Thelon: A River Sanctuary (Canadian Recreational Canoeing Association, 202 pages, $26.95 paper) is David F. Pelly's attempt to recreate a holy place. "Holy" is a word this practical, organized writer might object to, even if chapter one of his historical and geographical survey of the river begins with a piece of personal writing entitled "Enter the Sanctum". But what is very clear is that with this work, the culmination of a lifetime devoted to the North, Pelly wanted to convey a luminous vision of the river.
He approaches it in an organized way-being organized and knowledgeable while travelling in this region is often the difference between survival or squalor and death-not with a pedestrian overview of geological history, but with the first travellers to leave written records, the "explorers". Other chapters deal with the trappers and archaeology; two are devoted to John Hornby, who starved to death on the Thelon. Pelly also outlines what it took to create a sanctuary and, the sign of most good general books, drives readers back to source material on their own.
Underlying the information, the history and natural facts, and the tales is Pelly's urgent sense of the Thelon as a very special place on earth. That sense is summed up in the words of Alex Hall of Canoe Arctic, who has canoed the Thelon more than any other person: the Thelon is "sacred ground.. If I found a billion dollars of gold on the Thelon I would not stake it and I would not tell anyone about it.. Being there, in the Thelon, is something akin to a religious experience for me. There's not a day all winter long that I don't think of the barrens."
In this response to a vast and isolated place, one whose size seems to emphasize how alone an individual can be, Hall, Pelly, and others before them for thousands of years, were not by themselves.
This unseasonable brief review supplements M. T. Kelly's survey of canoeing books in the September issue. Much of his most recent novel, Out of the Whirlwind (Stoddart), is set in the Thelon Valley.