Barren Grounds

The Story of the Tragic Moffatt Canoe Trip

Skip Pessl

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.

Cloth: $30 | E-book: $7.99
ISBN-13: 9781611685336
Pages: 212 | Size: 6 in. x 9 in.
Date Published: July 1, 2014


  • Skip Pessl delivers a vivid on-the-ground account of northern canoe adventure, from a time before GPS, composite boats, sat phones, and expedition blogs. His riveting day-by-day chronicle fires up the youthful exhilaration and fierce joy of traditional expedition life in the Far North. It also reveals, with refreshing honesty and humility, the fear and tragedy survived by the Moffatt party. Pessl brings a lifetime of contemplation to bear in his analysis of that awful, mortal moment on the cold river, far from help. Essential reading for those who warm to the flame of northern adventure.

    Alan Kesselheim
    author of Let Them Paddle
  • Skip Pessl provides a rich and nuanced account of the Moffatt expedition. Drawing on his extensive journals and those of expedition member Peter Franck, Pessl shares a mesmerizing tale of exploration and discovery, of friendship and loss, the stark beauty and utter indifference of the North.

    Jeff Moag
    editor of Canoe & Kayak magazine
  • Skip Pessl’s book . . . is needed, welcome, and superb. I’m saying this as someone who canoed the same arctic Dubawnt River in 1969 and was involved in an earlier book about this trip. Skip’s recount focuses on reality and evidence, not on personal opinion or mythology. To repeat, this new book is needed and sincerely welcome.

    G. J. Luste
    Emeritus Professor of Physics, University of Toronto, and founder of Wilderness & Canoeing Symposium
  • Skip Pessl’s candid and long-overdue account of the ‘55 Dubawnt trip gives us a balanced view of this historic event. In Barren Grounds, Skip faces some of the toughest moments of his life with courage and tenacity. This book is welcome closure for anyone affected by Art Moffatt’s tragic story.

    Aleks Gusev
    editor of Nastawgan Journal

About the Author

Skip Pessl

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.

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