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The Barren Ground of Northern Canada
Chapter XIII


Late In the afternoon, with a great Improvement In the weather, our canoe was afloat on Aylmer Lake (known to the Indians as the Lake of the Big Cliffs), over which she had been dragged on a dog-sleigh five weeks before. The following evening was passed into the short stretch of river that leaves its east end, and camped late on the south shore of Clinton Golden Lake, or, as the Yellow Knives call it, the Lake where the Caribou swim among the Ice. The vast body of water opened out before us into apparently a perfect circle, and now for the first time we were in doubt as to our course, for there was nothing to indicate the point at which the river leaves the far end of the lake; the east shore was invisible from the slight hill behind our camp, although it was a clear bright morning. We had two maps with us, one, the latest issued under the Dominion Government’s directions, and the other, an old 1834 map of Arrowsmith’s which we had discovered at the fort; they offered very divergent opinions as to the general lay of Lockhart’s River, and it says little for later geographical research that the older map should have been by far the more accurate' of the two.

We put out at three o’clock in the morning to take advantage of calm weather to make the crossing of the lake, and after paddling about eight miles went ashore on an island to cook breakfast and reconnoitre. From here we could see the faint outline of land to the east, and made out that what had appeared a circle consisted in reality of three enormous bays, one heading east, one south-east, and the third south-west. Which was the right one to take ? An appeal to Saltatha and Noel, who were supposed to have local knowledge, produced no results; Noel said he thought the east bay was the right one, while Saltatha, pointing south-west, said perhaps that was the correct course to follow. It ended in our taking the middle bay, and, for the benefit of the next party that crosses this lake, I may state that there is a peculiar conical butte lying roughly twenty miles south-east from this island; it is just visible above the horizon, and is a capital leading mark to bring a canoe into a long narrow arm of the lake, which afterwards broadens again into a huge round sheet of water, and here, by keeping close to the east shore for five miles, the entrance to the river will be found. It was in great uncertainty that we headed our frail vessel across the broad traverse with a blanket set in front of a light fair wind; at noon we again put ashore on an island, and, killing a caribou, made a long halt for dinner. We climbed to the highest point of land but could make nothing out of our survey, and continued coasting along the island till we reached its south end, and then found ourselves in the channel I have mentioned. No current was noticeable, and we pushed on through the winding waterway, in fear that it might be a cul de sac and we should have to turn back and try our luck in some other direction. On landing, however, we saw a sheet of water ahead of us, so broad that the far shore was below the horizon, and, on passing out of the channel we had been following, pitched camp on the east side of the lake, still uncertain as to where the river lay. Very early in the morning we were under way again, and followed the land to make sure that we did not pass the opening of the river, if indeed we were anywhere near it. About six o’clock there came a shout from the bowsman, that he saw a pole planted among the rocks ashore, and the canoe at once began to feel the influence of a slight current. Rounding a low point, a reach of strong running water lay before us, and we landed to see what was the meaning of the pole. A broken piece of babiche hanging from it told the old story of a rifled cache, another evidence of the wolverine’s handiwork.

Among the Indians who had come to the fort during the winter to trade fur was a hunter generally known by the name of Pierre the Fool, though it seems hard to understand how one of the most intelligent Indians in the country of the Great Slave Lake had earned this soubriquet.

Pierre had been much interested in our expedition. Every summer he pitched his lodge where the river leaves the lake in which the caribou swim among the ice, to make dried meat to sell at the fort; his hunt this year had been successful, and, when he broke up his camp, he had faithfully kept his promise to leave us a cache of pounded meat and grease, but the wolverines had reaped the benefit. Just below the camp we saw plain evidence of the slaughter he had made among the swimming caribou; what we took at first for a bunch of remarkably big willow sticks proved to be the horns of fifty or sixty bucks, lying in shallow water at the edge of the stream; and enough meat to keep an Indian family for a year, if properly cured, was rotting in the sun.

After a mile of strong running stream the river falls into another lake, and immediately makes a sharp bend to the south-west, and, during the rest of the descent, we travelled in that direction with little variation till we reached the Great Slave Lake. Saltatha now began to recognise the country, and there was no more doubt about the way; but had we been left to our own judgment, we should have certainly gone wrong in this first lake, as there is a promising bay heading in to the south. None of the maps show this bend in the stream at all correctly, nor do they take any notice of the next lake, the Indians’ Ptarmigan Lake, a large sheet of water fully twenty miles in length, which Pierre the Fool afterwards told us lies within a short portage of the west bay of Clinton Golden Lake.

We now fell in again with the big herds of caribou. For the last few weeks we had only seen enough to provide us with meat, but here they were in their thousands, and I am sorry to say that our crew did far too much killing, during the short spell of bad weather which forced us to camp on Ptarmigan Lake. The excuse was that the hides were now at their best for coats and robes; but even so, far more were killed than could be used for this purpose.

We made rather a risky passage down the lake in front of a strong wind and heavy sea, and at the west end found an ugly rapid six hundred yards in length: the cargo was portaged and the canoe run light in safety; and, after crossing a short lake, another rapid was negotiated in the same manner. In this second portage stood a solitary pine-tree, round which we all crowded as in welcome of an old friend after our long journey in a woodless country. Just below there was an impassable rapid, the only real impediment to navigation from the head of Mackay Lake to the foot of Artillery Lake, a distance of four hundred miles. Below the portage we ran five or six miles down a steady swift current, occasionally widening out into a small lake, with caribou continually swimming across the river ahead of the canoe, and late at night camped on the edge of a huge lake with a clear horizon to the west. This proved to be Artillery Lake, and at four o’clock next morning we were running down the south shore, in front of a gale of wind with our smallest blanket set for a sail The day was much colder, with a few flakes of snow flying, and everybody was pleased to put ashore in a clump of pine-trees at dinner-time; the wind moderated towards evening, and, crossing to the north shore, we camped once again in the strong woods. The timber line is much more clearly defined here than on the other routes by which I approached the Barren Ground; the outlying clumps of pines extend to a very short distance, and their growth ceases entirely within seventy miles of the Great Slave Lake. If it should ever again prove necessary to reach the Arctic Sea by way of the Great Fish River, Artillery Lake would, in my opinion, be by far the best place at which to build light boats for the voyage; the timber is quite large enough, and only one portage has to be made to reach the Aylmer Lake divide.

The next morning we reached the end of Artillery Lake, which we reckoned roughly at forty-five miles in length, and passed into a narrow channel with hardly any current. Towards midday a couple of small canoes appeared ahead of us, and the usual formalities of saluting ensued. When they came alongside the occupants were asked for the news, and they informed us that the burnt Indian was drowned, that the caribou had been passing more thickly than ever known before, and that the fort boat had not yet arrived at the appointed meeting-place. The burnt Indian seems to have been badly out of luck. He had rolled into his camp-fire during a fit, and was found with his feet burnt off; after being doctored by the missionary for many months, and cured as far as it was possible to cure such a case, the cripple had left the fort with some of his relations to get back among the caribou, but on the second day out was drowned by capsizing his canoe. We could not account for the non-arrival of the boat, as we ourselves were already a fortnight later than the day agreed upon for meeting.

Round the next bend of the stream were six lodges, and the first greeting we received was from old Syene, the Medicine Man. There was no doubt that the caribou had been passing, as the children and dogs were rolling fat, and an unmistakable air of plethora from much feasting hung over the camp. Only four days before there had been one of those big slaughters, which one would think could not fail in a short time to exterminate the caribou. A large band had been seen to start from the opposite bank, and was soon surrounded by seven hunting-canoes; the spears were kept going as long as there was life to take, with the result that three hundred and twenty-six carcasses were hauled ashore, and fully: two hundred of these left to rot in the shallow water. Every lodge was full of meat and grease in various forms, and there would be a cargo for the boat to take back to the fort. Pierre the Fool, who was camped here, was in great form, and at once presented us with a bunch of smoked tongues and a bladder of marrow grease. He gave us a great deal of information about the country eastward of Clinton Golden Lake, and in a much more intelligent manner than the usual Indian method of constant repetition; he told us there were fewer lakes in that direction than in any other part of the Barren Ground that he had visited, but he was always obliged to take a small canoe with him, to cross a big stream running in a southerly direction, three days’ easy travel from Clinton Golden Lake. Once, when he had pushed out farther than usual, he had seen smoke in the distance, and came upon a camp that the Esquimaux from Hudson’s Bay had just left ; they had been cutting wood for their sleighs in a clump of well-grown pines, and Pierre, who shares the dread which every Yellow Knife has of the Coast tribes, had been afraid to follow them. From the fact of his having seen the pine-trees, which are said not to extend far from the salt water of Hudson’s Bay, he must have been within a short distance of the coast.

On the day after our arrival in the encampment a general movement was made; the lodges were thrown down, and the women and dogs received heavy loads to carry to the Great Slave Lake. Lockhart’s River on leaving Artillery Lake becomes a wild torrent, falling several hundred feet in twenty miles, and is quite useless for navigation, so we had to make use of a chain of lakes, eight in number, lying to the south of the stream. This is by far the prettiest part of the country that I saw in the North, and it was looking its best under the bright sunshine that continued till we reached the fort. Scattering timber, spruce and birch, clothed the sloping banks down to the sandy shores of the lakes; berries of many kinds grew in profusion; the portages were short and down hill; and caribou were walking the ridges and swimming the lakes in every direction. A perfect northern fairyland it was, and it seemed hard to believe that winter and want could ever penetrate here; but on the shore of a lovely blue lake Pierre the Fool pointed out a spot where the last horrors of death and cannibalism had been enacted within his memory. Sometimes a column of smoke' would be seen ahead, and we paddled by a lodge where the fat sleepy children were revelling in the abundance of grease. Late on the second day a white object on the shore attracted general attention: “It is a wolf, a white caribou; no, a man, a man in a white shirt,;—it must be one of the boat’s crew”; and so it proved to be. The white shirt was a libel, but the clean canvas jumper quite deserved the admiration it had received, especially in contrast with our own rags. The boat had arrived from Fort Resolution in charge of Frangois Mandeville, another brother of Michel the fort interpreter. Frangois had been alarmed at not finding us at the meeting-place, and had immediately dispatched four of the crew in a large canoe, with a supply of tea, tobacco, and flour, to ascend the river in hopes of finding us. But the relief party had come across the fresh tracks of caribou in the first portage; it was long since they had tasted meat, so the canoe was put down in the woods, and the “big masters" who were supposed to be lost in the Barren Ground, were forgotten. The man we met had come on to see some relations who were camped among the lakes, and, as he was discovered to be possessed of tobacco, we made him share up, and sat on the beach enjoying the first smoke for many days, and hearing the accounts of what little events had happened during a short summer on the Great Slave Lake. But it was getting late, and we still had the longest portage to make. At the end of the last lake we abandoned the canoe that had done me such good service on two long journeys, and with loads on our backs followed the well-worn trail that the Indians have used from time immemorial as a route to their hunting-grounds. A natural pass with a steep descent led between the rough broken hills on each side, and a three-mile walk brought us within sight of the waters of the big lake. Below us, close by the edge of the bay, there were already several lodges planted, and over a white tent floated the old red ensign bearing in the comer the letters H. B. C. so well known throughout the whole dominion of Canada. A shot from the last ridge aroused the encampment, and soon a general fusillade took place; a fleet of canoes, running with blankets set to a fair wind far across the bay, took up the firing and headed for the shore, while every Indian within sound of gun-shot hurried to hear the news and join in the trading which was sure to take place on our arrival.

Here we found everything that a man in the wilds longs for, flour, bacon, tea, tobacco, sugar, a packet of letters from England written many months before, and a bottle of brandy, the first “fire-water” that had come our way for a year. Women and dogs heavily loaded with bales of meat and bladders of grease kept dropping in from across the portage; a dance was set on foot and kept up all night round the huge camp fires, while the tall pine-trees looked down on a scene of feasting and revelry such as had probably never been known on the shores of this pleasant bay.

Poor Saltatha, who had been very bad for the last week, crawled into our lodge late at night, and threw himself down on a blanket in a state of utter exhaustion. In spite of the best law in Canada, which forbids a white man to given an Indian any intoxicating drink, under penalty of a ($200 fine, I determined to try if brandy could do him any good. Saltatha had never tasted the strong water, but had heard much of its wonderful qualities, and made no objection to trying the cure. I gave "him a small dose, but it had a wonderful effect; his eyes became round and big, and once again he started the dismal chant that he had been so fond of during our musk-ox hunt last winter. He was hopelessly drunk, and, when he was seized with a violent fit of coughing and his head fell on the blanket like a dead man’s, I thought I had made a sad mess of my doctoring. Early in the morning I got up to see if he was dead, and was relieved to find him much better and keen for some more brandy, which I refused ; he had had very pleasant dreams he said, and the pain had gone from his chest to his head. From that time he improved in health, his strength came back rapidly, and when I left the fort a week later, he looked as well as ever.

Two days were spent in trading for the meat which kept coming in, and during this time we sent out a hunting-party to kill fresh meat, which we hoped would keep till we reached the fort if we made a good passage. At Resolution times were very hard; few fish were being caught, and the return of the boat was anxiously expected. Many caribou were killed, and our ship was well loaded with fresh meat, besides over three thousand pounds of dried meat, two hundred pounds .of grease, bunches of tongues, coils of babiche and sinew, and a little fur that had been killed during the spring.

The Indians all left on the evening of the second day, and early the following morning we put to sea in a flat calm. Before leaving we went through the ceremony of cutting a lop-stick, as is the fashion of the North, to commemorate our expedition. A conspicuous pine was chosen, a man sent aloft to lop off the lower branches, while Mackinlay and myself cut our names on the trunk; then everybody discharged their guns at the tree, and the performance was ended. Often in the lonely waterways of the Northern country one sees a lop-stick showing far ahead on the bank, and reads a name celebrated in the annals of the Hudson’s Bay Company or in the history of Arctic exploration. These lop-sticks are easily distinguished landmarks, well known to the voyageurs, and many an appointment has been kept at Campbell’s, Macdougal’s, or Macfarlane’s tree. In giving directions to a stranger it is hopeless to describe the points and bends of a monotonous river highway, but a lop-stick does the duty of a signpost and at once settles the question of locality.

Two hundred miles of the Great Slave Lake lay between us and the fort, but a steady wind came from the north, and the shallow-draught York boat ran in front of it so well that on the fourth night we camped on the Mission Island within a couple of miles of Fort Resolution; A worse boat for the navigation of the lake could hardly be imagined. A huge square sail, set on a mast shipped right amidships, does good work so long as the wind is abaft the beam; but when a head-wind springs up, too strong to row against, it is a case of hauling ashore on the beach, as no anchor is carried. Steep cliffs on a lee shore have to be carefully avoided, for it is impossible to propel such a vessel to windward in a heavy sea. On the present occasion, however, we were in great luck, and I never remember a more pleasant voyage in a sailing-boat. A run up the English Channel in a well-found yacht, with fair wind and sunshine, is enjoyable enough; but there are seldom any blankets to lie about in on deck, and there is always some stray peak or jib-halliard that wants pulling on, besides continual threats of setting or stowing a topsail, which prevents your settling down into a comfortable position. Here we had nothing to worry us; the wind blew fair, and we lay in our blankets, smoking and looking at the land, as the boat glided along the narrow blue lanes, among islands that the foot of white man had never pressed. Four times a day we put ashore to boil the kettle, and at night slept by the side of a huge fire in the thick pine-woods; darkness lasted many hours now, and prevented navigation among the countless islands and outlying rocks. On the fourth day we crossed the Grand Traverse, and, leaving the lie de Pierre after nightfall, ran for Mission Island with a strong wind blowing in from the open lake. Crossing the mouth of the big river was rather risky work in the dark, as the sandy battures ran far off to sea and the waves were breaking heavily in the shallow water; the sounding-pole gave only four feet in one place, but we ran across without touching, and at midnight camped at the back of Mission Island.

The sun was just rising on Sunday, August the 24th, when we ran the boat on the beach in front of Fort Resolution, and a glance at the faces that gathered round told us that living had been none too good, and that a man is sometimes better off among the caribou than depending upon an uncertain fishery for a livelihood. With all thanks to priest and parson, Indian and halfbreed, for the kind welcome they gave us, I noticed many an eye glancing furtively at our rich cargo from the land of plenty; and the rejoicings that day may be attributed equally to joy at our safe arrival and to the influence of a feast of fresh meat after many weeks of short allowance.

I could afford to make only a short stay at Resolution, as the season was far advanced, and I had to start at once to avoid the chance of being caught by the winter during my long journey. Of the three routes that might enable me to do this I should have preferred the ascent of the Liard River, which falls into the Mackenzie at Fort Simpson. From its head-waters at Dease Lake, in the once celebrated mining district of Cassiar, the Pacific Coast is reached at Fort Wrangel in Southern Alaska without difficulty; but the Liard itself is full of terrors, even for the hardy voyageurs of the North, and although Mr. Camsell offered every inducement to men to accompany me he was unable to get together a crew. Formerly the Company had an establishment at Fort Halket on the west branch of the Liard, but the difficulties of conveying supplies, and the frequent occurrence of starvation, made it a hard post to maintain; finally a boat’s crew were drowned by a capsize in one of the worst rapids, and the fort was abandoned. The Athabasca I had seen, and not caring to go over old ground I decided on ascending the Peace River to its headwaters in the neighbourhood of Macleod’s Lake on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, and, crossing the small divide, to run down the Fraser River to Quesnelle a small town on the southern edge of the Caribou Gold Fields of Northern British Columbia.

The Wrigley had made her last up-stream voyage for the year, and was daily expected from Fort Smith. I was thus obliged to depend on canoe travelling to reach Chipeweyan on the Athabasca Lake, some three hundred miles distant; if we had. arrived at the fort ten days earlier I could have saved much valuable time by making this part of my journey by steamer.

Taking advantage of frequent experience that it is better to leave a fort overnight, even if camp be made within a couple of miles, than to trust to an early start in the morning, it was after sundown on the 26th when I said good-bye to Resolution, not without a feeling of regret, and the hope of seeing at some future time the place where I had been so well treated. There are few spots in the world in which one can live for a year without making some friends, and when I left this lonely trading-post there were many faces on the beach that I should like to see again. Saltatha was the last man to shake hands with me as I stepped into the canoe; he tried to extract a promise from me to come back the next summer for another expedition in the Barren Ground, and was much disappointed when I told him that I certainly could not return for two years, and perhaps not even then. No need to feel pity for the people left behind, although I was going to civilization and all the good things that this word comprises. A man who has spent much time under the influence of the charm which the North exercises over everybody wants nothing better than to be allowed to finish his life in the peace and quietness which reign by the shores of the Great Slave Lake. Ask the priest, when you meet him struggling against a faead-wind and driving snow on his way to some Indian encampment, whether he ever sighs for his sunny France. “No,” he will tell you; “here I have everything I want and nothing to distract my thoughts; I enjoy perfect health, and I feel no desire to go back to the worries of the great world.” So it is with the fur-trader; the mysterious charm has a firm hold on him, and if he Is in charge of a post where provisions are fairly plentiful and the Indians not troublesome he has a happy life indeed. I was sorry to have missed seeing the Mackenzie River, La Grande Riviere en Bas, as they call it at Fort Resolution, but to do this meant spending another winter and another summer in the country, and I could not afford the time.

The first evening out from the fort we camped near the mouth of the Slave River, on the same spot where I had spent a night with King Beaulieu and his family more than a year before. My crew now consisted of Murdo Mackay and three half-breeds, while Mackinlay, who had proved such a trusty companion during our summer journey, was to accompany me till we met the steamer. This happened the next morning, and after an hour of hurried questions and answers, and farewells to men who seemed more like old friends than comparative strangers whom I had met once the year before, the Wrigley put her head down-stream, and we continued our voyage through the wilderness of pines, cotton-wood, and willow.

Pierre Beaulieu was captain and guide of the canoe, and a right good traveller he proved to be: no lying snug in your blankets in the early morning, but breakfast in black darkness, and the paddies or tracking-line in full swing at the first sign of the coming day. Sometimes he would put ashore and start us off through the woods, with canoe and cargo on our backs, to drop on the river again at the end of the portage, and find that we had saved many miles of laborious up-stream work by cutting across a bend of the river. The tracking till we reached Fort Smith was bad, as the banks were usually soft muddy sand, while the land-slips had sent so many trees into the river that it was often easier to paddle against the stream than to pass the line round the obstruction. Ducks and geese were plentiful enough, but Mackinlay had been liberal in the matter of provisions for our voyage, so we only took the most tempting shots, but if it had been necessary we could have made our own living without difficulty. Early on the sixth day we came in sight of Fort Smith, and found Mr. Flett in charge, with the house much improved and made fairly comfortable in readiness for the winter; but there was no time to be spared, and the next day saw us driving across the portage in a waggon to take a fresh crew to Chipeweyan. No canoe was available, but Jose Beaulieu, another of King’s numerous brothers, lent us a skiff, which answered the purpose well enough. Mr. Flett took the opportunity of going up to headquarters, and enlivened the journey with many stories of over forty years’ experience in the North. Among the new crew was a deaf and dumb half-breed, a capital worker and always good-tempered, in spite of the cold drenching rain that continued till we reached Chipeweyan; some of his conversations by signs were very amusing, and one could almost wish that all these boatmen were deaf and dumb to avoid the constant chatter which they keep up round the camp-fire when they know that you understand them. One day we made a splendid run in front of a gale of north wind, but nearly came to grief through our steersman’s recklessness in trying to force the boat over a rapid under canvas; she took a sheer in the swirl of an eddy, and the sail jibbed with such violence that we were within an inch of a capsize. Provisions ran short on the last day, but just as we were talking of camping early and going after duck for supper a little black bear turned up on the bank; I was lucky enough to kill it, and we enjoyed a royal feast of fat bear’s meat instead of a night’s starvation. On the fourth day we entered the Athabasca Lake, and forced our way to the fort against a strong head-wind; it was another Sunday arrival, and we did not show to advantage in comparison with the bright dresses and gaudy belts and moccasins of the dwellers at the chief post of the Athabasca district. A little snow was whitening the ground, the goose-hunt was at its height, and the array of nets showed plainly enough that it was time to make preparation for the Fall fishing. Dr. Mackay was away inspecting Fort Vermillion on the Lower Peace River, and would not be back for several days. An unexpected difficulty now turned up; there was no crew forthcoming for the next part of my journey, and everybody advised me to take the ordinary route by the Athabasca River. However, two of my Fort Smith crew, Jose and Dummy, finally agreed to go to Vermillion, although neither of them had been there before, and Mur-do, who was very anxious to accompany me across the mountains, obtained leave to come with me till we should meet Dr. Mackay on Peace River; if he could get extended leave from the head officer of the District he was to come right through.


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