Face the North Wind

A Land of Many Rivers

Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.

Such was the country where Fred Darbyshire and Ed Theriau extended their traplines. Over the years they ranged across a great circular area bounded by Cree Lake in the west, Unknown Lake (also known as Theriau Lake - photo below right) in the north, Wollaston Lake in the east and Spalding and Highrock Lakes to the south. The diameter of this circle is more than 100 miles; its area is about the same as the state of Massachusetts. To get in and out of this domain Fred and Ed travelled a trail as long as Scotland's measure from end to end. Map. Here the pre-Cambrian rock is buried in gravel, sand, sandstone, bush, water and bog. The stands of trees are jackpine, black spruce, birch and willow. It is a land of evergreen forest and deep blue lakes with sweeping beaches of clean sand, where on certain dry summer days, the sand squeaks under your boots as you walk. Along certain river valleys, there are vast reaches of mature jackpines where you can walk unhindered, as in a park. But there is much country through which it is almost impossible to walk-rough terrain where second-growth jackpine is growing thickly through older, fire-killed deadfall. The area between Cree and Wollaston Lakes is among the most heavily lake-dotted of all the North. It is laced across with a maze of creeks, lakes, rivers and muskeg. "Some of this country is two thirds water," says Ed Theriau, and aerial photographs confirm his judgment. From several miles up, the land resembles a great sponge that has soaked up all the water it can, and is lying floating on the water's surface. The land, where it projects from the water, has a definite grain running from south-west to north-east, which seems to confirm A.J. Baer's conjecture about the passage of the glaciers.

Here the murderous sandflies congregate in force. A curse to all warm-blooded animals, they are about from June until freeze-up in late October, being particularly frenzied as autumn wears on and the sun shines warmly. One of Fred's diary entries reads: "The sandflies are out by the bushel." Another year, as he returns to Poorfish Lake in late September, he writes with usual feeling: "The damned sandflies are as bad as ever." Rarely does he mention the hordes of stinging mosquitoes, apparently accepting them as a fact of life: yet they are always present from May to August.

There can be no doubt that these are the ancestral hunting grounds of the Chipewyan Indians, descendants of Mattonabbee Unknown Lake also known as Theriau Lake. and his crew who guided Samuel Hearne to the Coppermine River and who annihilated the Eskimo encampment at Bloody Falls. Until fifty years ago these rugged people were known to drift every winter across the country from Reindeer Lake to Cree Lake.

In 1925, when Fred and Ed first entered the area, the land was uncharted. Only two of the physical features were indicated on the maps available at the time-Waterfound River and Poorfish Lake (now designated Russell Lake on the map). Fred Darbyshire found no indication that white men had been there before he came. It is known, however, that the brothers Ole and John Jacobsen trapped in the vicinity before Fred. Another white man, Jack Murray, once snowshoed from Cree Lake to Brochet, at the north end of Reindeer Lake in the dead of winter, possibly in 1920. A legend in the North, Jack was one of the best rifle shots ever to enter the country. He made the 250-mile trek with little food, carrying everything on his back and eating rabbits, partridge, moose, caribou, and the carcasses of animals he trapped. Ed Theriau, who became as able as any man ever in the North, will admit that he could not have accomplished such a feat without a dog team and a toboggan.

Ed's and Fred's original base in this country was established at Poorfish Lake (now Russell Lake); and although Fred later made another camp at Close Lake, further north, he continued to enter and leave the country with Ed via Poorfish Lake.

It was not easy to get into Poorfish Lake in summer before aircraft offered easy access to the North. It is a high country where hundreds of lakes and swamps form the source of many rivers. Here rise the Foster River, the Bear, the Little Cree, the Mudjatik, the Unknown, the Haultain, the Waterfound, the Poorfish (Russell) and the Geikie, which flow outward towards the big lakes, Cree, Athabasca, Wollaston, and Reindeer. The rivers originate where lakes drain into one another by filtering through sand and emerge as narrow, rapid-filled streams, full of rocks, gravel bars and white water. Canoeists here must face long portages over steep, rocky terrain or through soft swampland that saps the strength of a packer and renders him rubber-legged.

There are several canoe routes into Poorfish Lake, all of them difficult. Long ago the Indians had established the Foster River route from the Churchill River. Never a main waterway, it served only the native peoples, fur traders and occasional white trappers, and at no time was the traffic-heavy. This was the route that first brought Fred and Ed into the country in 1925. Commenting on the Foster River route, Ed writes in his journal: "It is the worst river on which I have ever travelled, (and he travelled many) full of rapids and with several waterfalls. In one place you have to pack everything almost straight up over a rocky hill. You can't pack much weight on a portage like that. There are nineteen portages on that route...There was once a man portaging his canoe at one Foster River rapid. Stepping over rough ground, his foot went into a hole, the paddle that supported the canoe on one of his shoulders snapped, and the canoe fell sideways on his head, breaking his neck. He is buried on that portage.

There is another canoe route to Poorfish Lake via Reindeer Lake, Swan River, Wollaston Lake and Geikie River to the Poorfish River and eventually to Poorfish Lake-a long and arduous route used by Fred and Ed for a few years in the 1940s. It is also possible to get there by canoe from Lake Athabasca via the Fond-Du-Lac River and Wollaston Lake, a route used only occasionally by the Chipewyans and a rare white adventurer.

By 1933, Fred and Ed, had become aware that there was easier access to the Poorfish Lake country by ascending the Deer (Mudjatik) River and crossing the height of land into Cree Lake. From Cree Lake eastward they had, in the previous winter, discovered the dim trails of ancient Chipewyan portages. There are at least four portages on this route, one of four miles through swampland and bog which Fred refers to simply as "The Long Portage" - certainly no pushover. This route was used thereafter in preference to canoeing on the turbulent Foster River.

Due to its relative inaccessibility, the Poorfish Lake area was one of the largest natural game sanctuaries in Northern Saskatchewan. Since the land had never been over-trapped and concealed many hidden lakes and streams in the then uncharted bushland, the natural balance of wildlife had not been greatly disturbed. The mink and otter lived out their natural lifespan, for the most part, unmolested, and their numbers rose and fell with food supply and disease. Over-population forced them to new areas or, if not migratory, they starved in what Northerners call "the cycle."

A somewhat sinister force-epidemic influenza-was at this time keeping activities of the Chipewyan Indians at a minimum. In 1919, the disease swept through their camps with such virulence that at Wollaston Lake only six individuals, from an Indian village of seventeen families, were left alive.

In the fall of 1923, two strangers entered the Poorfish Lake country. They were neither Chipewyan Indians, nor were they white men, but Cree half-breeds who came from the South. One was Jack Favel, about whom I have no information (Webmasters note: Jack Favel was from Ile-a-la-Crosse; his descendants still live there.) The other was a squat, husky chap named Tom Beeds, whom I have known personally.

In 1923, Tom was about fifty years of age. He had been born far southward, on the southern fringe of the forests, and had seen the last of the buffalo hunting on the plains. Although frequent contact with white men had made him fluent in English, he preferred to speak the language of the Crees and to live as one. He was considered a great traveller and hunter among the people of mixed white and Indian blood.

As Tom grew up, the frontier rolled back. He retreated with it, preferring the free life of a hunter to the regimentation of working for the white man. Beaver House. For years, he had frequented the area of wilderness just north of the village of Big River, travelling deep into the woods to find moose to feed his large family. If you sat around the campfire with him, he always had a good deal to tell you. He would describe the country to you before it had been trapped clean by white trappers. Mink could be seen running along banks of the creeks, he said, and beaver dams flooded vast areas among the trees where swamp grass now grew as tall as a man.

Fur - bearing animals grew more scarce year by the year so that Tom's fur catches dwindled and poverty stalked his cabin. Through his contacts with other Metis of the northland, he had heard of the Poorfish Lake country - that it swarmed with barren-ground caribou or reindeer in winter, that there were fish in all the waters and that no one need go hungry there. Yet more enticing were the tales told around campfires of valleys teeming with mink, otter and beaver, now almost extinct in his present location.

So Tom Beeds and Jack Favel, in the summer of 1923, left Big River in two factory-made canoes and paddled north with light loads. They took the old canoe route-Cowan Lake, Cowan River, Beaver River, Ile-a-la-Crosse Lake and the Churchill River. They ascended the Foster River, and, since Jack had apparently been in the country before, they found their way to Poorfish Lake through a series of lakes, creeks and spongy, swampy portages.

They spent the winter in the country, did considerable travelling and ranged as far west as Cree Lake and as far south as Highrock Lake. The caribou migration was scanty and their fur catch was not outstanding. This, however, was the independent, wandering life of their Indian ancestors and the lifestyle in which they preferred to live.

It will follow that Tom Beeds played his part in leading the white man into the wilderness as one leads a child by the hand. There are many examples of half-breeds who did this throughout the early exploration of western and northern North America. Notable examples are the French brothers, Michel, Pierre and Louis, who came all the way from Caughnawaga, Quebec to canoe the Tyrell expedition of 1898 from Ile-a-la-Crosse to Chesterfield Inlet on Hudson's Bay via Lake Athabasca and the Dubawnt River. Other half-breeds of this party were Francois Maurice and James Corrigal of Ile-a-la-Crosse and John Flett, an experienced northern traveller and Eskimo linguist recruited from Prince Albert. It is certain that Tom Beeds knew the last three very well.

It was the preferred life of these people of mixed blood to travel freely throughout the north country, crossing the hunting grounds of the Indian tribes, discounting their superstitions and taboos. In autumn and spring, they would meet at the trading posts to tell tales, hunt and fish together, and to marry into each other's families.


Author: Webmaster - jkcc.com
"Date Modified: October 10, 2023."

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