Canada C3 expedition finds history on barren northern island

A chance stop on a tiny, barren island in Canada's Arctic led to a discovery that has given a Yellowknife woman a long lost memory of her father.

Letter left behind in 1986 by Hay River tugboat captain forced to wait out storm

Terry Anthony took this picture of Capt. Tom Camsell at the cairn after the letter was placed inside in 1986. (Terry Anthony)

A chance stop on a tiny, barren island in Canada's Arctic led to a discovery that has given a Yellowknife woman a long lost memory of her father.

The Canada C3 icebreaker, which is on a 150-day, 23,000-kilometre expedition of the country's three coasts, was passing through Coronation Gulf just north of Kugluktuk, Nunavut, on Tuesday when it pulled up to the shore of Sutton Island.

It stopped at the remote two-kilometre stretch of gravel and rock after Kugluktuk elder Roger Hitkolok asked to visit the place he and his family were shipwrecked when he was five years old.

Canada C3 icebreaker guests gather around the cairn on Sutton Island, Nunavut. (Matt McClearn)

Hitkolok found a piece of the old shipwreck while others in the crew made their own discovery — a cairn at the top of a hill. Inside the stone obelisk was a tobacco tin with a letter signed by a Métis tugboat captain from Hay River, Tom Camsell.

The brief letter, dated Aug. 23,1986, noted that Camsell and his crew of nine on the M.V. J. Mattson tugboat had run into a storm and found shelter on the island.

Capt. Tom Camsell wrote this letter in 1986, while weathered-in on Sutton Island. Members of the Canada C3 Icebreaker found it last week and took this photo. (Natta Summerky)

It immediately grabbed the attention of the C3 crew because someone with the same last name had supplied them with fuel out of Vancouver. They called that man, Terry Camsell, to say they'd found a letter. Turns out, the tugboat captain was Terry Camsell's brother.

Tom died in 1991 at the age of 44.

After members of the C3 looked at the letter and took a photo, they folded it up and put it back in the tobacco tin along with a new letter, one written by a guest on  the ship — Canada's Gov. Gen. David Johnston.

Gov. Gen. David Johnston (right) gets set to leave his own letter at the cairn on Sutton Island with Kugluktuk elder Roger Hitkolok. (Jimmy Thomson)

Capt. Camsell's daughter Sandra Tuccaro, who grew up in Hay River and now lives in Yellowknife, said her emotions have been running high since seeing the photograph of the letter.

"I just think it's his way of saying he's OK where he is," she said. "[It's] another thing on the list we'll take as a memory."

Terry Anthony was a deckhand on the M.V. J. Mattson in 1986 when it became stranded for three days on Sutton Island. (Terry Anthony)

Terry Anthony was a deckhand on the M.V. J. Mattson in 1986, transporting three barges from Hay River to Cambridge Bay, when the crew encountered a storm.

"It was a shallow-draft tug, so an ocean storm wasn't that good. We found Sutton Island and Tom ran the tug up on the beach and that's where we sat for three days," he recalled.

"It was a pretty barren island. We walked around it, saw a cairn, and Tom put a letter it in. Other than that, we didn't do much — watched a lot of movies."

Sandra Tuccaro, daughter of Capt. Tom Camsell (Sandra Tuccaro)

​Tuccaro said her father never mentioned the three days on Sutton Island, probably, she says, because being weathered in wasn't out of the ordinary for him.

Tom Camsell grew up across from the old town docks in Hay River and his family has a rich history of navigating northern waters.

His great grandfather, Julian Camsell, was chief factor of the Hudson Bay Company for the Mackenzie River District from the 1870s to 1890s and brought steamboats to the Mackenzie River.

The encounter is one of many stories the crew of the C3 is gathering as part of a salute to Canada's 150th anniversary of confederation. It Departed Toronto in June and is scheduled to arrive in Victoria — via the Northwest Passage — on Oct. 28.

The trip is broken into 15 legs and during each one, a different and diverse group of people are on board as ambassadors, including scientists, artists, Indigenous Elders, historians, community leaders, youth, journalists and educators.

Through videos and blog posts on the C3 website, the ambassadors are sharing the experience of connecting with communities, conducting research and learning about this vast country.

The idea is to inspire a deeper understanding of our land, our peoples and our country, the website says.