Canada's History

Mag­netic North


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In the 1930s, a young writer and pho­tog­ra­pher for The

Beaver set out on a north­ern ad­ven­ture but never made it home.

IN THE SUM­MER OF 1936, a twenty-oneyear-old man from Lon­don, On­tario, sat on the shores of Bail­lie Is­land in Canada’s Far North, lis­ten­ing to wa­ter lap­ping against chunks of grounded ice and to the sounds of Ken­tucky hill­billy mu­sic twang­ing from the phono­graph his Inuit com­pan­ions were play­ing in a nearby tent. He con­tin­ued to take drags off his cig­a­rette in the frigid air, laugh­ing to him­self that the war­bling “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” was such a favourite of lo­cal fam­i­lies.

Richard Nash Hourde sat wrapped in snow­cov­ered beaver furs thou­sands of kilo­me­tres from the com­forts of home, toss­ing around ideas for an ar­ti­cle he had yet to pen. For the pre­vi­ous sev­eral weeks, the young writer and pho­tog­ra­pher had been stranded on the is­land off Cape Bathurst, North­west Ter­ri­to­ries, wait­ing for the steamship Au­drey to push past the ice floes that held it many kilo­me­tres away. De­layed as he was in get­ting home to his grand­mother, he was still sur­rounded by the ex­act ma­te­rial he needed to write his next story for his em­ploy­ers: the Hud- son’s Bay Com­pany and its newly re­vamped mag­a­zine, The Beaver.

Eighty years later, I am sit­ting at a desk that be­longed to my grand­fa­ther, who was Hourde’s cousin. In my hands I have a leather wal­let with a brass zip­per. I keep flip­ping it over and over, think­ing back on Hourde’s jour­ney across the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries. Open­ing up the smooth wal­let, I tick through the cards still tucked in the front pocket, ex­actly where they were when he lis­tened to that night­time mu­sic. One of the items is the busi­ness card he handed out while work­ing for the HBC; an­other is a dance card from a YMCA where he must have so­cial­ized.

I, too, am toss­ing around ideas for how to write a story. It must run in the fam­ily. This time the story is Richard’s own, and in an act of po­etic par­ity I am writ­ing it for the same mag­a­zine that once em­ployed my rel­a­tive. My task is a lit­tle harder though; un­like him, I don’t get to write about sail­ing ves­sels and car­tons of or­anges. I am writ­ing the story of a young man who went off on a great north­ern ad­ven­ture and never made it home.

The story of Richard Hourde’s ex­ploits started in 1934, when he seated him­self in his grand­mother’s par­lour to read a copy of Courtney Ry­ley Cooper’s 1929 book, Go

North, Young Man!, a tale of Canada’s north­ern fron­tier. Al­ready an am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­pher at the age of nineteen, Hourde lapped up the thrilling sto­ries of hunt­ing bears, snow­shoe­ing through blow­ing drifts, and cap­tur­ing im­ages of north­ern­ers in na­ture. Young and per­haps a lit­tle naive, he had been rest­lessly stum­bling from job to job dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion. After read­ing Cooper’s book, Hourde turned to his in­dul­gent fam­ily for a small loan and set off for the wilder­ness sur­round­ing Ka­puskas­ing, On­tario, on his first so­journ away from the ur­ban life he had known.

Laden with a sleep­ing bag, wool trousers, sheep­skin-lined moc­casins, heavy fur mitts, and snow­shoes, Hourde set­tled in to a board­ing house in “Kap” and planned his next move. He took in some dances and went bowl­ing, all the while stock­pil­ing sup­plies for his un­funded, ex­per­i­men­tal jour­ney. He bought a dog, a tent, and a lit­tle stove with fold­ing pipes and an oven. He planned to set up camp a few kilo­me­tres out­side of Ka­puskas­ing and be­gan lim­it­ing his diet to or­anges and milk in or­der to keep his bud­get in line — and to stay healthy. He was go­ing to pho­to­graph wolves and moose and then hunt them for their meat and fur, sell­ing the pelts to sub­si­dize his writ­ing and photograph­y.

Na­ture did not re­ward his en­thu­si­asm. Ev­ery­thing he had planned de­pended on heavy snow, but snow­falls were un­usu­ally light through most of the 1934–35 win­ter. Hourde sat in his tiny tent and wrote let­ter after let­ter to his mother, beg­ging the heav­ens for more snow and out­lin­ing ideas for ar­ti­cles. At the end of that first win­ter, the would-be hunter had failed to bag a sin­gle moose or wolf. He must have sus­tained him­self on tinned food as well as the milk and or­anges.

Hourde re­treated to Lon­don, On­tario, the next year to re­group and to make con­tact again with the Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany. By the spring of 1936, my tena­cious rel­a­tive hit the road again, this time hitch­hik­ing from Lon­don to Win­nipeg, spend­ing his twelve-day jour­ney in mo­tor cars, horse­drawn wag­ons, and, dur­ing one leg, in the back of a truck with two pigs for com­pan­ions. Fi­nally he ar­rived at the Win­nipeg YMCA, clad in his best flan­nel shirt and his good hob­nail boots, ready to talk busi­ness with Douglas MacKay of the HBC and The Beaver mag­a­zine (now Canada's His­tory).

After many days of spit­balling ideas, and a few fire­side chats over glasses of bour­bon, MacKay granted Hourde a rov­ing as­sign­ment to shoot “Eskimo” scenes in the Arc­tic us­ing com­pany-fur­nished pho­to­graphic equip­ment. His pay would be $125 a month plus ex­penses. This was the big break! Hourde scrib­bled the great news fu­ri­ously to his mother on plain cream-coloured sta­tionery and quickly posted it via air­mail be­fore set­ting sail from Ed­mon­ton on the grand ad­ven­ture of his life.

He trav­elled up the Macken­zie River, mostly aboard mas­sive pad­dle­wheel­ers, in­clud­ing the Athabasca River and the SS

Dis­trib­u­tor. Hourde made friends eas­ily, chum­ming around with Angli­can mis­sion­ar­ies and lo­cal folks at the var­i­ous ports where he stopped to switch ships or where his ves­sel paused to de­posit mail­bags and crates of goods.

At the end of June 1936, his ship stopped for forty-eight hours to clean its boil­ers at Fort Nor­man, North­west Ter­ri­to­ries. Hourde took the chance to pad­dle up the Great Bear River in an RCMP ca­noe. He later wrote in a let­ter sent home that, while he was out on the icy wa­ter, a storm swept in quickly and forced him to pad­dle back madly to­ward Fort Nor­man. Slip­ping ashore just ahead of the weather, Hourde tromped up the river­bank straight into a pack of huskies that threat­ened to tear him to pieces. His let­ter to his mother re­marked that the lo­cals were quite de­lighted with his close call and had a grand laugh at his ex­pense.

A few days later, he ar­rived in Aklavik, North­west Ter­ri­to­ries, ex­cited to greet the In­dige­nous res­i­dents who met the ship with their own fer­vour — many of them had not re­ceived fresh sup­plies or out­side news since the pre­vi­ous sum­mer. Hourde snapped pho­tos as the lo­cals lined up to buy or­anges

at a dol­lar per dozen and fresh eggs for a dol­lar and a quar­ter — roughly four times their cost in south­ern Canada. He jot­ted down quick notes about how well they spoke English, cour­tesy of Angli­can mis­sion­ar­ies who had in­tro­duced the lan­guage, and how they trav­elled quite eas­ily in their spe­cial­ized Arc­tic schooners, one of which was named the Henry Ford. His cu­rios­ity was piqued at the name — how had they heard of the fa­mous au­to­mo­bile ty­coon?

His party pushed far­ther north, stop­ping in Kit­tigazuit, then Tuk­toy­ak­tuk, and all the way out to Bail­lie Is­land over the course of about three weeks. All the while, Hourde spent time among the Inuit, din­ing with them and mak­ing as many friends as he could.

One young man he met had just come ashore in a kayak. He greeted Hourde jovially and, with a broad smile, pro­ceeded to hag­gle with the stranger, so­lic­it­ing him to buy a car­ton of cig­a­rettes for five dol­lars — the equiv­a­lent of more than eighty dol­lars to­day. The pho­tog­ra­pher hap­pily agreed, tucked the car­ton un­der his arm, and then vis­ited with the man and his fam­ily in their home. An­other young Inuk he met en­gaged Hourde in a long talk about his favourite tooth­paste and cam­era equip­ment and then in­vited him aboard his schooner to ad­mire his own pho­to­graphic col­lec­tion. Near a sprawl­ing ex­panse of tun­dra — he called it a field — Hourde met a young boy who de­manded a bribe of a sin­gle or­ange be­fore he would sit for a photo, pos­ing with his cit­rus treat among Arc­tic flow­ers.

Hourde found it nearly as thrilling to spend time in the com­pany of Rev. Archibald Flem­ing, the Angli­can bishop of the Arc­tic, and to watch him preach to the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties as he worked to bridge the col­lid­ing cul­tures. Ev­ery let­ter sent home was packed full of such tales and was suf­fused with an over­whelm­ing joy for liv­ing, if for a short pe­riod, in a very dif­fer­ent world.

When it was time to head back south, the trip took a per­ilous turn. Grievously icy con­di­tions in the western Arc­tic stranded Hourde and his dis­trict man­ager on Bail­lie Is­land for four weeks

as they waited for the Au­drey to pick them up. Night after night, Hourde watched out over the wa­ter, coun­try mu­sic yo­delling across the ice, won­der­ing if his ship would ever make it or if the icy con­di­tions might keep him ashore on the is­land for many more months.

In haste, Hourde and his trav­el­ling com­pan­ion made the risky choice to hop aboard a smaller ves­sel to catch the Au­drey on Her­schel Is­land. After two days on the sec­ond is­land, and with no sign of the promised ship, im­pa­tience fi­nally got the bet­ter of Hourde. He and an­other fel­low made for Aklavik via schooner. They might have suc­ceeded, but for the walls of ice bar­ring their way. Dur­ing the first week of Septem­ber, the small schooner strug­gled be­tween grounded ice floes and the shore. Dur­ing one of those early fall nights, the ice closed in on them. The men built two fires and made camp on the beach be­tween them. The ice had com­pletely hemmed them in; they couldn’t even go back the way they came. The snow was fly­ing fu­ri­ously, and they won­dered through­out the freez­ing cold and very dark night if a res­cue by air­plane would be needed once the snow let up.

It is at this point in the story that I look out at my own snow­cov­ered land­scape. Ici­cles hang from tree branches, and thick snow­banks ob­scure the view of the road from my warm and toasty home.

I want to pad over to the ther­mo­stat and tick up the tem­per­a­ture just a bit, and I strug­gle to imag­ine a night sleep­ing on the ground in the High Arc­tic sur­rounded by un­yield­ing ice blocks. Per­haps I did not in­herit Hourde’s for­ti­tude.

Hourde made it through that night in Septem­ber 1936, and by the next day con­di­tions had im­proved enough that the schooner was able to push through the ice. By early Oc­to­ber, Hourde had ar­rived home in Lon­don, where he de­vel­oped his pho­tos and combed through all of his ma­te­ri­als. The De­cem­ber 1936 is­sue of The Beaver marked his pub­li­ca­tion de­but, with the print­ing of his photo es­say “From the Western Arc­tic.”

That win­ter the rest­less Hourde ea­gerly awaited the com­ing sum­mer and the prom­ise of his next HBC as­sign­ment in the North. He could not re­sist, though. He had to get back out into the wilder­ness even be­fore that com­mis­sion. So he packed his tent, camp­ing stove, and snow­shoes (no word on what had hap­pened to the dog) and headed back to the Ka­puskas­ing area, where he con­tracted with the Abitibi Power and Pa­per Com­pany to pho­to­graph its op­er­a­tions.

The last let­ter Hourde ever sent home was from Cochrane, On­tario, on Fe­bru­ary 20, 1937. Writ­ing to his mother on moose-adorned sta­tionery from the Stevens House ho­tel, he said all was well and that he was about to catch a train to Moosonee.

Hourde never made it on board. He took ill on Fe­bru­ary 25, de­vel­op­ing a vi­ral in­fec­tion that quickly turned into pneu­mo­nia. He was treated at the Ka­puskas­ing hos­pi­tal, where he died on March 3, 1937, at the age of twenty-one. His grand­mother, Clara Nash-Blan­chard, was able to travel to Ka­puskas­ing to be with him for a brief time. Whether that was one day or sev­eral, she ap­par­ently com­plained of the cold drafts through his hos­pi­tal room the whole time. After he died, she was the one who brought his body home.

Douglas MacKay, the HBC em­ployee who had hired Hourde, hand-wrote a let­ter of con­do­lence to his mother, my great-aunt, in April 1937. (This was just eight months prior to MacKay’s own death in the fiery crash of a four­teen-seater Ze­phyr plane.) “We had all here be­come gen­uinely at­tached to your son and we of­ten re­marked how cer­tain he was of a real ca­reer in pho­to­graphic work,” MacKay wrote. “His pic­tures, which we shall be us­ing in The Beaver from time to time dur­ing the next year, will be re­minders to us of his own mer­its.”

As I thumb through the sub­stan­tial, overly full bin­der that holds all of Hourde’s orig­i­nal pho­tos, ink draw­ings and doo­dles, let­ters home, and mag­a­zine clip­pings from The Beaver, I see that the last en­try is a Cana­dian Pa­cific Tele­graph tele­gram of sym­pa­thy. This and MacKay’s let­ter take the place of what should have been count­less more let­ters from Hourde to his fam­ily, de­scrib­ing hill­billy mu­sic, packs of growl­ing huskies, Inuit chil­dren and their or­anges, and so many more tales that were never to be told — not by him.

In­stead I sit here shuf­fling through maps and let­ters, try­ing to re­trace his brief and fan­tas­tic ad­ven­tures, try­ing to stitch to­gether all of the sto­ries — many of them el­e­vated to leg­end at our fam­ily gath­er­ings. The Beaver went on to pub­lish his pho­tos and ar­ti­cles on oc­ca­sion well into the 1950s. And, all these years later, we still talk of him: Richard Nash Hourde, hero to his lit­tle cousin, my grand­fa­ther, Robert Stevens. Dar­ing pho­tog­ra­pher. Lov­ing son. The great Arc­tic ad­ven­turer whose life was cut short but whose sto­ries and pic­tures en­dure.

 ??  ?? Richard Hourde, circa 1934.
Richard Hourde, circa 1934.
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 ??  ?? Op­po­site page above: A mother and child, iden­ti­ties un­known, in the western Arc­tic, circa 1936. Op­po­site page be­low: This photo ap­peared in the mag­a­zine with the cap­tion “Freuchen, who makes a spe­cialty of re­lax­ation, at Bail­lie Is­land, 1936.” Above: Uniden­ti­fied vis­i­tors dis­em­bark from a bush plane at Fort McMur­ray, Al­berta, circa 1936. All pho­to­graphs by Richard Hourde.
Op­po­site page above: A mother and child, iden­ti­ties un­known, in the western Arc­tic, circa 1936. Op­po­site page be­low: This photo ap­peared in the mag­a­zine with the cap­tion “Freuchen, who makes a spe­cialty of re­lax­ation, at Bail­lie Is­land, 1936.” Above: Uniden­ti­fied vis­i­tors dis­em­bark from a bush plane at Fort McMur­ray, Al­berta, circa 1936. All pho­to­graphs by Richard Hourde.
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