A Review of Barren Grounds: The Story of the Tragic Moffatt Canoe Trip by Fred “Skip” Pessl

Barren Grounds
by Fred “Skip” Pessl

Barren Grounds is a true story of a group of young men who, in 1955, came together to attempt to retrace an epic canoe trip in the wild country of northern Canada. Mr. Pessl wanted to clear the air, to correct some ideas that were previously published in A Death in the Barrens by George Grinnell .  Death on the Barrens GrinnellArt Moffatt, the leader of the expedition, and the author, Skip Pessl were friends, so when A Death in the Barrens portrayed the trip as poorly planned and executed, and doomed from the start, the author felt that he had to tell his and Art’s side of the story.

Mr. Pessl uses excerpts from his journal along with journal entries from Peter Franck to describe the 900 mile canoe trip from Northern Saskatchewan to Hudson Bay. He also includes excerpts from Art’s journal, and some notes from J. B. Tyrrell’s account of his 1893 journey over the same route, published in the Geographical Journal, November 1894.

This was an interesting book told through journal pages that were written during the trip. The major problem with this trip was that Mr. Moffat wanted to film this adventure for a  documentary movie, and asked Mr. Pessl to preserve it on 35mm film. This caused many delays. Nice weather was spent filming and therefore the time on the water was shortened. This, along with the kind of casual, ivy league college, attitude that this was a fun adventure and what could go wrong, This cavalier approach to the beginning of the trip led to tragic results as winter set in.

I liked this book, but wonder who the target audience is. I think that both books should be read together to get the complete picture of this trip. I have started to search for a copy of Death on the Barrens, and will see what Mr. Grinnell has to say.

I give Barren Grounds 4 Stars out of 5, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in outdoor adventures.

I received this Digital Review Copy for free from edelweiss.com.

 Book Description

Release Date: July 1, 2014

In 1955 Arthur Moffatt led an expedition consisting of young college students and recent graduates to the Inuit lands of Nunavut, Canada, to follow the path of the 1893 Tyrrell expedition and to film and photograph the group’s progress. The expedition, a 900-mile epic journey across the Barren Lands of Arctic Canada, has stirred controversy and criticism for over fifty years. The trip has been variously described as “the pioneering venture in modern recreational canoe travel” and as “an excellent example of how not to conduct a canoe trip.” Delays took their toll on the adventurers, exhausted by the seemingly endless paddling through unknown rivers and lakes, the trek across the windswept tundra, and torment by voracious insects. Threatened with diminishing food reserves and increasingly harsh weather, the members of the expedition were forced to travel with greater speed and less caution, and ultimately a fatal mistake was made. Two of the canoes capsized, dumping four men into the frigid waters. Moffatt, the leader, died of exposure. It took the survivors ten days of arduous travel with minimum food and equipment to reach the safety of the Hudson’s Bay Company post.

Barren Grounds features passages from the journals of two young Moffatt party members and excerpts about the 1893 expedition of Joseph Burr Tyrrell, along with entries from the journal of Art Moffatt himself.

Part cautionary tale, part nail-biting adventure, the book will appeal to outdoorsmen and armchair adventurers alike.

Product Details

Hardcover: 212 pages
Publisher: Dartmouth (July 1, 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1611685338
ISBN-13: 978-1611685336
Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 6.3 x 0.9 inches
Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds

About the Author

FRED “SKIP” PESSL, a Dartmouth graduate (’55) who was a member of the ill-fated Moffatt party, retired as a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He lives with his wife, Molly, in Bellevue, Washington.

The book description is from Amazon.  Barren Grounds: The Story of the Tragic Moffatt Canoe Trip


4 thoughts on “A Review of Barren Grounds: The Story of the Tragic Moffatt Canoe Trip by Fred “Skip” Pessl”

    1. I do try to read some books that are a ways out from the mainstream. I just received Singing My Life, about the life of Kongar-ool Ondar, throat singer from Tuvan. I’m not sure when I will be able to fit that in, but I’m looking forward to it.

      Liked by 1 person

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