Thursday, November 17, 2016

George Back's Ravens, 20 April 1834

George Back, (1796-1878)
George Back accompanied John Franklin on his earliest excursions to the "Polar Sea", through the land now known as the Northwest Territories.  From 1833-35, he led his own excursion which sought to find the missing explorer John Ross.  Ross found himself.  He arrived back in England in 1833, but when Back discovered this the next year, he continued exploring to the north-east of Great Slave Lake, travelling the rapid-laden river (now named after him) to the sea at Chantrey Inlet. Before he could make this journey, however, he passed a hungry winter at the dwellings constructed for him at the far east end of Great Slave Lake.

That first winter at Fort Reliance was one of extreme hardship.  In late 1833, unseasonably warm weather had kept game out on the tundra, and the Denesoline and Yellowknives Dene in the region had great difficulty surviving.  Many weak and invalid First Nations wasted away at Fort Reliance, and the pemmican supply ran very low.

Back's Chimneys at Old Fort Reliance.
In his published narrative of the expedition, Back wrote of two ravens, whose company he enjoyed in the spring. Like the chimneys of Fort Reliance, which remain on the site today, his account is a lonely testimony to the suffering that winter at the gateway to the tundra.

"April 20th [1834] – For the last fifteen days our habitation had been rendered more cheerful by the presence of two ravens, which having, by my express directions, been left unmolested, had become so tame as scarcely to move ten paces when any one passed them; they were the only living things that held communion with us, and it was a pleasure to see them gambol in their glossy plumage on the white snow.

A party of men had arrived over night, and amongst them an Iroquois, who, perceiving the birds together, and being ignorant of my wishes could not resist the temptation of a double shot, and so killed them both.  In any other situation such an event, would, perhaps have seemed too trifling to be noticed; but in our case, the ravens were the only link between us and the dreary solitude without, and their loss therefore was painfully felt.  Moreover, there seemed a sort of treachery in the act, for the poor birds had been taught to look upon us as friends: their petty thefts were licensed; and their sharp croaking was welcome, as breaking the monotony of silence.  When they were gone, I felt more lonely, and the moaning wind seemed as if complaining of the barbarity."

Ted Harrison, "Tungsten", Eliot Louis Gallery.

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