It was in the spring of 1924, that Fred Darbyshire and Ed Theriau first arrived in the little logging town of Big River. This settlement, little more than a village was at that time the end of the railway that ran north from Prince Albert, and the base and jumping-off point for many trappers, traders, prospectors and commercial fishermen who made their living in the northern wilderness. Fred and Ed came to Big River to join these pioneers. They had previously done some amateur trapping in the Pasquia Hills, a wilderness area bordering the east-central farmlands of the province. So rugged is this region that it remains a wilderness today, more than fifty years later.
The two young men found the isolated and wooded hill country to their liking. Plodding on snowshoes through the deep snows on the bush trails, they had become fascinated with the taking of wild animals for their furs. Eventually, the far northern wilderness claimed their particular interest. They had decided to go to Big River, to proceed from there as far as possible into the northern hinterland, and there to establish their winter traplines. Before heading north, Fred and Ed bought an eighteen-foot, secondhand freighter canoe, the canvas covering had rotted and fallen away. There was only light, eight-ounce canvas available in their local store, and no one in their home neighbourhood had ever re-covered a canoe, but their friends had lots of advice to offer on how it should be done. Finally, the job was finished, paint was applied, and, although now unprofessional in appearance, the canoe did not leak when it was launched in a local creek.
On their arrival in Big River, Fred and Ed bought a good-quality small "prospector" canoe, and such hardware, clothing, food and assorted equipment as one local storekeeper recommended. His list was long, and although everything proved to be useful, his inventory was suggested with an eye to sales volume as well as to their real needs.
As usual in the summer-time, there were many men in Big River who had had experience in the North: trappers, traders, loggers, fishermen and freighters; they were enjoying a long summer holiday in town. Fred and Ed soon became acquainted with many of these men. They were good listeners. eagerly seeking information and advice about the northern wilderness which was freely given by anyone whom they asked. One middle-aged man seemed to speak with more authority than the others. They singled him out and listened carefully to his suggestions.
"You have no canoeing experience." he stated bluntly. "There is great danger awaiting you in the rapids of the big rivers in the north. I strongly advise you, as soon as you see a rapid, to get out and wade your canoes down that rapid, or portage everything around it. When you wade down a rapid, take only one canoe at a time, one man holding each end. You will find that most of the rapids are not too deep at this time of the year."
Fred and Ed had planned to descend the Churchill River to a place where a good-sized stream entered it from the North. But to this, their new friend replied: "The Churchill River is much too dangerous for you to travel. I know of two greenhorns who once swamped their canoe at Dipper Rapids on the Churchill. All they ever found of them was the stern of their canoe. Don't try it. You might get drowned.
"There is, however, a canoe route into the North which you can follow with little danger. You descend the Crooked River to the Beaver River. Then stop at the Beauval Mission and ask directions of the Brothers there, who will direct you to Snake Lake, via Lac La Plonge, Tippo Lake and Tippo Creek. From Snake Lake, after you have more experience, you can travel anywhere in the North. Fred and Ed accepted all this advice as gospel. Their new friend had thrown a great scare into them, deliberately, and for their own good. This man was leaving town the next day. Before he went, he sold Fred and Ed three sleigh dogs, which he convinced them were essential, if they were to become successful trappers. The price was thirty dollars for each dog.
Fred and Ed were indeed novices to canoe travel. Now they launched their canoes into Crooked (Cowan) Lake, the shoreline of which borders the town of Big River. They paddled about, learning such rudiments of the art if you paddle on one side, the bow of the canoe will swing over the other way; you must step carefully into the centre when getting into or out of the craft to avoid capsizing; and, that the canoe must not be resting on the bottom when you load it or board it.
One day in late July, they loaded their goods and the three pups and paddled away from Big River, heading down the long, narrow lake, which was then the highway to the North. The canoes, not properly loaded, were top-heavy, for in their ignorance Fred and Ed had placed some of the heavier cases of food on top. But the weather held fine, and after paddling for two long days, watching all signs of civilization vanish, they arrived at the north end of the lake, thirty miles from Big River, where it was drained by the Crooked (Cowan) River.
Many years before, the logging company at Big River had thrown up a crude earthen dam here so that the water level in the lake could be maintained, and booms of logs easily towed to the large sawmill in town. Now the logging company was defunct, the dam had been abandoned, and the lake level was so low that a mere trickle of water drained through the breach in the dam. No one in Big River had mentioned to the two travellers the possibility that they might encounter low water on the Crooked River. But when they looked across the old earthen dam, down into the river bed, they saw nothing but rocks.
Cowan Lake Dam from the Crooked River side.
The dam is closed and no water is flowing into the Crooked River.
Inside of the Cowan Lake Dam outlet, the gate is closed
Just wide enough to allow scows and boats to pass through.
View of Crooked River from the dam looking north.
The dam Gate is closed so there is no water in the river bed.
This is where Ed and Fred spent so much time and effort
to get to the Beaver River with their canoe and supplies.
Crooked River looking north from the dam, full of
water when the dam gate is open.
Scow on Crooked River looking north from the dam. No problem
navigating the river when the dam gate is open.
At the dam Fred and Ed made their very first portage, the first of hundreds they were to make on this journey. They put the canoes into a shallow pool that lay below the dam and waded down to the first gravel bar that blocked their way. Here they unloaded the small canoe, carried it over the gravel bar to the next pool, carried the freight over the bar, and reloaded the canoe. Then they repeated the process with the large canoe. Already both men realized that they were freighting loads much too heavy for this low water and that a great deal of labour lay ahead.
The three pups proved to be a particular nuisance. Always, they required to be watched, for they were inclined to follow game trails away from the river and became lost. There was much time wasted when the men had to drop their work and call for their thirty-dollar dogs. Once Fred had to walk back and release one pup from some trapper's forgotten snare. Furthermore, the growing pups were ravenous and had to be fed. Ed angled for and caught, jackfish and pickerel in the deeper pools among the rocks.
In those days there were many deer and moose to be seen along the river banks, but Fred and Ed did not try to shoot any big game for they did not know how to preserve the meat, and they had been trained at home not to abide waste. Had they known how they might well have shot a small deer, dried the meat and used it as they struggled along, rather than having hungry dogs stealing camp food at every opportunity.
They laboured on, in the oppressive heat of late summer complete with the swarms of flies and mosquitoes. One day, after dragging the large canoe over a pile of rocks and replacing it in the water on the other side, they noticed that the canoe was taking water. The eight-ounce canvas covering was too light, and a small hole had been cut open below the waterline. Fortunately, their supplier in Big River had sold them a can of Amberoid, an excellent, waterproof glue and they were able to dry the canoe and apply a canvas patch. Soon thereafter, the small canoe, despite its tough factory finish, also required patching, and many more, similar repairs were made as the days passed. Some of their bags of flour, rolled oats and beans became wet in the leaking craft and had to be carefully dried out time-consuming process.
Ironically, it began to rain, but not heavily enough to raise the level of the river. A fine drizzle forced Fred and Ed to spend two days and three nights under their tent. The swamps near the river exuded a horde of mosquitoes and an assortment of clinging and biting flies, so voracious, that the usual smudge had little or no effect as a repellent. Commercial insect spray was not part of the supplies of the two travellers, and any time they walked in the bush they were attacked by ravenous sandflies that swarmed about their heads, drew blood on any exposed parts of their bodies, and burrowed through their woollen socks to inflict their burning, itching bites. Mercifully, these tiny sandflies seemed to be inactive after sunset, and, as the merchant at Big River had included two mosquito bars in the equipment he sold them, the men were at least able to rest at night.
When the water is high, a man with a canoe can run the Crooked River from the dam at Crooked Lake to the Beaver River in five or six hours. It took Fred and Ed two weeks to cover the same distance. There were occasions when they camped at dusk and, looking upstream, could see their camp of the previous night.
At one of these campsites, Ed discovered the spot where some lone traveller had camped in the previous spring. The campfire had been small and neatly laid out in an open space among white poplars. Across the fire, the woodsman had placed a stout poplar pole, pointed at one end and thrust under a spruce root, so that the other notched end angled upward and could hold the bale of a pail or pot. Ed kindled his campfire there, hung his tea pail on the pole, and studied the layout closely, learning a bit of woodcraft which, with variations, he would employ ever after.
At last, they broke out into the Beaver River, sunburned, fly-bitten, ragged and thoroughly punished. By this time the big canoe was a patchwork of repairs. They gratefully entered the Beaver River, which flowed in great quantity compared to the nearly dry creek they were leaving. The river was also much wider here so that the wind swept away the blood-hungry insects which tormented them in the narrow confines of the Crooked River and dispelled much of the oppressive heat they had suffered previously.
With the help of the current, they moved along quickly, wading down rapids and fishing below them to feed the dogs-for they were already learning to identify the good fishing locations. The Beaver River was even running relatively low-it was a year of record-low water in the North. Accordingly, Fred and Ed dared to run their canoes, for the first time, down some of the rapids and found that it could be done fairly easily, for there were navigable channels among the rocks.
When they arrived at the Beauval Mission, they enquired how they might proceed to Lac La Plonge. The people at the mission advised them that there was only one way to be hauled, by horse team and wagon, over the ten-mile trail to the south shore of the lake. Their teamster, Brother August, transported the canoes, freight, dogs and the travellers themselves in one load. But when he learned that Fred and Ed planned to proceed to Snake Lake, he shook his head solemnly, his black beard moving from side to side: "The water in the creeks is much too low," he warned. "You will never get to Snake Lake by this route."
Fred and Ed then changed their plans. They decided that they would go only partway on this route, and then build a cabin and spend the winter trapping somewhere on the watercourse leading to Snake Lake. They bade Brother August farewell and launched their canoes on Lac La Plonge, heading for the north-east shore where the good brother had told them, they would find the portage trail to Tippo Lake.
Out on the Lake, there was no wind and the paddlers could travel steadily in a straight line for the far shore. Already the men had learned the long, steady paddle stroke of experienced canoe men and Ed had picked up the trick of switching sides with his paddle without interrupting his rhythm. They found the Tippo Lake portage with ease.
This portage is three or four miles long and follows a level trail which runs through a stand of jack pine. The men packed one load apiece to the far end of the portage. Then they decided to stash the large freighter canoe there on the shore of Lac La Plonge-it was just too heavy to pack for such a long distance. They further decided to cache some of their food and gear at a small lake on the portage; they would take only the small canoe and essential gear and goods to explore Tippo Creek for a suitable cabin site. A cache of logs was hurriedly constructed and covered with a tarpaulin.
It was now well into August, and Fred and Ed noticed that the nights were becoming cooler and the days shorter.
They were thus spurred on their way to build their cabin before the trapping season officially opened on the first of November. They took a light load and their dogs and paddled across Tippo Lake. They found the outlet of the Lake, but when they entered the creek they found, to their great dismay, that the stream bed was choked with entangled grey willows and quite dry except for a pool of stagnant, grass-grown water here and there. At first, they attempted to Portage from pool to pool as they had done on the Crooked River. Finally, they concluded that it was impossible to canoe at all on this creek: if they were to find a navigable waterway, they must portage everything from where they were now stranded.
The men ruefully realized that the advice of their friend in Big River, although valid in a season of high water, had proven misleading under the present conditions. By now they did not doubt that they should have proceeded from Beauval to Ile-a-la-Crosse Lake, and thence down the Churchill River, despite the rapids and their inexperience.
They began to portage the canoe and their goods through the bush, following the general direction of the creek northward through a burned-over area where they had to chop away windfalls or step over them. They spent a particularly gruelling week here, carrying their freight so far, then returning for the canoe. They discovered that the Tippo Creek sandflies swarmed in even larger clouds than those at the Crooked River and were every bit as ravenous.
One day they emerged at a spot where a flowing stream, the Brush River, joined Tippo Creek and led off through green timber toward the North. Where the two creeks joined, they found a level site where a fine stand of white spruce could supply the logs they needed for a cabin. Here they decided to make their camp for the winter. Their long hard journey was over.