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   Chapter 2 SLIPPING AWAY INTO THE WILDERNESS

A Woman's Way Through Unknown Labrador By Mina Hubbard Characters: 16059

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


It was on the 15th of July, 1903, that Leonidas Hubbard, Jr., my husband, with two companions, set out from Northwest River Post, near the head of Lake Melville, for a canoe trip into the interior of Labrador, which be hoped would not only afford him an interesting wilderness experience but also an opportunity to explore and map one, and perhaps both, of these rivers, the Northwest River draining Lake Michikamau to Lake Melville, and the George River draining the northern slope of the plateau to Ungava Bay.

Misled by information obtained at the post, which corresponded with the indications of the map he carried, that of the Geological Survey of Canada, Mr. Hubbard took the Susan River, which enters Grand Lake at the head of a bay five miles from its western end. The Susan River led them, not by an open waterway to Lake Michikamau, but up to the edge of the plateau, where they became lost in the maze of its lakes. When within sight of the great lake the party was forced to begin a retreat, which Mr. Hubbard did not survive to complete. He died in the far interior, and the object of his expedition was not achieved.

It seemed to me fit that my husband's name should reap the fruits of service which had cost him so much, and in the summer of 1905 I myself undertook the conduct of the second Hubbard Expedition, and, with the advantage of the information and experience obtained by the first, a larger crew and a three weeks' earlier start, successfully completed the work undertaken two years before.

My decision to undertake the completion of my husband's work was taken one day in January of 1905. That evening I began making my plans and preparations for the journey. Towards the end of May they were completed, and on the evening of the 16th of June I sailed from Halifax for Labrador, arriving at Northwest River Post, the real starting-point of my journey, on Sunday morning, June 25th.

It was with characteristic courtesy and hospitality that M. Duclos, who was in charge of the French trading post, placed himself and his house at my service, and our coming was celebrated by a dinner of wild goose, plum pudding, and coffee. After the voyage from Halifax it seemed good to rest a little with the firm earth under foot, and where the walls of one's habitation were still. Through the open windows came the fragrance of the spruce woods, and from the little piazza in front of the house you could look down and across Lake Melville, and away to the blue mountains beyond, where the snow was still lying in white masses.

The settlement at Northwest River consists mainly of the two trading posts, the French post with its three buildings-the house, store and oil house-on the right bank of the river, close to its discharge into Lake Melville, and higher up on the opposite shore the line of low, white buildings of the Hudson's Bay Company post. A few tiny planters' homes complete the sum total of its greatness.

Monday morning the work of preparation for departure into the wilderness began. My crew numbered four, chief among whom was George Elson, who had loyally served Mr. Hubbard in 1903, and who, with rare skill and rarer devotion, had recovered Mr. Hubbard's body and his photographic material from the interior in the depths of the following winter. The other two men were Joseph Iserhoff, a Russian half-breed, and Job Chapies, a pure blood Cree Indian. These three men were expert hunters and canoemen, having been born and brought up in the James Bay country, and they came to me from Missanabie, some 700 miles west of Montreal. The fourth was Gilbert Blake, a half-breed Eskimo boy trapper, one of the two young lads of the rescue party George Elson had sent back two years before, when his heroic, but unsuccessful, efforts to save Mr. Hubbard's life had brought him to Donald Blake's house. Through the courtesy of M. Duclos, in whose service he was employed at the time of my arrival, he was released that he might go with me. The men were splendid, capable-looking fellows, with an air of quiet dignity and self-possession about them, which comes from conscious ability and character. Gilbert was a bright-faced, merry-hearted boy, with a reputation for being a willing worker, which he fully lived up to on the journey. All seemed thoroughly to enjoy the prospect of the trip, and their assurance greatly added to my ease of mind.

A deeper touch of anxiety was added for me by information obtained at Rigolette to the effect that the Hudson's Bay Company's steamer, Pelican, my only means of return to civilisation before the closing in of winter, would be at the post at Ungava, my destination, the last week in August. That left us two months to make the journey, which, at the shortest, would carry us across 550 miles of Labrador wilderness. It seemed a great deal to expect, but the men were confident and only eager to be started.

The task of unpacking, rearranging, and completing my outfit was not accomplished when night came. A number of the things I had counted on procuring at the posts were not to be had-the stores being almost empty of supplies. However, M. Duclos and Mr. Cotter of the Hudson's Bay Company cheerfully raided their own domiciles to supply my lack; substitutes were improvised, and shortly after noon on Tuesday the outfit was completed and loaded into the canoes. To my great satisfaction they were found to carry the load easily, riding well out of the water.

There were two canoes, canvas covered and 19 feet long, 13 inches deep, 34 inches wide, and with each of them three paddles and a sponge. The remainder of the outfit consisted of 2 balloon-silk tents, 1 stove, 7 waterproof canvas bags, one dozen 10 lbs. waterproof balloon-silk bags, 3 tarpaulins, 392 lbs. of flour, 4 lbs. baking powder, 15 lbs. rice, 20 cans standard emergency rations, 12 lbs. tea, 12 lbs. chocolate, 60 lbs. sugar, 20 lbs. erbswurst, 1 oz. crystalose, 4 cans condensed milk, 4 cans condensed soup, 5 lbs. hard tack, 200 lbs. bacon, 14 lbs. salt. There were kitchen utensils-3 small axes, 1 crooked knife, and 2 nets. The outfit of firearms consisted of two rifles, a 45-70 with 60 rounds of ammunition, and a 38-55 with 100 rounds. Each of the men had a 22 cal. 10-inch barrel, single-shot pistol for partridges and other small game. Each also carried a hunting knife, a pair of light wool camp blankets, and an extra pair of "shoe-packs."

For myself, I had a revolver, a hunting knife, and some fishing tackle; one three and a quarter by four and a quarter folding pocket kodak, one panorama kodak, a sextant and artificial horizon, a barometer, a thermometer. I wore a short skirt over knickerbockers, a short sweater, and a belt to which were attached my cartridge pouch, revolver, and hunting knife. My hat was a rather narrow brimmed soft felt. I had one pair of heavy leather moccasins reaching almost to my knees, one pair of high seal-skin boots, one pair low ones, which M. Duclos had given me, and three pairs of duffel. Of underwear I had four suits and five pairs of stockings, all wool. I took also a rubber automobile shirt, a long, Swedish dog-skin coat, one pair leather gloves, one pair woollen gloves, and a blouse-for Sundays. For my tent I had an air mattress, crib size, one pair light grey camp blankets, one light wool comfortable, weighing 3 1/2 lbs., one little feather pillow, and a hotwater bottle.

It was 3.15 P.M., July 27th, when the last details of preparation were completed, and we were ready to start, with all Northwest River to see us off.

"You will be all right, Mrs. Hubbard," said Mr. Cotter. "At first I did not think you could do it, but I have changed my mind. You can do it, and without any trouble too. Good-bye, and the best of success to you."

The farewell wishes of M. Duclos and M. Fournier, his assistant, were not less enthusiastic. M. Duclos ran forward a little, kodak in hand, and as the canoe glided past up the river, he said: "I have ze las' picture, Madame."

A few minutes'

paddling carried the canoes round the point, and the two posts were lost to sight.

It did not seem strange or unnatural to be setting out as I was on such an errand. Rather there came a sense of unspeakable relief in thus slipping away into the wilderness, with the privilege of attempting the completion of the work my husband had undertaken to do. Everything looked hopeful for my plans, and I was only glad to be really started on my way at last. Behind me in my canoe sat the trusty hero whose courage and honour and fidelity made my venture possible, and who took from my shoulders so much of the responsibility. Through George Elson I engaged and paid the other men of my party, and on him I relied to communicate to them my plans and my directions and desires.

It was a perfect day. The air was clear as crystal, and the water, the greenwoods, the hills and mountains with lines and patches of white upon them, the sky with its big, soft clouds made such a combination of green and blue and silver as I had never seen except in Labrador. Before five o'clock we had passed the rapid at the head of the three-mile stretch of river draining Grand Lake to Lake Melville, to which alone the natives give the name Northwest River, and turned into Grand Lake.

The thought of Grand Lake had troubled me a little. It is forty miles long and four miles wide, and only a little wind is needed to make such a body of water impassable for loaded canoes. M. Duclos had offered his yacht to take us to the mouth of the Nascaupee River, but when we were ready to start there was not enough wind to carry her past the rapid, and we decided not to wait. On entering the lake we turned to the right and landed to put up our first sails. Soon they were caught by the light breeze and, together with the quick paddle strokes, carried the canoes at a rapid pace towards Cape Corbeau, which rose high and commanding twelve miles away.

At 6 P.M. we landed for supper, hard tack and bacon and tea, and then as quickly as might be were on our way again. There was need to make the most of such perfect conditions for passing Grand Lake. Sunset, and we were nearing Cape Corbeau. Then came twilight which was almost more beautiful, and I sat sometimes thinking my own thoughts, sometimes listening to George and Job as they chatted with each other in Indian. Ten o'clock came, and still the dip, dip, of the paddles went on. Now and again they were laid across the canoe, and the pipes came out, or the tired arms rested a little. It was not till eleven that we finally turned in to camp at Silver Pine Lodge, having made twenty-two miles of our journey. The sky was still light in the north-west.

The men soon had a roaring camp fire, for it had grown cold after sunset. We had a second supper, and at 12.45 A.M. I made the last entry in my diary and went to my tent. Meanwhile, the light slowly shifted from west to east along the northern sky, but did not fade away. The men did not put up their tent, but lay beside the fire, for we meant to be up betimes and try to make the mouth of the Nascaupee River before the lake, which was already roughening a little, became impassable.

At 3 A.M. George called, "All aboard." A quick breakfast, and we were started. Paddling straight towards Berry Head we passed it about six o'clock, and by 8 A.M. were safe on the Nascaupee River, where the winds could not greatly trouble us.

The sand-hills stand about the wide-mouthed bay into which the river flows, and many little wooded islands lie at its head, and in the river's mouth, which is entirely obscured by them, so that it is not until you are close upon them that the river can be seen. For a mile we threaded our way among these islands and found ourselves at the mouth of the Crooked River where it enters the Nascaupee on the north. The two river courses lie near together for some distance, separated only by a sandy plateau, in places little more than a mile wide.

At 10 A.M. we halted for lunch, and after the meal the men lay down in the willows to sleep. I tried to sleep too, but could not. The Susan River had been so rough and hard to travel, and this river was so big, and deep, and fine. The thought of what missing it two years before had cost would not be shut out.

After a bite, at 3 P.M. we were off again, and had gone only a little way when George exclaimed, "Who's that? Why, it's a bear."

On the farther side of the river walking along the hill was a huge black bear. I had never before seen one anywhere but in the Zoo, and the sight of this big fellow enjoying the freedom of his native country gave me quite a new sensation. At first we decided not to molest him. A full supply of provisions made it unnecessary to secure game now, and at this time of the year the skin would be of no value. The men sent a few rifle shots in his direction, though not with any thought of their hitting him. They had the effect of making him quicken his pace, however, and the trail took him up to the top of the hill where, as he went leisurely along, his big form clearly outlined against the sky, he proved too great a temptation. Suddenly the canoe shot out across the river, and on the other shore ran into the mouth of a little stream at the foot of a big sand-hill.

Job hurried off with the rifle, and George and I followed as I was able. We had to cross a broad belt of tangled willows, and to know what that means, one must do it; but the prospect of at least getting on the edge of a bear chase is great inducement when once you become a little excited, and I scrambled through. The hill was steep and thickly strewn with windfalls about which the new growth had sprung up. Its top was like the thin edge of a wedge, and the farther side dropped, a steep sand-bank, to the stream which flowed at its foot. When we were hardly more than half-way up, there was the sound of a shot and a funny, little shrill cry from Job. Bruin had been climbing the sand-bank, and was nearly at the top when Job fired. The bullet evidently struck him for, doubling up, his head between his legs, he rolled over and over to the foot of the bank. When I reached the top of the hill he was on his legs again and running down along the edge of the stream. There had been only one cartridge in the rifle, and Job rushed down the hill to the canoe for more.

Joe and Gilbert had crossed the river meantime and were landing near our canoe. The stream turned abruptly round the foot of the hill close to them, and I wondered what would happen when Bruin appeared suddenly round the bend. Evidently Bruin had the best eyes-or nose-for, on coming to the bend, he turned suddenly and started back up-stream; but again changing his mind he made up over the hill where we had first seen him. I was still panting and trembling with the exertion of my climb, but I took out my revolver and sent a few shots after him. It is hardly needful to say they did not hurt the bear. When Job and Gilbert came up with the rifles to where we were standing he was just disappearing over the top of the hill, having apparently been little injured, and so the chase was not followed up.

Our camp that night was on a high sand-bank on the north shore of the river. The place chosen looked rough and unpromising to me, for the ground was thickly strewn with windfalls. All this part of the country had been burned over many years ago, and was very desolate looking. The men, however, pronounced the place "Ma-losh- an! Ma-losh-an!" (fine! fine!) and in less than an hour the tents were pitched and made comfortable. New experiences seemed to be coming thick and fast, for we had supper of porcupine down on the rocks at the shore. I did not like it.

I used my air mattress that night, building it up at the head with my dunnage bag, and at the foot with boughs. My hot-water bottle was also called into requisition, for it was cold. They were both better than I had hoped, and I slept as comfortably as if in the most luxurious apartment.

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