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Tears, Fear and Adventure by James Dorsey

GoNOMAD Book Excerpt:

Tears, Fear and Adventure

Tears, Fear and Adventure is a compelling collection of adventure travel stories written over the past 30 years from 14 different countries, with 44 photographs.

From kayaking in a pod of feeding Killer Whales, to dodging land mines in the Cambodian jungle, James Michael Dorsey has been there and done it in the far corners of the globe, and has finally put it all into a book. This is three decades in the life of a professional adventurer and whether you are a world traveler or an armchair traveler, you are invited to come along for the ride.

The old Indian behind the counter stares at us through an inscrutable face.   He says nothing for a few seconds then slowly whispers, "You’re gonna die."   Outside in the mist, our canoe sits ready to challenge one of North America’s great waterways for the next ten days. Inside my heart I wonder if the Indian’s words are prophecy or jest.  

We step out into the chill morning air and watch our breath float away on the breeze. I pull on my fleece gloves and head for the canoe. It is almost 40 years old, a Sears and Roebuck dinosaur painted red and black in the northwest style with raven on the prow to protect us along the way. In northwest mythology, raven is the trickster. I cannot help but see the irony in setting out with the trickster on such a treacherous paddle.   Barry is a master paddler and a fine artist who painted this canoe while still a young man. He has made it his summer home for over 30 seasons and this might be the last time.

There is no one else I would make this trip with. The plan is to paddle for 200 miles down one of British Columbia’s great fjords, from Kitimat south into the Kittalope Preserve. Canada’s great inland waterpaths probe east from the pacific deep into the interior like fingers of God feeling out the land. Even a hundred miles from the sea, the ebb and flow of the ocean creates huge tides and swift currents that pulse through this wilderness like blood through a giant heart.  

Tiny Islands

The western shore of Canada is dotted with tiny islands that from above resemble thousands of scattered marbles and these form the headwaters for the epic fjords that rival any from Scandinavia. We are at the terminus of one of these giants and for the next week and a half we will be riding on a giant finger known mostly as the Gardner Channel.   We will be at the mercy of these currents for most of the trip for the sheer rock walls that line the channels of our route do not allow an easy exit from the water. Our surroundings are ancient granite formed during the last ice age.

It is so cold this morning I feel we might be at the start of the next one. From the safety of my living room, planning this epic came easy. Standing under the vast wilderness and dwarfed by its majesty, I begin to agree with our red friend. The Indian watches from the Kitimat dock as we launch into mind numbingly cold water feeling insignificant by the panorama around us. As he disappears in the fog I imagine him singing a death song for the foolish whiteyes.  

A dozen bald eagles are our escort as we paddle out, each one sitting on a rotten piling in a row, like sentries of the water.   The last one takes to wing and circles overhead a couple times before heading off to search for the morning’s fish, leaving us with his mournful cry.   From the start I feel we are overloaded, and an hour later, taking on water and already bailing, I am trying not to think of what we have gotten ourselves into. The afternoon wind has raised a good chop that tops our gunwales, soaking every bit of gear before it even comes out of our duffels. I am near exhaustion trying to paddle into a stiff wind and get our prow around a point when Barry yells to paddle for shore. Gratefully I turn landward.  

Blanket of Mosquitoes

We can go no further in this blow and pitch out tent in a marshy swamp, instantly covered by a blanket of mosquitoes. It was calm when we left and less than two hours into our journey we have been defeated for the first day by Mother Nature’s ever-changing wrath. Barry tinkers with our one horse powered engine thinking it our only hope to cut through the wind, while I attempt to read, but the wind is louder than my thoughts and I cannot concentrate.

Looking through the mesh screening of the tent I wonder why I can see no stars, then realize I am looking at millions of mosquitoes covering our tent, allowing no light to enter. I fall asleep feeling whipped.   The morning is calm and we are quickly under way, sacrificing breakfast for miles. We enter Devastation Channel and I wonder if names of death will be our companion the entire trip. The current carries us and I only use my paddle to steer. The only sound is our prow breaking the water and inside my own head. Silently rounding a rocky point, a small black bear is in the open eating berries. We stop directly opposite him for a photo.

He can smell but not see us and this makes him uneasy. When he gets a sense of our location he turns away, raises his tail and unleashes a torrent of putrid berries and gas our way, then lumbers off slowly, satisfied he has made his statement to intruding eyes. This day is a feast of vast untouched wilderness, pleasant paddling and a quick bath at WeeWannie hot springs to raise our spirits.

The cavern that houses these sulfur-laden pools is home to countless swallows. One mother is offended by our presence so close to her nest and constantly dive bombs us until we leave. That evening we find an ancient midden and pitch camp under a blanket of stars God has strewn across an indigo sky. In this area just about any flat beach is an old village site and the countless crushed shells the giveaway.   This is the land of the Haisla and when its people lived in longhouses they crushed their shells after a meal and spread them across the beachfront to the village. This served two purposes.

Early Warning System

It made a white backdrop any intruder would have to cross at night, making them a sillhouette and they were noisy to walk over, acting as an early warning system. The coastal people here were fairly peaceful yet always on the alert for the fierce Haida, raiding from their islands, Haida Gwaii, (Queen Charlottes,) 60 miles off shore in giant cedar canoes, coming to take slaves and booty. Sitting on this beach under God’s canopy it is easy to imagine oneself hundreds of years ago living on and with the land.  

On day three we enter Alan Reach and the country opens like parting curtains on a stage. The channel is miles across and flanked by distant snow capped mountains. The temperature falls and even paddling hard, I am layered in fleece. We fall into a rhythm, paddling in unison like a well-oiled machine; the only sound is our paddles breaking the water. It takes hours to cross the reach and when we do we are greeted by an ancient red ochre pictograph on the side of a sheer cliff wall. It is so weathered by the sun I can not make out its meaning and wonder how it got there, for either the water lever was much lower when it was painted, or the artist must have balanced on a ladder in a canoe, painting while fighting a very swift current.  

Afternoon winds fling us along at a speed I am uncomfortable with but have no choice for the granite walls that line our path allow us no exit for miles. That evening we reach the confluence of the Gardener and Europa Reach. In the center of the channel these two great bodies of water collide to form a churning whirlpool that would suck our canoe down like a sink drain leaving no trace of our journey thus far. We hug the shore and pull out with great difficulty onto a large flat rock, yelling at each other to be heard over the roar of the current.   This rock is our home for the night and I am unable to sleep, in awe of the power surging all around me. Trying to sleep on cold hard granite it sounds like we are lying under a freeway.

Certain Death

I feel totally vulnerable and for the first time realize the true seriousness of this country. Where we have come is no place for the weak hearted. Any small mistake is swift and certain death, and yet, I am empowered by the thought. I have never faced nature at this level and need to know if I can hold my own.

James Dorsey.

Find this book at, available as an ebook or a soft cover. To order through this website send a check for $19.95, to 3034 Reid Avenue, Culver City Ca. 90232.  This price includes shipping. You can also find the book at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Borders and other bookstores. Visit James Dorsey's website at

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author: James Michael Dorsey
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