By Season Osborne
Most of Baffin Island’s west coast was an unknown dotted line on Arctic maps until J.T.E. Lavoie made an impressive sledding expedition in 1911.
Lavoie is listed as the meteorologist and geologist on Capt. Joseph-Elzéar Bernier’s 1910-11 Canadian Government Arctic expedition. He was also the expedition’s customs officer and surveyor. The initials C.E. after his name on his maps indicate that Lavoie was also a civil engineer. For someone who played a key role in the 1910-11 expedition, very little is known of him. He was from Baie des Chaleurs, in northern New Brunswick, south of Gaspe. But what his initials J.T.E. stand for is not mentioned in the official Report on the Dominion Government Expedition to the Northern Waters and Arctic Archipelago of the D.G.S. “Arctic” in 1910.
The Dominion government hired Capt. Bernier in 1906 to establish Canada’s jurisdiction in the Arctic. He raised the flag on a number of islands in the archipelago in 1906-07, but on his second expedition in 1908-09, he made a sweeping claim of the entire Arctic on Melville Island in July 1909. Having annexed the islands for Canada, the only major accomplishment left was to make the Northwest Passage.
In 1910, Bernier was given sailing orders to attempt the Passage via the most northerly route through McClure Strait. However, excessive ice made the Strait impassable and Bernier was forced to turn back. His ship Arctic was provisioned for two years, so he decided to over winter in the protective shelter of Arctic Bay on northwestern Baffin Island, anchoring there on September 10. The Arctic was frozen in by September 29, 1910.
Lavoie erected a cement pillar on shore for scientific observation, and carried out daily meteoro logical duties. He installed two mercury and two spirit Fahrenheit thermometers, as well as two standard barometers above the Arctic’s bridge, 12 feet above sea level. The lowest temperature was 55.2°F below zero (-48.4°C). The warmest day was July 7, 1911, when the temperature was 53.4°F above (11.8°C). Lavoie recorded that the mercury froze in the thermometers nine times. He also measured the thickness of the ice and noted it was 32 inches (81 centimetres) by the end of January. The ice kept thickening even when the air temperature warmed in April, reaching its maximum thickness of 56 inches (142 centimetres) on May 20.
Bernier organized a number of explorations around the region. Smaller prospecting parties returned with bags labelled with what minerals the ship’s prospector, Arthur English, assumed they contained — rocks flecked with bits of copper, gold, silver or quartz. However, there were no tools aboard the Arctic to accurately test the geological specimens, so 10 tons of the potentially valuable rock was loaded in the ship’s hold for transportation back to Ottawa for analysis by the Department of Mines. In the end, none of the rocks were identified as containing any mineral of note, and were only valuable as ballast.
Lavoie’s surveying skills were put to good use. In October, he led a party with the goal of exploring Admiralty Inlet to its end, and then across the land to Cape Hallowell at Fury and Hecla Strait, which separates south-west Baffin from the mainland. He would then head north up theBaffin coast to Cape Kater.
The party included First Officer Morin; Joseph Mathé (who is listed as assistant steward in the ship’s company but Lavoie refers to him as a geologist); and two Inuit guides, Monkashaw and Koudnou; a little boy; two sleds and 22 dogs. Mathé would assist Lavoie in making his surveys and observations and report on the geological formations en route.
The men headed south down the east coast of Admiralty Inlet. At the end of the Inlet, Morin parted company and returned to the ship as instructed. Lavoie and Mathé’s small party crossedoverland as far as Cape Hallowell, but ice prevented them continuing up the west coast of Baffin. they retraced their steps, and arrived at the ship on November 17. In the 36 days they were away,they had covered 550 miles (885 kilometres).
The most impressive sledding trip of the 1910-11 voyage was the second expedition carried out by Lavoie the following spring. The plan was to complete the survey of the coast from Cape Kater, on the Brodeur Peninsula (named by Capt. Bernier in 1906 after the Hon. Louis-Philippe Brodeur, Minister of Marine and Fisheries), down the Gulf of Boothia to Cape Hallowell.
At 8:30 a.m. on March 15, 1911, Lavoie left the ship in the company of the Inuk guide Koudnou and another Inuit couple, Pioumictou and his wife. Two other Inuit men going on a bear hunting expedition joined them. This time, Lavoie and his companions sledded across the now frozen Admiralty Inlet, and headed overland across the Brodeur Peninsula to Prince Regent Inlet.
The official 1910-11 government report of the voyage was compiled from Bernier’s log and reports of the officers by Mr. W.W. Stumbles, a government civil servant with no experience of life aboard ship, let alone life in the Arctic. Though it is written in the third person, the man’s biases and the prejudices of the day come through. However, Appendix 2 of the report, which contains Lavoie’s account is taken directly from his diary and told in his own unaffected, matter of fact way, giving an honest open impression of life on the land and the people he travelled with. He wrote:
“As I had acquired experience in my expedition of last fall, I had decided to run this one on an entirely different principle and adopted the Eskimo ways of travelling, clothing, sleeping, etc. Being used to this country they cannot but be more practical than we in these matters. Therefore, on leaving the “Arctic” I had discarded all European clothes and dressed in a double skin suit…. Every night we built an igloo (snow hut) of blocks of snow. Although it took us an hour every night, it was preferable to pitching a tent, and more comfortable, as it kept the wind out…. I got used from the first to eat raw meat, either caribou, bear or seal; I got so used to it that I found as much delight as the natives in sitting on the ice immediately after a seal had been killed, to eat its liver with blubber before it had lost its animal heat.”
The British Naval expeditions that had explored much of the Arctic in their search for Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition 50 years earlier had, to their detriment, refused to adapt the travel methods of the people who had lived there for centuries. However, as a result of Lavoie’s open-mindedness to follow the example of his Inuit companions, his expedition covered more ground in a shorter period of time, and more comfortably.
Several families joined Lavoie and his party on their journey. At one point the caravan they travelled in was made up of five qamutiit, fifty-six dogs, seven men, six women and three children.
Lavoie’s account reads like an adventure book. He endured a number of deprivations, including snow blindness. They depended on hunting seal and polar bears for sustenance, and consequently, when game was scarce, they went several days without food. One morning he awoke to find a six-inch-wide fissure running through the middle of their tent. They had camped on the ice and it was moving. They immediately broke camp and stuck closer to the shore after that.
A month into their trip they were literally buried in their igloo by a violent snowstorm with a 75-mile an hour wind. To get outside, they crawled out the top of their igloo, as the entrance, qamutiit, and dog harnesses were buried under five feet of snow. They had to dig out the dogs several times over the course of the storm, so they wouldn’t smother under the snow.
Lavoie and his men were also stalked by polar bears. At one point, he was alone in the camp while his companions were out hunting. He was busy taking readings of the sun when he realized a bear, not 50 feet away, was watching him. The lame dog, left behind with him, charged at it and the bear fled to the safety of the jagged, broken hillocks on the sea ice. Lavoie was then keenly aware of the necessity of having a dog and a gun at hand.
Lavoie succeeded in surveying the east coast of Prince Regent Inlet down to the Gulf of Boothia. He named 24 geographical locations along the way, nine after his comrades on the Arctic:Morin Point, Van Koenig Point, McDonald Cape and Janes Cape. He named the large bay halfway down the peninsula, Bernier Bay, in honour of his commander. Lavoie also named several minor landmarks after his brothers, Lee and Arthur, and his sister Leah who had passed away. Easter Cape got its moniker because they were there at Easter time. And he named a low island at the entrance to Bernier Bay after himself.
On April 29, at Fury and Hecla Strait, he left a document of his progress in a cairn. Lavoie intended to continue his journey southward with Koudnou to survey Foxe Channel, then cross Baffin to Cumberland Sound where he would meet the Arctic at the Anglican missionary station at the end of the summer. Pioumictou would head back and let Capt. Bernier know Lavoie’s plans. However, Koudnou could not be persuaded to accompany him, as by the time he would return to Arctic Bay, he would’ve been absent for a year, and he worried about his wife and child managing without him. So they headed north to the ship.
On May 6, they camped in Moffet Bay at the bottom of Admiralty Inlet. That night, Lavoie noticed he hadn’t corked the tin of gasoline. Unthinkingly, he grabbed the can and put it between his knees to screw the lid on. The nearby stove ignited the fumes. The can blew up in his hands, sending shards of metal flying. Lavoie’s face and hands were severely burned. Fortunately, his caribou clothing protected his body or he would’ve burned to death. His suffering was intense. Lavoie later wrote, “Water was continually running from my sores, producing a burning itchy sensation. Large pieces of burnt skin and flesh fell from my face. I felt feverish and at times cold and unable to eat. I could not even swallow condensed milk.”
Gilberte Tremblay in her book Bernier Captaine à 17 ans, says that Pioumictou’s wife’s treatment saved Lavoie. She licked Lavoie’s eyes and eyelids, as an animal would lick its young, but her method was an incredible cure. It prevented his blindness. Apparently, there are cases of human saliva being a natural cure for conjunctivitis.
Lavoie was unable to move for the next two days. On the eighth, they broke camp and headed back to the ship. Lavoie was well cared for by his companions. Every day Pioumictou’s wife fed him like a small child. They gave him clothing and wrapped him in a blanket while travelling on the qamutiq. He could only see out of his left eye for a short distance. Beyond a hundred feet everything appeared triple.
They reached the Arctic at 3 a.m. on Thursday, May 11. Lavoie’s burned face was so badly disfigured that the watchman failed to recognize him climbing the gangway. The doctor was awakened and immediately gave him medical attention.
Third Officer Edward McDonald wrote in his journal, “Mr. Lavoie’s face is in a very bad state. His whiskers and moustache are all burned off and his face is one mass of scabs. I would not have known him when I seen him first if I had not heard he had arrived on board. He will carry many of the marks all the days of his life. It is a terrible situation to be placed in a hundred miles from the ship and thousands from civilization. But his faithful Esquimaux brought him through all right.”
Capt. Bernier attended day and night for a week until Lavoie was able to get up and around as usual. Dr. Bolduc admitted that the Inuit woman’s treatment saved his life.
The writer of the official report downplays these traumatic events, “Mr. Lavoie reported that he had met with an accident through the explosion of a lamp and was slightly injured, causing him to return to the ship a few days earlier than he had intended.”
Lavoie and his party were away 57 days and covered 940 miles (1,512 kilometres). He had mapped Baffin Island’s west coast, replacing the dotted line with detail. His had been an incredible odyssey.
The ship was finally released from the ice of Arctic Bay on August 6, and made its way north to Albert Harbour near Pond Inlet. By then, Lavoie had recovered sufficiently enough to join an exploring party to Milne Inlet before the expedition finally headed south.
The Arctic anchored at Quebec City on September 25, 1911. Lavoie disembarked onto the King’s wharf and vanished into history. He made a significant contribution to the knowledge of Baffin Island’s west coast, yet Lavoie remains an enigmatic character, joining the ranks of so many men who ventured North on expeditions known only by the name of the expedition commander.