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The Barren Ground of Northern Canada
Chapter VI


The day after our arrival was Sunday, a fine, calm day with bright sunshine, of which we took advantage to wash our scanty stock of clothing and generally pull ourselves together. Cleanliness of the body is not looked upon with much favour by the half-breeds, but Sunday morning was always celebrated in the lodge by the washing of faces and a plentiful application of grease to the hair. After this operation was over we held a consultation as to the best way of carrying on our hunt of the musk-ox, which had so far not proved successful. The same old wrangling and abuse of each other ensued, and finally the following decision was arrived at. Paul and Frangois were to go back to Fond du Lac, so soon as their feet were in a fit condition to travel; they were to occupy themselves in getting ready the dog-sleighs, and to return on the first deep snow to the spot where we had killed the caribou on the day that we reached the lodge. If any of the Indians, of whom I had seen absolutely nothing so far, were going to the musk-ox, arrangements should be made with them to come all together, so that we might have the benefit of as many sleighs as possible to haul wood. All our dried meat was to be put in cache at Lake Camsell, and the camp moved to a clump of pines that we had noticed the day before. King and myself were to remain with the women, to kill meat enough to enable us to start well supplied for the musk-ox country.

We built a rough scaffold with the longest poles obtainable, and stowed all the meat as high above the ground as possible. Then we pulled down the lodge, and, after a couple of days’ walk with heavy loads, camped on the south side of a ridge, from the summit of which we had a commanding view of Lake Mackay and the surrounding country. There was little chance of many caribou passing without being observed, as there were usually several pairs of sharp eyes on the look-out.

As this was to be our home for a month or so, we took care to pick out a good spot and set up the lodge in the most approved fashion, taking advantage of the little shelter that the stunted pines could afford.

A mile or two to the east lay the northern end of a large sheet of water, running about forty miles in a southerly direction, known to the Indians as “The Lake of the Enemy,” and formerly the home of that terrible Evil Spirit supposed to haunt the Barren Ground. It is hard to get a full description of the Enemy, as, although many people have seen it, they are at once afflicted with insanity, and are incapable of giving an accurate account of their experience; but one must not dare to express unbelief in the existence of the Enemy any more than in that of the Giant Musk-Ox, fully ten times the size of the biggest bull ever seen, whose track many Indians say they have come across far out in the Barren Ground.

King and myself spent most of our time prowling about in search of caribou, but for the first fortnight few came and we were only just able to keep ourselves in fresh meat, although there was soon plenty of dried meat from the animals we had cached at this spot a week before. I now saw what an advantage it is to take women on a hunting-trip of this kind, and certainly King’s wife and daughter were both well up in the household duties of the country. If we killed anything, we only had to cut up and cache the meat, and the women and small boys would carry it in. On returning to camp we could throw ourselves down on a pile of caribou skins and smoke our pipes in comfort, but the women’s work was never finished. The rib bones have all to be picked out, and the plat cote hung up in the smoke to dry; the meat of haunches and shoulders must be cut up in thin strips for the same purpose, and the bones have to be collected, pounded down, and boiled for the grease which is In such demand during the cold weather about to commence. But the greatest labour of alb lies In dressing the skins, cutting off the hair, ” scraping away every particle of flesh and fat, and afterwards tanning them into soft leather for moccasins, which are themselves no easy task to make. Many skins, too, have to be made into parchment or carefully cut into babiche for the lacing of snow-shoes, and again, there are hair-coats to be made for each member of the party. In an ordinary Indian lodge the women have to put up with ill-usage as well as hard work; but most of the half-breeds know enough to treat them fairly; and King, except in his moments of passion, when he did not stop at any cruelty, treated his women-kind very well.

One of our first expeditions was to hunt birch for making the frames of snowshoes, which might be needed at any time, and King soon had a pair ready for lacing; he was very clever with the crooked knife, the universal tool of the North, but the stunted birch is hard to bend to the proper shape, and requires constant watching during the process of warping.

The evenings were generally spent in long discussions over our pipes, for tobacco was still holding out, and the old man was keen to hear about the doings of the white man in the Grand Pays, as the half-breeds indefinitely term the whole of the outside world. The ignorance existing among these people is extraordinary, considering how much time they spend at the forts, and how many officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company they have a chance to talk to, besides the missionaries of both faiths. It is a different matter with the Indians, as they seldom come to the fort, and cannot hold much conversation with the Whites without an interpreter. It was difficult, for instance, to persuade King that the Hudson’s Bay Company does not rule the whole world, or that there are countries that have no fur-bearing animals, which in the North furnish the only means of making a living for the poor man. He was much interested in stories of the Queen, although he could never believe that Her Majesty held such a high rank as the Governor of the Company, and quite refused to acknowledge her as his sovereign. “No" he said; “she may be your Queen, as she gives you everything you want, good rifles and plenty of ammunition, and you say that you eat flour at every meal in your own country. If she were my Queen, surely she would send me sometimes half a sack of flour, a little tea, or perhaps a little sugar, and then I should say she was indeed my Queen. As it is I would rather believe Mr. Reid of Fort Province, who told me once that the earth went round and the sun stood still; but I myself have seen the sun rise in the morning and set at night for many years. It is wrong of you White Men, who know how to read and write, to tell lies to poor men who live by the muzzle of their guns.” Another matter over which his mind was greatly exercised was the last North-West Rebellion under Louis Riel. He was convinced that during this rising the half-breeds and Indians had declared war upon the Hudson’s Bay Company, and gained a decisive victory besides much glorious plunder; and he asked why such an outbreak should not succeed on the Great Slave Lake, where there was only one man in charge of a fort. He had many questions too to ask about the various good things that we eat and drink in England, and criticised severely the habit of eating three regular meals a day, which he described as eating by the clock instead of by the stomach, a much more greedy habit than that of gorging when meat is plentiful and starving at other times. On several occasions during our travels together I had reason to expostulate with him on the carelessness he displayed with provisions, but without making the least impression. “What is this improvidence?” he would say. “I do not like that word. When we have meat why should we not eat plein ventre to make up for the time when we are sure to starve again?” He could never realise that starvation might be partially avoided by a little care.

Often King would spin me a long story as we lay round the fire in the lodge; usually some tradition handed down from the time when all the animals and birds could converse together; what the wolf said to the wolverine when they went on a hunting-trip in company, and how the ptarmigan invited the loon to dine with him in a clump of willows in the Barren Ground, while there was a big stock of giant stories, with heroes much resembling those of the favourite nursery tales of one’s childhood. Again he would come down to more recent times and describe the battles of the Dog-Ribs and Yellow Knives, which seem to have been carried on in the same sneaking fashion that has always distinguished the warfare among the tribes of Canadian Indians; there was no open fighting, and all the victories were won by a successful approach on an unsuspecting and usually sleeping encampment of the enemy, the first grey of dawn being the favourite time of attack.

The following story of the Deluge, as believed by the Yellow Knives, I copied down from King’s recital; it appears to be a curious mixture of old tradition with some details from the Biblical version as taught to the Northern Indians on the arrival of the first priests in the country.

Many years ago, so long ago in fact that as yet no man had appeared in the country of the Slave Lake, the animals, birds, and fishes lived in peace and friendship, supporting themselves by the abundant produce of the soil. But one winter the snow fell far more heavily than usual; perpetual dark set in, and when the spring should have come the snow, instead of melting away, grew deeper and deeper. This state of affairs lasted many months, and it became hard for the animals to make a living; many died of want, and at last it was decided in grand council to send a deputation to Heaven to enquire into the cause of the strange events, and in this deputation every kind of animal, bird, and fish was represented. They seem to have had no difficulty in reaching the sky, and passing through a trap-door into a land oi sunshine and plenty. Guarding the door stood a deerskin lodge resembling the: lodges now in use among the Yellow Knives; it was the home of the black bear, an animal then unknown on the earth. The old bear had gone to a lake close at hand to spear caribou from a canoe, but three mbs were left in the lodge to take care of some mysterious bundles that were hung up on the cross-poles; the cubs refused to say what these bundles contained and appeared very anxious for the return of the old bear.

Now the idea of spearing caribou did not find favour with the deputation from below, and as the canoe was seen lying on the shore of the lake, the mouse was despatched to gnaw through the paddle, and as he had nearly accomplished this feat the bear came running down in pursuit of a band of caribou that had put off from the far shore. When he was close up to his intended victims and was working his best, the paddle suddenly broke, the canoe capsized, and the bear disappeared beneath the water. Then the animals, birds, . and fishes grew bold, and pulling down the bundles, found that they contained the sun, moon, and stars belonging to the earth; these they threw down through the trap-door to lighten the world and melt the snow, which by this time covered the tops of the tallest pine-trees.

The descent from Heaven was not made without some small accidents. The beaver split his tail and the blood splashed over the lynx, so that ever afterwards till the present day the beaver’s tail is flat and the lynx is spotted; the moose flattened his nose, and many other casualties occurred which account for the peculiarities of various animals, and the little bears came tumbling down with the rest.

And now the snow began to melt so quickly that the earth was covered with water, but the fish found for the first time that they could swim, and carried their friends that could not on their backs, while the ducks set to work to pull up the land from beneath the water.

But it was still hard to make a living, so the raven, then the most beautiful of birds, was sent to see if he could find any place where dry land was showing; but coming across the carcass of a caribou he feasted upon it, although the raven had never before eaten anything but berries and the leaves of the willow. For this offence he was transformed into the hideous bird that we know, and to this day is despised of every living thing; even omnivorous man will not eat of the raven’s flesh unless under pressure of starvation. The ptarmigan was then sent out and returned bearing in his beak a branch of willow as a message of hope; in remembrance of this good action the ptarmigan turns white when the snow begins to fall in the Barren Ground, and thus warns the animals that winter is at hand.

But the old life had passed away and the peace that had reigned among all living things was disturbed. The fish, as the water subsided, found that they could no longer live on the land, and the birds took to flying long distances. Every animal chose the country that suited it best, and gradually the art of conversation was lost. About this time too, in a vague and indefinite manner about which tradition says little, the first human being appeared on the shore of the Great Slave Lake.

The weather continued fine without severe frost till the middle of October, the snow was still light on the ground, but the lakes all set fast. On the night of the fourteenth a storm arose equal in violence to a Dakota blizzard and continued till the following evening, by which time there were a couple of feet of snow on the ground. It was impossible to keep the drift from coming into the lodge, and as soon as the storm was over we had to throw down our shelter and clear away the banks that had accumulated inside. This was distinctly the coming of winter and there was no more sign of a thaw; the cold kept growing severer, especially on clear days, but I had no thermometer to mark its intensity. The daylight was shortening rapidly and the sun shone with little warmth.

With the increasing depth of snow there was a noticeable migration of life from the Barren Ground. Ptarmigan came literally in thousands, while the tracks of wolves, wolverines, and Arctic foxes made a continuous network in the snow. Scattered bands of caribou were almost always in sight from the top of the ridge behind the camp, and increased in numbers till the morning of October 20th, when little Baptiste, who had gone for firewood, woke us up before daylight with the cry of La joule! La joule! and even in the lodge we could hear the curious clatter made by a band of travelling caribou. La joule had really come, and during its passage of six days I was able to realise what an extraordinary number of these animals still roam in the Barren Ground. From the ridge we had a splendid view of the migration; all the south side of Mackay Lake was alive with moving beasts, while the ice seemed to be dotted all over with black islands, and still away on the north shore, with the aid of the glasses, we could see them coming like regiments on the march. In every direction we could hear the grunting noise that the caribou always make when travelling; the snow was broken into broad roads, and I found it useless to try to estimate the number that passed within a few miles of our encampment.. We were just on the western edge of their passage, and after-

wards heard that a band of Dog-Ribs, hunting some forty miles to the west, were at this very time in the last straits of starvation, only saving their lives by a hasty retreat into the woods, where they were lucky enough to kill sufficient meat to stave off disaster. This is a common danger in the autump as the caribou coming in from the Barren Ground join together in one vast herd and do not scatter much till they reach the thick timber. It turned out very well for us, however, and there is really no limit to the number we might have killed if we had been in need of them; but it was too far out to make a permanent winter’s camp, and hauling such a long distance with dogs is unsatisfactory, as most of the meat would be consumed on the way. We killed therefore only so many as we could use, and had some luxurious living during the rest of our stay in this camp. The caribou, as is usually the case when they are in large numbers, were very tame, and on several occasions I found myself right in the middle of a band with a splendid chance to pick out any that seemed in good condition. The rutting season was just over, and as the bulls had lost all their fat and their meat was too strong to eat, only does were killed. A good deal of experience is necessary to tell the fat ones, but the half-breeds can tell age and sex pretty well by the growth of the horns; often King told me which to shoot at, and it was seldom that he made a mistake in his choice.

This passage of the caribou is the most remarkable thing that I have ever seen in the course of many expeditions among the big game of America. The buffalo were for the most part killed out before my time, but, notwithstanding all the tall stories that are told of their numbers, I cannot believe that the herds on the prairie ever surpassed in size La foule of the caribou.

Soon after the migration had passed, Jose Beaulieu arrived from Fond du Lac in company with an Indian, having made the journey on foot in eight days. Things had apparently gone all wrong there; they had been starving, and had of course taken everything of mine that they could lay hands on, both provisions and ammunition. They had then quarrelled over the division of the spoil, but as the caribou turned up within two days of the house contentment was now reigning. Jose had brought a little tea and tobacco, of which we were now badly in need, and a long string of grievances against his brothers at Fond du Lac. He had done nothing to help me in any way, although he had promised to have everything ready for the first snow, and seemed rather surprised that I did not take much interest in his wrongs. He got even with me, however, on his way back, by breaking into a cache, that I had made before reaching the Lac du Rocher, and stealing the tobacco that I was relying on for our next trip in the Barren Ground.

Jose reported the woods to the south of us to be full of caribou, and a big band of Yellow Knives camped at the Lac de Mott, some of whom were talking of coming for a musk-ox hunt, if I could give them ammunition. I sent word to the chief that I could supply three or four of them, and ordered Paul and Michel to come on with the dogs as soon as possible. The snow was by this time quite deep enough for travelling, and any delay, meant an increased severity in the weather, while in any case it would be late in the year before we got back to Fond du Lac.

After Jose left we relapsed into our lazy existence of eating and sleeping, having no more excuse for hunting; occasionally we made a short trip on snowshoes to examine some of our caches and bring in a little meat, and once went for a three days expedition to our meat on the island in Mackay Lake, and made a more secure cache by putting the carcasses of the caribou under the ice. At other times we amused ourselves by setting snares for ptarmigan, which were in great numbers, or by hauling a load of wood across a small lake in front of the lodge, as we had used up all the fuel within easy reach. On the shore of this lake was a fine specimen of the balanced rocks so common all over the open country; an enormous boulder many tons in weight, so neatly set on the three sharp points of an underlying rock that it could be easily shaken but not dislodged; the lake is known among the Indians as the “Lake of the Hanging Rock". We might have done some successful trapping for wolves, wolverines, and foxes, but had unfortunately left all our steel traps at Fond du Lac in order to travel as lightly as possible in the portages.

Quickly and without incident the short days slipped away until on the tenth of November, as I was returning to camp, I heard a gunshot to the southward of us. Instantly all was excitement, and we had barely time to answer the signal before a large party of men and eight dog-sleighs came in sight over the ridge. At first I could recognise no one, as the day had been very cold and their faces were covered with hoar frost, which makes it hard to distinguish one man from another; but they turned out to be Paul, Frangois, and Michel, besides several Indians, among whom was Zinto, the chief of the Yellow Knives, who had come some hundred miles from his hunt-ing-camp on purpose to pay me a visit.

A small supply of tea and tobacco had come up, but not nearly enough for our wants, and I could see that we should have to do without these luxuries just at the time when we most required them; there was also a little flour, and we had a big feast of flour and grease the same evening; all the new arrivals came into the lodge, and sixteen people and fully as many dogs slept inside that night. After supper I handed round a small plug of black tobacco to each man, as is the invariable custom of the officer in. charge of a fort on the arrival of a band of Indians; and when the pipes were lit Zinto gave me to understand that he had a few remarks to make to me. He would have been a fine-looking specimen of a Yellow Knife but for a habit of blinking his eyes, which gave him a rather owlish expression; he was possessed with a great idea of a chief’s importance, but I found him a pretty good fellow during the many dealings that I afterwards had with him. King acted as interpreter, and I fancy rather cut down the speech in length, but this was the gist of it. Zinto was very pleased to see a white man on his hunting-ground. He had known several at the forts, but had never before seen one among the caribou. Many years ago his father had told him stories of some white men who had wandered across the Barren Ground and reached the sea-coast; they had all endured much hardship, and many had died from cold and starvation; he did not know why they came to such a country, when by all accounts they were so much better off at home, but suppose there was some good reason which an Indian could not understand. For his own part he liked the Whites; all that he valued came from their country, and he had always been well treated by the Company. He was willing to help me as much as he could now that I had ventured so far into his hunting-ground, but the musk-ox hunt in snow-time was hard; only the bravest of his young men went, and last year was the first time they had made

the attempt. The Dog-Ribs who traded at Fort Rae often went, but they had an easier country, as the musk-ox were nearer the woods. There would be much walking to do, and the cold would be great; however, if I meant to go he would order his young men to look after me, and on no account to leave me if from starvation or any other cause I could not keep up. I was to have the first choice of the meat in the kettle and the best place in the lodge to lie down. He hoped we should have a successful hunt, and, although he knew that we were short of such things, he could not help asking for a little tea and tobacco to give him courage for his journey back to the camp. If he received this he should have a still higher opinion of the white man and his heart would be glad.

I replied that I was much gratified at seeing the chief of the Yellow Knives in my camp, and was sorry that I could not give him a more imposing reception on the present occasion; I had heard much to his credit from King Beaulieu and from the Company's officer in charge of Athabasca district ; he was spoken of as a good chief and friendly towards the Whites. I had come from far across the big water on purpose to see the country of the Yellow Knives, and was anxious to know how they lived, and how they hunted the various kinds of animals upon which they depended for subsistence. For this purpose I now proposed going for a musk-ox hunt, and was glad to see that some of his tribe were prepared to accompany me. I could let them have enough ammunition for the trip, and would share with them the meat caches that we had made along our line of travel, and also the tea and tobacco while it lasted. Much interest was felt in my country with regard to the Yellow Knives, and I hoped to be able to give a good account of their treatment to a stranger when I returned home. If his young men behaved well while they were out with me they should all receive presents when they reached the fort.

Here the effect of my oration was rather spoilt by the Beaulieus breaking in to ask what presents they were to receive. Had they not been faithful so long, and gone so much out of their way to help me? and then the misery they had gone through in the Barren Ground on the last muskox hunt! Now followed a tremendous quarrel among themselves, mostly, I believe, about the stealing they had been doing at Fond du Lac, and whether the value of the articles they had taken should be deducted from the wages I had agreed to pay them before starting. After the discordant clamour had subsided a little, Zinto replied that he was satisfied, and thanked me for the small present of tea and tobacco which I could not well refuse; we then discussed all the various plans for the forthcoming hunt, and sat up feasting till late in the night, must have displeased King, as he suddenly astonished us all by saying that he would not go with us. What the grievance was I never found out, but he was obstinate on the point. I had been relying on him for interpreter, and was rather annoyed at his refusal to go, especially as Frangois, the best French speaker in the outfit, declared his intention of returning straight to Fond du Lac. Michel too was wavering, but finally decided to go, as Paul, who behaved very well on this occasion, steadily declared that he was quite willing to accompany me, and would carry out the promise that he had made at Fort Resolution to go the whole trip. These two then and myself, together with the five Indians, Noel, William, Peter, Saltatha, and Mario (brother of Zinto), and twenty-four dogs hauling six sleighs made up the party that eventually started for the Barren Ground about midday on Sunday, November 11th.

King maintained his ill-temper till the hour of departure, saying that he did not want so many men and dogs in his lodge eating up the provisions that he had worked so hard to earn, and that the sooner we started the better he would be pleased. He used some particularly offensive language to me, but relented at the last moment and gave me his own hair-coat and a new pair of snow-shoes, of which I was badly in want. He also promised to do his best in the way of leaving meat caches along the course that we should follow on our return from the musk-ox country. I was rather sorry to leave the old fellow after all, as on the whole we had been pretty good friends while we lived together, and he certainly had great influence over the Indians which might have been useful during our difficult journey.


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