The Way of the Wolf: ‘Dance of the Deadmen’ Book Review and Interview With Author Hap Wilson


In 2009, my friend Taku and I did a canoe trip from Yellowknife to Rankin Inlet. As part of this journey, we paddled the entire Thelon River down from the source at Lynx Lake. One of our goals while on the Thelon was to find the remains of John Hornby’s cabin, where he infamously perished along with Harold Adlard and Edgar Christian in the winter of 1927. We had a set of directions to find the cabin as it wasn’t obvious from the river. Pulling our canoe up on the willow-choked shore, we had to push through the brush and spruce thickets until we came upon the eerie remains. All that was left of the cabin was the bottom half of the four walls, standing about waist height. Nearby, three crosses were erected marking the burial site of the men. Their goal had been to live off the land, hoping to harvest enough caribou to get them through those cold, dark months in the north. Unfortunately, due to a series of crucial errors and the fact that the caribou didn’t arrive in the droves that Hornby expected, starvation set in and the men suffered a slow and inevitable creep to their demise.

For the first time, Hornby’s mysterious tale is brought to life by Hap Wilson in his book Dance of the Deadmen. Wilson takes you intimately inside this frontier experience, giving voice and reason to what happened to those men in that cabin. Drawing from the diary Christian kept, from his own deep understanding of wilderness survival and from meticulous research into the saga, Wilson constructs a fascinating retelling of the incident that reads as both a valiant tale of adventure and a warning for the unprepared of the dispassionate nature of the wild.

I interviewed Hap about Dance of the Deadmen and how he pieced together this fabulous literary work.

What inspired you to write about the John Hornby saga?

Canada owns many riveting survival stories and this one stirred a resonating note that I knew I could write about drawing from my own experiences. Previous accounts of the Hornby tragedy, books and plays, even Christian’s own diary, lacked the personalization of the story. My first trip down the Thelon, two decades ago, sitting in the ruins of the Hornby cabin, inspired me to write the book; to recreate the day-to-day exchanges the men would have had under duress. Two nagging statements also surfaced in other accounts—cannibalism and homosexuality. I didn’t agree with some of the conclusions other writers had about the interactions of the three men.


You have lots of in-depth dialogue in the book, reconstructing the conversations the three men might have had in the course of their ordeal. It really brings the reader intimately into the thoughts and feelings of the men, putting us right there with them. Christian’s diary consisted of only brief descriptions their daily life. How did you go about creating this aspect of the book?

I spent a lot of time studying each character; this included birth dates, horoscopes, moon phases, period dialogue, equipment choices and world events at the time that would have influenced their daily lives and likely built within conversations. I’ve been guiding for half a century; over the years a guide deals with a lot of fragile individuals whose breaking points under duress can easily turn an expedition sour. We know a lot more about PTSD, social dysfunctional disease and other mental illnesses. Fifty years of analyzing clients under extreme conditions, gave me an edge in the understanding of typical collaborations between the three men. I’ve also had lengthy winter camping experiences, often lasting months. I’ve also taught winter survival for Outward Bound. Dialogue between the men would gravitate around the enormous chores required to survive an Arctic winter.

The descriptions you have of the slow, steady process of starvation the men went through are graphic and jarring. Have you ever had experience with severe food deprivation in your wilderness travels? How did you research this part of the book?

We know a lot more about the effects a particular diet may have on the human body or lack of a proper, adequate diet, especially one that consists of forcing your body to digest leather, fur and crushed bones as the Hornby party resorted to.  Having had the experience winter camping/winter cabin living in isolation had given me a great deal of respect (and earned knowledge) about how much work there is just to survive and the amount of food one must consume to keep the body functioning normally. I also went through a lengthy survivalist/minimalist-based lifestyle in my twenties and thirties, travelling in the wilds with simple provisions and equipment, hunting, trapping and scrounging for wild edibles in order to supplement what I could afford to buy. I’ve been hungry, many times, but far from starving. I learned early on that we live in a cornucopia of edible wild things and I’ve always been prepared for bad times.


Christian and Adlard very much looked up to Hornby and their deaths can be attributed to him. Hornby and Christian remained close throughout but Adlard was the third wheel, seemingly put upon by the other two and in conflict with them. In the end though, the men seemed to come together as they died, one by one. Mutual respect and admiration shone through. Is this unique to the Hornby story or is it a common group dynamic or result when people live in such tight quarters under such stressful circumstances?

If you look at Shackleton and his winter ordeal, you can understand the admiration the men must have had for their leader. Hornby, regardless of his shortcomings and inability to atone for his miscalculations, in all likelihood, ‘softened’ to Harold but not until he knew his days were numbered. I don’t think it’s unique to this story at all; I believe when one accepts their fate, there is a deeper regret that petitions companionship without conditions. I do believe, though, that this is particularly apparent in this type of situation where individuals share a common, often desperate, outcome.


Hornby is given legendary status as a wilderness expert in some historical accounts of him. You don’t try to glorify or justify Hornby’s journey, rather you point out that in many ways he was ill-suited and ill prepared to winter over on the Thelon. What do you hope people take away from this cautionary tale?

 A Spartan, minimalistic approach to wilderness travel only works for the individual, and only for so long. It doesn’t work in a team dynamic. His hedonistic style eventually became his downfall, trumping the British ‘grit’ and jeopardizing the lives of everyone in the group. There are multiple messages in this story, from misreading the natural migration of caribou, putting trust in a leader whose abilities were compromised, to accepting the extraordinary efforts it takes to survive in the wilderness. We live and play in a different outdoor world today, full of contrivances that make life on the trail easier. This often leads to a collective naivety to the actual risks involved in winter wilderness travel. It’s nothing like canoe camping in Algonquin Park in the summer. A summer mile is three or more in the winter; there is an art to understanding ice depth and ice conditions; how to set up camp or reading weather signs and knowing the many consistencies of snow and how it affects travel. The book touches on all these subjects, some in more detail than others. 

Purchase Dance of the Deadmen and other books by Hap Wilson at

READ MORE: , , ,