CHURCHILL -- Samuel Hearne, English explorer and governor of Fort Prince of Wales in the late 1700s, claimed the beavers he let waddle around the stone fort made better pets than some cats and dogs.
"I kept several," he wrote in his journal, "... til they became so domesticated as to answer to their names...and follow as a dog would do; and they were as pleased at being fondled as any animal I ever saw."
You had to do something, after all, stuck in a fort made out of quartzite rock, on a desolate point overlooking Hudson Bay, buffeted by northern gales and frequent blizzards and surrounded by sea ice two-thirds of the year.
Fort Prince of Wales, built in the mid-1700s, is testament to the extraordinary mettle of those first immigrants, mostly Scots from the Orkney Islands, who plied the fur trade for the Hudson's Bay Co., and the First Nations people who traded with them.
Unfortunately, if you travel to see the polar bears, as more than two-thirds of tourists to Churchill do, you don't get to visit Fort Prince of Wales, a national historic site. Located across the wide mouth of the Churchill River from the town, it's inaccessible most of the year except in summer.
But if you go to see the beluga whales in summer, which ranks right at the top in the global pantheon of whale-watching, you get this huge added bonus: one of the most amazing historic sites in Canada.
It's more like visiting a war memorial. You suddenly feel alone here, even when part of a tour group. The struggles, the merciless conditions, the premature deaths seem as if written in the fort's rock. The long, dark winters, the screaming winds, the swarms of flying insects, the isolation are apparent in the hardscrabble landscape. It's almost like our own "heart of darkness," but in the subarctic rather than the Congo.
Living conditions were so difficult Governor James Knight, who started the fort in 1717, wrote to London a year later that "... York Fort (at York Factory) is bad, but this is ten times worse." Knight was never seen again after setting sail in 1719 to find the Northwest Passage.
"When I first came up here and learned the story (of the fort), it blew me away, just the sheer amount of willpower and tenacity and commitment these men had," said Mike Iwanowsky, Parks Canada visitor experience manager for the Hudson Bay area.
The Hudson's Bay Co. set up a trading post here in 1689 to trade with the Dene, Cree and Inuit. It started building a military fort in 1730 to protect its commercial interests from invasion by France. The fort wasn't completed until 41 years later.
That was fine with France. It waited. Then in 1782, Admiral la P©rouse sailed into the harbour in three ships with 300 soldiers and about 600 other men, versus the 39 HBC personnel in the fort, none of them soldiers. Hearne gave up without firing a shot.
La P©rouse pillaged and set fire to wood buildings and sabotaged the fort's 42 cannon by driving spikes into their trunnion caps, all in the name of disrupting the HBC's trade. He also blew out five parts of the fort's stone walls.
Incidentally, those blast holes, later repaired by the HBC, are the places where much of modern-day restoration work has been performed by Parks Canada. Forty cannon, which were only ever used to fire salutes, are still at the fort.
Most of the walls withstood the French attack. They are made of something called greywacke, a quartzite sandstone found here that looks very similar to Canadian Shield rock, especially inside the rock cuts. It's much harder material to work with than the limestone used to construct Lower Fort Garry a century later. You can still see the grooves in the rock faces from the drill holes used by Scottish masons to split the rock.
The walls were unbelievably thick, 11 metres thick in some places. The 40 cannon were mounted on carriages along the parapet. The width of the walls provided room for cannon recoil.
The French departed, wanting no part of a Hudson Bay winter. Hearne and his men were dropped off in the Hudson Strait in a small sloop and made their way to Britain within a month. They returned a year later to start rebuilding.
As harsh as conditions were, the pay and food were very good and employees regularly renewed their stays. The men sent their pay back to their families in Scotland and dined on more meat than they ever dreamed of back home.
As for Hearne and his beavers, as detailed in his journal excerpted in Lyn Harrington's travel book, Manitoba Roundabout (1951), he built them a house and a small pool "into which they always plunged when they wanted to relieve nature." He fed them the same food as the fort's two-legged inhabitants. "(They) were remarkably fond of rice and plum pudding," Hearne wrote in his journal.