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TheDesperate Ventureproject springs from a newly-discovered journal recording the Arctic adventures of a young Hudson’s Bay Company clerk from Scotland and a trapper from Edmonton. Anxious for income and adventure, the two gambled on an illegal trapping venture into the western Arctic Islands and paid for their decision with a year of dangerous travel and several brushes with death.
Fresh from Scotland and only 19, Sandy Austin traveled across Canada to Vancouver in 1929, then steamed to Baillie Island, Northwest Territories, aboard the SS Baychimo. There he soon tired of the tedium of desk work at the Hudson’s Bay Company post and turned his hand to trapping and traveling along the Arctic coast. View map.
In 1931, he joined forces with Napoleon Verville, a 34-year old trapper from Edmonton, and the two set off on what they called a “desperate venture” 500 kilometres north to Melville Island. They had grasped an opportunity to get rich with a plan to illegally trap Arctic foxes in the new Arctic Islands Game Preserve and so sailed their small motor schooner, the Cora, across the western end of the Northwest Passage to northwestern Banks Island. Here winter ice forced them to abandon their boat at a place now named after their schooner, Cora Harbour.
Under the severe conditions of intense cold, new and roughly buckled ice, short days, and poor hunting, they traveled by dog team across the top of Banks Island and across the jumbled and unsafe ice of McClure Strait north again to Melville Island.
Arriving in early November, they were soon defeated by an unsuccessful search both for foxes and for an expected food cache at Winter Harbour, on the Island’s south coast. Fighting their way back across the moving ice, a daring feat, they retreated to Banks Island and spent the winter near the local Inuvialuit trapping camps. With limited food resources in the camps, they set off south in January, attempting to recross the Northwest Passage to the mainland, a dangerous trip that few Inuvialuit would consider. This second risky venture was thwarted by open water. On their forced return to Banks Island they floated on drifting ice, were forced to eat their dogs, and suffered serious freezing of their feet.
They eventually rejoined the Bankslanders and spent the spring and 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 Northwest Territories and traveled south through Alberta to Edmonton where Verville spent two months at the University Hospital recovering from frozen feet, and the self-inflicted removal of gangrenous toes.
Their story was so incredible that few believed them. Both RCMP officers and Inuvialuit hunters doubted that the two had reached Melville Island. From his bed in Edmonton's University Hospital, Verville attempted to sell his account of the journey to the Canadian government. Front-page articles in Canadian and American 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. There he used his surviving diaries to start a manuscript account of his adventure. Unfinished at his death, the manuscript was stored in an attic, and his story was virtually forgotten.