The Hudson Bay coast was remote, sparsely populated, and difficult to access from southern Canada. That seemed likely to change, however, with Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier promising to build a railway to carry grain from the prairies to a terminus at Churchill in what was then Keewatin District, Northwest Territories, and is now northern Manitoba. The intention was to load the grain onto ships and send it to Europe. The anticipated coming of the Hudson Bay Railway nudged the Royal North West Mounted Police (RNWMP) into expanding its presence along the coast.
In 1910, the Mounties had only two detachments in their “M” Division, which spanned the west and northwest coast of Hudson Bay Keewatin District. One detachment was at Cape Fullerton, built in 1903 at the northwest top of the bay where American whalers overwintered; the other was further south at Churchill, built in 1905 at the site of a former Hudson’s Bay Company post. The police proposed to place prefabricated shelter huts, a precursor to posts, at three additional locations on the northwest coast of the bay in present-day Nunavut — Eskimo Point (now Arviat), Rankin Inlet, and Chesterfield Inlet — as well as a possible fourth hut still farther north at Wager Bay or Repulse Bay (now Naujaat). To carry out this work, the force had chartered the services of the Newfoundland-based wooden schooner Jeanie for the summer for $6,000.
Macoun travelled aboard the steamer Stanley from Halifax to Churchill, reaching the mounted police post as the Jeanie was preparing to set sail up the western coast of the bay. He immediately made arrangements with the Mounties and the schooner skipper to travel on board, believing it would enable him to collect specimens over a wide range of territory with relative ease. The Jeanie, however, did not inspire confidence. She was lucky to have made it as far as Churchill from her home port in Newfoundland and was already sporting a gaping hole in her patchwork sail. The crew was apparently little better. “I would not like to be stranded ... up north with a crew of such fellows,” Macoun later remarked. The schooner’s one saving feature was its auxiliary gas engine.
On August 25, 1910, after several days collecting around Churchill, Macoun sailed north along the western rim of Hudson Bay aboard the Jeanie. The schooner’s nine-member crew was captained by Harold Bartlett, who doubled as navigator. Harold came from a renowned Newfoundland sailing family whose members included Bob Bartlett, who famously captained Robert Peary’s vessel during his second attempt to reach the North Pole in 1905–06. But the Jeanie expedition was Harold Bartlett’s maiden voyage into the Hudson Bay region, and his inexperience would become a liability as he was tested by unstable weather. Other schooner passengers included RNWMP Superintendent Cortlandt Starnes (a future Royal Canadian Mounted Police commissioner), a sergeant, four constables, and a doctor. Three Inuit couples served as guides.
Macoun spent two days collecting at Eskimo Point and Rankin Inlet while the portable houses were erected. He was surprised to discover an intermingling of Arctic and more southern plants at these places — he had expected to find only Arctic flora. He also gathered information from Inuit inhabitants about the distribution and habits of local birds and mammals. This fieldwork was supplemented with photographs. While drying his plant specimens, Macoun used the time to wander about snapping pictures.
The next stop at Chesterfield Inlet had to be abandoned because of “dirty weather,” and the schooner made for Cape Fullerton, where she was nearly wrecked on the rocks during a rain squall. “All hands made ready for the worst,” Jim scribbled in his field notebook on September 3. “Had the vessel been wrecked in the dark there would have been little hope.”
Starnes and four other policemen remained behind at the Cape Fullerton RNWMP detachment, while Macoun, one constable, and the Inuit guides continued north to Wager Bay, where the last hut was to be placed. Their arrival there was delayed because of a sluggish ship compass that took them off course eastward towards Southampton Island. According to Macoun’s last diary entry on September 9, with the Jeanie anchored in a small cove in Wager Bay, a fierce snowstorm with gale-force winds came up in the afternoon, broke the anchor chains, and violently drove the ship aground that night. The schooner listed and slowly began to take on water. Fortunately, when daylight broke it was low tide, and everyone on board scrambled safely ashore.
Macoun had been shipwrecked almost twenty years earlier. In 1892, during his investigation of the Pribilof Islands seal rookeries for the Fur Seal Arbitration Tribunal, he had nearly drowned when his ship struck a rock off the Queen Charlotte Islands (now Haida Gwaii), British Columbia. He drew on that experience and, together with RNWMP Constable J.G. Jones, ordered everyone to take refuge in the new shelter hut while they assessed the situation.
The wreck of the Jeanie left them with two small boats: a gasoline launch and a whaling boat that had been used to ferry cargo ashore. Both boats had been smashed on the rocks during the storm. Over the next week, the stranded crew and passengers repaired the craft to make them seaworthy. The nearest settlement was the mounted police detachment at Cape Fullerton, nearly 250 kilometres south along the coast. They faced the prospect of waiting out the winter there — if they made it.
Because of space limitations, baggage and any extra clothing had to be left behind at Wager Bay. Macoun’s animal specimens suffered the same fate and were abandoned aboard the Jeanie. His collection of marine life was also sacrificed when the tank in which it was housed was confiscated to carry fresh water after the shipwreck.
Macoun refused, however, to part with his botanical collections. “It was only by intimidation,” he later told the Geological Survey director Reginald Walter Brock, “that I was allowed to take my specimens with me.” Macoun also wrote letters to his father and children in the event that he did not return home alive. It is not known what the letters said, nor what became of them.
Macoun and his party set off on September 16, with the gasoline launch towing the whaling boat. They took three days to reach Cape Fullerton, often losing sight of the coast along the way. American Captain George Comer had just put his whaling ship, the A.T. Gifford, in winter quarters at Cape Fullerton, but he agreed to take the party down to Churchill, more than six hundred kilometres distant. The Jeanie refugees arrived back in Churchill exactly a month after they had left it.