A story of travellers lost in the wilderness ties me to my father near the endby Margaret Atwood / July 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
It’s October; but which October? One of those Octobers, with their quick intensities of light, their diminuendos, their red and orange leaves. My father is sitting in his armchair by the fire. He has on his black and white checked dressing gown, over his other clothes, and his old leather slippers, with his feet propped up on a hassock. Therefore it must be evening.
My mother is reading to him. She fiddles with her glasses, and hunches over the page; or it looks like hunching. In fact that is just the shape she is now.
My father is grinning, so this must be a part he enjoys. His grin is higher on the left side than on the right: six years ago he had a stroke, which we all pretend he’s recovered from; and he has, mostly.
“What’s happening now?” I say, taking off my coat. I already know the story, having heard it before.
“They’ve just set out,” says my mother.
My father says, “They took the wrong supplies.” This pleases him: he himself would not have taken the wrong supplies. In fact he would never have gone on this ill-advised journey in the first place, or—although he was once more reckless, more impetuous, more sure of his ability to confront fate and transcend danger—this is his opinion now. “Darn fools,” he says, grinning away.
But what supplies could they have taken, other than the wrong ones? White sugar, white flour, rice; that was what you took then. Peameal, sulphured apples, hardtack, bacon, lard. Heavy things. There was no freeze-drying then, no handy packaged soups; there were no nylon vests, no pocket-sized sleeping bags, no lightweight tarpaulins. Their tent was made of balloon silk, oiled to waterproof it. Their blankets were of wool. The packsacks were canvas, with leather straps and tump-lines that went across the forehead to cut the strain on the back. They would have smelled of tar. In addition there were two rifles, two pistols, 1,200 rounds of ammunition, a camera and a sextant; and then the cooking utensils and the clothing. Every pound of it had to be carried over each and every portage, or hauled upriver in the canoe, which was eighteen feet long, wood-framed, and canvas-covered.
None of this would have daunted the adventurers, however; or not at first. There were two of them, two young Americans; they’d been on camping expeditions…