Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Heading North, not South

I should, as I type this, be on a ferry in the middle of the North Sea, en route to Denmark to start the first leg of Short Way Round, my motorcycle trip round the edge of Europe from the very top of Denmark to Istanbul and beyond. For all you know, I may be on that ferry. But I’m not, I’m at home. Short Way Round is postponed, in favour of an equally big adventure on a different continent.

Those of you with long memories may recall me banging on about my Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship in 2001, following in the footsteps of David Douglas (Google him), botanist and plant collector (1799-1834). This adventure is to do some unfinished business from my Fellowship and start an entirely new project.

Context first. In 1827 Douglas set off from Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest with the voyageurs of the Hudson’s Bay Company to travel east across the continent. Their destination was York Factory, the HBC’s eastern supply base for the fur trade in the Canadian sub-arctic, from which Douglas was to sail on an HBC ship back to England. They made it, walking and birch-bark canoeing. D caught the ship and made it safe home for further adventures before a gory end on Hawaii in 1834 (I’ve stood where he died and at his grave in Honolulu).

York Factory is still there (Google it) and almost as hard to access now as in 1827. There’s no road or rail link; there’s no electricity and no food, apart from what you bring in. But I’m going there in the summer, with two colleagues (one from Scotland and one from Oregon) to start filming a television documentary on Douglas.

None of us have been to York Factory before; indeed it only gets about 70 visitors a year. Only being open for 3 months of the year, frozen tight the rest of the year and at risk of polar bear attack may have something to do with that of course! It’s only about 60 miles south of Churchill, where the bears congregate in the town waiting for the sea to freeze (it’s still frozen now).

The route runs something like, fly to Winnipeg, fly further north in a smaller plane, get a Greyhound bus for three hours on a gravel road to (literally) the end of the road. Then get an even smaller plane (5-seater, float plane I suspect) to fly to York Factory. Then do it all in reverse 3 days later.

And in due course there’ll be more filming to fill in more of the blanks of the Douglas story.

This is an opportunity which has been a long time coming and can’t be turned down. Short Way Round, on the other hand, can be done ‘later’. And it’s only postponed, not ‘off’. I’m really looking forward to this; can you guess?!!

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