Two Alone, Three Together

by Aksel Tanner

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    Rapids, grizzlies, wolves, ice floes, hostile weather—Bob Tanner and his father faced them all on a 700-mile trek through the unfamed northwest wilderness. But they also drew closer together and found out that no one is ever really alone

    We had committed ourselves to 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 relented 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 drop wasn’t too severe. But the huge waves and their back twist at the bottom were more than our canoe could handle, and we were spewed into a 38-degree bath of ice water. We both knew that we had less than ten minutes to make it 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 700-mile trip I never would have undertaken without the direction and inspiration of the Lord. When Bob was a senior in high school, 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 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 300 miles of barren tundra before emptying into the Coronation Gulf of the Arctic Ocean. (Several small groups fly to the Coppermine each year to run the river and fish, but they usually portage around the larger rapids. Maps show 38 sets of rapids, and a government report rates some of them at five on a scale of zero to six. One set of rapids is said to have waves nine feet tall. The Americans had run them all.) 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. But it had always been a dream. Our finances wouldn’t allow us to fly in to the headwaters, and that would mean paddling and portaging through 400 additional miles of small lakes and hostile terrain just to put in at the river. Even though all of us had considerable wilderness experience, 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 shape. We plotted our route on maps that covered a 20-by-20-foot area if we unfolded them all at the same time. We had been on many wilderness trips and river runs before and relied on our experience to dictate what we’d need for food and supplies. We read and reread the report of the group that had succeeded in running the river but couldn’t get in touch with them. After four months of planning and research, we had every square inch of our packs and other bags crammed with equipment, every dehydrated meal carefully rationed, every ten-mile 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. We arrived at Yellow Knife on the Great Slave Lake five days later and left our car with some friendly Church members. Our trek began in earnest when they dropped us off 16 miles from their home.

    We would portage (carry all our gear and canoe) 91 times before we arrived at the Coppermine. Sometimes portages were only a few hundred yards. The longest was 2 1/2 miles. But sometimes portaging 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 cover two miles.

    For the first 2 1/2 weeks we traveled through forests of short pine. Then we broke onto the tundra, wide and flat and dotted with hundreds of lakes. We soon got used to the pattern of 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 mosquitoes and the fantastic fishing.

    Mosquitoes were so thick they became part of our diet. After the first week we had so many bites we looked like walking bags of marbles. Headnets and repellent were essential to survival. (We had heard a story about mosquitoes actually killing a horse, and I hadn’t believed it at first. But after a few days, it wasn’t so hard to believe it, whether it was true or not.) At night we would set up our tent, get about ten feet away, soak ourselves with repellent, swing a coat or sweater around our head to clear the bugs away, then make a diving leap for the door. Then we’d spend the next half hour killing insects that managed to sneak inside.

    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 42 inches long. Average 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 18 inches to 2 feet, 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 stick to 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 off the land, 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 onslaught 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. Between the two of us, we left 50 pounds scattered across the wilderness—but we have since regained some of them at the dinner table at home! 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 55 and 60 degrees. A dismal gray drizzle followed us the rest of the time, unless it whipped itself into a furious storm. And then there was the overwhelming feeling of being two alone against the elements, two alone in this vast wasteland. There were times when Bob would look at me and say, “Dad, are you lonely?” And I would reply, “You bet I 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 portaging and signaled that we had traveled 300 miles and had 100 miles along the lakes before we came to the river.

    As 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 moved further into the wilderness, an emotion began to build. He 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 bumped a boulder. We noticed a huge mound of fur nearby. I thought it was a dead animal until it moved and Bob said, “It’s a grizzly. And it isn’t dead, it’s asleep.” We were less than 100 feet 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 200 feet 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 the opposite direction from us because of cliffs. It couldn’t go to the right, because of the lake. So we knew it was either going parallel uphill or coming straight for 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 boiling 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 broke the ridge about 100 feet 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 17-foot aluminum head growling at it. It was startled so badly it took off at a dead run. It took us about four hours to shake 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 crush 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 20 miles to cross. Even the slightest breeze once we were on the lake and we would be destroyed. For 20 miles 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 broke into open waters. No sooner had we cleared the ice floes than the wind began to blow again. It 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 for me,” 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, 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 headwind 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 and gathered what wood we could for a fire to warm our hands.

    We were resting there when we saw a herd of caribou coming directly toward us. They looked spooked, but I was sure they’d follow their established trail. They did and swam across the river. Right behind them was a pack of wolves. As the herd came out of the water, there were two old cows lagging behind. A second set of wolves, waiting on the far shore, renewed the pursuit, and soon dragged down a victim. Had we not stopped to warm our hands, we would have missed this spectacle of life and death.

    That wasn’t our only experience with wind or with wolves. Headwinds plagued us through much of the early trip. Sometimes they were so strong you could lean into them without falling over; sometimes they literally lifted you off your feet. It’s quite a challenge carrying a canoe over your head in winds like that! Another time winds were so strong we couldn’t even pitch our tent. We just waited them out for two days and slept on the ground.

    Another day, Bob had stopped to fish. When he looked up, a large wolf, about 30 feet away across the creek, was staring at him. It followed us for several days. I’m pretty sure he was a dominant wolf that had been driven out of his pack. He still carried his tail curled way up above the top of his back, a sign in the society of the pack that he’s a leader. We finally lost him when we crossed a large lake.

    We also drifted up to a large bull moose in the river one time. He was upwind from us and didn’t notice us. I’m sure his antlers were 60 inches wide. We got several good pictures of him before we scared him and he ran away, but those photos were among the two rolls of film that were later destroyed in processing, along with photos of the grizzly bear and the caribou and wolves.

    Another time we were hung up 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 make up 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 canned heat, but just enough to warm our food. And so we paddled and rushed on. Our worst day on the river we made three miles. Our best day we made 50, and we went over the falls and swamped 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 made up 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 run every set of rapids on the river but one (whether we were tired or afraid of the one we portaged 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. 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 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, if you will—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.

    Photos by Aksel Tanner

    Musk Ox Rapids (preceding page), with waves six to eight feet tall, typified the Coppermine’s currents. But before Aksel Tanner and his son Bob (seen at journey’s end in the insets below) could even get to the river, they had to cross 400 miles of lakes and barren tundra

    Quiet moments helped Bob contemplate God’s role in creating the earth. Campsites were rarely warm, but there was usually something interesting nearby, as evidenced by these wolf tracks found outside the tent one morning. Timber wolves can grow to a hefty 180 pounds

    Carrying a canoe and supplies overhead is tough, but up north it’s the only way to get from one lake to another. One day the Tanners portaged eight times. The burned-over area below, though only two miles wide, took two days to cross

    The splash skirt (the orange material around Bob’s waist and the top of the canoe) kept them from swamping. Twenty-four-hour sunshine allowed the Tanners to paddle from 8:00 A.M. to 1:00 A.M., recapturing time lost early in the trek. Inset photo was taken at 11:20 P.M.