Lure of the Labrador Wild, The


The island of the White Bear group upon which is situated the settlement of Indian Harbour is rocky and barren. The settlement consists of a trader's hut and a few fishermen's huts built of frame plastered over with earth or moss, and the buildings of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, a non-sectarian institution that maintains two stations on the Labrador coast and one at St. Anthony in Newfoundland, each with a hospital attached. The work of the mission is under the general supervision of Dr. Wilfred T. Grenfell, who, in summer, patrols the coast from Newfoundland to Cape Chidley in the little floating hospital, the steamer Strathcona, and during the winter months, by dog team, visits the people of these inhospitable shores. The main station in Labrador is at Battle Harbour, and at this time Dr. Cluny Macpherson was the resident physician.

Dr. Simpson, a young English physician and lay missionary, was in charge of the station at Indian Harbour. This station, being maintained primarily for the benefit of the summer fishermen from Newfoundland, is closed from October until July. Dr. Simpson had a little steamer, the Julia Sheridan, which carried him on his visits to his patients among the coast folk. We were told by the captain of the Virginia Lake that the Julia Sheridan would arrive at Indian Harbour on the afternoon of the day we reached there; that she would immediately steam to Rigolet and Northwest River with the mails, and that we undoubtedly could arrange for a passage on her. This was the reason that Hubbard elected to get off at Indian Harbour.

The trained nurse, the cook, and the maid-of-all-work connected with the Indian Harbour hospital ("sisters," they call them, although they do not belong to any order) boarded the Virginia Lake at Battle Harbour and went ashore with me in the ship's boat, when I landed with the baggage. Hubbard and George went ashore in our canoe. A line of Newfoundlanders and "livyeres" stood ready to greet us upon our arrival. "Livyeres" is a contraction of live-heres, and is applied to the people who live permanently on the coast. The coast people who occasionally trade in a small way are known as "planters." In Hamilton Inlet, west of Rigolet, all of the trappers and fishermen are called planters. There the word livyere is never heard, it having originated with with the Newfoundland fishermen, who do not go far into the inlet.

The "sisters" who landed with us had difficulty in opening their hospital, as the locks had become so rusted and corroded that the keys would not turn. We offered our assistance, and after removing the boards that had been nailed over the windows to protect them from the winter storms, we found it necessary to take out a pane of glass in order that Hubbard might unlatch a window, crawl through and take the lock off the door. The sisters then told us that Dr. Simpson might not arrive with the Julia Sheridan until the following day, and extended to us the hospitality of the station, which we thankfully accepted, taking up our temporary abode in one of the vacant wards of the hospital.

Our first afternoon on Labrador soil we spent in assorting and packing our outfit, while the Newfoundlanders and livyeres stood around and admired our things, particularly the canoe, guns, and sheath-knives. Their curiosity was insatiable; they inquired the cost of every conceivable thing.

The next afternoon (Wednesday) Dr. Simpson arrived on his steamer, and, to our great disappointment, we learned that the Julia would not start on the trip down the inlet until after the return of the Virginia Lake from the north, which would probably be on Friday or Saturday. The Labrador summer being woefully short, Hubbard felt that every hour was precious, and he chafed under our enforced detention. We were necessarily going into the interior wholly unprepared for winter travel, and hence must complete our work and make our way out of the wilderness before the rivers and lakes froze and canoe travel became impossible. Hubbard felt the responsibility he had assumed, and could imagine the difficulties that awaited us should his plans miscarry. Accordingly, he began to look around immediately among the fishermen and livyeres for someone with a small boat willing to take us down the fifty miles to Rigolet. Finally, after much persuasion and an offer of fifteen dollars, he induced a young livyere, Steve Newell by name, to undertake the task.

Steve was a characteristic livyere, shiftless and ambitionless. He lived a few miles down the inlet with his widowed mother and his younger brothers and sisters. For a week he would work hard and conscientiously to support the family, and then take a month's rest. We had happened upon him in one of his resting periods, but as soon as Hubbard had pinned him down to an agreement he put in an immediate plea for money.

"I'se huntin' grub, sir," he begged. "I has t' hunt grub all th' time, sir. Could 'un spare a dollar t' buy grub, sir?"

Hubbard gave him the dollar, and he forthwith proceeded to the trader's hut to purchase flour and molasses, which, with fat salt pork, are the great staples of the Labrador natives, although the coast livyeres seldom can afford the latter dainty. While we were preparing to start, Hubbard asked Steve what he generally did for a living.

"I hunts in winter an' fishes in summer, sir," was the reply.

"What do you hunt?

"Fur an' partridges, sir. I trades the fur for flour and molasses, sir, an' us eats th' partridges."

"What kind of fur do you find here?"

"Foxes is about all, sir, an' them's scarce; only a chance one, sir."

"Do you catch enough fur to keep you in flour and molasses?"

"Not always, sir. Sometimes us has only partridges t' eat, sir."

We started at five o'clock in the evening in Steve's boat, the Mayflower, a leaky little craft that kept one man pretty busy bailing out the water. She carried one ragged sail, and Steve sculled and steered with a rough oar about eighteen feet long. An hour after we got under way a blanket of grey fog, thick and damp, enveloped us; but so long are the Labrador summer days that there still was light to guide us when at eleven o'clock Steve said:

"Us better land yere, sir. I lives yere, an' 'tis a good spot t' stop for th' night, sir."

I wondered what sort of an establishment Steve maintained, and drawing an inference from his personal appearance, I had misgivings as to its cleanliness. However, anything seemed better than chilling fog, and land we did—in a shallow cove where we bumped over a partly submerged rock and manoeuvred with difficulty among others, that raised their heads ominously above the water. As we approached, we made out through the fog the dim outlines, close to the shore, of a hut partially covered with sod. Our welcome was tumultuous—a combination of the barking of dogs and the shrill screams of women demanding to know who we were and what we wanted. There were two women, tall, scrawny, brown, with hair flying at random. The younger one had a baby in her arms. She was Steve's married sister. The other woman was his mother. Each was loosely clad in a dirty calico gown. Behind them clustered a group of dirty, half-clad children.

Steve ushered us into the hut, which proved to have two rooms, the larger about eight by ten feet. The roof was so low that none of us could stand erect except in the centre, where it came to a peak. In the outer room were two rough wooden benches, and on a rickety table a dirty kerosene lamp without a chimney shed gloom rather than light. An old stove, the sides of which were bolstered up with rocks, filled the hut with smoke to the point of suffocation when a fire was started. The floor and everything else in the room were innocent of soap and water.

George made coffee, which he passed around with hardtack to everybody. Then all but Steve and our party retired to the inner room, one of the women standing a loose door against the aperture. Steve curled up in an old quilt on one of the benches, while Hubbard, George and I spread a tarpaulin on the floor and rolled in our blankets upon it.

We were up betimes the next morning after a fair night's sleep on the floor. We again served hardtack and coffee to all, and at five o'clock were once more on our way. A thick mantle of mist obscured the shore, and Hubbard offered Steve a chart and compass. "Ain't got no learnin', sir; I can't read, sir," said the young livyere. So Hubbard directed the course in the mist while Steve steered. Later in the day the wind freshened and blew the mist away, and at length developed into a gale. Finally the sea rose so high that Steve thought it well to seek the protection of a harbour, and we landed in a sheltered cove on one of the numerous islands that strew Hamilton Inlet, where we then were—Big Black Island, it is called.

George had arisen that morning with a lame back, and when we reached the island he could scarcely move. The place was so barren of timber we could not find a stick long enough to act as a centre pole for our tent, and it was useless to try to pitch it. However, the moss, being thick and soft, made a comfortable bed, and after we had put a mustard plaster on George's back to relieve his lumbago, we rolled him in two of our blankets under the lee of a bush and let him sleep. Then, as evening came on, Hubbard and I started for a stroll along the shore. The sun was still high in the heavens, and the temperature mildly cool.

A walk of a mile or so brought us to the cabin of one Joe Lloyd, a livyere. Lloyd proved to be an intelligent old Englishman who had gone to Labrador as a sailor lad on a fishing schooner to serve a three-years' apprenticeship. He did not go home with his ship, and year after year postponed his return, until at last he married an Eskimo and bound himself fast to the cold rocks of Labrador, where he will spend the remainder of his life, eking out a miserable existence, a lonely exile from his native England.

After he had greeted us, Lloyd asked: "Is all the world at peace, sir?" He had heard of the Boer war, and was pleased when we told him that it had ended in a victory for the British arms. His hunger for news touched us deeply, and we told him all that we could recall of recent affairs of public interest. I have said that his hunger for news touched us. As a matter of fact, few things have impressed me as being more pathetic than that old man's life up there on that isolated and desolate island, where he spends most of his time wistfully longing to hear something of the great world, and painfully recalling the pleasant memories of his childhood's home and friends, and the green fields and spring blossoms he never will know again. And Lloyd's story is the story of perhaps the majority of the settlers on The Labrador.

The old man had a fresh-caught salmon, and we bought it from him. We then sat for a few minutes in his cabin. This was a miserable affair, not exceeding eight by ten feet, and, like Steve's home, so low we could not stand erect in it. The floor was paved with large, flat stones, and the only vent for the smoke from the wretched fireplace was a hole in the roof. Midway between the fire and the hole hung a trout drying. In this room Lloyd and his Eskimo wife live out their life. During our visit the wife sat there without uttering a word. Her silence was characteristic; for, somewhat unlike our women, the women of Labrador talk but little.

When we had bidden Lloyd farewell, we carried the salmon we had obtained from him back to camp, where Hubbard tried to plank it on a bit of wreckage picked up on the shore. It fell into the fire, and there was great excitement until, by our united efforts, we had rescued it, and had seen part of it safely reposing in the frying pan, while Steve set to work boiling the remainder in our kettle with slices of bacon. As the gale continued to blow, it was decided that we should remain in camp until early morning. Hubbard directed Steve to pull the boat around to a place where it would be near the water at low tide. He and I then threw down the tent, lay on it, pulled a blanket over us and prepared for sleep. It was about eleven o'clock, and darkness was just beginning to fall. Out in the bay a whale was blowing, and in the distance big gulls were screaming. It was our first night out in the open in Labrador, and all was new and entrancing; and as slumber gradually enwrapped us, it seemed to us that we had fallen upon pleasant times.

At one o'clock (Friday morning) we awoke. By the light of the brilliant moon we made coffee, called George and Steve and ate our breakfast of cold salmon and hardtack. George's lumbago was very bad, and he was unable to do any work. The rest of us portaged the outfit two hundred yards to the boat, which, owing to Steve's miscalculations as to the tide, we found high and dry on the rocks. Working in the shallow water, with a cloud of mosquitoes around our heads, it took us until 4.30 o'clock to launch her, by which time daylight long since had returned.

Once more afloat, we found that the wind had entirely died away, and Steve's sculling pushed the boat along but slowly. Grampuses raised their big backs everywhere, and seals, upon which they prey, were numerous. The water was alive with schools of caplin. At eleven o'clock we made Pompey Island, a mossy island of Laurentian rock about thirty-five miles from Indian Harbour. Here we stopped for luncheon, and after much looking around, succeeded in finding enough sticks to build a little fire. I made flapjacks, and Hubbard melted sugar for syrup.

While we were eating, I discovered in the far distance the smoke of a steamer. We supposed it to be the Julia Sheridan. Rushing our things into the boat, we put off as quickly as possible to intercept her. We fired three or four shots from our rifle, but got only a salute in recognition. Then Hubbard and I scramble into the canoe, which we had in tow, and began to paddle with might and main to head her off. As we neared her, we fired again. At that she came about—it was the Virginia Lake. They took us on board, bag, baggage, and canoe, and Steve was dismissed.

In an hour we were in sight of Rigolet, and I saw a Hudson's Bay Company Post for the first time in my life. As our steamer approached, a flag was run up in salute to the top of a tall staff, and when it had been caught by the breeze, the Company's initials, H. B. C., were revealed. The Company's agents say these letters have another significance, namely, "Here Before Christ," for the flag travels ahead of the missionaries.

The reservation of Rigolet is situated upon a projection of land, with a little bay on one side and the channel into which Hamilton Inlet narrows at this point on the other. Long rows of whitewashed buildings, some of frame and some of log, extend along the water front, coming together at the point of the projection so as to form two sides of an irregular triangle. A little back of the row on the bay side, and upon slightly higher ground, stands the residence of the agent, or factor as he is officially called, this building being two stories high and otherwise the most pretentious of the group. It is commonly called the "Big House," and near it is the tall flagstaff. Between the rows of buildings and the shore is a broad board walk, which leads down near the apex of the triangle to a small wharf of logs. It was at this wharf that our little party landed.

Hubbard presented his letter of introduction from Commissioner Chipman of the Hudson's Bay Company to Mr. James Fraser, the factor, and we received a most cordial welcome, being made at home at the Big House. We found the surroundings and people unique and interesting. There were lumbermen, trappers, and fishermen—a motley gathering of Newfoundlanders, Nova Scotians, Eskimos and "breeds," the latter being a comprehensive name for persons whose origin is a mixture in various combinations and proportions of Eskimo, Indian, and European. All were friendly and talkative, and hungry for news of the outside world.

Lying around everywhere, or skulking about the reservation, were big Eskimo dogs that looked for all the world like wolves in subjection. We were warned not to attempt to play with them, as they were extremely treacherous. Only a few days before a little Eskimo boy who stumbled and fell was set upon by a pack and all but killed before the brutes were driven off. The night we arrived at Rigolet the pack killed one of their own number and ate him, only a little piece of fur remaining in the morning to tell the tale.

Within an hour after we reached the post, Dr. Simpson arrived on the Julia Sheridan; but as he had neglected to bring the mail for Northwest River Post that the Virginia Lake had left at Indian Harbour, he had to return at once. Dr. Simpson not being permitted by his principles to run his boat on Sunday, unless in a case of great necessity, we were told not to expect the Julia Sheridan back from Indian Harbour until Monday noon; and so we were compelled to possess our souls in patience and enjoy the hospitality of Mr. Fraser. I must confess that while I was anxious to get on, I was at the same time not so greatly disappointed at our enforced delay; it gave me an opportunity to see something of the novel life of the post.

While at Rigolet we of course tried to get all the information possible about the country to which we were going. No Indians had been to the post for months, and the white men and Eskimos knew absolutely nothing about it. At length Hubbard was referred to "Skipper" Tom Blake, a breed, who had trapped at the upper or western end of Grand Lake. From Blake he learned that Grand Lake was forty miles long, and that canoe travel on it was good to its upper end, where the Nascaupee River flowed into it. Blake believed we could paddle up the Nascaupee some eighteen or twenty miles, where we should find the Red River, a wide, shallow, rapid stream that flowed into the Nascaupee from the south. Above this point he had no personal knowledge of the country, and advised us to see his son Donald, whom he expected to arrive that day from his trapping grounds on Seal Lake. Donald, he said, had been farther inland and knew more about the country than anyone else on the coast.

Donald did arrive a little later, and upon questioning him Hubbard learned that Seal Lake, which, he said, was an expansion of the Nascaupee River, had been the limit of his travels inland. Donald reiterated what his father had told us of Grand Lake and the lower waters of the Nascaupee, adding that for many miles above the point where the Nascaupee was joined by the Red we should find canoe travel impossible, as the Nascaupee "tumbled right down off the mountains." Up the Nascaupee as far as the Red River he had sailed his boat. He had heard from the Indians that the Nascaupee came from Lake Michikamau, and he believed it to be a fact. This convinced us that the Nascaupee was the river A. P. Low, of the Geological Survey, had mapped as the Northwest. The Red River Donald had crossed in winter some twenty miles above its mouth, and while it was wide, it was so shallow and swift that he was sure it would not admit of canoeing. He could not tell its source, and was sure the Indians had never travelled on it. In answer to Hubbard's inquiries as to the probability of our getting fish and game, Donald said there were bears along the Nascaupee, but few other animals. He had never fished the waters above Grand Lake, but believed plenty of fish were there. On Seal Lake there was a "chance" seal, and he had taken an occasional shot at them, but they were very wild and he had never been able to kill any.

Strange as it may seem, none of the men with whom we talked mentioned that more than one river flowed into Grand Lake, although they unquestionably knew that such was the case. Their silence about this important particular was probably due to the fact, that while the Labrador people are friendly to strangers, they are somewhat shy and rarely volunteer information, contenting themselves, for the most part, with simple answers to direct questions. Furthermore, they are seldom able to adopt a point of view different from their own, and thus are unable to realise the amount of guidance a stranger in their country needs. In fact I discovered later that Skipper Blake and his son, who have spent all their lives in the vicinity of Hamilton Inlet, never dreamed anyone could miss the mouth of the Nascaupee River, as they themselves knew so well how to find it.

We were sitting in the office of the post on Sunday, comfortably away from the fog that lay thick outside, when we were startled by a steamship whistle. Out we all ran, and there, in the act of dropping her anchor, was the Pelican, the company's ship from England. In the heavy fog she had stolen in and whistled before the flag was raised, which feat Captain Grey, who commands the Pelican, regarded as a great joke on the post. Once a year the Pelican arrives from England, and the day of her appearance is the Big Day for all the Labrador posts, as she brings the year's supplies together with boxes and letters from home for the agents and the clerks. From Rigolet she goes to Ungava, then returns to Rigolet for the furs there and once more steams for England.

We found Captain Grey to be a jolly, cranky old seadog of the old school. He has been with the Hudson's Bay Company for thirty years, and has sailed the northern seas for fifty. He shook his head pessimistically when he heard about our expedition. "You'll never get back," he said. "But if you happen to be at Ungava when I get there, I'll bring you back." "Sandy" Calder, the owner of lumber mills on Sandwich Bay and the Grand River, who came from Cartwright Post on Sandwich Bay with Captain Grey on the Pelican, also predicted the failure of our enterprise. But Hubbard said to me that he had heard such prophecies before; that they made the work seem all the bigger, and that he could do it and would.

At noon on Monday Dr. Simpson came with the Julia Sheridan, and we said good-bye to Rigolet. The voyage down the inlet to Northwest River Post was without incident, except that the good doctor was much concerned as to the outcome of our venture, saying: "Don't leave your bones up there to whiten, boys, if you can possibly help it." We reached Northwest River at two o'clock on Tuesday afternoon, and found the post to be much the same as Rigolet, except that its whitewashed buildings were all strung out in one long row. The welcome we received from Mr. Thomas Mackenzie, the agent there in charge, was most gratifying in its heartiness. Mr. Mackenzie is a bachelor, tall, lean, high-spirited, and the soul hospitality. Hubbard promptly dubbed him a "bully fellow." Probably this was partly due to the fact that he was the first man in Labrador to give us any encouragement. We had not been there an hour when he became infected with Hubbard's enthusiasm and said he would pack up that night and be ready to start with us in the morning, if he only were free to do so.

To our great disappointment and chagrin, we found that Mackenzie had no fish nets to sell. We had been unable to obtain any at Rigolet, and now we were told that none was to be had anywhere in that part of Labrador. Hubbard realised fully the importance of a gill net as a part of our equipment and had originally intended to purchase one before leaving New York; but he was advised by Mr. A. P. Low of the Canadian Geological Survey that it would be better to defer its purchase until we reached Rigolet Post or Northwest River, where he said we could get a net such as would be best adapted to the country. Hubbard had no reason to doubt the accuracy of this information, as Mr. Low had previously spent several months at these posts when engaged in the work of mapping out the peninsula. Conditions, however, had changed, unfortunately for us, since Mr. Low's visit to Labrador. Seeing the quandary we were in, Mackenzie got out an old three-inch gill net that had been lying in a corner of one of his buildings. He said he was afraid it was worn out, but if we could make any use of it, we might take it. We, too, had our doubts as to its utility; but, as it was the best obtainable, Hubbard accepted it thankfully and Mackenzie had two of his men unravel it and patch it up.

During the afternoon we got our outfit in shape, ready for the start in the morning. Following is a summary of the outfit taken from an inventory made at Indian Harbour: Our canoe was 18 feet long, canvas covered, and weighed about 80 pounds. The tent was of the type known as miner's, 6 1/2 x 7 feet, made of balloon silk and waterproofed. We had three pairs of blankets and one single blanket; two tarpaulins; five duck waterproof bags; one dozen small waterproof bags of balloon silk for note books; two .45-70 Winchester rifles; two 10-inch barrel .22-calibre pistols for shooting grouse and other small game; 200 rounds of .45-70 and 1,000 rounds of .22-calibre cartridges; 3 1/4 x 4 1/4 pocket folding kodak with Turner-Reich Verastigmat lens; thirty rolls of films of one dozen exposures each, in tin cans, waterproofed with electricians' tape; a sextant and artificial horizon; two compasses and our cooking utensils and clothing.

At Indian Harbour we had four 45-pound sacks of flour, but Hubbard gave one sack to the pilot of the Julia Sheridan, and out of another sack he had given the cook on the Julia sufficient flour for one baking of bread, and we had also used some of this bag on our way from Indian Harbour to Rigolet. This left two 45-pound bags and about thirty pounds in the third bag, or 120 pounds in all. There were, perhaps, 25 pounds of bacon, 13 pounds lard, 20 pounds flavoured pea meal, 9 pounds plain pea flour in tins, 10 pounds tea, 5 pounds coffee, 8 pounds hardtack, 10 pounds milk powder, 10 pounds rice, 8 pounds dried apples, 7 pounds salt, 7 or 8 pounds tobacco and 30 pounds sugar.

This outfit, it will be remembered, was designed for three men. Hubbard tried to hire some of the native to accompany us a few miles into the interior and carry additional provisions that we might cache, but failed; they were all "too busy."

Mackenzie treated us royally during the evening we spent at his post, and we enjoyed his hospitality to the utmost, knowing that it was to be our last night under shelter for weeks to come. Now we were on the very edge of the wilderness. To-morrow we should enter the unknown.

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