YOUNG RICHARD HOURDE WAS DRAWN TO THE ARCTIC AND ITS PEOPLE DURING HIS SHORT CAREER WITH THE BEAVER
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.
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.