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A Labrador Tale of Wooden Boats and Iron Men

Updated: Mar 31, 2022

It was the day after I got off the Northern Ranger, one of two ferries that provide transportation to the small communities on the remote Labrador coast. We had just finished a canoe trip where we spent thirty-three days in the bush, paddling dangerous rapids and across huge ominous lakes, over two hundred miles from the nearest dirt road. We tracked up river and portaged endlessly, trails nonexistent. We navigated with compasses, we survived on fish, bannock, and wild goose, we endured relentless black flies, a charging bear, and fought through hunger and pain many a time— a hard trip by today’s standards. We felt we were as tough as they come, that we had emerged out of this trip as true frontiersmen. But that perspective was about to change.

The Trans Labrador Highway is a long, lonely gravel road. An eight-hour drive from Happy Valley-Goose Bay to Labrador City, it intersects with the gravel Highway 389, the only road connecting Labrador with the rest of the country. The two roads meet in Labrador City, which is where we left our truck following a twenty-four-hour drive from Southern Ontario. Near Labrador City we caught a train and thundered our way north on the steel rail into the wilderness of Northern Quebec, where our group of four began our canoe trip. After thirty-three days of paddling and portaging, we boarded The Northern Ranger in Hopedale, Labrador for a four-day sailing of the Labrador coast. The logistics of the trip saw us disembark the ferry in Happy Valley-Goose Bay at the mouth of the Churchill River where Joe Goudie awaited us.

Joe is a large and strongly built Labradorean, and is well known in the Labrador and beyond. In his seventy-four years he has served with the Air Force, and the RCMP. He was a CBC radio personality, and he was also elected to the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial house where he held three posts, including Minister of Fisheries. In addition, he is a renowned wood canvas canoe builder and a Labrador guide. Joe is somewhat of a legend in that region but with his humble nature you would never learn it from him. He adheres from native Cree and Scottish blood; his grandmother, a James Bay Cree, and his Grandfather, an Orkney man who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, walked to the Labrador from Ontario together long before there were roads. Joe speaks with a deep, calm and commanding voice that garners respect and draws you in to his words.

Perhaps on top of his hardworking family lineage, some of Joe’s success comes from the return of his natural generosity. I was having trouble finding a person in Happy Valley- Goose Bay to drive the sixteen-hour round trip to drop us off at our truck in Lab City. Joe did it despite the significant inconvenience just because he saw I was in a pickle. In fact, many people we encountered in town were very friendly; it seems the name of the place is rather matter of fact.

I was hoping that on the long drive Joe would share some of the experiences he picked up over his years in the Labrador. We seemed to have gained Joe’s respect by completing the canoe trip we had just endured. We offered some stories from our trip, and after we covered all the most notable points—taking no shame in deliberating on our suffering during the especially gruelling parts of the expedition—we asked him if he had any stories of his own. Nonchalantly he said he did. And then, as we sat there in anticipation, he began to talk.

“It was late summer, somewhere near the end of the 1930’s. Times were tough so my brother Horace and my dad had an idea for a make work project. You know what make work projects are nowadays? Well, this was a make work project for those days. Horace, who was about eighteen at the time, and Dad made a deal with ten trappers—they would travel into the trapping country and bring back their canoes for $20 apiece; $200 was a lot of money back then. This was a good deal for the trappers because it meant they didn’t have to build a new canoe that season. You see, in those days, before the dam[1], the trappers would build their own canoes and travel up the Grand River[2] for about 500 miles (804 km) and then portage thirty miles into the trapping country where they would spend the winter. Then they would leave their trap lines and canoe behind to head home before break-up, traveling by snowshoe with a dog or two to help pull some of their outfit and furs. They would wrap some of their gear in a seal skin, tie it up and attach it to the dog’s harness. The smooth fur on the seal skin would act as a sled that wouldn’t tip over or get caught on rocks and trees. Before they left to go into the country the next season, they would build another canoe. Back then, no one went out and bought a canoe, they built it; there was always a canoe being built when I was growing up.

So, Horace and Dad left and made their way up the river, and after the long carry, while they were collecting the canoes, they came across an Indian family with a small child. The woman was pregnant. It was very odd to see anyone in that country at that time of year. They had no shells for their rifle and their only means of getting food was a worn out fish net that was only about a yard long. Because my dad and Horace knew how to speak some Naskapi, they were able to communicate with the family. The man told them he was wanted by the RCMP in Mud Lake for a murder that he did not commit, and when he heard they were after him he quickly made his way deep into the bush with his family. The family didn’t have time to make it out of the country before winter and they didn’t want to either because they were scared of being arrested. So, Horace and my father gave them their last six rounds and all the food they had. They knew there were trapper cabins back on the Grand River with some food they could borrow.

On empty stomachs, Dad and Horace portaged eleven boats over the thirty mile carry[3]. Horace said they were like bears—when they got hungry they would stop at a berry patch and eat. Once back on the Grand River, they made a raft out of all the canoes by tying five together side by side and then laid four more on top; they towed the tenth canoe behind the raft and towed all of them with their canoe. They got down all the rapids but they lost one canoe on the trip. When they told the one trapper they had lost his canoe, he sure was mad.

It wasn’t long before they had to make the trip back to the trap line with their winter supplies. They brought basic supplies with them. Flour, baking soda, sugar, tobacco; of course, back then they smoked a pipe, tea, molasses, and a few other things. Later that winter Horace heard moccasins in the snow outside his cabin and he saw some Indians carrying heavy loads. Well, it turns out that they were carrying caribou meat to leave as a gift; they were friends of the family Horace and Dad helped in summer and they told Horace more of the story.

After the man got the ammo that Horace and Dad left, he focused on hunting. He thought there may be some caribou on the other side of a hill not too far away. He crept over the hill and sure enough there were, so with the six shells he had, he lined up two caribou on his first shot and got both of them. With the caribou on the move he was able to get five more animals[4]. Now his family had enough meat to survive the winter and enough hides to make winter clothing.

Later on in Mud Lake, Horace heard that in the end, the RCMP did not want to charge the man for murder, they just wanted to question him – it was all a misunderstanding. Can you imagine all that for just a misunderstanding?”

With Joe’s story over, I recapped the journey that had been described to us, impressed by its magnitude: “So they snowshoe about 530 miles back to town when they left their trapping grounds. Then, in the summer, they headed back up river and back over the portage, returning with eleven canoes to paddle back home; only to leave again shortly and return to their trap lines?” When Joe nodded, I continued, “This means each of them traveled over two thousand miles (3,218 km) in a period of roughly eight months?” Joe’s answer – “Yup, there were no fat people back then”. Just to put it into perspective, two thousand miles is about the distance from New York City to San Francisco.

With the brutal labor endured, one could think that Horace and his father were slaves to their lifestyle and would have left it in a heartbeat if other employment opportunities arose. To the contrary, Horace made it very clear that there was no life he loved more, as illustrated in his autobiography “Trails to Remember”, which chronicles his life of freedom and adventure trapping in the Labrador.

Many people of his time and before achieved similar feats on a regular basis, it was almost commonplace, in fact. My conditioning, along with the mental fortitude I exerted on our trip, was nothing in comparison. A deeper respect for those in past times who lived a life like this resonated in me. Physical condition is a huge part of what makes these feats possible, but it’s also what’s in your head. Things that seemed tough when I began undertaking expeditionary canoe trips were harder to me when I started pushing my boundaries, even at times when I was in better shape. Paddling 30 km (18mi) in a day was a chore—now; a hard day is twice that. It is stories like this one that inspire me to push on when times are tough and to search out challenging trips for the future. The accomplishment I feel after completing a trip that challenges me on many levels is huge. I don’t think I have ever felt as happy and satisfied as I did after this trip, which is the most difficult I have done to date. Horace was a truly happy person, and I suppose the old adage “nothing worth doing is ever easy” applies here. I find that it is moments on trips like this that are among the richest in life.

To hear the story straight from Joe while I was in Labrador gave it special meaning and connotation for me because it validated it on a very authentic level, especially after completing an amazing journey of my own. A large part of me wishes I had lived in those times and experienced that way of life. I wish I could accomplish the same feats and gain an understanding of a life lived close to nature like Horace Goudie and the family in his story. I spend much of my life searching for the freedom and knowledge that our natural World offers us and I am saddened that the times when people lived intimately with that freedom and knowledge as part of their livelihood have passed.

With Labrador City still hours away, I asked Joe how his brother was doing; Horace was eighty-nine years old when I was in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in 2011 (and has celebrated his ninetieth birthday since). Turns out while I was there, Horace was in the hospital for the first time in his life; Joe told me that when the doctor looked at the x-rays he was shocked to see the incredible thickness of Horace’s spine. It was like nothing he had ever seen. Joe figured it must have been from carrying all those heavy loads.

[1] Construction of the Churchill Falls Generating station was complete in 1974. The massive project created the Smallwood Reservoir which is over 4,055 square miles (6,527 km square). The reservoir flooded all of the Goudie’s trapping country and large tracts of sacred native land in return for little economic growth.

[2] The River was originally known as Mishtashipu by the Innu, which translated to La Grande Riviere or Grand River by English and French speaking settlers and traders. The river’s official name when Horace and Jim Goudie traveled it was the Hamilton River, named in 1821. It was changed in 1965 to Churchill River to honour the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

[3] If you include their gear, there were twelve trips to make over the long portage. This means that each man would have walked a total of 360 miles (579 km), half of that with a heavy canoe on his shoulders.

[4] Yes, he killed seven caribou with six shots.

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