Adventures of a Far-North

Written by Bill Wolf
Photography by Mike Kesterson
November 29, 1952

Cyril Mahoney camping out.
Cyril Mahoney makes his evening meal of "boiled" tea and bannock, (in frying pan), while following his trap lines in the Foster Lakes region of Saskatchewan.

Trapper Mahoney of Northern Saskatchewan, has an Indian wife and children who play happily in the snow, barefoot at ten below zero. His life is a silent search through savage wastes to fetch out furs for women in a soft and luxurious world a thousand miles away.

Cyril Mahoney, a small, wiry man of fifty, with little trace left of his Irish ancestry, has to know a lot about mink and other fur bearers because he is a professional trapper in Canada's far north. He must know where mink live, how they live, when their fur is prime, what baits attract them to traps, how to set a trap and how to skin, flesh and stretch their pelts.

But he confessed to a curious blind spot in his knowledge of them one winter's evening in his cabin. He was squatting on the floor on his heels, as is the universal custom among whites and Indians in a land where chairs are scarce, looking over some recently trapped mink.

He pushed back the cap he wears nearly everywhere, but to bed, scratched his head thoughtfully and then said, almost apologetically, "Do you know, I don't think I'd recognize a mink coat if I saw one! I'll bet the skins make up into a right pretty coat, though, don't they?"

He fingered one of the unskinned animals. It was a prime dark northern, worth roughly forty-five dollars at that time in a market which goes up and down wildly with the whims of buyers in the cities. A few weeks before, the single skin would have earned him sixty dollars; the next week it might be down to thirty dollars.

The slim body was still frozen because Cyril had just brought it in from the trap line and was thawing it out, for skinning, away from direct heat, which might give it "grease burn", but the rich brown fur glowed in the cabin's light much as it would gleam someday 1000 miles more to the south in a different, cosmopolitan setting.

Cyril got up with the lithe ease of a man whose legs are supple from much trotting behind a dog sled and hung the mink's body on the drying rack overhead, beside others of its kind, beside the white ermine with the black-tipped tail, and the little red squirrels which also were thawing out, along with his drying moose hide moccasins, woolen stocking and mittens.

"Sometime I'd like to see a real mink coat or even an ermine one," he confessed, then laughed at the absurd idea of Cyril Mahoney ever venturing that far down into civilization. Mink coats aren't worn in his country.
(Continued below pictures.)

Cyril Mahoney with his dog team.
On the trail, Mahoney travels from 15 to 20 miles a day by dog sled to trap his 20-square-mile territory.

Mahoney's wife, Wetigo.
Mahoney's wife, Wetigo, bathes their two-year-old twins, Pat (standing) and Mike while Bella and Sally wait their turn. Two older daughters go to school at Lac La Ronge during the winter.

Mahoney and friends.
At Mahoney's cabin, trappers Pete Isbister, Mahoney and "Black Alex" Penerowsky talk over problems with Chalmers MacLean (in dark cap), a Department of Natural Resources officer.

Mahoney, working on a heaver set.
Mahoney, working on a heaver set, he has about 200 traps on his lines and averages $1500 for his winter's work.

Wetigo, who always helps her husband skin out his catch.
Wetigo, who always helps her husband skin out his catch tacks a pelt to a stretching hoard for drying.

Mahoney's camp on Upper Foster Lake.
Mahoney's camp on Upper Foster Lake. The two windmill generators charge the batteries of a two-way radio he uses to send weather reports to Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan 120 air miles to the south.

From freeze-up to break-up, Cyril Mahoney eats, sleeps and works in the wintry outdoors, seldom knowing; the rough comfort of his snug cabin, seldom seeing his Cree Indian wife and their children, and seldom able to take off the heavy clothing he wears day and night.

"I try to spend one day of each week at home," he says, but the rest of the time he is on the trail, sleeping under a canvas lean-to on spruce boughs or in one of the tents he has spotted at several places, eating nothing but sourdough bannock spread with butter or peanut butter and drinking huge quantities of tea. The dog sled and the supplies it carries are his itinerant home.

As trappers go today in the far north, he is of the modern breed, with a two-way radio and windmill generators for a weak current of electricity back at his base camp, but everyday life along the trap line is as primitive as it was for the voyageurs centuries ago.

Silence is his most constant companion since even the storms are muffled in that land of smothering snow. With the silence goes the cold, although last winter was mild, according to northern standards, with the temperature only occasionally dropping under thirty below. A soughing wind in the treetops, the faint jingle of bells on the dogs harness, the snickering passage of the sled over the snow.

The crackle of the fire and the swishing noise of the northern lights, which northland residents swear they can hear at times, are the chief sounds. Once in a while, ice expansion or contraction on the lakes sends a hollow roll like thunder through the hills. Occasionally his dogs, or timber wolves howl, a fox barks, and a raven croaks, but normally it is a land of frozen quiet.

Cyril travels through this solitude from November to February, following a zigzag course across and around his twenty square miles of territory, trapping mink, lynxes, otters, northern weasels (ermine], red squirrels, red foxes, cross and silver foxes, black bears and timber wolves.

Infrequently, he takes martens and coyotes, or brush wolves. From February until spring break up of the ice, his efforts are turned chiefly toward beavers and muskrats.

Over the last ten years, he has averaged about $1500 annually at this work, with a summer "vacation" during which he labours only when he wishes.

He seldom goes "outside" and when he does, it is a trip to Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan's northernmost village accessible by auto, a place of several hundred inhabitants on the big lake of the same name near the Churchill River, 120 air miles south of Cyril's Foster Lake home.

He and his family live well as far as basic foods are concerned, with plenty of dried milk, beans, flour, butter, potatoes, other staples, and tea and coffee; but something closely akin to gripping hunger came to the Mahoney cabin last winter, as it did to most of the northland.

That winter will be remembered for a long time as "the year the caribou didn't come down."Trappers, prospectors in the bush and winter fishermen, who must live off the land as much as possible, depending upon the Barren Lands caribou for their winter meat supply.

Usually, the caribou migrate south each autumn from the barrens to the wooded and more sheltered regions, where they can find food, but only a few stragglers came down this time, perhaps because the subarctic winter also was mild last year. None reached Cyril Mahoney's place, where he ordinarily kills twenty-five and stores them for winter food.

Such a total failure of the meat supply is nearly a disaster. So the Mahoneys figuratively loosened their belts beans and baked stuff distends the stomach and went hungry for meat.

When I visited the camp in February, there was a beautiful lynx skin hanging among the furs. "We ate him last week," Cyril grinned; then added defensively, "Lynx is good to eat. It has sweet meat like a rabbit's, sort of white. That was the first real meat meal we had since last fall."

The occasional grouse, or willow ptarmigan, that he shoots along the trail is usually brought home to the children.

"My wife makes a broth of them that's good for the kids." Cyril shrugged his shoulders, "of course, the government gives us special permits to kill moose out of season in emergencies like this, like when we don't have caribou, but they're hard to find and trail, even with snowshoes, in this deep snow, and if you were lucky enough to kill one, all you've got anyhow is sweet damn all. Only the liver, heart and tongue seem to have any good in them.

The other meat is stringy and doesn't stick to you. Even the dogs do poorly on it." The north country is geared to a caribou diet in winter, and when it fails there is a hunger that cannot be appeased by beans and bread. Fish choice fish of premium quality when sold in the States are available at any time through the ice, but northerners don't like fish, perhaps because they don't know how to vary its cooking, and there are recorded cases of Indians starving to death, with fish for the taking right outside their homes.

Cyril eats and lives better than most white trappers because of his Indian wife, Wetigo. This is an entirely phonetic guess at spelling her nickname, which has stuck since her early youth.

The name is so similar to the Cree for "evil spirit" that most Indians laugh at it when they hear Cyril call, "Wetigo!" She was Sally McKenzie before marriage, and her brothers, "the McKenzie boys, "trap on nearby Middle Foster Lake.

They are Crees despite their name. Wetigo can cook almost anything the north provides, she can tan moose and caribou bide, flesh and stretch skins, make parkas, mukluks and moccasins, and clothing for the children, often using a hand-operated sewing machine.

She is thirty, pleasant and industrious, and when Cyril returns from a week on the trap lines he finds a neat, clean cabin with a partner to help him take care of the catch.

One oddity of their relationship is that she uses the Cree language in speaking to him, and he addresses her in English only.

They were married on a trip outside to Lac La Ronge in 1940. Cyril started trapping in the section several years before, with a camp at Trout Narrows, and thus met Sally McKenzie.

After the wedding, they started for their home country by canoe from La Ronge, following the north-flowing rivers, crossing the lakes, making the difficult portages over a route considerably longer than the 120 air miles between the village and Upper Foster. They arrived at the last stretch to find a desolate and blackened land.

A forest fire had passed that way, and Cyril's camp, to which he was bringing his bride, was burned to the ground. "All we had in the world was the grub and stuff in the canoe, and some traps I had stashed on an island that didn't burn," Cyril recalled, "so we started from scratch."

They built at their present location near the centre of Upper Foster Lake, a slim body of water of indefinite length, since it, like most lakes of the region, is only a widening of a river.

Cyril began trapping in earnest, especially after the children started to arrive. They have six now. Margaret, ten, and Jean, eight, are outside at La Ronge, going to school in the winter, and returning to the lake each summer.

Still at home are black-haired pretty Sally, Bix, and Bella, four, plus the two-year-old twins, Pat and Mike.

The children are enormously healthy they had better be, because the chief medical supplies at the cabin are adhesive tape and aspirin tablets and the two girls often run outside in their bare feet, clothed only in panties and a thin cotton dress, with snow on the ground and the temperature at ten below zero.

They didn't bother to put on stockings, boots or coats one day when it was thirty below and they trotted down the frozen path to visit the cabin I occupied 100 yards from their home.

The cabin they occupy is a new two-room affair, built of peeled spruce and jackpine logs, chinked with moss, next to the original single-room cabin which is now used for fur storage.

They have little furniture. There are no chairs, and they sit around the table on upended wooden boxes in which Cyril carries his supplies in the dog sled, or on empty sixty and 100-pound containers for dried milk and flour.

There is a good stove, a washstand with a big metal drum that is kept filled with water carried by hand from a hole chopped in the ice on the lake, and two big bunks for beds in the other room, with "springs" of spruce branches laid parallel. An incongruous bit of interior furnishing is the modern two-way radio.

This was supplied to Cyril at a nominal rental so that he can send in weather reports from his area. The Saskatchewan Government Airways sometimes called the "only organized group of bush pilots in Canada's wilds", need Cyril's weather data for its flight from La Ronge to far-up Stony Rapids, on the Fond du Lac River.

"I'm scared of the durned thing," Cyril confessed as he fiddled uneasily with the radio the first time I saw him use it. "It's time to report, though, so here goes." He flipped the switch to "speaking" and said in an unnecessarily loud voice, "Foster Lake calling La Ronge, Foster Lake calling La Ronge, Can you read me, Hank? Can you read me? Hank?"

He turned the switch over and waited suspiciously; then Hank's voice came miraculously into the cabin from distant La Ronge.

Trying not to look too pleased with his success, Cyril began a report on local visibility, ceiling, temperature and general weather conditions.

The radio has been useful in emergencies even in its first winter of use. Cyril used it to summon a plane to rush Antoine McKenzie to a Prince Albert hospital when his Indian in-law chopped his leg severely with an axe, eighteen miles south of the Mahoney cabin.

Another time, the radio was used to call help for Antoine's brother, Silas, who was shot through the hand with a .22. While I was at Mahoney's a message came through for Cyril from Cpl. L. A. Gibbs, of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at Lac La Ronge.

"Please advise me," Corporal Gibbs asked, "if you know the whereabouts of James Ratt, who traps on Geikie River, just northwest of Big Sandy Lake. He has not been heard of here since last September. "It was then late February. Cyril hasn't seen or heard of Ratt, an Indian trapper, but, by coincidence, the next day Cliff Labey flew in a government plane to Cyril's camp and took off again immediately to look for the missing man.

The pilot found James Ratt well to the south of where he should be, on Burbidge Lake from the air, a trapper's spider-web tracery of dog-sled tracks is easily visible in good health, but scared to death. He thought the government had sent a vengeful plane to haul him out for some trapping-law violation, a fear that was not easily dispelled, because the Indian spoke practically no English and the pilot knew no Cree.

The radio transmitter operates on six volts. A windmill generator outside the cabin keeps the operating batteries charged. The two main cabins, a storage shed a minute outhouse, a small cabin down toward the lake, the gaunt framework that supports the wind generator, a dock and a row of doghouses form the Mahoney cluster that is becoming increasingly important because of the radio installation.

Such is the setting for Cyril's trapping, comfortable enough by northern standards, but crude to the point of being primitive if judged by the mink coat set, which might upset the lack of bathing facilities, the sparse diet, the animals thawing out or the furs drying in the room where the family eats and lives.

When Cyril is ready to start out on the trail, his dog sled is a self-contained living unit. His wooden lunch box holds sourdough biscuits which Wetigo has baked up in quantity, butter, peanut butter, tea, sugar and utensils. Rarely, he carries some cooked fish; the usual chunk of caribou was conspicuously absent last winter.

He does no cooking on the trail unless he spits the breast of a grouse on a stick and roasts it over the fire, preferring only to thaw out the bannock and butter and "boil up" for tea.

In the same dog sled which is a toboggan in North Central Canada, with a rope-supported body of heavy canvas are an ice chisel and shovel, axe, spare traps, snowshoes, a piece of canvas for a lean-to, candles for lighting the tents, two single-shot .22 caliber rifles, prepared baits for the traps, with their inevitable odour of catnip and beaver castor, some aspirin and adhesive bandages, and fish for the dogs.

A big down sleeping bag completes the outfit. Fish, as food for the dogs, is an important item in a trapper's life. Cyril nets his toward winter, runs a stick through a dozen at a time, and hangs them up to dry. He hangs the rack of fish, when dry, in a cache, raised off the ground to discourage animals and covered with branches to prevent damage by ravens, magpies and even whiskyjacks, or Canada jays.

They keep there in "cold storage" until he needs them. The dogs prefer small whitefish and will eat lake trout and lesser species if hungry enough. Cyril's supply was running low in February. "I'm only feeding them two a day now," he said,"although they usually get three. My nets got all torn on the rocks, and I won't be able to get any more until I get floats and leads on that net you fellows brought up."

When the sled is loaded and the harness laid out, Cyril brings the dogs from their kennels one by one and puts them in the leather collars and traces. Then he is off, to be gone for the better part of a week. He travels as much as possible on the same trails, where the previous passage of the sled has packed the snow into a hard, narrow road, and avoids breaking the new trail as much as possible. The snow of the north is puffy in the woods, hip deep and hard going for dogs and men, it is firmer on the open lakes.

On the portages, where the trail leaves the lakes and leads through trees, it is much like moving through a perpetually changing Christmas card with so much beauty on every hand that it becomes commonplace and scarcely noticed.

From sled level, the trail is a deep cut in the snow over which the string of dogs undulates. They lean heavily into their collars going uphill and gallop madly ahead of the sled when it charges down the slopes right at the heels of the wheel dog, with the bells jingling furiously and Cyril dragging himself through the snow as an ineffective brake.

Each stump is an ice cream cone of snow, each fallen log a gigantic white bolster, and the boughs of the dark spruces are draped in white sheets while the bare tamaracks are uncovered.

Travel across the level lakes is swift, with the white expanse unmarked except for the sled trail and occasional moose, bobcat, wolf or fox tracks.

The dogs need little guidance except for where trails branch, and there they are turned left with "haw!" or right with "yew!" which is the northern corruption of the familiar "haw" and "gee."

Here and there along the trail, a stake and footprints going off to the side mark the location of a set trap. Cyril visits each one religiously.

"A man should look at his traps at least every ten days after Christmas, and oftener than that before the holidays," Cyril explained.

"One thing, if it snows, some of the open sets will be buried and should be reset. I have a couple of hundred traps out when I'm after mink especially, and it keeps me moving over the territory, travelling about fifteen or twenty miles a day.

Some animals and birds occasionally will spoil the skin, trying to eat what's in the traps, but the worst thing is the mice."

It seems that mice are luxury-loving animals in the north and like nothing better than to tear bits of fine fur from minks and weasels to line their nests, This ruins the fur but makes nice mink-and-ermine-lined homes.

The sets for weasels and minks are much alike. A pen of boughs like an open-bottomed v leads the animal inexorably over the trap when it is lured there by the bait. The bait used also for lynx and other animals is a north-country favourite.

"You get a squirrel nest and tear the fine grass lining out of the centre, and smear it with the beaver castor and catnip," Cyril said. "You put this bait at the narrow end of the pen, so the mink or weasel will walk into the trap going to it.

For lynx, you put it in a forked stick right over the trip pan of the trap, and those big cats try to roll in it just like a house cat rolls in a catnip bed." The catnip is purchased outside, the beaver castors are strong scent glands from the beaver, with a musk-like quality of holding ascent for a long time.

Fox sets are made in the open on points of land going out into lakes, along the shores or trails where foxes travel regularly, looking for food.

In the fall, the trap is set in a hole in the sand, with the bait, a fish or, a fish head under the pan. Sometimes Cyril buries fish by the trap and covers it with rocks, setting traps all around it.

Winter sets are made in a hole in the snow, with the fish head bait covered with grass. "I'd set snares for foxes if they were worth anything because they're easy to take that way and you don't have to carry many traps," Cyril said, " but they're near worthless now."

He considers the otter the most difficult animal to trap "because the traps aren't quite right. It's a strong animal in the trap and often twists free, but I am trying a new kind now with round jaws." Trap sizes range from No. 1 to 14, for animals as widely apart in size as ermine and red squirrels to wolves and bears.

Much to my surprise, the red squirrel is important to the northern trapper. A single skin usually brings more than a dollar, but the demand is excellent and the numbers are great in the spruce forests.

Mink and beaver are the major fur bearers in Cyril's section, however, always bring a good price, sometimes going sky-high. Beaver sets are made underwater near the dome-shaped houses in lakes or, near known residences in stream banks. A hole is chopped in the ice and a good-sized log is inserted.

The trap is firmly fixed in a niche chopped in the log and is held about a yard from the bottom of the ice. Above it, fixed at a point where the beaver under water automatically will put a foot on the trap in reaching for it, is the bait, a stick of tender, green poplar. Beavers eat tree bark, of course, and the poplar is their downfall. They drown in a mercifully quick death. Each trapper is allowed one beaver to every house in his territory as the annual harvest, a program that has resulted in a great comeback for this animal. Each pelt must be tagged for legal shipment out. Cyril takes about twenty each season.

At noon, Cyril pauses to "boil up." which is simply making tea and chewing on some food. Toward nightfall, he builds a lean-to canvas camp, spreads spruce boughs, chops plenty of firewood, eats his warmed bannock and crawls into a sleeping bag. The dogs bed down in the snow, and the long northern night is spent in sleep unless there is a moon near morning, whereupon Cyril gets up and travels by its light.

He has three seven-by-seven tents spotted along his lines also, each with a small metal stove, and uses them when possible.

A careful man, Cyril has bad few misadventures except for the normal ones, like minor cuts, being marooned for a time by blizzards or breaking through thin ice. There is always the danger that some accident might befall him and no one would know anything about it for a week or more, but this is a risk run by all men who trap alone, and they don't even think about it.

The sled gradually is emptied of frozen fish and filled with frozen bodies of trapped animals, since skinning is impossible on the trail with the weather well below zero. At last, Cyril turns home, the children hear the music of the harness bells and run out barefooted to greet him, and then Cyril sits down to his first warm meal in a week.

Later he cleans up, shaving the greying stubble from his face, washing up and getting out of the clothing he has worn twenty-four hours a day for many days.

Unlike many trappers, he shares with his wife the work of skinning and stretching the animals. He usually skins them out, while Wetigo puts them on board stretchers with fur inside. The parchment-like skin outside.

She carefully scrapes this fleshy underside free of fat and other tissue, using a bear thighbone which has been sharpened at one end into a blade for the purpose. Then she tacks down the reversed pelt to the board and places it where it will dry, but not too rapidly, as that would cause any remaining fats to soak through to the fur and grease burn.

If mice have chewed minute holes in the skins, she sews them up carefully because they will still bring in some money as "slightly damaged" or even as "badly damaged" pelts. Hides that are pulled off the animal inside out like a pair of pants stripped down from the waist are "cased," while those spread out as a Hat skin are "open.

"Those case-stretched are mink, otters, weasels, muskrats, foxes and marten. Beaver and bear are skinned open. Wolves are stretched in either manner. Mink stink by the way, when skinned, due to some powerful scent glands.

The pelts are bundled and shipped out, whenever a plane calls at the Mahoneys, to the Saskatchewan Fur Marketing Service, far down in Regina, where they are sold at auction. The market is as sensitive as a seismograph, and the trapper never knows until his check arrives if he has bit the jackpot or has worked hard for little pay.

I asked Adam Cooke, manager of the Fur Marketing Service Regina if the political mink-coat uproar in the States, for instance, helped call attention to mink and boost its sales. He thought it had the opposite effect. In one case that he recalled. an American Industrialist spent $6000 for raw skins from the Stony Rapids area, where they run large, dark and prime, and had them made into a coat for his wife. A fellow executive was enthusiastic about doing the same for his wife until the Washington mink-coat episodes occurred, whereupon he dropped the plan cold, just cautious.

Because of the two-way radio and the fact that planes call there more or less regularly, Cyril Mahoney's place is becoming a centre for trappers in the Foster Lakes area. Most trappers have receiving sets, and thus they get a message beamed to them from Prince Albert; There would be a meeting at Cyril's of the trappers and representatives of The Department of Natural Resources, to issue tags for beaver, special permits to kill moose, to hear grievances and discuss fur conservation.

They came by dog sled from several directions Black Alex Penerowsky, from High Rock Lake, thirteen miles to the north; round-faced Pete Isbister, who lives six miles to the east on Upper Foster, and Matt Campbell, who is located eighteen miles to the west of Cyril.

Meeting with them and Cyril was Chalmers MacLean, at that time northern administrator of the provincial Department of Natural Resources, which looks after the 4000 trappers in the north country, and Virden Palmer, of the game branch of Natural Resources, who is in the local charge.

Significantly absent were the McKenzie boys, from Middle Foster Lake. There was bad blood between them and Pete Isbister.

Those Indians are coming over on my territory, Isbister exploded at the meeting in Cyril's old one-room cabin, because I got good mink. "I see their tracks. If something isn't done, I'll take the law into my own hands."

Cyril defended the absent McKenzies, and the others agreed that Pete could be mistaken in his boundary lines. Each trapper has an allotted territory which is marked on a photostatic copy of an aerial photograph. There was much poring over this and other maps until Pete was not mollified, but willing to wait, subsided a bit on the promise that a more careful survey would lie made.

They left early on the third day, going back to their individual solitudes, and that night, when Cyril and I came in from a visit to his first beaver sets, the McKenzie boys were at the cabin, squatting on their heels against the wall.

Mathias and Antoine had come to hear what took place at the meeting, but politely ignored the subject for an hour or more, until Cyril voluntarily began an account in Cree. They listened in silence, said nothing later, and departed the next day without comment on Pete Isbister.

Trapping has changed in some ways since the old days. Men no longer shoot at one another in boundary disputes but arbitrate. They are now robbed by fur traders.

They can keep in touch with the outside world to some extent. Some, like Cyril Mahoney, have a few modern conveniences.

But the prime northern furs, more in demand than most ranch-grown skins, are still gathered by men willing to live an aboriginal life under the northern lights, with few more comforts than the animals they seek.

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Author: Webmaster - jkcc.com
"Date Modified: June 21, 2024."

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