North to Cree Lake

A Fur Empire.


Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.

Fred and Ed graduated from greenhorns to veterans of the North. They had established themselves as professional trappers, a vocation they were to follow for many years to come. They arrived back at Poorfish Lake in the autumn of 1926, carrying with them 300 pounds of flour, a few tin pails of lard, ten pounds of sugar, tea, tobacco, matches, candles, baking powder and salt. They divided these supplies exactly in half. This supplemented by the meat and the fish they could wrest from the land, had to sustain them for the next ten months. Fur Pelts Fred told Ed of a crude map Tom Beeds had drawn of an area to the north of Poorfish Lake. Tom had said that it was a fine, green country with numerous lakes and strong fast rivers. There was always a lot of meat, he had reported, and the country was "rotten with fur." (An old northern expression.) As soon as the lakes froze over that autumn the men started north with two dog teams-eager to find the lost fur country and full of the excitement of exploring rich new territory. They travelled down Poorfish River until they found a good-sized creek entering from the north, just as Tom Beeds had promised. At the source of this stream, they found two lakes which they named Long Lake and Little Long Lake. From here they crossed a height of land and struck a creek flowing generally northward; this watercourse they named B. Means Creek. It led them to a large lake dubbed Chip Point Lake where they camped for several days while exploring the shoreline. In very cold clear weather they saw from far away a tall column of vapour rising from a patch of open water, formed where a large river left the lake, flowing north-eastward. They turned north from here to find Big (Close) Lake, as marked on Tom's map, and probed the country beyond, finding several watercourses that ran parallel to each other, all flowing toward the north-east.

Here they met the migration of the barren-ground caribou that over-ran the whole area so that the partners had as much meat as they desired. There was more fur sign than they had ever seen before and they saw no other humans, not so much as an axe mark, anywhere in the land. Tom Beeds had understated the attractions of this country.

After three more years had passed, Fred built a permanent base camp at the narrows on Big Lake. Ed then set up His Home base at the junction of two rivers near the south end of Poorfish Lake. From these two bases, Fred and Ed established a fur empire that stretched across some 8000 square miles of wilderness.

Fred established several traplines which ran parallel to one another toward Wollaston Lake in the north-west. Ed plied his traplines further south, and at first, ranged as far as High Rock Lake. After a time, his interest in this area lessened; he began travelling northward to savour the discovery of new trapping territory and to trap the untravelled backcountry where the fur pockets were undisturbed.

Early one winter, Ed struck out for the North and the unknown. From Poorfish Lake, he broke a deep snow trail ahead of his dogs up the stream Fred had named Beeds River.

In those days, Ed used only two dogs to pull his camping gear, traps and rifle. He had by now learned a good deal about sleigh dogs. He must have dogs that did not fear him and would follow him wherever he might break trail. At this time, he owned one dog that would follow one which he had raised from a pup and trained himself. The other had been trained by Indians but would at least follow the first dog. (Indian-trained dogs were not apt to be good followers.)

Part of the Beeds River road he had travelled in previous winters. Now he followed it north to the chain of lakes that are the river's source. Beyond the lakes, he made camp, tied the dogs, and made exploratory trips, alone, into the dark hills to the north where he found excellent fur country-mink and otter in abundance. Then he returned to the dogs and drove them northward for a week, setting traps as he went. Cormorants. When he ran out of traps he returned to Poorfish Lake and made the rounds of his southern traplines, picking up those traps and transferring them to the north line. Through the maze of lakes and over short heights of land Ed worked his way ever northward. Following another creek, he now crossed three long narrow lakes in a row, all connected by short, open stretches of the creek that steamed mightily in the great cold-ideal mink and otter country. Ed had seen loons that stayed all winter at these spots, able to withstand the cold while swimming in the steaming open water moving between the deep lakes. But the mergansers (fish ducks), he noted, sat on the edge of the ice or on the shore and froze solid. Ed has remarked that he never saw a fish duck that made it through a northern winter.

After a few more lakes and portages, Ed reached Little Cree Lake, It was simple to find the river that drained the lake: the vapour rising from the open water there could be seen for miles. Ed set some traps at the river but chose not to follow it; downstream, he knew he would eventually run into some other trapper from Cree lake, an encounter he wished to avoid.

Instead he struck out northward, his face to the north wind, ascending to its source, a creek that flowed into Little Cree Lake from the north-east, then crossing a dividing height of land to emerge into a long, narrow, unnamed lake. From the outlet of this lake, he travelled about fifty miles on river ice, across small lakes, around rapids and cataracts and through swampland to the lake marked Unknown Lake on present-day maps. Here, Ed did considerable exploratory work along the irregular shoreline. He found a large river which entered the lake from the south, "the largest river I had seen since I left the Churchill," he recorded. Ed was well over 100 miles from his Poorfish Lake cabin when he turned back. The weather was extremely cold, and his sleeping bag had been robbed of much of its insulating power by the water it had absorbed-condensing moisture Trapper. from his body and snow that fell and melted on the bag despite the canvas cover which Ed strung every night. Every night he had to get up many times to stoke the campfire. When he finally returned to the cabin he had been away for twenty days. Ed noticed that he hardly felt the cold anymore. He built a fire in the camp stove and the heat at once made him sleepy, although it could not really have been very warm in the cabin, for Ed remembers that his pail of water began to freeze that night. The expanding ice began to creak and crack in the tin pail and he had to get up and put it on the stove so it wouldn't burst. Ed stayed in camp for three days, long enough to prepare his furs and dry out his sleeping robe; then he was out on the same trail again. The way was open now, he had a good trail to follow, and the dogs knew well all the overland crossings; in fact, they would remember this route from one year to the next. The dogs were strong and eager, and since there were only two, the dog food problem was easily solved. In those years the caribou were in the country in great numbers and Ed had only to shoot one occasionally to feed both himself and the dogs. Otter. On a good trail, he could sometimes ride the toboggan, especially on a downhill run or on hardpacked trails. Ed was learning a great deal. He had found that any moving water in winter is a sure place to get mink and otter. But there were not many locations of that kind and they were far apart; there was more poor country than good. Between stretches of open water there were many long lakes, devoid of fur-bearing animals, and much burned - over country where a man was just wasting his time trapping. The secret of Ed's success was his ability to cover great distances quickly in the dead of winter. As the years passed, Ed extended his travels far down the Waterfound River which flows northward to meet the Fond-du-Lac. He also pushed east of Unknown Lake as far as Wollaston Lake. A lone figure, possessing remarkable stamina, he explored the remote valleys and lost creeks where white men had never set foot. He and Fred were in many ways unique. They patterned their winter travel techniques after the methods of the Chipewyan Indians. Very few white men have gone into the North, as they did, without food, relying on their own hunting abilities to keep them alive, it is just too dangerous for most men. Rarer still is the white man who will consistently "camp out" without tent or stove in temperatures that have read minus seventy degrees!

Again, early in their trapping careers they realized that they held in their grasp a delicate natural balance of life which they could either maintain or destroy. The ecology of the North is so fragile that one man can do almost irreparable damage. Fred and Ed controlled the taking of furs in the following manner: they trapped only the larger watercourses, ignoring the tributary creeks that feed into the rivers like branches of a tree. At the first indication that the yield on a trapline was noticeably diminishing, that line was abandoned and a new line set in a different territory. The partners reasoned, correctly, that the tributaries would re-stock the main lines over a period of years. Both Fred's and Ed's journal are full of entries describing a return to a line long abandoned; they write of coming back into country they have not seen in a dozen years or more. Ed is emphatic that, thanks to this system, there was as much fur in the country when he left it for good as there had been when he first came, and similar statements are found in Fred's records.



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"Date Modified: 2019, January 24."


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