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.)

Carl’s Library: Salamina

Our friends at the Rocky Mountain Land Library have been sharing photos of a few of the wonderful books in their vast collection, set against the scenic backdrop of the Buffalo Peaks Ranch. Though my own library is much, much smaller, and the view from my apartment is not nearly as inspiring, I’d like to follow their lead and occasionally show you some of the beautiful old books occupying my shelves—particularly, books about exploration (that is, exploration back in the glory days before GPS, digital cameras and North Face jackets). I have many books about the American West, Canada, and the high latitudes of the polar regions; books about journeys of discovery over unforgiving terrain and survival in dangerous weather conditions, books about boundless tracts of wild land and the flora & fauna therein, books about indigenous people living in harmony with nature, books written by those who have successfully explored and charted unmapped territory, and books about those who died in the attempt. I’m able to experience the wilderness for only a few weeks out of each year; I’m happy that I can read and dream about it during my time at home.

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Recently, during an email conversation about books, my friend remarked that a book she’d read at a young age had just popped into her head for some reason. It was a story about life, love, nature and culture, accompanied by striking illustrations. She revealed that the book had changed her life. That book was Salamina by artist and writer Rockwell Kent…

I was surprised that I had never heard of this book, or the author. From my friend’s glowing description, I knew that I had to see it for myself. And because the artwork is a key component of the book, I decided that I wanted to get a nice copy; thanks to the internet, I was able to find a 1935 first edition in great shape, and reasonably priced. It is the most recent addition to my library…

The book tells of the author’s life among the native population of Igdlorssuit, Greenland in 1931-32. He went there not just to live and explore, but also to paint and draw. Like my friend, I enjoy the pen & ink drawings opening each chapter and the many full-page portraits done in Conté crayon…

I hadn’t gone far into the book before I realized that I was very happy with my purchase, and grateful that my friend had brought this title to my attention. And I knew that I would be acquiring more books by Rockwell Kent the moment I read this wonderful passage:

Let all your dreams have been of warmth and tropical luxuriance; let what at last is given you be bare, bleak, cold, in every way unlike your thoughts of earthly paradise, your chameleon soul cries out, “By God, I love this barrenness!” Why otherwise have men gone out from comfort, from the pleasures of city life, from all the cultivated beauty of a developed countryside, and in hardship and poverty, in unremitting labor, in all the hard conditions of some frontier life, found happiness? Why do men love the wilderness? For its mountains?—there may be none. For its forests, lakes, and rivers?—it might be a desert; men would love it still. Desert, the monotonous ocean, the unbroken snow-fields of the North, all solitudes, no matter how forlorn, are the only abiding-place on earth of liberty.

Beautifully stated, Mr. Kent. And quite true.

Illustrations and text: Copyright 1935 by Rockwell Kent.

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

Kindle? Not In My House

This story has nothing to do with the Pontiac. Rather, it is about the way that I explore North America—and beyond—when I’m not behind the wheel…

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As I’ve aged, I’ve become more and more keen on minimalism within my living space. I hate clutter, and I’m not a fan of owning stuff; if I don’t need it and use it, out it goes. Also, I’m not a collector…that is, not in the hobby or investment sense. There are, in fact, two “collections” in my home, and both continue to grow: my vinyl and my books. Since I do need them and I do use them, they’re not going anywhere. When I’m not exploring the wonders of the world outside these walls, it’s likely that I’m indulging my love for music or my love for the printed word.

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My library is not overloaded with obvious titles…the classics that are known to everyone; I do have many of those, but I also have a boatload of obscure material. There are millions of old books out there worth reading, even though the titles aren’t familiar to most people, or to me. I take chances. If a book is truly awful, I’ll trade it in at my favorite bookstore. That doesn’t happen often; most of them, I keep, as I enjoy reading a book more than once and finding things that I didn’t fully appreciate the first time through, and I’ll often use a book as a guide when I want to visit interesting places that the story brought to my attention.

I love the process of discovery; one book leads me to another book by that author, or to another author that was referenced; one book introduces me to a place or a person or an event, and I seek out other books on those subjects to learn even more. And my library grows.

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Nearly every book I own, I purchased used. I don’t shop at chain bookstores and I’m not interested in “best seller” lists. I buy the occasional used copy of a recent release, if the subject appeals to me, but I especially love old books…books written before my time. The majority of my collection falls in the 1875 to 1975 range. And I do like tracking down the oldest copy of a title that I can find. Mind you, I’m not a fanatic about it; I don’t scour every corner of the globe looking exclusively for pricey first editions. I have several firsts, and I have plenty of second, third, sixth, and Nth printings, but they were located through a simple search process, either from local used bookstores or from eBay, Alibris, et al, and they were purchased at reasonable prices. There are only two books in my collection that were priced above $99.

Paperbacks have never appealed to me; the ones I have are only there because a hardcover edition was never printed. They just don’t hold the same magic as a well-read hardbound beauty. For me, reading is not solely a process of absorbing information; I’m also charmed by the romance of the book itself…its weight, its scent, the feel of the boards, the texture of high-quality vintage paper and printing, the delicate fold-out maps in my books on exploration, the beautiful plates and illustrations on thick, glossy paper.

And there is the occasional thought of others who have held this same book…people long since gone. How did they get the book? Did they enjoy it? Reminders of their presence range from simple inscriptions inside the front cover to the beautiful note I found, written on monogrammed stationery, still tucked between the pages of one of my books, from Julia to her brother, dated December 25, 1911.

An old book has a personality, something which no digital device could ever capture.

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Recently, a friend shared this link to a wonderful story about the Rocky Mountain Land Library. Reading about this project made me realize that I want to make arrangements for the disposition of my books; I have no kids to leave them to, and I’d rather they not end up in an estate sale. Perhaps this library, or one of a similar nature, would welcome the donation; my collection contains many vintage books about the Old West.

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Copyright 1898 by The Macmillan Company, Assigned 1899 to Crane & Company, Topeka.

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