True Lies Of a Northern Fur Trader
R.S. (Ron) Clancy
Tom Natomagan of Pinehouse selling furs to Ron Clancy.
Ron Clancy (left back row) with Souris River trappers
Mathias Iron, Tom Natomagan, Johnny Durocher, J.B. LaRiviere
Front Row (l-r) Napolean Natomagan, E. Natomagan
Ron Clancy spent many years in the North as a Fur Trader, Post and District Manager, for Saskatchewan Government Trading, a Saskatchewan Government Crown Corporation. His career began as an Assistant Post Manager at Pinehouse, located on Pinehouse Lake (also known as Snake Lake), in northwestern Saskatchewan. True Lies Of a Northern Fur Trader, was the first in a series of three books written by Ron outlining his career and experiences both at Pinehouse and other locations throughout the north and central regions of Saskatchewan. The book is a penetrating look at life in the North in that bygone era, and is written with both compassion and humour. It gives a real insight into the lives of people and events of that time period, and is a must read for anyone interested in the history of northern Saskatchewan.
Google Earth Map of Pinehouse location.
To those that read this missive that are not of the family, you must wonder at the need for all the hoopla about the doings of our clan. Well, consider this: the North is our last true frontier. The advent of modern communications, highways, dependable transportation through the air have irrevocable changed the feel of the North, and the men and women that peopled that version of the North are thinning out yearly. I must admit that I pestered my father to begin this narrative more to preserve the wonderful stories that I've heard and cherished for years, but I came to realize that this has become so much more. As I transcribe my father's script into the processed page, I gain a feel for the people whose lives they touched and a new respect for the manner in which they lived their lives.
The Natives of the North had real humanity as they wrenched a living from a sometimes harsh land, maintaining their sense of community and a sense of humour in the face of what may be perceived as hardship. To make a living harvesting furs for trade is not and never was an easy task. The animals themselves are adverse to the plan, so the trapper must be as wily and clever as his furry opponent. To net fish through the winter's ice cannot be considered fun; it was work and hard work at that. Still, these people took my parents and showed us something of life and how to live it, and that message is here for those who care to read. The language is earthy, but so it was in those days when men lived by their wits and the strength in their arms. Perhaps those comfortably ensconced in their armchairs will scoff at the things that occurred so many years ago, but they have never felt the North wind in their faces or tasted "country fare" prepared with love over a wood stove. To all those who would learn, read on as a lesson awaits! To all who knew and loved the North, read on as your youth awaits.
Michael T. Clancy.
With the kind permission of Ron Clancy, I am including a few excerpts from True Lies of A Northern Fur Trader. It certainly illustrates some of the hilarious situations that arose and the manner with which they were dealt. There are numerous, humorous, and some not so humorous, stories throughout Ron's books and they will have you chuckling continuously as you read of the adventures and misadventures of all concerned.
Northern people have a sense of humour that boggles the mind; they can laugh at almost anything and anyone, including themselves. They especially delighted in talking in Cree about the white men in their presence who could not speak or understand the language, and as a greenhorn I was the butt of several of their jokes until I began to learn a smattering of their talk and could hold my own.
One time, I ordered a saw mandrel and a Briggs and Stratton 5 hp engine, together with a 30 inch buzz saw blade. I built a base out of squared timbers, then a frame and table out of heavy planks. Engine and belts installed, we were ready to start sawing blocks for the stoves, and a number of my friends and customers turned out to see the new machine in action. I fired up the engine and the saw was spinning in a blur as I smugly picked the largest green poplar tree in the pile. It took five good men to hold the tree and shove it into the saw blade! Immediately, the log went over the blade and twisted, throwing several of us onto the ground. The onlookers were roaring with laughter, drowning out the sound of the engine. By the time I hit the kill switch, they were rolling around on the ground laughing their heads off. I was not in the mood for laughter until I figured out what went wrong........the saw blade was running in reverse and naturally would lift any log over the top with disastrous results. What made it more humorous was they had watched me building this machine from scratch during several evenings after store hours and I was now going to have to tear it apart and start again. With my ego thoroughly punctured I remodeled the outfit and turned the engine around so that the blade turned in the proper direction. Thank God no-one lost a limb in the incident or worse, was sawed in half!
We did have a minor accident late in the fall just before freeze-up. It was a cold, windy day and we were sawing fire-killed jackpine 3 or 4 inches thick to be used in the cookstoves for quick fires and to light fires in the wood-burning furnaces in both the store and the staff-house. The cookstove had an unusually short firebox and could handle blocks no longer than 16 inches. The sawyer that day was big Martin Smith and he was cutting the blocks at a constant 15 to 151/2 inches all afternoon. The wood was light and the crew was sawing 3 or 4 logs at a time. Bert Rediron was pitching blocks when Martin realized that this cut was too long for the stove so he pulled back a ways, not realizing that Bert had a hold on the logs. Bert's glove caught on a snag as Martin pushed the logs through, and the saw took the end off Bert's second finger. I was down at the mission unloading wood for the church when I saw one of my crew running down the path laughing hysterically. He was looking for me, but in his excitement and laughter he was passing right by me. He would have missed me but I bellowed at him and asked why he had left the job. He could barely control his laughter long enough to tell me what had happened! I rushed back to the post to come upon a scene I shall never forget. Bert was standing as white as a ghost in shock, holding his finger for dear life because every time he let go the blood shot 3 feet into the air as the artery that brings blood to the finger had been severed. The entire crew were beside themselves with laughter while several of them were going through the sawdust trying to find Bert's missing finger. It never was found, which only made the situation more hilarious to the searchers!
This was no laughing matter as a 40 mph gale was blowing from the North-West, making it dangerous for a plane to land. To make matters worse, all the float planes had been taken South from La Ronge to be fitted with skis for the winter. It was late in the day when I called the La Ronge DNR (Department of Natural Resources) radio to get medical advice and to try and get a plane in from somewhere. By the sheerest of coincidences, George Greening was on his way from Uranium City, bringing a Cessna 180 on floats to Prince Albert for the ski conversion. George was listening on the radio and cut in to ask me about the problem. He told me to get some strong men to be at the dock and he would come in and pick Bert up. Daylight was fading and 5 foot waves were washing into the dock when George landed and taxied to the lee side where we grabbed the plane and kept it from banging the dock in the heavy waves. There had to be 300 people dockside to see the fun and after we had secured the plane to the dock, George stepped out holding 3 fingers up on one hand and one on the other, and in a loud voice said "Bert, the next time you order 4 beer in the pub this is what you will have to do!" 300 people broke out into uncontrollable laughter, probably out of sheer relief that Bert was about to get medical attention. I'm sure every one of us shared in this relief and thanked God for caring bush pilots like Greening. Mind you, Bert couldn't see much humour in the situation. He was standing near the plane holding his finger up with a tourniquet I had put on, feeling sorry for himself until the reality of what George had said sunk in and he began laughing with the rest. George flew Bert over to Ile-A-La-Crosse to Doctor Hoffman who repaired the damage. Bert returned in 3 or 4 days as good as new. I had built a pool room that summer and since Bert couldn't hit the trapline he took over managing the poolroom where he made a better living than he ever did trapping (which he didn't like anyway). For months or even years after, just the mention of Bert's finger brought gales of laughter. As with most stories it didn't lose any of its luster in the telling and re-telling of it. Bert has since passed on to that big pool room in the sky but 40 years later I'll bet my bottom dollar that the story of Bert's finger is still told around campfires at Snake Lake (Pinehouse) to this day!
When our firstborn (Patrick) was nearing his one-year mark in the spring of the year, our first year in Pinehouse, his mother decided that he should have some fresh air. Since the community was surrounded by dense bush on one side and the lake on the other, Bernice asked that I construct an outdoor playpen for him. In this way he could have his fresh air and she could keep an eye on him from the kitchen window. Thus it was that I spent several nights after supper working on the project; I dug post holes then surrounded the compound with a four foot high mink wire. I placed a convenient gate in the front wall, and the finished project was an escape-proof playpen approximately 20' by 20'. The floor was solid sand and the very next morning Bernice placed both Pat and his toys in the playpen and went back into the house to get on with her work. The effect was immediate! The wailing and screaming that emanated from that playpen was a pity to hear, but his mother left him at it as she figured that sooner or later he would quit squalling and start enjoying life. Not to be! A path ran through our yard and customers on their way to the store were walking right past the playpen. The squalling child held out his arms to them so they promptly picked him up and brought him into the store. They scolded me, wondering what kind of a monster would put his child in a cage! I tried to explain that his mother was worried that he might wander into the bush and get lost or fall off the dock and drown. My native customers scoffed at this and said that they'd been raising children here and never lost one to those causes yet. We should let our child run loose like the rest of the children and not to worry; he would be looked after like any other child in the village. This certainly proved to be true as the as the older children looked after the smaller ones. Pat never again set foot in that playpen and never came to any harm, nor did any of our other, future children. The playpen was soon demolished and life went on. Mind you, I could see the irony and humour in me spending 40 hours constructing something that was used only 15 minutes; such are the ways of the greenhorn whiteman!
Roy Engen was the Post Manager at Deschambault Lake and tells the story of how he once received a note from one of his customers, an old age pensioner. In the note he wrote that he had a sore arse, but since the old man had been snowshoeing a lot, Roy assumed that the note (written in a poor hand) really meant sore arches. Thus, he sent a bottle of heat liniment. The lady of the house applied a liberal dose of the liniment to the affected area with immediate and wondrous results! The old man was running around the outside of his house with the trapdoor on his long underwear flapping behind him, applying as much snow to his rear end as he could scoop with his two hands! His neighbours thought he had gone insane and one went to the store to fetch Roy. By the time Roy got there, a second dose had been applied with the same results, and the old lady was about to apply the third curative as Roy walked in the door to stop her. Of course, the old man suffered from hemmorhoids and not sore feet as Roy had thought. The rest of the village of course thought this was hilarious, spreading the story to Pelican Narrows and the rest of the East side of the province. The end of the story is that the old man completely recovered and never again complained of a sore arse...at least not to Roy Engen!