PHOTOS: MEMORIAL UNIVERSITY OF NEWFOUNDLAND
In an era when a woman in New York City was arrested for smoking and Canadian women were denied the right to vote, Mina Hubbard single-handedly assembled and led an expedition through the wilds of Labrador and northern Quebec to a remote Hudson’s Bay outpost on Ungava Bay.
Her mission–fuelled by allegations that her husband’s 1903 expedition had failed due to incompetence–was to become the first person to accurately map the waterways of one of the most isolated areas of Canada. And to do that, she had to leave her comfortable surroundings and plunge into the wilderness; a journey that would make her the best-known female explorer of her time.
Born on April 15, 1870, Mina grew up on a small farm near the town of Bewdley, Ont., located on the quiet southwest shore of Rice Lake south of Peterborough. Her early education began in a one-room schoolhouse and moved on to high school in nearby Cobourg. After graduation she became a local schoolteacher, and prior to the turn of the century moved to New York City where she trained and later worked as a nurse. One of her patients was Leonidas Hubbard, a journalist and explorer who was writing for a New York-based outdoor adventure magazine. Mina nursed him through typhoid fever, and the two were married in 1901.
Leonidas convinced his editor-in-chief to support a Labrador expedition, and he chose a close friend–attorney Dillon Wallace–to accompany him on the journey which sailed from New York in the summer of 1903.
The expedition ran into serious trouble not long after reaching the community of North West River on Melville Lake in southeastern Labrador, near present-day Goose Bay. Travelling by canoe, the men mistook a smaller river for the Naskapi River, and their error cost them dearly by putting them on a course toward unnavigable rivers and difficult portages. The explorers were also defeated by inaccurate maps and depleted rations. Starving and exhausted, the men eventually turned back. While Wallace and lead guide George Elson went in search of help and food, Leonidas died in his tent on Oct. 18, 1903.
Mina negotiated with Wallace to write an account of the expedition. Titled Lure of the Labrador Wild, Mina felt that Wallace portrayed himself in the story as the hero while her husband came off as weak. Blaming Wallace for Leonidas’ death, she decided to complete the initial trek. So did Wallace.
In planning her expedition, Mina fought two public relations wars, one against Edwardian sensibilities of the delicate female ideal and one against the macho explorer ideal. The race to complete the initial trek was hyped in the tabloid press from New York to St. John’s, Nfld. Who would be the first to travel north across the Labrador and Quebec interiors to the Hudson Strait? Would it be the widow or former friend?
Mina convinced Elson, the Scots-Cree woodsman from Leonidas’ expedition, to be her lead guide. She also engaged a young trapper named Gilbert Blake, a Cree named Job Chapies and Joseph Iserhoff, a Russian-Cree. The latter two were friends of Elson. The Hubbard and Wallace expeditions began on June 27, 1905, at North West River.
Mina listed some of the provisions in her two, 19-foot-long canvas-covered canoes: “two balloon-silk tents, one stove, seven waterproof canvas bags, six grey wool camp blankets, two tarpaulins, three small axes, two rifles with 160 rounds of ammunition, one pistol for partridges, one crooked knife, 392 pounds of flour, 200 of bacon, four pounds of baking powder, 60 of sugar, 14 of salt and 12 each of chocolate and tea.”
“For myself,” she noted, “I have a revolver, cartridge pouch and hunting knife on a leather belt, fishing tackle… one panorama Kodak (camera), a barometer, a thermometer and a sextant with artificial horizon. I wore a skirt over knickerbockers, sweater, moccasins to my knees and a soft-felt hat. Of underwear I had four suits and five pairs of stockings, all wool. I took a rubber automobile shirt, a Swedish dogskin coat, two pairs of sealskin boots, two pairs of gloves and a blouse for Sundays. For my tent, I had a little feather pillow and a hot water bottle.”
Thus provisioned, Mina’s party left as everyone in the tiny post waved goodbye. After a few minutes paddling upriver, the trading post was out of sight. “It did not seem strange or unnatural to be setting out on such an errand,” Mina wrote in her journal. “Rather there came a sense of unspeakable relief in thus slipping away into the wilderness, with the privilege of attempting the completion of the work my husband had undertaken.”
By five p.m. the small group had reached Grand Lake, landed for supper and continued on. At 11 p.m. they made camp; having travelled 22 miles. She noted that there was still light in the western sky. By three a.m. the light had shifted to the east and, after a quick breakfast–on Day Two–the adventurers paddled across the long lake. Next night at camp on a high sandbank, Elson made bannock as Chapies dressed and cooked a porcupine. Evening birdsong gave way to Chapies playing the song Annie Laurie on his mouth organ.
After the lake came terrifying rapids and portages through new growth underbrush, then disaster. One of the canoes tipped over and they lost supplies and the axes. Mina feared the men would not go on without the axes. For firewood they would have to rely on deadfalls and knife shavings. Mina also noted that mice had eaten a hole in the crown of her felt hat, plus “a meal or two out of the brim.”
At Mountain Cat Lake they made Sunday camp. For Mina, “it was luxurious to loiter over washing and to get into clean clothes. By noon the bushes along the shore were decorated with laundry in a most unwonted fashion.” Her face and hands were sore and swollen from fly and mosquito bites. “In spite of smudges around the campfire, I counted 20 dead flies on my plate plus many more on my dress. To interest myself, I began to count my kill but it reached 150 and I gave up.”
Mina wore a black silk mosquito net but still “the little torments” got through. At night they sounded like rain pelting against the tent. By day, the travellers traversed areas with blossoming cloudberries, Labrador tea and pale laurel. Blake mentioned to her that one of the areas they travelled through was great marten country, so Mina named a stream they were following Wapustan or Marten River on her ever expanding map. Every noon Mina was careful to take readings on their position.
After days in the bush, the party saw a distant ridge which Elson had crossed previously with Leonidas. Mina named it Lion Heart Mountain. The date was July 17, 1905; about three weeks since they had left the North West River post. Their next objective was to follow the Naskapi River to the huge Lake Michikamau.
More than half the original provisions remained, but the group needed fresh meat. They saw trails cut into the tundra and soon huge herds of caribou lumbered into view. Mina shot them with her camera. The men shot a stag and made a supper of roast caribou which was served under brilliant northern lights.
Restocked with 250 pounds of meat, the party enjoyed the sweet fragrance of the pink bells on the long, trailing vines of the Twinflower. But Mina was still tormented by what she referred to as the “big Labrador bulldogs” (flies as large as wasps)–and the tiny sand flies. She improvised a mask from a waterproof bag and netting: “I was most fearful and hideous to look upon but it kept out the flies.”
Ashamed she had not contributed to the food supply, Mina reluctantly set up her fishing rod, “although I never cared much for fishing. Mr. Hubbard could never understand it for he loved nothing more than to whip a trout stream.” The men proved better fishers and caught lake trout which Mina cleaned. The fish were boiled except for Mina’s fried portion. Elson relished the head as the best part. During the next day, in what Mina referred to as “a succession of wilderness tragedies,” the men snared a mother ptarmigan and her chicks for dinner.
Soon they were a short distance from Mount Hubbard where Mina’s husband had seen Lake Michikamau. There, on a big flat stone, Mina scratched with flint:
Arrived here, August 2nd 1905.
The next phase of the journey would take the adventurers more than 450 kilometres north through Quebec to the trading post at the mouth of the George River near Ungava Bay. There, the supply ship Pelican would take Mina home.
However, the time they needed to reach their destination was quickly slipping away as the season changed. They saw flocks of wild geese and would have to move quickly to reach the post. Climbing the height of land where waters flowed north, Mina was exhilarated “to stand at last on the summit of the Divide, the first of the white race to trace the Nascaupee (sic) River to its source.” She berated herself for not bringing twice as much film and then “squandered” two frames on the view.
On Aug. 11, 1905, the party began descending the George River. The men appeared confident but what if they could not reach the post in time and had to spend the winter in the wilderness? By Aug. 16, after rough water and arduous trekking, they had made only 48 kilometres, and the weather was getting worse. Mina noted that her stockings froze stiff overnight in her tent.
As the journey continued, they encountered a group of Montagnais Indians, a branch of the Cree Nation–all women and children–waving from a hillside. Their men had left for Davis Inlet on the east coast to trade for winter supplies. The Indians told the explorers that the Barren Ground Naskapi people had their camp two sleeps farther on but the trip to the trading post would take two months. Mina’s heart sank as Elson interpreted this to her. If it was true–and she was in no position to challenge their knowledge–there was no hope of arriving in time for the ship. But her instruments, and the map she had been correcting en route, told a different story. Should she turn back or push on? Mina believed her sextant and kept going.
The George River increased in force and this made for good progress. On Aug. 20 they had slept three times and still had not reached the Barren Ground People or Indian House Lake. Good news came when they spotted people along the shore. Curious to see an “English woman”, the Indians told Mina through Elson that the post was very close–“only five sleeps if you travel fast.” Mina took out her camera and exchanged some tobacco for photos before leaving. Racing for Ungava Bay, Mina felt her goal within reach: “This would mean the well-nigh certain achievement of my heart’s desire– the completion of my husband’s work.”
But there would be five more days of lengthy portages, during which the moss berries and blueberries were so thick underfoot that walking was slippery. On Aug. 26, the Hubbard expedition reached smooth water as the George River spread out two miles wide. Elson had now taken to calling it “his” river. Seven miles above the trading post they decided to set camp rather than approach the post by night. Next morning the tide was out and the cove by the post was a rock-strewn mud flat. They poled the canoes up over the mud, and soon spotted the post agent standing on the shore.
Mina asked the essential question: “Has the ship been yet?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“The Pelican, has she been here?”
“Yes, last September. And I expect her again this September,” came the reply.
Mina was weak with relief. They had made it. Later, while sitting by a window in the post, Mina saw her guides pitch their tents and realized with “genuine loneliness” that she would not again be one of the little party.
Whatever the hardships of Mina’s quest, Wallace’s journey took longer. He finally reached the George River post on Oct. 16, 1905. Mina had triumphed in the race through the wilderness. In the race to publish, both wrote about their journeys. Mina’s appeared in Harper’s magazine and later in book form in 1908 as A Woman’s Way Through Unknown Labrador. Critics called her a “mere passenger,” but this discounted her role that kept five people on track for more than eight weeks. According to Blake, “we were never before on a trip where the women didn’t do as they were told.”
Mina’s expedition was also more detailed. Both the American Geographical Society and the Geographical Society of Great Britain accepted her maps of the Naskapi and George river systems. Her work also proved that Michikamau and Seal lakes were part of the same drainage system and that the North West and Naskapi rivers were the same. Her charts were used for decades until aerial photography changed how maps were made.
Audiences attending her lectures in the United States were enthralled by her observations on the flora and fauna of Labrador and her detailed accounts of the great caribou migration and the Montagnais and Naskapi Innu. Complemented by 100 lantern slides, her engagements painted the wilderness as a landscape bursting with life.
In 1907, she travelled to England where few people knew or even cared where Labrador was. Still, she managed to captivate the London social scene, entertaining such luminaries as Isadora Duncan, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells with her tales of mosquitoes and rapids, Innu and Arctic flowers. While there, she married and had three children. She also made many trips to Canada and maintained a correspondence with Elson who had settled near Moosonee, Ont., working for Revillon Frères, the French rival of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He died in 1944.
In an ironic twist of fate, Mina died on May 4, 1956, at the age of 86. While on a walk, she ignored the pedestrian overpass and absent-mindedly crossed some railway tracks near London. She was killed instantly by an oncoming train.
The journey of the Lady of Labrador was over, but during her trek through the wilderness she had covered more than 900 kilometres in just 61 days, 43 of those days spent travelling and 18 encamped.