Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

The Barren Ground of Northern Canada
Chapter XVI

Snow fell again in the night and increased our difficulties. For a day and a half we forced our way, sometimes on rough ice and sometimes through the thick willow bushes, with frequent rests as exhaustion overtook us> till we again saw the Siccanee coffin hung in the trees. Here we found the flour-sack that had been thrown away on our up-stream journey, and scraped off perhaps half a pound of flour which had stuck to the sack when wet. At the same time a mouse was caught in the snow, and, with no further preparation than singeing off the hair, was cut into strips and boiled with the flour into a thin soup. Every man carried a tin cup in his belt, so a careful distribution of the precious soup was made, and the last pipe of tobacco smoked; we certainly derived a little strength from this unexpected supply, and our spirits improved greatly for a short time.

The weather now turned colder and its increased severity told on us heavily, for our clothes were tom to rags by pushing through the woods, and a starving man through loss of flesh always feels the cold more severely than a man in good condition. We often had to light a fire to prevent our feet from freezing when wet from walking on flooded ice or breaking through near the shore. The river was still open in places and continually altering its level. John was always far behind, and I expected to see him drop at any time; but he had the advantage of starting fatter than the rest of us, and took good care of himself, always hanging in the rear and coming into camp when the labour of throwing out the snow and getting wood was accomplished. Never once during the whole of this march did he go ahead to break a trail through the snow, which is of course the most fatiguing work of all.

A little before sundown on December 17th, the tenth day without eating anything but small scraps of moose-skin and the soup at the coffin-camp, we staggered among huge blocks of ice, passed the junction of the Findlay, and soon afterwards arrived at the cache. It was an anxious moment as I crawled up the frozen bank and waded through the snow to the scaffold; no wolverine tracks were to be seen, and the flour was lying untouched. Camp was made, a kettle of thick paste boiled, and a cupful eaten every half-hour to prevent any ill effects from straining the weakened organs of the digestion.

But we were by no means out of our difficulties yet. Thirty pounds of flour, without meat, is the ordinary amount that would be given to five men for two days, without taking into account the fact that we had been starving for a long time and were now reduced to skeletons. Before us was the main range of the Rocky Mountains; the snow would be drifted deep in the narrow pass, and travel would be slow, if indeed we got through at all. Another serious trouble was the state of our moccasins; as they wore out we had eaten them, and were now wearing rough apologies for shoes which we had made out of the moose-skin that was quickly getting very small under the constant demands made upon it for various purposes.

In the morning I measured the flour very carefully with a cup into different loads, so that I might be able to keep account of the quantity that was used, and, taking a gun and what few cartridges were left, we started for Tom Barrow’s cabin, which we hoped to be able to reach in three or four days if the ice should prove good. In this we were terribly disappointed, for at the end of the second day, after wading through deep snow, and frequently putting ashore to light a fire on account of the intense cold, we camped but a short distance below the Findlay Rapid. John’s feet were frozen already, and all of us were touched in the face; there was always great difficulty in lighting a match with numbed fingers, but birch-bark was plentiful, and being readily inflammable was nearly sure to blaze up at once. Our only remaining axe was almost useless from having been carelessly left for a night in the fire. Much of the snow had drifted off the ice and was lying three and four feet deep on the banks, increasing the labour of making camp and picking up firewood, for we were too weak to do any effectual chopping even if our axe had been in good condition. Without snow-shoes it was impossible to walk through the forest in the hope of finding grouse; and, after one or two efforts, the exertion of wading waist-deep through snow that reached to the belt was found too great, and the attempt was abandoned.

On the third day a blizzard swept through the pass, completely obscuring the opposite bank of the river, which was here quite narrow. We attempted to travel against it, but found our faces were frozen before going a quarter of a mile. Murdo and myself had always to light the matches, as the other men suffered more from the cold than we did; I knew that my hands were already useless, and that if we continued to force our way against the storm there would be little chance of starting a fire further on. I gave orders to turn back for the camp, and we spent the short day in keeping up the fire that was still burning. Besides the drift, a gust of wind would often send down the masses of snow that had gathered on the branches, putting out our little blaze and filling up the hole that we had dug in the snow, while the boughs themselves often fell dangerously close to the camp. The allowance of flour was cut down to two cupfuls among five men, and this was eaten in the form of paste, which we found more satisfying than bread. The Labrador tea was buried deep under the snow, and from this time no more was obtained.

The shortening of rations produced grumbling in the camp, especially from John, who declared that it was better to eat well while the little flour lasted, to gain strength to take us to the trading-post. Murdo was more sensible in this respect, but was beginning to lose the full use of his head, and, besides the strong aversion he had always shown to John, now developed a passionate hatred to Charlie and Pat, whom rightly enough he held responsible for our position. This ill-feeling among the various members of our party was increased tenfold by an episode which took place on the following day. The morning was very cold but with less wind, and, although our faces froze again, we pushed on for an hour or two and then made a fire on the bank. Here we left the Indian and half-breed drying their moccasins, and continued travelling down stream to make a camp for the mid-day halt, knowing that the others could catch us up easily with the advantage of our road through the snow; this they did just as our fire was blazing up. I asked Charlie for his flour, as so far we had not used any from his load, but when he produced it there was not more than a cupful left in the bag. I had given him five pounds of flour to carry, and at once knew that our guides, who had caused all the trouble, had now been guilty of stealing food, when our lives depended on the scanty store that we had picked up at the cache. For this offence, at such a time, there is but one punishment: a man on the point of starving to death cares little whether you cut off the dollar a day that he is earning or not; a blow struck would have fired the train of discontent that was ready to explode; —the only course open to me, if the offenders were to be punished at all, was to put an end to them both with the shot-gun that I carried. For a long time I debated this question while a few spoonfuls of flour were boiled for dinner, and finally decided to let matters take their course; there were still seven or eight pounds of flour left, and by further reduction of rations we might keep ourselves alive for a few more days; the weather might be warmer, the ice less rough, and the snowfall lighter if we could reach the far end of the pass, but at present things looked very black indeed. Flesh and strength were failing rapidly; this loss of provisions would tell heavily, and travelling through the gloomy pass under the high mountains was more laborious than words can describe. It was no good refusing to give the thieves their share of rations, as this might induce them to strike a blow in the night, and deal us the death that they themselves deserved; but the question might still have to be decided, in case of a man dropping, whether his life should be sacrificed and the offenders allowed to go free. If affairs came to the point which everything seemed to indicate, there could now be no fair drawing of lots to see who should die that the survivors might support themselves by the last resource of all.

The weather continued cold, and frozen feet caused many delays; there was no .chance here to treat a frost-bite by the tender methods of thawing with snow and rubbing with oil that are practised in civilization, but feet were thrust into a blazing fire and allowed to blister as they would. John and Charlie suffered greatly from this cause, and their pain in walking was much increased. These delays were serious, for although the Peace River Pass lies as far to the south as the 56th parallel of latitude the days were at their shortest.

For three more days we continued wading through the snowdrifts, and crawling over rough ice, continually changing our leader, till on December 24th we were stopped by another blizzard, and forced to lie in camp all day. Rations were by this time cut down to a spoonful of flour in the morning and a strip of moose-skin at night for each man. Not more than a pound of flour was left, and the storm, far too fierce for such wretched skeletons to face, might continue for several days. Our situation seemed utterly hopeless as we crouched over the fire that was with difficulty maintained, and apparently the end had come. There was none of the kindly sympathy for companions in misfortune which men who share a common danger should have: a mutual distrust was prevalent; hatred and the wolfish madness of hunger ruled the camp; and to this day I cannot understand how it was that the fatal spark was never struck, and no tragedy of murder and cannibalism enacted on the banks of that ice-bound river without witnesses save the great silent mountains and the God who made them.

Christmas Day brought rather better weather, although snow was still falling quietly, and, finding open water in the river with shore-ice on which the snow was not so deep as usual, there was a great improvement in our case. An accident, however, occurred which nearly put an end to two of the party. Charlie and Pat, who were leading at the time, ventured too near the edge of the open water and broke through, not only to the knees or waist, as had so often happened, but over their heads in deep water with a strong current, and we had some trouble in pulling them out. It was very important that we should make a fire at once, as the temperature was many degrees below zero, and the men drenched to the skin began to freeze directly. The accident had taken place under a long steep bluff, and from where we stood no firewood was to be seen on our side of the river within a couple of miles. By the greatest good fortune, on turning a point we found a huge tree that had fallen over the cliff and lay on the beach smashed up into firewood, as if it had been prepared specially for our use. A blaze was soon started, and the two half drowned men left to dry themselves. The most unfortunate part of the affair was the wetting of the matches which they carried. I had divided these precious articles among the men in case of accidents of this kind, for without fire we should have had no chance of saving our lives; as it turned out we never ran short of matches and never once missed making fire, although there was often trouble in procuring wood; we were far too weak to handle a big log, but usually found a dead cotton-wood tree, from which the bark is easily pulled and makes the best of fires.

In the afternoon we passed the Polpar Rapid, which was completely frozen up, and emerging from the pass caught the first sight of the sun, that had been hidden from us for many days by the high mountains. The ice below the rapid continued fairly good till nightfall, when we were forced to camp, although the moon was full and we tried to travel by her light But although it was easy enough to see close ahead, it was impossible to pick out the line of the best ice, and the labour of travelling was increased by having to force our way through drifts and piled-up ice that we might have avoided in daylight.

Soon after leaving camp on the following morning a grouse was killed, and 1 think even this little nourishment helped us a great deal to accomplish our task of reaching the trading-post; this was the only grouse we had seen since we left the cache, although on the up-stream journey birds had been plentiful enough. The ice was still rough at times, but in some places the river was open and good shore-ice made the walking easy; the weather was much warmer, with bright sunshine, and there was no danger of freezing our feet. At dark camp was made within a day's travel of Barrow's house, if only we had strength enough to reach it.

The long night passed away, and just before daylight we were staggering among the blocks of ice in a scattered line. There was always difficulty in starting from the camp, for there was a certain amount of comfort in lying in our blankets, and nobody was anxious to try whether he could still stand upright or not. Our inclination during the worst time was to lie down and make no further effort, but after walking half an hour we usually found ourselves in better spirits. Soon after coming out on the ice, I looked back to see how John was travelling, and noticed that he was down. Charlie, who had been behind with him, came up and said that John could travel no longer and intended to stay where he was. I stopped all the men, but Charlie tried to push by me and said that he would not wait for anyone. For the first time I had to use threats to ensure my orders being carried out, and taking the gun from my shoulder let Charlie plainly see that I meant to shoot him if he did not obey. This quickly brought him to his senses, and John came up very slowly. He wanted someone to stay with him and trust to the others sending back provisions, but I would not listen to this proposal. I told him that it was only want of courage that prevented him making any further effort; he was as strong as the rest of us, and, if he would try, could keep up quite easily; if he would come on till we reached the place where we had had dinner on the second day out with the canoe, we would make him a camp and leave all our blankets, so that he might have a chance of keeping himself alive till relief came. On rounding a point we saw open water ahead, and John, although far behind, went far better on the smooth ice, and eventually came in not more than an hour after us. At noon the Bull’s Head was in sight, and we could see the line of hills at the foot of which Barrow’s house lay. The pace was fast for men in our condition, but we kept up a steady walk, leaving our blankets when there seemed a certainty of reaching the house that night. The sun was down when we passed the old shanty in which we had camped for a night on the way up, and by moonlight we travelled on, following close to the edge of the open water and taking little precaution to test the strength of the ice. Soon the roar of the canon was heard, and at seven o’clock we crawled tip the steep bank and stood in front of the cabin. I pushed open the door, and shall never forget the expression of horror that came over the faces of the occupants when they recognised us. We had become used to the hungry eyes and wasted forms, as our misery had come on us gradually, but to a man who had seen us starting out thirty-two days before in full health the change in our appearance must have been terrible. There was no doubt that we were very near the point of death. For my own part I felt a dull aching in the left side of my head; I was blind in the left eye and deaf in the left ear; there was a sharp pain on each side just below the ribs; but my legs, though not well under control, were still strong. We had all completely lost the use of our voices, and suffered greatly from the cracking of the skin on hands and feet, which always results from starving in cold weather; to say that we were thin conveys no idea of our miserable condition. It is needless to go into the details of our recovery; but under Barrow’s careful nursing, and restrictions as to the quantity of food allowed, we all came back to health, although for some days our lives were hanging in the balance.

I can never sufficiently thank Tom Barrow for his kind behaviour on this Occasion. Of course, everybody is sorry for starving people; but it Is rather a strain cm this sympathy to have to look after five men so near to death in a small cabin among the Rocky Mountains, with such slender supplies as had been left for a winter's rations for two people. Without a murmur he shared his blankets and his provisions, although he knew that there was a good chance of starving himself in the spring.

Barrow told us directly where we had made our mistake. The river we had turned up was Nation River, and the log-cabin had been occupied some years before by a party of miners, but very little gold had been taken out. Some distance up Nation River was the old trail to the Omineca mining-camp; but of course we should not have known what trail it was if we had found it. The mouth of the Nation River and the yellow cut bank Barrow remembered perfectly, and said there had been, much talk about these landmarks on the way down; it seems inexplicable that three men, who had been over the route before, should have made the mistake that so nearly cost us our lives. If we had followed up the Parsnip beyond the mouth of Nation River we should have reached Macleod's Lake on December 12th at latest with only a few days" starvation, and avoided all the misery that continued till the 27th of that month.

In a week communication was opened with Hudson's Hope, and Walter Macdonald did everything he could to help us ; but the same thing had happened to him. A band of Beaver Indians had been caught by starvation at the mouth of the Pine River Pass, and had suffered the same experiences as ourselves. Many had been left by the way, but I think there were no deaths, as provisions were sent out so soon as the news reached Baptiste at Moberley’s Lake.

At the end of a fortnight everybody was well enough to travel; and to ease the strain on provisions I sent Murdo, John, and Charlie to Lesser Slave Lake, where they could get fish to support them, and spare the resources of the upper river posts. But even now these men could not travel together, although they had full rations and nothing to quarrel about. Murdo reached the Lesser Slave Lake alone, John arriving several days later, and I found Charlie at Dunvegan, where he had already distinguished himself by robbing from the priest’s trading-store. A thorough blackguard was Charlie, and it would have been little loss to the world in general if he had left his bones under the snow in the Peace River Pass; he had begun his voyage badly by stealing fifty dollars from his mother at Quesnelle, and there were several other offences for which the police had hunted him away from the borders of civilization. Pat was to stay for the winter with Barrow, and as soon as Baptiste had made us snow-shoes we pottered about in the woods together, hunting grouse and rabbits, and had soon entirely recovered our strength.

I have never heard any satisfactory explanation of the gradual increase and sudden dying out of the rabbits and lynx, which takes place every seven years throughout the North. Starting from the few survivors of the last epidemic, the numbers increase slowly every season, till in the sixth year the whole country is so overrun with them that a man can travel anywhere with no further provision than shot-gun and snares. Then the disease breaks out, dead bodies are found all through the woods, and scarcely a living rabbit or lynx is to be seen. The autumn of 1885 I spent on the head-waters of the Athabasca, at the east end of the Tete Jaune Pass; the rabbits were then at their height and as plentiful as I ever saw them in England. 1892 will be the next big rabbit-year; but after that famine is sure to be rife on Peace River, as it is harder every year to kill moose, and for the last two or three years the rabbit-snares have kept many an Indian from starvation. This rabbit-question is an important one to consider before starting on an exploration trip in the Peace River country, as in the good seasons there is no danger of running short of provisions.

One day, as we were setting snares together, Pat told me the story of the stolen flour. They had stayed behind to dry their moccasins, and Charlie had explained to Pat that I was keeping the flour for the use of the white men, and that their only chance of getting any was to help themselves; Pat had objected at first, but afterwards gave way when he saw Charlie cooking the flour, and they had eaten about four pounds between them. Judging from Charlie’s character I am inclined to believe the story, as Pat in all other respects had behaved well under the pressure of hardship, and had always done more than his share of work in making camp and breaking the trail.

While staying at Hudson’s Hope, Macdonald and I walked over to Moberley’s Lake, twelve miles to the south, to pay old Baptiste a visit. The house stands within view of the big peaks of the Rockies close to the edge of the lake, but the appearance of the country is rather spoilt by the abundant traces of forest fires that have taken place of late years. The lake is a beautiful sheet of water, ten miles in length, drained by the Pine River, which falls into the Peace a short distance above Fort St. John. Baptiste has a fruitful potato-patch, and his women were catching plenty of rabbits; there was moose-pemmican, too, and dried meat, for the Fall hunt had been successful. The Iroquois gave me a pair of snow-shoes ornamented with tassels of coloured wool, as well as a pair of beaded moccasins which he made me promise not to eat, and came with us to the fort to see us off.

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus