On a desolate peninsula on the southeastern tip of Somerset Island, Bellot Strait, are two clapboard houses. One is derelict but charming – its windows long gone, but hints of a life once lived here still remain inside: a stove with a teapot, an armchair, sofa and a bed-stand. The wallpaper peels from the walls but its faded shades, a once-jolly pattern, would have been quite fashionable in 1930 Canada. The house is not lacking in beauty – it’s the view that is barren. There are no trees, nothing but the strait, gravel and a few stunted shrubs. In winter it would be a blank white landscape of sea ice and snow. This is Fort Ross and it was once an outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
The second building has ‘Hudson’s Bay Company’ in big letters across its front. The door and windows are protected with thick boards, some scraped with polar bear scratches that hint at food inside. Once, it was a trading post – a place where inuit could come to trade seal and fox fur and receive goods in return. Today, this is a stopping point for the rare visitors that pass by – four bunk beds and a store cupboard of leftover food. The names of people, ships and expeditions are scrawled all over the wooden interior, and two visitors book document those who come independently and those who arrive by cruise ship
The Governor and Company of Adventurers
The HBC has existed since 1670 as ‘The Governor and Company of Adventurers trading into Hudson’s Bay’. It was a de facto government in parts of North America for a long time, and laid claim to some of those territories. The HBC controlled the fur trade, undertaking early exploration in the region, it’s traders and trappers forging relationships with local peoples in the region – first the aboriginal people and later, as the company pushed north, with the Inuit. In return for furs, the Inuit were given useful items. Of these, the woolen Hudson’s Bay Blanket is the most famous. Its traditional pattern was cream with bold coloured stripes – a design which is still sold today. But the most critical design element was a series of parallel dark lines on the seam which, when folded, told the handler how big the blanket was. The more furs that were traded, the larger the blanket would be.
Fort Ross was the last trading post established by the HBC, in 1937. It consisted of four houses – a manager’s house, a power house, warehouse and the store. This was the last of the Hudson’s Bay Company outposts to be built, and it functioned for a mere 11 years. Ice conditions in the area made the site so difficult to access, it became uneconomical to run. But abandoning the operation was far from easy. In 1943, with supplies running dangerously low, the Hudson’s Bay Company sent a ship to pack down the fort and collect manager Bill Heslop and his wife, but the pack ice was too dense. With Canadian long-range planes busy with the war, it was left to the United States Air Force to help. A team of ‘Arctic Specialists’ were put together, including one Captain Fletcher, who after a single day of training, parachuted onto the plateau – probably the first jump north of the Arctic circle. With the help of the local Inuit, who were camped in the area, he made a makeshift runway on a nearby lake and the plane eventually landed. The Douglas C-47 Skytrain had to taxi the entire time to avoid getting stuck in the snow and ice. The Heslops had to abandon most of their belongings but the post was shut down. In 1947 the post reopened for a season, but by 1948 it was abandoned to the elements, until refurbished as a relic and shelter.
The images below aim to give a taste of the abandonment that you feel when visiting Fort Ross. Remarkably, the old house hasn’t been lost to the Arctic freeze, despite missing all its windows and with signs of the occasional polar bear coming to call… the Trading post is boarded up (it has spare food and emergency supplies inside for the rare ships that pass), and visitors must remove planks scared by polar bear claws in order to access the doorway. The whole site leaves you with the feeling that someone has just stepped out but will be coming home soon.