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Monday, June 2, 2008

Great Heart -- Great Book

Great Heart: The History of a Labrador Adventure is one of the best Canadian canoeing adventures I've read. Also one of the most unusual.

Written by James West Davidson and John Rugge (coauthors of the justly well-known Complete Wilderness Paddler), Great Heart tells the stories of three related expeditions and, especially, the principals involved. The expeditions -- the first, disastrous one organized by Leonidas Hubbard Jr., and the second and third organized, respectively, by Hubbard's widow and by a survivor of the first -- are not unknown to students of canoeing history, having been covered in various books by the principals and by other later historians. What makes the book unique is the authors' approach to their subjects, and their sensitive depiction of the principals' personalities, based on good documentary research leavened with persuasive but frankly speculative extrapolation.

Hubbard was a writer for Outing, one of the most popular outdoors magazines in the early 20th century (and having nothing to do with the exposure of homosexuality). Having only a moderate level of experience in the outdoors and feeling the need to prove himself to his demanding and more experienced editor through the completion of an impressive expedition, Hubbard organized an expedition in northern Labrador -- "one of the last blank spaces on the map" -- that proved too ambitious and not sufficiently carefully planned or outfitted. Launching from the Northwest River Post on Groswater Bay off the North Atlantic, the trip would would visit the seldom-seen Naskapi Indians in the interior of Labrador on its way to George River Post on Ungava Bay, a distance of about 550 miles. The first half of the trip was upstream all the way on rivers that were only slightly known by a small number of local trappers. Hubbard chose as his companions his friend Dillon Wallace and a halfbreed Cree guide, George Elson, who was not familiar with the area, but who had substantial wilderness experience.

The expedition was beset by bad planning, poor provisioning, and bad luck from the very start. The wood/canvas canoe was too small to carry sufficient provisions, and Hubbard decided against carrying shotguns, which might have helped in supplementing their food stocks later. The expedition got too late a start, and was overtaken by snow, then blizzard. Food ran out. Most gravely, it took off up the wrong river and never discovered the fact until the very end of its retreat. Working from diaries, previous publications by the survivors, and news reports, the authors describe a truly harrowing ordeal from which Hubbard did not return. His coexpeditioners did, but just barely.

After his return to New York, Wallace, with great reluctance but at the widow Mina Hubbard's request, wrote a book-length account of the expedition, published as The Lure of the Labrador Wild. In it, he portrayed Leonidas Hubbard in nearly heroic terms while still acknowledging his faults by way of explaining the expedition's failure. Mina was incensed, however, at any implication that her husband was in any way to blame for that failure or for his own death. She decided to launch her own expedition to prove that his plan was a good one, and that it was only his companions -- specifically, Wilson -- who had failed him and the expedition. At the same time, Wallace mounted his own expedition, essentially to prove the opposite proposition -- that a properly-mounted expedition would have succeeded.

Mina enlisted George Elson, and the two expeditions set out at the same time in 1905, manifestly racing one another while refusing to acknowledge the others' existence. The authors, writing in a highly novelized style, tell the somewhat speculative but highly touching tale of how Mina romantically manipulated George as part of her plan for the expedition's success. George, terrified of even the slightest implication that he, as a half-breed, would dare to look at a refined white woman, was vulnerable to the sophisticated Mina and, ultimately, heartbroken.

Both expeditions succeeded in reaching the George River Post -- Mina's much sooner and more comfortably; Wilson's only after much travail. But Mina's expedition had not, in fact, replicated her husband's plan -- hers was better provisioned, better manned, and understood the wrong turn that Mr. Hubbard's trial had taken at the start. So while she won the race, she failed to prove her point. Wilson came closer to proving his point of view, but just barely -- his expedition nearly failed for some of the same reasons that Leonidis Hubbard's did.

What sets the book apart is its novelistic treatment of fact, and the storytellers' willingness to extrapolate from sometimes ambiguous journal entries in the interests of telling a tale full of adventure, hardship, intrigue, romance and, of course, canoeing. The 1988 Viking edition that I read included fine historic photos of all three expeditions, plus maps that are important to understanding the race -- marred, unfortunately, but having Mina's and Wilson's separate courses mislabeled, which caused some confusion until I realized the simple nature of the problem. I would hope that the 1996 Kodansha Globe edition, the link to which I've included below, has retained the photos and fixed the map problem.


Davidson's and Rugge's earlier, excellent (but now somewhat dated) canoeing technique book was so excellent that it shouldn't be entirely surprising that they might succeed as coauthors to a second book, but this one is so entirely different from the first that it surprises nonetheless. They succeed not only as historians, but more, as storytellers. The events themselves are probably of no real historic significance -- one man died out of three expeditions that didn't really prove anything or reveal any new geographic knowledge to the world -- but the the personalities and the motivations of the principal actors make it a valuable story in purely human terms.