Death in the Barren Ground
Death in the Barren Ground: The Story of John Hornby’s Last Journey
Broadcast 8.30 – 9.30, 3 March 1954, Trans Canada Wednesday Night
A transcription of the recording follows below.
DAY – CHIN – AWAY. No trees. That is the Indian name for the great expanse of tundra...more than half a million square miles...spread across North-Western Canada. Samuel Hearne named it the Barren Ground. It is a wilderness rather than a desert...
A few white men have travelled through that country. One man... John Hornby... was determined to learn how to live there. And he died there... of starvation... on April the 16th, 1927....
As part of CBC Wednesday Night... "Death in the Barren Ground"... by George Whalley--- the story of John Hornby's last journey, based, in part on the diary of Edgar Christian.
In the spring of 1926 John Hornby's party... three men and one canoe... left Fort Resolution and travelled to the site of Fort Reliance at the Eastern end of Great Slave Lake. On their way they met a group of trappers... one or two parties of Indians... and at the end of the Lake, a topographical survey party homeward bound. They were delayed for a time by heavy ice. Then, by the classic route of Pike's Portage, they entered Artillery Lake. After that there was silence....
Then in July, 1928 a party of geologists... led by Harry S. Wilson... came down the Thelon River by canoe on their way from Great Slave Lake to Hudson's Bay. About thirty-five miles below the junction of the Hanbury and Thelon Rivers... at a sharp double bend in the river... they came upon a log cabin. It stood well back from the north bank in a stand of spruce.
They beached their canoe and called out. There was no answer. As they walked up towards the cabin, they noticed two rifles standing by the door. To the right of the door, still covered with snow, were two bodies, apparently sewn in blankets. Inside, the cabin was derelict. The three small windows, covered with sacking, let in no light....
In their groping inspection they dislodged a third body, which fell from a bunk to what was left of the floor. The Wilson party left everything as it was an continued on their way to Chesterfield Inlet. When they arrived there in the autumn, they made a report to the Mounted Police. It was now too late in the season for them to get into the Thelon. After carefully preparing caches of stores, an R.C.M.P. patrol reached the cabin on the 25th of July, of the next year.
The three bodies, now skeletons, had not been touched since the Wilson party left. On top of the stove in the cabin was a piece of paper, badly damaged by the wet. But a few words could be deciphered....
Who ever comes here look in the stove.
Buried in the ashes of the stove, the police found some letters and papers... and a diary written by Edgar Christian. From the papers and the diary the bodies outside the cabin were identified as John Hornby and Harold Adlard. The body that had fallen from the bunk was Edgar Christian's. Christian was a few days short of his nineteenth birthday when he died.
John Hornby was an Englishman, the son of a famous all-England cricketer. As the youngest son, he was to have entered the diplomatic service. But in nineteen hundred and three he visited relatives in Edmonton, and fell under the spell of the Arctic. For the rest of his life, except for occasional visits to Ottawa on business and to England to see his family, he never left the North-West.
When Hornby died in the cabin on the Thelon River, he was forty-six years old. It is not unusual for a trapper to remain active, and fit for the trail, well into his seventies. But Hornby had never spared himself, and he had been severely wounded during the war. In 1925, with a Captain Critichell-Bullock, he wintered in a cave on the Barrens north-west of Ptarmigan Lake. The two men reached Hudson's Bay in the next summer, exhausted and starving. During the winter at least one alarming episode had shown Hornby that years of exertion and isolation had taken their toll. He had not remained in the Arctic merely to make his living as a trapper. He was haunted by the desolation, the emptiness, the danger, and by the great herds of caribou ebbing and flowing across the tundra. He was committed, soul and body to the Barren Ground.
After leaving Bullock, Hornby sailed from Hudson's Bay direct to England. He knew he would soon have to give up his life in the North-West, but he was determined to make one more journey. The problem was a travelling companion. Hornby was always exacting in his choice; and few men who had travelled with him were prepared to undertake a second journey. When he was visiting the members of his family, he went to see his first cousin--Anna Christian--in Wales, and there the problem was unexpectedly solved for him.
Edgar Christian, Anna's son, was seventeen at the time. There was a long tradition of adventure and foreign service behind him. Fletcher Christian, leader of the Bounty mutiny, was of the same family--substantial and influential people long established in Cumberland and Wales. Edgar's father--Colonel Christian--was a professional soldier with a distinguished record.
The boy had always admired his cousin Jack. He had just finished school and was thinking of going to South Africa. Then he came home at Christmas and John Hornby was there.
I have a photograph of him taken in the North--with a big black beard and masses of shaggy hair that looks as though he never combed it. I was a little frightened of him at first. But once you saw him, you couldn't feel very shy--he was so small--no more than five foot five or six. When he comes back to 'civilization' he never wears a beard; his hair is short and tidy and military-looking, and his clothes are neat but a little old-fashioned. His face is very brown, like a bit of old leather...and crow's feet to his eyes...and a funny loping way of walking. You feel he's terribly strong. He doesn't talk very much, and when he does it's as though he were talking to himself...and when he laughs, it's as though he were laughing to himself. His eyes are incredibly blue and direct...they have a funny way of settling on you suddenly, and not shifting at all. But you get used to that too... because he has a quiet way of talking, and gentle manners,.. and he's lots of fun. I think he's the finest man I've ever known.
It occurred to Hornby that Edgar would make a good travelling companion. The matter was settled at once. In April 1926 they sailed for Montreal in the Montrose... Hornby excited to be bound northward again, Edgar--a little homesick perhaps but proud to feel himself on the brink of a great adventure.
The friendship between the two steadily matured. Edgar's holiday mood was infectious. He was enchanted with Montreal: the wide streets, the pace of traffic... and the cafeterias, the Canadian women, Edgar thought, were different... more beautiful... they had an attractive way of dressing. Hornby, careful and courtly misogynist, had views of his own on this--as on most things.
It's French style, Edgar. That's what it is.
Well, whatever it is, I think it's very neat and tidy.
Ottawa next. Government officials to consult... old timers to delay them, and plans still not very definite. Edgar wrote home---
We go on to Edmonton and got fixed up to go out north and settle in for a winter's Trapping in the Great Slave Lake district. There are some men up there who are working for Jack and will bring supplies in to him if he needs them.
For some reason or other, the plan didn't develop along these lines. There were conflicting reports about the previous season's trapping; but this wouldn't deter Hornby... And everybody they met reassured Edgar Christian.
They all say that I'm with one of Canada's best men... that anybody who is with Jack Hornby can never go wrong.
The train journey to Winnipeg impressed Edgar very much... the size of the country, the vast expanses of forest... the prairie. Then, just before the middle of May--Edmonton, the starting point. The time was already late. Whatever preparations were made, had to be made quickly. They left the hotel in a great rush, on the 25th of May, and only just caught their train for the first stage North. By then the party had grown.
I forgot to tell you that the party now consists of three. There's another chap that Jack promised three years ago to take on a trip with him. We happened to run into him in Edmonton. He's Harold Adlard, about twenty-seven, and was in the Air Force in the war. Jack asked me if I minded him coming. I don't mind a bit, because he's a nice chap and will be more company. And that makes it so that I won't be the only greenhorn in camp.
From the end of the railway, they canoed 300 miles down the Athabascan River... sometimes there was heavy rain, sometimes strong winds, always mosquitoes. The 16-mile portage to Fort Smith was a welcome relief. Here, for the first time, Edgar saw what sort of man Hornby was on the trail.
Jack certainly is a walker. He said we wouldn't go too fast because he isn't the man he used to be and feels like taking life easy now. But he walked too fast for me; and I soon found I didn't know how to walk at all. I've met lots of trappers who've been on the trail with Jack; most of them won't go again, because he's too tough. But they like him more than any man.
The journey by canoe--from Fort Smith into Great Slave Lake and on towards Fort Reliance at the eastern end of the Lake-- gave Christian plenty to record... his first huskies, ducks on the wing, the whistle of loons. Arctic terns came silently out of the half-light and swooped at their heads--like skuas but with less murderous intent. Edgar caught several large trout-fourteen pounders--and his spirits weren't dashed when Hornby told him they were poor specimens. When they were weary with paddling, they rigged a sail. Edgar lay back in the sun, absorbed into the effortless silky passage of the canoe, and thought of his home, and wished he could share this moment of pure enjoyment.
One day, near Fort Reliance, they met four Swedish trappers travelling westward...and the day after, Blanchet's topographical party, also bound homeward. Edgar sent a final reassuring note to his parents.
Please don't get worried about me. I'm as safe as a house with Jack. After going on this trip with him, I shall be independent of any man.
But Hornby had never been into this part of the country with such tenuous provision. On his journey with Bullock two years before--to the same area--seven men had carried three and a half tons of stores over Pike's Portage into Artillery Lake... and they had maintained four camps to support the two men in their cave on the Barrens... most important of all--they'd had dogs--two teams of them... in winter they could range far in search of game, or travel rapidly for help. But on this trip, Hornby was taking few provisions... and no dogs.
In the North you can travel only with as much as you can carry over the portages. But the lighter you travel, the more time must you spend in search of food for mere existence. Hornby's instinct was always to travel light: he liked the cruel struggle for sheer survival.
Now he was travelling with a boy, and with a third man who was just old enough to be tough--a man handy with a rifle and used to looking after himself, but not an experienced Arctic traveller. Edgar Christian jotted down some impressions in a letter to his father which was never posted.
Jack is going into a part of the country that nobody else has ever trapped before--it's too hard to get in there with supplies, and most men are afraid to rely on the country. Jack is still the only one who can manage there: he can live off the land without any white-man's grub--or so everybody says. But, my word, you wouldn't guess we were travelling light. We have as much as the canoe can carry and the portages are going to be pretty tough--2000 rounds of ammunition, traps, a stove, bedding, tent, plenty of clothing, and enough grub to last till the winter comes. When it gets cold we'll kill lots of meat.
The upper Thelon lies across one of the great migratory routes of the caribou... it was made a game sanctuary in the year of Hornby's death. This is the country where Hornby felt most at home.
Twenty-three years... twenty-three years since I first went to Edmonton and started working into the North-West. It's a hard life, of course; but it suits me. Dangerous and exacting... Lonely certainly and... yes, I suppose it is rather unrewarding. But my head has gradually drifted up with all kinds of knowledge--the weather, and ice, the caribou, birds, different parts of the country. Someday I mean to write a book... I've started it several times, but something more interesting always seems to turn up.
I gradually worked farther and farther afield--from Great Slave, up to Coppermine with Father Rouvier, Great Bear, Coronation Gulf. We had a good winter in a warm cabin near Great Bear, and Douglas's party not far away for an occasional game of auction or chess. Rouvier stayed up there; the Eskimo killed him after I'd gone South. That was the year we went to the Dismal Lakes... and that's where I learned the fascination of the Barren Ground.
Old Hanbury didn't much like that name 'Barren Ground'. His book came out in... let's see... yes, nineteen four... rather jolly title too-- Sport and Travel in Northern Canada. "The so-called 'Barren Ground' is neither barren nor uninhabited; but the conditions of life within its borders are too severe for Europeans." But then, Hanbury was an explorer, a man of expeditions... always had designs on the country--to draw maps, or write about the Eskimo, or look for minerals, or extend the fur-trade. He never really lived in the Barrens. And that's what I was determined to do... and beat even the animals at their own game.
My country was Hanbury's country--east of Great Slave, but still well south of the Arctic Circle. It isn't a friendly place... there's no comfort there. Indians work the lower Thelon; but they have no stomach for wintering on the upper reaches where there are no trees. I can name on my fingers the men who've really penetrated beyond the timber. Most of it has never been seen by any man. I suppose I know it better than anybody... yet I've only seen threads of it.
The trees end at Artillery Lake. The timber doesn't straggle off... it just ends in a distinct line that cuts diagonally across the Lake. Beyond that, the Barrens... rolling sandy plains broken by soft ridges, scoured out in hard north-south striations, featureless, ground down by the glaciers into slashes of lake and muskeg. Water and no trees--but mostly under ice, because the summers are short. For a few weeks there are flowers, and game, and brilliant lichens... and flies and mosquitoes, of course. The winters are very long... and cold. There's no ocean near enough to temper the air. I've seen it go down to 80 below. There are no cabins, no trading-posts, no human beings. But in the season--and if you're lucky--there's plenty of game--caribou, foxes, ptarmigan. And the caribou--wonderful--thousands of them-- probably millions of them--at migration time, when they move out from the timber to the Barrens or back from the Barrens to the timber. I've seen tens of thousands of them in the open, and at the shallow river-crossings. At the narrow ford they may take hours to go by trotting in a solid mass--their eyes glazed, the air shaking with their funny gruntings, their hooves grinding the ice to a fine powder. There's no sight like it.
I'm jealous, I suppose... jealous of that country... jealous of any man who goes in there without me. That's why I'm so fussy about who I travel with. I suppose that's why I've never really tried to teach anybody what I know about it.
But then, its living in that country that I'm interested in--not getting to certain places, or drawing maps, or making scientific observations... and there isn't much you can teach anybody else about living. My life has been finding out how to eat when there's nothing to eat... finding game where there isn't any... crawling on hands and knees to find food when you aren't strong enough to stand up, and when your will to live has shrivelled away.
I don't know what starving is like in civilisation; I suppose you just die from lack of nourishment. In the Barrens, starvation is an intensely active process. You're more likely to die of exhaustion than of hunger. As your strength goes, you become more methodical and remorseless... a kind of creeping obsession entirely focussed on the need your body has for food... and you set about finding it with the ingenuity of a deliberate cold-blooded murderer. And yet you don't feel hungry, and you're terribly listless and absent-minded... you find yourself doing funny inconsequential things, and then you have to sit down and think things out for a long time. The great temptation is to go to sleep. It's the easiest thing in the world to lie down and die if you've been without food for a long time. Sleep is a terrible danger. Certainly there are nights when you must keep awake.
And the winter can do odd things to a man. I remember old Bullock was all ready to shoot himself one day just because he couldn't find his shadow on the snow. And there are long days when nothing happens more important--or less important--than finding a fox in a trap; and there's nothing more enlightening to talk about except that fox; and you go over and over the same thing until from exhaustion and boredom you say "Let's turn in now";... and you blow out the candle--if you're lucky enough to have one still--and drop asleep with the silence washing over your head. At first, the silence is much worse than the storm-winds. Sleep is a great barrier against the silence--that's why sleep is so dangerous. But after a time you get used to the silence... I've even come to love the silence.
Late in June 1926, the 20-foot square-sterned canoe, laden with three men and half a ton of stores, moved southerly away from the ruins of old Fort Reliance to the beginning of Pike's Portage. One record of the inward journey was left on the trail... a note in a cairn on the Casba River, meant for the 70-year-old trapper McCallum.
Travelling slowly. Flies bad. Shot a fat buck caribou. Hope to see you down the Hanbury this winter.
Beyond this, little would be known if Edgar Christian hadn't kept a diary.The first methodical entry is for October the 14th.
The party was then establishing itself in a derelict log cabin on the north bank of the Thelon River, about 35 miles below its junction with the Hanbury. The river takes a sharp double turn there... now called Hornby's Bend.
It's difficult to guess what they had been doing in the four months since they were on Artillery Lake, the direct journey need not have taken more than two or three weeks. They had evidently been on the Thelon for some time, living in a tent. But by the middle of October the first snow had fallen. In the intervals of hunting and trapping, they rebuilt the cabin...made a roof, built a porch, banked up the exposed side against the North winds, and built a small log storehouse. They fitted bunks and mended the door, and began to lay the floor... but on December the 2nd--a windless day and 37 below--the floor was still not finished.
When the diary begins, they had recently killed a caribou. A prime buck runs about 300 pounds... they had not yet packed all the meat in. Beyond the trees that sheltered the cabin, and to the North, lay the Barrens. Here the caribou would range when the weather and snow were right.
18th of October. Jack returned in the evening with the glad news of seeing 30 caribou on a distant ridge behind the camp, so tomorrow we all go out in a last effort to get the winter's grub.
We all started out early to see if caribou were grazing still on the ridge, but saw nothing.
Hornby, then, had defied the immemorial custom of the North... he had not laid in his winter's meat in September. They had one caribou, two live foxes, a stock of fish and fish-bait; also the flour, sugar and tea brought in by canoe. Hornby had established a small cache higher up the Thelon, about 15 miles away. It was not plentifully stocked--but something to fall back on when they had to hunt more than a half day's travel from the cabin. Hornby was not worried. He had studied the caribou... he had inexhaustible patience.
In the last 17 days of October--with rifles, traps and nets--they took 1 fox, 2 weasels, a wolverine, a Whisky Jack, and some mice. From the end of October Christian wrote nothing in his diary till the November the 21st... They must have been lean days. For awhile the whole party had been hunting from the upriver cache... and had already covered a large area.
On the 25th it was 15 below, with a strong wind... Hornby managed to rig a net in the willows by the river to catch ptarmigan. Two days later they took stock.
Jack dug up what fish we have left--60 in all. This will last 2 weeks... and then, if we have no meat, we will be in a bad way. Harold made a pack of cards which will help us to pass the evenings away... but I wish to goodness there was no time for cards.
They were taking too little game near the cabin. Hornby decided to hunt from the upriver cache again. He and Adlard set off, leaving Christian in the cabin--his first taste of complete winter solitude.
2nd of December. Cut wood in the morning and put down floorboards in the afternoon. No birds and no fresh tracks. The place seems very desolate and I certainly feel lonely by myself. But I can always find lots of odd jobs to do. Temperature 37 below.
3rd of December. It blew hard all day and the snow drifted. This means one day's less hunting for Jack. I put in floorboards. Temperature 30 below.
4th of December. The monotonous silence was broken during the day by a flock of little American white-winged crossbills coming around... At about 4 in the evening Jack and Harold arrived after their fruitless journey.
In 14 days, despite two extending hunting expeditions, they had taken only one large trout and 1 fox. What they needed was fat and sugar. On December the 6th they took stock again... 28 fish, 100 pounds of flour, some sugar, a little caribou meat. For the next three weeks, their fortunes improved a little. Almost every day they took some game... a ptarmigan, a trout, a hare... never much, and the cost was high. In a snow-storm, and 42 below, Hornby set a fish-net in the river. He spent hours, day after day, by moonlight and in extreme temperatures, setting, hauling, freeing, mending that net. Twice they were cheated of game... a wolverine ate a hare in a trap... an owl mutilated the only ptarmigan in the bird-net.
Christmas approached, and their spirits rose. They cut wood for the holiday season, and started to thaw out for Christmas dinner that great Northern delicacy—caribou head.
Christmas Day. When we awoke today, we made up our minds to enjoy ourselves as best the circumstances would permit. Only 28 below. I enjoyed the feast as much as any I've ever had, although we have nothing in sight for tomorrow's breakfast. I hope everyone in England has enjoyed today... at the same time I hope to God we rustle enough grub for a month from now and don't find ourselves wishing we hadn't feasted so. We now have only 18 candles left: that means long nights.
By January the 3rd they had started methodically to gather in all the fish and meat they could remember discarding earlier in the season. Hornby and Adlard were at work constantly, restlessly. Hornby's endurance was incredible... but before the beginning of January his left leg was causing him a good deal of pain. And on January the 6th the diary records a new symptom of tension.
Harold went for a walk up the creek. I don't think he said a word all morning before going, and he didn't speak for a long time after coming in. This makes things unpleasant for us.
January was a bitter month... the warmest temperature recorded was 10 below, the coldest 54 below. One blizzard lasted three days... for nine days they took no game at all. Then Hornby and Adlard did well with their rifles--a wolverine, 2 foxes, 7 ptarmigan--and in the traps a hare, a fox, and a wolverine. Nevertheless by the 14th, Hornby was at the time-honoured task of pounding caribou bones for the marrow.
February opened in more promising style. Adlard shot a caribou on the Barrens and wounded another. But he got his face badly frost-bitten packing some of the meat in. The caribou, scrawny and devoid of fat, was all gone in 6 days... they did not find the wounded animal. On the 9th Hornby fetched in from the Barrens all the frozen blood he could find at the scene of the kill.
11th of February. The flour is nearly gone, and we are grovelling around for rotten fish.
Regardless of the temperature--28, 31, 45 below-- Hornby was out on the Barrens almost every day. Once or twice he saw tracks, but no animals. By the middle of February Christian could scarcely endure the cold at all...one of Hornby's hands got frozen... Adlard's frost-bitten face kept him in the cabin for three weeks... The enforced idleness did not improve their tempers.
22nd of February. A warm day, only 10 below; and Harold thinking it a nice day, declined to cut wood when Jack asked him to. This isn't quite playing the game, considering that we have been out on bitter days all this month while he makes some excuse about his face freezing.
But Adlard refreshed by his long rest, was now the strongest man in the party. The next day he went out on the Barrens, and sighted 40 caribou. But caribou are timid, alter animals in the open; he couldn't get near enough for a shot. Next morning they all set out in different directions... but Hornby and Christian had to return after a short time. Adlard persisted alone and managed to kill a calf. Next day, he and Hornby... in a strong North-wester and 16 below--packed in all the meat. Hornby insisted on taking the heaviest load and reached the cabin in a state of collapse.
Then Hornby realised that he must make a final effort to get caribou before he was completely incapacitated. On March the 5th, a mild threatening day, he and Adlard set off for the upriver cache, taking one pot of sugar each. Christian was again left at the cabin.
Out on the Barrens alone. Walked 4 hours without seeing signs of any animals at all. Jack returned just afterwards from the cache. He had no sleep during the night... a wolverine had broken into camp and packed off most of the stores. Plans are now to go back to the cache. Harold, footsore, with 5 days' grub, is waiting for us. Temperature 13 below.
Four days later they set out and reached the cache at dark, to find that Adlard had shot only 4 ptarmigan and had seen no caribou. Next day they were storm-bound.
We had to wait till noon before starting out. Going West, we spelled at 2 o'clock and saw a Raven flying North; so the caribou must be on the move. At 5 o'clock we pulled into a clump of heavy timber and made camp, then prepared some caribou hide to eat. I slept a little, but Jack and Harold were awake all the time.
Sleep is a terrible danger. Certainly there are nights when you must keep awake.
13th of March. Seeing how things were in the morning, it was obviously foolish to carry on. We started to make for the river. Travelling was very bad. We took turns at breaking the trail, and struck the river at 2 o'clock, about 8 miles from the cache. Got in late, feeling very tired, and I soon fell asleep. Jack and Harold again did not sleep but sat by the fire all night.
14th of March. A real hurricane blowing today, so we can't move at all.
15th of March. Starting about noon with the sleigh we found travelling very bad indeed. We were all feeling as feeble as anything and intensely cold; but we had to get back home. At about 8 o'clock we dumped the food and packed on with bare necessities. On the way home Jack fell and must have hurt himself badly.
A peculiar irony awaited their return... it was too bitter for comment. While they had been away, caribou and wolverine had passed close to the cabin. In their fruitless expedition they had travelled some 30 miles to the South-west, almost to the junction of the Hanbury River. Unless their fortunes changed, they would never be able to move so far from the cabin again.
On March the 19th Hornby sighted 8 caribou travelling North-East, but couldn't follow them... there was a strong wind, and 22 below... they had only four meals in sight. Next day the temperature dropped to 36 below... and Hornby was out on the Barrens with field-glasses looking for caribou. Then a blizzard came down.
Today, Jack read part of an old diary to us--
I kept this for a while in the winter of 1920. I was alone in a cabin near Reliance... a terrible winter... a lot of Indians died. And here's the sort of entry I mean--almost exactly seven years ago—
March the 6th. I find that, living alone in this country, a man's mind becomes vacant; there's nothing to sharpen the intellect. At times I feel so weak that, after eating stale fish bait in order to have strength to crawl over the ice to my nets, I feel dangerously inclined to expend the energy in putting my house straight and staggering to the box I have built outside for a grave. So far I have resisted that mad inclination. I wrap a blanket about my head a crawl on hands and knees to my nets in the ice almost a mile away. Often I find the Indians have been there before me. The blood on the ice, clumsily covered with a little snow, tells me again that I have been robbed. But I bear them no ill-will. They don't know any better.....
Then on March the 8th: I could never eat a dog. When I am starving, my dogs are starving too. As I look now at them, I neither wish to eat them, nor can I. They are like so many nightmares....they crouch like statues, or slink past with their mournful eyes piteously watching me....like me they are living skeletons. How I wish the days would lengthen! Why don't the caribou come?
We're still better off than that. We can still walk, even if we are a bit shaky on the pins. But why don't the caribou come?
On the 22nd Christian froze his right hand, trying to clear a jammed rifle bolt in the wind at 20 below. Between the 23rd and the 30th they took 11 ptarmigan and 2 hares. One day Hornby saw 2 caribou in the distance. Then seventeen days passed before they took any more game of any kind. By that time, John Hornby was dying. But as long as he could move outside the cabin, he never stopped his crazy, scrabbling search for food. He was probably starving himself surreptitiously for the benefit of his companions. Yet he made one more expedition...a pitiful solitary search on the Barrens for the paunch of the caribou they had killed in February. That was on the April the 4th.
Jack kept on saying that he would be all in -- absolutely finished -- when he eventually got home again, and that we would have to carry on. This placed a terrible strain on my mind. I felt homesick as never before. I hope to God they know what Jack is suffering. I rubbed his leg and couldn't stop crying. He had saved a little fox meat for me to eat. This cheered me a bit; I suppose I was crumbling up from having no grub. At midday he started, all muffled up, looking as cold as charity. He could hardly walk. I wish I could buck the cold better and share his hardships; but he has a mind and will of his own -- and no one else has. Now I am sitting here with Harold, frying up bits of fish to eat, and waiting for Jack.
Five hours later, Hornby got back to the cabin. He was very cold. He had not found what he was looking for. That evening he managed to persuade his companions that there was still hope. But he was suffering acute pain and could not move out the next day.
With prolonged starvation, the circle of loyalty shrinks, until the horizon of the mind is limited to a dreadful apathetic self-preoccupation. Any intrusion upon this inner desolation is savagely repelled. On the morning of April the 6th there was a sharp outburst. Adlard had been complaining ever since he woke up -- of the weather, the hard work, how ill he felt. Hornby cursed at him -- unusual for him. It silenced Adlard; but only for a little. Physically the fittest of the three, his resolution seemed to be broken. Christian's resentment against him mounted steadily. Then on April 10th, Hornby's collapse denied both of them the luxury of suspicion and self-pity.
Today Jack is looking very bad and speaks very weak and seems to be all in. He still wants to go on to the Barrens to dig up the caribou guts, but he is not fit at all. I hope to God we get some game very soon. I can't last for ever as I am, I'm sure, and Jack has gone too far already.
That night Hornby wrote his will.
The Last Statement of John Hornby. I hereby bequeath to Edgar Vernon Christian everything I may die possessed of -- and all which might later come. April 10th 1927. Witnessed by Edgar Vernon Christian, and Harold. Challoner. Evan. Adlard.
11th of April. Last night Jack told both Harold and myself that he felt he was sinking fast and might die at any moment; so he talked to us and told us what should be done. Then later, Jack said he could last a week if I would help him; but he had a bad night, and now he says that 2 days is the most. Harold kept the fire all night while I tried to rest.
By 10:15 Hornby was in atrocious pain, and, with each spasm, Christian was afraid his heart would fail. Adlard was urged to search for the caribou paunch again. He left at noon, and returned four hours later with some frozen blood and the news that the caribou had been moving on the ridges in some numbers, though he had not seen any. Hornby revived a little. Adlard was out again the next day. It was very still, and at 5 in the evening Hornby and Christian heard the sound of his rifle. But when he came in an hour and a half later, Adlard was empty-handed. On the 16th they were woken at 4:30 in the morning by the sound of ptarmigan calling: Adlard went out, and came back an hour later with one bird. But Hornby could no longer benefit from this good fortune. In the middle of the forenoon he became unconscious. Christian and Adlard were too week even to keep a watch on him now. All day they listened to his regular breathing. They prepared some ptarmigan broth in case he should be able to drink it. But Hornby never regained consciousness.
17th of April. 1 o'clock. At 6:45 last evening poor Jack passed peacefully away. Until that minute I think I remained the same; but then I was a wreck. Harold -- good pal -- was a marvel in helping me and putting things a little straight for the night. He talked to me so wonderfully and I am sure he realized my condition. I lay on my bed and listened to him talk, and occasionally I dozed off from feeling so utterly worn out. He kept the fire during the night and brought me tea and aspirin; this was a relief; I was able to sleep. Today Harold and I do just the essentials. We are both very weak but more cheery, and determined to pull through. We must get out to let the world know of the last days of the finest man I have ever known -- a man who has made a foundation to build my life on.
That day and the next there was a north-east blizzard. Adlard was completely exhausted. On the day of Hornby's death, he had spent a long time "putting things a little straight for the night". The diary is no more specific than that. This included getting Hornby's body down from the bunk and making as decent a final disposition as could be. Adlard seems to have managed all this single-handed. Two days later he had to take to his bunk and could contribute little more to the task of staying alive. Edgar Christian, however, continued to endure with a desolate resolution.
20th of April. From bad to worse conditions go on. I seem to remain cool and collected now; but if anything should happen to Harold, God only knows what state I will be in.
Now they deliberately restricted their diet: they decided they must not eat any more hides or pounded bone. The weather was stormy and cold. Christian managed to scavenge scraps around the cabin and bring in wood; he had little energy to look after his companion who was now suffering acute pain. On April the 25th, in the night, heavy rain fell, drenching the inside of the cabin to add a new misery to their squalid and enfeebled state. A strong south wind dislodged most of the chinking between the logs; and when the cold returned, the wind whistled dismally through the building. The diary runs on -- rather light-headedly -- until April the 27th --
Blowing from the North-west and cloudy all day. No signs of animal life except snow-flakes.
He wrote down the date "28th April" but there is no entry for that day. Then there is a gap of six days.
4th of May. Now I start in writing my diary again. Since I last wrote I have not had a moment, for Harold's condition grew worse, and so did mine. At 10:30 p.m. dear Harold passed away. After a bad relapse the previous night, he seemed to get better during the day, so I went out to cut wood and get water. When I came back he said he felt very queer and knew not what to do. He was in pain. By 10:30 he had gone unconscious.
In spite of his feeble condition, Edgar Christian managed by himself to perform for Harold Adlard's body the same decent offices they had accorded to John Hornby. The diary entries now become slightly more light-hearted, as though an intolerable weight of anxiety had suddenly slipped away from him. His flickering power is concentrated upon a single issue. Day after day--sometimes at intervals of only a few hours--he records, with a miser's minuteness and a millionaire's detachment, the precise content of his larder-- The struggle was no longer confused by the question of hunting or trapping. No sign of panic. He knew there was plenty of food--of a sort--round about the cabin. He could hold on indefinitely--if only he could induce his crazy body to assimilate the miserable garbage he scraped up from the snow. He had watched his two companions die; he had weighed and considered all the symptoms; Hornby had gone over the whole thing very carefully with him before he died; he knew what he must do. His mind was mercifully numb, fixed upon a tiny pitiless cycle.
5th of May. Yesterday I dug in the snow and ice near the house for 3 hours during the afternoon, and found food enough for more than one day to keep myself a-going. Fish scraps enough for a good supper, the guts of a Fox and Wolverine which had the liver of the Fox and a little gut fat--1 day's food what with boiled bones added.
Today I resumed my digging and again had luck in finding more good food which had been discarded: 1 very fat Wolverine gut and kidneys – now I have guts for 1 day, heart and liver for 1 day, meat scrapings for 2 days.
7th of May. 10 a.m. I write my thoughts down just now while I think about it all, and explain my day's actions and reasons for such. Last night I went to bed eventually at 9:30 having relished my supper. I awoke at 8 having slept well. I felt much better, but to my surprise, I was as thin as a rake about my rump and my joints seemed to jerk in an out of position instead of smoothly. This I believe to be exactly the same thing as happened to poor Jack and Harold....I now think my best plan is to just concentrate on clearing my system, and do as little walking as possible, keep as warm as I can. I must stick to my guns and endeavour to cure myself now.
8th of May. At last a change has come; sunshine all day and thawing in the sun, but still blowing from the North.....After my breakfast....I felt very weak.......my back aches badly......At midday I got a Whisky Jack in a trap, so I had a cup of tea and ate it straight off....Ptarmigan have been out in front of the house again; they must have been there when I was pounding bones this morning--yet I am keeping a keen eye out at all times, and have 2 rifles just outside the door. Moving around seems to be a wobbly process.
11th of May. Feel as if I don't know what to do with myself.....As soon as I get outside my ears begin to get queer...My back and spine very painful all day and walking difficult...My word if I could only get 1 or 2 Ptarmigan to put me on my feet I would be O.K. However, must hang on and hope for better days and a few birds to come along soon.
12th of May. Feeling much more fit today....and appetite very keen..
13th of May. Before my breakfast cooked, I went out, got some water and cut a little wood I had outside, and found I could hardly stand. What food I now eat is near the door in a heap of ice so that it cannot go bad; therefore I think it best not to dig today but try and get strength for wood cutting in the evening...and see how things are tomorrow.
8:30. Did not go for wood, but after a good night's rest and a good supper I should feel better than this....
14th of May. Woke early, at 4 a.m. Got my breakfast of fish scraps on to cook and then sat in bed reading and thinking. How long the grub will last on the scrap pile I don't know; I certainly cannot get strong on it. Even if mild weather did come, I might be too crocked to move at all, and all the animals would at first be on the Barrens. However, there's always a chance of Caribou coming down the river.
Evening. I see it is a full moon tomorrow, besides being the 15th of May; and that's the date from which Jack said to look out for birds coming North. But there's no incentive for any bird or beast to come to this land of ice and snow just yet by the looks of it as present; however, I must carry on and live in hopes and trust something comes along.
17th of May. Another bad day; no fine weather; couldn't move out to get wood, so eventually I cut the bed-pole to burn. If I cannot get grub tomorrow, I must make preparations.
18th of May. Weather changed. I managed to pound up bones out in the sun and gathered in some scraps...Ptarmigan came near to the house once, but I could not get them. One Swan flew over, and I saw 1 Raven and 3 Robins.
19th of May. Thawing in the morning, so got out again. Then there was snow in the afternoon so I had to den up and hope. I must rest till tomorrow and then if there is any sun I might get out again.
20th of May.
No entry was written under this date. In the night and on the morning of June the First, he wrote his last entry.
I have existed by walking and crawling in and out of the house, finding plenty of food – in fact more than I could eat; but it did not keep me going sufficiently.....
Alas, I got weaker and the weather was blowing a snowstorm for 4 days; after that it wasn't even thawing in the daytime.
Now it's June 1st, and there has been no migration North of birds or animals since the 19th (when I saw the Swan).
Yesterday I was out crawling, having cut the last piece of wood in the house to cook what food I had...but while out, I found fish guts and meat in plenty. At 2 a.m. I went to bed feeling content.....9 a.m. Weaker than ever. I have food on hand but my heart is petering out. The sunshine is bright now. See if that does me any good, if I get out and bring in wood to make the fire tonight.
Make preparations now.
I got out; now I'm weak and all in. Left things late.
Dear Father. Jack Hornby always wished to see this country sometime before he gave up the life in the Arctic regions and wanted someone to go with him; and I was the one this time. I realize why one other man should come, to make sure that I got out safe, but alas, the Thelon is not what it is cracked up to be.... I have been trying to struggle by myself for over a month.... but spring is late here, and I cannot get fresh meat.
Dearest Mother; Feeling weak now--can only write a little--sorry I left it so late. Please don't blame dear Jack.
Whoever comes here, look in stove.
August 12th, 1929, to Officer commanding G-Division, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, RE; the late John Hornby and Party.
I have the honour to report that on the 2nd of July, 1929, in company with Corporal Williams, Constable Kirk, and Mr. M.E. Bobblets, with two canoes and provisions, I left Reliance on patrol for the cabin of the above named party on the Thelon River.
The cabin is located about 100 yards from the river bank in a fairly good stand of timber with plenty of dry wood....
In front of the building were observed, a few rusty traps, one felling axe, one light trimming axe, and a pack sack of white fox pelts, which had apparently been torn open by a wolverine as the pelts were chewed and scattered in disorder about the place.
The remains of a log store house were situated to the east of the cabin, there being only two rows of logs remaining. In the centre of it a case of 25-35 Winchester and .303 British ammunition was found.... An old grey shirt, bearing the initials A.N.H., maker Copeland, and a pair of oars were found here as well.
At this point, I must mention the discovery of a diary in the stove of the cabin. This diary belonged to E.V. Christian.
Two bodies, lying side by side, were found just east of the cabin door, close to the wall. The one closest to the wall was done up in burlap, which was well-stitched and covered with an old tent. The head was facing the west and was wrapped in a shirt of the same material as that found near the store house, and same was marked with the initials A.N.H. The body...was practically a skeleton,... According to Christian's diary these were the remains of John Hornby, who died first on April 16th, 1927.
The other body lay along side, the head facing east, and the arms crossed. It was tied up with backing twine in a Hudson's Bay Company red blanket. This was also a skeleton; ... According to Christian's diary these were the remains of Harold Challoner Evan Adlard, who died on May 4, 1927.
Lying on the floor, beside the bunk in the north-east corner inside the cabin, lay another body (evidently the one accidentally pulled off the bunk by the Wilson party). This was also but a skeleton. It was dressed in a heavy grey sweater, khaki shirt, in the breast pocket of which a silver watch was found which had stopped at 6:45. This skeleton must be that of Edgar Vernon Christian, and he must have died soon after June 1st, 1927.
These three bodies were carefully collected and buried, and a cross was erected over each grave with their initials carved in.
The interior and contents of the cabin were in a deplorable condition, dampness and rain having leaked through the roof. Most of the floor had been used for firewood. Inside the cabin, to the left of the door, were two rifles. The first was a .303 Lee Enfield Mark 2. It was in a canvas case and fully loaded. The other was a 25-35 Savage, also fully loaded. Mr. Wilson's party found these rifles outside and placed them within the cabin.
Under the window on the west side was a leather suitcase....it contained a large notebook in which was the beginning of a story called, "In the Land of Feast or Famine: A Life in the Arctic Region," by J. Hornby. A preface and the first two chapters, also draft reports and notes on Caribou, etc.
In the stove the following papers were found: a diary of E.V. Christian's, kept from the time they left Resolution in 1926 until the 1st of June 1927; a letter from Christian to his mother; a will of J. Hornby's (I do not know whether this is legal) and several letters written by Hornby to his relatives; another small diary of Christian's, a small diary of H.C.E. Adlard's with a few entries, a letter of his addressed to his father. I dried all these as carefully as possible and brought them away with me.
Certified copies in quintuplicate, of certificates of registrations of deaths, attached.
I have the honour to be,
Your obedient servant.
C. Trundle. Inspector. Great Slave Lake Sub-Division
It is only twenty-seven years since John Hornby died, but already he has become a legend in the North-West. And like all legends his memory has suffered distortion. Among men of sober judgment, his story is overshadowed by his death -- or rather by the boy and the man who died with him. Their deaths seem to bring Hornby's whole life in the North into question.
But in asking whether Hornby was, in the end, careless, or irresponsible, or perhaps even mad, we should not judge him too hastily by some fashionable ideal of technological conquest. For he had no designs on the country, and he despised those who had. To conquer the North was, in his view, to destroy the North. To him the North was -- almost -- a person: its integrity was to be discovered and respected, not destroyed.
For Hornby the beauty of the Barren Ground was charged with terror and mystery. With something of the tragedian's sense he found in an empty country an indestructible, human centre. To taste the terror and the mystery to the full, he must become one with the country -- he must endure, not defy. To endure perpetually up to the fringes of death -- that was Hornby's vision. It is nothing if it is not a personal and human triumph. That it should end in three deaths need not take away the value.
John Hornby is one of that company of Polar travellers and mountaineers who never pretended that their purpose was -- in any ordinary sense -- to be useful. But in their own way their dreadful and solitary achievements somehow affirm the nobility of the human spirit in the face of ultimate despair and desolation.
Death in the Barren Ground: The Story of John Hornby's Last Journey, was written by George Whalley and produced in our Toronto Studios by Ted Pope and Robert Weaver. With technical operation by Arthur Schools.
The narrator was Frank Paddy; Edgar Christian was played by Douglas Rain. As John Hornby, Alan King; Inspector Trundle, Jim McRae.
Edgar Christian's diary has been published by John Murray London, with the title Unflinching.
Death in the Barren Ground was based on the diary, on material made available by the Christian family, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other sources.
Laurent Tilden speaking: this is the Trans-Canada Network of the CBC.
This is the end of the transcription.
"Death in the Barren Ground" is reproduced by permission of the CBC.