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Arctic Ship Story – The North Star of Herschel Island

Arctic Sailor and Nautical Mind alumnus R. Bruce Macdonald writes:

Dear Nautical Mind,
when I had the privilege of working for you in the eighties I often wished that at least one of the books that we were selling was one that I had written. I am hoping to bring that dream to fruition now that I have completed the manuscript for North Star of Herschel Island – Canada’s last sailing Arctic fur trader. It is the true story of North Star who at the height of the Great Depression was commissioned to be built in 1935 for two Inuit fur trappers. While the rest of the world was suffering, the Inuvialuit of Canada’s western Arctic were making so much money from fur that they were able to pay cash for the ship, a sum that in today’s values would be around one million dollars.

North Star of Herschel Island
The North Star of Herschel Island

The book tells the story of the ship, North Star of Herschel Island, and her owners, Canadian Inuvialuit, who would go out with their dog teams almost five hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle and trap fur which they would then load aboard the ship and transport to market. The voyages would see North Star laden with tons of fur, four or five families and usually around fifty sled dogs and one wolf that they used for breeding. North Star was known as the Queen of the Banksland Fleet and was the largest and strongest ship built for the fur trade. She was often caught out in ice and three times she was frozen in solid when the owners did not make it into port in time.
When the Cold War was being waged the Canadian government asked North Star‘s Captain to sail north and hold an uninhabited island for the country as both Russia and the United States were eyeing it as a potential base. Her involvement with Canadian Arctic Sovereignty continued with her second owner when she was used for surveying the controversial B.C./Alaska border. She was also one of the first, if not the first, ship used for Arctic oil and gas exploration and there are many tales recounted of the extreme conditions she had to face in the Beaufort Sea in that service.


North Star of Herschel Island

Subsequent voyages included sail training with Inuit; sailing to the Great Bear Rain Forest with environmental groups; participation as the official Canadian Goodwill Ambassador at International Tall ship Festivals and a voyage to the Aleutian Islands in search of mermaids. Fans of Beryl and Miles Smeeton  sailing books might remember that in The Misty Islands, the Smeetons spy a sea creature that could easily be what whalers had described as being a mermaid. Their godson ended up chartering North Star to go back and have another look for them.
North Star of Herschel Island is a legend in the Western Canadian Arctic but has also been written about in The Beaver, Pacific Yachting and numerous other magazines. Heavyweight Canadian authors and broadcasters such as Farley Mowat, Pierre Berton and Gordon Pinsent have also written about her and their stories are included, as is a telephone conversation that I had when former Prime Minister Jean Chretien called me aboard ship to discuss the project.
Many people have heard of the RCMP schooner St. Roch. North Star and her were contemporaries and St. Roch‘s skipper, Henry Larsen, was good friends with North Star‘s first owner. St. Roch has been mothballed in a museum for decades. North Star of Herschel Island is still sailing today.

Most of all though, the book North Star of Herschel Island tells the story of an incredible ship and incredibly tough people who carved a living out of the Canadian Arctic from a primitive time up until modern days. The photographs that I have collected from Northerners who have heard my interviews on CBCNorth as well as stills taken from old 16mm films round out the book.

I am presently seeking a publisher for this manuscript. I would love to tour North Star of Herschel Island across country in order to promote the book but also so that all Canadians can have an opportunity to see a ship that we can all take pride in. (We could put her on a flat-bed truck to the Lakehead and then sail her down to the Maritimes).If any of your blog readers know of a publisher that they think might be interested then I ask them to please contact me at The ship can also be found on FaceBook or at

Author R Bruce MacDonald
Author R Bruce MacDonald
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