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The Barren Ground of Northern Canada
Chapter II


After a stay of a few hours at the Fort, we started again in the Grahame on our voyage to the head of the rapids at Fort Smith, a distance of perhaps a hundred miles, and almost immediately passed into the main stream leaving the lake, and until the junction of the Peace bearing the name of the Rocky River. During the high water in summer part of the water of the Peace finds its way into the Athabasca Lake by a passage known as the Quatres Fourches, but as the floods subside a slight current sets in the opposite direction; the lake thus has another outlet into the Peace, which eventually joins the Rocky River about thirty miles below; the combined stream is then called the Slave River till it debouches into the Great Slave Lake, on leaving which it becomes the Mackenzie.

A distinct alteration in the appearance of the country is visible on leaving Fort Chipeweyan. The red granite rock shows up and the pine timber is smaller and more scattered, burnt in many places, and mixed with a thick growth of willows and berry-producing bushes; the scenery from the river is monotonous and without landmarks, although a wider view can be obtained than in running down the Athabasca, where the big pine-trees prevent all chance of seeing far in any direction. The current is of no great velocity with the exception of two small rapids formed by the contraction of the channel; both are navigable, although at certain stages of water it is necessary to put out a rope to assist the steamer in mounting the more formidable of the two. We had a very merry passage down, Dr. Mackay and several of the officers of his district accompanying us, and in good time on the second day we tied up to the bank on the west side of the river, just at the head of the rapids.

I must take this opportunity of congratulating the Hudsonís Bay Company on the efficient manner in which their steamers are managed. Considering the utter incapacity of the Indian and half-breed crews when they first come on board, great praise is due to the captains and engineers for their success in overcoming obstacles in navigation and carrying on the Companyís business in a country so remote from civilization. Everything is done in a quiet and orderly way, and a very noticeable feature is the total absence of the swearing and profanity so essential to the wellbeing of a river-steamer in other parts of the American continent.

The next day the work of portaging began, as the whole cargo had to be transported sixteen miles to the lower end of the rapids. In former days the goods were taken down by water, neces-skating many portages and great delay; but within the last few years a road has been cut through the woods on the west side of the river, and the portage is made with Red-River carts drawn by oxen. Twenty carts are in use, starting loaded and returning light, on alternate days. The road is fair in a dry summer, but full of mud-holes in bad weather, and celebrated as the worst place for mosquitos in all the North.

While this was going on we amused ourselves with duck-shooting on some lakes and muskegs a few miles back from the landing, and our bag was always a welcome addition to the table, as no other kind of fresh meat was to be had. Big game is very scarce along the main route, and though there are still a few moose and bear it is rarely that an animal is seen close to the banks of the river. As soon as the cargo was all over we went across to Fort Smith, standing just below the rapids, to await the arrival of the Mackenzie River steamboat which was expected at any time. Dr. Mackay took me down the old boat-route in a canoe, and I had a good opportunity of seeing what labour and risk there must have been with heavily-laden boats; we made some fifteen portages in all, which occupied a long afternoon, with only a light canoe., A large colony of pelicans have taken possession of some islands among the rapids, and rear their young without fear of molestation.

Fort Smith, in spite of its fine situation on an open flat high above the river, is the most disreputable establishment I came across in the North, and the contrast was more striking as most of the forts are kept rather smartly. Several half-breeds have settled close round, and a large band of Indians, known as the Caribou-Eaters, whose hunting-ground lies between the two big lakes, get their supplies from here. Within a short distance is Salt River, which produces all the salt consumed in the country, and saves the expense of importing this necessary article.

On August 13th, after several days waiting, the steamer Wrigley arrived, bringing up the Mackenzie River furs and several of the officers from that district. Among her passengers was a French half-breed, King Beaulieu, who afterwards became my guide to the Barren Ground. He agreed to go in this capacity at a consultation held in Dr. Mackayís presence, swearing eternal fidelity and promising to do everything in his power to ensure the success of the expedition. Nobody could give him a very good character, but as he was known as a pushing fellow and first-rate traveller, besides having made a successful musk-ox hunt in the previous year, I concluded that my best chance lay in going with him. Certainly, with all his faults, I must say that he was thoroughly expert in all the arts of travel with canoes or dog-sleighs, quick in emergencies, and far more courageous than most of the half-breeds of the Great Slave Lake. When I was alone with him I found him easy enough to manage; but his three sons, who accompanied us, are the biggest scoundrels I ever had to travel with, and as they seem to demoralize the old man when they are together, the united family is a bad combination.

Two more days were passed in loading the Wrigley, and in discussion among the officers from the two districts, who only meet on this occasion, and have to make the most of the short stay to go over the news of the last year and prospects for the next. Mr. Camsell, who is in charge of Mackenzie River district, was on board, and, although I never actually went within his dominions, was exceedingly kind in giving me supplies from his own outfit, and in doing everything he could do to help me during the year that I spent in the neighbourhood of the Great Slave Lake.

The Wrigley, having the rough crossing of the lake to make, is a very different style of boat to the stem-wheelers above, which do all their work in smooth water. She is a screw-boat, drawing seven feet when loaded; and it gives an idea of the great size of the Mackenzie when I mention that a vessel with this draught of water has a clear run of thirteen hundred miles from Fort Smith to Peelís River, a tributary joining the main stream from the west a short distance above its mouth. She has never, I believe, steamed into the Arctic Sea, partly on account of the channel being unknown, and partly owing to the shortness of the season, which necessitates her being constantly at work to supply the forts before the closing of navigation.

After leaving Fort Smith and passing the mouth of Salt River the Slave River widens considerably, and, with a slight current running between low banks and numerous islands, follows a more circuitous course than in its upper reaches. The steamerís course covers a distance of one hundred and eighty miles to the Great Slave Lake, but, in travelling with canoes or dogs, a number of portages are made to cut off bends of the river, and about one-third of the distance is saved.

The granite formation is quickly lost sight of from the water. The sandy banks are covered with a dense growth of willows backed by the pine forest; a gloomy uninviting stretch of country, to which the tall dead trees charred by former fires give a peculiar air of desolation. The soft nature of the sand, and the fact that much of the bank has fallen in through the action of the ice breaking up in the spring, render tracking difficult on this part of the river; the fallen timber leaning over it at all angles, and making it impossible to pass the line. The sluggish nature of the current, however, compensates for this, as its strength can always be overcome by oars or paddles in the bad places. Early on the second day we steamed through the low delta lands at the mouth of the river, and, passing cautiously among the sandy battures lying far off shore, arrived in heavy rain and strong westerly wind at Fort Resolution, situated about ten miles to the westward of the riverís mouth. Mr. Mackinlay, who is in charge of the fort, was away; but, as the steamer was delayed 'for a couple of days by the storm that was blowing, Mr. Camsell gave me very valuable assistance in making preparation for my voyage.

The resources of the fort were at the lowest; no supplies had yet arrived from outside, and the people were entirely dependent on their nets for food: as is usually the case at this time of year, fish were scarce and hard times prevalent. A boat had been fitted out to be sent to the east end of the lake to trade for meat with the Indians hunting there; but after waiting a long time for the steamer, to obtain the ammunition necessary for trading, she was blown ashore and broken up on the night of our arrival. I had intended to take a passage by this boat; but as a party of men had to be sent to Fort Smith to bring down another one,, and I was anxious to get among the game with as little delay as possible, I determined to make the journey as well as I could with canoes.

It was now that I made the acquaintance of King Beaulieuís sons, Frangois, Jose, and Paul, each of them married and father of such a big family that it makes one tremble for the future of the Great Slave Lake country when the next generation has grown up. The original Beaulieu seems to have been a French half-breed brought in by the Hudsonís Bay Company among the early voyageurs from Red River. He settled at Salt River, where buffalo were numerous at the time, and by an indefinite number of wives raised a large family which is threatening gradually to inundate the North. Kingís father appears to have been a fighting man, and great stories of his bravery and prowess are told by his sons and grandsons; but his name only appears in the Companyís records in connection with various deeds of violence not much to his credit.

All Kingís family were hanging about the fort in a state of semi-s.tarvation, and I was glad when we eventually started well on in the afternoon of August 19th, with the hope of reaching first some good fishing-ground to supply them with food for immediate want, and afterwards the country of the caribou in the woods to the north of the lake, while beyond that again was the pros-spect of finding the musk-ox far out in the Barren Ground.

In character a Beaulieu is a mixture of a very simple child and a German Jew; all the lack of reason of the one combined with the greed of the other, and a sort of low cunning more like that of an animal than a human being. He is not a nice man to travel with, as he always keeps a longing eye on his masterís possessions, even though he is fully as well-equipped himself, and is untrustworthy if you leave anything in his charge.

To your face he is fairspoken and humble enough, and to hear him talk you would think he had a certain amount of regard for you; but out of sight the promises are forgotten, and he is devising some scheme to annoy you and get something out of you. The only way to treat him is as you would treat a dog; if you are kind to him he takes it as a sign that you are afraid of him, and acts accordingly. With the exception of King there is no fear of violence; but his passion is at times so uncontrollable that he is capable of anything. It is needless to relate all the bother I had with these people, and I shall content myself with saying that the whole time I was with them the camp was the scene of one continuous wrangle; sometimes they would quarrel with me and sometimes among themselves, but we never did anything without having a row.

As far as Fort Resolution the travelling had been almost as easy, although there were many delays, as in civilization; but directly you branch <from the Companyís main route you are thrown entirely on your own resources, and, owing to the impossibility of carrying enough provision for a prolonged journey in the Barren Ground, the rifle and net are the only means of obtaining food. This is a point to be well considered before undertaking a trip to the country of the musk-ox, as, however well you may be supplied at starting, you are sure: to experience some hard times before your object is accomplished.

My only provisions consisted of a couple of sacks of flour and about fifty pounds of bacon, and I might as well have started with none at all My companions had all the improvidence of the Indian nature, and hated the idea of keeping anything for hard times. There was such a constant begging, not without a certain excuse from hunger, to be allowed to eat flour and bacon, that I was really rather glad when it was all gone, which was actually the case before we left the Great Slave Lake. We had a good supply of tea and tobacco, though it proved after all insufficient, plenty of ammunition for the three Winchester rifles, and powder, shot, and ball for the muzzle-loading weapons of the party; we had also nets and a few hooks and lines, matches, needles, and awls to be used in the manufacture of moccasins and the deer-skin clothes so essential for winter travel; knives of various shapes and sizes, scrapers for dressing skins, and a small stock of the duffel imported by the Company for lining mittens and wrapping up the feet during the intense cold that we were sure to experience during the trip.

Our fleet numbered three large birch-bark canoes, crowded with men, women, and children, amounting in all to over twenty souls, or, to be more practical, mouths. Besides these there were fifteen gaunt and hungry dogs, which had been spending their short summerís rest in starving as a preparation for the hard work and harder blows which were in store for them in the coming winter.

I was of course the only white man in the party, and whatever conversation I held with the three or four half-breeds that I could understand was carried on in the French patois of the North. Among themselves they used the Montaignais dialect of the Chipeweyan language, which is spoken with variations to the northward of the Cree-speaking belt, till its place is taken by the Slavi and Locheaux language of the Mackenzie River; in a couple of months I had picked up enough Montaignais to be able to mix it with French and make myself fairly well understood.

Four deerskin lodges made our encampment. I lived with King, as his camp was always the quietest; in the other lodges there was a continual screaming of children, or yelping of hungry dogs as they felt the cruel blow of axe or paddle, which was the sure result of approaching the savoury smelling kettle too close. We camped the first night in the delta of the Slave, or, as it is more usually called, the Big River. I distributed a little ammunition, and we killed enough ducks to provide the whole party with a nightís provision. The next day a gale of wind was blowing from the lake, and, after following winding muddy channels all the morning, we were obliged to camp again on a point of willows beyond which we should have been exposed to the full violence of the storm, and our overloaded canoes would have had no chance of living in the heavy sea. Here we remained two days, still within twenty miles of the fort. Wild-fowl were numerous, but the great autumn migration had not yet set in, and all the birds that we found had been bred in the muskegs that surrounded us on all sides; they were mostly mallard, widgeon, teal, shoveller, and pintail, the latter being particularly plentiful. Musk-rats swam in all the little creeks and lakes, and, as they are esteemed as an article of food, and their skins are of a trifling value, we killed a great many.

On the third day we paddled along the shore of the lake against a strong head-wind, passing the Isle de Pierre, one of the best fisheries in the neighbourhood, and camped at the Point of Rocks, the first spot on the south side of the lake where the red granite again shows up, and the end of the muskeg country that extends far on each side of the Big River. Here we caught enough whitefish with the nets to enable even the dogs to have a small feed, and, as we killed forty ducks while waiting for the wind to moderate, everybody was satisfied. In the afternoon we put out in a calm to paddle across the open traverse to the first of a group of islands about fifteen miles to the north. This traverse is the terror of the lake 'for canoes, both in summer on account of the heavy sea which gets up suddenly, and in winter when the drifting snow in stormy weather obscures everything and makes It a difficult matter to keep the course over the ice. On this occasion we got over just in time, and, camping on the nearest island of the group, were delayed for two days by strong north-west winds accompanied by showers of driving rain.

These islands, marked on the map as Simpsonís Group, extend for a hundred miles in a northeasterly direction to Fond du Lac, and, if ever explored, will be "found to be in immense numbers, varying in size, but all of the same red-granite formation, covered with a scanty growth of pine, birch, and willows. Many of them rise to a considerable height, with the ridges generally running south-west and north-east. A few moose still inhabit the larger islands; but the big herds of caribou "from the Barren Ground that used formerly to come here in their wanderings seem to have deserted them of late years. An occasional small pond gives harbourage for a few wild-fowl, while wood-grouse, and in winter ptarmigan, are plentiful The bare outlying rocks between the islands are the breeding-ground of gulls and terns: divers and a few cormorants give additional life to the lake in summer; but at the first sign of cold weather the water-birds all leave for a more temperate land, and a deathlike silence settles over the frozen channels during the eight months of winter.

The island on which we were encamped, being the most westerly of the group, was exposed to the full force of the gale. The heavy fresh-water seas broke with great violence on the weather shore and on the numerous rocks, some above water and others submerged, that make the navigation of this part of the lake dangerous for anything larger than a canoe. It was no easy matter to get out our nets, even to leeward of the island, and the supply of fish was very scanty; dissatisfaction was prevalent in the camp, and heavy inroads were made on the flour and bacon that would have proved so useful later on. When the weather moderated we started against a strong head-wind, and a hard dayís paddling brought us to a spot known as the Inconnu Fishery, situated on an island halfway to Fond du Lac. The Inconnu, or Unknown Fish, is, I believe, entirely restricted to the Mackenzie River country, and its southernmost limits seem to be the rapids at Fort Smith; it was thus named by the early voyageurs of the Company, who were unable to classify it, and even to this day there is a great variety of opinion as to what family it is a member of: a long thin fish, not unlike a misshapen salmon, running up to fifteen pounds in weight, with flabby and unpalatable flesh, it is held in very low estimation in comparison with whitefish or trout, and is only appreciated in hard times. At this particular island it will take a bait readily, but I never heard of its doing so in any other part of the lake, although large numbers are caught in the nets. There is some peculiarity In the water which may account for this, as, even in the dead of winter, there is generally an open hole in the ice; and, in passing the Inconnu Fishery, one must keep right ashore to avoid the treacherous spot. Here we were wind-bound again, and indeed for several days made very little headway against the northerly gales that seem almost incessant at this time of year. We had a pleasant spot to camp in every night, but not always enough to eat, and it was the first of September before we sighted the high land on the north side of the lake. This was the first really fine day we had had since leaving the fort, and, taking advantage of it, we left the shelter of the islands, made a bold crossing of the wide stretch of open ;water, and camped among the scattering pines on the northern mainland. Exactly opposite to us was the narrow entrance to Christieís Bay of the maps, extending some hundred miles to the east and southeast, offering another tempting field for exploration. On the west side of the entrance is a remarkable many-coloured bluff, composed of the soft rock used by the Indians for the manufacture of their stone pipes, which are still in common use.

The range of hills along the north shore, which we now had to coast, average perhaps five hundred feet In height, occasionally reaching a much higher elevation, but without any conspicuous peaks; the land begins to rise at once from the lake, in many places taking the form of a steep cliff. The vegetation is the same as that, on the south side of the lake, but more stunted, the pine frees especially showing the increased rigour of the climate; small birch trees are still numerous, and the growth of the hardy willows is almost as strong as at Fort Resolution. Fruit-bearing plants are common. The small muskegs between the ridges of rock are full of a much-prized yellow berry, while blueberry bushes flourish in the dry spots, and a few raspberries are still to be seen; but strawberries, which used to be plentiful on the south shore and among the islands, have disappeared. I noticed here the low trailing plant bearing a woolly red berry, known as Cannican-nick by the Indians to the west of the Rocky Mountains, and used by them as tobacco; the Slave Lake Indians sometimes smoke it, but prefer the inner bark of the red willow; the Hudsonís Bay negrohead tobacco is in my opinion much improved, as well as economized, by a mixture with either of these substances. Countless streams, the outlet of lakes on the elevated tableland to the north, foam down the deep gulches in the hillside, and confused masses of fallen timber and rocks give evidence of the frequent landslides that take place during the spring thaws.

Again the north wind howled dismally down the lake, and several more days were occupied in reaching Fond du Lac. The enforced delay had a depressing effect upon the whole party, as fish were scarce, and paddling against continual headwinds Is always hard work. At last, on September 5th, passing through a narrow arm of the lake with a perceptible current formed by the prevailing winds, we came in sight of Fond du Lac. A single house at the head of a snug little bay is all that is left standing, but the ruins of others, and a number of rough graves, show that at one time it was a more populous place. It was formerly an outpost of Fort Resolution, used as a depot for collecting meat, and presided over in a haphazard manner by King Beaulieu, who is still rather sore about the abandonment of the post and his own discharge from the Companyís service. The weather now became worse than ever, snow and hail taking the place of rain and throwing the first white mantle on the hill-tops. It was evident that such a large party, crippled as we were with women and children, would never be able to reach the caribou, in the event of these animals being far back from the Great Slave Lake. We had met no Indians, and so had no means of hearing the news of the caribou, which forms the one topic of interest among the Dog-Rib and Yellow Knife tribes who hunt in this part of the country. Luckily trout and whitefish were fairly abundant, some of the former reaching such an enormous size that I am afraid to hazard a guess at their weight, though I afterwards saw one at the fort that turned the scale at fifty-eight pounds.


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