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Books on Labrador


The Labrador Library

Trekking Through Northern Labrador
A Woman's Odyssey
By Marilyn Bursey
1998 Oceanside Publishing
ISBN: 1-55056-589-3

It is unusual to find what is essentially a travel guide published in full colour hardcover. But that is the beautiful result of the sojourn Marilyn Bursey took in the summer of 1994 with her husband (and photographer) Ken.

The result is a delightful read of land travel through the Torngat Mountains -- not an easy thing to find. Their one-month trip from Ryans Bay to Saglek Fiord crosses through the heart of the Torngats. The author was new to the area and we are treated to her wonder at the region along with beautiful photos of this stark, rugged landscape. They made their way south crossing rivers, hiking glaciers and rounding fjords and ended up having a long wait for their pickup. It's a must read for any hiker in the area and great for those who long to roam the Labrador Highlands.

Great Heart
The History of a Labrador Adventure

By James West Davidson and John Rugge
McGill-Queen's University Press, 389pp
ISBN: 0-7735-1657-3

One of the great Labrador stories about a great Labrador story. Great Heart is a superb telling of the three trips through Labrador and northern Quebec almost 100 years ago. We will be following the exit route of Dillon Wallace and Clifford Easton who paddled to catch Mina Hubbard in the fall of 1905 on the shores of Ungava Bay.

Please read the full review of the wonderful book at http://www.canoe.ca/GeorgeRiver/greatheart.html

The Three Books that spawned Great Heart:

The Lure of the Labrador Wild
By Dillon Wallace
Published by Fleming H. Revell Co. New York. 339pp, 1905
Reprinted by Breakwater Books in paperback in 1997
ISBN: 0-919948-38-3

This is the one that started it all -- the original book on the fateful Hubbard expedition. It was a bestseller but angered Hubbard's widow.

Dillon Wallace tells the tale of three men, Wallace, Leonidas Hubbard and Guide George Elson, who leave central Labrador in 1903 to head for the George River and Ungava Bay. They take a wrong turn early on and head into uncharted country running very behind schedule. With food running low, and Hubbard starving, Elson and Wallace go for help with only the strong and experienced Elson reaching it. It was too late for Hubbard who died. The book was a big success with many printings.

A Woman's Way Through Unknown Labrador
By Mrs. Leonidas Hubbard Jr. [Mina Hubbard]
Published by The McClure Company,
New York, 305pp. 1908.

Mina Hubbard's tale of her historic trip down the George River in 1905. She had taken exception to Wallace's book and hired George Elson to complete the trip. Along with two other fine guides the party made their way safely down the George River -- well ahead of Dillon Wallace who mounted his own repeat expedition -- without similar success. The pair barely acknowledges each other either in print or person.

Mina was somewhat of a passenger, with three expert canoemen, but she did her share and was no tourist. There was extra burden on the guides who could not let any harm come to their party -- for fear of their reputations.

A hard-to-find book but a very unique one.

The Long Labrador Trail
By Dillon Wallace
Published by Fleming H Revell
Co. New York. 308pp. 1907

Wallace's version of his race against Mrs. Hubbard and the incredible hardships endured in getting to the end of the George River. His party of six struggled their way on a different route than Mina Hubbard and paid for it. Four paddlers went back part way there and Wallace continued on with young Clifford Easton, a college student, who fortunately kept a detailed trip journal.

The two suffered many hardships including a dunking in the frigid George River in late September. They finally arrived at the Hudson's Bay Post near the mouth of the George. Despite being the first to do the trip without a guide and having many more "adventures" Wallace had been beaten by a woman and he knew that would be the focus of newspaper stories on the trip. So instead of taking the steamer Pelican with Mrs. Hubbard, he and Easton traveled 100 miles west on open Ungava Bay to await freeze up (very scary!). Then in January they took a dogteam up the Korok River and through the Palmer to Nachvak Fjord and then down the coast -- the reverse route of our Labrador Odyssey.

In Northern Labrador
By William B. Cabot
Published by John Murray, London 1912

Cabot was an American from Vermont who travelled north to Labrador for many years and explored the area. He became a very knowledgeable figure on the area. In fact, he and Hubbard and Wallace took the same boat north in the summer of 1903 and he talked to the men about their upcoming trip. They even invited him along! Incidentally, they were all paddling Old Town canoes -- as we are in Labrador Odyssey.

Cabot spent much time traveling with the natives from Nain south. Now called Innu, they were then known as Naskapi and Montagnais. There were a great many natives on the land hunting and he would travel with them, photographing and observing their expert bush skills. This is a hard book to find as well.

Through Trackless Labrador
By H. Hesketh Prichard
Published by William Heinemann 1912 London

Another pre-WWI book set in northern Labrador. Prichard, an Englishman, takes a canoe trip up the Fraser River, west of Nain. This relatively short river falls off the Labrador Plateau with some speed so much of their time was spent walking. He and three companions in two canoes carried supplies for 120 days and we heading for the George River, which they reached and returned.

The book contains several references to Hubbard and Wallace, whose trip was famous to all who went there in their wake. He travels further north than Cabot into the area populated by the Inuit. He includes chapters on them, the Moravians, and the usual hunting descriptions. Again, this is a rare book and somewhat hard to find.

True North
By Elliot Merrick
Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989, 353pp
Originally published by C. Scribner's Sons, New York, 1933

By Andrew Macdonald

I first offered reflections on True North in Che-Mun in 1995. Since then I have been lucky to paddle and snowshoe on many of the same Labrador lakes and rivers that Elliott Merrick so artfully describes.

Highlights include a two month fall-winter trip where we began in canoe and finished on snowshoe, as well as a trip down the Grand (Churchill) River last fall. I sent Elliott Merrick a copy of the 1995 True North review and was thrilled when in March 1996 I received a card in return. Merrick was a teacher for many years. I had mentioned my interest in this field and he responded with an idea: "I'd teach history via biography if I were experimenting. Imagine what you'd get into in a study of Napoleon's life!" Napoleon aside, the story of the Merricks' life in True North is a fine a teacher as is another book that I would recommend, Woman of Labrador by Elizabeth Goudie. What follows is a condensed version of what I wrote about True North in 1995.

True North takes place in Labrador during the winter of 1930-31. In September of 1930 Elliot Merrick and his wife Kay depart from North West River with John Michelin and a host of other seasoned Labrador trappers, and embark on the arduous annual slog up the Grand (now Churchill) river. The Merricks then winter with John Michelin in his small cabin -- in Labrador called a 'tilt' -- and help him tend his trapline. (It was interesting to hear Andrew Brown at the Wilderness Canoe Symposium in Toronto in February 2001, who had photographed in Labrador for National Geographic with John Michelin as guide in 1950). [Ed. Note -- see July 1951 National Geographic.]

True North is a poetic description of the daily rigours of the Labrador trapping life. Within this context Merrick explores the nuances of the trapper "character", the meaning of work in the bush, and the sublime experience of Labrador wilderness.

Merrick often describes the hardship which bore confidence and forged a gradual change in the author's perspective. This is reflected in his description of a portage called the 'Big Hill', which rises 700 feet in a quarter mile, and is part of the route that skirts Grand Falls: "Beyond this point every article of God's manufacture, or man's, undergoes a change in status. The value of merchandise is not calculated here by the currency of any nation on earth, but by weight and utility. A pound of tea is worth more than a diamond ring and ten pounds of flour is worth more than 20 pounds of gold...To see an inverted canoe moving slowly up the hill on a stalk of two small legs is enough to make you believe there's nothing a man can't do."

True North is rich with the textures of local life: youngsters, like a flock of swallows, skating up the Traverspine River; the January fair at Northwest River, and a multitude of trapper's tales. The reader is reminded of the resourcefulness of the local people, their quiet hospitality and enduring friendship: "To us they were a song, an inspiration. They were kinder and stronger than we, and wiser in the business of living." Merrick draws on Mark Twain's description of Mississippi River steamboat pilots to describe the Labradormen and their "remarkable pictorial memories," in order to describe events of the past and destinations of the future. The indigenous Montagnais Indians are referred to infrequently, usually in stories that reflect both favourable and unfavourable accounts of interaction with white trappers. Merrick writes of John Michelin's positive relationship with the Montagnais, described by the author on a cool fall day when Mathieu and his family stop in for tea.

Descriptions of "the bush" abound, and leave the reader with the impression that it was the length and depth of immersion into the trapper life, which bore the fruits of such vivid representation. Merrick draws on Shelley to describe a frosty fall morning in October, and yet his own descriptions surpass this. His words are unique to the time and place, animated by the spirit of the land: "We ran through fields of crinkly new ice, plains of drifting loveliness set with jewel-like etchings in silver and black, designs of exquisite delicacy bending over the ripples that curled from our bow, sounding as we cut them a song of glass chimes in the breeze."

Merrick's attention is drawn to the proximity to life and death experienced in the Labrador winter. The 350-mile return trip to North West River in January 1931 tested the limits of their physical and mental endurance. It is interesting to note Merrick's feeling upon reaching Grand Falls on Christmas Day. His satisfaction of witnessing such "boundless power" was matched with the celebratory dish of apricots: "For me the Grand Falls is an interesting incident of the trip, no more appealing than the fact that a tilt can be built without a nail or the knowledge that you get cracked heels if you don't wash your feet. As always it is the travelling and the people met on the way, not the getting there."

Being again at North West River soon begs the question of when to return to the wild. The third section of the book, 'Bittersweet', details Merrick's experiences on a spring trapline off Lake Winnikapau, often with only his husky dog, Diamond, for companionship. He endures a bout of snowblindness, has a meager catch of fur and is haunted by the solitude: "Its very strange and illuminating to be alone in the woods 150 miles from a living soul, not knowing the way very well, with darkness coming on, the wind rising and the sky aching to belch snow."

This experience challenges Merrick, exhausting his exuberance for the woods, taming his questions in a wish for home. He describes the smells of rotten beaver castor bait, and the feel of bitter cold while setting, baiting and fixing the traps barehanded. In the evenings the chores of cutting wood for food and heat would precede the tasks of thawing and skinning fur, baking for the next day, mending snowshoes and readying for the daylight start. He welcomes his arrival home to the world of books and thoughts.

Why should one read True North? The book offers a window into a moment in history. Most importantly it asks questions and challenges one to re-think on relationships, with what is meaningful in our lives. It challenges us to search for a time when, as Merrick puts it "every bit of work we do seems worth doing."

Northern Nurse
By Elliott Merrick
New Edition published by Nimbus 1998
ISBN 1-55109-091-0

Elliot Merrick is known primarily for his superb book True North, remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 17 weeks in 1942. Merrick met his wife, Kate Austen, in the early 1920s after the young Australian had spent two years working as the nurse at the famed Labrador Grenfell Mission. Years after he wrote True North, he decided the adventures his wife had experienced at Indian Harbour and Battle Harbour should be shared.

Northern Nurse is a not a story of nursing, but rather an adventure story written so well it is one of those books that you don't want to put down. Merrick writes in his wife's first person about that uniquely northern life.

Labrador Odyssey
Edited by Ronald Rompkey
McGill-Queen's Press 1996
ISBN 0-7735-1870-3

The title of this book certainly struck us first! This books offers a fascinating and detailed look at life on the Labrador coast late in the 19th century. And it was a busy place back then.

These are the journal writings of Eliot Curwen, a young British doctor as he worked and travelled the Labrador coast in 1893 onboard the ship the Albert with Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, who would later be knighted for his pioneer medical work in the region. Life was hard, the population in summers was large as upwards of 500 schooners plied the ocean for cod. Conditions were horrific; the lack of supplies unimaginable, the weather, waves and icebergs, unmarked islands and shoals a challenge to all.

Curwen's detailed diary, which was sent home in installments to his family in England, was above all candid and critical in a way no "official" study could be. He was also a prolific photographer who developed his work onboard ship

Woman of Labrador
By Elizabeth Goudie
Nimbus Publishing 1996
ISBN 1-55109-143-7

Elizabeth Goudie writes about her life in Labrador spanning 80 years until her death 1982. In simple sentences, describing how she married young and spent her winters alone for five months, while her husband was away on the trap lines. She chopped holes in the ice for water and melted snow to do the cooking and laundry. Neighbours were many miles away; in essence life was as basic as can be imagined.

Her husband, Jim Goudie was a trapper who made his living from the land. She was related to Bert Blake, a famous Labrador guide who helped lead Mina Hubbard down the George River in 1905.

Despite it all her writing is strong and straightforward, painting a picture of a life that saw huge change, much of which she felt was not for the better.

Listen to Michael Peake's audio book review of Elizabeth Goudie's Woman Of Labrador. Click here to listen. (Quicktime audio)

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