In Defense of Arthur Moffatt

Allan Jacobs on why the conventional wisdom about Arthur Moffatt is wrong

Arthur Moffatt on the Dubawnt River, 1955. Photo courtesy Creigh Moffatt.

Arthur Moffatt on the Dubawnt River, 1955. Photo courtesy Creigh Moffatt.

By Allan Jacobs

In 1955, Arthur Moffatt led a canoe trip on the Dubawnt River in the barrenlands of northern Canada. He died of hypothermia when his canoe capsized in a rapid; his bowperson Lanouette almost died.

The paddling literature has vilified him like no other, even Hornby (Thelon River, 1927). The defamation (long on argument, assertion, invective and judgment, short on evidence) of Moffatt began with a 1959 Sports Illustrated article (1959) and continued into 2012. It went unchallenged until Pessl's book (2014) provided the first, and so far the only, defense of Moffatt; but Pessl (another trip participant) does not specifically address the accusations.

The perceived truth is as stated by Alan Kesselheim in 2012:

Moffatt … a name that, in canoe-tripping circles became synonymous with incompetence.

Some accusations made against Moffatt (the unabridged version lists more):

1. The anonymous editor of the Sports Illustrated article (1959).
Already nine days behind schedule, the Moffatt party races against winter on the Barren Grounds. The days grow colder, provisions dwindle, game grows scarce. In desperate haste, they take an ultimate chance.

2. James Murphy.
… Slightly giddy from lack of food, a profound quietude and serenity has settled on your spirit. Logically you know you shouldn’t tarry but you linger there for weeks, entranced, as if moving would break some spell, disturbing your reverie. Danger lurks, yet you can’t seem to focus on it.

Lack of food, proper equipment and most importantly, lack of a planned itinerary, contributed to his demise. … an excellent example of how not to conduct a canoe trip.

3. Andrew Macdonald.
One of the consequences of a quasi-religious resistance to a pragmatic plan of travel was the death of Arthur Moffatt.

4. Charlie Mahler.
… the Moffatt story unfolds as a tragedy just waiting to happen – indifferent leadership, an inexperienced party, short rations, bad chemistry, a plodding pace, and an apparent apathy toward the season closing on them …

5. Bob Thum.
Those guys had no business being up there. … They were a bunch of guys who didn't know what they were doing and led by a guy with poor leadership skills. They fooled around and did a lot of crap and it finally came back to bite them. This was simply a group of novices led by someone more interested in film than travel, which squandered its time and resources and then made some tragic mistakes. … . Moffatt … had some experience, but not much.

6. Michael Peake.
Their lack of schedule meant they took risks to catch up on time and Moffatt died of exposure after they dumped in a large rapid they did not scout.

Summary: To paraphrase Kesselheim, Everybody Knows that Moffatt was incompetent.

My response: It ain't so.

The principal accusations and my responses.

1. The fatal rapid.
The editor of the Sports Illustrated article was only the first to accuse Moffatt of being in such desperate haste that he raced down the river, recklessly running rapids without scouting them.
Strangely, the same SI article contains a refutation of that very accusation, this in the form of Lanouette's journal (abridged). Moffatt ran that rapid without a scout because he had been misinformed regarding its severity, by a source that had previously proved to be reliable. And it is not beside the point that the party had portaged the rapid immediately above that one.

2. The lack of a plan.
Moffatt has been accused of having no plan; some assert that the lack of a plan caused his death.
He left home for months without telling his wife and the RCMP when he expected to return?
Strangely, the same SI article contains a refutation of that accusation also: Planes flew over the tundra of the Arctic region today looking for a trace of a six-man expedition. The group was a week overdue … (New York Times, 24 September 1955). That is, Moffatt did have an exit plan; 15 September was the hoped-for arrival date in Baker Lake, as discussed in the digital edition.

3. Shortage of food.
A lesser point but not an insignificant one. It is asserted that the party was short of food (due to poor planning), by implication for the entire trip. The truth is different. Although food was short early, it was plentiful from 5 August until early on 14 September, when the party had so much food on board that it had no need to hunt for the rest of the trip.

A last comment.
The Sports Illustrated article is cited in Grinnell's book, widely used by Moffatt's defamers.
Several of them are known to have possessed that article, but they failed to notice incontrovertible evidence of Moffatt's innocence regarding both the fatal rapid and the exit plan.

Summary.
In the above, and in more depth in the digital edition, I demonstrate explicitly (not by argument, not by assertion, not by invective, not by judgment, but rather by evidence) that Moffatt's incompetence, no matter how frequently it is stated, no matter who says it, no matter how widely it is believed by those who know his name, is nothing but myth.