According to the advice of the Indian chief, Hobson determined to get to the coast by the shortest route, and to take a north-easterly direction. After consulting, his map, which merely gave a rough outline of the configuration of the country, it seemed best to him to descend the valley of the Coppermine, a large river which flows into Coronation Gulf.
The distance between Fort Confidence and the mouth of this river is only a degree and a half-that is to say, about eighty-five or ninety miles. The deep hollow formed by the gulf is bounded on the north by Cape Krusenstein, and from it the coast juts out towards the north-west, ending in Cape Bathurst, which is above the seventieth parallel.
The Lieutenant, therefore, now changed the route he had hitherto followed, directing his course to the east, so as to reach the river in a few hours.
In the afternoon of the next day, June 3d, the river was gained. It was now free from ice, and its clear and rapid waters flowed through a vast valley, intersected by numerous but easily fordable streams. The sledges advanced pretty rapidly, and as they went along, Hobson gave his companion some account of the country through which they were passing. A sincere friendship founded on mutual esteem, had sprung up between these two. Mrs Paulina Barnett was an earnest student with a special gift for discovery, and was therefore always glad to converse with travellers and explorers. Hobson, who knew his beloved North America by heart, was able to answer all her inquiries fully.
“About ninety years ago,” he said, “the territory through which the Coppermine flows was unknown, and we are indebted for its discovery to the agents of the Hudson’s Bay Company. But as always happens in scientific matters, in seeking one thing, another was found. Columbus was trying to find Asia, and discovered America.”
“And what were the agents of the Hudson’s Bay Company seeking? The famous North-West Passage?”
“No, madam,” replied the young Lieutenant. “A century ago the Company had no interest in the opening of a new route, which would have been more valuable to its rivals than to it. It is even said that in 1741 a certain Christopher Middleton, sent to explore these latitudes, was publicly charged with receiving a bribe of £500 from the Company to say that there was not, and could not be, a sea passage between the oceans.”
“That was not much to the credit of the celebrated Company,” said Mrs Barnett.
“I do not defend it in the matter,” replied Hobson; “and its interference was severely censured by Parliament in 1746, when a reward of £20,000 was offered by the Government for the discovery of the passage in question. In that year two intrepid explorers, William Moor and Francis Smith, penetrated as far as Repulse Bay in the hope of discovering the much-longed-for passage. But they were unsuccessful, and returned to England after an absence of a year and a half.”
“But did not other captains follow in their steps, resolved to conquer where they had failed?” inquired Mrs Barnett.
“No, madam; and in spite of the large reward offered by Parliament, no attempt was made to resume explorations in English America until thirty years afterwards, when some agents of the Company took up the unfinished task of Captains Moor and Smith.”
“The Company had then relinquished the narrow-minded egotistical position it had taken up?”
“No, madam, not yet. Samuel Hearne, the agent, only went to reconnoitre the position of a copper-mine which native miners had reported. On November 6, 1769, this agent left Fort Prince of Wales, on the river Churchill, near the western shores of Hudson’s Bay. He pressed boldly on to the north-west; but the excessive cold and the exhaustion of his provisions compelled him to return without accomplishing anything. Fortunately he was not easily discouraged, and on February 23d of the next year he set out again, this time taking some Indians with him. Great hardships were endured in this second journey. The fish and game on which Hearne had relied often failed him; and he had once nothing to eat for seven days but wild fruit, bits of old leather, and burnt bones.