"Seton Castle...on the last rampart of the Rockies where the Buffalo Wind is blowing."

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Seton, Humboldt and the Recognition of Nature

Willows replace meadows in the warming Arctic, Sand Hill Bay Camp, Aylmer Lake, NWT Canada

In the first two volumes of Lives of Game Animals, Seton repeatedly returns to the theme of wildlife conservation, calling for preservation while at the same time doubting that his efforts can be successful. In the third volume, his strikingly gloomy essay “The Lament” predicts not only a bad end for our wild kindred, but for our civilization as well: “The end is in sight. Desolation sweeps from sea to sea.”

Seton clearly referred to the end of wild nature—which Bill McKibbin exactly named in 1989—but compared also to John Muir, whose environmentalist critique was more direct, Seton’s remains oblique. I searched for “nature” in the indexes to Seton’s autobiography, in Julia Seton’s By A Thousand Fires, in the biographies written by Keller and Anderson, and then even in my own book. The word does not appear, not withstanding that whether Seton was writing about wildlife, aboriginal American cultures, or outdoor education for youth, the common element in each is—nature.

Is nature so close that we don’t see it? And if that is the case, what is “nature?” This is an important question, for how do we protect and preserve something unless we can first name it? We can name the danger, most dramatically the spate of alarming reports in July and August 2016 suggesting that the theoretical “tipping point” for the climate may have reached, as global high temperature records seem on the brink of spiraling out of control. (For Example see the NASA report, August 31, 2016.

“Nature” is endangered. But what does that mean?


In The Invention of Nature, Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World—Andrea Wulf’s biography of the German adventurer, philosopher, and scientist—we find a way into this subject. In his great 1807 masterwork, Essay on the Geography of Plants, Humboldt defined nature as being “a reflection of the whole.” (Wulf, pg. 128.) He further wrote, “In this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation.” (Wulf, pg. 5.) Henry David Thoreau and John Muir said much the same—a direct reflection of Humboldt’s influence upon them both.

A reflection of the whole, a connection of causes and effects includes all that we may define as wild-nature, natural habitats along with their inhabitants, nature is all that outside stuff, but also us with our destructive ways. According to Wulf, the first person to make that connection was Humboldt. His study of nature, a combination of Enlightenment empiricism (named “science” in the 19th century) and the emotional (e.g. poetry, painting, creativity) became a new means of interpreting the world—known as natural history. Wulf shows that everyone from Darwin (to Seton whom of course she does not name) to today’s environmentalists are beneficiaries of Humboldt’s brilliant insights, for all that activists have remained unaware of their historical linage.

During Humboldt’s exploration of the Americas (1799-1804), he observed, “What speaks to the soul escapes our measurements.” (Wulf pg. 72.) But that soul recognition did not escape the lyrical landscape appreciations of Muir or the wildlife observations of Seton. If you don’t already know the emotions brought up by natural history, try reading the last three paragraphs of “Lobo, The King of Currumpaw” to a live audience without getting choked up. (Apparently, Seton himself had a difficult time getting to the end when he related the Lobo story.) Thoreau observed, “the most interesting and beautiful facts are so much the more poetry.” (Wulf, pg. 259) It is almost as if Thoreau was anticipating Seton’s work.


Seton was familiar with Thoreau’s work, but did not leave a direct account of the authors who had the most direct impact on his philosophy of nature. One clue I have is the late inventory of books from his Seton Castle library. That list, although long, represents only a fraction of the original collection. It does include Humboldt’s famous work Cosmos, A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe (1845-1862) whose readers included, (besides Seton) according to Wulf: Darwin, Thoreau, Muir, Ralph Waldo Emerson, early environmentalist George Perkins Marsh, and artist/scientist Ernst Haeckel. Although I did not find another Humboldt book in the collection, Seton used his Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America (1852 edition) as a source for his chapter on the Jaguar in Lives of Game Animals. I cannot (for the moment) establish whether or not Seton read Emerson, Marsh, and Haeckel, but he certainly would have known of them.


Wulf selected only a handful of artists, scientists, writers, and naturalists—out of countless thousands—who were influenced by Humboldt. Seton as naturalist, as explorer/wilderness adventurer, as observer and admirer of native cultures, as educator, writer and artist, as reconciler of head and heart (science and emotion), as both pragmatist and lyrical interpreter of nature, is surely beneficiary (along with many of us today) of the intellectual path forced by Humboldt over two centuries ago.

I was struck by another important similarity between Seton and Humboldt. I have written (as has Seton biographer Brian Morris) that Seton has become largely invisible to our contemporary life due to the pervasiveness of his ideas about conservation, ecology, education, environmentalism, and perhaps most importantly, animal sentience. Wulf points out that Humboldt became famous in his own time for his worldview: “His vision of nature has passed into our consciousness as if by osmosis. It is almost as though his ideas have become so manifest that the man behind them has disappeared.” (Wulf pg. 335) She also writes, “Humboldt’s interdisciplinary approach to science and nature is more relevant than ever…His concept of nature as one of global patterns is more relevant than ever.”
Humboldt and the line of thinkers descended from him have attempted to prove that we are not separate from nature. The lesson we can take from them is that what goes on in the environment around us, from evolution to pollution, from habitat preservation to species extinction is “a reflection of the whole.” The question for wild-nature and humanity-civilization is: will we recognize that wholeness—the very definition of nature—while there is still time to save some of the goodness in the world that remains, both the natural and the human-made?

Thursday, July 28, 2016


The Arctic Prairies

On Sunday, August 14th, the Academy for the Love of Learning will mark the 156th birthday of Ernest Thompson Seton with a new art exhibition and a documentary film.

In a highlight of his extraordinary life as an artist, writer, and scientist, Seton led a daring expedition into the Arctic wilderness of the Northwest Territories in Canada, an area then largely unknown to the outside world. His dual goals: documenting the wildlife of the Boreal forest and the tundra, and determining the geography of a remote lake, Aylmer.

Last year, the Academy mounted the “Arctic Prairies II” expedition to Aylmer Lake in search of the places Seton described more than a century earlier. The results of our research can be seen in an exhibition of his drawings, and in a new 30-minute documentary film, Ernest Thompson Seton and the Exploration of Canada’s Fabled Aylmer Lake.

Located at 133 Seton Village Road, twenty minutes from downtown Santa Fe, the Academy’s Seton Gallery will be open on August 14 from 12:00 to 4:00pm. The film will take place in the Leonard Bernstein Room starting at 3:00pm. Admission is free, but seating for the film is limited. A second showing of the film will take place on Tuesday August 16th at 7:00pm. The film will be introduced by Arctic Prairies II expedition members.

Schedule for Sunday Afternoon, August 14:

              High Noon! Seton Gallery Opens

12:30 Guided Tour of Building, grounds and Seton History

1:30 Welcome to the Academy! by Aaron Stern, Founder & President, Academy for the Love of Learning

1:35 “3 Questions That Came Out Of Nowhere” A presentation by Patty Nagle, Arctic Prairies II expedition member

             2:30 Remarks by Aaron Stern

2:45 Annual Toast to the Chief by David L. Witt, Curator

3:00 Premier of Film “Ernest Thompson Seton and the Exploration of Canada’s Fabled Aylmer Lake”

4:00 Guided Tour of Building, grounds    and Seton History

(Background on the 1907 and 2015 expeditions by David L. Witt)

Through his writing and the example of his life Ernest Thompson Seton called on us to respect nature and all its creatures, and to develop a personal and meaningful relationship with the outdoors. In his work he demonstrated our close kinship with wild animals but as well he examined the dark consequences of environmental destruction.

Seton led an expedition to the western sub-Arctic in 1907 that gave him an opportunity to reflect on the nature and society of a place that is far away from the big cities of Canada and the U.S, but not so far as not to matter.

Given that the rapid environmental changes overtaking the Arctic will have consequences for everyone as the planet continues to warm, last year the Academy sent its own expedition to explore the northernmost part of Seton’s route, Aylmer Lake. 

In Seton’s time, the area was home to abundant wildlife including caribou, musk ox, and wolves. One hundred and eight years later the once vast migrations of caribou have become the stuff of history and may not long into the future become the stuff of legends. Global heating and over hunting (by humans) have made Aylmer a more quiet and somber place, although the landscape of endless sky and low but rugged hills are much as Seton experienced.

Human activity has increased in the Northwest Territories and the sub-Arctic has experienced summer warming from climate change. Highways now provide access to the southern third of Seton’s route, but Aylmer Lake remains accessible only by boat or by air—a nearly two-hour airplane trip from Yellowknife.

Importantly, with modern explorers going in search of the Seton legacy, the story continues. In 2015, the experience of wind and storm, twenty-four hour daylight, and an enforced closeness to the land (expedition members had to fish for their food) led everyone on the trip into periods of reflection and just being.

Expedition members from the Academy (three of the five on the trip from last summer) will share their experiences with the audience as an introduction to the film.

(Background on Seton by David L. Witt)

In May 1907 New York-based artist/naturalist/writer Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946) began the most extraordinary wilderness journey of his life. By the age of 47 he had become the most important wildlife illustrator of his generation and, as the creator of the realistic wild animal story, achieved best-seller status as an author. He popularized the cause of wildlife conservation to a mass audience, laying the groundwork (along with Muir and Roosevelt) for today’s environmentalism.

He introduced a concept of outdoors education that became the worldwide Scouting movement (including the Boy Scouts of America.) He was an established expert on Mammalogy and Ornithology and made important contributions to the sciences of Ecology and Ethology. Later authors from Ernest Hemingway to Aldo Leopold to David Attenborough cited him as a major influence.

English by birth and Canadian by upbringing, Seton spent much of his early adulthood exploring wilderness Manitoba, sometimes in the company of First Nations peoples from whom he learned hunting, survival skills, and traditional native concepts of land use. By the time of his middle age he had logged more wilderness time than just about any of his peers, but had not explored the Arctic.

He knew about 19th Canadian explorer George Back and his 1820s expedition north of Great Slave Lake to little known Aylmer Lake, and a later expedition by Warburton Pike. Seton had recommended the spiritual and adventure value of engaging in a six-month wilderness immersion. Taking his own advice, Seton took half a year to explore regions south and north of Great Slave Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Accompanied by American biologist Edward Preble and by native guides (who themselves had never been so far north), Seton left his family, career and New York society for an arduous adventure between May and October exploring little documented lakes and rivers. His goal was to chronicle the plants and wildlife of the region. Both Seton and Preble kept journals; Seton used them for his book, The Arctic Prairies, published in 1911.

The expedition combined geography with field biology to become the Northwest Territories equivalent of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. They canoed north on the Mackenzie River arriving at Aylmer Lake three months later. Preble continued walking farther into the Barren Lands reaching approximately 64° 40’ north latitude, two degrees south of the Arctic Circle. Afterwards, they returned south, leaving late enough in the year to experience the first winter frosts.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

anno ab incarnatione lupus

Wolf portrait by Seton

According to Julian/Gregorian calendar reckoning, we have entered the 2016th year following the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The religious descriptor A.D. (in the year of the Lord) has been in widespread use for over twelve hundred years. The more secular C.E. (common era) has in recent times gained limited traction with historians.

I will here propose a new system for reckoning time: January 31, 2016 C.E. should become known as the first day of the Year 122 E.E.

Year 1 (a.k.a. Environmental Era—E.E.—January 31, 1894) marks the death of the gray wolf “Lobo, King of Currumpaw” at the hands of Ernest Thompson Seton. Not long afterward Seton repudiated animal trapping as well as persecution of predators (including wolves). In 1925 he predicted the coming civilization-ending environmental disasters.

I chose January 31, 1894 as the New Year 1 E.E. because the death of Lobo represents the turning point between the old world of unconscious environmental destruction and the new world of conscious environmental destruction. After that fateful year we had no more excuses for our war on nature.

Seton’s account of the life and death of Lobo was published in November of 1 E.E., proving the link between morality and wild nature. In his stories, Seton showed that we ignore this connection at our peril.

Other than Seton, the Apostles of Lobo of course did not know him; indeed, few are left who personally knew Seton. But we who know the Gospel of Lobo (the environmental New Testament Part I) and the Gospel of Walden (the environmental Old Testament) will continue to carry the message as long as we have breath.

My celebration of New Year’s Day 122 E.E. will include climbing the mountain behind my house to spend time with the elk who reside there this time of year. I hope you will also find a way of honoring wild nature on this special day.

Happy New Year, Lobo.

(New Testament Part II is Seton’s 1901 story “Krag, the Kootenay Ram.”)

Friday, November 6, 2015

Setonian Evenings 2nd Tuesday in November, December 2015 Santa Fe, New Mexico

Ernest Thompson Seton, 1901

Third and Fourth in a series of Setonian Evenings

6:30 - 8:00 pm at the Seton Gallery, Academy for the Love of Learning

Tuesday November 10 and Tuesday December 8, 2015


133 Seton Village Road (off the Old Las Vegas Highway)

Host: David L. Witt 
As an important participant in the 1930s Santa Fe literary scene, Ernest Thompson Seton held evening salons at his home (Seton Castle) discussing Nature, Environment, Life and Lifecraft. The Academy’s Seton Legacy Project is reviving this tradition with a conversational series focusing on our relationship to the natural world. What “learnings,” warnings and inspirations might we find out there—and within ourselves—with close examination and reflection?

We will explore topics suggested by Seton, starting with readings from his stories. We want to hear your stories as we examine what is important about our experience with wildlife, wild places, and life in general.

Our Setonian evenings take place amid the drawings and books of the Seton Gallery. The setting is informal, a perfect atmosphere for the sharing of ideas and insights. We will start with a topic, but there is no set path—the direction of the discussion will emerge as we go along. 
November 10: Connecting Seton to the Academy through Lifecraft

Seton developed a philosophy of outdoor education disseminated through his Woodcraft League. It was about learning and living. Seton’s “Nine Principles” and “Fourfold Path,” for understanding nature and just being in the world appear to complement the “Learning Field” model of the Academy. We will look into the meaning of these.

December 8: The Radical Natural History of Generally True Patterns

Combining the teachings of Seton and Muir with Systems Theory, we find that the dissimilar systems of physics, biology and society work in remarkably similar ways demonstrating our connection to nature (and disproving the prevailing theory of our disconnection). We will consider examples to find which of them may hold up in the real world.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ernest Thompson Seton and The Arctic Prairies: Aylmer Lake Expedition Field Notes 2015 #5

Kevin, Patty, Michale overexposed snapshot of them in their boat

{In late July and early August 2015 I led an expedition to the Arctic region of Canada’s Northwest Territories researching the Ernest Thompson Seton and Edward Preble expedition of 1907. We followed their route around Aylmer Lake located northeast of Great Slave Lake. Field notes from the expedition plus photographs are presented here in several separate entries. Additional essays about our journey can be found at the Seton Expedition website and at davidlwitt.com. An exhibition and short film about the 1907 and 2015 expeditions will be premiered at the Seton Gallery of the Academy for the Love of Learning (sponsor of this project) on August 14, 2016.}

Monday August 3

Morning low temperature: 45°F (7°C)

9:33am We began return trip south on smooth water, starting down west before cutting across to Rocky Point on south end of the crescent shape island, arriving 12 noon. There is a lovely beach there and deep water port coupled with isolation from bears and an anti-mosquito breeze coming in from three sides.

12:43pm Returned to Lodge.

I made a 40 minute canoe run with Thomas along the shore in front of the Lodge from which we watched dramatic sunset. I have not mentioned, but while at the Lodge, I spent a great deal of time writing and processing photographs, staying late, starting early. The mosquitoes seemed not to have liked the main building. The insects were largely absent from in there, unlike the small cabins where we slept (Thomas and I in one, Michale and Patty in the other). Fierce mosquitoes in our cabin—the worst night of the trip for me and the only time when I had more than enough of them. Seton claimed that except for the mosquitos, blackflies and their ilk, the North is a paradise for its overwhelming rugged beauty. At times, the buzzing pests make it a misery.

Rocks and water

Tuesday August 4

I took an early morning walk on the Lodge’s beach along Rocknest Bay. All too soon this trip which I had waited a lifetime to accomplish would be over. I looked closely at the beach boulders and “farthly” at the distant hills and the long, long expanse of water.

9:25am Flight out of Rocknest Bay, returning to Yellowknife. #5700 Rocknest Bay from the air. Saw one forest fire on the way back. Smoke haze over sky; smell of forest burning penetrating the plane, 20 minutes into the 1.5 hour flight.

Float Plane landing

Sun reflection of Arctic Lake

Forest Fire outside Yellowknife

Arrived Yellowknife. Visited I took part of the Legislature building tour; Thomas and Patty completed the tour. I visited the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center (museum); Patty and Thomas arrived later; Michale had seen this interesting place on her first day in YK. The four of us met for lunch at the Black Knight Pub and again later for dinner at the very popular Bullocks Bistro (white fish, bison, both very good; Yukon Red beer quite good). We got a ride there from new friend (Ms.) Tracy Therrien, director of the Yellowknife Visitor Center. (She had met Michale the previous week.) Tracy took us on driving tour of the more eccentric and interesting neighborhoods. YK is clearly a very creative place.

Satellite text from Bruce Bembridge: their group reached Lockhart River before we left Aylmer. Had I kept to our original itinerary, we might have come across them. They saw 40 Musk Ox near Lockhart or somewhere else. We managed to see no large mammals at any time during the trip. Reports heard on the decline of Caribou population alarming.

Late evening solo walk around YK.

Wednesday August 5

Short walk about, then onto YK airport. Flight to Calgary seating next to YK resident a bit younger than me; more insight into the mystique of “the North.” Several layers of customs to negotiate at Calgary, but no waiting. Then airport closed by storm; resulting 4 hour delay caused us to miss our Denver connection to Santa Fe. Patty and Thomas came up with alternative plan, getting us onto exit row (roomy) seats on flight to Albuquerque where Thomas rented a car (Ford “Edge”) to get us back to Santa Fe airport.

Feeling awake, though not terribly alert, I drove home, arriving just before 3am on Thursday August 6.

I wrote three essays during the trip on trio of related subjects: Contrasts (paradox comparisons). Scale (size comparisons). Passages (time/change comparisons).

I had been thinking about doing this trip for 42 years. It was made possible by the

Academy for the Love of Learning with logistics and guide support from Aylmer Lake Lodge. Weather was great (no storms). I could not have asked for better, more congenial and hardworking companions. More follow up to come in subsequent postings.

Patty taking good-bye photo of Kevin and his friends

Ernest Thompson Seton and The Arctic Prairies: Aylmer Lake Expedition Field Notes 2015 #4

Stoney Point

{In late July and early August 2015 I led an expedition to the Arctic region of Canada’s Northwest Territories researching the Ernest Thompson Seton and Edward Preble expedition of 1907. We followed their route around Aylmer Lake located northeast of Great Slave Lake. Field notes from the expedition plus photographs are presented here in several separate entries. Additional essays about our journey can be found at the Seton Expedition website and at davidlwitt.com. An exhibition and short film about the 1907 and 2015 expeditions will be premiered at the Seton Gallery of the Academy for the Love of Learning (sponsor of this project) on August 14, 2016.}

Saturday August 1

Up at 7am. 9:50 Pushed off from Aylmer Lake Lodge for Sand Hill Bay. We traveled the east shore of the lake. Seton, starting east from the Lockhart, paddled up the western shore of the lake, stopping for a meal on an island along the way. Later, on their way out of Aylmer, they came down south along the east side. Which is to say that we did our Sandhill Bay trip going in the opposite direction going out; on the way back we returned part way along the west shore; in so doing we saw most of what they saw in 1907, but from the opposite direction.  

10:20 Going north on Aylmer, we looked north to see the spot on Seton’s map marked “Sandy Bay.” 10:38 Reached narrow passage between Harbor Island (Seton’s name for a large island in Aylmer Lake) and the mainland (east side of lake). #5347 (11:00am) “Stony Pt.” on south end of Crescent Island (my name) looks like a man-made constructed jetty from the south, but it was constructed by a glacier; at either end of this north-south running island are the entries to Carpenter Bay, probably shallow although we did not investigate. 

Continued north to “Wolf Den,” a scenic point on the opposite shore (to the north, mainland) from the north end of the Crescent Island. We landed and looked around ca. 11:20am – 12:20pm. The little cave is easily spotted from the water as we pulled up to the only landing area.

Wolf Den

Wolf Den entry

Wolf Den interior

Location: N 64°14’ 57.2”  W 108° 27’ 45.4”


Wolf den does not appear to have been recently inhabited by wolves. We found a few Caribou bone fragments inside and nearly the entry of the mossy-floored cave. The cave goes in less than 5m but is well protected from the elements. Dense tundra vegetative cover around the base of the bare granite boulder outcropping that forms its house sized roof. (Wolves lived there or had just moved out in August 1907.) From there we boated north through very shallow water to emerge eastwards from between to islets. With not much more lake level drop, the two will become one.

Location, taken offshore: N 64° 16.0’ 14.2”  W108° 28’ 43.8”

Water temp: 10.0 – 11.0c (50-51° F)

Coming into western end Sandhill Bay (northernmost part of Aylmer Lake) we could see a prominent rock on the western sandhill (Tent Ring Hill in my nomenclature). Although it stood out, when we later that evening climbed up the hill, this was not a cairn, but a single unimpressive boulder, much smaller than we had guessed. Seton built his cairn (as we were to learn) in a place where it could not have been seen from Aylmer.

Grizzly Bear(s) wallow and scat on beach

1:53pm We landed on an arc of beach protected by shallow water and large flat stones just below surface level; careful navigation required to get in and out. We found fairly fresh Wolf, Caribou and Musk Ox tracks. Also bear tracks. Two depressions in shoreline/tundra edge sand, one much larger than the other plus two piles of blueberry infused scat, one much larger than the other, showed the presence of bears on the beach (apparently they had been sleeping next to one another): mother & cub. According to Kevin they were present within the last 2-3 days. There is a sort of wildlife highway along this beach although empty of animals during our stay.

Sandhill Bay from our Beach Camp

Kevin, Patty, Michale went out fishing during the afternoon. Thomas and I followed in the other boat, drifting part of the time when we should have been making a more thorough reconnaissance of the shore looking for Seton’s Sandhill Bay camp which probably not (as I figured out later) where we camped. We traveled east to a large island in the bay, then slowly returned to our camp. Kevin cleaned fish caught by Michale and Patty, leaving entrails and head for the resident falcon.

After dinner we headed out for summit of west sand hill which we attained at 9:05pm (with Kevin remaining especially watchful in case the bears were still around, which they were not). Found 7 old tent rings on the summit (and 3 more lower down on the summit ridge to the north) along with tumbled down Seton cairn—undermined by “sic-sic” (Arctic ground squirrel) tunnels. Seton built the cairn between two closely adjacent rings. He used stones from both rings to create his monument. His structure was still standing when documented in the early 1980s. Apparently Seton and Preble believed these rings to be of recent origin. According to Morrison they were prehistoric.

We took still and video pictures from the summit in all directions, capturing the usual dramatic sunset. One of my videos shows the less than 1k (1094 yards) distance between Aylmer Lake the Back River.

David standing beside the ruins of Seton's cairn

Location: N 64° 25.0’ 38”  W 108° 27.0’ 4.0”

Bay of Back River (mid frame) with unnamed lake (behind beach camp) in foreground; more of Back River behind.

Place names from Seton map photographed today: “Stony Point” (on the feature I call Crescent Island. “3 Hill Peninsula” (east of Wolf Den). “Wolf Den.” “Pyramid Point.” “Sandhill Mountain” (the island in Aylmer, not the high point in the Narrows). “Boulder” (east side, mainland, near the entrance to Sandhill Bay). “Sandhill Bay.” Unnamed west sandhill esker (which I call in my notes Tent Ring Hill).

Still water lake

Bannock breakfast

Sunday August 2

Little sleep. Awoke at 5:15am after dead still night. Morning—had the beach to myself for a considerable time. Wrote another essay for Academy for the Love of Learning blog documenting this trip. Kevin made bannock for breakfast—using an iron skillet atop an  oversize propane stove. The 1907 group must have had iron skillets, cooking with wood where available; they found willow wood north along the Back River, but none at their camp. As at the Lockhart, willows live here now, although of small diameter.

We left the beach camp before 10am, crossing the tundra going easterly until reaching an area of esker hills overlooking the demarcation line of rocks between Sussex Lake and Back River. 11:45am reached the river where a very strong current from the lake is channeled into two or three powerful flows between the boulders. I thought that Seton and Preble had passed this way, but a later more careful reading of the map showed their crossing of the Back River much further north. They made at least three or four hikes from the beach, including one that led them east to a height above Sussex Lake. But they did not get as far east as we did; we did not get nearly as far north as they did. As a result, I missed the chance to get farther north but led us to a discovery of our own. The sand eskers defining the south edge of the Back River were extraordinarily beautiful.

I felt this lake/river intersection was an especially powerful place and was transfixed by the feeling of it. I believe that everyone in the group felt this was the most special place we visited. (George Back, who passed through here in 1833 called this river, in English translation, by its Indian name, the Great Fish River.) Sadly, no one thought to bring along a fishing rod, so the great fish remained unmolested. We remained in this area for much of the day, walking part of the time, but with a long interval of just being. Thomas, Patty and I selected separate high points from which to contemplate the majesty of it all. Michale and Kevin staked out a separate high point at the east end of the esker directly above Sussex Lake.   

Sandhill Bay Beach Camp

Location: Sandhill Bay beach camp 1188’ N 64° 29’ 50.9”  W 108° 27’ 32.2”

Patty above Back River (left) & Sussex Lake (right)

Location: Back River crossing, south side N 64° 25’ 21.2”  W 108° 24’ 14.9”

Confusingly, the main body of Sussex Lake drains southward. The Back River begins at the lake’s southern end, running west through a canyon, then opens out into a large bay before narrowing again and heading north to Arctic Ocean. Its next opening is the head or south end of Musk Ox Lake. Preble crossed over the Back River around where the Icy River enters from the west just below that lake. Another way to put this is that the river runs south, then west, then north in a giant U-shape.

Michale on esker above Back River

We walked the length of the south shore esker ridge most of its length from above Sussex Lake to its transition at the large bay before the Back River turns north. The distance from the head of Back River west to end of esker is approximately 1k. From that ridge it is possible to see Tent Ring Hill. Approximately 11k (6+ miles) covered today. Worth every hot minute to see the esker canyon of the Back River.

The Back River continues to switch directions but eventually ends up in a large bay of the Arctic Ocean after passing over more than 80 rapids. Canoeing the stretch from Sussex Lake to Musk Ox Lake likely possible without too much difficulty. A goal for next time!

Note: The Back River drains northward; so does the Lockhart. Aylmer Lake is part of the greater Lockhart system. The Lockhart is a tributary of the massive McKenzie River system. The Lockhart enters Great Slave Lake from its east side. The McKenzie system eventually goes northward into the Beaufort Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean, but farther west than where the Back River enters.

4:20pm Returned to camp. Beach temperature 83°F (30°c) Temperature felt much hotter on the tundra. Much too hot for the Arctic.

Kevin, Patty & Michale went out fishing from the boat once more. Thomas and I stayed onshore with the gun. This was my first and only day of the trip of not once being on he water in a boat. On the beach, non-biting black flies hit tent and jackets so hard as to sound like light rain.

8:15pm Wolves heard, SE somewhere on Sandhill Bay shore or from surrounding hills. Far away but still clear.

Night moon

Ernest Thompson Seton and The Arctic Prairies: Aylmer Lake Expedition Field Notes 2015 #3

Thomas at the helm, Aylmer Lake Lodge behind

{In late July and early August 2015 I led an expedition to the Arctic region of Canada’s Northwest Territories researching the Ernest Thompson Seton and Edward Preble expedition of 1907. We followed their route around Aylmer Lake located northeast of Great Slave Lake. Field notes from the expedition plus photographs are presented here in several separate entries. Additional essays about our journey can be found at the Seton Expedition website and at davidlwitt.com. An exhibition and short film about the 1907 and 2015 expeditions will be premiered at the Seton Gallery of the Academy for the Love of Learning (sponsor of this project) on August 14, 2016.}

Tuesday July 28

We took two boats on all excursions. I asked Thomas to learn the basics of outboard motor operation (Evenrude 30hp, 16’ (4.9m) aluminum fishing boat). That first day he and I went in one boat, Kevin, Michale & Patty in the other. Took off at 9:00am, south out of Rocknest Bay then east through Thanakoie Narrows, much of the way towards Clinton-Colden Lake to where an island nearly blocks passage. We were searching for a cairn Seton built while camped there. Thrilling to see that it was still there; it could be seen from approximately a mile away, long before we could make out the course of the Narrows. We would find this distant look surprising since the cairn is just below the island summit on the east side and is little more than a meter high. (We entered western edge of the Narrows at 9:30am.)

Sandhill Island, Seton Cairn right of summit

Closer, Seton Cairn at summit

The water on the south side of island is very shallow. The north side has a narrow but passable channel. We landed on a small west-facing beach, and then climbed over an embankment onto the tundra. This turned out to be the only part of the island that seems suitable for camping. Seton and Preble set up camp in one spot, thereafter moved to another during the extended time they were stranded due to stormy weather.  Perhaps it is here where they rode out the stormy weather in 1907. (We found a second cairn near our landing site, but Seton/Preble accounts mention only the one on top.)

We climbed hill towards its summit (me in the lead of course), Thomas following with video camera. Hill gets steeper near the top. Reached cairn at 10:15am. Very exciting for me, finding this cairn built by ETS during the layover, keeping them from exiting into Clinton-Colden when they had expected to do so.

Cairn Location:  N 64° 03’ 53.2” W107° 55’ 58.8”

Elevation: 1260’ (384m) Sandhill Island (English for Thanakoie)

Looking east from Sandhill Island

After much picture taking, I made a brief botany survey and a solo reconnaissance of 1/3 of the island (western and southern sections, including finding several different habitats). We documented the beautiful views (in all directions) before leaving the island at 1:00pm. Clear weather, moderate breeze at island summit.

Sandy beach north of Sandhill Island

Continued north along the cove shore, stopping at an arc of sandy beach. In the willows at our landing site, the debris remains of a small, long abandoned shack. North reach of the beach showed fresh 3 ½” wolf track - ?

Temperature 70°F (21° C).

Took off again after a pleasant time on sand esker above the beach. 2:55pm watched loon diving near boats. 3:20-4:00pm stopped at a rocky point where we found a metal geological survey marker embedded in rock, dated 1924. It included a warning that anyone disturbing the marker could expect to be punished with prison time. We left it alone and returned from there to the Lodge.

Note: ETS/EAP on Sandhill Island Aug 24-28 1907. Must have been quite a headwind. There are no comfortable camping spots on the island. We did not find any tent ring rocks. The island is important (as noted by ETS) as a Caribou crossing point given the narrow water leads on either side. On my tour of the island I found several north-south Caribou paths, although no sign of recent passage. Caribou were crossing there in August 1907.

The summit Seton cairn was noted by David Morrison in 1982. (He did not mention the shoreline cairn.) “Report on Archaeological Survey of the Middle Lockhart River System, NWT.” Photocopy of 1982 field notes, Canadian Museum of Civilization, (pg. 2): description of Lockhart River system. Morrison studied archaeology of Thanakoie Narrows northward; he studied the area from Sandhill Bay to Sussex Lake (covering some or much of the same territory as ETS/EAP), starting July 9, 1982 and continuing for 3 weeks before continuing their research south of Aylmer. He refers to the site we visited today as “Sandhill Island” which in Yellowknife Chipewyan language refers specifically to this island. The name seems to pre-date Back’s 1836 expedition. The summit of Sandhill is 35m above rive. Morrison described the Seton monument: “Originally one of the stones was inscribed ‘Seton Exp. 25 Aug 07’ but some passing traveler has since removed it. The cairn is located at the apex of the hill.” Sandhill is “an esker knob island.” [Note: the island had seen very recent visitors, within days of our visit, at least two people had left their unburied excrement at the western end of the summit ridge. Perhaps the two Japanese tourists who were said to have visited eastern Aylmer Lake just before our arrival.]

Night spent at the Lodge.

Evening view from Aylmer Lake Lodge

Wednesday July 29 

Up at 6:15am. Packing for Lockhart trip. Longest single excursion of the trip, including crossing a wide stretch of open water Aylmer.

9:42am left Aylmer Lodge dock. 9:52 Peregrine falcon flew parallel to the boats (before going faster and moving on) as we passed through the strait from Rocknest Bay to Aylmer. Pic#5164 Looking to the west from main section of the lake; west end too far away to see. #5160 Terraced Hill (from ETS map). #5165, 5166 Sandy Bay, from a distance (from ETS map). #5169 Harbor Island (the huge one with U-shaped bay in the middle of Aylmer).

Note: August 1907: they paddle west, unable to see end of the lake, believing for all this size, that a larger part of the lake still lay ahead. They had no way of knowing that they were already crossing the largest part. From here, there is no way of estimating how far off the west end might be.

Aylmer Lake, boat wake, boat following behind

10:50am Pulling away from Harbor Island into the largest stretch of open water on Aylmer. Daunting in a 16’ motorized fishing boat on a good weather day. But in a canoe, on a day when a storm might rise unexpectedly? Dangerous.

For us: Water choppy but not dangerous. One twenty minute period passed with nearest shore kilometers away while the far west and east horizons were just water; north and south were no more than suggestions of land, a dark line of low distant hills. Lake seems very big, the sky of the unlimited vast.

Boat speed 18mph for 20 minutes of the open water.

12:05pm Landed on beach protected by large rocks. Musk Ox tracks in the sand, but not fresh. Wolf tracks (recent, large) and lots of fox tracks, a regular highway for the latter. I led us inland to look for the Musk Ox boulders, but took us much too far inland over difficult tundra walking conditions. Lots of hidden holes in the hummocky ground hidden by vegetation. Seton had also done a good deal of walking in this region so we replicated the walk but apparently not the right course. Based on a 1907 photograph, we searched for a distinctive juxtaposition of two large boulders from where they killed a Musk Ox. My intention was to find those rocks and recreate the scene (without killing anything). But wherever those boulders might be, we could not find them.

Thonokied River

Eventually we veered west looking for the Thonokied River with faint hope of finding a cairn ETS might have built there. There are rocks piled everywhere (by wild nature) on the ridgeline overlooking the river as grand at ETS described it. Maybe we should have gone further north, but we were getting tired and hot with almost no chance of finding any sign of his presence. The walk was more tiring than fun; we failed to find anything but a fine view. (I noted in the field journal that this hike was hardly worth the effort. But conditions there did replicate what ETS went through, so we had the experience if not the results to show for our efforts.)

Kevin and Michale took one path back, Patty another. Thomas and I continued south along the river. I eventually turned back east, alone, while Thomas continued down the river towards the lake. All of us eventually reached the lake shoreline, but inexplicably managed to miss the boats, going too far east until Kevin realized our mistake and headed us back in the right direction. We finally got back to the boats around 4:30. I accidentally left my magnetic clip on sunglasses behind somewhere on this trek for future explorers to find.

5:10pm Finally underway again after taking considerable time negotiating our way past the blocking rocks creating a treacherous maze. This would have been easier for a canoe, or perhaps they landed somewhere else—but our landing point was the only sand beach along the Musk Ox camp shore. Seton’s map seemed to indicate this spot, but without finding the distinctive double-boulder, we simple could not know. A few spitting rain showers marked our exit.

Stormy Aylmer

Lockhart River mouth. We continued west to the end of the lake where enters the Lockhart River. We looked for another rock cairn Seton built there. Although a point of rocky land jutting into the river seemed like the right spot no cairn was visible. We landed on the north shore of the river, on an incline of slab rocks, one of the few accessible places, and likely the exact spot where ETS/EAP landed. We quickly found a place on or near where Seton took a group photograph of them having dinner. Kevin photographed the four of us in the same place. In the willow overgrown shore (the willows weren’t there in Seton’s time) near our boats, Kevin found a rusted kerosene can—4 Imperial Gallons—almost certainly left by ETS. Kevin agreed to hold it at the Lodge for temporary safe keeping. Perhaps a Canadian museum will want it someday.

Thomas, Patty, Michale, David 2015 Lockhart River
Ernest, Weeso, Edward, Billy 1908 Lockhart River

Dinner spot location: N 64° 03’ 88.44”  W 109° 13’ 30”

7:25pm Continued boating upstream to a rapids (probably farthest ETS went west by water). The other boat trolling for fish. We later returned east looking for a camping spot for us finding nothing suitable. I suspect that both the 1907 camping spot and the cairn may have been made on the rocky point jutting into the river, dividing the Lockhart from Aylmer. Thomas made a brief reconnaissance there but found nothing due to the thick brush and the protective mosquitos.

We continued over 1k (1094 yards) east along the south shore of the lake until coming upon a lovely beach in a protected cove giving onto a dramatic view to the west. Camp set up 9:30pm. (ETS/EAP followed the north shore on their way to the Lockhart and perhaps also on the way out so did not camp here.)

Camp location: N 64° 03’ 88.44”  W 109° 13’ 30”

Sunset over Aylmer

Sheltered from the east and to some extent from north we experienced a windless sunset, calm water. The sun set over flat lake as the one-night-before full moon rose simultaneously over low hills. Spectacular color, long lingering setting sun, occasionally shining through clouds, finally disappearing 10:17pm. Turned in at 12am.

Thursday July 30 (see pg. 20 field notes)

Up at 7am. Blue sky. Stiff breeze. 50°sF (10°C)

10:35 Returned to Lockhart River, continued search for cairn. We landed in the same spot and then walked north up the hill (the route shown by ETS on his map) and, after stopping for blueberries of which there were too many to ignore, attained the ridge between Aylmer and Outram Lakes. Cloud cover increased to 70%; lake water at its most choppy.

I continued west to reach the summit overlook between the two lakes. Michale soon followed, and later, the others. Elevation there is 1355’ (407m), the highest point of our entire trip. ETS expedition went up there to find what we found: A view proving they had reached the west end of Aylmer and a view to the Outram Lakes. Southside of Lockhart R basin heavily vegetated with few boulders; north side rocky: a strongly defined dividing line.

Upon reaching the ridge (easy hike) ETS must have climbed this very rock, around 7’ (2.1m) high. From its top: a great 360° view of the surrounding tundra.

Michale on Overlook Rock, high spot above Aylmer & Outram Lakes

Location: N 64° 03’ 55.9” W 109° 14’ 14.5”

ETS then continued down the ridge going west; we did not follow farther than the rock overlook.

1:45pm We took off from shore, heading east once more from the Lockhart to our beach camp, not arriving until 3:15 due to slow trolling on the way back.

So far: Success at Lockhart River and at Thanakoie Narrows finding part of what we came for, but less successful at Thonokied site (although we re-photographed the river shoreline in approximately the same area as the ETS photo). We believe it more likely than not that the Lockhart cairn did not survive. It would, however be worth another look early or late in the season when the willow thicket might be more manageable (fewer leaves, fewer mosquitoes).

Dinner that night: more Lake Trout + one Arctic Grayling (a river fish caught along the Lockhart), fried potatoes and onions. Kale, apple & other vegs salad. About 50°F (10°C) at 10:30pm. Dead silent. No waves. No wind. Flock of loon chicks floated by point of land north end of beach (around dinner time), near my tent. The hillside east of the camp is not covered with willows but is of smooth ground with short vegetation. We did not hike this but wanted to do so.

Friday July 31

8:55am We left camp, heading east along the shoreline before turning north across the lake. Our destination was a place a called Cliff Camp, a prominent rock face rising out of the water where Seton & Preble were forced to take shelter from another storm on their way west to the Lockhart. Here the lake forms a cove in the middle of which is a round island offshore from the largest cliff along this part of the lake. The steep rocky shore included no obvious landing site so camping here would not have been good anything more than emergency shelter. We did not land.

Cove where Seton made emergency storm camp

Off shore location: N 64° 06’ 29.7”  W 109° 03’ 08.3”

We circumnavigated small island in the bay. Spotted a falcon on the cliff, gulls in the air, and loon chicks around the island.

10:20am We returned to the Thonokied River, this time entering the river by boat although not getting any further than its mouth due to rapids and low water. Stopped there to search for exact spot to take the re-photo Seton called “SW across Earl Gray River.” We were able to line up the far shore into what looked like the correct perspective, but we could not find matching rocks on the shore (east) where we were walking. Took several photos to at least approximate the 1907 scene. Fairly fresh Musk Ox tracks near where we landed. Light short rains there and earlier at our beach camp. Cruised slowly along Musk Ox shoreline looking closely for the double-boulder that we did not find. Back at Lodge before 3:30pm.