The Black Explorer and the North Pole

Black blood flows in the Arctic. When Matthew Henson explored the North Pole in the 1900s, he left behind a keepsake of his visits. His son Anaukaq was born in 1906.

Matthew Henson does not mention the child in his book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, which was published in 1912. Robert Perry, the expedition leader, does not mention his own mixed-race son either. Both men followed the established tradition of male explorers – they came, they saw, and off the record, had sex with local women.

Henson and Perry spent over 20 years trying to reach the North Pole. The quest to be the first person on that spot was a holy grail of European explorers for two centuries. No one expected that a Black man would win the prize.

Sex on the Plantation, Sex in the Arctic

Slavery still ruled African American lives when Henson was born in 1866. He was born free, the third such generation in his family. They were free people of colour. Somewhere on a plantation in Maryland, near Washington D.C., a white master sexed and later freed a slave, thus birthing this branch of the Henson family.

Mathew Henson was orphaned as a child. At aged 12 years he was a cabin-boy on ships sailing to China, Japan, North Africa and Russia. Aged 20, Henson met Robert Perry a USA navy captain. For the next two decades the men were like conjoined twins. They first explored Central America, scouting out a possible route for the Panama Canal. Next it was the Arctic, where the men made their fame as explorers.

It was not unusual for white explorers to have Black companions, whether as slaves, servants or concubines. What was unusual was Matthew Henson role as the second in command of the expeditions. All on board the ships took orders from him.

Henson was a technical genius, skilled as a carpenter, blacksmith, dog-handler and hunter. He was the only member of the expeditions whose Arctic skills were respected by the Inuit (then called Eskimos). Henson was fluent in Inuit. He was an expert at building igloos. Henson makes it clear in his book that the expeditions depended on the skills, knowledge and labour of the Inuit from Greenland and Canada. The team were the first to reach so far north in the Arctic, and they did so by adopting the Inuit way.

Some 39 Inuit lived on board the final expedition ship. The women sewed seal-skin boots and bear fur pants and anoraks for the expedition crew. Inuit men guided the dog-drawn sledges over the shifting ice-floes.

Akatingwah, an Inuit woman, was the lover or ‘country wife’ of Henson. She gave birth to his only child in Greenland.

In his book Henson writes about the Inuit as individuals with names, quirks and attitudes. This is significant in an age where people of colour were simply mentioned as part of the exotic background of exploration. Or, if they were described at all, the words were dripping in racial stereotypes.

“I have been to all intents an Eskimo, with Eskimo for companions, speaking their language, dressing in the same kind of clothes, living in the same kind of dens, eating the same food, enjoying their pleasures, and frequently sharing their griefs,” Henson wrote. “I have come to love these people. I know every man, woman, and child in their tribe. They are my friends and they regard me as theirs.” (p.32)

Endless Ice and Endless Nights

North Pole fever gripped Europe and the Americas in the 1800s. It was part of a larger imperial quest to find an Arctic sea passage, as a shortcut, to the riches of Asia. The North Pole is the hat of the world. All steps from it lead to the south. Locating the North Pole was essential for making accurate maps and for knowing where you were.

As no one knew exactly where or what the Pole was, it became the perfect blank canvas for the European imagination. Writers moved Santa Claus, elves and reindeers to a new home in the North Pole. Frankenstein and other monsters lurked there too. The North Pole was also the home of unicorns, Superman and a possible volcanic entrance to the centre of the world.

People live in the Arctic, but no one inhabits the North Pole. That cherished spot is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, and about 1,000 kilometres from the nearest village in Nunavut, Canada.

Mathew Henson and Robert Perry made eight attempts to reach the North Pole, between 1891 and 1908. They were convinced they had reached it on the final expedition. The jury is still out on if they hit the exact spot. What is undisputed is that they were the first to reach so far north.

I tried cross-country skiing when it was -42C. Each exhale froze in front of my face. My lungs trembled from taking in frigid air. Lips and eyelashes began to freeze in seconds. I bolted back inside the lodge in less than five minutes.

Matthew Henson spent weeks outside in such temperatures. He sledged over ice-packs in the quest for the North Pole. Sometimes the packs jammed together forming steep ice ridges, which the men climbed using ice picks to claw their way over. Crevices formed between the drifting ice-packs. Falling into one was a trip to the after-life. Other times the explorers glided over thin ice. Henson learned to be nimble and to be quick jumping off sinking sledges.

Then there were the storms. Ice and snow and screamed across the ice-scape. The winds were powerful enough to knock  down a man or blow over an igloo.

The sun also rises in the Arctic – once every six months. Henson writes of praying for daylight to replace the six months of endless darkness.

Success and the Man

Perhaps it was just pure ego on Robert Perry’s part. He was annoyed that Matthew Henson had stepped on the North Pole first. Henson’s sledge was in the lead. When the expedition returned to the USA, Perry was hailed as the hero. He received all the awards, prestige and greetings from presidents. Henson was ignored, his role reduced to that of the faithful servant. It was a play of the all too familiar trope of the great white hero and his loyal, but silent, Black servant.

Matthew Henson eventually got his dues as an old man. Some 30 years after his epic voyage across the ice-lands, he received the same medals and honours as Perry. Henson died in 1955.

In 1988 Matthew Henson and his wife were reburied in Arlington National Cemetery, right next to Robert Perry. The two Artic explorers were rejoined in death, as they had been in life. The descendants of their mixed-race Inuit sons were at the ceremony.

I stood in Henson’s shadow once, without knowing it. The three massive meteors caught my attention at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In his book Henson described the effort it took to remove the extra-terrestrial rocks from the Arctic and bring them to the south. The sale of the meteors funded Perry’s North Pole expeditions. Matthew Henson’s hands once touched those rocks.



Evergreen Trees are the Stars of Winter

Winter belongs to the evergreen trees. No longer overshadowed by their broadleaf siblings, the conifers get my full attention. I spent a sunny hour collecting cones and fallen twigs off the trees. I am doing so because it is fun, and as I am trying to improve my knowledge of nature. To name a thing is to know it.

Down the road, near the community centre, I picked up a cone from under a strand of trees at the side of an apartment building. Around the corner I passed a slim woman advertising herself for rent. She wore track pants, a crop top, and a fake fur jacket. Her exposed belly was the colour of raw chicken. Her eyes were as a wild as a storm.

My next collection was from a row of cedar trees screening a Victorian town-house. Delicate filigree twigs littered the ground. An icy breeze ruffled the trees. A dusting of snowflakes swirled about, I held my head back and caught a few on my tongue. As I stooped to pick up a pretty twig, a dog and its walker came by. The mahogany tinted man gave me an odd look, and then crossed the road. A pity. His skin was ripe for polishing.

A small park was opposite the town-houses. I cut across it and picked up more evergreen ephemera. The park was empty of humans. Squirrels scampered away and one screeched at me. I told it I was taking only one pine cone, there was enough there to see it through the winter.

Back at home, I spread my treasures on the dining room table and opened by field guide to trees. I examined them as jazz played on the radio, and I sipped chai tea and nibbled fresh dates, cheese and olives.

The first evergreen twig was from a pine tree. The needles were as long as the palm of my hand. A bunch of them whorled around a central stem. Taking a closer look, I noticed that the needles were in pairs, joined at the tip where they attached to the stem. About fifteen of these pairs were on each stem. Needles in pairs are the trademark of red pine, a native Canadian tree. The needles can be woven to make small and beautiful baskets. The scales on the cone were long, hard and woody.

The cone from the small park came from a spruce tree. It was beige, cylindrical and as long as my ring finger. The scales on the cone were short, flexible and each ended in a rounded triangular tip. The twig had a central stem with small branches on either side. The tip looked like the pattern left by bird tracks in the snow – one big claw with two small claws angled to the side. Short flat needles stuck out from each side of the twig.

There was a bunch of brown nobs on the cedar twig, each about the size of my finger tip. They turned out to be the cones of the tree. I was surprised that I had never noticed them before. The tiny cones mean it was an eastern white cedar, a native Canadian tree.

Snow swirled about outside. Another storm was vomiting whiteness over the city’s street. Warm and safe inside, I turned the cones over in my hand.

Should Dogs Run Free in Parks?

I always find and carry a big stick with me on my hikes. It’s for whacking any dogs that get too close. Yes I know dogs are friendly, but so were the two that bit me.

As I walked through Cedarvale Ravine, a big shaggy dog ran besides its owner. I think it was poodle crossed with a St. Bernard. The dog that is. It weighed as much as I did. They were running up the slope as I was descending it. The owner saw the stick and my eyeing of the dog. He put the pet on his far side and gripped its collar long before we were close. I smiled and said thanks as we passed each other. I watched them disappear at the top of the hill, the dog now free to roam.

My next dog encounter for the month happened on the nature trails in High Park. Something scampered through the undergrowth. It was too big, noisy and fast to be a squirrel. The deep and steep valley was quiet on the Friday afternoon. The morning’s rain had created a lot of mud which seemed to have put off the usual number of dog walkers. I clutched my stick.

The two women behind me were busy talking. A dog shot out of the bush, spun in mid-air and came towards me. I stopped and raised my whacker.

“Charlie! Charlie, come here now,” one of the women shouted.

The terrier looked at the owner, looked at me, and seemed unsure what to do. I banged the stick on the ground. The dog fled through the bushes and back to its owner. I waited.

“He’s just being friendly. He doesn’t bite,” said the woman. She spat the words out. Her eyes were as hard as a rock.

“So was the last dog that bit me,” I said. “It’s not going to happen again.”

She put the dog on a tight leash. I let them walk ahead and then took the next fork in the trail. I hate it when my walks becomes stressful due to two-legged creatures. Especially ones in green coats and matching Wellington boots.

My third dog encounter for the month, and here I am only talking about the most memorable ones, was in the Don Valley Brickworks ravine. It was like watching a scene from a film. A Chinese family were out exploring the trails. At the edge of the frame two large golden labradors were chasing each other. The dogs ran towards the children. One kid jumped back into the stroller. The other ran towards the dad who picked him up, and placed him on his shoulders. The first dog was about four body-lengths away from the stroller and from me.

I grasped my stick and hoisted it. Which one would I whack first?

A white girl and a boy ran up, grabbed the dogs, and hugged them. The girl told the Chinese family that the dog was just being friendly. Their parents approached, their smile and embarrassed apologies met my stick and my cold eyes. They put the dogs on the leash. The Chinese family and I exchanged the rolling of the eyes as we passed each other.

Dogs need to run free, following scents and their instincts. They can run as far and as fast as they like, as long as it is in the dog off-leash area. Outside of that space they will be smacked if they get too close to me.

I actually like dogs and I am planning on getting a mutt at some point. In public my dog will always be leashed. People have the right to walk in the woods without fear of being bitten by a ‘friendly’ dog.

Black History Walks Toronto


Next Year in the PhD and in the Woods

The thing is, in the end, 2017 turned out to be a good year for me. Even though it did not feel like that during some of the months when the PhD, activities or the people around me felt as inviting as a soggy blanket.

The big surprise of 2017 was my Black History Walks. I had assumed that only a few people would be interested, and only in the summer months. I was wrong on both counts. It’s January in Toronto, it’s as cold and white as the last Ice Age and yet people have signed up for the walks. I am now scheduling them for every month, confident that people will sign up.

My motivation for doing the PhD was tested many times in 2017. Some days I felt like the smart kid in the class. Most days it was more like the dunce. For instance, I got my head around epistemology, but ontology and axiology are still drifting in the mushy grey matter that passes for my brain. Maybe in 2018 the terms will finally make sense.

How do you relax? That was an unexpected challenge in 2017. Too many days thinking, writing and worrying about my studies was not good. Sometimes I got so caught up in the issues and theories that my head felt like an over-ripe watermelon, sitting in the sun and about to explode. This year I will going back to the gym. Exercise calms my head, gets me out of the house, and turning fat into muscles is a pleasant side effect.

I will continue with my birding too in the New Year. The kid begged me not to talk about it over the Christmas holidays. She said it was embarrassing being seen with mom, binoculars and a field guide to birds. A Black nerd among the nerds was too much for my urbane teenager. My ten-year old niece disagreed. We spent two happy afternoons bird-watching in the park. It was she who spotted the cuckoos and parakeets. My five-year old nephew found the great blue heron perched on a branch overhanging the pond. Then he shot off on his scooter, scattering the gulls and pigeons.

As a Black woman who loves the outdoors, it is hard to find others in my community who share the same passion.

I was reminded of this all of last summer when I worked in Rouge National Urban Park. Many weekends were spent leading walks and informing people about the huge wilderness area in the city’s backyard. The park is free and accessible by public transit. I was astonished that about a third of the regular users in the park were newcomers from China (maybe a topic for future research). Black, Latino and South Asians were rare even though their large communities live nearby. The summer job took me straight back to my PhD research question – why are Black people afraid of the woods?

I won’t be the only Black hiker in the woods in 2018. In the last month of the old year I led a hike through the Don Valley ravine. There we were, three Black women in full outdoor gear, trekking among the oak and maple trees in the forest. We followed the river as it meandered and tumbled on its way to Lake Ontario. The two women liked being outdoors, but were tired of being the only Black person in a group. We found each other in a graduate class on Black feminism! We are now the Black girls in the woods.

To my surprise I managed to self-publish a new book in 2017. It was one goal that I had expected to miss. It takes time to write, and with my daydreaming, leading hikes and Black History walks, there was no space for the book. And I can’t write when I am tired. The solution was to make the book part of my school work. That is, as Fridays were my writing days, I spend half of it working on the book. I wrote in bed, standing at the kitchen counter or relaxed in my armchair. I could not quit unit I had written a thousand words.  The strategy worked and so I will be using it again for this year.

My four passions are outdoors, writing, travelling and Black history. Last year I managed to do a little bit of all of them. Thank you 2017, you may rest in peace.

I started the New Year drinking champagne and eating chocolates with my family as we sat around the dining table. We had jerk chicken and rice and peas for dinner. A few hours later my plane landed in Toronto. I gasped as the freezing air tortured by lungs. And still I smiled at the snow-covered streets. My snowshoes and cross-country skis were in the hallway closet, and it seems like they were going to get a lot of use soon. A proper Canadian winter is a perfect start to the New Year. Welcome 2018.


Strolling in a Rich Neighbourhood

My mood was as sweet as a lemon. A cold was hovering in the wings, waiting to take centre stage. I was tired from being out every day in the past week. And my weekend was going to be busy too with a Black History Walk and then the hike for my outdoor club. And I still had tons of school work to do.

I had to do the pre-hike as I already had a dozen e-mails confirming attendance. If the weather was fine, more people would show up. As the leader, I had better know where we were going. I had walked a kilometre and had nine more to go.

From Lawrence subway, I meandered south to Duplex Park. As I walked through the green-land, a parliament of pimply schoolboys, in uniforms, lounged and smoked on a bench. We ignored each other. The park was shaped like a bowl with a flat bottom and steep sides. This was a good indicator that it was probably once a brickworks, and if such, a stream was nearby, either still flowing, or channeled underground and landfilled with trash a century or so ago.

Houses backed onto the steep edges on the east side of the park. Their fences were covered with billboard-sized photographs, graffiti art and murals. I loved the picture of a black cap chickadee, painted by a thirteen year old Chinese girl.

Leaving the park I climbed up the wooden steps which were nestled into the ground. The decaying wood was already enriching the earth, as we all will, one hopefully distant day. Crossing the road, I descended into Chatsworth Ravine. The tarmacked path was steep. I mumbled under my breath that I was really turning into an old fart; I was wary of falling even though there was no ice on the ground. What happened to sprinting down such a slope for the sheer joy of it?  My legs refused to take more than mincing baby steps. My shame was as bright as the pink oak leaves.

The gully was secluded. The absence of litter meant that it was regularly cleaned up or it was not frequently used. Little hairs pricked up on the back of my neck. Where was the fearless explorer eager for adventure? Who was this little old Black woman in the woods?

strolling in a rich neighbourhood fence

I soon forgot about the shivers, seduced by the beauty of the autumn leaves and the sleepy brook flowing into an underground channel. The ravine was steep and narrow. About twenty feet from its lips, houses were perched on both sides. Through the autumn leaves I glimpsed patios and large picture windows overlooking the forested crevice. I would love to wake up to that view each morn. Unfortunately the five million dollar price tags were just a tad beyond my means.

I walked through the valley in fifteen minutes. I never saw another soul. Not even a blasted dog walker.

The ravine ended abruptly in a school playing field. Either the brook meandered north, or it was encased in concrete under the field. I crossed the road. The gully continued on the other side, but the access gate was locked, with a sign saying private property. I strolled around, seeing a street of houses backing onto the ravine, but I could find no entrance into it. I will look for it on my next walk in the area.

I strolled south following any street that looked interesting. All the houses were detached or semi-detached, with large windows and lovely front yards. Most were built in the 1930s when Forest Hill was developed as yet another bloody ‘little England in Canada.’

The streets were quiet. Too quiet.

Many times I stopped and checked the map to make sure I was where I thought I should be. My heart raced at these stops. I was in the mid-town area of the city. Yet it was unnerving walking through a neighbourhood where no one was on the streets. The cars in the driveways and the lights in the houses indicated people were at home, yet I saw no one peeking through the windows. It felt like I was walking through a ghost town. Climate change or the apocalypse had killed all the people, leaving me the sole survivor to try and figure out what the fuck had happened.

I walked for an hour before seeing anyone in the rich enclave. Two roads before Eglington Park, Filipino nannies and their white charges were outside. Two decades or so ago the nannies were Black women from the Caribbean. They were replaced by white Eastern European women reeling from the fall of communism. Where will the nannies of tomorrow come from? Under capitalism it is anywhere labour becomes cheap due to war, recession or social conflict. Add the effects of climate change to the list.

I passed a Black woman chatting on her phone in her driveway. The car door was opened. Three white teens walked by, each with a puppy. One puppy ran towards the woman, wagging its tail like its life depended on it. The woman went gaga over the whippersnapper, bending down to hug, and oh my god, kiss it. She then stood up and greeted each dog and its leashed child by name.

The playground in the park was filled with white children, either with their parents or mostly their Filipino nannies. I headed straight for the washroom in the skating arena, as it was a rest stop for the group hike. Classical music drifted from upstairs in the arena. I had to have a look. The rink was filled kids and their coaches figure skating. The learners were mostly white or Chinese girls, practicing their jumps, twirls and flowing arabesques. One was Black. I hoped she knew of Surya Bonaly. I remembered watching her on television, astonished that a Black woman was on ice. The French star won the European Figure Skating Championship five times.

Leaving the arena, a little Black boy, aged about four, darted in front of me. A voice commanded that he stop. I looked up, the dad was the spitting image of the boy, barring his blonde hair and green eyes. We exchanged nods.

strolling in a rich neighbourhood hike

Crossing an avenue I meandered through the side streets and parks until I found the Beltline Trail. The former railway track was converted to a linear tree-lined park. The trail was packed with runners, dog walkers and rude cyclists who refused to slow down. I put away the map. I knew this path well, and it was important that I took my time to simply stroll along it, enjoying the autumn tinted forest that was right in the city.

Soon, too soon, I was back on Yonge Street, walking around checking out the best café. I like to end my hikes with tea and chatter around a table. I treated myself to chai and two ginger cookies. Finally, my mood was as sweet as the honey in the tea.


Squirrel Stew with Nuts

The trees were mostly naked. I crunched through piles of fallen oak and maple leaves in the park on my walk to school. The rich musky, earthy, smell of autumn was delicious in my nose.

Until I got to the ginkgo trees. Their scent advertised their presence long before I spotted the yellowed fan-shaped leaves on the earth. The smell came from the fleshy nuts littering the ground. It reminded me of stinky French cheeses, truffles or fermenting rancid apples. A true connoisseur would salivate over the ginkgo fragrance, mentally planning which wine or beer would complement its rich and complex aroma.  Roasted ginkgo nuts are an Asian delicacy, with a sweet subtle flavour.

Without their leaves the trees were hard to tell apart. The brown textured barks all looked alike to me. Squirrel nests were now visible in the trees, the loose collection of brown leaves perched in the forked branches. The nests looked like soup bowls.

Squirrel soup. Squirrel stew. Not so long ago these were standard dinner items. Squirrel is described as having a rich gamey taste. The critters are too small and bony to make steaks or to barbecue.

A trio of squirrels squabbled as they collected beech nuts. I recognized the tree as it was the only one with a smooth, silvery grey bark. And it was labelled. I bent down and picked up a half-opened beech burr. It was rough and prickly on the outside, with three smooth triangular nuts inside. The nuts are edible when roasted and taste like pine nuts.

I like to try different foods and I have a cast iron stomach. An autumn stew of squirrel, ginkgo and beech nuts. Slow cooked, with carrots, potatoes and corn; seasoned with garlic, spices and Scotch bonnet pepper. It would make a hearty stew on the cold and dark nights. When I try it, I will let you know how it tastes.

Black History Walks Toronto


Biking by the Lake at Night

The road home seemed longer in the dark. Full of shadowed bends and turns it plunged me into puddles of blindness. I was on the Waterfront Trail. Shrubs and trees morphed into shadow beings, eating the light. Rustling leaves sounded like the crunching of small bones.

My back was soaked and still more sweat dripped down my face. There was no time to reach into my pocket, grab the rag and mop my brow. The night was here, like the fear, it was too near. I could not peddle fast enough to outrun the blanket of obsura.

The lake shimmered on my right. I found no comfort there that night. Following that silvery shine seemed to be leading me to the underworld. I should have taken the bus home.

Spending the afternoon with a friend was fun. Caught up in the moment we decided to go out for dinner. The autumn evening was warm and dry. I came out on my bike and planned to return home the same way; but this time cycling on the pavement and only using the bike trail where it ran parallel to the street. I would be home in an hour, about the same time as taking a streetcar and a bus.

The main road was on my left. The cars seemed to go faster in the night. Were they too trying to outrun the dark? Two cars weaved across the lanes, no indicators, too fast they cut back into the right lane. Tires squealed as the cars speed into the lakeshore parking lot. One car overtook the other on the bend, accelerated and raced to the end of the lot. The brakes screeched again.

I pushed harder as my heart hammered in my chest. I had to go pass the parking lot. What if the guys in the cars need more fun? The doors flung the open, rock music blared, and four men emerged from each car. Cigarettes and white skins glowed in the liminal light.

I was almost near them. The men gathered around one car and examined its back under the streetlight. Beer cans were in their hands. Deep voices cursed. Then laughter. Marijuana perfumed the air. As I flew by, I saw that the bumper was hanging off the back of the car. There were four more parking lots to go.

I knew the route. I had cycled up and down that section of the Waterfront Trail hundreds of time. But never near midnight. I could not sprint home. It was too far.

The lights of the Palais Royale twinkled ahead. My legs and heart slowed as the warm bulbs drew near. Two women smoked on the steps of the banquet hall. Three men leaned against the railings, also smoking. They were the first pedestrians I had seen near the bike trail. Inside the hall people chattered in little groups, wine glasses in hand. A portrait of Billie Holiday caught my eye. I knew that one well. Mouth opened in ecstasy she sings in front of a microphone with white gardenias glistening in her hair. I heard her singing Strange Fruit in my head. Then I shuddered as I saw them hanging from the poplar tree.

Half way home I got off the bike trail. I was too jumpy to enjoy the lake breeze and the starlight shimmering through the trees. I reminded myself I had nothing to prove. I cycled home on a main road filled with cars, bicycles and more importantly people out walking in the autumn night.

Sailing on a Half Moon