In the black earth between the big poplar stumps of the little clearing we planted a garden. Seeds brought from Big River and rhubarb roots gleaned from an abandoned ranch house were soon producing, but the garden became so overrun with woodchucks and rabbits that it was only partially successful. Ab had long had the urge to make a dugout canoe fashioned after the models he had seen used by British Columbia Indians. Therefore, during the previous winter he had felled a great white spruce located near the Rat lake shore. We had worked on the log from time to time, shaping it roughly on the outside and gouging at its insides with a homemade adze. When finally the log had been pared down in weight, we skidded it on the snow to the lakeshore. Soon after our return to the Rat Creek cabin, we floated the roughed-out canoe down to the cabin site.
We worked on it now with knives, axes, and the adze. We gouged until the thickness of the walls averaged under two inches. Carefully now we chipped and carved lest a crude stroke cut right through. Eventually, the canoe was completed, a sixteen-foot craft cut from one great log. She checked a little at the ends but Ab soon had these cracks sealed, and we found it well balanced and very serviceable, compared to our heavy wooden boat.
It was the end of June when we assessed our cabin as a summer home and found it wanting. The trees, now in full leaf, cut off any breeze, the poplars and the willows took on such lush foliage that the cabin was shaded most of the time. It rained a lot that year and the creek remained at flood stage all summer. The swampy area behind the cabin became a vast incubator for millions of vicious mosquitoes, for the humidity and stifling heat created ideal mosquito hatching conditions.
These winged stabbers drove us indoors and we had to sleep under mosquito netting if we were to sleep at all. Underbrush grew up thick and green about the cabin so that we had a clear view from the cabin of only a few yards.
The poplars formed a solid wall, blotting out the spruce. The grasses stood three feet high at the creek's edge. The grey willows and the red willows with long waxy leaves so changed the appearance of the creek that we could have imagined ourselves in a different country.
Now we had an invasion of bulldog flies. These flying butchers are similar in size and disposition to the horseflies I had known on the prairies, however the bulldogs are more vividly coloured and have a blood-drawing bite that cuts from both sides to the centred when they are able to get at the skin of man or beast. They swarmed into the cabin and we were forced to make a door of netting.
The final and deciding factor occurred when a skunk dug under the outside wall of the cabin and took up residence beneath the floor. Ab was forced to shoot her because she kept us awake nights with the noise of keeping house. After she was shot she released her offensive weapon too close to the cabin so that the flour and rolled oats became tainted. Our cabin had become untenable. This moonshiners retreat was not for us. We had to get to higher ground, with a view and a breeze lest we become victims of claustrophobia. We would relocate and build a new cabin.
The site we chose was a quarter of a mile upstream from the old cabin. On a rounded ridge wooded with tall mature white poplars we found a level area. To the north the land rose in a gentle slope while on the west the ridge fell off sharply to provide excellent drainage. On the east the downward slope was less steep. To the south we could see past the cattails and reeds all the way to the lake. We could feel the south wind here, and the sun shone through the leaves and dappled the ground.
Ab began to fell the poplars. His double-bitted axe sent them crashing to the ground. The trees were so tall and heavy that most of the limbs were shattered from the trunks as they came in contact with the ground. He taught me how to fell a log exactly where it should fall, how to "pull" a tree to one side or another to avoid getting it hung up on another. It was the season when tree bark is loose and we peeled each log with our axes simply by cutting a long strip and then peeling off great slabs of bark. Before the logs became dry we skidded them down the north rise, across other peeled logs so that with a minimum of effort we hand-logged enough prime timber for a cabin twelve feet by twenty-four feet in size.
Ab had had some experience as a carpenter's helper. He possessed an uncanny knack for making a saw cut that fit with precision. The cabin walls began to rise. We used all the board flooring, roof boards, factory windows, and the door from the old cabin. At last a new, clean, white cabin stood on the rise which overlooked Rat Creek to the lake. Lastly, we neatly trimmed all the log ends of the cabin and were a little proud of our new home. The site was cleaned up, the limbs and bark burned, and we moved into the new cabin,aromatic with poplar scent.
We were faced with a problem: we were broke. With our present supplies we could stick it out until autumn, but there was no money for food, clothing, and equipment to enable us to spend the coming winter at this place. It was decided that I would return home and work in the wheat fields during harvest in order to assure us enough cash for our needs.
Ab and I parted company a few miles south of Big River. We shook hands, he turned north and I went south. Twenty-four hours later I had hitchhiked to Saskatoon.
In Saskatchewan's second largest city I viewed at first hand the effects of the depression and I hated what I saw. The city was full of young men, all jobless, destitute, and with no place to go. I saw men lined up for blocks awaiting a turn at a soup kitchen. I possessed the fare and I was determined to ride on the passenger train the rest of the way, and I had a six-hour wait for my train. I walked about the city. I caught the looks of faces haggard with worry, pain, and misery. I saw once again the hopelessly crippled, the blind, the handicapped, and the weakening aged. This caused me to reflect on the many ills of mankind with which I had been out of contact; so that becoming suddenly aware of this after several months I was appalled and felt the clean, free, and easy life up north was much to be desired in place of city existence. I wished with all my heart to return and as soon as possible.
Back at my home I found most of my friends interested in my experiences and they questioned me for hours. Some of my schoolmates had spent the winter on farms through an arrangement whereby the provincial government paid the farmer and the man each the sum of five dollars a month.
I had a good long run of harvesting with little delay for wet weather. In early October I was back in Big River with fifty dollars left of my earnings.
I hunted around for someone with a motorboat to run me to Crooked Lake Dam. I wandered down to the government dock next morning and sure enough, there was Irvine loading supplies into his boat. Of course he would take me to Crooked Lake Dam. His father was operating a small pole-cutting operation ten miles down the lake and he must help him finish hauling out the poles to the lake, about two days' work. I could come along if I wished. I was delighted to come.
The weather was sunny, warm, and the winds light. Irvine now using a smaller boat and a new outboard motor, had us out to the pole camp in short order.
I spent the next two days in a most delightful setting. It was that season that is free of mosquitoes, has warm sunshine and leaves showing their last blaze of colour. I sat on a sunny hillside and awaited each load of poles that Irvine hauled out to the lake by horse team. Then I assisted him at unloading one pole at a time and watched them roll down the hill into the lake where they became part of a large boom. The poles were about twenty feet in length and up to ten inches in diameter and could used for fence posts, corrals, or the many other uses to which such logs can be put. If I became thirsty I walked back on the wagon road for a few yards where a sweet water-spring trickled through a small draw. The men had made a trough of two small boards so that the water carried over an ancient mossy log and cascaded from it in a crystal stream. It was the best-tasting drinking water that I ever had.
The pole cutting operation completed, we left for the dam on a bright sunny morning. Our trip down the lake was a thing of great beauty, and something I cannot forget. The lake was a long narrow mirror which reflected all the colours of autumn, for the poplars and birch were painted a rich yellow. Each tree was duplicated in the water mirror to the finest detail so that the autumn colours were doubled. In contrast to our first cold and dangerous trip down the lake one year ago, this was sheer enjoyment. I have seen the leaves colour, flame, and fall many times since, but often the weather turns wet and cold with harsh winds that strip the leaves away even while still green. The trip was completed by early afternoon with Bill Mahoney holding our gunwale to the dock as we stepped ashore.
I hiked the seven miles to Rat Creek. Happy to meet again, Ab and I had a good visit. He had put all the finishing touches on the cabin, prepared the traps and cut the winter's supply of wood We would be ready to start trapping with the first snow; but first we had to return to Big River for supplies and equipment. The next day we sailed the boat up Rat Lake before a fair wind. We ascended Stony (Delaronde) Creek to Stony (Delaronde) Lake and after two days made the landing from where we walked overland to Big River. We laid in enough supplies for two months, we bought a used 38.55 Winchester carbine for ten dollars to replace Ab's deer rifle which had proven defective. At the landing we loaded into the boat a hundred-pound sack of vegetables bought from a homesteader for fifty cents. The good weather held and we made it back to the Rat Creek cabin without delay.
The trapping season was again at hand. We shot a couple of mule deer to supply our need for meat so that our time could be spent at trapping. We went to work with enthusiasm but, alas, with little success. Somehow our traps would not work for us. Those placed atop the muskrat houses were warily skirted by fox and coyote. I must say here that our efforts were continually dogged by bad luck and outrageous circumstances. Old Bill Mahoney, out of pity, had shown me how to make a trail set at a place where a deadfall lay across the trail. He demonstrated how a fox or coyote, when travelling, would jump over the log and step on the concealed trap on the other side. I tried these traps at likely places and caught rabbits. One morning a coyote loped down one of the trails I had set. There had been one inch of new snow in the night. I trailed the coyote to my set. It had leaped the log-and continued on! Out of curiosity I lifted the trap and found that the animal had stepped on each jaw and not set of the trigger. We had several other near misses. By the end of the November our catch consisted of a dozen weasels and one mink. Other than Mahoney's tip on trail sets no one had offered us any clues to successful trapping.
One day Ab and I had a serious talk and decided that we must reassess our position. Although we both enjoyed the life here we must be realistic and realize that we must make a living with enough surplus to purchase new equipment, clothing, rifles, even a canoe, and outboard motor.
The use of snares for taking fur animals was unlawful in Saskatchewan. We had accepted that law and so far had not violated it. However in our travels we had seen many snares set by Indians and half-breeds and whites. We had heard of no one who had been charged for violating the regulation. Ab and I looked at each other for a moment, then looked at the three-quarter-inch cable hanging on the wall.
"Are you thinking the same thing I am?" I asked.
He grinned and answered, "I think so."
We set to work first cutting the cable into lengths with a hacksaw, Taking several strands of wire for each snare, we fashioned loops in each end by twisting the ends around the strands to form a small loop through which the end was threaded to make the noose. A similar loop was made at the other end to be used for anchoring. The wire worked into snares perfectly.
We began to experiment with the setting of snares. We were soon to learn that successful snaring is an art that must be acquired by trial and error. We hung a few in the rabbit runs and game trails and anchored each to a sapling. We set them wrong because foxes and coyotes either dodged under the loop or jumped through loops that we made too large.
The snows were growing deeper. One morning the new-cut poplar stumps about the cabin all carried fourteen-inch snowcaps. We realized that all our traps had been useless for fox and coyote.
The coyotes, as usual howled tantalizingly from quite close to the cabin, from the shadowy recesses of the thick woods, and faintly from far away swamp and muskeg. On my rounds one morning I found one snare noose drawn shut and pulled askew. Close examination of the wire showed a few hairs caught in the ends of the wire windings. They were unmistakably the black-tipped coyote guard hairs! My pulse quickened. Here was failure once more, but probably the loop had been set wrong and the coyote had caught his tail momentarily in the wire ends. Ab showed great interest in this event and proceeded to string out a line of snares in the game trails through the grey willow flats all the way to Rat Lake and part way down the lakeshore. It was a week before Christmas. Ab made ready for the long hike to Big River, this time south via Chris's cabin, Brown's abandoned ranch, across country to Craddock's ranch, Crooked Lake, and so on into Big River. He was to pick up the mail, tobacco, and such groceries as the proceeds of twelve weasels and one mink would bring. I saw him off in the early dawn and settled down to cleaning up the cabin, washing and mending my somewhat tattered clothing.
A couple of hours later I heard a whoop from down the trail. Ab, a grin of triumph on his face, walked toward the cabin, and atop his pack was a snared coyote. This was indeed cause for jubilation, a prime fully furred coyote was worth ten dollars. What was more important , we had actually wrested a secret from this land, and our efforts were beginning to pay off.
Ab had found the coyote in one of his snares in the willow flats; he had looked over the snares on his way, just in case. The snare victim was frozen solid into a statue that caught in great detail the desperation and terror of the death struggle. The muzzle was frozen in a last death-defying snarl, the tongue lolling and bloodied, the teeth bared and threatening, the tail flailing, the legs straining desperately against an unrelenting foe to the very end-choked to death by a noose drawn taut by the tension of many willows pulled into a cone-shaped bundle by the wire which we had cut a little too long. We were a couple of days thawing the coyote carcass, skinning out, stretching, and drying the pelt. Just as a fur pelt insulates against the cold it also acts as insulation against heat and therefore fully furred animal carcasses thaw slowly.
Then Ab departed again for Big River. A similar scene occurred later that day; this time Ab bore another snared coyote and a snared red fox, both prime and fully furred. We now had about fifty dollars worth of furs, enough to buy our supplies and clothing until spring. We felt at long last we were on our way.
Ab got to Big River on the third try. He stopped in to visit with Chris. During the course of the conversation Chris declared that some good-for-nothing so-and-so was illegally setting snares-and in his territory! Ab made no comment, but puffed steadily on his pipe as Chris talked on. Finally Chris stated that the snares belonged to Ed Choquette, a white trapper with headquarters on Crooked Lake, due west of Chris's cabin.
We learned quickly that, although the use of snares for taking coyotes and foxes was illegal, according to the game laws of Saskatchewan, they were used by the Indians who had done so from time immemorial and would use them as long as they hunted furs. The half-breeds used snares also, for wire was cheap and easily carried about. I once snared a coyote that already carried a crudely made loop of two strands of hay-baling wire. Oddly enough, while most white trappers used snares they would not admit it. Some whites failed to "catch on" to snares at all because they did not learn the craft and set snares with little or no success.
The craft of snaring, it turned out, was highly effective when properly applied. I found the use of snares more to my liking than lugging around heavy steel traps. A dozen coiled snares tucked into a parka pocket were, of course, much less cumbersome than packing a like number of traps in a packsack. I consider that a properly set snare is more humane than a trap, for if skillfully set a snared coyote or fox will hang itself. The trapped animal may live for many days unless it chews or twists off its foot. The fascination of snaring is that there may be some surprises in the catch from snares. I have caught a full-grown lynx in a snare set for a fox. The best and healthiest animals are taken with snares, while traps catch the crippled, diseased, and undernourished. One of the pitfalls of using steel snares is that snares may be snowed over and lost, then when the snow melts they will reappear and catch fur animals all summer. The snare takes on a greater responsibility and marks his sets well, carefully accounting for each one.
The 1933-34 winter turned out to be one of the severe ones that come along perhaps once in twenty years and is remembered for its severity. On a visit to Bill Mahoney's cabin he informed us that temperature below -60 degrees F. had been recorded in Big River when he was in town in January. The village, set on bare hillsides with a northern exposure was bearing the brunt of a bone-chilling north wind that swept up the lake. Wildlife tracks were seen less as the animals kept to the shelter of the bush where four feet of snow covered all ground landmarks. At sunrise when the temperature of the day is often at its minimum the trees crack loudly with the frost.
We travelled on snowshoes and had by now learned to use them. Bill Mahoney lent us one of his Indian-made models which we used for a pattern to make our own. We used birch for frames and crossbars, steaming the wood in boiling water to bend the staves into shape and for the upward toe binds. Raw moosehide was cut in strips and used in the centred section while deerskin strips were cut for weaving the end sections. We decorated them with gaily coloured woolen tassels. We learned the slightly spread-legged walk of snowshoers and to avoid contact with snags. We experienced mal de racquet the French-Canadian term for the torturing pain under the toes caused by snowshoe webbing chafing moccasined feet.
In the beginning I found that I was no hunter. I had to learn how it was done. The first winter, when alone, I felt un-oriented and lacked a sense of direction when in the bush. In the second winter I began to hunt alone; I followed the game trails into the lush poplar and birch stands where moose trails crisscrossed the whole area.
I went back into the meadows where there was much evidence of feeding deer. I did nothing right. One day I sat resting on a convenient stump and looked all around. Two dark objects among the trees less than seventy yards away drew my interest for a time. I decided that they were two uprooted spruce whose spreading roots had carried up black earth. Then I saw the dark objects move. A cow moose with calf were legging it for more distant parts.
Another day, after a hard tramp, I sat on a log, resting. I heard a twig snap, then another. I watched in awe as a big mule deer buck walked neatly toward me, curiosity in his flared nostrils and wide eyes. At the same instant I stood up and shot at his neck, he wheeled and my shot whistled over his rump. I realized my error at once. Had I remained seated, I could have shot him in the eye at forty yards. These were bitter lessons. I later learned to hunt effectively, contributing a share to our meat supplies.
With heavy snows came the intense cold that invariably follows in this latitude of Saskatchewan. The coldest weather was characterized by the complete absence of wind. The thermometer was often in the low minus fifties. This grim cold seemed to crowd down and dull the ambition. The creek froze up tight and stopped steaming. We spent a good deal of our time in our new, clean cabin reading, talking, or playing cribbage, a popular card game in the North. Our reading was augmented by a box of "pulp" adventure magazines, a popular newsstand item of the times. These had been sent to us by our former partner, Bob. we analyzed critically some of the Northland stories and picked out certain flaws with authority.
Late in February, Ab shot a mature doe back in the tall timber that stretched in a band from north to south just east of the cabin. The doe had been faring badly for she consisted mainly of hair, hide, bone, and paunch. Not a vestige of fat could be found on the meat which had an unhealthy pink colour. We rejected it for food. The snow had covered so much browse that the animal was starving.
Occasional milder days broke the monotony of winter. The coyote chorus was heard more frequently for it was their mating season again. We saw where they had urinated at their favourite "posts"-the snags that showed above the snow along the creek.
Ab went north one day hunting for caribou in the Voisin Lake country. He was away all day and reached the cabin after dark. He spent the entire day walking down a crippled coyote that had escaped from a trap. Back and forth through the wooded muskeg country the coyote had tried all his tricks to throw him off the trail. The moment came when the coyote moved from cover into the open for a few seconds and fell to Ab's rifle.
Once again the drumming of woodpeckers heralded the coming of spring and with it the muskrat trapping season. We concentrated on our work and set all the push-ups we could find on the creek right down to the rapids and on the lake as far as Chris's trapline. We made many open water sets in the open area of the creek. The yield was good and our pile of skins grew each day. Indians from Green Lake appeared on the creek one day. They came in groups of three or four and set their traps alongside ours. Their dogs smelled out all the push-ups that we could not locate under the snow. These people waded up to their waists in the icy water to get at choice locations. We were a good deal nettled, but eventually adopted the philosophy that some of these people had probably trapped here long before we were born. Later several white homesteaders came along to augment their meagre incomes by trapping muskrats. We overlooked these also, for the game laws permitted each holder of a two dollar trapping license to operate where he chose on unrestricted lands throughout the province.
In prime muskrat country, on certain warm days occasional muskrats were to be found adventuring on the lake ice. One of these which I ran down had both front feet missing from previous trappings. I heard a story of one hunter who had trapped a muskrat by the tail since it had no feet at all having lost them in traps. The whole cycle of spring unfolded again, the vivid green of the spruce as the sap began to rise, the drumming of the grouse, the return of crows, waterfowl, and songbirds. Some of the songbirds called with notes that could be compared to the sound of tapping on the finest glass goblet. We heard the din of frogs and saw the fish swim up the creek, the small jackfish, and once in a while one so large that our eyes popped. Loons arrived and made belly landings on the creek.
Bitterns thunder pumped in the back-waters and great blue herons rose silently and were airborne as we neared them around some bend in the creek.
One day we worked our muskrat sets out on Rat Lake where the ice did not cover a narrow stretch where the creek begins. Busily occupied among the dead reeds, cattails, and wild rice beds, we encountered a sudden storm of wind, sleet, and snow.
Paddling the dugout canoe hard against stinging sleet, we made it to shelter of the creek. Here we surprised a flock of some fifty pelicans who had sought the creek's shelter. These ungainly looking birds made a laboured take-off into the storm. The wind carried them back, now at a good height overhead. I noticed that one bird was having trouble keeping up with its mates. Then a long jackfish squirmed out of the bird's great beak and with a resounding slap struck the mud among the willows. As the fish fell through the air, I judged it to be in the four or five pound class. All the ice left the lake one day as a southwest wind ripped at the shifting mass. Before our eyes the ice shifted and moved to the opposite shore where it pushed up on shore for some feet. The wind and waves did the rest. The open stretch of water widened. By evening the lake was clear of ice, the only signs of winters grip were the piles of ice on shore and on the sandy points that jut out into the lake. Chill breezes came from this area.
The next day I beached the dugout canoe on a small sandy beach. A pair of sandpipers waded just at the shoreline, calling each other. The male bird took to the air, circled back and forth, calling all the while. The female answered from the beach and performed her mating dance. Then I witnessed their mating as the male descended to her on gentle wings, as delicately as a falling poplar leaf in the still warm air of an autumn day.
One day Cyril Mahoney arrived at our cabin. Cyril was the son of our old friend Bill, the dam keeper. Travelling overland on foot he had come from the Little Rat Lake country where he had been muskrat trapping. He was on his way to Big River via the Crooked Lake Dam.
He had just completed a very successful season, for he had 250 muskrat skins in his big packsack. I recognized him at once for an accomplished woodsman by the neatness of his clothing and equipment. He looked like a capable man in the bush. The way he had prepared his furs was a revelation. Every trace of fat and tissue had been expertly removed so that the skin side turned out, had a smooth, varnished look. From this we could see that our skins, although acceptably prepared, would not command as high a price as these expertly prepared ones. We thenceforth prepared ours in a like manner.
Cyril visited with us for half a day. We enjoyed his conversation. Once while discussing the merits of a trapper's life he remarked, "This is the only life."
A few days later Chris arrived with his sailboat. Chris was pulling out-moving to Cree Lake to rejoin his old trapping partner, Holgar Petersen.
Cree Lake! The name quickened my pulse and set my imagination to working. Some of the white trappers from that area were reportedly doing well, trapping many minks and foxes. Many a tale could be heard in Big River of the fabulous fur catches made in the Cree Lake country.
We bought from Chris some of his equipment, including the sailboat. He gave us his neat cabin halfway down the lake. We also bought his ancient radio receiving set that had two headphones. We wished Chris well in Big River when we parted. We were well established now, having enlarged our territory to twice its former size.
Muskrats were selling for seventy-five cents each. We found that we had enough money for a short holiday Outside.