A review essay by David E. Pelly
Journal of the Ernest Oberholtzer & Billy Magee 2,000-mile Canoe Voyage to Hudson Bay in 1912
Jean Sanford Replinger (ed.)
Ernest Oberholtzer, an American in his mid-20s, having discovered the joys of canoe travel in the Rainy Lake border district, allowed his imagination to be fuelled by reading accounts of the Far North, principal among them the writings of J.B. Tyrrell, a geologist who was among the earliest white men to travel in the barrenlands. Oberholtzer dreamed of emulating his hero. “If you want to go to a place where the information you bring back will really be valuable,” he said, “this is the place to go.” The barrenlands of his dreams were the tundra plains north of Manitoba, Canada’s youngest province at the time, having been carved out of the Northwest Territories just a few years earlier, in 1906. That’s where Oberholtzer wanted to go.
“Tyrrell’s own never-to-be-forgotten report on his exploration of the Kazan River, the vast herds of Barren Ground caribou encountered, and his discovery of a hitherto unknown band of inland Eskimos, living entirely by their own stone-age economy, had fired my imagination,” wrote Oberholtzer some years later. As romantic as that call of the unknown sounds today, it was no doubt entirely real and genuinely mysterious in the mind of a young man searching for adventure in the early 20th century.
In 1903, Oberholtzer left home in Iowa to attend Harvard University. As he said, “I never learned anything that I could earn a living with. But I found out more about myself and what my interests were.” During the summer between completing his BA and doing graduate studies in landscape planning, he headed to northern Minnesota for his introduction to wilderness canoeing and the Native peoples of the region. What he discovered, at its root, was an abiding interest in the land and its multiple uses, a perspective that would channel his energies through much of life. It may also explain why, just a few years later, the notion took hold of him to see the “vast unknown North” — a land where truly all possibilities still lay ahead.
Oberholtzer read copiously: “I looked up everything there was on the barrenlands.” The earliest account came from Samuel Hearne, an English fur-trader, employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who traversed what he called the Barren Ground on foot during the period 1769-72, accompanied by Dene guides, most significantly Matonabbee, traveller extraordinaire and a major ambassador for the fur-trade among his people. On his third, and successful, attempt, Hearne followed Matonabbee’s sizeable party of hunters and women — necessary to cook and sew and “made for labour; one of them can carry, or haul, as much as two men can do,” according to Matonabbee — from the mouth of the Churchill River on Hudson Bay, northwest to the mouth of the Coppermine River at the Arctic Ocean, and back. Hearne’s account of this remarkable journey of at least 2,000 miles (as the crow flies) provided readers with a first detailed glimpse of the land and its people. In a very matter-of-fact voice, he describes the difficulties of his long journey and offers innumerable details of how the people travelling with him were able to survive in this harsh landscape. Captivating though it may have been to the young reader, Hearne’s own words cannot be said to offer an enticing picture of the wilderness:
In my opinion, there cannot exist a stronger proof that mankind was not created to enjoy happiness in this world, than the conduct of the miserable beings who inhabit this wretched part of it.
A Canadian edition of Hearne’s account was published in 1911, edited by J.B. Tyrrell. One need not wonder, therefore, why Oberholtzer devoured the book with such passion. He kept detailed hand-written notes as he read, most of them related to the birds and mammals of the North, or to the culture and sociology of the Dene and Inuit, the Chipewyan and Eskimos as he called them. Among these notes, he penned “Mr. Tyrrell writes: ‘I happen to be the only one since Hearne who has conducted explorations in the country lying between Fort Churchill and the eastern end of Great Slave Lake and south of latitude 63°N. Except Hearne, I and those who accompanied and assisted me are the only white men who have crossed that great stretch of country, … Absolutely the only information that I had about the region when I visited it, other than what I had secured in conversation with Indians, was contained in Hearne’s book… It is hardly necessary to say that a magnificent field for exploration is still left in that far northern country.’” One can just imagine Oberholtzer’s desire to be the next white man to enter this country after reading that.
If it was Hearne who provided the earliest glimpse of life on the barrenlands for a youthful Oberholtzer, it was Tyrrell who laid out the travel route to get there. In 1894, Tyrrell’s assigned task was to extend the geological map of Canada north beyond the limit of northern Manitoba, where the work had already been done. Tyrrell himself was responsible for much of the exploration and mapping of northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, during his fieldwork seasons from 1887 to 1892. In 1894, he was to leave from the most northerly outpost, on Reindeer Lake, 600 miles north of Winnipeg, and follow a route long-used by the Native peoples, but only once followed by a white man, a missionary, north to the barrenlands. There he would find and follow, even farther north, a large river which the Dene had described to him previously, and which Hearne had crossed more than a century before; today we know it as the Kazan. It was Tyrrell’s account of this journey, which, more than anything else, as Oberholtzer put it, “had fired my imagination.” Tyrrell’s map, which Oberholtzer carried, was little more than a sketch of the land and waterways to be found north of Reindeer Lake. Nonetheless, it represented the extent of mapped knowledge for the country beyond the frontier.
Years later, at age 80, Oberholtzer reminisced about his expedition, and its origins. “I came across the work of J.B. Tyrrell, who was by all odds the greatest of all the modern geographers. A very remarkable man! … he found, he actually found — at that late day, maybe 1897, something like that — a tribe of Eskimos living inland that had never been known to anybody. So far as he knew, they’d never seen a white man. They were living on this Kazan River, as it was called…. J.B. never wrote anything but his reports to the geological service. But to me it was one of the most fascinating things I had ever read in all my life…. The two things, of course, that meant more to me than anything else was seeing all those caribou and seeing these Eskimos that nobody had ever known. And my imagination was at work. I thought, well, there are probably other groups of those Eskimos up in there. What that would mean, what a delight to be the first one ever to find them!! … So these things had impressed me very greatly, and I wanted to go up in there.”
Oberholtzer was not alone in dreaming of such far-off adventure. It was an era of public fascination with tales of adventurous travel and survival against the odds, and in the extreme, heroic failure. It’s a safe bet that many young men of the time knew about Robert Peary’s claim of reaching the North Pole on April 6, 1909, and pondered whether he did in fact make it, and of Roald Amundsen’s 1906 conquest of the Northwest Passage in the Gjoa, the first ship ever to make it through the long-sought-after route across the top of North America. Oberholtzer probably had a particular affinity to Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who left Iowa for Harvard in 1903, and then joined the Anglo-American Polar Expedition in 1906, which sailed into the Arctic around the top of Alaska. Stefansson became one of the best-known Arctic explorers and writers of his day, particularly noted for the way he adopted Inuit methods of survival and travel.
As Oberholtzer set out in 1912, the world was only just learning of the heroic deaths of Captain Robert Scott with his party during their attempt at the South Pole, in March that same year. Scott’s journal contained his final lines: “Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman,” and ended with the words, “We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker of course and the end cannot be far.” He was to become such a national hero in England that books, art, sculpture, film and poetry subsequently developed the tragic, as well as the heroic, aspects of his story. Streets, churches and towns throughout the British Empire were named after Scott and his companions. Oberholtzer had been in England for much of the two years preceding his own expedition, so he was certainly aware of the public’s fascination for their Antarctic hero. All of this offers some insight into the social context of the time, replete with heroic journeys and expeditions into “the vast unknown.” Oberholtzer longed to be part of the action. In one 1910 notebook, in the midst of various jottings about others’ northern explorations, he had written (as if a ‘note to self ’): “Possibly make an interesting historical discovery.”
It seems clear, with hindsight, that Oberholtzer wanted to position himself among the explorers and writers of the day, at least in some small way. He had made some initial forays into the field of wilderness travel writing, but this trip to “the vast unknown North,” would earn him solid standing, he hoped, perhaps even approaching that of his hero J.B. Tyrrell. His notebooks offer some evidence of this aspiration; in one piece of advice to himself, he wrote: “Real stories full of zest, reality, daring, reckless, resourceful, wonderful – let the reader draw breath at the end and exclaim ‘But he was a man.’ Tell it cold-bloodedly, off-hand, so that it allows a picture of truth.”
To foster an association with other explorers, he attended lectures by both Roald Amundsen and Vilhjalmur Stefansson, recording afterwards his favourable impressions of both men, whom he somehow contrived to meet following the lectures. He wrote to J.B. Tyrrell, to Vilhjalmur Stefansson and to David Hanbury, all three remarkable northern travellers of the time, and to the Reverend J. Lofthouse, who later became Bishop of the Arctic. Tyrrell wrote back: “I shall hope to see a splendid account of your journey in one of the good magazines very soon.”
It is perhaps a surprise, but certainly a disappointment to himself, that Oberholtzer never did write the “real story full of zest” for his 1912 journey to Hudson Bay. So the recently released Bound for the Barrens is the closest anyone can come to reading Oberholtzer’s own account of his journey.