When Life Hung on a Needle

A thrilling Arctic episode from the life of Canada’s Deputy Minister of Mines


When Life Hung on a Needle

A thrilling Arctic episode from the life of Canada’s Deputy Minister of Mines


When Life Hung on a Needle

A thrilling Arctic episode from the life of Canada’s Deputy Minister of Mines


THERE IS always a peculiar interest in revisiting the scenes of one's youth, particularly when those scenes are associated with incidentsof such a nature, whether tragic or amusing, that they cannot be

forgotten. My last summer’s flight of some 4,000 miles through Northwestern Canada was of extraordinary interest just because it brought back to me a number of such incidents which remained vividly in my memory in spite of a lapse of about thirty-five years since they, had happened; incidents that had occurred in the course of some three years travel by canoe and on snowshoes over a route that recently took me only ten days to cover by airplane.

The sequel to one of these incidents of thirty-five years ago was only disclosed to me last August by an old friend, D’Arcy Arden, as we stood talking of old times on the shores of Great Bear Lake while our plane was being refuelled for the flight southward. I relate the story here because it illustrates by what a very slender thread life hangs, and whether one lives or dies is frequently determined by a very small action which at the time appears to have little or no importance.

Guide Gone, Rifle Gone

rT'HIRTY-FIVE YEARS ago an expedition under the command of the late Dr. Macintosh Bell, of which I was a member, was engaged in the exploration of the north and east shores of Great Bear Lake. We had reached the site of old Fort Confidence on the northeast comer of the lake at the end of July, and from that point we started eastward across the Barren Lands to the Coppermine River, carrying blankets and a light outfit on our backs. We took provisions with us only sufficient to last two or three meals, but carried a rifle with the intention of living off the country. This was easily done because the cariboo were in thousands migrating southward, and we killed an animal whenever we wanted to eat, at breakfast, lunch or supper. Incidentally, the cariboo also provided us with footwear, for we made a pair of mocassins every night out of the raw hide of the animal.

At noon of the third day, after we had had our lunch, we proceeded on our way eastward, following a course indicated to us by our Indian guide, who said he would stop a little while at the lunch camp to cut up the cariboo

we had killed and would follow us later on. That was the last we saw of the guide, who as soon as we were out of sight, turned around and started back for Great Bear Lake. He had evidently become frightened at the signs of Eskimo that we had noted during the day, and as at that time the Indians were not on friendly terms with the Eskimo he decided that he had gone far enough into Eskimo territory and had better return. Unfortunately, for us, he took our only rifle with him on which we were entirely dependent for food and footwear.

We camped that night in a sheltered valley where there were a few stunted spruce trees and were able to make a good fire, but there was nothing to eat but a cariboo kidney that I had fortunately slipped into my pack at noon.

At this camp I had an interesting but unpleasant encounter with a polar bear, who, I am convinced, out of pure curiosity, forced me to back up against a rock cliff until he was only a few feet away from me. The bear was only induced to move on by the

noise I made in shouting at him, and when turned to run away appeared more frightened than I was.

The following morning there was no breakfast to be had and we were about seventy miles from our base camp on Great Bear Lake. After discussing the situation, Bell and I decided that we would like to see what was on the other side a range of hills that lay some miles to the northward. As might be expected, when we reached the summit of these hills there were others beyond, which drew us onward, and beyond these there were others again. In the afternoon snow began to fall, and by 4 o’clock we suddenly realized that our condition was becoming serious and some revision of our plans was necessary. We took what shelter we could in the lee of a huge boulder in order to discuss this situation. We

were tired, hungry, cold and footsore, and home seemed a long way off to two very young explorers. A short rest, however, revived our drooping spirits and we set out by compass, bearing directly across country for our base camp on Great Bear Lake.

Unfriendly Eskimos

W/ITHIN a few miles we caught sight of some people * * grouped together on a small hill who afterward proved to be Eskimo. Judging by their agitation they had also seen us; but while we were glad to see them because their presence meant food, they were evidently not so pleased to see us. We did not realize that strangers to them meant Indians and possibly enemies, because no white man had been in that country since the Franklin search expedition of about fifty years previous. So while we walked toward their camp, with, I confess, some feeling of nervousness as to the reception we might receive, we could see them hurriedly packing up some of their belongings and soon were running toward the hills behind the camp. The camp was situated on a low rounded hill a short distance back from the shore of a fairly large lake which now goes by the name of Rouviere Lake on the more recent map of the region.

The camp was completely deserted when we reached it. Men. women and children had fled. Much of their effects, however, had been left behind in the rush to get away— cariboo skin robes, clothing, arrows tipped with copper or bone, stone lamps, and what was most important to us, piles of cariboo meat. There was nothing in the camp to indicate that these people had had any contact whatever with white people. Everything was of local origin, food, clothing and implements. It was an encampment of Stone

Age people.

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When Life Hung on a Needle

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We spent some two hours in the camp but the Eskimo did not return, though we felt that they were watching us from no great distance away.

After a good meal of cariboo meat, we proceeded on our way, but before leaving I searched my pack for something that we could leave behind as an evidence of good will and a mark of appreciation for the food we had eaten. All that I could find that might be of some use to them were a few needles from my sewing kit. These, along with a tin plate, were left on a prominent spot where they could easily be found.

That night we spent the short hours of darkness in an uncomfortable camp in a cave in the rocks, but we were safe from attack from behind. The following morning as soon as there was light enough we continued on our way, but had to spend another unpleasant night without shelter from the falling snow before we could make our base camp on Great Bear Lake very late on the third evening.

That was the end of that incident.

Thirty-Five Years Later

IN AUGUST of this year, I flew over the same ground that I tramped over in 1900, making the trip comfortably from Cameron Bay to Coronation Gulf and back in about five hours. Our old route

could here and there be picked out. I could spot the place where I had the encounter with the polar bear. I was actually looking for the boulder in the shelter of which Bell and I sat in the snowstorm. The cariboo, the musk oxen and the wolves had disappeared, but I could easily identify the site of the old Eskimo encampment at the south end of Lac Rouvière. In the interval of thirty-five years, however, a great gap had been bridged in the progress and development of these Eskimo. I had passed from the Stone Age to the present age of highly developed civilization, for I was flying in a modern airplane equipped with radio and all the other instruments with which such a plane is usually equipped. When we reached the mouth of Coppermine River I shook hands with some forty or fifty Eskimo, some of these, perhaps, men who wanted to kill me thirty-five years ago but who now greeted me in a most friendly manner. While still using the old style skin clothing, they were equipped with modern rifles, sewing machines, radios or gramophones, and motor boats. They were no longer a Stone Age people but one which had become adapted easily and quickly to modem methods of living as far as these methods were applicable to Arctic conditions.

The experience of August. 1900, was gradually becoming little more than an interesting memory until actively revived

in August of last year by a conversation with D’Arcy Arden during my brief visit to Great Bear Lake.

Some years after my first visit to that country Arden had gone on a fur-trading expedition to the same region, and in the course of his operations established friendly relations with the Eskimo of the Coppermine River, the same group which later became known as Blonde Eskimo through the investigations of Stefansson.

Our Narrow Escape

THEY PROVED to be quite a friendly people, and Arden soon found himself on a very satisfactory footing with them. When in time he was able to converse with them, they told him the story of the visit of two white men to their camp some years previous—possibly the first many of them had ever seen.

They told Arden that on catching sight of us they first took us to be Indians, but when they found that we did not run away at the sight of them, they came to the conclusion that we must belong to the same race as the people who had visited the country many years ago of which their fathers had told them, visitors who belonged to one or the other of the expeditions searching for the remains of Sir John Franklin’s party.

They were naturally suspicious of all strangers, for the locality was not far from Bloody Falls on the Coppermine River where Samuel Heame’s party of Chipewyan Indians had, in 1772, slaughtered a band of Eskimo men, women and children in their sleep, and no doubt the story of this massacre had been handed down to these people from one generation to another.

They told Arden of having watched us from behind some rocks as we ate our meal in their camp. They were determined to kill us if it could be done without risking their own lives; but as their only weapons were arrows and broad, foot-long knives beaten out of native copper found in the neighboring hills, this could not be done without coming to close quarters.

When we left their camp in the evening some of the men followed us, and when we camped for the night in a cave in the rocks they still watched us, looking for an opportunity to get close enough to stick a knife into us. The chance did not come during the night because one of us always remained on guard while the other slept.

In the meantime our needles had been found in the camp, and from that time on our lives were safe. The Eskimo, however, did follow us all of the next day and part of the succeeding day until we were well out of their country. When we entered Indian territory near the shores of Great Bear Lake they returned to their own camp.

While we had our suspicions at the time that we might be followed by the Eskimo we never at any time caught sight of them, and these suspicions were only confirmed by D’Arcy Arden’s story of last August.

Human life has never been held in very high regard by these Eskimo and killings were indulged in sometimes for very trivial reasons. A few years after the visit of Bell and myself to this locality two Roman Catholic missionaries were killed in almost the same locality, and possibly the murderers of these two priests may have been the same men who watched for an opportunity to murder us also. Death by the thrust of a blunt, perhaps ragged-edged, copper knife is not one of the pleasantest things to contemplate, and it makes one shiver even after a lapse of thirty-five years to think what might have been the result if we had not left those few needles behind us in the Eskimo camp. Such a gift meant little to us, but to those Eskimo a steel needle was not only of great value intrinsically, but it carried a far greater significance in that it was a mark of friendship and good will, a fact which meant the difference between life and death to us. Life is said sometimes to hang by a thread. In this case, it hung on a needle.