Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Lure of the Labrador Wild, excerpt #9

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.

In an hour we were in sight of Rigolet, and I saw a Hudson's Bay Company Post for the first time in my life. As our steamer approached, a flag was run up in salute to the top of a tall staff, and when it had been caught by the breeze, the Company's initials, H. B. C., were revealed. The Company's agents say these letters have another significance, namely, "Here Before Christ," for the flag travels ahead of the missionaries.

The reservation of Rigolet is situated upon a projection of land, with a little bay on one side and the channel into which Hamilton Inlet narrows at this point on the other. Long rows of whitewashed buildings, some of frame and some of log, extend along the water front, coming together at the point of the projection so as to form two sides of an irregular triangle. A little back of the row on the bay side, and upon slightly higher ground, stands the residence of the agent, or factor as he is officially called, this building being two stories high and otherwise the most pretentious of the group. It is commonly called the "Big House," and near it is the tall flagstaff. Between the rows of buildings and the shore is a broad board walk, which leads down near the apex of the triangle to a small wharf of logs. It was at this wharf that our little party landed.

Hubbard presented his letter of introduction from Commissioner Chipman of the Hudson's Bay Company to Mr. James Fraser, the factor, and we received a most cordial welcome, being made at home at the Big House. We found the surroundings and people unique and interesting. There were lumbermen, trappers, and fishermen--a motley gathering of Newfoundlanders, Nova Scotians, Eskimos and "breeds," the latter being a comprehensive name for persons whose origin is a mixture in various combinations and proportions of Eskimo, Indian, and European. All were friendly and talkative, and hungry for news of the outside world.

Lying around everywhere, or skulking about the reservation, were big Eskimo dogs that looked for all the world like wolves in subjection. We were warned not to attempt to play with them, as
they were extremely treacherous. Only a few days before a little Eskimo boy who stumbled and fell was set upon by a pack and all but killed before the brutes were driven off. The night we arrived at Rigolet the pack killed one of their own number and ate him, only a little piece of fur remaining in the morning to tell the tale.

Within an hour after we reached the post, Dr. Simpson arrived on the Julia Sheridan; but as he had neglected to bring the mail for Northwest River Post that the Virginia Lake had left at Indian Harbour, he had to return at once. Dr. Simpson not being permitted by his principles to run his boat on Sunday, unless in a case of great necessity, we were told not to expect the Julia Sheridan back from Indian Harbour until Monday noon; and so we were compelled to possess our souls in patience and enjoy the hospitality of Mr. Fraser. I must confess that while I was anxious to get on, I was at the same time not so greatly disappointed at our enforced delay; it gave me an opportunity to see something of the novel life of the post.

While at Rigolet we of course tried to get all the information possible about the country to which we were going. No Indians had been to the post for months, and the white men and Eskimos knew absolutely nothing about it. At length Hubbard was referred to "Skipper" Tom Blake, a breed, who had trapped at the upper or western end of Grand Lake. From Blake he learned that Grand Lake was forty miles long, and that canoe travel on it was good to its upper end, where the Nascaupee River flowed into it. Blake believed we could paddle up the Nascaupee some eighteen or twenty miles, where we should find the Red River, a wide, shallow, rapid stream that flowed into the Nascaupee from the south. Above this point he had no personal knowledge of the country, and advised us to see his son Donald, whom he expected to arrive that day from his trapping grounds on Seal Lake. Donald, he said, had been farther inland and knew more about the country than anyone else on the coast.

Donald did arrive a little later, and upon questioning him Hubbard learned that Seal Lake, which, he said, was an expansion of the Nascaupee River, had been the limit of his travels inland. Donald reiterated what his father had told us of Grand Lake and the lower waters of the Nascaupee, adding that for many miles above the point where the Nascaupee was joined by the Red we should find canoe travel impossible, as the Nascaupee "tumbled right down off the mountains." Up the Nascaupee as far as the Red River he had sailed his boat. He had heard from the Indians that the Nascaupee came from Lake Michikamau, and he believed it to be a fact. This convinced us that the Nascaupee was the river A. P. Low, of the Geological Survey, had mapped as the Northwest. The Red River Donald had crossed in winter some twenty miles above its mouth, and while it was wide, it was so shallow and swift that he was sure it would not admit of canoeing. He could not tell its source, and was sure the Indians had never travelled on it. In answer to Hubbard's inquiries as to the probability of our getting fish and game, Donald said there were bears along the Nascaupee, but few other animals. He had never fished the waters above Grand Lake, but believed plenty of fish were there. On Seal Lake there was a "chance" seal, and he had taken an occasional shot at them, but they were very wild and he had never been able to kill any.

Strange as it may seem, none of the men with whom we talked mentioned that more than one river flowed into Grand Lake, although they unquestionably knew that such was the case. Their silence about this important particular was probably due to the fact, that while the Labrador people are friendly to strangers, they are somewhat shy and rarely volunteer information, contenting themselves, for the most part, with simple answers to direct questions. Furthermore, they are seldom able to adopt a point of view different from their own, and thus are unable to realise the amount of guidance a stranger in their country needs. In fact I discovered later that Skipper Blake and his son, who have spent all their lives in the vicinity of Hamilton Inlet, never dreamed anyone could miss the mouth of the Nascaupee River, as they themselves knew so well how to find it.

To be continued.