To the Strange “Buttons”

The Story of the Bowdoin-MacMillan Arctic Expedition of 1934

Mascot of the Bowdoin-MacMillan Arctic Expedition

Arcturus, mascot of the expedition, was a passenger on the “Bowdoin” from Boston to 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.

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