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The Barren Ground of Northern Canada
Chapter V

On the 17th of September we left our camp at the north end of Lake Camsell for a short expedition in search of musk-ox, which we expected to find within fifty miles of the edge of the woods. By this time we had all fattened up, and entirely recovered from the effects of the short rations we had had to put up with before we fell in with the caribou.

My crew consisted at starting of King, Paul, Frangois, Michel, and Jose; but as the two latter speedily showed signs of discontent I made no objection to their turning back, and despatched them to Fond du Lac to get ready the dog-sleighs, snow-shoes, and everything necessary for winter travel. As a matter of fact they did absolutely nothing except squander a relay of provisions and ammunition that had been sent on by the trading-boat from the fort to meet me at Fond du Lac. I was not sorry to see the last of them, as four of us were quite enough to work the canoe, and a small party naturally stands in less danger of starvation than a big one; moreover, they were certainly the most quarrelsome men in the camp, which is saying a good deal, as we had all done our fair share in that way since leaving the fort.

We started without any meat, expecting to find caribou everywhere, and in this respect we had great luck all the time we were out; but we were not so well off for shelter. We had brought only one lodge from Fond du Lac, which was of course left for the women, while we took the chance of what weather might come, hunting the lee-side of a big rock towards evening, and often finding ourselves covered with an extra blanket of snow (le convert du bon Dieu, as King called it) in the morning.

The plan of campaign was to reach the muskox by canoe and bring back as many robes as we could carry before the winter set in; or, failing this, to kill and cache caribou along our line of travel, so that we should have meat to help us reach the musk-ox with dog-sleighs after the heavy snow had fallen and all the caribou had passed into the woods.

I named the first lake that we portaged into King Lake, a narrow sheet of water some five miles in length, and here we were storm-bound all day by a northerly gale, the force of the wind being so great that we could not move the canoe to windward, although the water was smooth enough. The weather improving in the morning, we paddled down the lake and passed into a small stream running out of its north end. A couple of miles down stream, with a portage over a small cascade (the thirty-fourth and last portage that we made with the big canoe), brought us to a huge lake running in a south-east and north-west direction, said to be the longest of all the lakes in this part of the country, and by the Indians’ account four good days’ travel, or over one hundred miles in length; the part that I saw is certainly over fifty miles, and is said to be not half the total distance. The lake is narrow in most places, and cut up by long points into numerous bays; there are a great many islands, particularly at the north-east end, similar in appearance to the main shore, which is just like the country I have described at the Lac du Rocher, except that at the end of the big lake the hills reach a greater elevation, and present more the aspect of a regular range, than in any other part of the Barren Ground that I saw.

The position of Mackay Lake, as I named it after Dr. Mackay of the Athabasca district, is worthy of remark, as it is the best starting-point from which to work the most important streams of both watersheds. It lies very nearly on the height of land between the Great Slave Lake and the Arctic Ocean; its west end must be but a short portage from the Yellow Knife River, while from its eastern extremity runs out the large stream, named by Anderson the Outram, but more generally known as Lockhart’s River, from the fact of its falling into the Great Slave Lake at Lockhart’s house, which was established for the relief of Stewart and Anderson when they went in search of the missing Franklin Expedition.:.

The Great Fish, or Back’s River, which they descended on that occasion, heads within half a mile of the north bay of Aylmer Lake, lying next below Mackay Lake, on Lockhart’s River. Fifteen miles to the north is another large sheet of water known to my companions as the Lac de Gras, through which the Coppermine River runs on its course direct to the Arctic Sea.

The point at which we fell on Lake Mackay is about the edge of the woods, and here we camped for the last time with pine timber, finding a small hunting-canoe which some of the Beaulieus had left during the previous autumn. This we decided to take with us, and it proved extremely useful later on in crossing the Coppermine.

On Sunday, September 22nd, with a fresh fair wind and our blanket pulling strong, we ran for several hours in a north-east direction; the little canoe which we carried athwartship made the steering difficult, as her bow and stem kept striking the tops of the big waves that were running after us, but we met with no accident except the carrying away of our mast.

We were continually in sight of large bands of caribou, but they seemed to take little notice of the extraordinary apparition. Towards evening we saw a herd on a long point projecting far out from the south shore of the lake, and, thinking it would be a good place to make a cache, landed inside them and walked down the point in line. We had the animals completely hemmed in, and, when they charged through us, nine dropped to quick shooting at short range. There was little fuel of any kind on the spot, and we had to eat our meat almost raw, as is the fashion of the Barren Ground on these occasions. In the morning we ferried all the carcasses to a convenient island close to the point, put them in cache among the rocks, and proceeded down the lake, camping at sundown at the head of a small bay near its northeast end.

The weather now changed, and once more the north wind came howling across the open country straight from the Arctic Sea, and a steady continuous frost set in. We hauled up the big canoe and set out on foot, taking with us only our rifles and ammunition, a blanket apiece, and a couple of small kettles, besides the little canoe, which proved an awkward load to carry against the strong head-wind. We must have walked about twenty miles, occasionally making use of a lake for the canoe, when we reached the south shore of the Lac de Gras, much disappointed in seeing no musk-ox or caribou all day.

The Lac de Gras is much broader than Lake Mackay, and rounder in shape, although at one spot it is nearly cut in half by points stretching out from each side. The Coppermine River runs in at the east and out at the west end, and the distance is not great to the site of Fort Enterprise, Sir John Franklin's wintering place in 1820, and the scene of the awful disasters which befell his first overland expedition.

We were now hard up far provisions again, and the first daylight found us hunting for something to eat. Two of us walked along the shore, while the others paddled the canoe, but we could find neither musk-ox nor caribou; at midday we met and changed places, King and myself making rather a bold crossing in the shaky little canoe, while Paul and Frangois walked round. On approaching the north shore of the lake we noticed a raven rise and throw himself on his back in the air, uttering the curious gurgling note which always seems to imply satisfaction. King exclaimed, “See the raven putting down his load! there is something to eat there”; and true enough there was, for we found the carcasses of eight musk-ox, killed, as we afterwards heard, a month before by a party of Yellow Knives, who had driven the animals into the water and massacred the whole band. Half a dozen gulls flapped away heavily, and we caught sight of a wolverine sneaking off as we came near. Neither of us much fancied the appearance of the feast that lay before us, but we had eaten nothing for some time, and one is not particular in such cases, especially as it is never certain when the next meal will turn up. We robbed from the wolverines and ravens, and, signalling to Paul and Frangois, made a meal of the half-putrid flesh in a little patch of willow scrub that happened to be close at hand. It is never pleasant to find the game you are hunting killed by somebody else, but in this instance it was a relief to know that we had a supply of meat, such as it was, to fall back upon in case we came to grief later on.

After supper we crossed the Coppermine, a big deep stream even here, with a current of a mile and a half an hour, running out of another lake which stretched northward and eastward as far as we could see. Here we left the small canoe to cross with on our return, and walked on late into the night, hoping to find some more willows, but eventually made a wretchedly cold camp without fire on a long promontory, to which we always after alluded as Le Point de Misere. A light snowstorm made us still more uncomfortable, and it was well on in the next afternoon before we found willows enough to make a fire, sighting almost immediately afterwards a big band of caribou. We killed eight, and, as all the small lakes were firmly frozen over by this time, were able to make the safest form of cache by breaking the ice and throwing the meat into shoal water, which would at once begin to freeze and defy all the efforts of the wolverines. Two months afterwards we chopped out this meat, and found it fresh and palatable, although the outside was discoloured by its long soaking. When we had finished our cache we lit a comparatively big fire in a bunch of well-grown willows, and spent the rest of the day in eating and mend-mg our moccasins, which were all badly worn out by the rough walking of the last few days. We had left our main camp badly provided in this respect, as the women had not had sufficient time to dress any skins before we started, and in consequence we were all troubled with sore feet during our wanderings in search of the musk-ox.

Curiously enough, now we did not want them, the ptarmigan appeared again in great quantities, although we had not seen any since leaving our big canoe. The only other birds remaining were a few hawks, owls, gulls, and ravens; the wildfowl had all left, and as a matter of fact we had come across very few since leaving the Great Slave Lake. About this time, too, we killed the first Arctic hare, an animal by no means to be despised, as it is fully as big as an English hare and will at a pinch provide a meal for. a small party; at this time of year they are completely white, with the exception of the tips of the ears which are black; they are usually tame, and, being very conspicuous before the snow covers the ground, afford an excellent mark for the rifle.

On this day we crossed a peculiar ridge composed of fine gravel and sand, resembling at a distance a high railway embankment. It is a well-known landmark for the Indians, and is said by them to stretch, with few interruptions from the east end of the Athabasca Lake to the east end of Great Bear Lake.

September 27th was a. red-letter day, marking the death of the first musk-ox. Soon after leaving camp we came to a rough piece of country, full of patches of the broken rocks that I have already described, and, mounting a small hill, saw a single old bull walking directly towards us at a distance of three hundred yards. We lay down in the snow, and I had a capital chance of watching him through the glasses as he picked his way quietly over the slippery rocks, a sight which went far to repay all the trouble we had taken in penetrating this land of desolation. In crossing an occasional piece of level ground he walked with a curious rolling motion, probably accounted for by the waving of the long hair on the flanks; this hair reaches almost to the ground, and gives the legs such an exaggerated appearance of shortness that, at first sight, one would declare the animal to be incapable of any rapid motion. The shaggy head was carried high, and when he finally pulled up at sight of us, within forty yards, with his neck slightly arched and a gleam of sunshine lighting up the huge white boss formed by the junction of the horns, he presented a most formidable appearance. His fate was not long in doubt, as my first shot settled him, and the main object of my trip was accomplished; whatever might happen after this, I could always congratulate myself on having killed a musk-ox, and this made up for a great deal of the misery that we afterwards had to undergo.

Although not absolutely prime, this animal was a fine specimen of an old bull, with the yellow marking on the back clearly defined, and as good a head as any I saw during my stay in the muskox country. We took the whole skin, with head, horns, and hoofs, and cached it among the rocks, where I am sorry to say it lies to this day; I intended to pick it up in the course of our winter hunt, but unfortunately we were caught in a snowstorm on the Lac de Gras, and were unable to find the cache. In the evening we scattered over the country, hoping to find a band of muskox, but another bull, killed by Paul, was the only one seen.

On the following day the frost was much keener; the smaller lakes and the sheltered bays in the big one were set fast, and we began to realise that the sooner we started back the better chance we had of getting across Mackay Lake with the canoe, and avoiding the long detour to cross Lockhart's River, which was sure to remain open much longer than the lakes. The winter was coming on quickly, and we were badly provided with clothes to withstand its severity; our moccasins were in rags, and everybody showed signs of being footsore. By rough reckoning we were about on the 65th degree of latitude, and it seemed too reckless to push on any further towards the North, as already we were separated from the nearest timber by a hundred miles of treeless waste; even if we found a band of muskox, we should be forced to come out again with dogs to haul in the robes, as our big canoe was now too far back for us to think of carrying any great weight with us. Although we had not made a successful hunt, our trouble was not all thrown away, as enough meat caches had been made to insure us a fair chance of getting out into the same country on the first deep snow.

Nobody liked to be the first to talk about turning back, but on reaching the top of a low range of hills and seeing a flat desolate stretch of country lying to the north of us, with the lakes frozen up and no sign of animals or firewood, King turned to me and said: “It is not far from here that the white men died from cold and starvation at this time of year; let us go back before the snow gets deep and we are not able to travel/’ The old man looked particularly tough at this moment; none of our faces were very clean, but his was the more remarkable, as the blood of the last caribou that we killed had splashed in it, and, running down his beard, had mixed with his frozen breath and appeared in the form of long red icicles hanging from his chin. I think he knew what was in my mind and had an idea that I was laughing at him, for suddenly his quick temper got the better of him and he broke into one of those wild volleys of blasphemy that I had heard him give way to so often, and, turning on his heel, said that I could do as I liked, but he was going to make the best of his way back to the lodge. The walk hack in front of the wind was not nearly so bad as it had been coming out head to it; and in many places we could travel straight over the ice, and, by cutting across the bays instead of walking round, save a considerable distance. Whenever we got this chance we put our loads on a handful of willow-brush and dragged them after us, finding it far easier than carrying them on our shoulders.

Another night we spent without fire on the Point de Misere, and on October 3rd crossed the Coppermine amidst running ice, and there abandoned the little canoe. On the south side of the river we fell in with the biggest band of caribou we had yet seen, numbering fully three hundred ; but as we had no need of any more meat caches on the Lac de Gras, we only killed enough for present use.

This crossing of the Coppermine, by the way, is an important spot in the history of the Dog-Ribs and Yellow Knives. It has always been a favourite swimming-place for the caribou, and many a struggle took place for the possession of this hunting-ground in the old days when there was continual warfare between the two tribes. At the present day it is a breach of etiquette for any Indians to camp here, as it is supposed that if the caribou are once headed back at this point they will not come south of Mackay Lake. This rule had evidently been broken lately, as we found signs of a recent encampment, and King considered that this amply accounted for our not finding the caribou before we reached the Lac du Rocher.

After two more days hard travelling we arrived at our big canoe, and had the satisfaction of finding some meat, that we had left there, untouched by the wolverines; but the bay was frozen solid, and there was no open water within two miles. Beyond the points of the bay we could see the white-capped waves running, but we knew that at the first spell of calm weather the whole lake would set fast.

I now saw an example of the readiness of idea which King possessed in devising shifts and expedients to get out of difficulties. Of course he had had fifty years’ experience in northern travel, but he was certainly, in my opinion, far above the average of the many other half-breeds and Indians who had been my companions in more or less difficult journeys in various parts of Canada. Before I thoroughly understood his scheme we commenced operations, by lashing together all the poles and paddles into a rough sort of ice-raft; on the top of this we placed the loads that we had carried so many miles, forming a smooth bed, two feet above the level of the ice, on which to rest the canoe. The bay had evidently frozen and broken up once, and the second freezing had left a rough surface; many of the floes were piled on top of each other, while the rest had been turned on edge, and it was necessary to keep the canoe clear of these sharp edges, which would have ripped the tender birch-bark like a knife. One man ran ahead, trying the strength of the ice with an axe, while the others hauled on the raft, and our method of progression was so satisfactory that just before dark, after much ominous cracking of the ice but no disaster, we camped on the east point of the bay close to the edge of open water. The half-breeds showed great knowledge of ice, and, with an occasional tap of the axe; picked out the safest route without making a mistake.

The canoe propped on her side gave us the best shelter we had had for many a night, and, finding willows enough for a fire, we all felt jubilant at the idea of reaching the first clump of pines on the following day, besides getting an opportunity to rest our feet, which by this time were in a very bad condition. In this, however, we were doomed to disappointment.

At the first sign of daylight we launched the canoe, and, breaking our way out through the young ice, were soon paddling in a heavy beam sea, with every splash of water freezing on us, and many stops to knock the ice from our paddles. After two or three hours of this work the wind died out, and, as we approached a group of small islands that cut the lake up into numerous channels, we saw a thin sheet of ice across the whole width. All hope of passing with the canoe was given up, and we headed for the south shore while a heavy snowstorm made it difficult to keep the course; the surface water was rapidly thickening into ice, and the sharp needles began to scrape unpleasantly along the sides of our frail vessel. We were none too soon in reaching the land, and had to carry the canoe over the thick ice near the shore. Here we turned her over carefully, and putting the poles, paddles, and all necessaries underneath, abandoned her to be buried under the snow till I might want her again the next summer. Late in the following June we found her, none the worse for her long exposure to the rigour of a winter in the Barren Ground, but even then there was no sign of open water in Mackay Lake.

We had now to continue our journey on foot ; but by keeping to the shore of the lake, and sometimes making use of the ice in crossing a bay, we only camped twice before reaching the pine timber. Late on the third day we came to the hank of an ugly, quick-flowing stream, and saw a large bunch of pines on the far side. Waist-deep we made a ford among the running ice, and were soon drying ourselves by a blazing fire of pine-wood.

The whole of life is said to go by comparison, and although a few pine-trees in a wilderness of snow might seem the height of desolation to a man lately used to the luxuries of the civilized world, it appeared to us like a glimpse of heaven after the exposure of the last few weeks. It really was a pleasant spot, and one which has impressed itself on my memory more than any other camp that we made during this trip. A band of caribou, passing close by, provided us with supper, while a big pack of ptarmigan held possession of the little pine-trees, and kept up a constant expostulation at the intrusion of the scarcely known human beings. Hunger and danger were behind us just at present, and we felt in the best of tempers as we lay down for a long sleep on sweet smelling pine-brush.

Shortly after leaving camp in the morning another band of caribou appeared, and, as the lodge was now not far ahead, we killed about a dozen, and put them in cache for later use. We then walked steadily on all day, and in the evening came in sight of Lake Camsell, over which the sun was setting in full northern splendour, throwing a wonderful purple light across the thin film of ice that coated the water. It was late in the night, and it was not till we had fired several gun-shots at intervals, that we heard an answering signal, and found that the women had set up the lodge in the next bunch of pines, as they had exhausted all the firewood dose to the old camp.

Meat was abundant, for the caribou had been passing, and many had been killed by the women and boys. Bales of dried meat formed a solid wall round the lodge, varied here and there by a bladder of grease or a skin-bag full of pounded meat, while bunches of tongues and back-fats were hanging from the cross-poles to smoke. The scene reminded me of the old fairy stories in which the hero used to discover houses, with walls of sugar and roofs of gingerbread, full of all the good things imaginable, while any member of the Beaulieu family would make a respectable ogre to guard such treasures. Of course the lodge was dirty and infested with the vermin from which these people are never free; but there was an air of warmth and plenty about it very agreeable after the hand-to-mouth existence we had been leading.

On looking back at this expedition I cannot help thinking that we were lucky in getting through it without more trouble, it was just the wrong time of year to be travelling, too late for open water and too early for dogs to have been of any service, even if we had had them with us. One of the heavy snowstorms that, judging from Sir John Franklin’s experience, are common in the end of September and beginning of October, would have made the walking much more laborious, as even the little snow that was on the ground delayed us considerably. Another source of danger was the numerous falls among the broken rocks; but though we all came down heavily at times, and, once or twice, with big loads of meat on our backs, no damage was done. The caribou kept turning up most opportunely, and we had no real hardships from want of food. Fuel was nearly always insufficient, but we only had two fireless camps, both on the Point de Misere. In many places we used black moss in addition to whatever willow scrub we could collect, and so long as the weather was dry found it quite good enough for boiling a kettle, but when the snow fell it was perfectly useless. This absence of a fire to sit by at night is the most unpleasant feature in travelling the Barren Ground.

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