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Death on the Barrens: A True Story of Courage and Tragedy in the Canadian Arctic Paperback – April 20, 2010

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Death on the Barrens: A True Story of Courage and Tragedy in the Canadian Arctic + Lost in the Wild: Danger and Survival in the North Woods
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 296 pages
  • Publisher: North Atlantic Books; Reprint edition (April 20, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1556438826
  • ISBN-13: 978-1556438820
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (66 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #468,742 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

A Letter to Amazon Readers from George Grinnell

Dear readers,

At the beginning of the trip that I describe in Death on the Barrens, I had said to myself, "If things get rough, at least I will not be the first to die." I had just been discharged from the Army and was in better physical condition than the others, but, by the end of the trip I was thinking very different thoughts: "I hope I will not be the last to die." By the end of the trip, I took pride not in my own strength, for it was laughable compared to the power of the wind that had ripped the tent I was sleeping in to shreds, or the power of the cataracts which had flipped our canoes as if they were toys, or of the cold which had killed Art--by the end of the trip, I took pride only in what I could do for others because I did not want to be the last to die. I was scared of dying alone.

Although I was terrified of dying, there were moments when I felt so at peace that I just wanted to remain in the arctic forever. Having my terror transformed by beauty into awe was like receiving, what mystics call, the ecstasy of the grace of God. It is such a wonderful feeling--a mixture of awe, peace, and love--that, if I could, I would share it.

Yours sincerely,
George James Grinnell

Questions for George Grinnell

Q: Recalling the hardships of the catastrophic canoe voyage of 1955 must be difficult and painful, at times. What made you decide to write Death on the Barrens?
A: I was telling the story to some friends at dinner one night, fifty years ago, and one of them, Professor Ed Chalfant said: "Write the book." The next day he gave me his typewriter. I have been typing ever since trying to convey what perhaps cannot be conveyed: the transformation of terror into awe.

Q: Something that makes your book so wonderful is that you offer philosophical insight into the Barrens expedition, and reflections on your life since. What do you want readers to take away from reading the book?
A: I would like readers to take away the idea that awe transforms vanity into love, and love is the source of the inner peace which we all desire.

Q: Through your experiences and through the writing of this book, what have you learned about human nature that isn't common knowledge?
A: I’ve learned that it is necessary to empty oneself if one wants to receive the gift of awe, love, and peace, which is the gift of the wilderness to troubled souls.


“Judges, such as this reviewer, are often asked to evaluate the veracity and credibility of distant accounts of misadventure culminating in a death. No one who reads this story should entertain any doubt as to the scrupulous accuracy of this narrative, which chronicles the author's 1955 journey through the Canadian arctic with four friends. Bad planning left them without food or adequate warmth as winter closed in, and the group leader eventually died of hypothermia. Although the account reminds one of Farley Mowat's adventure novel, Lost in the Barrens, not to mention James A. Michener's Journey: A Novel, the detailed descriptions of the sensations endured by the writer, the haunting and evocative images he sets forth with poetic grace and erudite references, and the harrowing emotional roller-coaster he experienced in 1955—and every year since—leaves no doubt as to the fidelity of this first-person story of exploration, adventure and tragedy. VERDICT Superbly illustrated, this work represents the best that human kind and nature have to offer: courage, beauty and the challenge to survive. Recommended for all readers of true adventure or memoir.”
Library Journal starred review, Gilles Renaud, Ontario Court of Justice

Death on the Barrens is a must read for anyone who has seriously considered entering absolute wilderness, and for those who already know a step off the grid into a place like the Barrens can have a profound impact that reverberates through the rest of one’s days.”
—Cary J. Griffith, author of Lost in the Wild: Danger and Survival in the North Woods

“… [The] three-month canoe trip across the uninhabited Canadian Barrens takes George Grinnell to the lip of the abyss that separates sanity from insanity and life from death. And it is his firsthand exploration of this uncertain edge that provides the profound insights that makes this a most powerful and unique narrative.”
—George Luste, from the Introduction

“A finely wrought distillation of half of a century spent looking for an explanation where none perhaps exists. Death on the Barrens tells of many deaths in an austere and unforgiving land of imponderable majesty where sentience extends far beyond human kind.”
—Farley Mowat, legendary author of People of the Deer and Never Cry Wolf

“A nice combination of struggling against nature and self-realization, this short book was enjoyable and thought-provoking.”
—The Philbrick-James Forum

“George James Grinnell brings tragedy of Into the Wild and the philosophy of the poets to his non-fiction account of a three-month pleasure trip by canoe and portage across the Canadian Barrens in 1955… Death on the Barrens meditates on beauty, loneliness, and the meaning of life while roaring down the rapids or battling the black flies or trying to outwait a blizzard without freezing to death in a ripped tent. It is a clear statement of our need for belief in something more than ourselves.”
—Read, Write, Laugh, Rewrite with Eileen Granfors

“This was an excellent memoir. For the outdoor and nature types I recommend [Death on the Barrens] highly. George, referring to himself as Jim in the book, tells us a heart wrenching and harrowing journey of six men through the Barrens… Not only is the adventurous side of the story told, but the spiritual experience of being out in the wilderness is explained. This was an intense read.”
The Cajun Book Lady

“In these pages, you will learn how time and a doomed escapade into the Barrens can change a man…how marvelous and wonderful nature can be and how it can also be your worst enemy… The author’s descriptions and recollections help to bring this powerful novel to life… [Death on the Barrens is] a very powerful and intelligently written memoir about the 1955 canoeing expedition which took the life of one man and changed the souls of the others.”

“Despite all of the obstacles in the book, the absolute honesty of the author shines through providing a tiny little ray of hope in his bleak world… Death on the Barrens is beautifully written…this book will keep you interested until the very end.”
The Book Buff

“Grinnell's account affects the reader on several levels. He details the practical side of the trip...the physical exertion of canoeing and portaging; the exhilaration of shooting rapids; the camaraderie of the men; the psychological signs of suspicion, paranoia, and even questions of sanity...there's also a spiritual element... Grinnell quotes literature, poetry, scripture, Zen koans and Indian legend. The writing is very nice, and at times even lyrical.”
The Record-Courier

“While the canoeists' trip could be critiqued—inadequate food, too many days spent relaxing during good traveling weather—Grinnell does not place blame. Instead, he remembers how their leader took them ‘to a place of peace’ and ‘a time when my fears had been elevated through beauty into awe, when my vanity had been transformed by awe into love, and when love had bathed my soul in the waters of eternal peace.’ For that he experienced starvation, frostbite, and near-drowning… Yet though Grinnell admits to being lost in despair at times, this is a book of recovery and acceptance.”
Southern Rockies Nature Blog

“[Grinnell] tells this story with amazing poise, instantly drawing the reader in. One can almost feel the mist of the river and the bumping of the rapids, and later the cold and hunger. There is a lot of emotion caught within these pages. Add the stunning watercolors that help to break up the book and you have a true gem.”
Reading for Sanity

“[In the Canadian Barrens, George James Grinnell] revels in the pristine vistas devoid of man while vacillating between fear of dying and awe. Eventually he feels himself disappearing into the landscape, just another caribou in the food chain. Death on the Barrens is a fascinating glimpse at the actions of six men when they have nothing left to confront but themselves.”
—Sheri, Village Books

“I am crazy about survivalist books; Into the Wild (this book completely changed the course of my life), Into Thin Air, Alive, etc… Death on the Barrens is just as captivating a read. Six men plan to traverse the Canadian arctic on canoes and seem to become spellbound with the beauty and lulled into relaxing in the wilderness rather than hurrying to beat the oncoming winter.”
—Jennifer Salita, Midwestern Days

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Customer Reviews

The story is told in gripping detail and is well written for this genre.
Patrick Odaniel
These paintings evoke the feel of the landscape in the Barrens region, a wonderful supplement to Grinnell's tale.
James Denny
I would recommend this book to anyone that enjoys a true adventure story.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By aa-Pam TOP 500 REVIEWER on May 13, 2010
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I simply loved this book. I found it an interesting and entertaining read-- if one can say that such a tragic trip can be entertaining.

It's an account of a river journey made by five youngsters in their early twenties and late teens, and 36 year-old 'leader' through the wilds of northern Canada. Between you and me it's surprising that the whole lot of them didn't perish, they were so ill-prepared. Not only did they leave without the supplies they intended to take, but they left late in the season .AND. then they dallied along the way. Traits which, if you've read about any adventures in northern climes, are pretty much tantamount to a death sentence for someone if not everyone.

Never-the-less, they paddled for what they were worth and tried to do what they could to find food along the way. They fished and hunted and scavenged along the shore. But really their physical trip down the river isn't really what grabbed my interest. What really caught me up and kept me flipping page after page late into the night, was Grinnell's insight into what was going on in their little group; as well as his own reflections on his life and the upper class he belonged to. He doesn't, in fact, focus on descriptions of 'the barrens' so much as how being there made him feel. And his work ends up being more about group dynamics and sociology, religion and culture, than it is about a canoe trip.

For example, one of the things that Grinnell talks about is that nearly all of the young people underwent a profound change. Partly this was because their leader, Arthur Moffett, refused to lead them, and partly this was because they were put under so much pressure.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Flight Risk (The Gypsy Moth) VINE VOICE on April 23, 2010
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I like stories of courage in the wilderness, fortitude in the face of adversity, and determination winning against great odds. I've read about Shackelford's incredible success in bringing his crew to safety after being marooned in Antarctica, a truly unbelievable feat; I've read Jon Krakauer's heartbreaking tale of the young man who died in a bus in the wilds of Alaska. This book does not come close to the pure nature of both of those expeditions; I hesitated even to give it four stars, for many reasons, but it is well-written.

George Grinnell, at the time a young man fresh from an exclusive school and with some experience canoeing in the wilderness, joins the expedition of Art Moffatt, an older (to Grinnell) explorer (Moffatt was 36) who is planning to canoe the Barren Grounds near Churchill on the Arctic Circle and down Dubawnt River to a Hudson Bay station. There were five young men plus Moffatt making up the team; all seemed to get along reasonably well, but I did not get the feeling that anything was allowed for; no limitations on food or equipment was made; no accounting, aside from Moffatt's mathematical calculations about how much would be needed for the trip, for use; and the calculations must have very early on gone by the wayside as whenever Moffatt wanted to declare a 'holiday' - which he did with alarming frequency - the whole team parked for sometimes days at a time. I also did not get the notion that anything was done for a purpose, other than the mere journey itself; and the word 'hedonism' must have come to my mind dozens of times. The team seemed to treat this journey, through some of the most inhospitable, uninhabited territory in the world, as an extended class trip.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By P. B. Sharp TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 1, 2010
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Under the leadership of Art Moffatt, an experienced wilderness canoeist, five young men from privileged Ivy League backgrounds set out in 1955 to cross the Canadian Barrens in northern Canada. The Barrens are a vast, harsh and uninhabited landscape where trees grow only a foot tall, where the aurora borealis casts cold green and red lights upon the frozen tundra, where the vast panorama of stars overhead are close enough to touch.

Little did they know, although leader Moffatt should have, that they were on a razor's edge between life and death and insanity and sanity. In a trip so poorly planned that there was not enough food to last the trip, amid childish squabbles among the men over petty things, they begin a leisurely trip with many days off from the chore of paddling north. Unforgiving winter was staring them in the face, a winter which comes in September, a beast ready to pounce, a beast that can easily destroy them. But still they loiter.

Author Grinnell writes eloquently. The crew is hurtled into the very jaws of death when their canoes are swamped by freezing water and they are barely able to crawl onto land because their fingers and toes are frozen. The description of the men trying to warm each other up inside their sleeping bags, Grinnell inside his cheap six dollar one, is horrific. They pummel on each other trying to get the blood into their frozen limbs, they are a team, now, not a band of quarreling young men, but brothers trying to save each other's lives. However Art, with his rather frail physique, succumbs on September 14, when he literally freezes to death. They tuck him into one of the canoes and carry him up to a hill, and turn the canoe upside down where his body will be safe from marauding wolves.
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