remote wilderness

Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

Luke [9:48]

Ann, a twelve-year girl, built a castle on a white sand beach. On top of the castle, she placed a cross. For the balance of her day, she knelt and prayed. Praying and thanking God for saving her family. In itself, this is an unusual act, but the events of the previous day were far more extraordinary.

A mother, Constance, and her two children, Ann and her sister Jean who was 14 had been on a two summer journey in a canoe. For two summers they would go north in a 20-foot freight canoe from Alberta Canada to the shores of the Arctic ocean, over 2,500 hundred miles.

Constance, who at this time was 47, had spent her early adulthood living in Alaska off the land. She hiked, canoed, and hunted in the most remote parts of the Alaskan wilderness. After the birth of her two children, she decided they should be raised in civilization and moved to Tucson. Her husband did not want to leave Alaska, so they divorced. Leaving Constance to raise these two young girls.

After a few years, Constance missed the wilderness and wanted to share the experience with the girls. They planned for a year and decided to spend two summers in a freight canoe with a nine horse-powered motor exploring the wilderness.

The first summer was eventful but safe. Ann had to have an appendectomy and missed the final month. They returned the next spring after the ice had melted and started off in Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada, where they had stopped the previous summer. This meant they had to take their canoe across the Great Slave Lake to connect with the Mackenzie River and then head north.

The Great Slave Lake is remote and has few human habitats, larger than any of the Great Lakes. For a few weeks, they would be isolated making their way on the shoreline until they would cross over a nine-mile stretch to get the mouth of the Mackenzie River.

Well, they turned to cross too early. Constance, using very vague maps thought they were crossing at the right spot, where it would be a short nine-mile crossing and somewhat sheltered from the wind.

As they were miles offshore, Constance realized her mistake. Instead of a nine-mile crossing with some shelter to break the wind, they had an eighteen-mile journey instead, most of it into strong headwinds. It was too late to turn back by the time Constance figured this out. So they plowed ahead.

Jean had learned to master the motor and for a substantial part of the trip was in charge of the motor and sat in the back of the canoe. Constance was the navigator and sat in the front of the canoe, giving Jean directions. As the wind got worse they buckled down what they could, but still stayed exposed to the wind and icy water that splashed on them every time the canoe hit a wave.

Jean sat in the back with her hand on the motor and followed her mother’s direction. After a while, Constance noticed they hadn’t made any headway. The shore was still far away. She stopped looking and thought of what to do. They were doomed without a new plan.

Constance quieted herself and began to pray. Now, not a religious person, but she had been getting impulses to get closer to God. So now she did. In her desperate prayer, she felt that God told her to slightly change the way they were going into the waves. Not sideways, but at a little different angle.

She ended her prayer and signaled to Jean to slightly alter their course. Earlier, Jean had been wondering if this would work. Now that her mother had told her to do this, she became confident and steered the boat at a slightly different angle.

For the next two hours, they made headway and Jean frozen and wet from the blowing wind and water, never took her hand off the motor. Gripping it, literally as if her life depended on it.

Finally, they arrived at the white sand beach on the shore of one of the most dangerous lakes in North America. Neither of the two girls’ hands worked because of the cold, yet Jean never let go of her grip. Constance built a twenty-foot fire to warm them up. In their tent, they slept peacefully that night.

In the morning, Ann built the shrine.

Both Ann and Constance had long ago begun feeling like they should explore God and find out who God was. They never went to church, but knew God was important. They were always distracted living life and could never find quite the right time.

But on that day, there was no else to turn, but to God. And God answered. A slight change in the course had saved them. A message that Constance knew came from God. And Ann praying in the canoe, asking for help, knew God had heard her as well.

In an overwhelming sense of gratitude, Ann built the shrine and spent her day kneeling and praying to God.

Jesus often used children to express faith. The innocence of those who have not been tainted by the world. Allowing them to see God vividly. Ann knew who had saved her. She didn’t need some long theological reason, she just needed her childlike faith. A faith that drowns out the contrary messages delivered by the world. A faith of innocence.

For Constance, God had been calling her for years. She had been too busy raising children and working. Exhausted from her roles as mother and provider, she never had the time or energy to hear what God had to say.

In a desperate moment, she had no choice this time, but to hear God out. She listened and obeyed, saving her children.

In an extraordinarily remote wilderness, a gift was delivered to three people. The gift of faith.

Author’s Note: This story comes from a book called Down the Wild River North, written by Constance Helmericks. The book is the story of their two summer journey in 1965 and 1966. Constance wrote eight books in her lifetime. I read this book in 1979. She died in 1989 of breast cancer. Jean lives in Alaska today and is also an author. Ann moved to Alaska as well. Both are now in their seventies.

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Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

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