To the Strange “Buttons”

The Story of the Bowdoin-MacMillan Arctic Expedition of 1934

Personnel of the Bowdoin-MacMillan Arctic Expedition

Left to right: W. B. Brierly, Robert Brooks Wait, Jr., Dr. Alfred Gross (seated), George H. Crosby, H. H. Vogel, Jr., and Commander MacMillan

In 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.

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.

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