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The Barren Ground of Northern Canada
Chapter VII

That night we made an open camp in a bunch of pines on the south side of Lake Mackay, at which point we intended to- load wood for use in the Barren Ground. We were much better found in all respects than on the last occasion, and having dogs with us should not be obliged to carry anything ourselves. We used the ordinary travelling sleighs of the North; two smooth pieces of birch, some seven feet in length, with the front ends curled completely over and joined together with cross slats secured with babiche into a total width of sixteen inches. A ground-lashing is passed along through holes in the outside edge of the sleigh, and to this is fastened a rough deerskin wrapper in which the load is stowed as neatly as possible and the wrapper laced on the top, so that in case of a capsize, which frequently happens, nothing can fall out. The traces are hitched on to loops in the front end of the sleigh, and four dogs put in the caribou-skin harness one in front of the other. The company officers have imported leather dog-harness with buckles for their own use between the forts; but I think for handling in really cold weather the caribou-skin, or better still moose-skin, with thongs instead of buckles, is preferable.

Our twenty-four dogs rejoiced in endless varieties of names, English, French, and Indian, some popular names introduced by the Whites being freely given without reference to sex or colour. For instance, in my own sleigh the foregoer, a big yellow bitch, answered to the name of Napoleon, whilst just behind her came a black bushy-tailed dog La Reine; we had three Drap Fins, from their resemblance to the fine black doth so dearly beloved by the half-breeds and Indians, two Chocolates of different colours, besides Cavour, Chandelle, Diable, Lion, Blucher, Royal, Bismarck, and a host of unpronounceable Indian names.

We were all dressed alike in coats of caribou-skin with the hair outside and hoods fastened up closely under the chin, and these we hardly took off day or night for the five weeks that we were out. Our hands were thrust into moose-skin mittens lined with duffel and hung round the neck by highly ornamented plaited woollen strings, or in the case of a man of little wealth with a more humble piece of bebiche, but most of my companions managed to show a little colour in this respect. We rolled our feet in duffel and cased them in huge moccasins, of which we all had two or three pair; and as we were very careful in drying them every night before sleeping to get rid of all dampness caused by perspiration there was not a single case of frozen feet during the whole journey, although the big cold of an Arctic winter had now fairly set in. We used small snow-shoes about three feet in length, as most of the travelling would be on the frozen lakes where the snow is always drifting, and, consequently, pretty hard. One man, or in case of softer snow two-, went ahead to break the road and the dogs followed in their tracks, or, if they showed any disinclination to start, were most unmercifully clubbed and cursed by name till they did so.

A big deer-skin lodge and a sufficient number of carefully trimmed poles had been brought up from Fond du Lac, as it would have been impossible to endure the cold and almost perpetual wind without shelter of any kind, but they had the disadvantage of greatly increasing the weight of our load. King had given us a little dried meat, but only enough for a couple of days for such a large outfit; the dogs alone required at least fifty pounds a day to keep them in good condition. We had the meat caches ahead, and hoped to fall in with the musk-ox before we ran out of provisions entirely. The danger of course lay in not finding these animals when we got far out, as the caribou had almost all passed into the woods and we could not hope to see any after the first few days. Our ammunition was rather limited, but with care we had enough to keep the muzzle-loading weapons supplied, and Paul and myself had a fair amount of cartridges for our Winchester rifles. We were obliged to wrap deer-skins: round the levers and the parts of the barrel that our hands touched to avoid contact with the iron, which sticks to the bare skin in cold weather and causes a painful burn.

The next day was spent in cutting wood into short lengths and loading it on to the sleighs. In the morning Mario was very ill from the surfeit of flour he had had in King’s camp, but was well enough to travel a short distance in the afternoon, and we pitched our lodge in the snow, clear of all timber. Here I had my first experience of a winter camp in the Barren Ground.

A spot being chosen where the snow is light and the ground clear of rocks, a ring of the requisite size is marked out. Snow-shoes are taken off and used as shovels for throwing away the snow from the inside of this ring, making a wall varying in height according to the depth of snowfall. Outside this circle the sleighs are turned on edge, the poles planted behind them, and the deer-skin lodge spread round, forming as comfortable a camp as can be expected in such a country. The wood allowed for supper is carefully split and a fire lighted, the kettle hanging over it from three small sticks carried for the purpose; the lumps of meat for dog’s food are spread round the fire till sufficiently thawed, when a lively scene commences outside the lodge, every man feeding his own dogs and watching them to see there is no foul play. By the time this is over the melted snow in the kettle is boiling, and every man gets his piece of meat in much the same manner as the dogs. I always had the privilege of first choice, but in the dense clouds of smoke that usually filled the lodge it was by no means easy to take the full advantage of it. We drank tea while it held out, and then fell back on the greasy snow-water that the meat was boiled in. There was always a good proportion of caribou hair in everything we ate or drank, varying afterwards to the coarse black hair of the musk-ox, which was far more objectionable.

As soon as supper was over and our moccasins dry the fire was allowed to go out, to economize wood, and each man rolled himself up in his blanket, lay down on the frozen ground, and slept as well as he might till it was time to travel again. Directly all was quiet the dogs forced their way in and commenced a free fight over us for any scraps or bones they could find lying about; finally they curled themselves up for the night without paying much attention to our comfort. A warm dog is not a bad thing to lie against or to put at your feet, but these hauling dogs seem to prefer to lie right on top of your body, and as most of them are a considerable weight a good night’s rest is an impossibility. Any attempt to kick or shove them off produced a general row, and a moving foot was often mistaken in the darkness for a hostile dog and treated as such; Paul received one rather badbite on his toes, but the rest of us all got off with slight nips.

We had to be careful to put everything edible, in the way of moccasins, mittens, and even snow-shoes, under us, as these are things that few dogs can resist, and there is nothing more annoying than to find all the babiche eaten out of your snow-shoes in the morning. When the hungry time came later on the dogs began to eat the lodge, and would soon have let us houseless but for one man always keeping watch at night.

One is accustomed to hear of men sleeping in fluffy woollen bags in the Arctic regions, but I found that a deer-skin coat and one blanket were sufficient to keep me warm except on the very coldest nights. I had told Michel particularly to bring another blanket that I had left behind at Fond du Lac, and abused him roundly when I found he had come without it. It seems that an Indian had arrived at the house with a load of dried meat and grease, and was in want of a blanket; Michel, to use his own expression, took pity on him and gave him my blanket in exchange for the grease. He doubtless considered this a pious act of charity, but had rather spoilt it by consuming the grease himself; and on my asking him why, if he felt so sorry for the Indian, he had not given him one of his own blankets, or at least kept the grease for me, he replied: “I have only two blankets and I have a wife; you have no wife, so one blanket is enough for you; besides, I love grease, and it is hard for me to see it and not eat it

In the middle of the night Saltatha, always the earliest, got up and drove out the dogs, lit the fire, and prepared another meal, exactly similar to our supper of the evening. Usually we harnessed up many hours before daylight and travelled, with only an occasional ten-minutes’ rest, till the sun had been long down and there was just enough daylight left to make camp; dinner was completely cut out of our day as being too heavy a strain on our firewood. There was no attempt at washing made by any of the party during the whole time that we were out, and indeed it would have been an impossibility, as our small fires were only just sufficient to melt the snow for cooking purposes.

In clear weather the nights were of wonderful brilliancy, and after we had been out a couple of weeks the moon was big enough to add a little light, and of course kept steadily improving in this respect; but the starlight alone illumined the waste of snow sufficiently to see landmarks far ahead. Generally the Aurora was flashing in its full glory, and if there was no wind the travelling was pleasant enough. At the first sign of dawn, and thence till the sun rose, the cold always became more severe, and if a light head-wind happened to get up at the same time there were sure to be some frozen noses and chins in the outfit. The hair on our faces, even to the eyebrows and eyelashes, was always coated with rime, giving everybody a peculiarly stupid expression; my beard was usually a mass of ice, and I had great difficulty in thawing it out by our small fires, although it proved a grand protection from frost-bite. I think I was the only one that escaped being bitten in the chin, but my nose, cheeks, and forehead were touched several times.

The sunrise was often very beautiful, and the effects of long duration, as the sun is close to the horizon a considerable time before he shows above it, while the dense blue blackness in the north and west gives the impression that the night is still lingering there. Often a sun-dog is the first thing to appear, and more or less of these attendants accompany the sun during his short stay above the horizon. The driving snow, which obliterates everything in blowing weather, often spoils the evening effects; but once or twice I saw the sun set over a frozen lake, tinting the snow with various shades of red, and throwing a beauty over the wilderness that it is useless for me to attempt to describe.

A thick fog hung over everything during the whole of the second day out from the woods, and of course made it extremely difficult to find the meat cache in Lake Mackay; at dark we camped on the first land that we came to, but had no very accurate idea of our position. Luckily the weather cleared towards morning, and we made out the island on which we had stored the carcasses of the caribou killed on September 22nd. We had some trouble in punching a hole with our only ice-chisel and hauling out a solid lump of meat and ice some five feet thick and many feet in circumference; but the Indians were much cheered at the sight of so much provision, and declared themselves ready to go out to the sea-coast if necessary. The short day was nearly over by the time we had got the meat, so we camped for the night on the island; but before daylight we were off again, and when the sun set had nearly reached the end of the lake and made a wood cache on a conspicuous point for our return journey. The next day was thick again, and we were lucky in finding the bay in which we had left the big canoe during our last expedition. A very curious thing, illustrating the difficulty of recognising objects in these fogs, happened just as we were leaving the ice. We saw an anirhal, apparently at some distance, bounding along the horizon at a most remarkable pace; all down the line there were cries of Erlerer (musk-ox), Et-then, Le loup! guns were snatched from the sleighs, and even the dogs charged at a gallop in pursuit of the strange animal. After a rush of ten yards the quarry disappeared; the first man had put his foot on it, and it turned out to be one of the small mice so common in the Barren Ground. What it was doing out on the lake at this time of year, instead of being comfortably curled up under ground, I cannot say; but it certainly gave me the impression that if these fogs continued we should run a good chance of coming to grief through losing our way.

At sunrise the weather cleared, and we found a small band of caribou at the beginning of the twenty-mile portage to the Lac de Gras. After we had killed three and fed the dogs, we began our overland work. The snow was much softer here, with many large rocks showing through, and some steep hills made travelling hard for the dogs. Night caught us about half-way between the two lakes, and the north wind freshened up into a tempest such as I have never seen surpassed by the blizzards of the western prairies. Fortunately we found a fairly sheltered place for the lodge or it must have been swept away; as it was the deer-skin flapped with a noise like that of a sail blown to pieces at sea; two of our lodge-poles were carried away, and we were in momentary expectation of being left without shelter to the mercy of the storm; the driving snow forced itself in, and men and dogs were only recognisable by the white mounds which marked their position. For thirty hours we lay like this till the wind abated at midnight, when we started again towards the north, and continued walking till we had crossed the big bay of the Lac de Gras into which the Coppermine River runs. We camped a little short of our second meat cache on the Point de Misere, and on the following day, although the fog had settled down 'again, Paul, by a very good piece of piloting, discovered the small lake in which we had cached the meat. We were getting pretty hard up again by this time, and the Indians, with the exception of Saltatha whose good spirits never failed, were showing signs of sulkiness. This new supply, however, gave them fresh courage, and we were all confident of finding the musk-ox before we got to the end of the six caribou that we picked up here. We experienced the same difficulty in breaking the ice, and as we spent much valuable time in getting out the meat, made but a poor day’s journey. On the following day we passed the most northerly point that we had reached in the autumn, and were now pushing on into a country that none of us had ever seen before.

At the spot where we had left the Lac de Gras we had noticed a few small willow sticks showing above the snow, which afterwards proved very useful. Following a small stream we reached another large lake, stretching in a north-easterly direction, and camped at the far end of it in a heavy snowstorm that had been going on all day. During this time we were keeping a sharp lookout for musk-ox; but we could find no tracks, and as the weather continued thick had no opportunity of seeing animals at a distance. Two more days we travelled, on in this manner, making long journeys with our meat nearly finished and our wood-supply growing rapidly less; for there had' been more delay, from various reasons, than we had anticipated, and we had been careful to avoid caching wood for our return journey as we might, be unable to follow the same course. The shape of the hills here changes in a most distinct manner. The usual undulations give way to sharp scattered buttes, composed of sand and taking very remarkable forms, a solitary conical mound being a common feature in the scenery. Small lakes were still numerous, and for a considerable distance we followed a large stream, evidently one of the head waters of the Coppermine, here running in a south-east direction.

On November 20th we dropped on to a lake some twelve miles in breadth, and crossed to the north shore in falling snow. We had been on short rations, men and dogs, for some time, and our last mouthful was eaten for supper this night. When we made camp a few miles beyond the lake the outlook therefore was by no means cheerful. The continual thick weather spoilt our chance of finding the musk-ox, and we were now too far away from the woods to have much chance of reaching them without meat. Of course we could always have eaten the dogs, but then we should have been unable to haul our wood, which in the Barren Ground is almost as necessary as food. As we felt certain that we were well in the muskox country we decided to spend the next day in hunting at all risks, and by good luck the morning broke clear and calm. Michel and myself remained in camp to look after the dogs, which had now become so ravenous that they required constant watching to keep them from eating the lodge, harness, and everything else that they could get at. The others went in couples in different directions with the agreement that if anyone discovered a band of musk-ox they should return at once to wait for the rest of the party to come in, when we were all to start with the dogs in pursuit. There was no breakfast, and all the hunters were off before daylight, evidently fully aware that the success of our expedition, if not our chance of supporting life, was centred in the result of the day's proceedings; and it was certainly a great relief when Paul and Noel appeared towards mid-day and reported a large band of musk-ox undisturbed a short distance to the north. Peter and Mario returned soon afterwards, having found another band in a more westerly direction. I distributed a pipeful of the now very precious tobacco, while we waited for William and Saltatha, and discussed the plan of attack. I was rather surprised at Noel’s asking Paul to tell me that I might have some of the musk-ox, as he was pleased at receiving the tobacco. I was about to reply that I had come far, and been to a great deal of trouble, on purpose to kill some of these animals, and I should think it rather extraordinary if I were not allowed to do so, when Paul explained that it was a custom among the Yellow Knives to consider a band of musk-ox as the property of the discoverer, and only his personal friends were granted the privilege of killing them without payment of some kind. Sometimes an Indian would go through all the hardships of a hunt, and then have to give up nearly all his robes because he had not been lucky enough to discover a band and was out of favour with his more fortunate companions; so I told Noel I was very grateful for his kindness, and made him believe himself a remarkably good Indian. By this time it was getting late, and as the wind had risen the snow was beginning to drift. There was much grumbling at the delay, and in spite of my remonstrances at breaking up our agreement to wait for William and Saltatha,, the dogs were harnessed, the lodge pulled down, and the sleighs loaded. I pointed out that the snow was drifting badly and that the other two would not be able to follow our tracks; but was told that it was only white men who were stupid in the snow, so I made no further objection. After travelling about three miles through some rough hills, we caught an indistinct view of the musk-ox, fully a hundred in number, standing on a side-hill from which most of the snow had drifted away; and then followed a wonderful scene such as I believe no white man has ever looked on before. I noticed the Indians throwing off their mitten--strings, and on enquiring the reason I was told that the musk-ox would often charge at a bright colour, particularly red; this story must, I think, have originated from the Whites in connection with the old red-rag theory, and been applied by the Indians to the musk-ox. I refused to part with my strings, as they are useful in keeping the mittens from falling in the snow when the hand is taken out to shoot, but I was given a wide berth while the hunt was going on. Everybody started at a run, but the dogs, which had been let out of harness, were ahead of us, and the first thing that I made out clearly through the driving snow was a dense black mass galloping right at us; the band had proved too big for the dogs to hold, and most of the musk-ox had broken away. I do not think they knew anything about men or had the least intention of charging us, but they passed within ten yards, and so frightened my companions that I was the only man to fire at them, rolling over a couple. The dogs, however, were still holding a small lot at bay, and these we slaughtered without any more trouble than killing cattle in a yard. There is an idea prevalent in the North that on these occasions the old musk-ox form: into a regular square, with the young in the centre for better protection against the dogs, which they imagine to be wolves; but on the two occasions when I saw a band held in this manner, the animals were standing in a confused mass, shifting their position to make a short run at a too impetuous dog, and with the young ones as often as not in the front of the line. There was some rather reckless shooting going on, and I was glad to leave the scene of slaughter with Mario in pursuit of stragglers. Mario, in' common with the other Indians, had a great horror of musk-ox at close quarters, and I was much amused at seeing him stand off at seventy yards and miss an animal which a broken back had rendered incapable of rising. He said afterwards that the musk-ox were not like other animals; they were very cunning, could understand what a man was saying and play many tricks to deceive him; it was not safe to go too near, and he would never allow me to walk up within a few yards to put in a finishing shot. After killing off the cripples, we started back to the place where we had left the sleighs, and, night having added its darkness to the drifting snow, we had the greatest difficulty in finding camp. Marlo confessed he was lost, and we were thinking what it was best to do for the night when we heard the ring of an axe with which somebody was splitting wood in the lodge; the others, with the exception of William and Saltatha, were all in, but there seemed little chance of these two reaching camp that night. We had eaten nothing for a long time, so we celebrated our success with a big feast of meat, while the dogs helped themselves from the twenty carcasses that were lying about. They gave us very little trouble in the lodge, as we saw nothing of them till we skinned the musk-ox next day, when two or three round white heaps of snow would uncurl themselves on the lee-side of a half-eaten body. I questioned the Indians about the two missing men, and they were unanimous that unless the night got colder they were in no danger of freezing to death; they were sorry that they had not waited, and would go at the first sign of daylight to see if they were in the old camp. Peter and Noel accordingly started very early in the morning, and found the men lying close together under the snow at the old camp; they had, returned at dark, and as our tracks had drifted up there was not the least chance of finding us. They were slightly frost-bitten in the face and hands, but as soon as they had got over their first numbness were able to walk to camp, where they soon forgot their natural indignation at the mean trick we had played them in the joys of warmth and food. We were obliged to be a little extravagant in our wood to make up for the hard times of the night before, and Saltatha soon recovered his liveliness; he was far away the best Indian that I met in the North, always cheerful and ready for work, and afterwards, in the summer, the only one of the Yellow Knives brave enough to volunteer for an expedition down the Great Fish River. A hard life he leads, always in poverty, a butt and a servant to all the other Indians, who are immeasurably his inferiors for any useful purpose. Although a capital hunter, they swindle him out of everything he makes, and take the utmost advantage of the little, fellowV good-nature; he seems to have no sense in this respect, and will jump readily at any bargain that is offered him. He is just the man for an expedition in the Barren Ground, as when once he has given his word to go he can be relied upon to carry out his promise, which is more than I can say for the rest of his tribe, who only wait to rebel and desert till a time when they think you can least do without them.

We spent most of the day in skinning the musk-ox, which, by the way, is not a pleasant undertaking in cold weather; the skin is naturally hard to get off, and on this occasion the carcasses had grown cold during the night, and the difficulty was greater than usual. The robes were in splendid condition; the undergrowth, which resembles a sheep’s fleece and is shed in summer, was now thick and firm, while the long permanent hair had obtained the black glossiness distinctive of a prime fur. We cut up all the meat that the dogs had left us, and loading it on the sleighs with the robes, moved camp about five miles to the west to' be ready to go in search of the other band which Peter and Mario had discovered. We calculated that we should be able to haul forty-five robes, besides meat enough for our journey, back to the woods, and at present we had only half a load.

While the men were planting the lodge I climbed to the top of a high butte to have a look at the surrounding country; the hill was so steep

that I had to take off my snow-shoes to struggle to the summit, and was rewarded for my trouble by a good view of probably the most complete desolation that exists upon the face of the earth. There is nothing striking or grand in the scenery, no big mountains or waterfalls, but a monotonous snow-covered waste, without tree or scrub, rarely trodden by the foot of the wandering Indian. A deathly stillness hangs over all, and the oppressive loneliness weighs upon the spectator till he is glad to shout aloud to break the awful spell of solitude. Such is the land of the muskox in snowtime; here this strange animal finds abundance of its favourite lichens, and defies the cold that has driven every other living thing to the woods for shelter.

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