Spellbinding adventure from Canada's most beloved modern-day explorer.
Traverspine is not a place you will find on most maps. A century ago, it stood near the foothills of the remote Mealy Mountains in central Labrador. Today it is an abandoned ghost town, almost all trace of it swallowed up by dark spruce woods that cloak millions of acres.
In the early 1900s, this isolated little settlement was the scene of an extraordinary haunting by large creatures none could identify. Strange tracks were found in the woods. Unearthly cries were heard in the night. Sled dogs went missing. Children reported being stalked by a terrifying grinning animal. Families slept with cabin doors barred and axes and guns at their bedsides.
Tales of things that "go bump in the night" are part of the folklore of the wilderness, told and retold around countless campfires down through the ages. Most are easily dismissed by skeptics. But what happened at Traverspine a hundred years ago was different. The eye-witness accounts were detailed, and those who reported them included no less than three medical doctors and a wildlife biologist.
Something really did emerge from the wilderness to haunt the little settlement of Traverspine. Adam Shoalts, decorated modern-day explorer and an expert on wilderness folklore, picks up the trail from a century ago and sets off into the Labrador wild to investigate the tale. It is a spine-tingling adventure, straight from a land steeped in legends and lore, where Vikings wandered a thousand years ago and wolves and bears still roam free.
In delving into the dark corners of Canada's wild, The Whisper on the Night Wind combines folklore, history, and adventure into a fascinating saga of exploration.
About the author
ADAM SHOALTS has been called one of Canada’s greatest living explorers and in 2018 was named an Explorer-in-Residence of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. He is also a historian, archaeologist, and geographer, and his book Alone Against the North was a #1 national bestseller. His books, A History of Canada in Ten Maps and The Whisper on the Night Wind, were also national bestsellers. Shoalts’ adventurous career has included discovering waterfalls, mapping rivers, numerous archaeological digs, tracking down elusive flora and fauna, and in 2017 completing a nearly 4,000 km solo journey across Canada’s Arctic. His expeditions have been featured in media around the world, including the BBC, CNN, MSN, CTV, CBC, TVO, Global, Nature, and The Guardian. In 2020, Canadian Geographic included him on their list of the most influential explorers in Canada’s history.
Excerpt: The Whisper on the Night Wind: The True History of a Wilderness Legend (by (author) Adam Shoalts)
Let us probe the silent places, let us seek what luck betide us;
Let us journey to a lonely land I know.
There’s a whisper on the night-wind,
there’s a star agleam to guide us,
And the Wild is calling, calling . . . let us go.
—Robert Service, “The Call of the Wild,” 1907
The pale glow of the moon, half hidden in clouds, illuminated the ghostly shapes of the crooked black spruces. They were ancient trees, their bark coarse and scaly, their branches draped as if in cobwebs with hanging mosses. We’d camped in the shadows of the mountains, near a nameless stream that tumbled over rocks already half a billion years old before the first dinosaur ever walked the earth. The place had the feel of ancientness about it—as if it had lain undisturbed for centuries.
I lay outstretched in my tent, utterly exhausted from a bru-tally hard day, almost delirious from dehydration and hundreds of blackfly bites. Obtaining water had proved difficult, as the raging mountain stream, with its crisp, cool waters, lay at the bottom of steep cliffs that were difficult to scale down. Instead we’d found a small, stagnant pool in the swamp woods and drank from it.
I cast a glance out my tent’s screen door at the moonlit forest. The stunted spruces and firs had been weirdly shaped and contorted by the mountain gales, and the shadows cast by the moonlight made it difficult to distinguish objects among them. Earlier in the day, while clawing our way through deep thickets that sealed off this isolated mountain valley, we’d come across large bear tracks. At least we thought they were bear tracks, but they hadn’t registered very clearly in the mossy ground. In any case the tracks were big, and must have been fresh to have remained imprinted in the moss. They’d led into the valley we were now camped in. I clutched the knife that lay beside my sleeping bag a little tighter.
For a few seconds, lying in the dark in my tent, I thought I heard a faint noise distinct from the creaking of the spruces in the wind, almost like a whispering, strange and unnatural, echoing apparently from the caves higher up the forested slope. I shivered in the cold and craned my ear trying to listen more intently, but the strange sound had ceased—leaving only the creaking of the trees and the sound of the mountain stream tumbling over rocks filling the darkness around me.
Ghost stories are very real in this land of scattered,
lonely homes and primitive fears . . .
—Elliott Merrick, True North, 1933
Traverspine is not a place you will find on most maps. A century ago it stood near where the winding course of the Traverspine River drains down out of little-known mountains in central Labrador. Today it’s an abandoned ghost town, almost all trace of it swallowed up by dark woods that cloak thousands of square miles.
Labrador was one of the last places in the Western Hemisphere to be inhabited by humans. Partly this was because of its remote location hidden beyond mountains at the northeast end of the continent, far from where humans first crossed into North America from Siberia. It was also owing to its harsh climate and forbidding landscape, chilled by frigid ocean currents (coastal Alaska, in contrast, is much more hospitable). The Ice Age, too, lingered here longer than elsewhere, with enormous glaciers covering the land. The ancient inhabitants, the Dorset, vanished long ago, leaving in their wake only deserted campsites.
Encompassing nearly three hundred thousand square kilometres of windswept peaks, forbidding glaciers, dark spruce forests, vast tundra, and towering fjords along its rugged coastline, Labrador even today remains a place of quiet solitudes, where a person can roam for miles without encountering another soul. The total population per square kilometre works out to a minuscule 0.092 people, and most of that is concentrated in just two towns separated by hundreds of kilometres of uninhabited wilderness. If ever there were a lonely land that attracts lonely souls, Labrador is surely it.
Not surprisingly, legends flourish in this remote place where Vikings wandered over a thousand years ago and icebergs the size of castles drift in thick mists just offshore. Deep in Labrador’s limitless spruce woods, moving silently as shadows, are living ghosts, the sphinx-like lynx. Meanwhile swollen rivers with dangerous currents snake across the landscape, originating from sources high up in inaccessible mountains—the home of gray wolves, bears, and according to some, things not found in any zoology book. Little wonder then that around dusky campfires old-timers told tales of haunted valleys, unknown tracks, ghostly apparitions, and nameless sounds on the night wind. Local superstition held that in the shadows of the moonlight, flickering lights known as will-o’-the-wisps could lead people astray into trackless muskegs covering hundreds of miles. Hints of some of these legends can be found in the faded pages of old exploration and fur trade records.
My natural affinity has long been for quiet, lonely woods and other wild places. I love wandering for months without coming across a road or town. It’s a passion I first developed in childhood exploring the woods that surrounded my family’s home, and which I’ve since managed to turn into a career. By 2019 my wanderings had taken me to nearly every corner of Canada’s immense wilderness. I’d rambled among the ancient hills of northern Quebec and Ontario, paddled the subarctic rivers, trudged through the swamps and bogs of the Hudson Bay Lowlands, bounded along ice floes with polar bears in the High Arctic, explored the western mountains, and crossed alone nearly four thousand kilometres of Canada’s North. But one place on the map had always somehow managed to elude me—Labrador. That is, until one evening I seemed to find myself caught in a web that drew me to that strange wilderness.
Inevitably, in pursuing such journeys and adventures, I’d heard my share of tall tales and campfire legends. But none ever sent a shiver down my spine quite like the one I stumbled across on that cold winter’s evening alone in my study, my desk piled high with old maps and books. I was neck-deep in research to complete a Ph.D. in history from McMaster University, studying some old exploration accounts and fur trade records. My primary focus was on western Canada, but as frequently happens, one reference led to another, and having strayed in my reading, I picked up a curious old volume that concerned Labrador, that wild land of mystery and legend. The story dated back to a time when light came from the flicker of a candle or the blaze of a spruce fire, when a person had to rely on their own strength and wits for survival. In that time and place, most people had little experience of the wider world and access to books or newspapers was a limited luxury, to say nothing of other things our modern world takes for granted.
The story that caught my attention was buried in an otherwise straightforward chronicle by one Elliott Merrick, an American resident of Labrador. Merrick, in an entry dated September 1930, described a chilling tale he’d heard from an old trapper about a place called Traverspine. In the early 1900s this secluded little settlement had been the scene of extraordinary encounters with large creatures none could identify. Strange tracks were found in the woods, unearthly cries were heard in the night, and sled dogs went missing. Children reported encountering a terrifying, grinning animal of large size that stalked them. Families slept with cabin doors barred and axes and guns at their bedsides.
It is perhaps best that I quote Merrick’s story in full, so that readers may judge it for themselves:
Ghost stories are very real in this land of scattered, lonely homes and primitive fears. The Traverspine “gorilla” is one of the creepiest. About twenty years ago one of the little girls was playing in an open grassy clearing one autumn afternoon when she saw come out of the woods a huge hairy thing with low-hanging arms. It was about seven feet tall when it stood erect, but sometimes it dropped to all fours. Across the top of its head was a white mane. She said it grinned at her, and she could see its white teeth. When it beckoned to her she ran screaming to the house. Its tracks were everywhere in the mud and sand, and later in the snow. They measured the tracks and cut out paper patterns of them which they still keep. It is a strange-looking foot, about twelve inches long, narrow at the heel and forking at the front into two broad, round-ended toes. Sometimes its print was so deep it looked to weigh five hundred pounds. At other times the beast’s mark looked no deeper than a man’s track. They set bear traps for it, but it would never go near them. It ripped the bark off trees and rooted up huge rotten logs as though it were looking for grubs. They organized hunts for it, and the lumbermen who were then at Mud Lake came with their rifles and lay out all night by the paths watching, but with no success. A dozen people have told me they saw its track with their own eyes and it was unlike anything ever seen or heard of. One afternoon one of the children saw it peeping in the window. She yelled and old Mrs. Michelin grabbed a gun and ran for the door. She just saw the top of its head disappearing into a clump of willows. She fired where she saw the bushes moving and thinks she wounded it. She says too that it had a ruff of white across the top of its head. At night they used to bar the door with a stout birch beam and all sleep upstairs, taking guns and axes with them. The dogs knew it was there too, for the family would hear them growl and snarl when it approached. Often it must have driven them into the river, for they would be soaking wet in the morning. One night the dogs faced the thing, and it lashed at them with a stick or club, which hit a corner of the house with such force it made the beams tremble. The old man and boys carried guns wherever they went but never got a shot at it. For two winters it was there. They believe to this day it was one of the devil’s agents or more likely “the old feller” himself.
Merrick said nothing further about this story, and seems never to have offered any explanation for it. If he questioned the locals’ belief that a supernatural being, the devil or one of his “agents,” had haunted the isolated settlement, he made no mention of it.
On that first encounter years ago with Merrick’s story, it struck me as more interesting and detailed than most supernatural wilderness tales I’d come across—but who was to say Merrick hadn’t simply made it all up? After all, in such a remote place, it isn’t easy to corroborate such claims. Most wilderness “monster” stories fall into this category: they were made long ago in isolated locales by a single source, far from any other literate observer and with no possibility of cross-referencing them. Initially I assumed this had to be the case with Merrick’s story too, so I tried my best to forget about it and return to my other research.
Accounts of strange, unknown tracks and sightings of unidentified animals are part of the folklore of the wilderness, told and retold around countless campfires down through the ages. Canada, with its vast wilderness of primeval forests and thousands of snow-capped mountains, is particularly rich in this kind of lore. I knew my fair share of them: sasquatch stories from the mountains of British Columbia, windigo tales from the limitless subarctic forests, and narratives of other, nameless ones. But most of these seldom seemed very tangible. They usually followed a familiar pattern—the story is vague, the recorder doesn’t often claim to have seen the thing themselves, but they say they know someone else who has.
Yet something about the details in Merrick’s account—the grinning teeth, the white mane, the peculiar tracks—seared it into my mind. Somehow it seemed more convincing than others I’d come across in old fur trappers’ diaries or explorers’ journals; for one thing, there was the alleged physical evidence in the form of tracks that had been carefully recorded. Eventually, my curiosity led me to dig deeper into surviving records of Labrador. On an idle, rainy morning one late summer day, I dug up some old books and historical sources relating to Labrador and spread out an antique map of the territory across my desk. Again, I had little expectation of finding any sources that might substantiate such an extraordinary tale. Almost never in my research on other wilderness legends had I ever succeeded in finding any corroborating reports.
PRAISE FOR THE WHISPER ON THE NIGHT WIND:
“A fantastic, fun, and chilling tale.”
“Modern-day explorer Adam Shoalts . . . reminds us that our world is full of mystery, possibility and awe.”
“It is a spooky read, and after finishing it you might want to take a few days off before heading back into the wilderness . . . a page turner for sure.”
—Kevin Callan, Explore Magazine
“The place they end up is so isolated and untravelled that it could give the yips to even the most seasoned explorer. Shoalts is precise in his descriptions of setting and his writing is filled with . . . a clever, intentional use of language that heightens tension and lets a creepiness seep into the narrative.”
—Quill and Quire
“Like something out of Lovecraft. . . . He writes like an explorer of old. . . . [T]hrilling and sometimes unsettling.”
“[Adam Shoalts] continues to go where his curiosity pulls him—often into uncomfortable places we might not go ourselves—and is more than happy to bring us along in the recounting. Spine-tingling . . . captivating.”
“He’s a great writer. . . [E]nthralling . . . [H]is use of language keeps you glued to the page.”
—Mysterious Universe Podcast
“This book tweaks Shoalts’ previous formula in all the right ways—the addition of another person allows for cheeky banter to pepper the narrative . . . All this is couched in what you expect from Adam Shoalts’ adventure books: an exciting wilderness expedition, which is capped off with a satisfying conclusion to the mystery.”
—The Book Lady
“If mysterious, unexplained tracks in the deepest of woods and a bold, hair-raising attempt to uncover the truth behind a century-old Labrador legend sound like just the kind of thrill you’re after, then. . . . [read The Whisper on the Night Wind].”