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The Barren Ground of Northern Canada
Chapter X

About the middle of February, 1890, little Francois, an Indian living at the mouth of Buffalo River, arrived with the news that during a hunting-trip he had made to the southward he had seen the tracks of a band of wood buffalo and intended to go in pursuit of them after this visit to the fort.

Mackinlay and myself both wanted an excuse to be in the woods again, and the next day saw us plodding across the bay on snow-shoes to the comfortable little shanty, under the high bluff, which forms the most conspicuous landmark within sight of Fort Resolution. The establishment was presided over by an old lady, formerly cook at one of the forts, and kept with a cleanliness not always to be found in a white man’s dwelling. The following* morning we started with two sleigh-loads of fish for the dogs and provisions and blankets for ourselves. Frangois brought his wife and little girl, besides a rather crazy boy, given to epileptic fits, but a good worker in the intervals between his attacks. We followed the river for a mile or two, then turned into the woods on the west bank, and, crossing a lake of some size, headed in a south-west direction through the thick pine-forest, occasionally picking up a marten from a line of traps set by little Frangois, for we were following the track that he had made on his last trip, or finding a rabbit hung by the neck in one of his wife’s snares; very cunning these old women are in all things concerning the stomach, and if there are many rabbit-tracks to be seen in the snow there is little danger of going without supper.

On the second day we crossed a large prairie dotted with lakes, formerly the home of many beavers, and still bearing evidence of their labours in the long banks which served as dams and the huge mounds which were once their houses. The beavers have all gone long ago, and the ladies who wore the pretty fur-trimmed jackets in far-away England, and the husbands who grumbled at their price, are gone too; but the beavers have left the most impression on the face of the earth. Wonderful moulders of geography they are; a stream dammed up in a level country forms a huge lake where the forest stood, the trees fall as their roots rot in standing water, and, if the dam be not attended to by the workers, a fertile grass-covered prairie takes the place of the lake. From the Liard River and Great Slave Lake, to the Peace River on the east side of the Rocky Mountains, extends the greatest beaver country in the world. It is known by Indian report alone, as no white man ever penetrates far into the wilderness of pine-forest and morass; many streams head away into the interior of this unknown land, but the white man has only seen their mouths, as he passes up or down the main waterways of the North. It is true that the Company’s men have ascended Hay River, a large stream falling into the Great Slave Lake, and by making an overland portage, have dropped on the Peace River at Fort Vermillion; but they have always made hurried voyages and have had no opportunity of exploring much new ground.

Scattered over this huge extent of country are still a few bands of buffalo. Sometimes they are heard of at Forts Smith and Vermillion, sometimes at Fort St. John close up to the big mountains on Peace River, and occasionally at Fort Nelson on the south branch of the Liard. It is impossible to say anything about their numbers, as the country they inhabit is so large, and the Indians, who are few in number, usually keep to the same hunting-ground. These animals go by the name of wood buffalo, and most people are of opinion that they are a distinct race from the old prairie buffalo so numerous in bygone days; but I am inclined to think that the very slight difference in appearance is easily accounted for by climatic influences, variety of food, and the better shelter of the woods. Here too the giant moose and the woodland caribou have their home, and even in the short journey that I made into this district the tracks in the snow told a tale of plenty. Many black bears’ skins are brought out every year, and towards the mountains the formidable grizzly is often encountered by the fearful hunter. Nor are the small fur-bearing animals wanting; foxes—red, cross, and a few silver—seek their living on the prairie, while wolverines, fisher, mink, marten, and lynx may be trapped in the woods, and a few otters frequent the streams and lakes. In the summer ducks, geese, and many other water-birds have their nests in the muskegs, and two or three varieties of the tree grouse are always to be found. “The hunter’s Paradise P says the sporting reader; “let us go and have a hunt there.5’ But now for the other side of the picture. In the summer it is practically impossible to travel, as it is a swampy country not to be crossed with horses, and the lakes are too far apart to be available as a canoe-route, while the mosquitos are intolerable. Only when the snow has fallen, and all water is held fast in the grip of winter, has one a chance of exploring this Land of Promise with dogs, sleighs, and snow-shoes; but, by this time, the summer life has all flown far away southward, and, though I think one would be fairly safe in pushing on, there is always a chance of coming across a large tract of gameless country, and finding a difficulty in obtaining provisions.

After three days’ good travel we reached the end of Frangois5 road, and long before daylight on the following morning were away to try and find the buffalo tracks. We had a long day’s walk over a perfect hunting-ground, crossing several open ridges with sufficient elevation to give us a view of the surrounding country. Prairie and timber were about in equal proportion, and the eye could follow the windings of a large stream that falls into the Little Buffalo River dose to the Fort Smith portage; its water are strongly impregnated with sulphur, and do not readily freeze; in fact this stream, although it has little current, remains open during a considerable part of its course even in the coldest weather. About noon we found the track that we had been looking for, easily distinguishable from the many tracks of moose and woodland caribou that we had crossed; little Francois made a capital approach, and after a couple of hours’ walk we sighted a band of eight buffalo feeding in a small wood-surrounded swamp. There are few spots on the American continent to-day where one can see buffalo in their wild state, but the Indian gave us no time to watch them, and completely spoilt the chance of clean shooting by letting off his gun too soon; we only wanted to kill one, as we could not haul any more meat, and it is really a pity to kill animals so nearly extinct as these. As it turned out there were several snap-shots fired as they ran into the woods, and two tracks of blood in the snow showed that we had done too much shooting, although it was not till late in the second day that we secured a cow that had travelled many miles before lying down.

By the way, it is as well when going for a hunting expedition in the North to leave at home all the old-fashioned notions of shooting-etiquette. If you see a man in a good position for a shot, run up, jostle his elbow, and let your gun off; if an animal falls, swear you killed It, and claim the back-fat and tongue no matter whether you fired or not; never admit that you are not quite sure which animal you shot at. It is only by strict attention to these rules that a white man can get a fair division of plunder when shooting with half-breed Indians.

The other buffalo, on whose track there was little blood, had not separated from the band, although we followed it for a whole day, and, as this was a sure sign of its having been only slightly wounded, perhaps not much damage was done; a badly struck animal will always leave its companions and lie down.

There was much rejoicing when late on the third night the result of our hunt was hauled into our pleasant camp In a clump of thick pine-timber, The little girl patted and played with the meat as an English child would with a doll, and eventually dropped off to sleep with the raw brisket "for a pillow; while Pierre, the boy, after a huge feast was seized with such a violent fit that for a long time I was afraid It would prove his last. The others took no notice of him beyond putting down a log to keep him from rolling in the fire, and in the morning he seemed perfectly well and hungry as ever for buffalo-meat. With heavily-laden sleighs we started back for the fort, but a wind-storm had drifted up our track over the prairie, and the dogs had hard work to drag their loads. In one of our steel traps were the remains of a cross fox that a wolverine had eaten, and beyond a few more martens our fur-hunting was unsuccessful. It took us four days to reach little Frangois’ house at the mouth of the river, and another half-day to get to the fort, where we found everything quiet, as usual in the monotony of the long winter. February was nearly over, and the “moon of the big wind” was doing its best to keep up its reputation. Day after day the north wind howled over the lake, drifting the snow into a vast ridge on the lee shore and making it no easy matter to find the trout-lines, which had now to be set four or five miles out at sea, the fish moving into deep water as the cold gets more intense and the ice thicker. The thermometer hanging against the wall of the house ranged between minus 30 and minus 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and this state of affairs continued until I left the fort for another hunt with little Frangois. We spent three weeks happily enough in the woods, doing a little trapping, and getting enough moose and caribou-meat to keep the dogs and ourselves in good condition. Our course lay the same way as on the last hunt, to take advantage of the road and visit the line of traps; but we pushed further on till we came across the tracks of a party of Indians hunting from Fort Smith. We saw no sign of buffalo, and as Frangois’ wife damaged her leg rather badly we were obliged to haul her back on the sleigh, and this accident put an end to our trip. Away far in the forest beyond the influence of the great frozen lake we found the first indications of the coming spring. By the end of the first week in April the snow was falling under our snow-shoes in the middle of the day, and the sun, which now had a long course to run, shone with considerable power; the pine-trees threw out the delicious scent so suggestive of Nature’s awakening after her long snow-wrapped sleep, and a puff of warm south wind, sighing through the poplars, whispered a message of hope from a more favoured land. But winter made a final struggle, and it was not till the 25th of April that the collapse came. Then the snow in the woods around the fort melted away rapidly, and the bare ground showed in patches. On May 1st water was standing in pools over the ice in the bay, the snow had disappeared except in the drifts, a light rain was falling, and the first goose was killed from the door of the master’s house; small bands of wildfowl were passing frequently, and cranes were calling in the swamps to the southward; daylight lingered in the sky all night, but there was always a sharp frost while the sun was down.

It was time to shake off our luxurious habits and push out again for the North to take full advantage of the short summer of the Barren Ground. The fort seemed to wake up with the spring, and there was bustle and activity everywhere. The furs had to be spread out to dry before they could be baled up; fish had to be thrown out of the provision-store as they thawed, and the dogs were happy for once. There was talk of ploughing and planting the potato-crop; Indians kept dropping in with small bundles of fur, to trade for ammunition for the goose-hunt, which would soon be in full swing; canoes were patched up and made tight in readiness for the first open water. But there was a rumour that the expedition to the Great Fish River would fall through, as no crew could be found, and some discontented spirits had been trying to persuade the Indians against going with us; the half-breeds were all full of excuses, and for a time it looked bad for us. Mackinlay was of course keen enough for the trip, and so was Murdo Mackay, the Scotch engaged servant; and luckily David, an Esquimau boy from Peel’s River, who had been left at Fort Resolution for the winter to learn English from the Protestant missionary there, was willing to come with us, and, although not a first-rate traveller, might be very useful as interpreter if we fell in with any of his countrymen. Moise Mandeville was more obstinate and had the greatest horror of the expedition, but he finally agreed to come in the capacity of steersman and as Montaignais’ interpreter. We were still without a guide. Zinto, despite his promises, had not put in an appearance, and there was as yet no news of him. Meanwhile preparations went on; dogs were got together, new snow-shoes provided for each member of the party, and all available pounded meat and grease converted into pemmican as the most portable form of provisions; four sacks of flour were forwarded to Fond du Lac to await our arrival, and the women round the fort were busy making moccasins for men and dogs, as the latter have to be shod in spring-travelling, to prevent their feet being cut to pieces on the rough needle-ice that appears after the snow has melted off the lakes. We also took a light canvas lodge in place of the heavier deerskins, and found it a great saving in weight, especially after rain; dressed deer-skins hold water like a sponge, and where firewood is scarce are extremely hard to dry.

On May 4th Mr. Clark arrived from Fort Smith to take charge of Resolution during Mackinlay’s absence. The slushy state of the snow made travelling hard, but the Fort Smith people had managed to bring us a welcome supply of tea, tobacco, ammunition, and a few matches; none of these necessary articles were to be had at Resolution, as the unusually heavy fur-trade had left the store empty. We collected all the touch-wood we could get hold of, and each took a flint and steel, while Dr. Mackay sent us a burning-glass, a compass, and a watch from Chipeweyan, besides half a dozen pair of spectacles to keep off snow-blindness, from which an unprotected eye is sure to suffer. There was also a small stock of axes, knives, and beads, presents for the Esquimaux in case we fell in with them. Arrangements were made for the fort boat to meet us at the old site of Lockhart’s house, at the north-east end of the Great Slave Lake, on August 1st, to bring us across the lake, as I wished to start for the South in time to get back to civilization before the rivers and lakes were set fast by the coming winter.

The day after Mr. Clark’s arrival a couple of Indians came in from Fond du Lac. Zinto had not yet arrived there, but was expected any day; he had no meat for us, and caribou were reported scarce on the road we proposed taking; most of the Yellow Knives would be at Fond du Lac to meet us if they found food enough for present use. Pierre Lockhart, an Indian who had come to the fort, immediately engaged with us as guide to the Great Fish River, saying that whatever the other men might do he would be faithful to the end of the journey, even if we wanted him to go to the sea-coast: needless to say he was the very first to desert on the appearance of hard times.

It was a goodly procession that left Fort Resolution on the afternoon of May 7th, for every sleigh was pressed into service to help us over the bad ice that lay between the fort and the big river, and all the goose-hunters had been waiting till we started to move their families to the favourite feeding-grounds. Across the first bay there was fully a foot of water, with a crust of ice caused by the last night’s frost; this top crust had to be broken, and the dogs waded up to their bellies, with the sleighs floating behind them: bitterly cold for the feet and hard to avoid a fall, which meant a thorough drenching in the icy water. On reaching the delta and passing into the narrow channels at the mouth of the big river the Ice was much better, as the water had run off through the cracks; the crossing of the main stream looked dangerous, but, by carefully picking our way and sounding the ice with an axe, we got across without accident and camped in a bunch of willows on the far side. The fires were kept up late that night and much talking was done, as to-morrow we had to say good-bye to our companions, and many instructions were given to wives, mothers, and children with reference to their good behaviour during our absence. The red glow of sunset stayed in the sky till it mingled with the brightness of the coming day; often a whirr of wings told of a flock of wildfowl passing overhead, and a few geese that had arrived from the south kept up a continual honking as they searched for a patch of open water to alight on. But the frost was sharp in the night, and on breaking camp at four o’clock we found the crust of surface-ice in the next bay strong enough in most places to bear our sleighs, which were now reduced to two in number and much more heavily-loaded than on the previous day. Sometimes a man would break through, and, floundering on the bottom ice, would bruise his shins and feet in a desperate manner, and we were all badly knocked about when we put ashore at Tete Noire’s House, five miles beyond the lie de Pierre, ready to take the big traverse on the following day. A couple of hours out from the land brought us again to dry snow, as the change of climate is very sudden after leaving the south shore of the lake. Crossing the big traverse was ordinary winter travelling, although the snow was soft in the strong sunshine; we made use of the frost at night and generally rested during the heat of the day. Between the islands snow-shoes were necessary, and, although spectacles were constantly worn, some of the men began to show signs of snow-blindness; occasionally we found a bare rock to camp on, but more generally made the old winter form of encampment on the snow. It was not till the sixth day after leaving the fort that we pulled into Fond du Lac, and found nearly the whole tribe of Yellow Knives awaiting us with King Beaulieu and his family at their head ; there were five and twenty lodges, and in every one we heard the old story of Berula (no meat) ; they had tried fishing without success, and hoped the white masters would give them a little flour and pemmican. Why had they not pushed on to some of the sure fisheries in the big lake when they found the caribou fail. They wished to talk with us, they said, and so had stayed and. starved at Fond du Lac till we came. What did they want to speak to us about? Only this, that an Indian’s life is hard, and he has at all times need of a little tea and tobacco to give him courage; they had heard we were taking much tea and tobacco, besides other presents, to the Esquimaux. In vain did we tell them that we had not enough for own use; there was no peace till pipes were going in every lodge.

Zinto had not put up any meat for us. At one time he had killed a good many caribou, but he had met with a band of Dog-Ribs from Fort Rae and the two tribes had camped together; the chief of the Yellow Knives was bound in honour to give a feast to his guests, and after the meat that was meant for us had been used for this purpose they fell to gambling. The unfortunate Zinto lost all his ammunition, so that he had no chance to kill any more caribou, much as he would have liked to help the white men in their undertaking.

The snow was lying deep in the woods and as yet no breath of spring had visited Fond du Lac, although at Fort Resolution, not more than one hundred miles to the south, the buds were by this time shooting on the birch and willow trees, and the ground had been bare for two weeks; no wildfowl had arrived, and the Indians were of opinion that such a late spring had never been known, advising us strongly not to attempt to force our way into the Barren Ground till there was some indication of better weather. It seemed to us, though, that we should never be in a better position to start than now, as any delay meant waste of provisions, and we hoped to find caribou before we began to starve. Several days we spent in talking to the Indians before we came to any satisfactory conclusion, and we had the greatest trouble in persuading any of them to come with us. Finally it was settled that Capo-t Blanc, Saltatha, Syene, and Mario, with their wives and families, should start with us, and on reaching the head of the Great Fish River should wait there and hunt while we made the descent of the stream. Capot Blanc behaved very well at all the consultations, speaking up for the white men whenever an opportunity offered, but the interpretation was unsatisfactory; Moise refused this duty in the presence of the Beaulieus, and the latter, so far as we could make out, used all their influence with the Indians to damage our chances of making a successful expedition. David, the Esquimau, rather complicated matters by falling in love with King’s daughter, but he made no objection to starting, and soon forgot all about her in the excitement of the journey. On the last evening that we spent at Fond du Lac a Dog-Rib arrived with his family from the Barren Ground in a wretched state of starvation. -He had come in by the route that we proposed to take, and gave a very unsatisfactory report of the country: the cold was still severe, and he had met with no game since leaving the musk-ox a couple of weeks before; one of his children had died of starvation and he was forced to bury her under the snow at the Lac de Mort; the rest had barely escaped with life. Of course we gave them enough flour and pem-mican to take them to a well-known fishery twenty miles on, but our provisions were going very fast. Most of the Yellow Knives had already moved away to the fishery, and the encampment was entirely deserted when we pulled down our lodges on the morning of May 21st. Paul Beaulieu was to have caught us up to show us some meat-caches that he had made in the winter, and we had engaged an Indian, Carquoss, to fish for his wife while he was away; but we saw neither Paul nor his caches. Carquoss, however, joined us later on, and explained that he had given up fishing because we had not left him any tea and the other Indians had laughed at him.

A miserable-looking outfit we were as we plodded for two days along the north shore of the lake, against a strong head-wind and driving snowstorms. Seven trains of starving dogs hauled their loads In a melancholy procession, and over twenty people walked in the narrow road made by the passage of the sleighs; by far too large a party for any rapid travelling, and badly handicapped by women and children* On the third day we turned up the mountain, and followed the course of a stream coming in on the north shore; we mounted by a series of frozen cascades, many of them so steep that we were obliged to use ropes to help the dogs, and towards evening camped at the far end of the first lake on the plateau. This day’s work was not got through without a good deal of growling, as everybody was kept on short rations to make the most of our provisions; three days’ full allowance for human beings alone, to say nothing of the thirty dogs, would have put an end to our supplies.

From this lake the country was level, and the women were quite able to manage the dog-sleighs, while the men scoured the country on either side of the track in search of caribou or ptarmigan. The birds were fairly plentiful, but of course at this season were all paired, and there was no chance of making a slaughter at a single shot, as one can do in the fall of the year when the birds are in big packs; this shooting at separate birds was a serious strain on our ammunition, but the ptarmigan helped us out till we fell in with the caribou. It was almost a certainty to find these birds in every bunch of pines, and they kept up such a constant crowing round the camp at night that they had a poor chance of escaping the hungry man’s gun. After the snow has melted the male bird gets pugnacious and runs up to meet the hunter, with his feathers puffed out, offering a fair mark for a stone; but before this happened we disdained ptarmigan, and would only kill the fattest-looklng caribou. We eked out a precarious existence in this manner for a week, making short days’ journeys, as the dogs could not travel fast or far. Pierre Lockhart deserted one morning when breakfast was particularly scanty, and taking his gun and blanket started back for Fond du Lac; we were depending on him for guide, but it was rather a relief when he went, as he was inclined to steal food, and had several disgusting habits that made his absence from the lodge rather acceptable than otherwise. Mario’s brother-in-law disappeared about the same time, but we thought they had gone off together and did not trouble ourselves further about them.

On the last day of May, acting on Capot Blanc’s advice, we forked from our canoe-route, and took a more easterly course, to fall on the chain of lakes by which Anderson and Stewart had reached the Great Fish River. We hoped to find caribou in this direction, and on the same day that we made this change in our course the indefatigable Saltatha, having made a much longer round than the rest of us, came into camp late at night with a load of caribou-meat on his back; he had seen snow-shoe tracks to the east, but falling in with the caribou had turned back to the camp without following the tracks.

Sunday, June 1st, brought a distinct change in the weather; a mild south-west wind was melting the snow rapidly, and several flocks of geese and ducks passed to the north. A few geese were called up to the camp and killed from the doors of the lodges; the Indians imitate to perfection the cry of any bird, and at this time of year the geese are easy to call, as they are always in search of open water, and seem not a bit surprised to hear their friends calling to them .from a group of deer-skin lodges. In the morning we sent two men to bring in the rest of Saltatha’s meat, with orders to investigate the tracks, and see if there was another encampment of Indians to the east, as none of the caribou hunters had intended to leave the Great Slave Lake till the thaw came. Our peaceful Sunday was greatly disturbed by a royal row in one of the lodges, and we sent for Capot Blanc to ask him what the trouble was. The old fellow was glad enough to get into our lodge away from the clamour, and explained the cause of the disturbance in his even low-pitched voice, so pleasantly contrasted with the Yellow Knife Billingsgate that was being freely used outside. “It is. the women,” he said; “the wife of Syene has called the wife of Saltatha by a bad name, because she would not give her some meat ; the wife of Saltatha has taken the wife of Syene by the hair and beaten her in the face with a snow-shoe till her nose bleeds very much; the men have tried to separate them, but that only makes things worse.' It is always like this in our camps when we starve. If the men are alone they are quiet; but when there are women there is no peace. Is it so also in your country?” Late in the night the men who had gone to fetch the meat came back, hauling on the sleigh Mario’s brother-in-law Jose, whom they had found lying in the snow, without fire, in a bunch of dwarf pines; the snow-shoe tracks were his, and but for the lucky chance of Saltatha’s killing the caribou in that direction he must have perished in a day or two, as he was too weak to travel. He had left us to hunt ptarmigan, and lost himself eight days ago, and, as we supposed he had deserted with Pierre, we had taken no trouble to look for him. He was one of the unlucky ones, believed to have seen “the Enemy” in his youth, and it certainly says little for his wits that he was unable to follow the tracks of such a large party. Jose had used up what little ammunition he started with on the first day, and since then had eaten nothing; he was without matches or touchwood to make fire, and as the weather had been cold he must have suffered greatly. We fed him up to the best of our ability, and he recovered rapidly when meat was abundant in the camp.

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