The Journal of Canadian

Wilderness Canoeing

  WINTER 2003











In this issue

Front Page


Winter Packet


From the Editor

Canoelit I

Canoelit II

Back page




Canoelit I


Cold Burial

A True Story of Endurance and Disaster

By Clive Powell-Williams

St. Martins Press, New York 2002

US $24.95 265 pp.

ISBN: 0-312-28854-9

Unlike their heroes, it seems great stories never die. When three men slowly starved to death in the spring of 1927 in a humble cabin on the shores of a largely unknown northern river who could have imagined their tale would inspire a fine book 75 years later.

Such is the tale of Cold Burial and of John Hornby and his tragic, heroic and foolhardy death along the wooded banks of the Thelon River. British author Clive Powell-Williams takes us along with Hornby and his two companions; Harold Adlard and young cousin Edgar Christian.

Powell-Williams has gathered a mountain of research and methodically pours it out in this fascinating read. It says something of a book where the entire plot, outcome and history are generally known that it can shed fascinating insights into this old story.

John Hornby is truly the Rosetta Stone of northern travel. His fascinating magnetism, wild adventures and mysterious ways tell us so much of the northern experience. He is everything that is right – and wrong – about the heroic northern tradition. No one can truly understand much of what he did yet we marvel at his exploits and shake our heads at his folly.

It really takes a fellow Brit to do justice to this tale and add much needed context to this tale of heroic death. Powell-Williams is obviously steeped in the ‘chin-up tradition that raised Hornby and his kind and explains it well here. He even delves into the world of privilege and fame that Hornby emerged from the youngest son of the celebrated A. N. Hornby, ‘The Cricketing Squire’.

The diary of Christian is well known and has been twice published. First as Unflinching: A diary of tragic adventure in 1937 and again in 1980 as Death in the Barren Ground. Powell-Williams goes much further into the private and unpublished letters and diaries of Christian, Adlard, Hornby and most notably Capt. James Critchell-Bullock.

It was Critchell-Bullock who really got a huge dose of Hornby – so much so that it changed his life. Their expedition in 1923-4 where he and Hornby lived in a smoky cave in the side of an esker on Artillery Lake gave him many insights into this unique man. He tried for years to make a go of the film footage he shot on the trip. All the furs they had trapped were useless by the time they made it out and it was a financial bust, all part of the enigma that was Hornby

Powell-Williams brings all of this together in a thorough and fascinating read. Things get a bit tedious when his source material is somewhat sparse in the middle of winter when the threesome were desperately searching for food. The book’s analytical and detailed description of the effects of starvation is riveting.

Of course, it is 18-year-old Edgar Christian who is largely the narrator of this tale and its last survivor. His diligence in keeping a diary under horrendous conditions was the spark that guaranteed the Hornby torch would burn forever. But it is Powell-Williams’ blending of all the sources that makes this book work. He tells the story in a very even-handed manner doling out huge amounts of minutiae as this ill-fated expedition makes its way from England to the shores of the Thelon.

It is also very useful to hear from other sources like George Douglas, Guy Blanchet and Stefansson. These respected - and long-lived - men of the north certainly have an important say in this story.

But does it fully explain John Hornby? Of course not. How can you explain a man who forbade Christian from taking a bible and himself packed formal evening dress, complete with gold shirt studs. But it adds layer to the level of understanding of this enigma of a man who haunts us still.

— Michael Peake

Lost Lands, Forgotten Stories

A Woman’s Journey to the Heart of Labrador

By Alexandra Pratt

HarperCollins, 2002 262 pp. $34.95

ISBN: 0-00-22515-4

Next to Hornby and company perhaps the most famous canoe tales of the north are the Hubbard and Wallace expeditions of a century ago.

It would seem then, that Lost Lands, Forgotten Stories is a bit of an odd title for a book about these famous trips. But I guess it sounds romantic.

Alexandra Pratt is a young English writer with a taste for adventure, She attempts to follow in the footsteps of the plucky Mina Hubbard who in 1905 completed the ill-fated expedition of her late husband Leonidas.

It takes but one turn of the book’s cover, to the endpaper maps, to see how little progress Alexandra and her lone Innu

guide, Jean Pierre Ashini, actually made trying to get up the Naskapi River in the heart of Labrador.

Mina Hubbard had three strong guides including the redoubtable George Elson. And the Naskapi River was much harder to get up in Mina’s day, its flow had not been diverted as it is now into the Churchill Falls hydro project.

For the casual reader this book may seem like a wonderful and brave adventure. To an experienced wilderness canoeist, it was doomed from the start.

However great a guide Jean Pierre may have been, it was way too much to ask him to take this petite British neophyte on her first real canoe trip. Pratt had originally hired a young man from central Canada to be her guide whom she calls Neville. This was not his real name. I know this because he approached me for route info and spoke about his worries of her preparedness for this trip. He pulled out when he feared it would be a mess and Alexandra had to hurriedly arrange to get a guide once she arrived in Labrador. She was lucky to be in the very capable hands of Joe Goudie, Labrador legend and all round great guy who helped her make contacts and get plugged into the local community. Without Joe, there’s no book.

Pratt writes well and makes the most of the experience and you have to give her credit for really trying despite the odds. She has many historical threads to weave in and it’s too bad she couldn’t have made it further to blend in some more. She uses Mina Hubbard’s journals to breath life into her story. It was a short trip in miles but took several weeks. Her writing on the river is very vague when it comes to describing particular points along the way and how much, or little, progress they made in a particular day.

Some things just don’t ring true which makes others suspect. The two were traveling in the heat of a Labrador summer, with some really warm weather. It makes no sense then that near the end of their trip she describes Jean Pierre jumping into the chest-deep river with, “The water only a few degrees above freezing”. That would certainly NOT be the case as shallow rivers of the region are not ice cold in August especially during a very hot summer.

Pratt does use the chance to tell the tale of the Innu people and their fight to retain their land rights in Labrador. She was obviously influenced by Jean Pierre who is active in the politics of the region. Formerly known as the Naskapi and Montagnais Indians, they have a long and proud tradition of living in Labrador.

Eventually the end of their line is reached and Pratt realizes they will not make it up this very tough river. Then she finds out they cannot make it down the river either as Jean Pierre had sustained a knee injury along the way that he hadn’t mentioned. That meant using her satphone and calling for a helicopter–and paying for one - much to her shock. Their boat was a classic wood & canvas Rollin Thurlow Northwoods Canoe model her original guide had helped her obtain - and it was left in the woods to be picked up on a later winter trip.

The Hubbard story is a well known one and never better told than in the book Great Heart by Rugge and Davidson. How curious then that Lost Lands never cites this seminal tome in its bibliography. That seemed very strange to me.

Pratt does convey her story well, the struggles, disappointment and the rugged beauty of the Labrador landscape. She gets a rare chance to see it intimately through the eyes of a native guide, just like Mina Hubbard did. That was a great hook for the story, too bad she couldn't complete the tale.

                                            — Michael Peake


 Winter 2003         Outfit 111 

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