Face the North Wind

Ed Theriau

Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.

Ed will tell you: "For twenty-five years I was on the road to the North by the thirteenth day of August. I remember this well, for that date is my birthday. I would usually arrive at my Poorfish Lake headquarters by the fifteenth of September." Now, it does not take that long to get to Poorfish Lake even if you paddle and pole your way in a canoe. The reason for this seemingly slow progress was that Ed had developed a continuing friendship with the scattered residents of the country. Certainly, Ed was a loner through the ten cold months of the winter season, yet he was as gregarious as the next fellow when he was near other people. His ready wit and sense of humour became a byword throughout northern Saskatchewan. Once on his annual winter trip by dog team to the trading post on Cree River, Ed visited so long with trader Henry Weitzel that Fred Darbyshire, waiting for him to return with supplies, made this irritated entry in his diary: "February 10, 1947, Ed didn't arrive from Cree Lake. He has had enough time to have gone to New York!" Chipewyan Teepee. Because he liked company, Ed would stop at such places as Beauval, Ile-a-la-Crosse and Patuanak, and at any Indian camp, he might encounter. He eventually became quite fluent in the Cree language, but the difficult Chipewyan tongue eluded him. He indulged in the Indian's pastimes, playing poker with them for money, pelts, traps, trail gear, and even betting sometimes with .22 cartridges. Ed won more often than he lost. The canoe route from Cree Lake to Poorfish Lake coincides with the ancient Chipewyan route to Reindeer Lake. When Ed and Fred first travelled this trail they observed the last traces of a way of life that was rapidly becoming history. At old camping places, there were preserved the remains of tepees, which the Chipewyans did not use anymore, having adopted the white man's canvas tent. It appeared that the tepee had been occupied on a semi-permanent basis, for each had a pit, filled with rocks, in the centre of the earthen floor. Fires were built on top of the rocks so that at night when the fire died out, the hot stones kept the tepee warm. The tepee was situated at or near the caribou crossings, places where the migrating caribou converged, year after year, to cross a river or lake. If the caribou moved, the tepees were moved, to a more favourable location for hunting.

The Chipewyans were a hardy people, descendants of generations of proven hunters, aggressive, independent, fearless and almost impervious to hunger and extreme cold. They had qualities of self-reliance and initiative that actually challenged adversity.

They did some trapping in the early days, usually for beaver and muskrat, and used the carcasses for food. They spent their summers on the big lakes in company with an assembly of their own people; somewhat later they began to pass the warm season as far south as the Churchill River. Throughout his association with these people, Ed was always aware of their tremendous hatred for the Crees, a hatred sustained by tales of tribal warfare that the old folk told the children, tales a century old at the time, but never forgotten.

Over the years, Ed had many long talks with the Chipewyans, sitting around their campfires at night. He talked with very old men, with men who had been old when he was a boy. They told him how it was before the white traders, trappers and rivermen came into the country. They told him how the furs were first collected at Ile-a-la-Crosse, and then freighted by York boat all the way to the mouth of the Churchill River, where they were loaded aboard ships bound for England.

Early in the history of the fur trade, the Hudson's Bay Company brought seven half-breeds, who were boat builders by trade, from eastern Canada to Ile-a-la-Crosse. They built the first York boats ever seen in the country, and they manned them on the voyages to the mouth of the Churchill with the help of the Chipewyans, who were excellent rivermen. The immigrants married Indian women and today their descendants are scattered throughout the North and possess surnames such as Aubichon, Laliberty, Durocher, Maurice, Roy and LaChance.

In those days, all the fur that was caught in this country was collected at the Hudson's Bay post at Ile-a-la-Crosse. It came in from all the outlying trading posts, from Fort Chipewyan, from Fond du Lac, from Green Lake and Buffalo Narrows and beyond. Much of the fur was sent during the winter, by dog team; the rest came by canoe after the spring break-up. By late spring, it was all piled up in the company warehouse at Ile-a-la-Crosse. York Boats. Then the valuable cargo was loaded into the Company's York boats, and the annual fur brigade departed, bound for Hudson's Bay. They started with up to ten boats in the brigade, three men to each boat, two rowers, sitting side by side, and a steersman standing in the stern and wielding a long, sweep oar It is a journey of many hundreds of miles from Ile-a-la-Crosse to the mouth of the Churchill, through some of the finest unspoiled wilderness in Canada. The route follows a series of lakes connected by fast-flowing, rapid-filled river reaches. Whenever a fair wind blew on the lakes, the York boats hoisted sails. The brigades ran most of the rapids and portaged around the cataracts, rolling the heavy boats on logs. (Fred and Ed saw some of these rollers, rotting and moss-grown, on the Churchill, in 1925.) Each portage was marked by a tall spruce trimmed to a top tuft, an old Indian signpost, known to white men as a "lobstick." The brigades had ample manpower, so the portages were made quickly and with relative ease.

On the journey, the men lived off the country. In the evenings they set their fishnets below the rapids. They shot moose, woodland caribou and deer. And if the hunting failed, they had pemmican, dried, pounded buffalo meat, mixed with fat and shaped into cakes that had been freighted to Ile-a-la-Crosse from the prairie south of Prince Albert.

, At last, the voyage ended at the Hudson's Bay Company's main depot at the mouth of the Churchill. Here they found other brigades that had arrived before them, with all the winter's furs from north, east, west, and south. Each brigade camped apart, and much rivalry existed between these groups of swarthy, robust men. Each group picked its best fighting man and matched him with the pick of another group. The fights were for real, with bare fists. A winner was matched against the winner until finally a champion was declared and awarded an ornate belt. Ed Theriau remembers a very old man at Ile-a-la-Crosse who still had his championship belt when he died.

Soon it was time to load the boats with supplies for the long, upstream journey home. Now in the rapids, they had to line the boats up through treacherous cross-currents, with the aid of ropes. Finally, in early autumn, they reached Ile-a-la-Crosse. From here freight was further distributed to the distant outposts so that it was freeze-up before the men arrived home.

Ed told me stories of the Chipewyan, his neighbours and friends for many years in the North. "It is more than forty years since I first made a trip north with a party of several families of Chipewyans. There were twenty canoes together when we left Patuanak in August 1933. We went downriver to a spot below Leaf Rapids where we caught and dried a lot of whitefish for the long trip to Cree Lake. Just before we broke camp some of the men returned to Patuanak for supplies to last them into the winter, tea, salt, baking powder, lard and a little flour, as well as rifle cartridges and shotgun shells.

"They used bannock as the white man eats desert. Their food was normally fish and meat, and they would finish their meals with a piece of bannock. In those days, I noticed, they were not fond of the white man's refined and sweetened foods and used their supplies of sugar very sparingly. One of their favourite summer foods was boiled whitefish. They always drank the soup, and I grew quite fond of whitefish soup myself, especially if it is slightly salted.

"Now we all started up the Deer (Mudjatik) River, the lower half of which is deep and very swift. Each canoe carried a set of paddles for occasional use, but the main implement for upstream progress was the pole. The Chipewyans make very good poles, cut from straight slender spruce, shaved down, balanced perfectly and painted. With this pole, an Indian can force a loaded canoe up treacherous rapids where a greenhorn would have to portage everything.

"These Indians were in no hurry. When we came to the foot of a rapid, we all camped there and set out the nets. There was an abundance of whitefish in the river at that time of the year. One day they organized a moose hunt. We broke up into small parties to hunt the surrounding country; some went paddling up a small creek, others took to the bush and another group went farther up the river. There were six moose shot on that hunt. Then the meat had to be dried and the hides tanned. The women did all this work as well as gathering wood, preparing meals and looking after the small children. The men did the hunting, poled the canoes and built cabins in which they lived in winter.

"They were always a very happy people, and they laughed a great deal. I have seen more smiles on their faces in one evening around a campfire than you will see in a whole day in a big city.

"So we proceeded leisurely all the way to Cree Lake. On the Cree Lake portage everyone, including women and the older children, helped with the work. When we reached the south end of Cree Lake, we waited for a fair wind and then raised sails. It was quite a sight to see twenty canoes under sail at one time. We went our separate ways then, the Chipewyans to their different camps on Cree Lake while I proceeded to the portages eastward and finally to my cabin on Poorfish Lake. As soon as the freeze-up came, the Chipewyans were on the move. Some went north toward Stoney Rapids, others east to Reindeer Lake, and the rest to the northeast of Cree Lake. In each group, there were usually five families with five dog teams.

"Before the departure of the Indians the fur traders arranged a future rendezvous in the wilderness so that supplies could be freighted in and the fur catch was taken out. However, the Indians moved in the meantime to be closer to the caribou and didn't appear at the rendezvous. At such times the traders had great difficulty finding their customers; sometimes they had to use up all their supplies to keep their own sleigh dogs alive. On occasion, the traders suffered more hardships than the Indians.

"The whole fur trade was based on credit. A man was given a grubstake in the fall on credit, and since the trader was anxious to recover the debt, he made special efforts to reach the man early in the trapping season. If the trader was unable to collect for the debt, that man was not given any credit the next year and would have to depend on the generosity of his friends.

"The Chipewyans were the best trappers in the North. In those years they did not like to see white trappers catch more fur than they did. They made special efforts to do better. I trapped alongside them for many years. When they crossed my trail and found fur in my traps, they hung the animals up in a handy tree, safe from mice or other predators that might spoil the pelt. They never did an unjust or dishonest thing to me in all the years I was in the country. I had a great deal of respect for them. I travelled with Chipewyans on numerous occasions, both in summer and winter, and we were always the best of friends.

"One autumn, as I was moving into Poorfish Lake just before freeze-up, I was crossing the four-mile portage, packing a heavy load. I was in an area where the trees had all been burned off, not a standing tree anywhere nearby. Then I heard a noise, and my dogs all came running to me. I looked up and saw this bull moose charging toward me. There is just one trip on a portage when you have your rifle. I was carrying it in my hand that trip and I got the moose.

"I knew old Marshall Gunn was camped at the end of the portage with his wife and two grandchildren. They did not have much to eat, because the old man was getting too old to hunt. I took one-quarter of that moose and gave them the rest. Late the next winter, when I came out through there on my way to the outpost at Cree Lake, I called in at Gunn's camp again. They gave me a pair of moosehide moccasins, made from the hide of that moose. They also offered me a pail of bear grease, but I had enough back at my camp. The following spring I met them again on the Churchill River and they insisted that I take fish for myself and my dogs.

"On one winter trip, I met three Chipewyans with three dog teams. As I was out of food they gave me some meat, and I directed them to a meat cache I had, which was two days travel from where we were. They proceeded to the cache, used the meat and replaced it by the time I arrived there later that winter.

"When they travelled long distances in the winter, they often went with three dog teams and four men. One acted as a runner; as soon as he had eaten his breakfast he would start out, breaking trail. The others would then break camp, take down the tent and stove, load their gear on the toboggan and drive the dogs after the runner. The runner did his best to stay ahead of the dogs, but they were fresh in the morning and caught up with him before long. A good runner could run all day. I have known one man who could run on light snowshoes, on a good trail, for thirty miles, have something to eat and then run another thirty miles. It seemed that, as long as he had food and short intervals of rest, he was tireless.

"In mid-winter these hunters would make the journey to Ile-a-la-Crosse or Stony Rapids, the major trading posts in the area, a long cold trip either way. I have seen as many as seventy-five dog teams at Ile-a-la-Crosse at Christmas time. They would be away from their traplines for a month or more and anything caught in their traps would be spoiled or eaten by predators. They called it bad luck. Later in the winter, some Chipewyans would make the trip to Beauval to visit their children, who were in the mission boarding school there. That trip would take another month. Sometimes spring was upon them before they returned to their camps, and they could not run their traplines and the traps were not seen again until the next season.

"They loved to get together in summer to visit and talk about their winter experiences. When they finished trapping at Cree Lake, they would leave for the South, early arrivals waiting at Cree Lake portage for the others to catch up. There would be a good deal of poker playing in the tents at night, with wagering for beaver and muskrat pelts. Some of the hunters lost all of their fur catch so that there was nothing left with which to pay off their debts, to say nothing of obtaining their summer supplies. If that happened to a man whose credit was already low, he was in for a rough time. He would have to make do for another year with his old, tattered tent and his battered canoe, and he and his family would have to live on fish all summer.

"The Chipewyans, like most northern Indians, dearly loved the fascinating game of trading. Every time I met up with them, they wanted to trade with me for dogs, rifles, canoes, tents, and anything in the line of equipment. In trading dogs, they were very shrewd, and the trick was to get the dog the other fellow did not want to trade. I know of one chap who traded his whole dog team for one belonging to another Indian, throwing in a canoe to get what he considered a much better team of dogs. Alas, he found his new dogs to be much poorer than he expected, in fact, they were terrible. Then he wanted to trade again, offering an additional canoe to get his original dogs back, but the offer was refused.

"One winter Black Alex, a Chipewyan I knew, decided to travel from his home at Cree Lake to the post at Stoney Rapids for Christmas. His wife had just made him a fine, beaded, moose-hide parka. He had two good dogs of his own, his wife had two of her own, and he borrowed one from Henry Weitzel, the fur trader. He took out some fur and was to bring back supplies. He felt quite proud as he left, with his new toboggan and cariole, his fine dogs and his colourful clothing. He was gone for more than two weeks. When he returned to Cree Lake, he had no fur and no supplies. He now had five scrubby-looking dogs, traded for his fine team. The new toboggan and cariole were gone, and in their place was rough-looking equipment that had seen better days. Even the fine parka had been replaced by a tattered woollen sweater. Alex had been the victim of some bad poker games and the trading fever. Evidently, he was good at neither activity. I have seen similar things happen to white men who were, otherwise quite reliable.

"Alex's wife, a large strong and forceful woman, threw him out of his cabin. He had nowhere to go, so he walked over to Henry Weitzel's place. Henry gave him a going-over for not returning his dog. Alex's wife was going to send him back to Stoney Rapids to get his dogs, but Henry talked her out of it. Alex had traded the dogs to a Chipewyan from Reindeer Lake, and by now they were probably the property of a third trapper.

"Patuanak was one of the trading posts where Chipewyans were paid their treaty money by the Government of Canada each year. The Indian Agent usually arrived on schedule and doled out a few crisp one-dollar bills to each person. They would then buy line for making nets, needles, beads and various other supplies for the summer. As soon as the treaty money had been paid out, they followed the Indian Agent's party down the Churchill to where the next group was to be paid. On the way, the Indians shot moose and ducks and seldom went hungry. One thing I noticed: if a man had something to eat, he shared what he had with someone who had nothing. No Indian ever turned away hungry from the camp of another who had something to give. "In summer, these people made the best snowshoes and toboggans that I ever have seen anywhere. Packer. There were real craftsmen among them, and their products were things of beauty. These Indians were also wonderful packers on the portages. I have seen a skinny ageing fellow walk off with a 300-pound load as if he were going for a stroll, and I have seen others pack more weight than that. "The lot of these people was not at all an unhappy one. If an Indian had a rifle, shotgun, tent, canoe and dog team, and if he could get some credit, he would be quite happy, for he could survive in the North. There are quite a few white men of my acquaintance who turned Indian, married a native woman and never went 'Outside' again. Back in 1919, disaster struck the Chipewyans: the worldwide influenza epidemic of that year reached northern Saskatchewan. The Indians swore the disease came on the wind, for the people began to die in the remotest camps, where they had contacted no other people for months. No camp escaped. Where the nomads camped, far in the wilderness, living on nothing but meat, they nearly all died and there were not enough survivors to bury the dead. At Wollaston Lake, when the disease finally subsided, there were six souls left alive out of seventeen families. The Indians fled the area around the lake and withdrew to the country nearer to the trading posts. They shunned Wollaston for twenty years; to them, it was haunted by "Dishlini," the Chipewyan Devil. They abandoned thousands of dollars worth of equipment, canoes, firearms, traps and gunpowder, and some of it is lying there to this day.

About forty years ago (1934), another tragedy struck the Chipewyans; a fire broke out in the boy's dormitory at the boarding school in Beauval, and many of the young boys died. I believe that the Chipewyan people mourn for their dead more deeply than do the whites. There was no joy in their tents for a long time after that calamity, and it was many years before they could be persuaded to send their children back to the school.

Soon after the fire, these people received another cruel blow. The winter began with an epidemic of a deadly strain of measles, to which the pregnant women and the small children proved particularly vulnerable. The hospital in Ile-a-la-Crosse was filled to overflowing, and many of the ill were put up in private cabins in the village. This disease was communicated from one to another, for the remote camps were not affected so long as they had no contact with anyone from the South.

One spring, "Ed remembers, "I drove my dogs to Reindeer Lake, and eventually to Flin Flon, a road I had never taken before. The route started down the Poorfish River and across Wollaston Lake. When I was well out on this big lake, I saw a speck on the white horizon, which I was eventually able to recognize as a dog team. We travelled toward each other and met on the ice near the centre of the lake. It was miles to shore in any direction from the point where we met. Nothing would do but I came back with the stranger to the eastern shore, where he had a tent set up. We sat up all night talking. He told me exactly where I could find the trail to Reindeer Lake and he drew me a map and we traded rifles. In the morning we said goodbye and went our separate ways. I never saw him again. The next time I heard of him, it was news that he had died. He was one of the last of the original, old-time Chipewyans in this country. His name was Edward John."


Author: Webmaster - jkcc.com
"Date Modified: October 12, 2023."

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