North Star Provides Direction, Hope

Author R. Bruce Macdonald at the edge of his boat on the Beaufort Sea near Tuktoyuktuk, NWT.

“Literally, the first day we had the ship a guy knocked on the door,” says Bruce Macdonald, owner and inhabitant of the North Star of Herschel Island. “And since then, we’ve had people knock on the boat almost everywhere we’ve gone.”

The dwelling in question is the oldest tall ship in Canada that is still-sailing. In its day – the 1930s – it was a fur-trading vessel.

Macdonald says visitors were often keen to share their stories of the North Star.

“I started writing these stories down,” Macdonald says. “The more stories I got the more I realized there was a book here.”

So began the impetus for his novel, aptly named North Star of Herschel Island. The book explores Macdonald and his family coming to terms with the importance of their new home.

As he puts it in his book, “We had not just purchased a boat, but a floating museum and a living treasure of the Canadian Arctic fur trade.”

Over several years, Macdonald would witness the deep connection stirred in those that board. When the family spent their first weekend on the boat as a test for her livability, Macdonald’s youngest child was smitten with the experience.

“She said, ‘Do we have to go back to the house’,” Macdonald says with a laugh. He knew they had found their new home.

“The rigging is like a playground,” he says, explaining the appeal. “They can climb around on it and there are even little boats they can go around in.”

There are other bonuses, too.

“You can go places that you can’t get to unless by boat,” says Macdonald. “We drop the anchor and go rowing or swimming and we have a whole ocean paradise to ourselves.”

But living on a vessel isn’t all roses and unicorns. The furthest you can separate feuding parties is about 40 or 50 feet, and a limited supply of water and heat from a manually fed wood stove means that sacrifices are abundant.

“It’s living very conservatively and very environmentally,” Macdonald says. “Every drop of water you have to plan for. You have to be very mindful of [how you live].”

The most harrowing experience came during a peaceful day on the coast.

“We were out in a flat calm… and suddenly we were in these waves that were breaking over the stern and over the bow; it was like being in a washing machine,” Macdonald remembers. “We were being thrown backwards and forwards and didn’t know what was going on. We were dipping our rails and had these huge waves all around us.

“When we finally got into port, the Coast Guard said that we had sailed over an earthquake.”

Before his family claimed the North Star as their home, Macdonald ventured north to visit others who had been onboard. He met a generation of young Inuit who were interested in their culture and history.

“I was afraid that there wouldn’t be any interest and it was the exact opposite,” Macdonald says of the experience. “The elders teach the young people everything from language lessons to sewing fur and people are going out hunting again.”

The developments in the community gave Macdonald hope that the history of the North Star had connected with these youth and that she had earned a place in the minds of this new generation.

“I would be very happy if when we finally sell [the North Star] that she went back up North,” Macdonald admits. “That would be totally appropriate.”

North Star of Herschel island is available online at and the iTunes Bookstore.

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