By Allan Jacobs
In 1955, Arthur Moffatt led a canoe trip on the Dubawnt River in the barrenlands of northern Canada. He died of hypothermia when his canoe capsized in a rapid. Lanouette (his bow person) almost died, Grinnell also lost consciousness, and LeFavour and Pessl were virtually helpless for a while; only Franck escaped immersion in the cold waters [Lanouette, private communication].
The paddling literature has vilified him like no other, even Hornby (Thelon River, 1927); some authors go so far as to assert that he was responsible for his own death. The defamation (long on argument, assertion, invective and judgment, short on evidence) of him began in 1959 and went unchallenged until Pessl’s book (2014) provided the first, and so far the only, defence of Moffatt; but Pessl does not address specific accusations made against Moffatt.
The perceived truth among paddlers follows: Moffatt … a name that, in canoe-tripping circles became synonymous with incompetence [Kesselheim]. One defamer spread that perception to the general public.
In short, Everybody Knows that Moffatt was incompetent.
Well, it ain’t so.
On the contrary, he is entirely innocent with respect to the two major accusations made against him, and a lesser one to boot.
1. In the matter of the rapids where he died, I present two independent, mutually confirmatory and incontrovertible evidences of his innocence. Both were published over 50 years ago, one though hard to find; both were overlooked.
2. He has been accused of not having a plan; and the lack of a plan has been asserted (without evidence) to be the cause of his death. He left his wife and children for months without telling her when he expected to arrive in Baker Lake? Neither did he tell the RCMP? Conclusive evidence to the contrary has been in plain sight for over fifty years.
3. A lesser point. His defamers overstated the gravity of the food situation in the central third of the trip. That was in fact a time of plenty; please consult Appendix 1.
I demonstrate explicitly (not by argument, not by assertion, not by invective, not by judgment, but rather by evidence) that Moffatt’s incompetence, no matter how frequently it is stated, no matter who says it, no matter how widely it is believed by those who know his name, is nothing but myth.
I know not whether I can convince his defamers, but I hope to stop further spread of the myth.
So to speak of a dead man. So to speak of an innocent man.
The defamation of Arthur Moffatt begins.
The Sports Illustrated article (1959) has two parts.
Part 1 provides an abridgment of Moffatt’s journal, accompanied by editorial insertions.
Part 2 provides an abridgement of Lanouette’s journal for the day of Moffatt’s death, without editorial insertions.
Comments on Part 1.
1. The excerpts and the editorial insertions appear to have different authors.
2. I do not have access to Moffatt’s journal, only the “abridgement” presented in the SI article.
3. I don’t know the circumstances, but Moffatt’s widow Carol clearly gave permission to publish those excerpts.
4. Those excerpts contain many deeply personal observations, likely far more than many of us make in our trip reports. I expect that few of us have been on trips without a squabble or two, that occasionally we have gotten a little on each other’s nerves (often more than a little) but rarely do we mention such incidents in our reports, as opposed to our journals. Moffatt recorded such incidents in his journal; he did not survive to write a report, which might have omitted them.
5. All that aside, far too much has been made of the interpersonal interactions (in my opinion). More importantly, what did they have to do with his death?
From behind the cloak of anonymity, the editor writes as follows (bottom right of page 76): Already nine days behind schedule, the Moffatt party races against winter on the Barren Grounds. The days grow colder, provisions dwindle, game grows scarce. In desperate haste, they take an ultimate chance.
1. The schedule is that of Tyrrell’s party.
2. There was never a race; the party stepped up the pace on 3 August and again after the storm of 9 September. Comment: Perhaps a lead-in to the accusation of the In … chance sentence.
3. Days were indeed growing colder, on the whole. The stock of provisions (sugar, salt, milk, oatmeal, cornmeal, cigarettes. … ; all as opposed to food from the land) was indeed dwindling; really, how could that stock increase, except from the “cache”?
4. Appendix 1 describes the food situation as documented in four independent sources. Contrary to assertions of so many defamers, food was plentiful in the month before the tragedy. Game was never scarce late in that month.
5. The party lost most of its food in the tragedy, as well as both rifles (its main means to acquire food), and so food was very short afterward.
6. Although Moffatt comments (10 September, significantly, the day after the terrible storm) We’re all running scared, they were never in desperate haste and they took no chance, ultimate or otherwise. And there was no dump until the fatal rapid, and none after. Please consult Realities 3 and 4.
7. The In desperate haste … chance sentence is the first occurrence of the accusation (made by others) that the party threw caution to the winds and charged recklessly down the river. It goes beyond tabloid journalism, for it has no known basis in truth; in this respect, please consult Realities 3 and 4.
8. Some way to thank Moffatt’s widow!
The editor writes also (top of page 82, 7-8 September): Increasingly, the men were taking chances. They now shot down churning chutes of white water which, a month earlier, they would have scrutinized with a doubtful eye.
Comments: It seems necessary to state that the above is not an excerpt from Moffatt’s journal. The editor cites no evidence for these assertions.
Response of Pessl (private communication).
This is a rather large editorial leap from the reality of our situation, probably inspired by the fact that Peter and I shot the rapids at the entrance to Grant Lake on Sept. 6. We both hit rocks in that rapids and sustained minor damage to our canoes, while Art portaged the bottom part of the same rapids. But that was a considered strategy; Art choosing to portage “…partly to get warm, also to avoid risk of wetting or of hurting film and cameras.” (Moffatt journal, page 140).
Both Art and Peter watched from shore as I shot the rapids. Peter followed, then Art near the bottom of the rapids. This was all a pretty normal and shared situation: rapids examined, options discussed and decisions made. Not a risky departure from our standard procedure as suggested by the SI writer.
Allan comment: Please note Moffatt’s concern regarding the film, especially. That concern dictated his approach to running rapids: then, previously and subsequently (on 14 September in particular).
This is a précis of Lanouette’s journal for 14 September; Appendix 4 provides the full Lanouette entry for that day.
It contains the passage In a few minutes we heard … the real beginning of the first rapids. This passage (discussed fully in Reality 3) proves beyond any doubt that Moffatt was misled regarding the fatal rapids.
The editor makes no mention of that passage, which lay in the same article as Part 1.
Had its significance been realized then, would any of the defamation that followed have been written?
No Moffatt defamer mentions that passage, even those known to have had access to it.
And so the Sports Illustrated article began the myth, repeated and adorned by many, of Moffatt’s incompetence. The rumor mill ground away and the gossip spread. But a myth, even one presented as truth by so many, over so many years, as to become generally perceived as the truth, is still nothing but a myth.
Please excuse some personal comments.
It seems necessary to repeat what we are all taught: In civilised societies, those where truth is esteemed, accusations are accepted only when proved, beyond reasonable doubt, by evidence. And, in civilised societies, there is respect for fair play, especially when commenting negatively on those unable to defend themselves.
In the Moffatt matter, on the other hand, accusations were made without evidence to support them; in fact, those accusations are refuted by evidence that was available at the time they were made. In principle, then, those accusations should be dismissed out of hand. But the myth of his incompetence is so deeply ingrained in the paddling literature that the in-principle argument has no chance of acceptance. And so, in reversal of accepted practice, incontrovertible evidence is required to demonstrate his innocence.
I supply that evidence.
As best I know, the next written discussion of the tragedy came with the publication of Grinnell’s book [Northern Books, 1996]. By the way, the reader might reflect on why it took Grinnell 41 years to publish it, and why Pessl took 59 to publish his book.
Much content in that book was accepted as is. In particular, the glib catchphrase Lost touch with reality originated as a casual remark by the RCMP officer who interviewed Grinnell. The latter discussed the phrase (in his book) whimsically (rather than literally), thereby giving it unintended and unfortunate credence. The catchphrase was mentioned explicitly by only one Moffatt defamer (who took the accusation to the general public), but its essence pervades the writings of all others. The five Realities below provide a different perspective on the matter of reality, and who lost touch with it.
The defamation resumes.
All five survivors (Franck, Grinnell, Lanouette, LeFavour and Pessl) have written of the trip; I have seen nothing in their writings remotely comparable either to what follows or to the above remarks in the Sports Illustrated article. That is, defaming Moffatt is the exclusive province of those who were not there.
In the interest of brevity, I discuss only the comments of Murphy, Macdonald, Mahler, Thum and Kingsley.
By the way, some consider it in execrable taste to write so of a fellow paddler, of a dead man; others evidently disagree.
The attack on Moffatt was renewed by the reviews of Grinnell’s book by Murphy and Macdonald [Che-Mun, 1996].
Murphy, referring to Moffatt: … Slightly giddy from lack of food, a profound quietude and serenity has settled on your spirit. Logically you know you shouldn’t tarry but you linger there for weeks, entranced, as if moving would break some spell, disturbing your reverie. Danger lurks, yet you can’t seem to focus on it.
… a poorly planned and lackadaisically executed trip by Arthur Moffatt, an old and more experienced canoeist, who ended up perishing on this trip from a spill into icy September waters. Lack of food, proper equipment and most importantly, lack of a planned itinerary, contributed to his demise. … an excellent example of how not to conduct a canoe trip.
Macdonald: One of the consequences of a quasi-religious resistance to a pragmatic plan of travel was the death of Arthur Moffatt.
The first few lines of Murphy’s comments are imaginative, but I don’t see that they contribute to our understanding of the tragedy; in fact, I find them misleading.
He provides no evidence for his comment Lack of … proper equipment. This may be (no other interpretation occurs to me) a reference to George Luste’s comments (on Grinnell’s p 297) regarding a water-tight snap cover, a very long rope, a gas stove with an emergency supply of fuel and an EPIRB; if so, how many of these items were available in 1955?
Murphy’s Lack of food and Mahler’s short rations (below) reflect a common theme among Moffatt defamers, none of whom noticed that food was bountiful from 5 August to 14 September [Appendix 1]. Pessl comment (17 August): It is marvelous and quite fortunate how abundant food in the Barrens is at this season and how six quite inexperienced men are able to supply a substantial part of their diet with such ease.
Franck comment (28 August): We have been living like kings off the land here.
Summary of the food situation: Rations were short before 5 August, and of course after 14 September (when most food was lost); but food was bountiful in the interim.
Murphy and Macdonald (and not only they) assert (they provide no evidence) first that Moffatt had no plan, and second that the lack of a plan was responsible for his death. Surely a dead man deserves better, namely that evidence be provided for such assertions. In fact, the first part (no plan) is proved false by the evidence (not new) discussed in Appendix 3; and so the second part fails also.
Mahler [Che-Mun and canoeing.com, both 2005] includes comments by Bob Thum (not brother Carl, also a participant) whose party completed the full Chipman-Dubawnt route, in 1966.
Mahler, on the Thum party: … the first men to paddle the length of the Dubawnt after Moffat’s group. In contrast to Moffatt’s, theirs is a story of preparation, competence, self-assurance, and success in the pioneering days of tundra-river paddling.
Mahler, on the Moffatt party: … the Moffatt story unfolds as a tragedy just waiting to happen – indifferent leadership, an inexperienced party, short rations, bad chemistry, a plodding pace, and an apparent apathy toward the season closing on them …
Thum, on the Moffatt party: Those guys had no business being up there. … They were a bunch of guys who didn’t know what they were doing and led by a guy with poor leadership skills. They fooled around and did a lot of crap and it finally came back to bite them. This was simply a group of novices led by someone more interested in film than travel, which squandered its time and resources and then made some tragic mistakes. … . Moffatt … had some experience, but not much.
In the interest of brevity, I respond only to Thum.
1. didn’t know what they were doing … a group of novices.
Moffatt had paddled the Albany River (Sioux Lookout to Fort Albany) at least six times; as well, he had paddled the Allagash, Androscoggin and Penobscot in Maine. He must have known what he was doing to make such trips, at least one of them solo. Having done trips in addition to two Albany trips with Moffatt, Pessl was no novice. Neither was Franck, who had tripped with Moffatt on the Albany. Grinnell had paddled but not tripped. Lanouette and LeFavour were young outdoorsmen but with no canoeing experience [Pessl, p XIV].
The party left Black Lake on 2 July. After more than two months on the Chipman and the demanding Dubawnt, how can any one of them be justly called a novice on 14 September, the day when Moffatt died? And the party had gotten through previous rapids (many major) on the Dubawnt without incident: we had some scrapes and dings … but no serious damage nor significant mishaps [Pessl, private communication].
2. tragic mistakes.
It is a misleading half-truth that Moffatt led the way down that rapid without scouting it; rather, he had strong reason to believe that the only significant rapids had already been run or portaged. Please consult Reality 3 and Reality 4.
3. more interested in film than travel … squandered its time.
As Pessl describes, for example on his p XV, filming was a high priority, and progress down the river was certainly delayed by that activity. But more interested in film than travel is not justified by any evidence known to me. The squandered part of the comment is addressed below (Reality 1).
Kingsley, general comments.
Her source for information is clearly Grinnell’s book, but an unknown edition. I have the first edition and so correspondence may be incomplete.
Sources for quotations from her writings are the Up Here article, the book and the personal site.
Kingsley, assertion 1.
For half of August, they voted to take “holidays” and went nowhere.
Comment. The matter to be addressed is the number of days in August when the Moffatt party could have travelled but chose not to do so.
Here are the relevant comments in Grinnell’s book.
1. Bottom of p 162 (29 August): … we had all voted … to take another holiday … like so many of our previous campsites during the last weeks of August … and so we did that day as we had done on those previous days, we voted to take another holiday.
2. Top of p 167: During one of our innumerable holidays a few days earlier …
3. p 173 (30 August): … all Peter really wanted was … for all of us to stop taking so many holidays.
Here is the evidence of Pessl.
On pp 181-182, he lists all days with no travel. He records 11 nontravel days in August, when the party stayed in camp, for whatever reason. Two of the 11 were rest days, “holidays” or “Holy Days” if you like, namely 27 and 29 August. Some nontravel days were devoted to scouting rapids. The nontravel days of 11 and 20 August, occasioned by the weather, saw successful hunting. Appendix 1 provides details.
Comment. I can say little but that
half of August is not justified by the evidence available to me, and that
Grinnell and Pessl differ considerably with respect to the number of rest days (perhaps they interpret the term differently).
Kingsley, assertion 2.
By August 29, three days before they’d planned to complete the trip, they had travelled barely half the distance.
Here are the relevant comments in Grinnell’s book.
1. Top of p 58: … reach … Baker Lake on September 2nd, as planned.
2. Bottom of p 162: … reach … Baker Lake by September 2nd, …
3. Top of p 163: … September 2nd date was particularly important …
4. Middle of p 166 (31 August?, Franck speaking): … We are supposed to be at Baker Lake in two more days and we are only a little more than halfway there and we just took another holiday!
1. Kingsley’s assertion of a planned arrival on or about 2 September is clearly based on Grinnell’s comments.
2. Appendix 3 (Planning) discusses evidence regarding the planned arrival date. Pessl and Lanouette agree that Moffatt “hoped” to reach Baker Lake on 15 September, not on 2 September as mentioned by Grinnell and accepted by Kingsley. Both the New York Times article and Carol Moffatt’s telegram are consistent with 15 September.
3. Grinnell mentions only 2 September as the planned arrival date; in particular, he does not mention 15 September.
4. It is perhaps telling that the Moffatt’s journal entry (condensed) for 2 September (Grinnell, p 175) does not mention a planned arrival on that day.
Kingsley, assertion 3.
… all three boats plunged over a waterfall the paddlers hadn’t bothered to scout.
This assertion, like those made by so many other Moffatt defamers, is addressed in Realities 3 and 4.
Kingsley, other points.
1. The caribou were long gone, the weather changed overnight, and the men were trapped on the land. Dreams of plenty were a thing of the past.
… he (Moffatt) envisioned a land of plenty. He was plenty wrong.
On 29 August, the caribou were not long gone [Appendix 1]. In fact, early on 14 September, the party had on board enough meat to see them through to Baker Lake [Reality 4].
The party continued to travel, but inclement weather forced more frequent nontravel days. In fairness, it stayed put for six of the first ten days of September, in part though because of the vicious storm.
I know no source for the land of plenty assertion. The plenty wrong assertion is contrary to the evidence for the central part of trip (from 5 August to the tragedy); that period was indeed a time of plenty [Appendix 1].
2. They’d need every possible day if they were going to make it down the Dubawnt River to Baker Lake, Nunavut, 1,400 kilometers distant, before cold and hunger overtook them.
There were rest days. Moffatt’s party was certainly very cold later, but it continued to travel. Food was plentiful for over a month before the tragedy. But hunger indeed overtook them after the tragedy.
Why the hunger?
Not because they had run out of time.
Rather because, in the course of the tragedy, they had lost most of their food and both rifles (their primary means to acquire food from the land).
Finally, readers of Kingsley’s account might think that the participants were at each other’s throats most of the time, especially at meal times. Pessl’s book provides a different perspective.
1. Readers should refrain from judging Moffatt’s trip by today’s standards. Mahler put it well, I think: It’s easy today to forget the collective experience, knowledge, and lore accumulated in the years since the nascent days of barren land travel. Advice now found in widely available books, in tripper’s journals, and via on-line sources, was impossible to come by in Moffatt’s and the Voyageurs Canadiens’ era.
2. Others joined the chorus and the sorry chapter grew longer, as the gossip spread, as the evidence of Lanouette continued to escape notice.
3. More generally, Moffatt’s defamers formed a closed subculture, feeding on itself, oblivious to evidence (not only Lanouette’s) that contradicts its assertions. The essence of their position (asserted without evidence) is that the party squandered time early in the trip, suddenly awoke to reality (having lost contact with same), realised that they were running low on food and that winter was coming on, panicked in their rush to get to Baker Lake and so ran rapids without scouting them, as a result of which Moffatt died. That perception is well out of accord with the facts, as I discuss below.
4. Thum’s party held a significant advantage over Moffatt’s, namely knowledge of the dangerous rapids above Marjorie Lake.
5. When reading about Moffatt’s death, many paddlers might respond There but for the grace of God go I or Judge not, that ye be not judged or He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone … .
6. Even the best of us have run rapids without scouting them, dumped and survived. Far fewer, like Murphy and Thum, have had the courage to make their experiences public:
Murphy (of his partner): I spent 45 minutes … contemplating what I thought was his probable death and my impending one. … We had done everything wrong … .
Mahler: One of the canoes went over on a rapids on the Churchill, Bob Thum remembered. We hadn’t scouted – a classic mistake – and there was a ledge … One boat went over. …
Moffatt’s mistake on 14 September was different: it was to trust a source that had previously proved reliable.
Reality 1. The purpose of the trip.
It was to complete the central segment of the Tyrrell trip of 1893. Filming the experience was a secondary goal; does any rational person believe the party knowingly risked lives in order to film? In fairness, I record that some expressed discontent with the pace, Franck in part from a desire to get to school on time. That catchphrase again.
The participants were not barrens bashers or ego trippers or river baggers. They had nothing to prove, to themselves or to others. At no time was this a conquer-the-wilderness trip. In the first month, it was rather a savour-the-wilderness trip, a leisurely summer vacation [Pessl, 3 August] with some time spent filming. What Thum and others saw as squandering time, the participants likely saw as slowing down and smelling the roses (so to speak).
Of course, but only in retrospect, the slow pace early caused severe discomfort later; but please note Reality 2.
There was never an OMG-we-gotta-get-outa-here-ASAP decision, contrary to the assertions of so many Moffatt defamers.
Early in August, Moffatt expressed concern with the pace and the party responded. We discussed the possibility of returning to Stony Rapids before it was too late, but agreed to a man to continue, with the definite intention of longer, more strenuous days. [Pessl, 3 August]. Franck, in his journal for the same day, concurs. Moffatt’s journal (page 82 of the original, 4 August): … got up at 4:30…But we were underway by 6… With lapses (most due to weather or for hunting), the party held to that resolve.
In fairness, I record Pessl’s comment of 13 August: … we are slowly drifting back into our previous lethargy. … In this land of fish, caribou and berries, all seems well and so we mosey along.
Reality 2. The weather.
The pace was increased again after the vicious storm of 9 September (severe enough to destroy an anemometer in Churchill, described so movingly by Grinnell and Pessl). Of course the party should have hurried up much sooner; as I remarked above (under Kingsley), weather prevented travel on six of the first ten days of September. But is there any evidence that they should have known beforehand to hurry up sooner? The Tyrrell party had experienced, by 9 September 1893, nothing comparable to the storm that struck Moffatt’s party 62 years later [James W Tyrrell, 1896].
But all such discussion is rather beside the point, for the independent evidences of Lanouette and LeFavour demonstrate that the lateness of the season did not affect the events of 14 September, contrary to the claims of so many Moffatt defamers.
Reality 3. The evidence of Lanouette.
Appendix 4 provides the complete journal of Lanouette (Moffatt’s bow person) for 14 September. Here is the relevant passage for that day, from the abridged version in the Sports Illustrated article (1959).
In a few minutes we heard and saw rapids on the horizon. This surprised us. Art had figured we had already shot the last two rapids before Marjorie Lake. Actually, what we had gone down were only riffles, and what lay ahead was the real beginning of the first rapids.
By riffles, Lanouette means the upper pair of rapids, by rapids the lower pair (the more difficult ones downstream from the portage. His unabridged journal for the day [Appendix 4] mentions the rapids above the portage (incorrectly believed to be the last two rapids before Marjorie Lake) and the portage itself.
1. Moffatt possessed information regarding rapids on the Dubawnt; the source of that information is discussed below.
2. That information led him to believe, incorrectly, that any rapids downstream from the portage, should they exist, were at most minor.
3. The passage above, so vital to illuminating the tragedy, escaped attention for 56 years. Thoughtful reading of it and corresponding commentary on it could have avoided much regrettable literature and so terminated the sorry chapter long ago.
4. In this connection, please note Pessl’s remark (above) regarding the rapids above Grant Lake (not those above Marjorie):
… Art portaged the bottom part of the same rapids. But that was a considered strategy; Art choosing to portage “…partly to get warm, also to avoid risk of wetting or of hurting film and cameras.”
My point here is two-fold: First, Moffatt was cautious about rapids. Second, he would not run rapids if he thought there to be a risk of wetting or of hurting film and cameras.
Personal communication from Lanouette.
… he [Pessl] and Art had studied them [Tyrrell’s journals] carefully before setting out and notations had been made on Art’s maps. … I can assure you that, at the time of the accident, there was no sense of panic.
A related Thum comment.
I had two things I could look to on the Dubawnt: One was Moffatt, and you couldn’t really get anything out of that at all, and the other was Tyrrell. I got a copy of his 1893 report and you could actually get a great deal of assistance out of his writing. And that was it [Che-Mun and canoeing.com].
Response: The Moffatt reference is to the Sports Illustrated article, which contains the passage quoted above. And so Thum had the passage in hand but did not note its significance. And, not a minor point it would seem, surely he learned about the dangerous rapids (not described by Tyrrell) above Marjorie Lake (and perhaps about other rapids as well). And he does not mention that he had written to Pessl asking for information and guidance, and that Pessl had provided the same.
A related Mahler comment.
The contrasts between the Moffatt trip, as gleaned from the 1959 Sports Illustrated story … ” [Che-Mun and canoeing.com].
Response: And so Mahler too had that passage in hand, and so neither did he note its significance.
without an answer but perhaps one worth posing anyway: How would Moffatt commentary have differed had Grinnell (on page 202) not omitted those three key sentences This surprised … the first rapids and replaced them with an ellipsis? At least one writer was likely misled thereby.
Reality 4. The evidence of LeFavour.
His journal is not easily accessible; Lanouette provided me with part 3 of 4.
… As we sped through Wharton Lake only the occasional snow flurry fell … Up to that point we had shot five caribou and by doing so we had saved enough meat to see us through. Now it was not even necessary to spend time hunting. We traveled, and traveled hard.
The river between Wharton and Marjorie Lakes split up into three channels. The longest of these had been traveled by Tyrrell in his trip 60 years before and was described in his journal: there were five rapids, the first two rough but shootable, the third long and heavy requiring a portage of a mile and the last two apparently easy for they were mentioned only as “rapids”. Because this route was described we took it, being careful to look over the first two which were indeed rough. Hurrying as we were, no foolish chances were taken. …
A cold breeze blew the morning of the 14th. Thankful for the chance to keep warm by walking we completed the portage around the third rapid and at noon, … , we set off downriver …
After describing the lunch stop, at which the party caught 20 pounds of trout, LeFavour continues:
At 3 p.m. we were again on the river. Gone was the wind, and we hoped to get a good way up Marjorie Lake in the calm before dark. A mile downriver the roar of the next rapid reached our ears … Tyrrell had indicated by his neglect that the rapid was an easy one, and it seemed to be just that.
Analysis and discussion.
0. Of course Pessl also commented on those rapids, less completely however.
1. Lanouette and LeFavour agree that Moffatt had rapids information in general, and also details regarding the upper pair and the portage.
2. The source for that particular information (upper pair and portage) was J B Tyrrell’s Report on the Doobaunt, Kazan and Ferguson Rivers, … . Appendix 5 provides the relevant excerpt: Tyrrell mentions the first two rapids and then a portage around a third, all as described by LeFavour, but he does not mention a second pair.
3. There was no recklessness – failure to carefully check a rapid before running it (comment of one defamer), in a frantic attempt to reach Baker Lake as soon as possible, contrary to the statements of so many defamers.
Witness LeFavour’s: Hurrying as we were, no foolish chances were taken.
4. The party was not short of food immediately before the tragedy, as shown in Appendix 1.
Witness LeFavour’s: … we had saved enough meat to see us through, to which they had added those 20 pounds of trout.
Afterward: We had lost our leader, our mentor; both rifles, all our cooking equipment and most of our food … [Pessl, 16 September]. That is, the party had lost not only most of its food but also its main means to acquire food from the land.
5. J B Tyrrell (Appendix 5) mentions no rapids below the portage.
In contrast, Moffatt’s party knew that there were two below the portage, … the last two apparently easy for they were mentioned only as “rapids”.
And LeFavour mentions three channels between Wharton and Marjorie Lakes, whereas Tyrrell does not. The conclusion is inescapable: Moffatt had a source of information in addition to Tyrrell’s journal. That source is almost certainly the correspondence known to have taken place between Tyrrell and Moffatt, a suggestion to be confirmed or refuted by examination of that correspondence.
6. The main point: The second pair of rapids turned out to be far more serious than the first pair but Moffatt had no prior knowledge of that; to be specific:
(a) Tyrrell’s journal does not mention the second pair at all.
(b) The unknown source indicates that the second pair was less serious.
7. Whatever the cause, Moffatt was misled by Tyrrell’s information, as we had already concluded from Lanouette’s evidence.
8. Thum had the Sports Illustrated article (with Lanouette’s entry expressing Moffatt’s surprise at the second set) and also Joseph B Tyrrell’s book (which does not mention the second set). But Thum failed to connect the dots and realise that Moffatt had made no error in judgment in running the second set without scouting it, that Moffatt had been misled by Tyrrell. Instead, Thum made the comments quoted above. In fairness, others may have had both items and also failed to connect the dots. Had someone done so and acted, Moffatt’s reputation might have been cleared years ago.
Reality 5. Moffatt’s mistake.
It was indeed a mistake to trust Tyrrell’s information but it had served Moffatt well until then. If not, why did he continue to use it, why did the others let him do so? More conclusively, LeFavour (in a private communication) comments as follows: His journal [Tyrrell’s book] had been accurate to that point [the start of the second pair of rapids].
Many parties (among them Murphy’s and Thum’s) have made far worse mistakes than Moffatt’s, namely to trust a source believed by experience to be trustworthy. And there have been many other fatalities (for example at Thunderhouse Falls on the Missinaibi and at Rocky Defile on the Coppermine) that have not been touched by such vitriol. Moffatt has been subjected to abuse without parallel in the paddling literature; a sociologist (one specialising in group dynamics) could likely offer insight.
Contrary to the three main accusations of so many defamers:
1. The party ran the fatal rapids without a scout because a reliable source had misinformed it regarding the rapids’ severity, not in a desperate attempt to make up for time squandered earlier. A little care, namely thoughtful examination of Lanouette’s evidence (easily available), might have terminated far earlier the defamation documented only in part above.
2. Moffatt had an exit plan, namely a hoped-for arrival date in Baker Lake. The lack of detailed plan for each day (unreasonable in the barrens) played no role in the tragedy.
3. Food was bountiful for over a month before the tragedy.
It is to the reader to decide incompetence.
Let us hope that the defamation of Arthur Moffatt is at an end, that this far-than-proud chapter in the paddling literature is closed. His family and the trip survivors have been hurt enough already.
With all three major accusations refuted by evidence (not by argument, not by assertion, not by invective, not by judgment), the way is clear to open a new chapter in the literature, namely an appreciation of Arthur Moffatt. Such would be rather late (he died sixty years ago), but perhaps someone will take on the job.
I am indebted to Pessl and Lanouette for invaluable assistance regarding LeFavour’s journal, and to LeFavour for the comment quoted in Reality 5.
Lanouette provided an excerpt from his journal, made many helpful comments on the manuscript and gave permission to quote correspondence with him.
Pessl has supported me generously with help, contributions and encouragement over several months, kindly and graciously correcting more than one blunder. His permission to quote many excerpts from his book should help the paddling community as a whole to understand the events of so long ago.
The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak
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