Can You Hear Me Now?

Good! Let's talk about what our experience of the wilderness has lost now that it's cheap and easy to stay connected—no matter how far out there you go. Ted Kerasote explores the new wired wild.

Mar 1, 2004
Outside Magazine
Wireless Communication in the Wilderness

Wireless Communication in the Wilderness

THE HORTON RIVER heads on a rise of barren land north of Great Bear Lake in the far northwestern corner of Canada's Northwest Territories. It flows west and north some 400 miles before winding through the Smoking Hills and emptying into the Arctic Ocean. Protected by distance, an inhospitable climate, and a lack of precious metals, oil, or gas, it has remained much as it was when the Laurentide Ice Sheet melted away, 13,000 years ago: the home of grizzly bears, caribou, musk ox, eagles, and an infinity of space.

In a noisy age, it seemed like the perfect place to go for a vacation.

Crammed into a Cessna 185 floatplane—packed with three weeks' worth of food, camping gear, and our folding canoe—we fly east on an August afternoon, from the village of Inuvik into one of the largest roadless, ice-free areas on the planet. Our goal is to paddle from the river's source at Horton Lake to the Arctic Ocean, taking us through country still as wild as it was when it was first explored by British sea captain Sir John Franklin in the 1820s and, beginning in 1910, by the American Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who saw much of the region by dogsled.

The other half of the "we" is Len Carlman, my longtime friend, attorney, and father of my godson. Len has a shock of short red hair, blue eyes, and a whooping laugh that reveals a childlike wonder at moments many adults might find ordinary: camping in the backyard, building his kids an igloo playhouse, and fiddling with his ever-present Palm Pilot, onto which he has downloaded six novels to read during the inevitable storm days we'll encounter.

I've longed for this change in schedule. For seven months I've been editing an anthology of wilderness essays, and my little office in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, has felt abuzz with electronic energy, sometimes two different phones and the fax machine ringing simultaneously. Occasionally, I've looked out the window above my computer, across Grand Teton National Park, and imagined the dense web of wireless traffic arcing overhead, connecting us in virtual office space, with billions of conversations taking place, either vocally or by e-mail, many between people who have never seen each other.

Even in the evening, when the workday is done, the house remains filled with the ambient noise of what almost all of us have adopted as necessary technology: the whispers and whines of refrigerator and freezer, the subtle hum of answering machines, stove, stereo, clocks, smoke detectors, computers. Most of us don't even notice this kind of low-grade static. Only when we go to really quiet country do we realize how shocking silence can be, so thick away from the thrum of civilization that it presses against our flesh like the pressure beneath the sea.

WE LAND ON HORTON lake at six in the evening and unload. The pilot lifts off, leaving us under an immense sky. The only vestiges of the wired world we departed from yesterday are Len's Palm Pilot, his handheld global-positioning-system unit, and his Globalstar satellite phone. Len's family—believing that a grown man with two young children shouldn't be going off to run a river in the grizzly-infested Arctic—told him that if he insisted on paddling the Horton, he had to bring along a sat phone, the kind that works anywhere, in case of an emergency. I really couldn't say no to the phone, even though the subtext of bringing it along was apparent: It wouldn't be used only for an emergency; Len, who also lives in Jackson Hole, was expected to stay in touch. Networker and family man that he is, he thought it a fine idea.

Compared with mountaineering trips, with their lean sense of deprivation, canoe journeys are lavish. Our 16-and-a-half-foot folding boat has a potential payload of 800 pounds, but Len and I have tried to balance our wish for comfort with easy portages and a fast-handling boat. Our entire pile of supplies and gear, plus canoe, weighs 285 pounds—including four cans of pepper spray and a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with slugs.

On the flight up from Calgary, Len sat across the aisle from me, poring over the sat phone's thick manual. He asked me which personal telephone numbers I wanted him to program into it—in case I needed to call someone and "say some last words."

"You've read too many Everest books," I told him. "This is a moderate river, and we're going to portage the big rapids."

"What about the bears?"

"Every bear I've seen in the Arctic, and who's seen me, has run away. And if they don't, that's why we have the pepper spray and the shotgun."

"I'm not going to use the shotgun," he said. "I'd probably hit you. If there's a bear in the tent, I'm going to lie flat, and you fire over me."

This left me uneasy. "What if the bear decides to eat me?"

"I'm tastier," said Len, who's a bit heavier than me, and he went back to programming his phone.

The sat phone was impressively compact, about ten inches long with its antenna extended. This was the latest version of a device that debuted in the late 1970s, at the time the size of a large suitcase. Sat phones had shrunk to briefcase size by the early nineties, and, by 1998, to little bigger than a traditional handset. Perhaps more important, the value of these phones had been driven home during the 1996 Everest disaster, when guide Rob Hall, pinned high on the mountain, bade farewell to his pregnant wife in New Zealand. Hall had been carrying a two-way radio and was relayed by sat phone from Base Camp. The message was clear: If the situation turns dire, you can at least say goodbye. Now that relatively inexpensive (about $600) sat phones are available, both 24/7 rescue and, if necessary, farewells are a reality for the average backcountry traveler.

After trimming the boat, we cast off, Len taking his preferred spot up front, where he can enjoy the rhythm of paddling without the worry of steering. The current whisks us quickly downstream, into country so empty of human artifacts that it seems as if we're the first people on earth: tundra, sky, a distant wisp of cloud. Still, the old edginess is gone. What's diminished is that familiar mixture of genuine fear at being alone in the fastness of the high latitudes and the lovely tension of facing your fear with nothing besides what you've brought along and the wit necessity inspires.

The air-taxi service's telephone number, programmed into Len's sat phone, is no more than the push of a memory button away. Then the entire rescue services of North America would be at our disposal, down to a huge twin-rotor helicopter that can navigate through fog and find us by our GPS coordinates.

All this technology doesn't mean that we'll be less careful. Getting pinned in a rapid with your head underwater takes only a few seconds of inattention, and then all the sat phones and GPS units in the world won't do you a bit of good. Nevertheless, the phone has given us a newfound cushion and is extinguishing an awareness that's always been part of these trips, what I like to think of as slipping through the world's harshness by a mixture of skill and divine grace.

Small rapids come and go, cooling the air with their riffles. Round yellow rocks flash beneath the canoe, and in the big pools—perhaps 20 feet deep—we can see the shadowy forms of large grayling, their caudal fins waving slowly like fans. The air is sweet, the water is sweet, the vast lay of tundra inviting, its purity magnified by the knowledge that its emptiness won't come to an abrupt halt. This isn't a 300,000-acre national park or a two-million-acre wilderness area, the boundary of which we'll soon reach. No bridge crosses the Horton, no ranger station sits upon its banks, no sign will tell us when we've reached a campsite. The nearest road is a 15-day walk to the west, assuming a person could walk 20 miles a day over this terrain.

We stay in the country's embrace throughout the long afternoon, camp river left on a high bank, cook a stir-fry under our bug net, and enjoy what Ed Abbey called the "sleep of the just—the just plain tired."

IN THE MORNING, as I fetch water from the river, I hear Len start talking. Surprised, I glance up and see he's holding the phone to his ear. Until now, I haven't been able to measure the quiet. His words give the silence perspective, and I realize that without even thinking about it, we've lowered our voices.

As I reach the bug tent, he powers off the phone and gives me a weather report from Jackson Hole (sunny and warm). He tells me that Anne, his wife, wasn't home, so he called Lee, his sister, who will tell the family that we're alive and well, and would I like to call my girlfriend? He extends the phone under the lower edge of the bug net. For a moment I'm transported back to my childhood—an older boy is offering me a cigarette.

"No, thanks," I say.

"She'd love to hear from you."

Len is a Quaker, but he could be a dutiful Catholic. The technology to stay in touch now exists, and he's using it: the good brother, the good husband, the good father. By comparison, my desire for solitude and detachment, even if only for two weeks, seems self-indulgent—no, worse: irresponsible. The logic of the sat phone is overwhelming and, to me, pernicious.

"Maybe when the trip's over," I tell him, feeling like a Luddite.

"Anytime you want," he says and puts the phone away.

Years ago, when I was fresh out of college and traveling in South America, exploring jungles and mountains, phones were often days away, and typically broken if I found one. I checked my mail only at three-month intervals. It was in the midst of this journey that my uncle Michael, who'd taught me so much about the outdoors, suddenly died. He was a marine engineer, a world traveler, and it was from him that I acquired some of my wanderlust. Coming into Santiago, Chile, I walked into the American embassy and found a string of telegrams and letters waiting for me—the shocking news of his heart attack; the family's tremendous grief (he was only in his forties and left my aunt and my two young cousins behind); and the pleas to get home for the funeral—all three months old.

It was a turning point in my life. I realized that one of the reasons my relatives had never taken any extended trips was the fear of not being home if such a tragedy struck. I had overcome that fear, as had my uncle. (He died tending one of his ships in Japan.) There was a cost, however, to this freedom: I had missed one of the elemental passages of any family—bidding communal farewell to one of its departed members. Had it been worth it?

I thought so. In that era, there was simply no other way to become intimate with the outdoors, a family that called to me more than my own. Now there is. We can have it both ways: be gone and be attached. As Len and I continue downriver, he checks his voice mail—in my mind, often; in his mind, occasionally—and, thankfully, it's always empty of bad news.

ON DAY TEN, the river slides into a canyon, a phantasmagoric, watery cavern of dripping red-and-gray walls. A peregrine falcon and a merlin swoop overhead, and the canyon soon curves to the left. To the right stands a headland of black rock, carved smooth as the inside of an oyster shell. Shaped like an amphitheater, it echoes the roar of water. Just above this rapid, a green canoe is pulled onto the left bank, with a hodgepodge of gear piled alongside it on the rocky beach. The canoe's a rental, the name of an Inuvik air-taxi service written on its bow and stern.

It's obvious that the owners of the canoe are portaging, so we park nearby and walk along the shore to see if the rapid warrants our carrying as well. A single tongue of river, smooth as moving oil, flows between boiling waves and holes. The bottom of the tongue is blocked by a flat, dark rock the size of a banquet table. Crashing whitewater lies to its left; directly to its right, the same. If we can dart the canoe to the right, at the bottom of the oily tongue, there's a slim passage.

Len and I stare at this crucial move for a long time: down, feint right, not too much, straighten, and escape. It looks doable—not barely doable but very doable. It's within the limits of the canoe, and our skill, and it'll be a challenging run. After all, we came here to run as much of the river as possible. Neither of us wants to be influenced too much by the decision of the other paddlers, whom we spy coming back from their portage: a heavyset man and, much slower and far behind him, a heavyset woman, crossing several hundred yards of boulders.

They both smell of wood smoke, and Mr. Dunn—he gives us only his last name when we greet them—tells us that they capsized in a rapid two days upstream and had to spend a day building a fire to dry their clothing and gear. Taking a swim has "frightened the missus considerably," he says. He looks at the ground and adds, "This is a much harder river than I thought."

"We're really flatwater canoers," his wife offers, "and we were told that the river was flat mostly."

She looks scared, and her husband seems morose. Both are obviously weary. They've gotten themselves in over their heads, and more-difficult rapids lie ahead. In some ways, they represent that older spirit of adventure; I doubt they have a sat phone or GPS. Unlike us, they are truly on their own if things go wrong.

The Dunns pick up their next load of gear, say goodbye, and start walking painfully over the rocks. We eat some energy bars and Len says, "I wish we could do something for them."

Feeling at a loss, we get into our canoe and shove off, and then any thoughts of the Dunns' welfare vanishes as we think of our own. We ferry upstream and eddy out into the current, and I line us up. We sit the canoe, roaring white waves before us, split by a slick green tongue of water. We put in only a stroke or two to keep us pointed downstream. A moment later, spray erupts around us as we slip over the edge—the table of rock, with its Scylla and Charybdis of breaking waves, looming off the bow. Even as I shout for his draw, Len leans right and sinks his paddle. Braced against the thwart, I hang my paddle far over the left gunwale and suck the stern toward it, and the edge of the table rock whisks by our port side. We straighten the heeled canoe and race downstream on the tail of the rapid, passing the Dunns, who sit on the shore, watching us. We raise our paddles; they wave back, looking as sad as two people can be.

A FEW MILES downriver, we reach an even more intimidating set of rapids. Whitewater rushes through a boulder garden and plunges past a house-size rock. Landing, we walk along the shore, climb the rock, and stare downstream, over an incongruously calm pool to a narrow slot where the river erupts into a rooster tail of spray before churning through a violent hole. To the hole's right lies a broad shelf of rock; to its left, a tower. The entire Horton runs through this small defile.

"Class III plus, maybe IV," Len says calmly.

Neither of us has to say anything more: This final rapid in the train would eat our loaded, open, erector-set canoe and spit it out in pieces. It's not runnable in our craft and, if we're sucked into the hole beyond the chute, perhaps not survivable.

We discuss our alternatives. The safest is to off-load the canoe, carry the gear and canoe around the house-size boulder's right side, repack everything, paddle down the pool just upstream of the rapid, ferry to a gravel bar river left, off-load the canoe again, and portage around the tower. However, the technical challenges of negotiating this boulder and the swift water adjacent to it are appealing. Almost midchannel from us is a beach-ball-size rock that creates a slot where we could shoot down to enter the pool, ferry river left, and portage around the tower.

After a period of silence, Len asks, "What do you think?"

"I think we should do it. I think we can do it"—I point—"running right down this slot."

"Thank you," he says, relieved that I haven't suggested the cumbersome portage. "But I think we should aim at the big rock and carom off its pillow of water."

I consider this. Len has done some Class V kayaking—very demanding boating—and has run a few rapids that I wouldn't entertain in my dreams. I don't want to dismiss his knowledge; still, I'm not convinced this is the right strategy. The loaded canoe isn't like the kayak he's used to. It'll bore through the pillow and hit the rock. Yet most of the decisions on this trip have been mine—I've been doing Arctic trips for two decades—and in an effort to balance our power, I decide to go with one of Len's suggestions.

"You've done a lot more difficult boating than I have," I say. "I'll go with it."

He nods, satisfied that I've taken his suggestion.

We hike back to the boat, snug our life jackets, and push off, the first set of waves and holes going by almost without my notice. My eyes are fixed on the rapidly approaching boulder. We head directly toward it, as planned, but it's coming way too fast. We're hurtling forward on a crest of green water and foam. Before I can yell it, Len shouts, "Backpaddle! Backpaddle! Backpaddle!" He strokes madly, leaning upstream for all he's worth.

As hard as I can, I backpaddle with him. For one incredible instant, it appears that we'll stop the canoe in midstream and be able to angle it left and down the slot. Then we hit the boulder, head on, not violently—our backpaddling prevented that—but hard enough to bounce the canoe crosswise, stern first, out into the main current. In half a heartbeat, we're rushing sideways downstream, directly at the smaller rock, on which we'll broach and be pinned, wrapping the boat and breaking it in two.

I spin in my seat, kneel in the bottom of the canoe, and yell at the top of my lungs, "Take the stern!" Simultaneously, I paddle two strokes forward with all my strength as Len spins, drops to his knees, and paddles from what has become the rear seat. The canoe kisses the midstream boulder, slightly behind midships, rides up alongside it, and teeters on its right beam as the Horton comes under us and lifts. We paddle another stroke and pull around the boulder, the forward part of the canoe levered into the main channel by the enormous force of the river. We are now precisely where we didn't want to be. Waves higher than our heads swamp the canoe. Half full of water, we paddle through the haystacks, into the pool downstream, and manage to guide the ungainly boat onto the gravel bar.

"Well," I remark, stepping ashore, "that was exciting." I'm shaking a little.

"You pulled us around the midstream rock," Len says. "'Take the stern!' Great call." We're talking fast, pumped on adrenaline, overjoyed to be in one piece, our estimation of each other confirmed— neither one of us clutched.

We drink some water; we eat some food; we stare 30 yards downstream at the rapid that could have ended our lives. Would I have made the same decision without the damn sat phone? Absolutely. And that's a comforting thought.

THROUGHOUT the evening and most of the next morning, we portage an unrunnable section of the river, then load up and paddle on in a cold, steady rain. Occasionally, I look down and see the river rocks ten feet beneath the canoe, sliding silently by in their green-and-ocher world, mottled by the elongated shapes of grayling and char. When I look up, the world above seems just as liquid, the sodden shapes of caribou moving on the banks, the eagles flapping silently across the river, buoyant and drifting as fish.

Wind, rain, and low clouds sweep across the river but part by midmorning to reveal a pale Arctic sky. On cue, the sun emerges and we pull onto a cobbled beach at a place called Coal Creek, our alternate pickup site. We've been paddling hard for 13 days, stalled by storms for three of them, and have run out of time. As the crow flies, we're only 22 miles from the ocean, but we'd have to paddle another 97 miles of the Horton to get there. Our time is up, our trip at its end. We step ashore and shake hands.

A large moose antler lies at our feet, green with moss. Len suggests that I keep it as a memento. But I return it to the sand, and as I stare at it, wishing that the trip weren't over, Len pulls out his sat phone and calls his law office. His secretary briefs him on clients, then he chats with his partner, telling him that we've arrived at Coal Creek and how useful the borrowed GPS has been. I walk down the beach and look north.

When Len's done, we call the air-taxi service. Once, a few years ago, you waited until the pilot showed up. Now you call and say, "Hey, we're here, come get us." But this time it doesn't shake out quite that way. Another storm rolls in, the pilot can't take off, and Len calls home, telling his family about the delay. He then suggests I call my girlfriend, reminding me that she knows the day we're supposed to come out, and she'll worry. I also know that she'll call Anne and will then wonder why I was so thoughtless, or obdurate, that I didn't call her.

I walk down the beach, then dial her up. The connection is so clear, she could be down the block. I say, "I can smell the Arctic Ocean." She says, "It's warm here." Silence. Even though I use a computer, the Internet, and a cell phone daily, this seems to be crossing a boundary I'm unprepared to face. She senses my uneasiness and says, "Call me from a land line."

I collapse the antenna and walk back along the cobbles, thinking again of Sir John Franklin, who overwintered in this area and received mail eight months after it left England. Nearly a century later, sledding down the Horton, Vilhjalmur Stefansson learned of the Titanic's sinking a full three months and ten days after the ocean liner had foundered in the North Atlantic. Now, in the early 2000s, the lag time between the occurrence of a newsworthy event and one's hearing of it has shrunk to the thinnest of margins. In fact, even here on the Horton, the blessing of uncluttered mental space is no longer a function of remoteness but of desire: to bring the sat phone or to leave it. To use it or to keep it in the emergency pouch. To stay connected or to cut the cord.

Were it up to me, I'd leave it at home. The put-in on a river, the start of a climb, are doors to another universe, where the silence makes you think about why noise has become such a necessary part of our lives. Wearing the silence, you come back scrubbed and radiant. Or, with a certain mixture of bad luck and misjudgment, you don't come back at all. Before the sat phone, it was always so—no rescue, no farewell except the one you said upon departing.

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