To the Strange “Buttons”

The Story of the Bowdoin-MacMillan Arctic Expedition of 1934

"Bowdoin"  Arctic Expedition

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

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.

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.

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