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The Barren Ground of Northern Canada
Chapter XI

On the following day we made an easy day’s travel to the east, and most of us succeeded in killing caribou while the women drove the dogs. From this time, all through the summer till we again reached the Great Slave Lake late in August, we had no difficulty about provisions; although there was many a time when we could not say where we might find our next meal, something always turned up, and we were never a single day without eating during the whole journey. I really believe it is a mistake to try to carry enough food for a summer’s work in the Barren Ground, as the difficulty of transport is so great, and after the caribou are once found there is no danger of starvation.

We were now travelling with the bull caribou, which had just left the thick woods, and made easy marches from lake to lake in an north-east direction; the weather became cold again for the last time, and June 7th was like a bad winter’s day with a strong north wind and snowstorms. Then the summer came suddenly, and on the nth we were obliged to camp on a high gravel ridge to await le grand degel, which rendered travelling impossible, till the deep water had run off the Ice. 

Although we had been so far taking it very easily, a rest was of great service, as many of the party were suffering from acute snow-blindness caused by the everlasting glare of the sun on the treeless waste; there was no dark object to rest the eyes upon for a moment, and besides the actual pain the constant inflammation injured the sight and made rifle-shooting very uncertain. The Indians smeared their faces with blood and wood-ashes, and the white men were further protected with spectacles; but these efforts were only partially successful in keeping off the glare. I was lucky in getting off quite free myself, but should imagine that it must be a most painful affliction.

Along the foot of the sandy ridge, which closely .resembled the one I had seen the autumn before at Lac de Gras, were many small lakes partially thawed, and here the snow geese, or white “wavies,” were resting in thousands, waiting till the warm weather should have melted the snow from their feeding-ground along the sea-coast. We could have made enormous bags of them, as they were tame and disinclined to leave the open water; but we were sparing with our ammunition, as we might want it badly later on. Great numbers were killed, however, and their prime condition told of the good feeding-ground they had left far southward. There were also plenty of large Canada geese, but the grey wavy, or laughing goose, the best of all for eating, is much scarcer. Of the more edible ducks, the pin-tail seems to be the only one that comes so far beyond the Great Slave Lake, but long-tailed ducks and golden eyes were in great numbers along this sandy ridge. Of the loons, the red-throated variety was by far the most numerous, and the Pacific or Adam’s diver was fairly common, but the great northern diver, although plentiful on the Great Slave Lake, does not appear to visit the Barren Ground.

While we were waiting here, another band of Indians from Fond du Lac caught us up, and our camp assumed still larger proportions; but as we were fairly among the game it did not much matter. With the new arrivals were two blind men, Pierre and Antoine Fat, who preferred a wandering life to the support they would doubtless have been given at the fort. Both were good fishermen, and would spend hours sitting on the ice at the edge of an open hole with the greatest patience, and later on made heavy catches of trout. Pierre would often walk with the hunters to get his share of the meat; Capot Blanc was usually his guide, but seldom did more than trail a stick after him and the blind man followed the sound; when a caribou was killed, Pierre was led up to it, and in spite of his blindness would do the butcher’s work cleanly and well.

The snow melted away rapidly; the hillsides were running with small streams, the ground showed up in ever increasing patches, and a thick mist, which the Indians say always appears at the time of the big thaw, hung over everything. On June 16th we found that most of the water had run off through the cracks in the ice, and resumed our journey, after solemnly burning some thirty pairs of used-up snow-shoes. At first walking without them seemed hard to me, as I had used them continually since the previous October, and we all found that our feet were made sore by walking on the rough ice; unfortunately the skins of the caribou that we killed were so riddled by grubs that they were unfit to dress for leather, and we were always short of moccasins. We still travelled along easily, as the river would not break up for a fortnight at the earliest, and our best plan was to move with the caribou, which seemed to be keeping up with the edge of the snow much in the same manner as ourselves. The portages between the lakes were often three or four miles in length, and, as the snow had gone, we were obliged to carry the heavy loads on our backs; firewood was getting scarce, and I came to the conclusion that our old canoe-route was by far the best way to reach the Barren Ground in summer or in winter. A few warm days made a great difference in the appearance of the country. Leaves began to sprout on the little willows, and the grass showed green on the hillsides; sober-hued flowers, growing close to the ground, came out in bloom, and a few butterflies flapped in the hot sunshine, while we were still walking on eight feet of solid ice. Mosquitos appeared in myriads: in the daytime there was usually a breeze to blow them away, and the nights were too cold for them; but in the calm mornings and evenings they made the most of their chance to annoy us.

On June 25th we planted our lodges on a high ridge overlooking Lake Mackay. It has always been the fashion of the Yellow Knives to camp in an elevated position, in order to have command of the surrounding country in looking out for the caribou, or, in the olden times, for a band of hostile Indians. Right across the lake we could see the bay in which we had left our big canoe during our first attempt to find the musk-ox, and the hills forming the height of land between the Great Slave Lake and the Arctic Sea; on our right lay Lockhart’s River and the huge Aylmer Lake, which we were about to cross. Blind Pierre knew the whole picture as well as any of us; on my way back to camp at sundown I found him sitting on a boulder smoking, for we always rather favoured him in the matter of tobacco; his face was turned to the north-east, and he was evidently taking in all the details of the landscape, without the sense of sight. “Tetchentda, Tetchen Yarsula, Tetchen Taote (no wood, not a little wood, no wood at all),” he said, as he waved his hands towards Aylmer Lake; then, with a sweep of his arm, he traced correctly the course of Lockhart’s River, with a rapid downward motion, to denote its abrupt termination in a series of rapids and waterfalls as it joins the Great Slave Lake. Poor old fellow, it must be hard for him not to see the country he loves so well; but he is happy, after his fashion, in the summer-time when the caribou are thick.

From this point we sent Moise with three Indians and our own dogs to bring up the big canoe from the south shore of Lake Mackay, where I had left her in the beginning of last October. Many little hunting-canoes had been picked up along the track from Fond du Lac, and now every sleigh carried a canoe athwartships; these proved useful enough in crossing the small lake in the course of Lockhart’s River, as on arriving at the far side we found open water between us and the land, and had to use the canoes to ferry our cargo to the shore, the dogs swimming with the empty sleighs in tow, while some enterprising spirits, who conceived the idea of floating ashore on blocks of ice, came in for a ducking. The ice on Aylmer Lake was still solid, but extremely rough, causing great damage to our moccasins. We kept near the north shore, with sometimes a long traverse across a deep bay; at the head of every bay a stream ran into the lake, and the open water at its mouth was always a sure find for trout; forty or fifty large fish were often caught in a day with hook and line at these places, and, as we could always kill caribou, even the dogs were getting fat in this land of plenty. Soon we began to see scraps of musk-ox hair on the large boulders where these animals had been rubbing, and on the second day’s travel along Aylmer Lake David had an adventure with an old bull David was by far the keenest hunter in the outfit, but up till now had not succeeded in killing anything bigger than a goose, and it was an exciting moment for him when he got within range of a musk-ox. He had heard strange stories about these animals when a small boy among his own countrymen at the mouth of the Mackenzie River, and it was not without a little trembling that he fired one of his scanty stock of bullets. The beast was wounded but would not die, and David, standing off at a safe distance, soon exhausted all his bullets; he then proceeded to load his gun with round stones, and finally with handfuls of gravel; his last charge of powder was used to fire the ramrod, but another half hour elapsed before the musk-ox expired. As this was the first one that had been killed on this trip, the proud hunter was made a good deal of when he came into camp with the best of the highly-flavoured meat.

On the evening of July ist we made the encampment at the head of the most northerly bay of Aylmer Lake, named Sandy Bay by Back, from the conspicuous sand-ridges that here form the divide between the lake and the Great Fish River, a distance of three quarters of a mile. The ice was still firm in Aylmer Lake, but there was a little difficulty in getting ashore through a narrow belt of open water, and the head-reaches of the river were clear. We were inspecting the stream, to see what chance there was of being able to run the canoe through the numerous rapids, when Noel, one of the Indians who had been with me on the winter hunt, came up with the news that he had spied a large band of muskox feeding a couple of miles down the river. The women were badly in need of their hides for making moccasins, as the caribou-skins were still in poor condition, so a hunt was arranged in a fashion that I had not seen before. Most of the guns crossed the river, and a spot was selected for the slaughter just where the stream broadened out into a small lake; at right angles to the river mounds of stone and moss were put up at a few yards’ distance from each other, ornamented with coats, belts, and gun-covers, and behind the outside mound Capot Blanc took up his position. A steep hill ran parallel with the stream about two hundred yards away, and along this guns were posted at intervals, with the intention of heading the musk-ox towards the water. Noel and Mario, supposed to be the two best runners, were to make a long round and start the band in our direction; I was stationed with three other guns among some broken rocks on the south side of the river, just opposite the barrier; and orders were given that no shot should be fired till the musk-ox took to the water.

It was a most interesting scene, and I would not willingly have changed places with any of the loyal Canadians who were at this time celebrating the anniversary of Dominion Day, with much rye whisky, a thousand miles to the southward. I had plenty of time to admire the surrounding landscape, and the sunset that lit up the snow-drifts on each side of the river; when suddenly over the opposite ridge appeared the horns of a band of caribou, and for a moment the leader was outlined against the sky as he paused to look at the strange preparations going on in the valley below. Behind me a ptarmigan, perched on a rock, crowed defiance; but there was no other sound, except the rush of water and the occasional grinding of an ice-pan dislodged from some small lake in the course of the stream. Fully an hour we sat among the rocks, and were beginning to think that the hunt had miscarried, when we heard a distant shouting far down the valley, and the next moment caught sight of a scurrying black mass crossing a spur of the hill close to the river’s bank. The men posted along the ridge took up the cry as the musk-ox passed them, and joined in the chase; soon the animals came to the barrier, and pulled up short at the apparition, while, to increase their alarm, the hoary head of Capot Blanc arose from behind a mound of rocks right in front of them. This was the critical moment, and they would certainly have taken to the water and been at the mercy of their pursuers but for an untimely shot that caused them to break, and I was not sorry to see that several of the band escaped. I had had a splendid view till now, as the musk-ox halted within twenty yards of me, but we were forced to lie low when the shooting began, as bullets were rattling freely among the rocks in which we were hiding. We did no shooting on our side of the river, except to finish off a couple that took to the water; seven were killed in all, six cows, and a calf about a month old; there were no bulls in the band, and from what I afterwards saw they seemed to keep separate from the cows during the summer. A solitary old bull is often met with at this time of year.

When the hunt was over, I inquired the meaning of the shouting that had been kept up so continually throughout the drive, and was informed that this was necessary to let the musk-ox know which way to run. At starting they had shouted, “Oh, musk-ox, there is a barrier planted for you down there, where the river joins the little lake; when you reach it take to the water, there are men with guns on both sides, and so we shall kill you all”; when the men are out of breath, they shout to the musk-ox to stop, and, after they have rested, to go on again. These animals are said to understand every word of the Yellow Knife language, though it seems strange that they do not make use of the Information they receive to avoid danger instead of obeying orders. The partial failure of the hunt was attributed to the. fact that, Moise had called across the river to me in French, and the musk-ox had not been able to understand this strange language.

The sun had risen again when we got back to camp, and there we found the big canoe, not a bit damaged by her long rest under the snow or her adventurous journey on the dog-sleigh. The day was spent in getting in the meat and skins, and early the next morning we carried the canoe across the portage and launched her on the waters of the Great Fish River. The cargo was all sent overland to a lake some six miles down the stream; sleighs were abandoned, as there was now no snow to haul on, but the dogs’ work was by no means over, the only difference being that they had to carry loads on their backs instead of dragging a sleigh; rough deer-skin pack-harness was made, and the loads secured in a manner worthy of a Mexican mule-packer. We came to grief with the canoe at the third rapid, and should have done much better to have made the portage to the lake, instead of trying to navigate the difficult stream. A long delay was necessary to effect repairs, and there were so many portages over ice-blocks along the edge of the lake, when we reached it, that the sun was high on the following morning before we camped. The same work continued for several days, the Indians toiling overland heavily loaded, and our own party struggling with the ice in a chain of lakes through which the river runs.. On the edge of one of these lakes, we stopped for dinner on the spot where Stewart and Anderson separated from their Indian guides before descending the river in 1856. The rough stone fireplaces, by which they had economised fuel, were still standing, and Capot Blanc, seated on one of them, gave us a long lecture on the events that had taken place during their expedition, as he had heard the story from his father. More than thirty years had elapsed since the last party of Whites camped by the side of the Great Fish River, and thirty years again before them Back the discoverer had pushed out into the unknown land. Why has all exploration in the Barren Ground ceased ? No more is known of the country than was discovered by Franklin and Back sixty years ago in their short summer journeys, and the expeditions sent out in search of the former in the ’Fifties. There are many thousands of square miles on which the foot of white man has never stepped. The Canadian Government has an efficient body of surveyors and geologists at its command, and it is curious that no attention is paid to one of the most interesting fields for exploration.

On July 6th, after slow and tiresome travelling, we reached the north end of a large sheet of water named by Back Musk-ox Lake, and finding enough willow-scrub for firewood, determined here to await the breaking up of the ice in the lake. Judging by the Indian’s account the season was fully three weeks later than usual, and, as I wished to be back at Fort Resolution in tune to save the open water up Peace River before winter set in, there was a poor chance of our being able to penetrate far into the country of the Esquimaux. Musk-ox Lake runs pretty nearly due north and south, and is fifteen miles in length, averaging about two miles in width. Our camp was just at the point where the river runs out, and a short distance above is the best swimming-place for the caribou known to the Indians. In some years immense slaughters are made here, but on the present occasion the caribou did not cross in their usual numbers, so that our companions had no chance to put up the dried meat that we expected to get for our cruise down stream, and we could only kill enough for the present support of such a large encampment. Across the lake is a hill of insignificant height, known as the Musk-ox Mountain, a good landmark, and a favourite haunt for the animals from which it takes its name.

This is the northerly limit of the Yellow Knives’ hunting-ground. Northwards is the land of the dreaded Esquimaux, and many rumours were brought into the camp of a strange track seen on soft ground, of men standing far off on the sky-line, and a blue cloud of smoke arising far down the valley of the river. The Indians were convinced that their old enemies were continually close to them, despite the fact that it would be an impossibility for canoes to have yet ascended the stream on account of the ice. We afterwards discovered that there was a debate-able ground, fully sixty miles in width, between Musk-ox Lake and the highest point that the Esquimaux reach.

There is here a very striking change in the appearance of the country. The old red granite formation gives way almost entirely to ironstone, split up into slabs and piled into such peculiar shapes that one might imagine giants had been building castles over the rolling hills. Some of the slabs were turned on edge and formed perfect turrets towering many feet into the air, and in many places were heaps of shiny black sand, resembling coal-dust, piled up into conical mounds almost too steep to climb. Wherever vegetation had a chance to grow it was much more luxuriant than one could suppose possible In such a climate. The stunted willows, not two feet in height, were thickly clothed with bright green leaves; there was abundance of grass, and in many spots the pretty little Arctic flowers formed a bright carpet along the foot of a slowly melting snowdrift.

Capot Blanc and myself made an expedition into the roughest part of this country, to the north-east of Musk-ox Lake, but we found travelling very hard, as we had to climb continually over broken masses of Ironstone. This is another well-known haunt of “the Enemy,” and Capot Blanc attributed to his malign Influence the disaster that prevented our further exploration in this direction. We reached a stream of no great size, one of the tributaries of the Great Fish River, and attempted to wade across to the opposite bank, selecting the head of a small rapid for the purpose, as the water appeared to be shallower there. On reaching the centre of the current our legs were swept from under us, and we were immediately running the rapid at the imminent risk of breaking our heads against a rock. We both reached the still water at the foot of the rapid with nothing worse than a few bruises, and moreover held on to our guns, but of course our ammunition was spoilt, and we were obliged to make the best of our way back to camp. Capot Blanc afterwards told me that he thought the Enemy had made the water strong, to keep us from coming into his country, and it would be flying in the face of Providence to make another attempt. It would be interesting to know how far this ironstone formation extends; and, as the journey to Musk-ox Lake and back to the fort might easily be made by canoe during the summer, the trip would amply repay the geologist and botanist for their trouble.

Many other little expeditions we made in various directions, sometimes watching the birds, and sometimes in pursuit of caribou or musk-ox. One hunt in particular I remember, which took place appropriately enough on the top of Musk-ox Mountain. We had made out the moving black spots through the glasses from the lodge, and, as there was still a demand for hides from the women and meat was being used in great quantities, we paddled across the lake through a narrow channel in the ice. The sun went down while we were climbing the ascent, and a long wait was necessary, as the animals were feeding towards us on the flat top of the mountain and there was no cover to enable us to make a nearer approach. The mosquitos buzzed merrily round us while we lay behind the rock and watched the .grotesque motions of the calves as they played with each other, little suspecting that danger was so close. Presently the band moved within easy range and we opened fire with four guns. Seven were killed, and Mackinlay caught a calf that stayed by the body of its dead mother, a fluffy, long-haired little beast; I was sorry that we could not keep it alive, but it would have been impossible to carry it in a birch-bark canoe. Cruel work, this shooting in the summer-time, but it was necessary to keep the camp in meat even though mother and young had to be sacrificed. I had a long run after a cripple, and eventually killed it on the shore of a large lake in a valley eastward of the mountain. The sun was high when I found the rest of the hunters eating mar-row-bones in front of a big fire, in a dump of well-grown willows close to the canoe, and we took a load of wood back to the camp, sending over the women for the meat and skins later in the day.

The weather during this time was variable in the extreme; two or three hot days would be followed by a snowstorm, and once we were visited by a hurricane that did much damage to lodge-poles, and caused us to shift camp hurriedly to the lee-side of a steep cliff hanging over the river. July 10th was exceptionally hot in the morning, with the mosquitos at their worst; in the middle of the day there was a thunderstorm, and at five o’clock the ground was covered with snow. The ice now began to show signs of rotting, and the channel of open water round the weather edge of the lake grew rapidly broader.

We had many talks with the Indians about the chances of our being able to get together a crew; but they had no enthusiasm about the voyage, and wanted nothing better than to keep us hanging about the head of the river, providing them with ammunition. Saltatha was the only one of the band who volunteered to go, and he insisted on having another Indian with him, as he was not used to the ways of white men, and would feel safer if he had one of his own tribe with him in case of accidents; but he hoped, we should not go farther than the big lake (Beechey Lake) which he had heard us talking about, for it was getting late in the year, and when the ice is long in melting winter comes again soon. At last it was arranged that Saltatha and Noel were to come in our canoe, while Mario and Carquoss accompanied us with a small hunting-canoe, to carry a little ammunition in case we lost our cargo by capsizing in a rapid; we should then have a chance of making a living, and be able to cross the tributary stream if we had to return on foot. On our part we agreed to turn back from Beechey Lake, reserving the privilege of taking the little canoe overland from there to Bathurst Inlet. As caribou were scarce, the rest of the Indians were to work their way back towards the Great Slave Lake, except Capot Blanc, who was to stay on the divide at Aylmer Lake, if he could kill enough meat to keep his family, and there await our return.

The evening before we started, Syene, who was a Medicine Man, sent a message to our lodge that he was going to foretell the result of our expedition down the river, so we went over to hear what was in store for us. His lodge was full of Indians, but they made room for us, and we sat down on a blanket on the side of the fire farthest from the door. Syene held a drum made of tightly-stretched deer-skin parchment, which he punched continually with a caribou’s thigh-bone, keeping up a melancholy chant, and singing a sentence or two every few minutes. “It is not that I can see anything myself,” he said, “but it is an unborn child that is speaking to me.” Mrs. Syene, who was sitting close to the Medicine Man, clasped her hands and groaned, as if in great pain, by way of giving assent to this statement. “The child sees the canoe of the big masters running down the strong water of a rapid; below the rapid is a long point, and seven lodges of the Esquimaux are planted on the point. There is blood on the snow-drift; it is the blood of a white man. One man is walking on the bank of a river; he walks like a starving man, and the child knows not if he is white or Indian. Now all is dark, and the child has ceased speaking.”

Not a very cheerful prophecy, and it was hard to make out how far the Indians believed in the Medicine Man; but our crew were rather downhearted about it, although, as is usual all the world over, the people who were not going the journey themselves took a philosophical view of the whole affair.

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