January 1947 - A letter from Frank Fisher reads in part: "I have had several good years working your former traplines and have netted well over two thousand dollars on the year on the average.... "....the country hereabouts has had many bush fires through the years. Last summer a big fire burned a stretch of the Karras River and Albert's House...."
Frank writes only once more, this time from Ile-a-la-Crosse:
"I have moved from Cree Lake to Ile-a-la-Crosse Lake where I am now mink ranching...."Commercial fishing companies have built freezing plants on some of the big lakes including Cree Lake."
By sheer luck, I meet Johnny and his wife on the street in Banff Alberta. We are all on holiday. Johnny has become a top car salesman. Matt, he says, made a complete recovery in a few months following shock therapy. He is married, has children, and is paying a lot of income tax. He is in the real estate business in a large western Canadian city.
This is a dry summer and bush fires rage throughout northern Canada. I find a small map in a newspaper which marks in black the areas of all major fires of Saskatchewan's Northland for that summer. By far the largest is an immense black blob a long distance west of Cree Lake which signifies a tremendous holocaust that extends eastwards to the headwaters of Karras River. This burned-over area is so large that the whole area of Cree lake will easily fit into it.
The latest government survey on the barren ground caribou estimates that there are only 250,000 left in Canada. In small numbers, they still trickle down as far as Cree Lake when the lakes are frozen over and their migrating urge brings them that far south. Their former massive feeding range has been cut tremendously by fires. The caribou moss takes many years to recover.
A road originally planned to link Prince Albert with Uranium City via the east side of Cree Lake ends in the bush north of the Churchill River. The report is that road-building costs were out of all proportion to the original estimates. Although aircraft fly back and forth to Cree Lake it is relatively free from civilization. No road has reached Cree lake.
A sleek jet airliner owned by Canadian Pacific Airlines approaches Tokyo International Airport. Coming in over the water the craft is almost on the landing strip when it dips suddenly, bounces off a retaining wall, then crashes to the runway and burns. Among the dead is C.P.A.'s senior pilot, Captain Cecil N. MacNeal.
I returned to Rat Creek. With a friend, I was in the country to do some pickerel fishing. We motored up from the south on surfaced roads all the way to Meadow lake. In the long twilight as we headed out of town I saw a roadway sign-"Cree Lake Fly-in Fishing Camp"- then we were past the sign and on the gravelled highway to Green lake.
Green Lake village has not grown appreciably. There are a few stores, lodging places, and boats for hire for the sports fishermen. The highway forks here, northward you can motor to Beauval, Ile-a-la-Crosse, Buffalo Narrows and Portage La Loche. The route east and south leads to Big River and Prince Albert.
The Green river looked almost the same as it had thirty years before when Ab, Frank Fisher, Martin Brustad and I had ascended it from the Beaver River and had our canoes hauled overland to Crooked Lake. The grey willows along the banks seemed no larger, the river ran as quietly, horses and cattle grazed along the banks as they did the first time we passed through.
All this I recall as we rode downstream in the early morning in our rented motorboat as far as the junction of the green and Beaver Rivers, advertised now as excellent pickerel-fishing grounds. We anchored just off the Beaver River shore. After an hour we had been joined by seven other boats. On his third cast, my friend hooked a pickerel. We had no trouble at all catching our legal limit that morning-eight fish apiece. They ran about two pounds each, the same size as those I had once caught on a still summer evening at the quiet bend below our cabin on Rat Creek.
We had been assigned to a red-painted cabin by our host in Green lake village. Next door a cabin was occupied by a newly married couple from Elma, Iowa. Others in for the fishing were affluent, middle-aged Saskatchewan farmers, with their middle-aged wives, and sporting the latest in water transportation right down to spanking new blaze orange life jackets which they wore without fail when afloat in their fibreglass boats with overpowered motors. It struck me then that Ab and I had never owned a life jacket, much less wore one in all our travels in the Northland!
After another morning at the junction and with our limit again I took the fish to Virginia's filleting plant for processing and freezing. Virginia, of Indian ancestry, was so adept at filleting that she could do a fish in twenty-two seconds, I was told. Then I suggested to my friend that we take a drive to Crooked Lake Dam, then take the Dore Lake road as far as Rat creek.
Past open farmland and over surprisingly good roads, we drove through fine stands of white poplar. We soon covered the nineteen miles to the dam. The last few miles were through poplar saplings, for fire had ravaged the old timber that Ab and I had once known. This lay rotting on the ground. A fine concrete dam holds back the waters of Crooked lake. I noticed remnants of two previous earth and timber dams, one that existed in 1932 and a replacement built in 1937. Earth fills at each end still jutted into the lake.
The Saskatchewan Department of Natural Resources, called locally DNR, has constructed a fine tourist campsite at the dam.
It is at an open spot, exactly where Bill Mahoney's several buildings stood. Bill's old home cabin was still there, windows boarded over, the only building to remain. No resident dam keeper lives there now.
As we looked over the site we saw that the young poplars grew straight and vigorously and the seedling spruce were already emerging on the forest floor. I found many beer and coke bottles strewn about. I gathered some and threw them into the empty DNR garbage can. We drove north then in a big arc on the Dore Lake road. We stopped at the wooden bridge that spans Rat Creek.
The creek, I was pleased to note, had not suffered the fire scourge since I had last seen it. The trees had become fat with more than thirty additional annual rings. Downstream was a big beaver dam that spanned the creek from bank to bank. Beaver-felled timber was scattered all about the place. Even as we stood on the bridge, a mature beaver appeared onshore, quickly cut off a poplar sapling and swam off towing it downstream.
I walked up the creek for a short distance. The same kind of mosquitoes stung the back of my neck and behind my ears. About five miles away was the site of the old cabin. How I wished that I had time to hike up there and look it over! Was there any visible evidence of the cabin? Had the fires destroyed the fine timber? I hoped to learn the answers on another day. Right now it was evening and we had a commitment in Meadow lake next morning.
It was early morning when I picked up the pickerel fillets at Virginia's. Harry, her husband, asked me in to visit for a few minutes. his name, Harry Morin, rang a bell in my memory. I remembered him as trapping muskrats on Rat Creek one spring. I mentioned Rat Creek and our cabin of long ago. Then his face lit up.
"I remember you," he said with emphasis on the you.
He told me that old Red Iron had died some fifteen years previously and Harry Maurice whom, by the grace of God, I had not shot as a moose, had died a natural death. Our leave-taking was filmed by the young couple from Iowa.
On our way out at a Green Lake service station I saw young Indian men and women sauntering about from house to house or just loitering on the highway bridge, much the same as they had done in 1936. In those days the girls wore gaily coloured shawls and vividly coloured long dresses, the boys in white shirts, red neckerchiefs, and blue serge pants. Now boys had hippie hair and clothing. These people spent much of their time in the adjoining cafe at the coffee bar and playing the jukebox and pinball machine.
On a fishing trip to Dore Lake I talked with Harry Husak.
"I came to Big River in 1928," began Harry. "I spent many years at Beauval and finally bought this place." The "place" consisted of a dozen run-down buildings including a house, a store, warehouses, and tourist cabins. He had boats and motors and guides for hire, catering to sports fishermen and moose hunters in season. He told me that he did some mink ranching and ran a trapline in winter. His eyes sparkled happily as I named mutual acquaintances of the old days. He warmed up to a lively recollection of the past. Then he expressed some views on the future and on the present:
"If anyone had told me twenty years ago that a highway would be built to Dore Lake I would have told him to go have his head examined. Honestly, I miss the old days when a hundred horse teams in a string could be seen on the Dore Lake ice, hauling fish to market in Big River. Then the Indians hereabouts were a fine people. Right now I have five American fishermen waiting for my one available Indian guide to sober up. Yesterday he took them fishing and I paid him fifteen dollars. Today he is staying in his shack with a couple of jugs of wine. He slipped into Ile-a-la-Crosse last night over the bush road to the highway in his car. The opening of the roads has hit these Indians hard.
With my son Jim, just home from university for the summer recess, I motored to Big River. At a service station there I studied the telephone directory for familiar names. I found just three, among them Alex, a member of the tie-camp crew of 1935. I had had no contact with him since until I dialled his number.
"Alex, this is Art Karras."
Dead silence at the other end of the line, then: "Is it really you?"
We met and had a long talk. He said that access to the Rat Creek cabin was possible by car in dry weather, by turning off the Dore Lake road and onto the old road which he had helped cut out to haul ties over to Crooked Lake. He had driven in himself, about five years previously, he stated. The old cabin still stood at that time. He judged that we would have to walk from there for the ground was currently very wet with the melting snows.
Over the flat, wide highway, where it had taken Ab and I a day and a half to walk to town in the old days, we covered the same distance by car in less than forty minutes. I parked the car where the bush road led in the general direction of Rat Creek. This turned out to be a dead-end logging trail as did a couple of others that we tried. At last, we struck out through overage poplar and spruce and came out on Rat Creek, two miles below the site of the cabin. Moose were still in the country for we saw their droppings and we saw a yearling feeding among the red willows. A small white-tailed deer watched us approach, then dashed into covering brush.
The creek looked much as it had in past, except that the water level was so low that it hardly ran at all. After a mile of walking, we came upon two railroad ties, weathered to a silvery grey, but otherwise sound, and caught up in a clump of grey willows. These were Ed's ties without a doubt deposited here during high water long ago. The log bridge had vanished. As we rounded a bend of the creek I saw a familiar landmark.
Across the creek was the little hill where the black bear had died after Ab shot it.
Just around the bend was the site of the cabin but we saw nothing of it from the creek. Then we climbed the slope and there it was just a couple of tiers of logs remained about its perimeter. I was amazed at the condition of the logs for they were hard and white on the inside walls as they had been when we constructed the cabin in 1933. The log that had lain above the door was intact, even to the neatly cut section to allow the door to fit snugly, Ab's handiwork easily recognized.
The reason for the gradual disappearance of the cabin became apparent. To one side stood a small board shack. I looked inside. a few traps hung on the walls and a tin stove stood in one corner. Muskrat-stretching boards were scattered about. A pair of rubbers, containing insoles made of grass had been discarded in a corner. The owner was absent. I noticed that he had been sawing off a piece off poplar log from the old cabin each time his stove required fuel.
The debris scattered about proved that the cabin had been occupied much of the time throughout the years. I found three burned out stoves. I hunted for the remnants of our cast-iron stove but found no part of it. The place had the unmistakable disarray of an Indian camp and had been used as a base for hunting and trapping operations.
The view from the cabin site out towards Rat Lake had changed little. The same cattail beds are there. The points of land that jut into the creek and once were covered with tall poplars are now dominated by taller spruce, with Rat Lake lying in the distance.
We sat on the old cabin logs and rested from our long walk. I pointed out to Jim the spot where Ab had felled the giant moose, only to lose him in the swamps. I pointed out the base of the slope whereas a youth, I had seen a bull caribou pass by while I looked out the cabin window. We both fell silent. In my mind's eye, I once again saw Ab swinging his axe among the big poplars and recalled his booming call - "Timber!" - as the treetop quivered just before it swayed and crashed to the ground.
I was brought back to reality by the sound of a jet aircraft ripping by above the heavy overcast.
I led Jim back downstream. A short walk and I pointed out the remnants of the moonshiner's cabin. Only the earth embankment about its perimeter remained. I recognized a few individual trees, now twice their former girth. A poplar stump, the tree of which Ab had felled when we feared it might one day fall upon the cabin roof, now protruded black through the tall grass. A thick clump of spruce only six feet tall stood where my bunk had been.
The remains of a rusted-out tobacco tin lay on the cabin site. We found cruel man-made scars in the land. Logging roads had been bulldozed into prime timber stands and the great spruce which mule deer had frequented had long since been hauled to the mill in Big River. Bulldozers have cut away the ancient moss beds right down to the yellow clay.
In front of the poplar cabin, brush and topsoil had been pushed into the creek to give trucks a roadbed to the other side. A small break in this crude dam exuded a little trickle of water, all that flowed in the creek. Back in 1933, 1934, 1935, the creek had run high in May. The water then had been quite clear and swarmed with fish. I peered into the coffee-coloured water above the dam and saw nothing.
That evening in Big River, as we ate our steaks in the Chinese restaurant I watched a young man slide up to the coffee bar beside a couple of his cronies. From his conversation, I gathered that he operated the road maintainer on the gravelled highway to Green Lake.
"Do you know how an Indian changes a tire?" he asked. "Well since they never have a jack in the car they go back into the bush, cut a long pole, find a big stone and pry up the wheel. One fellow sits on one end of the pole while the other changes the wheel. Then they pull out!"
In Big River almost everyone drives some kind of motor vehicle today, but the cars are of older vintage by far than those seen in the rich farmland farther south. The big sawmill has been rebuilt, the tall sawdust burner once again belches smoke of spruce sawdust and mill tailings. I noticed that some of its lower steel plates had begun to buckle.
The railway station stood the same as I remembered it. I could find no trace of Morgan's Boarding House. Pete Godin's store looked the same from the outside. The hotel and the stores where we had traded were there, some deserted and in decay. There are two new service stations, a drugstore and a chain food store. Near the mill stands a grain elevator. A few new houses are on the south, otherwise, the village has not changed.
I walked down to the government dock. It was peaceful there and shorebirds waded at the water's edge.
I thought that a marker might have been erected at this spot to commemorate where began many a wilderness journey and where many others ended.