A six-hundred-mile canoe trip in the Canadian wilderness is a seventeen-year-old’s dream adventure, but after he is mauled by a grizzly bear, it’s all about staying alive.
This true-life wilderness survival epic recounts seventeen-year-old Alex Messenger’s near-lethal encounter with a grizzly bear during a canoe trip in the Canadian tundra. The story follows Alex and his five companions as they paddle north through harrowing rapids and stunning terrain. Twenty-nine days into the trip, while out hiking alone, Alex is attacked by a barren-ground grizzly. Left for dead, he wakes to find that his summer adventure has become a struggle to stay alive. Over the next hours and days, Alex and his companions tend his wounds and use their resilience, ingenuity, and dogged perseverance to reach help at a remote village a thousand miles north of the US-Canadian border.
The Twenty-Ninth Day is a coming-of-age story like no other, filled with inspiring subarctic landscapes, thrilling riverine paddling, and a trial by fire of the human spirit.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)|
About the Author
Alex Messenger is a Duluth, Minnesota, author and photographer who, at seventeen, was mauled by a grizzly bear. In the decade since, he’s worked as a wilderness guide and volunteer search-and-rescue operator. His love of adventure, nature, and cultures has taken him all over the globe, but the north woods and canoe country have always been among his favorite subjects. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Men’s Journal, National Parks magazine, Outside Online, and Backpacker magazine.
Read an Excerpt
There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.
— Sigurd F. Olson, The Singing Wilderness
Entering the Taiga: Days 1–2
The plane vibrated with the cacophonous drone of idling engines. We had over an hour of flying ahead of us, and then forty-two days of paddling. The pilots, now directing us to climb aboard from their perch on the float, had filled the Twin Otter turboprop with our gear, from the forward bulkhead to the tight heap of large packs at the rear. Our three Old Town Tripper canoes filled the entire right side of the plane. The only open spaces left were the cockpit, the narrow row of six canvas seats on the port side, and the space above the poorly sealed spare fuel barrel stowed immediately behind the copilot's chair. The drum wafted fumes of jet fuel, which we tried in vain to ignore.
Dan was clambering over the seats in front of me, his six-and-a-half-foot frame scrunched by the small fuselage and the wall of canoes. The seats were austere — old canvas slung over aluminum frames, positioned in the small space like hurdles in a tunnel. We had to step awkwardly over each one until we found our spots. At an even six feet, six inches shorter than Dan, I was also having trouble traversing the seats. Behind me was Jean in his bright-red rain jacket, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, jaw tight as if to hold in the same nervous excitement I felt clenched under my ribs. Behind him was Auggie, the least bundled up of us, in just a few layers topped with a thin fleece. He was ready to go, calm. Behind Auggie was Mike, in bright yellow, his recently shaved head up, eyes open. Bringing up the rear was Darin. The littlest of us, he took the smallest seat at the rear bulkhead, behind a cache of gear and beside the large door at the back of the plane. His hair rolled out in dark curls from the sides of his black fleece cap, and he pressed his lips together as he located and clicked the buckle to his seat belt. I found mine and then looked out the hazy porthole, past the blur of propeller blades spinning loudly on the wing.
Standing on the dock was a group of five girls, the Femmes, who would be making a counterpart trip to ours. Their canoes and gear lay in a heap on shore, just as ours had. After setting us down in the emptiness of the Canadian taiga, the plane would come back for them. They, too, would land somewhere deep in the wilderness and paddle great rivers and lakes. Our routes would run parallel, hundreds of miles apart, until several weeks from now, when our paths would finally intersect. We wouldn't see them there, however; their route put them half a week and a hundred miles ahead of us by then. We wouldn't see them again until we met in the little town at the end of our routes, 550 miles almost due north from where we sat.
"See you at Baker Lake!" we all had said, and before I knew it, I was looking out at them from my seat in the plane. I molded my earplugs and let them expand in my ears, muffling the rumble of the idling engines. Out the porthole I watched as the smiling group lined up shoulder to shoulder to start the Camp Menogyn traditional line dance send-off. The Femmes kicked together, left and right, singing "Happy Trails." We couldn't hear them over the roar of the plane, but we knew the words.
The engines throttled up, and the plane shook. Prop wash and lake water buffeted the farewell chorus. Grabbing at hats and sunglasses before they could fly away, the Femmes finished the song and disappeared from view.
A minute later, we were in the air above Lynn Lake, skimming the trees on the far shore. Soon, we were going nearly two hundred miles per hour, a thousand feet above northern Manitoba and the endless scrub forest of the Canadian taiga. I looked at the shimmering amoeboid blobs below — nothing but lakes and unturned land in all directions, as far as I could see. We flew for over an hour, the hum of the engine, the rattle of the fuselage, and the acrid smell of jet fuel feeding a growing headache.
When we arrived at our destination in the middle of nowhere, we circled above Wholdaia Lake. Our pilots made a scouting pass, looped around again, and dropped in for a smooth landing on the first lake of our trip. Using the propellers, they maneuvered their ungainly boat to shore, backing the pontoons onto the rocks and beaching the plane with a violent shudder.
The six of us wriggled out the rear door and took our first breath of fresh subarctic air before unloading the boats. It had felt odd to disassemble our canoes before the flight, stripping their yokes and thwarts so they would nest and all three would fit. Now the pilots helped us pull the enormous canoes out of the tiny plane, tightrope-walking along the pontoons. I wanted to get the boats back together before the pilots left, in case we ran into trouble. These canoes were our lifelines. Without them, we'd be screwed: hikers with canoe gear.
The blackflies found us immediately. They came silently, tiny malicious dots that attacked exposed skin at the wrist, waist, and hairline, burrowing their heads and leaving hot welts and weeping trickles of blood on our skin.
Soon, all our gear was out of the plane, and the pilots were preparing for their flight back to Lynn Lake from the middle of an almost empty map. By the end of the day they would probably be back at some camp, some town, maybe even in their own beds. We were in a strange, foreign place and would be for another month and a half, but to them we were just a charter penciled on their calendar. While they might hardly remember us in a week, this was the beginning of something life-changing for my fellow paddlers and me — this was Hommes du Nord, forty-two days of canoeing Canada's wild rivers and lakes.
I was seventeen.
* * *
Six months earlier, I was kneeling in the snow at Caribou Rock overlook, above West Bearskin Lake in Minnesota, a few miles south of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Canadian border. It was just after Christmas 2004. Beside me were Mike, a new friend I'd met just days earlier, and several other campers and guides from Camp Menogyn's winter camp. Our breath puffed clouds in the still winter air. The pale-gray sky dropped thick white snowflakes that floated like goose down, nearly weightless.
I had to decide.
"You should come," Mike had said. Going on Hommes du Nord meant spending forty-two days traveling through northern Canada — forty-two days on trail, forty-two days of white-water canoeing, portaging, sleeping on a thin mat in a thin tent, forty-two days of dried food, forty-two days of adventure and fresh air.
I had spent the past three summers working my way through Menogyn's trip progression, going on ever-longer and more intense paddling adventures until finally being invited back for this last big trip, the longest and most remote that the camp offered. I had the requisite experience, though not the money it would cost. I thought for a long while, watching the silent snow drift down.
* * *
Kneeling on the cushion of sphagnum moss, I finished reattaching the thwart to our canoe and looked up at our bush pilots. These might well be the last other humans we would see for six hundred miles. My stomach knotted up at the thought of our impending solitude. We were getting the last of the canoes together; it looked as if they would work after all. We double-checked the plane to make sure we hadn't forgotten anything, but all that remained aboard were the seats and the acrid-smelling fuel drum. We were good to go, and the pilots were ready to leave us behind. They latched the Twin Otter's rear door and walked along the narrow pontoon before mounting the ladder to the cockpit.
"Well," the pilot said, "enjoy the flies. I think you're crazy, but have a safe trip!"
He and his copilot ducked inside, whirred the propellers, and screeched the pontoons off from shore, slowly taxiing out onto Wholdaia before pushing the throttle and accelerating. The plane lifted into the air, the growl of the engine wafting over the water. Gaining altitude, they slowly arced back around toward our group. As they gained speed, they decreased their altitude to just ten feet above the water and headed straight at us. The nose of the plane got bigger and louder until it looked as if it might slam into us. I felt that I could jump and touch one of the floats. We ducked and yelled, waving and cursing. At the last moment, it pulled up, the air vibrating with the engines' roar as they buzzed the scrubby trees around us. I'm sure the pilots were snickering in the cockpit as we wiped lichen and moss off our clothes and out of our hair. Our trip was barely under way, and the excitement had already begun.
As the sound of the plane disappeared to the south, we walked up a mossy berm to a spacious clearing away from the shore. In a huddle, we talked about the trip and how we were feeling now that we were actually on trail. With the plane's departure, my stomach had begun churning with nervousness. I'd been preparing for the trip for six months, knowing I would be alone with a small group deep in the northern Canadian wilderness. Still, until the plane disappeared from sight, it hadn't hit me what this really meant. Suddenly, we were alone. We had a satellite phone, but if the need arose, help would be hours away at best, and at worst, completely out of reach.
We could rely only on ourselves and our group, but most of all, we were reliant on Dan. I looked at him now as he led our discussion. He was ten years my senior and had been guiding canoe trips forever. I had full confidence in him. His skill, expertise, and leadership would get us down the Dubawnt River, to the Kunwak and Kazan rivers, to Baker Lake, and eventually home again. It was at first disorienting to be suddenly in such deep wilderness, so completely removed from our usual ways of life, away from the safety nets, everyday comforts, family, and friends. We all were seasoned campers, but this was different. The Canadian subarctic is a kind of wild where you can expect not to see anyone else for weeks, and the land seems to stretch on to infinity. This would be the longest trip yet for each of us. We were already deep into the taiga, and the only way out was six hundred miles of paddling and portaging north to the end of our trip at the tiny, secluded town of Baker Lake.
We huddled there for a while, the taiga silent but for the thick clouds of blackflies and mosquitoes buzzing around us. I felt odd, unsure of where I was or where I was going. I imagined the sweeping tundra as it extended north and east to Baker Lake, six hundred serpentine miles of rivers, lakes, and portages. The whole expanse between where we stood now and that tiny dot of a town was all but blank in my mind—just hazy imagination and the obscure translation of land and water onto paper. That blankness made me uneasy, but I managed to push the feeling aside as we packed up and prepared to hit the water.
Despite the nervousness that I was sure we all felt, that first day was beautiful, with long hours of sun, water, and paddling. We made excellent time and then napped lazily in the boats. By the time we camped, we were far along the Dubawnt River, already on our third topo map and two days ahead of schedule.
We set up our two tiny MSR Prophet expedition tents but decided not to set up the colossal bug tent, which we'd brought for cooking and relaxing. Once camp was mostly prepared, Darin and I fished for a while, but only caught northern pike. We weren't fond of handling or filleting the slimy, toothy devils, and we had enough food in our three seventy-five-pound barrels to last the whole trip, so we threw the pike back.
When we got back to camp, the mother of all mosquito swarms joined us for macaroni. I swatted at them and walked backward and forward to avoid them. Still, my macaroni was dotted with lifeless black lumps of insect protein. In the far north, food is a finite resource. I tried to pretend the dark little dots were black pepper, and kept eating. Next time, pain though it was to set up, we would pitch the bug tent.
Our second day on trail, we paddled from morning until night on the Dubawnt. As we made our way downstream, arctic terns flew overhead and buzzed the water, darting back and forth. They were astonishingly agile and fast, their black-and-white feathers appearing and vanishing so suddenly they looked silver.
But for the sharp whoosh of tern wings, the occasional breeze, and the murmur of running water, silence held us in its thrall. This was not the stuffy silence that happens in a space closed off from the outside world. Silence in the wilderness is the raw sound of vastness. It made me feel small, inconsequential. I imagined looking into the mouth of a cave. Deep, dark, and mysterious, it might go on forever, or it might collapse at any second. I had felt this before in northern Minnesota's boreal forests, overcome by the sound of an entire ecosystem, a deep hum almost imperceptible to the human ear. At first, it had been overwhelming, disorienting even — but I had slowly become comfortable with the feeling. In this grand space of the Northwest Territories, it was magnified. As I'd grown accustomed to it, it had always surprised me how natural it felt — this sense of a place infinitely older than I, bigger than I. It was rejuvenating. Maybe that was why I signed up for this trip.
We paddled downstream, over lakes, around rocks, and through small rapids until we finally reached the lake that we would call home for the night. There, the wind picked up. When lightning exploded from the sky, we turned to shore. Within minutes, we were struggling to set up our tents as the trees around us bent in the stiff wind, sand stinging our faces like blowing sleet. The shelters whipped like huge kites as we tried to grip their corners and stake them down. I pictured one ripping from my hands, flying out into the lake before it sank in the water or tumbled on across the emptiness. The thought made me shiver, and I drove the stake a little deeper.
With the tents pitched, we threw our sleeping bags and clothes inside, tucked the canoes safely in from shore, and stowed our mostly empty packs under them. Confident now that nothing could blow away after our bombproofing, we took cover in the tents. It was July 4, 2005, and as we sat listening to the rush of wind and rain and the roll of thunder, I thought of friends and family at home, experiencing fireworks of a different sort. As the tent swayed around us, I thought of thick green grass on rolling hills, the soft pile of a blanket spread on the ground, and the collective oohs and aahs from faces illuminated by every color of fire.
Our tent flashed pale yellow, followed by a loud crack! Not a second between the light and thunder. The bolt must have struck the far shore. My daydream faded quickly, and I pulled my feet even higher up on my sleeping pad to lessen my conductivity with the ground. I stayed like that, waiting for the storm to pass.
The wind gradually calmed, and then the rain stopped. I climbed out and found evening sun emerging from the retreating storm clouds. Behind our site, a long, winding ridge ran parallel to shore. I hadn't noticed it before — a smooth slope of gravel rising to a narrow ridge. It looked out of place — manufactured, even. It reminded me of a bike trail I'd ridden countless times as a kid — a decommissioned railroad grade that had been converted into a multiuse trail that wound above swamp and through thick woods, west from Minneapolis to the small town of Excelsior. It was a four-mile ride on a hot summer day to get the best frozen custard in the state.
Like the bike trail, this ridge behind our site was the same height as far as I could see, the same steep slope rising from shore. It was an esker, a remnant from an ancient glacial river, and the first I'd seen. When the ice melted, the sediment from the bottom of one of those blue rivers had come to rest on the ground to form this huge snakelike mound. These raised veins and arteries left over from the Ice Age were all over the northern Canadian Shield. Our maps showed eskers with small parallel hash marks like rows of wooden railroad ties, as if depicting a long, twisting track that was never finished, the rails never spiked down. Northern Minnesota is covered with evidence of the glaciers, too: bedrock carved into smooth undulations, house-size boulders abandoned by the receding ice, and thousands of lakes running parallel on the map, as if gouged by a giant's claws. But the timeless processes that left those indelible marks on the landscape seemed somehow abstract, a mere intellectual correlation. This esker, though, fascinated me. Water flowing through a channel that itself is made of ice seems a temporary thing, a powerful river living a fragile existence, one that was ended by a few degrees' rise in temperature. Yet here it was, the wandering line of a river, complete with curves and eddies, the stones and boulders once caught in its flow now a permanent part of the landscape.
Climbing the esker, I could see the broad, glimmering expanse of the lake, a pale pink sun, and the dark steel gray of the disappearing storm. It was a beautiful evening. Since starting on Wholdaia Lake, we had been paddling the seemingly endless expanse of bushes, spruce, and fir that forms the Northern Canadian Shield taiga. This lake, though, with its eskers and sandy beaches, felt different from others I had seen. The ground felt worn in a way it hadn't before. The sky seemed bigger, the water colder. I felt as if we had paddled back in time.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Twenty-Ninth Day"
Copyright © 2019 Alex Messenger.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Entering the Taiga: days 1-2, 7,
2 Water: Days 3–8, 19,
3 Ice: Days 9–3, 35,
4 Dubawnt Lake: Days 14–16, 49,
5 The Final Push on Dubawnt Lake: Days 17–18, 57,
6 Dubawnt Canyon: Days 19–20, 69,
7 Ebb and Flow: Days 21–23, 81,
8 Leaving the Dubawnt River / Trailblazing: Days 24–25, 93,
9 The Kunwak: Days 26–27, 101,
10 Fate: Day 28, 109,
11 A Layover Day: Day 29, 10:00, 117,
12 A Chance Encounter: Day 29, 19:20, 123,
13 Awakening: Day 29, 19:31, 137,
14 Airway, Breathing, Circulation: Day 29, 19:41, 145,
15 What Now?: Day 29, 19:45, 155,
16 The Evacuation Algorithm: Day 29, 19:50, 165,
17 The Night: Day 29, 23:00, 187,
18 Learning to Walk: Day 30, 195,
19 Loss: Days 31–32, 213,
20 Fear: Day 33, 235,
21 Surgery: Day 34, 249,
22 Evac: Day 35, 271,
23 Premonition, 287,
AUTHOR'S NOTE, 303,