The Labrador Passage

Peter Marshall goes retro in recreating a century-old Canadian canoe expedition

BY CONOR MIHELL

Last summer, Minnesota-based filmmaker Peter Marshall and three canoe-tripping friends won the coveted Expedition of the Year crown in the 2013 Canoe & Kayak Awards for a four-month, 2,600-mile canoe journey across Canada’s Yukon, Northwest and Nunavut territories. But Marshall failed to recruit any of his Trans-Territorial tripmates in planning his next expedition, a 45- to 50-day epic following across Labrador—possibly because of a throwback theme he’s embracing in 2014. Instead of employing bombproof Royalex canoes and four-season tents, Marshall’s Labrador Passage expedition will involve technology dating back to the turn of the 20th century: A wooden canoe, canvas tent, hand-sewn apparel and hand-forged tools.

“I guess most of the people I told about the trip really like their [modern] gear a lot,” laughs Marshall, 31. “They said, ‘That sounds cool, I look forward to hearing about it.’ No one was all that eager to commit to joining me.”

Labrador Passage

Photo Courtesy Peter Marshall

Marshall won over Andrew Morris, a professional guide with training in primitive skills. In parallel with the old-school theme, the duo will retrace the 1905 route Mina Hubbard took northwards across Labrador, from the present-day town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay to Ungava Bay. Mina’s husband, Leonidas Hubbard, perished in the same wilderness in 1903. The grief-stricken widow was incensed by Dillon Wallace, who paddled with her husband on the ill-fated expedition, and blamed Leonidas’ incompetence for the disastrous results. In 1905, she and Wallace engaged in a race to be the first to complete the trans-Labrador route.

Marshall is most impressed at how the expedition, taken in the company of four “remarkable” native guides and retold by James West Davidson and John Rugge in the contemporary adventure lit classic Great Heart, tempered Mina’s grief. “In her journals, she initially seems to feel guilty to be enjoying herself without her husband’s company,” notes Marshall. “But as the trip progresses, she comes into her own. She wasn’t doing it to vindicate the name of her husband or to finish his journey. She discovered her own love of the wilderness—largely because of the four guides she was with. She was constantly amazed at their skill on the river and in navigating a route. She was impressed by their tireless effort, good humor, and camaraderie with each other, which she described as being sometimes like children at play.”

Indeed, on August 25, 1905, Mina wrote, “I dread going back. I think I should like to spend the summer like this always.”

Labrador Passage

Other than having the distinct advantage of accurate maps, Marshall and Morris will experience the Labrador wilds with much the same equipment. Maine-based canoe-builder Rollin Thurlow has crafted the pair a 17.5-foot Atkinson Traveler wood-canvas canoe, with the backing of the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum; Duluth, Minn. manufacturer Frost River has contributed a vintage canvas tent and portage packs; and Filson has supplied waxed canvas and wool apparel. Custom shoemaker Jason Hovatter provided footwear and blacksmith Cody Myers made them an axe and knives.

“Part of me thinks, I can’t use this stuff because it’s all so beautiful,” admits Marshall. “But that’s the point, I have to use it.” A test run last fall in the Boundary Waters convinced Marshall that the gear is expedition-ready. “There’s a heightened awareness when you’re using hand-made stuff,” he adds. “You know the work that went into it and makes for a very neat experience. It’s more intimate.”

Marshall and Morris will venture to Labrador early in the northern summer, and they anticipate starting the expedition at the beginning of July. For now, the pair is crowdsourcing to raise funds for the film about the expedition they plan to co-produce Twin Cities Public Television. Click here to contribute to the campaign.

Watch Peter Marshall’s Labrador Passage preview videos:Peter Marshall goes old-school in recreating a century-old Canadian canoe expedition

 

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