed to know how to thrive in any circumstance. Patterson’s experiences in Dangerous River cover it all — hunting, trapping, wilderness living, dogsledding, canoeing and survival. I highly recommend this book!

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