Time Traveler in Labrador

Our guest blogger this time around is Jim Davidson, who, with John Rugge, is the author of The Complete Wilderness Paddler and Great Heart: A History of a Labrador Adventure. They have also made two films, The Complete Wilderness Paddler, about their trip down the Moisie River; and One River Down, a film about a trip down the Notakwanon River in Labrador. Jim is a historian whose books include After the Fact: the Art of Historical Detection and ‘They Say:’ Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race. He is currently working on A Little History of the United States. Rivers he has paddled include the Notakwanon, the George, and the Clearwater of Labrador and Quebec.

The breathless and wonderfully cheesy sci-fi movie of 1956—Invasion of the Bodysnatchers—would seem to have little to do with Pete Marshall's trek to retrace Mina Hubbard's expedition of 1905, but I couldn't help thinking of it the other day. Ostensibly the plot is about an alien invasion that insidiously grows cocoon-like pods in suburban basements, which, when fully developed, somehow morph into the bodies of their homemaker hosts, once they go to sleep. Voila! Decent suburbanites, who before liked nothing better than to mow the lawn and whip up a batch of California Cheese Dip, become zombies who spread the alien contagion across the land. Later film critics ascribed the film's creepy success to its evocation of an off-center 1950s America in which Commie agents were thought to have infiltrated everywhere and were subverting the national identity from within. (The film is still available courtesy of Netflix, if you want to get the popcorn going. Not to be confused with the 1978 remake starring Donald Sutherland.)

The author of the novel upon which the film is based was a fellow named Jack Finney, and he supplies my (admittedly tenuous) connection to Pete and his Labrador journey. Finney worked a good deal in science fiction, and his most successful novel was about time travel, Time and Again (1970)I'm a sucker for time travel novels, and it's always interesting to see the coup de theatre (that's French for hokeymagokum) each author devises to usher his protagonists into the past or future. H. G. Wells'Time Machine, translated to the screen in a 1960 George Pal production, employed a Victorian contraption that seemed a cross between a stuffed armchair equipped with a fan/radar dish and a sleigh (below). Back to the Future useda DeLorean sports car. There have been any number of shimmering gates, gyroscopes and gizmos on rails, not to mention Dr. Who's TARDIS, camouflaged in the shape of a 1960s era London police box. 

But for Time and Again, JackFinney went refreshingly low tech in sending his protagonist Simon Morley back to the 1880s, via a top-secret CIA project. No drones, no whirling gizmos. The lab instead tries to recreate with exact fidelity the place to which one wishes to return in the past. In this case, the launch pad becomes a room in the Dakota apartment building overlooking Central Park in Manhattan. Morley is outfitted with the proper clothes, and in his cozy apartment room sees nothing of the twentieth century; meals are brought to him in the style of the era; and the view out the window reveals only a wooded portion of the park. Nothing happens until, suddenly one snowy midwinter night, New York and the park are blanketed in white, traffic ceases and the world outside is silent, motionless—until Morley dozes off and indeed wakes up in 1882. 

The conceit seems almost childish; and yet the novel has proved immensely popular due to its vivid recreation of the 1880s, drawing on photos from the period and Finney's evocation of the day. It's a far homier literary production than the paranoid Bodysnatchers. The time travel mechanism is laughably far-fetched—after all, even if you can only see trees out of the Dakota's windows, they surely look nothing like the arboreal landscape of a century earlier. Yet readers willingly suspend disbelief. 

Pete Marshall, of course, is embarked on a Finneyesque quest to leap through time in similar fashion. He will wear the sort of clothing available to the Hubbard expeditions of 1903 and 1905; will propel a wood-and-canvas canoe using a hand-crafted paddle, and head out into the same country. Laughable conceit? When John Rugge and I paddled through Hope Lake in 1980, along Leonidas Hubbard's route of 1903, our feeling that we had traveled back in time was piercing and uncanny. Hubbard and Dillon Wallace had taken a photo of Hope Lake in 1903, included in Wallace's Lure of the Labrador Wild. As we note in Great Heart, our own book about the expeditions, when Rug and I arrived at the lake, its narrow shape made obvious the vantage point from which Hubbard's photo was taken. To our astonishment, the three pines in the foreground of the photo taken nearly 80 years earlier were still visible. So harsh is the Labrador environment, they had grown only a few feet or so in the intervening years. 

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Hope Lake, 1980

As we sat there with our tattered paperback copy of the Lure, we felt as if we had indeed walked onto a Jack Finney set; and that if we descended a hundred yards to the shore of Hope Lake below, we would run smack into Wallace, Hubbard and Elson loading up their canoe. Unlike Central Park, Labrador hasn't changed that much in its interior, though Michikamau Lake has become swollen enough as present-day Smallwood Reservoir that its shorelines have changed. 

Still—not enough to thwart a determined time traveler. On more than one occasion Pete will no doubt feel as if he's paddled back into the dawn of the twentieth century.