Investigating a Wilderness Mystery in Labrador
Like a lot of Canadians, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than out paddling some remote river far from any roads or tramping over hills deep in the backcountry. But when I can’t be in the wild, I enjoy reading historic exploration and fur trade records. These first-hand accounts offer a fascinating glimpse into past lives that were filled with hardships, but also a closeness to the land and rhythms of the seasons. They frequently feature stories of hunting game and backbreaking portages mingled with getting lost in the woods or swamping in rapids, or even hard winters that sometimes led to starvation and horrible, gruesome choices. But maybe most intriguing of all are the occasional references to legends of unknown things—things that were believed to lurk in the deepest woods or mountains.
Personally, I’ve always taken this aspect with a grain of salt. At least, that was my feeling until I came across some accounts from Labrador—a wild land of mystery and legend if ever there was one. In the early 1900s, an isolated trade post called Traverspine near Labrador’s Mealy Mountains bore witness to some extraordinary events.
Strange tracks turned up that no one could identify—not even seasoned trappers who spent their lives in the woods. Unusual cries were heard in the night. Sled dogs went missing. Children reported being stalked by a terrifying grinning animal that looked like “a huge hairy man” with a white mane or blaze across the top of its head. Families slept with cabin doors barred and axes and guns at their bedsides. The eye-witness accounts were detailed, and those who reported them included no less than three medical doctors and a wildlife biologist—all of whom were utterly baffled. The sightings and tracks lasted for several winters.
As I studied these accounts, despite my normal skepticism, I found it hard to entirely dismiss them. It seemed clear that something must have happened there for so many people to have been convinced by it. But the skeptical side of me felt there had to be a logical explanation.
I wondered if it might have been a case of mistaken identity. Perhaps a musk-ox? They are certainly large, weird-looking animals with a whitish coloured-fur around the top of their heads. They aren’t normally found that far south in Labrador, so the sudden appearance of one—especially in the dark or thick brush when it might not have been recognized—could have sparked the legend. But on the other hand, that wouldn’t explain missing sled dogs.
I thought of other possibilities—could a polar bear suffering from mange have wandered in from the coast? Beneath their white fur, polar bears have black skin, so a starving one whose fur had fallen out would look quite unrecognizable, and if it were desperate, it might well hunt and kill huskies or children.
The local trappers, however, were firmly convinced the creature was something supernatural: a demon. Given how vast Labrador’s wilderness is—hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of windswept mountains, primeval forest, and desolate tundra that sees few human visitors, it’s not hard to imagine why they believed that. Even today Labrador’s population density works out to a minuscule 0.009 people per square kilometre. It remains a place where a person can wander for months without coming across another living soul—a lonely land that breeds mysteries.
Reading the old accounts I’d unearthed, I ultimately made up my mind to pack my bag and head for Labrador’s mountains to search for the ruins of the old ghost settlement where the sightings occurred. After what proved a gruelling wilderness canoe adventure, I think I may have unravelled this strange mystery. The story of what I found is told in full in my new book, The Whisper on the Night Wind: The True History of a Wilderness Legend.
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