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Mina Benson's iron will propelled trek across Labrador

['Mina Hubbard in the Labrador interior.']
['Mina Hubbard in the Labrador interior.']

Mina Benson's background did not suggest she would one day perform a feat of wilderness exploration that no other white woman has ever approached.

Her husband, writer Leonidas Hubbard Jr., was her connection with wilderness exploration, but in a way that neither could have foreseen, nor wished.

Leonidas and his friend, Dillon Wallace, a New York lawyer, planned a 1903 wilderness outing to a desolate area of Labrador that had never been described or mapped, for a very good reason - only one white man, John Maclean, was known to have traversed that area; he left next to nothing in terms of description.

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The area in question was, and still is, one of the wildest and most rugged areas of Eastern Canada. It stretches almost 1,000 kilometres from North West River near Goose Bay, to George River Post on Ungava Bay in northern Quebec. George River Post is known today as Kangiqsualujjuaq.

Hubbard and Wallace, with a James Bay Cree, George Elson, left North West River by canoe on July 15, 1903, and made a fatal mistake on the second day of their expedition - they went up the wrong river.

That mistake cost Leonidas Hubbard his life by starvation, lost in the wilderness, three months later. Wallace and Elson were barely alive when they were rescued.

Book irked widow

Wallace wrote about the unfortunate expedition in The Lure of the Labrador Wild. Mina Hubbard did not like it one bit, because, in her view, Wallace made her husband look incompetent, and hence responsible for the debacle.

In 1904, Hubbard decided to avenge her husband's death and Wallace's slight. Armed with little wilderness experience, but with an iron will, she began planning the completion of her husband's work by doing the trip in his stead.

She hired Elson, who had been on her husband's expedition and had done all he could to save her husband's life. Elson brought with him three other Metis Crees from James Bay. He also brought onboard an Inuk from North West River. Hubbard commanded the expedition; Elson and his crew executed it. They set out from North West River by canoe on June 27, 1905.

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Not to be outdone, Dillon Wallace also mounted an expedition with the same goal as Mina Hubbard's - to complete the trip that he and Leonidas Hubbard had attempted. Both expeditions paddled away from North West River on the same day, Wallace first,Hubbard a few hours later.

No one knows if the two expeditions saw each other as they paddled up opposite shores of Grand Lake, heading for the Naskaupi River, but it is certain that Hubbard's canoes passed Wallace's unnoticed during the night, taking the lead in what became a race to reach Ungava Bay.

However, it was not a close race since Hubbard's canoes reached Ungava Bay exactly two months after pushing off from North West River, while Wallace and his crew took six weeks more following a different route.

From the time she plunged into the unknown Labrador wild, crossing huge lakes of wind-whipped white caps, running kilometre after kilometre of dancing, foam-flecked rapids down the George River until it lost its wilderness spirit in Ungava Bay, Mina Hubbard was not idle.

She brought back the first maps of the Naskaupi and George River valleys, which were accepted by the American Geographical Society and the Geographical Society of Great Britain. She made notes on the flora and fauna of Labrador. She described in detail the great Labrador caribou migration and photographed the Naskaupi and Montagnais Indians who hunted the animals for their food and clothes.

Hubbard's expedition was extraordinary by any measure. Given the era and the fact that she was a woman, her trip stands out like a beacon in the annals of Canadian exploration.

Mina Benson Hubbard died in England in 1956 at the age of 86, killed by an onrushing locomotive as she crossed the tracks. She was not destined to die in her bed.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article by Gerard Kenney, CanWest News Service, appeared in the July 8, 2004, as Iron-willed woman protects husband's memory: Labrador wilderness mapped by a widow bent on revenge.

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