"In the North, he who travels not, Starves..."Allan Sullivan, The Salving of Pyack."
Freighting developed with the establishment of the commercial fishing industry in northern Saskatchewan. A way was needed to transport supplies to the isolated fishing camps, and bring back the fish to the fish company located in Big River. There were no roads going into the northern camps during the early years of commercial fishing. Air transportation was not considered as a method of transporting goods in and out of communities. Freighting goods into the north by canoe along the river systems had been going on since the fur trade. However, commercial fishing occurred during the winter months and waterways were frozen. The alternative used was sleighs drawn by horses over the frozen waterways and along the old Hudson Bay portage routes.
The Early Years.
The first freight swing was organized in 1912 by a man called Ross. He received a contract from the I.C. Fish Company to haul Hudson Bay Freight to Dore Lake and Ile-a-la-Crosse and return with a load of fish. Ross was accompanied by Jim Pace, who acted as a cook. Like most greenhorns, Ross began his trip north with an adventurous spirit.
They left Big River with twelve teams of mules. There were no stopping places along the route to obtain food and shelter for the men and mules. Ross put up camp every night. He had a large round tent that he erected at the end of the day to shelter the mules from the cold. However, Ross' enthusiasm began to wither, when he realized a fatal mistake - he ran into severe problems with his mules because they could not withstand cold temperatures. By the time Ross had completed his journey, he had lost every mule to the bitter cold. Ross became very disheartened by this first journey north and never freighted again.
It took Ross' determination and a pioneering spirit to convince others, that freighting with sleighs drawn by a beast of burden, was the only way of transporting freight and fish throughout the north during the winter months. In the winter of 1913-14, the I.C. Fish Company contracted some men to try the freight run again. This time they experimented with horses. Horses were physically stronger and could withstand colder temperatures than mules. Three French-Canadian brothers by the name of La Vene, from Jackfish Lake (north of North Battleford, E.G. Brownfield and a few others organized this trip. Horses proved to be the most successful method of pulling the large sleighs and were used for the next thirty years.
Freighting was an adventurous and challenging job for a man who had a passion for the wilderness and could withstand nature's punishments. Freighters were often seasonal workers, such as farmers, loggers, and mill workers, who needed a little extra money during the winter months, to see their families through the hard years of the 1920s and '30s. It must have been a lonely life at times for the women that the freighters left behind. Andrew Snell freighted throughout the north for many years. Bernice Snell, Andrew's daughter-in-law, explains what the situation was like at home for Andrew's family:
"Andrew freighted into the north for nineteen winters, leaving Josephine and their family of six to hold down the fort in Big River. They had a farm with some cattle, plus chores that had to be done, while Andrew was away".
Freighting never made these men a fortune. One trip may bring a freighter $300.00 to $400.00. A round trip may last three to four weeks, depending on the weather and destination. About three trips could be made throughout the winter. Freighting usually started in December, when the lakes began to freeze and the commercial fishing season opened. By the middle of February, freighting and the commercial fishing season ended. Most of a freighter's income was used to pay for expenses on the road, such as feed for horses, warm clothing, food, and other supplies needed for the trip. Together with a short freighting season and high expenses, a freighter never took a lot of money home. When freighting was completed in February, there was still the rest of the winter left to find employment, until spring planting or mill work became available.
Routes and Stopping Places.
As the commercial fishing industry in northern Saskatchewan grew during the 1920s and 30's, it was necessary to have more freight swings on the road. With the increase of freight swings, there was a need to establish stopping places along the route, for weary travellers and horses. Those stopping places provided food, shelter and hospitality.
The freight route began at Big River and followed the frozen waterways and old Hudson's Bay portage routes that led into the various parts of northern Saskatchewan. Men gathered at an arranged date in Big River with their horse teams. They loaded up Hudson's Bay supplies and mail that was to be taken to the remote fishing camps and communities in the north. About fifteen to twenty large sleighs, drawn by horse teams, would head out together.
The swings left Big River and cut across meadows leading into Ladder Lake and continued across more meadows to Black Lake. From Black Lake, the route went into Rat Lake (Taggert Lake), where Dick Hall operated a stopping place, at the north end. From Dick Hall's place, the swings cut across the second narrows into Stoney Lake (Delaronde Lake), where Tom Murphy and later Jack Rae and Joe Sheppard operated this stopping place. At the narrows of Stoney Lake, Johnnie Olsen ran a stopping. The swings then travelled to the north end of Stoney, where Jim Pace had constructed a stopping place in the summer of 1921.
Jim Pace was a Greek fellow from New Brunswick, Chris Wopnford, a fisherman who fished on Dore Lake during the 1920s and '30s, describes Jim Pace's character:
"He was a very stout fellow and quite humorous. He had a clean place, quite plain, but enough to eat. He was quite famous for his huge stacks of sourdough hotcakes. Years later he told me he was going back to visit New Brunswick, where he had spent his childhood days. He said all his old friends wanted to know what he was doing in the north. He told them, that for some time he had been fishing in the winter, then trapping, and was now running a stopping place for all the freighters, who were hauling Hudson's Bay goods and returning with fish to Big River. At last one of his friends asked, "Say, Jim, what do you do in the summer?" "Oh hell, said Jim, "we play baseball." Later on, Willie Tunge operated this stopping place.
The freighters moved on from the north end of Stoney Lake, across an eighteen-mile portage to Rabbit Hill. At Rabbit Hill, George Mirasty had constructed a stopping place. A man by the name of Clarke, also had a camp here, where many freighters stopped.
The freight swing moved on from Rabbit Hill to Sled Lake, where Baptiste Mirasty resided. The many fishermen and freighters, who had met Baptiste Mirasty, had only the greatest respect and admiration for this Metis squatter. He was born at Ile-a-la-Crosse and moved to Sled Lake in 1896. There, he built a home near the mouth of Lizard Creek. He is described as being a big man, well over two hundred pounds and over six feet tall. Baptiste was considered an excellent hunter and trapper, and a good provider and efficient handyman. The survey team working in the Sled Lake-Dore Lake district in the fall of 1914 describes Baptiste's home, at Sled Lake:
"He had cleared about fifteen acres and has fenced a small patch of ground where he cultivates potatoes and oats. Soil taken from this garden was the best soil found in the area. He conducts a small store and makes his living by trading furs and trapping. He also has two or three horses and in the summer carts canoes and outfits across the portage between Sled and Stoney Lakes.
He has several small log buildings scattered about his clearing, and he had just completed a very fine two-storey and a half log house, shingled and with lumber floors and trimmings. The workmanship on the house is excellent and as all the lumber had to be brought in from Big River, I judge the house must have cost between $1000.00 and $1500.00."
Baptiste constructed toboggans, sleighs for dog teams, and two-wheel carts pulled by oxen. He was known to have made two trips to Winnipeg by ox cart, from the south end of Green Lake. Erick Erikson, who commercial fished on Dore Lake, describes Baptiste's character:
"As a youth, he had been a Hudson's Bay dog runner and could run like a deer in his later years. Baptiste Mirasty was one of the top Natives that I ever met. He was a seasoned traveller and the tougher the going the happier he was. I have never seen him in later years that he couldn't master a bad situation."
The freight swings travelled from Mirasty's stopping place at Sled lake, to Dore Lake. During the late 1900s and early 1920s, a stopping place was located on Camp Four Island (Geir's Island). Here, there were several fishing camps and a sawmill owned and operated by Big River Consolidated Fisheries. Florence Olsen resided on Camp Four Island as a young girl and remembers the freight swing coming through in the winter of 1920:
"Having the freight swing come in during the winter was a really big event. We looked for days down the Lake for them to come, as this was one of the stopping places along their route, to rest the horses and men. If there was a real good storm they stayed until the weather cleared. When they came from Big River, we all looked forward to the goodies and mail they brought. Jack Rae took care of the warehouse, where we could go with a penny and get a handful of peppermints; a real treat! Jack Taplie was the blacksmith at Dore Lake during this time. He made all the horseshoes for the horses that worked on the swings."
During the mid-1920s, Nels Edson erected another stopping place at Murray's Point. Nels constructed a barn large enough to house twenty-four teams and a bunkhouse that accommodated twelve men. He and his wife, Karen Fredrickson, lived in the cook shack.
Ole Skivak also operated a stopping place on Dore Lake, about the same time as Nels Edson. He constructed a place at South Bay. In 1937, Skivak sold his residence to Harry Husak, who continued to operate the stopping place. Harry Husak, a former resident of Dore Lake, recalls the freight swings:
"Some winters there was three hundred teams, four hundred teams, making three trips a winter up north. Coming back they have a big load of fish from Buffalo Narrows, La Loche, Ile-a-la-Crosse, Beauval or Patuanak. All the fish came through here. There were twenty or thirty teams together, that way we have enough power to plough the lake, eight horses pushing the plough. Each team pulled two sleighs. There were two barns here for freight horses. One time when I was in the old house we had sixty-five teams, from the north and south stop here in the yard for Christmas night!"
Harry vaguely describes how freighting trails were made on the lakes by the horses. This was probably the most difficult and time-consuming task involved in freighting. One man would drive a team of horses (four horses to a team) ahead of the others, to make a trail, using a wooden plough. A push pole was attached from the plough to the sleigh. The horses and driver were located behind the plough. When the horses drew the sleigh, the plough would make a trail in front of them. The driver held a lever to direct the plough in front of them. When the snow was extremely deep in areas, two teams of horses were used. After the horses and driver completed a trail they went back to pick up their load left behind and moved along the trail with the rest of the swing. When the end of the trail was reached, the whole process was repeated. This was quite a chore for men and horses.
The freighters were responsible for hauling their own feed for the horses. Generally, the feed was carried on the sleighs with the rest of the supplies. When it was time to rest the horses, the hay and oats were thrown on the ice for them to feed on. However, stopping places often provided horse feed. In 1921, Big River Consolidated Fisheries leased an area of land in Dore Lake, one mile north of Camp Four Island, for $25.00 a year. This area is known as Grassy Point. This fifty acres of land was used to produce hay to feed twenty-five head of cattle and six horses, that were kept on Camp Four Island. The seventy-five tons of hay that were harvested each year, was also used to feed the horses that worked on the swings. This land was continuously leased by various people, including Verner Johnson until the land was eventually submerged underwater.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Verner Johnson operated a stopping place at the north end of Dore Lake. The freight swing trekked on from the north end of Dore across a twenty-mile portage to Beauval. At Beauval, Eric Erickson had a stopping place. The swings left Beauval and travelled through the wilderness along a twenty-eight-mile portage to the Beaver River. Here Dick Kirby operated a place, just outside of Ile-a-la-Crosse. Vital Morin, a resident of Ile-a-la-Crosse, remembers seeing the freight swings when he was a young boy:
"When I was fifteen, I remember then, the freighting was done with teams of horses in the wintertime.
There used to be strings of around thirty to forty teams of horses in one line at a time. Three or four teams were in front to push the ploughs over all the lakes. There were quite a few accidents. Teams used to go through the ice. The Beaver River was one of the bad areas; because the River always had bad ice in places.
At Ile-a-la-Crosse here, that stopping place used to belong to Dick Kirby. They had great big stables made out of logs, they used to hold around twenty teams or more. Also, they had bunkhouses for the freighters to stay in. They had a big cook shack, where all the people used to eat. The horses were all looked after by the freighters themselves. They carried most of their feed and hauled oats and hay."
The swings left Dick Kirby's place and travelled to Halvor Ausland's place on Deep River. Mr.Ausland operated this stopping place during the 1920s. After a while, Mr Ausland got tired of operating a stopping place and wished to try his luck at freighting. Unfortunately, Mr Ausland's first freighting experience was not a good one. Gaudoise Trembley, a veteran freighter, tells Mr Ausland's story:
"One fall, Mr Ausland decided to buy two freight teams to haul his fish. He hired a man by the name of Frank Mitchell to operate the teams. Jim Sweeney, George Dunn, Alonzo Gallant, Frank Mitchell and I organized a trip to haul fish from Deep River to Beauval. Well, Mitchell's team was the last in the freight line. He was quite proud to operate Mr Ausland's team on this run. Everything was going well, until we got onto Beaver River, halfway between Ile-a-la-Crosse and Beauval. Suddenly, Frank Mitchell's team broke through the ice. Before anybody could get anything together to help him out, both teams had drowned. Poor Mitchell; he cried. That was the end of Halvor Ausland's freighting dream. It was too dangerous and expensive an adventure for Mr Ausland to undertake. He thought he had better leave it up to others to freight."
During the 1920s, Ausland decided to try the mink ranching business. He owned and operated the first, and one of the most prosperous mink ranches in Saskatchewan. Later Eugene Chartier operated a stopping place on Deep River. The freighters left Deep River and moved on to Buffalo Narrows to Tom Pedersen's stopping place. Gaudoise Trembley was a close friend of Tom Pedersen's and had this to say about Tom's character:
" Tom Pedersen married a girl from Green Lake, and boy could she cook fried fish. Sometimes when the groceries didn't get up from the South, all we had was just fish. Tom Pedersen raised a big family and was a good fisherman. He kept a good barn for the horses. Every time I went up north, he kept a bottle in the corner, so we could have a drink. Tom and I would kill a bottle while talking in the evening. Tom always knew where all the fish were, and would always advise me as to where to go for fish."
It appears that the stopping places not only provided weary men with the basic necessitates, such as food and shelter; but it was a place to find good conversation, a little laughter, and lasting friendships. The warm hospitality of the stopping places helped the men cope with the rugged existence found on the freight road.
There were many men, who chose the occupation of freighting goods and fish throughout the north. They came from Canwood, Shellbrook, Parkside, Valbrand, Big River and other parts of southern Saskatchewan. These are only some of the men who freighted through the north. There was Clyde Allen, the Green brothers, Benton brothers, George Clarke, Harold Eldridge, Eric Swanson, Chris and Tony Erickson, Walter Grey, Bill Wilson, Harry Harrison, John Dalton, Frank Fiddler, John Mirasty, Mr Butler and John Swanson.
A very interesting and often used method of transportation was by way of scow. At times the horse swings would leave goods behind along the route. This generally happened when horses drowned or sleighs broke down. Goods that could not be placed on other sleighs were left behind. When the ice broke up in the early spring, men from Big River congregated together to construct this inexpensive method of transportation. It contained a three-foot-high wall on all sides. However, they couldn't be constructed any wider than ten feet. Anything wider than this, would not go through the gate at the Cowan Dam. One well-built scow could transport approximately ten tons of goods. Gaudoise Tremblay describes how a scow was manoeuvred around the rocks and rapids at Green Lake:
"We would hire young Cree guys from Green Lake of about twenty to twenty-five years of age. They were good working on the river. One Cree boy would stand at each corner of the scow and with poles in hand, would skillfully manoeuvre around the rocks and rapids. It was nice to travel by scow. There were lots of fish, chickens (grouse), and ducks to eat along the route. We would set nets overnight and have whitefish the next morning for breakfast. I made quite a few trips, even as far as Snake Lake (Pinehouse Lake today) and down the Churchill River."
Old, Old, days of freighting
Note the snow plough in front of the horses.
Freighting with horses.
Going up north with Hudson's Bay Company freight.
A freight swing going down at Delaronde Lake (Stoney Lake)
Four loads of fish were lost, The horses were okay.
Indian family taking advantage
of the flour load.
Cutting a hole in the ice, in order to water
the team of horses.
Gathering fish and feeding the horses.
Fishing and freighting, 1937.
Gaudoise Trembley left, and E.G. Brownfield
in the back.
Ploughing a route, 1937. Alex Rushman in
front steering the plough.
Nels Edson's stopping place at Murray's Point.
Verner Johnson's cat swings.
Verner Johnson's cat swings.
Verner Johnson's cat swings.
Scow on the Beaver River.