BRIGUS, N.L. — The hometown of Capt. Bob Bartlett, possibly one of the world’s most adventurous seafarers, provides an idyllic contrast to the conditions he encountered during his famous Arctic expedition a century ago.
White picket fences, air tinged with salt water and flocks of mallards greet visitors to Brigus, a town of 800 that overlooks Conception Bay, about 90 km west of St. John’s. It’s also the focal point of provincewide festivities this year marking Bartlett’s 1909 trek to the North Pole.
In a time before icebreakers, Bartlett embraced hardship and flirted with danger like few others as he broke ground for the better-known American explorer Robert Peary.
In the years leading up to his famous journey, he endured a shipwreck, an onboard boiler explosion and ran out of coal while at sea, using whale blubber and anything else that would burn to fuel his return home. But such mishaps appear only to have stoked his desire to take on the North.
“It’s all right while you’re exploring. You get used to rotten meat, frozen fingers, lice and dirt,” Bartlett wrote in one of his journals.
“The hard times come when you get back.”
The town he came back to is believed to have been settled in 1612, making it one of North America’s oldest non-aboriginal communities and a picturesque snapshot in time, with its cottages, stone walls and winding, narrow lanes that harken back to the 19th century.
“It is, historically, a very significant town, very reminiscent of an English village,” said Corey Boon, owner of the Bumble Bee Bed and Breakfast.
“It hasn’t changed to become a tourist mecca. It is still itself.”
That may change a little this summer when, beginning July 11, the Arctic schooner Bowdoin will be in Brigus for three days as part of the Bartlett 2009 celebrations.
The wooden vessel, the smallest designed specifically to traverse the Arctic, made its maiden voyage to Baffin Island a decade after Bartlett’s 1909 expedition. It will visit 12 ports throughout Newfoundland and Labrador until Aug. 16.
In 1909, Bartlett was commissioned to cut a path for Peary, sailing through rough seas and sledding over desolate ice to within 240 km of the Pole. It was closer to the top of the world than anyone had ever confirmed reaching.
After ordering Bartlett to turn back, Peary continued north himself and reported reaching the pole on April 6.
His announcement triggered controversy from some experts, who said it was impossible for him to confirm that he had arrived at his target, but the U.S. Congress and several scientific organizations have since officially recognized Peary’s achievement.
Bartlett continued his own journeys to the Arctic and quickly became a celebrated figure whenever he returned to Brigus.
Hawthorne Cottage, his childhood home and a National Historic Site of Canada, served as his rest stop before he ventured out to sea again.
The town also hosts an annual four-day festival in August celebrating the blueberry. The event takes on carnival-like atmosphere, with fireworks, folk music, raffles and a pie-eating contest.
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