’59 Trail, Part Four

The ’59 Trail.
The ’59 Trail,
Unknown artist
Newspapers.com, reproduced with permission

Part 4 of my uncle, John Alldridge’s 1959 report from Canada’s Far North for the Birmingham Mail – Jerry F

Churchill, on Hudson’s Bay

Life in Churchill — as in all frontier townships — gravitates round the Hudson Bay post. Every Bay manager is expected to be, besides a store-keeper, a guide, philosopher and friend.

And Bill Carson, who manages the store in Churchill, is certainly a shining example of how to make friends and influence people.

Jerry F,
Bill Carson buys a fine white fox fur.
Unknown photographer – © 2022 Newspapers.com, reproduced with permission

A genial, silver-haired Irishman from Newfoundland — for some reason all Bay post managers are Newfoundlanders when they aren’t Scots — he has worked for the Bay for 30 years.

In the beginning he was the traditional storekeeper, grub-staking the trappers and relying on beans, green bacon, blankets and bolts of calico for his profits. Today he has 17 assistants and serves a shopping area bigger than Yorkshire.

In the six years he has been here he has had to expand his store three times. He has added a serve-yourself grocery. And in his deep freeze he keeps fresh strawberries.

But, true to the Bay tradition, he knows all his customers by their first name — white, Indian and Eskimo. But their wants these days are less simple.

In 10 minutes one busy Saturday afternoon – he did 9,000 dollars’ worth of business that day — I watched him deal swiftly and cheerfully with a young bird-watcher who will spend the next two months studying the habits of the snow-goose on desolate Eskimo Point; with a colonel’s lady from The Base who was changing her mind about the colour of a three-piece suite ordered from Winnipeg; with a Cree Indian teenager who wanted a long-playing record of Pat Boone.

Bill Carson looks a happy man. He should be. He has a handsome Indian wife, who is a magnificent cook; two strapping sons who are earning 1,000 dollars a month in the nickel mines at Rankin, 300 miles to the north; and he was the first Bay manager to sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo…

Ask Bill why he likes living in Churchill despite its discomforts and the appalling weather and he will tell you it’s because it’s a “lively” town; a friendly place where there’s never a dull moment.

Lively it certainly is. For a town that has no television, no cinema, no dance hall of its own, I’ve never seen so much life.

If you’re a sociable type — and everyone in Churchill seems to be — then life can be one long party. All you do is ring up one of a dozen phone numbers, put a bottle in your pocket, call a cab and bounce off. A couple of hours later you are ringing up another number, packing another bottle, calling another cab, and carrying off your host and his wife to the next party.

I did this for six hours last night until the springs finally broke in the deepest pothole in town. And they let me walk home alone.

And if you think this is just free-and-easy backwoods stuff, let me tell you that they put on formal parties at the Navy Base on Friday nights that are so formal they positively clink medals.

There is gracious living, too. In the cosy new home of Rene and Marjorie du Cloux I drank the best dry Martini and ate the best dinner I have tasted so far in Canada.

Rene, a big, hearty Dutchman with a laugh like a bull-moose, was a resistance fighter before he escaped to England to join the Royal Marine Commando. Now he’s a sergeant photographer in the Canadian Army.

But there is another reason why people chose to stay in the North. And it is less easy to explain.

Churchill is still only the gateway to the Arctic.

It may seem a long way north of Winnipeg. But it is still a thousand miles from the magnetic pole. The railway ends here. Your only way north now is by charter plane or by sled over the ice.

But in about five years’ time they will have hacked a road through those 500 miles of stubborn, wiry, shifting muskeg. Already they are talking of atomic submarine freighters coming in under the ice of the Bay to take on cargo from conveyors running four miles out from shore.

When that happens they say, in the casual way Canadians have, they will probably move Churchill ten miles back, lock, stock and barrel and start again from scratch.

Meantime the tiny Otters and Beechcraft fly on up the 300 miles to Rankin Inlet with relief crews and supplies for the miners. And a youngster like Archie McTaggert exchanges a comfortable headmastership here in Churchill for a backwoods school inside the Arctic Circle.

Before I left I walked out on the ice and stared across the hills and hummocks of that frozen sea. Beyond and beyond stretched a bald and barren lowland. A land older than Time, trackless, silent, lonely, infinitely mysterious.

A dead land, it seemed. And yet there is life going on there. A vigorous, urgent life.

As I watched a little Otter buzzed overhead. On board were supplies from Bill Carson’s store for the miners at Rankin — sacks of flour, tins of beam, drums of kerosene, playing cards, pocketbooks and a package of overdue mail.

Where the railroad ends at Churchill is a cairn of stone. It was raised “in loving memory to those who have worked and died here.” On each face is a set of verses. I copied down the last two:

“They say to the mountains ‘be ye removed ‘;
They say to the lesser floods Be Dry,
Under their rods are the rocks reproved—
They are not afraid of that which is high.
Then the hill-tops shake to their summit,
Then is the bed of deep laid bare:
That the Sons of Mary may overcome it.
Pleasantly sleeping and unaware.

“They do not preach that their God will rouse them
A little before the nuts work loose;
They do not teach that His peace allows them
To leave their job when they damn-well choose;
As in the throng and the lighted way,
So in the dark and the desert they stand,
Wary, watchful, all their days
That their brethrens’ days may be long in the land.”

Reproduced with permission
© 2023 Newspapers.com

Jerry F 2023