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Desperate Venture

An Illegal Journey to the Arctic Islands in 1931

David Gray at Sachs Harbour, NWT, July 2009, at the schooner “Fox”

Part 1. 2009 Field Work/Research Final Report

a) Banks Island 2009
My objectives for the Desperate Venture project are to research and document an illegal trapping expedition to Banks and Melville Islands in 1931-32 by Sandy Austin, a young HBC clerk from Scotland, and Naploeon Verville, a trapper from Edmonton. I began this project in 2007 and completed the initial archives research and travel in 2007-2008, through funding by Parks Canada and the Hbc History Foundation.

In 2008 the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation provided a grant, through their Heritage Preservation Partnership Program, to the Canadian Circumpolar Institute to support my travel, field work (including helicopter survey) and other logistical expenses for additional field and archives research for the Desperate Venture project.

David Gray at Sachs Harbour, NWT, July 2009, at the schooner “Fox”
In July 2009 I travelled to Sachs Harbour and northern Banks Island for two weeks. Parks Canada kindly allowed me to accompany their field party on a flight from Inuvik to Sachs Harbour and Aulavik National Park. I stayed at the Parks Canada Polar Bear cabin in Aulavik for four days (July 14 to 17) along with the Parks Canada field crew and two other PCSP-supported field parties. As well as accommodation at the field camp, Parks Canada also provided me with accommodation in Sachs Harbour and Inuvik.

My field work was also supported by the Polar Continental Shelf Program, who provided helicopter support at the government rate (cost-recovery). The Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s Expeditions program provided a $1,000.00 grant from to assist in the cost of the helicopter survey for caches and camps left behind by the 1931 expedition, a total cost of over $5,000.
Through cooperation with the other field parties, I was able to search by helicopter for the cache left by Austin and Verville at Cape McClure in mid October 1931. On July 15, with three observers, we searched 40 km of the northern coast from Antler Cove to Cape Wrottesley, flying right at the coastline as well as inland along suitable ridges and beaches. Unfortunately, no trace of the cache was found. Two recent cairns were noted, one on Cape McClure (Louis St. Laurent JOIS 1998) and one on Cape Crozier. Geologists working in the area have calculated a shoreline retreat of about one meter every two years. Thus it seems that any cache left at the coastline in 1931 would have been washed into the ocean years ago.

Because of the cost of helicopter flights, the limited amount of helicopter time which had to be shared by several parties, and the complication of scheduling due to fog, I was not able to get to the camp and the abandoned schooner Cora at Cora Harbour at the northwest corner of Banks Island.

The required permits for historical/archaeological research were issued by the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, through the community consultation process, including the Inuvialuit Land Administration.

I was able to interview several Elders in both Inuvik (July 11 to July 14) and Sachs Harbour (July 19 to July 23). In Inuvik I talked with Rosie (Stefansson) Albert whose grandmother and father had known Sandy and Nap on Banks Island in 1931. Lucy (Lopez) Adams recalled her late husband’s knowledge of the Verville brothers, including Napoleon. Nap and Sandy had quizzed her father, Peter Lopez, about the caches that the Canadian Arctic Expedition had used on Melville Island.

In Sachs Harbour I talked with Geddes Wolki, John Lucas Sr., and John Lucas Jr. about memories of the two trappers and the camp and schooner at Cora Harbour. John Lucas Sr. gave me two items he had brought back from the Cora, a part of the brass propeller shaft and a brass porthole. The propeller shaft was sent directly to the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre and the porthole will be donated to that museum following consultation with the Verville and Austin families.

Propellor shaft and porthole from the schooner Cora. Sachs Harbour, NWT. July 2009.
I also consulted with community members about the historic site at Mary Sachs and my proposed research and mapping of the site. I gave a presentation on the Desperate Venture project to the Sachs Harbour community during my stay there. I was not able to visit the site near Sachs Harbour where Sandy Austin had his trapping camp in the winter of 1930-1931, though I was able to obtain some aerial photographs as we approached Sachs Harbour.

Five hours of new HD video-recording was completed on Banks Island in July 2009, including shots of places and wildlife mentioned in Austin’s manuscript and new interviews with Elders. Some new footage has been incorporated into the promotional film for Desperate Venture and can be seen on the website.

b) Alberta Research 2009
While in Edmonton, I conducted a second interview with Murielle Verville (daughter-in-law of Nap’s brother Joe) which helped to cast some light on Napoleon Verville’s later life in the north and his family.

Research at the University of Alberta Hospital (and University of Alberta Archives) proved to be impossible as there are no archives relating to patients or patient care from that time period. Thus I was unable to obtain any more information on Verville’s injuries and his recovery.

At the Provincial Archives in Edmonton, I searched the photo collection and other databases for new information on the people and localities mentioned in Sandy Austin’s manuscript.

Main search area on northern Banks Island, looking west from Cape McClure. July 2009.
c) New Field Research 2010
I am planning to return to Banks Island in July 2010, to investigate and document the camp and schooner that Sandy and Napoleon abandoned at Cora Harbour. The research trip will include further interviews with hunters and Elders in Sachs Harbour and documentation of the old Canadian Arctic Expedition camp at Mary Sachs Creek, just west of Sachs Harbour, where Sandy lived during the winter of 1931-1932. I will give another presentation to the Sachs Harbour community, bringing them up to date on this project that is of so much interest to them.

New funding will allow us to complete a 30-minute documentary on the entire Desperate Venture project. We will film during the proposed field work on Banks Island in 2010 which will include the planned trip to the camp and schooner that Sandy and Nap left at Cora Harbour, and to Sandy’s camp at Mary Sachs Creek.

We are now seeking funding for this new research expedition.

The new website on the Desperate Venture project is now up and running at

Part 2. Summary of 2008 Progress

a) New Research 2008
The initial research in the HBC archives in 2007 had turned up some interesting new information about Sandy and Nap and their relationships with the HBC and the RCMP. I was able to continue with that research in the National Library and Archives of Canada in Ottawa in June 2008. This research has provided a better understanding of why Sandy left the HBC and embarked on this dangerous and illegal venture with the notorious troublemaker, Napoleon Verville. Research in the daily RCMP post records at the National Archives has also provided more information on Verville and his three brothers, all well known to the RCMP. From this research we now know the basic story of Napoleon Verville’s later life and of his death in Alaska in 1948.

In Iqaluit, I was able to locate the original diaries describing Manning and MacPherson’s discovery of the schooner Cora and the trappers’camp at Cora Harbour in the Thomas Manning Collection at the Centennial Library. I also found Manning’s annotated aerial photographs showing the location of the camp and schooner.
b) Writing and Preparation of Publication
In 2008-2009 we converted all of the old typed manuscript to a document in Word format and compared the original handwritten manuscript pages to the typed manuscripts. We have also transcribed the relevant parts of oral history interviews recorded in 2002. The manuscript has been reorganized into chapters to help the flow of the story, and we have provided more indications of dates and seasons.

c) Promotional Video
We have created a 10-minute draft of the promotional video called Desperate Venture, which features some sequences from interviews with elders and with the Austin family as well as images from Sandy’s photo album. When completed, the Desperate Venture video will be shown at Arctic events and as a work-in-progress at any Arctic film festivals.

Appendix I. Project Description 

Introduction: Recovering History
The objective of this project is to bring to the Canadian public, especially the people of the Western Arctic and Northern Alberta, important information about the people and wildlife of the Western Arctic, particularly Banks Island, from the newly discovered records of an illegal and almost forgotten expedition to Banks Island in 1931-1932.

This project to research and publish in book form, the story of the expedition, one of the few winter expeditions to the "Place Where People Travel," brings to light and makes available a wealth of new information about the Western Arctic in the 1930s to local northern communities and the international Arctic community.

This project recovers important historical information about the people, wildlife, and weather of Canada’s Western Arctic and northern Alberta. The publication of this book will return to northerners an important part of their cultural history and will contribute to the knowledge of Alberta history in relation to the NWT.

The project springs from a newly-discovered journal recording the Arctic adventures of a young Hudson’s Bay Company clerk from Scotland and an Edmonton trapper who worked and traveled along the Western Arctic coast between 1929 and 1932.

Sandy Austin’s unpublished journal records a rare picture of the Bankslanders at a time near the beginning of their year-round occupation of Banks Island. Unfortunately, the journal manuscript is incomplete as Austin died before he finished the writing. The missing part of manuscript, including the final trip south to Edmonton, will be completed using archival records, interviews, and newspaper accounts and new chapters will outline the later life of both Sandy and his partner Napoleon Verville.

Background Information
In 1929, Sandy Austin, a 19-year-old from Scotland, signed up to work as a clerk for the HBC in Canada. He traveled across Canada to Vancouver where he boarded the SS Baychimo headed for Baillie Island, NWT. Soon frustrated by the tedious desk work of an HBC clerk, he turned to trapping along the Arctic coast for adventure. In 1931, he joined forces with Napoleon Verville, a 34-year old trapper from Edmonton, and the two set off on a desperate venture north to Melville Island. They saw an opportunity to get rich by illegally trapping Arctic foxes in the new Arctic Game Preserve. They sailed their small schooner across the Northwest Passage to Banks Island where winter ice forced them to abandon their boat. From there they traveled by dog team through what is now Aulavik National Park, and across the ice of McClure Strait to Melville Island. Defeated by an unsuccessful search both for foxes and for a food cache at Winter Harbour, they retreated to Banks Island and spent the winter near the local Inuvialuit trapping camps. In January they attempted to cross the Northwest Passage to the mainland, a dangerous trip that few Inuvialuit would consider. This second risky venture was thwarted by open water and on their return to Banks Island they floated on drifting ice, were forced to eat their dogs, and suffered frozen feet. They eventually rejoined the Bankslanders and spent the summer hunting caribou and snow geese. When they finally reached the mainland by schooner in August 1932, they were met by the RCMP, arrested, and charged with illegally entering and trapping within the Arctic Game Preserve. After a trial in Aklavik they were banished from the NWT and travelled south through Alberta to Edmonton where Verville spent two months at the University Hospital recovering from frozen feet.

Both RCMP officers and Inuvialuit hunters doubted that the two reached Melville Island. From his bed in Edmonton's University Hospital, Verville attempted to sell his account of the journey to the government. Front-page articles in Canadian newspapers repeated Verville's embellished accounts of wolf attacks and hints of finding descendants of the lost Franklin expedition. Somewhat disillusioned by the whole affair, Sandy Austin left the north and returned to Scotland in 1933, but his northern experiences had an impact on his later life.

Discovery of the Story
I first learned about the two trappers' journey to Banks and Melville Island in 1997 when I was researching the history of Aulavik National Park for Parks Canada. In an article describing his circumnavigation of Banks Island by canoe in 1951-52, biologist Thomas Manning told of finding their abandoned schooner at the Northwest tip of Banks Island.

In 2002, more stories of the two trappers surfaced during interviews with Elders in Kugluktuk and Paulatuk on the Canadian Arctic Expedition (CAE).

While searching for historical material on the Baillie Islands, I found more details of the trapping venture, and the names of the two men, in the annual RCMP report for 1932.

More recently, an unfinished manuscript of Sandy Austin's Arctic adventures surfaced in an attic in Scotland, along with an album of his photographs. Austin's journal contains a wealth of information on his work with the Hudson’s Bay Company, local wildlife, and the many people they encountered on Banks Island, including some well-known trappers of the time, including Adam Inoalayak, Jim Wolki, Alex Stefansson, and Cheksigalook.

A listing of the photographs in Austin's album shows over 200 rare and important photographs, including fox-trapping, many local people, places, RCMP posts, HBC posts and HBC in the Western Arctic and Alberta between 1929 and 1932. The captions in the photo album provide many details of the people and the places.

Appendix II. Completed Archival Research

With research funding provided by the HBC History Foundation, I searched archives in Edmonton and Winnipeg in 2007 for new information on the expedition and on Napoleon Verville and his family. I located and interviewed one family member, Muriel Verville, Nap Verville’s niece. An interview on this project was published in the Edmonton Journal on July 23, 2007. I also searched the HBC archives in Winnipeg for background information on Austin and Verville in the HBC post journals for Baillie Island, Aklavik, Herschel Island, and Letty Harbour. The HBC Archives provided considerable valuable information on Austin and his relationship with the HBC, and some detail on Nap as well. Unfortunately the post journals for Baillie Island for the critical years, 1930 and 1931, are missing.

With funding from Parks Canada, I traveled to Scotland in September 2007 to conduct preliminary research on Sandy Austin’s life before and after his Canadian experience. I interviewed Sandy’s surviving relatives and made digital copies of the manuscript and photo albums. These interviews provided an indication of the impact Austin’s Canadian adventure had on his later life. Some interviews were recorded on Hi8 videotape.

A summary of the story of the expedition was prepared for the HBC History Foundation and Parks Canada, along with a detailed report on the parts of the manuscript relating to Aulavik National Park and the Winter Harbour National Historic Site, and illustrated with a sample of Austin's photographs.

Project Sponsors and Supporters
Alberta Historical Resources Foundation (Heritage Preservation Partnership Program) Canadian Circumpolar Institute
Hudson’s Bay Company History Foundation
Pamela Austin, Scotland
Parks Canada, Western Arctic Field Unit
Polar Continental Shelf Program
Royal Canadian Geographical Society

Primary Researcher, Film Director
David R. Gray, PhD
Research Affiliate, Canadian Circumpolar Institute
Research Associate, Canadian Museum of Civilization

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email: [email protected]

Webmaster, Film Producer
Ian Hall
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