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Climate of Ungava

It need scarcely be observed that, in so high a latitude as that of Ungava, the climate presents the extremes of heat and cold; the moderate temperature of spring and autumn is unknown, the rigor of winter being immediately succeeded by the intense heat of summer, and vice versa.

On the 12th of June, 1840, the thermometer was observed to rise from 10° below zero to 76° in the shade, the sky clear and the weather calm; this was, in fact, the first day of summer. For ten days previously the thermometer ranged from 15° below zero to 32° above, and the weather was as boisterous as in the month of January, snowing and blowing furiously all the time. The heat continued to increase, till the thermometer frequently exhibited from 85° to 100° in the shade. This intense heat may, no doubt, be owing in a considerable degree to the reflection of the solar rays from the rocky surface of the country, a great part of which is destitute of vegetation. When the wind blows from the sea the atmosphere is so much cooled as to become disagreeable. These vicissitudes are frequently experienced during summer, and are probably caused by the sea's being always encumbered by ice. It is remarkable that the severest cold in this quarter is invariably accompanied by stormy weather; whereas, in the interior of the continent, severe cold always produces calm.

The winter may be said to commence in October; by the end of this month the ground is covered with snow, and the rivers and smaller lakes are frozen over; the actions of the tide, however, and the strength of the current, often keep Ungava River open till the month of January. At this period I have neither seen, read, nor heard of any locality under heaven that can offer a more cheerless abode to civilized man than Ungava. The rumbling noise created by the ice, when driven to and fro by the force of the tide, continually stuns the ear; while the light of heaven is hidden by the fog that hangs in the air, shrouding everything in the gloom of a dark twilight. If Pluto should leave his own gloomy mansion in tenebris tartari, he might take up his abode here, and gain or lose but little by the exchange.

"The parched ground burns frore, and cold performs

The effect of fire."—Milton.

When the river sets fast, the beauties of the winter scene are disclosed—one continuous surface of glaring snow, with here and there a clump of dwarf pine, of the bald summits of barren hills, from which the violence of the winter storms sweep away even the tenacious lichens. The winter storms are the most violent I ever experienced, sweeping every thing before them; and often prove fatal to the Indians when overtaken by them in places where no shelter can be found. The year previous to my arrival, a party of Indians ventured out to a barren island in the bay in quest of deer, taking their women along with them. While engaged in the chase, a sudden storm compelled them to make for the mainland with all possible speed. The women were soon exhausted by their exertions, and, unable to proceed farther, were at length covered by the snow, and left to their fate. As soon as the fury of the storm abated, the men went in search of them; but in vain; they were never found.

During winter the sky is frequently illuminated by the Aurora Borealis even in the day-time; and I have observed that when the south wind, the coldest in this quarter, (traversing, as it does, the frost-bound regions of Canada and Labrador,) blows for any length of time, the sky becomes clear, and the aurora disappears. No sooner, however, does the east wind blow, which, being charged with the vapors of the Atlantic, induces mild weather even in midwinter, than they again dart forth their coruscations—more brightly at first, afterwards more faintly, till, if the wind continue, they again disappear.

These phenomena seem to warrant the conclusion that the aurora is produced by the evolving of the electric fluid, through the collision of bodies of cold and warm air. The same phenomena are observable in New Caledonia; the east wind, passing over the glaciers of the Rocky Mountains, cools the atmosphere to such a degree as to cause frost every month in summer; the west wind, on the contrary, causes heat; and there, as in Ungava, the change of winds is followed by what may be termed the Mountain Aurora (Aurora Montium?)

During my residence of five years at Ungava, the thermometer fell twice to 53° below zero; and frequently ranged from 38° to 48° for several days together; the extreme heat rose to 100° at noon in the shade.

The soil of Ungava consists principally of decayed lichens, which form a substance resembling the peat moss of the Scottish moors. In this soil the lily-white "Cana" grows, a plant which I have not seen in any other part of the continent, although it may elsewhere be found in similar situations. In the low grounds along the banks of rivers, the soil is generally deep and fertile enough to produce timber of a large size; in the valleys are found clumps of wood, which become more and more stunted as they creep up the sides of the sterile hills, till at length they degenerate into lowly shrubs. The woods bordering on the sea-coast consist entirely of larch; which also predominates in the interior, intermixed with white pine, and a few poplars and birches. The hardy willow vegetates wherever it can find a particle of soil to take root in; and the plant denominated Labrador tea, flourishes luxuriantly in its native soil. In favorable seasons the country is covered with every variety of berries—blueberry, cranberry, gooseberry, red currant, strawberry, raspberry, ground raspberry (rubus arcticus), and the billberry (rubus chamæmorus), a delicious fruit produced in the swamps, and bearing some resemblance to the strawberry in shape, but different in flavor and color, being yellow when ripe. Liquorice root is found on the banks of South River.

To enumerate the varieties of animals is an easy task; the extremely barren nature of the country, and the severity of the climate, prove so unfavorable to the animal kingdom, that only a few of the more hardy species are to be found here: viz.—

Black, brown, grisly, and polar bears.

Black, silver, cross, blue, red, and white foxes.

Wolves, wolverines, martens, and the beaver (but extremely rare).

Otters, minks, musk-rats, ermine.

Arctic hares, rabbits, rein-deer; and the lemming, in some parts of the interior.

When we consider the great extent of country that intervenes between Ungava and the plains of the "far west," it seems quite inexplicable that the grisly bear should be found in so insulated a situation, and none in the intermediate country: the fact of their being here, however, does not admit of a doubt, for I have traded and sent to England several of their skins. The information I have received from the natives induces me to think that the varieties of color in bears mark them as distinct species, and not the produce of the same litter, as some writers affirm. Why, otherwise, do we not find the different varieties in Canada, where the grisly bear has never been seen? The sagacious animals seem to be well aware of their generic affinity, since they are often seen together, sharing the same carcass, and apparently on terms of the most intimate fellowship.

It is a singular circumstance, that she-bears with young are seldom or never killed; at least it is so extraordinary a circumstance, that when it does happen, it is spoken of for years afterwards. She must, therefore, retire to her den immediately after impregnation; and cannot go above three months with young; as instances have occurred of their being found suckling their young in the month of January, at which period they are not larger than the common house-rat, presenting the appearance of animals in embryo, yet perfect in all their parts.

Bruin prepares his hibernal dormitory with great care, lining it with hay, and stopping up the entrance with the same material; he enters it in October, and comes out in the month of April. He passes the winter alone, in a state of morbid drowsiness, from which he is roused with difficulty; and neither eats nor drinks, but seems to derive nourishment from sucking his paws. He makes his exit in spring apparently in as good condition as when he entered; but a few days' exposure to the air reduces him to skin and bone.

The natives pay particular attention to the appearance presented by the unoccupied dens they may discover in summer: if bruin has removed his litter of the preceding winter, he intends to reoccupy the same quarters; if he allows it to remain, he never returns; and the hunter takes his measures accordingly.

The black bear shuns the presence of man, and is by no means a dangerous animal; the grisly bear, on the contrary, commands considerable respect from the "lord of the creation," whom he attacks without hesitation. By the natives, the paw of a grisly bear is considered as honorable a trophy as the scalp of a human enemy.

The reports I have had, both from natives and white trappers, confirm the opinion that certain varieties of the fox belong to the same species, such as the black, silver, cross, and red; all of which have been found in the same nest, but never any of the white or blue. The former, too, are distinguished for their cunning and sagacity; while the latter are very stupid, and fall an easy prey to the trapper; a circumstance of itself sufficient to prove a difference of species.

There are two varieties of the rein-deer, the migratory, and the stationary or wood-deer: the latter is a much larger animal, but not abundant; the former are extremely numerous, migrating in herds at particular seasons, and observing certain laws on their march, from which they seldom deviate. The does make their appearance at Ungava River generally in the beginning of March, coming from the west, and directing their course over the barren grounds near the coast, until they reach George's River, where they halt to bring forth their young, in the month of June. Meantime the bucks, being divided into separate herds, pursue a direct course through the interior, for the same river, and remain scattered about on the upper parts of it until the month of September, when they assemble, and proceed slowly towards the coast. By this time the does move onward towards the interior, the fawns having now sufficient strength to accompany them, and follow the banks of George's River until they meet the bucks, when the rutting season commences, in the month of October; the whole then proceed together, through the interior, to the place whence they came. In the same manner, I have been informed, the deer perform their migratory circuits everywhere; observing the same order on their march, following nearly the same route unless prevented by accidental circumstances, and observing much the same periods of arrival and departure.

The color of the reindeer is uniformly the same, presenting no variety of "spotted black and red." In summer it is a very dark grey, approaching to black, and light grey in winter. The color of the doe is of a darker shade than that of the buck, whose breast is perfectly white in winter. Individuals are seen of a white color at all seasons of the year. The bucks shed their antlers in the month of December; the does in the month of January. A few bucks are sometimes to be met with who roam about apart from the larger herds, and are in prime condition both in summer and winter. These solitaires are said to be unsuccessful candidates for the favors of the does, who, having been worsted by their more powerful rivals in contention amoris, withdraw from the community, and assuming the cowl, ever after eschew female society; an opinion which their good condition at all seasons seems to corroborate.

The rein-deer is subject to greater annoyance from flies than any other animal in the creation; neither change of season nor situation exempts them from this torture. Their great persecutor is a species of gad-fly, (œstries tarandi,) that hovers around them in clouds during summer, and makes them the instruments of their own torture throughout the year. The fly, after piercing the skin of the deer, deposits its eggs between the outer and inner skin, where they are hatched by the heat of the animal's body. In the month of March, the chrysalides burst through the skin, and drop on the ground, when they may be seen crawling in immense numbers along the deer paths as they pass from west to east.

The only birds observed in winter are grouse, ptarmigan, a small species of wood-pecker, butcher-bird, and the diminutive tomtit. We are visited in summer by swans, geese, ducks, eagles, hawks, ravens, owls, robins, and swallows. The eider-duck, so much prized for its down, is found in considerable numbers. The geese are of a most inferior kind, owing, I suppose, to the poor feeding the country affords; when they arrive in summer the ice is often still solid, when they betake themselves to the hills, and feed on berries.

The lakes produce only white fish, trout and carp. We took now and then a few salmon in the river, and there is no doubt that this fish abounds on the coast.

In the sea are found the black whale, porpoise, sea-horse, seal, and the narwhal or sea unicorn; the horn of the latter, solid ivory, is a beautiful object. The largest I procured measured six feet and a half in length, four inches in diameter at the root, and a quarter of an inch at the point. It is of a spiral form, and projects from near the extremity of the snout; it presents a most singular appearance when seen moving along above the surface of the water, while the animal is concealed beneath.

The geological features of the country present so little variety, that one versed in that interesting science would experience but little difficulty in describing them; a mere outline, however, is all I can venture to present.

Along the seacoast the formation is granitic syenite; then, proceeding about forty miles in the direction of South River, syenite occurs, which, about sixty miles higher up, runs into green stone: very fine slate succeeds. At the height of land dividing the waters that flow in different directions, into Esquimaux and Ungava Bays, the formation becomes syenitic schist, and continues so to within a short distance of the great fall on Hamilton River; when syenite succeeds; then gneiss; and along the shores of Esquimaux Bay syenitic gneiss, and pure quartz: lumps of black and red hornblend are met with everywhere. The country is covered with boulders rounded off by the action of water, most of which are different from the rocks in situ, and must have been transported from a great distance, some being of granite—a rock not to be found in this quarter.

The rugged and precipitous banks of George's River are occasionally surmounted by hills; at the base of all these elevations, deep horizontal indentures appear running in parallel lines opposite each other on either side of the river, a circumstance which indicates the action of tides and waves at a time when the other parts of the land were submerged, and the tops of those hills formed islands. Along certain parts of the coast of Labrador rows of boulders are perceived lying in horizontal lines; the lowest about two hundred yards distant from high-water mark, while the farthest extend to near the crest of the adjacent hills. Several deep cavities and embankments of sand are observed in the interior, bearing unequivocal marks of having been, at one time, subject to the influence of the sea.

I shall conclude these few remarks by observing that, whatever conclusions the geologist may arrive at as to the remote or recent elevation of this country, the tops of the higher hills appear to have been formerly islands in the sea; and I doubt not but the same may be said of the higher lands on every part of the Arctic regions. Admitting this to have been the case, it contributes to confirm the theory of that distinguished philosopher, Sir Charles Lyell, as to the cause of the changes that have taken place in the climate of the northern regions.

Notes of a Twenty-Five Years Service in the Hudson's Bay Territory, 1849


Notes on Hudson Bay Territory


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