words:: Colin Field illustration:: Sarah King
“It was the happiest time of my life,” says Chris Larkin.
His answer is instant, unhesitant. The best part of his 65 years on earth happened, without doubt, 31 years ago. It lasted ten days. It was that time he lost absolutely everything in the Mackenzie Mountains.
The idea of getting away from it all lies at the root of exploration. It is, for most of us, a path to a particular kind of freedom—as it was for all explorers, whether searching for a new home, spiritual salvation or glory. Most outdoor pursuits claim some kind of ‘ultimate freedom,’ but what does that actually mean? Skiers might tell you it’s a bottomless powder turn, surfers will say it’s getting tubed, but Larkin’s take is different. He found what we all seek after dumping his boat on the infamously dangerous Mountain River in the Northwest Territories in June 1985.
His life spared, his sole possessions were now a life jacket, a sheath knife, a container with 20 matches, gaiters, rubber boots, and the clothes he wore.
This article is part of the Mountain Life Isolation Reading List
Larkin was on his way back to civilization after spending two winters alone in the wilderness. In autumn 1983 he’d loaded two canoes with gear and departed Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie River, travelling up the Keele River to a cabin where he spent the winter. In spring 1984, he headed further upstream, dragging, pushing and forcing one fully loaded canoe to the source of the Twitya River at Mountain Lake. An epic, and perhaps mule-headed feat in itself, Larkin then built himself a cabin and spent another winter in the bush. In March 1985 he began his descent of the Mountain River, intending to intersect the Mackenzie and paddle on to Fort Good Hope. This was a guy who knew his way around the wilderness.
But by June the river was raging with spring runoff, its sheer volume expressed in five-metre waves barrelling off the inside of canyon walls. These Class III rapids had no problem capsizing—as Larkin calls himself—the inexperienced paddler. With the frigid water threatening hypothermia, he was lucky to get ashore. His life spared, his sole possessions were now a life jacket, a sheath knife, a container with 20 matches, gaiters, rubber boots, and the clothes he wore. Everything else had been carried downstream or ripped from his pockets by the torrent.
“With emotion I think of all the important material possessions I have lost,” he writes in his unpublished book, A Far Cry. “But with a still more powerful feeling I know the land is offering me freedom; freedom from being possessed by my possessions. The river has taken them all, save a few clothes on my back. Hungry and happy I have never felt such elation, such perfect union.”
He was 110 kilometres from the Mackenzie River, from where it was another 100 to Fort Good Hope. But between him and a potential cold beer were unforgiving terrain, one of the widest rivers in Canada, and millions upon millions of hungry mosquitoes.
Over the next ten days, Larkin ate next to nothing—a dozen shrivelled cranberries from the previous fall; parts of a porcupine he stabbed in the head and roasted over a fire; some ants, and then, inevitably, mosquitoes. By day four he was chewing poplar bark. Then things got hazy.
“I can’t remember the sequence… but my memory of each individual circumstance is very vivid,” he says. “I do remember the noise of the river conjuring itself into this sort of barbershop singing, which was horrendous. I realized it was a lack of food and sleep so I just had to put up with it.”
After nine days hiking through mud, landslides and impenetrable bush, Larkin finally arrived at the Mackenzie which, at the Mountain River’s ingress, stretches three-kilometres wide. He could hear and see boats on the far side, but couldn’t get their attention. And it was pouring rain. It took him all night to start a fire which, with diminishing energy, he then had to lean over to keep going.
“I think it was a full 24 hours before a boat came,” he recalls. “Over that time, I wasn’t really asleep. Only drowsy. I suppose I’d given up. The real factor here is that the will to live has a direct correlation with energy levels. It’s a physical thing, a biological thing. If the body isn’t getting heat, you’re just naturally going to die. Starvation is not an uncomfortable way to go.”
A deep thinker, Larkin has pondered those ten days on the brink for decades.
“My philosophy is that we, as human beings, are a part of nature. The further away from technology and human creations you are, the more worthwhile the experience. The knife and matches were fairly primitive technology, so I spent ten days in pure nature. There was no other element of man involved, nothing interfering between existence and the basic elements. The fact that you’re so close to death in such circumstances makes for life lived at a much higher pitch.”
It’s that higher pitch that Larkin loved. “I’ve never done the wingsuit thing,” he says, “but the analogy might be that instead of [flying without a chute] for a couple minutes, you’re doing it for ten days. It’s ultimate freedom.”