Friday, November 18, 2016

The Lansdowne Letters: Touchdown in the Remote Wilderness

When Lansdowne House appeared on the northern horizon, late in the afternoon
of Monday, February 20, 1961, my family and I were flooded with emotions:  
joy, relief, curiosity, and excitement.

Peninsula and Island
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario
Credit: Canada. Dept. of Indian Affairs and Northern Development 
Library and Archives Canada:  PA-094992

But I was also shocked by the immensity of the wilderness
surrounding the frozen village.  We had been flying
from the small northern town of Nakina for well over an hour,
and we had seen no trace of people.  
The Father’s Island and the tip of the long peninsula
reaching out into ice-bound Lake Attawapiskat were stunningly remote.

Remote is how Lansdowne House is described in almost every reference
I have found.  But remote doesn’t begin to convey how isolated the tiny village is.

It exists in a vast tract of Canadian wilderness, 
stretching over 3,100 miles (almost 5,000 kilometers)
from the wild coasts of Labrador to the border of Alaska.
It spills outside the confines of Canada, east to Greenland,
north to the pole, and west to the Bering Sea:  
a desolate expanse of tundra, forest, muskeg, and water.

Landsdowne House is located where the subarctic boreal forest
straggles into the empty wastes of the Hudson Bay Lowlands.
Even today, this land of stunted spruce and tamarack, bogs, rivers, and lakes
is one of the least-populated and least-explored areas in the world.
Even before fur traders and missionaries pushed into the area,
the land was largely uninhabited by Aboriginals
because of the harsh environment and the scarcity of food.

As the tiny plane banked and came in for a landing,
we were relived that the cold, noisy flight was over
and overjoyed at being reunited with our father after six long months.
We were curious about our new home and community,
and we were excited about meeting the mysterious Ojibway people.  
Roy and I were thrilled about landing in a Norseman on skis.

I clutched Gretchen with one hand and braced with the other,
as the plane slowed and glided, the ice rushing toward us.
The landing gear, consisting of two main skis and a taildragger third,
felt small and fragile, collapsible, unequal to the task.
With a sudden bump, bump, bump,
we bounced along the ice and coasted to a stop near the DOT dock.

Lansdowne House
The Department of Transport dock was just beyond the middle left of the photograph.
Photo by Donald MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

My father wrote of our arrival on Friday, February 24, 1961:  
“Sara and the family, including Gretchen, came winging over the southern horizon
about 4:45 Monday afternoon, just as I had given them up for the day.
The train was over two hours late at Nakina.
It was good that they got in Monday,
because the weather deteriorated right after they got in,
and there hasn’t been a plane in since. ... 

The children and Sara survived the trip
without too many ill effects.
Actually the only casualty was Donnie.
She threw up, just as they touched down
on the ice at Lansdowne House.
I think that it was excitement
more than anything else."

Donalda MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

I climbed stiffly out of the Norseman unto the ice and into my father's bearhug.
Then I walked into a parting wall of black eyes staring out of fur-lined parkas.
Contrary to what we expected, the Indians were curious and happy to see us,
the first white children many of them had ever seen.
They crowded around us smiling shyly as we trudged across the ice to the dock.  

The men stepped forward, some in olive green Hudson Bay parkas,
others in black leather jackets, all in blue jeans and boots,
while the women stood quietly in the background, children by their sides,
babies laced in tikanogans on their backs.
The women looked very strange in their long colorful skirts, parkas, and mukluks,
knee-high moccasins made of moosehide and decorated with bright felt and tiny beads.

Meeting a Summer Plane at the Hudson's Bay Dock
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Canada
Photo (Transparency) by John Macfie 
Reference Code: C 330-14-0-0-95 
Archives of Ontario, I0012712

They were as taken with us as we were with them.
Certainly Barbie's blonde hair, Donnie's long curls,
and Gretchen bounding beside me on stubby legs were novel sights.

Dachshund in Snow
You tube ~ adventurejess

I was overcome with shyness at all the attention 
as I floundered up the hill in the squeaky, sparkling snow,
and I escaped into the warm haven of the McRae home with gratitude.  

Suddenly very tired, I was overwhelmed by the unbroken bush surrounding us
and by the alien sights of the tiny, ice-locked, Ojibway village in Lake Attawapiskat.  

The evening passed in a warm blurr of McRae hospitality,
but the one thing I’ll never forget about our arrival in Lansdowne House
is the kind welcome of the Ojibway people when they met our plane.

A Norseman on Skis
"Taildragger" at the Back
Flickr ~ NOAA:  Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren   License 

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

Crossing Petite Passage
Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia
Photo Copy by Roy MacBeath 
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

For Map Lovers Like Me:

Location of Lansdowne House
Known Today as Neskantaga

Location of Lansdowne House
Wikimedia   edited

Lansdowne House
Sketch by M. Louise Barbour


  1. Being welcomed with open arms sure must have made the arrival all the better indeed.

    1. Hi, Pat! Thanks for hanging in there with me! Going back and forth between the library and my trailer is a little more challenging than I thought! But it's working fairly well. A warm welcome is always wonderful, especially in a strange place. I'll get around and catch up as I can. Have a great weekend.

  2. At least you didn't have to clean up after Donnie.
    Glad they gave you a warm welcome. They were obviously just as curious about you as you were about them.

    1. Their welcome was unforgettable, I found the Ojibway people in Lansdowne House to be lovely people, although they were very different from me. I'm glad that I didn't have to clean up after Donnie. Probably it was Mom; but if it was the pilot, he was probably glad that it was a human child and not a sled dog. Indian dog teams sometimes flew to or from the traplines, and they got sick just like humans. Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. Your first picture took my breath away. I've been reading about your father's adventures and knew that Landsdown house was isolated but that view from the plain showed just a few houses in the middle of vastness. It really gave me a sense of the loneliness of the place. No wonder the arrival of a plane was greeted by the community. I particularly enjoyed seeing the native dressed in the plaid yellow skirt. I guess I didn't expect that. We women always need to feel pretty despite our circumstances.

    1. Hi, Peggy! I was delighted to find that old air photo of Lansdowne House. It predated our time there by several decades, but there were only a few more buildings there when we lived in the community. It really is out there! And yes, we ladies always want to feel pretty, no matter our age! Thanks for visiting. I've been really short for time on line. We were traveling, and now we're living temporarily in a trailer "resort" in Bullhead City, Arizona and just across the river from Laughlin, Nevada. Basically we're in the Mojave Desert. I have internet access through the trailer park's library in it's community center. It's interesting because their great room where they have shows, hold dances, and do craft fairs and church is right by the small library. I never know what will happen when I try to get on to one of the two spots I can plug my computer in. Life is always throwing a new challenge at me. I get to go home to Colorado in about 10 days for a few days, and I am very excited. Terry really likes the desert climate, and he has lots of opportunity to play pickle ball here. That's where he is right now. I'll be around to your blog asap ~ certainly hungry to hear all the news. Have a good one! Sending hugs to you, Don, and Sadie! Hope all is well!

  4. It is a wonderful thing to be welcomed with open arms, dear Louise. So lovely to see your post and photos. Sending you much love and many hugs. :) And just to let you know, I shared quite a bit about myself on Wednesday's post...I know you like to see these posts so I just thought I would mention it. I hope you have had a very good week and wishing you an even better weekend!

    1. It's wonderful to hear from you, as always, Linda! Thanks for telling me about your post, because I will be by to catch it. I'm trying to get as much blogging and visiting in as I can, but it is challenging trying to work in enough time in this little library. I've been spending a lot of time cleaning our rented trailer. Apparently a single man lived in it for five years before us ~ "nuff"-said!
      We were going to go hiking in a canyon today to look for petroglyphs, but it is really windy ~ so maybe tomorrow. I feel almost as isolated here as in our outport on White Bay in Newfoundland. Not as isolated as in the north, though. There are signs on the major roads here to watch out for burros! I would love to see wild burros! After Terry burns out a little on overdosing on pickle ball, we hope to get around more. I hope you have an awesome weekend, my cherished friend! Sending you love and hugs!

  5. Isolation at the very top end of the scale!! Your father was brave, but your Mum!! A true pioneer and I wonder,did she ever doubt the fact of being there? Love your maps, and your opening paragraphs, they give me the sense of excitement, a little fear, and wonder of the great unknown. Another wonderful post for my Saturday morning.

    1. Hi, Jean! Thanks for your kind words! It's always hard for me to read my posts objectively, especially when I spend a lot of time on one. Yesterday I was working in the library on my post, while a country and western band was holding a jam session with amplifiers in the next room. They were whooping and hollering with the audience while singing "Running Bear'', and I accidentally disappeared my finished post and couldn't find it. I found an earlier version from two hours earlier and started almost completely over. So I wasn't too objective about my post when I got it finished the second time! Arrgghh!! I was so ticked at myself for getting distracted! LOL

      My mother loved the north, even when we lived in a more isolated situation than in Lansdowne House. Yes, she was brave, especially since she had Roy and me independently on the go. The other three were also capable of getting into dicey situations too; they just were smaller! I have to laugh when I look at my early photos. Once I started walking, I was almost always in a harness with a rope attached. There's even a photo of me holding up a big coiled rope attached to my harness. Terry sometimes remarks even today that he'd like to tie a rope to me, because I still have a talent for disappearing suddenly or getting into dicey situations! LOL

      Enjoy the rest of your weekend. It's mid-Friday here in Bullhead City, Arizona. I hope all is well with the kittycats! Sending you and Hugh hugs and love!

  6. Hi Fundy, another great post. I do not remember our arrival in Lansdowne House but the feeling of the place has never left me. One whiff of Pinesol and I am back in the world of black spruce. Anytime I ever asked Mom about where her favourite place was (we lived in so many) she never hesitated to say the North! She loved our adventures. Hugs your Sister Barb

    1. Hugs back at you, Barb! Pinesol does the same thing for me! The North was definitely my favorite place we ever lived, but Westport, NF, and Wolfville, NS are tied for a very close second. Now I'm in a trailer in the Mojave Desert. Never say never! I told Terry absolutely NO WAY over a year ago, and look where I landed. He is having a ball. I don't mind it ~ the people here are really nice and so is the weather, but going to the library every time I want to use my computer to get on line gets old. Also my phone. Apparently I've used up a lot of our limited data playing Words with Friends in the trailer. LOL Life is always an adventure! Sending you love and hugs. I'm slowly getting back to normal after the election. Wow! Hold on tight, it's going to be an interesting ride!

  7. Louise, I felt like I was landing with you and your family! You are a wonderful writer.
    I am imagining both your family's and the First Nations faces and expressions as you see each other for the first time.....there is a 'movie' here, Louise. But one thing at a time, eh?!! Enjoy the desert!

    1. Thanks, Jim! It's awesome to get feedback on my writing, because I can't be objective about it at all. I just try to do my best! That arrival was one of the most memorable and thrilling things that has happened in my life! I am enjoying the desert, although yesterday and today we had to put the heat on in our trailer! LOL The people in this complex are very friendly, which is nice. I am longing to see wild burros. Along the Bullhead Parkway there are signs warning about burros, and people have told me there are lots of burros around, but I haven't seen one yet! I've been crazy about them since I read "Brighty of the Grand Canyon" to my kiddos the first time. You, Ron, and SD have fun this weekend!

  8. I'm on a blog break, but I'm sure glad I checked for posts from my friends today. I wouldn't want to have missed your arrival. Even with your excellent description, I can't imagine the desolation you saw, or maybe it's better described as isolation. But then the people were so interested in you. When I moved from Maryland to the country in Illinois, the farm women looked at me as if I were a creature from Mars. Living in the country in Illinois--our house was surrounded by a peach orchard--was the most isolated I've ever felt. It was beautiful, but I was so out of place.


    1. Thank you, Janie! I'm on a semi blog break, but not by choice. We've been traveling a lot, and now we're renting a trailer in Bullhead City for a while. My husband hates the cold, so I'm along for the ride. My internet access is through the library in our clubhouse, so it's makes blogging more challenging.

      Lansdowne House is the most isolated place I have ever lived in, although it was bigger than the smallest place I ever lived in. Our log cabin at a fish camp on Lac Seul had only three other people in addition to my mom and we five kids; but we were only 15 minutes by bush place from the nearest town. I bet it was lovely by the peach orchard in spring and fall! I do understand about feeling out of place. I've always been different from the people around me, and some places we lived I'm sure they thought I was from Mars!

      Enjoy you blogging break! Sending you hugs!

    2. Thank you. I'm almost always out of place.

  9. Louise it has been a long time since I posted a comment on your blog, which in this instance is really a news item from your old stomping grounds on Brier Island. SEE:

    1. Thank you so much for sending this link, Mark! I really enjoyed hearing about the new ferry Margaret's Justice and also how it got its name. What a story! I made it down to the islands this summer, and of course, to the Nature Conservancy's Brier Island Nature Reserve. I'm glad that I got to ride on the Joe Casey one more time. I hope all is well with you. I've been absent from the blogging world a lot these past few months ~ traveling like crazy. I'm in Arizona right now ~ saw my first roadrunner! I must get by your blog which I miss! Take care!

  10. That is such an amazing story, Louise. I can't imagine that kind of isolation. Our youngest is in the Army and he's spent 3 weeks at the Arctic, and even he couldn't explain what it was like. So quiet you could hear the ringing in your ears.

    Can't wait to hear more!

    1. Thanks, Joylene! I would love to spend three weeks in the Arctic! I'm sure that your son had an unforgettable time. The silence in Lansdowne House was amazing ~ especially at night, if the dogs weren't howling and I was out on the ice in the dark. It was like that too at the fish camp on
      Lac Seul, except it was summer so the loons could be noisy or the northern lights clicking, buzzing, and crackling. amazing country! Take care!

  11. Goodness me, Louise! I can't imagine what that must have been like for your family, to be in such a remote place! How nice that you received a warm welcome in such a cold spot! xx

    1. Hi, Kay! How lovely to hear from you! My memory was that it was fantastic to be in such a remote place ~ but then I was ten turning eleven. Sorry that I've been largely absent. I've been traveling lately, and I have to go to a library to access the internet. Hope all is well with you, Richard, and Chris!

    2. I know I've said this before, but I love the maps included with your posts. It helps me orient myself to where you are located in the memoir. This is a wonderful account of what happened with your father's tour of duty. Thanks so much for sharing it with your followers. All the best to you!

    3. Hi, Victoria Marie! Sorry ~ I just found your kind comment. I've been traveling and have had little internet access. I'm glad that you enjoy the maps. I'm a map lover and have been so since I was a little kid, so I appreciated your words! All the best right back at you!

  12. WOW, you even drew the waves in the last map!! LOL!!!
    Hello dear Fundy!
    I have read your words with great delight, I am happy you're having a good time in Arizona! You bet I'd be thrilled to be there with you!
    Roadrunners hey?? Such fun birds!
    What do you mean by "burro"?? The only burro I know is a donkey in Spanish... Would you mean bison?
    It must be nice and warm in the desert, here it dull, cold and wet :(
    Keep well dear friend, I can't wait to see the photos you will have taken!
    Warm hugs :)

    1. Hi, Noushka! Good guess! A burro is the descendent of a small donkey first introduced into the Desert Southwest by Spaniards in the 1500s. It is coolish and windy here in the Mojave right now, but it's also sunny and bright, so it will warm up quickly. I hope to get some photos up soon. I have to go to a small library to get on the internet, so it's a little more challenging to blog. First, I've got to finish up my northern post for tomorrow. Today is Thanksgiving here in the US, and Terry is taking me out for dinner. I can't remember the last time that it was just the two of us for Thanksgiving. It's nice not to be preparing a big feast! Enjoy your weekend! Sending you a big hug!

  13. Your description of the Norseman's landing is vivid and evocative -- and that photo at the end! You weren't kidding about the fragility of the landing skis!

    1. Hi, Debra! Sorry I just found this comment. My head is spinning from traveling, catching up on everything at home, and getting ready to leave again. The only landing I've ever had that was more thrilling was landing in a sea plane without floats ~ a belly flop for sure. Hope all is well with you!

  14. You are an amazing writer. I held onto my seat when you described the landing! LOL... Your family's history would make for an amazing novel. A big fat one that you could cozy up to on a cold winter day with a hot cup of coffee or tea.

    1. Thank you for your kind and encouraging words, Martha! Sorry I just found your comment now. I feel like I'm running around with like a chicken with its head cut off. I have a quick turnaround with internet here and then back to the Mojave Desert. Hope all is well with you and George!


Thank you for your comments! I appreciate them very much.