Saturday, March 05, 2011

Land to the North -- Chapter Five

We left by eight o’clock the next morning, driving north on paved roads. For a while we followed the Missouri River but it broke away to the west and we continued north. We crossed the border into Iowa, ate lunch and continued on. By late afternoon we were at the Minnesota border. As the sun disappeared, the sky clearing and a sheet of late arctic air settling on us, we found rooms in a hotel only a few miles north of the border. It hadn’t been a bad day’s travel, though it had been tiring.

When I said my good nights to Eric and turned on the electric light in my room, I couldn’t help smiling. Here I was, starting on a great adventure that would rival that I had in France during the Great War. I was traveling into uncharted territory, into lands that no one suspected existed, and yet, on my first night of the journey, I was resting in a warm hotel room with electric lights, the latest newspaper on the desk and a hot shower down the hall.

The only way for it to be better was if I could write to Sara and let her know what I had seen and where I was. I had tried to telephone her the night before and she had seemed, momentarily happy to hear from me. I suspect that she thought I had finally come to my senses and was telephoning her to let her know the expedition was off.

But when I said that we would leave in the morning, her voice turned icy, hard, and without emotion. This was not the news she wanted and she made that clear. I had asked if I should notify her of my return but she was noncommital. I think she wanted to say yes but didn’t want to give me the slightest hint that her position was not as strong as she said it was.

We ended the conversation, if not affectionately, then cordially, much as a divorced couple might say good-by after a meeting with the lawyers.

I was sure that her attitude would change when I returned from a successful expedition. And successful it would be. We had carefully researched the history, we had made a successful reconnaissance by air. All that remained was to follow up on the ground.

The next morning we did the same thing we had the day before. We ate a large breakfast and were on a major highway out of town by eight. It was late afternoon as we approached the Canadian border, which I had thought nothing about. But as we neared it, I realized that we were carrying firearms and ammunition, not mention a large number of crates with food and other supplies. But as we slowed and then stopped, the guard just asked us the nature of our visit to Canada.

Eric smiled at him and said, as calmly as could be, "Fishing. We heard there are some great lakes for fishing in Canada."

"Right you are. The best in the world," said the customs man. He walked to the rear of the truck, peeked in the back and returned to the driver’s side of the cab. "Looks like you boys plan on being here for some time."

"Four or five weeks," said Eric. "We need some permits or anything?"

"Not from me," said the man, "but before you establish your camp, you better check in with the local authorities. Good luck to you."

We continued north then. Each day was a repeat of the last until we were far enough into Canada that the pavement changed to graded roads and finally to tracks across the tundra. The nights were cold enough that the ground remained hard, and the days warm enough to be comfortable.

As we made our way farther north, there were no longer bridges across the rivers. But there were fords and the truck handled them all easily. Finally, we found ourselves almost a far north as we could get without driving into the arctic ocean. The ground was still snow covered, the towns small and far apart, and the nights frigid. Sleeping in the back of the truck and eating cold food from cans made it seem more like a real expedition than it had in the earlier days of hotel rooms and restaurant meals.

The maps and aerial charts and photographs made for us by Randall Ramsey led us to the bare spot that we had seen on them, but it turned out to be nothing of use to us. A bog that generated its own heat because someone had set it on fire and the smoldering peat had melted all the snow around it.

We camped there that night because we didn’t feel like traveling farther. Eric had believed that the slash of brown earth, seen from the airplane, would provide us with our first real clue, but, of course, it didn’t. So we started our own campfire, ate our supper in silence and turned in early. I had known it wasn’t going to be easy.

The following morning, we left the bog, skirted it and headed to the west where Ramsey had claimed to have seen the tree drifting. By noon we had reached the end of the land and parked on a cliff that overlooked an expanse of open ocean.

Eric, standing on the cab of the truck and using his Zeiss binoculars, carefully surveyed our surroundings. Finally, he slipped to the ground, put the binoculars into their case and looked at me. His breath was smoking in the chilly air of the late afternoon.

"Nothing," he said. "Absolutely nothing. White as far as I can see with no break in the snowy surface except for patches of ocean."

We climbed into the truck for the protection it would provide. "Now what?" I asked.

Eric got out a map and studied it for a few moments. "I think," he told me, "that we’ll want to bear to the east from here. Then, if the ice is think enough, we can cross to one of the islands there, probably Victoria Island, and continue on to the north."

I leaned over and examined the map. "Ramsey puts his sighting of the tree farther to the west."

"Yes, but the current could have brought it from Victoria Island or somewhere even farther to the north. My father was well into the arctic circle when he first found his way in."

"I don’t know," I said. "Most of my research seems to indicate that the best entrances are in caves, some of them in California." With the cold beginning to seep into my bones, the promised warmth of California took on an added importance.

"But we’d have to walk a hundred miles inside the caves before we had the chance of finding anything. Those entrances are far from the center of things, and even if we find the right cave, there are so many ways to get lost. No, if we can find our way in up here, we won’t have to walk for hundreds of miles."

"Your father tell you that?" I asked.

"My father told me that," he said.

"Then I suggest we start a fire, cook our dinner and prepare for the morning."

Eric folded the map and jammed it toward the glove box. He glared out the window, at the sun as it slipped toward the horizon that was a long way from us. Reds and oranges blazed across the ice and snow, reflecting to the high cirrus clouds over us. I knew that he was angry about another day wasted, but there was nothing we could do about that. We’d want the whole day to make our way across the ice.

Early the next morning, after a cold breakfast eaten hastily out of cans, we tried to start the truck. I spun the crank, but the weather had been cold and the oil was thick. After nearly twenty minutes, my arms aching with the strain, we realized that we were not going to be able to force it to start.

For an hour, we roamed the plateau, searching for wood. Once we had a huge pile gathered, we build a small fire over several large stones. When the fire was good and hot, we retrieved the stones from the flames and rolled them under the crankcase and oil pan of the truck, being careful to avoid the gas tank because we didn’t want to blow ourselves up.

When those stones cooled, we rolled hotter ones into their place and in only minutes, we were able to start the engine. Eric was so anxious to get going, that he started to drive off and although I was sure the fire would burn itself out, I made him stop long enough for me to extinguish it completely.

Once I climbed back into the cab, we began a bumpy, slow trip across the open prairie or tundra, avoiding the deep ravines and sinkholes and skirting bogs and stands of trees, few through there were. We stayed near the coastline, looking for a way down to the ice choked water.

Victoria Island was off to our left as we drove to the east. Eric stopped periodically and used his binoculars to survey the island, but there was nothing visible to suggest a warm entrance to the Inner Earth.

We eventually found a way to the beach. We drove along the frozen sand but there was no way for us to continue to the island. Eric did find a place where the rocky cliff retreated so that there was an overhang. We decided that it was the perfect place for our base camp. Nothing would be visible except from directly in front. Our truck and other equipment would be protected from the elements while we were off exploring the island.

That night, sitting near the fire which I now thought of as a luxury, Eric, having finished his meal, said, "This is taking longer than I thought it would."

I was a little surprised by his tone. I thought we had been making very good progress. We had already exploded a couple of promising places, and while they didn’t pan out, it just meant we would have to look elsewhere.

"Tomorrow we find a way to get to the island," I said.

"You don’t understand," he snapped.

I didn’t understand his impatience. We hadn’t been traveling that long, we had most of our supplies left, and the map told me there was a small town fifty or a hundred miles to the east where we could resupply if necessary. Our only real problem was the cold. I didn’t like it.

Eric stood up, hands on his hips and looked out, across the open water where Victoria Island stood. "That is the key," he said. "I should have gone... we should have driven directly here."

That confused me. "Why?"

He turned to stare at me and said, "Because that is where my father and sister were last seen."

He didn’t say more, but it now all made some sense to me. It wasn’t a great adventure for him. It wasn’t a lark that we could tell the grand kids about in fifty years. This was a quest for him, and that explained some of his fire, his passion, and his desire to keep moving.

There wasn’t much that I could say to that. I let the conversation die, but I had some questions I would want to ask. There were things that I wanted to know.

The next morning, the truck started easily, but probably because we keep the fire burning throughout the night and kept the oil warm. We spent most of the day driving along the cliffs and on the beaches. We could assemble our boat, a wooden craft that broke down for storage, but by the time we finished, it would be dusk. Another day lost on the preliminaries, which didn’t put Eric into a good mood.

Eric backed the truck into a sheltered area we had found, with me guiding him. When it was parked, he turned off the engine and removed the key. Then, thinking about it, he opened the hood and took the distributor cap, effectively immobilizing the vehicle.

Together, we unloaded the boat and out tools. We dragged the crates to the water’s edge and began the task of assembling the boat. With the cold wind whipping down on us, the job was harder than I would have thought. The thick gloves were clumsy and made the finer details impossible to work. We found that we had to use our exposed hands. That was something we could do for only a few moments at a time before we were forced to don our gloves again to warm our hands.

I stopped long enough to gather drift wood and start a fire close to us. The wind fanned the flames, once I managed to set the wood ablaze, and the fire burned hot. It warmed us quickly, making the job easier.

We finished in the twilight of the day. We left the boat there and walked up the beach to the truck. Eric suggested that we put up our tent and I heartily agreed. That seemed to be the last luxury we would enjoy for a long while.

After a meal cooked over the fire, we assembled our packs, leaving the canned foods and heavier items in the truck and opting for the jerky and dried foods. Eric found a space in his pack for a copy of the book about his father. We made sure that we had plenty of ammunition for our weapons and I realized that if we had been thinking, we would have purchased the same kind of weapons for each of us so that we could have shared the ammo. The 9 mm Mauser would not take the .45 caliber ammo I needed for my Colt automatic.

We both packed the handheld lamps and a supply of the batteries for them. We feared that we didn’t have enough. We had no idea how long our artificial lights would last, once we discovered the cave and began our descent.

With everything ready, we adjourned to the tent and wrapped ourselves into our sleeping bags. Even the building excitement bubbling in me didn’t prevent me from falling asleep quickly. I had just realized that we were finally on the expedition, as I imagined it would be, when I fell asleep.

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