MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
A SORT OF INTRODUCTION
In my journeys North, I collect stories, and when I return home, I try to coax those stories onto paper. This coaxing may take a day, a week, or a month, but eventually the story agrees to be written down.
Not so a particular tragedy that occurred in a remote area of Canada’s Hudson Bay in 1941: it was elusive, recalcitrant, and perhaps even hostile to my efforts to put it onto paper. I want to remain obscure, it seemed to be telling me.
Meanwhile, the present kept intruding on the past. “Hey,” it would announce, “there’s been another terrorist attack.” Or it would say, “Isn’t it time for another google or two?” It would follow me from place to place like a predator in pursuit of its prey. “Download me!” it would demand.
I was in a quandary. Not even my old pals Charles Darwin, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Henry David Thoreau, hard as they tried, could provide me with any help. Nor was the unsurpassing strangeness of the Hudson Bay tragedy itself capable of assisting me.
At last a so-called lightbulb went on in my head, and I realized I couldn’t write about the past without also writing about the world immediately around me. In other words, the present. With this realization, I gave birth to the notes you’re now holding in your hand.…
In 2001, I wanted to investigate the murderous aftermath of a meteor shower, so I flew from Boston to Montreal, then to Kuujuarapik in northern Quebec, and then to the Belcher Islands, a helter-skelter of fifteen hundred rocks in the turbulent waters of eastern Hudson Bay.
“I was afraid, I was so afraid,” the old Inuit woman kept saying to me. Her hands were tightly clasped, and her eyes seemed to reach out and grab mine, as if she wanted me to see exactly what she had seen.
“You had to say, ‘Ee, ee, the world is coming to an end,’ or they would kill you,” another Inuit elder in the Belchers told me.
The world—in fact, more than one world—was indeed coming to an end.
From my notebook: I’ve pitched my tent at a place, Kingualuk, that consists of glacial rubble and till, boulders, and a sea of granitic pebbles. There’s hardly a shred of pastoral softness here, only the earth’s exposed bones.
And not just the earth’s bones: the de-articulated bones of a Thule Period (AD 1100–1700) Inuk reside in a burial cairn on the hummock above my tent.
I once peered into a similar burial cairn in Hudson Strait and saw a wholly botanized skeleton, its every bone decorated with algae, lichen, and moss, whereupon I thought: Green—what a splendid color to accompany one’s journey to oblivion.…
Near my tent, a seal skull and a walrus skull were resting so close together they seemed to be kissing. A reminder that all organisms both living or dead are connected.
Better a tattered notebook than a digital device for documenting this now rocky, now bone-ridden world. For a digital device would square and pixilate it, thus depriving it of its primordial delight.
I will nail my colors to the proverbial mast and say that I believe such devices are depriving us of far more than just primordial delights.…
We are a species that, in the words of poet Robinson Jeffers, likes to “break its legs / On its own cleverness,” a fact that will occasionally oblige me to rant in these notes.
Example of a rant: Seated at a computer, you may think you’re reflecting your own thoughts, but you’re only reflecting your device’s algorithms.
There were no algorithms at Kingualuk. Only the perpetual rhythms of the incoming and outgoing tides on rock.
A local Inuk named Simeonie told me this story: There was once a woman so ugly that no man would marry her. Rocks had no objection to her looks, so one of the rocks at Kingualuk took her for its wife, and they had a very happy life together.
I studied the rocks in the vicinity of my tent, but it was impossible for me to identify the wedded couple. Maybe all of them were wedded.
“Man is not above nature, but in nature,” wrote nineteenth-century German biologist Ernest Haeckel.
Simeonie also told me about a mermaid with a typically Arctic morphology—part seal and part woman—who came ashore in the 1950s a mile or so from where I was camped. “I heard a visiting minister shot her,” he said.
Another Inuk told me that it was a Hudson’s Bay Company trader, not a visiting minister, who shot the mermaid.
Concerning the Hudson’s Bay Company: it transformed the people of the Canadian North, formerly hunter-gatherers, into trappers, providing them with sugar, guns, ammunition, and the occasional mirror in return for furs.
“‘Furs, furs, furs’ is the white man’s cry,” wrote Arctic anthropologist Diamond Jenness in People of the Twilight.
Any reasonably intelligent mermaid who came ashore in the Belcher Islands during the winter of 1941 would have turned around and quickly swam back out to sea.
“Hudson Bay is a vast frozen sea that plunges like an icy wedge into the heart of North America,” wrote Arctic historian Robert McGhee.
Lying in the southeastern part of Hudson Bay, the Belcher Islands were named after an eighteenth-century English sea captain who never set foot on them.
A series of pancakes, nibs, blunt teeth, and gable ends spread out over three thousand square miles, the islands may occupy a subarctic latitude (56˚ 20' N, 30˚ W), but their tundra habitat proclaims them resolutely Arctic.
The low-lying nature of the islands made early explorers and mariners give them a wide berth. Those few ships that didn’t give them this sort of berth were invariably wrecked, like the Kitty, an English charter freighter that fetched up on the Precambrian rock outcroppings of the Belchers in 1859.…
… or the Fort Churchill, the main supply boat for the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was wrecked off the islands’ ubiquitous rocks in 1914.
Along with certain parts of New Guinea, Siberia, Antarctica, and the Amazon, the Belcher Islands were among the world’s last remaining ends at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Question: Of what value is a map that doesn’t have a blank spot on it?
In 1914, American filmmaker Robert Flaherty, then a mining prospector, asked a Canadian government official in Ottawa for permission to do some exploratory digging for iron ore in the Belchers. “There are no such islands,” the official informed him.
The official may not have been altogether ignorant. After all, nonexistent islands are rather common in the North. Usually, they’re large icebergs or mirages that occur when air layers of different densities sit on top of each other.
A year later, Flaherty found himself standing on the shore of Hudson Bay with an Inuk from Great Whale River (now Kuujuarapik) named Nero. “Big land over there,” Nero said, gesturing west in the direction of the Belchers.
Nero was not Nero’s real name. Visiting qallunaat (white people, lit. “those who pamper their eyebrows”) gave Inuit names that seemed to fit their personalities. Having learned to play the fiddle from a Hudson’s Bay Company trader named Harold Udgarten, the Inuk in question was named Nero.
Big land over there. These words gave the lie to the Canadian government official’s earlier statement. So, too, did the words of an Inuk from Charlton Island named Wetalltuk, who told Flaherty: “I will draw you a map of those islands.”
Wetalltuk had not been to the Belchers in twenty years, but his map of the islands is far more accurate than a map that Flaherty later drew to accompany an article he wrote for the Geographical Review.
So it was that Flaherty and his crew headed west from Great Whale River in a seventy-five foot topsail schooner called Laddie.
Just as the Laddie reached the Belchers, several kayaks came alongside it. Upon seeing the kayaks’ eider duck skin–clad occupants, one of the crew, a man named Salty Bill, said to Flaherty: “Well, sir, some queer fish comes in with the tide.”
Not surprisingly, the Laddie—like the Fort Churchill and the Kitty—smashed into the islands’ rocks, and Flaherty and his crew were obliged to spend the winter of 1915–1916 in the Belchers. The Laddie itself provided him with most of his fuel.
Flaherty made two discoveries during his overwintering: that the islands’ iron ore was of poor quality, and that the women were very compliant.
A local Inuk showed me an old telescope. “From my granddad’s boat,” he told me.
Apart from a flying visit by a Hudson’s Bay Company employee named Thomas Weigand in the mid-nineteenth century, Flaherty was the first documented outsider to set foot in the Belchers. The main island is named after him.
Although I’m Gutenberg rather than Google, I recently googled “Flaherty Island,” and one of my first hits was “Get Driving Directions to Flaherty Island.”
Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen called the Inuit “the happiest, healthiest, most honourable and most contented people” he’d ever met and said that he hoped “civilization may never find them.”
Civilization did find the Belcher Inuit … and in a not necessarily pleasant way.
Copyright © 2016 by Lawrence Millman