In early spring, caribou cows from the Barren Ground herds migrate from the boreal forests of Canada to their calving grounds on the northern, open tundra of the Northwest Territories and flanks of the Hudson Bay. The bull caribou set a more leisurely pace north, with less to lose and more energy to protect themselves from the wolves that hunt along the tree lines.
When the calves are one to two months old, they retreat south with their mothers to meet up with the bulls. These new groups are called bunches, and they can include tens of thousands of caribou. The bunches gather in the middle of Canada’s Barren Grounds (the Barrens), a vast, mosquito-laden, black fly paradise of tundra. From here, the herds continue en masse toward overwintering grounds in the forests. For generations, indigenous people who rely on caribou meat to survive, have known that the July and August bunches are the prime hunting opportunities of the year.
Presumably, Englishman John Hornby knew this too. But just like the barren ground bulls in their northern migration, Hornby was never bothered by any particular sense of urgency.
Hornby was born in 1880 to a wealthy family. It was expected that he’d stay in England and work some sort of dull, socially acceptable job, and that’d be it. But while it doesn’t appear that Hornby had a particularly deep thirst for adventure, it does seem he had a particular distaste for the trappings of society.
He answered his own need for solitude when he discovered the vast expanse of the sub-arctic desolation of the Barrens, in Canada. His first encounter was on a trip to visit relatives in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1903. By 1904, he moved there. Minus a few quick trips back to England and a stint fighting in World War I, it is assumed that he lived primarily alone in the Canadian wilderness, largely off the land, from 1908 through the rest of his life. He became a proficient hunter, angler, and trapper. Though for the most part, he wasn’t above traveling to Edmonton to resupply his provisions.
Unlike the stereotypical hermits of lore, Hornby was neither a grumpy misanthrope nor a militant survivalist. Nearly everyone said they enjoyed his company. He was a likable guy. His lifestyle choices seem to have been motivated more by an appreciation for minimalism than by some deep-seated need to prove himself. Unfortunately, while an attitude that tilts toward laissez-faire can be fun socially, it can also be your undoing in one of the harshest landscapes on earth.
Most of what we know about Hornby we know from the people who accompanied him on his long-term adventures. Frankly, adventures is probably a misnomer for the more apt term, “experiments.” One such experiment was with James Critchell-Bullock in 1924.
Hornby and Critchell-Bullock set out to overwinter south of the Arctic Circle near Hudson Bay. Though the full list of provisions has been disputed, it appears the duo had plenty of guns and ammunition, flour, tea, and most importantly, a dog team. Their shelter has been described as a cave, or perhaps, just an excavated pit. At first, hunting and trapping was plentiful enough. The duo’s success dwindled through the winter and the springtime trip home. They were malnourished and up against brutal spring blizzards. One by one, their dogs died or needed to be put down. The three-and-a-half month trip home by canoe, with freezing waters and mosquito-ravaged portages, pushed them to the brink of starvation.
At first, Critchell-Bullock came away from that trip wary of the man he once revered as the ultimate frontiersman. Later, he would recall him with fondness. Hornby came away from it as though their experience was par for the course. They survived, therefore, the experiment was a success.
The next year, in the summer of the 1926, Hornby headed deep into the Northwest Territories once again. His willing partners were his nephew Edgar Christian (age 17 or 18) and an acquaintance, Harold Adlard (age 27 or 28). Neither Christian nor Adlard had any frontier or sub-Arctic experience, so they would rely entirely on Hornby’s guidance.
For his part, Hornby took the lessons from his near-death experience with Critchell-Bullock in a peculiar direction. Despite having had reached the brink of starvation last time, he was determined to be even more of a minimalist this time. If Hornby had any concerns, he certainly didn’t plan for them.
The trio departed Edmonton in April 1926. By July, they were just leaving civilization and beginning their several month journey to their winter home. July, of course, is the prime month for hunting caribou in the Barrens – many hundreds of miles away from where the trio found themselves.
Conventional wisdom in the Canadian Barrens says if you don’t have your meat preserved for winter by September, you’re in trouble. Hornby and his crew didn’t even reach their destination, a dilapidated cabin on the Thelon River, until October.
They immediately split chores between hunting and winterizing the cabin, which needed a new roof and floorboards. By November, the cabin still was barely a shell against the brutal elements, and the men were already feeling the effects of hunger as it slowed their thoughts and exhausted their energy. Despite the lack of caribou this time of year, the area still has healthy populations of fox, snowshoe hares, and wolverine. The problem is that Hornby had opted against packing shotguns, which are far better suited to hunting small game than his preferred rifles. Even so, they managed to snag some small animals.
In a winter that never logged a day warmer than 10 degrees below zero, the men relied on daily subsistence hunting. Adlard got angry first. He was over it by December. Christian remained in good spirits, conscious that things were not going well, but ever-hopeful that his uncle’s pluck would pull them through. Then the injuries flared up. Adlard’s face was so badly frostbitten he couldn’t leave the cabin for several weeks without agonizing pain. Hornby had an old leg injury return with a vengeance. It didn’t stop him, but it certainly slowed him down.
Throughout the winter, Christian kept a detailed diary of the endless disasters and the tiny successes that gave them hope to live another day. He was impressed by Hornby – small yet powerful and as tough as the wolverines he resigned himself to tracking. Even so, they had been just barely staving off starvation since November, and March would be particularly brutal.
At some point, Hornby had managed to shoot a feeble caribou. There was only enough meat to last six days, but it gave the men the energy to undertake a longer hunting mission. They left in gale force winds, venturing as far as 30 miles away from the cabin. It was a failure. They returned home with nothing but depleted energy and frustration from such a long, pointless hike. To add insult, while the men were out hunting for their very survival, a herd of caribou spent the day just outside of the cabin. The tracks were everywhere.
And then freezing rains leaked through ragtag roof of the cabin.
Hornby died on April 16, 1927. Adlard died on May 4, same year. Christian, alone and no doubt terrified, died sometime in June. He left the instructions, “Whoever comes here, look in stove.” Inside the stove was his diary, with a final entry addressed to his mother and father. It said, “Please don’t blame dear Jack.”
Depending on who is talking, Hornby has gone down in history as either a fool or a superb frontiersman. He’s been accused of arrogance and stupidity, and has been lauded for bravery and skills. The only consistent observation about this odd, solitary man, is that no one has ever accused of him of being well-prepared.
Photos (from top): Wikipedia, Geo_Swan, and Cameron Hayne.
For more on Hornby, pick up Snow Man: John Hornby in Canada’s Barren Lands, by Malcolm Waldron.