North to Cree Lake

The Trees And The Fires

Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.

My trapline trail from Rat Creek to the Crooked River country led me through stands of almost every kind of native tree to be found in northern Saskatchewan. Beginning at the Rat Creek cabin the trail led through a lush stand of mature white poplar, the most common species of wood in the area. We cut them down for stove fuel, for the wood was clean and burned evenly and quietly. When frozen, the wood split like glass under the axe. When we packed in a supply of stovewood for the night, the distinctive aromatic poplar odour filled the cabin. The wood is off-white in colour, with a brown heart line. The wood smoke of poplar can be used for smoking meat. Seen from a distance poplar smoke indicates human habitation, warmth, and the means whereby a meal can be cooked. Coyote. Passing through the poplar stand, I cut across Rat Creek on the ice. It was here that it first became solid enough to bear my weight. Upstream from this point the ice was always uncertain because warm currents from the lake were constantly wearing it thin. Immense stands of grey willow lined both sides of the creek where coyotes and foxes stalked the many varying hares that frequented the willows. These were the trees from which the Indians had made stretching hoops for beaver pelts in the times when beaver were present in the land. Dead grey willow, we found burns with little smoke. This is the wood frequently used by canoe travellers who make their campfires of willow. This was the haunt of ptarmigan which migrate from the High North in winter. Below the next bend I could see a stand of red willow where moose often browsed. Where my trail entered the big woods on the east bank stood an immense black poplar whose broad leaves shaded the whole swampy spot in summer and seemed to smother the smaller spruce that would surely grow taller than the poplar one day, barring the possibility of a forest fire that might wipe them all out. Having left the creek behind, I skirted a small open muskeg where there were no trees at all, but along the borders of which grew great tamaracks. Beaver Pelts. The lower branches were hung with moss, the trees appeared venerable and nearly dead for the tamarack sheds its needles in autumn. Back at the cabin we had once cut some dead tamarack for stovewood. We soon gave up on it for the wood burned with such intense heat that the top of the stove became slightly warped. I was later warned by Bill Mahoney that tamarack wood will burn out an iron stove in short order.

Beyond the open muskeg I entered an area of giant white spruce, These were over-age trees that were nearly all dead. Many had fallen, so that it was difficult to walk across the giant deadfalls, and the thick heavy branches had to be cut away to make a passable trail. Some of these rotting hulks were more than three feet in diameter at the butt. Here foxes ranged in winter, hunting ruffed grouse and spruce hens. Occasionally, I saw fox tracks in the snow on top of a deadfall where the fox had travelled along the dead log from end to end. Some of the spruce still stood, some were still alive, and here we found the largest living tree that we ever saw in the North-a white spruce, thick, towering, and straight as a die. It was a much better and larger tree than the one from which our dugout canoe had been fashioned for it contained no knots for a long way up. It rose from the ground at least four feet in diameter, branched out in a high symmetrical cone to its pointed top that I guessed was one hundred feet from the ground. It was a tree to notice, for it was without blemish and its immense size was unusual. It stood far above the surrounding trees.

A little way beyond there stood a strip of jack pines, straight and very tall. This had once been a suitable prime tie-cutting area, but there had never been any logging done here and now the wood was ripe, overage, and showed signs of rot. Here Ed Benoit was to set up his railroad-tie-cutting operation in our last winter in the country.

Coming out of this ancient forest I entered an area of second-growth poplar. as thick around as my forearm and shooting skyward at a rate of three or four feet a year, for they grew in fertile soil and were well on their way to forest recovery after a brush fire that had blackened this section some time back when I had been a little boy.

The poplar growth gave way to black spruce as I approached a great open muskeg over toward Voisin Lake. Here black spruce grew so thickly that one must follow the game track to get through the trees, the terrain so hummocky that footing became uncertain when blanketed by deep snow. The black spruce diminished in size until I reached the edge of the open muskeg, where the trees were only a few inches high. Sombre islands of tall black spruce could be seen far out in the great swamp, ideal habitat for the ever moving woodland caribou.

From out in the centred of the open muskeg I could see, back in the lush timber stands, the tops of great white spruce that raised their crests against the skyline in saw-toothed profile, far above the lesser growths of poplar. In winter their snowy crowns rose starkly white against a sapphire sky just after a heavy snow and before the winds had swept them bare.

Here in the country far off the beaten paths of men, the logger's axe had not yet been swung nor had the whine of his Swede saw been heard. The chain saw had not been introduced in those days. Hand-sawing and hand-chopping was the order of the logger's day.

At the north end of the muskeg I came upon a stand of mixed poplars, spruce, and birch. Trees. Birch was one of our most useful trees; from its wood we made snowshoe frames, axe handles, cabin furniture, paddles, and in later years the dog toboggans that held our trail hardware, bedding and food. The wood was tough, resilient, and durable. The bark had long been used by Indians as an outer covering for canoes. The bark is obtained from mature trees at the spring season when the sap rises, and the tree is debarked in great sheets. I have lit many a campfire with birchbark which burns furiously. I noticed dead birch that had all rotted away, yet the bark was intact and seemed impervious to weathering. I talked to a man who had spent some time timber-cruising back in Big River forest reserve and who stated that he had come upon a stand of white birch that were as big around as gasoline drums. I have thrilled to the vivid yellow birch leaves in autumn. The teamsters around Big River had their horse-drawn sled runners made of steel-shod birch, mill-sawed from the butt of the tree, for the grain sometimes curves at the base of the birch. The trail led through alder bottoms. The wood is so delicate in texture that I could cut down a three-inch tree with one hand chop of my belt axe. When the blade cut clean through, the inner wood was pale yellow but it turned a deep orange after a few days.

Occasionally I passed stands of balsam, our favourite tree. When camping out overnight, we were often favoured by the presence of a balsam grove from which we cut the flat branches on which to sleep. The aromatic qualities of the balsam tree are strong and heady. It was said that the balsam gum, found inside the lump that forms just under the outer bark, is used for medicinal purposes by the Indians. The white man uses it in medicinal pastilles and patent cough cures.

The trapline route through the woods ended where Rat Creek joins Crooked River. The return journey was on the creek ice, a narrow open road between the grey willows and the timber towering on each side.

We missed very much the lush and flourishing timber stands when we moved to Cree Lake. Here the bush was smaller, thinner, and monotonously the same-jack pine and black spruce. Singularly lacking was the topsoil that is essential to poplar growth. Only in the farthest recess of Long Bay did I see poplar growing in this country: three trees only, about three inches in diameter and ten feet tall.

Jack pine grew here in different stages from very old trees to new seedlings that sprang from the ground in places of recent burnings. In some places new growth grew several feet tall and so thickly that a man had much difficulty walking through them. Here the bull moose, when alarmed, laid his great antlers back and charged through like a juggernaut scattering branches in a wide wake.

Some stunted birch was on Cree Lake's shore and on the islands. In certain favoured places, I cut birch for snowshoe frames and we found them of sufficient size to make toboggans, but the trees had to be found, sometimes after much searching and far travel.

Merchantable timber for sawlogs did not exist here. The country was covered with much younger growth and in mature jack pine stands I saw few trees that would yield more than three or four railroad ties. Some areas had thin stands of trees because the soil was too poor even for jack pines. These trees grow very slowly for I have counted sixty-five annular rings in the end of a jack pine log that was only nine inches in diameter.

Down in the southward curve of lake one in an obscure bay there is a remote and small creek. The mouth of this stream was difficult to see from the lake and we came upon it by accident. It meandered between hills and linked some small lakes to the main body.

At the upper end of this mile-long stream stood a dead jack pine. It had been dead so long that all the bark had long ago fallen off and decayed. Only two main branches remained near the top and reached gauntly to the sky. The wood had weathered to a silvery grey. Thus, dry and bald, the wood had checked along its grain that spiraled like a stripe on a barber pole, all the way from its butt to its top. It stood now a dead and dry stick about forty feet high. It is what we call a dry snag.

By the thickness of the tree just above its buttresses I judged that this tree had been a seedling some 250 years previous. Cut off at the base I could undoubtedly count more than 200 annular rings. How long it had been dead could be determined, for new green growth of jack pines around it had trees that were probably fifty years old. This would put the beginning of the dead tree somewhere in the year 1700.

So the jack pine had emerged from the sand as an insignificant, green, feathery shoot, one inch long in its first year. Then it had grown and flourished, adding to its stature and girth as the years passed. Here it had grown for a couple of centuries, but the poor soil, harsh winds, and tremendous cold of winter had caused it to form a twisted grain and to taper sharply so that it never acquired the tall straight sawlog shape that is seen in more favoured latitudes.

The tree had grown through 800 changes of season. Two hundred springs when crows fly overhead and sometimes lit on its top branches. Then sudden spring thaws swelled the little creek that ran a few feet away and the water swirled down to lake one. The summers were lonely and quiet. Occasionally, a pair of crossbills twittered in its branches, When it grew tall, the tree was frequented as a lookout for bald eagles. The silence was sometimes shattered by the crash-dive of beavers. Loons passed over each summer on their travels from lake to lake. Then the little valley was hot and humid, the blackflies and mosquitoes were present in great numbers. A beaver had once cut a small notch above one of the buttresses and the scar was still visible. It had been diverted somehow from continuing its work. Sometimes in the autumn a bull moose came rampaging along the creek, to disappear and return no more. Otters were now travelling upstream, to a winter haven in the unknown lakes far to the west. Leaping Fish. In the quiet of evening, the splash of leaping fish could be heard. In winter, the temperatures tumbled so that the little creek froze solid to its bottom, the only stream I had seen do so. At this time, the red fox, resplendent in its winter robe, seemed to float silently by on its hunt for snowshoe rabbits. Wolves were ever present and passed through the valley each winter. When the caribou over ran the country in the early years, they where everywhere so that the creek became a pathway where the snow was packed down by countless hooves. In the spring that followed, the melting snow water ran off on top of the creek ice, eventually melting it down to the frozen bed.

A game trail followed the south bank of the creek and passed by the base of the tree. In places the trail had been cut down a foot deep in the sphagnum moss over the years by travelling bear, moose, caribou, and lesser animals. Except for the time the caribou were in the country there were few animals in the area, for it was somehow a harsh, unproductive part of the land.

The tree had been killed by fire, The tree bole had been filled with resin that had burned out at the time of the forest fire, and charcoal could still be seen in a crevice. Other large dead logs lay on the hill slopes, all in various stages of decay. Jack pines decay very slowly in this country, but eventually the roots rot and the tree falls. From the outside the bole softens and turns to dust, the resinous knots disintegrate only years after the tree has crumbled into yellow dirt that leeches into the sand with the summer rains and does not contribute notably to the fertility of the soil.

We saw no axe marks of previous visitors to this site, although we looked all about. It is certain that Indian hunters had explored the little creek throughout the years, yet for all the time the tree had been standing it was possible that we were the first white men to stand at that spot.

Occasionally, we found big jack pines that carried one or more burls-large wooden lumps that form on the side of a tree trunk and may be larger than a man's head. Along one of our bush trails, on one tree, there was a great lump the size of a watermelon five or six feet from the ground. Ab worked on it with his belt axe and roughly carved the shape of a man's head, complete with facial features. In time, it became something of a landmark and, as we approached it from certain angles, bore a striking resemblance to a human head. As the years passed, the healing resin dripped over the scars, solidified and sealed the bared so that it preserved the face from weathering. Jack pine burls, were many years later sought out in our national parks, and sections of such trees were cut, peeled of bark, and varnished to be made into strikingly ornate sign posts within the park boundaries.

In growths of old black spruce we found certain frost-riven trees where spruce gum formed in rows of lumps as big as the end of a man's thumb to seal over the split in the bark. These lumps, we found, could be chewed and, after the first disagreeable bitter taste was worked out, became an acceptable, if flavourless, chewing gum with a delicate pink colour.

In the Cree Lake region there were many steep-sided hills whose crests overlooked vast expanses of wooded country. Any of these hills would have made a base for a fire-lookout tower yet in those days I had never seen a fire tower in the country north of Churchill River. Bush fires were not fought in this area but burned themselves out when the whims of the wind and weather so dictated. As soon as the snow melted, and until the snow returned in the fall, we were ever mindful of bush fires. Reminders came in the form of the smell of woodsmoke from distant fires or smoke palls when the summer sun was a red ball in the sky. Sometimes we watched smoke rise from afar and saw it streak the sky in the distance. A fire at the Stoney Narrows area smoldered and burned most of one summer. Luckily there were few days of high winds and eventually a three-day drizzle put it out. A much larger conflagration far to the west of Cree Lake brought smoke clouds to our area one fall and continued to do so until the first snow fell.

Among the creeping smoky flames of a bush fire, I saw red squirrels dead upon the ground in areas close to the flames, but they were - apparently they had been suffocated by smoke. We were struck by the number of old burnings in the land. Jack pines in various stages of growth could be found in all locations indicating that fires had burned and re-burned the bush from time immemorial. Very few people have ever heard of the fire at Sandy Lake. This lake is marked as Gwillam Lake on the Saskatchewan map Map. and it lies on the canoe route from the Churchill River to Cree Lake, and in the heart of Saskatchewan's northern wilderness. The person who first referred to the North as "God's Country" must have been inspired by a sight like that of Sandy Lake in summer. I saw it first in 1935, when it was a place of rare natural beauty, a lake about five miles long and shaped somewhat like the continent of South America. Its clear blue water, was ringed with fine, long, clean, sandy beaches. The land rose above the lake, where mature dark-green evergreen forests covered the hills in a thick stand. There are a great many lakes in northern Saskatchewan, but often, by reason of recent fires, they look bleak, desolate, and forbidding. Sandy Lake had about it the look of idyllic beauty and profound peace. The Hudson's Bay Company had once operated a trading post on Sandy Lake's west side. The post had been closed for a few years, but several of the buildings were still there and painted white. They stood out against the green backdrop of forest clad hills, serving the canoe traveller as a landmark. It can be said to the credit of the company that no damage had been done to detract from the lake's beauty and charm. Sandy Lake lay then, in solitude and in peace, a delight to the eye of the occasional traveller as he moved through its length.

Ab and I had travelled the route several times as we moved each year in and out of our trapping grounds west of Cree Lake. We always arranged to stop at Sandy Lake to rest up after tracking in the rapids and labouring over the portages. Here we regained our energies for the road ahead. Sandy Lake always appeared the same: secluded, peaceful, and wonderfully clean and beautiful.

Sandy Lake lies within the area where reindeer moss has superseded grass for a ground covering. The moss is spongy when wet, but in a prolonged dry spell of summer the moss becomes hard and brittle, crunches underfoot, will burn readily and creates a torchy fire hazard. Here the moss was old and thick and formed ideal feeding grounds for the barren ground caribou. The region was at approximate southern limits of the caribou migration.

In July of 1937 Ab and I returned to Cree Lake by our freighter canoe and outboard motor. Travelling through the Deer River country, we neared the place where the Sandy River forks into the Deer. (Ithingo and Little Deer River, site of Halvor Ausland's trapping cabin in the early 1920's.)

We had made considerable progress through green-timbered country up the Sandy River when, coming around a long bend, we noticed brown and yellow stains on the hill sides. We knew well that this condition is caused by ground fires where the fire creeps through the moss and scorches the pine needles enough to turn their colour. Since the fire was out, we decided that there had been a small fire here recently. As we progressed upstream, however, the truth slowly dawned upon us as bend after bend in the river told the same story. Then we came upon immense stands of burnt pine and spruce, for the fire had climbed to the treetops and raced with strong winds. Finally, when we rounded on into Sandy Lake that evening, the appalling truth struck home.

The rolling hills as far as we could see in all directions were black and dead. Forest Fire. The fire that had raced through the timber, pushed on by high winds, had wisked away all the needles and lesser branches leaving the naked boles as black and shiny as if they had all been sprayed with tar. Because the moss had all burned from the ground great patches of bare sand could be seen on the hill sides.

The site of the Hudson's Bay Company buildings was empty. We beached our canoe here and found the perimeter of each building to be marked only by rows of nails, hinges, and fused glass for the rains had washed away all the ashes.

We climbed the hill behind the old trading-post site. As far as we could see to the north, it was the same blackness, silence, and death. We could now realize something of the magnitude of the conflagration. At its height the blaze roared northward, flaming branches thrown out of the main fire to kindle new blazes ahead. Since we had seen no smoke pall in the south, the wind had probably drifted it as far as the tundras of Keewatin where it would be recognized by Eskimos as woodsmoke in a land where there are no trees.

The red squirrels that had chattered and scolded us on former visits were silent now for they lay cindered on the ground. No birds sang. Out on the lake there were no waterfowl at all. There could be no foxes, bears, moose, or any land animals in the whole black region for there was no food for those that escaped, should they return. There would be, in winter, no caribou here for decades, except if they passed through seeking their former lush feeding grounds. A grim lifeless desolation existed here.

We walked back to the canoe with curious feelings of despondency as when you lose a trusted friend. Each time a black branch touched our clothing it left a dirty streak on trousers, shirt, or cap. Sandy Lake was now a place to be shunned.

We did not tarry there that evening but proceeded upstream for seven or eight miles. The river ran through ravaged woods all the way. On our arrival at Little Sandy Lake which is aptly named Solitude Lake on the map, we found that this miniature of Sandy Lake had fared little better from the fire although on one point a few trees stood intact, somehow miraculously spared. Near the Highland Portage the fire had suddenly stopped its advance. A miracle had saved our trapping grounds on Cree Lake's west side. Snag River was in flood, a heavy, sudden, summer downpour had vanquished the red, roaring, ripping monster.

On a hot, sultry summer night, we tried to sleep in our tent set up in an open grassy spot in front of the Hudson's Bay Company's store at Ile-a-la-Crosse. A summer electric storm grumbled and fussed over on the east side of the lake. Lightning flashed and peals of thunder were heard in the distance. The storm passed over and only a few drops of rain splattered on the tent canvass. Next morning when I awoke and looked out over the lake, I saw three smoke columns rising from the bush on the lake's east side.

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