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The Barren Ground of Northern Canada
Chapter IX


At Fond du Lac I slept for the first time since we left the fort under a roof, but on account of the awful squalor of the house I should have much preferred the usual open camp in the snow. Daylight found us under way again, Frangois and myself, with a small boy to run ahead of the dogs; as we were travelling light I expected to be able to ride the last half of the journey, but for the first two days the fish for dog food made our load too heavy to travel at a fast pace. I left all the musk-ox and caribou heads and skins that I had managed to save, to come in with Michel and Mario when they made the usual journey to the fort for New Year's day, on which occasion the Indians from all quarters bring in their furs to trade, and receive a small feast of flour and sugar, an event not to be missed on any account, even though wives and families may be left to starve in the woods and the famished dogs drop with fatigue along the track.

There was no news as to the state of the ice, as we were the first people to attempt the crossing of the lake this winter. It is usually not safe for travel till the middle of December, so we coasted along the north shore, increasing the distance, but getting greater safety by doing so. We took things easily, making early starts and putting ashore frequently for a cup of tea; it was a great improvement on the canoe-travelling which had delayed us so much in the autumn. At sundown every night we picked out a sheltered spot among the tall pine-trees where firewood was plentiful, threw away the snow with our snow-shoes, and put down a thick mat of pine-brush; then a huge fire was lit and enough wood cut for the night, the fish thawed for the dogs, and supper cooked for the men. We had bread at every meal, which is in itself a luxury after four months of straight meat; the day ended with tobacco, and we rolled ourselves in our blankets to sleep, till the position of the Great Bear told us it was time to be on the march once more. People who live in civilization find it hard to believe that men in these northern latitudes habitually sleep out under the stars, with the thermometer standing at 30°, 40°, and even 6o° below zero; yet it is those same people of civilization who suffer from colds in the head, lung-diseases, and a variety of ailments unknown to the voyargeur, whose only dangers are starvation and the risk of accidents incidental to travelling in rough countries.

On the second day we passed a couple of houses occupied by an Indian, Capot Blanc, with whom I afterwards became great friends; he had left for the fort a couple of days before, but the ice was reported to be dangerous in the Grand Traverse. Another Indian, Thomas, a brother of Mario and Zinto, was ready to start, and joined in with us for the rest of the journey; he had only two dogs, but with a light load managed to keep up easily enough. The ice among the islands was pretty good, but the snow was soft and deep, and it was not till our fourth night out from Fond du Lac that we camped on the last outlying island, ready to take the Traverse. About eighteen miles away to the south, without any chance to put ashore till we reached it, lay the lie de Pierre, and we were to make for a half-breed’s house that lay within a mile of it on the main shore of the lake. It had been arranged that I was to ride in pomp across this piece, so, after a good breakfast about three o’clock, I turned into the sleigh and soon dropped off to sleep to the music of sleigh-bells and a volley of French oaths with which Frangois encouraged his dogs every few minutes. At this time the stars were shining brightly, and there was not a breath of wind. I must have slept for a couple of hours when Frangois awoke me with the information that we were lost. Turning out of my warm berth I 'found a gale of wind blowing, with snow falling and drifting heavily; I could hardly make out the men in the darkness, though they were all standing within a few yards of me. Of course I had not the slightest idea where we were or the direction in which we had been travelling Frangois seemed undecided, but Thomas was quite sure that by keeping the wind abeam we should hit off the lie de Pierre. We put him ahead, and he proved perfectly right in his direction; for after four hours’ steady walk we made out the land, the weather clearing a little at daybreak. We had headed a little too far to the west, but were soon inside the half-breed’s cabin, where we found plenty of fish for the dogs, and so decided to spend the day there, as the wind had freshened up again and the drifting snow made travelling unpleasant. We did not know what a narrow escape we had had till the owner of the house came in, after making an attempt to visit his nets. He reported the ice broken up to the west by the violence of the gale, and had we kept a little more in that direction we might easily have walked into open water in the darkness and made a disastrous ending to our expedition.

Our course the next day lay over shoal water, mostly inside sankbanks and through narrow channels of the delta of the Slave River. We crossed the main stream on good ice, and following the shore of the lake for ten miles, rattled into the fort about two o’clock, within ten minutes of the arrival of the outward-bound packet from Mackenzie River. Luckily enough it had been delayed one day by the storm that had overtaken us in the Grand Traverse, and I had an opportunity of sending out letters by the dog-sleigh that was to leave the same night For true hospitality.

Taking the Post Dogs for Exercise there is nothing in the world to beat the welcome back to a Hudson’s Bay post in the North after one has made a long journey in the wilds; no need to trouble your head with the idea that you may not be wanted, or that you will eat too much of the ever insufficient supplies sent in from the outside world to the officer in charge. Why is it that the less a man has, and the harder things are to obtain, the more ready he is to divide? It does not seem to work in civilization, but it is certainly so in rough countries, and especially with the Hudson’s Bay Company’s officers in the Far North. Perhaps it is because they have all seen hardships and privations in the Company’s service and know the value of a helping hand given in the time of need; men who have suffered themselves have always more feeling for the sufferings of others than people who have lived only on the soft side of life.

I don’t think I ever enjoyed a meal so much as that first dinner at Fort Resolution, after a most necessary wash. A year later I dragged myself into a small trading-post at the foot of the Rocky Mountains after many days’ total starvation, but had then got beyond the capacity of enjoying anything. On the present occasion I was able to thoroughly appreciate the change from my four months’ experience in the Barren Ground. How strange it seemed once more to sit at a table, on a chair, like a. white man, and eat white man’s food with a knife and fork, after the long course of squatting in the filth of a smoky lodge, rending a piece of half-raw meat snatched from the dirty kettle. Then, too, I could speak again in my own language, and there was a warm room to sit in, books to read, and all the ordinary comforts of life, with the knowledge that so long as I stayed in the house I had my own place, while the wind and the snow had theirs outside.

There was no scarcity at the fort this year, although the autumn fishing had not been successful. The Fond du Lac boat had brought in a good supply of dried meat, and there was a better stock of flour than is usually to be found at a northern fort. Mr. Mackinlay, too, had got in a fair supply of luxuries from Winnipeg, and, as Mrs. Mackinlay was an excellent manager, we always lived as well as one should wish to live anywhere.

Fort Resolution is a fair sample of a tradmg-post in the North. It is situated on the south side of a bay, the entrance to which is sheltered by a group of islands, the largest known as Mission Island, from the Roman Catholic mission established there in charge of Father Dupire. The original site was on an outlying island known as Moose Island, but the present position on the mainland has been found more practicable. The buildings consist of the master’s house, a comfortable log-building flanked on each side by a large store, one used for provisions and the other as a fur and trading store; these were originally within a stockade and formed the fort proper, but the peaceful nature of the Indians has removed all need for defensive works. Outside is a small row of log-houses, occupied by the engaged servants, freemen, and a couple of pensioners too old to make their living in the woods. Close at hand are the buildings belonging to the Protestant Mission, while the willows and bush-growth of a densely-wooded level country hem in the small patch of cleared ground on which the settlement stands; here potatoes and a few other vegetables are raised, and in a favourable season produce very fair crops. There are a yoke of work-cattle for hauling wood and a couple of milch cows are kept, as hay is easily procured in the numerous swamps which are scattered through the woods in every direction. The only high land to be seen is a conspicuous bluff marking the entrance to the Little Buffalo River some ten miles along the lake shore, this stream heads in to the south, and as it breaks up earlier in the spring than the Little Slave River it is used at that time of year as a route to Fort Smith, one overland portage being made, to drop on to the main stream a short distance below the fort Looking out over the vast expanse of frozen lake on still, bright days some very beautiful and curious mirage effects can often be seen. Everything takes an unnatural and frequently inverted form; islands; so far away as to be below - the horizon are seen suspended in the air, and it is impossible to recognise a point or bunch of trees with which you are perfectly familiar in ordinary circumstances.

There are four engaged servants at the fort; a white man, Murdo Mackay, native of the Hebrides, who was serving a five years’ contract with the Company, and three half-breeds, by far the best of whom was Michel Mandeville, who has held the position of interpreter at Fort Resolution for several years. Except at the time of the Fall fishery, an engaged servant’s work is light—cutting and hauling enough firewood to keep the fort supplied, visiting the nets and lines, and an occasional trip with the packet, or to get trading-goods from another fort.

Christmas passed away quietly, but there was stir enough when the Indians came in for New Year and the trading began. The old system of barter is still carried on, with the beaver-skin for a standard. An Indian’s pile of fur is counted, and he is told how many skins’ worth of goods he has to receive; then he is taken into the store and the door solemnly locked, as it is found impossible to trade at all with more than one at a time. It seems very simple; the Indian knows exactly how many skins he has to take, and the value in skins of every common article. But, to begin with, he. wants everything he sees, and the whole stock would hardly satisfy him, and it is a long time, with many changes: of opinion, before he has spent the proceeds of his hunt Then arises the question of his debt, and he tries to take the largest amount possible on credit for his spring hunt; the trader cannot refuse absolutely to make any advances, as there are some things essentially necessary to the Indian’s life in the woods, but the debts are kept in proportion to the man’s character. After he has finished his trade, he shows his purchases to his friends, and, acting on their advice, usually comes back to effect some change, and the game begins all over again; sometimes a whole day is passed in laying out a hundred skins, roughly fifty dollars according to our method of calculation. Before the Indian leaves the fort he always comes in and does a little begging while saying good-bye to his master.

I had a very bad time of it settling up with the Beaulieus. Promises that I had made under stress of circumstances had to be redeemed, but it was hopeless to try and satisfy them; although they had each received far more than had been originally agreed upon, they continued grumbling till they left the fort. On New Year’s day a big ball was given to the half-breeds, while the Indians were provided with the materials for a feast, and held a dance of their own in one of the empty houses. It was the poorest display imaginable; many of the Canadian tribes have really effective dancing, but the Yellow Knives appear to have a very elementary idea of graceful movement. Their only figure is to waddle round in a circle, holding each other’s hands, keeping up a monotonous chant, and spitting freely into the middle of the ring. In the big house Red River jigs and reels were kept up with unflagging energy till daylight.

As soon as everything had quieted down and the Indians had gone back to their hunting-ground, Mackinlay and myself started on an expedition after the caribou to try and kill some fresh meat for the fort. We took Michel, the interpreter, with us, and Pierre Beaulieu, a brother of King’s; and a resident of Mission Island joined us with his two sons, as there was news of the caribou being at no great distance on the far side of the lake. It was now the dead of winter, the season of the grd frete, and we had two remarkably cold days’ travel to reach the north shore of the Great Slave Lake. We struck into the woods, not far to the eastward of the Gros Cap, the point forming the eastern extremity of the long narrow arm leading to Fort Rae. We each had a sleigh of dogs, and were able to ride most of the time on a good road broken by a band of Indians hunting in the neighbourhood. Two long days over small lakes and through the thick pine woods, in a country much resembling that of Fond du Lac but of lower elevation, brought us among the caribou, but they were not in very large numbers.

We had everything we could want to make life pleasant in the woods, abundance of tea and tobacco, meat if we killed it, and no hardships; the cold was severe of course, but there was plenty of firewood, and it was our own fault if we could not keep ourselves warm. Three days we spent in hunting, and, although we did not kill very much, there was a little meat to take back; we never really found the caribou in any quantity, or we should have made a big killing and cached the meat, to be hauled later on when the days grew longer. A rattling three days’ journey took us back to the fort, as old Pierre, who is one of the most rushing travellers I ever met, hustled us along to save using his meat on the way home; he had no intention of feeding his dogs from his load for more than two nights when he had fish to give them at home. This trouble about dogs’ food is the great drawback to winter travelling in the North; a dog, to keep him in good order, requires two whitefish, weighing each perhaps three pounds, every night. This adds so much to the load that a ten days’ journey is about the longest one can undertake with full rations all round, unless it be in a part of the country where game is plentiful or fish can be caught en route.

After the caribou hunt, we amused ourselves about the fort; sometimes going in search of ptarmigan, which are usually to be found among the willows close to the edge of the lake; and sometimes paying Father Dupire a visit on his island, a couple of miles away, to hear some of his interesting experiences during a residence of many years among the Indians. Close at hand lay the Protestant Mission, where there was always a welcome, and, with these attractions and a fair supply of books, time did not hang at all heavily till early in February the winter packet from the outside world arrived. I received a big bundle of letters, the first that reached me since June, but it happened that none of the newspapers for the fort turned up, and we were left in ignorance of what had happened in the Grand Pays.

So many travellers have written about this great Northern Packet and the wonderful journey that it makes that it is unnecessary for me to say much about it. On its arrival at Fort Resolution it presents the appearance of an ordinary dog-sleigh, with a man ahead of the dogs, which are driven by a half-breed, with plenty of ribbons and beads on leggings and moccasins, capable of running his forty miles a day with ease, and possessed of a full command of the more expressive part of the French language.

Dr. Mackay, who was on his yearly round of visits to inspect the outlying posts in his district, came down from Fort Chipeweyan with the packet, and we had a long talk respecting a summer trip to the Barren Ground which I proposed making.

My intention was to leave the fort on the last ice in the spring and travel with the dogs to the spot where we had left our canoe in the autumn, there to await the breaking up of the lakes and to descend the Great Fish River with the first open winter. I had no special object in reaching the sea-coast, as a birch-bark canoe is not the right sort of craft for work among saltwater ice; and it was more to see what the Barren Ground was like in summer, and to notice the habits of the birds and animals, than for the sake of geographical discovery, that I wished to make the expedition.

The Great Fish River has been twice descended before, but of course both Back’s and Anderson’s parties were compelled by the shortness of the summers to confine their exploration to the immediate neighbourhood of the river; and I thought that, by spending more time at the headwaters than they had been able to do, I should get a good idea of the nature of the country and an insight into the Indian summer life among the caribou. The difficulty was to obtain a crew; but Dr. Mackay very kindly consented to Mackinlay’s accompanying me, and also lent me the two engaged servants, Murdo Mackay and Moise Mandeville, brother of Michel Mandeville the interpreter, but not half such a good fellow. We hoped to be able to engage the services of some of the Indians to guide us to the head of the river, but they have such a dread of the Esquimaux, who hunt farther down the stream, that we hardly expected any of the Yellow Knives to accompany us beyond that point. Long ago there was always war between the Indians and the Esquimaux, and Heame’s description of the massacre at the Bloody Falls on the Coppermine gives a good idea of the hatred that existed between these tribes. For many years they have not met, and although the Esquimaux seen by Anderson on the Great Fish River appear peaceful enough, the Yellow Knives hunting at the head of the river are in constant fear of meeting them.

Zinto, the chief, and another Indian, Syene, arrived at the fort soon after Dr. Mackay left, and we consulted them as to the best route to follow, and whether we could depend upon their tribe for any help. They told us that there was no difficulty in reaching the head-waters of the river, as the Indians were in the habit of coming there every summer, but beyond was an unknown country; they both remembered Anderson’s expedition, and were full of stories about the difficulties of navigation, the numerous portages and the likelihood of starvation, but knew nothing from personal experience. We failed lamentably in the attempt to discover when the ice in the river usually broke up. Syene told us that it was in the moon when the dogs He on their backs in the sun, and Zinto volunteered the information that it was soon after the leaves begin to shoot on the little willows In the Barren Ground; but we could not work it out into any particular month. Both promised to make dried meat and pemmican for us if they fell In with the caribou, and to leave caches in the last bunch of pine-trees. Next day they left for their camp, two hundred miles away in the woods, to await the first signs of warmer weather to start for the spring muskox hunt. Zinto was to come to the fort about the 1st of May, and personally conduct us to the places where he had piled up the meat of many caribou for our use.


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