Pick From the Past
Natural History, September 1935

To the Strange “Buttons”

The story of the Bowdoin-MacMillan Arctic Expedition of 1934 to Cape Mugford,
Labrador, and the Button Islands of the Northwest Territories


N the swirling, ice-laden waters of Hudson Straits, beyond Cape Chidley at the extreme northern end of Labrador, lie the “Buttons.” These isolated, rugged islands were discovered by Sir Thomas Button as early as 1614 when he passed through the straits on his way to the discovery of Southampton Island and the exploration of the western coast of Hudson Bay. In all the years since that time they have stood as a challenge to all who visited that region.

The excessive tides which rush in and out of the straits, the blinding fogs, prevalent storms, and often impenetrable pack ice have made landing there a hazardous procedure. Every boat that has gone through the straits has wisely given these islands a wide berth. Even the Canadian Government tactfully cautioned our expedition not to attempt to land for fear that we might meet with disaster.

Who but an inquisitive naturalist or adventurer would ever care to risk a landing on those bleak and forbidding shores? To either of these, however, the urge might well be strong to go there.

This part of the service was amplified by the howls and cries of several hundred Eskimo dogs, which constituted a real source of competition for the human voices.

First there was a certain mystery concerning these islands. Sailors had reported that, when they were passing them, strange sounds emanated from deep recesses in the high cliffs. What could be the source of these sounds? Furthermore, many speculations had been ventured as to the life that existed on the islands. Eskimos claimed that in years past the polar bear and walrus bred there. Did these great arctic mammals still exist there? There were hosts of questions, moreover, concerning the abundant bird life, for which the islands are especially notable. Where, for instance, could be the nesting places of the fulmars, large gull-like birds, which abound in the straits between the Buttons and Cape Chidley?

It was to answer these questions and to open up other biological secrets surrounding the locality that the Bowdoin-MacMillan Expedition of 1934 made the islands one of its main objectives.

Commander Donald B. MacMillan, loyal Bowdoin alumnus and famous arctic explorer, said he could land a party on the islands; and his staunch schooner the “Bowdoin” was made ready for the expedition. Seven Bowdoin College students volunteered their services to assist in the biological work and in navigating the boat under his command. Dr. David Potter, professor of botany at Clark University, and two of his students joined us with the purpose of making a collection of plants of the Labrador coast. From the casual records of previous expeditions it was expected that the high mountains of northern Labrador and especially those in the region of Cape Mugford would yield a wealth of important botanical material, including remnants of preglacial forms of plants.

Arcturus, a snowy owl

Arcturus, mascot of the expedition, was a passenger on the “Bowdoin” from Boston to Labrador.
With these objectives the “Bowdoin” sailed from Portland, Maine, on June 16, 1934, with a personnel of fifteen men, including three professional seamen, a first mate, an engineer and a cook. In addition to the crew there was one distinguished passenger, Arcturus, a huge, snowy owl, which through the Massachusetts Audubon Society, sought passage to his home in the northland. Arcturus had been wounded by a hunter near Boston after his migratory flight to New England. He had been nursed to good health by the warden of the Audubon Society, but the warm days of June were taxing his constitution, and certainly Labrador would be more agreeable to him than New England during the hot summer months. This unusual request was granted not only because the Massachusetts Audubon Society desired it, but also because we all welcomed Arcturus as a mascot. He became an important member of the party and there was a feeling of regret when we left him on the shores of Anetalak Bay above Nain, Labrador.

With favorable weather the “Bowdoin” made a fast run along the jagged Maine shore, thence across the Bay of Fundy and up the Nova Scotia coast to the Gut of Canso. At Port Hawkesbury we took on the final supply of oil for the diesel engine and then struck northward into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Little ice was seen in the Straits of Belle Isle, but the next day after setting our course northward toward Battle Harbour we met no less than fifty beautiful icebergs. Some of them were enormous in size, with cathedral-like spires reaching upward to heights of a hundred feet or more. Some of the flat-topped bergs were literally covered with kittiwakes, which found these floating, crystal masses convenient resting places in the midst of their fishing grounds.

On the outer runs we met with shearwaters. These interesting birds have reversed the usual procedure of migrating from the south to breed in a more northern latitude. They breed in the south Atlantic and spend their summer vacation, a time when the cares of raising a brood are cast aside, in Arctic America.

Battle Harbour, our first stop on the Newfoundland Labrador and the real beginning of our expedition, has figured prominently in many explorations to the North. Almost every boat stops there to send its last farewell from the powerful radio station. We recalled that it was just twenty-five years since Admiral Robert E. Peary had telegraphed the first news of his discovery of the North Pole. Battle Harbour was formerly the site of an important hospital of the Grenfell Association, but today only the blackened stones and bricks of the foundations remain of the buildings, which were burned November 2, 1930.

That the hospital is sorely missed is evident to anyone who stops there. Soon after we anchored, two natives came aboard for medical attention. We also visited a boy suffering with a severe ulcerated tooth. He was the son of a fisherman who lived at the head of a cove about a mile from Battle Harbour. The family were living under the most wretched conditions. The house was constructed of rough boards, and pieces of tin and bits of sod were used to stop the raw wind and cold rain. Inside, a box served as a table, on which stood a dingy old lamp and a well-worn copy of the Bible. Two broken chairs and a dilapidated bureau constituted the only other furniture. The beds were merely grass-stuffed mattresses on the floor. A rusty, smoky stove kept the occupants warm and served for their simple cooking.

The parents expressed deep gratitude for the relief we had given their boy. Our trip over the rugged hills helped us to understand the enthusiasm the Grenfell workers have in serving the people of that desolate coast. It is a hard life that these people live, and it is a great satisfaction to anyone to be able to aid them.

At West Turnavik the expedition accomplished one of its objectives in banding several hundred arctic terns. It has long been know that these terns, which breed in large numbers on some of the low-lying islands, winter in the Antarctic Archipelago beyond the South Atlantic, but just what route they follow in making that long journey was not known until recently.

In 1928 Dr. Oliver Austin, Jr., banded a number of terns with tabulated aluminum bands supplied by the United States Biological Survey. He received returns from Europe; and one of the banded birds was found in South Africa. These observations indicate that the migration is not by way of the Americas but across the Atlantic to Europe, southward along the coast of Africa to Cape of Good Hope, and thence to the Antarctic. The round trip between the Antarctic and these islands is a flight of approximately twenty thousand miles. We hope that the large number of terns which our own expedition banded will establish in detail the migration route of this remarkable bird.

Our main objectives lay far to the north, and our party pushed on without delay. At Hopedale, where we were welcomed by Dr. W.W. Perrett, we would have enjoyed a stay of many days. Doctor Perrett is the Moravian missionary, to whom Mrs. Anne Lindburgh referred in her article in the National Geographic. The story we heard from him of the privations suffered by the inhabitants of this isolated village was most distressing.

Too much credit cannot be given the Moravian missionaries, whose splendid work has been the salvation of the people of the Labrador coast. They have protected the interests of the Eskimos against the white man, who too often in the past has taken advantage of them, and have improved their living conditions in general. Hopedale is like an oasis in that barren coast, and it was with regret that we left it.

At Nain, as at Hopedale, our boat was the first to arrive that year, and we were received with an unusual welcome. Practically the whole village assembled on the wharf, and in their native tongue sang songs of welcome. The sun had just dipped behind the mountains and a beautiful sunset glow added a bit of color to the touching scene.

Halfway through the passage we encountered the drift-ice pouring eastward, driven by a strong ebb tide.

As soon as the clang of the anchor had ceased, a fleet of small boats landed a swarm of happy Eskimos on board the “Bowdoin.” There were loud greetings of “Awk-sha-nai” (Hello, or Welcome), and there was scarcely standing room on the limited deck space. Commander MacMillan stood at the door of his cabin and like a Santa Claus dealt out boxes of huge gum drops, candies, and presents. After fifteen expeditions to the land of the Eskimos, MacMillan well understands how to make the natives happy. No wonder the cheery “Awk-sha-nais” when “Captain Mac” came to pay them another visit. Near the Moravian mission is a school which MacMillan established and which he continues to maintain.

On Sunday the little chapel at Nain was filled to its capacity. Practically every native man, woman, and child in the community was there, for they consider it a great privilege, not merely a religious duty, to attend the services. All entered heartily into the singing, accompanied by the little organ. This part of the service was amplified by the howls and cries of several hundred Eskimo dogs, which constituted a real source of competition for the human voices. It was difficult to determine whether the response of the dogs was one of appreciation or annoyance.

The Bowdoin Crew

Left to right: W. B. Brierly, Robert Brooks Wait, Jr., Dr. Alfred Gross (seated), George H. Crosby, H. H. Vogel, Jr., and Commander MacMillan.
At Nain, as well as at other villages, the members of the expedition bartered for sealskins and articles such as parkas and boots, to be used by themselves or to be taken back as gifts to their friends. Lawrence Flint, one of the Bowdoin students, discovered a fine thirty-foot, walrus-skin dog whip. It was just what he desired as an addition to his already extensive collection of whips. The Eskimo owner made it know that he wanted Flint's pants, and there being little time left before sailing, Flint removed his pants and exchanged them for the coveted prize. The return of the funny white man to the boat-landing was through a gauntlet of black eyes and a barrage of grinning faces.

The next day we were at Cape Mugford, with the great summits of the Bishop's Mitre, Brave Mountain, and other peaks of the Kaumajet range standing at majestic attention as our little ship sailed by. Dr. David Potter, the botanist of the expedition, and his two assistants were put ashore with their tents and equipment to begin their work in this important area, which was one of the major objectives of the expedition. Doctor Potter succeeded in collecting more than 20,000 plants along the Labrador coast, one of the most comprehensive collections ever taken from that region.

After landing his party, we pushed on toward the Button Islands. Good weather enabled us to arrive on July 11 at Grenfell Tickle, which cuts through the northern Tip of Labrador, connecting the Atlantic with Ungava Bay. We hoped by this passage to reach Port Burwell, or Killinek as it is known to the Eskimos, where we were required to report to the Canadian Mounted Police. It was necessary to present our explorer's permit, and to take on a Canadian representative, as required of all expeditions entering the Northwest Territories, of which the Button Islands are a part.

When more than halfway through the passage, however, we encountered the drift-ice pouring eastward, driven by a strong ebb tide. Loaded with hard, blue blocks of ice from the Polar Sea, it was a tide which the best ship in the world could not have stemmed. We retreated and sought a safe harbor at the entrance to the Tickle.

The next morning Commander MacMillan undertook to reach Port Burwell by rounding Cape Chidley to the north. From Cape Chidley, we could see the dreaded Buttons, a mass of rugged islands with sheer cliffs hundreds of feet high. At last the main objective of the expedition was in sight, but we still had to touch at Port Burwell.

Soon after passing into Gray Straits we were confronted with great fields of pack ice and an opposing tide of eight knots, which again forced us to seek a harbor on the unexplored and uncharted coast. Easing along within a few yards of the big, black cliffs, the “Bowdoin” finally turned into the quiet waters of one of the best harbors in northern Labrador, a place which we hope to have named “Bowdoin Harbor.”

The next day a “pea soup” fog, for which Cape Chidley is notorious, held us in the harbor. It was not until July 14 after several futile attempts that we succeeded in reaching Port Burwell.

Except for the factor of the Hudson's Bay Post and the two Canadian Mounted police, the population of Port Burwell, numbering about seventy-five persons, is entirely Eskimo. The Eskimos at Killinek are more primitive than those we found at Hopedale and Nain. In winter they live in snow igloos built wherever the best hunting and trapping are to be found, but during the more moderate weather of summer they congregate in villages along the coast, living in tents of their own construction.

The United States Bureau of Entomology had expressed the desire that we secure parasites of the Eskimos, a project which I assigned to Howard Vogel, Jr. At Killinek three natives were supplied with vials of preservative in which to collect the lice, known to them as Koo-miks. The next morning the vials, filled to capacity, were returned to us by the beaming natives, with the interesting information that “they had every Koo-mik in Killinek.” If this statement were true, it was a good service to the community as well as an accomplishment in the interests of human parasitology.

We attempted to leave Port Burwell for the final run to Button Islands, [but] the “Bowdoin” through the failure of the engines to function properly was thrust upon a rocky ledge.

When we attempted to leave Port Burwell for the final run to the Button Islands, the “Bowdoin” through the failure of the engines to function properly was thrust upon a rocky ledge near a cliff of the inner harbor. The thirty-foot tide was running out rapidly, and in less than an hour the “Bowdoin” was high and dry on the rocks. With the return of the tide, however, we were floated off with no harm done beyond the inconvenience of a six-hour delay. This experience well illustrated the wisdom of maneuvering about uncharted coasts and harbors only during the lower stages of the tide. To be cast on a rock at high tide would mean disaster.

Early on the morning of July 24, five weeks out of Portland, Maine, we were on the last leg of the journey to the Buttons. The weather was clear and calm and a comparatively small amount of ice remained in the straits. Our approach was so arranged as to arrive at the islands at dead low water, a time when the tidal currents are at a minimum.

We had with us an Eskimo from Port Burrell by the name of Ah-yah-o, who was familiarly known to the Post as Bobbie. Bobbie had once made a trip to the Buttons to hunt seal. He knew the islands, the channels, the possible camping places, and the water supply, better than any other human being. He had even served as guide for an aNrial expedition which had photographed the islands two years before. His intimate knowledge of the Cape Chidley region had on one occasion been the means of saving the lives of an exploring party. We were most fortunate to have his services as guide. He could not speak English, but he was very intelligent and could understand and anticipate almost our every want.

Bobbie took the wheel of the “Bowdoin” and piloted us through the narrow eight-mile channel between Lawson and MacColl Islands to the head of a cove on the southern exposure of Lacy Island, which was to be our camping site and headquarters while on the Buttons.

While the islands are almost devoid of vegetation, the channels and especially the coves and bays leading to them were teeming with animal life. On every side the curious seals popped their heads out of the water in apparent bewilderment of the strange craft encroaching upon their domain. Thousands of birds arose or scuttled across our bow. The kittiwakes and fulmars were to be seen in every part of the islands, but we looked in vain for their nesting rookeries. Kittiwakes later were found nesting on the Knight Group of islands south of the Buttons. Frequently, as we rounded an island or point of land, we surprised a mother eider duck with her brood of downy young. Several honking red-breasted loons flew high overhead like so many airplanes out in honor of our arrival. It was still summer, yet countless numbers of red-breasted phalaropes and many other shore birds had already arrived at the Buttons on their way south from their breeding places beyond the Arctic circle. This lively trip through the whirlpool channels was indeed an auspicious introduction to our ornithological conquest of the islands.

The “Bowdoin” lingered just long enough to put our party of six men, including Bobbie, ashore on Lacy Island. And her departure was none too soon, for an hour later the tide was running rampant and whirlpools of ice were swirling in the channel in front of our camp.

The Bowdoin

When the engine failed to reverse at Port Burwell, the “Bowdoin” was thrust on the rocks, where it remained until lifted off by the incoming tide.
When we bade good-bye to the men on the “Bowdoin” no one could predict when they would return for us, as conditions in that region are most uncertain. Should the ship meet with disaster by storm or be crushed in the ice, we had planned to return to Killinek, the only human settlement in all that vast section, by means of a dory left with us for that purpose.

Our tents were pitched on a small area of high level ground near a brook of pure water fed by the melting snow on the hills beyond. Fortunately for our comfort the wind-swept islands were free of mosquitoes and black flies, which ordinarily make life in the far north an intolerable existence.

There are no trees, not even tiny shrubs, that could be used as fuel; hence we had to depend on two Primus oil stoves for our cooking. Later, however, we found pieces of driftwood, probably from Ungava or Hudson Bay, which had been carried by the tides and thrown high on the rocks by the storms. Every bit of this wood we could find was collected and used as fuel during the chill days that followed.

Lanterns and flash lights were not needed in that northern latitude, since the sun stays above the horizon except for a short time each day, and when it sets, a bright glow remains in the sky. We were therefore able to carry on our work at any time during the twenty-four hours. I asked Bobbie how he knew without any timepiece when it was time to eat or sleep. He explained that he ate when he was hungry and went to bed when he was tired. We also found it best to follow this simple and sensible routine.

The first evening a beautiful arctic fox came to within fifty yards of our camp. Evidently its curiosity had been aroused by the sight of our tents, which were certainly new to its experience, and it had come from its hillside lair to investigate. The moment we stirred, however, the fox wheeled about and galloped over the snow on the hillside until it reached a barren, rocky ledge far above us. At this safe vantage point it paused, rested on its haunches, and gazed at us intently. We were as interested in the fox as it was in us. It was delightful to know we were all fellow-creatures, a part of the biology of the islands.

When we bade good-bye to the men on the “Bowdoin” no one could predict when they would return for us, as conditions in that region are most uncertain.

We found no lemming or other rodents, the usual food of the foxes, but the many masses of feathers along the shore and among the rocks of the hills gave evidence that the fox and his fellows fared well on this their island kingdom. Everywhere we could see signs of this kind, which tell a grim story of the struggle for existence in the Arctic.

On high, inaccessible cliffs of Lawson Island we found the breeding places of the glaucous gulls, large pure-white birds which nest only in the far north. The fulmars were also present in great numbers in the channels and inlets about the islands, but if these birds nest in that region, their breeding places are yet to be found.

Mr. Robert Wait, assistant in zoology, busied himself in the collecting of invertebrates, and made many interesting discoveries concerning the occurrence and distribution of these organisms. He found the little ponds and tidal pools teeming with life. There is great opportunity for further work in this neglected field of Arctic biology.

On the second day, the party on the Buttons nearly met with disaster. A Primus stove exploded, spurting burning oil on the canvas of the supply and cook tent, which immediately burst into flames. The level-headedness and quick action of two of the men in pulling the burning tent away from the camp site prevented the destruction of our entire equipment housed in this and four other tents.

Bobbie killed five seals, three of which he succeeded in bringing to camp. The seal steaks broiled on a driftwood fire were excellent, and the livers proved a rare delicacy. Even if the “Bowdoin” were to be long delayed in coming for us, we were assured that we would be well supplied with food. Bobbie, armed with his rifle and spear, often sat for hours on the rocks in front of our camp. A picture of patience as he awaited his chance to kill. All Eskimos seem to have a lust for killing; they have no conception of conservation. To them every bird, every seal, exists merely for them to kill. They have neither feeling nor mercy for their victims.

On a grass-covered area at the western end of Lacy Island were tracks, droppings, skulls, and other evidence of polar bear. The Buttons, therefore, as the Eskimo had reported, are a rendezvous for this great white king of the north. We were not so fortunate, or unfortunate, as to meet with one of these beasts during our survey of the islands. In this same section of the island we discovered ruins of ancient Eskimo igloos. Nearby were heaps of large boulders which proved to be the graves of the people who had been laid to rest near their homes. In some of the graves time and the elements had bared the skeletons, and alongside the remains were deposits of spears and bone weapons used by these primitive people in their hunt for the walrus and polar bear. Similar graves and igloos were discovered on MacColl Island.

Near one of the Eskimo graves, well protected by an overhanging stone, was a nest containing five young of the American pipit. This delicate little warbler-like bird, whose nest we frequently discovered elsewhere among the rocks and in the tundra, winters in the United States, but migrates to the far north to build its nest and to rear its young. The pipit is eminently successful, for it is the most abundant species of land birds found in this region. The ancestors of the pipits were the associates of the Eskimos who once lived there. One can readily picture an alert little native boy watching one of these birds and perhaps matching his skill against it in his first lessons in hunting.

The snow bunting, a striking white and black bird of the sparrow family, nests in the cracks of the cliffs. Some of the nests were placed so deep as to defy all attempts to extricate them. Several which we were able to examine were made on a well-defined pattern, with a thick foundation of soggy moss and a cup of fine grasses beautifully lined with the pure-white breast feathers of the ptarmigan. I can think of no bird that better typifies the land of ice and snow than does this hardy little bunting.

Our sojourn on the islands seemed all too brief, for they are rich in biological interest. But what about those queer noises that were reported by the sailors aboard ships passing the Buttons? We came to the conclusion that they were either a product of the imagination or else are produced by the terrific tides rushing between the rocks, or by the ocean swell pounding in the cavernous thunder holes which occur along the cliffs exposed to the sea. Sounds of this sort are quite pronounced during certain conditions of the tides and winds, and perhaps are enough to kindle the curiosity and speculation of any person possessed with a vivid imagination.

In the midst of our interesting work we heard a siren whistle echoing and re-echoing from cliff to cliff. It was the “Bowdoin” back from Cape Mugford with Doctor Potter and his assistants. We were glad to know of their safe return, but it meant the end of our reconnaissance of the Buttons.

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