1929 High Arctic surveillance by dog team and qamutiq
The day after Cst. Reginald Taggart was dropped off at the Dundas Harbour detachment, he went walrus hunting. Two of the massive beasts were killed, and one was cut up right there on the ice. The 23-year-old’s two-year posting was going to be like no other.
Taggart was six-foot-one with red curly hair, earning him the Inuktitut nickname Muqsaatuq — tight curls. He had joined the RCMP in 1926 and was thrilled to be selected for ‘Northern Service.’
“He very much loved the outdoors. That was where he preferred to be, rather than in an office,” says his daughter Alice Casson.
“I got the feeling being at Dundas was one of the highlights of his life.”
It was August 1928. Four years earlier, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) had built the detachment on the southeast coast of Devon Island at the entrance to Lancaster Sound. There was no community to police. The only inhabitants of the island — the second largest in the Arctic Archipelago — lived at the post. It was a ‘flagpole’ detachment, established to assert Canadian sovereignty. Two other similar, remote posts had been built on Ellesmere Island at Craig Harbour and Bache Peninsula.
Eleven people were stationed at Dundas: Constables Reg Taggart, Maurice Timbury, Paddy Hamilton, and Insp. Alfred Herbert Joy (officer-in-charge), Kipumi, his wife Ataguttiaq, their two small children, her stepsister Qannguainuk, her mother Makpainnuk, and father Qamaniq. The Inuit families, who had come from the Pond Inlet area, were essential to life at the post. Kipumi and Qamaniq would hunt for fresh meat and accompany the Mounties on their patrols. Ataguttiaq, Qannguainuk, and Makpainnuk would make traditional fur clothing for the men to wear during the colder months.
At 8 a.m. on Sunday, August 12, the men were awakened by a ship’s whistle. The government steamship Beothic had returned from the Ellesmere posts to pick up the two officers who were heading south.
That night Taggart wrote in his diary, “Ship left for Beechy [sic] Island to put down a cache for Inspector Joy’s patrol next spring.”
Joy had previously made several impressive long-distance dogsled patrols with the intrepid Greenlander Nukappiannguaq across the Queen Elizabeth Islands. Nukappiannguaq would travel to Dundas by dog team from the Bache post that winter. In the spring, he and Joy would leave Dundas Harbour on the longest patrol yet.
Taggart embraced life at the High Arctic detachment. He and Kipumi became friends and hunting partners, going out in a boat, or over the sea ice in pursuit of walrus, seals, and belugas.
In October 1928, Kipumi taught the young constable to build a qamutiq (sled) and hitch a team of dogs to it. Taggart was then out as much as possible with his dog sled, exploring the region and checking his traps for hare and fox. Casson said her father had not hunted much in the south, but he was a good marksman and took to hunting once posted to the Arctic.
“Dad liked to hunt,” says his son Peter Taggart. “He would periodically go out hunting while the other RCMP officers would not go outside. They liked to sit inside and play cards and whatever. Dad used to like to get out on the land.”
On January 10, 1929, Taggart and Kipumi loaded supplies on their qamutiq and travelled west to Croker Bay to spend a few days away from the post. Taggart wrote, “Built a snow igloo and stayed the night. Was quite comfortable, though it was new to me to sleep in an igloo. Distance covered forty miles.”
Taggart’s ability to hunt, drive a dog team, and build an igloo made him a good choice for the upcoming spring patrol.
His diary entry of January 22 says, “During the evening, Inspector Joy asked me if I would like to accompany him on his patrol to Melville Island. He said it would take two months to make the round trip. Of course, I was glad of the chance to go.”
It would be a major expedition. Joy, Nukappiannguaq, and Taggart would travel west to Melville Island, then head northeast across the archipelago to the post at Bache Peninsula on eastern Ellesmere Island. Cst. Hamilton and Qamaniq would accompany them the first part of the way, carrying extra supplies.
On March 12, 1929, in cold, bright sunshine, they loaded the qamutiq and hitched up the dog teams. Nukappiannguaq’s sled was loaded with 450 kgs of supplies.
Qamaniq and Taggart’s sleds carried over 225 kgs each. They left at 9:30 a.m. Their progress was slow through the deep snow. They stopped at 8 p.m., ate, built a small igloo, then the five exhausted men crawled inside and slept.
They continued west along the Devon coast. The going was difficult. In places, the shore ice was too narrow, bordered on one side by steep rock faces, on the other by open water. They portaged their loads up 50-metre snowbanks, cutting steps into the snow to help them climb up. At times, the ice was rough; sometimes, it was treacherously thin.
Hamilton and Qamaniq turned back for Dundas Harbour on March 19. Joy, Nukappiannguaq and Taggart continued west, arriving two days later at Beechey Island — famous as the place Franklin’s expedition overwintered and later the base for his search parties. From Beechey, the three crossed Wellington Channel to Cornwallis Island, continuing west over rough ice and through deep snow to Cockburn, Byam Martin, and Bathurst islands, reaching Melville Island on April 15. From there, they headed west to Dealy Island, then headed north to Vesey Hamilton Island, up to Lougheed Island, then struck out northeast to cross King Christian, Ellef Ringnes, Cornwall, and Axel Heiberg islands, reaching the west coast of Ellesmere on May 20.
On May 31, the men arrived at the Bache Peninsula detachment. “This finished the patrol which lasted eighty-one days, covering a distance of approximately eighteen hundred miles,” wrote Taggart.
It had been an arduous trek. They had weathered snowstorms, close encounters with polar bears and suffered snow blindness. Their journey would become one of the most famous RCMP dogsled patrols.
The milder June weather meant the deteriorating ice and snow conditions prevented any return by dogsled back to Devon Island. So, they stayed at the Bache post. When Beothic arrived on August 3, they boarded the vessel. Taggart disembarked at Dundas Harbour three days later. Joy carried on to Ottawa. Taggart’s second year at Dundas Harbour was spent hunting and exploring the region by dogsled in the company of Kipumi and Qamaniq. In August 1930, Taggart returned south, but enjoyed another northern posting at Baker Lake during the Depression. He retired from the RCMP in 1957.
The Dundas Harbour post was closed in September 1933. The RCMP reopened it in 1945, when for five years it was the most northerly post in the Eastern Arctic. It closed permanently in 1951. The wooden clapboard buildings are now dilapidated and boarded up. In August, ships still drop anchor in Dundas Harbour. But tourists, not residents, disembark to wander around the abandoned detachment. They marvel at the beauty of the location, and the fact that Taggart and a handful of people once lived there.
Season Osborne is the author of In the Shadow of the Pole: An Early History of Arctic Expeditions, 1871–1912. She lives and writes in Ottawa, Ontario.