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Lure of the Labrador Wild, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap23"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> XXIII. OVER THE ICE </H3> <P> With the body at the post, it was my intention to hire dog teams, and, accompanied by George, start with it at once for home, travelling up Hamilton Inlet to the ocean, and then down along the coast to Battle Harbour, or some port farther south, where we might happen on a ship that would take us away from the land where we had suffered so much. More than three weeks elapsed, however, before we could get away from the Northwest River. It was about 325 miles over the ice to Battle Harbour, and Mackenzie and the others continued to argue against the feasibility of my plan. For a time it did seem as if it would be impossible to carry it out. First of all, I had trouble with Hubbard's coffin. When we received the body, the plain spruce box that had been made for it was found not to be deep enough. I sent over a request to James Greenan, the carpenter at Kenemish, that another one be made as speedily as possible. He replied that the last board they had on hand had been used in making a coffin for poor Dr. Hardy, but said that if I would return to him the coffin we had, he believed he could raise the sides to the requisite height. Mackenzie immediately despatched Mark with the dogs and komatik to carry the coffin to Kenemish, and on April 4th it was returned with the necessary alterations. The body meanwhile had lain wrapped in the blankets and tarpaulin in a storehouse where the temperature practically was as low as it was out of doors. Now we placed it in the box with salt as a preservative, and everything was ready for our long journey. </P> <P> Then arose the question as to where I could get dogs. Two teams were needed, one for the body and one for our baggage. Not a dog owner could I find who would undertake the task. I sent imploring messages for twenty-five miles around, but all to no purpose. They would not even undertake the ninety-mile journey to Rigolet. Some, I knew, did not like the idea of travelling with a corpse, and others, like Tom Blake, did not have enough dogs to haul our loads. In despair I went to Monsieur Duclos on April 19th and urged him to lend me his team to take us as far as Rigolet, telling him that Mackenzie was willing to let us have his team for the trip to Rigolet, but that another was needed. The French post dogs had just returned from a long journey, and Monsieur Duclos said they were not fit for travel, but finally, to my great joy, he very kindly consented to let me have them, with Belfleur, a French-Indian, as driver, after they had a couple of days' rest. </P> <P> It was Mackenzie's custom to make an annual trip to Rigolet on post business, and this usually took place in May; but he expedited his arrangements so as to be able to leave with us and thus save his dogs an additional journey. Belfleur arrived with his dogs early on the morning of April 21st. Unfortunately Fred Blake, Mackenzie's driver, was not on hand, but it was decided that Belfleur should go ahead with George and the coffin, and that Mackenzie and I should follow with the baggage the next morning. It was nine o'clock when the eight dogs that were to haul the two men and the coffin got under way. All the natives were sorry to see George go, his genial manners and cheerful grin having made him a prime favourite. Mackenzie's little housekeeper and Mark Blake's wife, who had been George's hostess, wept copiously. </P> <P> Mackenzie, Fred Blake, and I got off at six o'clock the next morning. Our seven big dogs were howling and straining on the long traces as I said good-bye to all the good friends that had been so kind to me and had gathered to see me leave. It took us until evening of the following day to reach Rigolet. The Eskimo dogs almost invariably leave a house and arrive at one with a great flourish, but between times they settle down to a gentle pace and have to be urged on with exclamations and much snapping of the whip. Ours were much better travellers than those belonging to the French post, and, despite the fact that they had a heavier load to haul and were one less in number, we overtook George and Belfleur on the afternoon of the second day. A part of the time Mackenzie and Fred ran beside the komatik on their snowshoes to get warm, but my knees were still so weak that I had to stick to the komatik all the way. We spent the night at the log cabin of a breed, and before noon the next day came to the cabin of one Bell Shepard, where we learned George and Belfleur had spent their second night. </P> <P> It is considered a gross beach of etiquette on The Labrador to pass a man's house without stopping for bread and tea, and so we had to turn in to see Bell. As he served us with refreshment, he gave us a startling bit of news, to wit: that there was a great war raging in the outside world, with Great Britain, the United States, and Japan on one side, and Russia, France, and Germany on the other. </P> <P> "I's sure 'tis true, sir," he insisted, upon observing that Mackenzie and I appeared incredulous. "I's just come frum Rigolet, an' Scott, th' trader, had th' word by th' telegraph to Chateau. So 'tis sure true, sir, an' 'tis bad word for us poor folk on Th' Labrador, with th' prices to go up, as they tells me they sure will, on flour an' pork." </P> <P> We found out later that such a report had really spread up the coast from dog driver to dog driver until it had reached Rigolet, and it was not until I got to Battle Harbour that I learned that its basis was the beginning of the conflict between Russia and Japan. </P> <P> At Rigolet we were again hospitably received by Fraser, the factor. The news of Hubbard's death had preceded us; in fact it had been carried up and down the coast all the way from Cape Charles to Cape Chidley. Awaiting me was a letter from Dr. Cluny Macpherson, of the Deep Sea Mission at Battle Harbour, who, I was informed, had recently been to Rigolet and had hoped to see me. The letter proved to contain much valuable information as to stopping places and the probabilities of getting dogs between Rigolet and Battle Harbour, as well as the good news that a steamer was expected at Battle Harbour early in May. </P> <P> I also learned from Fraser that Mr. Whitney, editor of Outing magazine, of which Hubbard had been the associate editor, had sent a message to the telegraph operator at Chateau Bay requesting him to lend me every assistance possible and "to spare no expense." Well-meant though the message was, it had the effect of increasing my difficulties. Duly exaggerated and embellished, it had spread up the coast until every dog owner gained the impression that a little gold mine was about to pass through his country. I found this out when I tried to get dog teams to carry me to Cartwright Post, the next stage on my journey. A haughty person named Jerry Flowers, it appeared, had a monopoly just then of the dog-team business in the vicinity of Rigolet, and when we arrived at the post he proceeded to deal with me in the high-handed manner common to trust magnates. The regular rate paid by traders for transportation over the eighty odd miles between Rigolet and Cartwright was from ten to twelve dollars a team, but for the two teams I needed Jerry expected me to pay him sixty dollars. </P> <P> While I was still arguing with the immovable Jerry, John Williams, an old livyere, fortunately arrived from West Bay, which is half way to Cartwright, and Fraser used his influence with John to such good purpose that he consented to take us with his dog team at least as far as his home at the regular rate. John had only six dogs, but he told us we should be able to get an additional team at William Mugford's two miles beyond Rigolet. </P> <P> The strait at Rigolet was open, and when, late in the afternoon of Monday, April 25th, we bade Mackenzie and Fraser farewell, George and I, with our baggage and Hubbard's body, were taken across through the cakes of floating ice in one of the Company's big boats, manned by a crew of brawny post servants. </P> <P> On the other shore we loaded the baggage and coffin on John's komatik, and with him driving the dogs and George and I walking behind on snowshoes, we reached Mugford's at dusk. There we stopped for the night, being served with the meals that the people all down the coast usually eat at that time of the year&mdash;bread and molasses and tea. With one or two exceptions we had to sleep on the floor at the places where we stopped; for the houses generally contained only one room divided by a partition. Almost all of the houses had low extensions used as a storage place, and there Hubbard's body would rest over night. Never did we pay anything for our entertainment; poor as the people are, they would be greatly offended if a traveller they took in offered them money. </P> <P> Generally speaking, we had good weather for our long journey to Battle Harbour and pretty fair going. Day after day we followed the coast line south, crossing from neck of land to neck of land over the frozen bays and inlets. Sometimes we encountered ridges on the necks of land, and then we would have to help the dogs haul the loads to the top. Resuming our places on the komatiks, we would coast down the slopes, with the dogs racing madly ahead to keep from being run over. If the descent was very steep, a drag in the form of a hoop of braided walrus hide would be thrown over the front of one of the komatik runners, but even then the dogs would have to run their hardest to preserve a safe distance between them and us, and out on the smooth ice of the bays we would shoot, to skim along with exhilarating swiftness. As we proceeded south we were interested in observing signs of spring. Towards the end of our journey we encountered much soft snow and water-covered ice. </P> <P> Mugford agreed to help us out with his four dogs as far as West Bay. Arriving there, we found that only one team was procurable for the rest of the trip to Cartwright, so John Williams continued on with us all the way. Forty or fifty miles a day is about all that dogs can be expected to accomplish with average going, and we spent two days between Rigolet and Cartwright, reaching the Hudson's Bay Company Post at Sandwich Bay on the evening of Wednesday, April 27th, to receive kindly welcome from the agent, Mr. Swaffield. Again at Cartwright we had some difficulty in getting dogs, and it was not until Friday morning that we could push on. These delays were exasperating, for I was bent on catching the steamer that Dr. Macpherson informed me in his letter was due at Battle Harbour early in May. </P> <P> Our journey resumed, it was a case of fighting dog owners all the way. Seal Islands, about ninety miles farther down the coast, we reached on Saturday night, April 30th. There we had the good fortune to be entertained by a quaint character in the person of Skipper George Morris, a native trader. He had been expecting us, and he greeted me as if I had been his long-lost brother. </P> <P> "Dear eyes!" he exclaimed, wringing my hand in his bluff, cordial way; "Dear eyes! but I'se glad to see you&mdash;wonderful glad!" </P> <P> The skipper's house was far above the average of those on the coast. It had two floors with two rooms each, and his good wife kept everything clean and bright. Soon after our arrival the skipper got out for our edification two shotguns&mdash;one single, and the other double-barrelled&mdash;each of which was fully six feet long from butt to muzzle and had a bore of one and one-half inches. </P> <P> "Th' Boers ha' been fightin' England," said he, "an' I got un [the gun] t' fight, sir. Dear eyes! if th' Boers ha' come handy t' us, I thinks I could ha' kept un off, sir. I knows I could wi' them guns. I'd sure ha' shot through their schooners, sir, if un was big as th' mail boat an' steamers like th' mail boat. I'd ha' shot through un, sir, an' th' mail boat's a big un, sir, as you knows." </P> <P> The next day was May Day. I knew that at home the birds and the flowers had returned, and that in dear old New York gay parties of children were probably marching to the parks. What a May Day it was on The Labrador! The morning ushered in a heavy snow storm, with a tremendous gale. Thinking of the steamer due at Battle Harbour, I suggested that, despite the storm, we might make a start. But the skipper exclaimed: </P> <P> "Dear eyes! an' start in this gale! No, no, th' dogs could ne'er face un, sir." </P> <P> And as George and our drivers thought likewise, we spent the day resting with the old skipper and his wife, warmly housed and faring sumptuously on wild duck, while the storm outside seemed to shake the world to its very foundations. </P> <P> On May 2d the snow had almost ceased falling and the wind had somewhat subsided, when at eleven o'clock we parted from the quaint old skipper whose "Dear eyes!" continued to lend emphasis to his remarks up to the last that we saw of him. Rounding a point of land soon after leaving Seal Islands, we came suddenly upon two runaway dogs from a team that had been stormbound at Seal Islands like ourselves. The runaways were thoroughly startled by our sudden appearance, and took to their heels, with our teams, composed respectively of ten dogs and twelve dogs, after them. The ice we were on had been swept clear of snow by the wind, the hauling was easy, and our dogs almost flattened themselves out in their effort to get at the strangers and chew them up. The pace became terrific, but there was nothing to do but hold on tight and trust to luck. For perhaps five miles our wild ride lasted, and then, the strange dogs turning to the snow-covered land, our teams abandoned the race and condescended to pay some heed to their masters' excited observations. Fortunately the chase had carried us in the direction for which we were bound. </P> <P> Early in the afternoon we reached a cache of cod heads, and stopped while the dogs were fed one each. Poor brutes! they had had nothing to eat since Friday night&mdash;this was Monday&mdash;and I imagine a rather scant meal even then; for at this time of the year the stock of salt seal meat and fat and dried cod heads and caplin that the natives put up in the summer and fall for dog food is nearly exhausted, and what remains is used very economically. Often the dogs receive only one scanty meal every other day. Our drivers had intended to feed their teams at Seal Islands, but on account of the scarcity of dog food none could be purchased. </P> <P> At four o'clock in the afternoon we reached Norman Bay, where we found a miserable hut unoccupied save by an abundance of filth, two cats, and one hen. As there were no tracks visible in the snow, the people evidently had been away since the storm began on Saturday night. We built a fire in the stove, made tea and fed ourselves, the cats, and the hen from our grub bag. I invariably insisted that our drivers travel as long as there was light, which at this season lasted until after eight o'clock, and we pushed on until we came to Corbett's Bite, a place that also rejoices in the name of New York, the same having been facetiously bestowed upon it by some fisherman wag, because four small huts had been collected there to make a "city." </P> <P> The inhabitants of New York had all moved to their fishing quarters farther out on the coast when we arrived, and we took possession for the night of the best of the huts. Filth and slush lay an inch deep on the floor of the single room. A hole in the roof provided a means of escape for the smoke from the fire we built in an improvised fireplace, and, at the same time, a constant source of fear on our part lest some of the dogs which roamed at will over the roof, fall through it and into our fire. An old bench and loose boards taken from a semi-partition in the room served as beds for our party, and we passed a fairly comfortable night. </P> <P> We were off at daylight, and at half-past eight that morning (May 3d) reached Williams Harbour, where I had hoped to engage the teams of John and James Russell and proceed immediately to Battle Harbour, which place was now only a few miles off. But the Russells were away and did not return until night, so that we were unable to proceed until the following morning. With their teams of eight and six dogs the Russells got us away early, however, and at half-past eleven that morning (May 4th) we arrived at Fox Harbour, eight miles across the bay from Battle Harbour. Now a new problem presented itself, which was all the more exasperating for the reason that we were in sight of our goal. The ice pack was in the bay, and it was quite impossible to cross it until the wind might shift and blow the pack out. It is true that by a tortuous trail some thirty miles around we could with dogs reach Cape Charles, just below Battle Harbour; but none of the few drivers that knew the trail was anxious to undertake the journey, and as the probabilities were that even if we did succeed in reaching Cape Charles we should be in the same fix there as where we were, our only course seemed to be to remain at Fox Harbour and wait. No vessel, they told us, had yet arrived either at Battle Harbour or Cape Charles. </P> <P> George Wakeham, an old English fisherman from Devonshire, who had spent forty years of his life on The Labrador and had an Eskimo wife, welcomed us to his house. Near it was an eminence called Watch Hill, from which the general situation of the ice pack could be observed. Day after day I climbed Watch Hill, and for hours at a time with a telescope viewed the ice and gazed longingly at Battle Harbour in the distance. On the morning of the ninth day the pack appeared to be spreading, and I decided to run the risk of getting fast in the ice, and make at least an attempt to start. So George and I and the five natives that were to row us over got the boat afloat, prepared for a start immediately after luncheon. </P> <P> Meanwhile George and I ascended Watch Hill for another look at the ice pack. Upon scanning the distant shore line through the telescope we discovered a speck moving in the bay away over near Battle Harbour. A little later we were assured that it was a big row-boat laboriously making its way through the ice. It came nearer and nearer, obviously headed for Fox Harbour. At noon it arrived, and its brawny crew of fishermen said they had come for us. Dr. Macpherson had sent them. The steamer that the doctor had written me was expected had arrived at Cape Charles with a cargo for a new whale factory, and probably would sail for Newfoundland the next day. Having heard we were on our way down the coast, and divining that we were held at Fox Harbour by the ice, Dr. Macpherson had sent the boat so that we might be sure to get the steamer. I marvelled greatly at these evidences of the doctor's thoughtfulness for us who were absolute strangers to him, and was deeply touched. </P> <P> We placed the coffin in the boat, together with our baggage, and started at once. The men had instructions to take us directly to the ship as she lay off Cape Charles, and after a row of about thirteen miles we reached her at five o'clock in the afternoon. She was the Aurora, one of the Newfoundland sealing fleet. It was like reaching home to be on shipboard again, and I felt that my troubles were ended. The mate, Patrick Dumphry, informed me, however, that her commander, Captain Abraham Kean, was at Battle Harbour, and that the steamer would not sail before the following night. So, wishing to have Hubbard's coffin prepared for the voyage, and to meet and thank Dr. Macpherson, I had the men row me back the five miles to Battle Harbour. </P> <P> There I learned that, upon receiving the first news of my proposed attempt to bring out Hubbard's body, Dr. Macpherson had made a special trip of twenty-five miles to Chateau Bay, to telegraph to New York suggesting that arrangements be made with Bowering & Co., the owners of the Aurora, to have that steamer pick us up at Battle Harbour. Perhaps I should say here that the kindness of the doctor to us was only what might have been expected from a gentleman by birth and breeding who, with his charming wife, buries himself on the desolate coast of Labrador, in order to do his Master's work. Pitiable indeed would be the condition of the poor folk on The Labrador were it not for Dr. Grenfell and his brave co-workers of the Deep Sea Mission. For hundreds of miles along the coast they travel on their errands of mercy, braving the violent storms of the bitter Arctic winter, sleeping in the meanest of huts, and frequently risking their lives in open boats on the raging sea. Many is the needy one for whom they have found work, many is the stricken soul that they have comforted, and many is the life that their medical skill has saved. </P> <P> At the doctor's house I received my first letters from home, and the first accurate news of what had been transpiring in the outside world. While there I also met Captain Kean. Unfortunately the people in New York had not made the arrangement Dr. Macpherson had suggested, but the captain assumed the responsibility of carrying us to Newfoundland, saying that we should go as his guests. He is a former member of the Newfoundland parliament, and a man of influence as well as initiative, and it was lucky for us that he commanded the Aurora, else we, in all probability, should have had to push farther down the coast with dogs, or waited at Battle Harbour for the first appearance of the mail boat. </P> <P> The next day (Friday, May 13th) a firm of traders at Battle Harbour, under Dr. Macpherson's supervision, lined Hubbard's coffin with sheet lead and sealed it hermetically. The body was still frozen and in good condition. In the afternoon we were taken to the Aurora by Dr. Macpherson and a crew of his men, and established in the cabin, while Hubbard's coffin was carefully stowed away in the hold, there to remain until it was transferred at St. Johns to the Silvia, the steamer on which my old friend, so full of life and ambition, had sailed from New York, and which now was to carry him back a corpse. </P> <P> Because of a delay in getting her unloaded, the Aurora did not sail until Saturday evening. The sky was all aglow with a gorgeous sunset when we weighed anchor and steamed out of Cape Charles Harbour down across the straits of Belle Isle. The night was equally glorious. As darkness fell, the sky and sea were illuminated by the northern lights. There was no wind and the sea was calm. Close to our port side an iceberg with two great spires towered high above us; another large iceberg was on our starboard. Before us Belle Isle and the French shore were dimly visible. Behind us the rocky coast of Labrador gradually faded away. </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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