Larry and Helen Whittaker’s house lies just north of the Arctic Circle at 67º49’N, 115º05’W, at the mouth of the Coppermine River. The dining room on the southeast corner of the house features two very unArctic picture windows, one looking east over Coronation Gulf — part of the route of the old Northwest Passage — and the other due south, straight up the river. A couple of days ago, Helen sent me a photo (how I love the incredible speed and reach of the internet!) taken at the south-facing window.
The photo was shot, I’m guessing, at noon. The scene is a solid sheet of white — bluish-white, actually, in the dim winter light — all the way to the horizon. Everything — river, almost featureless tundra, hills — is clothed in snow and frozen solid. Just at the line between horizon and sky, a blazing yellow chunk of the returning sun peeks above the solid granite of the Canadian Shield. Spring is on the way.
But there’s something else, in the foreground, about 100 meters away: a black-hulled workboat, called a “schooner” in the North. She’s been pulled up onto the shore out of the reach of the river, her mast and pilot house giving her an air of alert readiness. But she’s on the beach now forever.
She’s had several names in her life, but I know her as the M.V. Hearne. We met one evening right at the end of July in 1991. Three friends and I had paddled and portaged down an unbelievably difficult river to the gulf, and I had arranged to be picked up at the mouth by someone I’d never met — Larry — on a particular day. This was before the internet and email, so it was all done over the one-way phone system (after every sentence, you said, “Over”).
The mouth of the river, called Port Epworth by John Franklin in 1821, was a very welcome sight to us, and there was driftwood to burn in discarded drums. But the north wind that scoured our camp on a barren point had clearly been influenced by ice offshore, so we either sat close to the fire or lay in our sleeping bags inside our tents. As the afternoon of the appointed day became evening, we all wondered: Had I screwed up, and would Larry, whoever he was, show up? I was lying in my tent, praying over my beads, as it were, when I heard the faint, but distinct throb of a marine diesel. The Hearne chugged in, and rounded up into the wind about half a mile away. We heard the rattle of the anchor chain; a few minutes later, a husky Lund outboard, loaded with Larry’s family of four, an Inuit girl and a beagle named Gypsy, droned to the shore. What a relief to hear an Eastern Townships accent say, “You must be Willem, eh?”
The Hearne, 47 feet long and 22 tons, was built in Nova Scotia in 1954 and shipped by rail to Alberta. Thence, she went by barge down the Slave River and, on her own at last, down the Mackenzie. After long service for the RCMP along the Arctic coast, she was declared “Surplus to Requirements” and sold to the Coppermine Eskimo Co-op in 1967. She ferried building material from abandoned DEW Line sites, but was abandoned on the beach at Kugluktuk in 1980, at the presumed end of her life,
Enter Larry, who’s one of those guys who just can’t stop improving things around himself. He bought her from the Co-op for $3,500, had her set up on a ramp below his house (which, of course, he’d built), and spent the next six years completely repowering and overhauling her. She was relaunched as the M.V. Hearne in 1988, and came to pick us up that first time three years later.
There were three more occasions when she came to get us, from the mouths of different rivers. On one of those retrievals, in 1995, we ducked into Detention Harbor, also named by Franklin when his large canoes were detained there by weather. We were, too; but the next day ventured out into the gulf. It was the most exciting voyage most of us had ever been on. With a gale and fierce rollers right on her starboard quarter, the poor Hearne was rolling about 90 degrees. Everybody was seasick — the family in the foc’sle, Larry (who quietly vomited into a dustbin by his feet), Gypsy (who booted on the wheelhouse deck), and all of our canoe party — except me and Eric. Eric’s job, as the cliffs of Cape Barrow loomed to leeward, was to make sure the aluminum skiff towing behind stayed afloat and attached, just in case; and I stood at the chart table, looking forward, focusing on the horizon ahead, and singing sea chanties.
In 2000, Larry hauled her out and laid her up. He sold her to a man in the eastern Arctic, who never showed up to claim her. So, she’s slowly moldering into punk. I can’t look at her photo without thinking of the line by the late Stan Rogers: “She’d saved our lives so many times, a-flittin’ through the gale.” Local kids vandalized her in 2008, so she hasn’t even been allowed to rest in peace. As Larry writes, “She’ll never sail again.” But she does — in the many memories she left those of us who chugged slowly across the ice-haunted waters of the Northwest Passage, gazing wide-eyed at the north shore of our native continent.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.