The Big Ship and HMCS Labrador

Whether one browses library books or web sites, one of the chief joys of wide reading is the appearance of unexpected connections. Or so I reflected, while leafing through Henry Larsen’s autobiography, when I happened upon a tidbit that may be familiar to followers of LILA Online.

The Norwegian-Canadian Larsen was best known for being the first to make expeditions through the Northwest Passage in both directions, and for his long Northern career with the RCMP.  He sailed through the Strait of Belle Isle and along the Labrador coast on his way to and from the Northwest Passage, and likely other times as well, but the connection noted here is more oblique. It has to do with a photograph on page 96 of his autobiography.

Pages 96-97 of The Big Ship, by Henry Larsen, co-edited by Frank R. Sheer and Edvard Omholt-Jensen, McClelland & Stewart, 1967.

The young boy shown with Larsen in 1963, at bottom-left, is none other than a young Erik Sheer. The son of one of the autobiography’s co-editors, Erik was recently featured in this very blog for his 1978 climb of Mount Caubvick.

While Googling around to discover whether Larsen had made any notable trips to Labrador itself, I stumbled upon another interesting degrees-of-separation connection, via the story of the HMCS Labrador, which is worth knowing in its own right, given the ship’s name! Here is a brief synopsis, retold by way of images gathered online, but if you want to read the full story, check out the free Operational History ebook online.

St. Roch and Labrador, Vanoucver 1954. Walter E. Frost photograph. City of Vancouver Archives.

This photograph, taken by Walter E. Frost and held by the City of Vancouver Archives, shows the famous ship that Larsen took through the Arctic, the St. Roch (left), in 1954, next to the navy’s HMCS Labrador: the first heavy icebreaker and reliable Arctic ship in Canada. Today the St. Roch is a museum exhibit in Vancouver, but the Labrador has been dismantled. Incidentally, the title of Larsen’s autobiography, The Big Ship, is taken from his nickname in the North, “Henry with the Big Ship.” He might have needed a new name, if his connections there had ever seen how the Labrador dwarfed the St. Roch!

HMCS Labrador, St. John's, 1982. G. Bourchard photograph, via Wikimedia.

The HMCS Labrador itself also transited the Northwest Passage, before returning to the Atlantic via the Panama Canal, and so made a complete circuit around North America. The ship is shown here at St. John’s in a 1982 photo by G. Bouchard, via Wikimedia, under new livery as the Canadian Coast Guard Ship CCGS Labrador.

CCGS Henry Larsen. D. Gordon E. Robertson photograph, via Wikimedia.

Ships do not last forever, and the CCGS Labrador was eventually replaced by the ship in this 2010 photograph by D. Gordon E. Robertson, again via Wikimedia (Creative Commons licensing is a wonderful thing!). This coast guard icebreaker is also stationed at St. John’s, and serves throughout Newfoundland and Labrador and the eastern Arctic. What is it called? The CCGS Henry Larsen, naturally—thus bringing our miniature photo tour full-circle!

If the CCGS Henry Larsen coast guard vessel name rings a bell, that may be because it has served Labrador directly, from time to time. The winter before last, it even delivered groceries across the ice-bound Strait of Belle Isle, when the Labrador Marine ferry could not get through.

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