A Death on the Barrens

A Death on the Barrens

 by George Grinnell


Death on the Barrens: A True Story of Courage and Tragedy in the Canadian Arctic


Heron Dance is sold out of this book, but it is available through Amazon:


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In 1955 five young men in their early twenties set off with 36-year-old Art Moffatt on a canoe trip through Canada’s arctic. The group was unprepared for the cold. They ran out of food. As winter closed in, Art Moffatt died of hypothermia when the group inadvertently went over a waterfall.

One of the young men on the trip, George Grinnell, tried for forty years to put the story of the journey down on paper. He came to see that summer as a spiritual journey toward a harmony with the land. That book, A Death on the Barrens, was published in 1996 and sold out within a few months. Heron Dance republished it, and after we sold the book out, we were able to find a new publishing arrangement for the author, George Grinnell, through North Atlantic Books, an affiliate of Random House.


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From the introduction by George Luste:

The majority of us live our lives in relative psychological security, choosing to graze in the center of the pastures of the human asylum. We leave it to genuine artists and individuals, like George Grinnell, to explore the unseen and less traveled edges of our enclosure for us. This exploration of the human soul is far more difficult than any exploration of the geographical landscape can possibly be. It is both difficult to arrive at the edge, the place of enlightenment, of heightened sensation and perception, and then equally difficult to return and to re-attach to the humdrum everyday world of the center.

Their three-month canoe trip across the uninhabited Barrens takes George Grinnell to the lip of the abyss that separates sanity from insanity and life from death. And it is his first hand exploration of this uncertain edge that provides the profound insights that makes this a most powerful and unique narrative.


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Excerpts from the book:

The light drizzle persisted through the night; we rose early, hurried through breakfast, and packed the canoes; everyone hurried, that is, but Art, who remained on the hill by the breakfast fire sipping his tea as if he were having second thoughts.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.”

Wise even in childhood, Saint Anthony made the pilgrimage to the heavenly kingdom at eighteen; but most of us are less successful in our spiritual journey. We prefer the seven deadly sins of civilization (avarice, envy, gluttony, lust, sloth, anger, and pride) to the inner peace of a spiritual life. We scratch, we pinch, we claw our way through the rat race, accumulating what we consider to be our rightful portion of the Gross Domestic Product; and it is not until we lie on our death beds that we realize the truth — today’s garbage dumps were yesterday’s gross domestic products, and so are we. Our children look on our monuments with bewilderment.


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For Art, the wilderness was not a hostile but a Holy place. We were not on an expedition to “conquer” the Barrens, and therefore Art did not feel the need to run the expedition like an Army on an assault. Art’s spiritual destination was inner peace. Arrival at this inner destination takes time, and so Art took his time and sipped his tea, and turned the running of the expedition over to the weather.

There is a Buddhist joke about a pilgrim seeking enlightenment. He asks his master how long it will take. The master replies: “Ten years.”

The pilgrim protests: “No! No! What if I work really hard?”

“Twenty years,” the master replies.

Holy men send their pilgrims towards a physical destination at first because, before enlightenment, the pilgrim needs faith in a tangible objective; but if a pilgrim walks slowly enough, the seven deadly sins fall away, and the Garden of Eden is discovered within him or herself. When one has reached that destination, other destinations seem trivial, even while falling off a cliff.


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Rebellion is a substitute for inner peace. It gives meaning and purpose to life so long as the object of the rebellion remains in power, because that object is seen as the cause of one’s discontent: but once the authority disintegrates it becomes necessary to seek more deeply — and as we searched more deeply, we discovered that the source of our inner discontent was not Art, but our own gluttony, our own sloth, our own anger, our own lust, our own avarice, our own envy, our own vanity. Particularly our vanity; and so when we looked over to Art sipping his tea in that peaceful, meditative way of his, we too began to reach for the tea pot and emulate him once again.


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It is now forty years later, September 15th, 1995, and I am still trying to say farewell. I owe Art a debt I cannot express. He had understood something about the wilderness, and he had done his best to share his understanding with us.

Art never preached, but he had made the pilgrimage before. He took me to the Garden of Eden where I could meet his God. He made me feel lucky to be alive, and I am eternally grateful.

My seven deadly sins of civilization had fallen away on that pilgrimage. When I had been a glutton, my belly had been full, but I had not felt satiated. When I had been slothful, I had taken plenty of rest, but still I felt tired. When I had been avaricious, I had collected many possessions, but yet I wanted more. When I had been lustful, I had had enough sex, but still I felt frustrated. When I had been vain, I had never felt sufficiently appreciated. My seven deadly sins had all been sins of inner discontent. The discontent made me feel angry; angry at the world, angry at my fellow creatures, angry at myself; and so I had not been happy, and I had not made others happy; but on Art’s pilgrimage into the Garden of Eden, the seven deadly sins had fallen away from me — and by the time Art died, I only felt gratitude, gratitude for the caribou, gratitude for the love of my companions, and gratitude for the peace I felt within. This was the gift I had received on Art’s pilgrimage. No greater gift can a person receive.


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Enlightenment comes from looking at the wilderness, the creation, with eyes of awe. It is not something that comes through reason or through study at a university, because enlightenment is not knowledge, but a change in perspective; and so Art did not preach. He waited until we were able to see that the wilderness is not an enemy to be conquered, but a gift to be loved. Art understood that enlightenment is a “gestalt shift” in which the World is viewed differently.

Jesus did not spend time at a university, he spent time in the wilderness.

What I learned from Art is that God, if there is a God, is not an object so much as a relationship — the reconciliation of all things to all things. When I feel reconciled to God, I feel awe for the gift of creation, I feel love for my fellow creatures, and I feel peace within myself. This is the gift Art shared with us.

Later I was to learn of another aspect of God, the transcendental one. The spirit of God is in all things: but morality, which transcends the natural desires, comes from a different source.

If one takes seriously Socrates’ injunction to “know thyself,” one will eventually come to the understanding that we have done things we ought not to have done, and we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and that we are not worth dying for. It is not “reasonable” that Jesus or Art or the caribou or any other creature should die for us.

We are very reasonable creatures: but to feel the grace of God, one must forget about reason and go on a pilgrimage to a place where we no longer “see as through a glass darkly,” to a place where we are able to see the death of a caribou or a chicken with eyes of gratitude, rather than with eyes of conquest. Art had taken us on a pilgrimage to that holy place, the Garden of Eden which resides within our souls.

Jesus had spent forty days in the Wilderness, Saint Anthony a lifetime; but for us, seeing the world from a different perspective had taken about three months. It had not been until our second forty days that we had begun to feel grateful instead of angry.

Gratitude came first in the form of appreciation for small favors, small favors which we now understood to be not so small, the gift of rain, the gift of the sun, the gift of the life of a caribou which had died for us….With the growing sense of gratitude came a growing sense of love: love for the creation, love for one another, and love for the grace of God which made us feel so peaceful.

We had come to realize that although life is very short, it is very precious: and we understood that when Art died, he was not separated from us and from Creation, but one with us, one with all things.


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We placed Art’s body under his canoe on the top of the hill. We could not bury him because the ground was frozen and we had no shovels.

After a moment of reflection, which has lasted forty years, we turned and continued down the hill. How many times I have gone down the hill, fallen back into the seven deadly sins of discontent, lost that sense of gratitude that Art had led me to. How many times I have tried to tell this story truthfully. How many times I have failed….


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All morning the symphony of color played; and in the afternoon, the fires of dawn were fanned into yet more spectacular array by the setting sun. The calm lake mirrored the sky; and, as we paddled towards the horizon, our canoes carried us into that heaven where water and sky are one. Behind us the black clouds of an approaching arctic blizzard shrouded the flaming sky.

When we turned into the narrows, where the current quickened and the colorful lake transformed itself into a tumultuous river, we were surprised to see small furry animals walking about on their hind legs.

“I think they are people,” Joe said in disbelief. As we drew closer, we saw that they were Inuit children, dressed in caribou fur and playing on the tundra. When we landed, a woman emerged from the tent, also dressed in furs. Skip Pessl walked slowly towards her while the rest of us remained by the canoes. She spoke no English and seemed very frightened. Her children began to gather around her protectively. Skip rejoined us. We crossed the narrows and set up camp on the far side.

During dinner we heard the sound of an outboard motor. Suddenly, a boat came around the bend. When he saw us, the Inuit hunter turned sharply towards shore and landed. Three of his sons and a dead caribou were in the boat with him. They were smiling broadly. We invited them to share some dehydrated carrots we had found at the abandoned survey camp a couple of weeks earlier. The carrots had been packed in a large tin can. Bruce was using the bottom of the can as a pot and the top as a spoon.

The Inuit shared with us this makeshift meal with smiles. They rubbed their bellies as if it were the best food in the world. The hunter, his cheeks bulging with unswallowed carrots, disappeared behind a rock. When he returned, he was still smiling broadly and still rubbing his belly, but his cheeks were no longer bulging with carrots. He sat down again. Dehydrated carrots had not been the first choice of the Inuit hunter, nor of the survey crew, apparently: that is why they had abandoned them. They were not our choice either, but it was all we had to offer.

Before we had finished eating, the Inuit hunter pointed to the sky. Black storm clouds had been gathering in the northwest since dawn. His sons jumped up and ran to their boat. In a moment they were gone. The Arctic seemed empty without them, and soon the blizzard was upon us.

We lay low the next day while the storm swirled snow across the tundra. In the evening, the wind calmed a little as the cold Arctic air settled over our camp.

“Is that you, George?” Skip asked.

“I thought it was you.”

I poked my head out and saw the Inuit hunter.

“Tea? Canoe?” he said.

Skip and the others shortly emerged from the tents, and we greeted him with smiles, but shook our heads: we had lost all our tea the day Art Moffatt died.

“Thank you, thank you,” he repeated. “Tea? Canoe?”

After a while, the five of us came to the realization that he was inviting us to tea over at his place. We picked up one of the canoes, but he placed his hand gently on the bow and pressed down. He motioned for us to follow him.

Behind some rocks on the beach, there was a wooden box with a curtain in front of it. We could hear the roar of a kerosene Primus stove. The other Inuit boys and men were standing around smiling. They had prepared for us tea and a large pot of caribou steaks. I do not know if they had been planning to join us, but when they saw how hungrily we ate, they gave all the steaks to us. Everyone was smiling and laughing. We were laughing and smiling too, because we were so happy to get the food in our bellies; and they were laughing and smiling to see us so happy.

When all the meat was gone, the hunter offered us the fatty broth still left in the pot. We shook our heads politely.

The hunter tipped the pot and offered the broth to us one more time. Still we shook our heads, but he understood the look in our eyes. Finally, he spilled a little of the fat on the ground; and we all dove for it, and drank cupful after cupful of fat, until they laughed and indicated that we were Inuit.

The hunter held up his right arm and made a motion with his wrist that was the exact replica of how a caribou’s ankle moved when prancing across the rocky arctic hills. We shook our heads and held up the fingers of both hands. More than two weeks had passed since we had killed our last caribou.

Darkness settled, and we went our separate ways. We were tempted to ask them to take us down the river to Baker Lake, which still was more than a hundred miles away, and we were all but out of food but we knew he had a family to look after, and so we embarked down the rapids the following morning.

Three days later we ate our last meal. It consisted of a can of curry powder split six ways; but the Thelon River flowed fast between bedrock banks and carried us seventy miles that day to the Hudson’s Bay Post at Baker Lake. The manager of the Hudson’s Bay Post offered us a cup of coffee and then hurried us onto the last float plane of the season, which was ready to take off. The date was September 24th, 1955.


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