THE LURE OF THE LABRADOR WILD
I. THE OBJECT OF THE EXPEDITION
"How would you like to go to Labrador, Wallace?" It was a snowy night
in late November, 1901, that my friend, Leonidas Hubbard, Jr., asked me
this question. All day he and I had been tramping through the snow
among the Shawangunk Mountains in southern New York, and when the
shades of evening fell we had built a lean-to of boughs to shelter us
from the storm. Now that we had eaten our supper of bread and bacon,
washed down with tea, we lay before our roaring campfire, luxuriating
in its glow and warmth.
Hubbard's question was put to me so abruptly that it rather startled me.
"Labrador!" I exclaimed. "Now where in the world is Labrador?"
Of course I knew it was somewhere in the north-eastern part of the
continent; but so many years had passed since I laid away my old school
geography that its exact situation had escaped my memory, and the only
other knowledge I had retained of the country was a confused sense of
its being a sort of Arctic wilderness. Hubbard proceeded to enlighten
me, by tracing with his pencil, on the fly-leaf of his notebook, an
outline map of the peninsula.
"Very interesting," I commented. "But why do you wish to go there?"
"Man," he replied, "don't you realise it's about the only part of the
continent that hasn't been explored? As a matter of fact, there isn't
much more known of the interior of Labrador now than when Cabot
discovered the coast more than four hundred years ago." He jumped up to
throw more wood on the fire. "Think of it, Wallace!" he went on, "A
great unknown land right near home, as wild and primitive to-day as it
has always been! I want to see it. I want to get into a really wild
country and have some of the experiences of the old fellows who
explored and opened up the country where we are now."
Resuming his place by the blazing logs, Hubbard unfolded to me his
plan, then vague and in the rough, of exploring a part of the unknown
eastern end of the peninsula. Of trips such as this he had been
dreaming since childhood. When a mere boy on his father's farm in
Michigan, he had lain for hours out under the trees in the orchard
poring over a map of Canada and making imaginary journeys into the
unexplored. Boone and Crockett were his heroes, and sometimes he was
so affected by the tales of their adventures that he must needs himself
steal away to the woods and camp out for two or three days.
It was at this period that he resolved to head some day an exploring
expedition of his own, and this resolution he forgot neither while a
student nor while serving as a newspaper man in Detroit and New York.
At length, through a connection he made with a magazine devoted to
out-of-door life, he was able to make several long trips into the wild.
Among other places, he visited the Hudson Bay region, and once
penetrated to the winter hunting ground of the Mountaineer Indians,
north of Lake St. John, in southern Labrador. These trips, however,
failed to satisfy him; his ambition was to reach a region where no
white man had preceded him. Now, at the age of twenty-nine, he believed
that his ambition was about to be realised.
"It's always the way, Wallace," he said; "when a fellow starts on a
long trail, he's never willing to quit. It'll be the same with you if
you go with me to Labrador. You'll say each trip will be the last, but
when you come home you'll hear the voice of the wilderness calling you
to return, and it will lure you away again and again. I thought my
Lake St. John trip was something, but while there I stood at the
portals of the unknown, and it brought back stronger than ever the old
longing to make discoveries, so that now the walls of the city seem to
me a prison and I simply must get away."
My friend's enthusiasm was contagious. It had never previously
occurred to me to undertake the game of exploration; but, like most
American boys, I had had youthful dreams of going into a great wild
country, even as my forefathers had gone, and Hubbard's talk brought
back the old juvenile love of adventure. That night before we lay down
to sleep I said: "Hubbard, I'll go with you." And so the thing was
settled—that was how Hubbard's expedition had its birth.
More than a year passed, however, before Hubbard was able to make
definite arrangements to get away. I believe it was in February, 1903,
that the telephone bell in my law office rang, and Hubbard's voice at
the other end of the wire conveyed to me the information that he had
"Is that so?" I said. "What's up?
"The Labrador trip is all fixed for this summer," was the excited
reply. "Come out to Congers to-night without fail, and we'll talk it
In accordance with his invitation, I went out that evening to visit my
friend in his suburban home. I shall never forget the exuberance of
his joy. You would have thought he was a boy about to be released from
school. By this time he had become the associate editor of the
magazine for which he had been writing, but he had finally been able to
induce his employers to consent to the project upon which he had set
his heart and grant him a leave of absence.
"It will be a big thing, Wallace," he said in closing; "it ought to
make my reputation."
Into the project of penetrating the vast solitudes of desolate
Labrador, over which still brooded the fascinating twilight of the
mysterious unknown, Hubbard, with characteristic zeal, threw his whole
heart and soul. Systematically and thoroughly he went about planning,
in the minutest detail, our outfit and entire journey. Every possible
contingency received the most careful consideration.
In order to make plain just what he hoped to accomplish and the
conditions against which he had to provide, the reader's patience is
asked for a few minutes while something is told of what was known of
Labrador at the time Hubbard was making preparations for his expedition.
The interior of the peninsula of Labrador is a rolling plateau, the
land rising more or less abruptly from the coast to a height of two
thousand or more feet above the level of the sea. Scattered over this
plateau are numerous lakes and marshes. The rivers and streams
discharging the waters of the lakes into the sea flow to the four
points of the compass—into the Atlantic and its inlets on the east,
into Ungava Bay on the north, Hudson Bay and James Bay on the west, and
the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the south. Owing to the abrupt rise of the
land from the coast these rivers and streams are very swift and are
filled with a constant succession of falls and rapids; consequently,
their navigation in canoes—the only possible way, generally speaking,
to navigate them—is most difficult and dangerous. In this, to a large
extent, lies the explanation as to why only a few daring white men have
ever penetrated to the interior plateau; the condition of the rivers,
if nothing else, makes it impossible to transport sufficient food to
sustain a party for any considerable period, and it is absolutely
necessary to run the risk of obtaining supplies from a country that may
be plentiful with game one year and destitute of it the next, and in
which the vegetation is the scantiest.
The western part of the peninsula, although it, too, contains vast
tracts in which no white man has set foot, is somewhat better known
than the eastern, most of the rivers that flow into Hudson and James
Bays having been explored and correctly mapped. Hubbard's objective
was the eastern and northern part of the peninsula, and it is with this
section that we shall hereafter deal. Such parts of this territory as
might be called settled lie in the region of Hamilton Inlet and along
Hamilton Inlet is an arm of the Atlantic extending inland about one
hundred and fifty miles in a southwesterly direction. At its entrance,
which is two hundred miles north of Cape Charles, the inlet is some
forty miles wide. Fifty miles inland from the settlement of Indian
Harbour (which is situated on one of the White Bear Islands, near the
north coast of the inlet at its entrance), is the Rigolet Post of the
Hudson's Bay Company—the "Old Company," as its agents love to call
it—and here the inlet narrows down to a mere channel; but during the
next eighty miles of its course inland it again widens, this section of
it being known as Groswater Bay or Lake Melville.
The extreme western end of the inlet is called Goose Bay. Into this
bay flows the Grand or Hamilton River, one of the largest in Labrador.
From its source among the lakes on the interior plateau, the Grand
River first sweeps down in a southeasterly direction and then bends
northeasterly to reach the end of Hamilton Inlet. The tributaries of
the lakes forming the headwaters of the Grand River connect it
indirectly with Lake Michikamau (Big Water). This, the largest lake in
eastern Labrador, is between eighty and ninety miles in length, with a
width varying from six to twenty-five miles.
The Grand River, as well as a portion of Lake Michikamau, some years
ago was explored and correctly mapped; but the other rivers that flow
to the eastward have either been mapped only from hearsay or not at
all. Of the several rivers flowing into Ungava Bay, the Koksoak alone
has been explored. This river, which is the largest of those flowing
north, rises in lakes to the westward of Lake Michikamau. Next to the
Koksoak, the George is the best known of the rivers emptying into
Ungava Bay, as well as the second largest; but while it has been
learned that its source is among the lakes to the northward of
Michikamau, it has been mapped only from hearsay.
Now if the reader will turn to the accompanying map of Labrador made by
Mr. A. P. Low of the Canadian Geological Survey, he will see that the
body of water known as Grand Lake is represented thereon merely as the
widening out of a large river, called the Northwest, which flows from
Lake Michikamau to Groswater Bay or Hamilton Inlet, after being joined
about twenty miles above Grand Lake by a river called the Nascaupee.
Relying upon this map, Hubbard planned to reach early in the summer the
Northwest River Post of the Hudson's Bay Company, which is situated at
the mouth of the Northwest River, ascend the river to Lake Michikamau,
and then, from the northern end of that lake, beat across the country
to the George River.
The Geological Survey map is the best of Labrador extant, but its
representation as to the Northwest River (made from hearsay) proved to
be wholly incorrect, and the mistake it led us into cost us dear.
After the rescue, I thoroughly explored Grand Lake, and, as will be
seen from my map, I discovered that no less than five rivers flow into
it, which are known to the natives as the Nascaupee, the Beaver, the
Susan, the Crooked, and the Cape Corbeau. The Nascaupee is the
largest, and as the inquiries I made among the Indians satisfied me
that it is the outlet of Lake Michikamau, it is undoubtedly the river
that figures on the Geological Survey map as the Northwest, while as
for the river called on the map the Nascaupee, it is in all likelihood
non-existent. There is a stream known to the natives as Northwest
River, but it is merely the strait, one hundred yards wide and three
hundred yards long, which, as shown on my map, connects Groswater Bay
with what the natives call the Little Lake, this being the small body
of water that lies at the lower end of Grand Lake, the waters of which
it receives through a rapid.
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
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
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
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"!