Arctic Twilight: Taking Len Budgell Home

arctic twilight cover

How many times did Leonard say to me, write to me, that he would love to show me the Labrador, that he wished he could take me to visit his seagoing friend in Nova Scotia who was building a yacht, that he could take me back to the places he’d been.  They are countless, and I know this because you can do it all on the computer, right? Go into the manuscript and find them, and count them.

In the precious twenty-two years of his life that I knew him, he wrote about 7000 pages of letters, to me. He wrote thousands to other friends, but I think our connection was so close that he wrote more to me than to any one other person.

Now I am taking him home, not to the Labrador this time, but to where he went to secondary school in St. John’s, to Nova Scotia, to Fogo island where his father was born.  If Len had had his preferences in life, one of them would have been never to leave the Maritimes; another would have been to have had a life on the sea.

Arctic Twilight is edited  from the first four thousand pages he wrote me. Three thousand of those pages were of his family whom I knew, and who knew me. I heard of each new tooth a grandchild had struggled with, of a daughter’s gardens, of his wife Muriel’s Alzheimer disease.

The other thousand were of everything else he loved, mostly the people he treasured, native people he called, as they did back then, Indians and Eskimos; seagoing men, and women. he thought women were much higher in the scheme of things than men. He wrote of his Arctic postings with The Hudson’s Bay Company, of animals, of dogs and ospreys and owls and whales and seals. Goats. An early reader said his writing was magical, that once you get into it, you can’t put it down.

Unofficially he started working for the Company when he was twelve, behind the counter in North West River, Labrador, and driving nurses and doctors by dog team to distant locations on the Labrador. His official start was at Cartwright when he was 18 years old.len at 18

It’s a wonderful photo, isn’t it, Len at 18; it was once on the cover of Them Days Magazine as he often wrote for this oral history publication and was close to editor Doris Saunders. (He wrote many, many letters to her too, of course.)

So I will bring Leonard and his writings to Newfoundland and to Nova Scotia, reading in five libraries and several other venues. I could read for weeks never stopping, as although I’ve been taking him to places like Whitehorse lately, his writing is always alive to me, and I find it hard to stop reading his words aloud when the audience still seems to want more.

On Fogo I will be staying where he had lived for that seminal year when he was a boy, finishing the sequel to Arctic Twilight.  I can’t wait to have my feet walk the places he walked. I can’t wait to bring his words to more places. Places that will be the richer for them.

I love being able to say that Arctic Twilight: Leonard Budgell and the Changing North is one of the best books anyone can read, that every Canadian should know his writings, because I didn’t write this book, Leonard did.  It can be found on Amazon, also available on e-readers. It was published by Blue Butterfly Books, but is now under Dundurn Press.


To everyone ‘down east’, I’m looking forward to seeing you soon!


len and muriels and childrenPhoto: 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.H J Winney pilotThe 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.norseman repulseHere 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.scan0002What’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.Father Henri with pope John 23rdThere 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.

Writer/ Editor Hat

Here is a photo of Leonard Budgell at eighteen. He has just been officially hired by The Hudson`s Bay Company at Cartwright, Labrador. Son of a Hudson`s Bay Post Manager, unofficially he had been behind the counter in Northwest River and Rigolet since he was about ten.

len at 18Len was extremely shy and several of his letters tell of experiences when he was behind that counter that would have him blushing furiously. Usually a young nurse would be involved, asking the boy for something like a pair of longjohns. At other times he drove nurses and doctors by dogsled around to the tiny Labrador communities. A storm would arise, and shelter found in a tiny trapper`s tilt. The nurse of course, not properly dressed for Labrador storms, would be wet and cold, and Len would be caught. Once her clothes were off and drying, what to do…

Len would go on to be a Servant of The Bay (his favourite term) for many years in Northern areas. Where many men might remember, and tell or write of these experiences, Len just happened to be an incredible writer. His stories have us laughing or crying, connecting, learning or laughing. Want to read some wonderful things about the sea, or animals of the North, or the natural abilities of native peoples, or whales or seals, or owl eggs, go to Arctic Twilight: Leonard Budgell and the Changing North (2010, Blue Butterfly Books-Dundurn Press).

In The Globe, Michael Crummy called Len  the greatest writer on the North that he knows of. Mr. Crummy credits Len`s writing about boats and engines in his own novel, Sweetland.

I miss him very much. Leonard died in the year 2000, but his words will be here for a very long time. For more about Len and Arctic Twilight, you can to the Archives, and the June posts.