ARCHIVED - USQUE AD MARE
A History of the Canadian Coast Guard and Marine Services
by Thomas E. Appleton

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The Arctic and Hudson Bay

From the days of Cabot, when the seamen of the old world began to probe the unknown northern regions of the new, their dream was always of a gateway to the far east. It was a frustrating dream; for centuries numerous groups had hoped that a way could be found, perhaps a few days journey from some distant headland whence, by drifting and sledging and cutting out of ice, the ship or her company would glide into a mythical lead of clear water. Attended constantly by hardship and tragedy, the reality of this phase lasted from the early probing of Frobisher and Hudson to that great period of Arctic exploration which reached an apogee with the voyages of Ross, Parry and Franklin in the nineteenth century. The mystery of Franklins disappearance fired the Victorian world with a sense of awe, for the loss of brave men in those terrible and barren regions, and more especially the complete silence which concealed their fate, was viewed in much the same light as we would regard a present day casualty in space. The numerous expeditions which set out for the relief of Franklin, notably those of McClure, Belcher and McClintock, left an afterglow which can be sensed today in the classic place names on the Arctic chart, named in memory of determined men.

Photo: CGS Neptune

CGS Neptune
The Neptune is shown in winter quarters, Cape Fullerton, Hudson Bay, 1903-4. Note the snow banked up around the ship to provide insulation.
(Public Archives)

The flavour of these voyages was distinctly naval in character for, after the Napoleonic wars, the philosophy of the Pax Britannica and the availability of an enormous navy made it possible to mount this type of expedition; it was believed, and not without justification, that there was little which seamen, well led and under naval discipline, could not attain. Time and experience have modified this view but it detracts nothing from the heroic achievement of these expeditions, which used the methods and materials available and recognized at the time, to note that success eventually came to those who could best adapt to the process of living in an Arctic environment. Amundsen was the first to traverse the North West Passage, in the little Gjoa between 1904-7, and Peary, with three Eskimos and his negro companion Mathew Henson, reached the North Pole, by sledging on April the 23rd, 1909.

Today, the process of adaptation to the Arctic environment has been completely changed by modern engineering, which sidesteps the old methods, and superimposes a new technology which enables man to hold at bay the harshness of nature.

Meanwhile, in September of 1880, Great Britain transferred her rights of Arctic sovereignty to Canada; although in would be 1903 before Canada took any steps to assert that sovereignty, the government was already becoming interested in the prospects for navigation in the Hudson Bay and Strait. The attractions of this route lay in the necessity of finding a method of supplying the larger markets which the growth of population in Western Canada, and the consequent upsurge in grain production, had by now made necessary. Existing railways were insufficient to cope with the expected traffic and an alternate, and if possible shorter, route was required. Clearly, a short line to the sea must lead to Hudson Bay. The question was, where should the railway terminate, and what kind of a port could be developed?

In 1884-5-6, the Marine Department sent a party each year to explore the situation and, by establishing year-round observation posts, to estimate the length of season which ice conditions would permit. These expeditions were placed under the command of Andrew Robertson Gordon, lieutenant of the Royal Navy who had become an officer of the Department and who became Commander of the Fishery Protection Fleet from 1891 until his death in 1893. For the first expedition Gordon used the Neptune, the ship which later did her best to supplement the efforts of the Northern Light on the Prince Edward Island ferry, and which had been chartered from her owners in Newfoundland, fresh or perhaps one should say, direct from the sealing grounds. Dr. Robert Bell of Ottawa accompanied the expedition as medical officer and geologist. The Neptune got to both Churchill and York Factory but, her accommodation being somewhat limited, it was decided to use a bigger ship for the next season and HMS Alert was borrowed from the Admiralty. This ship, a barque rigged naval sloop with a compound engine, had been specially converted for the polar expedition of Captain George Nares RN and had reached the shores of the Lincoln Sea, where she wintered in 1875-6 near the place now bearing her name, a penetration of the high Arctic which was never equalled until modern times.

As a result of these three expeditions, Gordon recommended that the railway should terminate at Churchill, of which he wrote:

". . . . The harbour is admirably situated for a railroad terminus. The necessary docks could be easily and cheaply built, and the deep water basin enlarged at a small cost. Some is lying at the waters edge ready to be made into docks and piers, and nature seems to have left little to be done in order to make this into a capacious port fit for doing a business of great magnitude."

He was perhaps more cautious in his assessment of the navigational possibilities of the Hudson Bay route and concluded that:

". . . . altogether I consider the navigation of Hudson's Straits as being more than ordinarily difficult, with shores inhospitable and bleak, presenting such a picture of loneliness and desolation, that it takes some time to get accustomed to it. The only safety in thick weather lies in the constant use of the lead and keeping a bright lookout, as the dead reckoning is frequently in error to a considerable extent."

One of the problems was deviation of the compass, caused by the combination of high latitude and changing magnetic conditions in iron ships, of which Gordon remarked:

". . . . in an iron ship, making the voyage between, say Liverpool and Hudson Bay, on arrival off the Western end of the Straits, the compass will not work."

Gordon made an honest appraisal of the situation as he saw it; he was very frank and prefaced his conclusions with the remark:

"I am not required to report on the commercial aspect of the case, and whether the Hudson's Straits navigation can be made to pay, nor do I, in the seasonal limits given, mean to state that it is impossible for a ship occasionally to get in earlier or leave later, but . . . ."

he was firmly of the opinion that the first week in July to the first work in October was about the practicable limit of the season. That he was not far out has been established by experience; today the limits are generally accepted as being mid July till the end of October. He was not without critics at the time however, and in fact he carried them with him in the persons of Mr. D. J. Beaton in 1885 and Captain A. H. Markham RN in 1886, both of whom represented the interests of a company proposing to build a railway from Winnipeg to the Hudson Bay. Captain Markham left the Alert at York Factory and returned to Winnipeg by the Hayes River canoe route with provisions, men and canoe furnished by the ship. He was an exceptionally fit and athletic man, well accustomed to such journeys, and had been commander of the Alert under Sir George Nares in the 1875 expedition. A cruel fate was to befall this officer in 1894 when, as Rear Admiral Markham in command of HMS Camperdown, he attempted to obey an impossible order and put his ship into the fatal turn which rammed and sank HMS Victoria with many of her ships company and his commander-in-chief, Admiral Tryon.

The railway representatives considered that Gordon had been too conditional in his recommendations and, as promoters, they were doubtless eager to see the scheme put into action. Beaton, who was editor of the Winnipeg Times, was particularly outspoken and wrote a letter to the Montreal Herald of September 10, 1887, which commenced with this broadside: 

"The selection of the Alert as the expedition ship was an injudicious one and I cannot but think but that a second and graver error was in the selection of its commander. Lt. Gordon had no previous knowledge of ice. His ideas are limited to the narrow circle of his early training, and he is much too self sufficient and stubborn to be taught either by his own experience or that of others."

One wonders whether, in long evenings at sea discussing the expedition under the wardroom lamp, there were times when the captain of the Alert had wished that his articulate visitor, as Markham would later do, would take the long hard trail to Winnipeg by portage and canoe.

It would be a half century before the Hudson Bay route became a well used reality. After commencement of a scheme to build a railhead at Port Nelson, Gordon's selection of Churchill was finally vindicated by the construction of the Hudson Bay railway to the Churchill terminus, and the opening of a regular sea-borne trade there in the early nineteen thirties. If Gordon had been unduly hesitant, in the minds of his critics, in accepting the risks of navigation in a place of great error for magnetic compasses, the development of the gyro compass and its use in merchant ships removed the most troublesome difficulty, and the provision of aids to navigation in the Hudson Straits would gradually remove many of the others.

Nevertheless, the development of the Hudson Bay route as a normal shipping trade remained a matter of some difficulty, not least in the process of acquiring an accurate daily knowledge of ice conditions. In 1927, the government made a concerted effort to apply the latest techniques when they appointed an advisory board, representing the Departments of Marine and Fisheries, Railways and Canals, and National Defence, to plan and organize a combined expedition to collect the required data, and to establish aids to navigation. Considering the financial and technical resources then available, this was an imaginative and well planned effort which, for the first time, used aircraft and radio as a normal operation of departmental activity. Bases were constructed at Port Burwell, Wakeham Bay and Nottingham Island, complete with dwellings and hangars and wireless stations, as they were then called. Three ships were used, the ubiquitous Stanley, a more recent and bigger icebreaker from the Quebec Agency, the Montcalm, and a chartered freighter for the shipment of supplies and buildings. As a result of this expedition, radio direction finding stations were erected to aid ships in working through the Hudson Strait, and the basic framework of the present ice observation service was laid. The crowning achievement of this phase of the remarkable Hudson Bay route came in 1930, when the system was greatly strengthened by the construction of a powerful icebreaker for merchant ship support en route, the N. B. McLean which, since first patrolling those waters, has rendered incalculable service to the Churchill grain ships right down to the present day.

While all this activity in northern sea transportation was under way, Canada had taken a keener interest in fundamental exploration which, in exercise of her territorial rights, was becoming more and more necessary. In 1897 the Department sent Commander Wakeham who, like Gordon, was a former naval officer in the Fisheries Service, to continue the work which Dr. Bell had started in the Alert, Wakeham was appointed to command the Diana, a chartered whaling steamer, and Dr. Bell accompanied the expedition which carried out geological and fisheries work in Baffin and Ungava.

But it was in 1903 that the Department first sailed a ship to the North to establish permanent stations for the collection of customs, the administration of justice, and the enforcement of law and order. Unlike our previous voyages, which had mainly been undertaken for specific purposes of survey, this one was intended to show the flag and to patrol the islands of the Eastern Arctic. The officer in charge of the expedition was Mr. A. P. Low of the Geological Survey, Ottawa, who was accompanied by a staff of five specialists in the natural sciences. The authority of Canada was vested in Major J. D. Moodie of the Northwest Mounted Police who, by special arrangement, was appointed Acting Commissioner of the unorganized Northeastern Territories, and who was accompanied by a detachment of the Force to form the nucleus of administration at the various stations established.

Photo: CGS Arctic

CGS Arctic, Captain J. E. Bernier.
This photograph shows the pre-1914 barquentine rig. Braced for the port tack, it is evident that the funnel had to be hinged down before she could come about. Note the lookout barrel at the main topmast.

The vessel selected for this cruise was again that well tried veteran of Newfoundland whaling, the Neptune, which was placed under the command of Captain S. W. Bartlett. Sam Bartlett, who had sailed with Peary, was an uncle of Bob Bartlett of whom we shall hear more. Unlike the Alert which had carried a full set of square sails, which she used on occasion, the Neptune was rigged as a fore and aft schooner, a modest rig which would have been sufficient to get her home, once out of the ice, had she run out of coal. At the time, and indeed for many years later in Antarctic work, wooden ships such as these were still used when it was required to winter in the ice or make long passages; there were, of course, more modern steel icebreakers of considerable power, but none of them could carry the bunkers for extended voyages. The Neptune was a tough old ship, as was proved when she struck an outlying pinnacle of rock at Cape Herschell while running at full speed. The report of this event merely records that:

"luckily the Neptune is eight feet thick in the bow, and could stand a great deal of damage."

On leaving Halifax, the expedition sailed for the west coast of the Hudson Bay, where they wintered at Fullerton near Chesterfield Inlet. In the summer of 1904 the Neptune cruised north up the west coast of Greenland to Cape Herschell on Ellesmere Island. Here they took possession, in the time honoured way, by hoisting the flag and proclaiming the sovereignty of King Edward VII in right of Canada, recording the event by the building of a cairn and the deposit of written proclamation. The return passage was made by way of Lancaster Sound and the approaches to the Barrow Strait.

These waters were then very lonely indeed, and there was no radio or aircraft by which the crews could keep in touch with the outside world. The Neptune had spent nine months fast in the ice the previous winter and, in her passage north had met only the occasional Scots or Yankee whaler, but one encounter remains to be told. An hour after she had come to an anchor at Port Burwell, homeward bound, an auxiliary steam barquentine hove in sight and came alongside. It was the CGS Arctic, Captain Joseph Bernier, on the way north to continue the work of the Arctic patrols.