In the summer of 1981, John Rugge and I canoed down the George River in northern Quebec, retracing the routes taken across the Labrador-Ungava peninsula by Mina Hubbard and Dillon Wallace in 1903. We were writing a book about the subject, Great Heart: the History of a Labrador Adventure, which was published in 1988. (For more about that, look here.) Our good friend, filmmaker Sam Kauffmann, was along with us. The river flows north into Ungava Bay, whose extreme tides of forty feet make for a muddy landing, when the tides are out.
In 1905, the mouth of the river was the site of a post maintained by the Hudson Bay Company, the spot where Mina Hubbard and Dillon Wallace ended their expeditions. The settlement, George River, was still there in 1981 when we pulled our canoes up over the mud flats, though it had moved its location slightly. There we spent a pleasant day or two waiting for weather to permit a short flight to nearby Fort Chimo (now Kuujjuaq), where we caught a plane back south to Montreal. Our photographer Sam snapped a couple shots of the children around the settlement, including this energetic crowd:
I liked the photo so much, I used it as my Christmas card that year. And then we went on with our lives, wrote Great Heart, and thought fondly of George River Post—but never had occasion to return.
This year, Rugge and I and our spouses signed up for a cruise mounted by Adventure Canada, which begins in Greenland, traverses Davis Strait, and proceeds down the Labrador coast, ending in St. John's, Newfoundland. (Highly recommended: more information here.) And the first Canadian settlement we stopped in, crossing over from Greenland, was George River, now renamed Kangiqsualujjuak. The community, which numbered roughly a thousand souls, generously welcomed the ship's visitors with tents set up to sell crafts and walking tours of the village. Anticipating our return after 36 years, I had brought a copy of the photo of these youngsters and, once ashore, asked one of the residents if they recognized anyone. She immediately named each and then turned to the shelter nearby and called, "May! May, come over here!" It turned out that May was the girl on the right, and now in her forties, surprised and delighted to find this photograph from her past turn up, like a note in a bottle that had long been floating in the ocean.
I had one other photograph that Sam had taken in 1981, of a toddler in the lap of a man on a motorcycle.
The villagers recognized them too: a father with his daughter. And the daughter was now leading one of the walking tours of the village. She was over at the school and so we went there, a bright new building where students were getting out at the end of the school day. Found her, presented the other photo, and smiles all around.
What a wonderful day! It was marvelous to see Kanigiqsualajjuakk prospering and it felt as if a circle had been closed, in the same way that the life of a river is circular, starting as a panoply of rivulets in the highlands, gathering its tributaries and making its way to the sea, where the water eventually evaporates into the clouds to begin the cycle all over again. As we returned to our landing this year, I took a photo of two young girls I spied perched on a boulder. I hope a return to the village will be sooner than another 36 years, and if so, I'll have with me a photo and someone else to look for.
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors