Almost every city, town, and village in the northern section of Saskatchewan's settled area has at one time
or another made the claim that it is "The Gateway to the North." In the early 1930s, there was only one community that could rightfully claim such a title although it did not do so at that time. Due to its geographical position and its situation on a navigable waterway from which travel by water was possible to the most remote hinterland of Northern Canada all the way to the Arctic and from which a traveler could board a train south into civilization or travel by car to the same destination on a passable road, its claim could not be disputed. From this point, no railroad northward existed nor did any all-weather roads. This community, located some ninety-five northwest of Prince Albert, was the small village of
I first went to Big River in mid-October of 1932. With my brother Ab, and our friend Bob, I boarded the Canadian National Railways' "mixed" train at Prince Albert for the ninety-odd mile run to Big River to the northwest. The old steam locomotive dragged the dozen or so red-painted boxcars and one passenger coach leisurely through partly cleared farmland, discharged freight at each stop along the way and in the early afternoon rattled into Shellbrook, the last divisional point.
Here we encountered the dividing line between the settlements and the wilderness. The bush closed in and the only clearing was on the railroad right-of-way. Solid stands of trees crowded in from both sides with no clearings to either side. Much swamp and wooded muskeg existed along the way and as the weather was yet quite mild, water could be seen oozing into the ditches along the tracks. The train puffed its way slowly through the endless bush and I thought of the speed with which the trains traveled on the straight and level, and well ballasted tracks of the Soo Line on which my home town of Yellow Grass was located. Outside the creaking passenger coach I could see leafless poplar, and spruce, jack pines and dreary looking tamarack. The sky was heavily overcast and I experienced a new sensation which I later diagnosed as homesickness, for I was eighteen, on my first long trip away from home.
The passengers seemed to change also as soon as we left Shellbrook. The old passenger coach with green plush seats contained about twenty passengers. At one end was a men's clubroom. At the other stood a pot-bellied stove. As we left Shellbrook someone produced a deck of playing cards and a lively poker game erupted at the stove end of the coach in which some of the passengers and some of the train crew joined. I walked down to the men's room. Four men, all dressed in outdoor clothing, were drinking beer openly, despite the Saskatchewan liquor laws of the day which stated that alcoholic beverages must be consumed in a private dwelling. A heated discussion was in progress and the flushed participants were all talking at the same time. They invited me to join them but I declined the invitation with thanks and rejoined my companions.
All the passengers were men. I overheard snatches of conversation about good times in Prince Albert, boasts of liquor binges and female companions. There was talk I had not heard before of commercial fishing, Indians, dogs, and fur. Apparently most of these travelers knew each other and the people along the way, for at each stop they filed out of the coach onto the station platform and visited with the local citizens who came to the station. At one village stop an attractive young woman came up to my side of the coach. The man sitting in the seat ahead of me raised the window and said, "The verdict is guilty."
The woman moved away and the window was lowered.
The train departed and we sat and watched the landscape which varied only as to the variety of trees. Ab, always the hunter, once pointed out a running white-tailed buck in a thin poplar stand and later a weasel in the grass, its coat already changing to winter white.
A middle-aged man with liquor-reddened face lurched down the aisle and stopped where we sat.
"Where are you fellas going?" he asked.
Ab answered, "Big River."
The man was silent for a moment, rubbed his unshaven chin and observed, "I thought I knew all the fish in Big River."
Bob, a bit nettled, told him, "I have been in Big River before."
The man weaved on to rejoin his friends in the clubroom.
Bob had indeed been to Big River. Two years earlier he and Ab had arrived in Prince Albert in November looking for a spot to locate where they might establish a trapline that winter.
"If you want to go trapping the place to go is Big River," said a stranger whom they met on the train station platform. "Take my word for it, boys, that is the best place."
They took his advice, and found that the stranger had been right. So they went to Big River and through the offices of Morgan who operated a boarding house there, they purchased two trapping cabins together with various articles of equipment including traps. The cabins were situated one near the north end of Crooked Lake (a local name; the map name is Cowan Lake), about thirty miles from town, the second about nine miles to the east of cabin number one on a small waterway known as Rat Creek (Taggert Creek).
The venture was dogged by misfortune from the very beginning. The boys hired one Albert Fortin to haul supplies by horse team to the north end of Crooked Lake. Halfway to their destination they encountered a pressure ridge on the lake ice where the horses broke through, struggled briefly, put their heads down into the water and were drowned. Fortunately the rack caught on the ice and the supplies and equipment were saved. It meant, however, that from there everything had to be hauled by hand sleigh to their destination. Winter was well established by the time they were settled in the Crooked Lake cabin. They did not realize it at the time, but the most productive time for trapping had passed by.
Bill Mahoney, the dam keeper at Crooked Lake Dam lived nearby. A retired schoolteacher, he had elected to live his last years as close to the wilds as possible. Almost seventy years old, he was an authority on the outdoors and a crack rifle shot. He gave Ab and Bob a good deal of advice on how to live in the woods and directed them to the Rat Creek cabin.
On their first trip over, Ab shot a fat cow moose which they discovered not far from the snug little cabin. It was midwinter before they were well settled here and they stayed until April. With little practical experience they caught few mink and weasel so that the venture was a failure financially.
So fascinated were they by the life that they agreed to return at some future time. Attracted by some force that could not be described in words they confessed to be haunted by the memory of the Rat Creek country. They would go back.
Here they were two years later, with myself as a third partner, on the train to Big River. It was dark now, the kerosene lamps had been lit and hung in their brackets on the ceiling of the coach.
It was black night when we detrained. We collected our baggage and stumbled across the unlit, deeply rutted street to Morgan's Boarding House. Our host, big and friendly, soon made us welcome and expressed surprise on seeing Ab and Bob once again. We sat down to an evening meal around a large rectangular table in company with the train crew and several strangers. Bowls of boiled potatoes, stewed meat, gravy, and beans, with platters of homemade bread passed around from one guest to another. Morgan toted a big enameled coffee pot about and kept refilling our cups. The supper was terminated with a quarter of an apple pie each.
The stew had been delicious. Later in our room, I remarked about it. The boys said that it was probably moose meat, for they had heard it rumoured that Morgan put moose meat on the table and was able to camouflage his stew so well that he had been known to feed it to the local and visiting game wardens on more than one occasion.
At Morgan's, I saw my first wood stove that had been converted from a forty-five imperial gallon gasoline drum. At that time, these stoves were to be found in most business establishments throughout the North. A simple, yet most practical stove, the drum was placed sideways on a stand or sandbox. A door and a controllable draft hole were fashioned in one end and the stovepipe led upward from the top of the opposite end. The stove cancelled out much unnecessary wood cutting for it would take logs in excess of three-foot lengths. I was to see many more versions of this stove.
This was my introduction to Big River. I visited the village several times over the next seven years and I knew many of the residents well enough to call them by their first names. The morals of many of the village folk could be termed lusty and loose. There were husband and wife exchanges with the consent of all concerned and there were exchanges that were not so docile. In reality, however, their morals differed from their counterparts in the south only in that their sins were committed without regard for what people said or thought and were done openly. These same people would rally to the aid of anyone in serious difficulty and proved it on many an occasion. They lacked hypocrisy.
For a time there was in Big River a young man whom the people called The Pilgrim. He represented well the young men of his day for he was handsome, friendly, broke, and unemployed. The village rejoiced one day when it was learned that he was accepted for permanent employment at the newly opened gold mine on far away Lake Athabasca. Most of the villagers shook his hand and wished him well before he boarded the bush plane. This event helped to keep alive the hope for the future which the generation of The Pilgrim somehow never lost through the years of the Great Depression.
I noted a zest for living that existed nowhere else as it did here. Most of these people were rugged individualists who stood on their own two feet-come what may. They poked jibes at and joked with one another and a turn around the town was always good for a laugh or two.
Big River is named for a stream that flows into the south end of Crooked Lake just above the village site. The stream is neither big nor is it a river. It does, however, feed the lake which stretches some thirty-five miles in a narrow ribbon generally northward of the village. The level of the lake has long been kept constant by a dam near the north end where the Crooked River (Cowan River) begins. Originally built by The Company as the old logging company was known, the dam was used to keep the lake water high enough so that the log booms could be towed to the sawmill. The sawmill in the 1930s was not operative.
The story was that it had closed down more than a decade before after much of the merchantable timber had been destroyed by a monstrous forest fire. Sometime later the mill itself had burned somewhat mysteriously and now consisted of rubble, rusting shafts, saws, and various other sawmill machinery. Stretching northward along the lakeshore were the derelicts of another era. Rusting and rotting hulks of big towboats lay there in melancholy disarray. The "Alligator," a steam-driven contraption that could travel on land and water, was now a pile of junk that could only be identified by those who knew what had been its purpose. The sawdust burner (left) stood solid, firm, and straight, for it was made of black sheeted steel, the sections bolted together. This awesome structure, a steel cylinder with screened dome, stood some one hundred feet high. It was so situated that it could be seen rising above the bush from both the south and north approaches to the village. The old mill pond when I first saw it was a treacherous reach of water, clogged with "deadheads" or waterlogged logs that had one end slanted down and stuck in the mud of the lake bottom, the other end at the surface ready to impale the canoe or boat of an unwary traveler.
The village consisted of perhaps 200 people who could be classed as permanent residents. There were four general stores, the boarding house, a hotel, post office, outpost hospital, a few dozen houses, a church, and a school, the usual railway-owned buildings, a small sawmill, and several fish warehouses, and fish company buildings. The busiest place in the village was Godin's store (right) over the front door of which hung a homemade sign in large letters that read, "O.P. Godin-Marchand Général." Godin a shrewd, sharp-nosed French-Canadian, made his business decisions while listening to his customers and biting on his pipe. He sold any article of food, clothing, or equipment that made life tolerable in the bush. He sold merchandise as varied as ladies hats and bear traps and bought from his customers grain, hay, fur, lumber, railroad ties, fish and Seneca root, a medicinal herb that grows wild in the region. Godin spoke but a few words in one day and these he preferred to utter in French.
From any of the general stores a man could buy a year's grubstake and supplies, tote it down to the government-built dock on the nearby lakeshore, load it into his canoe and embark almost unnoticed for such remote places as Hatchet Lake , Cree Lake, or Buffalo Lake. He could go across Methye Portage to the Arctic coast. He could follow the Churchill River to Hudson Bay-it was the travelers choice.
Big River was the crossroads from which people entered or left the North. Strangers appearing in the village might be salesmen from far to the south or some trapper from far away north. I heard Dick Hall, the federal member of Parliament for a vast northern constituency, in heated discussion with some of his constituents from Reindeer Lake . This discussion took place in front of the Lakeview Hotel. I saw Jules Marion, the provincial member of the Saskatchewan legislature, conversing softly in the Cree language with a group of Indians in Godin's store. I saw bronzed, lean, and silent men who went about their business with a purpose, and when their affairs were completed they shoved off from the dock in their big freighter canoes, cranked up their outboard motors and headed north; and no one knew their destination and in some cases the travelers themselves did not know exactly where they were going.
Big River had a diversified economy that was foreign to any Saskatchewan community that depends on agriculture for its livelihood. It had long been a fish distributing centre. Big River Fisheries the original big fish distributor was an American firm that shipped the choice catch by rail to Chicago.
Waites Fisheries (left) was established sometime later and was beginning to expand even during the Depression. Homesteaders had already hacked out a large acreage to the south and east, an area that was suited to the production of oats. Horses were used in the hauling industry, so the oats found a local market. In winter some farmers took to freighting fish from the far northern lakes such as Buffalo, Dore, Snake (Pinehouse), and La Ronge . They could turn to logging for the small sawmill or they could cut railroad ties in the big jack pine country. Big River residents might take a hand at trapping in winter or they could stay at home and keep the larder full of moose and deer meat, for these animals could be found anywhere back in the bush. Incongruously, the whole northern area of nearly half a province was governed for the most part by prairie dwellers who had nothing in common with this land and even less concern for its welfare. The fact was that the southern half of this province was largely ignorant of the north as to its physical features, its resources, and particularly its potential and future value, a fact that exists in a lesser degree to this day.
An active place both in volume and political activity was the government-operated beer and wine store. Each time the government changed-so did the vendor, so that this person was always a supporter of the government of the day. The village residents and the northerners who visited town were hard drinkers with few exceptions, for it seems the farther north one travels the greater the thirst of the people. A couple of dollars bought a gallon of "Concord" or "Catawba"-potent fortified wines on which a robust man could turn green if he indulged with abandon.
In spring and early summer, on a grassy bank down near the government dock could be found the canoes of the professional white trappers. They were turned bottom up against the weather and roped and pegged down against the wind. The canoes were of excellent quality and make, Peterborough and Chestnut freighter models, used by a unique clientele. Their owners were not around for they were "Outside" on business or on holiday, possibly in Prince Albert, Montreal, or Norway. These men would show up in the village in late summer and embark for the North once again.
The canoes showed the marks of adversity. Broken keels had resulted from terrific pounding on the rocks of some uncharted and distant river rapid, as did split planking and cracked ribs, these wounds visible on the insides of the craft. The outer covering showed the scratches of dragging over shallow rock-filled rapids, over snags, and sandbars in the upper reaches of the most remote water courses, for the paint and filler was scraped off to the bare canvas. I saw one canoe that had been worked over by a bear as he had ripped at the canvas while investigating the smell of fish when the canoes owner was absent.
So the three of us embarked also from the government dock that October afternoon in 1932. The lake stretched northward as we pulled away, our supplies and equipment in two boats, rented for the run to Crooked Lake Dam.