To the Strange “Buttons”

The Story of the Bowdoin-MacMillan Arctic Expedition of 1934

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.

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.

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