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Finding Farley Updates

This is the last in a series of five updates sent during the five-month-long Finding Farley expedition.

Update 5 – October 15, 2007 - Canmore, Alberta

Dear friends,

Leanne, Zev, Willow and I successfully completed the Finding Farley expedition two weeks ago. It was grand finale to a grand (but difficult) trip.  For a synopsis of the final few days of the journey, and to hear comments from Farley, please click on the audio link below (courtesy of CBC Radio One).

Listen FINDING FARLEY: The Final Chapter - MP3, 15:09, 6.4MB

We are now back home in Canmore, dealing with the joys (seeing friends and family) and frustrations (dealing with bills) that are part of returning after a five-month absence. And Zev is happily reacquainting himself with his toys.

In the next week we will start going through the 50+ hours of film footage and copious notes and memories we gathered over the last five months and begin crafting them into a National Film Board documentary and McClelland and Stewart book.  Both are expected to be released Fall 2009.

Thank you for following and taking an interest in our journey.  Have a great winter.

Karsten Heuer 

Update 4 - September 17, 2007 - Burgeo, Newfoundland

When we sent our canoe gear home from Montreal two weeks ago we figured the adventurous portion of our journey was over. Behind us were the bugs, the remote rapids, the brutal portages, and the bear-strewn tundra; ahead lay a journey by sailboat past the quaint coastal settlements and snug harbours of the well-travelled St. Lawrence Gulf. But a less-than-straightforward passage to Newfoundland's rocky SW coast has since set us straight: Bobbing like a cork in the hurricane-tossed Atlantic, we now know what it means to suffer gut-wrenching nausea in a 40-knot gale and 10-foot seas.

It was our first impression of our hired vessel, I think, along with the quiet confidence of her Nova Scotian builder and skipper, Mr. Tam Flemming, that drew us in. After three months of canoeing it all seemed so comfortable: Bobbing dockside in a Quebec harbour, the Elsie N gave an aura of solidity and comfort that only grew as we went aboard. Finished in teak, Douglas fir and ash, her well stocked galley and roomy cabin glowed a warm welcome, especially the duvet-covered bunks and tiny wood stove. After too many days stuck in the train's baggage car, Willow wasted no time stretching out onto the feather bedspread. Zev busied himself exploring the many portholes and hatches. Leanne and I giggled at our good fortune as we chatted with Tammy: not only had this friend-of-a-friend sailed all night to come meet us, but he had carved out a month of his valuable time to assist in our quest to "find" Farley. It was too good to be true. But then came the sobering reality of heading onto the heaving sea. And for the next 3 days, heave we did!

The truth is that we didn't know if we should be scared or not. Leanne's and my previous sailing experience amounted to little more than hoisting a small triangular tarp between two upright canoe paddles. But the seriousness of our endeavour, especially the last 12 hours in stormy Cabot Strait, became apparent when the Elsie N came heeling into the harbour of Burgeo, Newfoundland and, legs swimming beneath me, I stumbled into a group of weatherbeaten fishermen on the wharf.

"Howzit out there, bye?" asked one of them as he stood in a dockside doorway, baiting hooks. Given the slime and blood on his overalls I assumed he too had been out checking his nets and trawl lines.

"I found it a little rough," I admitted. "How about you?"

He threw me a bewildered look and gestured to the foaming mouth of the harbour.

"Fishing us? Today bye? No Sir! That sea ain't fit for we."


Burgeo, Newfoundland is the last of Farley's settings we are visiting before finally meeting the author himself. It is here in this quaint community of colourful houses that Farley came to live with his new bride, Claire, for six years in the 1960's. Even though much has changed since then (cod moratorium; road now links it to the rest of Newfoundland) I understand why he found this town of 2,000 people so attractive. The surrounding countryside - a mix of rugged granite coastline, heather-covered headlands, and white sand beaches - is stunning, and the people are overwhelmingly hospitable. We have a car and driver at our beckon, fresh cod for most dinners, and more offers than we can possibly accept from fishermen who, after working 12-hour days, want to show off their beloved fishing grounds and coast.

It was during one of these tours (with Zev driving the 40-horse motor) that we first visited Aldridges Pond, the swimming-pool-sized tidal pool where the 60-foot protagonist in Farley's A Whale for the Killing became trapped. The story is deftly told by Farley, using one whale's death to examine the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of others, pitting the efforts of some locals to save the whale against the bloodlust of others. Despite the 40 years that have transpired since the book was published, strong sentiments still linger here in Burgeo. Of the dozens of fishermen, boat captains, teachers, and others who come by to visit us, most utter an apology for what happened all those years ago.

But it's the mystical side of this tragic story that resonates most with Leanne and I, and on a calm evening we row to the pond with the book and listen to the words echo off the granite cliffs. They remind us of our own experiences with the caribou, of times when the human/animal rift - the separation between civilized and wild - dissolved to open a gateway to a higher, more meaningful understanding of life and our place in it.

These are difficult concepts to put to paper, much less type on a borrowed laptop in someone else's living room and post in cyberspace, but soon, very soon, we'll be able to settle down and discuss them over a bottle of rum with Farley. After covering five or six thousand miles across Canada, we have only 300 more to get to his summer home on Cape Breton Island. But they could be a long 300 miles: most are in open ocean.

And so we sit at Burgeo's fishing wharf sewing the last few rips in Elsie's sails while we watch the weather and hope for the impossible: calm seas and strong winds!

Karsten, Leanne and Zev

Update 3 - August 16, 2007

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The following update is a copy of Karsten's most recent letter to Farley Mowat - part of an ongoing exchange he has with the iconic author as he, Leanne, Zev and Willow complete their pilgrimage to meet him. The Big River refers to the Thlewiaza River, which Karsten, Leanne and Zev descended out of northern Manitoba into Nunavut after ascending the Cochrane River (also in northern Manitoba) for three weeks. The route follows one taken by Farley and trapper Charles Schweder 60 years before, which became the basis for much of Farley's writing about the North, including No Man's River, The Desperate People, Lost in the Barrens and his first (very controversial book), People of the Deer.

Aug. 16, 2007

Dear Farley,

Writing this to you aboard the Muskeg Special, using an old typewriter owned by the steward/poet. I like his work, hastily pounded out between stops and passenger requests:

The train is wailing like 10 cups of coffee:
Double bagged.
Tomorrow is approaching,
The only constant I trust.

Needless to say, Leanne, Hudson (Zev), Willow and I made it down the Big River and, after reading the letters (and all the suggestions contained within them) you sent to us in Arviat, are following your advice. We are heading, with haste, to the St. Lawrence River and the next (Maritime) chapter in your life. Although we hear some of the other passengers complaining, the pace (about 30 km/h) suits us just fine. Slow enough to ease, rather than thrust, us into the chaos of southern life. Willow, however, is less charmed by our new mode of travel: locked in a cage in the baggage car, wondering how the freedom of the tundra (chasing terns and sparrows and watching the occasional caribou) could be followed so closely by this. Her consolation is absolute refuge from the mosquitoes and blackflies.

The Big River was big alright. In volume, in rapids, and in wildlife. The Big Moment, I suppose, was when we pulled ashore to scout one of the final rapids - a 3km-long run of broken limestone ledges, foaming weirs, and haystack waves - only to discover a polar bear fishing from a midstream rock, "guarding" the rapid's only entrance, a gateway tongue of green water slicing through a torrent of white. We couldn't have imagined a more dramatic scene, made all the more wild by the howling wind, ripping the tops of the waves and flinging them upstream in a storm-driven mist. That was the moment that cemented our respect for that place, a respect whose seed could be found in the sheer vastness of the rock-strewn tundra, and had been nurtured by every moose, wolf, caribou, eagle, freshwater seal, and, yes, even barrenground grizzly sighted on the trip. We were humbled, to say the least, and a tad scared.

Fortunately, the bear settled down for a nap a few minutes later and we seized our opportunity. With loaded shotgun tucked under the spray cover, we ran the rapid. The bear slept.

Our reception in Arviat a few days later was warm, if not overwhelming. The coastal village has grown to over 2,000 people since you last visited, and was busy. The barge had just arrived with its annual load of supplies and many of the men were out hunting belugas, a sobering prospect given how much we enjoyed these gregarious whales as they played around our canoe while we floated, for the evening, in the mouth of the Churchill River a few days later.

Among the people we met in Arviat was Aiya (wife of Anootelik (c.f. People of the Deer)), one of the few Ihalmuit you list in the back of The Desperate People who survived starvation. Aided by an interpreter, we learned what she misses from the old life around Ennadai Lake, and values of the new. At 69 years old she is an elder in the true sense of the word, her voice like running water as she utters truths born from hardship, and now plenty. She gave us much to think about - too much to include in this letter (we'll save it for when we see you). Inspiring in an age of diminishing wisdom. She paid us the ultimate compliment on our departure by giving Zev an Inuktitut name: Anootelik - after her late husband who, among other things, was a master qayaq builder and avid paddler. So despite his early start, Zev has much to live up to.

Well the steward's getting itchy fingers so I better return his Rhenmetall. He says we'll be ten hours late into Winnipeg, which means we'll miss our connecting train to Quebec. No matter. Everything happens for a reason.

Our plans aren't firm for how we'll paddle or sail the St. Lawrence. We'll send our itinerary along with an address for your next letter when things fall into place.

Creeping ever eastward to see you,

Karsten, Leanne, Willow and Zev Anootelik Hudson Heuer

Update 2 - June 21st, 2007 - Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

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Zev and I sit high off the ground in a prairie cottonwood; him nestled in my arms, while I, in turn, sit nestled in a fork of the old tree. "Who-whoo-whoo-whooooo," comes the call again. Louder now. Closer. A mouse rustles in the wild roses below us while ten little grimy fingers clamp into my paddle-weary arms.

"There!" I point a few seconds later as a flash of movement stalls and alights on a neighbouring tree. But there's no need to direct him. Without a word Zev's head lifts, his eyes open, and his grip relaxes. Twenty meters away, the brown and black feathered body of a Great Horned owl expands and contracts with each hoot. Yellow eyes pierce down at us through a tunnel of green leaves.

It is a Mowat moment - one of hundreds that now stretch behind us from grizzly bear habitat in Alberta to rattle snake range in Saskatchewan: a bobcat drinking from the river; a pair of interlocked Orioles falling out of a tree in a blaze of yellow and orange feathers; pronghorn antelope prancing through sagebrush dotted with flowering cactus. Like all those earlier moments, Zev's reaction to this one is palpable. His blue eyes widen. His body goes limp with wonder. The owl flies out of storybooks and into the living, breathing world around us, searing its impression into the 2 ½- year-old folds of his tiny brain.

In many ways this first month has been all about our toddler: how he's coping in the rain and windstorms; how he's surviving the hours in the canoe; how he's responding to camping and eating on the ground. We watch him with a mix of pride, worry, and trepidation, always thinking of the question that, with every stroke of the paddle, grows closer: Is the upcoming leg of our journey - 7 weeks of remote wilderness through northern Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Nunavut - a reasonable endeavour?

The last 35-days and 1,000 kilometres across the prairies hint at an answer. His imagination is exploding: each campsite is a new playground, every mosquito a thing to be chased and captured, every caterpillar and beetle a friend to haul aboard and play with as we drift downstream. And, most noticeably, the tantrums that had started just before we departed more than a month ago have disappeared. Not unlike Farley's own childhood, the life that has flooded over us as we made our way through the prairies is influencing Zev's very character: immersed in the complexity of nature, he is calm, engaged, forever inquisitive, and remarkably content.


It seems a long time ago now that we pulled our canoe ashore in downtown Calgary and sent our first letter to Farley in May. His response came 20 days later via general delivery when we emerged from the badlands of southern Alberta and paddled into the small farming community of Leader, Saskatchewan. In it he furnished specific directions to boyhood haunts along and around the banks of the Saskatchewan River, haunts that we are now revisiting and exploring. But it is what we read between the manual typewritten lines that most captured our attention: a tone of excitement and surprise that wasn't there before. We really are coming. The distance between Canmore, Alberta and Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia is great but I sense Farley already feels it closing. This crazy pilgrimage, complete with its upcoming veer into the Barrenlands, is for real.

We will be out of contact for the next 7-8 weeks as we make our way up Reindeer Lake and the Cochrane River, then descend the Thlewiaza River to Hudson Bay. If all goes well, we will write another update from the Inuit community of Arviat, Nunavut in late August. Until then, we invite you to read along (People of the Deer, Never Cry Wolf, The Desperate People, Walking on the Land, Lost in the Barrens, No Man's River).

Have a great summer,

Karsten, Leanne, Zev, and Willow the dog.

Update 1 - May 15, 2007

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It felt good to leave. Like all long journeys, the preparations seemed like they'd never end: months of food to dry and package, new film and solar power equipment to test and modify, a canoe to outfit for four passengers, and hundreds of maps to pore over with enough possibilities to make our heads ache. But then came the day and the moment: a beautiful, clear Rocky Mountain morning into which we wheeled the canoe out of our garage, down the street, and into the river. Surrounded by a small group of cheering friends and family, we slid it into the current and hopped in. Ready or not Farley Mowat, here we come.

I don't know how many times Leanne and I have made the hour-long drive from our home in Canmore to the City of Calgary - hundreds, maybe thousands - but this trip would be different. It was the current that determined our path and tempo, and for the next four and a half days we floated and paddled past logjams and over rapids we never knew existed, and slept under stands of spruce and cottonwood trees listening to the calls of owls, snipes and geese. Ah yes, the ubiquitous geese. I think Zev summed it up well when he bolted upright at 5AM one morning and announced, "Pops! Momma! Geese wake we up!"

Although we've barely started our six month journey, and although we're hundreds of miles from the nearest settings of any of Farley Mowat's stories and thousands of miles from the man himself, I feel as though we've already closed the gap more than any measurement on a map would suggest. Our chosen mode of travel is the reason: it's deliberate and slow enough to be mindful of the life we're passing, and conforms to the forces, shapes, and contours of gravity, place, and land. It's the kind of living that Mowat revered in so many of his characters, whether it be the gang of kids in Owls in the Family, the biologist in Never Cry Wolf, or Mowat himself in Whale for the Killing. It affirms what Leanne and I learned on our other trips and what Zev intuitively knows in his little heart: it's out here, sleeping on the ground, cooking over a fire, surrounded by the sounds and sights of ‘the others' that makes us most content.

That's not to say everything has gone smoothly. There have been just enough Jeckyl-and-Hyde mood swings in the very front of the canoe to prevent Leanne and me from fully dismissing our concerns about bringing a two-and-a-half year old toddler, offset by just enough moments of absorbed curiosity and relaxed contemplation to leave us feeling a little bipolar ourselves. The jury on canoe daycare and parenting while trying to make a documentary film is still out.

We hope to make it down the rest of the Bow, onto the South Saskatchewan River, and into Saskatoon by mid June. We'll send out another update then. Have a good spring.

Karsten and Leanne