When the full force of winter's heavy snows and extreme cold falls upon this land, there comes a feeling of uncertainty and depression to those who dwell there all alone. A search of the records reveals that dark deeds are committed in such a season. Shocking misfortune stalks and sometimes strikes at the isolated souls in this remote wilderness. Such was the mood of the 1938-39 midwinter.
Matt and Johnny arrived in the Cree Lake country in the summer of 1938. No strangers to us, we had met them in Big River over the years. They were both young, had spent some time trapping in various locations in the northland. In spite of their youth, they were already veterans of the bush. Just arrived to trap in the territory to the south of our area they would operate from Black Henry's former home cabin, recently vacated by him.
We had learned via moccasin telegraph that the partners had ascended in the late summer the watercourse known to us as Muskeg River into the backcountry where Black Henry's cabin stood deserted, empty, and silent. When winter came we heard nothing further. We saw none of their sign for our trails did not cross. These men were known to us to be able, experienced, and resourceful; it did not occur to us that they could be in difficulty.
It turned out that the trappers had been doing rather well. They had established their lines and, working hard, had gathered some sixty fox pelts, some mink, otter, and lynx, assuring themselves a grubstake for the following year. One day in mid-February Matt arrived at the home cabin after a three-day trapline patrol. Johnny, from a window in the cabin, watched the dogs hauling the bush toboggan, heavily loaded with caribou meat. He felt elated, for the caribou had come only in scanty numbers to Muskeg River that winter. They were extremely wary and difficult to hunt successfully in the deep snow.
Matt was a born hunter. He was also a dead rifle shot, the kind of fellow that is given the assignment of a sniper in battle, or who can get a job demonstrating the wares of the cartridge manufacturers. Never once in the eight years that the partners had worked together did Matt fail to supply meat when it was necessary. Now Matt was twenty-eight years old and wise in the ways of the bush. Congenial, big, agile, and iron-muscled he possessed rugged endurance that made him a difficult man to pace when on the trail. His was a genuine love for the life he led. I had once heard him state that trapping, his chosen vocation, he preferred to anything on the Outside.
Johnny was tall but slighter of build than Matt. He had a gritty quality, an inquisitive and adventurous spirit along with a pretty fair sense of humour that did much to cut down on the monotony of long months of isolation. The fact that his shooting eye had a minor astigmatism caused him to shoot less deadly than did Matt. Johnny had for some years proved his ability as a trapper so that he contributed his share to the fur catch. At twenty-five years of age, he had already spent a third of his life in the wilderness.
The partners visited together all the next day. Matt presented a detailed account of his trapping trip which had taken him into a country of unknown lakes, creeks, rock outcroppings, and frozen swamps. He talked of wolves, foxes, and mink, of beaver and otter, for he had seen much fur sign. The highlight of the trip had been the caribou hunt. He had run onto the fresh tracks of a small herd somewhere in the headwater country of the Muskeg River. He had trailed them and then stalked them, drawing on all his knowledge and experience to get within reasonable shooting range. He had shot three adult animals where lesser marksmen would have failed completely.
The partners had only one dog team so that they worked their traplines alternately. The big yellow husky bitch of the team had recently given birth to four fat, round, woolly pups and she was not being worked while she suckled her offspring. This left three mature huskies, the present working team.
Next morning it was Johnny's turn to travel. He had breakfast ready long before daylight. They ate together, then Johnny loaded the toboggan and harnessed the dogs. He looked in and said goodbye to Matt who was eating slowly because it was his time to relax and rest. As he left, Johnny closed the cabin door firmly against the cold. By the light of his flashlight the thermometer outside read forty degrees below Fahrenheit.
Johnny's first day out was uneventful and unproductive. In the bush, there were no tracks of game or fur and it felt unusually cold. It was a bitter season of the year, for at the time when the sun is moving back to the Tropic of Cancer the temperatures in this land can fall very low. He felt chilled, frustrated, and depressed as he made it to his small line camp that evening. The cabin inside felt like an icebox. It seemed that the jack pine shavings caught fire reluctantly from his match and the cabin warmed less quickly than was usual.
The night aurora Borealis flashed with a weird blood-red light. Johnny had settled down for the night. Somehow he felt uneasy but could not explain why. He thought that perhaps he had already been at this business too long and should quit in the coming spring. By the light of a paraffin candle, he tried to read from an old magazine he had brought over from the home cabin. Finally, he made plans for tomorrow when he would head the dogs up an unexplored creek. He liked going into new country. He fell into a sleep from which he woke from time to time throughout the night.
In the morning it was colder than before. It was so cold that the dogs whined a little as he put them in harness. They looked rather low-spirited and sad of eye. Abruptly Johnny cancelled his plans to explore the creek and headed the dogs for the home cabin. To gain time he followed his trail of the previous day instead of circling back by a string of small lakes, an alternate route; nor did he stop for a boil-up at noonday.
By early afternoon the dog team emerged from the jack pines onto a high rock ridge that overlooked the river valley and the tiny clearing that circled the home cabin. Johnny observed at once that no smoke rose from the tin smoke pipe. Puzzled, he stopped the dogs and looked intently down at the cabin. No heat waves shimmered above the pipe. The fire was out. He had an immediate premonition of disaster. He urged the dogs into a charge down the slope, so that he had to brake the toboggan with his feet as they descended. He drew up in front of the cabin in a flurry of powdered snow, the dogs bunched at the door.
The door stood ajar. Moans could be heard coming from inside. Johnny stepped in. Matt lay on his bunk, buttoned into his sleeping bag.
"Johnny, thank God you are here. Johnny, I froze my feet!" said Matt.
Johnny peered at Matt's feet as he drew them from the sleeping bag. The toes were all swollen grotesquely and were discoloured. Great blisters covered his toes and the soles of his feet almost to the heels.
"Matt how did it happen?" cried Johnny in horror.
When there was no reply he looked up questioningly into Matt's face. A strange glitter shone out of his eyes. There could only be one explanation and it came to Johnny at once.
As the horrible truth came to Johnny he felt a numbness creep into his soul. He and Matt had discussed this malady that comes to some who live too long alone, yet they had always considered it as a thing remote, like leprosy, that could happen only to others. Here it was, now, in this very cabin, stark, ruthless, and with a terrible reality. Matt was insane!
Johnny gazed numbly about the cabin. Equipment, clothing, and supplies were scattered in indescribable disarray. In one corner lay the shattered remnants of their radio receiving set.
Johnny turned back to Matt.
"Lie down, Matt, cover up, and I'll get you some food," he suggested. Matt obeyed silently.
Johnny lit the fire in the stove and made some order about the table and stove, pushing the debris to one side. He brought supper to the bunk, Matt wolfed down the food.
By candlelight he studied Matt's feet. The blisters looked shiny and hard to the touch. He worried at the discolouration of the toes and the possibility of developing gangrene. Should he drain the blisters? He decided that Matt's chances of infection would be less if the blisters were drained; if he walked on them they would surely burst open. He found a darning needle, dipped the point in boiling water, punctured every blister and squeezed out the watery bloody liquid. Then he gave the feet a light coating of salve from the meagre first-aid supplies. Matt lay ominously silent through it all.
It was night. Lying in his bunk, Johnny tried to sort out his thoughts. He had just experienced the shock of his young life and felt himself to be in a nightmare from which he could not waken soon enough. He did not dwell on why it happened, rather he asked himself what could he do about it.
The nearest help was at Martin Brustad's cabin, almost twenty miles away by the river trail, the only route he had previously travelled to arrive there. There was a shorter straight trail through the bush but it would mean trail breaking and slow travelling. A day's travel to the north was the Karras brother's cabin, the exact location of which he did not know, and another forty miles beyond that was the Cree River trading post. The Hudson's Bay Company had recently moved their outpost to somewhere on the north shore of Cree Lake. Westward lay an impossible desolation with no known human inhabitants as far as they had travelled this winter. Similar conditions existed all the way to the Churchill River, if you went south There were no police or doctors until you got to Ile-a-la-Crosse, maybe two hundred miles south or at Stony Rapids, a similar distance northward.
Johnny had dozed off. He was alerted by the sound of Matt's bunk creaking. By the pale light that reflected into the cabin from the deep snows outside, he saw Matt up and moving bare-footed to the door. That explained how his feet had become frozen.
"Where are you going, Matt?"
Matt made no reply. He must pass Johnny's bunk to get to the door. As he attempted to rush past, Johnny made a flying tackle that brought them both crashing to the cabin floor. Never a match for Matt physically, Johnny somehow wrestled Matt back to his bunk. The rest of the night was spent there, Johnny talking to Matt and coaxing and restraining him to stay in bed.
While Matt had his quiet moments Johnny tried to form a plan of action that would ultimately lead to Matt's rescue. His goal, at least, was very clear: to get Matt back to civilization in the best possible physical condition. He had not ceased to worry about Matt's feet, appalled at the thought that he might have to amputate them. Matt must be kept off his feet. Johnny, therefore, could not strike out for Martin's cabin, nor could he freight Matt along in the toboggan. At daybreak next morning it was no longer forty degrees below zero. When Johnny went down to the river for water, a quick look at the thermometer gave a reading of sixty-five below. Matt long ago had warned Johnny not to travel in such weather. Johnny decided to follow his good advice now; he would sit it out until the weather moderated. In the meantime, he felt like an animal in a trap, pinned down by a force with which he could not cope.
Martin might call in a week, a month, or not at all. It was that indefinite. There was enough food to last out the winter, thanks to Matt himself who had freighted in the big load of caribou meat. Dog food could become a great problem. There was a good supply of cut and piled stovewood.
Matt sat up when Johnny brought him breakfast. He ate in silence, then hurled the dishes violently to the floor. Then he was on his feet and advancing. His eyes glowed wickedly. Johnny, cut off from the cabin door, backed to a wall.
"Get back on the bunk, Matt."
Johnny tried to put authority into his voice. The effort was wasted. They grappled for a time but Matt had the strength of a madman. Down on the cabin floor now, Matt had Johnny's throat in a death grip until his head reeled. As quickly as the spell came, it left Matt, and Johnny was released.
"You had better keep off those feet," Johnny admonished. Matt lay down on his bunk. For some time thereafter Johnny was aware of soreness about his neck.
Johnny gathered up all the available rope and trussed Matt to his bunk. He coiled it round and round his body and the flat bunk bed. Matt lay relaxed and allowed his hands to be tied with a length of cotton lamp wick which the partners used for snowshoe harness.
Now that Matt could not move Johnny snowshoed out to a nearby lake, just south of the cabin. He cut a number of small spruce trees and dragged them a long way out on the ice laying them out to form a large V, the official signal off distress to passing aircraft.
The bush plane that flew between Prince Albert and Goldfields, on Lake Athabasca's north shore, sometimes flew high over this country and occasionally stopped at Cree River post. When Johnny had completed this task he went back to the lakeshore where he turned and looked back out on the lake. In the cold afternoon sunshine, it was empty, lifeless and forsaken. For the first time, he felt alien in this land. He turned back to the cabin. He kept Matt tied down to his bunk over the next several days and nights, attending to his wants as if Matt had been a baby. Matt raved loudly and almost incessantly and fought his bonds, determined to free himself. Johnny watched him constantly lest he break loose. Matts moods ranged the whole gamut of violent, cursing, struggling, roaring rage, to genuine sympathy for his partner. One day he suddenly remarked:
"Johnny you must be going through hell."
There was grim humour when he exclaimed after a long silence: "Well, well. So I'm the mad trapper at last!", alluding to Albert Johnson, the mad trapper of Rat River, who became internationally famous.
Johnny was awed by the turmoil in Matt's being and the malady that had reduced him, who had never been sick, to a state that was infinitely worse than helplessness. A horrible spectre had hunted him down just as surely as Matt had so recently stalked the caribou herd. This had been an apparition that had left no warning tracks in the snow. Johnny dug back in numbed memory for any unusual behaviour prior to Matt's breakdown. Always he came up with a negative answer. Obviously, a man who had just returned from a successful hunt must have had all his faculties. If there had been signs, they were missed completely. The realization of Matt's condition made Johnny feel depressed and angry that it had happened. Sometimes he cursed softly to himself.
How much can a man stand? On the sixth day, Johnny asked himself this question. He recalled having no sleep in all the time and now he reeled drunkenly as he moved about, doing the endless camp chores. On two different occasions, he thought that he heard voices outside, but on jerking open the door there was nothing but the sleigh dogs looking at him from where they were chained to their kennels.
He knew now that their only chance was a dash to Martin's cabin. At best he would be away for a whole day, and probably longer. The water in the bucket by the stove would be frozen solid before he returned. There had been no break in the extremely cold weather. Matt's feet would be re-frozen. The idea was impossible. To sleep was also impossible. Johnny realized that it was quite possible that his own frayed thread of reason could snap and they both would be lost.
Towards evening Johnny made a decision. He had looked again at Matt's feet and saw that by some miracle the blistered skin had tightened to the flesh. Although the toes were still discoloured the swelling had subsided and he was sure the feet were healing. He felt that he just could not stand more of Matt's ravings; besides, Matt's arms were raw from the ropes.
"I will release him," thought Johnny, "and to hell with the consequences." He untied the ropes.
Matt arose quickly, evidently pleased to be free. He donned his moccasins, strode about the room, and gave no indication of pain. Johnny sank to his bunk. He could not remember ever being so tired.
"Oh, God, if I could only sleep...."
He jerked to his feet when a rifle discharged in the cabin. Matt stood there holding his big game rifle, having just fired it into the opposite wall.
"Give me the rifle," demanded Johnny. Warily watching each other, Matt placed it quietly into Johnny's hands. Thereafter all the rifles were kept locked in the warehouse where the furs were stored. It was very strange but Johnny had not thought of this precaution beforehand.
A full week passed. Johnny gave Matt the run of the place. Outside it was still bitterly cold and they both kept inside the cabin. Each day was another nightmare of noise and violence. The nights, it seemed were worse. Many times the fate of the partners was in grave doubt. Some of these happenings Johnny vowed to tell no one, ever. There were occasions when it would be difficult to determine which one was sane and which one was crazy. Sometimes Johnny seethed inwardly at his own helplessness. He mustered all his patience during Matt's worst emotional storms. He dozed when Matt slept, which was not often. Then the dogs would howl and awaken him.
Matt's powers of concentration were gone. Underlying his entire activity was a mania of destruction. He wrecked, sabotaged and burned his personal property, bit by bit, day after day. Johnny once had the disconcerting thought that since Matt was destroying those things that he valued, he might well attempt to destroy his partner, whom he valued a great deal.
The cute little pups became the first casualties. Since Johnny could not be away to hunt caribou, their meat supplies must be conserved, if Johnny was to stretch out the dog food until spring. The pups would have to go. One day he took them from their warm kennel and killed them, one after another. He felt wooden as he did so, as though he were someone else. A few days later he heard the bitch whimpering at the door. Her dugs, greatly swollen and bared, had been frostbitten so that they presented a livid appearance and were extremely hard to the touch. Johnny shot her through the head.
Another day, Matt in one of his flashes of violence smashed the windows from the cabin, then sat down on his bunk. As the cold air rushed into the gaping holes, Johnny sat at the table and put his head down on his folded arms. There occurred about his eyes an almost forgotten drawing sensation. Suddenly he was sobbing. Johnny had not wept since he had been a little boy.
He thought back to his Christian training as a child. Certain biblical quotations were recalled, which he repeated to himself:
"Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil," and "I to the hills will lift up mine eyes, from whence doth come to my aid."
Johnny had not prayed for a long time either. His prayer now was simple and fervent:
"Help me, Almighty God!"
He arose and repaired the windows. He tacked into the gaping spaces sheets of fine paper of certain maps which they had owned. He nailed down the edges neatly with wooden strips and was rather pleased with the results for the openings were sealed and although they were no longer transparent, they were translucent so that there was plenty of light in the cabin by day.
Another week had passed with no improvement at all in Matt's condition or in Johnny's except that his hopes were dimming a little each day. Not once did he entertain the idea of dashing to Martin's to save himself.
One day the cold spell broke. In the morning, warm winds blew from the south and by noon the air outside had a definite pine fragrance. The sky took on a delicate shade of blue and some of the great burdens of snow tumbled from the trees. Now was Johnny's chance. If he could succeed in roping Matt to the bunk again he would leg it as hard as possible for Martin's cabin at Stony Narrows, beginning at daylight. He began to make preparations for the trip.
Just after sundown he heard a shout. The dogs, full of life after their idleness set up a clamour as Johnny threw open the door. Incredibly, a dog team appeared around the bend upriver and the north. He saw two dark-clad figures, one walking in front and one behind the dog team. He stood there and watched them approach the door, two young men. Johnny's first thought was how neat and clean looking were their outfit, dogs, and their persons compared to his own chaotic situation.
Over at our cabin very early that morning we had gotten underway on a chance visit to Matt and Johnny's place. Following the route generally that we had taken to Black Henry's in the previous winter, we spent a gruelling day in the unaccustomed mild weather breaking the trail through the hills. Once we almost turned back. This would be a chance visit just to break the monotony of winter and to see and do something different. Different indeed!
When Johnny explained to us at the door we stood there a moment in disbelief. When Matt himself came out and babbled a welcome, we began to understand.
After a few days there and satisfied that there was no other way, Ab mushed downriver to Martin's cabin. Fortunately, Martin was just in from his trapline the previous day. He volunteered to carry the word over fifty miles to Cree River since his long rangy dogs were ideal for a fast run. Ab continued on to our home cabin for supplies and dog food and he returned to Muskeg River on the third day.
During this time I had an opportunity to hear from Johnny his story in detail.
Four days later, Martin Brustad arrived at the Muskeg River camp. He stated that no one at Cree River knew when the Goldfields plane would call-there was no schedule.
Moccasin telegraph, however, was spreading the word. In a few days, Holgar Petersen and Henry Weitzel pulled in from Cree River. They were followed two days later by Chris Timson and Martin Engmann whose traplines were scattered northward of Cree River. Finally, Frank Fisher arrived. He had heard the news from Chipewyan hunters on Cree Lake's east side. Matt, they said, had the "bad sickness" as they referred to the malady in hushed, horrified tones. We now had representation from every known white habitation within a radius of sixty miles and some from beyond.
We stood in the little clearing at the cabin one day when Matt suddenly grabbed the big razor-sharp axe used for splitting wood. With murderous eyes, he strode towards Holgar. Holgar met the oncoming Matt and laid a hand gently on his shoulder. This action could have been like placing a hand on a trapped bear.
"Put down the axe, Matt," said Holgar.
Matt set the axe down and hung his head.
At night we had the chance to enjoy Holgar's conversational ability. To pass away the time, he told us stories. There were tales from the seaports of the world, Christmas eve in a bar in Valparaiso, and humorous anecdotes from the ends of the earth. We had some good laughs, a tonic that we all needed.
One day Chris commented:
"Matt's case is not so bad, I have seen much worse ones in the war. I think Matt will get over it in time."
The days passed by. We were in our third week of hanging around the place and were getting fed up. Henry and Holgar returned to Cree River.
One day Chris spoke to Johnny privately:
"Martin Engmann and I will start for Ile-a-la-Crosse in the morning. We think that we can get a plane from there long before that Goldfield's plane shows up here."
Ile-a-la-Crosse was 150 miles away by air and 200 miles by the winter trail, but it was linked to the Outside by communication wires. Johnny started to protest. Chris stopped him by saying firmly, "We intended to go down there any way this winter."
It was a lie and Johnny knew it. A white lie.
Johnny gave each a token gift as they left. To Chris, short on dog power, he gave his finest dog. To Martin Engmann, his own strong snowshoes, made by himself. Martin's webs were badly worn.
In the morning we all walked down to the river ice to see them off. As they left they turned and waved a final farewell just before they vanished around a bend.
Two days later the Goldfields plane roared over the cabin and landed on the lake where Johnny had placed the distress signal. Long ago we had prepared for this moment. A Royal Canadian Mounted Police constable assumed the role of Matt's escort. Willing hands attended to all the other details.
At the plane Johnny shook hands with us and climbed aboard. Then the door closed and soon a small speck in the clear sky to the south was all that remained of them. Then the drone became silent and the speck vanished.
In retrospect, I see the little knot of men standing on the ice after the plane took off. I see two more on their long and unrequired trip to Ile-a-la-Crosse. All proven friends, allies, and brothers through adversity. It is just a bit different with Matt and Johnny. They are brothers by birth.