Jan 8, 2012

Driftwood Valley

by Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher

 Based on journal entries, this is the story of a husband and wife who lived in a cabin (built themselves) in a remote mountain valley in Northern Canada. So far north that winter lasts six or seven months out of the year, twenty-foot snowfalls are common, nobody lives for miles and miles around except the Indians and of course the wildlife. They traveled there to study the plants and animals, to take samples for a museum. A few times the author mentions the work of skinning and stuffing birds, pressing plants, or how they came to be fond of the creatures around them and regretting shooting one or two of every species they came across in order to send back pelts and skulls to the museum. But mostly, that work is hardly mentioned. The book is full of details about how they lived, surviving the elements, hunting their own food (gardening was impossible), trying to get along with their Indian neighbors, reveling in the beauty of the wilderness and the northern lights. They had no radio, no running water, chopped wood for their heat, etc. It was a life of hard work, but they loved it. They even came to resent visitors who dropped in without notice because they felt their lifestyle became cramped! Personally, I can't imagine living in such conditions. Not the remoteness, but the cold and the weather (down to sixty or seventy below). The misery of mosquitoes in summer, being trapped by floods of mud in spring, the awful bitter cold of winter. Driftwood Valley is a book with a big heart, full of love for the wilderness. There's lots of adventures as every time they traveled to meet a plane or explore a new area they had to pack all their gear and food on their backs, and walk all the way on snowshoes. Eventually they acquired a few dogs and two horses, which made their lives incredibly easier- the animals could help carry packs so they could travel further, the dogs snuggled against them at night kept them warm, and their presence at the cabin protected the couple's privacy (as the Indians were afraid of them).

There were a lot of interesting things happening besides wilderness adventures. The book was written by the wife, and she talked quite a bit about how most people thought women were too weak to live in such a remote area. Once she camped out at night all by herself just to prove she could do it- the main goal being to survive! She examines the Indian's culture and in particular is upset by how poorly they treat their pack dogs- the Indians in return are astonished at how well she treats her own. I would dearly love to read her husband's take on the whole adventure; she mentioned once that reading his journal showed the opposite side of everything- he wrote in detail about things that didn't interest her at all, and vice versa. But I don't think he published anything about this trip (it lasted about a year and a half).

I also would have liked to read more details about the wildlife- a lot of animals are mentioned in passing, and that is all. Many of the creatures they only ever saw footprints- especially of marten, wolverine, etc. It was not until the very end of their trip that they ever saw a wolf- and that encounter sounds breathtaking.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 384 pages, 1946

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daniel j. taylor said...

Stumbled happily upon your blog through the "Next Blog" feature. I've read your review of Driftwood Valley and am intrigued. I've, recently, become increasingly interested in reading about (and possibly exploring) an isolated lifestyle immersed in nature. If you had to decide whether this book was more about the practical details of living or the experience OF that living, which would you choose? I'm quite interested in this book and wonder, is 1946 the original publication year?

Jeane said...

Thanks for visiting, Daniel. I would say this book is more about the experience of living remotely. It has some details about practicalities- how they camped out in deep snow and kept heat in the tent, for example. But not enough of that to take pure instruction from it. I'm pretty sure 1946 is the original publication year, it is the copyright date listed. Their stay in the northern forest encompassed the years 1937-1941 (they stayed at first a year and a half, then there was a two-year gap and they returned for another seven months).