At Russell Lake one day toward the end of March 1925, the frantic barking of our dogs brought us running outside our cabin -- and there we saw a surprising sight. No less than eight dog teams had suddenly appeared in that lonely spot! Our visitors were a group of Chipewyans, as it turned out some of the last natives who followed the caribou way of life. One of them, Edward John, had attended an Indian School and could speak English. These people became our friends through the years ahead. Though they called Cree Lake their home, they travelled and trapped east of there all the way to Wollaston Lake. Three of the men were married to three sisters. Every year for the twenty-five I spent in the North I would see their toboggan trails in the winter, and occasionally I would come upon their camps and stop for a visit.
The Chipewyans taught us how to survive and to live well in the North country. They were a fine people when I knew them, but through the years they got mixed up with too many white men, and that didn't do them any good. I sometimes travelled with them after that first meeting, and I learned a good deal about their legends and about their nomadic way of life.
The eight dog sleighs that had entered our clearing were loaded with furs and their owners were in a hurry to reach Cree Lake after a winter on the traplines. It was their custom to have a young man running ahead of the dogs. In the morning, as soon as he had breakfast, he would start out. Those young natives could really run, and even the older men were almost tireless, though they had their dogs and could ride on the sleighs whenever they wished. Some of the younger men could run a hundred miles a day.
In this manner they left Russell Lake that spring morning with their bulky loads. The snow was nearly all gone and there was only a layer of slush on the lake. There were two small babies with them, and for each infant, there was one dog and a small toboggan. The mothers took care of these, I was interested to see that the one who was not nursing her baby fed it caribou soup. Off they went, all on foot as far as we could see them -- a long string of dogs, toboggans, men and women, the runner well ahead. It would take them about a week to reach their cabins on Cree Lake, for they would camp beside beaver lodges on the way and take time to trap and even shoot some beaver for food. (They carried .22 rifles for this purpose.) They might stop over a day at such a place, then go on to the next beaver lodges. So familiar were they with the country that they always knew exactly where the beaver were, and so experienced that they always knew exactly how to get them.
Eventually our friends would reach Cree Lake. The Hudson's Bay Company had a little store there, run by a native trapper, where they could buy any supplies they needed. They would repair the canoes that had been left over the winter and also take time to put their cabins into good shape so that no marauding bear could break-in, for they wouldn't see these cabins again until fall then when they came back on their way to meet migrating the caribou. All this would be done as quickly as possible. They were always eager to move on.
In their small canoes and larger freighter then they would travel down the length of Cree Lake to its southern end, then branch of to whatever area they had chosen for their spring camp.
Here they would set up tents. Since they always carried along a small tin stove in case of rain, snow or cold weather, they would be snug inside these tents though it was very early in the year. Once the camp was set up, the women would take over there. Probably all the young would go, two to each canoe, and be away trapping for a couple of weeks. When they came back, they would likely unload their furs and make a second trip. At this time of year, it was mainly beaver that they were trapping. The older men might stay at camp rather than make these cross-country journeys. They would trap nearby. Each had his territory whether he was near or far from camp. They respected each other's traplines and also those of other trappers that they might run across in their travels. There was never any problem in the North about poaching or theft.
At this time of the year the little caribou, the reindeer, would have gone to the barren land, but there would be food in abundance without them. All the spring birds would be back from their winter in the South, and the lakes and rivers would be teeming with fish. The North is a land of plenty in the springtime.
When the young men returned in their small canoes from their second excursion, they would dry all the fur. Then they were ready to break camp and be on their way to the Churchill River where they would trade in their furs and spend the summer. Beyond Cree Lake they had a long stretch of river to travel, then three portages -- two of them half a mile in length, the other less -- and three small lakes. In memory, I can travel that route with them, for it became familiar to me over the years. The next stage would be a long, very crooked river with lots of logs and windfalls. This eventually joined the Churchill. It used to take us half a day to go down that river, but a full day to go up it with a loaded canoe. There was a long way with only two small portages and several rapids that could be run. This was the route that all the Cree Lake people travelled to reach the Churchill River.
In the late spring all the Chipewyans would be on the move. Those in the lead would travel slowly, waiting for others to catch up with them. It was a time of happy reunions, for some of them would not have met since they parted the previous fall to follow the caribou. They were eager to tell each other all that had happened over the winter. The first canoes would have only a short wait until four or five others arrived; then they would all travel on slowly, giving those behind time to join them.
As you would guess from such a gathering of people, that was a river always well hunted in the spring. The geese and ducks were so nervous a man couldn't get a shot at them. Whatever moose had been in the area would have been killed or frightened away by the time my partner and I came along, but there was always plenty of fish. The Chipewyans would be tired of their winter diet of meat, anyway, and happy to eat fish for a change, and they knew where all the best fishing spots were.
There always used to be two or three outfits catching and drying whitefish whenever I travelled that route. Anyone who was in a hurry, though, would be accommodated, for that is a very fast river. It doesn't take long to reach the Churchill if you want to make time as we always did.
Those Cree Lake people had fine trapping grounds and used to bring out great quantities of fur. In the spring they were all bound for Patuanak, the big Hudson's Bay Company post on the Churchill. There they sold their fur and bought supplies for the coming year. Actual cash was never used. Instead, the system worked this way: Since beaver was the main fur, one big beaver skin was the monetary unit. Two small beavers might be worth one skin, three mink might be worth a skin, a silver fox might be worth two skins. It might take fifty muskrats to equal one beaver skin. That is the way the Chipewyans dealt with the Hudson's Bay Company in the days of which I speak.
Everyone needed a new tent each spring since the stove that was used inside always sent out sparks that burnt holes in the canvas. I remember years ago coming into Patuanak late in the evening after darkness had fallen. Fifty or sixty canoes were pulled up on the shore, and the natives were camped all around in their new tents brightly lit by gas lamps. It was a sight to remember. They would stay at Patuanak until the Indian agent had paid them treaty money, then go off down the Churchill to their summer hunting grounds.
At the beginning of this trip they would catch a lot of whitefish for eating fresh and for drying. I remember watching Chipewyan women walking out on a frozen lake in the winter, too, to get trout through a hole in the ice. Indeed, the natives would catch fish at any time of the year. Mostly, however, they netted whitefish on their way to the spawning grounds in the spring. They had drying racks which they left by the lakeshore and used every year. Each family would put a net into the river and in two hours the nets would all be full. Then it was the task of the women to prepare the catch.
First they would scale the fish. Then they would cut them down the back, spread them out flat, and deftly remove the bones. The filleted fish were then spread on the racks and smoked over a slow fire. Whitefish or trout treated in this way is truly delicious. In those days before the white man brought his tools into the Northland, the natives used to make a trap with rocks to catch spawning fish. It was quite easy to do that because fish spawn in shallow water. The Indians loved smoked and dried fish as a change in diet, though they preferred fish and meat when they could get it.
In the spring, of course, there was no lack of fresh food. Not only were the fish plentiful and easy to catch; there were numerous wild ducks along the Churchill and also a great many moose. The moose was easy to get because they gathered in the rivers and lakes to escape the flies. It was a pleasant and relaxing time of year for the Chipewyans. Every so often one of the men would return to Patuanak for tobacco or tea. Back at camp, the women would be at work on the hides.
The hides had many uses, though in my time they were no longer made into tepees. Clothes were made of them -- skirts, trousers, jackets and moccasins. Caribou cows were often slaughtered after the mating season to secure the tender hides of unborn calves, for these made excellent light summer clothing. Moosehide made the best moccasins, though woodland caribou would serve.
After a time it would be fall again, time to return to the cabins on Cree Lake. There the natives would stay for a few days while women fixed up the fur and the men went off hunting, hauling meat back by dog teams. In October the caribou would be coming south from the barren lands. Then the natives would make a cache of their food and caribou hides and leave Cree Lake to meet the caribou. They knew where the great herds crossed the water for there were good trails that the caribou had travelled for thousands of years. The Chipewyans would set up their tents and wait, and before long the great herds would come. Though, as I have said, the animals were thin at this time of the year, they were still needed for food. The hunters would haul the meat back to camp where some could be dried and the rest hung. The weather would be cool enough now that meat would keep for a time just hanging. The poorest cuts were given to the sleigh dogs.
In those days, when a man made a kill, none of the carcass was wasted. Each animal would be skinned, gutted and butchered. The women took over the work of preparing all parts of the slaughtered animal for use. They would dry the meat and render the fat. They would wash the entrails turn them inside out, and fill them with rendered grease. When the meat was thoroughly dried, they would pound it into a fine, flour-like substance, gather quantities of blueberries (which grew in abundance after a bush fire had swept through), mix the berries with the pounded meat and pour boiling grease over all. This made the pemmican which was nutritious and light to carry -- a staple on the long winter trails.
After the caribou kill in the fall, it was time to prepare for winter, the women being responsible for the clothing, the men for keeping toboggans and dog harness in good repair. By the time the lakes were frozen over, they could be on their way to a chosen spot where there was plenty of caribou and a good supply of wood. It was always a good caribou country around Wollaston Lake. Many Chipewyans spent the winter there, moving only if the caribou became scarce. If this happened, they would load all their belongings on the toboggans and be off with their dog teams. They might not have far to go. The men would leave their families, find the caribou, then bring the families to the new place they had found. Once the families were moved, the men would go back to the cache they had left and return with dried meat, fish and grease. There was never any problem with having plenty of food. These people would set out nets under the ice for fish, and the women would tend them while the men were on the trapline.
Once the work was done up, the winter was devoted to trapping. Here the pattern varied. Long ago when life was mainly nomadic, a family group would travel together, probably a father and mother, their married sons and daughters, and their grandchildren. In other cases, the women, children and old men might be left at Cree Lake and the more active members of the tribe would move on alone.
Sometimes only two men travelled together, one toboggan carrying the tin stove and the kettles, the other the tent. They would travel light, each night putting up the tent.
They used the deadfall trap for marten -- which were plentiful in the early days -- and for mink, too. (The deadfall trap is a primitive device composed of rocks or tree limbs arranged to fall on an animal and so secure him.) After checking their traps a couple of times, sometimes they would move on to new territory, leaving good sets behind. Such men would keep on the move all winter, perhaps making a wide circle and returning to their starting point before all the snow was gone. They were sufficiently impressed by Christian doctrine that most of them observed Sunday as a day of rest. They were at home wherever they stopped. Always they carried a deck of cards with them and they put in a lot of time playing poker.
Some might follow one trapline all winter, getting fur on both the trip out and the return journey. There were eight outfits that I knew of east of Cree Lake who did this. Again there were others who, reaching the end of their trapline, might continue in the same direction or branch off east or west, hit another river and travel it for a way, setting traps all the time.
When a group of men travelled together in the wintertime, as was most usual in my day, the party would consist of four dog teams and a runner -- five men in all. As well as the tent, the stove and the traps, they took along rabbit snares, fish hooks and fishnets. There was no hurry as they went out setting their traps. At night they could have a good rest in their tents with their robes laid on spruce boughs. Perhaps two men would go off on the trail of a moose and the others would set out rabbit snares. If they ran short of dog feed, they would put in a net for fish. Those Cree Lake men followed the rivers and creeks where fur abounded and carefully avoided the trapping grounds of other men.
In such a group, the oldest man was usually the leader -- probably the father of the others. The fur catch depended greatly on his ability. If he was a rustler and they made a good catch, they could establish good credit with the Hudson's Bay Company when they came to Patuanak in the spring, northern trappers lived on this credit system, being financed by the Hudson's Bay Company over the winter in the prospect of a good supply of fur at the end of the trapping season.
While many Chipewyans thus kept on the move continually, others might settle in a group of five or six families and spend the whole winter where caribou and fur were plentiful. I remember a fairly big settlement of seventeen houses at Wollaston lake. The north end of Reindeer Lake was another great fur country. One of the main Hudson's Bay Company trading posts was situated there. Every Indian village had its own small trading post, supplied from one of the larger ones like this.
Like all primitive people, the Chipewyans kept their history alive by the telling of tales, the older generation passing on to the younger what their fathers had taught them of the past. One legend they preserved was the story of the ancient wars that plagued their people before the coming of the white man and the Hudson's Bay Company.
The Chipewyans occupied a land roughly between the Churchill River in the south and the barren lands in the north. Above them was the land of the Eskimos, and below the Churchill lived the Crees. They were thus sandwiched between two bitter enemies. According to legend, their early history was a series of wars with one foe or the other. The Eskimo would invade their territory, driving them southward. They would rally and force the invader back north. The Crees would push northward and have to be driven back again below the Churchill. From the beginning of time these wars went on, and the memory of ancient wrongs and triumphs was kept green as the old stories were handed down. According to these tales, the land around Cree Lake was always Chipewyan hunting territory. They claim that the lake got its name through the great battles that drove the invading Crees back southward and restored the land to its rightful owners.
When I knew the Chipewyans, they were living in the caribou country and getting their supplies from the Hudson's Bay Company posts that dotted the country. The canvas for their tents, the twine for their fishnets, their rifles, guns, ammunition, canoes -- all these were supplied by the Hudson's Bay Company, usually on credit, and paid for with skins of beaver, marten, otter, and mink. Although they knew the North country well and could read the signs of the wild as a southerner reads a book, they were no longer entirely self-sufficient as they were before the coming of the white men. I used to listen to their stories of bygone times and I liked to imagine for myself what life must have been for them when food, clothing, ammunition and shelter depended entirely on the skill and ingenuity of primitive man. It was a happy life, but surely a difficult one in that land of lakes, rivers and long, cold winters.
For one thing, in the early days, the Chipewyans made their own birch bark canoes.
Even today with modern tools it is a long and arduous task to make a canoe out of birch bark. One marvels what efficient tools they must have made for themselves to do the job. They would first of all have to chop down the trees, then split them, then plane the boards thin -- for canoes that have to be carried over long portages must be light. Perhaps the planing was done with a sharp rock. One thinks of the many thin boards required and of the many patient hours of scraping that must have gone into the making of every canoe. In my own travels through that country, I used to come upon old birch bark canoes, long abandoned, and I would marvel how they might have been lying there for two hundred years. I believe birch bark will never rot. As well as the canoe, they used dog sleighs for transportation then. They had to make the toboggans, the dog harness, the snowshoes all by hand, using wood that they cut and shaped with hand made tools from trees felled by hand, and using strips of leather from the hides of moose and caribou. These animals, of course, had to be hunted and brought down using hand-made bows and arrows or spears made by lacing a sharpened rock to the end of a pole. All this represented not only uncounted hours of patient labour, but a great deal of skill acquired, I suppose, through centuries of practice.
The only dwellings the Chipewyans had before the coming of the white man were their tepees, and these they made by hand from caribou hides. The men had first to slaughter and skin the animals. Then the women would tan the hides and sew them together with strips of hide to make the tepees. Along an old Chipewyan trail between Cree Lake and Wollaston Lake, I have seen plainly where they used to winter in their tepees. They would set them up and bank them with sand and moss against the cold. I could still see where, in the centre of the tent, they had dug a hole and filled it with rocks, and at night the rocks would hold the heat when the fire died down, spreading warmth throughout the tepee until morning.
Though these would date from a more recent period, I have seen copper cooking kettles discarded in old camping spots where the lining had burnt down to the copper. These kettles would look serviceable still, but a man couldn't eat anything cooked in them because of the copper taste. All these are things of the long ago. During my time in the North, I saw only two small birch bark hunting canoes in use and one tepee. An old couple had these -- and that was fifty years ago. The birch bark freighting canoes had disappeared long before that when the Hudson's Bay Company brought in canvas-covered hunting canoes. As soon as a native got one of these, he would discard his old hand-made canoe. Similarly, the coming of canvas changed the nature of Indian shelters. The Hudson's Bay Company brought in canvas and the women, with patient needle and thread, made tents of it. Later they had sewing machines for this purpose. Some tribes even bought ready-made tents. All this made life simpler and more comfortable. There was more room in the new tents, for tin stoves replaced open fire that had filled the centre. Another improvement was that the stove required much less wood than the open fire.
The photograph below shows Chipewyan Indians arriving at Ile-a-la-Crosse in birchbark canoes, circa 1898. Note - Birchbark canoes in the foreground. When the wind was right, they used sails on the canoes to travel. A close look at the old photograph shows the sails on the canoes. When I travelled with Chipewyan friends, of course, their way of life was much changed from the primitive one that I liked to speculate about. Still many of the old-fashioned ways were retained. For instance, the work was separated by long-established custom into jobs for the women and jobs for the men. When they travelled in the wintertime, the men would shovel away the snow with their snowshoes and set up the tent and place some spruce boughs over the floor of it. The women then took care of the tent, gathered the wood for the stove, and prepared the food. They were responsible for all the making of clothes, the tanning of hides and the drying of meat. These women could make the best moose hides that I have ever seen. The men were hunters and trappers, and they also hauled the meat into camp. Once they brought it, the women took care of it. The men made toboggans and could even make one in the wintertime if they needed it. They carried tools with them -- planes, wood chisels, whatever they needed. The toboggan had to be made of green birch. They would cut it out of the tree, plane it and turn the head after soaking it in hot water. Then they would build a fire outside to dry the toboggan. Snowshoes were made inside the tents. There too, the women made clothes out of dry goods supplied by the Hudson's Bay Company.
Once the Hudson's Bay Company posts were established, they supplemented the materials, tools and food that the Chipewyans had been providing for themselves. Lard, tea, tobacco, tobacco pipes, canvas, guns, ammunition, tools and yard goods -- these were the main staples that the Indians bought. They never did become accustomed to flour or sweets.
Gradually the tents were replaced by wooden houses as the white man showed the Indian his way of life. Some Chipewyans began to build around the Hudson's Bay Company posts. There were many around Brushie, the trading post at the north end of Reindeer Lake. From there the Indians could trap northward in a good fur country until they came to the edge of Eskimo territory. However, even when the Chipewyans built their houses like the white man's they did not settle into a sedentary life. Most of them kept on the move -- into the barren lands, back and forth between Cree and Wollaston Lakes, following the trails of the caribou and trapping as they went. They loved to visit each other, spend a week in one place, then move on. Theirs was a good life, free and happy.
The Hudson's Bay Company revolutionized the life of the Indian. In the very beginning, to establish the fur trade, the Company must have had to persuade the Chipewyans to break up their large groups into which they had gathered because of the Cree and Eskimo wars. Trapping requires small groups that can scatter and cover a wide territory with their separate lines. I used to think about all these changes -- how, for instance, it would have been necessary for the white man to learn the language of the natives in order to communicate with them; and how difficult it must have been to win their confidence (for the Chipewyan did not readily trust anyone but a fellow tribesman). Many white traders must have lost their lives before the new economy was firmly established. There would have been a continual peace-keeping problem, too, for although the situation has improved, the different tribes still do not get along perfectly with each other.
The Hudson's Bay Company took a fatherly interest in the trappers. Of course, it was to its advantage to keep these men supplied with food and other necessities so that they could spend all their time gathering fur from which the Company made its profits. Not only did the Company advance much food and equipment on time, but it kept a great number of traders whose task it was to travel throughout the country, locating the various trapping parties and bringing them whatever they might need to keep going through the winter. During the year of no caribou -- of which I have spoken in detail elsewhere -- fur was a good price but trappers were threatened with starvation because their usual source of meat had failed them. Unless a trader could locate his customer, the trapper had to spend most of his time just getting food to keep his family and dogs alive. In their journeys that winter, some traders had to feed flour and lard to their dogs. Some of the camp traders found their men; others did not. It was a bad year for everyone.
Those old Hudson's Bay trading posts! They were like small oasis scattered throughout the North. They were built of logs and a great deal of hard physical labour went into their construction.
A scaffold was made of lumber sawed by hand. A man on the ground would pass a log up to a man standing on the scaffold -- and the dust from the sawing overhead would float down around the man below, clogging his breathing and sticking in his clothes, irritating his skin like burrs. The saws were eight feet long. I came upon many of them when I first entered that country. The boards that the men sawed were used for floors and shelves. To make the thatched roof, slim poles were strung along the length of the building, every five inches or so. Then hay was gathered into little bundles and tied on the poles the full length of the roof. Then on the hay went another layer of clay, then another bundle of hay, then more clay. Hay bundles were lapped about five inches over each other with the clay holding them and making the roof water-tight. The result was a good roof that would never leak.
Inside the post would be a fireplace made from rocks and clay, although the fireplaces required lots of wood, the rock of which they were made held the heat and warmed the whole building. Some of these old Hudson's Bay Company posts were still standing when I came into the country in 1924, though the occupants had long ago moved to more modern buildings. Before my time, white trappers in the North built themselves similar fireplaces in their own cabins. I saw quite a few of them.
A great tragedy struck the Northland shortly before I came to it. That was the world influenza epidemic at the end of the First World War. It was the worst sickness that had struck the Chipewyans for a century and a half. There must have been many a brave on the trail of caribou who fell sick in the wilderness and was never heard of again. Some villages were almost entirely wiped out. I was told that in one village on Wollaston Lake, only six people survived out of the seventeen families! These survivors deserted their village and left what possessions they had there for other trappers to clean out. The place was considered by the superstitious natives to be haunted, and no Chipewyan ever went back there to trap. A white man who runs a tourist camp on the site of that village today tells me that the Chipewyans still avoid the spot.
While the superstitions of the natives no doubt came to them from the distant past, the love of gambling which also distinguished them was at least partly acquired from the white man. I remember one instance from the year of no caribou when family men were kept constantly busy just trying to feed their families. One native family, who had come north from the Lac La Ronge country where they were used to little store-bought luxuries, sent a young unmarried friend with their four dogs back to Lac La Ronge for a load of supplies. The children were promised a change from fish and meat when the dog team came back again.
Unfortunately, the young man got into a poker game on his way back with the supplies, and he was left in the morning with no supplies and with only three of the dogs. He reached the native family back on the trapline with the diminished dog team and a toboggan empty of all save his one blanket. The children all began to cry. The father, unable to endure their disappointment, hooked up the three exhausted dogs and set off immediately for Lac La Ronge to repair the loss -- a round trip of at least five hundred miles!
Poker playing was a passion with many Northerners, both native and white. They played for traps in the summertime -- tobacco -- muskrat skins in the spring. Running out of valuables, a man might throw a pair of rubbers into the pot. Many a good sleigh dog was lost or won during a poker game. Rifles and shotguns changed hands at a turn of the cards. Anything a gambler could beg, borrow or steal was likely to be put up to back what seemed a lucky hand of cards.