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The Barren Ground of Northern Canada
Chapter III

We held a big council as to ways and means, and, after much discussion, finally came to the decision that our best chance was to leave the main body of women and children with sufficient men to attend to the nets for them, while the rest of us pushed on to the north with our two biggest canoes, in the hope of falling in with the caribou, and afterwards the musk-ox. We were to leave all the dogs at Fond du Lac, as we expected to send back before the setting in of winter; only two women, King’s wife and daughter, were lo come with us to dry meat, dress deerskins, and make moccasins. Besides them our crew consisted of King Beaulieu, his sons Frangois, Jose, Paul, and Baptiste (a boy of twelve), Michel (King’s son-in-law), and a small Indian boy who had thrown in his lot with us as the best visible means of getting anything to keep him alive during the autumn. All the provisions that I had brought with me were exhausted, and we had nothing but a dozen small dried whitefish when we left Fond du Lac on September 7th to paddle another thirty miles along the north shore before leaving the lake. Our loads were cut down to the smallest weight possible in order to save time on the portages. I left my Paradox behind as the ammunition was heavy, and trusted entirely to a Winchester rifle; a pair of glasses and a blanket about completed my share of the cargo. I had no instruments for taking observations, no compass, and no watch; and, take it all round, it was a very poorly-equipped expedition. We made a bad start, as, after an hour's travel across a deep bay, we found ourselves storm-bound on a small island, the canoes hauled up on the beach, and such a heavy sea on all sides that we could not get out a net. We spent an uncomfortable night on the island, but the wind moderated a little in the morning and we put out again. After being once driven back to our refuge we managed to reach the mainland, with the canoes half full of water and our blankets and clothes soaked. However, a good fire soon mended matters, and, as we caught enough whitefish to stave off present hunger, contentment reigned in the camp.

The next evening, after another long struggle against the wind, we camped in the small bay at which we intended to make our first portage, and our long journey on the Great Slave Lake was finished. Three ducks, our whole bag for the day, and a kettle of black tea gave us a scanty supper, and, as there was still a little daylight, we each carried a small load to the top of the hill, a distance of two miles, but were disappointed in : not seeing any caribou tracks. We thought we had a chance of finding them close to the lake, but as a matter of fact we had several days' journey yet before we fell in with them. It now seemed pretty certain that we were in for a spell of what my companions alluded to as les miser es till we reached the meat-country, the joys of which formed the chief subject of talk round the campfires.

With the first streak of light we began the portage in a driving snowstorm, and long before midday the rest of the cargo and the biggest canoe were landed at the top of the steep climb; the other canoe we abandoned,' thinking one was ample for our work in the Barren Ground. We sat down for a smoke at the top of the hill, and took our last view of the Great Slave Lake. Looking southward we could see the far shore and the unknown land beyond rising in terraces to a considerable height, and very similar in appearance to the range we were on. Ahead of us, to the north, lay a broken rocky country sparsely timbered and, dotted with lakes, the nearest of which, a couple of miles away, was the end of our portage; a bleak and desolate country, already white with snow and with a film of ice over the smaller ponds. Three hundred miles in the heart of this wilderness, far beyond the line where timber ceases, lies the land of the musk-ox, to which we were about to force our way, depending entirely on our guns for food and for clothing to withstand the intense cold that would soon be upon us. A pair of hawks hovering overhead furnished the only signs of life, and the outlook was by no means cheerful. As I was sitting on a rock meditating upon these things old King came up and said: “Let us finish the portage quickly; it is dinner-time.” I quite agreed with him, but put his remark down as a rather unseasonable joke, as I did not think there was a bite to eat among us; but on reaching the lake I was pleasantly surprised to see King fish out a lump of bacon, which he had stowed away some time ago after one of my lectures on improvidence. It was really the last piece, and, although there was no bread (and for the matter of that there was none for the next three months) we all made a good enough meal. The lake was of course named Lac du Lard to commemorate this event.

I think no white man had ever passed through this chain of lakes before, as Sir John Franklin went up by a more westerly route, following the course of the Yellow Knife River, while Hearne and Back both left from the east end of the Great Slave Lake; Stewart and Anderson, when they were searching for survivors of Franklin’s last ill-fated expedition, reached the head waters of the Great Fish River by a chain of lakes about eighty miles to the eastward of my present route. If the lakes were known among the Indians by any particular names I enquired their meaning and preserved them; the others I named from incidents in the voyage or from the Company’s officers of Athabasca and Mackenzie River districts.

During the afternoon we made four more short portages, passing through the same number of lakes, some of them of a considerable size. We kept a good look-out for the caribou but saw no signs of them, and at dark, after a hard day's work, camped on the east shore of the Lac de Mort. It acquired this name from a disaster that overwhelmed a large encampment of Yellow Knives who were hunting here during one of those epidemics of scarlet fever that have from time to time ravaged the North. Most of the hunters were too ill to walk, and, as game was scarce, the horrors of starvation, combined with disease, almost exterminated the band.

The next two days were occupied in the same manner of travelling towards the north with numerous portages. We could mot catch any fish, though we set a net every night, but killed enough ducks to keep us alive without satisfying our ravenous hunger. The weather was still cold, with strong head-winds and frequent snowstorms.

On the third day we caught a big trout and killed a;loon and a wolverine, the latter after a most exciting chase on a long point. In the next portage accordingly we made a big feast, although wolverines are only eaten in starving times, as they are looked upon in the light of scavengers and grave-robbers, and acatcajoutrn is a favourite term of contempt. On the present occasion nobody made any objection, and in the circumstances the despised meat tasted remarkably well. Our joy was soon cut short by finding the next lake, which was more sheltered from the wind than the others we had passed through, covered with a sheet of ice sufficiently thick to prevent the passage of a birchbark canoe, while a heavy snowstorm came on at the same time, making matters look more gloomy than ever. King's sons at once expressed their intention of returning to Fond du Lac while the lakes behind them were still open. King, however, here showed great determination, and declared, with an unnecessary amount of strong language, that he had the heart of Beaulieu (the worst sort of heart, by the way), and, when once he had started, would not turn back without seeing the musk-ox. Eventually we persuaded them to come on, and, carrying the canoe, reduced our load to the very smallest amount of necessaries. We then started on foot for an expedition that would have most certainly ended in disaster if we had gone on with it. I noticed that the two women had the heaviest loads to carry, but having myself as much as I cared about for a long distance I made no remarks on the subject, Luckily, after spending a night without eating under the shelter of a bunch of dwarf pines, we discovered the next lake to be almost clear of ice; and carrying our canoe over the four-mile portage we continued our journey as before, pushing on as quickly as possible to reach the Lac du Rochet, where the half-breeds were confident of meeting the caribou, or, at-the worst, to camp at a spot well known to them where we might catch fish enough for a temporary support. We had now been in a half-starving condition for several days, and were beginning to lose the strength that we required for portaging and paddling against the continual north wind.

On September 13th we reached the Lac du Rocher, a large irregular sheet of water, so broken up with bays and promontories that it is hard to estimate its size. Camp was made on the south side of the lake, and we set our nets and lines, baited with carefully preserved pieces of white-fish, while others explored the surrounding hills for caribou tracks, but without success. The halfbreeds were all much put out by this failure, as they have always found the Lac du Rocher a certainty for caribou at this time of year, and were unable to account for it, except by the theory that the animals had altered the usual course of their autumn migration and were passing to the east of us. There was not a fish in the net when we turned in; but a good trout was caught in the middle of the night, and we all got up and finished the last mouthful. Again we had no breakfast, and the early morning found us discussing various plans in rather a serious manner. The final decision was that Paul and Francois should push ahead to try and find the caribou, while the rest of us moved the camp to the north end of the lake and worked the fishing till their return; six days, were allowed them for their trip, after which, each party was to act independently, and we were all to get out of the awkward situation in the best way we could.

Accordingly we took the canoes across the lake as soon as our hunters had started, and put up our deerskin lodge in the shelter of a clump of well-grown pine trees; we tried the hand-lines for hours without any better result than completely numbing our fingers, and towards evening set the net, also without any luck. I took my rifle and walked two or three miles back from the lake, but beyond an Arctic fox, which I missed at long range, saw nothing edible.

There is no better camp than a well-set-up lodge with a good fire crackling in the middle, and in this respect we were comfortable enough, but the shortness of food was telling rapidly. We had made no pretence at eating all day, and since leaving Fond du Lac had subsisted almost entirely on tea and tobacco, while even on the Great Slave Lake provisions had been none too plentiful. We passed the evening smoking, and, as I have found usual in these cases, talking of all the good things we had ever eaten, while eyes shone in the firelight with the brilliancy peculiar to the early stages of starvation. Outside the lodge the wind was moderated; the northern lights, though it was still early in the year, were flashing brightly across the sky, and far away in the distance we could hear the ominous howling of wolves. Late in the night I awoke, and, on lighting my pipe, was greeted by King with the remark: “Ah! Monsieur, une fois j'ai goute le pain avec le buerre; le bon Dieu a fait ces deux choses la expres pour manger ensemble."

Long before daylight we put off in the canoe to visit the net, and to our great joy found five fair-sized trout, quite enough to relieve all anxiety for the day; the weather also had improved, turning much warmer, with the snow rapidly thawing. The half-breeds, who are all Catholics, held a short service, as it was Sunday morning and they are very particular in this respect. Afterwards we all went out hunting, but only two or three ptarmigan, the first we had seen, were killed, and there were still no signs of the caribou. The country here is much less rugged than on first leaving the Great Slave Lake, and the rolling hills are covered with a small plant, halfway between heather and moss, bearing a small black berry, and growing in thick bunches wherever the soil is capable of producing it. This plant, and a wiry black moss which grows in patches on the flat rocks, are much used as fuel in dry weather, if no wood is available; in wet weather they are of course useless. The hollows between the ridges are generally muskegs, thawed out to the depth of a foot, producing a long coarse grass, and in many places a plentiful growth of a dwarf variety of the Labrador tea, an excellent substitute for the product of China. Huge glacial boulders lie scattered in every direction, many of them balanced in an extraordinary manner on the points of smaller stones, which seem to have been of softer substance and gradually worn away. In other spots are patches of broken rocks, covering a large extent of ground and very difficult to travel on, especially when a light coating of snow makes them slippery, and conceals the deep holes in which a leg might easily be snapped; even the caribou, sure-footed as they are, will often make a long detour in preference to taking the risk of a fall among these rocks. Lakes of all sizes and shapes abound on every side, connected by small streams that find their way into the Slave Lake one hundred miles to the southward. Pine timber is now very scarce and mostly small, growing in sheltered spots with long stretches where not a tree is visible. A fairly thick stem starts from the ground and immediately spreads out into a bush with the branches growing downwards, and the top of the tree seldom reaching a height of ten feet. Sometimes, however, even as far out as this, a bunch of really well-grown trees is to be found, probably having the advantages of better soil to spring from. A very few birch sticks, invaluable to the Indian for making snow-shoes, still manage to exist, and patches of scrub willow are frequent. The general appearance of the country and the vegetation, with the exception of the timber, reminded me strongly of the desert of Arnavatn in the interior of Iceland.

A great variety of mosses and lichens flourish here and in the true Barren Ground outside the tree limit, the tripe des roches which has played such a conspicuous part in the story of Arctic exploration being particularly abundant at this spot. The formation of the rocks is still red granite, with a good deal of mica showing in the boulders.

Late in the evening we heard a gun, and, on our replying, four or five shots were fired in rapid succession, the signal of good news; soon afterwards Paul and Frangois came in, each carrying a small load of meat, which we finished promptly. They had fallen in with the caribou about thirty miles on, and reported them to be moving south in great numbers; we had now no hesitation in pushing on to meet them, and were all jubilant at the thought of good times coming. The next day was warm again with south-west wind, and, after passing through the Lac du Corbeau (named from our little Indian, who had acquired the title of Chasseur du Corbeau from an unsuccessful hunt he had made after a raven at one of our hungry camps), we portaged into Lake Camsell, a fine sheet of water over twenty miles in length, running more to the east than the other lakes we had passed, full of small islands, and with rather more timber than usual on its shores.

For the first time we could put down our paddles, and, hoisting a large red blanket for. a sail, ran in front of the steady fair wind; the water was blue, the sun pleasantly warm, and the snow had almost disappeared. In the afternoon there was a cry of Et-then, Et-then! (the caribou), and we saw a solitary bull standing against the sky-line on the top of an island close to the east shore of the lake. As soon as we were out of sight we landed and quickly surrounded him; he made a break for the water, but one of the half-breeds, in hiding behind a rock, dropped him before he put to sea. It was a full-grown bull in prime condition, the velvet not yet shed, but the horns quite hard underneath.

A scene of great activity now commenced. There was no more thought of travelling that night, and, while two men were skinning and cutting up the caribou, the others unloaded and carried ashore the canoe, lit a fire, and got ready the kettles for a feast that was to make up for all the hard times just gone through. There was plenty of meat for everybody to gorge themselves, and we certainly made a night of it, boiling and roasting till we had very nearly finished the whole animal. I could not quite keep up with the others at this first trial of eating powers, but after a couple of weeks among the caribou I was fully able to hold my own. We seemed at length to have found the land of plenty, as ptarmigan were very numerous, just losing the last of their pretty brown plumage and putting on their white dresses to match the snow, which would soon drive them for food and shelter into the thick pine woods round the shores of the Great Slave Lake.

We had to sleep off the effects of over-eating, and it was late in the day before we started down the lake. After two or three hours’ sailing at a slow pace we spied a band of caribou, again on an island. With unnecessary haste we made for the land, and, through watching the deer instead of the water, ran the canoe on a sharp submerged rock, tearing an ugly hole in the birch-bark. We all stepped overboard up to the waist, carried the cargo ashore, and, leaving the women to stitch up the canoe with the bark and fibre that is always kept handy when away from the birch woods, started in pursuit of the caribou. The result was that after a great deal of bad shooting we killed sixteen on the island, while the canoe, hastily patched up, with a kettle going steadily to bale out and the women paddling and shouting lustily, succeeded in picking up two more that tried to escape by swimming.

The evening was passed in skinning and cutting up the meat, which was stowed away in rough caches of rocks to keep it safe from the wolves and wolverines. These animals are always very plentiful in attendance on the big herds of caribou, and are often the cause of much annoyance to the hunter through stealing meat that he is relying upon for subsistence; in many places where the rocks are small it is impossible to build a cache strong enough to keep out the wolverines, which are possessed of wonderful strength for their size.

The following day while Michel, Paul, and myself were walking overland to join the canoe at the end of the lake, we fell in with another band of caribou, and, as the rest of the party landed at an opportune moment, we caught the animals on a long point and made another big slaughter of seventeen, among them some old bulls with very fine heads. A young bull, nearly pure-white in colour, came my way, and I secured him, but unfortunately the skin was afterwards stolen by wolverines. We had now plenty of meat to establish a permanent camp, and set up our lodge at the end of Lake Camsell with the intention of leaving the women and boys to collect and dry the meat and dress the skins, while the men were away on a short hunt after musk-ox before the lakes set fast with ice.

We were now within a short distance of the last woods, if a few bunches of dwarf pines, at intervals of several miles, can be called woods, and were about to push out into the Barren Ground, where, with the exception of an occasional patch of small scrub willow, all timber ceases.

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