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First Lady of Labrador

Mina Hubbard's 1905 odyssey through unforgiving northern terrain was a testament to a lost love, and it put the uncharted heart of Labrador on the map

BY MATTHEW JACKSON

Photo: Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland

The small steamer tossed and pitched wildly as it plowed across Labrador's Lake Melville. On board, a soft-spoken nurse from Ontario named Mina Hubbard sat alone in her cramped berth awaiting the start of her greatest journey. She had left Halifax on June 16, 1905, and was now on her final approach to the North West River Post.

Landing on June 25, Mina was greeted with a wilderness feast of wild goose, plum pudding and hot coffee. "After the voyage from Halifax," she wrote in her memoir A Woman's Way Through Unknown Labrador, "it seemed good to rest a little with the firm earth underfoot and where the walls of one's habitation were still." The few-day stopover offered little rest, however, as Mina assembled a crew of four guides and hundreds of pounds of food, supplies and gear, including two canvas-covered canoes. She was heading into the unexplored Labrador interior — the same wilderness that had claimed the life of her husband Leonidas two years earlier.


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Rare was the woman explorer in 1905. But the 35-year-old Mina had a will of iron and had resolved to complete her beloved "Laddie's" groundbreaking expedition to chart unknown territory across the peninsula from the North West River to Ungava Bay. Personal loss compounded by public criticism of her husband's credentials inspired the mission. Mina's mistrust of Leonidas's former adventure partner, Dillon Wallace, who had vowed to complete the expedition that same summer, added a fiercely competitive edge to her undertaking. Intent on preserving Leonidas's reputation, she recruited George Elson, the native guide from the 1903 trip, to lead her some 885 kilometres across Labrador.

The race was on.

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Mina had just more than two months to complete the trip. Her only chance to return to civilization before winter was to catch the Hudson's Bay Company steamer Pelican at Ungava no later than the last week of August. She hoped to gain an advantage by setting out three weeks earlier than her husband had and by travelling with a larger crew. Elson was well acquainted with the errors of the ill-fated expedition in 1903. Flawed local information and maps had steered Leonidas off course into a labyrinth of inland lakes. By the time he and his crew realized the error, they had been pushing upriver for two months and were unable to retrace their path to the North West River Post before Leonidas died of starvation and exposure.

The chance to share Labradors mysteries and her own story with the wider world fuelled Minas resolve.
Mina and her guides left the post and headed up the Naskapi River. During their nine-week expedition through unmapped territory, they battled the unrelenting Labrador wilderness and its roaring rapids, violent storms and endless swarms of blackflies, which, she wrote, hit the tent roof and walls at night like raindrops. The challenges were daunting for even the most hardened frontier explorer, much less a young city woman. Mina was seeing a land that no white woman had travelled before, and the chance to share its mysteries and her story with the wider world fuelled her resolve.

The most demanding part of the journey was the upstream push to Lake Michikamau. Dozens of rapids had to be poled through or portaged around. Some days, the crew covered less than three kilometres. The canoes capsized on at least one occasion, leaving the crew without essential gear, including cooking pans and axes.

With her revolver or rifle in tow, Mina frequently explored the surrounding riverbanks alone studying flowers and taking photographs, much to the consternation of her guides. She was inspired by the wilderness and felt equal to the challenges it presented. "Secretly I rather hoped a bear would come along," she wrote in her journal after one foray, "for I thought I could manage him if he did not take me unawares."

The George River descent from Lake Michikamau was fast and with its share of hair-raising moments. Nearly the entire river north of Indian House Lake was an interminable chain of ferocious rapids. "Immediately at the outlet, the canoes were caught by the swift current, and for five days, we were carried down through almost continuous rapids," she wrote. "There were long stretches of miles where the slope of the riverbed was a steep gradient, and I held my breath as the canoe shot down at toboggan pace." Despite the odds, the hardships and Mina's own lack of wilderness experience, her expedition reached the George River Post at Ungava Bay one-and-one-half months ahead of Wallace and on schedule for her boat home. The achievement helped put Labrador on the map and finally allowed the memory of Mina's husband Leonidas to rest in peace.

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Great Expectations
Mina Hubbard's expedition is more an inspiration than a blueprint for exploring Newfoundland and Labrador. With its sprawling landscapes, unspoiled natural riches and sparse population, the entire province remains an ideal destination for adventurers who want to experience the spirit of early 20th-century Canadian adventure.


Torngat Mountains
The austere beauty of Labrador offers a trip you will never forget. The Torngat Mountains are vast and breathtakingly beautiful. This region is home to the highest snow-capped peaks in eastern Canada, majestically towering above the fiords, and encompasses much of the range of Canada's eastern caribou herds. Wolves, foxes and black bears inhabit the interior, while polar bears prowl the coastline.

Extremely remote, the Torngat region offers an unspoiled destination for the handful of visitors, mostly guided, who see it each summer. For information on guided backpacking trips, visit Nature Trek Canada or Canada North Outfitting. Both companies provide a variety of trekking packages, including day excursions from base camp and ambitious multi-day traverses.


Labrador Coast
If you want to visit Labrador without the wilderness hardship, consider a cruise up the Labrador coast. Arctic Odysseys offers a 13-day cruise aboard the Wanderbird, exploring fiords whose walls soar 1,500 metres out of the water. You'll scan the ocean for whales, seals and icebergs and see polar bears lounging along the coast. You'll also have the opportunity to explore the coastline in a sea kayak.

For more information on additional cruise operators, visit cruisenewfoundland.com


Lewis Hills
Located in the southwestern part of Newfoundland, the Lewis Hills are the highest mountains on the island and are far less explored than the Long Range Mountains of Gros Morne National Park. The Lewis Hills have a similar feel to Labrador — rugged mountains, sparkling streams and abundant wildlife — without the complex logistics of visiting a remote region. That said, this is a trip for experienced or guided hikers, as the only access is by foot. There are no marked trails, and hikers must be completely self-sufficient. Cormack Expeditions does sell a map that details a suggested 55-kilometre traverse of the region, and NewFound Outfitting offers guided trips.



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Canada Journal: A Century of Summits
Next:
The Grape Divine »

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