North to Cree Lake

Night At The Portage

Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.

On a mild evening in late summer, we sat around the campfire, seven white trappers, at the embarkation point on the north end of the Highland Portage, where the canoe route is re-entered to Cree Lake and on the great MacKenzie River watershed. We sat there relaxed and weary, for we had all just completed the portage. All freight and the canoes, had been laboriously lugged over Snag River. The freight now stood in tarpaulin-covered rows on the lake shore, ready for loading into the canoes in the morning. Then we would disperse to our various locations in all directions from Cree Lake. Meeting by the Campfire. The moon had risen above the jack pine-covered hills and was shining down on the lake where the surface was perfectly calm. From time to time, loons called while passing in the night from one peaceful and secluded lake to another. This was a unique gathering. It could only happen in such a place, that we could all meet together. Bunched here at this long portage, we had gathered by chance and worked through the portage together. At last the grueling hot work had been completed. Once again, plodding heavily laden in sand where we sank ankle deep, the sandflies and mosquitoes attracted to our overheated bodies had tortured us without mercy. The water-logged canoes had been particularly burdensome and I had wrenched a shoulder when I tripped on a jack pine root while packing one end of the big canoe. Now we took time to sit and talk and smoke together and have a friendly visit and exchange news. Seven lean, craggy men, they represented a cross section of all the white trappers in northern Canada. I sat across the fire from Holgar, a tall rawboned Dane. In a gathering where the conversation ran along the well-known topics of the North-dogs, portage. fish, fur, women, and things such as religion and politics; Holger was old enough to have sailed on sailing ships in his youth. A real spellbinder, he talked long and well into the night. Soft-spoken and kindly by nature, he was a man who spoke candidly and truthfully. He was listened to with a great deal of respect by all. Holger was expounding on the desirability of blueberries, fish and caribou meat as a diet. A veteran of the North, he knew what he was talking about. Provoked by some devil, I pointed out to him that this was the season of new potatoes and sweetcorn Outside. He looked at me owlishly, grimaced, and allowed that this was so. Then he continued on his topic. His conversation was enriched by a heavy accent and a robust sense of humour. His eyes twinkled from time to time as he recounted one anecdote after another. He chain-smoked hand rolled cigarettes and declared that he had smoked heavily since the age of six. When I asked him if smoking had harmed his health in any way he assured me that there was no evidence of such harm.

Chris Timson, his partner and countryman, was as tall and lean as Holger, but Scandinavian blonde, who wore long hair and a beard in the winter. This was the same Chris who had been our neighbor at Rat Lake. All his front teeth were gone-knocked out in a fight in Big River the story went. He had served in the German army under Kaiser Wilhelm in World War I as a machine-gunner. He told one war story after another to anyone who would listen. He was full of his own exploits, but I never heard him speak ill of any man. He was accident-prone, dogged by ill fortune and had lost his outfit by fire at least twice. A wizard mechanically, he could do wonders with an outboard motor and distinguished himself by packing along on a trip such as this, the most complete tool kit in the North, which included such items as a blow torch, soldering iron, and pipe cutters and threaders. He was later instrumental in transporting by riverboat, the motor and chassis of a model T Ford from Big River to Snag River where it was used on this very portage to transport freight. Twenty years later, he drove a Model A Ford on the tractor-train winter road from Meadow Lake to Stoney Rapids. He was finally to marry a Chipewyan woman and help establish a school for his children at Stoney Rapids. Chris had hawk-like eyes that always searched for new horizons, never finding one to his liking. He later trapped in the Black Lake-Selwyn Lake country and as I write, lies buried on Lake Athabasca's shore where the horizon to the west is very far away indeed.

Ed (Theriau), was the very best example of a successful trapper. Powerful of build, he was perfectly at home in the bush in any season. His unfailing sense of humour sparkled the conversation among the group. Ed was rugged. He told us how he had lived entirely on the flesh of caribou for three months on his lonely and extensive trapline in the taiga country far to the northeast of Cree Lake. He said that he grew fat but had little stamina, so that he followed his dog team with difficulty. Ed Theriau at his trapping at Russell Lake. His home cabin was somewhere between Cree and Wollaston lakes and he referred to it vaguely as the Poorfish Lake country and the Waterfound River country. The land was at that time unmapped, so that we didn't know the lay of the land or how access thereto could be obtained. The story was that it was an area shunned by the Chipewyans for they were decimated there by influenza in the year 1919 and considered this the land of their devil-the Dishlini. It was said that Ed owned a farm somewhere down south. The lure of the North was so great that he rented his land to others and followed the trapline. He and his partner had already been in the country for twenty years and would be there for at least twenty more. They had traplines that extended to the fringe of the Barren Grounds and each year were known to take some white foxes. Their catches ran strongly to mink and they were by now well-off financially when one considers the purchasing power of a dollar bill in those days. The partner was not with him but would join him by chartered plane later in the season.

Old Michel was the senior member of the little group. Of medium height, and over sixty years of age, he had the agile physique of a man half his age, a result of his long and active life in the bush. He was almost bald and his clipped beard and remaining fringe of white hair, all about one inch long, contrasted startlingly against his skin-as brown as an Indian's. A great talker, he still had a marked French accent. Alas, he had already lived so long alone that some of his talk made no sense at all. In great shape physically, his mental strength was on the wane. He was travelling along with Ed, for he was still a good man in running white water, expert with the paddle and pole. Ed would leave him and his outfit at Michel's cabin up an unnamed river that chuckled down out of high country into Cree Lake's east side.

Michel was famous throughout the country for his method of cooking white navy beans. His was a slow process over a slow fire as he sat for hours tending the bean pot. When cooked, they were fine-flavoured and delicious. He sat up half the night cooking his beans, and I heard him mumbling to himself a couple of times long after we had rolled into our bedrolls for the night.

Martin (Brustad) was there also and he was already close to his home cabin at Stoney Narrows. An immigrant from Norway, he had knowingly picked his cabin site where there was an abundance of fish. From the cabin he plied his traplines far and wide. Just before freeze-up he travelled Cree Lake with his big freighter canoe under sail across wild water and before strong winds. He had the cold blue eyes and blonde hair of a Viking and surely his ancestors were seafaring men. One cold day in late October, he showed up at our cabin sheathed in ice from the spray created by a strong autumn wind. His outer clothing thawed and dripped dry near the roaring stove as he spent the night with us. Next morning, he set his sail under fair wind for Stoney Narrows. I paddled out to Cree Lake with him and watched his canoe disappear under leaden skies into the mists rising from the lake. A lone operator, intelligent, shrewd, and given to dry humour, he would have made a successful businessman.

Martin Brustad quit trapping in 1952. He came to Havor Ausland's mink ranch on Deep River to learn how to raise mink. After he learned something about mink ranching, he bought mink breeding stock from Halvor Ausland and started his own mink ranch at South Bay just out of Ile-a-la-Crosse.

Ab (Karras) sat here, also. From time to time, he filled his pipe with tobacco which he shaved off the plug with a sharp jacknife. He was, at that time, only twenty-five years old and had been in the bush for seven years. Six feet tall, and 180 pounds in weight, he had a whipcord quality that fitted him well for this life. A superb axeman, mechanic, and logger, he was a good man to have around in an emergency. It cannot be denied that much of our trapping success was due to his abilities and ingenuity.

Some men are born hunters and Ab was such a man. He had hunted since he was a boy. A sojourn in mountainous British Columbia had stimulated an interest to hunt big game, and his years in Saskatchewan's wilderness areas had made him deadly on the track of a moose. In summer, he practiced shooting flies on the cabin wall with a .22 rifle. I have occasionally seen him bring down ducks on the wing with a rifle, for he was willing to take a chance that it could be done. I have never seen another hunter who could get such constant results at long, long, range, bearing in mind that the telescopic sight was not part of our equipment.

Ab was a walker. He could cover more ground, per hour, on foot, than any man with whom I have walked. This includes a great many men in the Canadian infantry in later years.

A real tower of strength, Ab could make a paddle, a toboggan, or a pair of snowshoes as well as an Indian could. Among his faults, it could have been said that he was sometimes too serious, and a bit short of temper. Among his talents, he could make the right decision in a split second when in a tight corner.

This group, counting myself, made up the seven who talked long into that unforgettable night. Here was a fountain of information as to how the pulse of the North was beating. The talk encompassed the full range of gossip and fact and downright lies-the North has its full quota of liars. The lies gave spice and colour to the conversation, for in what was told there was much of grim truth upon which one might ponder.

Some of the talk was ribald. Someone asked of another, "Did you get your annual dose this summer?"

"Sure," he answered, "but it was no worse than a bad cold."

"A bad damned cold," someone else said.

We talked of the prices of furs last season and the prospects for the season coming up, of the disappointing unproductiveness of parts of the country, tales of hardships and misfortune, of love and laughter, and wine, women, and song. There were tales of other days, and other places, and other faces, stories of the homelands, the new lands, the mountains, and the valleys, and the bitter winters of remote Canada.

And it became evident too, that trappers in the North are subject to the same ills as are all mankind. Over on Buffalo Lake, Karl had committed suicide in his secluded cabin last winter. In his home cabin on some secondary watercourse, Oscar had lain alone on his bunk for many days. He was dying of some unidentified malady (typhoid fever) and suffered such fever that being unable to move off his bunk, he finally slashed his wrists and drank his own blood.

Jake had married a Cree woman at Patuanak and had been caught in a trap common to all whites who married Indian women. Jake had all his wife's relatives come to visit whenever he shot a moose. They returned home only after the meat was all gone.

The conversation covered news items concerning all known white trappers from Big River to Black Lake. These men the Crees term Monias and their feelings toward them are a mixture of admiration and suspicion.

Someone said that Harry (Cockney English and late of his Majesty's Imperial Army in India), was back in the area of the upper Deer River. Elmer, from the State of Washington, would winter near Old Woman Rapid, one hundred miles south of where we sat. There was talk about the activities of Otto, Henry, and Pete who had a trading venture going at Cree River. Someone had talked with Regnier who was on his way back to Reindeer Lake. I told of visiting with Ole on his arrival at Patuanak after eighteen lonely months near the headwaters of the Haultain River. His eyes had a peculiar stare that suggested that he came close to going mad.

Big Nick, who had been born in interior Russia, somewhere north of Mongolia, with skin as yellow as a chinese, but with caucasion features, was back in his trapping territory on the lower Cree River. Slavic John, who ate raw meat and fish raw from his net like a wild animal had to be flown from Black Lake to Edmonton to be treated for an infestation of tapeworms.

Ab and I had met all these people at one time or another. It was a fact that we knew personally almost every white man in this vast section of wilderness. We met some of them in places as varied as Prince Albert, Big River, and the northern trading posts. Chance encounters such as the one at Highland Portage or deep in the wilderness were the occasions when we got to know each other well.

We all had several things in common. The most predominant was an active sense of humour, without which we could not have accepted our hardships and misfortunes as readily as we did. Loud laughter was common among us and the unwary became the butt of practical jokes. Ed, Michel, and Holgar, on their way Outside one spring day, paddling south of Stony Narrows, lifted a fat goose, accidentally caught in one of Martin's muskrat traps. Martin, coming upstream, met the party boiling a big kettle on the riverbank. Holgar's greeting to Martin whom he had not seen for nine months was: "Your goose is cooked!"

I never heard of heart conditions or cancers among these men. There were none with paunches or excess fat on their bodies. I noticed that most had bad teeth, probably due to diet deficiencies.

None of us respected the game laws of the country. It was generally agreed among white trappers that strict adherence to existing game laws would result in us all starving to death. I saw some practical evidence that many practiced conservation, especially when they located for several years in one place. Where two partners worked together, sometimes only one trapper's license was taken out.

All gave some thought to dying alone and helpless back in the wilderness. We shrugged it off with the simple logic that many people die Outside. Although there existed dangers here that are unusual, certain Outside hazards did not menace us. There is little chance of contracting a contagious disease when you live away from humans. You will never be the victim in a car accident in a land where there are no roads.

Once Monias has established himself in the wilderness and spent a year or two, he is, with few exceptions, dedicated to this way of life, with its absence of the shackles that burden people Outside. There is much to be said for a life where one can do as he pleases, with no one to tell him when, where, or how to do a thing. One does only the kind of work he wishes, he exercises every day in the outdoors, drinks water that is crystal clear and free from pollution. He fishes and hunts to his hearts content!

All of these men had proven abilities. Any one could have made a living Outside even in the state of depression of the economy that was a byword of the times. The North lured them back year after year, until old age or some catastrophe caused them to be absent from their wilderness haunts. The lure of the North, is ever with those who have returned to the outside.

The discussions that night were finalized by Holgar's opinion that man, alone in the North, does not fear the elements or the wild animals. He is not unduly concerned about what will happen to him through misfortune or misjudgment on his part. He is, however concerned about and fears his fellow man. He sometimes worries about him and what he can do to the land and its resources. Carelessness with fire can burn him out, together with his trapping grounds. Indiscriminate killing can wipe out animal resources. Perhaps he fears and mistrusts himself most of all.

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"Date Modified: May 23, 2024."

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