Sunday, January 11, 2015

Writing historical fiction: Hudson Strait and ice . . .

Although it snowed this past week, and temperatures are dipping in the low 20s tonight, I'm cozy and warm in my office, peering out at the patches of snow and ice that remain in the drive.

In the 19th Century, for people traveling by sailing ship to the York Factory at the southern tip of Hudson's Bay in Upper Manitoba, conditions were definitely not cozy. 

Luckily for me, passengers of this time (though they weren't sleeping in steerage, like my characters) kept journals. Here they recorded what they saw, ate, how they slept and survived their 6-8 week journey through storms, heavy fog, and the tedium of crossing the ocean from northern Scotland, past Greenland, to Hudson's Bay.

Once the barque, the Prince Rupert, passed Cape Resolution and approached Hudson Strait, travelers saw whales and great icebergs. One such iceberg, described by Isaac Cowie as "a tall spire-like berg," capsized as the ship passed, "raising enormous rings of billows all round, into which our yardarms dipped" (88). Cowie writes of the absolute beauty of these icebergs seen in the light of the setting sun.

Magdalena Bay by Fran├žois-Auguste Biard, 1840 (Wikipedia)

Read more about the expedition to the Arctic which Biard participated in the 1830s in an article by Mark Sample, "Art and Terror in the Arctic." 

Or read of Norwegian Jens Munk who traveled through Hudson Strait in his search for the Northwest Passage in 1619. Munk found much ice -- the result, scientists say, of a Little Ice Age. Mona Elizabeth Brother, in her article "Canada and Norway's Shared Polar History," writes that logbooks from the Hudson Bay Company (1750-1870) report "ice complicated travel through the strait for several centuries" past the Little Ice Age. Note: Scientists disagree about the dates of the Little Ice Age, though most say from about 1350 to about 1850 (Wikipedia).

Cowie in his very useful memoir, The Company of Adventurers, recounts the chief mate took joy in ramming these ice floes -- once crashing into ice "until we were nearly on our beam ends" (89). 

A reader of an early chapter of my current work in progress, Rivers of Stone, noted that he had traveled near Hudson Strait and encountered no ice. This has led me to ask: Was there ice in Hudson's Bay or in Hudson Strait at the time of my story, late summer, 1842? 

Finally, I can safely answer, "Yes!"


  1. Fascinating stuff! It's a tantalizing period of time, just far enough back to be murky in its details.

    It makes me think, oddly, of an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise, where they are skirting a star which may colllapse "In a century or two."

    Trip observes, "Too bad we won't be here to see it," to which T'Pol, who is Vulcan rather than human, replies, "Speak for yourselves; I may very well 'be here'."

    She's already in her 60s, but Vulcans can live well over two centuries.

    It was an interesting reminder that even things like lifespans are extremely variable...

  2. Good morning, Shan. Thank you for visiting and commenting. I wonder why Star Trek came to mind you trekkie! :) But I loved the little story which reminds me of a saying by the Buddha I've seen recently made into a meme that says, "The trouble is you think you have time." Maybe that's why we write.