LABRADOR AND ELLESMERE ISLAND
“Tourists would rave over this scenery.”
-- Douglas Robertson, 1931, while visiting Ellesmere by ship
"There is great beauty in the Labrador interior, but it is the strange beauty of unutterable loneliness." -- William Duncan Strong
The store is open! You can now buy books, calendars, prints and the Sledding Equipment List with one-click shopping, via Paypal. Just go to the Store link at the top of this page. Jerry's latest book, Arctic Eden, based on his travels on Ellesmere, Axel Heiberg and Devon Islands, is now available. It won the William Mills Prize as the best polar book of the last two years.
Historian Robert Bryce, author of Cook and Peary: The Polar Controversy Resolved, has just come out with a supplement to that 1,000-page work. Drawing on a lost notebook of Cook's that the author discovered in Denmark, Bryce tries to piece together the route Cook actually took during his faux-march to the North Pole in 1908.
This is a book more for scholars than for the public. It transcribes the journal, analyzes which of several possible versions of Cook's narrative is most likely and explains obscure references. To keep the flavor of Cook's notebook, Bryce structures his annotations in the same chaotic way, making for a hard read. It's a useful document, however, for Ellesmere-ophiles.
Among Bryce's interesting discoveries, it turns out that Cook made a brief detour into Canon Fiord to lay a cache. He also left supplies near the isthmus of the Schei Peninsula. I've sledded that area a few times without spotting anything, but if I ever visit there again, I'll spend some time poking around. That's the sort of tidbit I read these specialty works for.
Full disclosure: I gave the author a fair amount of information on travel conditions and what specific places along Cook's route looked like. Except for part of western Axel Heiberg and north Devon, I've sledded the entire route myself, including Canon Fiord. Alexandra also supplied the map that Bryce used to show Cook's route.
Canon Fiord. Frederick Cook camped beside the lowlands on the right-hand side.
Arctic history, unvarnished
Because everything decays so slowly in the Arctic, historic sites are often rich in artifacts. One of the rules of travel is not to take souvenirs. Some sites, such as Adolphus Greely's Camp Clay on Pim Island, are diminished today because visitors have ignored these ethics. Artifacts weave a magic spell around the sites. It entrances even people like myself who were slow to be interested in history.
Until the 1970s, even scientists used to take souvenirs. Today, that's no longer done, with one exception. Sometimes officials will remove artifacts for museums or study. That's fair, I suppose, though one subset of this practice remains crass: Gussying up the artifacts for display.
Consider the example below:
The first image shows the Nazi weather station when it was discovered in Labrador's Torngat Mountains in the early 1980s. The site included the antennas, the big rusty meteorological/transmitting cylinders and, on the ground, lots of old dry cell batteries to power them.
The people who worked the site removed the big cylinders and antennas and gave them to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, where they lurk in an obscure corner, above. I might argue that leaving them in Labrador might have been more inspirational: the 200 or 300 annual cruise ship passengers -- and the occasional independent travelers -- who visit the Torngats would have got more out of them than visitors who file past what is really a bland museum exhibit. But that's not the main issue. Some curator had the bright idea to paint the artifacts in grey camo! This vandalism shows a lack of understanding of how these talismen can conjure up the past.
In their original decrepit state, the cylinders might have told a subtle story: maybe one side was weathered more than the rest, so had been facing the prevailing northwest winds. One might have had scratches from the claws of a curious polar bear, or graffiti etched in by some unrecorded visitor, even one of the U-boat sailors. Painting them eliminates any possible forensic discoveries. These could be replicas. They have no magic.
Sometimes you don't even need to remove the items from their location to muck them up. Consider this tale of two cannons:
Near the abandoned village of Okak, between Nain and the Torngats, an old cannon lies on hill overlooking Okak Bay. I don't know its origin, but poking around it, looking for clues, graffiti, messages, is great fun. It belongs in this haunted place. It enhances the mood. A visit to Okak would be poorer without it.
The second cannon perches atop the hill overlooking the town of Cartwright. The city fathers have seen fit to paint the 18th-century weapon and mount it on a whitewashed wooden stand. On this wild hill, looking north toward the Wonderstrands and Cape Porcupine, it looks chintzy and out of place. Did they think that a new-looking cannon is more interesting than the same one lying, rusted, on its side nearby where George Cartwright himself left it?
The folks in Cartwright had the excuse of not being experts. Somebody had a bad idea, and the town innocently went with it. The fate of the Nazi weather station, ruined by a professional curator, is much more disturbing. But in both cases, you have to ask: What were they thinking?
January 6, 2014
Beginning this year, I'll be adding Labrador news, history and adventure to this page, as well as continuing my coverage of Ellesmere Island. In recent years, I've been focusing more on Labrador. I've already written two books on Ellesmere. For 20 years, I traveled there almost exclusively. I know the island as well as anyone ever has. And although my love affair with Labrador has been rekindled after a long hiatus, I wish I could continue to explore the High Arctic every year as well.
In recent years, however, travel to Ellesmere has become forbiddingly expensive. Ellesmere was never a cheap destination, but until about 2002, it was affordable. Then First Air got out of the Twin Otter charter business, leaving Kenn Borek with a monopoly in Resolute. Spiraling gas prices added to spiraling charter costs. In 1996, you could share a Twin Otter to Tanquary Fiord for $1,200 each way, organized by an outfitter who coordinated several flights a summer. You could stay for two, four or even six weeks. Now one's share is closer to $5,000 each way. This assumes that you can find a charter plane to share. Hiring your own would be in the neighborhood of $65,000. Finally, there's the $5,000 (!) return flight from Ottawa to Resolute and back. Black Feather tours now cost $20,000 per client ex Ottawa for a 12-day hike in Quttinirpaaq National Park.
I've always been a dirtbag traveler, and my secret for doing 30 expeditions to Ellesmere has been to find affordable ways north. I discuss some of these techniques in The Horizontal Everest. There are still ways to eliminate most of the cost, but not consistently, so my Ellesmere projects will be intermittent, not counting my almost yearly visits as a cruise ship lecturer. For personal trips, I'll focus on bringing off a handful of projects that I've wanted to do for years. If I was starting my career now, I would simply be unable to develop a lifelong passion for Ellesmere. Although there's a chance that someone who can afford getting there will fall for the place, more likely Ellesmere will see individual adventurers doing just one or two expeditions.
Labrador has its own magic, though in my heart it will always be #2 to Ellesmere. But unlike Ellesmere, it remains accessible (with difficulty) to the ordinary bloke.