In 1903, New York journalist Leonidas Hubbard, his lawyer companion, Dillon Wallace, and a Native guide, George Elson, set out from Northwest River near modern-day Goose Bay to explore the unmapped Labrador interior. Their goal was the shores of Ungava Bay, nearly 600 miles to the northūūa formidable journey through difficult terrain in one of the least-known areas in North America. But the adventure soon turned to disaster when they chose the wrong river. After weeks of wandering in the bush with dwindling supplies, the two Americans could go no further and Elson went for help, making a gruelling trek back to home base through deep snow. He returned with a search party to find Wallace still alive and Hubbard dead from hunger and exposure.
Two years later, Hubbard's young widow Mina left Northwest River in the company of four guides, determined to finish her husband's journey. Incredibly, they completed the entire route in two months. Wallace, too, decided to make a second attempt at the route, leaving on the same dayūūbut arrived at Ungava Bay sixty days later. Ill will between the two groups prevented them from contacting each other. Both Wallace and Mina Hubbard subsequently published accounts of their experiences.
This book is English writer Alexandra Pratt's account of her attempt to retrace Mina Hubbard's journey in the company of an Innu guide, Jean Pierre Ashini. It succeeds on many levels: as a vividly written and absorbing adventure story, as a candid expression of the author's emotionsūūranging from exultation to terrorūūin the face of physical hardship and an utterly unfamiliar landscape, and as a penetrating study of the interplay of white and Indigenous cultures in an area of Canada unfamiliar to most Canadians.
In other words, Pratt has taken on a lot. In turn, to her immense credit, she has let the experience take her where she never expected to goūūand, like a good reporter, told the resulting story to the best of her ability. She is also relentlessly honest about her own inadequacies and fearsūūsomething that always makes this kind of literature more attractive.
In the beginning, she portrays herself as a bit of a romantic ingTnue, fascinated by the Hubbard saga after reading about it in an old National Geographic, but seemingly the last person who should be making an attempt to re-create it: she has never paddled a North American canoe, has little experience of Canada beyond a four-month stint as a student backpacker in British Columbia, and confesses to initially confusing the Innu, the Native people of Labrador, with the Inuit of the Arctic. But you can tell she's a quick study: by the time the trip is well underway it's clear she's coping better than most urban Canadians ever could with the danger and exhaustion inherent in lining a canoe upstream through rapids, frequent portages through dense bush during bear mating season, and of course the ever-present mosquitoes and blackflies.
She also gains an understanding of the modern-day context of her journey: as the book progresses, Pratt becomes increasingly political, commenting eloquently on low-altitude NATO overflights, the environmental and social impacts of the Churchill dam, and the plight of the Innu people of Sheshatshiu, who have never signed a treaty and were barely consulted on the resource megaprojects of the past fifty years. While these issues have been covered prominently in Canadian media, Pratt's experience in the bushūūfor all that it lasted only a few weeksūūenhances her credibility over that of an even quicker in-and-out by a news team. To a great degree, she is simply trying to explain what's happening to her on the ground. A little finger-wagging is justified when you've just been scared out of your wits by a low-flying jet screaming 100 feet overhead, and your canoe route has become impassable due to lower water levels and vanished portage routes. To all this is added the poignant fact that Pratt's guide, too, is re-creating an earlier journey: the last trip he took into the bush with his young son, who committed suicide at the age of fifteen.
While this is powerful stuff, it does not eclipse the book's attractiveness as an adventure yarn. There are some fine pieces of nature writing, evoking the silence, grandeur and danger of the northern wilderness. These more than make up for the odd passage (e.g. "ąif we do not paddle hard enough, the current will sweep us downstream, helpless and vulnerable in the grip of our watery master") that might have benefited from editorial pruning. If the writing is a bit baroque in places, I think it's due to Pratt's compulsion to communicate as vividly as possible what she's observed, felt and thought during her journey. In one memorable passage, Pratt imagines she's canoeing up a tropical waterway: "The slightly sour tang of the riverbank catches at that back of my throat. At any moment, a crocodile could slither out from the undergrowth and merge soundlessly into the water. A trickle of sweat runs from between my shoulder blades to my waist." How can you argue with a description like that?
Above all, Pratt comes across as an engaging person in her own right, someone you don't mind accompanying on this journey. While she's painfully honest about her fears, flaws and mistakes (whether it's nearly losing the canoe in the rapids or setting fire to the tent), she's not at all self-absorbed. She writes perceptively about her Edwardian predecessors, particularly Mina Hubbard, and with great appreciation and respect for her guide Jean Pierre Ashini, and all the Labrador people, both Native and non-Native, who helped her in her project.
It's not giving too much away to say that, by most conventional measures, the expedition proves in the end to be less than a resounding success. At the same time, there's no self-reproach here, and that's the way it should be. Pratt knows she's done her best and, by sharing her experience through this book, made the effort utterly worthwhile. ņ
David Berry has edited many illustrated books and was a speechwriter under four consecutive British Columbia governments. He lives in Victoria.