I am writing these opening words on the deck of a stubby little tugboat bobbing along down the great water highway of the Mackenzie River system on its sixteen-day journey from northern Alberta to Aklavik on the Arctic delta.
It is a good place to begin a report on the north—that vague, unspecific term we Canadians apply to more than half our country - for the north lies all around me. Behind is the Athabaska country: tarsands that won’t give up their oil, salt too expensive to mine, and the biggest uranium production on the continent. To the west lie the fierce limestone crags of the South Nahanni valley where six companies are seeking oil, and beyond that the Yukon River which in the next generation will yield up twice as much power as the St. Lawrence Seaway. Over to the east, on the rim of the great Pre-Cambrian shield, sits the gold country of Yellowknife, and beyond that the tundra stretches off five hundred miles to Hudson Bay. And to the north the broad cold Mackenzie rolls endlessly on, a thousand miles or more to the Arctic sea.
Here is the heart of the north—a land empty of road and rail—and this enormous watercourse draining one fifth of Canada is its only highway. History moved down this river. Before these tugboats chugged downstream the romantic sternwheelers plied these waters. Before the sternwheelers came the fiat-bottomed York boats, gross with furs. And before the York boats were the explorers’ canoes. Hearne touched this watershed almost two centuries ago on his magnificent sweep across the barrens from Churchill to Coppermine. A few years later the dour Mackenzie traced it to its mouth. Franklin knew it more than a century ago before he vanished into the snows.
Entire towns and villages, entire mines, entire army camps have moved down this wet grey highway. Yellowknife came down this river. So did Port Radium and Norman Wells. The new town of Aklavik is coming down it now 265,000 board feet of it on the barge up ahead.
The name of our tug has the ring of the north to it. She is the Radium Yellowknife and the cargo aboard her five barges reads like a northern roll call, sulphur for the leaching plant at Port Radium, whisky for the oilmen at Norman Wells, a tractor for the reindeer station on the delta, speedboats for the Mounties at Arctic Red, fertilizer for the Oblate’s potato patch at Good Hope, and though this is only August—a crate of Christmas parcels for the Gilbey family who run the experimental farm at Simpson.
From the deck the country unrolls past us like a green rag rug, vast, empty, mysterious. It is the best month for travel in the north. The flies and mosquitoes are at an end, the temperature is in the mid-seventies, the river is comfortably high, the sand hill cranes speckle the cloudless skies. It is pleasant to sit here on the deck and contemplate the vastness of the north.
No one who has not seen it can fully comprehend the size and emptiness of this country. The Yukon and Northwest Territories encompass a million and a half square miles and less than one percent of Canada’s population. Here, on the Mackenzie watershed, is the most densely populated part of all. Yet for almost a day we have scarcely seen a sign of human habitation.
You could drop the British Isles in here and never notice them. Only five years ago an air-force flyer discovered three new islands in Hudson Bay, one twice the size of Prince Edward Island. No one had heard of them before. Where else in the world could a river, 190 miles long, be lost for almost a century? This happened to the Hornaday, which flows into the Arctic north of Great Bear Lake. A missionary reported it in 1868. It wasn’t seen again until 1948. During that time nobody believed it existed. No white man has yet traced it to its mouth.
All through the Canadian north there is unmapped land still waiting to feel the white man’s moccasins. The idea tantalizes everybody but Canadians. Sometimes the north almost seems to be manned by foreigners. The Roman Catholic missionaries are largely French. The Protestants are largely English. The Hudson’s Bay clerks are Scottish. The tourists are nearly all Americans. “Young Canadians are damnably uninterested in the north,” says Lt.-Col. Pat Baird, the eagle-faced English explorer who has just retired as head of the Arctic Institute, a scientific society dedicated to exploring the north. Few of them apply for the grants the Institute gives for northern research. Ninety percent of these go to Englishmen and Americans.
Our neglect of the north, besides bequeathing us a native problem that will take generations to untangle, has on several occasions all but cost us sovereignty of the Arctic. Indeed, as one historian has pointed out, “our concern about, the north in the past can be correlated with the fear of losing it.” Now once again a Canadian prime minister has talked about “the active occupation and exercise of our sovereignty right up to the Pole.” The result is the new Department of Northern Affairs, a new deal for the north and a slowly growing interest among Canadians in the unknown frontier across the top of the world.
It’s not surprising, really, that we should have taken our north for granted for so long. We have plenty of frontier at our back doors without trekking north of fifty-five for it. And the north has been jammed down our schoolboys’ throats, like Shakespeare, until we are a little weary of it. It is a very real part of our history. Indeed it has a record of sustained exploration that reaches back into the mists of the Elizabethan age, longer than any other world area, for we are still exploring it.
Like the aurora glowing greenly in the August night, the north continues to elude us. It remains as it was in Frobisher’s day, a land of mystery. Canada has the largest Arctic and sub-Arctic territories in the world. But we have less scientific information about them than of any other northern lands.
If the north is a mystery to outsiders, it is a mystery to northerners as well. There is a saying in the north that after five years in the country every man is an expert, after ten years a novice. I was born and raised in the north. I’ve worked in a Klondike gold camp, traveled the Yukon and Mackenzie by boat, driven up the Alaska Highway, ridden an Eskimo sled on Baffin Island, eaten buffalo at Fort Smith, reindeer at Aklavik and moose at Whitehorse, watched gold bricks poured at Dawson, uranium milled at Great Bear and pitchblende staked south of Yellowknife. This summer, to gather material for this article, I’ve already traveled fifteen thousand miles, with more thousands ahead of me. Yet to me, as to most northerners, this land is still an unknown quantity. Perhaps that is why it holds its fascination. Like the aeronautical maps with their huge blank spots, it is an enormous jigsaw puzzle full of missing pieces.
Men have traveled the northern seas for almost four centuries, yet they still aren’t fully, charted. Lord Tweedsmuir, son of a former governor-general, traveling in the Hudson’s Bay ship Nascopie, once asked the captain where they were. The captain replied dryly that by the latest Admiralty chart they were 150 miles inland.
The maps are still a maze of dotted lines and guesswork. I flew last June across the east coast of Baffin Island where the blue sea cliffs are listed at 1,600 to 2,500 feet. When the altimeter read 2,500 the cliffs still towered a thousand more feet above us.
This is a country of unanswered questions, of geological puzzles and scientific mysteries.
What is the purpose of the narwhale’s tusk— that single spiraling spear of ivory that gave us the legend of the unicorn?
What is the gestation period of the musk ox—that prehistoric tundra wanderer, with a bull’s body and a sheep’s wool, who has no living relative and who dates back to the Pleistocene era?
Who were the mysterious people who came before the Eskimos and left behind nothing more than a handful of strange fluted arrow points to mingle with the bones of sloth and mammoth?
The answers to these northern puzzles are as elusive as Franklin’s bones. We still have only a smattering of knowledge about the one great natural phenomenon common to the entire north, permafrost. The very name wasn’t coined until 1943. And it wasn’t until 1948 that we finally answered in the affirmative a three-century-old question: Does Hudson Bay freeze solidly in the centre?
Small wonder then that our views of the north are conditioned by a tangle of misconceptions. These run all the way from the romantic belief that it is a frozen world of ice and snow to the naïve assumption that it may soon become a booming civilized community of cities and farms.
The greatest misconception, of course, is that the north is all of a piece from the Klondike to Ungava. You might as well lump Scotland and Serbia together because they both belong to Europe. There is no single north, but several, each quite distinct in climate, topography, economic and social structure.
The high Arctic, which never knows any real summer, bears little relation to the Yukon valley where the temperature can rise to a hundred degrees. The treeless tundra northwest of Churchill, where sixty-year-old willows grow no higher than three inches, has little in common with the Mackenzie farmlands where a stem of grass can sprout five feet in a month. The stark, Pre-Cambrian rock on which Port Radium is perched is long removed from the spongy delta into which Aklavik is sinking.
For the north is a land of violent contrasts. It has some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world. There are the deep fjords that bite into Baffin Island, walled by blue mountains and blocked by enormous emerald glaciers. There are the fantastic canyons of the Nahanni where one of the nation’s great waterfalls lies hidden away. There is the green finger of Kluane Lake, in the Yukon, curving around the continent’s tallest mountain range whose peaks plummet straight out of the clouds to the water’s edge.
But the north also contains some of the most desolate and monotonous stretches in the world. The Dismal Lakes, between Great Bear Lake and Coppermine, are truly named. “Anything more unspeakably dismal I never saw,” the traveler George Douglas remarked. Another explorer, Henry Yodle Hind, stood on the tableland above Labrador’s Moisie River and wrote that “words fail to describe the appalling desolation.” Indeed, there is so much monotony in the north that its very vastness takes on a sort of grandeur, like the barren grounds that stretch for hundreds of miles, their starkness broken only by those curious geological oddities with the elfin names: the pingoes and the polygons, the drumlins and the eskers.
Our north contains more lakes than the rest of the world put together, all the way from little green-eyed Muncho on the Alaska Highway to Great Bear, the continent’s fourth largest—so cold that it remains frozen until the end of July. But it also encompasses one of the world’s great deserts, the tundra, where the precipitation is no greater than on the Sahara. The fact that thousands of lakes happen to lie in this desert country makes it all the more confusing.
The north is full of such paradoxes. In fact it’s possible to prove just about any theory by the use of isolated examples and statistics.
Is it a frozen waste? There are plenty of places where Eskimos wear furlined parkas the year round, where planes land on skis in June and the temperature never goes higher than fifteen degrees above frost.
Is it a sunny paradise? At Fort Smith, which we have just left in our tugboat, the thermometer has sometimes reached 103 above. This is hotter than has ever been recorded at our southernmost city, Windsor. Spring comes to Norman Wells, nudging the Arctic Circle, just as soon as it does to the Gaspé. The average July temperatures in Dawson City are the same as the ones on the central prairies. And it sometimes gets colder in Winnipeg in the winter than it does on some of the Arctic islands just south of the Pole, where the thermometer seldom drops under 45 below.
The truth of course is that the north is neither paradise nor wasteland. It remains a frontier with only two important resources, furs and minerals. It is still desperately remote and costly to reach and develop but it is capable of supporting if necessary (but only if necessary) a much larger population than it now has.
It is popular to think of the north as booming. This is true only of certain areas. It is true, obviously, of that gnarled and ancient world of Ungava where the iron ore is already moving to the sea. It will be true, presently, of the southern Yukon where Frobisher Limited is in the first stages of a project to develop five million horsepower.
This will mean a new boom town for the north. Because of the smelter it is likely to have a more stable economy than most northern communities. For most of the booms have been followed by busts, and the north as wrinkled with tragic monuments to these burst buboles in the form of ghost towns, all the way from the fossil city of Dawson to the unrealized-dream community of Cameron Bay on Great Bear Lake.
There remains one serious flaw in the northern economy: Almost every community is based on a single resource. When the bottom falls out of gold, Yellowknife suffers a slump. When the bottom drops out of furs, the river ports face a depression.
John Hornby, that bizarre and mystic little Englishman who roamed the barrens for a generation, called that stark country “the land of feast and famine.” He wanted to write a book with that title but he starved to death before he began it. The phrase remains an apt one and it could well apply to the north as a whole.
Nowhere is this more evident at the moment than in Aklavik, the greatest fur-trading post in the world. I visited it this summer, a romantic little town built on the shifting silt of the Mackenzie delta, so far from civilization that it costs Eaton’s almost seven dollars to airmail a catalogue to a customer. A bottle of whisky costs almost double what it does Outside and pork and beef are so expensive the community lives mainly on reindeer meat.
Aklavik, baking in the 82-degree summer heat, looked to me at first glance like a boom town. There had been new building everywhere. Fresh piles of lumber stood in the streets. Not only that but the population had tripled in a decade or so. Yet the hard fact is that Aklavik is in the middle of a depression as black as the one that hit the outside world in the Thirties. Fur is its only commodity and it is a sad but evident truth that the decision of a few Paris couturiers can affect the lives of hundreds of families on the delta.
Aklavik lies in the heart of the muskrat country. Even the small boys at the mission school have trap lines on the edge of town. Four years ago 300,000 muskrat pelts poured through Aklavik, selling at an average of $2.02. This year the prices had dropped to 55 cents, and because muskrats run in cycles, only 150,000 were trapped. Thus, Aklavik’s income was down to one seventh of what it was four years ago.
This is only half the story of Aklavik’s plight; the rest is more ironic. All the building I saw in Aklavik was government construction. It was absolutely necessary to build new wings on schools and hospitals because the native population is increasing so swiftly. The old people are living longer, more babies are surviving, tuberculosis has been controlled by free chest X-rays, mothers are getting better prenatal care, family allowances are encouraging bigger families and old-age pensions have made grandparents a blessing instead of a burden.
This is true everywhere on the river. In the Fort Simpson area last year, to cite a dramatic example, there were fifty births and only one death. The Eskimo and Indian races are finally on the increase.
This is Aklavik’s problem—more natives than ever before, less income for them. And it is on these natives that the entire fur country rests. The police, traders, missionaries and government men are here solely because of them. If the native is broke, the country is broke, as the Scott Fruit Company of Edmonton found out this year when it had to cut shipments of vegetables to the Mackenzie by one third. Last year Bert Boxer, a white trader in Aklavik, reluctantly closed his post and moved to Yellowknife. His business had been cut in half and he was losing money.
In the boom times the Indians and Eskimos in Aklavik became accustomed to a standard of living that approached the white man’s. I met only one who still enjoys it today. This was Fred Carpenter, undoubtedly the richest Eskimo in the world. We sat and talked aboard his shining $28,000 schooner North Star, while his sister did the family wash in a big new gas-powered machine.
This long-nosed, freckled man in new plaid shirt and slacks bears no resemblance to the traditional grinning parka-clad Eskimo. Like most western Arctic natives he has white blood. His father was a whaler, but he was brought up without schooling in a snowhouse and a skin tent. Now he has $15,000 in the bank.
Carpenter likes to talk about his home on Banks Island where, in the words of Inspector W. G. Fraser of the RCMP, he is the nearest thing left to a king in the modern world. His house is lit by electricity, has inlaid linoleum floors and is furnished with chesterfield suites bought by mail order. He owns two washing machines, three radios, a sewing machine and another house at Tuktuk on d, His children eat corn flakes, not seal meat, for breakfast and his two eldest sons are each worth $10,000.
Carpenter is more provident than the other Eskimos, whose philosophy is to live only for the day. He saves his money, sells his furs for top prices on outside markets, and makes an income from his boat.
There have been times when other natives lived almost as well. In the days of good muskrat prices the Eskimo mothers used to send their children to the Hudson’s Bay store with twenty-dollar bills for cigarettes and candy. Eskimo babies played in the streets with fifty-cent pieces for toys. But now the schooners sit on the Aklavik beach, the paint peeling from their hulls, and the natives go hungry. All of them find it bitter and painful to revert back to the old standard of living.
This is one of the knottiest problems facing the new Department of Northern Affairs and its young minister Jean Lesage. He arrived in Aklavik with an official party while I was there, the first minister of the Crown ever to visit the Mackenzie delta.
They held a meeting for him in the federal school one bright evening, and this encounter between the new Minister and the people of the north was a singularly dramatic affair. Here were the Eskimos in their summer parkas and the Indians in their denims and the breeds in their bush shirts listening to the youngest Canadian cabinet minister, fit and forty, blond and handsome in his freshly pressed double-breasted suit and white pocket handkerchief.
Most of Aklavik was there that night. There in the second row was Charlie Stuart, the old Loucheaux halfbreed whose father, a Hudson’s Bay trader, established the town. He is a wiry, wizened, brown little man, so tough that the last time he needed a doctor he walked thirty miles through the snow to see him. A few nights later I watched him nimbly dancing the rabbit dance on and on through the night until 4 a.m. without apparent fatigue, though he is seventy-three.
There at one side of the schoolroom was big Karl Garland the trapper, who set out with a posse from Aklavik twenty-two years ago to lay siege to the log fort in the snows built by the mysterious renegade the newspapers dubbed The Mad Trapper of Rat River.
There at the back was Terry Hunt, the Arctic dentist, looking every inch an Englishman in a blue blazer and white silk scarf, and Johnny Kalinan, the bearded young scientist whom the townspeople call Johnny Permafrost. And there was the town doctor, Axel Christianson, who spent twenty-eight years in Greenland and came to Aklavik to retire only to find himself at work again.
All these listened patiently while Lesage, unable to resist a few opening oratorical flourishes, told them that he had always heard that northerners were a grand people, and that in his opinion, the people of Aklavik were “grander than grand.”
Then to business. He told them first that the town would have to be moved. It is built on an undrainable sponge that turns into a sea of mud when it rains and makes sanitation and drainage impossible. More important, perhaps, a modern airport must be built here at the mouth of the Mackenzie. The new town would be fifty miles away, high and dry above the east channel and for a few years at least there would be plenty of work.
But what about the future? For here is the real problem. The Minister talked of a diversification of employment, of vocational training for the natives, of a slow, perhaps painful, program that would lead the people of the north away from the fur trade and into new lines of endeavor. Until 1920 furs were the only income for the entire Northwest Territories. Now, in the words of Father Lesage, the Minister’s cousin, an Oblate priest with a generation of experience on the river, “the trapper is becoming obsolete.”
For the next several days, as he traveled up and down the delta and along the Arctic coast and back upriver, Jean Lesage heard the same tale over and over again, from priests in long black robes, from Mounties sweating in unaccustomed scarlet, from prim earnest school ma’ams in clapboard classrooms, from Anglican missionaries over cups of tea, from Eskimo leaders, wrinkled and ancient, and Indian subchiefs in blue-serge suits. And always the problem was the same—a land of feast and famine.
For a week I traveled with Jean Lesage and his party in pilot Max Ward’s spanking-new Otter aircraft. We flew first over the delta country, that enormous olive-green sponge that stretches for 6,000 square miles between mountains and ocean. From the air it is a land punctured by a million ponds with a network of muddy-brown channels winding lazily from horizon to horizon —a sight spectacular in its monotony, a labyrinth of water and muskeg that sweeps on for 125 miles. Here in these ponds and channels the muskrats breed in hundreds of thousands.
The seacoast loomed out of the horizon and below us appeared one of those Arctic puzzles that make the north so intriguing. Here were the strange coneshaped mounds, a hundred feet or so high, that Eskimos and geologists alike call pingoes. Peculiar to this delta shore line, they’re covered with lakebottom vegetation and their core is solid blue ice. They seem to have sprouted from the old lake bottoms, like milk squeezing from a frozen bottle —an analogy as near to an explanation as the scientists have been able to come. Side by side with the pingoes on the green-suede tundra lay the patterns of the polygons, the five and six-sided cracks in the ground caused, it is thought, by ice lenses forming in the soil and drawing the moisture from the ground until it cracks like desert clay. On the horizon we could see the ice blink—the odd silvery glare that is the reflection of the polar cap. Far off in the black sea lay the low bald profile of Richards Island. Here we landed and were treated to a strange sight.
It was roundup time in the Arctic. Walled off in a long corral in the heart of the island was a heaving mass of reindeer. There were fifteen hundred of them, a struggling ocean of antlers and snouts. On the rails of the corral Eskimo women perched with their babies, watching as the herders let the reindeer through, counted and sorted the herd, castrated the young bull calves, killed those fawns whose horns had been ripped from the scalp. The scene was reminiscent of a prairie roundup. Only here the herders and spectators wore parkas and the animals had antlers. In place of the prairie grasses, lichens grew with bright patches of yellow daisies and white Arctic cotton and red crowberries, which the Eskimo women preserve for the winter in the stomachs of whales. I plucked a tiny trailing vine from the muskeg. It was a birch tree, perhaps half a century old.
There are five reindeer herds in the Arctic now. The original 2,370 animals, trekked from Alaska at great pain and labor, have increased to 8,000. They supply fresh meat for the delta country and a new way of life for the twelve Eskimo families who look after them. Here, in a small way, is one solution to the fur problem. But it will be a slow and tedious process to turn the nomadic Eskimo into a herdsman or into anything else for that matter—potato grower, boat builder, airport worker or miner.
A day or so later we flew south, following the Mackenzie valley to the little town of Arctic Red River. Below us lay the various natural phenomena of the river country: the blood-red lakes with the bright-green borders, the ancient yellow channels and old pond bottoms, the “drunken forests” where spindly spruce trees reel like intoxicated men. The red lakes are caused by bacteria which draw the iron from the water and oxidize it into rust. The green borders are masses of equisetum, the redlike horsetail that grows so thickly it often fills up the shallow ponds and channels until they vanish. The drunken forests are caused by permafrost. The roots, unable to penetrate the soil, run laterally until the tree grows top heavy.
The little town of Arctic Red River perched on the bank above us as we landed. Northern villages are all of a pattern, composed equally of police, Hudson’s Bay and mission compound, either clustered in groups or stretched in a thin line along the river.
On the hill above stood the familiar white Gothic tower of the Oblate fathers, that remarkable order of Roman Catholics whose missions stretch north from Lac la Biche to the shadow of the pole. Most of them come straight from France and stay all their lives far from civilization’s rim. One of them, Father Peter Henry, once lived in a cave at Pelly Bay because no ship could reach him with lumber. Finally he built a mission house of stone and mud.
I remember one cold February day, years ago, landing on the Liard River in an old Junkers monoplane. Down from the bank came a wiry little man in a parka, cracking his whip over a team of huskies, his face hard as leather, his eyes bright and black. He looked as though he had been horn to the north but lie was an Oblate father just six weeks out of Paris. He and his kind have been in the north for a century. There are sixty of them now in twenty-six missions like the one at Arctic Red River on the banks of the Mackenzie.
Now down the trail to the beach where our plane was moored came the three symbols of the north: the two priests in their long wool robes, the heavy crosses at their waists, the two policemen in scarlet tunics and wide hats like figures from a new CinemaScope production, the Hudson’s Bay manager in a neat business suit—God, Justice and Commerce, all represented on the shores of the Mackenzie. In this little knot was written the history of the three phases of the white man in the north: first the trader, next the church, finally the government. And on the shore, in graven groups, sat the reason for it all, the young Indian girls giggling softly, the old men impassive as stone. Before the white man came there were 14,000 of these Athapascan peoples, ranging from the Chipewyans on Hudson Bay to the Loucheaux in the northern Yukon. Now there are fewer than 5,000. In a few more years they might have solved the native problem by dying out. But now they are on tin; increase, and this is why cabinet ministers must venture north of the Arctic Circle.
Merv Hardie, the young Liberal MP for the 20,000-square-mile Mackenzie River district, was bringing some of his constituents forward.
“Come on, Edward,” Merv said.
Edward Nazon, second chief of the Arctic Red Loucheaux, made little marks on the grass with his toe. “Well,” he said finally, “it’s like this.” Then he stopped.
“Please, sir,” the Minister said. “Please feel free to tell me your problems. Please speak frankly, sir. That is why I have come here.”
“Well,” the Indian began. “We’re having a hard time around this country, you know.” And once again we heard the familiar story. Trapping no longer was enough to support the Indians. Some didn’t even bother to trap. But there was nothing else to do.
“Look at me,” said Edward Nazon. “I got a family of eight. How can I support ’em on fifteen marten? What am I gonna do? I been looking for a job. Where can 1 get a job?”
They stood around him, the Indians and the young men from Ottawa in their flannels and tweeds: Gordon Robertson, the 36-year-old Rhodes scholar and deputy minister, Dr. Gordon Stead, graduate of the London School of Economics, Maurice Lamontagne, fresh from the cloisters of Laval. There was the problem: what were these people to do? The mines don’t want to hire them. Neither do the oil companies nor the air lines nor the boats that ply the river. All these, at great expense and high turnover, import white workers from the Outside.
They feel they must do this because the native’s background and make-up have not fitted him to work disciplined hours. The Indian often vanishes with his first pay cheque which he spends immediately. By white standards he is a child who lives only for the day. He does not stock his larder but buys food enough for only one or two meals at a time. His first purchases, before food, are likely to be yeast and raisins with which he concocts a potful of “brew.” He drinks it before it has time to become potent, but nonetheless it intoxicates him. His second purchases are almost certain to be tea and tobacco. Only then, if he has more money, will he buy the flour and baking powder which, mixed in a pan with water, make the staple bannock that he devours with his half-cooked fish.
But sometimes he buys no food at all. His money, his goods, his drafty grey tent, even his wife, all these may have been lost to him in the wild gambling parties which, along with the brew-ups and the drum dances and the casual sex, are his chief amusements.
The skin drums are his life and they transport him into a happier world of rhythm. He dances in a circle, hour after hour until dawn, chanting a wordless tune, his feet executing a nimble step that few white men have been able to follow.
He even gambles to the drums. His game is almost a ritual for every movement of the two teams involved is made to their insistent rhythm. The rules differ from tribe to tribe but the essentials are the same. The facing teams pass a small object from hand to hand. When the drums cease the opposite side must guess where the object is. All night the drums pound, the players pass the shortstick, the onlookers sway and make side bets chanting louder and louder as the drums grow more insistent until the game ends in a wild frenzy and the gamblers lose their power of speech along with their possessions.
This then is the strange foreign world the new Minister of Northern Affairs found himself peeping into on the banks of the Mackenzie. He left it with the problems still unresolved, but all noted carefully on thick pads of paper to be translated into various official memoranda. Then he flew off into a new part of the north—the country of the mining booms.
In its own way, this country too is a land of feast and famine. Ever since the beginning, when Frobisher brought back fool’s gold to the Court of St. James’s, and Hearne dubbed an Arcticriver “the Coppermine,” the north has been thought of as mining country. This was confirmed beyond men’s wildest dreams in 1897 when one of history’s strangest mass movements made the word “Klondike” a synonym for sudden wealth. A hundred thousand stampeders poured north. They trampled over most of the country that was to know later stampedes. They found lead on the south shore of Great Slave and gold on Yellowknife Bay. They saw the cobalt bloom on the high rocks of Great Bear Lake and the oil seeping from the banks near Fort Norman. But none profited because, except for the Yukon’s placer gold, none of it was worth developing in the days before the airplane.
It was along this trail of the air-age mining booms that we now flew, from Norman Wells to Port Radium to Yellowknife. Below us, ruled across the forest, stretched the survey lines cut by half a dozen oil companies. There is no doubt now that a vast sea of petroleum lies under the moss and muskeg of the Liard and Mackenzie, as far north as the Arctic islands where those tell-tale but still unexplained formations, the salt domes, have been found.
Norman Wells, a thousand miles northwest of Edmonton, is the only river settlement not dependent on fur. It looks quite different from its other towns with its fat storage tanks and gas-heated homes trimmed with lawns and borders. But like the other towns it has had its booms and its doldrums. The first boom followed World War 1 when an Imperial Oil gusher touched off a wild stampede. Men poured over the mountains from the Yukon and down the river from Alberta, dragging their sleds behind them and suffering the usual penalties of famine, scurvy and exposure that accompanied all the early rushes. As usual only a handful made money. A resourceful river pilot, Slim Bayne, sold one claim for $1,000 months before he staked it. A prospector named Billy George made $23,000 and spent it all in a winter.
Norman Wells was back to slim times almost as quickly as Billy George was back washing dishes. Its two wells, drilled by Imperial Oil, were capped in 1925. One was reopened when radium was found at Great Bear. But it wasn’t until World War II that the second boom came. Sixty-one wells went into production. Once again men poured down the river to build the Canol pipeline to carry oil to Alaska and provide the north with another ghost town. There it lies today, across the river, a tangle of rotting Nissen huts and warehouses jammed with thousands of spare parts long since obsolete. The pipeline road still winds through the mountains, a ghost highway, its trestles washed away, its right of way jammed by slides.
Here is the dilemma of the oil country: only in wartime is it practical to export oil from Norman Wells. Only enough is produced now to supply the north. Production is now only one fifth of what it was in 1944. Port Radium, just two hundred miles away, is the Wells’ nearest customer, and yet even here the price of light diesel is more than doubled by transport costs. Still, the search for oil goes on against the day when pipelines will be practical and new boomtowns dot the Mackenzie valley.
Now we were flying up Great Bear River, whose rapids help increase transport costs. Ahead lay the dark-blue expanse of Great Bear Lake, that enormous biological desert, so cold that no plankton live in its deepest waters and fish never leave the shoreline. Oil tankers are useless here for the water is so cold it would thicken the oil and it wouldn’t pump.
Great Bear is one of a chain of lakes, some huge, some tiny, that was formed in ancient days from water collecting in vast sheets at the edge of the receding glaciers that covered the great Canadian shield. Below us we could see the start of the Pre-Cambrian formation. Here is the oldest rock anywhere in the world, an ancient mountain range sandpapered to ground level by two billion years of erosion. This rocky shield covers two fifths of Canada and most of the great mineral discoveries of the past half century have been made not far from its rim.
There it lay below us, the spine of Canada, a rocky backbone rising from the cold margin of the lake and stretching off into the far horizons for a thousand miles and more, lake upon lake, rock upon rock, as desolate and empty as a dead planet in a science-fiction novel. The shield is at once the blessing and the curse of the north. The wealth lies here: the gold of Yellowknite, the uranium of Bear and Beaverlodge, the lead and zinc of Great Slave, the iron of Ungava, all these and a host of mines yet undiscovered. But the shield is also the great barrier to the north.
It defies roads and railroads as much as it defies agriculture. It stands as an immense bulwark against civilization. No other land has rock as old or as massive as this, and that is one reason why Canada has no real cities on latitudes the same as Edinburgh, Oslo and Copenhagen.
We touched down on the waters of the lake, and Port Radium came up to meet us. It is a town built vertically, its buildings clinging like barnacles to the rocky cliffs. There are no sidewalks here, only catwalks between each pinnacle and endless flights of wooden steps. Rut within this Gibraltar lie miles of tunnels for here, on the edge of the Arctic Circle, is the crucible of the atom.
Here too is the familiar boom-and-bust pattern. The boom swept over the lake in 1932 after Gilbert LaBine’s find of silver and pitchblende. Prospectors poured north to stake ten thousand claims, so confident of success that they envisioned a small city on the banks of Cameron Bay, across from the present mine. D’Arcy Arden, a well-known trader and prospector, predicted to the Edmonton Journal that the lake would support 100,000 people within a generation. The city is still there, on paper, carefully surveyed into streets and avenues. But only a few rotting shacks remain to mark Bear Lake’s boom.
Port Radium’s pitchblende now supports fewer than three hundred men in the cliffside town. It is so far from sunlight that workers get special vitamin pills and ultra-violet treatments each winter. Yet the airplane has brought it so close to civilization that the mail arrives daily along with fresh meat and vegetables.
Bear Lake’s bubble had hardly burst before Yellowknife’s began. We flew south three hundred miles over the old canoe-and-portage route that took the stampeders away from Cameron Bay to the new gold discoveries on the armored slopes of Great Slave Lake.
Yellowknife has had two booms, and there is a town to mark each. On a spiny peninsula jutting into the water lies the “old town,” a picturesque frontier community of hastily constructed buildings and cabins, many now boarded up. This was the original Yellowknife, built in 1935 after a cat driver named Tom Payne got a staggering half-million dollars for four claims staked on a wet midnight.
The old-timers cling to the old town in cabins sprinkled among the enormous rocks. Most of Yellowknife’s local color is here, in men such as Pete Baker, a self-educated prospector from the olive groves of Lebanon, known as “the Arab of the Arctic,” or in Bill Johnson, who has been part of every northern stampede of the past half century and lost his hands in one when a dynamite charge exploded.
The new Yellowknife is a neat and modern village built on flat land half a mile away. Here live the younger families that dominate the town. About a hundred children are born each year, a high percentage for a population of 2,700. The new town was populated largely during the second boom in 1945, when 20,000 claims were staked in a wild postwar rush. One hundred companies went into operation and fifty men had to roll their bedrolls on the floor of the local beer parlor.
Now the boom is over again for Yellowknife. It has settled down to a quiet two-mine town (a third lies fifty miles away). It has reached the stage where a woman no longer feels she can attend tea parties, as she once did, in slacks and moccasins, but must wear hat, gloves and high heels. And though a recent bride went on her honeymoon in faded blue denims, her wedding dress was the last word in white lace and her prayer book was trimmed with orchids.
Indeed, Yellowknife is little different from any small prairie village except for its golf course which, being built on rock, has hardly a blade of grass. The greens are oiled sand, which each player carefully sweeps, after using, with an old doormat.
When I reached Yellowknife it was deep in the worst slump in its brief history. The bottom had dropped out of the gold market. The bar in the Ingraham Hotel was no longer crowded. The taxi fleet in this town of twenty-eight miles of road had dropped from twenty-three to twelve. The bush was empty of the prospectors who gave the merchants their margin of profit. Last year, for example, Woolgar Grubstakes, a prospecting firm, had eight parties in the field. This summer it had none.
“Why bother?” asked Jake Woolgar, the lean RCAF veteran who runs the outfit. “A man could find a vein of gold, but he’d have a tough time trying to sell it right now.”
Ironically, the only thing that can make Yellowknife boom again, short of an increase in the gold price, is a depression. As long as gold sells for a fixed price and prices stay high Yellowknife’s mines won’t bother to produce. In 1948 ten mines were developed to the point where underground work could begin. Today only three operate. Yellowknife’s biggest mine, Giant, the country’s fourth largest, is working at only half production.
Like the fur country, the gold country needs more strings to its bow. Commercial agriculture is impossible in this rocky desert. Home gardeners have enough trouble scraping soil from under poplar groves for lawns and borders. What is needed are other kinds of minerals—uranium, copper, lead and zinc.
Somewhere on the ocean of grey rock that rolls out from Yellowknife lies a future boom town. But where is it?
Does it lie perhaps at the north end of Thekulthili Lake, where the rocks are stained with the canary yellow of uranium oxide? One morning at dawn I flew there in an Associated Airways plane to watch a small uranium rush get under way.
We landed on the lake, 120 miles southeast of Yellowknife, exactly like ten thousand other lakes that speckle the rock country. Here we came upon the prospectors—six men in worn bush jackets sent out by Giant Yellowknife Mines to look for uranium ore.
“What’s new?” they asked us. “Any new wars started?” For they had been traveling and prospecting from lake to lake and river to river all summer until they found what they were looking for, the tell-tale streaks and the blue-grey ore that made the Geiger counters chatter. This is the best uranium discovery yet made in the Yellowknife district. Hut will it mean a mine? The pitchblende is here, but is it rich and plentiful enough to make it worthwhile in this inaccessible land? Before the week was out two hundred claims were staked and property was already changing hands. But the odds are ten to one that for another generation at least, and perhaps forever, this lake will remain just as I saw it. There are ore bodies on the very edge of Great Slave that, in Porcupine or Kirkland Lake, would make immediate mines. Nobody bothers with them in the north.
Five hundred air miles to the north, on the edge of the Arctic, halfway between Coppermine and Bathurst Inlet, in a weird unmapped canyon country of cliffs and waterfalls and black basalt ridges, lies another potential boom town. Here, a decade ago, Ernie Boffa, the most famous of the barren-land pilots, saw the bright-green stains of copper oxides. Was this the source of the copper float that Hearne saw two centuries before? This year Boffa and his partner, Jake Woolgar, staked the deposit—an enormous mass of lowgrade copper ore. Is it practical to mine it this far from civilization? This is a decision that only a large mining company can make.
An Island in the Wilderness
For more than three decades the north has waited for just such a decision to be made about Pine Point just opposite Yellowknife on the south shore of Great Slave. Here, beyond the shadow of a doubt, lies one of the greatest leadzinc ore bodies in the world. Indeed, recent drilling suggests that it may be the continent’s biggest mineral discovery for more than a century. The presence of this ore has been recognized since Klondike stampeders first staked it in 1898. Millions have been spent on it by half-a-dozen companies. The ore bodies run for thirty-six miles in a three-mile strip. The most conservative figure places the potential at 120 million tons. A town that will certainly be as big as Yellowknife and could have ten thousand people has already been surveyed. But the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company, which now controls the ground, has still not decided whether it is practical to start operations.
I flew down to Pine Point from Yellowknife one afternoon, out of the Pre-Cambrian country and into the flat scrub timberland that is really a continuation of Saskatchewan prairie. As we flew inland a curious little scene popped out of the wilderness. Two streets and two avenues, surveyed on a grid system, had been cut out of the forest, lined by a neat handful of white little bungalows complete with velvetgreen lawns and bright flower borders. Here, far from roads, railways or scheduled airline, was the core of what may be the north’s largest city.
Pine Point is one key to the future of the north. If it is developed it will bring the Northwest Territories their first railroad, 435 miles from Grimshaw, Alta. It may mean a smelter and a new hydro plant, harnessing the Rapids of the Drowned on the Slave River at Fort Smith. Transportation has always been the north’s bugbear. Now towns like Yellowknife across the lake may find themselves virtually at the end of steel and mining areas hitherto unprofitable may be able to start development.
Since leaving Pine Point 1 have been traveling down the Mackenzie, writing this report and, from the vantage point of a tugboat, contemplating this difficult, problem of northern transportation. Now I have reached Fort Simpson, the lovely little century-old town perched high on the Mackenzie where I am writing these present words before taking off on a journey across the barrens. In front of me, the wide blue river rolls past the town in a great arc. Over to the west its greatest tributary, the muddy Liard, joins it and for more than 150 miles the two streams, one blue, one yellow, run side by side until they finally mingle.
The cheapest way to transport freight is down this river system. But it is still expensive enough to double the price of most groceries, and no wonder, for there are so many rapids that every parcel reaching Simpson must be handled nine times en route from Edmonton.
The little tugs face staggering problems. They must be built with shallow draft as little as three feet —to navigate rapids and shallows. Even then they often change propellers each trip from scraping their hulls on the rocks. But in the lakes the shallow draft becomes a liability. The tugs bob about like corks. The barges heave and buckle. If a storm comes up all the barges that are normally pushed ahead of the tug must be strung out for half a mile behind on a towline.
When we crossed Great Slave Lake it was glassy as a mill pond. One morning we rolled badly enough to send the cook to his quarters. But this was nothing to the real storms when waves rise over the decks and the wind blows so hard the 1,500-horsepower motors can’t turn the tug around. It is these delays, at lakes and rapids and portages that raise the cost of freight and help explain why soda pop sells for thirty-five cents a bottle at Simpson.
The high freight costs explain, too, why the Mackenzie and Liard valleys haven’t developed into rich farming areas as the Peace has. There is farmland here but only a handful of farmers. I met one on the main street, a lanky man in overalls named Fostner Browning. For twenty-seven years Browning has farmed thirty acres, grossed as much as $4,000 a year and never known a crop failure. He keeps thirty-six cattle. One winter, at 68 below, seven of them calved successfully. Browning’s high crop is potatoes but he cuts alfalfa twice each summer and one season he ripened eighty watermelons.
At Fort Simpson’s federal government experimental farm, John Gilbey, a chipper Englishman, has for seven years grown just about everything that thrives on the prairies. Lilacs, honeysuckle and spirea bloom in his garden among peonies and delphiniums. Crab apples wintered successfully last year though the thermometer scarcely moved above zero from December to Easter. He has good crops of corn and tomatoes three years out of five and cucumbers almost every year. Such conditions exist all the way down-river almost as far as the Arctic Circle.
This does not mean the Canadian north is an agricultural paradise, as some enthusiasts suggest. There are one million acres of arable alluvial silt here, not a great amount in a land so vast. It has the further disadvantage of being scattered in isolated pockets of fifteen to 1,500 acres. From these areas unlimited tons of potatoes could be raised but there is no use farming on a larger scale for no one can foresee the day when it will be practical to export farm produce from the Mackenzie. All the same there is room for more farms on the Mackenzie. Canadian Army Signals here, for instance, still imports potatoes from California.
An Entirely Different North
So far this report has been concerned almost entirely with the western north, the land of big rivers, thick forests, airports, gold mines, tugboats, prospectors and mining and fur towns. Almost all the white population of the Canadian north lives in the western half of it. All the great mineral discoveries, except the nickel of Rankin Inlet and the iron of Labrador, have been made here. If the north has a banana belt, this is it.
But six hundred miles away, on the other side of Canada, lies another, entirely different north. The vast wastes of Keewatin and Franklin stretch off to the east and northeast, still largely unmapped and unpopulated, devoid of any hope of agriculture and forestry, scarcely scratched by the prospector’s pick. Except for tiny isolated communities, this eastern land in the Hudson Bay area is much as it was in the days before the white man.
These are lands that still know starvation and tragedy. On Boothia Peninsula not long ago, an Eskimo youth named Beriykoot complied with custom by garroting his 45-year-old mother at her own request. She was in an advanced state of TB. On Foxe Basin, in the winter of 1948, a man and two boys starved to death slowly and painfully while searching for a meat cache. The wife and daughter survived by eating the cadavers.
I visited the eastern Arctic this June before coming to the Mackenzie country, where I am writing this report. The contrast between one side of the Canadian north and the other is so sharp that one might be exploring two different worlds.
I set off from Ottawa, early one June morning, in a Spartan Airways plane, jammed with scientists. The expedition was one of several sponsored each year by the Arctic Institute. It was headed for By lot Island, a spectacular but almost unknown pin point in the ocean just off the tip of Baffin Island. The impetus for the expedition hadn’t come from scientists at all, but from three enthusiastic bird watchers. One was Rosario Mazzeo, bass clarinetist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The others were Axel Rosin, the vice-president of the Book-of-the-Month Club, and his wife. Like many Americans they had always had a yen to visit the Arctic. So they organized an expedition.
Now here they all were, jammed aboard the aircraft, the two Rosins, five scientists and one scientist’s wife. Only Mazzeo was missing. To his undying disappointment his musical duties kept him home.
Dr. William Drury, the thin spectacled Harvard professor in charge, told me what he and his colleagues planned. They would land at Pond Inlet and take their supplies to Bylot by sled. Few men have been to Bylot, which is virtually unmapped and unexplored. Here for six weeks the scientists would try to fit another piece into the northern jigsaw puzzle, studying animal and bird life, permafrost, the Eskimos and the mountains.
We were flying over the grey twilight land that skirts Henry Hudson’s huge inland sea—a ragged monochrome of grey-green lichen, broken by patches of black stunted spruce and thousands of round little ponds. It runs back from the shore line for three hundred miles, flat and uninspiring, the most monotonous country on the continent. No human soul, native or white, lives or travels here. No tell-tale pillar of smoke curls up from the land. No trail or trap line crosses it. No hut or cabin breaks the tedium. Even the animals are scarce for this is old sea bottom, a wet, flat forbidding country of silt and moss, lichen and muskeg.
Only from the air does this dismal terrain take on drama. On the edge of the old sea bottom a strange formation showed through the cotton-wool clouds. The lakes changed shape and ran straight as rulers until they looked more like canals. The bays and islands took on similar shapes. Long ridges, straight as Roman walls, appeared between the lines of water. The whole land assumed a grooved appearance like a carefully ploughed field after a shower. These ridges, which are found from Hudson Bay to the barrens are called drumlins. They are the tracks of the great Keewatin ice sheet that once slid southward grooving the land from the Arctic to Minnesota.
The drumlins came and went. There were other odd sights. Shapeless tawny patches with black uneven lines, like enormous tiger skins, began to appear.
There is no explanation for them yet but most scientists think they are caused by the yellow bogs freezing and thawing and humping the black peat into ridges above the spaghnum.
Now the land sloped gently off toward Hudson Bay in a series of terraces marking each successive beach line in the gradual shrinking of the inland sea. For the bay is vanishing. In pre-glacial times it was a great river flowing across a wide plain. The glaciers pushed the land down and when they retreated water filled the hollow. Now the land is rising again like a compressed sponge
and the waters are retreating. The rise is measurable by the remnants of old Eskimo fish traps built on tide line and now thirty to eighty feet above sea level. Aeons hence the great Bay may once again be a plain with a river flowing through its heart.
Suddenly, as we flew northwest, summer vanished and the lakes below us were frozen white. Below us lay Churchill, the oldest civilized settlement in the north, stark as the rock on which it is built. The starkness is emphasized by the grey - and - white buildings, which blend with the monochrome of the landscape. The surroundings are all grey: the waters of the bay are battleship grey, the gravel of the beach is ash-grey, the lichens and grasses which form the only foliage are yellow-grey, and the rock is blue-grey. It is the same ancient Pre-Cambrian rock that skirts the shores of Great Bear Lake, hundreds of miles away. As much as the beaver and the maple leaf it deserves to be the emblem of Canada.
We stayed overnight in Churchill, the historic town founded three centuries ago by Jens Munk, the son of a Danish nobleman. Sixty of his shipmates died there of scurvy, exposure, frostbite and gangrene. It is Samuel Hearne’s town too. It was built as an impregnable fortress, but even the doughty Hearne couldn’t hold it against three French warships. The French commander was a gallant man, and farsighted too. One of the conditions of Hearne’s ransom was that his famous journal of exploration be published.
Today Churchill with a population of three thousand is half grain port and half army camp. Eleven million bushels of prairie wheat pour through here each year en route to Europe. In the summer the white whales bask by the hundreds on the beach and yield up their oil for hand lotion, soap, perfume and cooking fat and their livers for medicine and tonics. A mile or so from the town lie the army barracks, protected from the elements by miles of interlocking passageways. Here each winter the most arduous cold-weather exercises on the continent take place for, though Churchill lies far south of Whitehorse and Yellowknife, her winters, thanks to Hudson Bay, are much more bitter.
Next morning we flew northeast across the bleak bay, its ice sheet broken and veined below us, with the June sun glinting on the slushy water in the channels. At noon the ice was broken by the desolate expanse of Southampton Island, a bald treeless lowland rising from the mottled sea, the snow lying in long drifts between the ridges of Pre-Cambrian rock. Not since the Aleutians have I seen anything more uninviting. On this desert, larger than Ireland, live twelve men—RCAF personnel and Department of Transport employees.
“When is summer?” I asked the sergeant who greeted us on landing.
“Hell man, this is summer,” the sergeant answered.
Here, at Coral Harbor, lies another wartime ghost city, equipped for 2,200 men by the U. S. Air Force, now a wreckage of unoccupied buildings, thousands of truck parts, stacks of tinned food and barrels of Coca Cola syrup, all too expensive to move away.
Three hours after we left Southampton, Baffin Island loomed out of the horizon, an enormous expanse of jagged mountains and swirling glaciers. Here is the most spectacular scenery in all of eastern North America. Yet only a handful of men have enjoyed it. The eastern coast of this great island, almost as large as Manitoba, is an aweinspiring sight. The ice caps, a quarter of a mile thick, come tumbling out of the clouds and into the limpid fjords that wind far into the mountainous shores.
We landed uneasily on a crude strip marked out with gasoline tins on the Arctic ice. It was snowing and the thermometer stood at 26 above. Dimly, on the shore, we could see the familiar line of square buildings: Hudson’s Bay, mission and police barracks. Already a thin line of Eskimos and dogs was moving out to us. It turned out that this was only the sixth aircraft to land at Pond Inlet. We had reached a point in the north where any arrival was an event.
A Different Kind of Eskimo
Soon they were upon us, a hundred or so Eskimos and as many animals. They came racing up on long wooden sleighs jammed with parka-clad passengers of all sizes and shapes, each grinning broadly, and pulled by a dozen or so dogs fanning out in a wide arc, their lines inexorably tangled and confused. These eastern Arctic Eskimos are quite different from their western Arctic cousins. They live primitively in snowhouses, eating meat raw or cooked over a blubber lamp, and they seem to smile almost all the time, possibly because they have had so little contact with the white man.
I stayed in Pond Inlet until two the following morning, while the scientists unpacked their gear and made ready to cross over to Bylot Island, whose enormous blue cliffs seemed only a short hike away. Dr. Drury wanted to start immediately until the RCMP constable gently broke the news that the island was eighteen miles away.
There are a dozen communities like Pond Inlet in the eastern Arctic. The population at Pond consists of two Bay men, two RCMP constables, two Oblate fathers, an Anglican missionary and 265 Eskimos. Of these, the two Roman Catholic priests have the most thankless task, for all the Eskimos except three families are Anglican and always have been. Both denominations arrived at the settlement the same year, a generation ago, but the Anglicans brought their bishop with them and the Eskimos bowed to this higher authority. They rarely change their creed and the priests have little or no chance of making conversions. (Two of the three Catholic families were imported from a predominantly Catholic community.) Nonetheless they maintain the mission. One of them, Father Danielo, a bearded gnomelike little man from Brittany, has been here nineteen years and has been Outside only once in all that time. He will remain here for most of his life, walled off from the world, nurturing his tiny little flock, until he is an old man no longer fit for duty.
No Cash at Pond Inlet
It is only the Eskimo that keeps any whites in settlements like Pond. The Hudson’s Bay is here to trade for fox furs, the only exportable commodity. The police are not here to keep law and order for it is a crimeless community. Their tasks are less colorful and consist chiefly of distributing family allowances. These aren’t given in cash but in vouchers for certain staples that can be bought at the trading post. In fact there is little or no cash at Pond Inlet. Life runs on the ancient barter system.
In the winter the police go on thousand-mile patrols for fifty days at a time. They live in snowhouses each night but keep on paying board and lodging to the government nonetheless. Like everybody else in the north they are here by choice and the life on this treeless, lonely beach, visited once a year by a supply ship and occasionally by an aircraft, fascinates them. Constable Doug Moodie, a neat good-looking Montrealer, had just finished his three-year tour at Pond when I arrived and had promptly signed up for three years more.
We were sitting in Pete Murdoch’s house, built by the Hudson’s Bay Company on architectural lines that have become a northern pattern. Like most Hudson’s Bay men who aren’t Scottish, Pete is a Newfoundlander.
“Come on,” Pete said. “It’s time to go. I’ll call a taxi.”
A big sled, pulled by a dozen dogs, slid up beside the door. It was 2 a.m. The sun shone brightly and the little Eskimo children in their parkas were still playing around the tents. The scientists had all gone to bed. Pete said he probably wouldn’t go to bed for another day or so. Pond Inlet doesn’t run on any scheduled hours.
Off we dashed across the ice to the big plane, the Eskimos laughing and shouting and pushing each other off into the snow like happy puppies. We had two more passengers, two gnarled little women, both almost blind from an eye infection, bound for an outside hospital. They were quite bewildered and terrified as Pete helped them into the plane.
“Just a minute,” somebody said. “Here’s Annie. She wants to say goodbye to her mother.”
An Eskimo girl clambered into the aircraft and stood in front of one of the little old women, who was squeezed tightly into a corner. They talked for a few moments and then the girl began to cry.
“It’s all right, Annie,” Pete Murdoch said, “they’ll be back soon.” He led her away gently, still crying softly to herself. That was my last view of Pond Inlet—the crowd of grinning Eskimos all waving good-by, the swirling mass of dogs and harness, the thin line of buildings on the shore, the broad expanse of ice glinting in the sunlight, and a little girl crying for her mother.
Since writing the preceding words I have crossed another section of the north. This is the emptiest land of all, the vast Arctic tundra that Samuel Hearne named the Barren Grounds. The bulk of the tundra country lies between the wooded Mackenzie valley on the west and Hudson Bay on the east, but the tips of the Yukon, Quebec and Labrador are also treeless, as well as all the Arctic islands. Indeed, there are some 950,000 square miles of this Arctic desert.
And yet the barrens are not quite as barren as they sound for, according to the most recent scientific count, they support 76 species of mammals, 220 species of birds, and 474 flowering plants and ferns. But they have the stillness of death about them and since Hearne’s day they have never failed to put men in awe. Here, if anywhere, lies all the majesty and mystery of the north.
We started out from Fort Reliance, on the eastern tip of Great Slave Lake —Constable Don Wilson of the RCMP, Harry Baker, the Wardair pilot, and myself. Fort Reliance might easily be named Fort Isolation. Its six permanent residents, four Signal Corps employees and two policemen, have little to do except exist. To fill in time, Don Wilson, a prairie boy who’s never seen anything bigger than a police speedboat, constructs delicate scale models of three-masted sailing ships. The only reason for Fort Reliance is its position as gateway to the barrens, the funnel through which trapper, hunter and explorer must pass on their way to the tundra.
We were half an hour out when the trees vanished and the tundra began, an endless rolling desert of brown suede, speckled by the inevitable lakes. The rivers here are more like thin lakes. Occasionally a sudden waterfall connects two lakes but otherwise the water rarely moves for there is no drainage on the barrens. The water simply sits in the shallow hollows, imprisoned by a granite-hard floor of permafrost. There is no more rain here than at Cairo but there is no evaporation, either. If the permafrost ever melts the water will vanish. Then the barrens will become a grey expanse of desert rock and sand.
This may happen some day for the north has slowly been warming up. The permafrost line is creeping north, perhaps at the rate of sixty miles a century, and so is the tree line. Cod and halibut have started to appear off the once-forbidding west coast of Greenland and the annual dog-team patrol from Moose Factory to Rupert House must now be made in April, not May as it was forty years ago. Yet this gradual warm-up may stop at any time and a new era of cold begin. No one can say for sure, for the very climate itself must be numbered among the northern mysteries.
Below us, in the land of the Snowdrift River, the tundra rolled on, majestic in its monotony. There is so little erosion on the barrens that the geological history of the country is still engraved here. Enormous boulder fields, miles across, stretched out below us. Moraines of rocky debris, marking the edges of old glaciers, curved across our line of sight. A long narrow ridge of sand and gravel wound off to the horizon, looking exactly like a man-made railway embankment. This was an esker, the most familiar of all tundra phenomena, a bed of river sediment deposited by an underground glacial stream during the ice age. Some are a hundred miles long.
No man can fail to he moved by this empty country which for hundreds of thousands of years has remained exactly as it is today. Some have been moved to terror by it, some to awe, some to madness. Some, like Jack Hornby, have been drunk with the mysticism of the tundra.
The annals of the north know no more bizarre figure than Hornby, a wiry, unkempt little Englishman with his matted beard, his long tangled locks and his pinched hawk face. He was the son of a famous cricketer, a public school graduate who saw the tundra in his youth and never left it again except for brief periods. His only desire was to live here and his only aim was sheer existence for he did not trap for a living or hunt or even collect scientific information. He thought of the barrens as his kingdom and he roamed them like an animal. His proudest boast was that he could be dropped naked into the heart of the tundra and survive. He shunned the symbols of civilization and even discarded his dentures on the barrens. With his single upper incisor he tore at the caribou and wolf meat, which often enough he ate, raw.
“Hornby is Trying to Murder Me”
One memorable winter Hornby brought another Englishman north with him, a pukka sahib from India named Critchell-Bullock who had been invalided to Canada with malaria. The two lived together, crouched in a cave in an esker, playing chess with handwhittled men, while the winds howled around them across the treeless snows.
One day Hornby came into Reliance to the police. “Bullock is trying to murder me,” he told the constable on duty. Then he gave him a sealed letter and vanished. The constable read the letter. It was from Bullock. “Hornby is trying to murder me,” the letter said.
The policeman wearily made a patrol out to the cave and here he came upon two half-mad men, wild-eyed, squalid, incredibly filthy, Hornby gnawing on a raw wolf’s head, Bullock chewing a caribou’s intestine. The officer shrugged, sighed, and went back to Reliance again. Eventually the two Englishmen emerged alive from the tundra after walking the entire distance to Hudson Bay.
Now we were over Hornby’s country. We could see the caribou threading their way south, in groups of sixes and sevens, on their annual trek to the tree line. All through the north at this time of year you hear the same question: “Where are the caribou? Have you seen the caribou?” For just as the Mackenzie depends on furs and Yellowknife on gold, the men who roam the barrens need the caribou.
And like the gold and the furs, the caribou are fickle. “They are like ghosts,” the old Indian saying runs.
“They come from nowhere, fill up all the land, then disappear.” They may pass the same point three years in a row and the fourth year they may not come at all so that famine truly follows feast. The caribou means meat and clothing and dog food and in its wake it brings fur—wolf, white fox, wolverine. Without the caribou there is nothing and the barren lands are truly barren.
Even as we flew across the tundra a group of primitive Eskimos far to the east at Ennadai Lake were slowly starving because the caribou had not come. They had existed entirely on flour and water for a month. Only a government plane stocked with buffalo meat, sent out that week from Fort Smith, saved this tribe.
Like the fur and the minerals, the caribou is a vanishing resource, mined by the hunter and the trapper until recently. David Thompson the explorer once saw a herd of three-and-a-half million animals pass him. Ernest Thompson Selon in 1907 estimated the caribou population at thirty millions. Now there are only 650,000 and the largest herd is only a quarter of a million in size. We could see them below us, a thousand animals, the groups growing larger and joining even larger groups as the trek to the tree line moved on. What makes the caribou move backward and forward like this from trees to tundra? This, too, has never been firmly answered.
“This is a Country for Waiting”
Out on the horizon a barren-lands storm was beginning to blow up, blanketing the country ahead in a black mist. We were headed toward the Thelon Game Sanctuary, three hundred miles northeast of Yellowknife, but it was plain we wouldn’t get there. Harry Baker turned the plane around and we returned to Reliance.
“We’ll just have to wait her out,” Harry said. “This is some country for waiting.”
And so it is. Nobody rushes in the north and nobody tries to keep a schedule. This is a land of patient men and the patience breeds a certain optimism. The Eskimo waits fox the caribou and the bush pilot for the weather. The trapper waits for furs to come back, the prospector for gold to rise. And because the caribou have always come sooner or later, and the weather has always cleared eventually, and the furs and gold have usually risen after a fall, each man waits in hope. Feast always follows famine as surely as famine follows feast.
Gus D’Aoust, the barren-lands trapper, the only one left in this part of the country, was sitting at Fort Reliance waiting too, and hoping.
“The waiting’s the worst this time of year,” Gus said. “I’m itchy to get back now. I don’t like this sitting.”
Gus is fifty-nine. He had forgotten his age hut his sister wrote recently and reminded him. The tundra has taken its toll of him. One eye is gone from snow blindness and the other is badly weakened. His face is lean and drawn from exposure. Twice he has had to eat his dogs on the trail. Last year he lived alone on the barrens, working steadily from daylight to dark, patrolling fifty miles of trap line. His radio wouldn’t work so he had no news for seven months. Nor in that time did he hear or see a single sign of human life.
On the trap line he lived in skin tents warmed by brief fires kindled from roots or wolf fat or caribou marrow. Back at his base camp he lived in a log cabin patched with mud and banked with snow. His furniture was made from peeled birch logs and upholstered with caribou hide. His clothes were caribou hide, too, tanned with caribou brains, stained with willow juices, and decorated with porcupine quills and moosehair rosettes dyed blue with kidney pills.
Toward February Gus ran out of dog food, for the caribou had not come in quantity this year. He needed eighty carcasses to keep him all winter and had liad to make do with thirty-five. With his supplies failing he headed out onto the tundra for Reliance. The wind was blowing and the snow whipping around him. White horizon vanished into white sky and white lakes merged with white tundra so that the whole world seemed all of a piece as if seen through a dirty milk bottle.
Gus ran out of tobacco so he smoked his tea. Then he ran out of tea and finally out of food. After six hungry days he looked back at the four halfgrown pups whom he had raised from birth and who had been his only companions in the cabin. They were floundering behind him. He killed them all, crying to himself as he did so, fed part to the dogs and boiled the ribs for himself. Twenty-six days after he left his trap line he floundered into Reliance.
He brought $1,400 worth of fur with him. With $1,000 he purchased his next winter’s grubstake. The remainder supported him through the summer. Now, broke once more, he was ready for the tundra again and watching his eyes light up as be talked there was no doubt at all that this was the only life Gus D’Aoust knew or cared about.
“We’re going to get her this winter,” be said, recalling the days, years ago, when he brought $9,000 in furs out of the barrens. “We’ll get her this time. That’s why we’re going back.”
A Green Oasis on the Tundra
The following day, with the skies clear, we were flying over Gus D’Aoust’s country toward the Thelon Game Sanctuary.
Every desert has its oasis, and the ’Thelon country is the oasis of the barrens. Out of the harsh dry tundra a deep-green valley suddenly appears. Here two rivers, the Thelon and the Hanbury, meet and here are fat clumps of spruce, wide grassy meadows, green copses of willows, all growing on the bottom of an ancient inland fresh-water sea.
Here are sand dunes and beaches, white as Waikiki, and here the glossy musk ox comes to graze and grow fat by the edges of the round blue lakes. Here in this northern Shangri-la, ironically enough, John Hornby died by inches, of starvation, as be knew he would some day, along with two young Englishmen he had persuaded to come to the tundra with him. The caribou did not come that winter. The graves can be seen along the riverbank but few men have seen them, for few men — white or native—have managed to enter the Thelon Game Sanctuary.
For this great preserve has the toughest restrictive laws in the world. No one is allowed within its 15,000 square miles without a permit, and permits are rare. Since its establishment in 1926 until recently, hardly a soul ventured here. Now the door has opened a crack and a few scientific parties have gained access. The Thelon is a scientific oddity, unique in the world, a land where tundra and tree line merge. Here robins nest alongside Lapland larkspurs and marten, and wolverine mingle with musk ox, bear and caribou. Fish lie thick in the waters. When I was in the Thelon a Harvard man caught a two-foot pike using a tomato-can lid as a spoon and a bent nail as a hook.
We landed at a point called Grassy Island, where a group of eight American scientists were trying to capture musk-ox calves alive without killing any animals—a feat never before attempted. Of all northern creatures the musk ox is the most mysterious. It has been said that its clinical record wouldn’t fill three pages. John Teal, a big square-jawed anthropologist, who is vice-president of the Vermont Animal Research Foundation, wanted to study musk-ox breeding habits and knew the only way to do it was to rear young animals in captivity.
Teal has some theories about the north. Sheep, goats and cattle, he points out, are really tropical animals that need artificial tropical conditions such as heated barns to survive North American winters. Why, he reasons, shouldn’t we try to cultivate animals such as the musk ox already inured to the environment? Musk-ox milk is sweet and nutritious, musk-ox meat is as good as beef, musk-ox wool is soft as cashmere.
So here he was with his party waiting for Harry Baker and his Beaver aircraft. For weeks these scientists had been chasing musk ox until their legs were rubbery and their faces blue. They discovered that the strange animals ran like antelope. The only way to get them was to herd them into the water and separate the calves from the angry bulls with canoes. But the musk oxen had vanished again into the tundra and it was Harry Baker’s job to find them in the aircraft.
We got no musk ox that day, though Harry came back a week later and rounded up a herd from which the scientists were able to capture three. But we saw them below us as we flew back to Yellowknife, black as night, glossy as newly shined shoes, mysterious as ever with their sheep’s horns and bull’s faces, running in swift herds across the brown tundra.
And here, almost at its geographical centre, I had my last real view of the north before returning to the land of traffic lights and parking meters. We were 1,200 air miles from the tip of Labrador and 1,200 air miles from the Alaskan border. The end of steel lay 500 miles to the south, the Arctic islands 500 miles to the north. It is a good place to leave the north behind, with the tundra stretching out on all sides, with the caribou picking their way restlessly toward the trees over the pink rocks and the apple-green lichens, with the musk oxen crowding together on the lake’s margin, with the green Thelon valley on one horizon and the grey waters of Great Slave Lake just over the other, with summer at its end and the fog of a new winter already rising from the waters.
If the north has a soul, it is here in this empty land which, harsh though it is, has a beauty that no man who has not lived here a lifetime can really understand. But an eloquent old Indian put it into words one day when talking with an Oblate priest.
“My father,” the old man said, “you have told me of the beauties of heaven. Tell me one thing more. Is it more beautiful than the country of the musk ox in summertime, where the mists roll over the hills and the waters are very blue and the loons cry very often? That is beautiful and if heaven is still more beautiful, then I will be content to rest there until I am very old.”