Photo: Len Budgell, his wife Muriel and their two oldest children while on a Northern Hudson’s Bay posting, mid 50s.
When Len Budgell and I met in Winnipeg, there was an immediate connection. I asked him in for tea on the winter afternoon when he’d delivered a friend to our house from the airport. He accepted, and that was the beginning of many hours of conversation, visits, getting to know each other and each others’ families. The letters came later, once I moved away.
But as our friendship galloped along, we found we were connected in many odd concrete ways, as well as our love of nature, of reading, of writing…
In a new collection of his stories I am putting together, there is one called ‘Mercy Mission.’ In August of nineteen-forty five, shortly after the end of World War Two, a small vessel, the Fort Severn, left Churchill, Manitoba, bound for Repulse Bay some six hundred miles north. Repulse Bay was then a tiny settlement sitting directly on the Arctic Circle and the only non-native residents were the HBC Post manager and his wife, Dave and Margaret Drysdale, and two Roman Catholic priests, Father Henry (French Oblate missionary, pronounced like ‘Henri’) of “Kabloona” fame and Father Bazin.
The Drysdales were supposed to go south on the Severn, as they were expecting their first child, and her time was getting close. Optimistically, and because there had been no interruption in the sea-lift from Churchill in the previous twenty-seven years, Drysdale had no reservations about depleting his supplies at Repulse Bay in order to stock a Trade Camp about one hundred miles south. Accordingly a Peterhead boat was loaded and dispatched to Wagar Inlet in August, leaving the shelves at Repulse Bay bare in readiness to receive the new supplies then enroute from Churchill.
However, that year the usual supply ships, Severn and Neophyte could not get through the ice, leaving the Drysdales stranded without food or medical help, without fuel. As the winter deepened, they started to break up the furniture for the stove.
The Hudson’s Bay Company was fortunate in that it had, in the person of Harry J. Winney, a very experienced bush pilot who was willing to fly to the Arctic in bad weather.The personnel manager of the H.B.C. Fur Trade Department wanted Len to go with the plane to Repulse Bay, stay there till the following summer, and return to Winnipeg via the supply ship in the summer of 1946.
Len’s account of this journey is remarkable. The weather was as bad as it could be and they had to make two attempts, losing time because of storms, and having to wait in Churchill. Their aircraft was a Noorduyn Norseman, a wooden framed aircraft covered by canvas and doped against the elements, a fragile barque in which to brave the Arctic.
Once they got there (without the instruments available today…) the engine caught on fire, destroying the canvas cowling…How they got back to Winnipeg with the plane is this condition is worth waiting for the next collection of Len’s writing. For this story alone, the new collection is a goldmine.Here is that same Norseman in Winnipeg waiting for repairs. But that’s not what I started to talk about.
Connections: Well, it turns out that my mother most likely had sewn the canvas onto the wing of that very plane when she worked at Noorduyn Aircraft Ltd in Cartierville, Quebec. This is a photo from the Montreal Star. Because it was 1943 and Canada was at war, neither the name of the Aircraft company nor its location, are mentioned in the caption. My mother is sitting, looking up at a co-worker.What’s more, my fatherwho also worked at Noorduyn’s, had probably sprayed the layers of dope onto its wings. I have photos of my father standing beside a Norseman as one of the crew that built her.
The connections didn’t end there: twenty years later, in the late 50s, my father went to Baffin Island with the Shell Oil Company, where he met, and became friends with, the same Father Pierre Henry mentioned above. One of my father’s treasured possessions, and now mine, was this photograph given to him by Father Henry which shows the missionary Oblate shaking hands with Pope John XXIII. On the reverse side of the photo, Father Henry has written a personal message to my father.There were other thing that made us close, deeper connections based on more subtle things, most of which could never be photographed. The ones I’ve written about here would never even have been discovered had we now embarked upon such a long and deep friendship.
Len liked to write and he liked to yarn; he liked writing so much that he would be up at 5:30 nearly every day of his life writing to someone, not only me. Several people have let me know they have bundles of letters from him. Len was pleased that his letters and stories might sometime see the light of day but from the start he was content knowing that someone else loved what he loved, and the places and people and nature he cared about.
How I would love to be back in time waiting at the post box for his next 20 or 30 or 70 page letter. Writing back. Connecting.
Photo credits to the Budgell family and the Hudson’s Bay Archives, Manitoba.