Two Alone—Three Together


We had committed ourselves to traveling over the rapids. The current was so powerful that there was no other choice but to take whatever the river had to give. Then suddenly the churning, splashing boiling subsided. Everything seemed to stand still for an instant. The wind calmed, the river smoothed itself, the pace of our heartbeats slowed a bit, and our breathing returned, almost, to normal. What we saw in the next instant frightened us much more than the rapids had—a smooth line of water reaching from one bank to the other, a line that could mean only one thing: waterfall!

There had been no indication of a waterfall on our maps, but it was a little late to worry about that. In this largely unexplored area of Canada’s Northwest Territories, there were often surprises. About all we had time to do was pray and go over.

Luckily, the fall wasn’t too severe. But the huge waves and their back twist at the bottom were more than our canoe could withstand, and we were thrown into a 3.3 degree Centigrade bath of ice water. We both knew that we had less than ten minutes to get to shore or we would freeze. It was a tremendous test of strength, endurance, and determination, but somehow we dragged ourselves and our boat onto the rocks before we collapsed.

Extremely unusual circumstances had led my son and me from our home in Salem, Utah, to our adventure in the Northwest, a 1,126 kilometer trip I never would have undertaken without the direction and inspiration of the Lord. When Bob was 17 years old, like most teenagers he wanted a job. A large portion of his income was to go to his mission fund. He had dreamed of a mission most of his life and longed to follow the example of his older brother, David, who had served in the Florida Tallahassee Mission.

But the job brought bad influence with it. At first Bob thought he could rise above it, and he should have been able to, but little by little it began to soak in. My wife and I suggested that he change jobs, and he did. But the second job was even worse than the first. Severe changes—lack of personal prayer, for example—became evident. His desire for a mission faded, and he spent several thousand dollars of his mission fund for fun and parties.

Heartbroken, his mother and I had fasted and prayed and visited the temple often. On one occasion as we sat in the Provo Temple, the answer came. My wife whispered that she had a strong impression that if I would take Bob on the Coppermine River, he would regain his love for the gospel. At first I thought she was crazy.

My sons and I had read about the Coppermine River in an outdoor magazine several years earlier. Six American explorers told how, in 1974, they had been the first to travel the length of the river, which wanders through 482 kilometers of barren tundra before emptying into the Coronation Gulf of the Arctic Ocean. Maps show 38 sets of rapids, and a government report rates some of the rapids at a turbulence of five on a scale of zero to six. One set of rapids is said to have waves 2.7 meters tall. A Canadian group had attempted to follow the same route in 1973, but had been forced back by violent weather.

Ever since that article appeared, David and Bob and I had dreamed of conquering the Coppermine River. But it had always been a dream. Our finances wouldn’t allow us to fly in to the headwaters, and that would mean paddling our canoe and carrying our equipment through 644 additional kilometers of small lakes and hostile terrain just to get to the river. Even though all of us had considerable wilderness experiences, it would be a difficult, arduous journey.

But I knew my wife had been inspired. I trusted the Lord to tell me the same thing, and before we left the temple, I received the same confirmation. Still, it was hard to imagine ahead of time what such a trek would mean.

We obtained maps from the Canadian Government. David decided he shouldn’t leave his young family alone, so Bob and I began planning our trip in earnest. We began an exercise and running program to get in good physical condition. We plotted our route on maps that covered a 6 by 6 meter area if we unfolded them all at the same time. We had been on many wilderness trips and river trips before and relied on our previous experience to dictate what we’d need for food and supplies. After four months of planning and research, we had every square centimeter of our packs and other bags crammed with equipment, every dehydrated meal carefully rationed, every 16 kilometer landmark and every daily distance on our time schedule charted in. When we arrived in Canada, we would fill out forms with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, listing our intended route and estimated date for completion of the trip.

On June 23, 1978, we left Salem, Utah. We arrived at Yellow Knife on the Great Slave Lake in Canada five days later and left our car with some friendly Church member. Our trek began in earnest when they drove us 26 kilometers from their home and left us to begin our trip.

We would portage (carry all our gear and canoe) 91 times before we arrived at the Coppermine River. Sometimes we only had to carry our equipment a few hundred meters. The longest was 4 kilometers. But sometimes carrying our equipment meant making two or three trips to carry all the equipment. Our most difficult portaging on the entire trip was through a burned area cluttered with stumps and ashes. It took us 21 hours to go 3.2 kilometers.

For the first 2 1/2 weeks we traveled through forests of short pine. Then we come to the tundra, wide and flat and with hundreds of lakes. We soon got used to crossing a lake, then carrying canoes and equipment to the next shore and beginning again. The first few days seemed almost uneventful, except for the mosquito and the fantastic fishing.

There were so many mosquitoes they became part of our diet. After the first week we had so many mosquitoes bites we looked like walking bags of marbles. Headnets and insect repellent were essential to survival.

Fishing, on the other hand, was the fulfillment of a fisherman’s wildest dreams. Nearly every cast brought action. The smallest fish we caught was about two pounds, the largest was 106 centimeters long. The average weight was about 12 pounds. Arctic grayling and northern pike fried over a campfire are delicious.

We learned some lessons the hard way. For example, we learned that leather boots aren’t well adapted for tundra. Walking on tundra, you sink in anywhere from 45 centimeters to 60 centimeters, or more, and it’s permafrost underground. So we were always wading in ice water, and our feet were always cold. We also found out that the closer you get to the North Pole, the more difficult it is to follow maps because the magnetic pole shifts constantly and because the difference between magnetic north and true north is much greater. (In Utah the difference is 16 degrees. Where we were in the Arctic it’s 42 degrees.)

The most dramatic lesson, though, was that it’s vital to follow a schedule. At the end of 3 1/2 weeks, we were six days behind. That meant that the last six days we would be without food; we would have to live on what we could find, and that would slow us down even more. Twigs provide the only fuel on the tundra, and to gather enough to cook fish would take hours. We were also concerned about the weather. Summer in the Northwest is sometimes like winter in Utah, and the weather is unpredictable. We knew we would face snow, wind, rainstorms, freezing temperatures, and by mid-August, the beginning of winter. We were scheduled to finish on August 7, so a delay of even a few days might be serious. We began traveling as fast as we could.

Darkness was no problem because it was light all night. But emotions as well as muscles were often strained. In six weeks we had only five days of total sunshine, only nine days that we saw the sun. The warmest temperature during the entire trip was between 12.8 and 15.6 degrees Centigrade. A dismal gray drizzle followed us the rest of the time, unless it whipped itself into a furious storm. There were times when Bob would look at me and say, “Dad, are you lonely?” And I would reply, “I really am.” We missed the family (I have nine daughters, too) very much, but we knew their prayers and support were with us.

We would begin traveling at about 8:00 A.M. and finish the following morning at 1:00 A.M. Even with torn and strained muscles we had to keep going, because there was no other choice. We longed for the day we would arrive at Point Lake, the first of several long lakes that meant an end to our carrying our equipment and indicated that we had traveled 482 kilometers and had 160 kilometers to travel along the lakes before we came to the river.

We pushed across the Arctic, the directing and protecting powers of the Spirit were always present. We had prayed regularly throughout the trip. I had set a pattern and hoped Bob would follow, and he did. For the first week, his prayers were choppy and short. But as we move further into the wilderness, an emotion began to build. We began to talk to the Lord. He would say please, and when I heard him say it, I knew he was on the way back. As we got into some more difficult situations, he really opened up. Sometimes we would pray a dozen or more times a day. The feeling kept growing that we were not really two alone, but three together—myself, my son, and the Lord.

Late one afternoon we were approaching the mouth of a river at the end of Starvation Lake. As we pulled ashore, the canoe bump a boulder. We noticed a huge mound of fur nearby. I thought it was a dead animal until it move and Bob said, “It’s a grizzly bear. And it isn’t dead, it’s asleep.” We were less than 30 meters from it at that point. Suddenly, it stood up. I thought it would run away, as most bears do. But it was irritated. The hair on its neck raised up, it started swaying its head back and forth, its jaws started moving—you could hear the teeth clacking—and its ears were laid back. I grabbed the camera and Bob grabbed the gun, but we soon decided it wasn’t smart to stay close, and we backed into deeper water. Somehow we had to get by that grizzly.

We pulled into a small draw about 60 meters away and checked on the bear. It had lain back down. So we took the food packs up and came back for the canoe. When we checked on the bear again, it was gone. It couldn’t go to the right, because of the lake. So we knew it was either going parallel uphill or coming straight toward us. It knew where we were, but we didn’t know where it was. Bears will sometimes move up your trail and intercept you, and we were both scared. We knew it might come running over the hill any minute. Bob said, “Dad, can we pray, please?” After a prayer and with great caution, we started up the draw, me with the canoe over my head and Bob with the gun.

We reached the ridge about 30 meters from our packs, and it was waiting there for us. If it tasted the food in the packs, we would have to kill it to keep it from destroying the entire supply, and we didn’t want to do that. As a last desperate effort, and with prayer in my heart, I raised the canoe and shouted at the top of my lungs.

The bear swung its huge head around and saw a pair of legs, a body, and a 5 meter aluminum head growling at it. It was startled so badly it left running as fast as it could. It took us about four hours to get rid of the hollow feeling we had after that close encounter, but we both knew the prayer had helped us through.

When we arrived at Point Lake, it was covered with ice floes. Shifting ice floes in a bad wind would crash a small canoe like an egg shell. We made camp, and I asked Bob to pray that night. He exhibited a faith rarely seen. He said, simply, “Father, stop the wind.”

The next day when we got up, it was perfectly still. The lake was smooth as a mirror. But we had 32 kilometers to cross. Even the slightest breeze once we were on the lake and we would be destroyed. For 32 kilometers we pushed through the floes. Twice the canoe froze in the ice as we got hemmed in, and we had to jump and pry and push to work our way free. Finally, after 7 1/2 hours, we got into open waters. We had just gotten through the ice floes when the wind began to blow again. The wind had been a daily companion except for those 7 1/2 hours. We prayed again, this time a prayer of thanks.

It was about that time Bob began talking again about going on his mission. We hadn’t mentioned it much, but then one day he said, “Well, I guess when we get home I’ll start getting ready for my mission.” From then on, he talked about a mission more and more. One night, about 1:00 A.M., after a long, hard day, he rolled over in his sleeping bag and said, “Dad, tell me about eternal life.” We talked for about two hours. Then, with his last effort, he said, “That’s what I want” and fell asleep. For me that made the whole trip worthwhile.

We also had several other experiences that taught us to appreciate the harmony and beauty of nature and the power of its forces and creatures.

One day, after we had reached the Coppermine River, we were paddling on the river during a blizzard. It was the end of July and the snow was flying! The current was powerful, but the head-wind was so strong we were struggling for progress. Bob said, “Dad, look at the shore.” I did … We were standing still. And when we stopped paddling, the wind blew us upstream! So we stopped and pulled over to the shore and gathered what wood we could for a fire to warm our hands.

Another time we were stuck on a boulder in a bad set of rapids, and it seemed as though we might stay there forever. But after a prayer and a quick maneuvering of the boat, we broke free.

Once we reached the river, we were determined to regain our lost time. We didn’t mind moving, because when we’d stop we’d start to chill. Even at night we slept cold. The ground was ice, and the wind was cold. We had some small containers of fuel, but just enough to warm our food. And so we paddled and rushed on. Our worst day on the river we traveled 5 kilometers. Our best day we traveled 80 kilometers, and we went over the falls and flooded our canoe at the last set of rapids out of eight we covered that day. The map showed eight sets of rapids, and we decided, because of our haste, to run them without studying them first, a foolish thing to do.

We slowly regained our lost time, and by the end of the trip, arrived in the small Eskimo village at the mouth of the river right on schedule. We had one half of a meal left. Our canoe was so badly damaged we had to abandon it (after notifying Canadian officials). We had sailed over every set of rapids on the river but one (whether we were tired or afraid of the one we carried our equipment around I’m not sure), so we didn’t claim any records. But Bob had been lost and now was found. The day after we returned home, he went to see the bishop and expressed his desire to serve the Lord. He is now serving in the Illinois Chicago Mission.

To any father who is trying to help his son decide to go on a mission, I would say that the most important thing is to know your son. Not everyone needs to go on a trip down the Coppermine River. The same kind of building experiences can take place at home, working in the garage together, playing a game of tennis, maybe just going for a walk where the two of you can be alone. I wouldn’t have gone on the Coppermine River if I hadn’t felt inspired to do so.

And to you young men who know you should be going on a mission, I would remind you that for every person there will be wilderness areas, Gethsemanes, Sacred Groves—places where we learn to rely on the Lord completely and call on him in fervent prayer. Don’t try to tempt the Lord by placing yourself in a dangerous situation, but be prepared to follow the promptings of his Spirit, wherever they may lead you.