the art of rough travel

'To those who meditate travel: If you have health, a great craving for adventure, at least a moderate fortune, and can set your heart on a definite object, which old travellers do not think impracticable, then travel by all means.

‘To those who meditate travel: If you have health, a great craving for adventure, at least a moderate fortune, and can set your heart on a definite object, which old travellers do not think impracticable, then travel by all means.”

Sir Francis Galton, 19th-century explorer, scientific gadfly and half cousin of Charles Darwin, penned these words in the opening of his classic work The Art of Rough Travel. First published in 1855 Galton filled his work with practical tips gleaned from his own experience and those of fellow adventurers and their writings.

Rarely do we have call today to debate Galton on the relative merits of different kinds of wood to be used for constructing rafts or the carrying capacity of a horse versus an ox but notes on such things as camp placement still are worth a look.

Really, though, in today’s world of GPSes, Vibram soled, orthotically balanced walking shoes, and ultra-durable, lightweight gear, many of Galton’s points seem best suited to a definite minority of orthodox survivalists or bush minimalists.

Not much more than a generation ago, though, common tales of Yukoners heading out for a long back-country trek with barely more than an axe, snow shoes, mummy bag and a wool blanket would have resonated with Galton.

Maybe we should all be talking to a Yukon elder or two and gleaning some stories from them of their adventures before they are lost to us all. I am certainly glad I had the chance to hear my share, such as the tale told by the late Father Joe Guilbaud of his 450-kilometre trek he needed to take to travel the 150 kilometres from Pelly Lakes to Ross River one winter back in the early 1950s.

What advice would Galton give to travellers today? “Be prepared.” The Scout motto still underlines the best approach to travel in Galton’s time or our own. Every year we all still hear stories of northerners venturing out without the proper gear needed for the conditions they are likely to face.

Rough travel hints for bivouacking for most of us now might be reduced to knowing where the best place to sleep in the Vancouver airport is while waiting to check in for an early morning departure to a sun destination.

Based on hard, and uncomfortably won knowledge, for those of you who may profit from this Galtonesque tip, it is on a rows of seats at the far end of the US departures area. This is the least travelled, quietest area of the terminal and without intrusive armrests so you can find a couple banks of seats to stretch out comfortably on.

The world’s population in Galton’s time struggled towards the billion and a half mark. It was boosted by factors like improvements in sanitation and knocked down again by all-too-frequent famines and other calamities on its jagged climb ever upwards. Today with the global count of humanity within reach of the 7 billion mark, the reality of rough travel has more to do with human factors or the environmental consequences of our wayward actions than venturing into the unknown.

Travel continues to challenge us. Our discoveries have now more to do, though, with finding ways to recognize our common humanity and heal our world’s wounds than filling in blank spaces on maps. The blank spaces are in our consciousness.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact pazypan@yukon.net.