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The Barren Ground of Northern Canada
Chapter XVII

It was towards the end of January, 1891, that I left Hudson’s Hope for Edmonton, a distance of six hundred miles, giving up all further attempt to reach Macleod’s Lake. A son of Mr. Brick, of Smoky River, turned up just before I started, and promised to go with Pat to my cache at the junction of the Findlay and Parsnip when the days grew long in spring. The rough ice would then be covered with deep snow, and with snow-shoes and hand-sleighs it would be easy to bring away the guns, journals, and many other articles that I had been obliged to abandon.

Two days and a half took me to St. John’s, and after a week’s stay there a dog-train, carrying the winter packet, arrived, and I took this chance of getting to Dunvegan. Alick Kennedy, one of the very best half-breed voyageurs in Canada, was in charge of the packet. The distances this man has been known to run in a day would hardly be credited in a land where people travel by railways and steamboats: moreover, he is a pleasant companion to travel with; his conversation is interesting, and entirely free from the boasting which most of the half-breeds indulge in. Alick was captain of a boat-brigade on the Nile; and if all the Canadian contingent had been of his stamp instead of the Winnipeg loafers, who were too worthless to get employment in their own country, a different story might have been told of the behaviour of the voyageurs on the march to Khartoum.

Five days took us to Dunvegan, where I again met Mr. Macdonald, and travelled with him to the Lesser Slave Lake. From Dunvegan we made the portage straight to Smoky River, crossing a pretty prairie country and camping a night at Old Wives' Lake, where Mr. Brick winters some of his cattle. With a splendid track along the waggon-road, we made the ninety miles to the Lesser Slave Lake in two days, and, judging from the number of people and houses, we seemed to have reached civilization already. Besides the Hudson's Bay establishment, the missions and the buildings of the free-traders, many half-breeds have houses scattered along the lake, and devote part of their attention to raising horses and cattle, though of course whitefish are the main support of life. A favourite haunt for wildfowl is this lake in spring and autumn, but big game and fur have been nearly killed out by the large population, and most of the Indian trade is done at the out-posts nearer to the hunting-grounds.

I spent several days at the fort, being well treated as usual, and February was nearly finished when I started with Mr. Frank Hardistay on my last journey with dogs. The Lesser Slave Lake is about seventy miles in length, and covering this distance easily in two days we travelled down the Little Slave River which leaves the east end of the lake. A good deal of labour has been expended in blasting rocks out of the channel of this river, to enable the steamer from the Athabasca landing to reach the lake, and so avoid the expense of building boats and engaging crews to transport the Peace River cargo, but so far these efforts have proved unsuccessful.

I think we followed the course of this stream about twenty miles, then dived into the thick pine-forest on the east bank, and making a twelve-mile portage came out on the Athabasca River, seventy miles above the landing at the end of the waggon-road from Edmonton. The Athabasca has here the same monotonous look that one becomes so tired of in its lower reaches. When a point was rounded another point exactly similar showed three or four miles ahead, and this continued till we reached the landing, in clear cold weather, on March 3rd; three days later our dogs, bearing the smartest of dog-cloths and with sleigh-bells ringing merrily, rattled into Edmonton, and the wild free life of the last twenty months was over.

The excitement that the arrival of a stranger never fails, to create at a lonely Northern fort is rather apt to give that stranger an exaggerated idea of his own importance; but when I reached Edmonton I at once realised that there are many people in the world who have ideas beyond muskox and caribou, dog-sleighs and snow-shoes. An election was at its height to decide who should have the honour of representing the territory of Alberta at Ottawa. Edmonton had been drinking, although it is supposed to keep strictly to the rules of the Prohibition Act, and before I had been an hour in the town I found myself in the midst of a free fight. I was unfortunate in not knowing the names of the candidates, or what policy they represented, and as I could give no clear account as to what I had done with my vote, I was roughly used by both sides and was glad to escape to the less boisterous hospitality of the Hudson’s Bay Fort.

There were still two hundred miles of snow-covered prairie to be crossed to reach Calgary, but with horses to drag our sleigh, and a house to sleep in every night, there could be little hardship in the journey. At the crossing of the Red Deer we saw the iron rails that had already pushed far out towards Edmonton, but work had ceased for the winter and no trains were running. As we travelled south the snow became less every day, till we were forced to change our runners for wheels when still sixty miles from Calgary. Late in the evening of March 15th the whistle of a locomotive told me, more plainly than anything I had yet heard, that it was time to pull myself together and take up the commonplace life of civilization; a few more miles of level country, down a steep pitch or two, across the frozen stream of the Elbow, and close ahead the lights of Calgary were blinking over the prairie.

I am writing these concluding lines in a fashionable garret off St. James's Street. Close at hand are all the luxuries that only ultra-civilization can give, and these luxuries are to be obtained by the simple method of handing over an adequate number of coins of the realm; there is no necessity to shoulder your gun and tramp many weary miles on snow-shoes before you get even a sight of your dinner in its raw state. But surely we carry this civilization too far, and are in danger of warping our natural instincts by too close observance of the rules that some mysterious force obliges us to follow when we herd together in big cities. Very emblematical of this warping process are the shiny black boots into which we squeeze our feet when we throw away the moccasin of freedom; as they gall and pinch the unaccustomed foot, so does the dread of our friends' opinion gall and pinch our minds till they become narrow, out of shape, and unable to discriminate between reality and semblance. A dweller in cities is too wrapped up in the works of man to have much respect left for the works of God, and to him the loneliness of forest and mountain, lake and river, must ever appear but a weary desolation. But there are many sportsmen who love to be alone with Nature and the animals far from their fellow-men, and as this book is intended solely for the sportsman, a few words of advice to anyone who is anxious to hunt the musk-ox may not be out of place.

I am not quite sure that Fort Resolution is the best point to start from. Fort Rae, on the north arm of the Great Slave Lake, lies nearer the Barren Ground, and the Dog-Ribs are said to be more amenable to reason than the Yellow Knives, while the distance to travel through a woodless country is shorter. Fort Good Hope, on the Lower Mackenzie, would be another good spot to make headquarters; but there is less certainty of finding the caribou in that neighbourhood, and without the caribou there is little chance of reaching the musk-ox. It is not the slightest use starting from a post with the theory that musk-ox can be killed in so many days, and that, by taking a load of provisions sufficient to last for the same length of time, a successful hunt will be made. The only plan is to work your way up slowly, to stay among the caribou in the autumn, and kill and cache meat whenever an opportunity offers, ready for a rush on the first snow. Remember, too, when provisions get scarce, as they certainly will at some time or other, the country ahead is as big as the country behind, and the best chance lies in pushing on. To turn back may prove fatal, when another day’s travel may put you in a land of plenty. It is possible to reach the hunting-ground and return to Fort Resolution with a canoe in the summer, but the robes are then worthless, and the whole sport savours too much of covert-shooting in July. Make quite sure before you start that you are determined to push on through everything, as even the Great Slave Lake is far to go on an unsuccessful errand. Here, in London, in front of a good fire at the club and under the influence of a good dinner, it is easy enough to kill musk-ox and make long night-marches on snow-shoes by the flashes of the Northern Lights; but the test of practice takes off some of the enjoyment.

A year has slipped away since our winter journey through the Peace River Pass. Young Brick kept his promise of getting the cache right well, and a couple of months ago my journals arrived in England, so that I have been able to put together this rough record of my Northern travels. On looking back one remembers only the good times, when meat was plentiful and a huge fire lit up the snow on the spruce trees; misery and starvation are forgotten as soon as they are over, and even now, in the midst of the luxury of civilization, at times I have a longing to pitch my lodge once more at the edge of the Barren Ground, to see the musk-ox standing on the snowdrift and the fat caribou falling to the crack of the rifle, to hear the ptarmigan crowing among the little pines as the sun goes down over a frozen lake and the glory of an Arctic night commences.

To the man who is not a lover of Nature in all her moods the Barren Ground must always be a howling, desolate wilderness; but for my part, I can understand the feeling thatprompted Salt at ha’s answer to the worthy priest, who was explaining to him the beauties of Heaven. “My father, you have spoken well; you have told me that Heaven is very beautiful; tell me now one thing more. Is it more beautiful than the country of the musk-ox in summer, when sometimes the mist blows over the lakes, and sometimes the water is blue, and the loons cry very often? That is beautiful; and if Heaven is still more beautiful, my heart will be glad, and I shall be content to rest there till I am very old.

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