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

Friday, July 17, 2015

Ernest Thompson Seton and the Arctic Prairies: Aylmer Lake Expedition Planning Tips

Illustration from The Arctic Prairies



Summer, forty-two years ago, I came across Seton’s account of his 1907 exploration of the Arctic Prairies. I thought at the time that re-creating that adventure, or at least a part of it, would be a worthy goal. Finally, after years of desiring, I am just days away from the beginning of that trip. Thomas and Patty are joining me from the Academy for the Love of Learning.



Our journey begins where Seton’s ultimately ended (in 1946), Santa Fe. Quick flight to Denver, then a longer flight to Calgary, then another flight to Yellowknife on Great Slave Lake, capital of the Northwest Territories. The Arctic has its challenges (weather, grizzly bears, mosquitoes, etc.) but the only one that bothers me is making airplane connections – three different airplanes and two airlines to get to Yellowknife. Arrival there scheduled for 9:00 pm. There we will join up with project co-curator Michale.



I will be making travel notes along the way; I searched for but did not find any publications on how to plan an expedition. Among the four of us we have considerable wilderness experience, but it is the advance preparation that may be the greatest challenge. So I will present a planning few tips.



Why are you doing this? Lots of money and at least some risk is involved. TIP 1: Write out a statement of purpose. What is the justification for the expenditure? What do you hope to accomplish? How will you share what you learn? We have spent considerable time on this. Several people have edited and re-edited my original statement of purpose; it may also get additional post-expedition revisions. Our historical research will result in publications and exhibitions; we have not discounted the possibility of personal growth as well.



Pre-positioned supplies at Aylmer are limited. When Seton went there, additional supplies were non-existent. We are working with an outfitter who will supply food and much camping equipment, but not everything. Whatever we don’t take we won’t have. TIP 2: Make sure you understand what gear you will need, create a checklist to use when packing. Share the list among the expedition participants to make sure all anticipated needs are covered, but also be mentally prepared (as much as possible) for the unexpected.



The following morning we need to arrive at the Air Tindi Float Plane Base at 5:30am. Planning the trip to avoid such a tight schedule that allows for no major delays of airplane cancellations would have been a better course. TIP 3: Get to your location (Yellowknife, in our case) well in advance to avoid stressing out over missing air connections.



If you are planning to conduct research (this is a working trip, not a vacation), develop a workflow plan. I have put this together along the lines of the scripts I develop for museum exhibitions. Our goal is to explore and photograph the most important areas around Aylmer Lake visited by Edward Preble, Seton, and their two First Nations companions.



I have spent months studying maps starting with those drawn by Seton, and continuing with a contemporary topographical map and satellite imagery from Google Earth. Combined with Seton and Preble’s written accounts, I found GPS coordinates for all the places we need to reach. I know what days we need to be where and what we need to accomplish once we reach each of those places TIP 4: Know your territory before you even get there. Our time there is both short (eight days) and expensive ($$$$) so creating a daily schedule should get us the most value out of our time.



Anticipate what might go wrong (starting with TIP 1). In addition to travel delays, what happens in case of major medical injuries? If you are so wealthy that the prospect of spending tens of thousands of dollars on medical evacuation is not daunting, then you don’t need the remainder of this paragraph, although you should consider making a substantial donation to the Academy for the Love of Learning to help underwrite the expense of this trip. TIP 5: Get travel and medical insurance to cover as many disaster contingencies as you can imagine.



TIP 6: The Arctic sees lots of summer travelers. Be sure to make needed hotel reservations well in advance. Also, let your credit card company know you are planning out of the ordinary expenses.



TIP 7: Remember to take all your research files (old maps and written accounts in our case) and photographs. I will read (possibly aloud) the words of Seton and Preble to guide and inspire us.



TIP 8: Take a satellite phone or other communication device. Establish regular check-in time with home base: family members and/or co-workers should have a copy of the expedition member’s contact list. One person should be designated as the home base contact.



TIP 9: After the expedition, evaluate by comparing what you thought you might learn or experience with whatever actually happened. Were the original purposes met? Did new ones emerge? 
 
After each adventure like this, I return to all the above criteria and reassess, starting re-creating gear lists of what I took needlessly or what I should have brought. I will also review every other category to see how I might have improved on the plan.



Apparently Seton and Preble did a good job of planning as they returned alive from a nearly six-month canoe trip. We can only hope to do as well as they did.

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