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Mina Benson's Famous Trek Across Labrador

author: Tom Cruickshank

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A humble farm girl from Bewdley earned a place in history in 1905 as the first non-indigenous person to cross one of the most remote regions in Canada. But it wasn’t all altruism: Someone’s reputation was at stake.

In an era in which farm girls inevitably grew up to become farm wives, Mina Benson was an exception. Born into a pioneer family that settled near Bewdley in a corner of north-west Northumberland County, she could easily have followed the conventional path expected of rural women who came of age in the late Victorian period. But even by today’s standards, Mina showed a remarkable independence and led an extraordinary life.

It’s not just that she put rural life behind her. It’s not even that she left Bewdley for the bright lights of New York City and ultimately London, England. Nor is it just that, in a time before most women had careers, she was both a teacher and a nurse, and could support herself financially. In fact, her special claim to fame goes beyond these, for Mina Benson left an unusual legacy. She was an adventurous spirit, and in 1905 became, of all things, the first woman – in fact, the very first non-indigenous person – to cross the rugged terrain of Labrador. The journey took her through uncharted wilderness, down swift rivers and over gruelling portages. When she reached Ungava Bay on Labrador’s Arctic coast, she had covered some 600 miles in just over two months. Even though a century has passed since then, only half a dozen other people have accomplished
the same feat.

What’s more, Mina Benson’s journey was one that her husband had attempted only two years before. Unlike hers, his expedition ended in disaster – in fact, it cost him his life. His reputation sullied by his failure, it was left to Mina to pick up where he left off, to complete the mission and clear her husband’s name.

Mina’s expedition across Labrador is a long way from the Irish potato famine, but that is where her family story begins. In the wake of the worst privations Ireland had ever known, seven Benson siblings – five boys, two girls, some in their 20s, some still little kids – immigrated to Cobourg in 1846: by themselves. It isn’t known, but it is presumed their parents perished in the famine. Ultimately, one of the brothers moved to Australia and another later died at sea, but of the boys who survived and remained in the area, three – James, John and George – came to own farms along Cold Creek in the northwest corner of Hamilton Township, just south of Rice Lake. Their two sisters married locally as well. By 1870 when Mina was born, there were so many descendants in the Bewdley area that almost every neighbourhood family had a Benson connection and even today, the name still adorns any number of local mailboxes. Benson Road, a sideroad that runs parallel to Highway 28 near Bewdley, commemorates them and the nearby intersection at Cavan Road and County Road 9 is known as Benson’s Corners.

One descendant grew up to be Dr. Harry Benson, who practised from a big Edwardian house that still stands on the Walton Street hill in downtown Port Hope. (Until very recently, it was known as “Dr. Benson’s Apartments.”) Another was Edgar Benson, Mina’s nephew, whose career in politics culminated as finance minister in Pierre Trudeau’s first government in 1968. But the first Benson to gain acclaim was Mina herself, a daughter of James and sixth of his eight children.

Interestingly, little has been uncovered from her childhood to suggest that one day Mina would become a wilderness explorer. In fact, the opposite would seem to be true, considering that she was raised in the Bible Christian faith, a branch of Methodism whose focus was hard work, self-sacrifice and a devotion to farm life. The denomination would eventually merge with more mainstream Methodists but in Mina’s early years, the local Bible Christians were a fundamentalist group who looked askance at such things as leisure pursuits and higher learning. Exploring the wilderness was the last thing on their minds. But if nothing else, growing up under such a strict doctrine likely contributed toMina’s strong work ethic, which would come in handy when fortune found her shooting the rapids on the rushing George River in northern Labrador.

One biographer noted that even at 30 years-old, Mina was timid and indecisive. But she must have had some sense of adventure and a lot of chutzpah, for in 1897, Mina made the huge leap from the familiar. Leaving life as a Bewdley schoolmarm behind, she went to work as a nurse in New York City. It proved a fateful move in more ways than one, for it was while on nursing duty that she met a 29-year-old typhoid patient named Leonidas Hubbard Jr. The longer he convalesced, the more she fell head over heels in love with him. The couple was married in 1901.

By all accounts, Leonidas, whom Mina called “Laddie,” was a likeable guy, bursting with good humour
and boundless enthusiasm. A confident outdoorsman, he was eager to make a living as a travel writer and had already sold some of his adventure stories to The Saturday Evening Post and The Atlantic Monthly before he and Mina met. He would soon land a plum job as managing editor of Outing, a magazine dedicated to the great outdoors, exotic locales and sporting adventures. But in the meantime, while regaining his health, he told Mina of his boyhood dream to trek through Labrador, a place he described as the only corner of the North American continent that had yet to be charted and explored. He longed to be the first white man to map the unknown territory, meet the indigenous people and observe the migrations of the caribou.

Hubbard also told his dream to Dillon Wallace, a lawyer some ten years his senior. They met during Hubbard’s convalescence at the hospital, where Wallace’s wife lay gravely ill.When she died,Wallace credited Hubbard for pulling him through his grief with his camaraderie and compassion. The two men became fast friends and it wasn’t long before Hubbard’s love of the outdoors rubbed off. He and Wallace spent many off-hours camping in upstate New York until one day Hubbard asked him if he’d like to make the trek through Labrador with him. He was about to make his boyhood dream come true. And Outing magazine was committed to buying the story.

Wallace had doubts, but soon succumbed to Hubbard’s enthusiasm as plans unfolded. The expedition would cover more than 600 miles, commencing at a trading post on Grand Lake in the southern interior (now accessible by road, just north of present- day Happy Valley, Goose Bay). The voyageurs would paddle quickly up to the head of the lake, where they would find an outlet to the Naskaupi River. This would lead them upstream to Lake Michikamau, a lake that has since been submerged behind the gigantic Churchill Falls hydro-electric dams, but at the time marked the high point of the watershed. From there, the rivers led due north to the Arctic. Most of the trip would be by canoe, but there would be plenty of exhausting portages and other obstacles. Of course, they hired a guide – George Elson, a half-Cree outdoorsman who was more experienced at living off the land – but the most important aspect of the plan was that the journey would begin in July. Indeed, summers arenotoriously short in Labrador and the adventurers would have to work fast if they were to cover so much ground before freeze-up.

Mina had accompanied her husband on several of his camping expeditions, where he had demonstrated ample outdoors skills with her, but she was secretly worried about the Labrador trip. She tried to tell herself that it was just misplaced resentment at the prospect of being separated from Hubbard for so long. But something nagged at her: Was this trip simply too ambitious even for an experienced camper like her husband? Did the three explorers have enough supplies? Was the planned route too vague? Would the weather hold? She had to bite her tongue even as she accompanied the voyageurs on the steamship that took them from New York to Newfoundland. And as she bade them good-bye at their starting point, she returned home to New York wondering if she had seen her Laddie for the last time.

Mina’s instincts were right.

The official telegram didn’t arrive until January, but Mina had already assumed the worst. Summer had passed without a word from the expedition and the longer the silence lasted, the more she realized her worst fears were true. Very early in the journey, the trio of explorers took a wrong turn off Grand Lake and spent an inordinate amount of time on an overland search for the Naskaupi River. The weather took a nasty turn and supplies ran out fast. It was October and they were reduced to eating shoe leather. Hubbard’s stamina failed first, but Wallace and Elson weren’t far behind. Desperate and near starvation, the men left Hubbard at camp to rest; then Elson went off to search for help while Wallace hiked toward a cache of flour that the group had left a few miles behind them.

When Elson returned, leading a group of natives to the rescue, he first encountered Wallace, cold, delirious and wandering aimlessly, his feet wrapped in rags. Barely functioning, he had found the cache, but was so confused that he couldn’t find his way back to camp. Elson followed his tracks in the snow  only to discover that Wallace had missed Hubbard by a matter of yards. But it was too late. Hubbard had succumbed to exposure and starved to death.

Mina got most of the story from Elson, to whom she was eternally thankful for his heroic efforts to save her husband. Of course, she took the news hard, and as if being widowed at age 33 wasn’t enough, she had to endure the criticism of armchair quarterbacks who immediately questioned Hubbard’s preparations and abilities in print. But it was Wallace who disturbed her most. His version of events seemed to change on a whim and she began to suspect he was taking more credit than he deserved at Hubbard’s expense.

Perhaps it was all a big misunderstanding, amplified by grief, but Mina’s relationship with Wallace was quickly damaged beyond repair. In a letter to his sister, Wallace intimated that he was not nearly as close to death as first reported. Mina thought this was blatant self-aggrandizement, but was he merely just sparing his sister’s feelings? When Mina asked him to write an account of the voyage, she was puzzled at Wallace’s descriptions. Was it a slight for him to mention that Hubbard nearly crashed the canoe while Wallace and Elson manoeuvred the rapids swiftly? Or was Wallace just reporting the facts? Likewise, was it fair to describe Hubbard as a “boy,” a term Wallace insisted was merely an affectionate acknowledgement of their age difference? And why, Mina asked, would he refer to Hubbard as a “walking skeleton” during those final days, when the others had fared only slightly better?

With a lawyer’s mind, Wallace took a journalistic approach to his account of the voyage, but Mina couldn’t understand why he would judge Hubbard in any way. After all, this just gave the press more excuses to fan the flames of doubt over Hubbard’s abilities. Moreover,Mina was probably more than a little resentful that her husband perished while Wallace survived. Whatever the case, she reached the boiling point when Wallace announced that Outing magazine was keen to have him return to Labrador in 1905 to complete the expedition. Mina was so enraged that she promptly announced that if anyone was going to honour her husband’s legacy, it would be her. And with that, she recruited Elson and three more experienced Labrador guides and decided to embark on the same trip herself.

And thus, two groups of explorers set off on two separate journeys…from the same starting point… on the same day…in search of the same goal. Each crew ignored the other, but they were acutely aware that the stakes were high. This was definitely a grudge match.

This was Wallace’s second expedition over the same ground, and only slightly less harrowing than the first. His crew spent more time looking for the trappers’ trail to Lake Michikamau than on it, which put them dangerously behind schedule. For a time, food was strictly rationed and Wallace’s mind must have flashed back to the last desperate days he spent with Hubbard. Some of the crew turned back, but nevertheless, he eventually arrived at Ungava just as the weather turned ugly.

Wallace had no idea if Mina was ahead of him or behind him. For all he knew, her mission was a total
failure. We can only imagine his reaction when, upon finally arriving at the small trading post on the northern coast, he learned that Mina was already there, patiently waiting for the next steamboat back to civilization. In fact, she had been there a long while, having beaten him by a good six weeks.

Indeed, Mina had won the unofficial race – by far. Her voyage had gone like clockwork, thanks to the
exceptional navigational skills of Elson and the rest of her crew. As if taking a cue from gondoliers on a Venice canal, they were not only expert paddlers, but also handy with a bargepole and would manoeuvre upstream through surging rapids rather than portage. Mina remarked on how much her guides revelled at the challenge. They were expert hunters and with Hubbard’s disaster in mind, they had packed more provisions than they would need. Even so, the trek wasn’t easy, with plenty of bushwhacking and a couple of close calls on the rushing rivers. But for Mina, the most difficult leg came early while still on Grand Lake, when Elson pointed out the fateful wrong turn that had eventually cost Hubbard his life. Her mood turned melancholic and contemplative.

At first, Mina felt more like a passenger than a participant until she insisted the men put aside their Victorian gallantry and allow her to do more than mend socks and sketch in her journal. Mina never pretended to be much of a paddler, but she soon found her place, scouting routes with the men and developing a sisterly camaraderie with her guides. It took the better part of two months for them to cover the first 300 miles upstream to the height of land at Lake Michikamau, but fortunately, it was all downhill from there. Indeed, going with the current, the second half of the journey took a mere two weeks. As Mina gazed over the broad vistas across the Labrador landscape, she finally understood why Laddie had been so enchanted by such a wild place. She understood the thrill of seeing one of the last unspoiled territories in North America. Hubbard would have loved to have seen the vast herds of caribou and as the crew paddled further north, he would have taken as much delight as Mina did when they encountered bands of nomadic natives. But that was the rub. Mina had never felt closer to her husband and yet Hubbard, of course, was gone. By all accounts, her voyage was a triumph, but at a personal level, her victory was bittersweet because nothing could bring her Laddie back.

EPILOGUE

Both Mina and Wallace wrote books on their voyages and went on to a certain amount of fame on the lecture circuit in North America and Britain. In print or in their speeches, neither ever mentioned the other.

Wallace eventually abandoned his legal career and became a full-time adventurer and author, and went on to write another 27 books. Meanwhile, Mina kept in touch with Elson, but her life took a new turn when, on the lecture circuit in England in 1908, she met and married a man named Harold Ellis, son of an MP. By then, Mina was almost 40, but they started a family. They had three children before the couple divorced in 1926.

Mina never returned to Bewdley, at least not full time, and lived the rest of her life in England. She died under tragic circumstances in her eighties in 1956, when frail and weakened by dementia, she was hit by a passing train.

When we think of female adventurers of earlier times, thoughts turn to Amelia Earhart (the pioneer aviator who disappeared over the Pacific in 1937) or perhaps Nelly Bly (who, in 1899, defied the 80-day record and went around the world in 72). Indeed, Mina Benson Hubbard may not be a household name any more, but she continues to surface every now and then. Her memoir, first published in 1908, was reprinted in 1981 (with a foreword by none other than Pierre Berton) and again in 2004. In Newfoundland and Labrador, she is a folk hero, revered for her groundbreaking work at mapping the interior. And only last year, CBC-Radio reported that two adventurers retracing her path through Labrador stumbled upon a cork-stopped apothecary bottle that is thought to have been discarded by Mina’s party.

Bewdley remembers Mina well. Aside from Joseph Scriven, the man who wrote What a Friend We Have In Jesus, she is probably the rural neighbourhood’s most famous offspring. Most of the locals know her story, especially anyone with branches in the Benson family tree, and there is a plaque on the Cavan Road in front of the farm on which she grew up. In 2005, Mina’s grandsons visited from England and were interviewed in the local paper.

Anyone hearing the story for the first time is amazed that an ordinary girl from Bewdley led such an extraordinary life. Invariably, they say her story would make a good movie. If Hollywood were to adapt it, her tale would probably be told with a large dose of feminism, because by today’s standards, this would seem to be such an obvious component in Mina’s quest. But truth to tell, there is little in her writings to suggest Mina had a bone to pick with those who assumed a woman’s place was not in the canoe. Indeed, her mission was not to prove herself, but arose out of love and devotion to her husband. This alone speaks volumes about her character and loyalty.

MORE ON MINA BENSON

A Woman’s Way Through Unknown Labrador, Mina Hubbard, 1908

With no mention of her nemesis, Dillon Wallace, Mina’s first-hand account of her journey through the Labrador interior doesn’t tell the whole story. Moreover, Mina’s prose is full of Victorian reserve. Still, her book is from the heart, but the truly poignant moments are the excerpts from her husband’s diary, written in the days before he died.

The Lure of the Labrador Wild, Dillon Wallace, 1905

This account of the failed Hubbard expedition is the book that caused the lifelong rift between Wallace and Mina. It became a national bestseller and established Wallace as an explorer and adventurer. His second book, The Long Labrador Trail (1907), documents his more successful return to Labrador, but there is no mention of Mina.

Heart So Hungry, Randall Silvis, 2005

Based on research from all available sources, this is a highly readable and balanced work that attemptsto tell the whole story. Probably the best introduction to the Mina Benson story for the casual reader.

The Woman Who Mapped Labrador, Roberta Buchanan, Bryan Green & Anne Hart, 2009

Mina finally gets the full journalistic and scholarly treatment in this thorough, in-depth volume. It’s the only book that elaborates on her family history and childhood days in Bewdley.

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