GENERAL ARTICLES

HERSCHEL ISLAND

RICHARD FINNIE May 15 1933
GENERAL ARTICLES

HERSCHEL ISLAND

RICHARD FINNIE May 15 1933

HERSCHEL ISLAND

GENERAL ARTICLES

RICHARD FINNIE

ONLY A TINY DOT at the upper left-hand corner of the map of Canada, Herschel Island is the most bizarre place within the Arctic Circle. It has been the hub of many thrilling adventures. A base for numerous scientific expeditions, it has seen the triumphant finish of Amundsen’s navigation of the long-sought Northwest Passage, and of Rasmussen’s three-year trek across Arctic America. More wealth may have changed hands there than in Dawson during the Klondike gold rush. Colorful and desperate characters of every race and nationality have lived, loved, fought and died around its bleak and rocky shores.

Between 1889 and 1906’ it was the Mecca for dozens of whaling ships, when a large bowhead whale was worth $10,000. The invention of a commercial substitute for whalebone suddenly brought the price down from $5 a pound, to 40c and less, and the whalers vanished from the Arctic in a year.

The traders at once appeared in their stead, as the value of fox pelts was then beginning to rise. While the whaling captains held sway, the local Eskimos were encouraged to stay near Herschel Island throughout the winter and slaughter large numbers of caribou to provide fresh meat for hundreds of sailors. Now they were urged to scatter far and wide and concentrate on trapping, leaving the island practically deserted except for a few weeks in the summer, when the trading vessels arrived from the South.

Fifty years ago, there were at least 2.000 sturdy Eskimos in the Herschel Island vicinity and around the adjacent Mackenzie Delta, but soon they were weakened by the white man’s food and habits of living, and ravaged by his diseases. Today there are but a scant 200, and nearly all of these are either immigrants from Alaska or the products of miscegenation. And Herschel Island is the melting pot.

I he island has developed into a sort of fairground to which annually gravitate, along with the Eskimos, many of the Western Arctic’s white inhabitants who, after long isolation at scattered trapping camps, must sell their furs, buy supplies, and above all unburden their souls to somebody, eat, drink and be merry, and gain contact through ships with a civilization that seems immeasurably remote.

A Strange Metropolis

HAVING JOURNEYED 2,000 miles

down the mighty' Mackenzie River to the Polar Ocean. I had mv first glimpse of Herschel late in July, just as the “fair” was opening. The island, which is rugged and barren and but twenty square miles in area, not far from the mainland, is frequented only at its southeastern side. Perched on a long narrow sandspit that protects the snug harbor of Pauline Cove from the open sea, are a dozen whitepainted dwellings and warehouses used periodically by the Royal Canadian

Mounted Police, the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, the trading companies and the missionaries. Facing the harbor are two or three solidly constructed buildings. which, still in good condition, were erected forty years ago by the whalers.

Some of those weatherbeaten old carpenters who toiled so industriously to complete the job before winter set in, now rest on the green, flower-strewn hillside above the settlement, their graves marked by simple wooden crosses. The action of intense frost has pushed a few of the coffins right out of the ground—better to await the Day of Judgment. Bleached skulls lie here and there on the moss, and in and out of them scurry little lemmings whose nests are hidden therein. Gouged out of the eternally frozen earth is a timber-reinforced cave wherein the whalers stored caribou carcasses in the summertime, and it is still in use. Near the whalers’ graves are more recent ones containing the remains of Eskimo victims of an influenza epidemic. Down in the settlement are their houses of sod and driftwood, since tabooed and falling into ruin.

Each day saw the arrival of several Eskimo-owned sailing schooners, fur-laden from Banks Island and various |>arts of the mainland coast. Paralleling one another, they lined up in festive array along the gravelly beach of Pauline Cove. From a half-dozen phonographs blared incongruous jazz while the Eskimos held reunion tea parties on deck. Each boat had its pack of sled dogs, and these were tethered on shore howling, snarling and fighting over their daily ration of salmon, yielded by nets kept constantly set.

With the Eskimos came a number of white and half-breed trapjxrs, all of them either noted characters themselves or the children of such. Foxes had been plentiful during the trapping season and nearly everyone felt prosperous. One native family had secured more than a thousand pelts —and the prevailing price was $85 apiece. What would the Eskimos do with so much credit? Well, they’d buy new schooners, all manner of household goods, fancy civilized clothing, rifles and ammunition. groceries, sewing machines, outboard motors for their canoes, phonographs and radios. One or two of them might even bank their surplus capital.

Arrival of the Ships

AMONG THE old-time whites was / \ Ole Andreason, who, now living a comparatively quiet life, luid in 1914 accompanied Vilhjalmur Stefansson on one of his most hazardous adventures a long trip over the drifting ice-floes north of Alaska, when they subsisted exclusively on seals and polar bears.

Then there was Bill Seymour. He, too, had been associated with the famous explorer, but his chief distinction was in being the acknowledged patriarch of the Canadian Arctic. For nearly forty years he had made it his home. Once the toughest of all the tough sailors in the whaling fleet, the hero of a legendary battle with Tom Sharkey, the old-time prizefighter, in a Honolulu saloon, he was still barrel-chested and powerful at almost eighty. He had just come from Coronation Gulf, and was looking forward to the

return of his daughter, Margaret, to the land of her birth after two years spent in Vancouver and San Francisco.

Pounding through the pack ice bordering the Alaskan coast, at least three ships were en route to the island. Wagers were made as to which would be the first to arrive, and the respective merits of ships and captains were heatedly discussed. There were the Baychimo of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Northern Whaling and Trading Comfiany’s Patterson, and the Mounted Police Inspection Schooner St. Roch. The latter happened to win out, but the others were anchored in the harbor within a couple of days. No one really cared very much even if he lost his bet. The fact remained that the ships had got through; whereas had they been too long delayed it would have resulted either in their having to retreat or in being irrevocably held in the pack, and the whole social structure of the Western Canadian Arctic would have been seriously affected.

Herschel Island at once took on the aspect of a very busy, if miniature and peculiar, metropolitan port. Seamen and Eskimos worked lustily to unload gasoline drums, sacks of coal, flour and sugar and miscellaneous cases and crates, which were stowed away in the warehouses or left on the beach preparatory to the commencement of trading.

The mounted police, in their rôle of customs inspectors and collectors, checked over the cargo of the Patterson, whose home port was Oakland, California. Through their hands had also to pass all fox skins to be marketed whites, crosses, silvers, blues and reds that the Government tax might be levied.

More interesting than the freight brought by the trailing ships were the passengers. Arctic trappers are adventurous and carefree, and their lives are punctuated by vivid contrasts. They will live ascetically and labor arduously for years to acquire a small fortune. Then, with few exceptions, they will hurry to the bright lights, travel luxuriously and spend money like water. Tliey quickly become broke, but by that time they are thoroughly fed up with civilization anyway. Most of them, having l»ad the foresight to invest in boat fare and an outfit, land back at Herschel Island with happy memories and a hangover, quite content and ready to renew their hand-tohand struggle with Nature.

Such were Carl Peterson and Fred Jacobsen, now on their way to humble trapping camps after having hilariously squandered a $25,000 bank roll in a few months.

A Northern Romance

MARGARET SEYMOUR created a sensation when she stepped off the Baychimo. Upon leaving for the South, she had been a shy and unpretentious half-breed girl. Civilization had metamorphosed her into a gay and self-possessed woman of the world; she had lost all resemblance to the blubber-saturated Eskimo of tradition.

She and her father were glad to be reunited, although he was rather overwhelmed by her chorus-girl aura. He became largely preoccupied with a case of whisky and a keg of beer which she had graciously presented to him. In the Far North one so seldom has access to liquor that it is customarily considered advisable to drink heartily whenever an opportunity is offered.

Margaret was the most popular young lady at Herschel Island. The sudden announcement of her engagement to Patsy Wyant, a white trapper, evoked no great surprise. It had been expected that someone would soon seek her hand, and Patsy was the most eligible of the unattached white men in the country, being youthful, highly thought of and affluent.

With its long dark winter and twentyfour-hours-a-day sunlight of its brief summer, the Arctic is a land of months of leisured routine climaxed by a few weeks of feverish activity when plans are rapidly made and executed. Patsy sought out the Anglican missionary and asked to have the ceremony performed immediately. Within a few minutes after Margaret had given her consent, a general invitation was extended to whites and natives alike to take part in the wedding celebration.

The ceremony was fantastic. Principals and witnesses, save the clergyman, had partaken freely of all the available refreshments, of which there was a goodly supply. Margaret giggled nervously, w'hile Patsy, all at once feeling the seriousness of his position, struggled through the ritual with comic solemnity and resolution. Old Bill Seymour was soon lulled to sleep by the stuffiness and comparative quiet. Huddled on a bench, he snored stertorously. When awakened to give his daughter away, he at first failed to grasp what was required of him and commenced to argue. He was finally persuaded to make the proper declaration, whereupon he grumblingly resumed his slumbers.

The missionary breathed a sigh of relief as he pronounced the pair man and wife.

Carrying a load of mail and two passengers, the first airplane ever to reach Herschel Island had flown that afternoon from Aklavik, 100 miles southeast in the

Mackenzie Delta. Prior to the ceremony, the pilot had volunteered to take the newlyweds for a honeymoon spin. When they were installed in the cabin, along with old Bill, who said he needed a breath of fresh air, the monoplane boomed away from shore in a cloud of spray that doused some of the Eskimos who watched entranced.

At the conclusion of the flight, the pilot laughingly asked the dusky spectators if they, too, wanted a ride and, somewhat to his astonishment, they assented eagerly. Though veritable stone-age people until a few' years ago, the Eskimos are seldom overawed by any of the white man’s inventions, but are quick to make intelligent use of them. There may be licensed Eskimo pilots before long. “I not afraid.” boasted one of the first to go aboard; “you turn him upside down if you like.”

Eskimo Humor

I HAD HEARD that the Baychimo was I due to weigh anchor some time the next day, her cargo being by that time almost discharged; and as I intended to sail eastward on her into the far country of the Copper Eskimos, I retired to the Mounted Police barracks to prepare a final batch of mail that would be taken to civilization via the Mackenzie River.

The building was quiet w'hen I entered, most of the policemen being busy elsewhere. In one corner of the living room was a small iron-barred cell, kept there for the purpose of detaining sundry law-breakers. There was a man in it now', an Eskimo who slept peacefully on a cot. I knew his story: He had been sentenced to a year’s hard labor at the barracks for having participated in the killing of another Eskimo. In view of there having been mitigating factors in the case, the police had tempered justice with mercy and the prisoner’s “hard labor” consisted of helping with the cooking and dish washing, and occasional solitary hunting trips to furnish his jailers with fresh meat. An affable and harmless fellow', he had no reason or desire to escape. Indeed, the cell door now stood ajar. The grim enclosure served merely as a bedroom.

To the primitive Eskimo tribes, for ever accustomed to meting out justice through blood feuds and who accept death with imperturbability, the white man’s law is still something of a mystery. In 1923 a Copper Eskimo named Alikomiak was sentenced to death at Herschel Island. The trial w'as conducted strictly in accordance with British legal procedure by a judicial party that the Government liad sent at great expense from Edmonton. Alikomiak

was allowed the freedom of the island previous to the trial and, having been told by someone that he would probably be hanged, he improvised a noose and proudly strutted about, wearing it round his neck as a prankish if ghastly symbol of his impending fate.

My letter writing at last finished, I went outside for a stroll. It w'as three a.m. The sun, which had scarcely dipped into the horizon at midnight, now shone brilliantly well up in the Northern sky. I paused before a warehouse, the door of w'hich was partly open. From w'ithin floated a series of muffled groans. What tragic episode was unfolding here? Investigation proved the source of the disturbance to be one of the local Eskimos fulfilling an engagement with an itinerant dentist from Edmonton, who, proceeding into the Arctic by the Mackenzie River, had been reaping a rich harvest in ministering to whites and natives w'hose teeth had long needed attention.

Three o’clock in the morning may seem an odd time for a dental appointment, but in the Far North one must get one’s business done whenever circumstances permit, and during the continuous daylight of summer, sleep is given secondary consideration.

Continuing to the side of the sandspit fringing the open sea, I came upon a crowc of Eskimos sitting on the beach, laughing and gesticulating. Their attention was being held by two sailors from the Patterson, wading around up to their knees in the Arctic Ocean and gazing wistfully into the distance. “Well, she’s gone; she’s sailed away without us,” said one. “It looks like we’ll have to swim after her,” bewailed the other and, placing his hands together in the attitude of a diver, he surveyed the chill waters speculatively.

The sad and befuddled mariners had been among the last of the wedding guests to start homeward and, being unfamiliar with the topography of the island, had gone to the wrong shore in search of their ship. The Eskimos had been enjoying the spectacle too much to set them on the right track.

Late that day the Baychimo sailed away eastward along the Arctic Coast to restock the Company’s farthest outposts and pick up their accumulated furs. The other ships and schooners, too, would soon be gone, and with them the island’s animation.

Humming with life and energy, the setting for romance and adventure galore, Herschel Island is one of the queerest, most fascinating places in the world—that is, for less than two months each year. The rest of the time it is frigid, windswept and forlorn, musing upon its memories and wondering what the future will hold.