The Lady's Not for Turning
The Extraordinary Story of Mina Hubbard
By Tamia Nelson
November 12, 2002
Some of my happiest hours have been spent in
library basements. Dark, dank, and neglected, they often house unexpected
treasures: government reports describing the natural history of remote
regions, bound volumes of nineteenth-century magazines, old books slated
for "weeding" (librarians prefer to call this "de-accessioning")
What with one thing and another, trips into these dusty catacombs are
always fascinating. Many turn into voyages of exploration among forgotten
literary landscapes, with every shelf promising something newand
On one such expedition a few years back, I spotted bound volumes of
Harper's Monthly Magazine. Here was a find, indeed! Though not
known as a sporting periodicaltoday's Harper's takes its job
as a guardian of high culture very seriouslyits
turn-of-the-(last)-century counterpart occasionally printed articles about
canoeing and kayaking. Ever hopeful, I lost no time in trying my luck. I
reached for the volume stamped "1906."
Fortune favors the bold. I slowly turned the pages of the big book,
until, in the May number, I came to an article entitled "My Explorations
in Unknown Labrador." That sounds promising, I thought. And then my eye
caught the by-line: Mina B. Hubbard. Mina. A woman's name.
A woman explorer? In Labrador? In 1906? That was something I just had
to read, and I did. What I found was a simple, unadorned tale of an
extraordinary canoe trip. But while her tale may have been simply told,
Mina Hubbard's expedition through "unknown Labrador" lacked none of the
elements of a good thriller. A simple tale, yes. But a tale of courage,
loyalty, determination, and joy. Well worth a trip into the catacombs of
the library to find. And like many extraordinary journeys, Mina's had its
roots in tragedy. In 1903, two years before she arrived in the Hudson Bay
Company's Northwest River Post on Lake Melville, her husband and two
companions set out to
explore and map
the two large unknown rivers of the
[;] to witness the annual caribou
; to visit
the Nascaupee Indians
; and to secure
of being the first after [Hudson's Bay Company trader John]
McLean to cross the six hundred miles of unexplored wilderness lying
between Hamilton Inlet and Ungava Bay.
It was a bold program, to be sure, even if the "unexplored wilderness"
Mina's husband was hoping to "be [among] the first to cross" was regularly
traveled by Native hunters and trappers. But that wasn't the worst
disappointment in store for him. An unhappy conspiracy of poor maps, bad
judgement, and worse luck sent the first Hubbard Expedition up the wrong
river, and for Mina's husband it proved to be the River of No Return. He
died alone in his tent on the Susan River sometime after October 18, 1903.
His companions were more fortunate. They survivedjust.
Almost two years later, on June 27, 1905, Mina watched the Northwest
River Post fade into the distance behind her canoe. She was determined to
finish the job her husband had left undone, and her tenacity was rewarded.
Exactly two months to the day after she left Northwest River Post, Mina
and four companions, including a "Scotch Indian" named George Elson who
had accompanied her husband, all of them traveling in two canoes, settled
onto the mud opposite the Company post on the George River estuary, where
they waited for the turn of the tide. Ungava Bay lay just to the west.
They had no farther destination. The second Hubbard Expedition had
achieved its ultimate north.
Of course, Mina's accomplishment amounted to little more than a
footnote in the history of exploration. True, she'd put much of Labrador
"on the map," and demonstrated conclusively that the "Northwest River"
shown on an earlier survey by A.P. Low was a fiction. (The search for that
will-o'-the-wisp had contributed to the failure of her husband's
expedition and his subsequent death.) But none of this amounted to much in
the larger scheme of things. Early maps of the Canadian North were
crisscrossed with non-existent or misplaced rivers. And other travelers
would soon have corrected the error even if Mina had stayed at home in New
York. Indeed, her husband's second surviving companion, New York lawyer
Dillon Wallace, left the Northwest River Post on the same day Mina did,
also headed north. He made it all the way to the George River Post, too,
though he arrived eight weeks after Mina. Whatever the fate of Mina and
her party, therefore, "unknown Labrador" wouldn't have remained unknown
Nor could Mina lay claim to extraordinary feats of physical endurance.
As was true of many nineteenth-century explorers, she neither wielded a
paddle nor hauled on a line. Whenever her men portaged the canoes and
gear, she walked the hills unburdened, encumbered only by an ankle-length
skirtworn over knickersand a "long Swedish dogskin coat."
What, then, did she do? She led. Her sextant established her party's
position on the map. Her revolver established her authority. The sextant
saw frequent use, but the revolver remained in its holster. Mina
apparently had the knack of command, and in George Elson she had an ideal
subordinate. There was never any threat of mutiny.
This is remarkable in itself. At a time when European women were rare
visitors to the Norththe wife of the trader at the George River Post
greeted her by saying, "Mrs. Hubbard, yours is the first white woman's
face I have seen for two years!"Mina undertook to lead a party of
men across a blank space on the map that had already claimed her husband's
life. And she succeeded. From beginning to end, her tale is marked by
competence, good planning, and realistic expectations. There are no
histrionics and no self-pitying asides. At the same time, though, Mina
avoided the romantic hyperbole that mars so many expedition narratives.
Instead, she frankly described the many hardships and discomforts of
Here the flies and mosquitoes were awful. It made me shiver just to
feel them creeping over my hands, not to speak of their bites. Nowhere on
the whole journey had we found them so thick
. It was good to escape
into the tent.
A small matter? Yes. But anyone who's ever traveled through the
Canadian subarctic during "fly time" can attest that swarms of biting
flies and other miseries can erode the resolve of even the most determined
paddler. Mina never permitted such things to defeat her, though. The
harrowing paragraph just quoted is followed immediately by this simple
statement: "Next morning I arose early." Mina obviously wasn't a woman who
gave up easily, and that was a very good thing. There was much worse to
come. Not long after starting down the George River, Mina happened on a
Montagnais camp. Only women and children welcomed her, however. The men
were away, trading for supplies. Winter was coming soon, the women
explained. And then an unexpected blow fell: Mina was told she had another
two months' journey ahead of her.
It was the worst possible news. Mina had not planned to over-winter in
the North, and now she faced a terrible choice. Accept the well-meaning
warnings of of the Montagnais women, whose local knowledge she was in no
position to challenge, or trust to her sextant and map, a map which she
herself had to correct as she traveled. There was no third way. She must
either turn back and hope to get out before winter overtook herthe
very same decision that had killed her husbandor continue on into
the unknown. Forced to choose, Mina chose to believe in herself, her map,
and her sextant. So the two canoes continued down the river, and ten days
later they beached on the tidal mud. Mina knew then that she'd completed
the journey her husband had begun.
There's a lesson here for all of us, I suppose, women and men alike.
The world has always been full of frightened people, anxious to lumber
others with their fears. Take my father, for example. His outdoor
experience was limited to one sleepless night spent at a state campsite
with flush toilets. But that didn't stop him from recoiling with horror
when he learned of my early interest in climbing and canoeing. Experience
be damned! My father knew what lurked in the wild dark, just
outside the white circle of the streetlights. Terrible things. Dangerous
beasts. Unspeakable horrors. So he put his foot down, hard, and planted it
right on my dreams. At first, I tried to make him see things as I did, but
when this effort failed, I gave it up as a bad job. I heard my father out,
and then I went my own way. In the end, I lost a father, but I gained a
whole new world in exchange. It was a better bargain than I'd dared to
Perhaps that's why I like Mina Hubbard's story so much. It's a simple
tale, simply told. A story of courage, determination, and loyalty.
Anticipating another resolute woman who came after her and put her
thoughts into wordsthough in a very different contextMina met
the disheartening litany of well-intentioned nay-sayers with an unvoiced
yet unmistakable reply: "You turn if you want, but the lady's not
for turning." The rest is history.
You don't have to search through the musty volumes in a
library basement to find Mina's story. In 1985, Castle (a division of Book
Sales, Inc., of Secaucus, New Jersey), reprinted "My Explorations in
Unknown Labrador"and many more nineteenth- and early
twentieth-century articles, besidesin a handy volume entitled
Tales of the Canadian Wilderness. The book's out of print now, but
it's well worth a trip to a used-book seller to find a copy.
Copyright © 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights