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WILTZ: Starving to death in a hunting-fishing paradise

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Life can turn around in an instant. Betsy and I went to Wisconsin for the week between West and East River deer hunts to see the kids, and Nov. 21 found us loading the vehicle for our return to South Dakota. Betsy lost her balance, fell on the concrete garage floor and fractured her pelvis. Since then, she’s been in the University of Wisconsin-Madison hospital doing extensive therapy. She should be home by the time you read this. My East-River deer? Betsy is my only priority.

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During her therapy sessions, I’ve been reading “Great Heart” by James West Davidson and John Rugge. This adventure story chronicles the final expedition of Leonidas Hubbard, an outdoor writer who worked for editor Caspar Whitney at Outing magazine. The highly regarded magazine carried the story of Hubbard’s expedition across uncharted Labrador.

Hubbard searched for the Naskapi Indians, migrating caribou herds, a route to Lake Michikamu and the head waters of the George River, and finally the trip north on the George to Ungava Bay, where they would board a fall steamer that would return them to the Northwest River Post near Kenemish.

In 1903, Labrador was the last blank, unexplored region of North America, and Hubbard saw it as being more important than Robert Peary’s quest to reach the North Pole. Hubbard was also seeking a degree of fame and notoriety. It appears that today’s Labrador is almost void of highways.

Hubbard would be accompanied on the expedition by Dillon Wallace, an attorney and personal friend, and George Elson, a half-breed Cree Indian. I want to note that in 1903’s America, a so-called half-breed was looked upon as a second-class citizen. In his diary, George often noted how Hubbard, Wallace and their circle of friends treated him as an equal. He was pleased, but not accustomed to the white man’s respect.

Authors Davidson and Rugge used the diaries or log books of Hubbard, Wallace and Elson as a basis for their work. They also made a number of canoe trips into Labrador to experience those things our explorers wrote about. Interviews with Mina Hubbard’s (Hubbard’s widow) daughter and granddaughter were included as their sources of information.

This book is good, very good. I wish our young people realized that a good book is infinitely more entertaining than a high-tech game or iPod. A good writer stimulates our imaginations. No electronic gizmo will ever touch the capabilities of the human imagination.

“Great Heart” was especially significant to me as friends and I have personally hunted and fished the Ungava region. The waters of Ungava Bay wash Labrador’s upper northwest coast, and its western border is reasonably close to our Ungava Gordon Lake campsite. In 1993, Don Kaberna and I were told that we were probably the first to hunt/fish the immediate area. When I asked about the Inuit people, we learned they were superstitious about being so far inland. It was a hunting/fishing paradise.

Hubbard, Elson and Wallace set out from the Northwest River Hudson Bay trading post near Kenemish on July 15, 1903. The men, their supplies and their gear traveled in an 18-foot Old Towne canoe. They had planned to return, mission accomplished, before winter set in. Before it was over, Hubbard died of starvation, and Elson and Wallace barely escaped the same fate. How did a reasonably experienced woodsman die of starvation in a hunting/fishing paradise?

After a great adventure, we often tell ourselves, “If I ever do this again, I’d do some things differently.” Such was the case with Hubbard’s men. Their firearms included two Winchester .45-70 rifles and two .22 caliber revolvers. Hubbard saw a shotgun as extra weight. He had planned to buy a fish net at the Hudson Bay Post before departure, but the store was out of nets. These two omissions proved fatal.

What about Labrador’s hundreds of thousands of caribou? They are migrating herd animals. Unlike our deer, they are either there or they are not. On the entire expedition, the three men killed one caribou — so much for an inexhaustible supply of meat. During the summer they could catch 100 brook trout in streams. When the weather cooled and the fish went down, they couldn’t catch a trout. Too many lake trout were lost at the side of the canoe. If you’ve caught lakers, you’ll understand this.

Early on when the geese didn’t have their flight feathers, George could kill them with the rifle. Once the geese could fly, the men were out of luck. From time to time, they could kill ptarmigan on the ground with the pistols, but with grueling portages and fighting rivers against the current, their appetites were voracious. The occasional bird didn’t cut it. They were slowly losing weight, losing strength and starving. It was also getting colder, and they had not brought along nearly enough flour and bacon to compensate for their hunting or fishing short-comings.

En route during their return to civilization, George killed a partridge with his pistol. I’ll quote a passage from page 132.

“By the time Wallace came up, George had plucked both wings. He cut one off and handed it to Wallace. ‘They say raw partridge is good when a fella’s weak.’ ... He gave Wallace the neck and ate the head himself. ...’ I just fancy I never ate anything so good in my life,’ said Wallace.”

I can attest to the birds on the ground. When Don and I hunted ptarmigan in the area, we had to kill the first one on the ground to get the others to fly.

Biting flies and mosquitoes also affected the general health of our explorers. The insects were in swarms. They left bloody welts that left their faces swollen and disfigured. Flies entered their noses and ears. Again I can attest to this. Two partners and I once abandoned a caribou hunt because of insects. Rain and sleet were a luxury that chased the bugs away.

Often at night, by the light of the campfire, one of the men read aloud from the Bible. It was a soothing way to fall asleep in an otherwise brutal environment. I’d call this story “must reading.”

Last week I wrote about stolen museum pieces. Paul, a column reader, identified my missing print as “Flaming Arrow,” a 1905 print by Taber Prang Art Company. It was posted on Cordier Auctions and Appraisals website www.cordierantiques.com. It wasn’t my print as the frame was slightly different. Take a look at the print that was recently sold by the Pennsylvania company. See you next week.

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