30 years on - Coffin and the George
The summer 1995 issue of Che-Mun contained my panorama photo of the lower George River together with a brief mention of our 1967 trip from Cabot Lake to Ungava Bay. Che-Mun readers might be interested in a few additional footnotes about that memorable trip, as best I can recall, now 30 years later.
Back then there were only three fishing camps on the George River [Ed Note: There are now seven], at least that we found - Henri Culos' George River Lodge just below Indian House Lake and Bob May's Arctic Anglers at Pyramid Hills and Helen Falls. It was from Henri Culos that we first heard about the illustrious "dog biscuit party" reported to be just ahead of us. It seems a pair of canoeists from New York had stopped at George River Lodge after some sort of mishap and had spread their things on the rocks to dry, including an amazing quantity of dog biscuits, which we said to be their main food supply. It was also claimed that their canoe was equipped with an outrigger to prevent capsizing, consisting of long poles lashed crosswise with bunches of Clorox bottles attached at the ends.
We weren't sure how much of this to believe, until we reached Helen Falls and found their outrigger contraption, just as described, discarded at the start of the portage. According to Bob May, the two split at this point and one continued on alone. Late, quite by chance, a friend sent me a clipping from the Long Island Press of July 13, 1969, which ran a full article about the pari, even including a photo showing their 18-foot Grumman with Clorox bottle outrigger. As for the rumours about their rations, the article concludes with a quote by the wife of one of the pair. When asked by the reported if she would like to accompany her husband on one of his adventures, she replied that she had "no desire to venture into the bleak tundra and eat dog biscuits".
When we reached tidewater on the last day, the combination of strong headwinds and incoming tide made further progress impossible, so we sought shelter on Ford Island, near which our ancient maps showed an HBC post, long since abandoned. There we found ourselves in the congenial company of Willie Imudluk and his family. Willie was the proprietor of Ilkalu Lodge sporting camp, and the first of its kind in northern Canada to to owned and operated by the Inuit. With Willie as interpreter, we talked with his mother. She remembered when Mrs. Hubbard came down the river in 1905. She was now 74, so she would have been 12 back then. SHe told us that Mrs. Hubbard had an air mattress, a great novelty to her and her playmates, as Mrs. Hubbard let them inflate it and bounce on it. Looking back now, I realize what a rare opportunity that was for us to peek into the past, and I wished we had conversed much longer that we did.
Willie's teenage daughter had a phonograph with a few Kitty Wells records which she played for us. She also had a guitar which she had not yet mastered. On of our party, Don Barr, was quite a talented musician and singer, so he tuned up the guitar and we all sang some popular country tunes of the day. Even now, when I hear those old songs, it takes me back in an instant to those wonderful hours we spent at Ilkalu Lodge waiting for the tide to turn. When it finally did, we paddled on to port Nouveau Quebec [George River] and the end of our trip.
Soon after that, Don got married and we lost contact with each other but there is one final footnote to this story. In August of 1986, Tom Ballantyne and I were returning from a trip which started near Labrador City and headed north by a complicated route which eventually brought us into the headwaters of the McPhadyen River and thence downstream to the railroad at Esker. On our return homeward, turning on the radio to catch up on news, we learned that an unidentified hiker had just perished in a severe sleet storm on Mt. Madison in the Presidential Range. When I got home I was shocked to hear that the victim was none other than my old friend, George River companion and songster, Don Barr.