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The Barren Ground of Northern Canada
Chapter I


In the middle of June, 1889. I left Calgary for a drive of two hundred miles to Edmonton, the real starting-point for the great northern country controlled by the Hudsonís Bay Company, and, with the exception of their scattered trading-posts, and an occasional Protestant or Roman Catholic Mission, entirely given tip to what it was evidently intended for, a hunting-ground for the Indian.    '

My conveyance was a light blackboard, containing my whole outfit, which was as small as possible, consisting almost entirely of ammunition for a 12-bore Paradox and a 50-95 Winchester Express, besides a pair of large blankets and a little necessary clothing.

Forest fires were raging in the Rocky Mountains close at hand, and the thick smoke obscuring the sun, the heat was not nearly so fierce as usual at this time of the year; the road was good for a prairie road, and comfortable stopping-places each night made the journey quite easy. About sixty miles out the country loses the appearance of what is known among cattlemen as the bald-headed prairie, and is dotted with clumps of poplar, and occasionally pines; half way to Edmonton the road crosses the broad stream of the Red Deer, and passes through the most attractive country that I have seen in the north-west territories. It is being rapidly settled, and, with the convenience of a railway now building between Calgary and Edmonton, cannot fail to be an important farming and stock-raising district within a few years.

On the morning of the fifth day I reached Edmonton, a pleasant little town scattered along the far bank of the North Saskatchewan, and historical in the annals of the Hudsonís Bay Company, by whom it was established as a fur trading-post many years ago; it is fated shortly to lose its individuality in the stream of advancing civilization, and will probably develop into an ordinary prairie-town of some importance.

Finding that I had no time to spare if I wished to catch the steamer down the Athabasca river, I left again the same evening, after buying a small supply of flour and bacon. I changed the buck-board for a wagon, having for driver a French half-breed who had spent his early life on the prairie in buffalo-hunting, but, on the extinction of the game, had been earning a. living by freighting for the Hudson's Bay Company, and farming on a small scale. He was a much pleasanter companion than the smartly dressed young man, ďcome of good folks in the East/' who had been my driver from Calgary, and many an interesting tale he told me on our three-days' journey to the banks of the Athabasca; tales of the good old times when the buffalo were thick, and the Crees waged perpetual war against the Blackfeet, and whisky formed the staple article of trade for the Indian's fur. At the present day the Prohibition Act orders that even the white men of the northwest territories must be temperate, thereby causing whisky to be dear and bad, but plentiful withal, and it is surprising how such a law exists in a country where nine men out of ten not only want to drink, but do drink in open defiance of the commands of a motherly Government.

A fair road some hundred miles in length has been made by the Hudson's Bay Company through a rolling sandy country, crossing several large streams and passing through a good deal of thick pine timber where some heavy chopping must have been necessary. The flies bothered us greatly; the large bulldogs, looking like a cross between a bee and a blue-bottle, drove the horses almost to madness, and after our midday halt it was no easy matter to put the harness on; fortunately we had netting, or the poor beasts would have fared much worse: as it was the blood was streaming from their flanks during the heat of the day. The mosquitos appeared towards evening, but as the nights were usually chilly they only annoyed us for a few hours. There were no houses along the road, but plenty of firewood and feed for the horses; we had a good camp every night, sleeping in the open air, starting very early and resting long in the middle of the day.

Two days took us over the divide between the Saskatchewan and Athabasca rivers, and now the water in the little streams that we crossed eventually reached the sea far away in the frozen Arctic Ocean at the mouth of the great Mackenzie. Early on the fourth day we came in sight of the Athabasca running between high pine-clad banks, and, dropping down a steep hill, found the Company's steamer loading up with freight for the far north. This spot is known as the Athabasca landing, and consists of a large depot for goods, trading-store, and several workmen's houses, while the house of the officer in charge stands on the hillside a little way back from the river. From the landing there is water communication down stream, broken of course by portages, to the Arctic sea, while the Lesser Slave Lake lies within a few days' travel up stream, from the north end of which a road seventy-five miles in length has been cut to the bank of Peace River, i spent a pleasant enough day loafing about, Mr. Wood, who was in charge, showing me great kindness and giving me much useful information about my route, and at twelve o'clock the following day we started down stream. The only other passengers were a Mr. Flett and his wife and daughter, who were on their way to take charge of Fort Smith during the coming winter. Mr. Flett was just returning from a visit to his native country, the Orkney Islands, after an absence of forty-four years in the service of the Company, all of which time was spent in the wildest part of the North. He was full of the wonderful changes that had taken place since he was a boy, but finding himself completely lost in civilization, had hurried back to the land of snow. Unfortunately Mrs. Flett had been unable to stand the climate of the old country, and was quite broken down in her health. I was sorry to hear during the winter that she died a few days after we left her at Fort Chipeweyan.

Owing to the very light snowfall in the mountains in the winter of 1888-89, the water in the river was unusually low, and, as we expected, on the third day the steamer, a large light-draught stern-wheeler, after striking several times on shallow bars, had to abandon the attempt to reach the Grand Rapids. We accordingly tied up to the bank, and, sending a skiff down to take the news, awaited the arrival of boats from below to take our cargo. For ten days we lay at the junction of Pelican River, a small stream coming in on the north side of the Athabasca. There was absolutely nothing to do; the low gravelly banks on each side were fringed with thick willows backed by a narrow belt of poplars, and behind these the gloomy pine woods, with here and there a solitary birch, stretched away in an unbroken mass as far as the eye could see. The forest was alive with mosquitos, although owing to the low water in the river they were said to be much less numerous than usual; they were sufficiently thick however to make any exploration in the woods a misery. Fishing we tried without much result, and everybody was pleased when at last Mr. Scott Simpson, who was in charge of the river transport that summer, arrived with two boats. The steamerís cargo was unloaded, partly into the boats and partly on to the bank, and early in the morning she started back for the landing while we proceeded on our journey down stream.

These inland boats, as they are termed, are extraordinary specimens of marine architecture, long open craft, classified according to shape as iYork boats, sturgeon-heads, and scows, capable of carrying a load of ten tons, manned by a crew of eight oars and a steersman, rowed down stream and tracked up, running rapids and bumping on rocks.. Planks, nails, and pitch ate always kept ready to effect repairs, .and are in frequent demand. The crews are generally half breeds from the Lesser Slave Lake and Lake La Biche, both of which pour their waters Into the Athabasca; but there are-also volunteers from all parts of the North, as the wages are good and the work is suited to the half-breedís character, besides the certainty of receiving rations every day, which is a great attraction in a land of scarcity. Sometimes crews of Locheaux Indians are sent up from the Mackenzie, and have the reputation of being the best workers; they certainly seemed to me to be less given to rebellion and more easily managed than the half-breeds. The boats are steered with a huge sweep passed through a ring in the stern post, and great responsibility rests on the steersman, who at times requires all his skill and strength to throw the heavily-laden boat clear of a rock in a boiling rapid.

In three days, without accident, we reached the island at the head of the Grand Rapids, just in time to rescue a Companyís clerk named Mac-kay from a very unenviable position. He had come up with the boat-brigade from Fort Mac-Murray, and, provisions running short, had travelled over-land accompanied by a half-breed to meet the steamer from which they expected to get supplies to take down to the crews. On reaching the island they were unable to attract the attention of the man left in charge of the freight lying there, so they walked a couple of miles up the north bank and built a raft on which to cross the river. They thought they would be able to pole the raft, but the water proved too deep, and being unable to get steerage way on her, they soon broke their unmanageable vessel to pieces against a rock. It was now a case of swimming in a strong current that was forcing them over the big rapid where certain death awaited them; the half-breed succeeded in fetching the island, but Mackay, seeing he was being swept over the fall, swam to a rock and managed to climb on to it. The half breed found the sole inhabitant of the island in his cabin, but there was no boat in which to go to the rescue, and if there had been it was no easy matter for two men to lower it down, without all going over the rapid. They were engaged in building a raft to make the attempt when they saw our brigade coming down the river. By the aid of a long line and plenty of hands the smallest boat was lowered down to the rocks, anti what might have been a very serious accident w'as luckily averted. Mackay was much chilled by sitting on the rocks for several hours in wet clothes after two days without eating; but, when he had had a good meal he was none the worse for his rough experience, and, as is always the case when the danger is past, had plenty of chaff to put up with.

The channel on the south side of the island can be used for dropping a light boat down with a line, but all cargo has to be portaged; the north channel is quite impracticable for navigation, having a heavy overfall with an immense body of broken water. The whole river-bed above the island is covered with round boulders of soft sandstone, many above water, which make the approach to the landing difficult The north bank is a sand-bluff with many similar boulders protruding from the steep cliff, the south bank lower and timbered close to the waterís edge. Many perfect specimens of petrifaction are to be seen on the island and along the river-banks.

The portage is the whole length of the island, about one thousand yards, and a rough tramway has been built to save the labour of carrying cargoes such a distance on menís backs; this tramway is a splendid plaything for the crews, and they spend hours in running the trolley down the hill and poling it up on the principle of a canoe ascending a rapid. Here we passed two weeks in waiting for the boats from below to take the whole of the steamerís load, which during this time was brought down by the same boats that we had used. The time slipped away quickly, though we did nothing but smoke and yam, and towards the end of July the brigade turned up, bringing the first consignment of furs and the news from the North. We were soon off on our hundred-and-fifty--milesí run to Fort MacMurray, and the travelling was now exciting enough, a succession of rapids making hard work for the men, as several had to be run with half loads and the boats tracked up for the other half, and at a small cascade everything had to be portaged while the boats were dropped over with a line.

The worst rapid goes by the name of the Boiler Rapid, from the fact of the boiler for the steamer Wrigiey which plies on Mackenzie River having been lost here through the breaking of a boat. Here the channel has a bad turn in the strong water, and neat steering* is required to clear two reefs of rocks which lie in an awkward position in the middle of the stream. Sometimes there were long stretches of quiet water between the rapids, and the boats drifted with the current while the men smoked or slept; occasionally some one would strike up a snatch from one of the old French-Canadian chansons, which seem to be dropping out of fashion entirely since the steamers have to such a large extent done away with the old style of boating. Four, five, and on long days sometimes six times we put ashore to eat; a wonderful amount of flour, bacon, and tea being consumed by the fifty men composing the brigade. Considering the distance from which the provisions are brought, the inability of this part of the country to supply any of the necessaries of life, and the importance of forwarding trading-goods to the northern districts before the short summer closes, it is not surprising that there should be at times a scarcity. On the present occasion, however, there was no stint, and fine weather made the trip delightful At night the boats were ran ashore, and each crew lighting their own fire, the encampment presented a most picturesque appearance,, the gaudy belts and headgear of the swarthy crews as they moved in the firelight showing in strong contrast to the dark background of tall pine trees. We generally chose as exposed a place as possible for the camp, to get the benefit of any wind there might be to blow away the mosquitos, which were bad in this part of the river. I had the post of honour in the leading boat steered by the guide of the brigade, a Swampy Indian from the Red-River country who had spent many years in voyaging for the [Hudsonís Bay Company. In former days the guide was absolute dictator and had full control over all the boats, but nowadays discipline is slack and he seems to have little authority.

It was a pretty sight to see the long string of boats leaping the rapids behind us, the bowsman standing up and pointing the course to the steersman, while the rowers plied their utmost and broke out into the wild shouts that can never be suppressed in moments of excitement. The Cree language forms the medium of conversation, although many of the half-breeds talk fluently in Red-River French; English is little spoken in any part of the North that I visited.

On the afternoon of the fourth day we arrived at Fort MacMurray, a small post of little importance, standing at the junction of the Athabasca and the Clearwater River, a large stream coming in from the southward, and until the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway to Calgary the main route to the North. The outfits sent from Winnipeg used to reach the waters falling into the Arctic Sea far up the Clearwater at the northern end of what was known as the Long Portage, but the present route is much simpler, as there is no up-stream work with loaded boats. After leaving Fort MacMurray the old course is maintained, following down stream the main artery of the northern watershed.

The stern-wheel steamer Grahame was waiting for us in the mouth of the Clearwater, with Dr. Mackay, the Hudsonís Bay Companyís officer in charge of the Athabasca district of which MacMurray is the most southerly post. It extends to the north as far as Fort Resolution on the Great Slave Lake, and also takes in Fort Chipeweyan, the head-post of the district, situated at the west end of the Athabasca Lake, Fond du Lac at the east end of the same sheet of water, Vermillion and Little Red River on the Lower Peace River, and Fort Smith at the foot of the rapids on the Slave River. It is no sinecure for the man that has to keep this vast extent of country supplied with everything necessary for the existence of the Indians, making the best bargain he can for the products of their hunts, and endeavouring to please the Chipeweyans in the woods and the shareholders of the Company in England at the same time.

The cargo was put on board the steamer in the evening, and in the early morning we started once more for the North. The water was still exceedingly low, but not so much so as to be an impediment to navigation, as the stream increases

in size after the junction of the Clearwater, and beyond scraping once or twice on sandbars, our progress was uninterrupted. About twenty miles below MacMurray we stopped to take on wood and pitch from the natural tar deposits which are just beginning to attract a little attention in Eastern Canada, and the geologists, about to be sent from Ottawa to examine into the resources of this part of the country, will doubtless make a thorough investigation of the amount and quality of the deposit.

The whole of that day we steamed through a wilderness of pine timber presenting exactly the same appearance as in the upper reaches of the river, but on the following morning the banks became low and swampy, the stream sluggish and divided into various branches, and a few miles of intricate navigation brought us out on to the Athabasca Lake. Across on the north shore we could make out the white houses and church of Fort Chipeweyan, and after a couple of hours7 steaming, with smooth water, we were alongside the rather rough apology for a landing-place.

Fort Chipeweyan was established in the early days of fur-trading, and a hundred years ago was the starting-point of Sir Alexander Mackenzie's voyage of discovery that resulted in the exploration and naming of the immense stream discharging from the Great Slave Lake. It was the scene of many stirring events during the rivalry of the

North-West and the Hudsonís Bay Companies, and since their amalgamation has always been an important trading-post. At the present day it consists of a long row of white painted log-houses occupied chiefly by the Companyís servants; at the southern end are the officersí quarters in close proximity to the large trading and provision stores; at the north end stand the Protestant church and Mission buildings, and farther along the lake is the Roman Catholic establishment. The numerous houses form quite an imposing sight in contrast to the surrounding desolation. The settlement is almost at the west end of the Athabasca Lake which stretches away some two hundred and fifty miles to the eastward, with Fond du Lac, a small outpost, at the far end.

Since the steamers have been running Chipeweyan has been partly supplied with the provisions of civilization, but is still chiefly dependent on its fisheries for food, and great pains are taken in the autumn to store as many whitefish as possible. At the commencement of cold weather every available net is working and the fish are hung on stages to freeze; a large number are spoilt for eating if the weather turns warm during hanging-time, but they are always available for the dogs. Trout-lines are worked all the winter, and if the supply seems to be running short, nets are also set under the ice, but usually without such good results as at the Fall fishery. Caribou from the Barren Ground sometimes wander near Fond du Lac, and whenever this occurs the fort is kept well supplied by the Indians, but an occasional moose affords as a rule the only chance of fresh meat. Many geese and ducks are killed and salted during the spring and autumn migration of wild-fowl, which come to the Athabasca Lake at these periods in vast numbers. Chipeweyan has a large population for the part of the world in which it is situated, and as there is a proportionate consumption of food no chance of laying in a stock is missed. The lake still affords an excellent field for exploration, as beyond the main route to the east end and some of the nearer fisheries very little is known to the Whites, and the country in every direction from Fond du Lac is mapped chiefly on information derived from Indians. It is unlikely that there are any startling discoveries to be made, as the general character of the country seems to be the same as that of the district lying to the north and east of the Great Slave Lake, developing gradually into the Barren Ground; but there must be many geographical features in the form of streams and lakes to be noticed, which might amply repay the trouble of a summerís exploration. All supplies can easily be taken by water-carriage as far as the east end of the lake, though of course the well-known difficulty of transporting provisions into the Barren Ground would commence as soon as the main lake was left.


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