Home Uncategorized 70th Anniversary of Henry Larsen’s sailing of the Northwest Passage

70th Anniversary of Henry Larsen’s sailing of the Northwest Passage


The St. Roch on Patrol
November / December 2012
By Gerard Kenney

In memory of Albert “Frenchy” Chartrand
This year, 2012, Canadians celebrate the seventieth anniversary of a Canadian ship sailing through the Northwest Passage in the west-to-east direction for the first time ever. The captain was Henry Larsen and the ship was the St. Roch.

There is also another good reason for the celebration of this year, although for a totally different, but closely related reason—a celebration in memory of shipmate Frenchy Chartrand who died in ’42 aboard the St. Roch.

Captain of the St. Roch, Henry Larsen of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The year was 1942. Henry Larsen’s St. Roch and her crew were frozen into small notch in the ice called Pasley Bay on the western coastline of Boothia Peninsula. The pressure of the powerful Arctic ice had bodily squeezed the mall ship into the vice grip of Pasley Bay to pass the long winter months. Although they were socked in the ice, Larsen and his men were not idle. There were many RCMP duties to be carried out by dog sled, such as a census of the inhabitants, determination of the health and living conditions of the people, investigation of any criminal actions (they were very few), and others.

On February 13, 1942, one of Larsen’s most valued crew members, Albert Frenchy” Chartrand, was on deck in the crisp, arctic morning air. He was preparing the big, ten-gallon drum set on two primus stoves that were used to cook the dog food. Huge quantities of rice, cornmeal and rolled oats along with tallow and seal blubber, were chopped into manageable frozen chunks to carry on sled trips when away from the St. Roch on missions. A similar procedure took place when preparing food for the men, but with somewhat higher quality ingredients.

It was morning and Chartrand was on deck getting the stoves ready for cooking. He had complained of a small headache at breakfast, but that didn’t stop him from carrying out his job. At this point, Larsen came up on deck, took one look at Chartrand and knew that something was very wrong with him.He sent his sailor below to rest for a while. Frenchy was not there long before he collapsed while listening to the radio with his friends. Larsen was urgently summoned below, but soon after he got there, Chartrand was up, smoking a cigarette, recovered, it seemed, and pronouncing himself well. Larsen went back on deck to finish Frenchy’s task, but a few minutes later an urgent call sent him back below again, this time to see Chartrand in his death throes. He died soon after.

This was a heavy blow for the rest of the crew. Chartrand had been everybody’s friend on board and was loved by all. He was the strongest man on board, and now he was dead. It was very hard to come to grips with the reality of Frenchy’s passing. The RCMP Superintendent of G Division, headquartered in Ottawa and to whom Larsen reported, was notified by radio of the sad event. He personally visited Chartrand’s parents later to let them know that their son had died while carrying out his duties aboard the St. Roch.

Larsen and Frenchy Chartrand with a good catch.

The question now was what to do about a proper burial and religious service for their beloved shipmate. In those days of relatively primitive transportation facilities in the Arctic, burial back home in Ontario would not have been possible before late the following summer after ice break-up and the arrival of the St. Roch on the east coast. Clearly, it was not feasible to take that route. The best that could be done for poor Chartrand and his parents was to give him a Christian burial in Pasley Bay accompanied by a proper religious service. This meant the attentions of a Catholic priest, for Frenchy had been a Roman Catholic, the only member of the crew to be of that faith. Even that second best option was not going to be easy to realize. The Catholic priest nearest to the solidly iced-in St. Roch in Pasley Bay was Oblate Father Henri Pierre who ministered to the Inuit of the Kellett River region near the present-day community of Pelly Bay, some 640 kilometres (400 miles) to the southeast. Before Father Henri could leave his mission to perform a burial ceremony in Pasley Bay, he had to be apprised of the fact that his services were required there. The only way for that to happen was for someone from the St. Roch to drive a dog team and sled the distance to Pelly Bay to let him know, and only then could Father Henri set out for Pasley Bay. It would be many weeks before poor Chartrand could be finally laid to rest with all due ceremony in his Arctic grave. A coffin was built for Chartrand’s body, which was temporarily buried in a snow bank to await Father Henri’s arrival.

Larsen, Ikualaaq and ConstableHunt began preparations for the long trip to summon the good Father. Food for men and dogs for about two months had to be cooked and frozen before leaving. There would barely be enough time while travelling to thaw the food, let alone cook it. Many dozens of doughnuts were fried up and frozen to take the place of bread. Beans, an important high energy staple, were mixed with bacon and other meat, usually canned bully beef or local game, canned tomatoes, onions,molasses, all seasoned with mustard and salt. After everything was boiled up into a thick stew, it was spooned into large pans and set out to freeze, then chopped up with an axe into smaller chunks and thrown into canvas bags for carrying on the sleds. For variety, the men also boiled up rice and potatoes together with other vegetables and meat. After cooking, these were put through a meat grinder. For liquids, canned soup and tomatoes were added in, together with spices, and the mixture was ladled out into flat patties and frozen. These were also put into canvas bags for transporting. Fixing up a meal was as simple as thawing some chunks of beans and patties, plus a few doughnuts. Fish were also part of the menu. While hungry men were setting up camp, they chewed on chunks of frozen raw fish,which, curiously, have the quality of creating a sense of warmth and well being while waiting for the main course to be ready. Dog food consisted of fish and seal blubber or beef tallow to provide the fat that was essential for the hard-working beasts. Fully aware of the police responsibilities his Arctic mandate entailed, Larsen planned his mercy mission as part of an official RCMP patrol for census taking. Although Pelly Bay, where Father Henri’s mission was located, lay to the southeast of Pasley Bay where the St. Roch was locked in the ice, Larsen, Hunt and Ikualaaq started off on February 24 by first doing a loop to the northeast to include a good number of Inuit communities for census purposes before heading south to Pelly Bay. In heading northeast, Larsen was aiming for the Hudson’s Bay post of Fort Ross at the east end of Bellot Strait where the post manager Bill Heslop and his wife Barbara were glad to welcome Larsen once more into their home. The patrol then continued north to Creswell Bay where there was a small Inuit community to count and include in the census. On this northern loop, the patrol passed Cape Garry, a place of great interest especially to Ikualaaq. While passing the cape, Ikualaaq drew Larsen’s attention to what he claimed were remnants of very old dwellings built and used by a tribe of people long ago disappeared. Ikualaaq and his contemporaries had never seen these people, but he knew of them from legends passed down by his elders. These ancient people differed from present-day Inuit in that they had obviously been whale hunters, where as modern Inuit in the same region were not.

It was clear that these ancient people hunted whales from the fact that their dwellings were constructed of whalebones and skulls. According to legends, the Tunits, as these people were known, were supposed to have been of much greater stature than Ikualaaq and his contemporaries, which seemed to be confirmed by the huge whale skulls and large rocks that the Tunits had manipulated in building their homes.

Leaving Cape Garry, the expedition next turned south and headed for Kellett River where Father Henri’s mission was located some 200 kilometres away. On the way, the patrol passed another area of legendary Tunit ruins at Cape Esther, then came to a large present-day Inuit camp complete with igloos, loose, roaming sled dogs and all the accoutrements of a camp except for one thing — people. Despite the usual uproar created among a camp’s dogs on the arrival of a strange sled, not even one person stuck his head out of an igloo to see what was going one. This was strange indeed.

One of the igloos stood out among the others because of its size—it was huge compared to the others. Undoubtedly, it was an igloo built by the Inuit to enliven the long, dark days of winter with community activities such as drum thumping, singing, dancing, even physical exercise as Amundsen had discovered when he spent two winters in Gjøa Haven. As Larsen and his men approached the big igloo, they began to hear muffled noises inside that gradually resolved themselves into singing and strains of what sounded like an accordion. Larsen and his men dropped on all fours and crawled into the entrance tunnel of the Igloo to the door leading inside. Fromout of the opening door a cacophony of music and song blasted the visitors. They were met with a totally unexpected scene. The igloo was jam-packed with a large, entranced crowd of excitedly singing, sweating Inuit led in their expression of fervour by a giant of a white man passionately squeezing stimulating religious hymns from a concertina. No sooner had the three strangers stood up in the igloo, than the music and singing stopped as though cut off by a knife. The tall concertina-squeezing white man in huge polar bear pants was momentarily stunned at the sight of the strangers, especially the two white men.

When everyone had recovered from their temporary amazement, Larsen and his two companions introduced themselves to the leader of the celebration, who, it turned out, was Canon John Turner, a young Anglican missionary stationed in Pond Inlet. He was on his yearly tour of his widely spread parish and was quite relieved to discover that the three visitors were not competing Roman Catholic missionaries. Men of the cloth in those days were very protective of their flocks,which were unprejudiced and quite open to the influence of missionaries from different churches. So heated was the competition at times that stories circulated of clergymen secretly hitching up their dog teams in the middle of the night to be the first to arrive at new, previously unvisited Inuit communities, before their rival missionaries of other faiths could claim the people as members of their own church.

After the introductions, both sides being reassured of the benign nature of the other, the celebration picked up steam again with the Canon once more belting out religious hymns on the concertina, amplified by Inuit voices whose levels were set at the only volume they knew — top of the lungs.The vibrations from stamping feet and excited vocal chords, combined with the massive heat generated by the expenditure of so much human energy, was too much for the structural strength of the huge igloo’s roof — it collapsed on the celebrants. In typical Inuit fashion, what might seem a disaster to white people, was, on the contrary, an occasion for tremendous hilarity on the part of the Inuit who could hardly stand up, holding their stomachs with laughter. It was the funniest thing they had ever seen.

The singing might have been cut short, but the eating had yet to begin. Canon Turner cooked up a copious Inuit meal in his igloo where everyone ate until almost bursting. By the time the feast was over and the guests had sufficiently partaken of Canon Turner’s hospitality, it was five o’clock in the morning. Larsen and his two companions finally laid down to sleep as did the Canon, but the churchman was soon up again to massage the Inuit souls to the tune of a morning service complete with wheezing concertina. Some years later, Canon Turner came to a tragic end when he accidentally shot himself in the head while returning from a hunting trip. He did not die immediately, but was carried back to his home camp where he lingered on until a mercy flight was able to land and speed him on to civilization for medical help, but it was too late and his horrible wound finally carried him off.

The next day, Larsen and his companions sledded on to the next major Inuit community, Thom Bay, where Larsen found what he called the finest and healthiest Inuit he had seen on this trip. Seals and fish were available in abundance in the area. On March 21, the RCMP patrol took a short side trip to Victoria Harbour to examine the last anchorage of Sir John Ross’ ship Victory, abandoned in the ice in 1833. At this stage, Ikualaaq, feeling that he had been absent from his family long enough, decided it was time he returned home to Gjøa Haven which was a relatively short distance away at this point. He left the expedition after having provided excellent service as a guide. Another Inuk named Kinguk, after consulting with his wife who agreed to the idea, offered his services and took Ikualaaq’s place, guiding Larsen and Constable Hunt the rest of the way to Father Henri’s mission on the Kellett River where it empties into Pelly Bay. On arriving at Father Henri’s mission, Larsen and his companions were given an especially warm welcome, typically offered by all northern residents to travellers who arrive at their doorstep, expected or not.

Father Henri broke out a small barrel of frozen wine that the priest thawed out near the stove, enough to eke out a few glasses, which turned out to be plenty. The three visitors, dead tired from consecutive days of mushing their teams through frigid Arctic air were soon overcome with drowsiness and lay fast asleep where they fell, not to awaken till the following morning. Father Henri lived in a large house he had constructed himself of small stones embedded in clay. The priest was conducting morning mass when his visitors woke up, after which he prepared a substantial breakfast. It was soon to be Easter and Father Henri was expecting the annual sprouting of thirty-some-odd igloos around his house, an annual occurrence at that time as the Inuit from the surrounding distant camps arrived to take part in the Paschal celebrations. Such occasions called for enormous quantities of food and Father Henri was ready, having stocked up on layer upon layer of fish and seals that he had stored away in his commissary. Holidays such as Easter and Christmas were not treated lightly in the North. They were a great source of pleasure for both whites and Inuit. The Inuit, particularly, appreciated the celebration of these holidays as being one of the more important gifts conferred on them by missionaries.

By Easter morning, April 5 that year, the usual village of snowy mounds had grown up around the mission, temporary homes to the 80 or so worshippers that gathered in Father Henri’s little stone chapel to benefit from spiritual and corporal sustenance. The priest’s alter was flanked by a heap of thawing fish on one side and a great pot of seal meat simmering over a seal oil lamp on the other, occasionally tended to by the missionary as he said mass. The Inuit enthusiastically belted out hymns with old familiar religious tunes accompanied by lyrics of aboriginal origin. A young woman next to Larsen fell unconscious near him. He took her outside to revive her in the cold air and brought her back inside. Twice more she fainted and twice more Larsen revived her. It turned out that she had given birth just three hours before.Once the mass was over, the feast began. Inuit were capable of putting away prodigious quantities of food when they put their minds to it. The white men were no slackers either, as their travel-whetted appetites were still quite sharp. Easter of 1942 was a great success for all — Inuit, white men, Protestants and Catholics.

Larsen informed Father Henri of the purpose of his visit, to ask him if he could come to Pasley Bay and conduct a proper Catholic ceremony for Frenchy Chartrand’s burial. The priest was impressed by the considerable efforts undertaken on the part of the Protestant captain and his crew to see that their shipmate received the ministrations and blessings of a man of the cloth of his own Catholic faith. He was willing to undertake the long trip, but would have to wait a while until later in May to set out when seals had begun showing themselves again on top of the ice. It would be necessary for the priest and his travelling companions to hunt seals for food along the way both for themselves and their dogs.

After six days of generous northern hospitality extended by Father Henri, Larsen and Corporal Hunt headed back north to regain the St. Roch, stopping in at Gjøa Haven on the way. They were fortunate to have an Inuk from Pelly Bay accompany them since both Larsen and Hunt had caught bad colds that turned into a flu. They were very weak by the time they reached Gjøa Haven on the 15th of April. It took two weeks for the two men to recover enough to continue on their trip to Pasley Bay, finally arriving there on May 6. The patrol had taken seventy-one days to cover 1,835 kilometres (1,140 miles) of snow and ice.

True to his word, Father Henri arrived at the St. Roch thirteen days after Larsen and preparations were begun for the burial. Father Henri conducted the Requiem Mass on board ship with Larsen, his crew and a number of Inuit in attendance. Chartrand’s coffin had been laid to rest in a shallow grave on top of a nearby hill. It had not being possible to dig a deeper grave because of the rock-hard frozen soil. After the Requiem Mass, a funeral procession climbed the hill to the grave where Father Henri pronounced final words of blessing over Chartrand’s body with all due solemnity, sprinkling the grave with a handful of snow rather than the usual holy water.Albert Chartrand’s parents in Ottawa would be comforted to know that their son had been buried and blessed by a Catholic priest.

His mission accomplished, Father Henri and his three Inuit travelling companions embarked on their long return journey to his little parish on the Kellett River. He carried with him a solid hardwood cross, built and presented to him by Larsen and the crew of the St. Roch. It was Larsen’s idea to present the priest with a substantial cross as he had noticed that the one Father Henri had at his mission on the Kellett River was made of pieces of wood from a packing case. How ironic, but appropriate, that the new oak cross in Father Henri’s Catholic mission had been built and donated to the mission by a shipload of Protestants. Later that summer, Larsen and his men built a 15-foot memorial cairn of limestone slabs. Over the grave itself was built a pyramid of several tons of rocks to which was attached a brass plate with Chartrand’s name and the dates of his birth and death and his regimental number inscribed on it.