After the near loss of our outfit on Crooked Lake, we waited out the storm for two days. As winds abated, we loaded up the boats, and Irvine and George finally landed us at Crooked Lake Dam. The weather had turned so cold that for the last hundred yards to the dock we had to smash ice that had become thick enough to stop the boats. They tarried only long enough to see the cargo unloaded and although the sun had already set they reckoned they could make it to Big River non stop that night by the light of an increscent moon and thus avoid the danger of becoming frozen in. Bill Mahoney, the dam keeper, put up the three of us for the night. He gave us space in his warehouse to store our supplies. At daybreak, we began the task of packing - on our backs - all of our supplies and equipment to the cabin at Rat Creek.
Ab and Bob figured it at six or seven miles by a trail blazed through the trees in a circuitous route that skirted several swamps, led through alder bottoms, and finally struck out through the big white poplars and mature spruce over level ground. As we neared Rat Creek the trail led up and down hilly country until we found the cabin.
The first thing that I had to learn was to watch my footing. Gone was the easy prairie walking, for the area from whence I came was treeless and had little rock or stone. I found that tripping over a snag or root while carrying a heavy pack will give you a rude jolt. Stubbing the toe on the end of a stick or small stump can be very painful as our footwear was ankle height rubbers over moose-hide moccasins and socks.
The outfit was packed over, one round trip a day. Alternately, one man stayed at the cabin and two men packed freight. The cabin was cleaned up and we settled down for the winter. On one of the last packing trips Ab shot a large mule deer doe. We had been augmenting our food supplies with ruffed grouse, spruce hens, and at the still open creek we shot ducks. We packed in the venison and hung it in the log lean-to at the back of the cabin.
The cabin I learned, had a history. Tucked back in the inside bend of the creek, it had been purposely hidden in dense poplar and spruce so that a traveller on the creek could not see the log structure. It was well made of straight spruce logs with a double board roof and a plank floor, one of the better cabins I was to see in the north. This had been the base of operations for a man known around Big River as Utah.
He was a maker of home brew and dealt with loggers, Indians, and certain northern traders. He departed a few years back, it was said, with the law in hot pursuit. Bob one day, discovered a small paper stuck between two logs in the wall beside his bunk. Scrutiny of this paper brought to light that Utah had been issued a "permit to leave" by his home state since he had been among other things a syphalitic. Hung on the walls were pieces of equipment such as one would not expect to see in a trappers cabin. In the lean-to stood a hardwood mash box with a thermometer on a nail above it. A sixteen foot length of three-quarter-inch steel cable hung in the cabin, a thing that puzzled us, for we could not relate this to moon-shiner's activities. It had never been used, it was still complete with shipping tag from the T. Eaton Co., the famous mail-order house of western Canada.
An excellent cast-iron wood stove was in one corner of the cabin. The cabin floor was about twelve feet square and we found the stove to be quite adequate for our needs. It took wood up to eighteen inches in length and was fed through a door in one end. After we had fitted our stovepipe oven with new pipes, we found that it drew very well. Here, I was to learn, it was essential to have a good stove as life centres around it for preparing food as well as for warmth.
Although Ab and Bob had spent a winter here they had learned little of the art of taking furbearing animals. The three of us now set to work, and since we knew little, did everything wrong. At the cabin there were a number of weasel boxes, built of boards, about a foot long and eight inches wide. They were closed in from all sides with a small hole cut in one corner. The top was removable so that the box could be baited and a trap set in it. The boxes were so designed that the larger animals such as rabbits could not get caught.
We caught a dozen weasels by this method along with many flying squirrels that thudded on the cabin roof at night but were never seen by day. We set our larger number two, three, and four traps for foxes whose tracks were now everywhere as they had ranged along the creek and out on the lake ice. Rabbits blundered into all these traps that we set in the woods. I noticed that fox tracks dotted each snow-covered muskrat house, and I set traps on them, not knowing that foxes climb on them only once and that just after the ice forms. One morning I saw something dark move beside one of the muskrat houses. My hopes for a cross fox were short-lived, for it happened that my trap held an unhappy horned owl that had lit on the muskrat house while hunting at night. We worked hard at trapping. Downstream we made sets at the rapids, hoping to catch mink, but the cold weather froze the shallow rapids, the creek backed up and flooded our traps so that we found them only in the spring when the ice had melted away.
We learned early that we could expect no helpful hints on trapping from other trappers. Generally closemouthed and evasive as to successful methods, they might tell you certain things that would prove to be red herrings and were not to be regarded seriously. Professional secrets were carefully guarded and certainly not communicated to strangers. The mark of a successful trapper was measured by the number of furs he gathered. Those that failed were regarded as greenhorns and incompetents and became the laughing stock in Big River.
Bill Mahoney told us that we would have a neighbor at Rat Lake that winter. His name was Chris Timson and he lived about seven miles south of our cabin. Tall blond, and raw-boned, with long hair and full blond beard, he had been in the area for some years. Formerly in partnership with a countryman named Holger Petersen, he now operated alone from a central point on the west side of Rat Lake.
Ab and Bob set off one morning to pay him a visit. They kept in the tall timber back of the lakeshore until they found one of his trapping trails and tracked him to his neat little cabin; they found him at home. Chris, a great talker, made them welcome, assured them that the country was big enough for us all, served them a meal and, as they left for home, presented them with a gift of two jumbo whitefish just out of the net.
The weather was unseasonably mild for November as the boys arrived home at dusk. The whitefish, not yet frozen, I prepared for our evening meal by the light of our kerosene lamp. I cut the meat into steaks and rolled each piece in flour. Fried quickly in lard to a deep brown, we thoroughly enjoyed it for it was choice quality and very fresh. I found that there is a good deal of difference between these fish and those I had eaten in the south that had been frozen for some time.
The snowshoe rabbit population was at the height of its cycle. Rabbit tracks were everywhere. Where we had cut down some big poplars for stove fuel they congregated in dozens to strip the branches of bark. At dusk we watched them arrive along the rabbit runs. As the days grew shorter and the snows deeper, I found coyote and fox tracks on the rabbit runs and it appeared that they fared well on rabbits, for many remnants of their kills were scattered about. The horned owls that hooted at night from their favourite lookouts in the tall poplars were having little trouble in finding food. The piercing scream of a taloned rabbit was often heard in the night. As winter progressed the rabbits began to die of tulerimia, the rabbit disease that all but wiped them out. I watched the demise of many of them. These looked unthrifty and while feeding would flop over on one side, moaning, struggling, and kicking until they died.
Almost as lethal as the rabbit disease was the creek itself. Kept open by the warm current of lake water, it froze over only in the coldest weather, because snow covered, and, with the coming of warmer weather, many snow bridged, unsafe areas developed. I saw many rabbit trails lead out onto the creek, only to end at a small black hole where they had been sucked under by the current after they had broken through. In the spring their carcasses could be seen floating in the eddies where they were found by the bears coming out of hibernation.
Just before Christmas, Ab and I walked out to Big River-forty miles one way. The snow was not deep out on Crooked Lake and we made it to the first settlements by nightfall, leg weary, stiff, and sore. By morning, although rested, we were so stiff that it took a few miles of walking to limber up. The welcome sight of the sawdust burner appeared in the distance, and we arrived in the village at noon. Morgan welcomed us and fed us well again. After one night in town, we headed back with the mail and just enough supplies to make comfortable loads that would not slow us down, arriving back at the cabin on the fifth day, with all traces of stiffness gone. We were already hardened to walking long distances.
January arrived and with it our first heavy snowfall. I had seen it snow heavily in southern Saskatchewan, but had never seen snow like this. We awoke one windless morning to grey skies and grey air as snow sifted down into our little circular clearing in the big trees. It snowed all day until each stump wore a white twelve-inch snowcap. Familiar logs and stumps were buried completely. At sundown the sun broke through the thick overcast for a few seconds, and the afterglow coloured the tops of the tall snow-crowned spruce in the back of the cabin. Then the clouds closed in once more and it snowed more heavily than before. Standing in the clearing and looking up, one could imagine oneself under a giant confetti cutter whose handle never ceased to turn. We retired to our bunks that night under the spell of profound silence, for there were no sounds from birds or animals, all holed up in the snow. (Fresh snow deadens sound.)
Next morning the sky cleared and the cold sunlight shone on a white world. Our long rows of stacked stovewood were topped with eighteen inches of new snow.
The rows had at first been five feet above ground level, but now showed only a foot above the level of surrounding snow. Our thermometer registered -40 degrees F. and the trees popped with loud reports as they split with the frost. All our traps were now useless until they could be dug out and reset. Travel without snowshoes was impractical and we set to work making snowshoes according to instructions from Bill Mahoney as to how to make frames and weave the webbing in a star shaped pattern. Travel was still a great deal more difficult and our hunting range was curtailed.
Ab one day, while trailing a moose in the poplar and birch stands north of the cabin, came upon the fresh track of a fox which he followed to its den. Since no track led away from the den, he plugged all den entrances with logs, knowing that he had a fox bottled up in there. He legged it back to the cabin for Bob and what digging tools we could muster. They spent two full days chipping at the frozen sand and finally extricated a big, male red fox, returning home in triumph.
At this time our supplies of meat dwindled, then disappeared altogether. Ab, the most effective hunter among us, was doing his best to provide venison, but with the deep snow he could cover only limited areas; nor did it help that now the hours of daylight were too few. I accompanied him on an afternoon, trailing eight mule deer that moved from one frozen swamp to another, pawing away the deep snow to find frozen green grass beneath. We made a careful stalk, but sighted them only as they faded into a thick stand of willows, grey shapes in the grey dusk vanishing into grey brush.
We were in no danger of starvation for we had a stock of staples, but we missed the good red meat. A herd of woodland caribou passed the cabin in the night. Ab set out to trail them next morning, but he was beaten from the start, for these animals seem to travel constantly and effortlessly.
We were becoming desperate for meat. One evening we shot two snowshoe rabbits, prepared and roasted them in the stove-pipe oven and ate them at our evening meal. Not as flavourful as venison, yet we found the meat acceptable eating. We ate rabbit each day for three weeks by which time we began to find that they were no longer acceptable as food. I have never eaten rabbit since.
During this time Ab was making new efforts to obtain meat. He broke snowshoe trails in the prime moose country north of the cabin and ranged as far as some big open muskegs to the east near Voisin Lake. He returned to the cabin in high spirits one evening, a grey snowy figure, packing a haunch of a big bull caribou. Coming on fresh sign, he had trailed the herd into muskeg country and dropped the bull with an expert shot. The meat proved to be good eating and we feasted on steaks and roasts. We had hamburgers made with our hand-operated meat grinder. The meat was packed in, taking several trips. When it was hung in our lean-to we felt more secure, knowing that we now had enough meat to see the winter out. All in all we consumed eight game animals that season: six deer, one moose, and the bull caribou.
The winter birds were our constant companions. Whiskey jacks would steal any scrap of food that they could pilfer and would light on the table if the door was left open and the food unattended.
Chickadees called from their sheltered feeding grounds beside the cabin. Several species of woodpecker flitted among the big trees. These were birds that I had not seen before, for they did not dwell in a prairie habitat.
The howling of coyotes was frequently heard. Although we tried desperately to trap them they eluded us, never going near our traps. Their chorus echoed tantalizingly from the thick woods, seeming so near that we sometimes sneaked over the next ridge to try to glimpse them but we were unsuccessful. Ab said that coyotes howl more often when a change is coming in the weather. On one of his hunting forays he had a quick look at two coyotes crossing the creek ice and promptly picked one off with his deer rifle. This was the only coyote taken by our party that winter.
January passed yet the winter showed no signs of abating. February, I learned, was the mating month for foxes and coyotes. Their tracks led up and down the creek and crisscrossed on the lake ice. These tracks goaded us to reset the traps at likely stopping places, but the results were always the same - unsuccessful.
Intense cold spells kept us close to the cabin. We had no radio receiving set and spent a good deal of time playing cards. Our stack of magazines and papers grew rumpled and of no further interest. Arguments developed easily and fist fights were narrowly averted. I was experiencing for the first time what, in the wilderness, is called cabin fever. When the weather moderated, we hunted and plied our traplines. Differences were forgotten and normal relationships were resumed.
Oddly we had no visitors at our cabin between November and May that year. The Indians did not show up at all. This is unusual even in the remotest areas and made our isolation the most complete of any winter I spent in the north.
Winter was now on the wane. The snow on the exposed slopes facing the south began to show signs of melting and settling. The February calendar sheet was ripped off, bringing March and the beginning of the muskrat trapping season.
We went at the muskrat trapping with more enthusiasm than skill. There were many muskrats in the creek and out on the lake for their houses and feeding stations or push-ups were to be seen in great numbers. The weather was mild; we opened the pushups and set our traps. While the weather was warm we took about fifty muskrats but a sudden cold snap sealed all the pushup entrances and we pulled up our traps.
At this time Bob decided that he had had enough of trapping. He would return to his home in the south and take up farming. This proved to be a sound decision, for, after two winters in the bush, he realized that he was not suited to trapping and had nothing to show for his efforts. We divided our furs; he took his clothing and personal effects, loading his big packsack in a neat load. We accompanied him through the woods to Crooked Lake, shook hands, and parted good friends as ever.
Ab and I continued with the muskrat trapping. March was slipping by and we had days in which the snow softened and settled. Woodpeckers drummed all day upon their favourite trees, and later the ruffed grouse thundered their signals from haunts where the warm sun struck the wooded hillsides west of our cabin. Red squirrels chattered and barked and chased one another around and around the boles of the big spruce. The snow sank a little more each day. One morning I saw crows flying overhead.
During the last days of March, Ab and I again made the trip to Big River. The cold temperatures had descended once more and put an end to spring's advance. Our purpose in walking to town was twofold: to sell our furs and pick up the mail. Our cash return for the furs just about finished our trapping careers. Fur prices were down, the fur dealers said. Muskrats were bought at twenty-five cents each. The red fox, dug out after two days of hard labour was worth one dollar. The buyer explained that it was badly rubbed, past prime, and since the government royalty was seventy-five cents we would have a return of twenty-five cents. The coyote shot on the creek was full-furred and worth five dollars-less than twenty dollars for the lot! We had to accept and struck out for the cabin that same day-we couldn't afford to stay in town.
Winter had passed. It had not been a severe one as I later found out, but we had experienced its cold, its sudden weather changes, deep snows, and complete isolation. We had listened to the coyote chorus by day and occasionally the howl of timber wolves in the night. As we lay in our bunks horned owls were hooting by moonlight. Once in the dead of night a small weasel entered the cabin through a hole in the moss chinking. Where the moonlight streamed into the cabin, through the window, we watched the weasel pounce on a tiny shrew. Thereafter the ever present mice and shrews ceased to exist about the cabin. We had awakened each morning from unbroken sleep to bright days and brilliant sunlight on a million snow-laden spruce trees. We had watched the sun dip low towards Capricorn, hesitate and swing back to the equator. We had spent a winter in the bush, excellent training for what was to come in the future.
Early one morning as I went down to the creek to dip a bucket of water, two mallards took flight, the first I had seen that spring.
In a few days the migrants arrived in full force. Ducks, geese, mudhens, loons, snipes, terns, herons, bitterns, gulls, and sandpipers descended on the creek since the lake was still icebound. Such ducks as I had never seen before: mergansers, blackducks, redheads, goldeneyes, and those we could not name, with their various calls made such noise that can only be associated with the coming of spring in the wilderness. Frogs added an incredible din to the spring song.
Small streams, created by the rapidly melting snows, bubbled and tinkled through the woods and into Rat Creek-a most pleasant sound. Songbirds whose songs we had never heard sang beautifully at evening and again just at dawn.
On the footpath another morning, going for water from the creek, as I followed the curve of the trail around a clump of grey willows I saw my first wild black bear.
Plodding along the far creek bank he did not see me. I skipped back to the cabin. "Get up, Ab. There's a big black bear on the other side of the creek!" I whispered. He hit the floor, grabbed his 6.5 Mannlicher and soon a shot cracked the morning silence. Mallards leaped skyward quacking in alarm. The bear lunged into an alder thicket. "We had better eat our breakfast before we look for him," Ab said. This appeared to me to be sound reasoning. I had heard of wounded bears charging their pursuers. After breakfast we found the bear, quite dead, lying on his side, just beyond the alders on a poplar covered hillside. We skinned it out right down to the toes with their claws which we left with the skin. Large for a black bear, it was a mature male with a thick shiny black pelt. Stretched and dried it measured about seven feet each way and served as a floor rug as long as we lived at Rat Creek. We both noticed that a skinned bear carcass somewhat resembled a heavily muscled man.
One fine spring evening, with the nip of winter back in the air, I worked my way with the wooden boat, part of the equipment bought with the cabin, through the dead reeds and bullrushes, making the rounds of my open water muskrat sets. Muskrats were plentiful and could be seen swimming about everywhere. Suddenly, quite close to the boat, I saw a fish leap from the water. Looking down into the crystal clear water, I saw a fine jackfish. Then several more passed under the boat. The creek was swarming with fish, for the spawning season was at hand.
During the next few days we entertained ourselves by snaring jackfish with brass rabbit wire. Fashioning a running loop, all that was required was to put it over the side of the boat and guide it over the head of a fish, then with a heave the fish was boated. We found them good eating after a steady winter meat diet.
The jackfish run was spectacular, but the pickerel run that followed was even better. They now swarmed up the creek to spawn in the eleven mile long lake that began about a mile upstream from the cabin. pickerel, we found, were better to eat, the flesh being firm and flavourful. To this day it is my belief that pickerel taken from water free of industrial and sewage pollution is hard to beat for downright good eating. We continued our muskrat trapping through April and on into May when the poplars first showed a tinge of green. On May 15 Chris Timson arrived at our camp in his sailing boat. He was on his way to Big River with his fur catch. Would we come along? We would. Rat Lake he told us, had been cleared of ice the day before by a steady south wind and Crooked Lake would probably be ice-free also.
Travelling downstream in the warm sun was most enjoyable. The current swept us along effortlessly and our two boats made good time, for the creek was now a torrent with the spring flood. The pickerel run was in full swing and we saw thousands wriggling through the rapids, their spiked back fins often above water. At the sluggish Crooked River we turned upstream. The river was high with all the backwaters flooded
and the trees standing in water in some areas. We continued on past Crooked Lake Dam where Bill Mahoney had all gates open to let the high waters drain away. Out on Crooked Lake Chris instructed us on how to rig a sail with our tarpaulin. A fair wind filled it and swept us down the lake.
For us sailing was a new experience. The land slipped steadily by as Ab steered the craft from the stern. Redwing blackbirds sang their spring song in the reeds along shore, the air was full of the wing sounds of travelling waterfowl, fish jumped from the water and the sun shone bright and warm all day long. We had short periods ashore to boil the tea pail and eat our meals and to doze in the sun.
On the second day, from ten miles out we sighted the sawdust burner. the wind held fair and we landed at the government dock at noon. The denuded hillsides of the village were strewn with the garbage and junk of winter. The depression was still evident, as was human misery. We were not impressed with what we saw. The months of isolation had classified us as those who prefer to live in the unspoiled wilderness. We decided to return to the cabin and spend the summer there.
Muskrat prices had improved. The buying price was now thirty-five cents a pelt. We sold the hundred-odd pelts and loaded up a meagre grubstake. We stayed in town just long enough to enjoy fresh fruit, vegetables, and beer. As we embarked down Crooked Lake we were already laying plans for the winter.