North of Sixty-four
Being a chapter from the adventures of one who filled the unique role of scribe-prospector in the mining pioneers’ Great Push to wrest from Nature the secrets of Canada's northern hinterland
THE candle, standing on a ledge of snow, sputtered, and the flame shrank until it was a jumping pinpoint of blue. Suddenly it flared up, left a smudge of black on the wall of the igloo; threw grotesque, dancing shadows across the floor. It threw into sudden relief the grub box standing on a bench of snow, the litter of tin cups and plates, the sleeping skins, a canvas kit-bag, a lard pail, the Primus stove. It made the snow walls and roof glitter with myriad pin-points of light. It touched Akput, cross-legged and impassive, on the sleeping-bench—made him look like a golden Buddha. Outside the wind hissed; a dog stirred restlessly.
I lit my pipe, pulled out a map and traced the course
we had followed during the day. Just half an inch on the map—half an inch of blank paper. Between puffs I lived through the day again; plodded in memory across the smooth white plain—and the half inch lengthened to thirty weary miles. Every incident of the day flashed through my mind with the timelessness of a dream. Half an inch of blank paper— I laughed.
I remembered waking at five o’clock, lighting the candle, lighting the Primus for breakfast. And afterwards, packing the comatilc, lashing it, harnessing the dogs. Each weary step of the journey I took again ... I remembered counting, counting, counting—five thousand steps and a smoke . . . “Sixty-six, sixty-seven, sixty-eight—wonder what will happen if the dogs give out; wonder if we are going to strike the caribou today; devil take my nose, it’s started to freeze again ! Where was I? Better cheat myself and start the hundred over again— One, two, three, four . . .”
Yesterday was the same. Tomorrow . . .
Akput stirred restlessly. “Tomorrow we stay here. Plenty wind, plenty drift. No good.”
“Maybe no wind tomorrow?” I suggested.
He shook his head. “Listen.”
We could hear the wind sweeping over the hill behind us; hear the splatter of snow against the igloo. Outside, even in broad daylight, it would be impossible to see half a dozen yards. And it was bitterly cold; thirty-seven below, my thermometer registered.
“Maybe we stay two, three days,” said Akput. “Wind only just started.”
It was not a pleasing prospect. An igloo is an uncomfortable place in which to spend even a day. We had with us only enough fuel for cooking purposes and we must economize with this if delayed. We were short of grub and right out of dog food.
“Have to push on if we can see at all,” I said aloud. “No good fooling around here.”
To my surprise Akput heard and understood. He shook his head.
“What do you seek that you are forever going on and on?” he asked in Eskimo. “This is no longer the land of my fathers. You white men are changing everything. The company’s men we understand; their ways do not change. They look for foxes. But what do you seek? Is it true that you are rock hunters?”
I nodded and pointed to a gold ring which he carried. “Gold—that’s what we’re after.”
He nodded and was silent. Like most Eskimos he rarely questioned the motives of the foreigner; rarely displayed curiosity. Even when, an airplane swept across the Barrens for the first time there was no great excitement among the natives. They looked once; that was all.
“Ah, these white men,” said an old hunter, “what will they think of next?” He shrugged his shoulders as if to say: “And since the white man has done it, why should we marvel at this thing more than we marvel at a thunderstorm?”
“What do you seek?” said Akput, and though I told him gold, his question set me wondering, for that was only half the answer—the answer he might have got from a company prospectus. There were other reasons— subtle ones—which company presidents never mention in their annual reports to the shareholders . . . “Better change that,” says such an one to his stenographer. “Cut out from ‘Extending the Empire of Things’ down to ‘civilization.’ Shareholders don’t understand that stuff. They’ll think I’m goofy if I don’t give ’em gold, gold, gold . . .”
That’s why I didn’t explain to Akput; yet curiously I have an idea that he knows and understands.
And anyway we were searching for gold and other precious metals north of sixty-four—beyond the last frontier.
On the Ungava-Yukon Line
THE attack on the north, which began last year and is continuing this, was undertaken by rival exploration companies, chief among which were Northern Aerial Minerals Exploration, Limited, and Dominion Explorers, Limited. I was attached to the former in the unique rôle of scribe-prospector. Our organization reminded one of a military expedition with a battle-line stretching from Ungava to the Yukon. My particular sector of the front was on the west coast of Hudson Bay, a scant hundred miles from the Arctic Circle.
In the early summer of 1928 we outfitted a schooner at Saint John, N.B., and set sail for the north. After a call at Newfoundland for oil and water we travelled along the inlet-pitted coast of Labrador to Cape Chidley —landfall for many of the old world mariners seeking the Northwest Passage. It was late in July when we entered Hudson Straits, but even at that season there was a good deal of ice in sight and a constant lookout was maintained for small bergs and pans.
It was not always possible to avoid them.
Late one night I was lying in my bunk when there came a terrific crash and the ship lurched drunkenly. Believing that we had struck a berg and were in immediate danger of plunging to the bottom I slipped on a mackinaw coat, went out on deck and strolled for’ard. Bill, the mate, was standing alongside the lookout.
“What was that, Bill?” I asked. “Did we hit something?”
He spat over the side—Bill was a great spitter—“Just grazed a pan,” he said. And then,.looking at me: “What did you come on deck for?”
“Came up for a smoke,” I said, “and a breath of fresh air.”
Bill spat over the side again. “You’ll find it chilly without your pants,” he said.
We called in at Wakeham Bay for water and met there the members of the Canadian Government expedition observing ice conditions in the Straits. From Wakeham Bay we sailed through the eastern entrance of the Straits into the Bay and thence to the fur-trading post at Port Harrison on the eastern coast. At this point we established a gasoline cache for our planes and I left in a small sailing boat to take two prospectors up the coast to the Kogaluk River.
It proved an exciting voyage. There is a great deal of shallow water off the east coast of Hudson Bay and although our boat drew only eighteen inches we were constantly aground. To add to our troubles we could not find the mouth of the Kogaluk River where there is reputed to be a rich deposit of copper. After exploring several deep bays we landed the prospectors near an Eskimo camp with instructions to search for the vein at their leisure.
On the return trip we encountered rough weather and a dense fog. Time and time again we were compelled to beat out to sea to avoid shoals. On one occasion when we were fifteen or twenty miles offshore, the steersman cried out that we were going to strike.
We rushed on deck. Ahead, through the fog, we could see seething water and white horses racing toward us. We could hear, too, the roar of waves pouring over a shoal.
Exactly what happened I never knew, for a swinging
boom carried me head first into the hold. When I clambered on deck again we were turned about, and less than twenty yards behind us was a jagged point of rock, now and then uncovered by the waves.
When we finally arrived at the schooner we were weary from lack of sleep and sleepless from excitement.
X TEAR Harrison, Frobisher found large quantities of mineral which he believed to be gold. He took to England three ships laden with it, but the master of the mint pronounced it iron pyrites. In spite of this definite disclaimer Frobisher succeeded in persuading Queen Elizabeth to advance him a thousand pounds that he might go back for more.
We found plenty of iron pyrites near Harrison, and we had, too, our first real glimpse of the riches of the Bay. As we lay at anchor in the harbor a number of Eskimos came aboard. Knowing that we were “rock hunters,” one of them brought with him a lump of metal as big as a man’s fist. The metal was found to be almost pure silver. Prospectors were left behind, when we sailed, to search for the lode.
Perhaps if Frobisher had fraternized with the Eskimos he might have found silver instead of iron. But fraternization was not the order of his day. He recounts in his journal that he strung six natives to the yardarm to teach them a proper respect for the white man.
I Our voyage round the Bay was never lacking in incident. At the entrance to Hopewell Sound, a few miles south of Portland Promontory, we grounded on a shoal about a mile from shore. It was impossible to get the schooner off without unloading the cargo, and this we proceeded to do.
Transshipping cargo into bobbing dories from a deck with a forty-five degree list proved a trying business. Five hundred pound drums of gasoline were swung over the side, taken ashore, rolled and twisted on to the rocks. We groped in the hold for crates—heavy crates, all splinters and nails. Day after day it was the same: more hot stinging ropes, more crates, more cumbersome drums. On the fifth day we succeeded in refloating the schooner and after loading again we sailed south.
A base to serve the east coast was established at Richmond Gulf and supplies of gasoline were left at strategical points. Eighteen prospectors were landed to work from the base and explore the mineral resources of the country.
When we reached Charlton Island in James Bay, word was received by wireless from Churchill that five of our prospectors had been flown to Baker Lake, with sufficient food to last until the arrival of the schooner. Baker Lake, which lies at the mouth of the Thelon River at the head of Chesterfield Inlet, has long been a district of interest to mining men. J. Burr Tyrrell, Canadian geologist, speaking of an area some little distance from there said: “There is an area of Keewatin and Huronian rocks similar to the conglomerates of Northern Ontario, which have been found to be so rich there, and these rocks are known to contain a certain amount of gold and copper.”
In view of this and other knowledge it was not surprising that there should have been anxiety at headquarters to rush men in as quickly as possible.
Flying Under Difficulties
'“PHOSE of us on the schooner proceeded on our some-
what leisurely way. We were buffeted in a storm for three days and driven a hundred miles off our course. We called at Churchill and left gasoline there. We put inshore two hundred miles farther north at Cape Eskimo and established a cache at that point. After bucking a gale of wind from the northwest we finally made Chesterfield Inlet.
Arriving at Chesterfield Inlet we could see, close inshore, an airplane made fast to a scow. The pilot, Captain Mat Berry, paddled out to us in a canoe. He told us that the five prospectors he had brought north were already out in the field and prospects looked good.
That same evening I left with Berry to fly the two
hundred miles to Baker Lake where our base was to be established. It was blowing hard when we left, the plane rocked and bumped like a dory, and the air bubble in the bank indicator moved to and fro like a pendulum. Twice we circled the Hudson’s Bay Company post and then like an arrow shot into the west.
Far below the swaying pontoons we could see the irregular outline of Chesterfield Inlet and stretching to left and right the inhospitable Barrens. From the air the country looked like a rocky sea shore after the tide has receded. Everywhere the rock was exposed and in the hollows we could see countless pools and puddles—blue as the wind-swept sky.
After flying for an hour and a half we reached the western end of Baker Lake. Five thousand feet below us we could see the blue water etched with tiny white ripples. Captain Berry brought the plane down in slowly-broadening figures of eight and at last we swept down to the water. To our dismay we saw that the white-capped ripples were actually six-foot breakers. The pontoons struck the crest of one; there was a terrific jolt, a roar as Mat opened the throttle and we shot into the air again. On the second attempt we landed safely, but the wind was so strong that it took us two hours to get the plane ashore.
A Close Shave
TT DID not take long to learn the
value of the airplane in the Barrens. “Worth more than a camel in the desert,” one of our party put it succinctly. And there was no need to bother about air ports and landing fields, for with lakes innumerable, we were rarely ever out of gliding distance of water. During the summer we covered many hundreds of miles and only once were we out of gliding distance of water. And by a freakish coincidence we had barely crossed that area when our engine konked out. I say barely crossed—we appeared in the very middle of it, and I, for one, felt that curious, chilling thrill that comes when death seems inevitable.
We were flying north along the Thelon River toward Schultz Lake.
For twenty miles there was no open stretch of water, and even from three thousand feet we could see that the river was a swirling rapid on which it would be suicidal to land. Below us, now rising, now falling, was a wide band of precipitous hills, grimly menacing.
There were three of us in the plane in addition to the pilot and we were all engaged in watching the ground below for two prospectors who had started to walk in to camp. There was snow on the ground.
Nobody said much, for it was difficult to make oneself heard above the roar of the motor. And then, quite suddenly, there was silence.
“Cripes!” I heard Paul, the mechanic say. “It sure would happen here.”
Captain Berry righted the plane from its first plunge, turned half round in his seat, and laughed. That eased the tension.
We braced ourselves for the crash which seemed sure.
A half minute passed. I looked at the altimeter. We seemed to be losing height perilously quickly. Berry swung the plane to one side, pointed over the top of the engine. There, sure enough, was a tiny lake girded by shadowy hills. We made it, but we cleared the hills narrowly.
Fortunately, the trouble was not serious. Two spark plugs had worked out. Paul replaced them and we were back in camp within half an hour.
The method of aerial prospecting which we adopted was simple and effective. We had with us geological Continued on page 49
Continued from page 17
reports and data secured from various sources regarding the formation of the country. From this material we developed a general plan of where to look, and, more important because we had a hundred thousand square miles of country to prospect, where not to look.
After deciding upon a general area geologically favorable for the finding of precious metals, we made it a practice to give it the “once over” from the air. It was little short of amazing the amount of information we were able to pick up when flying at an altitude of four or five hundred feet. It was often possible to tell the character of the rocks, the period to which they belonged; dykes and schisted areas were easily recognized and often veins of quartz could be seen scarring the hills. One of the most promising finds we made was spotted in this fashion.
After this cursory survey the next job was to find a good camping ground for the prospectors. This, too, could be best accomplished from the air. It was necessary to place them in such a position that they could cover a wide territory without crossing water. Then, too, it was essential that the camp be placed near a lake where the plane could land; a lake, if possible, with a sandy beach protected from northwest winds.
The northwest wind, which Conrad described as a bold, boisterous fellow, was easily our worst enemy throughout the period of the expedition. Rarely a day passed when it was not blowing half a gale, and often it reached a velocity of seventy and eighty miles an hour. The danger came, not when we were in the air, but when we were on the water, for with a high wind our plane was practically uncontrollable.
On one occasion we flew north to visit a lone prospector camped on a lake a little south of Wager Inlet. It was almost calm when we took off from the camp and we looked forward to a pleasant trip. But when we arrived at the prospecting camp and swept down to the lake, we were surprised to find that it was blowing a gale. Berry taxied the plane to the centre of the lake, but as soon as he stopped the engine we started to drift toward the shore. Ahead of us we could see jagged boulders and we knew that if we drifted on to them our pontoons would not last ten seconds—for pontoons, though made of hardened steel, are paper thin.
We carried on the ship a collapsible anchor—a tiny thing weighing not more
than six pounds. This was thrown overboard, but it made no appreciable difference to the speed at which we were drifting. Two of us clambered on to the pontoons and tried to paddle the nose of the plane into the wind. In this we were unsuccessful, but we did succeed in getting it into shallow water without mishap. And once there, we dropped off into the lake and held her steady.
After that experience the bold, boisterous fellow was a determining factor in the selection of camp sites. We did our best to avoid him, but in the end he got us, smashed a score of holes in the pontoons and finally wrecked the plane. But that is another story.
Transportation Is the Key
T5ECAUSE of the difficulties which •*-* pioneers face in the far north, there is a feeling that development on a large scale is out of the question. This is incorrect. It is the discovery and not the development of properties which offers the problem. The difficulties of development, when they arise, will be solved in the million-dollar fashion typical of Canada. Railways, tractors, ships—all will play their part in the scheme. The problem of prospecting and pioneering now under way is more serious. The men undertaking the work are like scouts; they are ahead of the army and their line of communication with the base is nebulous.
The problems of the pioneer may be grouped under, three heads—fuel, food, transportation, and these three can be divided by the appropriate denominator and cancelled out to plain TRANSPORTATION (in capitals please). Everything hinges on that—transportation of supplies into Hudson Bay; transportation of supplies to the inland bases; transportation of supplies to the prospectors in the field.
As I have explained, we carried our supplies into Hudson Bay on a small schooner. Another exploration company succeeded in hauling many tons of freight by tractor from the end of steel on the Churchill railway to their base, five hundred miles north. They followed the frozen coast line of the Bay. For the future, no doubt, supplies will be taken to Churchill by railway and enterprising shipping companies will reap a rich harvest delivering to points beyond that. Eut no matter what system is employed in getting supplies to the base there is
only one practicable method of getting them to the men in the field: that is by plane.
Before the era of the plane it was possible for men to reach the Barrens, even travel through them, but they could not leave the navigable waterways—very few, by the way, in spite of the maze of lines on the map. They could not pack across country because of the maze of disconnected lakes; they could not make endless portages because in addition to food it was necessary to carry fuel—and as everyone knows who has shouldered a ten-gallon drum of coal oil—fuel packs heavy. A few men have succeeded in living off the country, but they were not prospectors. It took them all their time to live; they had none left to look at rocks. One such man was Hornby, the explorer. His body still lies in a shack on the very edge of the timber line, three hundred and fifty miles south west of our base. Experienced though he was, the hundred and fifty miles south west of our Barrens proved his undoing. By a curious irony there lies beside him in his shack the notes for a book he was writing; it is headed: “Land of Feast or Famine.” He died of starvation.
The plane reduces tragedies of this kind to a close limit, for both food and fuel can be carried to men during the whole of the prospecting season. Indeed, on our expedition, such organization work as there was resolved itself into a question of supplying food and fuel.
“Can we look at such and such a formation in such and such a place?”
Can we? There would be an impromptu conference—maybe in the cabin of the plane—something in this fashion:
Captain Berry, the pilot: “Let’s see, two of you and Paul and myself—figure that four hundred pounds . . .”
Mover of the proposal: “Paul don’t weigh two hundred. Hundred and fifty with his mukluks on.” Paul’s sealskin boots, which smelt exceedingly so, were a standing joke among us.
Mat Berry: “He won’t have ’em on— not in my plane. All right then, figure it three-fifty. Will you want the sectional canoe? I thought so, that makes four two five . . . tents, kits, stoves—say another three hundred . . .”
Loud protests from everybody, but on this question of kits Mat is adamant— won’t shave the weight a single pound. Had some before, he explains—pointedly. Three hundred it is, then; that makes it seven two five. For the extended prospecting trip proposed, two hundred pounds of coal oil and provisions will be needed.
“Yes,” says Mat, “we can make it all right as long as there isn’t glassy water for the take-off.”
Next day the party would leave, perhaps for a point three hundred miles distant. It was all very simple.
Simple? Pleasant, indeed, with bright skies and rippling blue water. But before the prospecting season was finished the north showed its teeth. We lost one man in a September blizzard, another lost both legs, and our schooner was wrecked on an uncharted shoal.
The North Shows its Teeth
AFTER I left by plane, the schooner proceeded by easy stages down Chesterfield Inlet, a hundred and sixtymile waterway fretted like a jig saw puzzle out of the pre-Cambrian rock. It was the intention of the master to sail through a narrow channel, marked on the latest maps with a dotted line, into Baker Lake, where the stores were to be unloaded and our headquarters established.
All went well until the schooner was a cable’s length from the lake, then came a gentle bump, shouting on deck—and disaster. The boat was hard and fast on a shoal. On the following day a gale blew up from the northwest, pounded her cruelly, punched a hole in the hull, and
snapped her keel as one would snap a pencil.
Those of us at the end of the lake waited impatiently for the boat to come. We wanted our stores, and lumber to build a shack. The same gale which completed the destruction of the schooner made it impossible for us to use the plane for a week, but at the end of that time we set out to look for the missing boat. We saw it from the air, listed so that its masts leaned over the water like spidery derricks. Men clambered about the decks, and midway to shore was a raft piled high with drums, crates and bags. We swept down to the water, taxied in close and clambered aboard.
It was pitiful. I thought of the once trim decks, my tiny cabin, the galley— cheerful meeting-place for midnight coffee. I remembered ship sounds; the creak of ropes, the different creak of timbers, the comforting drip and splash as her bow took the waves. I thought of the ship herself—a rollicking ship—she’d been in the rum trade and they named her Patrick and Michael, but for all her laughter she was sound, right to the stern post. With a breeze of wind on the quarter she’d play all kinds of tricks, but let it blow a gale and she rode the waves as steady as a dowager. And eager—I never knew another living thing so eager !
Well, she was done; deck cluttered with untidy rope ends, boxes, crates, boards, drums—dozens of drums. Gone—and a lot of hopes gone with her.
On the shore, about a mile from the wreck, was a deserted shack erected by a mounted police patrol years before. This we were able to convert into temporary headquarters and here the crew took shelter. Fortunately, we were able to salvage the greater part of the cargo and most of this was stored under cover. The evacuation of the crew proved a matter of difficulty, the freeze-up was imminent; our motor boat had broken down immediately after the wreck; there were too many men to be taken out in our single plane, and it would have been suicidal to winter them in, as they had only the clothes they wore. Fortunately, I was able to borrow a whaleboat from a fur trader and in this they travelled to the mouth of Chesterfield Inlet. At the Hudson’s Bay Company post at that point the crew were able to get passage in a small schooner to Churchill. From there they proceeded through the bush to the end of steel, then about forty miles distant.
A Tragic Trail
WHILE we were salvaging cargo from the schooner—making the best of a bad job—a more serious tragedy was being enacted at the far end of the lake. Two prospectors, Joe Rutherford and Tom Cowans, had been taken to a camp about forty miles inland from the base. In the last week of September a blizzard blew up, bringing with it blinding snow and intense cold. Owing to lack of visibility it was impossible to fly during the blizzard and we began to fear the lakes would freeze over before we could bring the men out.
As soon as the snow stopped—it was still blowing a gale—we took off in the plane and headed north to their camp. In my diary I find the following entry: “Blowing hard today, but decided to take a chance and fly in for Joe and Tom. We launched the plane and the wind blew us out into the lake; the ship rocked on the breakers like a toyboat. After an age Mat gave her the gun and we started forward. There was a jar as we struck each wave; the spray formed a cloud on
each side of us. At last we took off into the wind. It seemed to me that as soon as we turned, the wind, which Mat estimated at sixty miles an hour, would blow us upside down. We turned over the post, lurched, dropped, climbed dizzily, straightened out. The worst was over.
“. . . We swept down to their camp . . . There was something horrible about the tent. It was closed up and nearly covered with drifted snow; no sign of life at all. The wind was whistling over the drifts and we found it difficult to hold the plane inshore, so I jumped out, waded the icy water with a rope, and clawed my way up the snow bank. We were utterly miserable—hands freezing, feet and legs sopping and numb with cold, splashes of ice over our parkas. And behind us the tent.
“Less than a minute, I suppose it must have been that I was hanging on to the rope, yet in that minute my brain filled with imaginings . . . We tore away the lashings at the tent door; went inside. There was a note: “To All Whom It May Concern.” It said they had started on a ‘bunion derby’ for Baker Lake. It was a relief to know they were still cheerful.”
It was curious that presentiment of tragedy, for at the very hour we examined the deserted tent Joe Rutherford was hitting the last trail of all.
Ten days later Tom Cowans staggered into camp. He was exhausted, his feet were black, but he was able to tell us that Joe had died of exhaustion and exposure on the second day out. Tom owes his life to the fact that we had a plane. He was rushed south by Captain Berry as far as Churchill. In Churchill the plane capsized while Berry was attempting to take off and sank a minute or two later. Fortunately, a motor boat arrived in the nick of time to rescue the passengers. Cowans was taken to The Pas in a second plane and afterwards to Toronto where both his legs were amputated.
It is not surprising that when Arctic prospecting is discussed there is a sceptical somebody who says: “But if you find anything what good will it do you? Surely you don’t propose starting a mine up there?”
The answer: “Why not?”
Admittedly it is a difficult country to live in, but with modern methods of transportation there is no reason why properties cannot be developed if they are rich enough. And on that score there can be very little doubt. I have on my desk as I write, a very expensive paperweight. An assayer valued it at sixty dollars. It is a nugget of almost pure gold chipped off a vein somewhere north of Churchill.
“With a sizeable vein of that stuff,” said a prominent mining man, “we could operate at the South Pole.”
Now that the railway is through to Churchill the country surrounding Hudson Bay is as accessible as the Yukon, and it is very probable that if mines are developed near the coast their costs will compare favorably with mining costs in Northern Ontario and Manitoba. On the east coast there is abundant water power for the development of electrical energy and although the west coast is not so well favored, there are known to be large deposits of high grade coal a little to the north.
Even if it were found impracticable to work these deposits, there is no reason why the grain ships running from Churchhill to Europe should not bring anthracite as return cargo.
Some day the company president will announce to his shareholders “lucrative developments north of sixty-four,” and he will keep his own counsel about “advancing the kingdom of things” and gain much content thereby.
Editor’s Note ; This is the first of a series of articles by Mr. Lowe on prospecting in the North. The second will follow in an early issue.