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The Barren Ground of Northern Canada
Chapter VIII


Early on the following morning we left camp with the light sleighs, and at sunrise were close to the place where the second band had been discovered. We were a long time in finding them, as the fog had settled down again, but at last made out a band of sixty on a high ridge between two small lakes in a very easy place to approach. Directly after we sighted them Paul's sleigh, which was ahead, capsized over a rock, and his rifle, which was lashed on the top of it, exploded with a loud report. The bullet must have passed close to some of us, as on examination the rifle appeared to be bearing right down the line, and it was lucky that nobody was killed or crippled; a wounded man would have had little chance of getting back to the woods alive. The musk-ox took not the slightest notice of the report, although we were within a couple of hundred yards of them, and we soon had eighteen rounded up, the main body breaking away as they had done before. A sickening slaughter, without the least pretence of sport to recommend it, now took place till the last one was killed, and we were busy skinning till dark.

I took some of the best heads, but most of them were afterwards thrown away by the Indians to lighten the load on the sleighs. The animals that we killed in this band were of various ages, and it was interesting to note the growth of the horns in different specimens. They begin in both sexes with a plain straight shoot, exactly like the horns of a domestic calf, and it is then impossible to tell the male from the female by the head alone. In the second year they begin to broaden out, and the bull’s horns become much whiter and project straighter from the head than the cow’s, which are beginning already to show the downward bend. At the end of the third year the cow’s homs are fully developed, and I do not think they grow much after that age; with the bulls, however, the horns are only just beginning to spread out at the base, and it is not till the sixth year that the solid boss extends right across the forehead, the point of junction being marked by a slight crack into which the skin has been squeezed during the growth of the horns. A curious fact is noticeable in the horns of the young bulls before the boss has begun to form; they are quite soft and porous at the base, and can easily be cut with a knife; when once the boss has grown, the horn is as hard as a rock. I made careful inquiries of the Indians on these points, and they told me that, except in the case of very young or very old animals, they could always tell the age of the musk-ox by a glance at their horns.

We had the greatest difficulty in finding our way back to the lodge, and it was late before we turned in, everybody agreeing that we had done enough, and ought to make our best way back to the timber before our firewood was exhausted. The loads would be quite as heavy as they had been coming out, for we now had the weight of robes and meat to make up for the wood we had used. We had, roughly, three hundred and fifty miles to travel to reach Fond du Lac, but intended to take the last part of the journey easily after we fell in with the caribou. I should like to have known our exact position on the map, and the distance from the sea-coast at Bathurst Inlet, but of course had no chance of making even an approximate calculation; the Indians had no local knowledge, as they were entirely beyond any country they knew. Our only luxuries, tea and tobacco, were now finished, and I found that the want of tobacco was the most trying hardship on the whole trip: one pipeful as you roll up in your blanket for the night imparts a certain amount of comfort, and makes you take a more cheerful view of life; but when even this cannot be obtained there is a perpetual craving for a smoke, and the best of tempers is liable to suffer from the deprivation. After we had boiled our last handful of tea-leaves three times over, Saltatha ate them with great gusto, and in future we drank the water in which the moat was boiled.. I did not miss the tea nearly so much as the tobacco, and soon began to like the hot greasy bouillon well enough to struggle for my full share.

We were late off next morning, and could not make a good day’s journey, as the snow was soft till we got on the large lake, and we were further delayed in the evening by finding another band of musk-ox. The Indians said they could carry half a dozen robes more, and insisted, against my wishes, on killing this number; the consequence was that we had to camp for the night, and the dogs were more overloaded than ever; they were able, however, to eat to their hearts’ content, and there was very little left of the six musk-ox in the morning. Two long days’ travel took us back to the point on the Lac de Gras where we had seen the willows above the snow, and as the dogs were showing signs of fatigue and their feet were much cut about by the sharp- snow-needles sticking between their toes, we decided on taking a day’s rest. We managed to pull up enough small willows to keep a bit of a fire going most of the day, and if we had had tobacco should all have enjoyed ourselves immensely. It was a bright clear day, without wind and terribly cold. I climbed to the top of a hill in the afternoon to see if I could make out the west end of the lake, but an intervening hill made it impossible to get a clear view, and I could form no idea of its lengths On this day I felt the top of my tongue cold in breathing, and my companions, who were well accustomed to low temperatures,, all remarked the extreme severity of the cold.

It must have been about midnight when I heard Saltatha splitting wood, and the well-known cry of Ho live, live, il faut partir! Looking out of my blanket I felt the snow falling in my face through a big hole that the dogs had eaten in the lodge, and said that it was no use moving, as we should never be able to find our way across the broad traverse that lay ahead. I was laughed at as usual, and after a breakfast of boiled meat we started out into the darkness. I soon saw there was little chance of picking up the skin of the musk-ox that we had cached in September, as, although the intention was to follow the shore of the lake till we came to the cache, we lost sight of land immediately with absolutely nothing to guide us on our course. There was no wind, and such a thick downfall of snow that matters did not improve much when the blackness turned into grey with daylight.

I have often heard it stated that the gift of finding their way is given to Indians under all conditions by a sort of instinct that the white man does not possess, but I never saw children more hopelessly lost than these men accustomed all their lives to Barren Ground travel. I have seen It happen to half-breeds and Indians many times, and have come to the conclusion that no man without a compass can keep his course in falling snow, unless there is wind to guide him.

It is always advisable to put ashore at once, or, better still, not to leave your camp in the morning, as then you know your point of departure on the first signs of a break in the weather. On this occasion the usual thing happened; we walked all day, changing our roadbreaker every hour or so, while the men behind shouted contrary directions when they thought he was off his course. Luckily we found land just at dark, and camped immediately. A great discussion ensued as to our position, and opinions varied greatly about the direction of the north star; but we could do nothing till the weather improved, and even then, unless it grew very clear, or the sun came out, we might not know which course to take, as landmarks are few and far between. Fuel could not last more than three nights with the strictest economy.

The wind rose in the evening, and the snow ceased falling, but began to drift heavily. In the night there was a tremendous uproar. I was awakened by hearing the universal Indian chant (Hi hi he, Ho hi he), and much clapping of hands, while the dogs were howling dismally far out on the ice, evidently thinking they were meant to hunt something, but disappointed at not being able to find anything to tear to pieces. I looked out to see what was going on, and found everybody sitting in the snow shouting; Saltatha had discovered a single star, and the noise I had heard was the applause supposed to bring out one of the principal constellations, so that we might get an idea of our direction. The heavens certainly did clear, and when daylight broke and the wind moderated we made out our position easily enough. In fourteen hours’ walk we had come perhaps five miles straight, having made a huge circle to the right and fallen on an island close to the shore that we had left In the morning. There was still the whole width of the lake to cross, but when we camped late in the portage between the two big lakes I thought we had got out of the scrape very well. There was no apparent reason why the snowstorm should have stopped, and a continuation of it must have brought us serious trouble.

The next day was worse than ever. A gale from the south in our teeth and drifting snow made it cruel work to face the storm; but we had to go, as feul was rapidly vanishing, and we had already burnt some of our lodge-poles, and we hoped to reach a small wood-cache that night. We could find the way, as we had the wind to guide us; but the snow was soft, and the dogs were hardly able now to drag the sleighs over the rough hills; one of the poorest froze In harness and had to he abandoned. Our blankets, which we usually wrapped round our head and shoulders when facing the wind, now came in for dog-cloths, and certainly saved some more of the dogs from being disabled by frost-bite; but as the snow melted between their backs and the blankets, the latter got wet and afterwards froze till they would stand like a board, and were then a most uncomfortable form of bedding. The slow pace at which we were forced to travel made it much worse, and we all found our faces slightly frozen. At dark we camped nearly at the end of the portage, although we did not know it till morning, and reluctantly cut up another couple of lodge-poles for firewood, besides a small box in which I had been carrying my journal and ammunition.

The wind lightened during the night, and backing into the east came fair on Lake Mackay. We found our wood-cache all right, and set out on the sixty-mile walk that still lay between us and the first pine-timber. The travelling on the lake was better than in the portage, and well on in the night we put ashore on the island where we had stored our first meat during the autumn musk-ox hunt. The dogs were too tired to go any further without rest, or we should have pushed on all night. Our last lodge-pole was burnt to cook a kettleful of meat for breakfast on December 1st, and before daylight we were off, with no thought of camping till we could make fire. The sun at this time only stayed above the horizon for a couple of hours, and had sunk beneath the snow before we made out far ahead the high ridge under which the first clump of pines lay. We were badly scattered along the track, and some of the dogs, and the men too for that matter, had great difficulty in keeping up pace enough to make the blood circulate; it was six hours later, and we were all pretty well used up, when we saw the little pines standing out against the sky line.

What a glorious camp we had that night! The bright glare of two big fires lit up the snow-laden branches of the dwarf pines till they glittered like so many Christmas-trees; overhead the full moon shone down on us, and every star glowed like a lamp hung in the sky; at times the Northern Lights would flash out, but the brilliancy of the moon seemed too strong for even this wondrous fire to rival. It was pleasant to lie once again on the yielding pine-brush instead of the hard snow, and to stretch our legs at full length as we could never stretch them in the lodge; pleasant, too, to look back at the long struggle we had gone through, and to contrast our present condition with that of the last month. Our experiences had been hard and not without their share of danger, and we could now congratulate ourselves on having brought our hunt to a most satisfactory conclusion. I had fully succeeded in carrying out the object of my expedition, and could look forward to a period of ever-increasing comfort, culminating in the luxury of life at a Hudson’s Bay Fort within a few weeks. I had intended to winter at the edge of the Barren Ground, but was forced to give up the idea, as I had seen too much of the' Beaulieus to care about living any longer with them The fact that meat was scarce again did not trouble me, as I was by this time accustomed to empty larders and had fallen into' the happy Indian method of trusting that something would turn up; besides, we were pretty sure to run across the caribou within the next few days. The want of tobacco was the worst grievance that I had, but the prospect of obtaining this was getting brighter after each day’s travel.

Very late at night Saltatha turned up with a badly frozen nose and chin. One of his dogs had given out and been abandoned, and he had been pushing the sleigh for many hours; he had almost given up trying to bring in his load when he saw the blaze of the fires far off and his courage came back. The sun was up before anyone turned out, but the dogs were better for the rest, and a short day took us into a big bunch of pines on King Lake, within an easy day of a small meat cache that I had made while we were camped at the Lake of the Enemy. I had my doubts about finding the place, as none of the others knew where it was, but was lucky enough to hit it off; and we took out the meat of two caribou, after breaking an axe to pieces in our endeavours to chop away the ice which had formed between the rocks from the melting of the snow during a warm spell in the beginning of October.

The same night we camped at the scaffold on which we had stored all the dried meat that the women had made while we were away on the first musk-ox hunt. King was to have taken most of it, leaving us sufficient for a couple of days’ supply, and a note in the syllabic characters introduced into the North by the priests informed us that he had kept his promise. There were plenty of signs that he had done so; but the wolverines had been before us, and a few shreds of meat lying at the foot of the stage told the story plainly enough. This was- rather a disappointment, and matters looked worse when we had travelled the whole length of Lake Camsell at our best speed. Here again we expected to find a cache, as some meat had been left when, we killed the first caribou in the autumn, but the wolverines had taken it. This is a common incident in Northern travel, but never fails to draw forth hearty execrations on the head of the hated carcajou.

There was much talk of abandoning loads and making a rush to reach the caribou or a Yellow Knife encampment which was supposed to lie some distance ahead of us; but I opposed this scheme strongly, and for once managed to get my own way. The weather was fine, and we cared little for the cold, as we could always make a fire in case of freezing. Without eating much we pushed on rapidly for two days, crossing the Lac du Rocher, the scene of our starvation in September, and finally on the third morning found a band of caribou, of which we killed enough to relieve all Immediate anxiety. By this time we were among thick timber and following closely our canoe-route of three months ago.

In the early hours of December 7th we came to a line of pine-brush planted across a small lake, and soon afterwards fell on the tracks of fresh snow-shoes; before daylight, at the end of a long portage over a thickly wooded hill, we dropped into an encampment of a dozen lodges. It turned to be Zinto’s camp, and all my Indians found their wives and families awaiting them here. There were great rejoicings over our arrival, as we had been so long on the hunt that a good deal of anxiety was felt for the safety of husbands and brothers. Zinto invited me into his lodge, gave me a feast of pounded meat and grease, a cup of tea, and, better still, a small plug of black tobacco; this seemed too good to leave, and as we had travelled many hours in the night I decided to spend the rest of the day here.

The camp was very prettily situated on a small flat a few feet above the edge of a frozen lake.; and when the sun rose over the hill, lighting up the brown deer-skin lodges with their columns of blue smoke rising straight up in the frosty air, the snow-laden pine-trees, and the silver-barked birches, the whole scene seemed a realization of one of Fenlmore Cooper’s descriptions of an Indian camp in winter.

Much talking had to be got through, and the story of our musk-ox hunt was told many times over. I was the object of great interest, and was closely questioned as to my experiences in the Barren Ground and the contrast between life there and in my own country. After Zinto had satisfied himself on these points he broached more abtruse subjects, insisting on knowing my opinion with regard to the differences of the Protestant and Roman Catholic faiths, and seeming pleased to hear that he was by no means the first man who had found this point hard to fully understand. Many other things there were about which he desired information; but I am afraid some of my answers conveyed little meaning to him, as I was myself rather hazy about many of the topics of conversation, and had only Michel, who was the worst Frenchman of all, for interpreter, Paul having gone off to see his wife who was camped a few miles to the east. But when Zinto got on to trading he was quite at home, and before leaving I had to give him an order for many beaver-skins (the medium of trade in the North), to be paid at Fort Resolution. He was very good in providing me with everything I wanted for my journey, and gave me a new pair of snow-shoes and a sleigh, besides lending a dog to replace one that had fallen lame; meat he was short of, but he had heard that the Beaulieus had been killing caribou, so that I was likely to find caches by the way; a track was broken to Fond du Lac, and we ought to get there easily in three days. Zinto thought the Great Slave Lake would be entirely frozen over and fit to travel on by this time, as lately the sky had been clear in the south; when there is any open water a perpetual mist rises from it and lies like a huge fog-bank over the lake.

A happy indolent life the Yellow Knives lead when the caribou are thick on their pleasant hunting-ground round the shores of the Great Slave Lake, and most of the hard times that they have to put up with are due to their own improvidence. This is their great failing; they will not look ahead or make preparation for the time when the caribou are scare, preferring to live from hand to mouth, and too lazy to bother their heads about the future. They are rather a fine race of men, above the average of the Canadian Indian, and, as they have had little chance of mixing with the Whites, have maintained their characteristic manners till this day; they are probably little changed since the time when the Hudson’s Bay Company first established a trading-post on the Big Lake a hundred years ago. When the priests came into the country the Yellow Knives readily embraced the Roman Catholic religion, and are very particular in observing all the outward signs of that faith, but I doubt if their profession of Christianity has done much to improve their character. They are a curious mixture of good and bad, simplicity and cunning; with no very great knowledge of common honesty, thoroughly untrustworthy, and possessed with an insatiable greed for anything that takes their fancy, but with no word in their language to express thanks or gratitude. To a white man they are humility itself, looking upon him, by their own account, as their father, and so considering him bound to provide them with everything they want, even to his last pair of trowsers or pipeful of tobacco; refuse them anything when you are dependent upon their services on a journey, and they will leave you in the woods; for their own part, if they have ammunition they are always at home. In another way they are generous enough, and take great pride in showing hospitality. Go into one of their lodges, and a blanket is spread for you in the seat of honour farthest away from the flap that does duty for a door; a meal is instantly provided, no matter if it takes the last piece of meat in the camp, and the precious tea and tobacco are offered you in lavish quantities. The Yellow Knives are a timid, peaceable race, shrinking from bloodshed and deeds of violence, and it is seldom that quarrels between the men got beyond wrestling and hair-pulling. The women are, as a rule, not quite so hideous as the squaws of the Blackfeet and Crees; they are lax in morals, and accustomed to being treated more as slaves than wives in the civilized interpretation of the word. They do all the hard work of the camp, besides carrying the heaviest loads on the march; and in too many cases are rewarded with the worst of the meat and the blows of an over-exacting husband. Early marriages are fashionable, as a man Is useless without a wife to dry his meat and make moccasins for him. The great object of a Yellow Knife beauty is to secure a good hunter for a husband; the man who can shoot straight, and is known to be skilful In approaching the caribou, is always a prize in the matrimonial market and need have little fear of a refusal, especially as the husband is supposed to hunt for his father-in-law after marriage, and the old man will use all his influence to arrange the match. Superstition still reigns supreme among these people; any mischance Is put down to “bad medicine/' and reasons are always ‘forthcoming to account for Its presence. There are several miracle-workers and foreseers of the future in the tribe, who are said to perform very wonderful things, but I found them extremely shy of showing off their accomplishments when I asked for an exhibition. Like all other Indians who live the wild life that they were Intended to live, the Yellow Knives are dirty to the last degree. They are careful about combing and greasing their hair, and are lavish in the use of soap, if they can get It, for face and hands, but their bodies are a sanctuary for the disgusting vermin that always infest them; they seem to have no idea of getting rid of these objectionable Insects, but talk about its being a good or bad season for them in the same way that they speak of mosquitos.

From every point of view, then, the Indian of the Great Slave Lake is not a pleasant companion, nor a man to be relied upon in case of emergency. Nobody has yet discovered the right way to manage him. His mind runs on different principles from that of a white man, and till the science of thought-reading is much more fully developed, the working of his brain will always be a mystery to the fur-trader and traveller.

At sunrise the following morning I left Zinto’s camp, with Michel and Mario, bound for Fond du Lac, all the other musk-ox hunters going back to domestic happiness. The weather was still bright and cold, and the days perceptibly longer as we travelled south. We were again short of meat, as all the Indians were in the same plight, and although we saw a band of caribou shortly after starting, we were unable to get a shot at them. Towards evening we found a small cache of meat hung in a tree, and knowing that it must belong to some of the Beaulieus I had no compunction in taking it. Here we left our canoe-route, and passing to the westward of the Lac de Mort headed straight for the house at Fond du Lac. The woods were well grown and signs of life abundant; the tracks of wolves, wolverines, foxes, and an occasional marten, frequently crossed the road, and ptarmigan were continually flying up under the leader’s feet. Here, too, I saw again my old friend the Whisky Jack, as he is called throughout the North, a grey and white bird the size of a thrush, with a most confiding disposition and an Inordinate love of fat meat; he sits on the nearest tree while the camp is being made, comes in boldly, inspects the larder, and helps himself with very little fear of man. If It Is a starving camp he chortles in contempt and flies away, having a very low opinion of people who travel without provisions; but if meat be plentiful he spends the night there, and comes in for rich pickings in the morning when the camp is struck. This bird is common throughout the wilder parts of Canada, and has acquired many names in different places; in the mountains of British Columbia he is the Hudson’s Bay bird or grease bird, and far away to the East the moose bird, caribou bird, Rupert’s bird, and camp-robber.

On the afternoon of the second day we met the Indian Etitchula, who had left the fort with us in August and had been hanging on more or less to our party ever since. He was on his way back to King Beaulieu’s Camp, two days’ travel to the north-east, having made a trip to Fond du Lac to make a raid on my tea and tobacco, and see if there was any news of us, as King was greatly alarmed at our prolonged absence. We relieved him of a little tea, but he had not been able to get any tobacco out of Franqols, who had roundly asserted that It all belonged to him; he also gave us a couple of whitefish, which proved a very acceptable change from our long course of straight meat. Late the same evening we made our last camp on the high land close to the edge of the mountains within five miles of the house; we could easily have got in that night, but I much preferred a quiet camp under the stars to the company of the gang of Beaulieus who were sure to be at Fond du Lac.

One word of caution against using the compressed tea imported by the Hudson’s Bay Company into the North as a substitute for tobacco; it is very good to drink, but if you smoke it you pay the penalty by a most painful irritation in the throat, which is made worse by breathing the intensely cold air. We all tried it that night, and all swore never to do so again, although I have often smoked the ordinary uncompressed tea without disastrous results and with a certain amount of satisfaction.

We were off in good time on the morning of December 10th, and were soon sitting on the sleighs, rushing down the steep incline, with frequent spills from bumping against trees; this was the only piece of riding I had during the whole five weeks’ travel. The first signs of the petit jour were just showing as: we pulled up at the house, and Frangois quickly produced the tobacco he had refused Etitchula. I think for a few minutes they were really glad to see us back safe, but soon the old complaints began. Times had been hard, although the women and children all looked fat enough to belie this statement; Jose had been catching whitefish, but had refused to give any to Frangois; while the latter, according to Jose, had been very mean in distribution of my effects, eating flour every day himself but giving none away. They had gone through nearly everything between them, and moreover did not seem the least bit ashamed of their conduct. As my dogs were all used up, I decided to leave them here, and made arrangements with Frangois to bring his own train on to the fort with me. It seemed that notwithstanding the hard times he had sufficient meat and fish stored away for our trip, and there were still a few pounds of flour left, so that we should live in luxury all the way in.

I spent the day shooting a few ptarmigan, indulging in much tobacco, and listening to the petitions of the various ill-used members of the family. Jose was particularly amusing; he had been the most useless man of the lot, never even venturing into the Barren Ground, but spending most of his time at Fond du Lac, shooting away my ammunition and playing havoc with tea and tobacco, besides robbing the cache at the Lac du Rocher. Now he was full of' love for me, and gave me a list of things that he wanted in addition to his wages, as a reward for all that he had done and was ready to do for me. Among other items, he wanted my rifle and hunting-glasses, and remarked that my Paradox gun, which had been lying here all the time, would be very useful for him at the goose-hunt in the following spring.

Fortunately none of the Beaulieus know how to put together a breech-loading gun, so the Paradox and its ammunition had been left in peace to do me good service in the summer. I think the Paradox is the most useful gun yet invented for purposes of exploration, as it does away with the necessity of carrying a separate weapon for shot and ball, and shoots very true with either; but there seems no reason why the patent should not be applied to a 20-bore. For procuring food in a really rough country, where a man has to carry his own ammunition, the ball-cartridges for a 12-bore are needlessly heavy, and the charge of shot is too great for the close range shooting which is usually done on these occasions.


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