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Making Good in Canada
Chapter 1 - The Packer


Although the Dominion of Canada is being meshed from coast to coast' in a network of steel, the day when the iron horso will supersede all other means of locomotion and transportation still remains very far distant. The country is full of such startling surprises. So long as tempting prize-packets in the form of new and richly fertile tracts of farming land, or mountain slopes rich in minerals, arc* to be picked up by the hardy pioneers and frontiersmen, so long will the wilds exercise their unfathomable fascination and irresistible call.

The frontiersman in the teeming city is like the Eskimo in the tropics. The song of civilisation is a. nightmare; there is an absence of that “roughing it” in which he revels: while the chances of making a “strike,” according to his peculiar interpretation, are very frail. He cannot stifle the longing for the droning music of the virgin forest, the solitude of the wilderness, the difficulties of the trail; and the desire to assist in the uplifting of the country in the interests of commerce and industry.

That is the reason why, from time to time, the discovery of some new natural resources of groat value sends a throb of excited interest vibrating round the world. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred the new lode-stone in one of the most out-of-the-way corners of the country, difficult of access, and entailing terrible privations and daubers innumerable in the attempt to gain it. The dogged determination and perseverance cf the pioneering nomad revealed the agricultural possibilities of the Peace River country, the golden treasure-chest of the Yukon, the minerals of Northern Ontario, the wondrous Clay Belt the fertile Nechaco and Bulkley Valleys, and so on.

When the news of the frontiersman’s newly-found treasure-trove trickles out, then there is a wild stampede from all quarters to the new hub of excitement. Everyone is fired by that ambition—to be in on the “ground floor.” The speculation fever grips the victim so malignantly that he never pauses to dwell upon the hardships he is doomed to suffer in order to reach the new goal. The malady rises to its critical point when the edge of the wilderness is struck, but the temperature of determination to go ahead falls rapidly as tho wrestles with fallen wood, swamp, and rushing wide rivers loom up in deadly earnest. The faint-hearted, after battling a few days against the hostile forces of Nature, abandon tho quest, and return to the cities raging calamity howlers, just because the prize has proved to be beyond their grasp.

Among the earliest participants in the rush is the packer with his train of sturdy, animals. The community in the heart of the wilderness must be kept going from the outposts of civilization ; a link of communication must be established to take in provisions, clothing, and a hundred and one other necessaries of life. It is not long alter a new land has risen in the commercial firmament before strings of mules and ponies, driven by the rugged packers are to be seen winding their tortuous ways through tho dense forest, laden with an assortment of articles, from bags of flour to dissembled iron stoves, clothing, tools, and what not. It is the packer, with his devil-may-care 3pirit, who keeps the new country alive.

The packer is a human puzzle. Meet him in the city, and he gives you the impression of a gentleman at large, with his immaculate white linen, the latest thing in tweeds, his feet decked in gaily coloured hose and encased in the most fashionable of footwear, with kid gloves and a soft Homburg hat. As a rule, you will find him in the saloon, treating all and sundry with that lavish hospitality born of the bu3h. Probably he has just come in from a long sojourn in the wilds and has found a large sum awaiting him a« the reward for his labours. He has drawn his notes, and is trying to rid himself of them with the utmost speed. When his pockets have been depleted, he sheds his stylish attire, carefully presses and folds it away, to hit tho trail once more.

Meet him in the bush, with his team jogging wearily along at about two miles an hour, and he is the antithesis of him whom you saw in the city; the gentleman of civilization has devolved into a tramp of the woods. His nether garments are decidedly the worse for wear, and invariably saturated like a sponge from contact with the soddened brush, or a plunge through a creek. The white linen has given way to a rough flannel shirt and a coarse sweater. His hat strives valiantly to preserve some sign of respectability, while his face and hair are unkempt. His feet are shorn of tho gay hose, and aro armoured in the nudo condition with the roughest and most ungainly of leather boots, built for wear and not for comfort or appearance. Ho trudges along in silence, viciously chewing his quid o£ tobacco to keep his throat moist and the inner man quiet until camp is pitched. Now and again he gives vent to a violent, raucous outbreak of invective to spair his lagging animals into quicker movement. Yet he is absolute contentment. He has had enough, so ho relates, of the city; a few weeks in the silent bush is an excellent antidote to boisterous revelry, as well as being an invigorating tonic to a shattered constitution. But when ho gets batfk to the city again—well, there will be something doing.

The packer is emphatic in his statement that his vocation is the finest going. None dares to dispute his contention. Out of doors the round twenty-four hours, living in the purest atmosphere, knocking up against the elements day in and day out, and good pay. He has no worries or anxieties beyond the safety of his animals and packs, is his own master, has as much to eat as he desires, though it may be limited in variety. What more can any man want?

I met one of these boys of the trail. He was the eldest son of a prosperous English family, his father being a well-known merchant prince of London. “Guess the family would have a fit if they could see me in this rig-out,” he grinned, as he made water squelch musically in his boots, and wrung out his sweater. He bad just ploughed his way through a slough, and the water was streaming from him like a dog which has just emerged from the water. “The pater kicked at me coming out here. I went home two years ago. and he said he’d fix mo up in his office. I wont down to the City with him. but I only stayed an hour. I borrowed the money from him to come back here. The books, desks, figures, and the monotony of it all, fairly scared me. I never regained my wits again until I was astride my old mare and had hit the trail once more.”

At first sight packing may appear to be an inferior occupation. Yet from the verdant farms lining the St. Lawrcnce to tho yawning valleys on the Yukon the pack-train is indispensable; without it Canada would stand still It is the ship of the bush, ploughing steadily to and fro, bringing news of the outside world to the isolated communities settled two or three hundred miles from the nearest post-office, and keeping civilization posted up as to how things are going up yonder. It appeals to the average young Britisher who loves to roam in st arch of excitement and adventure, and it must be confessed that as a packer he will get mere than the average share of such fare.

I have been asked often, “What are the qualifications for a packer?” There is only one reply—the ability to stand “roughing it.” It is the finest drilling for manhood, and the senses become timed to a high pitch of perfection. The bufferings are hard and frequent. When I hit the trail for the first time, my knowledge of the horse was typical of the city-bred individual, and I was just as anxious to keep out of the rain. But in a month I caught the true packing spirit—let everything go hang! It mattered little if I were soaked to the skin; dog-tired, 1 tumbled into dripping blankets at night, with a rook as a pillow. Rain, snow, and sunshine, were accepted with indifference, while finding one’s way through the trackless forest possessed its own peculiar fascination. It was with keen regret that I shook the mud and dust of the trail from my feet to return to the city once more.

Packing is an art. One does not grasp in a few days the right and wrong way to stow aborted articles on a horse’s back so that the weight is well distributed, and not likely to hinder the movement of the bca3t of burden. Even the pack-horse, though docile, has its own idiosyncrasies, which must bo studied; while the diamond hitch is not mastered at first sight, especially when the master of craft under whom you are picking up knowledge as best you can, has the unhappy nack of varying the throw in order to perplex you.

The task of the bell-boy probably is the most unenviable. He leads the way. Ki« animal has a loose bell round its neck, the tinkling of which summons the others in Indian-nlo to follow in its footsteps. The bellboy picks up the trail, and dears tin way for the rest of the train. If the going is good, his work is easy, though terribly lonesome, as probably his colleagues are a quarter of a mile or more behind him. He has to keep going the whole time, because the moment he stops the following animals, deprived of a leader, wander aimlessly into the bush on either hand, producing the worst state of confusion. In the course of an hour or so the animals commence to feel hungry, and grab mouthfuls of fodder from the wayside. The train stretches out into a ragged, lagging line, and the bell-boy has no little difficulty to entice the leading pack-horse to keep closely to his heels.

It is when the obstacles of the trail are encountered that the bell-boy’s troubles commence. Caution is demanded, and whatever the character of the obstruction the speed of the pack-train slackens. The ocher packers liven up to keep their animals under control, crashing through the bush on either side, and laying out with their lariats to prevent straying. The pack-horse is a curious animal. Unless it can be kept to its steady jogtrot, it thinks it may ramble off into the brush on either side of the trail; and when two men have thirty animals to keep in hand, the task is by no means easy.

The forest fire raises many misgivings in the bell-boy’s mind. It is no unusual circumstance for a fierce fire to pile up such a barrier of blackened trunks upon the trail as to render progress merely a matter of feet per hour. It may be impossible to wind in and out among the prone monarchs of the forest in a wild zigzag. Then there is no alternative but to have out the axes and to cleave a way through the mass. The work is hard and exacting, especially If the brush is alight and smouldering, causing the animals to plunge, rear, and stampede in the hot ash.

The slough is a direct contrast to the forest fire. There is no trail, as the ooze covers up all footprints, and the marsh grass, growing luxuriantly to a Wight of five or six feet, completely hides the ground beneath. The bellboy has to find a way somehow. With hir. characteristic dare-devilry he plunges straight into the morass, trusting to tho instinct of his beast to get him through. The animal sinks up to its girth in the ooze, and tears its way blindly forward under the action of the spurs, splashing its unlucky rider from head to foot with slime and water. The bell-boy holds on like grim death, steering his horse first to the right and then to the left, in the hope of getting through without parting company with his seat. If the horse comes to a stop and evinces a timidity which cannot be subjugated by spur and lariat, the rider jumps off, and wading, it may bo over his waist, pulls his unwilling steed behind him. When dry land at last is regained, both horse and rider shake themselves like dogs to get rid of the superfluous mud. The drivers behind are having an equally lively time. The laden animals hesitate to follow in the bell-boy’s wake, and so the drivers, crashing and splashing in a wild mel6e force them across the marsh, hallooing frantically, cursing viciously, and laying out right end loft with the lariats until one and all are safely across.

When a broad, rushing river, especially among the mountains, has to bo crossed, the going is still more lively and dangerous. The anima’s are relieved of their loads, which arc transported upon a crude raft, fashioned from dead tree-trunks roped together. Manipulating such an ungainly craft across a river, the current of which swings along at a merry pace, and with unseen obstructions bristling everywhere, its no easy tack: but the packer never worries about a difficulty until it hits him squarely. and then he sets to work to extricate himself as best he can. Snags, sandbars, rocks, none of which may appear above the surface of the rippling water, have to be dodged. The packer finds cut their existence by running into them ; that is the only manner in which the unknown waterways can be navigated. When the goods have been got safely across, then the horses have to be handled. A runway is hastily improvised upon the river bank, leading into the water by means of a rope corral. The animals are rounded up, hustled into this enclosure, and then the packers gather around and indulge in a sudden outbreak of Indianism. They shout, dance, shriek, and yell in the most fiendish manner, possibly increasing the volume of discordancy by letting off a few revolver shots into the air. The animals, startled, endeavour to rush pell-mell into the bush, but, being hemmed in, and tickled up now and again by the thick end of the lariat, they presently take a headlong dive into the river, as the only avenue of escape from the pandemonium, and. frantically lunging out with their feet, as if demented, swim around until one- more sagacious than the rest, strikes out boldly for the opposite bank, to be followed by the whole bunch, snorting and blowing viciously as they feel the sucking of the undertow. Gaining the opposite shore, one and all plunge into the bush. The packers follow at leisure, and are soon on the heels cf the animals; getting them once mere into some semblance of control.

But the curse of the trail and the despair of the packer is the muskeg, the Indian name for swamp. Old boys who have pushed through the worst stretches of wilderness between the Atlantic and the Pacific give an involuntary shudder at the mention of the word “muskeg.” I myself have had and seen some stirring incidents grappling with this enemy. More often than not the situation is complicated by the presence of a creek, springs, or a large, deep pool of unseen, stagnant water. Superficially the saturated accumulation of decayed vegetable matter looks as sound as a brick pavement, as, indeed, it is as a rule to human feet; but when the pack-horse ventures forward, its legs descend into the mass like sticks, and it is not long before it has sunk up to its girth. Then it lunges out desperately in all directions in the effort to free itself from the sticky, glutinous mad. but every struggle only causes the animal to be sucked deeper into its unsavoury couch. The pack on its back hampers its movements, and, being a dead weight, seem?, to press the animal irresistibly into the greedy morass.

When a horse becomes stalled in the muskeg, lively times are expected. The packers rush forward, often knee deep. The packs are torn off hastily and tossed on one side. The absorbing question is to save the animal from exhaustion and suffocation. Ropes are lassoed round its head, and while, perhaps, a couple tug desperately, another pushes might and main on the animal’s flanks. The brute endeavours to assist its rescuers, but the wicked sucking, squelching of the slime betrays the fact that the mu&keg is determined not to let its victim escape without extreme effort. The mud flies in all directions, but the packers close their eyes, and hang on like grim death. If the horse can be got into an upright position, those who arc pushing slip their shoulders under the flanks, and strain desperately to prise the animal up. If it is wellnigh exhausted. a sharp eye has to be kept open to spring clear when the animal relapses back, and a breather is taken for the next attempt. Even when the creature falls from sheer exhaustion, and cannot assist its helpers, the rescue is not abandoned. All the m haul on to the neck-rope in the endeavour to pull the animal out of the hole by sheer physical force. So tightly does the slime grip that, when at last the animal is hauled clear, the last sport often sends the packers sprawling into the slough. But one and all scrape as much mud from their faces as they can, vault into their saddles, and jaunt along merrily in expectation of the next excitement, allowing the heat of the sun to dry their clothes, from which the mud is removed more or less, later in the day.

The packer’s life teems with excitement and adventure, and no other vocation ever would appeal to these happy-go-lucky spirits. No two days are alike in their existence. Even when the rain is pelting down, lashing the face like a whip, and drenching Lhe clothes, they jog along whistling and humming in perfect complacency. When the camping-ground is reached, a roaring fire is built up, and. standing around, they dry themselves in its welcome heat, their forms enveloped in a sizzling steam bath. Then they turn into their blankets, which perhaps are reeking with water, but they are soon in the arms of Morpheus, and far more comfortable than the city man buried beneath snow-white linen upon a feather bed.

Is the occupation well paid? That depends from what standpoint the calling is viewed. It does not build up millionaires, although many prosperous merchants ot Canada to-day can recall the days when they followed it, and thus secured the urgent dollars to lay the foundations of a fortune. The pay varies from 6s. 0d. to 8s. 0d. (or more) a day the whole time the packer is on the trail. This docs not seem a princely wage, considering the conditions of life and the arduous nature of the work, but this is in addition to living, and there are no personal expenses when trailing. Often a journey will last for a couple of months so that when the packer returns home he has from £18 to £24 clear awaiting him Seeing that the pack-train can only be called into requisition while the country is open, and that the demand during that period is greater than the supply, the packer ha3 straightforward, steady employment for seven or eight months, during which time he can make from £63 to £100 clear.

Several of the thrifty boys have become firmly established financially at this work. One I met stuck steadily at it for three years, and at the end of that time found himself possessed of a bank balance of £200. He resolved to start business on his own account, and, settling down in one of the smaller towns, opened a general store. It proved a good investment, but, unfortunately for him, he could not shake oil the call of the wilds, so he placed a manager in charge of the business. The summer months he spent along the trail, and the winter he put in at his store. He confessed that he was making a good thing of the dual occupations; the trail brought him in a steady £100 a year clear, while the store contributed another £200 to £300 per annum.

In another instance I ran up against a young farmer. He war, firmly established upon his 160 acres, and was “making good” at mixed farming. He was from the southern English counties, emigrated several years ago, could not fit himself in a suitable niche of employment in Eastern Canada so as a new-comer beat the train to the West, or, in other words, stole transportation by riding in freight cars, and on the roof of the expresses, with his arms cuddled round the pipe from the cooking-stove within to keep himself warm at night. He reached the West considerably the worse for wear, and without a dollar in hip pocket, was taken on a paek-train, soon acquired the details of the business, made £80 during the first summer, and cleared up another £40 during tho winter, all of which he husbanded. Three years of this life gave him the wherewithal to settle upon the land, and when asked what his present position was worth, briefly replied, “About £5,000.” There was only one worry on his mind, but that was trivial. “I owe the railway company for the tides 1 sneaked to get out here, but 1 guess, as they have had me over transporting my produce, we are about quits now.”

The daily round is certainly strenuous. The average progress is about fifteen to twenty miles per day. according to the distances the camping-g/ounds are apart. The packers pull out of camp about seven in the morning, and keep going steadily until they reach tho next camping-ground, which is selected for abundance of feed for the horses, and the close prcximKy of water and wood for themselves. Reaching camp, the horses are relieved of their packs and are turned adrift in the bush to wander and graze in search of food and rest as they please. The packs are piled in a heap, protected with a canvas sheet or fly ; the camp fire is built up, and the preparation for the meal hurried forward, as seven hours in the saddle provoke a tremendous appetite.

Dinner discussed, the time is whiled away as the packer inclines. So far as the food is concerned, there is little anxiety. The packer is a more or less accomplished cook —certainly sufficiently so to meet the requirements of the trail, with pork and beans, fried bacon, boiled rice or dried fruits, oatmeal or mush, as maize porridge is called, in the morning, and bannock, with tea as a beverage. None of these dishes takes long to prepare, and their monotony is relieved under favourable circumstances by tinned fruits and jams.

The packer’s couch is a rough blanket or two—those thrown over the horses’ backs beneath the pack-saddles suffice—laid on the ground before the fire under a canvas fly or else a small A tent. The packer turns into the blankets without troubling to disrobe himself, especially if wet—1 myself have not taken off my clothes for weeks at a time—soon after darkness has settled upon the land, and the exertions of the day generally are sufficient to insure a sound night’s rest.

Shortly after the sun has kissed the dew-laden hush the packer is astir to hustle his horses into camp. This is the most arduous part of the day’s work, to my way of thinking. The horses having been turned adrift overnight, have wandered all over the face of the earth in search of food and rest. If the feed is good, perhaps they are within a mile or two of the camp’s precincts; otherwise they may be miles away. At all events, the result is the same. The packer has got to find them and to round them up. Some animals appear to be possessed of a peculiar roaming instinct, and these are always a source of anxiety.

The packer, in his sweater and trousers, and with a bridle thrown over his shoulder, tramps off through the soaking wet bush to pick up the trails of the creatures. It is simply a blind drive through the dense undergrowth, with the branches whipping the face and saturating the clothes, until a track is picked up, and this is followed until the i inkling of the bells around the horses’ necks betrays the fact that they are close at hand. Some old warriors of the trail are very canny, however. They can hear the packer trudging through the bush, and, realizing the import of his approach, they draw under cover and stand as still as mutes, permitting him to go blundering on without observing hia quarry. Then, when he is some distance beyond, they scamper off in the opposite direction. These wily animals are anathema to the packer. When the morning is wet, rain is falling heavily, and the going is broken and hard to him on foot, he curses equine wiliness in no uncertain manner. Then, again no little skill is required to determine the latest track, as the animals pass and repass a given point several times in the course of the night, leaving a bewildering criss-cross of trails. The tender-foot is nonplussed until he can read the riddle of the bush like the expert, but ho buys this knowledge very dearly.

When one animal is caught, the rest is fairly easy, as the packer now has a means of covering the ground with less personal effort and fatigue. Still, it is no unusual circumstance for the horses to spread themselves over twenty square miles of country in the course of a night.

The return to camp is always exciting. A few faint halloos are heard from the distant bush, interspersed with excited neighings and a wild jangle of bells. Presently there is a commotion in the growth. “Here they come!” shout the boys in camp, and every one starts up to assume a commanding position around the corral which has been improvised by passing ropes from tree to tree, making a small enclosure. The excited equines, throwing their heels into the air in mad glee, and with the rider in mad pursuit, waving his lariat, rush towards the camp as if determined to run one and all down. The waiting boys deliver a startling, wild halloo, the animals swerve, and before they realize the fact are within the corral. Then the animals are tethered, and their captors, as hungry as hunters, demolish the crude trail breakfast with great gusto, and in a manner that would frighten a housewife into hysterics.

The matutinal meal finished, there is no pause. Saddles and packs are hauled out and transferred to the backs of the ponies and mules. In the course of an hour the whole train has struck the trail again to settle down to a steady two-miles-an-hour plod towards the next camp.

Why the calling makes such a powerful appeal to the young adventure-seeking youth is because of the romance with which it is associated. It takes him into new and unknown regions, to see something of which the outer world knows nothing. The average packer revels in this adventure, and often refrains from making the same journey twice, except at long intervals. He prefers the excitement of a new trail. The nomadic existence appeals to the British temperament. Even the bell boy is to be envied at times when game is to be encountered along the trail, for fur and feather are often met in the bush. A shot from a “22” at a fool-hen, partridge, or grouse, relieves the tedium of the journey, and provides welcome contributions to the stockpot.

Accompanying private parties is a gentlemanly aspect of the packer’s existence. The journey may be undertaken purely for pleasure, exploring the resources of a new country in company with a Government official, a mining engineer, or what not. In any event, the life is much the same. The train for the most part moves along leisurely, the distance covered each day is short, and there are frequent spells of three or four days in a camp to break the monotony of taking to the trail every day. It is no uncommon circumstance for such a party to be absent for four or five months, and the packer can expect confidently £50 or £60 when he returns, this sum generally being inflated with substantial gratuities, especially if the journey has proved productive. On such trips the packer is treated as one of the party, participates in the meals, secures ample supplies of tobacco, a wide variety of comestibles, and other little delights. The life is less strenuous than packing freight, which is a distinctly different occupation.


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