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  • Historical Background to the Expedition

    The beginning of the 20th Century marked the end of an era of exploration in North America. As the forward push of colonization reached the west coast much of the unexplored and easily habitable land was now discovered. The frontier was gone- and with it the opportunities that had grown on limitless new expansion to the west and north. The taste for exploration and adventure that had been created during that time did not diminish though, and the men who hungered for a taste of adventure, who challenged their strengths and resolve in the wilds (a quality that was deemed to be the hallmark of a gentleman's lifestyle) focused on new areas to satisfy this desire for discovery and renown. This was the era of Peary and Amundsen and the race for the North and South Poles, of Roosevelt and his safaris to Africa.

    One of the last blank spots on the map in eastern North America was the Labrador Peninsula. Although a handful of men had penetrated its rugged defenses, these were traders and geologists who cared little for the fame of exploration. Those first forays into the wilds of La Bras D'or-The Golden Arm-were spurred on by the desire for furs and trade. Yet, by the turn of the century, no reliable maps existed, except of the coastal areas. There were whispered rumours of a vagabond tribe of Indians who lived in the interior, living on caribou, migrating with the great herds, occasionally coming to the coast to trade. Little was known of them except to a select band of traders and trappers. Their existence had largely been overlooked by modern society. For someone seeking adventure and a chance to secure an explorers reputation , Labrador was an ideal starting point.

    Leonidas Hubbard Jr. Leonidas Hubbard Jr. (pictured right) was such a man. A writer with the prestigious Outing Magazine in New York- a publication whose pages featured articles by such renowned adventurers as Teddy Roosevelt and Robert Peary. Hubbard hoped to make a name for himself by undertaking a canoe trip up the Naskapi River to Lake Michicamau in the heart of Labrador. Hubbard's plan was to cross over the divide down into the fabled George River that drains the central basin of Labrador, and there encounter the Naskapi and Montagnais Indians, who hunted and fished on the upper stretches of that river. Although Hubbard's route covered nearly 500 miles, most of it in 'unexplored' terrain, the trip was not considered to be that great a challenge by Outing's rigorous standards because it took place entirely in the summer months when travel and game were plentiful. Still, it was a good project for Hubbard to cut his teeth on.

    Dillon Wallace As travelling companions, Hubbard chose two others. One, Dillon Wallace (pictured left), a friend and occasional travelling companion on fishing and snowshoeing trips. Neither Wallace nor Hubbard had extensive outdoor experience, at least not of the kind that would serve them well on such a trip as this. In the spirit of the times they accepted this as just another challenge of the journey, and they would learn quickly enough once they started paddling. But to add a more seasoned guide to the party, Hubbard recruited George Elson (below right), a half-breed Cree from James Bay. The three of them set out from Northwest River Post on the Labrador Coast on July 15, 1903. George Elson

    From the very start, their journey was ill-fated. Lacking an accurate map, they mistook the mouth of the Susan River for the Naskapi, and thus embarked on a two-month epic trip up the much smaller and unnavigable stream. Slowly, painfully, hauling and portaging their way into the dark heart of Labrador, their progress slowed to a trickle. Exhausting their rations, punished by the raw winds and weather as the brief summer drew to a close, yet finally within site of Michikamau, they were forced to withdraw before winter began in earnest. Forced in a desperate struggle to escape before their rations, and finally their wills, failed, they retraced their route toward the coast even as the snows of winter fell. At last, unable to continue, Hubbard perished only miles from help. George Elson, drawing on all his reserves, reached assistance saving both his own life and Wallace's-despite the latter's severe frostbite that nearly claimed his life. For Hubbard, though it was too late--his last words, true to his character, remained hopeful to the end : "The acute pangs of hunger have given way to indifference. I am sleepy. I think death from starvation is not so bad. But let no one suppose I expect it. I am prepared--that is all. I think the boys will be able, with the Lord's help, to save me."

    When news of the tragedy reached the outside, it caused a great stir. Wallace returned to publish an account of the expedition in Outing and write "Lure of the Labrador Wild". The tragedy of Hubbard's death made the story a much more notable affair than if they had completed their trip. Wallace had pledged to finish Hubbard's work and mounted another trip to Labrador in 1905, this time heading the journey himself in the hope of reaching the George this time. But Hubbard's widow,- a stubborn and spirited woman who privately blamed Wallace for her husband's death and stung by the apparent implications of Hubbard's incompetence in leading the expedition-resolved to challenge him in his bid to finish the trip. Mina Hubbard secretly recruited George Elson to guide her into Labrador and beat Wallace down the George River to Ungava Bay.

    Thus began one of the most famous rivalries of this century: Dillon Wallace, determined to redeem the memory of his closest friend; Mina Hubbard, venturing into the country that killed her husband; and George Elson returning to that fateful land with a young white woman who had placed her fate in his hands. As the two parties raced across the interior of "La Bras D'or", each hoping to win, both caught up in something much greater than themselves--much greater than Leonidas Hubbard had ever imagined, an event that captured the spirit of the times as the last of the blank spots in North America yielded to the determination and courage of the few who travelled them.

    Follow the rest of the story as the North to Ungava crew, armed with the original journal follows the route of Mina Hubbard, Dillon Wallace and George Elson down the mighty George River in northern Quebec.

    30 years on - Coffin and the George


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