Labrador's uncertain game supply presented more than one vexed problem for Hubbard to solve. Naturally it would be desirable to take with us sufficient provisions to guard against all contingencies; but such were the conditions of the country for which we were bound, that if the expedition were at all heavily loaded it would be impossible for it to make any headway. Hubbard, therefore, decided to travel light. Then arose the question as to how many men to take with us. If the party were large—that is, up to a certain limit—more food might possibly be carried for each member than if the party were small; but if game proved plentiful, there would be no danger from starvation whether the party were large or small; for then short stops could be made to kill animals, dry the flesh and make caches, after the manner of the Indians, as supply bases to fall back upon should we be overtaken by an early winter. And if the game should prove scarce, a small party could kill, on a forced march, nearly, if not quite, as much as a large party; and requiring a proportionately smaller amount of food to maintain it, would consequently have a better chance of success. Taking all things into consideration, Hubbard decided that the party should be small.
To guard against possible disappointment in the way of getting men, Hubbard wrote to the agent of the Hudson's Bay Company at Rigolet, asking whether any could be obtained for a trip into the interior either at that post or at Northwest River. The agent replied that such a thing was highly improbable, as the visits of the Indians to these posts had become infrequent and the other natives were afraid to venture far inland. Hubbard then engaged through the kind offices of Mr. S. A. King, who was in charge of the Hudson's Bay Company Post at Missanabie, Ontario, the services of a Cree Indian named Jerry, that we might have at least one man upon whom we could depend. Jerry was to have come on to New York City to meet us. At next to the last moment, however, a letter from Mr. King informed us that Jerry had backed down. The Indian was not afraid of Labrador, it appeared, but he had heard of the dangers and pitfalls of New York, and when he learned that he should have to pass through that city, his courage failed him; he positively refused to come, saying he did not "want to die so soon."
We never had occasion to regret Jerry's faint-heartedness. Mr. King engaged for us another man who, he wrote, was an expert canoeman and woodsman and a good cook. The man proved to be all that he was represented to be—and more. I do not believe that in all the north country we could have found a better woodsman. But he was something more than a woodsman—he was a hero. Under the most trying circumstances he was calm, cheerful, companionable, faithful. Not only did he turn out to be a man of intelligence, quick of perception and resourceful, but he turned out to be a man of character, and I am proud to introduce him to the reader as my friend George Elson, a half-breed Cree Indian from down on James Bay.
The first instance of George's resourcefulness that we noted occurred upon his arrival in New York. Hubbard and I were to have taken him in charge at the Grand Central Station, but we were detained and George found no one to meet him. Despite the fact that he had never been in a city before, and all was new to him, his quick eye discovered that the long line of cabs in front of the station were there to hire. He promptly engaged one, was driven to Hubbard's office and awaited his employer's arrival as calm and unruffled as though his surroundings were perfectly familiar.
Our canoe and our entire outfit were purchased in New York, with the exception of a gill net, which, alas! we decided to defer selecting until we reached Labrador. Our preparations for the expedition were made with a view of sailing from St. Johns, Newfoundland, for Rigolet, when the steamer Virginia Lake, which regularly plies during the summer between the former port and points on the Labrador coast, should make her first trip north of the year. A letter from the Reid-Newfoundland Company, which operates the steamer, informed us that she would probably make her first trip to Labrador in the last week in June, and in order to connect with her, we made arrangements to sail from New York to St. Johns on June 20th, 1903, on the Red Cross Line steamer Silvia. On the 19th Hubbard personally superintended the placing of our outfit on board ship, that nothing might be overlooked.
As the Silvia slowly got under way at ten o'clock the next morning, we waved a last farewell to the little knot of friends who had gathered on the Brooklyn pier to see us off. We were all very light-hearted and gay that morning; it was a relief to be off at last and have the worry of the preparation over. Mrs. Hubbard was a member of the party; she was to accompany her husband as far as Battle Harbour, the first point on the Labrador coast touched by the Virginia Lake.
June 24th was my birthday, and early that morning, before we sailed from Halifax, at which port we lay over for a day, Hubbard came into my stateroom with a pair of camp blankets that he had been commissioned by my sisters to present to me. He had told me he had enough blankets in his outfit and to take none with me. How strangely things sometimes turn out! Those blankets which Hubbard had withheld in order that I might be agreeably surprised, were destined to fulfil an office, up there in the wilds for which we were bound, such as we little suspected. We reached St. Johns on the morning of Friday, the 26th, and promptly upon our arrival were introduced to the mysterious ways of the Reid-Newfoundland Company. The Virginia Lake, we were told, already had gone north to Labrador, was overdue on her return trip and might not be in for several days. Hubbard, however, set immediately to work purchasing the provisions for his expedition and supervising their packing. The following day, on the advice of the general passenger agent of the Reid-Newfoundland Company, we took the evening train on their little narrow-gauge railroad to Whitbourne, en route to Broad Cove, where we were informed we should find excellent trout fishing and could pleasantly pass the time while awaiting the steamer.
The Reid-Newfoundland Company failed to carry out its agreement as to our transportation to Broad Cove, and we had considerable trouble in reaching there, but we found that no misrepresentation had been made as to the fishing; during the two days we were at Broad Cove we caught all the trout we cared for. Having received word that the Virginia Lake had returned to St. Johns, and would again sail north on Tuesday, June 30th, Hubbard and Mrs. Hubbard on the morning of that day took the train to St. Johns, to board the steamer there and see that nothing of our outfit was left behind. George and I broke camp in time to take the evening train on the branch road to Harbour Grace, where, it was agreed, we should rejoin the others, the steamer being scheduled to put in there on its way north.
When I had our camp baggage transferred next morning to the wharf, and George and I had arrived there ourselves, we found also waiting for the steamer several prospectors who were going to "The Labrador," as the country is known to the Newfoundlanders, to look for gold, copper, and mica. All of them apparently were dreaming of fabulous wealth. None, I was told, was going farther than the lower coast; they did not attempt to disguise the fact that they feared to venture far into the interior.
Around the wharves little boats were unloading caplin, a small fish about the size of a smelt. I was informed that these fish sold for ten cents a barrel, and were used for bait and fertiliser. My astonishment may be imagined, therefore, when I discovered that on the Virginia Lake they charged thirty-five cents for three of these little fish fried.
At ten o'clock our boat came in, and a little after noon we steamed out of the harbour, Hubbard and I feeling that now we were fairly on our way to the scene of our work. Soon after rejoining Hubbard, I learned something more of the mysterious ways of the Reid-Newfoundland Company. The company's general passenger agent, avowing deep interest in our enterprise, had presented Hubbard with passes to Rigolet for his party. Hubbard accepted them gratefully, but upon boarding the steamer he was informed that the passes did not include meals. Now such were the prices charged for the wretchedly-cooked food served on the Virginia Lake that a moderately hungry man could scarcely have his appetite killed at a less expense than six dollars a day. So Hubbard returned the passes to the general passenger agent with thanks, and purchased tickets, which did include meals, and which reduced the cost considerably.
The Virginia Lake is a steamer of some seven hundred tons burden. She is subsidised by the Newfoundland Government to carry the mails during the fishing season to points on the Labrador coast as far north as Nain. She is also one of the sealing fleet that goes to "the ice" each tenth of March. When she brings back her cargo of seals to St. Johns, she takes up her summer work of carrying mail, passengers, and freight to The Labrador—always a welcome visitor to the exiled fishermen in that lonely land, the one link that binds them to home and the outside world. She has on board a physician to set broken bones and deal out drugs to the sick, and a customs officer to see that not a dime's worth of merchandise of any kind or nature is landed until a good round percentage of duty is paid to him as the representative of the Newfoundland Government, which holds dominion over all the east coast of Labrador. This customs officer is also a magistrate, a secret service officer, a constable, and what not I do not know—pretty much the whole Labrador Government, I imagine.
The accommodations on the Virginia Lake were quite inadequate for the number of passengers she carried. The stuffy little saloon was so crowded that comfort was out of the question. I had to use some rather impressive language to the steward to induce him to assign to me a stateroom. Finally, he surrendered his own room. The ventilation was poor and the atmosphere vile, but we managed to pull through. Our fellow-passengers were all either prospectors or owners of fishing schooners.
There was much ice to be seen when the heavy veil of grey fog lifted sufficiently for us to see anything, and until we had crossed the Strait of Belle Isle our passage was a rough one. It was on the Fourth of July that we saw for the first time the bleak, rock-bound coast of Labrador. In all the earth there is no coast so barren, so desolate, so brutally inhospitable as the Labrador coast from Cape Charles, at the Strait of Belle Isle on the south, to Cape Chidley on the north. Along these eight hundred miles it is a constant succession of bare rocks scoured clean and smooth by the ice and storms of centuries, with not a green thing to be seen, save now and then a bunch of stunted shrubs that have found a foothold in some sheltered nook in the rocks, and perchance, on some distant hill, a glimpse of struggling spruce or fir trees. It is a fog-ridden, dangerous coast, with never a lighthouse or signal of any kind at any point in its entire length to warn or guide the mariner.
The evening was well upon us when we saw the rocks off Cape Charles rising from the water, dismal, and dark, and forbidding. All day the rain had been falling, and all day the wind had been blowing a gale, lashing the sea into a fury. Our little ship was tossed about like a cork, with the seas constantly breaking over her decks. Decidedly our introduction to Labrador was not auspicious. Battle Harbour, twelve miles north of Cape Charles, was to have been our first stop; but there are treacherous hidden reefs at the entrance, and with that sea the captain did not care to trust his ship near them. So he ran on to Spear Harbour, just beyond, where we lay to for the night. The next day I made the following entry in my diary:
"Early this morning we moved down to Battle Harbour, where Mrs. Hubbard left us to return home. It was a most dismal time and place for her to part from her husband, but she was very brave. It was not yet six o'clock, and we had had no breakfast, when she stepped into the small boat to go ashore. A cold, drizzling rain was falling, and the place was in appearance particularly dreary; no foliage nor green thing to be seen—nothing but rocks, cold and high and bleak, with here and there patches of snow. They pointed out to us a little house clinging to the rocks high up. There she is to stay until the steamer comes to take her home, to spend a summer of doubts and hopes and misgivings. Poor little woman! It is so hard for those we leave behind. I stood aside with a big lump in my throat as they said their farewell." Up there in the dark wilderness for which we were bound Hubbard talked with me frequently of that parting.
On July 6th, the day after we left Battle Harbour, the captain informed us for the first time that the boat would not go to Rigolet on the way up, and gave us the option of getting off at Indian Harbour at the entrance to Hamilton Inlet or going on to Nain with him and getting off at Rigolet on the way back. Hubbard chose the former alternative, hearing which the customs officer came to us and hinted that nothing could be landed until we had had an interview with him. The result of the interview was that Hubbard paid duty on our entire outfit.
The next morning, Tuesday, July 7th, we reached Indian Harbour. Amid a chorus of "Good-bye, boys, and good luck!" we went ashore, to set foot for the first time on Labrador soil, where we were destined to encounter a series of misadventures that should call for the exercise of all our fortitude and manhood.