LABRADOR AND ELLESMERE ISLAND 2015
In the early 20th century, ownership of the eastern High Arctic islands -- including the three biggest, Ellesmere, Devon and Axel Heiberg Islands -- was still in dispute. Canada had the strongest claim, thanks to the 1875 British Arctic Expedition, but Denmark, Norway and to a lesser extent, the United States also had an historical presence. Fearful that the islands might slip out of its possession, Canada established a small number of Royal Canadian Mounted Police posts in that far-flung region in the early 1920s. At the time, no Canadian Inuit lived on those islands, and these RCMP posts gave a small national footprint. Every spring, the RCMP men would do long dogsled "patrols" to extend their presence.
Craig Harbour today
The first post to open was Craig Harbour, in 1922, near the SE corner of Ellesmere. It was a good location for hunting, since it lay near the North Water polynya, which teemed with wildlife, but the dark little bay in which the little settlement stood frequently experienced katabatic winds avalanching down from the ice cap behind.
A couple of summers later, in 1924, two other posts were established. Dundas Harbour, on southeastern Devon Island, was even more inconveniently located. Not only was it also windy, but strong currents made the sea ice along the entire south coast of Devon prone to breaking off without warning -- very dangerous for those spring sovereignty patrols.
Dundas Harbour (three)
Today, arctic cruise ships often visit the remains of Dundas Harbour. It's pleasant enough in summer, walrus are sometimes spotted off a nearby point and you can even see, as in the photo immediately above, the serrated peaks of the Bylot Island ice cap in the distance across Lancaster Sound. A little fenced-in graveyard commemorates the deaths of two RCMP officers who died within a year of each other: one shot himself deliberately -- a suicide -- the other shot himself accidentally in a hunting accident.
The furthest north station was halfway up the east coast of Ellesmere Island, on the Bache Peninsula. Located in one of the handful of small polar oases in the High Arctic -- an area of local good weather -- this was, despite its higher latitude, "by far the most pleasant and attractive place in the Eastern Arctic," wrote one veteran policeman.
Bache Post in the 1920s, and its remains today.
Bache's comparative delights were not, however, easy to reach. Sea ice often kept the supply vessel from reaching the station, which was located deep within a bay, at a notoriously ice-choked narrows between Canada and Greenland. Often, the ship left supplies (and swapped personnel) at a more accessible depot 30 km away. The ruins of a makeshift cabin erected for the waiting men still exists. A sign above the door declares, "Kane Basin Detachment Royal Canadian Mounted Police", below. I write about the adventures of the RCMP officers at all those posts in a chapter of The Horizontal Everest.
In part thanks to those RCMP stations, by 1929 the other countries withdrew their claims and the High Arctic Islands became part of Canada. By 1933, these posts, which cost $100,000 a year to maintain, were shut down. And although some of them were periodically reactivated in the years ahead, their job at that point was reinforcing Canadian presence rather than establishing it.
When Alexandra and I kayaked the length of Labrador's Torngat Mountains, we saw a polar bear swimming about half a kilometre offshore from a beach called Iron Strand. Suddenly, I saw a flash of black, and the bear disappeared. Polar bears can hold their breath for quite a while, so I assumed that it had seen a seal or fish and swam underwater after it. But I watched the water for half an hour, and the bear never resurfaced.
In recent years, with diminishing sea ice, killer whales have been moving north, and have been spotted as far as Grise Fiord, on Ellesmere Island. Had the flash of black been a killer whale? Cetologists I spoke to had never heard of a killer whale attacking a polar bear, but deemed it possible.
On this recent cruise along the Labrador coast, I mentioned this incident to Inuit hunter and fellow resource person Derrick Pottle. He had an alternative theory. Greenland sharks, he said, had turned up with both polar bears and caribou in their stomachs. Greenland sharks are among the world's largest sharks and can grow over 20 feet long. Like killer whales, they turn up in Labrador waters. In Jill Fredston's excellent book, Rowing to Latitude, she cites a close call during their travels along the Labrador coast when a Greenland shark accidentally surfaced beneath their kayak, lifting it out of the water. They braced frantically until the shark submerged and they managed to avoid flipping.
A 140-year-old bottle of beer sold recently at an auction in Britain for $6,400. The beer was brewed for the British Arctic Expedition under George Nares in 1875-6 and was called Allsopp's Arctic Ale.
The Horizontal Everest and Arctic Eden cover the Nares expedition in detail. This ale, "sweet-tasting with a hint of tobacco", according to the auctioneer, was not the only thing those 120 men drank. They wrote of sampling solidly frozen scotch at -76F. And every morning, they drank their tot of lime juice, mixed with alcohol, as an antiscorbutic.
It didn't work very well -- the British Navy had recently changed its source of limes to an inferior product -- and half the men came down with scurvy. Four died.
This bottle of old beer turned up in someone's garage, but the expedition also left some alcohol behind on northern Ellesmere Island. In 1953, during his glaciological researches, the late Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith found two bottles of Nares's rum in an old cache, below. He and his partner drank one bottle on the spot; he opened the other a few years later, on his wedding day.
Artifacts from the Nares expedition remain common on Ellesmere Island, though I doubt that any bottles of beer have survived. Here are a few items:
140 year-old graffiti: One of the sailors carved the name of his ship, the HMS Alert, into a rock.
One of several gigantic cairns built on Ellesmere Island by the Nares expedition.
Rusted hoops from the expedition's food barrels.
The grave of Niels Petersen, one of four men on the expedition to die of scurvy.
Better late than never, JB MacKinnon's interview on ExplorersWeb about our Labrador snowshoe trek.
Here's an interview about our Labrador expedition on Explorersweb. James's interview should be online later this week.
An expedition comes off not just because of good planning and competent participants, but because many people take an interest and help. On my first trek across Labrador, the head of the local ski club in Churchill Falls put me up on his couch and arranged for the company heliciopter to fly me to my point of departure. A Quebec outfitter flew in a two-way radio, so that when I reached one of his cabins after 400km, I could let my family know I was okay. And when I finished in Nain, I received hospitality from dozens of people who'd never met me -- a couch, a meal, tea and cake, welcome conversation after 46 days alone.
Someone always helps, but some expeditions rank higher on the hospitality quotient than others. This last one might sit at the very top of the heap. James MacKinnon and I had an astonishing amount of support, before, during and after our trek. Partly this is the famous Labrador hospitality, but I have to think it's more than that. Somehow we connected with great folks who put themselves out on our behalf, and I'd like to thank a few of them here.
We couldn't have done the expedition without Rob Pilgrim. I met Rob in 2012, during my expedition with Noah Nochasak. At the time, Rob was organizing the biannual Cain's Quest snowmobile race through Labrador. We kept in touch afterward, and when Rob heard of our plans through southern Labrador, he more or less took charge of our well-being. If our expedition had a manager, it would be Rob. He did more than we could ever thank him for, and put us in touch with other vital local contacts.
Felix Fequet was Rob's counterpart in St. Augustine. Rob and Felix know each other through snowmobile forums but have never met in person. Felix gave us the coordinates of unlocked cabins that we'd run into in his area and cleared with the owners that we could stay there. He put us up when we reached St. Augustine and drove us 100km by snowmobile to Old Fort, the start of the Trans-Labrador Highway, from which we hitchhiked back to Goose Bay. Like Rob, Felix kept tabs on us through our daily Spot reports. Although we were out there by ourselves, we never felt alone, thanks to Rob and Felix. They watched our backs.
Martha MacDonald works for the Labrador Institute. We met in 2005, when I gave a talk at the Mina Hubbard Centennial, celebrating the controversial widow of tragic Labrador explorer, Leonidas Hubbard. This time, Martha and her partner Al Niles, a science teacher in Goose Bay, put James and I up during our time in town. They fed us great meals every night, lent us their vehicle so we could run the many pre- and post-expedition errands and even gave me the chance to experience a concert at their town's new and very shwank theatre. Thanks, guys!
Bern Crawford is one of those intimidating Labradorians who seems to know how to do everything with his hands. One of the last craftsmen making traditional snowshoes, he made James's backup bearpaws and fixed the frayed webbing on my own. Bern spends 60 to 70 hours making each pair of snowshoes; little wonder it's a dying art. Since every snowmobiler in town needs snowshoes as part of his kit, Bern is usually months in arrears, but he made time for us.
I've known Ingried and Orville Crocker for years and watched their kids, Connor and Charles, grow from four-foot nothing to six-foot everything. Connor and Charles were raised in the warmest and most supportive family atmosphere I've ever seen. As my partner James put it, "Even the teenagers around here are nice people." The Crockers stored my sleds for years between expeditions and even lent us one of their own.
February 5, 2015
Off to Labrador today with JB MacKinnon to sled 400 kilometres from the Innu village of Sheshatshiu, near Goose Bay, to St. Augustine, on the Quebec North Shore. Snowfall after snowfall has hit southern Labrador this winter; recently, one snowmobiler got stuck in waist-deep snow -- in his own backyard. Goose Bay often gets lots of snow, and stop signs are presciently mounted on high poles. Even so, the signs are almost buried.
Here in the Alberta Rockies, skiers wish for such powder. But for a sledder, fresh snow is the enemy, and wind and cold are friends, because they transform soft snow into a hard surface over which a sled can glide. This is the essence of manhauling. You can't do it well in southern regions where the snow is soft. The sled sinks, and you have to move aside all that snow with each step. With a heavy load, that's grueling, sometimes impossible.
But in open arctic regions, or in cold, windblown areas like the winter prairies, wind magically transforms all that airy snow into a surface that can become so hard that sometimes a footprint makes no mark on it.
Despite the smile, horrible sledding.
This is more like it!