The weather was unseasonably mild for late October, the wind was calm, and we made a good run of some ten miles down Crooked Lake. Just before dusk closed in we found a tiny beach on the west side and came in for a landing. Irvine and George whom we had hired to freight our outfit as far as Crooked Lake Dam were both experienced woodsmen and fine fellows as we found out around the campfire that night. They provided the big inboard-engined boat which, although a slow-moving craft, looked seaworthy and made steady progress when cruising. The fact that everything was stowed aboard by late in the afternoon was the signal to pull out so that darkness found us camped for the night at this spot.
We spent a very comfortable night where we spread our bed-rolls under the stars in an open area and surrounded by second-growth poplars. Previous to our retiring, George had mentioned that it might be a good idea to find a spot where the hips fit into the hollow in the ground. This was a hint which I have used to good advantage. Later on, I found that if you try to sleep with your hips on a rise in the ground you are indeed in for a rough night.
The next day started well enough. We were underway at daylight. The wind was still down but the sky was now heavily overcast and the temperature just above the freezing mark. The motorboat towed a large wooden skiff, loaded with our supplies, in which Ab sat in the stern and steered with a broad paddle.
A couple of miles out I saw my very first bull moose, looming big and dark against the spruce that grew along the shore. Irvine playfully pointed his shotgun at him, but he was well out of range and we passed him by, for we were in a hurry to get down the lake while the good weather held. In every sheltered bay and backwater, the surface of the calm water was black with thousands of migrating ducks which were poised here for the southward flight when the weather turned colder. Every man aboard was in high spirits. We leaned back and took in the sights with a good deal of interest.
As things so often happen in the North, this condition was about to change. Irvine, who had kept his shotgun within reach as he piloted the motorboat, had shot a spoonbill and two mallards that had ventured within shotgun range of the two boats. This made it necessary to make three great circles with the boats in order to retrieve the ducks. I wondered at him wasting so much time when we all knew we should be travelling, I was to be thankful for those ducks later that day.
After a while the wind came up from the northeast, and we were soon working against moderate waves. Irvine was having ignition trouble with the ancient, resurrected automobile engine which served as our power unit. It cut out on him a couple of times and finally, he borrowed my jackknife to work on the battery terminals. He came up from these mysteries with a grin that showed strong snoose-stained teeth, assuring us our troubles were over.
Our troubles were over for only a short time. The engine laboured steadily but the wind was rising. When the wind reached near-gale proportions Irvine began to angle into the waves so that we could reach the shore. The waves now white-capped, rode right up the lake in a mighty sweep. The boats had been built for rough lake water and rode the waves well. The sky had become much darker, the eastern shore hazed over and sleet began to pelt into the lake. An errant wisp of spray found the vulnerable ignition system of the engine and our progress halted abruptly. Rolling in the troughs of the big waves we were faced with new problems. Although the motorboat was seaworthy, the great weight of the motor would drag her to the bottom should she fill with water. The smaller skiff was being balanced by Ab, now on his feet and balancing the craft lake a ballet dancer so that she would ship as little water as possible as she rolled in the waves This he did by timing each cresting wave and shifting his weight so that the gunwale tilted up each time it met an oncoming roller. He demonstrated his very good sea legs acquired during his logging experience in British Columbia. We pulled the skiff to the downward side and hung on.
Even so, the skiff took on a lot of water. The wind shifted more to the east and after a time the wild blasts flung us into shore. We had no choice of landing places and came ashore amid snags and downed timber at the shoreline. Our supplies were awash by the time we had completed a landing in the big white spruce trees that grew right down to the water.
We built a great fire and proceeded to dry the outfit. Clothing and bedding were spread out on poles near the heat. Food was checked, dried, and repacked. We found the damage to be not too great as flour seals itself in cotton bags. Our sacks of sugar didn't fare so well and although still usable would be lumpy. We considered ourselves fortunate indeed that the entire outfit had not become lost with perhaps some drownings to boot.
It had been snowing heavily for some time so that a few inches of snow covered the ground. The temperature was dropping steadily.
The five of us, after wrestling with heavy freight for the better part of the day, setting up camp, chopping wood, and doing the camp chores in the cold air, were developing most astonishing appetites.
George, a well-experienced outdoor cook, took charge of preparing the evening meal. I appointed myself his assistant. From our equipment, he selected an oversized galvanized iron water pail. He soon had it partly filled with lake water and slung over a fine cooking fire. It was hung on what he called a pothook, which is a stout pole, notched to hold the pail handle at one end, the other sharpened and pounded into the ground at an angle. Into the pail went Irvine's three ducks, plucked and singed, eviscerated, washed, and cut up-in that order. He added the giblets-hearts, livers and gizzards-all expertly prepared. Irvine picked up his ever-handy shotgun, placed a chew of snoose inside his lower lip and walked up along some poplar covered ridges nearby. Here he shot the heads of two ruffed grouse as they strutted almost underfoot. These birds received similar treatment to the ducks and joined them in the boiling pail. George now chose from our supplies an assortment of potatoes, turnips, and onions which, peeled and chopped, were later added to the stew. Still, later several handfuls of rice became part of the recipe. Finally, George added salt, pepper, a dash of curry powder, and dumplings that he mixed up himself of flour, water, and baking powder.
There was magic that came with the aroma of that stew. The cold breeze bore it our way to whet already keen appetites. Something changes in a man's appetite in this country and he is continually amazed at the quantities of food which he consumes. I recall that as we rolled into our beds that evening the stew pail stood empty. Five men had eaten it all. I recall too that my sleep was unbroken, devoid of dreams and discomfort, until daylight. Lying side by side in our spruce-bough shelter open to the fire we did not even feel cold.
This had been my first memorable meal of the North. There were other meals to remember. Late that winter Ab and I walked out to Big River to get the mail-a distance of forty miles. We made about twenty-five miles the first day, slogging heavily on the snow-covered lake ice, and later on the logging roads in the bush along the west side of crooked lake. The days were lengthening, for it was late March. Four feet of snow covered the ground back in the woods and although seasoned by almost a full winter in the bush we were footsore and aching in the front thigh muscles when we made camp among the trees that evening.
Off again at daylight the next morning we entered a part of the Big River Forest Reserve where a fair-sized logging operation was underway. We followed the horse-drawn sleigh trails now and we found the footing firm and smooth. Where the felled timber had been trimmed we saw several feeding deer that did not bother to bound away as we passed. Rustling food was not easy for deer at this season and here they had found a bonanza where the tops of the fallen forest monarchs lay. Fine stands of the various species of trees grew here and we walked through a sort of Disneyland setting with fine tall trees, tame deer, and all the various forms of woods life all about, chipmunks, varying hares, red squirrels, the woodpeckers-the entire cast had been present. Since loggers do not usually molest wildlife the animals grow so tame that some can be fed by hand. I once saw a black-tailed buck standing astride a sleigh load of logs that had been left unattended overnight. There are snapshots around Big River to prove it.
After we had made about six miles that morning and hunger was niggling away at our stomaches we sighted the logging camp buildings. Jim Cowie, the camp cook was alone since the men were at work in the cutting area. He demonstrated true northern hospitality by placing on the table the best that the camp had to offer. Roast prime beef, boiled potatoes, gravy, homemade bread, butter, jam, and hot black coffee which we laced with canned milk and sugar. The meal was completed with dessert consisting of a six-inch square of molasses cake covered with a heavy sweet sauce.
Back in our trapper's cabin, we had been living largely on meat-deer, moose, and woodland caribou. The meat, together with bannock and stewed dried fruit made up our diet. The fact that we were trail-hungry and privileged to sit down and partake of a meal so different from our isolation fare makes it the more memorable.
Several years later Ab and I sat with five Chipewyan Indian hunters around the camp stove at Cree Lake outpost. It was dead of winter and the dead of night. It was so cold outside that no one ventured to guess what the temperature read. The stove served two purposes. We kept it full of jack pine logs to warm us and to heat the great aluminium pot. This utensil had been filled with fist-sized pieces of caribou brisket, ribs, and back meat, hacked from frozen skinned reindeer carcasses on the big jackpine stump just outside the door. The cutting was done with a sharp axe. The barren-ground caribou or reindeer had recently migrated in great numbers to this region. The Indians rejoiced for there would be food for their families and their dogs for the balance of the winter.
We all helped ourselves to the meat. We lifted out the boiled pieces with a fork, picked off the inevitable deer hairs and chewed from the bones, eating meat only. When empty, the pot was refilled, reboiled, and the eating process repeated. Three months out on our traplines had created such appetites as only the winter outdoor dweller can experience. We craved fats and sugars to combat the cold.
These cuts of meat were from well-conditioned animals and had alternate layers of lean and fat especially on the rib cages and back areas which were about as tasty as any meat I had ever eaten. Outside in civilization, I was never one to relish fat meat, but here my tastes had undergone a marked change. One of the Chipewyans came in with an assortment of cut-up deer shoulders and thighs and some leg bones with the joints cut off. This was dumped in the pot and boiled. The marrow was blown out of the bones by inserting the small end of the boiled bone in the mouth and forcing out the contents by blowing, The resulting sound of escaping air and fatty material is not pleasant to hear, but it was the accepted way of getting at the marrow.
Another Indian produced a string of caribou tongues from his pack which were boiled and eaten. This was considered the prime cut of the caribou and a noted northern delicacy. The water from almost every stream, river, and lake where we travelled made an acceptable cup of tea. Only the brown waters of poorly drained swamps failed in this regard. We found early in our trapping experience that coffee is no substitute for tea on a winter trail. Tea refreshes and stimulates so that it is possible to travel for hours before the feelings of weariness and hunger return.
We had to learn to make tea properly. In winter the loose powdery surface snow was never used, for when packed into a tin pail and slung over a fire the snow against the tin melts first and is absorbed by the unmelted snow in a blotter like action, whereupon a disagreeable smoky taste results. The snow nearer the ground has crystallized. This snow, as it melts, runs down to the pail bottom and the scorched taste is avoided. The water is brought to a rolling boil, the proper amount of tea leaves are added, the pail is removed from the fire and the tea is allowed to steep for about four minutes; the tea produced was found to be the most our liking. I have never tasted tea to compare with this recipe anywhere else, neither restaurant tea nor the tea made at home in a teapot.
I was introduced to a special way to prepare a fish over the open fire when I first travelled up the Deer River. This sizable river rises far to the north of the Churchill River and runs generally southward. Frank, (Fisher) our travelling companion, picked up a net scarred jumbo whitefish, still alive and floating downstream; apparently it had escaped from some other traveller's net farther upstream. It was time to stop for the noonday meal. Frank set to work immediately, splitting the fish down the back so that it lay open in a great slab, the two halves joined together by the belly. The backbone, entrails, and gills were then removed with the scales and fins left intact. He inserted two small, peeled and sharpened willow branches under the skin the entire length of each half, then added both prongs of a Y-shaped willow branch under the skin and across the fish. The resulting package was now rigid and easily propped up at the proper angle to the glowing fire by forcing the stem of the Y into the earth.
The fish began to sizzle and bake. In a few minutes, the meat cooked to an appetizing brown colour. When Frank thought that it had baked enough on one side he turned the willow so that the skin side was next to the heat. Later he gave the meat side a few minutes more, took the willow and fish, placed it on a large flat rock and removed the willows that he had run through the fish.
We sat around the rock and dug the fish out of its skin dish. We used a salt shaker to good effect. The meat was still sizzling with most of the natural juices trapped beneath the crisp brown covering so that the meat had cooked in the sealed-in meat juices. I noticed that Frank had used the salt shaker during the baking process. This I believe, adds something to the flavour of outdoor cooking. Also, the fire and angle at which the fish faces the heat is part of the success such as this.
A fish prepared thus is not to be compared with the panfried variety, for there is nearly always a greater time lag between the catching and the preparing of the fish than had been the case in Frank's whitefish.
I have never eaten more delicious fish. We ate it right down to the skin which, with few bones, was all that remained. Frank had eaten part of the head, which he stated was more nutritious. This dish cannot be duplicated for flavour from frozen fish that you can purchase from the supermarket. I have eaten fish in expensive hotel dining rooms where the entree was soggy and bland in flavour because the original pristine taste was long lost during cold storage.
Again on the Deer River, but two years later, Big Nick Lenni taught me how to cook a moose nose. We are travelling in a brigade of seven boats and several canoes containing Chipewyan hunters and their families. Two weeks out of Meadow Lake, Ab and I, in the lead of the brigade, shot a young bull moose as he stood at the river's edge. We horsed the carcass ashore and cut up the meat, loading it all in the boat, including the head and hide.
Nick cut off the nose and stripped it through the nostrils onto a forked willow. He burned off the hair and blistered the skin over the campfire so that the outer layer could be peeled off. The nose, now about the size of a large coconut and of similar colour was cut into chocolate-bar-shaped pieces and boiled for about two and one-half hours. I sliced off a piece with my hunting knife and tasted the dubious-looking serving. I had to admit that the taste was good. It had a distinctive taste similar to smoked fat pork, with a hint of birch and willow, jack pine tips and water lilies on which this animal feeds. Thereafter we never discarded the nose of the moose.
Breakfast at our main trapping cabin at Cree Lake was usually sourdough hotcakes, small steaks and gravy, and tea. Gravy, I learned, was made to our preferences when the steak was well browned, the gravy ingredients added (flour, water, salt, and pepper) and allowed to bubble with the meat for a time. Here again, the seasoning was added during the cooking process. Breakfast was varied by dumping large quantities of stewed dried fruit over a stack of hotcakes.
Sourdough bread and hotcakes were standard fare. Sourdough when properly handled is a joy to eat, but it must be used by an expert who has mastered his recipes by trial and error. Sourdough is an abomination when improperly prepared. The secret lies in just what quantities of soda are added to cut the acid content of the action of yeast on flour, sugar, and water.
Meat was often eaten every meal in the week. We found that any of the antlered species-Virginia (whitetail) deer, mule deer, woodland caribou, moose, and reindeer (barren land caribou) made choice eating when the animal was in good condition. We were continually amazed at the quantities of meat which we tucked away at mealtime.
Many a meal was made with land birds as the main course. Ruffed grouse, spruce hen, ptarmigan, prairie chicken in winter and the various edible waterfowl in season. These were stuffed and roasted in our stovepipe oven-a welcome change from venison. We were in the midst of open-water muskrat trapping when the ducks returned on their spring migration. Some of these, unfortunately for them, blundered into our traps so that fat mallards, teals, and canvasbacks appeared on our table.
Often while eating we discovered shotgun pellets in the flesh, pellets picked up farther south, for we owned no shotgun.
The land yielded up to us its fruits. In jack pine country, blueberries grow in varying degrees of profusion from a few small berries in mature jack pine stands to fantastically abundant large juicy berries in the country that has been burnt over. Beginning about the third year after a fire the condition becomes ideal. In such places on certain-favoured hillsides, we picked blueberries by the bucketful. At the hilltop, we spread a tarp on the ground and poured the berries from the pail lifted as high as possible so that the breeze carried away all the leaves. Combined with sugar and re-constituted powdered whole milk, this was a fine diet supplement from August to freeze-up and the first snows that covered the low bushes. As late as midwinter, I have found them where ridges have been bared of snow by the wind-still un-wrinkled and pebble-hard in nature's own deep freeze-and eaten them by the handfuls.
Fresh north-country blueberry pie is something to remember and to cherish. We had learned to make good pie pastry. We possessed deep pie plates in which it was possible to bake a pie three or four inches thick. Such blueberry filling made with sagacious use of sugar and spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, or cloves, produced pies the like of which cannot be duplicated in pastry shops or the best dining houses on earth.
Throughout this land there were scattered peat bogs that yield cranberries. We picked them from their moss beds where they lay bright red joined by thread-like stems to the main plant. We used them in sauce form to garnish the meat on our table.
Once, along in the month of April when the sun first warmed the southern slopes of the muskeg hummocks, I discovered some cranberries that had been preserved by the frost. I had become aware of a craving for fresh fruits long absent and unobtainable. I crouched down and picked them, not as firm as in the autumn but still edible and flavourful. Several spruce hens had found them too, for I flushed the birds from the frozen swamp as I crossed to the other side.
I recall several poor meals. Once while muskrat trapping about ten miles from our Rat Creek camp we ran out of venison. Rather than spend time hunting down an animal that we could only partially use, we decided to try muskrat which is considered edible in this country. We severed the hind legs from several of the best looking carcasses and fried them over the campfire. I did not consider the result to be a success.
On the trail to Big River, I met a homesteader on his way by horse team and sleigh to Green Lake. We boiled the tea pail together and he produced a bologna sausage which he called a dog. This was a poor grade of sausage encased in a long narrow waxed cotton bag. The meat was green half an inch inward from the sack casing. I made a pretence of eating this just to please my host.
Miller served me a bear steak at his homesteader shack halfway down Crooked Lake. The male cinnamon bear from whose rump the steak had been cut had just come out of hibernation in April when Miller felled it with his .30 Winchester rifle. I do not recommend this as a meal to enjoy.
Recalled also is three weeks of a steady diet of rabbits when our regular meat supply ran out in the dead of winter on my first year in the bush.
At Cree Lake Christmas dinner was rotated each year; at our cabin, at Martin's (Brustad) cabin at Stony Narrows and at Frank's (Fisher) cabin at the east side. In 1936 we met at Frank's and the dinner menu follows: Caribou Brisket Soup, Moose Steak, Boiled Moose Nose, Freshly baked bannock with canned butter and honey, Raisin pie, Doughnuts, Pickles, Candy, Rum, Tea.
Each year we hoarded some of our choice food, brought in by canoe from Outside just for this day. We relaxed afterwards, lit our pipes and compared notes, not having seen each other in some months. This was a memorable meal, indeed.