November 24, 2006

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
Nov. 24, 1931 – Ghost Ship: The Disappearance of the Baychimo


The ghost ship Baychimo, as she was seen in 1933 near Point Barrow.

The Baychimo was a Hudson’s Bay Company supply ship that plied the waters of the western Canadian Arctic.

Built in Sweden for the Baltic trade in 1914, she was 229 feet in length and powered by triple-expansion three-cylinder engines. The Hudson’s Bay Company purchased her in 1921, renamed her Baychimo, and refitted her in Europe. She sailed for Montreal that same year and was put into immediate service, going north to Pond Inlet to establish the Bay’s farthest northern post.

By 1925 she had been reassigned to serve the Western Arctic. A sailor who traveled aboard her described her unflatteringly in these terms: “She was a strange and disappointing craft. I looked desperately for some redeeming feature... She bore no resemblance to the traditional barque-rigged steam whalers. She hardly differed from a hundred other coasting tramps. She was iron and steam, all bulk, not designed to fly with canvas... She was no beauty.” Captain Cornwell who commanded her was apparently no beauty either: “Short, tubby, red, somewhat like John Bull in a bowler hat.”

In 1931 the Baychimo arrived late into Canadian waters. At Coppermine, with no hope of reaching Cambridge Bay and Gjoa Haven, Cornwell turned her back westward. In mid-September, she reached Point Barrow, but ice again prevented her further advance. By Oct. 10 it was clear that the Baychimo was imprisoned for the winter. The captain sent a wireless message for an aircraft to take out most of his men. The remaining crew built huts on the beach. The Baychimo was only a half mile offshore. Their plan was to remain near the ship, and sail her out the following summer.

On November 24, the temperature rose dramatically, from minus 60 to zero. A blizzard raged for three days and no man dared venture out of his shack. When the storm abated, there was no sign of the Baychimo. Where she had been, only a pressure ridge of ice remained. They presumed her to have sunk.

Imagine their surprise when, some days later, Inuit arrived with news that they had seen the Baychimo while out seal hunting. She was about 45 miles south and 15 miles offshore. Captain Cornwell and some men immediately set off by dog sled to check out the story. They found her sitting at a slight angle on the ice, still intact. They took some supplies off her, on two trips. When they came back again, the ship was gone. This time for good, they thought. In March the captain and the rest of his crew were flown out.

But that same month she was seen again, twice. Inuit from Point Barrow boarded her. And a man travelling to Nome by dog sled reported finding her, sitting high atop an icefloe, squeezed out by the pressure of the ice. Nothing more was seen of her that season, and Arctic hands assumed that she went down with the breakup of the ice.

But she reappeared that summer, once again off Point Barrow. Thirty Inuit travelling in three umiaks reached the ship and salvaged some of her furnishings.

The following summer, three vessels sighted the Baychimo, not far from where she had been abandoned two years earlier. A Scottish writer, Isobel Wylie Hutchinson, was aboard one ship and wrote that the Baychimo was sitting atop the ice, “her giant hull, rust-stained and battered by the frozen seas, looming tower-like above the little Trader.”

She boarded the ship, and wrote, “The main hold was open to the winds, but its half-rifted depths still contained sacks of mineral ore, caribou skins, and a cargo of various descriptions.” The crew of the Trader lamented that, if only their ship had more power, they could have towed the Baychimo south.

The Trader returned to open water where she found a United States government vessel, the Northland, anchored at the edge of the icepack. She too had heard reports of the reappearance of the phantom ship and hoped to salvage her. But when the fog lifted the next morning, the Baychimo was gone. As the Trader was returning to Point Barrow, she reappeared. The next morning the Trader’s passengers saw her again, moving in the direction of Barrow.

Hutchinson even saw the phantom as an arctic mirage, a view of things far distant reflected upside down in the sky: “Sometimes through the glasses we could see reflected the mirage of the ice-field and shore far to the northward, hanging upside down in the sky,” she wrote. Her last view of the Baychimo was “in this curious manner, standing on her head in a mirage.”

Three years later Captain Parker of the Northland unexpectedly came upon the phantom ship again. He hoped to get alongside, but before he could do so the vessel was enshrouded in fog. When the fog eventually blew out, the Baychimo had once again vanished.

The Baychimo has reportedly been seen many times since. The last recorded sighting was in 1969. Inuit hunters saw her in the pack-ice of the Beaufort Sea near Point Barrow. The Arctic’s most enduring phantom ship was crewless, rusting, and unreachable, as she had been for most of the 38 years since her abandonment.

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to


November 17, 2006

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
November 20, 1917 – In Memory of John Shiwak, Inuit Sniper


With Remembrance Day just over, northerners might like to know a little of the life of John Shiwak, an Inuit hunter and trapper from Labrador who died in France during the First World War.

His family name was originally Sikoak – newly-formed ice – but family memory says it was changed to the meaningless “Shiwak” by Doctor Harry Paddon of the Grenfell Mission. The family lived in a bay called Cul-de-Sac, near Rigolet, on the north side of Hamilton Inlet, the entrance to Lake Melville. John Shiwak was probably born there, or in Rigolet itself, to John and Sarah Shiwak, sometime in the late 1880s.

As a boy John, like all Inuit of his time, learned to hunt seals, fish, trap, and handle a dog-team. But he was restless and left home while still a boy, to find what work he could elsewhere.

But Rigolet was where his heart was, and he often returned. He probably worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company for a time, at Rigolet, where the company had a fur and salmon processing operation.

In 1911 Shiwak met a writer, William Amy, while returning to Rigolet by steamer from St. John’s. The two became friends and Shiwak shared his diaries of hunting and trapping expeditions into the interior with Amy, who wrote that young Shiwak was a naturally-gifted artist and writer. The two maintained a correspondence for some years. In one letter, Shiwak confided in his friend that he wanted to become a soldier. So it was no surprise that in 1915, a year after war had broken out in Europe, John Shiwak enlisted at St. John’s in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. He was about 28.

He took his basic training in Scotland and first saw action in France in July of 1916. Shiwak was a tremendous marksman. Indeed, one officer claimed that he was the best sniper in the entire British army. His success was recognized when he was promoted to lance-corporal in April of 1917.

But, although he was good at killing, he was troubled by the interminable bloodshed of warfare. In his letters home, he expressed his unhappiness. He longed for the end of war and wrote often to “My Dear Louisa,” probably Louisa Flowers, to whom he was engaged.

A fellow soldier from Newfoundland, a close friend of John Shiwak, described him as “shy and lonely,” but added, “I got to be quite friendly with him by talking of seal hunting. We’d talk for hours and often he’d say, will it ever be over. He sure was a great shot and had a lot of notches on his rifle. He said sniping was like swatching seals.”

“Swatching” was a Newfoundland term for hunting seals in open water, as they popped their heads above the surface to breathe. It required alertness and accuracy. John Shiwak’s childhood training as a hunter had prepared him well for his military role as a sniper.

A quiet man with many comrades but few close friends, war took an emotional toll on Shiwak. When one friend, also a trapper from Labrador, was killed in early 1917, Shiwak went into a period of depression.

In November, the British launched a major offensive against the Germans at the Battle of Cambrai. It marked the first significant use of tanks in warfare – they had made their debut only a year earlier. The British attack was launched early on the morning of Nov. 20. An astonishing 476 tanks were used and they were supported by six infantry and two cavalry divisions.

The unexpected attack forced the Germans back 10 kilometers, and marked the first time that the German three-trench system was breached during the war.

But over the course of a week, the Germans recovered all the ground lost during this bloody battle. Although the Battle of Cambrai has been described as “the most significant battle of the First World War,” one British survivor described it as “a harum-scarum affair, ill-planned and feebly directed.” The losses on both sides were appalling. In all the Germans lost 50,000 men, the British 45,000.

John Shiwak, the Regiment’s leading sniper, was one of those casualties. On the first day of the British offensive, he was killed by an exploding shell. He was buried that same afternoon in the village of Masnieres in France. The official record relates, “His loss was keenly felt throughout the Regiment, for his matchless marksmanship and his skill as a scout and an observer together with his reliability and good nature had won him many friends.”

Lest we forget.

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

November 10, 2006

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
Nov. 15, 1997 — “The Pryde of the Arctic” Passes Away


Duncan Pryde, a fun-loving, sensual, and unreliable linguistic genius, died Nov. 15, 1997 at his last home, on the Isle of Wight. Itís unlikely the Arctic will ever again see anyone quite like him.

Duncan Pryde was a fur-trader, polyglot, legislator, writer and story-teller. He was also a legendary carouser and hard-drinking, fun-loving, unreliable rascal. For me, he was also a friend.

Pryde was born in Scotland in 1937 and raised in orphanages. In 1955 he answered a newspaper advertisement placed by the Hudson’s Bay Company: “Fur traders wanted for the far north.”

The ad asked for single, ambitious, self-reliant young men, and promised a life of isolation, hardship and adventure, all for $135 per month. Pryde was accepted and spent his first three years in Canada in northern Ontario and Manitoba. In 1958, he moved to the Arctic, serving first at Baker Lake. From there he was posted to more and more isolated locations: Spence Bay, then Perry River in 1961, and finally Bathurst Inlet in 1965.

Everywhere he lived, Pryde immersed himself in the language of the Inuit. His grasp of Inuit dialects was phenomenal, and his life’s ambition was to compile the definitive dictionary of the Inuit language as spoken in the Central Arctic.

In 1966, Pryde was elected to the Territorial Council of the Northwest Territories, the body that evolved into the present-day Legislative Assembly, for a one-year term. The next year he was re-elected for three more years. Audaciously , this man, who allegedly had a number of children in the Kitikmeot region through numerous relationships, campaigned on a slogan: “Every family should have a little Pryde in the Arctic.”

Pryde devoted his attention to those issues most important to the Inuit, hunting and game laws. He was the first to propose the sports-hunting of polar bears as a way of bringing extra dollars into Inuit communities. Charismatic and self-promoting, he was also the first person from the Canadian north to have his picture on the cover of Time magazine.

In 1969, Pryde married Gina Blondin, a Dene woman, in Yellowknife. They had one daughter, Fiona. Two years later, Duncan’s fame transcended the North and Canada when he published his autobiography, Nunaga – My Land, My Country.

It was an accurate portrayal of the life of a trader at the end of the era when Arctic posts were truly isolated. Perhaps it was too accurate. Extremely controversial, it unfortunately turned Pryde’s fame into notoriety in the North for his frank recounting of his sexual exploits. A best-seller, the book was translated into a number of languages.

Pryde’s marriage ended a few years later, and he left hastily for Alaska. There he taught Inuit languages at the fledgling Inupiat University in Point Barrow. When he ran afoul of the administration and was fired from his teaching post, he stayed on as janitor so he could remain in the academic environment. A few years later he suddenly left Alaska. And disappeared.

John MacDonald of Igloolik, who had first met Pryde in Baker Lake in 1959, eventually tracked him down. He was living in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, had a skipper’s ticket as a yachtsman, and had remarried. The man who had billed himself as “the Pryde of the Arctic” now ran a small news-agency called “Pryde of Cowes.” Appropriately, he lived at 6 Arctic Road.

With only a sixth-grade education, Duncan Pryde was fascinated by language. In addition to many dialects of the Inuit language, Cree, and some Slavey and Dogrib, Pryde spoke Gaelic, Italian and German, and a smattering of a number of other languages.

Before leaving the North, he had started often on his life-long ambition, the writing of a definitive Inuktitut dictionary, but Pryde was a poor manager of money and always the necessity to make a living – not to mention the temptations of women and booze – interfered. Indeed, “Duncan’s A’s” became a buzz-word in Canadian Inuktitut studies for, despite many starts, he had never gotten past the letter “A.”

Around 1994, Pryde was stricken with cancer. Chemotherapy put it into remission, but he was no longer as robust as before. Unable to work, Pryde returned to his dream, the compilation of his dictionary. Arctic College provided financial support for the first volume – of course it was the letter “A.” When completed in early 1997, it ran in excess of 280 pages.

Pryde was hard at work on the dictionary when his cancer returned and he suffered a stroke. Irreverent and feisty to the end, Pryde complained to his doctors that he needed four more years to complete his work. But it was not to be. He died on November 15, 1997 at the age of 60.

At the end of Nunaga, Pryde remarked: “There will never be a job such as the one which enticed me as a dreamy-eyed young man all the way from Scotland with romantic notions in my otherwise empty head. There will never be another fur trader in the old tradition, just as there will never again be an Eskimo in the old image.”

One might add that there will probably never be another linguist to match Duncan Pryde in the Canadian Arctic. Indeed John Sperry, former Bishop of the Arctic and an accomplished linguist himself, remarked to me, “We will not see his like again. I always felt humbled by his knowledge.”

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your ­comments and questions to

November 3, 2006

Taissumanni – A Day in Arctic History
Nov. 7, 1943 — The Abandonment of Fort Ross


In the 1920s and 1930s, the Hudson’s Bay Company established trading posts across the Arctic, all supplied by sea, some from the west, and some from the east, squeezing out independent free traders like a giant pincer movement.

East met west at Fort Ross, built on the southern tip of Somerset Island, where the narrow Bellot Strait separated the island from Boothia Peninsula, the northernmost extent of continental North America.

Lorenzo Learmonth, an Orkneyman who spent 46 years in the Arctic, established the post, which consisted of a manager’s house and a trading building. A number of Inuit, still nomadic, lived in the vicinity. Unfortunately, it was a poor location for a post. Ice often jammed the waters in front of the site, even in mid-summer, making supply unreliable.

In September 1940, Bill and Barbara Heslop arrived at Fort Ross on the supply vessel, Nascopie. They had been married only a few weeks earlier in Winnipeg. Bill was to manage the post, with the assistance of a young clerk, Darcy Munro. Ernie Lyall was a casual employee, having run afoul of the Bay’s administration for his marriage to an Inuit woman.

Two years later the company decided to transfer the Heslops to Pangnirtung, but ice prevented the Nascopie from reaching the post. This was a warning. Food supplies would have to be used carefully because there would be no possibility of another ship for a year. Darcy Munro and three Inuit, using two dog-teams, made an emergency run to Arctic Bay to replenish their supplies of food, ammunition, and a few other essentials.

In September, the Nascopie was spotted about 15 miles offshore. And that is where she remained for three nerve-wracking days. Finally, the captain concluded that he could not reach Fort Ross, and steamed away. This made the situation of the staff at the post all the more desperate. Of course they would not have starved. The Inuit would have kept them supplied with country food. But the company made a decision to have them airlifted out.

The RCAF had no suitable planes available — the country was at war. But the Canadian government asked for and received assistance from the U.S. government, who made a Douglas C-47 Skytrain available. It was fitted with four extra 100-gallon tanks, special tires and skis. On Nov. 1, with the slogan “Fort Ross or Bust” painted on its side, the plane tried to reach the post, but a strong ground drift obscured visibility and the attempt was aborted.

Three days later the Skytrain returned. After circling several times, the crew dropped supplies by parachute to those anxiously waiting. Finally Captain Jack Stanwell-Fletcher, of the United States Air Force, parachuted successfully to the ground. This was the first parachute jump ever attempted north of the Arctic Circle. Amazingly, it was also Stanwell-Fletcher’s first jump ever. He had prepared specially for it with one day of training with the Canadian forces in Manitoba.

A feast was held that night at Fort Ross, where the supplies of southern food had dwindled to three tins of sausage, six pounds of dried beans, 24 pounds of flour, and tea and sugar. The next morning, Stanwell-Fletcher began the search for a suitable landing place for the 15-ton plane. He found it on a small land-locked lake about 10 miles from the post. He laid out a rough landing strip of 3,000 feet on sea ice only 17 inches thick.

On Nov. 7, 10 days before the sun would disappear for the winter at Fort Ross, the Skytrain flew in and made a perfect landing. The nine men aboard took immediate charge. A group of Inuit were ordered to swing the tail of the plane around, to prevent the skis from freezing to the ice. Supplies for the Inuit were dumped out. The Heslops and Munro were ordered aboard the plane – without their baggage!

The pilot was worried about excess weight and everything possible was left behind. Barbara Heslop’s 80-pound husky dog, Hobo, had made it aboard, but he was unceremoniously dumped out again before the doors closed. Ernie Lyall was left behind with the Inuit. Then the plane took off. It had been on the ice all of 16 minutes. The aircraft cleared the hills at the end of the lake with feet to spare. Hobo’s weight may have made the difference between life and death.

Fort Ross was finally and formally closed in 1948. The two buildings remain, still painted in HBC colours of red roofs and white walls. The little lake where the Skytrain landed bears the name Stanwell-Fletcher Lake. The Heslops have both passed away. Darcy Munro lives today in Winnipeg.

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to