THE GREAT REINDEER TREK
For five years Andrew Bahr and his men fought their way across the roof of the world with a herd of reindeer to try to make a dream come true in the Canadian Arctic. He won through and became a hero for a day. But it cost him his health and his wealth
A MACLEAN’S FLASHBACK
ON A HILL near Kotzebue Sound in northwest Alaska a stocky, slightly stoop-shouldered man stood gazing out toward the east where, somewhere behind the white rolling hills, lav the Barren Lands of northern Canada. It was Christmas Day, 1929. Andrew Bahr was reviewing his army before he set out to march it across the roof of the world.
It was perhaps the most unruly and exasperating army in history. It was deployed below him and it totaled 3,195 reindeer, three Laplanders —fellow countrymen of Bahr’s—a surgeon, six Eskimos and their families, and eight reindeer dogs.
The reindeer had been bought by the Canadian Government from the “reindeer kings of Alaska,” the Lomen Reindeer Corporation. Andrew Bahr was the deliveryman. His job was to herd the animals through some of the wildest and most desolate country in the Arctic to the east side of the Mackenzie River delta, in Canada, about 1,800 miles away.
The high purpose of the drive was to supply reindeer herds for Canada’s Eskimos, to try to wean them from precarious trapping to the more secure life of herdsmen. The trek was expected to take eighteen months to complete.
Actually it was not until February 1935, five years and two months later, that Bahr fulfilled his contract. He fought weather, wolves, flies, boredom and, above all, reindeer. All the herders who started the trek with Bahr deserted him before it was half over.
The journey was an epic of Arctic travel that caught the interest of the world but, more than that, it was the triumph of a handful of men over thousands of the most ornery creatures man ever herded. It was, says a government bulletin in a remarkable piece of understatement, “a unique event in the history of livestock management.”
Laplander Bahr, at 57, was the top reindeer man in North America. He was chief herder for the Lomens and chief warden of reindeer herds that numbered hundreds of thousands, descendants of a group of 1,200 brought from Siberia to Alaska in the years 1891-1901 by the U. S. Government.
When he began the great trek he was at the peak of a career that would have astonished his humble Lapp parents. By their standards he was immensely rich. The Americans paid him well just for doing the chores that were part of every Lapp’s life. He even owned property—
two apartment buildings in Seattle. He had a measure of local fame. At an age when most men are thinking of retirement he was eagerly starting an adventure that, for physical reasons alone, would terrify most men of 30. But Bahr was sure he would be equal to it. His sun-stained, wind-lined face and his chunky body had been toughened by a lifetime of Arctic toil.
Bahr went into the Arctic on this trek a vigorous man in top physical condition. He came out an old man, no longer fit for his life’s work. He went into the Arctic a moderately wealthy man. He came out financially ruined. It was a hard five years.
The trek was an attempt to save the Eskimos from the results of easy money. The white man, by teaching the Eskimo to trap white fox and paying him cash, had changed him from a hunter to a nomad trapper. But the white-fox market had dwindled, starvation was a yearly threat, and cannibalism had become a police problem.
To the harassed government men reindeer herds for the Eskimo seemed to be the answer, for the reindeer is really nothing more than a domesticated caribou and is considered to be the cattle of the Arctic. A royal commission recommendation started a hunt for grazing grounds and two Greenlanders, Erling and Robert Porsild, found these on the east side of the Mackenzie River delta.
The Porsilds reported the area large enough to support half a million reindeer, and recommended purchase of Alaska reindeer. Federal parliament voted $120,000 to establish the herd.
Erling Porsild went to Alaska to help Bahr make the selection. His brother Robert went to Aklavik on the Mackenzie to get ready for the reindeer. Thus the great trek began.
The start of the trek, and the first two years, not only caught the imagination of Press and public, but set some men to thinking about profits from reindeer. A Minnesota “reindeer-raising syndicate” sought permission to pasture herds on crown lands in Ontario’s Thunder Bay district. The Provincial Government turned them down —cheap reindeer meat and cheese would hurt the farmers.
In Calgary a man was charged with false pretenses. He had sold a Calgarian four “racing” reindeer at $450 on the story that he was promoting reindeer races in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, using Lapps as jockeys.
Selecting the animals gave Bahr and his men a foretaste of the actual trek. Once, when a herd of 10,000 from which the trek deer were to be picked was almost gathered, a blizzard hit suddenly. The whole herd panicked and scattered. It took eight days of anxious work to round them up again. Finally 3,195 were selected. The 195 were to replace losses on the trek but, actually, few of the reindeer which started the journey were alive to complete it. Their places were filled by births en route.
The route lay eastward, toward the headwaters of the Napaktolik River, then northeast through mountain passes to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, then east again along a 10-mile-wide, 250-mile-long strip between the ocean and the mountains. The first winter was to bring the herd close to the Canadian border.
That was the plan. The reindeer had other ideas. Bahr wanted to go east. The reindeer were determined to go back west. The first winter was practically a loss; a halt was called in March only about 200 miles from the starting point. Each storm panicked the deer and hundreds would break away for home. After them would go a party of herders and the small, short-haired, black-and-white reindeer dogs.
Dr. Ebnuson, the surgeon, froze his lungs and a runner was sent to the nearest radio transmitter to summon a plane to fly him out.
Spring, summer and part of the fall were spent resting, supervising the fawning and trying to keep the deer from stampeding under incessant insect attacks. More than 1,500 fawns were born that summer. Rather than kill off this unneeded surplus Bahr rounded up about 500 of the mothers with their fawns and had them driven back to Kotzebue Sound.
Finally in November Bahr got the herd on the move again. A relay system, using 15 dog-teams, was set up to haul supplies from the Alaskan coast. But when they reached the Hunt River in January the reindeer refused to cross. The glare from the ice confused the leaders. They would balk, scaring the others and the old wearisome roundup would take place again.
Bahr at last had to get his herders to clear paths across the river and carry snow out to them to cover the glare of the ice. It was slow work but it did the job. The crossing took most of the winter.
Then the party ran short of food, and supplies had to be flown in from the coast. That was the last contact
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The Great Reindeer Trek
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Bahr had with the outside world for many months.
Before the government lost contact with Bahr in the summer of 1931 it was still confident the herd would soon reach Canada. From Norway came three Lapp families to teach the Eskimos how to look after reindeer. Mattis Hatta, Mikkel Pulks and Assiak Tormesis, short blue-eyed men with wide sun-browned faces, arrived in Montreal, somewhat confused but happy at their good fortune. Their wages would make them wealthy men when they returned home at the end of their five-year contracts.
Preparations to receive the herd at Kittigazuit were rushed. But as the weeks of silence grew into months the waiting Canadians got restless for news. Finally, in January, 1932, Erling Porsild, then at Kittigazuit with his brother, and Mattis Hatta, set out to meet Bahr by fast dog-team. They found him on the north coast of Alaska near the Colville River delta, only about three hundred miles from his starting point.
The expedition was in bad shape. The previous summer all Bahr’s Lapp and Eskimo herders had deserted him. He managed to secure new crews locally but they were inexperienced. About one third of the reindeer herd had wandered off. After a two-month search they were found in the mountains far to the south but Bahr had to leave them there; he had no men to round them up. Bahr told Erling Porsild he did not expect to move much farther that winter; he was still training his new men. Porsild and Hatta returned to Kittigazuit.
Bahr’s plans for a fairly quiet winter were badly upset. It turned out to be one of the toughest winters ever recorded.
Wolves harried the herd. Caribou surrounded some and swept them along in their migration. Out into the snows the herders would go to catch the caribou horde and cut out the reindeer. To distinguish reindeer in a caribou herd was a little like trying to follow by eye an individual snowflake in a blizzard.
One shrieking storm drove more than 500 reindeer from the main herd. Bahr picked two of his replacements, Tom Wood, an Alaskan Eskimo, and his brother, Peter, to go after the strays. With them went their wives and their five children.
It took them six months to find the lost herd and bring it back. Once the party was a week without food except for a cupful of flour in the bottom of the sourdough pot. The deer were found, mingled with thousands of caribou, and it took days of wearying work to cut them out. The trip back was a bitter sequence of blizzards, wolves, flies, swollen rivers and steep mountain ranges.
Tom Wood later said he had never had things so tough. They traveled for days in storms at 70 degrees below zero. They couldn’t seek shelter for they had to keep up with the panicky herd. And the deer, as always, would head into the storms, taking them miles off their course.
The herders were clad, head to foot, in reindeer skins with double parkas. Sweat poured from them, freezing their clothes into suits of icy armour. Often they could not stop to change into dry clothing for 48 hours. They lived in double tents or, sometimes, rectangular snow shelters covered bv canvas.
During winter it was necessary to send someone ahead four or five days to seek pasture. Once, Tom’s eldest son was overdue two weeks on one of these forays. Tom went after him. A storm came up and he was lost for three days. Finally he burrowed in the snow and waited for death.
“I thought I was going to die, sure,” he said later. “I knelt in the snow and prayed a long time for help. Then away off’ I see a person. I go quick and find igloo. Lady come out and tell me to come in. For a long time I cannot eat anything. My wrists and nose a/id chin are all frozen.
“This lady was a trapper’s wife. I ask her, ‘Why you go out of igloo?’ She say: ‘Just to look over the hill and see how the storm looked, but I did not see you.’ ”
Tom was convinced God had answered his prayers. The first things he asked for when he finally got to civilization were foui hymn books and two Bibles.
Next winter (1932-33) was, if anything, worse. Erling Porsild said it was the worst of 17 he had spent in the Arctic. The herd was on the 10-mile strip of coast between the mountains and the ocean, west of the Mackenzie. Usually in this area the flow ice drifts against the shore and freezes there. With it come the seals, and on it men can fisli. That winter, easterly winds blew the ice away from the shore at freeze-up.
There were no seals or fish. The
usual caribou migration didn’t occur. That meant no ptarmigan, for the ptarmigan follow the caribou who clear the snow from the moss. Nor did the foxes, which follow the ptarmigan, come.
Bahr and his party were soon running out of food and furs. Their steers had long been butchered and they did not want to kill any of their dwindling herd. Fortunately Aklavik was little more than 100 miles away. Bahr sent messengers ahead on skis and supplies were flown in.
The winter’s troubles were aggravated by the attacks of starving northern wolves. Usually the herd moved at a leisurely eight to 10 miles a day. The wolf attacks would panic the deer and they would bolt 30 or 40 miles. The familiar, wearying routine of the roundup would begin once again. By the time they were collected the reindeer would be too exhausted to move for several days.
In the spring of 1933 the herd reached Canadian territory. It totaled 2,100 animals, a net loss of more than 1,000 in the three-and-a-half years on the trail. Men and animals rested in the Blow River valley, less than 100 miles from Kittigazuit. They moved off again in the late fall, reaching the Mackenzie, the last major barrier, in January of 1934. Here the herd was given another rest before it began the tricky crossing of the delta, a 70-mile stretch of ice dotted with low rocky islands.
Bahr planned to drive the animals right across on the ice without stops because there was little feed on the islands. He picked a bad year for his attempt. The winter of 1933-34 was the coldest and most stormy recorded in the delta region. For eight weeks in midwinter the temperature never rose above 35 degrees below zero.
Late in January Bahr was joined by Hatta and the other Lapps and the crossing was started. Their luck was good until the halfway mark. Then the temperature dived to 48 degrees. A gale blew up and after the men had worked a day and a half without food and rest to keep the herd together they had to give up to save their own lives.
Erling Porsild later described what happened: “The herd split up into numerous small bands. After the storm 200 reindeer were thought to have perished . . . and the rest were scattered for a distance of 50 miles along the west side of the delta. Bahr with his Eskimo guide lost his way and very nearly froze to death, while three of the herders had their hands and feet severely frozen.” It took three weeks to round up the exhausted herd.
That fall Bahr made careful preparations for the second attempt. Caches of food for the herders and moss for the deer were set out at short intervals along the route as soon as the Mackenzie River froze over. Bahr was ready to order the start in December when a strong Chinook wind swept the delta. The snow disappeared from the river, leaving it smooth and slippery—impossible footage for the deer.
A duel began between Bahr’s patience and the tricky Arctic weather. Snow would fall. Bahr would order the start. Then winds would sweep the ice clear again. For weeks it went on with Bahr trying to quiet his restless herds through periodic gales.
Finally, in February, a heavy snowfall came. Bahr was ready for it. The herd crossed in record marches in three days. One week later gales again swept the river clear. It was snowless for the rest of the winter.
The reindeer had reached their new home almost four years behind schedule
—five years and two months after they left Alaska. On March 6 they were herded into the government corrals— 2,370 head of reindeer, few of which had started from Alaska.
On the last day of March a little stooped man, wearing a cloth cap and mukluks, with a blue canvas coverall over his furs, stepped from a plane at Edmonton. He seemed puzzled by the fuss that greeted him, though he posed amiably for photographs. He did not speak in reply to greetings.
“This is from your wife, Andy,” said a man as he handed Bahr a letter. The letter told Bahr that his two apartments had been sold to satisfy the mortgages. Bahr said nothing. In 1929, before leaving on the trek, he had invested all his savings in these buildings—$55,000. He had borrowed $55,000 more. The depression had killed his investment. The $15,000 he was paid for the trek did not cover his mortgage and he was ruined.
Bahr gradually warmed up, though he talked only in monosyllables with many gestures. He looked older than his 62 years—in five years he had aged 10. He was hard of hearing. He had no teeth. The Arctic had left its mark.
In Edmonton he was outfitted with new clothes. He seemed pleased with them, shuffling along the pavement in the unaccustomed shoes.
He was met in Vancouver by his wife and daughter and then went on to Seattle where an “Andrew Bahr Day” was declared. Installed in a hotel suite he said, “It sure makes a nice little shelter cabin.” The crowds that followed him everywhere were “wors’n wolves at my heels.”
About the loss of his life savings he was resigned: “Sometimes things happen to a man.” He would not go back to the Arctic, he said. He would stay in Seattle. “Everything’s so warm down here. So warm and green.”
Andrew Bahr did stay in Seattle. He died there on May 2, 1945. He never went back to the Arctic.
Was Bahr’s courageous trek a success? Or were the years he gave the Arctic wasted?
Those who foresaw vast herds of reindeer with the Eskimo transformed from a hunter to a herder have been so far disappointed. Not that the deer haven’t thrived. They thrived from the start. But the Canadian Government wasn’t interested in setting up reindeer herds to be tended by government men for Eskimos. The object was to turn the herds over to the Eskimos. So far the success in getting Eskimos interested in reindeer herding has been limited.
By normal increase Bahr’s herd should now number more than 200,000 deer. Actually there are only about 7,000 animals in the Canadian Arctictoday. Why? The answer is that until the government can get the Eskimos more interested in reindeer herding it will, as it has in the past, trim the herds ruthlessly, using the skins and meat for emergency relief.
There are some signs that the Eskimo is willing to become a herder. Successful herding units were set up in 1938 and 1940 but the owners of the herds and their families all perished in the wreck of a schooner during an Arctic storm in 1944. The government had to take back their herds. Since then two more herds have been established under Eskimo management. They are doing well and the government hopes that this example will attract other Eskimos.
But the dream of turning the Arctic into a vast pastureland is still very much a dream. And only yellowing pages in newspaper files testify to the courage and the many sacrifices of Andrew Bahr. ★