“I determined to take a canoe trip to northwestern Canada with Billy Magee. The trip was from Winnipeg to Hudson's Bay and back. Five hundred miles of this journey had never been mapped.”
In 1906, in the summer after his senior year at Harvard University, Ober took his first canoe trip in the border lakes region. It was the first of many trips to a wilderness he came to know better perhaps than any other living person outside the native population. For decades as an adult, he would canoe an average of 500 miles a summer.
On June 26, 1912, Ober and Billy Magee set off on 2,000 mile, four-month journey to Hudson Bay and back, a journey that was considered a great accomplishment by explorers and canoeists alike. On this trip through the uncharted Canadian Barren Lands, Ober was often the first white man ever seen by the Native Americans in the villages they passed.
June 26–November 5, setting out at the end of the railroad line at Le Pas, Manitoba (west of Lake Winnipeg), Ober and Billy Magee head “toward magnetic north,” exploring an unmapped territory that hasn't been visited by a white man since Samuel Hearne traveled through the area in 1770. Because of Ober's aversion to killing animals, they do not plan to hunt for food along the way. As a result, they must pack extra supplies, 700 pounds of equipment in all, which requires them to make five round trips per portage for the first part of their trip. They carry “the three staples of the north, flour, pork, and tea” as well as “such luxuries as evaporated potatoes, raisins, cornmeal, oatmeal, cocoa, sugar, beans, rice, and dried fruit.” It is a considerable undertaking for both men, but perhaps especially for Ober, who stands five feet six inches and weighs less than 140 pounds.
Beginning on the Saskatchewan River, they paddle north to the 170-mile-long Reindeer Lake. There, without a guide, they thread their way through a “labyrinth of islands, long bays, headlands, and points,” never completely certain of their location. The first 500 miles of their trip is against the current. For more than a month they see caribou daily, sometimes in great numbers. Disoriented in the nearly treeless landscape and lost in the deep bays and countless islands of Nueltin Lake (also called Sleeping Island Lake), they spend days searching for the continuation of the Thlewiaza River, which is their passage east to Hudson Bay.
Exhausted, discouraged, and worried that they might fail to reach Hudson Bay before the onset of the sub-Arctic winter, on August 21 they climb to the top of a 600-foot-high island esker (a narrow ridge formed by a glacial stream), a place they think later travelers would be likely to visit. There, Ober leaves a note in a dried milk can, secured in a cairn of rocks, with what he fears may be his last words to his mother. Ober calls the esker “Hawkes Summit” in honor of Arthur Hawkes, the name by which it is known today.
Finally the two explorers, exhausted and occasionally hallucinating, find the entrance to the Thlewiaza River, where they see a seal. Hindered by ice in the mornings and tormented by black flies in the afternoons, they make their way down its shallow, rubble-strewn waters and struggle with their gear along the rocky portages.
September 12, weeks later than planned, the two explorers finally reach Hudson Bay, where they are greeted by an Inuit in a kayak. The Indian, named Bight, is the first other human being they have seen in thirty-four days. He shows them warm hospitality and gives them, with their canoe, a lift in his whale-boat to Churchill for a fee. Two photographs—one of Bight's ten-year-old son with a pipe in his mouth assuming “a shrewd, wizened appearance,” and another taken at Bight's family camp on Egg Island of an old woman bent beneath a load of wood and “hobbling along with two sticks”—are extraordinary. They are perhaps the most powerful, haunting, and unforgettable of all Ober's photographs.
Stuffing their shoes and surrounding their legs with dry wild hay to keep from freezing, they paddle 300 miles from Churchill south to York Factory, following the west shoreline of Hudson Bay. The slope of the shore is so gradual and the water at low tide so shallow that they are forced to paddle from two to twelve miles from land, where they are at risk of being caught by storms with no escape.
Against the advice of the post manager at York Factory, they continue their journey south, traveling against the swift current of the Hayes River toward Lake Winnipeg. Fighting freezing temperatures and frequent snow, they paddle for their lives, often traveling fourteen hours a day.
When they reach Norway House at the north end of Lake Winnipeg, they are told that the last south-bound steamer of the season had departed just two days earlier, and they realize they must paddle another 260 miles to Gimli, where they can catch a train home. It takes them eighteen days, six of which they are snow- and wind-bound, before they finally reach their destination.
Throughout the trip Ober keeps meticulous notes with the intention of writing a book-length narrative. Until nearly the end of his life, he continues to hope that some day he will get around to the task, but he never does. Nevertheless, the extraordinary 2,000-mile, four-month journey makes Ober and Billy legendary figures among outdoors people, and Ober later refers to the trip as the single most powerful experience of his life.