Friday, August 17, 2007

Lure of the Labrador Wild, excerpt #3

The following excerpt is from Lure of the Labrador Wild by Dillon Wallace. Wallace's account of the failed canoe expedition through the Labrador wilderness that resulted in the death of journalist Leonidas Hubbard was first published in 1905 by Fleming H. Revell, New York. The unabridged audio edition is narrated by Jody Richardson and is available from Rattling Books.

Hubbard hoped to reach the George River in season to meet the Nenenot or Nascaupee Indians, who, according to an old tradition, gather on its banks in late August or early September to attack with spears the herds of caribou that migrate at that time, passing eastward to the sea coast. It is reported that while the caribou are swimming the river the Indians each year kill great numbers of them, drying the flesh for winter provisions and using the skins to make clothing and wigwam-covering. Hubbard wished not only to get a good story of the yearly slaughter, but to spend some little time studying the habits of the Indians, who are the most primitive on the North American continent.

Strange as it may seem to some, the temperature in the interior of Labrador in midsummer sometimes rises as high as 90 degrees or more, although at sunset it almost invariably drops to near the freezing point and frost is liable at any time. But the summer, of course, is very short. It may be said to begin early in July, by which time the snow and ice are all gone, and to end late in August. There is just a hint of spring and autumn. Winter glides into summer, and summer into winter, almost imperceptibly, and the winter is the bitter winter of the Arctic.

If the season were not too far advanced when he finished studying the Indians, Hubbard expected to cross the country to the St. Lawrence and civilisation; otherwise to retrace his steps over his upward trail. In the event of our failure to discover the Indian encampment, and our finding ourselves on the George short of provisions, Hubbard planned to run down the swift-flowing river in our canoe to the George River Post at its mouth, and there procure passage on some fishing vessel for Newfoundland; or, if that were impossible, to outfit for winter, and when the ice formed and the snow came, return overland with dogs.

Hubbard knew that by ascending the Grand River he would be taking a surer, if longer, route to Lake Michikamau; but it was a part of his project to explore the unknown country along the river mapped as the Northwest. I have called this country unknown. It is true that in the winter of 1838 John McLean, then the agent of the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Chimo, a post situated on the Koksoak River about twenty miles above its mouth, passed through a portion of this country in the course of a journey he made with dogs from his post to Northwest River Post. His route was up the Koksoak and across country to the northern end of Lake Michikamau, which he followed for some little distance. After leaving the lake he again travelled eastward across country until at length he came upon the "Northwest" or Nascaupee River at a point probably not far above Grand Lake, from which it was easy travelling over the ice to the post. The record left by him of the journey, however, is very incomplete, and the exact route he took is by no means certain.

Whatever route it was, he returned over it the same winter to Fort Chimo. His sufferings during this trip were extreme. He and his party had to eat their dogs to save themselves from starvation, and even then they would surely all have perished had it not been for an Indian who left the party fifty miles out of Chimo and fortunately had strength enough to reach the post and send back relief. Later McLean made several summer trips with a canoe up the George River from Ungava Bay and down the Grand River to Hamilton Inlet; but never again did he attempt to penetrate the country lying between Lake Michikamau and Hamilton Inlet to the north of Grand River. The fact was that he found his Grand River trips bad enough; the record he has left of them is a story of a continuous struggle against heartbreaking hardships and of narrow escapes from starvation.

It is asserted that a priest once crossed with the Indians from Northwest River Post to Ungava Bay by the Nascaupee route; but the result of my inquiries in Labrador convinced me that the priest in question travelled by way of the Grand River, making it certain that previous to Hubbard's expedition no white man other than McLean had ever crossed the wilderness between Hamilton Inlet and Lake Michikamau by any route other than the aforesaid Grand River. As has been pointed out, McLean made but a very incomplete record of his journey that took him through the country north of the Grand River, so that Hubbard's project called for his plunge into a region where no footsteps would be found to guide him. Not only this, but the George River country, which it was his ultimate purpose to reach, was, and still remains, terra incognita; for although McLean made several trips up and down this river, he neither mapped it nor left any definite descriptions concerning it.

Here, then, was an enterprise fully worthy of an ambitious and venturesome spirit like Hubbard. Here was a great, unknown wilderness into which even the half-breed native trappers who lived on its outskirts were afraid to penetrate, knowing that the wandering bands of Indians who occasionally traversed its fastnesses themselves frequently starved to death in that inhospitable, barren country. There was danger to be faced and good "copy" to be obtained.

And so it was ho for the land of "bared boughs and grieving winds"!

To be continued.