Carl’s Library: Mina Benson Hubbard

This autumn’s long road trip gave me my first look at Quebec and The Maritimes; I made it as far east as Port Morien, Nova Scotia. I was asked by a few people if I would be continuing on to explore Newfoundland & Labrador. No, my first visit to that province will be a monster of a trip all its own. At some point in the next few years, I’ll embark on what will likely be the Pontiac’s greatest challenge: driving the Trans-Labrador Highway—probably the most remote and loneliest highway in all of North America. Should I reach the Labrador coast, I’ll be far closer to Greenland than to New York City.

To this day, Labrador remains a vast boreal wilderness with very few inhabitants; only 27,000 or so live there, mainly along the coast. It is a land of rugged terrain, dense brush, fierce weather and legions of biting insects. Life is hard there, even for the Indigenous Peoples of the region. Few visitors see Labrador’s interior.

Imagine traversing this daunting landscape in 1905, with no map to guide you…

Warning: This report contains spoilers…

Leonidas Hubbard, Junior set out in 1903 to chart a course through the harsh interior of Labrador—said to be the least-explored region of North America at that time. His party became lost in a labyrinth of lakes and swamps, and the cold air and snow arrived early that summer. They were unable to secure sufficient game to feed themselves as their supplies dwindled. Too weak to travel, Leonidas died from starvation, alone in his tent, after his two companions had raced off separately to bring back food and a rescue party.

Mina Hubbard, now a 33-year-old widow, grew determined to complete her husband’s journey. She was an absolute novice regarding this type of travel, and most people were shocked at the idea of a woman participating in an exploratory expedition, let alone leading one. But she planned it well, teaching herself navigation and mapping skills, researching equipment and provisions, talking with trappers and sportsmen who knew the territory, and assembling a reliable crew: Joseph, Job, and Gilbert; the fourth man, and the greatest asset to the team, was George Elson, a survivor of her husband’s expedition.

In late June of ’05, they loaded two 19′ canoes with their gear, which included plenty of flour, rice, coffee and other staples; meat, fish and berries would be procured as they traveled. Leaving the Northwest River trading post, the expedition began its long slog up the Nascaupee River, struggling against the swift current and making several portages along the way.

They finally came to the sprawling Lake Michikamau, and shortly thereafter, to the river’s source, which Mina named Lake Adelaide (zooming out from this aerial view will give you an appreciation for the ruggedness and isolation that this wilderness offers). Crossing over the height of land (the present-day boundary between Labrador and Quebec), the team descended the George River. They soon found themselves in the midst of the largest caribou herd in the world—hundreds of thousands of beasts in migration mode. Farther on, the expedition passed through the great Barren Ground of northern Labrador, and in late August, arrived at the Ungava Bay trading post, where they waited for the final southbound ship of the season—Hudson’s Bay Company’s steamer, Pelican—to return them to Rigolette.

All told, they canoed and portaged 576 miles from post to post during those 62 days in the summer of 1905, and gave us the first accurate mapping of the Nascaupee and George Rivers.

Mrs. Hubbard’s book is not a cold play-by-play of each day’s progress, but is written in a storytelling fashion that allows her to expand upon many aspects of the adventure. She writes of their successes and discoveries, their worries and critical decisions, their near disasters. She describes their friendly encounters with the Montagnais and Nascaupee tribes of the interior. She writes of animal behavior, thoughts of home, thoughts of her late husband, the personalities of her companions, their moments of joy along the way, and her appreciation for the beauty of her surroundings.

The men were very protective of Mina and constantly worried for her safety; to their dismay, she had an adventurous streak and loved wandering off alone to hike up hills and mountains, smiling and happy as she walked along. In addition to her revolver and hunting knife, Mina armed herself with one Panoram Kodak Camera and one 3.25″ x 4.25″ Folding Pocket Kodak Camera…

I discovered A Woman’s Way Through Unknown Labrador by a reference in another book on northern exploration (although the title of that book escapes me). I learned enough about Mina Hubbard’s expedition to know that I definitely wanted to acquire a copy of her book, and I was lucky to find this 1908 first Canadian edition. This particular book was the obvious choice for a cartophile like me, as it came complete with its original color copy of Mina’s map, detailing the routes of the two expeditions. The map is stored in a pocket within the back board, and is in remarkably good condition for its age…

Mrs. Hubbard’s map became the benchmark for this region, as recognized by American and European geographical authorities. Several of the lakes and land features along the route still bear the names that Mina affixed to them in 1905.

Included in this book is the diary that Leonidas Hubbard kept during his expedition, along with George Elson’s account of those final days, his harrowing solo journey to find help, and his return the following spring to retrieve Mr. Hubbard’s body.

I don’t purchase books as investments; I buy them to read, and I look for sensibly-priced copies. Yet, for whatever reason, I felt that I needed a premium edition of this title, and it is indeed the most money I’ve ever spent on a single book. Even so, no regrets here…it is a beautiful book and a great reading experience.

Photographs, map and text: Copyright 1908 by Mrs. Leonidas Hubbard, Jr. (Mina Benson Hubbard).

(Posts about my library are archived through this link: ridingwithcarl.wordpress.com/tag/library.)

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