III. ON THE EDGE OF THE WILDERNESS
The island of the White Bear group upon which is situated the
settlement of Indian Harbour is rocky and barren. The settlement
consists of a trader's hut and a few fishermen's huts built of frame
plastered over with earth or moss, and the buildings of the Royal
National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, a non-sectarian institution
that maintains two stations on the Labrador coast and one at St.
Anthony in Newfoundland, each with a hospital attached. The work of the
mission is under the general supervision of Dr. Wilfred T. Grenfell,
who, in summer, patrols the coast from Newfoundland to Cape Chidley in
the little floating hospital, the steamer Strathcona, and during the
winter months, by dog team, visits the people of these inhospitable
shores. The main station in Labrador is at Battle Harbour, and at this
time Dr. Cluny Macpherson was the resident physician.
Dr. Simpson, a young English physician and lay missionary, was in
charge of the station at Indian Harbour. This station, being
maintained primarily for the benefit of the summer fishermen from
Newfoundland, is closed from October until July. Dr. Simpson had a
little steamer, the Julia Sheridan, which carried him on his visits to
his patients among the coast folk. We were told by the captain of the
Virginia Lake that the Julia Sheridan would arrive at Indian Harbour on
the afternoon of the day we reached there; that she would immediately
steam to Rigolet and Northwest River with the mails, and that we
undoubtedly could arrange for a passage on her. This was the reason
that Hubbard elected to get off at Indian Harbour.
The trained nurse, the cook, and the maid-of-all-work connected with
the Indian Harbour hospital ("sisters," they call them, although they
do not belong to any order) boarded the Virginia Lake at Battle Harbour
and went ashore with me in the ship's boat, when I landed with the
baggage. Hubbard and George went ashore in our canoe. A line of
Newfoundlanders and "livyeres" stood ready to greet us upon our
arrival. "Livyeres" is a contraction of live-heres, and is applied to
the people who live permanently on the coast. The coast people who
occasionally trade in a small way are known as "planters." In Hamilton
Inlet, west of Rigolet, all of the trappers and fishermen are called
planters. There the word livyere is never heard, it having originated
with with the Newfoundland fishermen, who do not go far into the inlet.
The "sisters" who landed with us had difficulty in opening their
hospital, as the locks had become so rusted and corroded that the keys
would not turn. We offered our assistance, and after removing the
boards that had been nailed over the windows to protect them from the
winter storms, we found it necessary to take out a pane of glass in
order that Hubbard might unlatch a window, crawl through and take the
lock off the door. The sisters then told us that Dr. Simpson might not
arrive with the Julia Sheridan until the following day, and extended to
us the hospitality of the station, which we thankfully accepted, taking
up our temporary abode in one of the vacant wards of the hospital.
Our first afternoon on Labrador soil we spent in assorting and packing
our outfit, while the Newfoundlanders and livyeres stood around and
admired our things, particularly the canoe, guns, and sheath-knives.
Their curiosity was insatiable; they inquired the cost of every
The next afternoon (Wednesday) Dr. Simpson arrived on his steamer, and,
to our great disappointment, we learned that the Julia would not start
on the trip down the inlet until after the return of the Virginia Lake
from the north, which would probably be on Friday or Saturday. The
Labrador summer being woefully short, Hubbard felt that every hour was
precious, and he chafed under our enforced detention. We were
necessarily going into the interior wholly unprepared for winter
travel, and hence must complete our work and make our way out of the
wilderness before the rivers and lakes froze and canoe travel became
impossible. Hubbard felt the responsibility he had assumed, and could
imagine the difficulties that awaited us should his plans miscarry.
Accordingly, he began to look around immediately among the fishermen
and livyeres for someone with a small boat willing to take us down the
fifty miles to Rigolet. Finally, after much persuasion and an offer of
fifteen dollars, he induced a young livyere, Steve Newell by name, to
undertake the task.
Steve was a characteristic livyere, shiftless and ambitionless. He
lived a few miles down the inlet with his widowed mother and his
younger brothers and sisters. For a week he would work hard and
conscientiously to support the family, and then take a month's rest.
We had happened upon him in one of his resting periods, but as soon as
Hubbard had pinned him down to an agreement he put in an immediate plea
"I'se huntin' grub, sir," he begged. "I has t' hunt grub all th' time,
sir. Could 'un spare a dollar t' buy grub, sir?"
Hubbard gave him the dollar, and he forthwith proceeded to the trader's
hut to purchase flour and molasses, which, with fat salt pork, are the
great staples of the Labrador natives, although the coast livyeres
seldom can afford the latter dainty. While we were preparing to start,
Hubbard asked Steve what he generally did for a living.
"I hunts in winter an' fishes in summer, sir," was the reply.
"What do you hunt?
"Fur an' partridges, sir. I trades the fur for flour and molasses,
sir, an' us eats th' partridges."
"What kind of fur do you find here?"
"Foxes is about all, sir, an' them's scarce; only a chance one, sir."
"Do you catch enough fur to keep you in flour and molasses?"
"Not always, sir. Sometimes us has only partridges t' eat, sir."
We started at five o'clock in the evening in Steve's boat, the
Mayflower, a leaky little craft that kept one man pretty busy bailing
out the water. She carried one ragged sail, and Steve sculled and
steered with a rough oar about eighteen feet long. An hour after we
got under way a blanket of grey fog, thick and damp, enveloped us; but
so long are the Labrador summer days that there still was light to
guide us when at eleven o'clock Steve said:
"Us better land yere, sir. I lives yere, an' 'tis a good spot t' stop
for th' night, sir."
I wondered what sort of an establishment Steve maintained, and drawing
an inference from his personal appearance, I had misgivings as to its
cleanliness. However, anything seemed better than chilling fog, and
land we did—in a shallow cove where we bumped over a partly submerged
rock and manoeuvred with difficulty among others, that raised their
heads ominously above the water. As we approached, we made out through
the fog the dim outlines, close to the shore, of a hut partially
covered with sod. Our welcome was tumultuous—a combination of the
barking of dogs and the shrill screams of women demanding to know who
we were and what we wanted. There were two women, tall, scrawny, brown,
with hair flying at random. The younger one had a baby in her arms.
She was Steve's married sister. The other woman was his mother. Each
was loosely clad in a dirty calico gown. Behind them clustered a group
of dirty, half-clad children.
Steve ushered us into the hut, which proved to have two rooms, the
larger about eight by ten feet. The roof was so low that none of us
could stand erect except in the centre, where it came to a peak. In the
outer room were two rough wooden benches, and on a rickety table a
dirty kerosene lamp without a chimney shed gloom rather than light. An
old stove, the sides of which were bolstered up with rocks, filled the
hut with smoke to the point of suffocation when a fire was started.
The floor and everything else in the room were innocent of soap and
George made coffee, which he passed around with hardtack to everybody.
Then all but Steve and our party retired to the inner room, one of the
women standing a loose door against the aperture. Steve curled up in an
old quilt on one of the benches, while Hubbard, George and I spread a
tarpaulin on the floor and rolled in our blankets upon it.
We were up betimes the next morning after a fair night's sleep on the
floor. We again served hardtack and coffee to all, and at five o'clock
were once more on our way. A thick mantle of mist obscured the shore,
and Hubbard offered Steve a chart and compass. "Ain't got no learnin',
sir; I can't read, sir," said the young livyere. So Hubbard directed
the course in the mist while Steve steered. Later in the day the wind
freshened and blew the mist away, and at length developed into a gale.
Finally the sea rose so high that Steve thought it well to seek the
protection of a harbour, and we landed in a sheltered cove on one of
the numerous islands that strew Hamilton Inlet, where we then were—Big
Black Island, it is called.
George had arisen that morning with a lame back, and when we reached
the island he could scarcely move. The place was so barren of timber
we could not find a stick long enough to act as a centre pole for our
tent, and it was useless to try to pitch it. However, the moss, being
thick and soft, made a comfortable bed, and after we had put a mustard
plaster on George's back to relieve his lumbago, we rolled him in two
of our blankets under the lee of a bush and let him sleep. Then, as
evening came on, Hubbard and I started for a stroll along the shore.
The sun was still high in the heavens, and the temperature mildly cool.
A walk of a mile or so brought us to the cabin of one Joe Lloyd, a
livyere. Lloyd proved to be an intelligent old Englishman who had gone
to Labrador as a sailor lad on a fishing schooner to serve a
three-years' apprenticeship. He did not go home with his ship, and
year after year postponed his return, until at last he married an
Eskimo and bound himself fast to the cold rocks of Labrador, where he
will spend the remainder of his life, eking out a miserable existence,
a lonely exile from his native England.
After he had greeted us, Lloyd asked: "Is all the world at peace, sir?"
He had heard of the Boer war, and was pleased when we told him that it
had ended in a victory for the British arms. His hunger for news
touched us deeply, and we told him all that we could recall of recent
affairs of public interest. I have said that his hunger for news
touched us. As a matter of fact, few things have impressed me as being
more pathetic than that old man's life up there on that isolated and
desolate island, where he spends most of his time wistfully longing to
hear something of the great world, and painfully recalling the pleasant
memories of his childhood's home and friends, and the green fields and
spring blossoms he never will know again. And Lloyd's story is the
story of perhaps the majority of the settlers on The Labrador.
The old man had a fresh-caught salmon, and we bought it from him. We
then sat for a few minutes in his cabin. This was a miserable affair,
not exceeding eight by ten feet, and, like Steve's home, so low we
could not stand erect in it. The floor was paved with large, flat
stones, and the only vent for the smoke from the wretched fireplace was
a hole in the roof. Midway between the fire and the hole hung a trout
drying. In this room Lloyd and his Eskimo wife live out their life.
During our visit the wife sat there without uttering a word. Her
silence was characteristic; for, somewhat unlike our women, the women
of Labrador talk but little.
When we had bidden Lloyd farewell, we carried the salmon we had
obtained from him back to camp, where Hubbard tried to plank it on a
bit of wreckage picked up on the shore. It fell into the fire, and
there was great excitement until, by our united efforts, we had rescued
it, and had seen part of it safely reposing in the frying pan, while
Steve set to work boiling the remainder in our kettle with slices of
bacon. As the gale continued to blow, it was decided that we should
remain in camp until early morning. Hubbard directed Steve to pull the
boat around to a place where it would be near the water at low tide.
He and I then threw down the tent, lay on it, pulled a blanket over us
and prepared for sleep. It was about eleven o'clock, and darkness was
just beginning to fall. Out in the bay a whale was blowing, and in the
distance big gulls were screaming. It was our first night out in the
open in Labrador, and all was new and entrancing; and as slumber
gradually enwrapped us, it seemed to us that we had fallen upon
At one o'clock (Friday morning) we awoke. By the light of the
brilliant moon we made coffee, called George and Steve and ate our
breakfast of cold salmon and hardtack. George's lumbago was very bad,
and he was unable to do any work. The rest of us portaged the outfit
two hundred yards to the boat, which, owing to Steve's miscalculations
as to the tide, we found high and dry on the rocks. Working in the
shallow water, with a cloud of mosquitoes around our heads, it took us
until 4.30 o'clock to launch her, by which time daylight long since had
Once more afloat, we found that the wind had entirely died away, and
Steve's sculling pushed the boat along but slowly. Grampuses raised
their big backs everywhere, and seals, upon which they prey, were
numerous. The water was alive with schools of caplin. At eleven
o'clock we made Pompey Island, a mossy island of Laurentian rock about
thirty-five miles from Indian Harbour. Here we stopped for luncheon,
and after much looking around, succeeded in finding enough sticks to
build a little fire. I made flapjacks, and Hubbard melted sugar for
While we were eating, I discovered in the far distance the smoke of a
steamer. We supposed it to be the Julia Sheridan. Rushing our things
into the boat, we put off as quickly as possible to intercept her. We
fired three or four shots from our rifle, but got only a salute in
recognition. Then Hubbard and I scramble into the canoe, which we had
in tow, and began to paddle with might and main to head her off. As we
neared her, we fired again. At that she came about—it was the
Virginia Lake. They took us on board, bag, baggage, and canoe, and
Steve was dismissed.
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
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.
We were sitting in the office of the post on Sunday, comfortably away
from the fog that lay thick outside, when we were startled by a
steamship whistle. Out we all ran, and there, in the act of dropping
her anchor, was the Pelican, the company's ship from England. In the
heavy fog she had stolen in and whistled before the flag was raised,
which feat Captain Grey, who commands the Pelican, regarded as a great
joke on the post. Once a year the Pelican arrives from England, and
the day of her appearance is the Big Day for all the Labrador posts, as
she brings the year's supplies together with boxes and letters from
home for the agents and the clerks. From Rigolet she goes to Ungava,
then returns to Rigolet for the furs there and once more steams for
We found Captain Grey to be a jolly, cranky old seadog of the old
school. He has been with the Hudson's Bay Company for thirty years,
and has sailed the northern seas for fifty. He shook his head
pessimistically when he heard about our expedition. "You'll never get
back," he said. "But if you happen to be at Ungava when I get there,
I'll bring you back." "Sandy" Calder, the owner of lumber mills on
Sandwich Bay and the Grand River, who came from Cartwright Post on
Sandwich Bay with Captain Grey on the Pelican, also predicted the
failure of our enterprise. But Hubbard said to me that he had heard
such prophecies before; that they made the work seem all the bigger,
and that he could do it and would.
At noon on Monday Dr. Simpson came with the Julia Sheridan, and we said
good-bye to Rigolet. The voyage down the inlet to Northwest River Post
was without incident, except that the good doctor was much concerned as
to the outcome of our venture, saying: "Don't leave your bones up there
to whiten, boys, if you can possibly help it." We reached Northwest
River at two o'clock on Tuesday afternoon, and found the post to be
much the same as Rigolet, except that its whitewashed buildings were
all strung out in one long row. The welcome we received from Mr.
Thomas Mackenzie, the agent there in charge, was most gratifying in its
heartiness. Mr. Mackenzie is a bachelor, tall, lean, high-spirited,
and the soul hospitality. Hubbard promptly dubbed him a "bully
fellow." Probably this was partly due to the fact that he was the first
man in Labrador to give us any encouragement. We had not been there an
hour when he became infected with Hubbard's enthusiasm and said he
would pack up that night and be ready to start with us in the morning,
if he only were free to do so.
To our great disappointment and chagrin, we found that Mackenzie had no
fish nets to sell. We had been unable to obtain any at Rigolet, and
now we were told that none was to be had anywhere in that part of
Labrador. Hubbard realised fully the importance of a gill net as a
part of our equipment and had originally intended to purchase one
before leaving New York; but he was advised by Mr. A. P. Low of the
Canadian Geological Survey that it would be better to defer its
purchase until we reached Rigolet Post or Northwest River, where he
said we could get a net such as would be best adapted to the country.
Hubbard had no reason to doubt the accuracy of this information, as Mr.
Low had previously spent several months at these posts when engaged in
the work of mapping out the peninsula. Conditions, however, had
changed, unfortunately for us, since Mr. Low's visit to Labrador.
Seeing the quandary we were in, Mackenzie got out an old three-inch
gill net that had been lying in a corner of one of his buildings. He
said he was afraid it was worn out, but if we could make any use of it,
we might take it. We, too, had our doubts as to its utility; but, as
it was the best obtainable, Hubbard accepted it thankfully and
Mackenzie had two of his men unravel it and patch it up.
During the afternoon we got our outfit in shape, ready for the start in
the morning. Following is a summary of the outfit taken from an
inventory made at Indian Harbour: Our canoe was 18 feet long, canvas
covered, and weighed about 80 pounds. The tent was of the type known
as miner's, 6 1/2 x 7 feet, made of balloon silk and waterproofed. We
had three pairs of blankets and one single blanket; two tarpaulins;
five duck waterproof bags; one dozen small waterproof bags of balloon
silk for note books; two .45-70 Winchester rifles; two 10-inch barrel
.22-calibre pistols for shooting grouse and other small game; 200
rounds of .45-70 and 1,000 rounds of .22-calibre cartridges; 3 1/4 x 4
1/4 pocket folding kodak with Turner-Reich Verastigmat lens; thirty
rolls of films of one dozen exposures each, in tin cans, waterproofed
with electricians' tape; a sextant and artificial horizon; two
compasses and our cooking utensils and clothing.
At Indian Harbour we had four 45-pound sacks of flour, but Hubbard gave
one sack to the pilot of the Julia Sheridan, and out of another sack he
had given the cook on the Julia sufficient flour for one baking of
bread, and we had also used some of this bag on our way from Indian
Harbour to Rigolet. This left two 45-pound bags and about thirty
pounds in the third bag, or 120 pounds in all. There were, perhaps, 25
pounds of bacon, 13 pounds lard, 20 pounds flavoured pea meal, 9 pounds
plain pea flour in tins, 10 pounds tea, 5 pounds coffee, 8 pounds
hardtack, 10 pounds milk powder, 10 pounds rice, 8 pounds dried apples,
7 pounds salt, 7 or 8 pounds tobacco and 30 pounds sugar.
This outfit, it will be remembered, was designed for three men. Hubbard
tried to hire some of the native to accompany us a few miles into the
interior and carry additional provisions that we might cache, but
failed; they were all "too busy."
Mackenzie treated us royally during the evening we spent at his post,
and we enjoyed his hospitality to the utmost, knowing that it was to be
our last night under shelter for weeks to come. Now we were on the
very edge of the wilderness. To-morrow we should enter the unknown.