I was setting out on a long expedition into the North,
through little-known territory, west of Hudson Bay, on exploration and
natural-history research. I had left my collecting “ shack ” on the
Plains, from which I had roamed the rolling bluff-dotted country north
of Qu’Appelle Valley for more than a year, and was now in the frontier
settlement, which I have described, waiting for “ open water.”
On April 20 I had had an advice from the Hudson Bay Co.
at Prince Albert, saying: “The ice in the northern lakes has not yet
broken up. We will advise you immediately navigation opens, to enable
you to go through by first open water.” On May 4, having no further
advice, and impatient to get away, I left the plains on a dull cold
morning, though the air and the scene had little promise of spring.
Still were the long stretches of yellow grass, and the bleak dark-coloured
poplar bluffs, unrelieved by the first fresh delicate green of budding
vegetation. Still there was frost in the ground, and snow in the hollows
and sun-shaded nooks. But the call of the North was in me, and I would
At Prince Albert, the northern town of the Province of
Saskatchewan, I secured my canoe— a light 18-foot chestnut cruiser—and
completed the carefully selected outfit which I was to take with me, and
which had been minutely calculated, governed by the knowledge that I
must travel light, and that I was setting out from the mercantile world
for a year or more.
To anyone about to leave on a distant journey into
country uninhabited, or habited only by primitive natives, the question
of the essential things that are to comprise an outfit is of great
importance, and therefore I give below a complete list of what I
considered I must take, and how I contrived to pack it, in view of the
nature of my work and the months of canoe and sled travel that lay
logging trail that terminated at the landing on the
south-east shore of Crooked Lake. The trail to the Lake was very wet and
heavy owing to the spring thaw, and the teamster, as he set out, was
very doubtful of making the journey over the soft, frost-ruptured,
slush-lain ground. However, spring was in our blood and difficulties
looked small, and we started off in high spirits, accompanied by the
parting good wishes of a small group of trappers and lumbermen who had,
out of curiosity, collected to see the expedition setting out on its
After a good deal of effort—indeed, after having twice
completely stuck deep in the mire of the trail—the steaming, blown team
drew up at the tiny landing, and our treasured possessions were
deposited on the Lake shore.
The morning was now advanced.
Had we been about to enter the Garden of Paradise the day
could not have been more perfect. The bright sun overhead shone in a
cloudless, soft-blue sky, the air was vibrant with eager vigour and full
of the promise of spring; and in our minds’ eye, before us, in the path
of our canoe, waiting our coming, was a great fair summer-garden of
limitless range and promise. Small wonder if the pulse quickened
joyfully and one inhaled with keen appreciation deep breaths of the
fragrant, stirring, pine-perfumed air.
We slid the frail, new, spotless canoe into the water
alongside the small rough-timbered landing, and praised her every line
as children would a new toy, while over a “drop” from the flask she was
christened The Otter and we drank to “success.”
Then we bid farewell to the teamster, and turned our
attention to the lake, and to embarking on our journey.
Though the day was fine the aspect of the lake was not
reassuring : it was on the eve of rupture and change, but, contrary to
expectation, the ice had not yet broken up in any extensiveness. We
viewed the scene; Joe with a practised eye, I with half his intentness,
and listening more, it must be confessed, to the tumult of the lake
surface; for on the air, from the distance and near at hand, in haunting
restlessness rose the persistent modulating sound of grinding, groaning
ice-blocks agitated by the underflowing flood-water. It seemed to me as
if the very soul of the ice-field was pleading to be set free, knowing
in some mute sense that the holding grasp of winter weakened, and that
the hour was at hand when its substance would cease to be.
I turned from those fancies, and conjectured with Joe the
chance of finding a clear passage out. Around the landing, and across
the head of the lake, there was open water—clear except for occasional
detached lumps of floating ice— but away down the lake, as far as the
eye could see, there was nothing but a great sheet of dull,
water-soaked, rotting ice, broken in places, and piled up where pressure
had forced it to bulge and overlap on to a resisting surface.
“What do you make of it, Joe?” I asked.
“Not much,” answered Joe; “We may or may not get
through—better if we had delayed a week longer. The ice is fast on this
shore a long way down, but as pressure is heavy and the freshet flood is
rising, it has probably drawn off the shore on the far side, and an open
channel may be over there. If it remains calm the ice will hold as it
is, but wind from a contrary quarter would move the whole ice surface
and send the pressure in whatever direction it pleased to blow. But here
we are, we’ll try her anyhow.” So we pushed off into the icy water and
headed for the opposite shore across the head of the lake. Reaching
there we found an open channel along shore, as Joe had surmised, and
turned the canoe’s head northward along it. All went well until we
reached the cut across the lake which the incoming police party in their
large canoe had opened up the day before. We had not long entered this
narrow channel when a soft north-east wind began to rise and drift over
the ice, and anxiously we saw the pressure begin to close the channel
before us, and the ice rasped against the windward side of our light
canoe. Briefly Joe uttered a word of warning— for we were in imminent
danger—bid me seize an axe and break the pressure off the bows as far as
I could, while he worked madly with his paddle in the stern. For an hour
we laboured, more like madmen than sane men, while we could feel the
canoe at times creaking and almost giving way to the weight of icc
against her sides that threatened to break her into matchwood. Luckily
the ice, in most places, was water-soaked and rotted, and by labouring
incessantly with axe and paddle we were able to move on slowly,
spasmodically, and change and relieve the pressure on the canoe when it
threatened to sink us. 'We escaped through in the end, exhausted and
wet, yet very glad to have escaped disaster to ourselves and to the
We saw then how foolhardy we had been to attempt the
journey; how complete might have been the disaster at the very outset of
We had learned .a lesson on overhaste, but, strange as it
may seem, it is such uncommon experiences that are a part of the charm
of the North—unexpected happenings, unforeseen dangers, forces that may
lurk in flood waters, rapids, storms, night winds, ice floes,
low-dropping thermometer and steel-blue cold, or in blinding blizzard.
The ways of the North are manifold, and men cannot know her long before
she bids them see her grim, unshakable strength, and experience a
corresponding demand for daring and endurance.
The wind held in the direction it had sprung from and,
working down the channel on the east shore, we had no further difficulty
in navigating Crooked Lake. It was a long, narrow lake, trending
northwards through forested hill-country. The trees on the shore were
mostly delicate, thickly branched poplars, not yet in leaf, and here and
there a few green spruce trees, sometimes grouped together in clumps,
sometimes solitary, while in places the forest had been thinned by fire
and many skeleton trunks stood like grave marks or sentinels in their
During our progress through the lake plentiful bird-life
had been observed, and the woods were filled with little songs and eall-notes
of the feathered tribes that were daily coming in from the distant south
to mate in their northern home. All of the common species I left
unmolested, but secured four of the rarer types for which I had come: an
Osprey, Wilson’s Phalarope, and two Dowitehers.
Demonstrating the wonderful instinct that leads to the
reappearance of bird-life in the North almost at the exact hour of vital
change of season, a pair of Eared Grebes and a Loon (Great Northern
Diver) were seen on Crooked Lake on May 12, when the lake had only yet a
very small area of open water. They were kindred spirits in eagerness to
be up and away with the first breath of spring.
On the evening of the second day out we had reached and
entered the head of Crooked River. Here we camped for the night,
emptying the canoe of her cargo and lifting her out of the water in case
flood might rise overnight and damage her. Then we ate our evening meal,
and rested, for the two long days of paddling, and kneeling in the canoe
bottom, had found out unused muscles, and made us aware that we were not
yet hardened to it.
And it was good to lie there idly and rest. The day had
been glorious—spring almost breaking to summer; and we were satisfied
now that the weather would cause us no further delay.
As evening drew on we could hear, back in the woods from
different points, the dump—dump— dump—dum! of a drumming Ruffled Grouse,
quickly uttered, and closely resembling the sound of a motor-engine
starting. A little later, carried to our ears across the darkening mask
of forest, drifted the soft, musical hoo-hoo-hoo! of a solitary owl. We
heard too, then, a few slow, rasping frog-croaks—a creature or two
venturing to life, though the nights were yet too cold for them. Just as
I was dropping off to sleep I heard a heavy moose splash ashore, having
crossed from the opposite river-bank, and pass through the willows quite
close to our camp.
The following eight days we continued onward, favoured,
when we were on the move and not collecting, by fast-flowing flood water
that hurried between wooded river-banks on their long, long journey to
the sea, some 800 to 900 miles away, where the Churchill River—of which
this was a tributary, via Lake lie a la Crosse— found outlet in Hudson
Bay. We were two days on Crooked River, a stream about 130 feet wide, or
less, that turned and twisted, as its name implies, but mainly flowed in
a northwesterly direction. On the morning of May 10 we arrived at the
point where Crooked River, twisting at this point in an abrupt
astonishing south-westerly direction, empties into the north-flowing
Beaver River, and for the remainder of the journey to lie a la Crosse
Lake we continued on our way on the latter stream.
Beaver River was very beautiful. The banks in many places
gradually sloped back from the stream to a fair height and were wooded
chiefly with spruee and poplar. The poplars, with fresh-bursting tiny
leaf, were now delicately green, against ground strewn with long-lain
brown autumn leaves, and amidst symmetrical, formally creet, darker
coloured spruce trees.
Crooked River and Beaver River have the reputation of
being difficult to navigate in summer, as there are then many shallow
stone-foul rapids; but in the big flood waters of spring—feet above the
common mark, and covering most of the danger spots—we overcame all
without serious trouble, finally running Grand Rapid, the last and
heaviest rapid on this stretch of water, with a fall of about 25 feet.
Thereafter we found ourselves in easy slackening current
flowing between banks which were low, and led on through a widening
valley. Opposite Lae la Plonge, and towards its mouth, the river widens
out and passes through a series of marshes and lakes before emptying
into lie a la Crosse Lake. Through those marshes and lakes the river
turns and twists on its course between low, narrow banks which in many
places scantily divide it from the flooded mainland on either side.
I have eome rapidly down those waters in describing them,
but in reality halt was made in many places to investigate the shores,
or an inland lake, in carrying out research. During the ten days taken
to cover the total distance— which was some 140 miles—thirty-two
specimens were collected between Big River and He h la Crosse Lake, and
were skinned and carefully packed away. At the same time many hundreds
of our more common birds had been under observation.
Having come rapidly forward, as I have said, I will
return now and note a few of the incidents of the riverside.
Early Nesting Mallard
To-day found a Mallard’s nest containing three freshly
laid eggs ; the nest being in a cavity almost on the water edge in a low
willow-covered bank. This pair had lost no time in mating and nesting,
for ice still covered the lake. I marvel at their instinct: the wisdom
that brought them hundreds of miles north across a continent, their time
of opportune arrival set with the accuracy of calendar date : the wisdom
that placed the nest so very close to the water’s edge, as if the duck
had knowledge that the river soon would fall. Some*people might say it
was accident, but the more one sees of nature, the more one ponders over
that wisdom which is so often designated cunning.
An Osprey’s Nest
Back a little way in the forest at the top of the “mast”
of a dead spruce tree we came later in view of an Osprey’s nest; a
look-out over land and water without attempt at hiding. We ran the canoe
quietly ashore, and went to investigate, while overhead, slowly
circling, swung the great graceful birds that we had disturbed from the
nest. Some 60 feet above the ground the dead tree had been broken off by
wind, and the rested the great heap of sticks that composed the Osprey’s
eyrie. I climbed the straight dead limb with difficulty, for it was of
fair diameter, but I found, when directly beneath the nest, that it was
of such great bulk that I could in no way reach out and above to the
interior of the nest on top. I was anxious to secure the eggs, if there
were any, and I tried from all sides to gain a firm hold on the nest
sticks to draw myself outwards—but all to no avail, and in the end I
climbed down to the ground unrewarded, and gave the quest up.
Black Phase of the Broad-winged Hawk
To-day I shot a Broad-winged Hawk which was completely
dark brownish black in colour. It was a black 'phase of this species.
Such peculiarities occur, but they are rare, and one is glad to find
them, in the same manner that one is glad to see a black fox or a
Pike and Pickerel
Pike and Pickerel are plentiful on this river, and we are
securing them daily for food. Two Pickerel caught on small minnow to-day
weighed 1˝j and 3˝ lbs. respectively.
We meet two Crees
While skinning a hawk this morning, two Crees, travelling
upstream, came into view. On sighting our canoe they stopped on their
way and came ashore. They were going to Big River; they had some furs,
they told us.
We gave them some food.
One was a weather-beaten man well up in years, the other
a boy of about eighteen summers. The elder man had a fine face, very
pleasant to look upon. His eyes were sincere, and had an uncommon,
permanent smiling expression— though the whites of the inner corners
were bloodshot, as seems to be common to all; many fine wrinkles ran in
between the eyes and the nose, as if his eyes had for ever searched over
great distances. The nose was well chiselled and strong; the cheek-bones
were high; the chin was firm; the forehead broad, and with two deep
wrinkles across it. The colour of his skin was shining, deep
yellow-tinged brown. The jet-black hair streaked down over the forehead,
curled long and not ungracefully around behind the ears, and down across
the back of the neck. The moustache and beard were scanty—a growth of a
few coarse, untidy hairs. He wore Mackinaw trousers, loosely belted with
a broad coloured Assumption sash, and a black shirt. On his feet were
moccasins that fitted like gloves, decorated with interlaced coloured
straws on the foreparts. Neither spoke a word of English.
The Spotted Sandpiper is a very common bird on this
river. We constantly disturb them as we creep downstream, and they rise
before us, piping nervously, in pairs, or in threes or fours, from the
river-bank. With flood waters high and covering all sand or pebble
spits, they perch always now on dead limbs of fallen trees or uprooted
willows which protrude over the bank or lie water-logged in the river.
It is remarked that when flying these birds show a prominent mark of
white across the centre of the wings, which is invisible when they are
Tree Swallows arc now arriving. The brief spring is
already shortening; summer is almost here.
Before the snows are gone the Great Horned Owls build
their nests. To-day we found one. It was in a black poplar tree, not yet
in leaf, situated about 20 feet back from the river bank. The nest was
about 30 feet from the ground on a strong fork among bare limbs. It was
not a large nest—small in comparison to the great size of this
species—constructed with dead poplar and lichen-covered spruce twigs,
and lined with rabbits’ hair. In the nest were two thrce-quarter-grown
young, both very downy; the down on the larger one a beautiful
buff-cream colour, the
other more grey. They might, those weird creatures in the
tree, have been elves of a Wrack-ham’s pen, with their great round
penetrating eyes and taloned fierceness. While I examined the nest, the
parents perched in trees quite close to me and hoo-hoo’d continually in
alarm and anxiety.
Finally we left the young to their parents’ care, after
some trouble to secure a photograph of them.
The American Goshawk
To-day found nest of this species rand established
identity beyond doubt by securing the female.
The nest was not very high up in a black poplar tree of a
total height of some 40 to750 feet. On approaching the tree the female
Goshawk swooped down from it, and again and again passed close to my
head, shrieking shrilly as she did so. The male bird was, meantime,
nowhere to be seen, nor did he put in an appearance that day, or the
following day, while we remained in the neighbourhood. The nest was
composed of dead twigs and was lined with dry pieces of bark. It
contained three very round white soiled eggs decimal of 1.69 x 2.25
in.—the full complement, as the female when skinned and dissected
contained no further embryo egg-body.
To obtain a photograph of the nest’s interior, Joe and I
made a ladder by felling two young poplars 25 feet long and setting them
against the tree next to the nest, thereafter nailing on cross-rungs up
which to climb. Had we made the ladder complete on the ground, our
united strength could not have raised the cumbersome, sap-heavy thing
into position, nor would the nails have held it together, since the wood
was green and soft. The ladder ready, the camera was slung by a cord
from my neck, the distance to nest measured on the ground, and the
camera set to focus before ascending. The position on the top rung was
precarious—with the left arm tightly gripping around the tree trunk, to
prevent my falling, I had only the free use of the one hand to bring the
camera into position, remove the shutter, and touch off the release.
However, gradually I worked the camera round from my back on to my right
breast and then brought it to bear steadily on the nest by straining the
cord back with my neck. After some trouble, I secured three exposures.
It took some time to do all this. What was my reward? None at all! Just
a record of disaster; for my reference to this particular film-pack,
which I was then using, reads: “Rest of film-pack spoilt through films
jamming and not coming out properly.”
And that was the only occasion on which I have ever seen
a living Goshawk or the nest of that species.
Long days and many labours
Arose 4 a.m. Came on about twenty-five miles. Lay down to
sleep at 9 p.m. A seventeen-hours day, which is about our usual day—the
principal exertions, our ever-onward search and travel; and skinning
specimens and preparing food when we ran ashore at our night camping
Green leaf set free on winter-bare trees.
To-day has been very fine and the sunshine brilliant, and
on the river-bank the leaf-buds of the poplars and willows are bursting,
and the trees in a few hours have become beautiful with liberal show of
minute ornament of purest emerald green.
Scarcity of Wild Duck
There is on this river, so far as we have gone, a marked
scarcity of wild duck. They are here much less plentiful than on Crooked
River. We are now on the main Hudson Bay Company’s route from Green Lake
to lie la Crosse post, and it may be that they are less common here
because this river is more often disturbed by passing voyageurs.
Many warblers are to-day in evidence for the first time.
'With the advance of spring they are feeling their way north. Groups of
them were observed among the willows, restless and plaintively calling
as if still in course of migration.
We leave the river and visit Small Lake
After travelling some distance to-day, we viewed, beyond
the low bank on our right, a small inland lake on the east of the river.
Through field glasses it was seen that this secluded water held abundant
waterfowl, so we decided to portage the canoe overland to it, and .
spend the remainder of the day there. The borders of the lake were grown
with tall yellow marsh grass, while down to the lake shores crowded
compact, sheltering forest, except on the river-side, which was open
marsh. Here and there a gaunt, dead, storm-bruised tree stood in the
water, landmarks to remember, and the perching places of a small colony
of Bonaparte Gulls which were among the many birds on the lake. Black
Terns were here in large numbers, flying swallow-like in the air, but,
unlike the swallow, plaintively and fussily shrieking over our heads in
protest against our approach. Coots were numerous and many duck:
Mallard, Pintail, American Scaup Duck, Golden-eye, and Blue-winged Teal.
Though ducks appeared scarce on the river they were common enough here.
From among other and more uncommon varieties I secured seven specimens,
and felt well repaid for having halted and turned aside to this favoured
and fascinating habitat of wild fowl. None of the birds on the lake were
nesting. They were either still on their journey northward or had but
lately arrived in old haunts. I skinned late into the evening at our
camp by the shore of the lake, while coots, in scores, splashed noisily,
and chattered among the reeds close by. Once or twice, a busy muskrat
swam smoothly across the calm water, from shore to shore of an inlet,
with nose and tail on the water’s surface and mouth packed with a fresh
gathering of reeds.
Joe traps small Mammals
I carry two steel traps and some mouse-traps, for
collecting purposes. The larger traps afford Joe, my river man, much
amusement, for he has trapped furs and has all of a trapper’s
enthusiasm, and love of speculation as to the possibilities of a catch
after his set is made.
After the evening meal is over off Joe goes to look for
signs of animals and make his sets. Having found a place to his liking,
you may watch him plan to outwit his quarry, place a trap just to his
liking, cover it with great care, stake it down, and finally lay his
tempting bait —a fish, a fish head, or a part of a bird carcass. In the
morning, yesterday, he had captured a Ground Hog, and this morning a
Nearing Ile a la Crosse
To-day we came down the lower reaches of the river, and,
against a light headwind, stole out from its mouth on to the large lake
of lie a la Crosse. 'We had come through low country latterly, where
long marsh stretched away north with the river course as far as eye
could see. There were lakes on either side, deep blue and wind-ruffled,
and with yellow marsh bordering their areas; low timber country on the
far distance of land; willows on the river-banks with wave-shaded tops
of fiesli new green, and, on the east shore, small occasional bluffs of
poplar. Overhead an equal feeling of unbounded vastness and beauty—far
off white pillowed clouds in a soft blue sky.
Marsh Hawk. Birds very local To-day I observed a single
Marsh Hawk. This is in a way remarkable because it is the first one I
have seen since leaving the prairies, where they are very common. But
birds in Canada are often very local. Their favourite haunts are
contained within great areas, and they do not apparently roam far beyond
them except in their migration north and south. One may live years in
one place and never see a single bird of a species that may be fairly
common a hundred miles or more away in country of a different type.
In noting here those incidents I have done so to give an
impression of daily occurrence, the like of which continued for many
months while travelling over 2,000 miles through Far North territory.
Hereafter I will not continue day to day description of the country, its
scenery, and its wild life, but will take you boldly to the subject of
the chapters which deal with the most interesting incidents of the