Unexpected artistry at a (mostly) abandoned settlement in Canada's north

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

It’s a tradition for passers-by to leave food for anyone stranded at remote, frigid Fort Ross, in Canada's the Arctic north.

The wooden hut is weathered to match the grey Arctic sky; paint faded, timber preserved by the dry cold.

The freezing wind here is forensic and the snow a desiccated powder.

This is Fort Ross, high in the Canadian Arctic, on the Northwest Passage.

Two huts remain, surrounded by ice-shattered rock, meringue snow and sea the colour of squid ink.

For 11 years from 1937, men from the Hudson’s Bay Company lived here, an outpost among the Inuit, until the cold and remoteness won. It is difficult to get to, difficult to live here and uneconomic to run.

Fort Ross is in the Qikiqtaaluk area of Nunavut and is one of the stops on Adventure Canada’s Northwest Passage expeditions, if conditions permit. Today it gives us the chance to leave the comfortable ice-class ship Ocean Endeavour, be ferried a few minutes by Zodiac to the shore, and then wander between huts and the cairn high on the hill above.

Fort Ross is at the eastern end of the Bellot Strait — a 26km-long channel which is 2km wide at its broadest point but mostly narrower and an important channel between the northernmost points of the North American mainland and Somerset Island, to its north.

It looked like a good, strategic spot for the Hudson’s Bay Company to get an extra foothold in the Arctic north.

The roots of the Hudson’s Bay Company date back to a royal charter in England in 1670. A trading company, and a government of sorts, its main interest in British-controlled Arctic Canada was the fur trade.

One of two buildings was the store and manager’s house, and it’s still vaguely inhabited today as it is still used for shelter by Inuit hunters. It’s a tradition for passers-by like us to leave food rations for anyone stranded here and, on a low rise nearby, there are Inuit graves — mounds of rocks upon wooden coffins, with a view out over the sea.

Inside one hut, there are two armchairs — snow dusted, upholstery disintegrating, their metal spring guts boing-ing out. As Adventure Canada expedition crew member John Newland puts it, it looks like a polar bear lost the remote control down the back of the seat and went in after it.

There’s a coffee pot with a thick crust of snow on the cold stove, empty book shelves and a rather elegant arched door.

I’m rather intrigued by the lettering over the front door of the main hut. In an elegant serif typeface, it reads “Hudson’s Bay Company” — but it does so in a particular way. For the letters are not painted on to the timber, as one might expect, and they are not carved into a sign which is attached to the building.

Instead each letter has been cut in timber with scroll saw and mounted individually, so that it stands proud of the building, giving a three-dimensional effect. Underneath is a smaller line of text. “Incorporated 2nd May 1670.”

I ponder the nature of men who came to this remote, frigid spot, and still had an eye for artistry and the patience for precision.

And I sit, alone, in the dry snow, and scan a land and sky harmonious in magnificent monochrome.

Fact File


Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Adventure Canada and Canada Tourism.