TODDLING AROU; ND THE ARCTIC

We tend to think of very young children as fragile things, for whom even the mildest brush with danger can be fatal. But are we over- protective? This extraordinary story of a French baby's travels in the Yukon reminds us that even infants can thrive in the wild WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY NICOLAS VANIER
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WE HAD been talking about our project - as families do talk about projects - for months. Everyone's reaction was the same: "You must be mad." People often say things like that when friends discuss crazy, half- serious schemes. With us, they meant it. They knew that we had a record of putting half-serious schemes into practice; and the particular risks involved in our project made it seem, even by the standards of crazy projects, insanely reckless. Yet to us it seemed wholly reasonable. Now that our daughter Montaine was 18 months old, what could be more natural than for Diane, my wife, and I to take her with us as we spent the best part of a year crossing Canada's frozen north by horse and by sleigh?

To "civilised" modern Europeans, putting the health and safety of a small child at risk is one of the greatest crimes it is possible to commit, and some people seemed to feel that our plan was faintly obscene. We saw it the other way around. The great, empty, mountainous spaces of the far north are the most beautiful places on earth. The real crime against children is not to expose them to such experiences, and to cosset them against nature until they are incapable of discovering them for themselves.

In any case, we are not fools. I have years of experience of Arctic expeditions; most recently I had spent a year and a half in Siberia, among the Evenes, one of the last nomadic peoples of the far north. One does not survive such adventures by taking risks blindly. I would not expose myself - let alone my daughter - to any dangers I did not feel confident of mastering. What made me feel that our expedition was feasible was the fact that most of those 18 months with the Evenes had been spent travelling, by reindeer sleigh; several Evene families had had young children with them, including four under the age of two, and they had been able to keep them safe and happy. What we were proposing was something which they - and other native Arctic tribes - had been doing successfully for centuries.

The most obvious danger was the cold. At -30 C, let alone -50 C, there is a constant and often dramatic risk of frostbite and hypothermia even for the most robust adult: a few minutes of insufficient protection can be dangerous. With a toddler, the margin of error is much smaller. Then there was the isolation: hundreds of miles and maybe several weeks' journey from the nearest outpost of civilisation. None the less, on 25 June 1994, we found ourselves at the end of a dirt-track a few miles north of Prince George in British Columbia, heading for Dawson City on the Alaskan frontier, nearly 2,000 miles to the north. After an inauspicious beginning - a badly balanced bag slipped, causing the pack-horses to panic and leaving us with all our possessions scattered over hundreds of square yards of trackless forest - we settled down to the first stage of the journey: the 300-mile trek from Prince George to Lake Thukada in the northern Rockies, where we planned to await winter.

In those early days the conditions were, in theory, easy: a green mixture of forest, riverside and swamp. We rode as a caravan: me at the head, Diane next with Montaine behind her on a specially designed double saddle, and then two pack-horses, with our dog Otchum, a Siberian laika, scampering between. Montaine seemed fascinated by the strange landscape - so different from the much tamer countryside of our native Sologne in central France - and was constantly pointing at geese and ducks, or laughing as Otchum chased beavers into the river. The one drawback was the rain. On our first evening, after we had grilled freshly-caught trout over our fire in a glade full of wild-flowers, the rain started to fall, and we huddled into our tent, with Montaine lying between us in her little sleeping-bag and Otchum rolled into a ball guarding the entrance. It did not stop raining for a week.

Bit by bit, we worked our way northwards and upwards into the Rocky Mountains, skirting lakes, crossing rivers and high passes, getting into our stride. Montaine seemed delighted by the ever-changing landscape, and we began to wonder why everyone had made such a fuss about our taking her. On the tenth day, we received a sharp reminder. As we made our way through a grove of alder trees, we suddenly came face-to-face with a large grizzly bear, just 20 metres away. My horse reared, throwing me off; the pack- horses fled in terror, taking the other two horses in their wake (luckily, Diane and Montaine had dismounted just moments before). We were helpless: my Winchester was still in its holster, which was tied to my saddle. For a while, the grizzly sniffed the air, still standing (a sign of anger), growling and puffing. Then, just as we thought it must be on the point of charging, it dropped on to all fours and walked slowly away.

It took five hours to find the horses and gather our belongings, which were scattered over several kilometres, and our food had been pillaged by a wolverine. Montaine's dehydrated milk reserve was safe, but we would have to ration the remaining food, and try to live off the land - fish, partridge, mushrooms, berries - to compensate for our loss. Even at its gentlest, the far north is a dangerous place.

As the weather worsened, progress became more difficult. Sometimes we had to wade through rivers with Montaine perched on our shoulders; sometimes the currents were too strong for this to be safe, and we had to make huge detours. Yet Montaine seemed as happy as we had ever known her. She could tell the difference between an elk and a caribou; she loved to spot black bears stuffing themselves with bilberries; she even imitated the cries of geese. When our morale wavered, it was she who cheered us up.

In mid-August, after seven weeks of walking, we reached Lake Thukada, 1,400m above sea level. By these sapphire-blue waters, we would await winter. For a month, we built a cabin: cutting down trees, stripping them, using a horse to drag logs - and all the while keeping an eye on the increasingly adventurous Montaine. With a few weeks to spare before winter set in, we completed a beautiful hut, 30sq m in size, insulated with moss and perfectly waterproof; and, shortly before the lake froze over, we had our last rendezvous with civilisation: two friends arrived by seaplane with the dogs - nine of Otchum's brothers and sisters - , a sleigh and two tonnes of dehydrated dog-food. The pilot flew off again, leaving our friends to make their way back to Prince George with the horses - and us to make our own way to Alaska.

By the beginning of October, ice-sheets were appearing on the lake, but we felt ready for anything. Montaine was warmly dressed in a beaver fur coat and elk-skin shoes: we called her our little princess of the north. She spent most of her days playing with the dogs, but was also happy to follow her mother and father when we went looking for mushrooms or game. It was as if she had always lived here - and the fact that we were sharing this experience as a family made the sometimes daunting emptiness of the wilderness that much less disturbing.

Not that we were alone. The cabin was surrounded by wild animals. We watched caribou and elk swimming in the lake, saw black bears, moufflons (wild sheep) and goats foraging in the pastures above us, and caught glimpses of stags, beavers and wolves. We welcomed them all, for the pleasure they gave Montaine. We were less happy at the huge grizzly bear that began to visit us at night. At first, it came for only a few hours, tearing open bags of dog-food stored near the hut - and causing Otchum to bark all night long. But each subsequent night, for six nights, it returned, staying longer, showing ever more interest in our hut. For six nights we hardly slept, worried about the threat to the dogs and the food supplies - and terrified of seeing the bear suddenly bursting through a door or window. I slept with my loaded rifle in our sleeping-bag. Montaine could feel the danger and curled up in her mother's arms, repeating, "Montaine is afraid bear. Afraid bear."

On the seventh day, the bear approached the hut just before nightfall. It was huge and hungry, and a badly aimed shot would have been my death sentence, but there was no alternative: rifle loaded, I went out to meet him. He was 50 metres away. I aimed carefully at his heart and shot. He leapt up on to his back paws, puffing furiously, then saw me and began to charge, howling savagely. As I hurried to reload, Otchum rushed forward, barking. His courage gave me time to fire a second and a third bullet, dropping the bear in its tracks.

A few days after this incident, winter began. The temperature plummeted; the lake froze; the mountains were covered in thick snow. We hitched up the dogs, and began to prepare for the most important - and difficult - part of our expedition: the 1,600-mile journey north to Dawson. For nearly two months we trained - ourselves and the dogs - leaving the cabin on two- to three-day expeditions to hunt elk and caribou. By late November, when temperatures were really beginning to fall, we were confident both in our techniques and in our equipment - and Montaine, to our relief, was finally potty-trained. In December, we left our cabin for the last time.

The going was often tough. Not every river was perfectly frozen yet, and much time was spent checking ice for solidity, or packing down thick snow. Sometimes conditions were so bad that we had to travel for whole days half-loaded, leaving the other half behind us for me to collect that evening. Otherwise, we would have spent our days loading and unloading the sleighs whenever we came across a tricky passage.

After two weeks, however, the temperature finally reached -45 C: ideal travelling conditions. Frozen rivers act as fast, icy roads, and we were often able to travel 50 miles or more in a day. Montaine, who had been growing frustrated when progress was slow, became happy again, chattering away to the dogs as she sat at the back of the sleigh on reindeer pelts, wrapped up warmly in thick furs, with a small coal-heater beside her which we used to warm her up every now and then. She had learnt quickly to protect herself against the cold by sitting still and, in the most extreme conditions, disappearing into her furs altogether. The beauty of the northern winter seemed to delight her. Sometimes she would clap her hands in joy. At night, wolves howled under the stars, and our dogs replied, while the mauve tails of the "northern lights" danced in the sky. Montaine would sometimes wake up: "Wolf, wolf. Listen, daddy..."

In February, about 100 miles south of a small settlement called Dease Lake, we had to cross a great area of "pack" - an intimidating wilderness of vast ice blocks piled on top of one another. Progress was agonisingly slow: looking for passable routes, coming back, hesitating; pushing the sleigh, pulling it, falling over; and always keeping a wary eye on Montaine, who again became impatient. At night, it was hard to sleep, cramped in our clothes and sleeping-bags, wearing bonnets and gloves. There was not enough fuel to keep the stove burning at night; all we could do was hold on to one another to keep warm. And the food was running low.

The relentless difficulty and anxiety began to exhaust us, physically and morally. Sometimes I wondered if we would make it at all. Then, on 18 February, we spotted a bridge across the river: when we reached it, Montaine stared wide-eyed at the dogs running on the Tarmac. She stepped down on to its flat, hard surface with great astonishment. How could we explain to her what a road was?

Then, suddenly, a car appeared. Montaine huddled up to me, afraid, as this strange, noisy creature of a species she had never seen before came closer. Few incidents on our journey had upset her more. A man got out of the car. "You are the first human face we have seen in five months," I told him. The stranger looked suprised, but it was not what I had said that had amazed him. He was looking at Montaine.

Thereafter, the going was easy. There were still more than 1,000 miles to go from Dease Lake, but there were trackers' paths all through the Yukon, and we could travel 40 miles or more each day. With March approaching, the sun rose higher in the sky each day, bringing warmth to our faces which had for so long been burnt by the cold. Finally, on 20 March, the rooftops of Dawson itself - the famous settlement of the goldrush era - came into view. My voice was shaky with emotion as I called to the dogs: "Hold it, it's over. We've made it."

And Montaine? She hauled herself up on her pelts and looked at the big, brightly-coloured town in utter amazement.

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