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Berton’s work a tribute to the north

Posted on December 17, 2013 by Taber Times

Canada’s north has long been regarded as a forbidding region of windswept mountains and perilous ice-shrouded islands, of Inuit and igloos, of polar bears and Barren Lands. But that is only scratching at the stereotypical surface. Canada’s Arctic regions are a fascinating land of contrasts, and of immense dimensions that almost stagger the imagination.

In a very real way, many places in Canada’s north have hardly been changed since the first explorers plied their icy waters some five centuries ago, searching incessantly for the fabled Northwest Passage. The story of Arctic exploration is one that fills many volumes, and was an epic contest that bred death, starvation and disappearance down through the decades. It was also an incredible example of the indomitable will of man, and of our curious need to conquer the unknown, even in the face of unimaginable hardship.

Canada’s north has borne witness to boom and bust, gold lust and uranium fever at one point or another. It was a front in the Cold War, when men manned radar stations in inhospitable regions to confront their Soviet enemies across the top of the world, and where opposing submarine crews played cat and mouse under the polar ice cap.

Strange contradictions are almost par for the course.

Devon Island, for instance, is often noted as being the world’s largest uninhabited island, at 55,247 square kilometres.

It is such an alien place that NASA has conducted research on the island, utilizing the Mars-like environment to simulate living and working on the Red Planet. And this is just a more notable example.

Some areas are so remote that many islands in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago weren’t even discovered until the first half of the 20th century.

The north maintains a hold on the imagination like no other region in North America, and it has always held mystery for those immersed in its environment as well as those from the outside looking in. The final chapters of the lost Franklin expedition have more or less been pieced together by historians and researchers but there are still many questions about the fate of the expedition that remain unanswered, and will probably never be known. Similarly, the real identity of Albert Johnson, the so-called “Mad Trapper of Rat River,” who led RCMP on an epic manhunt during the early 1930s that ended in a bloody confrontation will also probably never be known.

It is this very sense of mystery that prompted Canadian author Pierre Berton to title one of his first works The Mysterious North: Encounters with the Canadian Frontier 1947-1954 (McClelland and Stewart, 1956).

A curious opus, outside of the vein of the well-known author’s better-known historical works that came much later in his career, The Mysterious North is Berton’s homage to the region of his birth. Written in a somewhat journalistic style, but with a looser, more polished anecdotal feel, the work chronicles Berton’s random travels throughout the regions of the north during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

At that time, the north still held mystery in a way that it no longer does today —  many passages and coastlines were still virtually uncharted, some places remained almost totally unexplored, and vast regions were hardly trodden by the foot of man. Although it is a dated work, having been published almost 60 years ago, it is at the same time a glimpse of a region that is centered on the optimism of the 1950s.

Berton sees the north through the eyes of the eternal optimist, which is by no means an abnormality amongst the few which populate it. Berton was a child of the Yukon, growing up in the famous gold rush town of Dawson City, a place that is almost synonymous with fortune and glory, and was once predicted to rival San Francisco or Seattle in size.

It is not hard to imagine how Berton came to be so fascinated by Canadian history, and one of the finest writers on the subject of his generation. Growing up in Dawson City long after the glory days of the gold rush, he scampered about a northern town that was heavy with the weight of the past, where gold dust and shiny nuggets once reigned supreme. Dilapidated dance halls and borded-up saloons, fabulous stern-wheelers grown faded with age, living alongside the cabin of Robert W. Service — Dawson City was no ordinary place to come of age in the 1930s and 1940s.

One of the most fascinating chapters in the book details Berton’s return to the community long after he had left it for a career in journalism. Painting a picture of Dawson City as only a native could, he talks at length about the origins of the community, but especially interesting for fans of the author, he relates his own reminiscences of growing up there.

It is a compelling snapshot of the community at a time when the gold rush days were only 50 or more years removed, instead of more than a century today.

Far from a baseline chronological work — Berton’s books rarely are, even in the historical genre — it focuses on microcosms throughout the frozen land of Canada’s Arctic, as well as the north not so far removed from us, including the northern areas of various provinces.

Starting out in Northern B.C., Berton gives us an account of his famous expedition to the Nahanni Valley in the Northwest Territories — an almost totally unknown place at the time in the Mackenzie Range which borders the Yukon — forging a story series which helped make the young journalist’s career.

The potential development of northern Labrador, a hair-raising trip down the recently-constructed Alaska Highway with a U.S. army officer, trips to Baffin Island and other islands to report on the development of radar stations in the high Arctic, and expeditions to the remote Arctic coastline and into the Barren Lands between Hudson’s Bay and the Mackenzie region — all are described in delicious detail and with Berton’s enduring style which has captivated millions of Canadians and generations of readers.

Despite being one of Berton’s sophomore works, The Mysterious North bears none of the failings that might sometimes be seen in other author’s inaugural outings, probably a result of his background as a newspaperman. Not a historical piece in the strictest sense, The Mysterious North is more an eyewitness account that fuses storytelling with journalism. Well worth the time invested for fan’s of Berton’s more well-known historical works.

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