Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Fort Ross

Among the more storied spots that I was able to visit during my voyages this past August is surely Fort Ross, whose significance stretches from the Franklin search era to the 1930's and beyond. Not far from here, Francis Leopold McClintock established a camp at a place he dubbed "Depot Bay": it was from here that he crossed over to take on the search on King William Island. The entrance to the Bellot Strait is just around the corner, and he'd hoped to sail on through it -- but alas, even though its strong currents generally keep the Strait ice-free, that year ice on the western side blocked further progress. Still, it was from here that he departed, and here that he returned, just prior to sailing back to England with the news of Franklin's men and the final note found in the cairn at Victory Point.

Patsy Klengenberg [left] with his adopted son aboard Aklavik
The spot remained desolate until 1937. That year, the Hudson's Bay Company, in what was to be its last effort at expansion into the High Arctic, decided to establish a trading post at the site. L. A. Learmonth, the legendary trader (and Franklin searcher) was selected to command the post; he was to take ship aboard the Nascopie from the eastern side, and meet the schooner Aklavik which would arrive from the west, to make a meeting of trade from either end of the Northwest Passage. Unfortunately, Learmonth was an impatient man; eager to select the post's site before others had arrived, he and his second left Gjoa Haven early on a motor launch towing a canoe. They ran into engine trouble and ice which obliged them to abandon the launch and make a lengthy portage with the canoe, with the result that they arrived late, with the site for the future fort already selected.

It's hard, though, to imagine that Learmonth could have found a better spot -- the fort sits on a low, flat peninsula of land, tucked away in a modest bay from the last point of land on Somerset Island before the eastern entrance to the Strait. The HBC hoped that the fort could capitalize on new sources of Arctic Fox pelts, but that was not to be -- after a slow decline throughout the 1930's, the price of pelts collapsed with the onset of World War II. What was worse, the site turned out to be extremely difficult to resupply; after failing to reach the fort in 1942, the Nascopie came painfully close in 1943 -- the residents of the fort (which included an Inuit community of 16 people) could see the smoke from her smokestack -- but despite the best efforts of her veteran captain Thomas Smellie, she was forced to retreat without reaching them. The staff at the post, then headed by Bill Heslop, would need to be evacuated, but the R.C.A.F. had no plane available which could manage it. The U.S. Army Air Force volunteered to provide a Douglas C-47 Skytrain (the military's version of the DC-3), and J.F. Stanwell-Fletcher, a former RCMP officer turned U.S. airman, parachuted in with supplies -- the first such jump ever made in Arctic Canada.

Captain Fletcher's real mission was to find and stake out an appropriate airfield, which -- with Inuit guidance -- he managed to do on a lake about ten miles from the post. On November 9th, the plane managed a landing, and Bill and Barbara Heslop were taken aboard while provisions and ammunition for the Inuit were hurled overboard. At the last minute, it was decided that the Heslops' dog, "Hobo," added too much weight to the plane, and he was left behind. The post would eventually be re-manned in 1944, but by 1948 the HBC had decided to close it permanently, bringing to an end their experiment with fur trading in the area. The post warehouse remains -- stocked for those needing emergency supplies -- along with the trader's house, last used by the Canadian Wildlife Service in the 1970's. It's open to the winds today, its former "comfy chair" a mass of rusty springs, its mahogany trim dry and peeling. The workshop which once had stood nearby was taken down and rebuilt at Spence Bay, which was the eventual home for the Inuit there as well. Except, that is, for four of their community killed in an avalanche; their graves still stand on a rise above the fort, offering mute testimony to the end of a time long gone.


  1. Very, very educational, Dr. Russell ! I am learning a lot.

  2. I can only imagine the thoughts running thru the mind and what images they create when standing at such locations. What an amazing experience to stand at these locations you have been describing.
    There is something so evocative about abandoned places and ruins.