The Landlocked Sailor

A native Canadian, FARLEY MOWAT lived in Saskatchewan before the war and in 1935 accompanied an uncle to Churchill on the south edge of the Barrenlands. From that time on he was strangely attracted to the arctic expanses. After his service in the Canadian Army during World War II he teamed up with a young native of the Barrenlands and together they explored about 1200 miles of that territory. From this experience came his book People of the Deer. Mr. Mowat is now married and living near Toronto, where he and his wife raise Huskies for fun and vegetables for insurance against the vicissitudes of a wandering writer’s life. The following account of his life in Saskatchewan is part of a non book. The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, published by Atlantic Little, Brown.



ALTHOUGH my family’s five-year sojourn on the western plains satisfied my father in most respects, he nevertheless knew one hunger that Saskatchewan could not still. Before coming to Saskatoon he had always lived close to the open waters of the Great Lakes, and he had been a sailor on them since his earliest days. Nor is this purely a figurative statement, for, by his own account, he was conceived on the placid waters of the Bay of Quinte — in a green canoe.

During his first year as librarian of the Saskatoon Public Library, he was able to stifle his nautical cravings beneath the weight of the many new experiences the West had to offer him; but during the long winter of the second prairie year, he began to dream. When he sat down to dinner of an evening he was with Mother and myself in the flesh only, for in spirit he was dining on hardtack and salt beef aboard one of Nelson’s ships. He took to carrying a piece of marlin in his pockets, and visitors to his office in the library would watch curiously as he tied and untied a variety of sailor’s knots while talking in an abstracted voice about the problems of book distribution in prairie towns.

Knowing that Angus was not the kind to remain satisfied with a dream world, Mother and I were not surprised when he announced that he intended to buy a ship and to prove that a true sailor could find fulfillment even on the drought-stricken western plains.

I was skeptical at first. Only the previous summer we had made a journey to Regina, the capital of the province, where I had spent some hours on the banks of Wascana Lake. Wascana was made by men, not God, and by just such men as my father. It boasted a yacht club and a fleet of a dozen sailing craft. But it could boast of no water at all. I have never seen anything so pitiful as those little vessels sitting forlornly on the sun-cracked mud of the lake bottom, their seams gaping in the summer heat. I remembered Wascana when Angus told us of his plans; and supposing that he must also remember that phantom lake, I asked him if he was contemplating dry-land sailing — on wheels perhaps?

I went to bed early, and without my supper.

Angus bought his ship a few weeks later. She was a sixteen-foot sailing canoe that, by some mischance, had drifted into the arid heart of Saskatchewan. Angus spent the balance of that winter laboring over her. With meticulous and loving care he built leeboards, splashboards, a mast, a steering oar, and a set of paddles. He borrowed Mother’s sewing machine and made a sail out of the finest Egyptian cotton, shipped to him from Now York. As for the canoe herself — he burnished her sides with steel wool, scraped them with glass, and painted and repainted them until her flanks were as smooth to the touch as the surface of a mirror.

Then he applied the final coat of paint —bright green and with some ceremony christened her Concepcion. He said that she was so named after an island in the Philippines.

Her launching took place on a day in early May. I helped Angus carry her down to the riverbank beside the 25th Street bridge, and on route we collected an interested group of followers. Vessels of any sort had been unknown in Saskatoon since the time of the prairie schooners, and Concepeion was an eye-catching maiden in her own right.

As my father went about the task of stepping the mast and preparing the canoe for her first voyage, the crowd of onlookers increased steadily. High above our heads the ramparts of the bridge darkened with a frieze of spectators. They were all very quiet and solemn as Angus nodded his head to tell me that he was ready; and then he climbed aboard and I eased Concepcion into her own element .

It was early spring, and the Saskatchewan River was still in flood. Although Angus knew all there was to know about water, or so he believed, it had not occurred to him that there would be much difference between the Bay of Quinte and the South Saskatchewan. There was a good breeze blowing down the deep valley and it riffled the surging brown surface of the water, effectively concealing the telltale swirls and vortexes of the fierce current beneath. The watchers on the bridge were not deceived as Angus was. They knew a good deal about prairie rivers in the spring, and t here was something funereal about the hush that lay upon them as they watched Angus and Concepcion begin their maiden voyage.

The launching took place several hundred feet above the bridge, but by the time Angus had everything shipshape, and was able to raise his eyes to look about, the bridge had inexplicably changed its position in relation to him. It was now several hundred yards astern and receding from him at an alarming rate of speed. Angus became extremely active. He ran up the sail and began frantically hauling in the sheet in an effort to come about.

From the parapets, where I now stood watching with the rest, there came a gasp of mingled awe and admiration. Most of the watchers had never seen a sailing vessel before and they had always understood that sail was a painfully slow way of getting about. Their eyes were being opened.

Concepcion was skittering downstream at about fifteen knots. She should not have been making five in that light air. and Angus knew it. He was distressed. He began to understand about the current. He got out his paddle and with almost demoniac frenzy strove to bring her bow upstream.

Concepcion beat back and forth across the river like a wood chip on a frothing millrace. She tacked and beat, and though she kept her head resolutely upstream — and though she was sailing like a demented witch — she nevertheless continued to diminish in our view until at last she vanished altogether in the bright distance to the north.

Some of the men standing on the bridge beside me began making bets as to when Angus would reach the town of Prince Albert, some hundreds of miles downstream. One of them glanced at his watch and spoke to his companion. “Eleven o’clock. ‘Course, he’ll be a mite slower now, goin’ backward that way, but I reckon he’ll hit the Prince Albert bridge by suppertime. I’ll lay you fifty cents he does.”

He would have lost his bet, however, for Angus and Concepcion did not go to Prince Albert after all. They might have done so had they not been fortunate enough to run aground some ten miles below Saskatoon. Shortly after midnight they arrived home together in a farm cart that was being towed by two noncommittal horses.


THE setback to Angus’s design was only temporary. “Never mind,”he said at breakfast the next day. “Wait till the spring flood passes, and then we’ll see.”

But what we saw when the flood was gone was not encouraging. The South Saskatchewan was back to normal, and normal consisted of a desert expanse of mud bars with, here and there, a pool of trapped brown scum and, in a few very favored places, a sluggish trickle of moving water.

It was a sight that would have discouraged any man except my father. He refused to be discouraged. He had made his plans, and the river would have to conform to them. We closed up our rented house and moved our old caravan some ten miles south of the city to the Saskatoon Golf and Country Club. Here, on the wooded banks of the Saskatchewan, we established our summer residence.

It was a fine place for a boy to spend a summer. There were enough pools remaining in the river bed to provide swimming of a sort. There was a stretch of virgin prairie where coyotes denned and where determined gentlemen batted golf balls into gopher holes. And only a few miles away there was an Indian reservation.

My time was my own, for the summer holidays had begun, but Angus had to commute to work in the city every day. He might easily have done this by ear, but he had planned to commute by water.

At seven o’clock on the first Monday morning, he and Concepcion set out bravely and full of confidence in one another. Rut when they returned late that evening, it was as passengers in, and on, a friend’s automobile. Angus was very weary, and uncommunicative about the day’s adventures. Years later he admitted to me that he had actually walked eight of the ten miles to Saskatoon, towing Conception behind him through the shallows or carrying her on his head across sand bars. There had also been a brief but exciting interlude upon a sand bar that turned out to be quicksand.

Through the next few days Angus wisely, but reluctantly, commuted in Eardlie, our Model A Forth But then there came an unlikely rainfall somewhere to the south and the river rose a few inches. Eardlie was at once abandoned, and Concepcion returned to a place of favor. During the weeks that followed she and Angus became intimately familiar with the multitudes of sand bars, the quicksands, and the other mysteries of the shrunken river’s channels. And to the astonishment of all observers. Angus began to make a success of his water route to the office. It was true that he still walked almost as far as he was able to paddle, but at least he was spared the ignominy of having to haul the canoe along in front of an audience, for there was a relatively deep channel running through the city which enabled him to paddle the final mile of his route to the landing place, near the Bessborough Hotel, with Hiawathan dignity.

He would not leave Concepcion on the riverbank to await his return from the office, but carried her with him to the library building. The first few times that he came trotting through the morning traffic in the city center, with the green canoe balanced gracefully on Ins head and shoulders, he caused some comment among the passers-by. But after a week or two, people ceased to stare at him and no one, with the exception of a few ultraconservativc ice-wagon horses, so much as gave him a second glance.

Mutt (a dog of parts and the fourth member of our family) often accompanied Angus and Concepcion downriver. He early developed the requisite sense of balance and would stand in the bow, his paws on the narrow foredeck, poised like a canine gargoyle. This was not mere posturing on his part, for he had taken it on himself to give due warning when the canoe approached shallow water or a hidden bar. His efficiency as a pilot was not high, despite his good intentions, for he was notoriously shortsighted. Nor could he, as they say, “read water.” After an hysterical outburst prompted by a current-boil that he had mistaken fora submerged log, he would very likely be staring placidly into space when Concepcion ran hard aground. If the canoe was traveling at any speed, Mutt would be catapulted overboard to land on his face in the muddy water. He took such mishaps in good part and would return to his piloting duties with increased vigilance.

Angus was able to paddle Concepcion (more or less) on the Saskatchewan River, but that meannatured trickle gave him no opportunity to sail. Since it was sailing he really craved, he was forced to look for other waters, and one weekend he announced that we would visit Manitou Lake, a vast saline slough some hundred miles from Saskatoon.

It was not a satisfactory excursion. Manitou is one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world, and Concepcion was not designed to float in a medium that was hardly more fluid than molasses. She would have no part of Manitou. When we launched her, she hardly wet her keel, but sat on the surface of the lake like a duck upon a slab of ice.

Angus was vexed by her unorthodox behavior and he set about forcing his will upon her by loading her with rocks. It look an unbelievable quantity of boulders to force her down to her marks; and when Angus and I finally clambered aboard, it was to find her about as maneuverable as a concrete coffin floating in gelatine. The water in which she stuck was so thick with salt that I could almost hear the stuff rasping on her sleek sides. And when we hoisted the sail, the wind had as little effect upon her as it would have had upon the Carnegie-built walls of the Saskatoon Public Library itself.

My father was now thoroughly infuriated by Concepcion’s lack of response, and unwisely he began to jettison the ballast. He had heaved half a dozen large boulders overside when the canoe decided she had had enough. One gunwale rose buoyantly, while the other sank, and in seconds Angus and I were floating on a serene sea, while below us Concepcion was slowly dragged toward the bottom by her bellyful of stone.

We were in no danger. It was physically impossible for an unweighted human body to sink in Manitou Lake. On the contrary, we rode so high that wc had trouble navigating to the nearby shore. And when it came to salvaging Concepcion, we found that we simply could not dive down to the canoe. In the end Angus had to weight himself, like a South Sea pearl diver, with a basket full of stones. Clinging to this with one hand, he managed to reach the sunken ship and fasten a line to a thwart. Then he either thoughtlessly let go of the basket. He came up from the depths like a playful salmon leaping :ifter a fly. He shot half out of the water and fell back with a resounding thwack that must have hurl him almost its much as had Concepcion’s base behavior. But he kept hold of the end of the line and, with the aid of a borrowed punt, we managed to salvage our sunken ship.

Nevertheless the frustrations which beset my father’s desire to sail were no match for his perseverance. In August of that year we hitched the caravan to Eardlie, placed Concepcion on the roof, and went off on a search for sailing waters. And we found them. Far to the north, in the jack-pine country beyond Prince Albert, we came to a place called Emma Lake, and it was an honest lake, filled with honest water and caressed by amiable winds.

We launched Concepcion with some trepidation, for there had been so many unfortunate episodes in the past. We climbed aboard and hauled up the sail. It was the kind of day that often graces the western plains. The sky was crystalline and limitless, and the hard sun cut the surface of the lake into a myriad of brilliant shards. Flocks of black lerns swirled in the westerly’ air that came down upon us from the pine forests and gently filled Concepcion’s sail, bellowing it into a curve as beautiful as any wing. We sailed all that day until the sun went sickly behind the blue shield of smoke from distant forest fires and sank away taking the breeze with it. And we sailed aboard a little ship whose swift and delicate motion was more than sufficient reward for the rebuffs that we had suffered. Landlocked we may have been; yet on that day and on many another too, we knew as great a fullness of heart as any mariner who sails a shoreless sea.