It’s not every day that a famous poet and author, who happens to be your cousin, convinces you to leave the family farm and head to the arctic with the Hudson’s Bay Company to work with and bring furs back from Inuit.
And that may not even be the most interesting thing that’s happened to Errington’s Hugh Kroetsch.
Still, it was the start of a time of adventure in his life — one that he’s recently revisited.
Kroetsch’s time working onboard Hudson’s Bay ships travelling to the arctic in the early 1950s is the subject of a new documentary called The Last Fur Trader premiering this week.
Included are video footage and photos that Kroetsch took himself in 1950 and 1953, and which he shared with locals during his return trip this summer.
Sharing that footage and his own knowledge about the communities represented an influx of forgotten history, giving some towns knowledge about the oldest buildings that still stand today, and giving others their first look at family members long gone, said Kroetsch in an interview with The NEWS.
For Kroetsch, seeing how the communities had grown was a surprise.
“It just amazed me,” said Kroetsch of visiting the arctic towns this summer. “One guy in the film… he’ll say the towns have all grown, the people have changed, but he says the landscape hasn’t.
“The landscape, when I come up there, I still recognized it, but I couldn’t believe the size of towns I saw. The schools at these places were just beautiful. I mean with all the paintings and carvings and everything that’s in them. The city halls… they were just done beautiful. It just amazed me.”
Kroetsch spent 10 years in the North, and two of those in the arctic — 1950 and ’53.
Kroetsch’s cousin, Robert Kroetsch, a writer who’s won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and many other awards, was working in the North to pay for university at the time, said Hugh.
“And he come out to the hometown, Heisler (Alta.), where we were born, and he said, ‘Hugh, you’re not the type of guy who’s going to stick around here,’ because I was building things all the time. You name it,” recalled Hugh.
“He said, ‘Come North,’ so I went with him to Edmonton… and he took me over to the Hudson’s Bay Company transport department and they said, ‘You’re a farmer?’ I says, ‘Yeah.’ They says, ‘You’re hired.’”
The company wanted farmers because it was accustomed to building and fixing and doing whatever needed to be done, said Hugh. That’s just the kind of people he worked with onboard ships, traveling by river through Alberta and the Northwest Territories up the Mackenzie River to the arctic.
Hugh was usually the only white person aboard, he said.
“The captain was Johnny Norberg. He was half-Norwegian and half-Eskimo,” said Hugh. “A very intelligent guy, and the whole crew, they knew the arctic. And this is why you had to have the native crews. This stuff wasn’t mapped.”
Asked what it was like being a minority on the ship, Hugh spoke fondly of his crew mates.
“I loved working with them,” he said. “They were the happiest people I ever worked with. I never heard them complain about anything. They were laughing all the time. Joking. And hard workers. You ask them to do something, they did it right now.
“They were so honest, too. If you dropped something, they wouldn’t pick it up. They would go tap you and say, ‘Come back, you dropped this,’ because if they picked it up, you might think they were stealing. That’s how honest they were.”
Hugh started as a deckhand but, after taking a course, returned to be the ship’s engineer.
The purpose of the ship’s travel north was to trade goods for furs with the Inuit — everything from polar bear to arctic hare, fox, seal skin and reindeer.
“A good part of it went to Europe,” said Hugh. “The furs then were just worth a fortune.”
In the course of that work, it wasn’t uncommon to get stranded in the ice for a few days at a time, said Hugh. Perhaps the longest stint he spent stuck in the ice was in 1950, while aboard the Fort Hearne, said Hugh. “The Fort Hearne was one of the biggest wood boats built in Canada.”
A few years later, that ship sank after hitting an ice flow, said Hugh.
In addition to their regular work, Hugh and the crew were at one time asked to bring a civil engineer from Montana up north with them to do some surveying, identifying sites where bases with runways could be built to defend against potential Soviet attack as part of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line. The man — a nice, hard-working guy, said Hugh — wouldn’t let Hugh photograph his face, and the crew had to keep their mission a secret for years.
But there was plenty else to see in Hugh’s video and photos of his time up north.
Hugh’s son, Frederick, discovered the footage and photos in an ammunition box and asked Hugh about them approximately 10 years ago.
Frederick, a filmmaker with Open Sky Pictures, set about making a documentary based on his dad’s experience, and returned him to the North with a film crew this July.
“It was just unreal,” said Hugh of the trip.
The documentary premiers on AMI TV on Shaw Digital at 5 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 17.
For more information on the documentary, go to www.openskypictures.com/fur-traders.