Written by Jo Woolf, our fantastic Writer-in-Residence. Her book, The Great Horizon, features Isobel Wylie Hutchsion plus 49 other explorers associated with the RSGS — a perfect Christmas gift for someone special…
When the wander-fit is on me I would up and hie away,
For Beauty lies in wait for all upon the brink of day;
Then homely things seem naught to me, I’d leave them far behind
To travel with the hurrying stars and with the wandering wind.
It’s strange that though my lines are set so fair and pleasant here,
Yet every now and then there comes this whisper through the year —
‘Take up your bed. Go! Walk again! Oh man! Your days are few,
And lo! The earth is very wide, her treasure waits for you.’
Isobel Wylie Hutchison, North to the Rime-ringed Sun
I’ve dipped into Isobel’s story lots of times over the past few years. An impulsive and instinctive traveller, she was a remarkable woman, yet so modest that from her writing it’s not immediately obvious that she was the first Scotswoman to visit Greenland, or to traverse the ice-bound coast of northern Alaska and Canada. I particularly love her connection with Gus Masik, the Estonian-born fur trapper whom she befriended in Alaska in 1933, and who obligingly transported her to Herschel Island by dog sled, navigating through snowstorms and building igloos en route.
When Isobel parted from Gus, however, that wasn’t the end of her trek through Canada. Her first experience of dog-sledding was by no means her last… in fact, her week-long ride behind Gus’s dogs was only the beginning…
A busy trading outpost in the summer months, Herschel Island in November was practically deserted. Isobel found only a couple of Inuit families in residence, along with a Mr Sinclair from Orkney who was a representative of the Hudson’s Bay Company. She was invited to be the house guest of a Mr Ethier, a representative of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and his wife. It felt strange to be ‘civilised’ again: sitting on proper chairs instead of tea-chests and dining with ample cutlery and china gave her a sudden tug of nostalgia for the blissful weeks that had flown past since her departure from Nome in August. She spent some time developing films and printing photographs, but found that no more film was available to buy in Herschel Island. The sea was, of course, frozen, but she was warned not to stray too far from the settlement: snowstorms could blow up very suddenly, engulfing people before they could get back to shelter.
On the morning of 10th November she set out for Aklavik, a village on the Mackenzie River delta. The 130-mile journey would have to be done in stages, and she had hired a guide, Roland, to take her by dog sled to Head Point. Dawn was breaking over the Endicott Mountains and the thermometer registered -20°F (-29°C) as Isobel clambered onto her piles of luggage on board the sled. They sped across the sea to the mainland, as the rising sun turned the icebergs flame-red; they must have made a colourful picture themselves, as the three leading dogs had red saddles with high nodding pompoms of scarlet wool, and Roland wore bright blue trousers and white sealskin boots or mukluks tied with red thongs.
At Head Point they stayed in a cabin owned by the Mounted Police, which was inhabited by an Inuit man named Archie and his family. Archie, bright-faced and elderly, spoke a little English and Isobel was delighted to discover that he also understood a few words of Greenlandic; somewhat amazingly, she had been carrying some of her most prized artefacts from Greenland all the way across Alaska and Canada, and the beaded anoraks and embroidered trousers that she had collected in 1927 were brought out of one of her cases and exhibited amidst a great deal of interest. Then, to while away the evening, Archie turned on his gramophone and entertained them all with some foxtrot tunes and Canadian songs, while outside “the frosted stars glimmered on the white wilderness and the Northern Lights fluctuated through them.”
With a fresh guide, a young man named Isaac from a neighbouring house, Isobel continued her journey the next morning. At -38°F (-39°C), the conditions were demanding even for the dogs, and several times Isobel had to jump off the sledge and run behind it in an attempt to thaw out her fingers and toes. The trail was spectacularly beautiful, threading in between mountains, following river beds and crossing frozen lakes where small parties of people were fishing in waterholes. Among patches of willow scrub they saw snow-white ptarmigan and wolf tracks; this was the domain of creatures who were adapted to the very harshest conditions. Darkness was gathering before Isobel sighted the twinkling lights of her next refuge, a missionary outpost at Shingle Point; this turned out to be more substantial than a cabin, and within a few minutes of her arrival she found herself seated at a supper table spread with a white cloth and laid with silver cutlery. Grateful though she was, she had been clambering over icebergs just half an hour earlier, and was ever so slightly stunned by the contrast.
A young Anglican missionary named Mr Webster was in residence at Shingle Point, and his establishment was run by three highly capable English ladies: Miss Harvey, the housekeeper; Miss Jones, the superintendent; and Mrs Butler, the schoolmistress. In their little bastion on a lonely sandspit, lashed by the waves of winter storms and rocked by the gales, these hardy characters braved the elements in order to educate a school of 38 Inuit children; Isobel observed that the place was managed seamlessly, “as if they lived on Fifth Avenue or Piccadilly.” She stayed with them for just under two weeks, walking out occasionally in search of plants beneath the snow cover, and sometimes glimpsing the Endicott Mountains to the west; their outline looked familiar, and she couldn’t help thinking of Gus Masik, alone now in his cabin at the foot of those mountains. She wondered how he had fared since they parted.
Aklavik was still many miles distant, enough to necessitate at least four more overnight stays, and Isobel was soon impatient to be off. The Christmas air-mail was scheduled to reach Aklavik towards the end of November, and since Mr Webster was going to collect it by dog sled, Isobel arranged to depart with him on 24th November, with a fur trapper named Thomas as their guide and dog-musher. Their trail took them past several of Thomas’s game traps — which were empty, much to his disappointment and Isobel’s secret relief — and past the mouth of Blow River, then southwards across lakes and tundra to their lonely shelter for that night, which was a shack on the bank of the Moose River.
The shack turned out to be locked, but Thomas, who had been there before, pushed open a window and Isobel squeezed in. Soon, they were all warming their frozen limbs in front of the stove and cooking a welcome dinner of beans, bacon and coffee. They were just wrapping themselves in blankets for the night when the dogs outside began to bark. Another dog team had arrived, bringing with them a man who knocked on the window and was soon announcing himself as Charlie Stewart, the guide for a policeman from Aklavik, who was following on his heels with his own sled. Sure enough, the window was soon rattled again — because all this time the door obstinately refused to budge — and the police officer himself appeared, in the person of Constable Mackenzie, who originally hailed from Stornoway. His mission, he explained, was purely to check the cabin was in order and see that it had a plentiful supply of firewood for the coming winter. Supper was cooked for these newcomers, and room was made for them to bed down for the night. Eventually, ringed by an outside guard of some 30 dogs, and with the wind whipping around the walls, Isobel dropped off to sleep.
Next morning brought another early start, and the evening destination was another trapper’s cabin… but this time Isobel was in the forest. She hadn’t seen trees since she had flown over the forests of the Yukon, some six months before. Snow toppled softly from spruce branches as the sled brushed past, and she noticed willow and alder trees. In spite of the cold, she wrote, “it was good to lie again ‘under the greenwood bough’”. Finally, on 28th November, she saw the tapering mast of Aklavik’s radio station, and knew that she had arrived.
At that time, Aklavik was the northern terminus of Canadian Airways, which delivered mail every two months in winter. Here also was a store of the Hudson’s Bay Company; an Anglican and a Roman Catholic mission, each with their respective hospitals and churches; a post office, three other trading stores, and the barracks of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Isobel was invited to stay with the Grey Nuns of the Roman Catholic hospital, who also ran a school of some 60 children.
“December passed almost as rapidly as its sun, which shot an arm above the distant mountains for the last time on 5th December, to reappear about a month later. His passage across the south was thereafter heralded by rose-red noons, merging into sunset two hours later. The days, though short, were always perfectly light for two or three hours around midday.”
It was a particularly severe winter, with a new record ‘low’ on 29th December of -58°F (-50°C). Isobel was hugely grateful that she was staying in a building with efficient heating: the sisters of the mission would take it in turns to get up in the small hours of the morning to keep the furnaces stoked with logs. She longed to capture the landscape in watercolour, but often it was often so cold that her brush froze to the paper.
One of Isobel’s aims in staying in Aklavik was to witness the arrival of a huge reindeer herd, which was making its way from Alaska to Canada. The Canadian Reindeer Project was a scheme devised by the Canadian government to help address the situation of expanding Inuit communities and dwindling caribou herds; it was hoped that the reindeer would offer a new livelihood and source of income. The Mackenzie River delta had been chosen as a suitable region for the reindeer’s new homeland, and in December 1929 herders from Lapland were invited to guide more than 3,000 animals on their 1,500-mile trek across the Arctic — a journey which would, despite all optimistic forecasts, take five years. In December 1933 they were, however, anticipated any day, and Isobel was eager to set out for the reindeer ‘camp’ or final destination, some 60 miles east of Aklavik. She spent two weeks there, with the wives of the herders… but shortly after her arrival came the news that the reindeer had stampeded (not for the first time) and returned to Shingle Point, where they stayed for another year.
Back in the Roman Catholic hospital, Isobel found a gentleman who was of extreme interest to her, even though they shared no common language. She had already heard of Apakag, an Inuit ‘witch-doctor’ and friend of the Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen; his folk tales had been collected by Rasmussen and published in his book, ‘Festens Gave’, and Isobel herself had translated these into English.
By the time of Isobel’s visit, Apakag was an old man, suffering from heart trouble and asthma. He was also profoundly deaf. When he had first been brought into the hospital he had insisted on staying outdoors in a tent, but now he had a room next to Isobel’s. She would see him sitting propped up in bed, and managed to communicate with him mainly by signs, and with the limited vocabulary she knew. She discovered, however, that he loved playing chequers, and enjoyed several games with him.
Apakag, according to Rasmussen, was one of the best storytellers he had ever met; he could not read, and held all the folk tales in his head, only becoming annoyed at Rasmussen when he had interrupted the flow in order to write them down. It was Apakag, according to Rasmussen, who gave his book its title: Festens Gave, ‘Festivity’s Gifts’, because, as he said, “festivity cannot be enjoyed with dance and song alone. The most festive thing of all is joy in beautiful smooth words, and our ability to use them.”
Isobel celebrated Christmas with the nuns, who decorated the hospital and brought all their patients special breakfast-trays and gifts. On Christmas night she dined with the Mounted Police, resplendent in their scarlet coats “so that the absence of holly berries went quite unnoticed”, and a couple of days afterwards, in the church, she gave a talk and lantern-slide show on her visits to Greenland. In return, she was treated to a display of traditional dancing. Within a couple of months, she would be heading home to Scotland; but for now, in that living, vibrant moment, surrounded by new friends under deep beauty of the Arctic sky, she was in the place where her heart was happiest.
“…I had heard the call of the wild on star-lit nights under the Northern Lights; I had slept in a snow-hut; I had broken a new trail at the foot of the splintered Endicotts, and my heart beat for the wilderness.”
Quotes and images from ‘North to the Rime-ringed Sun’ by Isobel Wylie Hutchison except images 1 and 2 (Isobel and Herschel Island), by Isobel Wylie Hutchison, from RSGS archive.