Then the siren sounded out in long blasts, the propellor churned
the water and she was away. A nearby harbour tug blew her a rousing
farewell and more and more sirens sounded their good wishes. Black smoke
belched from her funnel and as she moved out into the stream we could see
clearly all the things lashed to her decks. Boats. Canoes. Drums of gasoline. All sorts of queer-shaped things covered with tarpaulins.
Ian and I watched her manoeuvre into midstream and then head
out of the harbour, the white pennant of the Royal Mail slapping in the wind at
the top of her mast. Down river, the Canadian navy, in the form of two
destroyers, dipped flags in salute as she steamed by. Just beside me
somebody's friend had forgotten a last message, bawling out 'Happy
Christmas' in the forlorn hope of being heard on the ship. We began to
understand why they had told us that to think about the Arctic without
thinking about the Hudson's Bay Company was like writing a book about sea
without mentioning ships.
A few days after the departure of the Nascopie, the remaining five
of us set off quietly for the docks, taking with us all our worldly possessions.
By ten o'clock that morning we were assembled in a rather gloomy shed at
the city end of the wharf, where the van had unloaded us. The ship on which
we were to take passage, the Ungava, was alongside the far end of the wharf,
so we had a fair way to go with all our baggage.
One of our party could hardly move, so heavily laden was he with
cases and packages, and his crab-like motion attracted the attention of a
'Why didn't you bring your bed, boy?' the man guffawed.
'Where the devil are you off to with all that load?'
'I'm going north for five years,' came a voice from behind the
parcels and cases.
'Well in five years' time you'll either be dead or carrying twice that
much on one shoulder,' shouted the man amid his laughter as he went on his
way to the dock gates.
There was no glamour attached to the departure of the Ungava.
She was just a rather rusty old freighter, and an ugly one at that, setting off
on a more or less routine passage along the Labrador coast. She was heavily
laden. Her well decks were completely filled in with drums of oil, so that care
had to be taken when passing across them to avoid falling overboard.
There was no one to see us off, apart from a couple of officials
from the office, so without any fuss or palaver, about an hour after we had
come aboard, the crew cast off the lines and, belching black smoke, like the
Nascopie we set off down the river.
The old ship had no licence to carry passengers. We had had to
sign on as crew, deckhands, stewards, stokers and the like at a token wage
of one dollar per week. I was allocated to a job as 'assistant purser', which
did not please some of the others, for they considered it to be a cushy task
compared to theirs. As it turned out that I had laboriously to type out page
after page of bills of lading while they had little to do after a slight scurry of
activity in the mornings, they were quite pleased.
Ian and I went out on deck that first evening, making our way
perilously over the oil barrels to a space on the stern, from where we could
watch the muddy waters stirred up by the propellor and the coastline
dropping behind us. We were somewhere between the two cities of Montreal
and Quebec, the former just a distant glow on the horizon, the latter not yet
visible. Above the hills, the summer lightning forked and flashed and the
thunder rumbled distantly. A few lights twinkled on both shores. A small
township, stretched along the bank of the great river, drifted by and dwindled
into the distance.
We did not speak much. I think we both realized at last that
before long the lights of our accustomed world would have faded behind us.
Ahead would stretch the vast empty wilderness of the Arctic to which we had
so lightheartedly committed ourselves.
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